|Field pea cover crop (left beds), mid-April 2011|
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|
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
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!