To Till Or Not to Till…
There are a few different schools of thought on whether tilling soil is beneficial. The truth is, it’s a good way to prevent weed growth. However, it’s not the only way. Let’s discuss why people till and your options for doing so, as well as how you can prevent weeds in other ways. Yes, to till or not to till…that is the question.
The Basics of Tillage
Tillage is the act of agitating soil with a variety of tools, such as a tractor plow or disc. It involves the digging up of large areas, turning over the soil to redistribute nutrients, and breaking up soil.
Tilling soil helps to eliminate weeds and keeps the soil fertile when used for cover crops.
However, it’s important to note that tilling soil makes it susceptible to erosion and also creates an imbalance of essential fungal systems deep underground. It’s also labor intensive and costly, so these detriments should be taken into consideration when deciding how often, how much, and how to till.
No-Till — Conventional vs. Organic
When farmers use conventional methods on their farms, they can avoid the need to till by using herbicides to rid the soil of cover crops. However, these chemicals prevent the next crop from being labeled as organic.
Organic no-till involves hand tools such as hoes and rakes instead of chemicals to get rid of the cover crops. If a farmer has a very large area that they want to keep as organic soil, they can use a roller-crimper instead.
Roller crimpers are drums willed with water. They have blades attached to the front of the tractor in a chevron pattern. The farmer drives their tractor over the winter cover crop and the crimper essentially acts as a lawn mower, cutting down the stems of the plant.
This cover crop elimination serves another purpose, too, as it’s left on the ground to deteriorate as mulch. This suffocates and prevents weeds from forming, allowing more nutrients and healthy soil for the new plants.
The roller crimper mechanism also works to part the cover crop mulch, drop in seeds, and then cover them up again. The new crop grows right up through the cover mulch. This entire process happens in one pass, which saves a great deal of labor, time—and essentially—money.
Choosing Your Cover Crop and Timing It Right
Certain cover crops work best with certain tilling methods. For example, crops such as the perennial alfalfa or the biennial red clover can’t be killed with a roller-crimper. Others that respond well to this organic method include:
- Winter and spring barley
- Black oats
- Spring oats
- Hairy vetch
- Crimson clover
- Winter rye
- Pearl millet
- Foxtail millet
- Fava bean
- Field peas
- Winter wheat
- Sunn hemp
Each of these cover crops should be removed at a specific time at the end of their life cycle. Ensuring that the removal happens at the time specific to the crop ensures that it won’t continue to grow after it was rolled over or that it won’t seed and spread.
Do your research about your cover crop and when during its life cycle it will reach anthesis. Anthesis is the time when the plant goes from being in a vegetative state to reproducing. Grains show this when they shed pollen, for example. Vetches and legumes should be rolled when half to all of the crop goes to flower.
Roller crimping works best overall when the weather is hot and dry.
Other Ways to Prevent Weeds
There are plenty of other ways to prevent weeds from taking over your crops, too, without having to use harmful chemicals or invest in heavy equipment. These include mulch, landscape cloth, vinegar, and the tried-and-true classic of just getting out there and pulling the weeds up from the roots.
Mulch isn’t just a pretty cover that people use to fill space in their gardens. It protects your plants and keeps them thriving in conditions that would normally take them out! Mulch also helps plants retain the necessary moisture.
Mulch prevents weed seeds from getting into your crop’s soil when they’re blown in by the wind. Essentially, they can’t get down through the mulch barrier to take root. Additionally, when there are sneaky weed seeds underneath the soil, they can’t reach the sunlight to grow so they suffocate underneath. Win, win!
Landscape cloth is just what it sounds like—a large cloth or fabric that covers the ground. It acts as a protective armor to prevent weed seeds from entering the soil, just like mulch does. It also prevents them from growing up if they’re already underneath the soil and maintains appropriate levels of moisture for the plants.
Landscape cloth should be used in addition to mulch. The cloth goes down first and is then covered with a layer of grass clippings, wood chips, leaves, straw, or shredded bark.
This is best for shrubs, bushes, or trees that will remain in place for a long time since it’s a long-term solution. Make sure when purchasing your landscape cloth to not get cheap plastic “landscape fabric” because it won’t hold up and is detrimental to the soil.
Landscape cloth does prevent healthy organisms, such as earthworms, from doing their job, so that’s an important consideration.
Many generations past have used vinegar and salt to naturally kill weeds. This combination does kill weeds quickly (on the first day after application). However, the weeds need to be young (within the first couple of weeks after germination). The vinegar solution doesn’t kill weed roots, either, so they’ll continue to pop up if they aren’t fully dealt with another way.
If you’re using vinegar, make sure to keep the solution away from your healthy plants as it will harm them as well as the weeds!
Pulling Weeds at the Root
When all else fails, get your hands dirty and get those weeds out from the very bottom! This will probably need to be done at some point anyway, no matter which way you try to prevent weeds from growing. Remember to grab them out as soon as you see them so they’re easier to remove with the whole root attached.
Tilling is an effective way to kill weeds, but it’s not always the best for your crops or your situation. There are plenty of other options to prevent weeds and allow for healthy plant growth.