I have been looking into the concept of shallow till compost and have learned quite a bit about how this approach helps to improve your soil. I’m always looking for ways to make my red clay soil better so when I came across this approach, I did a lot of research.
The Shallow Till Compost process involves cultivating the top few inches of soil and tilling in compost to improve soil texture, nutrients, and aeration.
I’m a big believer in the benefit of deep soil integration when it comes to established lawns but in the right circumstances, this compost soil amendment strategy could be an excellent approach to improving your soil.
When Is Shallow Till Composting Useful?
The most obvious use-case for the shallow till compost method is in the fall when cleaning up a garden and preparing it for the next season. Additionally, in early spring if you preparing to seed you may want to incorporate fresh compost into your soil.
Where I found this concept intriguing, however, is in the preparation of a new lawn. By cultivating the area to be seeded (or sodded) and tilling in fresh compost, you can significantly improve the quality of the soil’s texture, nutrient value, and aeration.
If you don’t believe that this would be beneficial, just try seeding a hard and tightly-compacted clay soil yard.
How To Shallow Till Compost
If you want to incorporate compost into your soil, simply break up the top few inches with a cultivator. I use a cultivator attachment for my Stihl KombiSystem. Any tiller will work just fine.
Go over the area you want to improve a couple of times and make sure the soil is broken up. Once this is done, pour a thick layer of compost over the cultivated area. Till over the area again so that the compost is thoroughly mixed with the native soil.
That’s it. You can seed, sod, or plant as you normally would from here.
If your soil is not too compacted and you are up for some exercise, you could forego the tiller and use a garden rake. It can be a little backbreaking, but it is an option.
What Is the Benefit Of Mixing Compost In My Soil?
You are accomplishing several things when you use this shallow till compost process.
- First, you are breaking up the compacted soil. This allows for increased aeration and improved root growth of the grass or plants.
- Second, you are infusing nutrient-rich organic matter into the soil. This means you are literally modifying the texture and composition of the top few inches of dirt to create a better-growing medium.
- Finally, you are creating an environment that will encourage worms to burrow and further condition your soil.
In fact, you are adding a layer of matter that will support the natural biological ecosystem that is needed for healthy soil (source).
Don’t overlook the benefit of this. If you have a garden or an area where you do not yet have an established lawn, the shallow till compost method can be an excellent approach to preparing the area for the healthy growth of whatever you intend to plant. It will improve the quality of just about any type of soil (source).
To truly understand the makeup of your soil and how texture, structure, and porosity can affect the growth of plants and lawns, read our comprehensive article What Is Soil (And Why Does It Matter)?
What If I Don’t Want To Shallow Till But Still Want To Add Compost?
When I want to add organic material to my clay soil yard, I looked for different approaches. In the front yard, I’d already sodded so the idea of the shallow till compost method did not appeal to me at all.
What I did instead was something I call Deep Soil Integration. I drilled a series of holes through the clay soil with a special drill bit and filled the holes with organic material. It has worked incredibly well. I’m actually using this process right now on a mostly bare area in my back yard.
To learn this method of deep soil integration and how it can help improve soil condition and drainage, read this article I wrote on the process.
Other methods of incorporating compost without shallow tilling include topdressing. You’ll get some benefit by simply overlaying your soil with compost. However, the benefit is limited when the compost cannot effectively incorporate into the soil.
You can improve the effects of topdressing by first aerating the soil. Aeration will result in cores of soil being pulled from the earth, leaving pockets where the topdressing of compost call fall into. This is a much better approach than topdressing alone!
Will Shallow Till Compost Improve My Soil?
Any addition of nutrient-rich material will improve the quality of your soil to some degree. Don’t think of this method as a one-shot-and-done approach. Consider it part of your comprehensive annual soil improvement plan.
And don’t stop there. Continue to add organic matter through the topdressing/aeration method and, if you are really aggressive like me, get out in there and drill some deep holes and fill them with compost or organic material.
In the end, incorporating organic material into your soil will significantly improve the quality of your lawn or garden.
If your soil has a lot of clay in it, tilling is just one of the approaches that you can take to improve it. Sydney Bosque covers this in her in-depth article Improve Clay Soil for New Or Existing Lawns. Read it to understand why you shouldn’t till unless you are doing it for the purpose of adding organic matter!