Messages posted to thread:

Rick15-Apr-03 12:10 PM EST 5a   
Susan15-Apr-03 08:30 PM EST 6a   
Dawn15-Apr-03 09:02 PM EST 3   
Lindy16-Apr-03 12:45 AM EST 8a   
16-Apr-03 06:27 AM EST   
Rick16-Apr-03 08:11 AM EST   
Susan16-Apr-03 09:33 AM EST 6a   
Julia17-Apr-03 09:58 AM EST 5b   
Dan17-Apr-03 11:23 PM EST   
DAVE18-Apr-03 05:53 AM EST   
durte422-Apr-03 09:59 AM EST 3   

Subject: Rototilling - good or bad?
From: Rick
Zone: 5a
Date: 15-Apr-03 12:10 PM EST

Great advice I need some. I've just moved into a new house with a large lot and all grass. No garden beds to be found anywhere. I was thinking of buying a rototiller to put in borders, veggie garden etc. I've never had to use one before (condo living)and I was wondering what the consensus on rototilling is! I've heard that they can destroy the soil by overworking it?! Also, any makes or models to stay away from? Any feedback is appreciated.

Subject: RE: Rototilling-good or bad
From: Susan
Zone: 6a
Date: 15-Apr-03 08:30 PM EST

We've never used a rototiller in our gardens, mainly because we've never had a rototiller! Also, both our houses have been on heavy clay soil. I've read warnings about rototillers compacting things too but I suspect the risk largely depends on the type of soil you have and how much care you take in working it. Certainly, on clay soil you have to be careful and not work it in any way that might cause compaction - staying off it until it dries out in spring is important to reduce the risk of compaction. In our first year in this house (1999), Randy dug out 6 cubic yards of clay so we could add good soil to make a bed along the driveway and a few other places. That was a lot of work and didn't allow for very many or very big beds so we abandoned that approach! Clay can be quite fertile and holds moisture well so it actually makes a good base if you add well draining soil high in organic matter on top. So, what we do now is try to plan ahead for new beds in the fall; smother the grass by laying down a dense (~10 sheets thick ) layer of overlapping newspaper and then adding atleast 5-6 inches of compost, chopped leaves, composted maure and/or triple mix on top. In the spring I add soaker hoses on top and plant into the new bed. The beds settle over the winter but remain slightly raised. The soaker hoses make watering efficient and can be covered by another layer of mulch or compost (check to find the hoses before digging with a shovel!) If I haven't been sufficiently organized to plan the bed in the fall, I dig out the grass and add the compost etc. directly on the soil. Since I don't have much sun in my yard, I don't grow many vegetables. My approach works fine for flower beds but, if you want a big vegetable garden, a rototiller is probably the best route. If you're on clay, make sure it's had a chance to dry out and add as much organice matter as you can to the area and then rototill it in.

Subject: RE: Rototilling-good or bad
From: Dawn
Zone: 3
Date: 15-Apr-03 09:02 PM EST

Here is an excerpt from John Valleau (of Hertiage Perennials October 2002 newsletter) on the subject.

Lately I've been reading some pretty interesting stuff about soil. It seems like some of the "experts" have started to change their thinking about nurturing this precious resource in our gardens, borrowing ideas from the no-till practices of farmers and adapting them to backyard conditions. There was a time when many of us would rip out the annuals after Labour Day, dig over the beds and let them rest until spring, but no more! Now they're telling us to stop digging altogether, instead taking advantage of the plentiful autumn supply of organic matter (leaves, the dead tops of perennials and annuals) to mulch and cover the soil. The idea is to let the soil critters do all the work of converting this organic matter back into humus, nature's own wonderful source of nutrients. Worms and many other creatures will do the job of tilling for us in time, and by not digging or disturbing the earth we are able to preserve the vast network of worm tunnels and other air pockets that help to deliver much needed oxygen, water and nutrients to the roots of our plants. In other words, digging destroys this network and it takes the soil a long time to recover and rebuild itself back to some kind of natural state.....One book I've got on my Christmas wish list is Weedless Gardening by American writer Lee Reich (Workman Publishing; softcover; 200 pages; $15.95). Mr. Reich's approach to minimal soil disturbance makes a lot of sense to me. His methods not only reduce physical effort but are aimed at improving soil structure and at the same time greatly reducing the germination of weed seeds. Seems like a win-win situation! This fall I'm planning a new garden clean-up strategy. Instead of carting everything off to the compost pile I'm planning to chop all the dead perennial tops into small pieces (except for things like ornamental grasses and other perennials with good winter interest). Once that's done I'll scatter around lots of dry, shredded leaves and top this off with a bit of compost so it doesn't all blow away. I'll have to avoid piling a heavy layer of plant debris and compost right on top of my perennials or there's a chance some plants might smother. The difficult part is going to be forcing myself to let it remain in the spring. I know that in theory all this organic matter is wonderful, that a mulch will help to conserve moisture through the summer, that I am building good soil structure in the simplest way possible. But bad habits die hard, and a thorough spring cleanup has always been one of my yearly garden chores. I might have to just lock up my rake and throw away the key to stop myself.

