March update: A no-till experiment

I’m an old dog when it comes to gardening and farming. But this year I’m going to try to learn a new trick.

Saturday’s fine weather (low 50s and sunny) was perfect for the first task of getting the crop field ready. Normally that first task would be rototilling and maybe laying down a smattering of lime, but this year the tiller will for the most part stay in the barn. I decided to try “no-till” farming to see if it is as effective as its fans say it is.

I have one main reason for being drawn to no-till. My growing field is on a moderate slope, dropping about 6-8 feet over a 65-foot width. It’s also located about 1/3rd of the way down a long sloping hill, and that means it is subject to a lot of water flow and erosion. Usually after I rototill, it seems that there’s a hefty rainstorm that causes dozens of rivulets to run through the field, pulling down the freshly turned earth with it. Occasionally the runoff ends up depositing in a wooded glade below the field. It looks like a mess. Not good!

Benefits of no-till

No-till gardening is ideally suited to prevent erosion from happening. It also has three other benefits of note.

  • It doesn’t suffer the compaction problems that tilling causes. Rototilling may seem to aerate the soil at first, but over the course of a few weeks the soil will actually compact into a much tighter mixture than before. The air pockets that you created by tilling are quickly eliminated because the soil has lost its natural structure. This makes it much harder for plants to thrive.
  • The billions of microscopic critters that live in your soil don’t have their world turned upside down. In effect you’ve killed the complicated world that micro organisms have worked all year to build. All of the benefits that the micro environment provides for your plants and for a healthy soil must be rebuilt from scratch every time you rototill. The experts argue that by leaving that micro environment in place, you will increase the fertility of your soil.
  • Old weed seeds don’t see the light of day. The act of turning the soil exposes thousands of weed seeds to a better growing environment. The argument goes that by not turning the soil, you’ll have fewer weeds.

From a practical standpoint, there’s a couple things to consider when doing a no-till garden. The soil still needs to be aerated, and that means some hefty work on your part. First you need to rake off all the “garden garbage” that was left on top of the soil last year. And you’ll need to cart it away — or maybe not. I was thinking I’ll leave it on the garden paths to act as a mulch/soil saver.

Next, you’ll need a pitchfork to loosen the soil in order to get some air down there. This I think is the hardest part, especially if you have some substantial real estate to garden in. You’ve got to push that pitchfork down as far as it will go, then pull back on the handle about a foot for so. Pull back just enough to loosen the soil, but don’t pull hard enough to pull up that clump of soil you’ve latched onto. You want it to stay pretty much intact so that the micro organisms don’t have their world turns asunder.

Stage 1 completed

So on Saturday, instead of rototilling (actually the ground was too wet to till), I got my measuring tape out and laid out my garden bed grids. Last year I expanded the garden significantly, and so I’m able to fit 20 125-square foot beds (each is about 5 feet wide by 21 feet long), plus 4 120-square-foor beds (each is 3 feet wide and about 40 feet long), plus a half dozen other odd-sizes beds. I also laid out a cross-shaped grid of 3-foor wide paths, connected by a grid of smaller 2-foot wide paths. that’s a lot of math and yes i screwed it up a bit and had to re-lay some of the lines. But in the end it all looks pretty neat and tidy.

Notill2
My early season beds after being raked. The beds are pretty long, about 3 feet by 41 feet, and they follow the slope of the hill. In past years I’ve had some serious erosion along these beds, so I’m hoping that no-till techniques will minimize that.

 

Next, I started the no-till process — I gently raked off the top detritus in some of the beds where I plan to plant my earliest crops. I didn’t have the hootspa to start the task of pitchforking/aerating each of the beds.  I’ll save that for tomorrow.

As you can see from my cover photo, I uncovered last year’s catnip, which caused my buddy Big Mac to have a very pleasant afternoon. In the photo he’s staggering off from a nice rendezvous with the catnip plant. Also, i spotted the first crops that are springing up — rhubarb. The asparagus won’t be too far behind.

Are you interested in a no-till garden? Let me know at my email address, maconer@Comcast.net. I’d love to hear your thoughts!

John Macone owns and operates Farmer John’s Organic Foods, a neighborhood organic farm in Amesbury, Massachusetts that offers organic vegetables, berries and eggs at very affordable prices. For updates, like his Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/Farmerjohnsfoods/

 

notillrhubarb
Rhubarb starting to spring from the ground

 

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