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!

-Rob

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