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A fresh idea: hands off

If you're a vegetable gardener, chances are you have Rototilled, you have dug (or maybe even double-dug), you have created neat furrows of freshly turned earth for your rows of hopeful tomato and bean plants. After weeks of torturous toil, once your plants begin to bear fruit, you have time for the chiropractor.

Here's a thought to make your aching back hurt even worse: Lee Reich says all that digging was a waste of time. He says it ruins your soil. He says you could have a healthier, more productive and practically weed-free garden _ either edible or ornamental _ without ever turning over another clod.

Instead, says the garden writer, nurture your garden the way nature does: from the top down. As a mat of organic matter forms on the surface, let it sit undisturbed and add to it. Pile on the compost and mulch and keep piling it on, year after year. When you want to plant something, just make a little hole for the seed. After harvest, leave the old tomato plants, bean vines and marigolds where they fall, unless they're diseased.

While this layer of plant debris decays, it will hold in moisture and insulate the soil. Meanwhile, earthworms and other beneficial organisms will be pulling nutrients from that layer down into the dirt, where your vegetables' roots can use them. At the same time, they will be opening up the soil so air and water can move freely through it.

Your job is to not screw it up. Don't turn the soil up to the surface to dry out so biological activity stops. Don't expose buried weed seeds to sun and moisture so they can germinate. Don't pack down your soil by trudging across it to till or plant.

Sure, you may have to hand-pull a few weeds, but nowhere near as many as you get when you till up the ground every year.

Weedless Gardening (Workman Publishing, $14.95) is Reich's manifesto.

The idea of letting your spade sit and rust may come as a shock to many veteran vegetable gardeners, but not to horticulture experts.

"I agree with him," says Alana Mezo, horticulturist for the Fruit and Vegetable Island at the Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe, Ill. "I would definitely do that at home."

Even at the display gardens, she follows many of the principles Reich advocates. "There are some beds where I don't till, mainly because I've achieved a great soil structure." But she thinks many of the visitors to the island would be shocked by the untended look of such a garden.

Reich, an Associated Press garden writer, knows he's fighting an uphill battle. The urge of gardeners to dig runs deep, even though many of them aren't too clear on why they're doing it.

"People do it because it makes them feel good," he says. It satisfies the urge to make things neat. It stamps their brand on the land. It connects them with their farmer forebears. It makes them ache all over, so it feels productive.

Gardeners believe that digging kills weeds (but you won't get weed seedlings if you don't expose weed seeds for germination, says Reich). They believe they are aerating the soil (but you don't have to aerate it if you don't compact it by walking on it, Reich says).

It took a while even for Reich to come around to the no-dig notion. He once owned a Rototiller _ "the Cadillac of Rototillers."

But gradually, as he earned degrees in soil science from the University of Wisconsin in Madison, as he worked for the USDA and Cornell University in Ithaca, N.Y., as he gardened in Wisconsin and, for the past 20 years, in upstate New York, he realized that much of the effort he was putting into the garden was counterproductive. He used his knowledge of soil science and built on changing ideas in agriculture.

Now his 2,000-square-foot vegetable garden is so weed-free, he says, that when his daughter was 5, she got bored with gardening. "There was nothing to do," he says. Since then he has planted not only vegetable gardens but also ornamental gardens, including a 5,000-square-foot garden at his daughter's school that is still almost weed-free after five years, he says.

For an object lesson on how the system works, he says, look at the Midwest prairie. When the settlers arrived, the prairie hadn't been disturbed for 10,000 years, and the soil was fabulously fertile. "The best soils in the world are prairies," says Reich, until they are plowed up for farms.

But just a few decades of annual tilling cost that rich soil much of its fertility, and farmers became dependent on chemical fertilizers. Now, some farmers are trying no-till farming _ leaving each year's stalks and stems where they fall, instead of plowing them under _ and finding that the life and the nutrients return to the exhausted soil, with far less labor, fuel and chemical costs and erosion.

But what about the joys of digging? What about the rich smell of newly plowed earth? What about the ritual that for many gardeners means spring?

Reich suggests you set aside a little 3- by 3-foot plot, like a sandbox, to dig up every spring so you can get it out of your system and leave the rest of your garden alone. You'll have to weed it, he warns, and if you want to hurt all over, there are plenty of other ways to get a backache in the garden.