When we bought our first house in 2000, it had a 1000 square foot area that had been gardened by the 90-year-old prior owner for 20 years. It was a simple rectangular area, and she had planted her crops in rows, with a big Rhubarb in the corner.
The soil was hard-packed clay, and while there were definitely crops growing, it was hard to imagine where the water would go.
We had read about raised bed gardening in a book by Edward C. Smith called The Vegetable Gardener’s Bible that we could till up the soil to make raised beds without having to bring in extra soil. We didn’t have much money, so this made sense to us.
We found a tool rental shop, and it was about $75 to rent a gas-powered tiller for a day. I had zero experience or fear, so there was a bit of a learning curve. I got the swing of it in about 10 minutes, and began to churn up the soil, up to a foot deep.
It then took a few days to shovel the loosened soil into the pattern of the beds, which was a series of diagonal trapezoids. However, as I was shoveling the soil, I noticed that there were tons of worms. I wondered whether I had done some damage, as I kept finding worms that were “damaged”, but still alive. I had probably just dug up a worm habitat that took years to develop.
I felt deep guilt, having not considered these little creatures that are so beneficial to a garden for drainage and nutrients.
That turns out to be one of the reasons you wouldn’t want to till up your soil – if the soil has well-developed worms, the mechanical tilling will definitely do some damage. In subsequent years, I only used a pitchfork to turn the soil. It’s much more work, but I also learned that it would eventually be the reason why I never joined a gym again. Taking care of a garden with consideration for the worms is actually quite a workout.
The other considerations were all the weed seeds we churned by the process, which then
led to the curse of forever having to pick a wide variety of weeds that had been dormant. We used an inadequate weed barrier on the paths (newspaper, don’t giggle), and then topped it off with hay/straw that we bought from the farmer at the end of our subdivision. That turned out to release even more weeds into our garden environment.
We had a great season, but made far more work for ourselves in the process. And, sent too many garden friends to worm heaven. Tilling has it’s place, but you should consider more than just whether it saves you time and the physical work.