Dave: I’m a relative newbie with a small suburban garden and am trying no till, but in my raised beds, I don’t think it is the same issue as for you. I have seen other sites claiming that they actually no till farm a number of acres with great success (I think this was in the north east) and I’m wondering if you have tried a small plot this way and it wasn’t successful, or you just think its a waste of time. Since you are working on a much much larger scale that I am, I’m just curious about that part. The rest, I agree. Keep posting.
Though it is possible to plant a large no-till garden, we haven’t found it to be at all practical due to the lack of safe mulching materials. Some use wood chips; however, finding enough wood chips is usually difficult. Secondarily, handling the truckloads of chips takes a high amount of effort. Another possibility you will see often is using hay or straw. Unfortunately, we’ve seen gardens hit with residual herbicide from going that route. See: Grazon
Hence, we have often used cover crops to improve soil, and then tilled them under and planted on top. Or we’ve done row gardens and fed them with compost tea, alfalfa pellets and other things to get a yield in a larger space.
If you were able to grow a cover crop and then crimp and seed into it, it could work excellently. Especially if you were able to integrate grazing animals. But realistically, when we can simply use a tiller, then make beds and/or rows and plant the same day, then just control weeds with a hoe – compared to throwing down cardboard, moving tons of materials, and hunting down safe hay/straw – it’s a no brainer.
Even a conventionally sprayed and chemical-fertilized backyard garden is probably better than going to the store for groceries. That said, in my Grocery Row Gardens, we tilled once and then mulched the beds as we had materials. Sometimes we’ve hoed the paths when we didn’t, or planted cover crops to suppress weeds.
There’s a big scaling issue we’ve found with the no-till gardening approach. A small garden is super easy to do. We’ve made some amazing “Lasagna” gardens. But as it gets bigger, it gets much harder. Then, when you get really big and you have cows and tractors and crimpers and no-till seeders, it gets easier again.
But on a large backyard scale (such as the quarter acre we currently farm) we haven’t always been able to dodge the material and labor issues. Right now I have some good unsprayed hay and some wood chips so we’re doing mostly no-till on our quarter acre, but when I don’t have those materials, I don’t worry about it. The main goal is to grow the best food we can manage with what we have, rather than striving for perfection. Do what you can with the tools available and don’t be afraid to jump from one gardening method to another as your space, time and resources allow, keeping that “growing food” goal in mind!
I hope that helps.