I may need to till my no-till garden


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Howdy! First time poster desperately looking for any feedback. I couple months ago I started a no-dig garden after watching Charles Dowding lay down his cardboard, cover it with compost, and then walk on it to pack it down!

So I bought a cubic yard of high quality “double sifted” compost from a reputable landscape company thinking it would be ready to use right away. I now know more than I did back then, and I don’t believe this compost is ready to use. My beds are like slabs of concrete. The first 0.5-1inch is dry, then the remaining is pretty much always moist. 75% of my plants turn yellow, but I’m not sure if it’s from the constantly wet bottom or nitrogen deficiency.

I’ve been periodically transplanting into it by digging a hole and filling it with this same compost but SIFTED and amended with some 5-5-5 organic fert. A little more than half of those transplants are still green! But it could be due to the edge of the bed providing more air to dry out and bring in oxygen?

So I’m thinking about just loosening up the whole bed ONE time and NOT pressing it down like Charles Dowding does. Basically restarting, and maybe take the opportunity to throw in a couple handfuls of some organic fertilizer just in case it is the compost affecting them as well. Below are some pictures of the current status. The yellow plants are green beans, zucchini, dwarf watermelon. The green plants are cucumber and a few tomato transplants around the edges.

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These cucumbers above are doing great…


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This is what I sift out of the compost when I use it to plant into now. The plants do great afterwards.
 

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So back way back up to the point in your pathway where you used in ground techniques for container planting. The internet confuses these separate choices. Once you get above ground, the compaction issues magnify as gravity and weather seek to even out the surface of the earth. To combat these downward forces potting mixes that are inherently springy like peat moss and coir, barks, even vermiculite and the puffed glass of perlite gets used. The increased airspace which you need is not present in a fine wet compost. In fact, muck is to be expected.

One point on the subject of less is more when it comes to compost might be along the lines of proven tested facts that organic matter past 30% begins to degrade the characteristics of a growing medium as you are pointing out. More attention to the artificial nature of any raised bed and its drainage and therefore breathability has to be taken into account.
 
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Fascinating... That makes much more sense. The no-dig guru lives in the UK, and I think his compost/climate/soil is completely different (at least much higher quality than mine!). He plants directly into 6 inches of compost, after compacting it down... The compost eventually settles into the soil as the plant roots begin to work their way down into the ground as well.

I'm going to buy a hand tiller and break up this rock-hard compost, spread in some fertilizer, and probably a few bags of high-ish quality soil (or maybe just peat moss? I have a large supply). I think the no-dig experiment would've worked better had I not started in late spring with unfinished compost and had much more sunlight. It sounds like I need to basically restart this garden as a normal raised bed.
 

Meadowlark

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Good to see a fellow Houstonian on board. I relocated to the big thickets of East Texas to escape the big city many years ago but still fondly remember Houston and especially UH athletics which I follow closely.

I'll admit I've never understood "no till" approaches to backyard gardening. More directly, it makes no sense to me, zero, none. What works for me is continuously nurturing and building garden soil. Organic matter is important, but cardboard isn't what I would call a preferred organic.

I'll tell you what worked for me in Houston's largely black gumbo soils...soil building w/leaves, grass clippings, etc. whatever organic materials I could find to add to the soil and tilled into the soil. Stuff my neighbors bagged up and threw away paying someone to pick it up can be worth its weight in gold in your garden soil. In winter's I would grow my own soil amendments like clovers. rye grass, vetch, etc. always tilling it back into the soil. Continuous soil building. I don't know any short cuts, but the rewards are tremendous and long lasting.

My advice would be to look to local gardeners who are successful in Houston's difficult climate...and they are there. I'll help any way I can. The rewards are well worth the effort required to build and maintain great soil.
 
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Fascinating... That makes much more sense. The no-dig guru lives in the UK, and I think his compost/climate/soil is completely different (at least much higher quality than mine!). He plants directly into 6 inches of compost, after compacting it down... The compost eventually settles into the soil as the plant roots begin to work their way down into the ground as well.

I'm going to buy a hand tiller and break up this rock-hard compost, spread in some fertilizer, and probably a few bags of high-ish quality soil (or maybe just peat moss? I have a large supply). I think the no-dig experiment would've worked better had I not started in late spring with unfinished compost and had much more sunlight. It sounds like I need to basically restart this garden as a normal raised bed.
What you say sounds good except for the peat moss. Peat has no nutritional value. It is anti-microbial and you need all the soil microbes you can get. On the plus side of peat, it is good at soil moisture retention and is acidic. Most areas around and in Houston are SLIGHTLY alkaline so adding acid is a good thing. I think that the two negative things about peat outweigh its benefits as there are numerous inexpensive ways to maximize moisture retention and using a lot of compost and manures will lower Ph somewhat.
 
