What is Tilling Soil? 15 Things (2021) You Should Know

As one of the oldest methods of preparing a garden, tilling soil is an effective way to increase your yield.

However, tilling isn’t a fool-proof method.

In this blog, we’ll teach you everything you need to know about tilling soil and how you can avoid any potential issues like soil erosion.

Let’s get started.

1. What is tilling soil?

Tilling occurs when you turn the soil over and over until it’s broken up.

It can be done by hand if you have a small area to till, or you can do it with a larger tilling machine, also known as a mechanical tiller, for a larger garden or agricultural area.

Tilled soil is often cultivated to a depth of 8 to 10 inches, although, the depth that you till often depends on why you’re tilling.

You can go deeper if necessary (i.e., if the soil you have is poor).

Whether you choose to till your soil ultimately depends on the type of gardening project you’re working on.

Tilling soil can be very helpful if you’re starting in an area that has never been planted before or if you need to add amendments.

2. What are the main types of tillage?

There are five main types of tillage.

Here are the definitions of each.

bulletPrimary tillage involves loosening the soil and mixing in fertilizer or plant material.

This results in soil with a rough texture.

bulletSecondary tillage is a method that results in finer soil, shaped rows, and a prepared seedbed.

bulletIntensive tillage is a type of soil tillage that leaves less than 15 percent of crop residue cover or less than 500 pounds per acre of small grain residue.

bulletConservation tillage is a type of tillage used on over 370 million acres in the continents of South America, North America, and Oceania.

It leaves about 30 percent of crop residue on the soil surface.

bulletZone tillage is a form of modified deep tillage.

This occurs when only narrow strips are tilled, meaning there is soil between the rows left untilled.

Zone tillage can agitate the soil and help to reduce soil compaction problems, which improves internal soil drainage.

3. What’s the history of tilling soil?

Tilling soil was most often performed using human labor (sometimes slave labor) or hoofed animals.

Hoofed animals will till the ground naturally by trampling and rooting the ground regularly when allowed.

Then, the wooden plow was invented, which could be pulled either by human labor or by animals (mule, ox, elephant, water buffalo, etc.).

While horses were generally unsuitable for this task, there were some breeds of horses that could be bred to pull plows.

In the early 1900s, the farm tractor was introduced, and this made large-scale modern agriculture possible.

That said, tilling soil was still a highly intensive activity.

4. What are the positive effects of tilling soil?

Tilling soil can have a variety of positive effects on gardening and agriculture, which is why it’s been done for centuries.

Here are all the positive impacts.

bulletTilling loosens and aerates the soil (or the top layer also known as horizon A).

This helps to facilitate the planting of crops.

bulletTilling soil helps to mix harvest residue, organic material, and nutrients evenly into the soil.

bulletTilling soil mechanically removes weeds, which preps the soil for planting.

bulletTilling soil dries the soil before seeding.

bulletTilling soil in autumn can help exposed soil crumble during the winter through cycles of frosting and defrosting.

This helps prepare a smooth surface for spring planting.

5. What are the negative effects of tilling soil?

While tilling soil can help prepare an area for planting, it isn’t always positive.

Here are some of the more negative aspects of tilling that you should be aware of.

bulletTilling soil dries the soil before seeding.

If you live in a dry climate, this can impact the prosperity of your crops.

bulletTilling soil can prompt it to lose nutrients like nitrogen and fertilizer, which can impact its ability to store water.

bulletTilling soil decreases the water infiltration rate of the soil.

This ultimately results in more runoff and erosion as the soil absorbs water more slowly than it did previously.

bulletTilling soil results in dislodging the cohesiveness of the soil particles, which induces erosion.

bulletTilling soil creates chemical runoff and reduces organic matter in the soil.

bulletTilling soil reduces microbes, earthworms, ants, etc.

bulletTilling soil destroys soil aggregates.

bulletTilling soil increases the compaction of the soil.

bulletTilling soil causes eutrophication or nutrient runoff into a body of water.

bulletTilling soil can attract slugs, cutworms, armyworms, and harmful insects to the leftover residues.

bulletTilling soil can prompt crop diseases that are harbored in surface residues.

