No Till and Hubris

I love the optimism of January for the gardener. The snows cover the gardens and allow the gardener to forget the mishaps of the past season and the smooth blank slate is a true tubula rosa for their hopes and dreams. This is the time of year where I get myself worked up into hubrisitc delusions, so true to form I am designing a Grand Scheme of a fully sustainable, no input, permaculture market garden. You will be seeing alot about this here on One Straw as I work through the kinks, and then put spade to soil in 3 months to prepare the working prototypes on the properties of local farmers that are donating the small allotments of land for the project.

One of the biggest challenges inherent in the design of my .1 Acre Sustainable Market Garden is going strictly No Till. The reason that plowing and tilling started in the first place was to ease the creation of a seed bed and reduce pressures from unintentional plants (weeds). Cover Cropping, Inter Cropping, and Deep Mulching will take care of much of the “weed” problem, but there still remains the fact of getting seeds and plants into the soil.

Transplants are relatively easy. Within a year or two of no till the soil should have great tilth and planting a tomato or lettuce transplant will only involve pulling aside the mowed/winter killed cover crop and planting the transplant as normal. My preferred tool for this at home is my Ho-Mi hand cultivator.

Ho Mi

In light soil, the ho mi will allow you to pull aside a nice hole to slide the transplant in while dropping the transplant into the hole with the other. A deft turn of the wrist and the ho mi beautifully tamps the soil around your plant as you reach for the next transplant. This tool is very, very well designed and the work is pleasant and efficient. I would expect nothing less from an ancient tool from the Far East.

Still, this is alot of time on your knees, and transplanting literally thousands of lettuce, tomato, pepper, kale, broccoli, etc plants will do in my out of shape body right quick. If I am to successfully work a .5 acre site solo I might need to up to more commercial tools like the Hatfield Transplanter.

Hatfield Tranplanter

The Hatfield allows you to do the work standing up, but costs $100 more than the ho mi and I am not sure how it will handle a cover mulch.

Direct seeded crops are my prime concern. I had posted before about how incredibly impressed I was with the Earthway Seed “drill”, but it is designed to work on prepared and clean ground-typically rototilled at least twice. In the hoop house, even the light plant debris caused some issues. Seeding hundreds of row feet of carrots, radishes, sunflowers, legumes, and others is part of the plan, so a work around needs to be found. Big Ag cultivates in strips to over come this. I don’t want to cultivate, so I am pursuing a few options.

#1 Chicken tillers. Using chicken tractors to scratch in the mulch is part of the plan to fully clean a bed for a thick stand of direct seeded lettuce, radish or cover crop that will need no additional mulch, or that will be later undercropped.

#2 No Till Strip Cropping. Ruth Stout simply pulled her mulch aside for direct seeding. I see no reason that this wouldn’t work for row crops like carrots and beets that will still want the benefits of existing mulch in between the rows to hold moisture and reduce weed pressure. A colinear hoe might be enough to cut and pull aside the mulch for direct seeding of winter killed cover crops like oats. Or another option may be to use a wheel hoe to cut a 4-5″ strip through a standing cover crop. The killed cover crop would then be removed to mulch another bed, and the bare ground exposed for seeding. Either with a colinear or wheel hoe the resulting narrow strips of bare soil should be prime territory for a Earthway to efficiently plant in. Everything works great from an armchair in January. We’ll see what April brings.
Despite the technical challenges to overcome in a market garden sized No Till operation, I am absolutely convinced that rototilling and long term sustainable farming are not compatible as it destroys organic matter and soil structure/ecology. Chickens, worms and beetles will do my plowing, and I prefer to feed the soil through top down natural means like mulches and topdressings, rather than incorporating fertilizers deeper into the soil to burn off critical organic matter on the Altar of High Yields. This is hard for me, because I love to geek out on BCS tillers, but everything I have read points to No Till and systems that build organic matter and Deep Ecology in the soils to by the way to a Permanent Agriculture and permaculture market gardening in sub acre plots.

2008 is shaping up to be a great year!


