How to Till Your Garden Soil Without a Tiller

Electricity or gas-powered garden tillers are great at saving time and effort. However, it’s often not the best idea to use them in small gardens, tight spaces, or raised bed planters. 

Some gardeners choose to skip tilling these tiny plots, and that might work if the soil is loose enough. Then again, there are some soil types that tend to clump and harden after a rainy or winter season. 

Additionally, an overgrowth of weeds, grass, or residual stalks could make the soil unwelcoming for seeding. In such cases, tiling the soil becomes the best solution, even without the power tilers.  

In this article, we’ll demonstrate how to till a garden without a tiller, with a step-by-step guide that’s so easy to follow and our best tips for hand tilling. 

What Does Tilling a Garden Do?

There are some voices that advocate for no-till gardening, and that often initiates a discussion about the benefits of tilling as opposed to any potential negative effects. 

Tilling, when done right and in a timely manner, can improve your soil quality immensely. This, in turn, contributes to the vitality and wellbeing of any plants cultivated in that rich soil. Here’s how:

  • Tilling aerates the soil and lets the roots of germinating seeds breathe properly. 
  • A compact soil is extremely difficult for seeds to grow in. The young roots can’t push through the hard layers surrounding the seeds and almost suffocating them. Tilling loosens compact soil.
  • The nutrients that come from fertilizers, compost, or any other soil amendments often remain at the top layer of the soil. Tilling them into the ground places them deeper where they can be used fully. 
  • Weeds and other unwelcome growth compete with the growing plants for food and water. Tilling is a good way to get rid of these, and bury them into the soil where they’re reabsorbed. 

The counterargument is that tilling could contribute to soil erosion and disturb the ecosystem beyond the top layer. However, this can be avoided totally if you till correctly, at the right time, and the proper amount.  

How to Till Soil Without a Tiller by Double Digging

Tilling a yard without power machinery might sound a bit complicated, but just remember that this method has been widely used since around 3500 B.C.E. it’s a simple and effective process, and here’s how it’s done. 

Double digging is loosening the soil while keeping the soil structure intact. The topsoil that’s already infused with nutrients, and possibly a thriving ecosystem, remains where it is. Meanwhile, the aeration caused by tilling revitalizes the soil and prepares it well for the growing season.

Step by Step Guide

To implement double digging in your garden, it’s best to divide the tilling process into simple steps. 

Step 1: Round Up the Needed Tools

You wouldn’t want to start working on a plot, only to find that you need to run off to the tool shed for a garden rake. To be all set, here’s what you should bring along. 

  • Garden shovel 
  • Wheelbarrow 
  • Garden rake 
  • Soil amendments – e.g. compost, peat moss, conditioner, etc.
  • Stakes (4-8 as needed)
  • Dark string (long enough to mark the plot)

Step 2: Mark the Desired Area 

Use stakes and string to mark the bed or lot that you want to dig. Besides looking neat, this would keep you from doing unnecessary work. Digging isn’t exactly a walk in the park!

Step 3: Spread the Soil Amendments

You’d want any fertilizers, compost, perlite, peat moss, or mulch to mix in with the deeper layers of the soil. Thus, spreading them before tilling is the best way to distribute these amendments evenly into the soil. 

Step 4: Double Dig the Furrows

Use a sharp shovel to dig the first ditch. Go down about 10-12 inches and keep going along the length of the lot. Move the excavated dirt into a wheelbarrow. 

Move on to the adjacent ditch, and dig it up in a similar fashion. But this time, take the dirt from the second furrow and fill up the first furrow with it. 

The last furrow would be filled with the dirt in the wheelbarrow. 

Step 5: Level the Field 

Run a garden rake over the tilled area to remove any rocks, and also to keep the ground leveled and even. This concludes the double digging method of tilling. 

Benefits of Double Digging

Double digging might be demanding in terms of the time needed to get the job done and the effort of doing the work manually. However, it has some undeniable benefits that occasionally exceed power-machine tilling.

