What Is Cultivation?

Definition of Cultivation for Happy Plants and Healthy Soil

person planting seedling in soil
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Cultivation, also known as tilling or soil refinement, is the act of digging into or cutting up an existing soil bed to better prepare it for planting. You might use a tractor, a rototiller or hand tools like a shovel or soil fork. Typically, farmers add amendments when they cultivate soil to boost its nourishment.

What Is Organic Cultivation?

Organic cultivation specifically aims at getting soil into healthy shape by using non-chemical, pesticide-free methods and by encouraging the soil's natural ecosystem to thrive.

Effective organic soil cultivation helps control weeds and produce healthy plants. Aerating – or exposing the soil to air – is an integral part of the cultivation process. Cultivation can be essential in a non-toxic integrated pest management solution.

Why Cultivate?

The whole point of cultivating your soil is to help your plants grow better. You want aerated soil so there is enough oxygen around the plant roots. You want your soil to be free of weeds. And you want good drainage so you don't drown your plants.

In terms of organic farming, it’s not just about adding nutrients to the soil. It’s about encouraging the life forms within the soil to thrive. Earthworms are the most obvious soil dwellers and you want them around to process organic matter into rich, fertile soil. Earthworms also keep your soil aerated.

But your soil is also home to billions of beneficial microorganisms such as bacteria, algae and mold, and when these organisms are happy and thriving and in ideal balance for your agricultural conditions, they turn lifeless dirt into living, nourishing soil.

The right mix of digging up dirt and working in natural amendments will help your plants thrive.

Cultivation Isn't Always a Good Thing

Over-cultivating can damage your soil. There are times when you shouldn’t cultivate, both seasonally and year to year. Spring is often the ideal time to cultivate your soil in preparation for new plantings.

Fall, on the other hand, can be a better time for simply mulching, which involves spreading a thick layer of organic material over your soil to protect it during the coming colder months. Digging up your soil in the fall can kill essential organisms, disturbing the balance of life forms in the soil and even encouraging more weeds to grow. Your soil might benefit from heavy cultivating with a rototiller in some years, while it’s best to use gentler hand shoveling or forking to prep the soil in other years.

Diagnose Your Dirt Before Cultivating

Your type of soil will dictate when and how you cultivate. Dense clay soil can be difficult to dig up and cultivate, and it doesn’t respond well to being heavily worked when it is waterlogged. It’s better to cultivate clay soil in the fall in some climates when it's relatively dry. Loose, sandy soil can benefit from springtime cultivation to provide enrichment that helps it retain moisture. The amendments you work into your soil will also vary greatly depending on their type and the nutritional needs of the crops you intend to plant.