6. How do you prepare a garden to till for the first time?

When preparing a garden that has never been tilled before, you must first evaluate the type of soil you have.

Start by turning over a sample of soil.

To do this, go about 6 inches deep into your testing area.

If you’re planning to use a mechanical tiller, the soil must be moist.

Take some soil in your hand and form it into a ball.

Next, use your index finger to poke a hole in the ball’s center.

If the soil breaks apart from the poke without difficulty, then the ground is ready for a mechanical tiller.

If you’re choosing to hand-till smaller areas of soil, then you’ll want it to be a little firmer.

Furthermore, preparation for tilling soil involves picking up any surface debris that you may find.

Debris includes sticks and rocks.

You should also spread any amendments you have selected into the soil so they can be mixed into the tilled soil as well.

7. Should you wet the ground before tilling soil?

Your water shouldn’t be soaking wet while tilling as this can impact the quality of the soil.

However, if you find that your garden soil is particularly dry, then you may consider adding water to a depth of about 4 inches.

Allow the water to penetrate the soil for 1-2 days and then begin the tilling process.

8. What’s the right time for tilling soil?

There’s no one-size-fits-all answer to this question.

Every gardener will have a different answer to this question.

Some prefer to turn the soil right after harvest while others wait to till the soil until the springtime.

Both choices can be good ones depending on your preference.

If you’ve added manure, you may need a few months to alter the pH level of your soil.

Additionally, if your soil requires few amendments, then it’s okay to wait to till until the springtime.

This is typically an easy routine for gardeners to get into.

That said, you’ll want to avoid tilling soil during any heavy periods of rain.

For example, if you live in an area that tends to be wet in the fall, then you should wait until springtime.

The same applies to any other particularly wet season.

Wet soil breaks down with too much tilling and will therefore impact the quality of the soil at hand.

9. How soon can you plant after tilling soil?

Yes, till can upset an ecosystem, so when you till soil for planting, you will need to allow a little bit of time for the soil to recover.

Allow approximately two to three weeks between tilling and planting as this will allow various organic matter to settle.

10. Can you over till soil?

Yes, you can over till soil.

One of the problems with tilling soil in a garden is soil erosion.

Soil erosion can occur over time if you’re tilling each year because it causes too much stress for the microorganisms that inhabit the soil.

You can prevent over-tilling soil by ceasing to till once you have a well-established garden.

Unless you’re adding extensive amendments, there’s really no need to till anymore.

Monitor your garden annually and do routine soil tests and amendments.

11. What is no-till farming?

No-till farming was created centuries ago by farmers who wanted to plant more seeds while expending less effort.

Tilling turns over the top 6 to 10 inches of soil before planting new crops to blend the soil together — aerating and warming the soil overall.

While it has its benefits, in the long run, it can do more harm than good by loosening and removing plant matter that enriches the soil.

From a soil perspective, no-till farming is more beneficial as it produces healthy soil by allowing the soil structure to remain intact and protects the soil by leaving crop residue on the soil surface.

12. Why shouldn’t you till your soil?

As noted above, one of the primary disadvantages of tilling soil is the potential erosion that it can cause.

If you till repeatedly each year, then over time, this can begin to happen.

Additionally, excess tilling can cause stress for microorganisms (i.e., earthworms) that inhabit the soil.

To avoid over-tilling, you should stop this practice once you have a well-established garden or agricultural area that thrives from year to year.

Unless you are adding extensive amendments, it really isn’t necessary.

Furthermore, you should monitor your soil to ensure that it is sufficient to support plant life and do any routine soil tests and assessments.

13. What are some must-know tips before tilling soil?

Is it your first time tilling soil in your garden or on your agricultural land?

Never fear!

Here are some top tips to make it successful.

bulletWhen you prepare a seedbed, go over the same path twice in the first row.

