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Farmers and gardeners have turned the soil for centuries. But many now believe in no-till or reduced tillage, a method also called conservation tillage.
Tilling can remove weeds and the waste from last season's crops and help break down old plant material into fertilizer. But it can also increase the risk of soil erosion by rain or wind.
Tilling also releases carbon dioxide from the soil into the atmosphere. No-till keeps carbon in the soil and avoids the release of heat-trapping gases from motorized equipment. It also keeps water in the soil and protects helpful organisms like earthworms. And it saves money on labor, machinery and fuel.
The researchers say tillage makes soil less resistant to being broken apart by raindrops (than unplowed soil). They say no-till stores more soil carbon, which helps the soil particles stick together. They found that the first 2-1/2 centimeters of topsoil are up to seven times stronger against rain than plowed soil.
Another recent study found that a single tillage does not harm yield or soil structure in land that is normally not tilled. Charles Wortmann at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln says a one-time tillage may be used to correct a problem like aggressive weeds.
Fabian Fernandez, a soil and plant nutrition expert at the University of Illinois, says no-till means less intensive labor. But he also says it does not mean an end to preparing the ground for planting.
Jimmy Wagner works at the American Plant garden center in Bethesda, Maryland. He says hand tools like tilling forks, shovels and thatching rakes require more work than a rotary tiller, but they work well and cost less.
If you till, wait until the soil is warm and dry enough. If the soil stays together in a ball, it is too wet to till.