Why are we regularly loosening and tilling the soil in beds after planting? For the soils sake just stop it please!

Warning! Incoming rant 😊….. I have to admit that this is one of my “pet peeves” so to speak. I am not sure if this is practiced all over the country but it is certainly common place in the Cape Town area. I am talking about gardeners loosening or digging up the soil within established flower beds to make it …….(I’m not quite sure of the reasons) more receptive to water perhaps? To aerate the soil? Ensure no compaction of the soil?

All around the world there is a movement towards “no-dig gardening” with well-known gardeners such as Charles Dowding growing a large following and books on the subject. However, I am not only talking about the preparation of soil before planting, I am talking about this incessant need to regularly loosen the soil around plants in already established beds (mainly ornamental beds). I see it in residential gardens and even large corporate or public spaces wherever I go.  To me it is a needless activity and waste of energy that does not benefit a garden in the slightest and you only have to take a look at where this activity has taken place to realise that the garden around it is not thriving.

These reasons as to why it’s not a good idea are essentially the same as the argument for no-dig gardening in the first place but apply to this as well:

  1. Rapid drying of the soil – The irony in turning the soil to make it more likely for water to penetrate is that you are actually causing it to dry out.
  1. Kills soil life that are essential for healthy plants – A single table spoon of healthy soil contains billions of soil microbes and bacteria that require an undisturbed, cool, moist environment in which to thrive and which are essential for healthy soil and in turn healthy plants. Turning the soil exposes this community to air and ultraviolet sunlight which disrupts and kills these microbes essentially sterilising the soil. The irony again is that soil microbes and fauna (like earthworms) would also eventually do the aerating and loosening of the soil for you in the way it should be done if you just left them alone.
  1. Disturb plant roots – You will inevitably also disturb the fine sensitive plant roots which most plants are not going to be happy with. These fine roots cohabit with the soil bacteria and fungus which assist in nutrient uptake and moisture. So essentially you are not allowing the plant to establish and forge its own resiliency.
  1. Encourage weed growth – Constant tilling of the soil and not covering it with a thick layer of mulch will only encourage weeds to grow. Weeds are always seen as the bad guys but their actual role is far more beneficial. They arise in unhealthy soil to build it, drawing nutrients from below, stabilising loose ground and also reducing compaction where is has occurred. Geoff Lawton, a well known permaculture specialist uses some wonderful examples in this short video of how weeds are an indicator of soil health and their amazing role in soil building. This will change how you see weeds forever.
  1. Erosion – By leaving the soil uncovered it will be more prone to erosion from water as well as wind.

How does nature do it? My reference is always nature itself. We always seem to think we know better when nature has been doing it perfectly for billions of years and all you need to do is follow her example. There is a whole science or design movement based on this concept called Biomimicry. We are starting to realise that there is no better reference. I always use the example of a natural forest for instance. Particularly when you are aiming for resilience and low maintenance, ask yourself, how does nature ensure ongoing sustainability without loads of external or artificial input. A forest for instance is a self-perpetuating system, constantly dropping biomass in the form of leaf drop and dead trees or branches that cover the soil and decompose to create much needed nutrients as well as habitat for beneficial insects and microbes. It even helps to create its own rain! You may argue that certain species rely on very little leaf drop and biomass but do they rely on constant soil loosening by mechanical means?

Below are more images of tilled garden beds that I observed recently (click to slide)

I know that I would not have the resilient garden I have today if I was using this method. Especially when one has limited water resources, I would only be harming my plants ability to survive through dry periods.