Soil Matters

Conservation agriculture, sustainable gardening, Farm Bill legislation, and other topics related to soil health.

Stop Tilling: How to Build Soil Health in Your Backyard

Duane Hovorka, Agriculture Program Director
Milkweed in a field

If you want to build healthy soils, put the rototiller away.

Recent research has shown the vital role that beneficial fungi play in healthy soil and healthy plants.  These fungi grow on and often into the roots of plants, sending out tiny fungal threads that help plants access water and nutrients that the plants would not be able to reach by themselves. Some fungi also help plants fight off pests and disease.

The network of sticky fungal threads binds clay and sand particles together, creating clumps and air pockets that give soil its structure. The air pockets and pores allow healthy soil to absorb more rainfall, and when the soil particles are clumped together, they are less prone to erosion.

When people plow, rototill, or dig in the soil, this activity disturbs and damages the network of delicate fungal threads.  That harms flowers, vegetables, crops, and other desirable plants, because the fungi bring in a large portion of the nutrients plants depend on.

To protect the beneficial fungi in your garden, avoid disturbing the soil. Don’t use a rototiller or plow, and don’t dig up your whole garden bed. Instead, disturb only enough of the soil at the surface to plant your seeds or transplants. Protect the soil from the damage raindrops can cause by leaving plant material on the surface or by adding mulch to cover bare soil.

If weeds pop up, pull them out or clip them off, instead of tilling them in. This will minimize disturbance to the soil and protect the healthy aspects of your garden.

If you are laying sod or seeding a new lawn, you can purchase products that will introduce beneficial fungi into your soil. Another way to encourage healthy fungi in your yard is to use a mulching mower that leaves behind the grass clippings. Many fungi feed on dead plant material, so they will turn the clippings into energy for themselves and nutrients for your other plants.

Protect the beneficial fungi in your garden or yard, and you will be rewarded with plants that are healthier and more resistant to pests and drought.

Learn more about building soil health in your backyard

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