A Necessary Evil: Guidelines for Roto-Tilling

A Necessary Evil is defined as: Something that is undesirable but must be accepted.  Like Taxes, Government, War, Work, Marriage, or Roto-tilling.  If you must roto-till, then here are some guidelines to help minimize any negative impact to the soil.

When to Roto-till. The one time a roto-tiller is probably necessary is the first year you are breaking up hard pack soil and establishing your garden beds.  Consider this time your free pass — your “get out of jail [guilt] free” card.


Best Tilling Time. Roto-till in the fall, instead of just before spring planting. It allows you to plant sooner, as your beds will already be prepared in early spring. Furthermore, organic material that you’ve tilled, such as weeds and leaves, will have decomposed further by spring if you roto-till in the fall, providing a healthier environment for your plants. Likewise, amendments such as compost and manure will have had additional time to break down. The microorganisms already present in the soil will help this process. So if you want to create a new garden bed for spring, start in the fall. Dig or roto-till the area, layer it with cardboard, newspaper, compost and mulch and let the worms and their friends go to work on it. When it’s time to plant, only work the area where you plant your seeds and seedlings and leave the rest of the soil undisturbed.

Check Soil Moisture Content. If your soil it too dry the tiller will pulverize the soil, making it vulnerable to erosion. If the soil is too wet, the tiller will only compact the soil more by packing the soil into hard clumps. Soil that can be safely tilled should form a ball in your hand when squeezed that crumbles when you poke it.

Add Organic Matter. Spread 1″ or more of organic matter or compost before you till. This will protect the soil from the violent action of the tines and incorporate the material into the aerated ground. Organic matter is also the source of food for soil organisms, so it drives most of the soil life processes. Adding it will encourage microbe growth.

No Walking on the Bed. Don’t walk on the bed as you till. This compacts the ground. After tilling, mulch the bed with straw, fall leaves, or what other organic mulch you have and let it rest until spring. The mulch will protect the soil from wind or rain erosion, and provide a cozy haven for worms and other soil organisms during the winter. By spring you can remove the mulch and you should have a thriving colony.