  1. Power tilling often digs to a depth of 5-8 inches, while double digging goes down to 12 inches. This produces much more high-quality soils for the plants to grow in. 
  2. Hand tilling is less aggressive on the soil than power-machine tilling. This means that the soil gets all the benefits of aeration without the risks of erosion or destabilization.
  3. Double digging is among the best ways to prepare a garden that hasn’t been cultivated before or ones that were neglected for a long time. 
  4. Small areas, like flower beds, are practically impossible to till with large bulky machines. Double digging is the perfect solution to get them in good form. 
  5. Finally, it’s far more economic to till the soil manually than to use costly tilling machines.

Other Tools to Use

Hand tilling can be easier, more efficient, and even more precise, with the right kind of tools. Here are a bunch of gardening tools that work like a charm in tillage and various other gardening tasks. 

Manual Wheel Hoe

A manual wheel hoe is quite similar to the ancient tools used in civilizations that date back to 3500 BCE! This means they’re perfect for the job, to the point that they’re still up and running. 

A wheel hoe is a simple device that digs and turns the soil as you push it along. You can find it in single or double wheel varieties. Typically, it consists of an oscillating hoe to remove the weeds, plus a plow blade that loosens the soil. 

Garden Weasel

A garden weasel is a bit more aggressive than a wheel hoe. It’s often used in cultivating, weeding, soil aeration, and loosening a compact lot. 

The tines of the garden weasel are usually adjustable to suit the degree of tillage required. Most of the models work best when moved in a back and forth manner. 

Hoe

A manual hoe is a versatile tool that should be a must-have in a gardener’s shed. It can be used for light turning of the soil, weeding, pushing down the seeds in the soil, and covering them with dirt afterward. 

There are two main types of hoes, the manual hoe, and the push-pull hoe. You can select the one that feels right for you. 

Shovel

Much like a hoe, the shovel is a staple in every garden. A lightweight, durable, and sharp-edged shovel is a practical tool that gets a digging job done neatly.

Shovels are great in sandy or loose soil, but when it comes to rocky or clay ground, they’re not as effective. The next tool would help a lot. 

Pick Axe/Mattock

This two sides small tool is a beast. You can use it whenever the soil seems to resist regular tilling. The sharp pointed edge of the pick axe/mattock cuts through the hardened topsoil and leaves the rest of the work to the shovel. 

The Ruth Stout Method

Ruth Stout is well known in the gardening world as a result of her hugely popular “no-work” gardening guides. Her no-dig method suggests that tilling, plowing, cultivation, and the rest of the mechanical soil conditioning processes might be unnecessary. 

Her answer to keeping a soil well-prepped for growing is simply to add tons and tons of mulch. It keeps the moisture inside the soil, in addition to preventing its compaction or erosion. This technique requires a mulch layer about 6-8 inches thick to work. 

There’s a catch though – the soil has to be good and healthy before piling up the mulch. Otherwise, the plants would fail to find the right amount of nutrients. Thus, a certain amount of preliminary tillage would probably be needed.

Tips for Hand Tilling

Gardening is a field that depends a lot on accumulated experience. That’s why we’d like to share some of our best tips on hand tilling. 

  • Wear gloves to protect your hands. Garden tools can be harsh on the skin when used for long hours. 
  • You’ll be out in the sun for quite a while, so it’s best to protect yourself from the exposure. Wear a cap, use sunscreen, and hydrate often.
  • If you’re working on a small to medium-sized plot, you can dig/till in adjacent rows. Raised gardens and small flower beds are better tilled in 12 x 12 inch squares.  
  • Try not to walk on the tilled area for a couple of days to avoid soil compaction. This is enough time for the soil to dry up and settle in. 

Conclusion

Tilling is a bit of a controversial subject among gardeners, as some are concerned that it could erode the soil. The good news is that manual tilling provides many benefits of tillage while reducing the risks associated with it. 

The prospect of manually tilling a field might be a bit discouraging. However, with the right kind of tools, and by following the simple tilling techniques described here, it becomes much easier.  

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