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Good to see a fellow Houstonian on board. I relocated to the big thickets of East Texas to escape the big city many years ago but still fondly remember Houston and especially UH athletics which I follow closely.

I'll admit I've never understood "no till" approaches to backyard gardening. More directly, it makes no sense to me, zero, none. What works for me is continuously nurturing and building garden soil. Organic matter is important, but cardboard isn't what I would call a preferred organic.

I'll tell you what worked for me in Houston's largely black gumbo soils...soil building w/leaves, grass clippings, etc. whatever organic materials I could find to add to the soil and tilled into the soil. Stuff my neighbors bagged up and threw away paying someone to pick it up can be worth its weight in gold in your garden soil. In winter's I would grow my own soil amendments like clovers. rye grass, vetch, etc. always tilling it back into the soil. Continuous soil building. I don't know any short cuts, but the rewards are tremendous and long lasting.

My advice would be to look to local gardeners who are successful in Houston's difficult climate...and they are there. I'll help any way I can. The rewards are well worth the effort required to build and maintain great soil.
Right on! Another Houstonian! Yes I do have many questions when it comes to gardening here... I've been training my eyes to spot leftover leaves, grass and whatnot. I don't have much of a yard, or any at all, so I'm reliant on other sources. But I have to get to that point first! I've heard of many people growing amendments (they call it covercropping?). When you till it back in, don't you have to wait for it to compost down before you begin planting in it, or is this different because its green "nitrogen giving" material and not something like woodchips?

What you say sounds good except for the peat moss. Peat has no nutritional value. It is anti-microbial and you need all the soil microbes you can get. On the plus side of peat, it is good at soil moisture retention and is acidic. Most areas around and in Houston are SLIGHTLY alkaline so adding acid is a good thing. I think that the two negative things about peat outweigh its benefits as there are numerous inexpensive ways to maximize moisture retention and using a lot of compost and manures will lower Ph somewhat.
This is why I came to this forum. Thank you Mr. Chuck! So obviously I have no shortage of compost now... maybe I should dig out a few inches (which may come out to half a cubic yard or more) and then mix in some basic bagged soil along with the fertilizer? There'd still be a massive amount of compost in the mix, but I think that may give the plants what they're looking for.

On the subject of water retention..... This has actually been the bane of my existence. This bed does nothing but hold water. I could hold off on watering it for weeks (in this 100degF weather) and it'll still be wet below the first inch or two. I'm hoping that mixing in regular soil will lighten it up and allow for actual drainage and evaporation+oxygen flow. And actually the holes that I dug and filled with sifted/uncompacted compost/soil dry out normally. I actually have to water them separately because the rest of the bed never dries out.
 
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Another good reason for not using peat is that peat bogs are a unique environment with their own flora and fauna and a limited resource, digging them up to put on gardens really doesn't make sense.
 

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... When you till it back in, don't you have to wait for it to compost down before you begin planting in it, or is this different because its green "nitrogen giving" material and not something like woodchips?

Yes, not at all like woodchips.

When making a seed bed, I normally shred my covers first cutting them very close to the soil line and then turn that residue under. I sometimes use my mulching lawn mower to do that first step to cut it but also alternately use a brush hog rotary cutter tractor attachment if needed. Then, either till it in or disc it in. It disappears pretty quickly to the naked eye if mulched that way but lingers in the soil to add nutrients for a long time.
 
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Right on! Another Houstonian! Yes I do have many questions when it comes to gardening here... I've been training my eyes to spot leftover leaves, grass and whatnot. I don't have much of a yard, or any at all, so I'm reliant on other sources. But I have to get to that point first! I've heard of many people growing amendments (they call it covercropping?). When you till it back in, don't you have to wait for it to compost down before you begin planting in it, or is this different because its green "nitrogen giving" material and not something like woodchips?


This is why I came to this forum. Thank you Mr. Chuck! So obviously I have no shortage of compost now... maybe I should dig out a few inches (which may come out to half a cubic yard or more) and then mix in some basic bagged soil along with the fertilizer? There'd still be a massive amount of compost in the mix, but I think that may give the plants what they're looking for.

