Monday, March 17, 2014

Permaculture Garden Techniques: No Till

Spring is in the air. With a little less than a week to go until the actual equinox, signaling the official arrival of the ever lengthening days of the season, on Vancouver Island it feels like it has already arrived. Albeit early still for sure, but the signs are here. Buds have formed and are beginning to open on some trees and shrubs, surely it will not be long for the cherry blossoms will be out in their full glory. It will be time to get vegetable starts happening, and prep the garden for anticipation of receiving those baby plants. But before you break ground, please hear me out. Sell your tiller!

I have become a firm believer in No-Till gardening. In previous years it was what was accepted at general practice with home gardeners and farmers alike. Violently grinding the soil, almost as if punishing it for being dormant over the winter, with an abusive, ear-shattering torture device that punished the handler as much as the landscape. Having only operated a tiller a couple of times over the years, I can not see why anyone wouldn't have looked for a better solution to the process of getting a bed ready for planting. In a way I could see how it was accepted. The soil was left bare in most cases over the winter, compacted by snow and heavy rainfall. Loose particles were washed away from the top, creating a hardscape that needed to be opened up. Compost or chemical fertilizers could then be amended into the soil, instead of just top dressing it. Winter hardy "weeds" would be growing in the soil, where they were least welcome by the land owner, and they could be punished as well. The tines on the tiller would break up the soil to allow the hairlike roots of the new plants to easily penetrate and get a good grab on the soil, allowing for fast growth with the least energy output.

On the broad acre, Chemical Agriculture has been spouting the benefits of "No-Till" to the public, and farmers. They claim to save tons of topsoil by creating special planting machines that put seeds directly into a small hole, created by another part of the attachment. What they fail to mention is the amount of herbicide that is used in this method of "No-Till". The field is first passed over with a herbicide, to kill off any "weeds" that happened to propagate since that previous growing season, and an environment of absolutely no competition for the seedling when they emerge. After the seedling are several inches tall as are the new growth of un-desirable species, the field in sprayed again, giving the commodity crop a jump start on growth and they will consequently shade out the pioneer species. This method of "No Till" is still not a better option in the least, just a marketing campaign to try to green wash consumers about how G.E. plants are better, and to sell the farmers on less work per bushel. There is not benefit what so ever, in my opinion, for the reasons we don't till are mostly absent in these sprayed fields.

There are so many reasons that "No Till" works so well. Firstly, we are not killing the microbes, nematodes, mycilium, insects, and worms that live in the soil. These are the composters of the system, turning organic matter into soil. We MUST protect our tiny soil creatures. They are the cornerstones of healthy earth, and we need them to thrive in a world where we can eat nutrient dense food that is free of chemical inputs. These beneficial beings help make mineral available for us to ingest that are deep in the sub soil. Tap rooted plants such as dandelions and comfrey will "mine" these minerals from the depths. If we "chop and drop" these weeds, their foliage will be consumed by the composting animals, allowing the minerals to become available to the plants. If the soil is protected at all times either by cover crop or mulch, ideally both, we allow these microscopic community to work for us. They will till the soil in a minute way, manuring and dying, leaving a path of fertility in their wake. Plant roots left in the soil will also rot, creating compost in-situ, and allowing air, water, and new plant roots an easy route into the soil. It is imperative to leave the roots of your annual crop in the beds, and plant around them. They will break down after one or two seasons, and will give plenty of availability for new plants to succeed.

A conventional tiller has several draw backs. They actually compact the soil. Not on the surface, but down in the bed, where the tiller tines bottom out. The action of the tines pushes soil down and compaction occurs. This is not visible. However the mechanical action and common sense dictated this is the case. This fact is detrimental to root crops such as carrots, parsnips and potatoes. It will also result in the growth of compaction busting "weeds". Dandelion will love the loose soil and it's niche is a compaction buster. Suddenly your garden bed will be flush with such species, you will be cursing and creating much more work for yourself. A Permaculture principle is "do the least amount of work, for the greatest amount of change", so adding mulch and cover crop seed is much less work than running a tiller, in my opinion. Another huge downside to the tiller is the noise, smoke, and fuel used in tilling. Loud internal combustion noises drive me nuts, I don't know about you. These types of machines, along with lawn mowers, motor cycles, and weed eaters, all grate my nerves. When I get my wish of a Rocket Mass Heater in my house, I will be very happy to only use a chainsaw in a limited roll. Fueling these machines is a drag too, it always spills, making a stinky mess. Emissions from these yard tools are some of the worst on the planet, per cubic inch. A big diesel tractor has cleaner exhaust than a little tiller or mower. In the words of Paul Wheaton, "That's damn nasty!"

"No Till" does not mean no dig. Dig a hole with a spade, a hand trowel, your fingers, which ever you choose. There is no problem with that. Many people(myself included) were led astray by the definition of the words, and were afraid to take any soil out of place. We should only move the soil as little as we need to create a hole for our plants. If starting seed directly, try adding compost on the top of the bed and planting into that, building up the top soil, and protecting your little friends. I would also suggest to never walk on your grow bed. This creates the compaction that we are trying to avoid.

So what do we do now that the tiller has been sold, or retired? First off, if your soil is very compact, you have a few options. The first one, as bad as it sounds, is to actually till the soil. This will be the last time though, I promise. Once the bed is tilled and raked, bring in straw, leaves, seaweed, or wood mulch, and cover the bed in four inches of this top cover. You could alternate straw for the grow beds and wood chips for the paths, which ever you desire. Another option that could work with the mulch is cover cropping it, to grow mulch in place. Buckwheat and field pea work wonders for this. I would avoid any grass based cover, like fall rye or barley. This will be tough to remove without mechanical means, unless you want to try to scythe around you plants. Not very much fun! The buckwheat grows quickly, creating a pile of biomass, beautiful flowers and will self seed. Frost will knock it back too, so it is a fresh start every spring. Paths could be planted in clover or vetch, low ground covers that fix nitrogen too. I would also highly recommend the majority of your planting be polycultured, a highly diverse mix of crops. Mono-crops are subject to many problems. With the right guilds we can fix nitrogen, grow ground cover and food all with a few plants. Stacking functions!

Another great option for opening up new beds is a method called "Sheet Mulching" also known as "Lasagna Gardening" The process of sheet mulching has the advantage of not needing to dig, however one will most likely bring in elements like soil, compost, mulch, and wood for a core if they so choose. This is how I turned my lawn into a food forest, and would be the preferred option for most urban lots. First the area is decided upon based on sun exposure, distance from the house(zone), and ease of maintenance. The bed would be marked out and materials calculated. The first layer of the system would be cardboard. This helps to smother the existing plantings, most often grass. Secondly would be soil, then compost and lastly mulch. We can assemble these beds as double reach(reach the center from both sides) and make them as high off the ground as the owner desires. My beds are about 30 inches tall, since I piled up punky alder and maple wood, to create a wood core. Similar to a Huglekultur bed. The bed could now be planted and a near instantaneous transformation has occurred in your yard!

In Permaculture we mimic Mother Natures designs as best we can. The earth will always succeed, no matter how much cutting, burning, or poison we throw at her. She will always bounce back, if we are a part of it or not. I have never seen nature use a tiller to prep the growing season, allowing the natural tillers under the soil to do the work, while they go about their short existence. She has it right, and we must follow her lead! What do you think? I would love to hear your comments on "No Till" or any other subject in this Permaculture space.Thanks for reading.