When Should I Till My Garden

The best time to till your garden is in the spring before planting. Early spring is a glorious time for gardeners. Temperatures begin to rise, wildflowers start to bloom, seed catalogs come out, and it’s time to put garden plans into action.

Part of the spring garden prep chores is preparing the soil for planting. Depending on where you live, your growing seasons may vary a bit. Or you might even be lucky and live in a region where you grow year-round.

When should I till my garden

Gardeners usually till their soil in the spring or fall between growing seasons. Tilling between seasons reduces weed pressure, impedes pest reproductive cycles, and breaks up the soil for planting.

More specifically, tilling is used to break up the soil causing it to aerate and loosen up for planting. Tilling also breaks down organic matter faster, speeding up the decomposition process and allowing the soil to warm up faster. The last reason people till (and the biggest challenge to min-till gardeners) is that tilling kills weeds and disrupts pests that might be in the soil. Despite all these benefits, tilling is not the only route for prepping your beds.

Minimum till strategy?

You might want to think about whether you even need to till or not. Intense tilling year after year can have negative effects on your soil due to compaction and faster degradation of organic matter. Look into minimum till methods, which can also be less physically straining, to prep your soil for planting between seasons.

Keep in mind, however, that min-till strategies work best for established garden beds. If you’re breaking ground on a new plot, tilling can be the most convenient. If managed properly and not over-done, gardeners can take advantage of tilling’s benefits while preserving and building their soil.

Knowing when to till your garden is extremely important to avoid over-tilling and mitigate those harmful effects on your soil.

Regardless of whether your garden has been buried under feet of snow or you’ve been happily growing cold-hardy crops, early spring is the time to start fresh and begin a new season of planting. So let’s go over some useful information that will help you plan when to till so you don’t damage your soil.

Spring tilling

vegetable garden with dry soil about to be tilled
Tilling soil in the spring when it is dry it the ideal situation

The spring is the best time to till for several reasons. The soil is dry, you’re between seasons and shouldn’t have too many plants growing, and the ground has recently thawed out so the soil is already looser.

The most important thing to keep in mind while planning when to till is that the soil should be dry. In many places, spring usually brings a bit less rain than in the fall. Even when it rains in the spring, sunny days and growing plants dry the soil quickly. Look at the weather forecast and choose a period of sunny days without rain to till your soil.

Soil particle size

Tilling your soil when the ground is dry is important for mitigating the harmful effects of tilling. Each time you turn your soil with a rototiller, the soil particles become smaller and smaller.

If the soil is wet when you till, the reduced size of soil particles and pores will enable compaction. Smaller soil particles mean smaller pores between them for oxygen and water.

Eventually, the soil particles become so small that water can’t infiltrate and there won’t be enough oxygen in the soil for your plants. Soils like this exacerbate floods and create a crust on the surface.

Using frost to break up soil

If you live in an area with temperatures below-freezing, thawed soil will even help you out. When the ground freezes, the moisture in the soil expands and enlarges the space between soil particles. The advantage to the gardener in this is that this causes the soil to be a little looser and fluffier, making it easier to till.

The most practical reason for tilling your garden in the Spring is because most people won’t have anything planted out. Spring is usually the time where winter crops have come to an end and ready to get pulled out. It’s also the time when seeds are started indoors ahead of time because it’s too cold to put summer crops out.

If you have anything planted out when you till, it will get shredded and turned into your soil. So take advantage of dry days between plantings to till your soil.

Autumn tilling

Autumn tilling is not so common, especially if you’re trying to avoid over-tilling. However, tilling in the autumn works well if you want to introduce farmyard manure or when preparing the soil that hasn’t been worked in years.

Farmyard manure is very high in nitrogen. If it hasn’t been allowed to age or be composted, the manure will burn plants. Nutrient burn can cause severe cosmetic damage to your plants and can even kill them.

Incorporate manure

If you’re working with fresh manure and want to incorporate it into your soil right away, till it into the soil in the autumn. Once you’ve amended your soil with the manure, don’t plant in it right away. Instead, allow the manure to decompose in your soil over the winter.

Come spring, when it’s time to start those summer crops, your soil will be full of organic matter and the manure will have broken down into a powerful organic fertilizer that won’t burn your plants.

Breaking hard ground

The other situation where autumn tilling is recommended is when you’re breaking hard ground on land that hasn’t been cultivated in years. Till it once in the autumn and allow the winter frost to help break up the soil.

As the water expands in the dirt, it will increase the pore size between soil particles. When the frost melts, the enlarged pores help aerate the soil.  In the spring, when you till the soil again, it will be all set for planting.

Like with spring tilling, avoid turning over wet soil in the autumn as well. Or avoid autumn tilling altogether by planning well in the spring and using no-till soil management practices throughout the year.

Try amending your soil in the spring with enough nutrients for the whole year, practicing crop rotation, keep a lot of mulch on the beds to suppress weeds, plant cover crops between seasons, pick up a broadfork, or opt for low-intensity hand tilling instead.

