No-Till Gardening Method Using a Winter Cover Crop


A winter cover crop will replenish your urban garden soil with critical nutrients, prevent weeds from growing and even provide a handy mulch when you mow it down. Here's how to also get the benefits below ground, with this adapted no-till urban gardening method. A healthy cover crop digs in deep. This is a good thing as its roots are sending nutrients far below the surface, and also aerating the soil. But it means that breaking up those strong roots can be a challenge - if you overthink it. Instead, we leave the roots fairly intact. Here is how to effectively break up a cover crop for spring no-till planting.

No Till Method: Mowing

Trim your cover crop close to the roots. Save the tops (no need to shred them), you'll use those later as a green mulch to add even more nutrients to the soil.

If your plot is small, try using clippers to hand-trim the crop. Or, if you don't have clippers, you can use kitchen scissors (that's what we did). City people have to make do.

No Till Method: Hoeing

Get out your hoe and start breaking up the soil surface into chunks. If you have good crop coverage, you'll end up with big rooty clods of soil. It's tempting to shake out the dirt and toss the roots into compost but don't! These clods are important.

The whole idea of no till methods is to preserve soil health. The less you till, or work the soil, in a garden plot, the happier your beneficial soil organisms will be. Those chunky clods are known as soil "peds," and they are what worms and other healthy bugs eat their way through. Peds next to each other also create important gaps for air and water. To preserve your peds, break up and turn the soil roughly. It will look a bit of a mess, like biscuit or pastry dough when you first turn it out of the bowl.

No Till Method: Amendments

If your bed needs extra soil, now is the time to add it. Our raised beds lose an inch or more of soil each year due to compaction, erosion and hungry worms eating through it. We replenish with a few buckets of compost, leaf mold or other organic matter every spring.

Just sprinkle compost or a bag of garden soil right over the top of the clods and spread it around. Don't tamp it down - garden soil should be about 50% air for optimal root development.

No Till Method: Mulch

Spread your trimmed tops over the bed. A well covered bed will warm up more quickly in spring, enabling you to plant a bit earlier. Also, as the mulch decomposes it will release valuable nutrients.

A hardcore no till method doesn't break up the soil at all. Farmers who don't till use special seeding tools to dig plugs and plant among the cover crop roots. We don't have those tools, obviously, but our adapted method works great for urban garden plots. After a few seasons of modified no till methods your urban garden soil will be aerated and full of good microbes!

FallPhaedra Hise