Then, overlap one-half the tiller width on the rest of the passes.

bulletOnce you’re finished in one direction, make a second pass at a right angle.

Overlap each pass for the best result.

If you’re gardening or planting on very hard ground, then make three or four passes to thoroughly pulverize the soil.

bulletIf your garden size is small and will not permit lengthwise and crosswise tilling, overlap the first passes with a one-half a tiller width.

Then, follow this with successive passes at one-quarter width.

bulletTill only on moderate slopes.

bulletNever till soil on steep ground where footing is difficult.

bulletTilling on up and down slopes is recommended rather than terracing.

Tilling vertically allows maximum planting area and leaves room for cultivating.

When tilling on slopes, be sure the correct oil level is maintained in your mechanical tiller.

bulletReduce soil erosion when tilling on a slope by adding enough organic matter to the soil.

This way, it’ll hold moisture.

bulletTry to avoid leaving footprints or wheel marks in the soil.

bulletWhen tilling on a hill, try to make the first pass uphill as the tiller digs more deeply when going uphill than it does going downhill.

bulletIf you’re tilling in soft soil or weeds, you may need to lift the handlebars slightly while going uphill.

When tilling soil downhill, overlap the first pass by about one-half the width of the tiller.

14. How do you till with a spade?

If you’re tilling a small garden, it’s possible to do it by hand using a spade.

This process is labor-intensive but ultimately leaves your garden lush and healthy.

Here are the steps for tilling soil with a spade.

bulletStep 1: Water your dry garden soil two to three days before tilling.

Apply two inches of water from a garden hose over the entire site.

bulletStep 2: Dig 6 inches into the soil with a spade and turn the soil over.

Next, grasp a handful of the soil and squeeze it firmly.

Relax your grip and poke the ball with a finger.

If the ball is soggy and remains stuck together, wait one to three days to till.

If the ball falls apart easily, begin tilling.

bulletStep 3: Dig a 10-to-12-inch-deep trench along on side of the garden bed with the shovel.

Make the trench 6 to 10 inches wide and excavate the soil in a wheelbarrow.

bulletStep 4: Dig shovelfuls of soil into one corner of the trench and flip the soil over.

Deposit it back into its former position.

If there are any large clods of soil, break up the soil with the spade.

If the soil is difficult to dig into, use a garden fork to turn the soil.

Repeat this process with all the soil in the trench’s bottom.

bulletStep 5: Dig the second identical trench immediately next to the first.

Place the excavated soil in the second trench on top of the turned soil in the first trench.

bulletStep 6: Turn the soil in the second trench in the same manner as before.

Dig a third trench next to the second and deposit soil from the third trench on top of the soil in the second trench.

Turn the soil in the third trench as before.

Repeat this process to till your entire garden bed.

bulletStep 7: Move the wheelbarrow full of soil to the final trench and shovel the soil from the wheelbarrow into the last trench.

bulletStep 8: Spread a 2-to-4-inch layer of compost over the entire garden bed with a rake.

Dig up the spade full of compost and soil and turn it over.

Repeat this process as need to mix the compost with 8 to 10 inches of soil.

Rake the soil’s surface smooth.

15. Is frequent tillage costly?

Yes, it can be.

Frequent tillage could ultimately cost you due to soil quality, soil productivity, surface water quality, extra wear on machinery, and extra labor requirements.

If you use your land to produce, be sure to consider the impact that frequent tillage can have on your bottom line.

Final thoughts

Tilling soil can be a beneficial practice depending on the land that you’re working with.

That said, no-till methods are much more aligned with the notion of working with nature, instead of bending it to our will.

Before tilling soil on your land, make sure you’re informed about the benefits and drawbacks.

Additional Resources

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Disclaimer: we are not lawyers, accountants or financial advisors and the information in this article is for informational purposes only. This article is based on our own research and experience and we do our best to keep it accurate and up-to-date, but it may contain errors. Please be sure to consult a legal or financial professional before making any investment decisions.

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