Garden Spotlight: Starr Farm Community Garden

To till or not to till, that is the question…

By Libby Weiland, Statewide Network Coordinator

One of the things I love most about community gardens–and I’m struck by it each time I pay a visit–is the fact that there are as many growing methods and gardening styles as there are gardeners to employ them. A visit to Starr Farm Community Garden, in the New North End of Burlington, is no exception. Take a tour up and down the extensive pathways of this garden and find tidy plots with framed beds and mulched pathways, jungle plots with towering sunflowers, winding forest-like pathways and secret hide-outs, agriculturally-inspired plots with long rows of tilled earth, and everything in-between.

No-till Gardening: A growing trend

In keeping with this grand experiment of gardening, over the last few years some gardeners at Starr Farm Community Garden have been trying on “no-till” gardening–a technique the removes annual plowing from the equation, that’s as old as the hills to some and novel to others. This is a part of a growing trend across all of the City of Burlington’s community gardens to respond to a greater demand for no-till garden plots. The City of Burlington’s Park, Recreation and Waterfront Department manages the Burlington Area Community Gardens (BACG) program, comprised of 14 garden sites across the Burlington area. Sites range from small neighborhood gardens to larger sites with multiple acres of available plots. With no-till sections expanding each year, out of those 14 gardens, currently 10 are fully no-till, three are partially tilled, and one is fully tilled. According to BACG staff, Meghan O’Daniel, “Because we want to remain accessible for all of the City’s gardeners we offer a variety of options, such as different plot sizes, till and no-till plots. More people have been realizing that if you go no-till you have more options and ways for you to feed yourself–you have a wider variety of things you can grow and you can plant a second crop to harvest into the fall.”

Jean & Sue, Starr Farm Community Garden Site Leaders

The no-till section at Starr Farm Community Garden currently takes up about 50% of the garden and has been growing each season. As demonstrated by my tour of the gardens, the diversity of approaches to this gardening method vary greatly with some basic standard components:

  • Minimize the amount of soil disturbance (i.e. tilling, digging)
  • Establish pathways to avoid soil compaction
  • Use lots of mulch!
  • Keep your soil covered (with successive plantings, mulch, cover crops, etc.)

Jean Parker, one of Starr Farm’s site leaders, started no-till gardening after reading a book by Ruth Stout–a woman who in her 60’s who decided she was done with pulling weeds in her garden and waiting for the plowman (known for her books like How to have a Green Thumb without an Aching Back: A New Method of Mulch Gardening). Jean started out by collecting 80 bags of leaves from her neighborhood and dumping them on her 25’x30’ plot in the fall. She laughed when recounting that she came back the next spring to a garden full of leaves! With persistence Jean discovered that this is not an over-night transition from a tilled plot to no-till. She planted into her leafy garden year after year and now four years later her plot is weed free.

Following Jean’s lead, Starr Farm site leader Sue Oliveira took on no-till, but using a different method. She salvaged untreated lumber from a neighbor’s re-construction project and made low simple frames around her beds. Around those beds she established pathways, laying down wet cardboard and newspaper and topped with a thick layer of wood chips (free from the City). Her beds are heavily mulched with straw–only about three bales needed for her 25’x30’ plot.

In addition to the basics mentioned above, the common denominator in both plots is resourcefulness. Both Sue and Jean were able to make the transition from till to no-till at very little to no financial cost–just time and commitment to the process!

Sharing the benefits

Both fully convinced by their positive experience with no-till gardening, Jean and Sue are eager to point out the many benefits. Among them:

  1. When you get down to the science of the soil, the no-till method allows you to build healthy soil structure, full of life, dense with nutrients, well-aerated, and with proper drainage;
  2. There’s an environmental benefit too–no-till gardening and farming helps to sequester carbon in the soil and reduces greenhouse gas emissions;
  3. Overtime, you will see a reduction or elimination of the need to weed;
  4. You don’t need to water as much, due to the hefty layer of mulch around your plants;
  5. You can invest in creating a more permanent garden space (e.g. establishing fencing, adding structures, etc.);
  6. You can take advantage of a longer growing season, like planting peas in the beginning of April and pulling carrots until it snows, rather being reliant on the schedule of the plow (i.e. frozen or wet ground conditions); and
  7. You can plant perennials in your garden space that can remain year after year.

When discussing with community gardeners the option to switch from a till to a no-till plot at Starr Farm, the two site leaders focus on benefits 3-7 above. They’ll get into soil and environmental science if asked, but focus on the tangible benefits, like reduced weeds, watering and permanence of growing space and infrastructure.

Advice for making the transition

Based on their experiences with no-till gardening, Jean, Sue and Meghan want to say to those starting out or making the transition:

  • Sue: “Take it slowly. Start small and find some space where you can do it successfully, like a demo plot to show how it works and show success. Seeing is believing.”
  • Jean: “You have to sort of move away from the concept of having a clean, neatly plowed plot. You have to reframe what a garden can look like and help people realize that it may take a few years to see change.”
  • Meghan: “No-till gardening might mean something different for different gardeners. It’s important to be flexible, learn from past years’ challenges, and celebrate your success.” From a garden management perspective, Meghan transitions garden plots to no-till slowly, starting new no-till plots on the garden’s edge, giving gardeners a chance to adjust to the new method, and giving her flexibility to till if weeds get out of control.
  • Provide guidance. Trying out new gardening practices can be challenging. At Starr Farm, Jean and Sue are available at the garden Mondays at 6:30pm. They spend a little time walking around the garden and asking fellow gardeners, “Hi! How’s your garden growing?” and offering advice as needed. As Sue puts it, people have a tendency not to ask questions. As site leaders, they want people to realize that in a community garden you don’t have to work alone.
  • Consider the most effective way to communicate with your gardeners about what’s happening at the garden and their unique needs. At Starr Farm Community Garden, for many gardeners a simple conversation in the garden is ideal, while for busy gardeners introducing information about no-till gardening in the garden handout-out or at spring orientation might be your best bet, and for the large number of New American gardeners language can be a barrier, so working to communicate through cultural liaisons and English-speaking family members is important for having clear and open lines of conversation.
  • Don’t push no-till gardening on people. This particular method of gardening is not for everyone or every garden. Infact, no-till gardening is not ideal for sites with heavy clay or seriously compacted soil, unless you go for the sheet-mulching method (that creates humus above the existing soil).

Want to know more?

If you have questions about Starr Farm Community Garden or no-till at BACG sites, contact Meghan O’Daniel at For more on no-till gardening, deciding if it’s a good fit for you, and how to get started, here are a few nice links:

Skip to content