Many farmers have been led to believe that tillage improves soil function. Not true! What it does do is destroy soil aggregates (the way particles form a “community”), decreases water infiltration (the way water will stay in the soil, available), and it accelerates the breakdown of organic material, just to name a few. During this process, oxygen is pulled into the soil, stimulating particular bacteria, which eat the natural “glues.” This “glue” holds the essential soil particles together, creating the co-oping between silt, clay and sand. Without this “glue,” the sand, silt, and clay sort of collapse into voids in the ground, making the soil less porous, less able to absorb water, oxygen, and nutrients. This starts the vicious cycle of throwing fertilizers and chemicals and tilling even more.

First principle: keep the ground covered at all times. Nature doesn’t leave soil exposed. Fire, flood, human ignorance … nature will cover the wounds because nature doesn’t tolerate a void. Nature was here long before us and when we’re gone, nature will reclaim everything. Don’t believe me? Go to an old homestead that no one has lived at for years. You’ll find insects and rodents have decimated the house, birds have built in nooks and crannies, there are trees growing through the roof and vines consuming the outside. In a few years you won’t be able to even tell there was ever a family that once lived there. We either learn to work with nature or nature will destroy us.

It starts with understanding and acceptance of the fact that we won’t survive without our natural resources, starting with the soil beneath our feet. From it comes our oxygen, clean water, food. Starting with a no-till process in our gardens, is a no brainer. Feed the soil. The soil feeds the plants. The plants feed all of life. The dying of all life starts the cycle over again.

I watched Papaw pour gasoline and old oil on weeds and trees he didn’t like, seen friends and relatives use toxic herbicides on a creekbank/riparian area, to kill brush and weeds. I’ve seen pesticides used on fields and gardens, above ponds and waterways, then watched as heavy rain washed over the areas that had been toxified, and run into the ponds and creeks. I’ve listened to folks complain about places they used to catch nice-sized fish, and now there’s nothing but an occasional minnow and the water stinks. That smell is death ... and they caused it. Poisons don’t disappear just because you can’t see them. Their destruction keeps giving. It starts with observing, and thinking about consequences, and deciding to change.

An observation I’ve made along the country roads I travel; banks and steep ditch lines, sprayed with a very potent “icide.” Of course, everything dies. What now? Are they going to plant something they like? Are they going to fill the ditch, and cover the bank, with stones? Have they even thought about the water that’ll wash that poison into the ditches and send it on to continue killing? Probably not. They just didn’t want to have to bushhog or weed eat.

When I see those ditches and banks in a few months, once again nature is in charge. Certain toxin-eating pioneer weeds have grown back, and are covering the area in the “undesirables” once again.

How many times do we have to perform the same failure before we figure it out?! We need to observe, come up with a workable alternative, and change the way we do things. Anything with “icide” in its name, means death and should only be used as a last resort, not as a replacement for manual labor.

Nature will keep the soil covered. She’s trying to teach us by example, if we’re willing to look. No-till gardening is a simple, yet profound change any of us dirtfolks can do. You’ll find the weed and pest pressure will be less, the disease occurrence will be less, and your work load, in the garden will also be less. Your soil will become dark and loamy, and easy to plant into. Your vegetables and fruits will taste better and be more nutritious because you’re allowing the soil to do what it was designed to do.

Will this happen overnight? In a year? It’s a process. Patience is another lesson we need to incorporate into our soil work. It took time to kill the life in the ground. It’s going to take time to heal it.

Sherrie Ottinger, aka: “The TN Dirtgirl,” is a regenerative Earth thinker, teacher, columnist, author and speaker. Her passion is all things “dirt.” She may be reached at with comments or questions.

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