9 Responses

  1. Everything works great from an armchair in January.

    That’s for sure!

    I like your idea of using chickens to clean out and fertilize lettuce beds. Though we are using our chickens’ pen to make compost, which we’ll use on the garden, I don’t think we’re using them to the extent that we could be. The section in The Omnivore’s Dilemma about the chickens at Polyface farm has really got me thinking about how to do that. I’ll be interested to read how it works out for you.

  2. Wow! I can’t wait to see how this project yields for you. My wife and I hope to see our garden evolve into a one to two acre market garden. Your plans and those of Mike’s at Tiny Farm Blog are great examples of the spirit of micro farming we’re looking for. Thanks and have fun.

  3. Meg, next up in my book purchasing queue is Andy Lee’s Chicken Tractor which should help fine tune my thinking on this aspect of my Master Plan. Of course I will literally keep you all posted! Polyface is unreal. Joel Salatin in for Sec. of Interior in ’08!

  4. My experience with the collinear hoe is that it’s great for seedling weeds. I don’t know if it would be up to the task of clearing aside winter-killed oats. It’s a pretty thin, flexible blade, and even razor-sharp, it might not be able to handle a thatch of grain roots.

    I’ve been curious about your undercropping for a while. My concerns are pretty much exactly what you’re running into here: how do you direct-seed after a cover crop? I’ll be very curious to see what you come up with. I wonder if there’s a balance – like your idea to remove the mulch/cover in small strips – between constant cover and feasibility of volume seeding.

    While I don’t till my garden, I also don’t plant many cover crops and I do weed (by hand and collinear hoe). When I spread compost, I smooth it with a rake and let it sit over winter. I used to work it in a couple inches with a cultivator but I mostly don’t bother any more. I find that once the crops fill out, there’s almost no room for weeds to grow – usually I find a little crabgrass or creeping charlie when I pull plants after frost, but nothing else.

    Do you think I need the cover crops? I rotate legumes through every third year to help rebuild the soil, and each bed gets compost and/or horse manure (with lots of composted straw), so I don’t *think* my soil fertility is suffering. I’d appreciate your persepctive!

  5. Kelly, I had no idea you both had so much land!! If you need boarders let me know!! I am in awe of your energy, the thought of my planned .25 acre garden scares the snickers out of me when I think of the man hours to establish it and get it going the first 2 years until the weed pressure is under control. Hopefully the permaculture elements I am incorporating will help with the work load.

    Thanks for the tip on Tiny Farm I will check it out.

  6. Espringf, it remains to be seen what hoe I will need, thanks for your advice. For heavy work I use Rogue Hoes (check my Tools of the Trade) which could double as demolition equipment in a pinch, they may work better.

    I am using covercrops so intensively for the simple reason that on the size of gardens I am looking at I need to reduce my labor or have to take on help. Eliot Coleman claims that you need 50 TONS of manure per acre to maintain fertility when you push the soil as hard as he does (2-3 crops/season). My little utilty trailer would be outmatched. Sowing covercrops, to be composted in place is a workable solution. Same goes for weeding. Right now I don’t think I can plant as intensely in my market beds so I will need mulch to keep weeds down. My backyard beds are planted solid, but you sacrifice some ease of maintenance and harvest by doing so. Maybe I can find that I can afford to ditch the row planting and go back to bed planting, but that remains to be seen.

    At my home gardens I use about 1 yrd of compost per 100 sq feet-5 yrds is about the limit of what I can produce at home annually and that is with recycling waste for local coffee shops. For 2400 sq feet I would be spending a huge amount of time acquiring and turning compost materials. Again, scale is working against me to some degree. If I can let earthworms and nature turn and acquire (through growth) the materials for me, all the better.

    Finally, there is a significant academic element to this project. I want to see if I can design/build a .1 acre plot that is completely self sustaining-with the exception of labor and a chicken or 6.

    I don’t think you need cover crops, but they have a lot going for them, especially their ability to sink organic matter deep into the soil with their roots, and their ability to attract beneficial insects. Also, my research thus farm has shown that in large systems, the only reliable way to ADD organic matter, rather than simply maintain is through perennial covers (red clover or alfalfa) left in for 2 seasons due to their extreme root systems.