This makes sense to me. Especially since my Dad grew up on a farm and that my uncle still farms. Before the fancy machinery that we have today, people just depended on Mother Nature to help this case, worms!

If anyone is interested, check out Heritage Perennials website and maybe sign up for their newsletter as they have some good info for gardeners across Canada. No, I'm not any employee or shareholder, although I wish I was. Their site is

Subject: RE: Rototilling-good or bad
From: Lindy
Zone: 8a
Date: 16-Apr-03 12:45 AM EST

Rick, I am also starting with a clean slate and have done what Susan suggested. For raised beds I just layered the newspaper, compost and other mulch items, topping off with a few more inches of compost and planting right on top. For places that I wanted the beds lower to the ground I dug out the grass first to a depth of about 8 inches and started my layers lower down. Works great. Do it in the fall for next year or do it now and plant right away.

Subject: RE: Rototilling-good or bad
Date: 16-Apr-03 06:27 AM EST

I concur with all of the above, plus if you rototill, you will get a great crop of weeds, as the seeds will all come to the surface and germinate.

Subject: RE: Rototilling-good or bad
From: Rick
Date: 16-Apr-03 08:11 AM EST

Thanks for the info...this goes along with what I've been reading..leave the soil alone if you can. I, like Susan, have a fair bit of clay in my soil so I will have to add compost. I wish that I would have done the newspaper thing in fall but we had just moved in and didn't have time. Can the newpaper approach be done in the spring or should I remove all of the sod and backfill?

Subject: RE: Rototilling-good or bad
From: Susan
Zone: 6a
Date: 16-Apr-03 09:33 AM EST

You can do the newspaper thing in the spring but it takes a while to kill the grass, so you need to add a fairly deep layer of compost etc. on top if you want to plant immediately because you don't want to break the newspaper layer digging through it to plant or you'll find grass coming up in the bed. When I start a bed in spring, having not done the fall newspaper thing, I find it's better to remove the sod. It's a bit of work but not too difficult with a flat spade as grass roots don't go deep so you can usually slice underneath it and lift it in big chunks - turn it root sde up and add it to your compost heap for a year or so and it makes good compost! Of course, if you don't mind the chemicals, you could also kill out the grass with Round-up (which is supposed to break down quickly), wait a week or so, add the new soil on top and away you go.... Good luck with your garden. Starting from scratch gives you pretty unlimited opportunities.

Subject: RE: Rototilling-good or bad
From: Julia (
Zone: 5b
Date: 17-Apr-03 09:58 AM EST

We have a tiller, and my husband LOVES to use it!!! However, my experience has been that if you have any perennial weeds with long roots, you'll chop them up into little bits that will sprout for years to come! That's what has happened to our asperagus patch. I'm trying the newspaper approach this spring, so I won't know how effective it is until this summer. Good luck with new beds.

Subject: RE: Rototilling-good or bad
From: Dan (
Date: 17-Apr-03 11:23 PM EST

Growing up we had a one acre garden to supply a rather large family. We could not have done without a roto-tiller. I believe there are two problems that are easily avoided. The first is the tendency to overtill, effectualy milling the soil into a flour or corn meal consistency. The second is to till to the same depth every time, year after year. This will create a hardpan; a hard flat layer that turns away draining water and probing roots. Tillers were essential for working in compost, leaf mold, manure etc. There's nothing wrong with the tool, it's how we tend to use them.

Subject: RE: Rototilling-good or bad
From: DAVE
Date: 18-Apr-03 05:53 AM EST

Rototilling may appear to be the only option because once you start it's tough to switch to less invasive more enviromentally sound practices. Similar to pesticide spraying once you start it's hard to stop. Good soil management requires aeration, moisture and nutrients. The best way to achieve this balance is to apply lots of compost on top(breaking down naturally) to feed plants and retain moisture, allowing worms etc. to aerate your soil naturally. The challenge is to limit the amount of compaction you do to your own garden. (Try not walking on it so much). Soil compaction prevents worms from doing their job, reduces moisture penetration, reduces root growth and harvest. Avoid walking directly on the soil. Reach from the side, place stepping stones and/or use large boards to displace your weight. Once you have the garden in place, (the lasange method is great way to begin), the time you used to spend tilling the soil can now be used to dead head weeds. Very quickly with the compost as a barrier, weed seeds become a small concern and plant harvest is similar to highly tilled, highly sprayed gardens. And at the end of the day, it makes you feel so much better when you work with nature. Most commercial farmers have radically changed their methods(little or no tilling of soil) over the last 20-30 years. If they hadn't the droughts we had the last few years out west would have turned the area into a dust bowl worse than what was experienced in the 30's.

Subject: RE: Rototilling-good or bad
From: durte4 (
Zone: 3
Date: 22-Apr-03 09:59 AM EST

I hace a very large vegetable garden with a lot of clay. I use my tiller to work in leaves and such that i added in the fall and left for the winter. Compaction is a problem but i will also spade up the garden in the fall to break this up. My soil has improved greatly over the last 4 years and i will soon be able to switch to more of a no-till method. If you do decide to buy a tiller for the garden the rear tine models are best. They are much easier to use than the models which have the tines in front.

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