When I moved I inherited a large established vegetable garden that had been plowed up by a tractor for the last decade or so. The vegetables were growing in 8 inches of loose soil over hardpan. Roots couldn’t penetrate the hardpan, grow to their full depth and take advantage of nutrients and water in lower levels of the soil, so I had to supply more water and fertilizer than I liked.
The following spring I marked out permanent beds and walkways to avoid compacting the soil in my planting beds and added nutrients to the paths to help keep them weed-free. I turned the beds by hand with a digging fork. My back protested; the soil im-proved.
Four years ago I read about a logical next step: low-till or no-till gardening, which relies on keeping soil uncompacted and undisturbed so that it holds water well and shelters earthworms and other organisms that aerate and enrich the soil.
Now instead of turning my soil (except in the carrot patch; those roots grow better in soft loose soil) I just dig shallow seed furrows or make holes to set seedlings out. This saves me a lot of time and back pain. I see fewer insect pests and no more weeds than I did when I dug my beds. And the earthworm population keeps growing.
To keep untilled soil loose and fertile I have to keep from stepping in it, add compost on top regularly, and protect exposed soil with mulch and cover crops [link to cover crop article]. These keep soil from washing away in rainstorms or com-pacting due to repeated freezing and thawing over winter. Deep-rooted cover crops loosen the soil and bring up nutrients to a level where vegetables can access them. Decomposing mulch and cover crops add organic matter to the bed or the compost pile.
I’ve never started a low-till garden from scratch, but I hear that it can be done. Different ways to do this are described here and in this video.