On the subject of water retention..... This has actually been the bane of my existence. This bed does nothing but hold water. I could hold off on watering it for weeks (in this 100degF weather) and it'll still be wet below the first inch or two. I'm hoping that mixing in regular soil will lighten it up and allow for actual drainage and evaporation+oxygen flow. And actually the holes that I dug and filled with sifted/uncompacted compost/soil dry out normally. I actually have to water them separately because the rest of the bed never dries out.
Digging up the soil and then mixing your compost into it is the correct way. I know your black clay gumbo soil well and adding no more than about 30% by volume of your compost INTO the soil is what you want to do. If you have any green material add it in too. This will soften and lighten the soil plus it will help with drainage. You will need to also think about soil depth or how deep to dig out your bed. IMO too deep is just right but a combined depth ( soil + compost) of 8 inches is MINIMUM. 12 inches much much better especially for tomatoes and okra. Just remember that your compost is comprised of carbon and you want to keep your carbon nitrogen ratio to be kept low, under 30% if possible. Your compost is very good but too much of a good thing isn't good so incorporate no more than 30%. It doesn't matter how much you place around plants on the surface of the soil as the ammonia produced by decomposition will not harm your plants or the soil microbes you are trying to grow.
 
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@Meadowlark fantastic! I do not own either (no yard or grass), but I do have an electric weedeater for weeds around the patio. I'm going to research this more. It sounds like a great idea.

@Chuck Phew... it sounds like I have some work ahead of me. Luckily my tomato transplants are still about 10 inches and can probably be transplanted out temporarily. Then I'll transplant the transplants lol. The rest (cucumbers/zucchini/watermellon) I'll probably just compost and restart. They're only a couple weeks old and struggling horribly anyways. We have a looong time before it cools down here in Houston so I believe I have plenty of time.

I'm going to try to do what I can with the manual tiller, but it's looking more like I'll need to rent one, but that's the cost of this mistake :cautious:. I'll keep updating this thread on my progress. Thank you all! :D
 
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@Meadowlark fantastic! I do not own either (no yard or grass), but I do have an electric weedeater for weeds around the patio. I'm going to research this more. It sounds like a great idea.

@Chuck Phew... it sounds like I have some work ahead of me. Luckily my tomato transplants are still about 10 inches and can probably be transplanted out temporarily. Then I'll transplant the transplants lol. The rest (cucumbers/zucchini/watermellon) I'll probably just compost and restart. They're only a couple weeks old and struggling horribly anyways. We have a looong time before it cools down here in Houston so I believe I have plenty of time.

I'm going to try to do what I can with the manual tiller, but it's looking more like I'll need to rent one, but that's the cost of this mistake :cautious:. I'll keep updating this thread on my progress. Thank you all! :D
It is WAAAAYYY too late to be setting out tomato plants. The low temperatures are much to high to set fruit and the high temperatures are too high for growth of fruit. If your tomato plants are indeterminate you can repot them into a larger container until you get your raised beds finished as they will continue to produce blooms but won't set any fruit until the nighttime low temperatures are steadily about 65F-72F Then about the first of September, depending on the long range weather forecast, you can plant them in the ground, but that is another topic.
 
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It is WAAAAYYY too late to be setting out tomato plants. The low temperatures are much to high to set fruit and the high temperatures are too high for growth of fruit. If your tomato plants are indeterminate you can repot them into a larger container until you get your raised beds finished as they will continue to produce blooms but won't set any fruit until the nighttime low temperatures are steadily about 65F-72F Then about the first of September, depending on the long range weather forecast, you can plant them in the ground, but that is another topic.
Great. It is to be 99f multiple days next week.
 
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Great. It is to be 99f multiple days next week.
Yeah, tomatoes slow their growth at about 92F and stop growth at about 95F. None of my tomatoes grew above slightly bigger than golf balls. Ambient temps here have been 92F+ for the past 45 days and 100+ for 16 days and counting. Only thing still alive and growing are peppers and okra. This has been the worst gardening year in my memory. First the hail and now the heat. Oh, I forgot. No rain either.
 

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One thing you could do to improve your soil substantially now and in the future is immediately plant that area in pink eyes or another purple hull or another black eye pea of your choice. They will grow and thrive in this heat and add nitrogen and improve that soil. If you plant them thick enough, you won't even have to weed them except at first. You will get more nitrogen by not harvesting but pink eyes are so good its hard to resist sampling some.
 
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It is WAAAAYYY too late to be setting out tomato plants. The low temperatures are much to high to set fruit and the high temperatures are too high for growth of fruit. If your tomato plants are indeterminate you can repot them into a larger container until you get your raised beds finished as they will continue to produce blooms but won't set any fruit until the nighttime low temperatures are steadily about 65F-72F Then about the first of September, depending on the long range weather forecast, you can plant them in the ground, but that is another topic.
Yeaaaa sooo these were seedlings I planted a while ago when I was stubborn and planted regardless of the time of year lol. They are indeterminant black cherry and I’m well aware of them not fruiting. Man I just don’t have the heart to toss them . Might as well have something growing since there’s not much else. My cucumber plant in the front started setting fruit for the FIRST time after putting a shade cloth over the bed!! Complete game changer.

