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Converting to a No-Till, Low-Maintenance Garden for (Almost) Free

Updated: Mar 3, 2023

Nothing to Lose, Summer to Gain

If you have heard of the most recent regenerative gardening movement of "no-till," you might have thought about giving it a try but weren't sure about the cost of associated with making the big leap, and whether it would be worth the investment (that was my initial hesitation, at least). Fortunately, I had nothing to lose, as I was growing nothing but weeds by the end of the previous garden season (how embarrassing!) and was on the verge of "throwing in the towel" altogether; I was fighting a losing battle with Mother Nature. Just around that same time, a colleague told me about the University of Saskatchewan's live-streamed gardening classes held online once or twice a month in the evenings from early Fall to late Spring. These webinars included a variety of gardening related topics such as pesticide-free approaches, composting, and (you guess it) no-till gardening. And the best part was that most of these classes were (wait for it) free to the public. With nothing left to lose, and only my summers to gain back, I figured it was worth a shot. Turns out, it was!

Top view of the new 60x25' no-till, pesticide-free, organic garden with seven raised beds at mid-growing season.

Raised Beds and Mulch and Trellises, Oh My!

While there is no "one way" to build a no-till garden, there is one key ingredient that is needed to top it all off (pun intended): mulch. It turns out, many local professional arborist companies don't want to keep their leftovers stockpiled their yards taking up valuable equipment space so they are more than happy to hand it over. The problem is, our farmstead tends to be located a bit further than arborist company drivers are willing to travel with the high gas prices. After many phone calls around, we managed to get our hands on two tandem-truck loads of arborist (wood chip) mulch for free. We just had to pay for the gas to deliver (good trade).

Arborist wood chip mulch is layered 4-6" deep on the surface of the soil between garden rows to retain moisture, keeps weeds at bay, and to improve soil structure as it decomposes over time.

While we were waiting patiently for the mulch to arrive, we decided that we might as well get started with digging the trenches and building the mounds. For a garden of our size and being amateur gardeners, this required much more planning and physical work than originally anticipated. But after settling on the garden design and flagging out the garden mounds (rows) and trenches (walkways), my husband got to work with the shovel and wheelbarrow digging and piling dirt (yay, free labour). Because the soil from the trenches are simply piled to form the mounds, no additional soil is needed. Perfect! However, I found that the design still felt a bit "flat" and lacked some much-needed character. After reading about some of the benefits of growing fruits and veggies in raised garden beds, it seemed that they fit the bill. But with the lumber prices still skyrocketing, it felt too much of an expense, at least for the first year... that is, until I stumbled across a YouTube video on Instagram titled, "More Free Pallet Beds!" The method basically involves carefully removing the wood slates on the back-side of the pallets and relocating them to the front-side to form a solid wall, with no extra lumber or nails needed. And with that, we were off tracking down 21 "used" heat-treated pallets from anyone looking to toss them to make a total of seven 7x4' board-and-batten style raised beds from recycled, repurposed, chemical-free wood material, all for free!

The raised beds were first filled with shredded cattails leftover from our ponies' hay bales to save on hauling soil from elsewhere on the property.

While we were dreaming of mulch, we admittedly got a little fancy with the tomato trellises (for us, anyway). We got the idea from Mother Earth News, which showcased a variety of easy (and cheap) ways to train your tomatoes. We opted for the tipi-style trellises built from 2x3" framing studs that were left over from another project, and used veggie-safe sisal twine that we already had kicking around to twirl around the tomatoes stems as they continue to climb. I was a bit skeptical at first, but it works like a charm and has great curb appeal, so we constructed a total of four trellises and plunked them into the middle of the garden to add some visual interest and dimension.

Beefstake vining tomatoes growing nicely on their home-made trellises, despite sustaining some hail damage (twice).

On more than one occasion, I found myself up in the wee hours of the night wondering what on earth we have got ourselves into. Once the mulch arrived (phew), our nerves were replaced with hustle energy as we raced to pull the newly germinated weed seeds from the previous years' epic failure, lay down compost consisting of a blend of food scraps and lawn cuttings mixed up with good ol' fashioned livestock manure (i.e., well-rotted, freely scooped at our convenience), and topped with our fashionably-late arborist mulch. Then, we planted!

The three step process of converting to a no-till garden involves building mounds & trenches (removing any weeds), adding well-rotted manure/compost, then laying down 4-6" of arborist mulch/wood chips on top.

From Terrible Gardener to "OK" Gardener

And just like that, I was back to being a gardener. And by no means a great one, but no longer a bad one. While there are still the odd thistle to pluck as a result of stirring up last year's "weed" garden in the process of converting to no-till, its a lot less difficult to deal with when rooted in mulch as opposed to compressed clay soil from tilling and having no dedicated walkways. Now, the only plant I have to worry about taking over is the pumpkins! Next year, the weeds should be virtually non-existent, as I am currently winning the weed battle and the heavy mulch will prevent from further germination. Most importantly, less weeding means more time to attend to the plants, and more mulch means less time watering. The votes are in and its "no-till" for the win!

I am happy to say that I finally got my gardening skills in order, and it was worth every penny.

The Seven Sisters polyculture/companion planting (i.e., corn, beans, squash, ground cherry, Jerusalem artichoke, tobacco, and sunflower) in a custom-built raised bed.

Author: Dr. Angela McGinnis is currently completing her Master Gardening Certificate at the University of Saskatchewan.

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