Urban Ag & soil management blooms at Niagara Parks Botanical Gardens

“Soil is a biggie in the vegetable garden,” says Charles Hunter, Curator Instructor of Vegetable, Rose and Herb Gardens at Niagara Parks Commission Botanical Gardens & School of Horticulture. Hunter was speaking at the Toronto Master Gardener Technical Update at the Toronto Botanical Garden

Charles Hunter MG Tech Update


In 2005 the soil in the new vegetable beds were in very poor shape after years of growing with synthetic fertilizers.

 “Using synthetic fertilizer is Band-Aid approach. It is not sustainable,” says Hunter.

With the introduction of sustainable soil management, the soil dramatically improved. Techniques and material used to improve the soil included:

  • Using organic amendments, horse manure, compost, manure tea mixed with molasses, and cover crops
  • 7-year crop rotation
  • Companion planting
  • Proper access to garden beds (i.e. less soil compaction by staying off the bed)

Dongah Bok Choy

An interesting aside, the vegetable beds are still being tilled prior to transplanting/direct seeding. No-till is the technique used by many gardeners and farmers who wish to preserve soil structure and soil ecology. Have a peek at Megan’s blog on No-till vegetable gardening.

Hunter explained why they still tilled their vegetable beds every spring.

Hunter explained that no-till works better for monoculture, and that it is very difficult when you are growing many varieties. (I didn’t understand this reason…)

Another reason Hunter cited in favour of tillage was that vegetables are annuals, which prefer growing in high bacterial soil. Tilling destroys fungal mycelium and increases the bacteria in the soil. (For an alternative perspective, Jeff Lowenfels & Wayne Lewis in their book, Teaming with Microbes, says, and I quote: “Even bacterial dominated soils need to contain some fungi to maintain soil structure and microbial diversity. Soil food we gardening practice requires that the soil be disturbed as little as possible when it comes to annual and vegetable gardens…”  Tilling is required only when the beds are first converted from woodland or perennial beds to vegetable beds. )

Hunter also mentioned that they used a spader instead of a rototiller to till the soil. Rototilling pulverizes the soil. Spaders, a conservation soil preparation tool, disturb the soil structure far less than rototilling. (This is a good thing!)

If you not familiar with spaders, this Penn State Extension video explains how it works.

Because of the changes in soil management, not only did the soil improve but the vegetable harvest also increased.

In 2005, the 800 square metres  (8,600 square feet) of vegetable beds produced a mere 1,000 kg (2,200 lb. in 8,000 square feet).

By 2012 the same plot of land produced 3, 500 kg (7, 700 lb.) of vegetables.

That’s the power of good soil management!


Niagara Parks Commission Botanical Gardens Soil Information


Soil type: Clay loam soil

Depth ranges from 0.5 to 1.5 m (1.6 ft.  to 4.9 ft.) with a limestone bedrock base.

The pH varies from 6.8 to 7.5

USDA Hardiness Zone: 5b






Written by Cristina da Silva
Wednesday, January 15, 2014 in Building Soil
Read 4,015 times

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  1. Stacy Doran says:

    Great post, Cristina! I appreciate your asides fleshing out the arguments against tilling. We have packed clay soil here in Boise and it’s hard to resist the tilling temptation when we are harvesting bulbous, misshapen root vegetables. Despite this, we have resisted the urge in our own yard. Maybe it’s time to look into spaders. Keep the good information coming. :-)

    • Thanks, Stacy!

      It is so easy to become dogmatic about till vs no-till. I know :-) When it comes to vegetable gardening, I think we have to go with what works for our soil. If we become to entrenched in our position (till vs no-till), it is no longer about gardening. It becomes a “religious war.”

      Even if we follow the no-till system, there are times when we need to till, if we are growing in that soil (different if you are usually a layered no-till system, like the lasagne gardening)

      Tilling is probably appropriate when you first prepare the vegetable beds before adopting the no-till method:
      1. when we are converting a forest, woodland, shrub or perennial bed to a vegetable bed
      2. the soil we have inherited has a crust, or a hard clay pan
      3. seedbeds. Although the whole bed isn’t tilled for seeds, a small area still needed to be tilled for direct seeding.

      What wouldn’t work is tilling every year. No-till eventually loosens the soil, especially if you add compost and mulch and avoid compacting the soil.

      Good luck with your root vegetables!

  2. Thanks for your perspective, Cristina. It’s hard to argue with his yields, though. Wish I had space for a 7-year crop rotation (wish I had space, period). Technically, many of the veg we grow as annuals are perennial (tomatoes, for example) or biennial (cabbage) if left to their own devices in their native climate. Does that have an impact on their soil make-up preference? In my mind, the biggest argument for disturbing the soil has to do with the development of tap-rooted veg like carrots or parsnips. Even beets are happier with a bit of loose soil. And how does one define hilling-up for potatoes?

    • Thank you for taking the time to write a comment, Helen. I appreciate it! I agree it is heartening to see methods that build the soil being taught and demonstrated (especially in a horticultural school)!

      As I said to Stacy, it soooo easy to become dogmatic about till vs no-till! But it really shouldn’t be a polarizing issue if we put soil first.

      In the end, we need to ask ourselves: do my technique(s) build soil structure and soil quality?

      There are times for tilling in a no-till system (see my answer to Stacy below).

      What doesn’t work in the long-term is continuous roto-tilling. Roto-tilling may loosen the first 6 inches of soil but it has a way of compacting the subsoil, which then creates major problems fort root growth, water drainage and nutrient uptake. Spade tilling is a gentler on the soil than roto-tilling. But it is still tilling.

      Once you establish the bed, tilling shouldn’t be required (even for root vegetables). Think about it, tilling isn’t required in sandy soil. Sandy soil is already loose. And with continuous addition of organic matter to clay-like soil, as well as Calcium and Magnesium if the the soil is deficient in these minerals, the clay soil should loosen up as well.

      No-till gardening is a gentler way of managing soil quality. Tilling affects the soil in 3 ways
      1.Damages soil structure
      2. Compaction while drawing machinery & feet across the growing beds
      3. Destroys the networks of bacteria and fungi, preventing them from becoming more established and thus beneficial to plant growth.

      I would love to see a spade-till vs no-till vegetable beds established at Niagara Parks Hort. gardens to demonstrate which one improves the soil more. Wouldn’t this be a great experiment? Before we see that, it just rhetoric, LOL!

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