One thing you could do to improve your soil substantially now and in the future is immediately plant that area in pink eyes or another purple hull or another black eye pea of your choice. They will grow and thrive in this heat and add nitrogen and improve that soil. If you plant them thick enough, you won't even have to weed them except at first. You will get more nitrogen by not harvesting but pink eyes are so good its hard to resist sampling some.
What about green beans? (Tendergreen garden beans). My mom burnt me out on purple hull peas a little lol. But for the good of the garden I’d be willing to sacrifice. I’d like to get a zucchini/cucumber/array of peppers/indeterminate tomato seedlings started soon. I’ve been thinking about spreading random bean plants around the whole garden just for the nitrogen benefit. But do these work the same way as peas?
 
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Yeaaaa sooo these were seedlings I planted a while ago when I was stubborn and planted regardless of the time of year lol. They are indeterminant black cherry and I’m well aware of them not fruiting. Man I just don’t have the heart to toss them . Might as well have something growing since there’s not much else. My cucumber plant in the front started setting fruit for the FIRST time after putting a shade cloth over the bed!! Complete game changer.


What about green beans? (Tendergreen garden beans). My mom burnt me out on purple hull peas a little lol. But for the good of the garden I’d be willing to sacrifice. I’d like to get a zucchini/cucumber/array of peppers/indeterminate tomato seedlings started soon. I’ve been thinking about spreading random bean plants around the whole garden just for the nitrogen benefit. But do these work the same way as peas?
You can still plant okra although it is getting a little late. But, in all reality I think I would get my raised beds ready for a fall and winter crop and forget about trying to grow anything this summer. You can start tomato seedlings around mid July to around the first of August and put them out around mid Sept. You can start broccoli and cauliflower seeds about mid August and set them out mid Sept. And this winter you can grow all kinds of stuff. About your tomato plant. Just get a 5 gallon bucket and transplant into that. It will probably survive this heat and start putting on fruit as soon as the highs are in the high 80's low 90's.
 
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You can still plant okra although it is getting a little late. But, in all reality I think I would get my raised beds ready for a fall and winter crop and forget about trying to grow anything this summer. You can start tomato seedlings around mid July to around the first of August and put them out around mid Sept. You can start broccoli and cauliflower seeds about mid August and set them out mid Sept. And this winter you can grow all kinds of stuff. About your tomato plant. Just get a 5 gallon bucket and transplant into that. It will probably survive this heat and start putting on fruit as soon as the highs are in the high 80's low 90's.
Awesome. So do you think I need to try to sift out as much of the wood chips as possible from this compost? They’re completely black, but def not broken down completely. I’m afraid of doing all this tilling labor and STILL leaving in those nitrogen leaching chips…
 
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Awesome. So do you think I need to try to sift out as much of the wood chips as possible from this compost? They’re completely black, but def not broken down completely. I’m afraid of doing all this tilling labor and STILL leaving in those nitrogen leaching chips…
No. Leave in the chips. They will continue to break down and help aerate the soil. This is why I said to not incorporate more than about 30% of the compost into the soil. Here is how I would tackle making your raised beds. Shovel all of the compost into a big pile. Then dig out the soil to a depth of about 10 inches. You don't have to remove the soil, just turn it over and break up the big clods of soil. If you wish you can now add your organic fertilizer. Then shovel about 3 inches of your compost on top of the soil you have just turned over, level it out and then re-dig by turning the compost into the soil. Do this a couple of times. When this is done get a gallon of molasses from a garden center and a big watering can. Mix 2 oz of molasses into a gallon of water and pour it over what you have dug and turned. Do the molasses and water about every 2 weeks. Within a month or two you soil will be easily workable. A gallon of molasses may seem like a lot but later on you will continue to use it frequently. When you want to plant a seedling get your shovel and remove a big shovel full of soil, put it into a wheelbarrow, mix in your organic fertilizer and add what ever soil amendments you want. Put you plant in the hole and fill it back up with the soil you have just fertilized. When your plants are planted you can then use your compost as a mulch around the base of the plant.
 
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So I don’t even need to add any bagged garden/potting soil? I was just about to grab maybe 6 bags of organic raised bed mix just to get it going and reach the height of 6inches above where the level ground is currently.

EDIT: I should’ve mentioned this earlier, this neighborhood is brand new, and when I dig down it’s literally that orange dirt they used to build houses on top of and level the ground, and then a few inches deeper it’s clay. So there’s literally nothing below.
 
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So I don’t even need to add any bagged garden/potting soil? I was just about to grab maybe 6 bags of organic raised bed mix just to get it going and reach the height of 6inches above where the level ground is currently.

EDIT: I should’ve mentioned this earlier, this neighborhood is brand new, and when I dig down it’s literally that orange dirt they used to build houses on top of and level the ground, and then a few inches deeper it’s clay. So there’s literally nothing below.
Yes, add it if you have it.
 

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