Monday, May 9, 2011

Steps to Starting a No-Till Garden

Field pea cover crop (left beds), mid-April 2011
As I watched the growth of my cover crop (field peas) this spring, I increasingly grew conflicted about the inevitability of killing the cover crop for my summer veggies.  Not about whether to kill the peas, but what a shame it was that they had absorbed all of those nutrients and grown (I imagine) miles of roots in my garden soil, just to be tilled under as a green manure.

Then, it hit me.  I work and hunt on no-till farms all the time.  Why not try a no-till garden that would incorporate the above-ground parts of the plant as a green manure or mulch, and leave all the root mass intact underground?  It was actually difficult to find extremely helpful details on how to carry out this out.  Unfortunately, most of the web resources on no-till gardening basically say, "Yeah, no-till is great, you should do it, it reduces water pollution!"

Uh, okay. Thanks for the tip. Other web resources quickly delve into agricultural terminology, which obviously is not very helpful for the low-skill or moderate-skill gardener wanting to try out this technique.  So even though I'm trying it myself for the first time, I thought I would put a brief resource online showing gardeners how to get started in no-till gardening.  Please add comments if you have questions or criticisms.

Field peas mowed and mulched, late April 2011
1) In my opinion, no-till is not a gardening technique that one should fully begin when they are planning a summer garden. This is not meant to discourage you.  I say this because the first thing you will need to begin no-till is a "decent" soil base.  That means soil that has been worked since its prior use (lawn, forest, abandoned, etc and has had some (lots of) organic material worked into it, and not just laid overtop of the garden.  So, quite ironically, the first thing that many no-till gardeners will have to do is to till their garden! Even if you don't, it will take months to build up a solid garden soil from scratch.  Don't despair.  Just give it time!

2) If a gardener is considering a no-till conversion in late spring/early summer (when many gardeners are thinking most frequently about their gardens), this is a good time to add significant amounts of organic material.  This is not just for this summer's benefit - but for long term changes in the structure and nutrient content of the soil. 

3) Anyone who gardens in rows should also consider a summer cover crop to help break up the soil inbetween their garden plants. The worst thing for starting a no-till garden is large clumps of dried soil. Keeping the soil moist and/or shaded throughout the summer will provide benefits in the fall and future growing seasons.  Periodically adding additional organic material, even in limited spots, is not a bad idea either.

4) As summer harvests begin to wind down, plant a fall, fall/winter, or fall/winter/spring cover crop.  Anyone interested can search the label "cover crops" on River Mud. I have to confess that I am still learning which cover crops work the best in my soil and garden.  Protecting the soil from winter erosion and wind are very important to establishing a no-till garden.  By March, I observed a significant difference in soil structure between my beds with successful cover crops, unsuccessful cover crops, and no cover crops at all.   Don't be afraid to experiment.  Cover crop species selection and mixes of species are something that are available on the web from many state extension and agriculture departments.  It's good information.

5) Gardeners should not be afraid to selectively or totally kill their cover crops when they are ready to plant in fall, winter, or spring.  There are many options available for using the above-ground portions of the plant, including mowing (which serves as a green mulch or manure) or cutting and composting (to be used later in the garden).  In rare instances (in gardening), the cover crop may be harvested for use or sale.  Whichever option is chosen, the plant material should not be wasted or thrown away.

6) Before a gardener is wholly committed to no-till, they should take a soil sample and evaluate how healthy the soil "looks." Better yet, the soil's quality can be better estimated by sending a sample to the local extension service, in states where the extension service still provides testing.  Even if a private lab is selected for testing, it should not cost more than $30.

This is precisely where I am.  The first spring of no-till.  I'm happy with how the soil looks (dark brown with black organic mottles) and feels (crumbles easily in my hand).  If I do test it (which I will do this fall), I'll be looking at the following basic garden soil metrics:
  • 50% solid, 25% air space (pores), 25% moisture (pores)
  • 40% sand, 40% silt, and 20% clay
  • 5% organic matter
  • pH between 6.5 and 7.0
At the end of the summer season (1 season of no-till), I'll send out for lab samples for a conventional (tilled and amended) garden plot and one of my no-till beds.  We'll see if the reduction of effort also comes along with an increase in soil quality!   Common sense tells me that the soil can't possibly be any worse than when I started working this plot in April 2010.  How can I say that without any data whatsoever?

Well, take a gander at what I inherited at that time:

I don't need any data to tell me that the soil in the picture is nearly worthless, and that any organic material added to it the following summer, absent cover crops, will be lost to erosion the following winter.  How much money in soil and fertilizer are you planning to give away next winter?

If you think I'm exaggerating, check out how much soil another gardener at my City Farm has given away, for free, to our creek (which does not want the soil):

Planting sparse rows, not providing winter cover, and tilling at least once a year has led to this. We're talking hundreds of pounds of creek sediment out of a tiny garden - and it can be almost totally prevented by doing less work.  So think about no-till and whether it can work for you.  A few extra resources for you:

Note: The above links consistently refer to "compost layering" from the ground up only. Again, think about this in detail - can you accomplish a good starting garden from the ground up only?

Information on detailed and specific topics related to no-till gardening can - not surprisingly - be found at the No Till Gardening Blog.  Pay them a visit!

1 comment:

J in Pinole said...

Hi & thanks for posting on your no-till garden. I have a no-till garden in Pinole, California. We bought the property last April, and with one thing and another, the best I could do was rip up some of the back lawn (now I know why turf comes in rolls--it's got plastic netting!) dump compost on top of the subsoil, and cover with rice straw and a little horse manure. I grew some beans, tomatoes, kale, etc. This spring I had soft soil and happy earthworms. Yippee! I have one new section that I had a green manure started from hay from rabbit bedding and just covered it over with compost and straw mulch. I'm inspired by your field peas. It's a small garden and we can grow year-round, so I'm looking for a green manure that I can eat as well!!

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