I have been given conflicting advice about whether to dig and turn the soil in a vegetable garden in the spring, including digging but not turning the soil. I get a lot of weeds so end up digging and turning (and removing the weeds as I go), but am not sure that is the best method to get the best vegetable garden. Question is do I dig only, dig and turn, and which to do if I am adding more topsoil?
Hello and thanks for your question. There are indeed varying opinions on how best to prepare soil for vegetables — ask ten different people and you’ll probably get ten different answers. However, if you consider this issue from a “soil health” perspective, the answer becomes clear. The best strategy to preserve soil structure, prevent soil erosion, minimize weeds, and improve drainage and airflow, is to use a no-till approach.
Turning soil actually increases the number of weeds you have to deal with, as the disruption of soil brings dormant weed seeds to the surface, where they are more likely to germinate. It also results in more soil compaction in the long-term, which is less beneficial to plant roots as it becomes more difficult for them to penetrate the soil, and also hampers the flow of water and air through the soil — both of which are critical for optimal plant growth.
If you are dealing with compacted or heavy soil, I would suggest using a pitchfork to loosen the soil. Put the pitchfork in the ground, pull it towards you then push it away from you, then take the pitchfork out of the ground. Repeat this about every half-foot or so along the entire length of your vegetable garden. This will help break up compacted soil but will not disturb the soil layers. If you wish to add topsoil (or, better yet, organic matter such as compost) you can gently rake it into the top few inches of soil — over time, worms and other soil organisms will incorporate this into deeper layers of soil. Mulch added as a top layer will add additional organic matter, minimize weeds and help the soil retain moisture. There are many options for mulching a vegetable garden, including grass clippings, shredded or unshredded leaves, and straw (free of weed seeds).
For more information on no-till/no-dig gardening, please visit the following sites:
Michigan State University Extension – Preparing the Smart Vegetable Garden
Oregon State University Extension – No-till garden beds save water and labor