Tilling dry or wet soil

Tilling should always be done with dry soil to avoid the worst side effects of tilling on your soil. If your soil is wet, heavy machinery will weigh down and easily compact the soil. When the soil dries, it will create a hard crust on the surface that prevents water from infiltrating the soil.

Compacted soil is no good for the garden because water and oxygen can’t easily circulate and the hard soil is challenging for young roots. Without water and oxygen, the soil can’t sustain life and hard, compacted soils make it difficult to plant anything.

Degrading soil

Ironically, tilling wet soil both degrades the soil more quickly and also causes you to have to till more often. Bad soil made up of small particles and low organic content will be harder to manage and will demand more intense tilling. Tilling more intensely then degrades your soil more.

Don’t go down this reinforcing spiral and avoid having to re-till next season by not tilling wet soils this season. You’ll save yourself work and prevent your soil from degrading so quickly.

Tilling grass into a new soil bed

As a gardener, I prefer low-intensity strategies for cultivating my veggies. Between seasons I do most of the work by hand and engage in min-till practices for maintaining the garden beds. There is one situation, however, where I always choose to till and that is for starting a new garden bed.

When you start a soil bed in an area that has never been cultivated before, you’ll be dealing with a lot of weed pressure – especially from grass. Grass is a tricky plant that is difficult to maintain as a perfectly manicured lawn but is extremely difficult to remove.

Grasses multiply through rhizomes under the soil. Even though you chop everything down, they will put out new growth that will compete with your crops. Without tilling, it is extremely difficult and time-intensive to remove grasses from garden beds.

Incorporate organic matter

bag of chemical fertilizer for tilled soil
Tillers are great for incorporating fertilizer into soil – organic or chemical

The benefit of tilling areas that are covered in grass is that you get to incorporate all that organic matter into your soil. Grass clippings are super high in nitrogen, so once they decompose, all those nutrients will be available to your crops.

Tilling grass into a new soil bed removed weed pressure, prepares your soil for planting, and raising the organic matter content in your soil. If there is ever a time to till, it should be to till grass into a new soil bed. Just make sure the soil is dry!

Tilling an existing vegetable or flower bed

If you already have a garden bed set up that you’ve been planting in, till the soil when it’s dry between plantings – like in the spring. You can’t till a bed that already has vegetables and flowers growing in it. You’d either cut down the plant and turn it into the soil or you’d have to be extraordinarily cautious when operating the tiller to avoid existing flora.

Instead, till an existing vegetable or flower bed when harvesting is over or you’ve pulled everything out of the ground. You can either choose to process the organic matter from old plants directly into the soil to decompose or toss them into the compost.

The most important thing to remember is to choose a day between crops where the soil is dry to till the beds. Then get ready to direct seed the soil or transplant out all your baby seedlings.

Adding fertilizer to a tilled bed

Tilling is particularly helpful for adding fertilizer to a garden bed. When you introduce fertilizers and amendments, they can’t just sit on top of the soil. You need to mix them into the top layers of soil. This process can be manually done with a broadfork or hoe but can be extremely labor-intensive.

To introduce fertilizers to your soil before planting it’s best to first till the area well. In a small space, a hand-operated rototiller will work great and cause less stress to the soil layers. For large areas, I’d recommend finding an engine-operated tiller.

Try a garden strategy where you are introducing fertilizers and amendments only once a year in the spring. Strategize by using crop rotation where you replace heavy feeders with light feeders and legumes. These sorts of conscious strategies will reduce your need to till between planting seasons.

Choosing the correct sizer of tiller

Honda F501 front tine tiller sitting on a lawn garden
A Honda F501 Front tine tiller

Tillers come in three different size categories:

  1. Cultivators – these are the smallest, used for small flower beds, raised beds and small vegetable gardens. These are light, maneuverable and portable. A good example of one is the Earthwise Cordless Electric Tiller/Cultivator
  2. Front Tine Tillers – this is the middle sized tiller, and is more suited to larger areas on the ground – not suitable for raised beds. They can till larger ares and are usually electric corded or engine driven. A good example is the Sun Joe 16 Inch Front Tine Tiller
  3. Rear Tine Tillers– these are the largest of the three and typically have powered wheels with forward and reverse gears and have covered tiller blades behind the wheels. This tiller is the best for large vegetable gardens or large beds with no plants growing. Despite being the largest they are the easiest on the operator as the driven wheels does away with the arm pulling associated with front tine tillers. A good example would be the Yardmax YT4565

Read this article describing the differences between a tiller and a cultivator for more info.

Conclusion

Each garden is different and every gardener deals with a unique situation. Depending on your terrain, soil type, and land conditions, you will want to decide whether tilling is right for you.

Should you decide to till, following best practices is essential for minimizing the harmful effects on your soil. Prevent soil compaction, organic matter degradation, and deterioration of soil particles by tilling when the soil is dry.

Well-managed soil doesn’t need to be tilled so frequently and will bounce back from tilling more quickly. Keep your soil healthy through tilling by always incorporating high amounts of organic matter and adopting best practices.

At the end of the day, the most important thing to remember is to till in the spring or autumn between plantings and when the soil is dry. Besides that, do what’s best for you and focus on increasing the organic matter content of your soil throughout the rest of the year.