Just Tillin'

By Sharon Naylor

January 24, 2013 4 min read

"Fertile soil is the foundation to any garden project," say the garden experts at Lowe's website. "Vegetable gardens and planting beds need rich, loose, drainable soil to ensure root growth and abundant crops. (Some) plants only have a few months to bloom and produce. Good soil allows roots to quickly develop and spread, which in turn increases the water and nutrient intake necessary for healthy and productive plants."

Tilling is a popular way to loosen compacted soil in your existing bed. The grinding and blending motion of a roto-tiller or your own manual tilling transforms stale and clumpy soil into looser, finer soil more ready for planting. Marie Iannotti, the About.com guide to gardening, says that tilling has been recommended for clearing a new garden bed for years. But there is some controversy among gardening experts who claim that tilling, and overtilling, can damage the soil quality. Some of the top garden blogs, such as "Veggie Gardening Tips," warn against tilling too often, because it can break up and kill beneficial fungus in the soil, and Iannotti, too, says that tilling may turn up buried weed seeds that can sprout with exposure to the sun.

So be warned about tilling's potential downsides, and if you wish to prepare your garden soil by tilling, here are some smart tips to help you do so more efficiently and more successfully for the health and productivity of your garden.

1) Test your soil for sufficient softness before tilling. To reach the best results, soil should be at a temperature of about 60 F before tilling. The soil must also be dry enough. If a handful of soil crumbles when you squeeze it, that's the ideal texture.

2) Mark the area where you will be tilling your soil. Stakes in all corners will help you visualize your plot as you till. Remove all rocks and debris from the garden bed before you till, because rocks can damage the tiller's blades.

3) Set your tiller at a depth of 6 to 8 inches, and make only one pass over each row, moving slowly to allow the machine to do the work fully and completely. Excessive tilling will actually compact the soil rather than break it up. The result of overtilling is called hardpan, which is a layer of compacted soil just below the layer of soil that is loosened. You also want to avoid killing too many beneficial earthworms in your soil.

4) After you are finished tilling, turn the machine off, and then clean all the tines (blades) thoroughly to prolong the life of your tiller.

5) When you are done tilling your soil, take a sample of your soil to your local garden center to have it tested for nutrient and pH needs so that you can apply any needed additives or organic materials to prepare it for a healthy and productive garden bed.

If you are using an electric tiller, always be sure the cord is safely out of the way of the blades to avoid accident or injury. If you're using a powerful fuel tiller, use extreme caution and follow all manufacturer safety rules, including wearing protective footwear and eyewear. If hand-tilling your soil, wear thick protective gloves and use rubber-handled tools for your comfort and blister-protection. Safety always comes first when working in your garden, and part of safety is reading all of the instructions for your owned or rented tilling machine, working slowly and with full attention, and practicing patience if you find the soil is too wet at a lower depth for proper tilling. A few days' wait is worth the better results.

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