Prepare Your Soil

Learn about tillage methods on the small farm

Working the soil.


Nick David 

Once you've tested and amended your soil, it's time to get it ready for planting. With many different methods of tillage, or working the soil, how can you know which one is right for your needs and raw materials?

One general rule is to use the least intensive method of tillage you can. Disturb the soil as little as needed to yield an aerated, fine seedbed for your crops. This will help minimize the impact on the land, as well as erosion of the soil due to wind or water. If it's a brand new garden, however, you will want to loosen the soil to a depth of at least 8-12 inches, so that roots can burrow down.

A good approach is to add organic matter to soil in the fall, ahead of spring planting. Spread a layer of compost no more than four inches on top of any garden beds and let the worms do the rest of the work. They'll incorporate the compost into the soil and aerate it. An exception would be if the soil is truly bad; in that case, working in the compost can kickstart the remediation process.

Come spring, you can warm the soil more quickly by placing plastic, cardboard, or old windows on top of it for a kind of greenhouse effect, then pull out any weeds that come to the surface. Resist digging, as this can bring up more weeds.

The goal is for about one-quarter of the soil to be organic matter; too much will boost microorganism activity and use up other nutrients that your plants require, like nitrogen. When preparing soil, you can enhance it with various types of organic matter, including compost, aged manure, wood ash, and coconut coir. These amendments should be added at least two weeks before planting.

Hand Tilling

If you're a homesteader seeking to plant a veggie garden to feed your family, you might not need a tractor or heavier tillage methods of any sort if the space isn't overly large. Instead, hand tilling your soil via double digging or another method might serve you best.

Double digging is an effective method of preparing soil in a garden with a spade and a lot of hard work. To double-dig, you begin by spreading compost over the soil. Then, dig a trench 10 inches deep and the width of your spade, depositing the shovelfuls of soil onto the ground next to the ditch. Dig a second ditch alongside the first, moving the shovelfuls of soil into the first ditch. Continue in this manner until the entire area has been hand-dug.

Other options include raised beds or sheet mulching methods such as lasagna gardening. With these methods, you don't have to work your soil at all—you simply build on top of it.


A rotary tiller, commonly known as a rototiller, is a motorized cultivator with tines or blades that rotate through the soil, pulverizing it and breaking up clumps into a finer texture.

Rototillers can be walk-behind, where you literally walk behind it as it pushes through the soil, or ride-on, such as those found as an attachment to a lawn or compact tractor.

If you are starting with sod, you may need to hire someone to plow up the sod before you rototill it. If you do this, consider simply hiring the farmer to rototill the plot for you. It will be a lot easier, and you can rototill next year once you have an established plot. Alternatively, double dig.

No-Till Methods

No-till is a newer method of tillage that doesn't disturb the soil like conventional methods. Its advantages include decreased erosion, lower need for equipment, and no cultivation of the soil. No-till farmers must still purchase a no-till drill for planting crops, and no-till methods can involve a lot of trial and error.

There are two types of no-till: conventional and organic. In conventional no-till, herbicides are used to kill weeds and any crop residue before planting. For organic no-till, a cover crop is used to smother weeds, then is mowed or rolled down, and crops are planted directly into the soil between the remains of the cover crop.

Shallow or Reduced Tillage

Somewhere between conventional tillage and no-till are various methods of shallowly cultivating the soil in preparation for planting of crops. Farmers' methods of shallow tillage may vary depending on their geography, equipment, and particular soils. What is shared is the goal: to minimize disturbance of the soil while still preventing weed seeds from surfacing. Reducing use of fossil fuels and minimizing the amount of equipment needed are other goals of shallow tillage.

One such method that is popular on the small farm is the use of a chisel plow, also called a spring harrow. The chisel plow is a three-point-hitch implement with springy steel tines with sharp tips that loosen and aerate the soil before planting. We have a 24-hp Ford 1720 tractor that we attached a chisel plow to and dragged through our rocky, heavy clay soil. We found that it worked very well to break up the clumps of soil without catching on the large and small rocks in our mountainous soil. We'd then stop and dig those out with the front bucket. After using the chisel plow, we went over the plot with a 48" rototiller attachment for our Simplicity ride-on lawn tractor.

If you plan to have, or already own, draft horses on your small farm, using horse-drawn equipment to cultivate the soil is another possibility. However, you must be dedicated to everything involved with raising, training, and feeding draft horses, so think carefully before jumping into horse-drawn farming. But for those who really want to reduce or eliminate the use of fossil fuels, this may be the way to go.

Conventional Tillage

Traditionally, farmers working in larger fields begin with the moldboard plow (a curved iron plate that turns the soil). After plowing, the soil is worked with disks, a series of round plates attached to one axle that rotates and breaks up the soil more finely. Depending on your soil, you may be able to skip the moldboard plow and go right to the disks. Alternatively, try a chisel plow and then a disking.

Several passes with the disks may be required to get the seedbed fine enough for planting crops. One of the concerns with conventional tillage is that the disturbance of the deeper soil layers that occurs is not good for soil-dwelling organisms like earthworms. Plus, erosion of newly disturbed soil by water and wind is a concern.

Only you can determine which tillage method matches your soil, geography, climate, available resources, and scale of production. Any of these methods or a combination may be the best choice for your small farm or homestead.

View Article Sources
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