KANSAS CITY, Mo. — Go ahead and dig your fingers into the soil. But put down the shovel and park the tiller. Here's a different plan that will seem almost sacrilegious to back-yard gardeners: Don't till.
Marty Kraft, a Kansas City, Mo., environmentalist, says it's better all around — for the soil, your plants, the planet — if you completely refrain from that satisfying habit of turning over the soil in the spring.
Make holes in your garden bed only for planting, he says.
"When you till, when you turn the soil over, you expose the organic material, which becomes more vulnerable to bacterial attack," Kraft says. "You're breaking down your organic material and sending it up into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide."
Kraft is on a mission to spread the word about no-till gardening and has launched a Web site, Organotill.org.
It's going to take some convincing.
Ben Sharda, executive director of Kansas City Community Gardens, said the organization doesn't teach no-till gardening. He's not opposed to the practice but sees some drawbacks.
"You can have a great garden both ways," Sharda says. "People have been tilling for thousands of years, and it works."
Kraft knows that the prospect of not tilling, although less work, could be seen as disappointing: "Just looking at that dark earth feels good, it smells good."
But, he says, "You deplete your soil in the process. Some people say tilling makes as much sense as if we threw our cities in a blender every year and rebuilt them."
Fans of garden tilling say that turning over the soil loosens it, which is better for new plants and breaks the weed and insect cycles, but no-tillers say those reasons are overblown.
Tilling can bring buried weed seeds to the surface, making it easier for them to sprout. And mechanically loosening the soil is only temporary, they say. Bad soil will reharden quickly.
Gardeners can make real improvements to their soil by not disturbing it and by layering it with mulch and other organic material, such as compost and manure, Kraft says. Water and microorganisms pull the good stuff down into the soil. It's the natural way soil is improved.
In organic no-till gardening, Kraft says, weeds are controlled by covering the garden bed with layers of newspaper and maintaining a thick layer of mulch, such as leaves and straw. Don't use landscaping bark, he says.
Sharda worries that no-till can require a lot of attention, more than beginning or even average gardeners might want to devote to their garden bed.
No-tillers particularly like the nexus of creating locally better soil while sequestering carbon, however small the individual impact.
"This is an opportunity for us to have an effect on global warming," Kraft says, "and in the process to learn something about soil biology. You can't help but become a better gardener."