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Soil Care Basics:
Protecting Soil Structure with Alternatives to Tillage

Table of Contents

MulchesGarden LayoutOther Strategies

Garden Layout

Wide beds

A key strategy for protecting soil structure is to grow in wide beds and restrict foot traffic to the pathways—thus avoiding compaction in the growing areas—and to plant as closely as possible in the beds. Close planting boosts bio-activity in the soil, since as noted earlier, the zone of greatest activity is the rhizosphere in and immediately surrounding plant roots. It also shades the soil surface, benefiting both soil life and plants by conserving soil moisture and moderating temperature extremes.

Interplanting slower-growing with faster-growing crops can help keep the bed constantly covered. For example, rows of carrots in the bed can be interplanted with radishes and/or beets, both of which mature earlier than the carrots. As we harvest the radishes and beets, the carrot tops meet and interlace, closely shading the bed. Similarly, brassicas such as cabbages and broccoli can be interplanted with faster-growing lettuces. The strategy of undersowing cover crops, noted above, also helps keep the bed covered when planted to an appropriate food crop. Such strategies also reduce weed pressure, further obviating the need to till the soil.

Paths between beds

Don’t forget soil-care opportunities offered by paths between beds. Mulching the paths also protects garden soil from drying and from temperature extremes. In addition, foot traffic helps shred or grind mulch materials such as straw or leaves. From time to time, this finely-shredded material can be transferred to the beds, where it will break down much more readily than in its coarser forms.

Another possibility is to allow somewhat wider pathways, plant them to cover crops that can take a fair amount of foot traffic (rye, Dutch white clover), then cut the path covers from time to time with a sickle and use them for mulches in the beds.