    Thanks for commenting!

  7. Rob-

    Thanks for the detailed reply! This is really fascinating…I finally feel like I found someone as geeky as me about all this stuff.🙂

    Ok, so 50 tons of manure per acre. 43500 sf per acre / 10,000 lbs of manure means 435 pounds of manure per 100 sf. Hmmm, anyone know what a yard of manure weighs? Probably depends on moisture content…

    And let’s say you leave the clover in for 2 seasons, and it builds root systems, putting your “compost” right where you need it. How do you then get your crops in there? (I guess that’s what you’re figuring out this year!) Have you seen John Jeavons’s stat that one rye plant puts out 3 miles of roots and root hairs? How does that compare with your clover/alfalfa? An advantage with the rye is that once the rye goes to seed, you can cut it down and be left with stubble that will not get in the way…too much.


  8. Emily,
    First off, not to lose my highly esteemed Geek Status, here is your manure answer:
    Manure 1 cubic foot 25#’s
    Manure, cattle 1 cubic yard 1,628#’s
    Manure, horse 1 cubic yard 1,252 #’s

    I think one of the coolest thing about growing up (other than a good micro brew) is that its finally ok to be a geek🙂

    But, I think we will need to add a zero to your manure weight to equal 50 tons, not 5 (I hate doing math in text-I mess stuff up all the time-so double check my math that follows ) so you need 4350#’s. That is roughly 3.5 yards of horse manure/100 sq ft. Another way to think of it is that on 100sq ft of garden you need a 3.5″ layer of manure per yard (1″ * 100sq ft = 8.3 cu ft, 27cu ft/8.3 = 3.25) to hit Eliot’s manuring rate. Remember he pushes his soils really hard with 2-3 crops annually and he needs to supplement aggressively to maintain fertility, and that his manures are applied 2-3 times over a year. His yields will also outpaced mine significantly.

    I am hoping the chickens will sufficiently scratch the soil to take out the legume cover crops, if not a light cultivation with a scuffle hoe (only about 1/2″ deep) may be needed to cut the crowns off the alfalfa. I am willing to bend that much. Besides a sweet scuffle from Rogue costs $25 rather than $5000 for a 14hp BCS with a spader…
    and I could use the excersize.

    Great dialogs-thanks for commenting!

  9. Greetings,
    So how’d it turn out.
    I was wondering if anyone has experience or have a good reference on methods of sowing cover crops in a no-till system. I did a couple experiments this past season on methods of sowing winter cover crops in a no-till system with 4 test areas. Thought i’d share some observations:
    1. tilled 2 inches(wanted to make a dent in the population of perennial clover I’m trying to phase out) and broadcast my winter cover crop mix of rye grass, crimson clover, fava, australian field pea, burdock, queen annes lace, and hairy vetch.
    2. cut summer cover crop and broadcast winter cover crop directly into cuttings.
    3. cut summer cover crop and spread a mix of compost and soil in a light dusting over mulch then broadcast winter cover crop directly into cuttings
    4. cut summer cover crop and spread one inch of Soil builders inc. Mighty Microbe Mulch over cuttings, then broadcast cover crop and racked in seed.

    First off my fava’s got about 5 inches tall round december, but now I can’t find ANY. I’m thinking the snows crushed them? Anyone else experience that?
    Also, this is a fairly wanky expierement since the soil composition on these sites have not been tested, probably highly differ, and all are highly disturbed. But here it goes:
    1. Really good growth of sown covercrop, minimal growth by seeds I didn’t sow
    2. Minimal growth of sown covercrop and unsown plants growing strong
    3. Great growth of sown covercrop, except minimal crimson clover but un-planted red clover came in strong.
    4. Planted 11/20 2.5 weeks after other patches. All varieties came up, but had minimal growth so far, we’ll see what spring brings. Minimal unsowed plants coming in.

    How’d your season turn out?


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