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!


1/10 Acre Veggie Garden

I’ve been dorking out on my new MacBook and the iWork software I bought with it. Thus far, despite complete ignorance of Macs, I have found the Pages and Numbers applications to be very intuitive and much slicker for my purposes than the Microsoft equivalents I use at work. Unfortunately, apparently only 4 other people in the world us them, so to share documents I export into PDF’s- a lot. Here is one:

1/10th Acre Sustainable Veggie Plot

At first blush there is a lot of wasted space. A 4000 sq ft garden with only 1000 sq ft of “productive” beds?! But 33% of the beds are designed to be under long season cover crop at all times- as I get more elegant with my rotations this may be overkill. There is also 1000 sq ft of perennial herb/flower beds to attract benificials that will also produce significant amounts of cut flowers and trace nutrients for the table. This is critical to the long term sustainability of the plot. Without attracting and keeping a strong population of beneficial insects, bacteria and fungus eventually the gardens will fal prey to overwhelming pest invasions. The paths may be overkill and could easily be trimmed from their current 2′ to as little as 1′ on every other path. I would keep the 5′ access path for harvesting the significant amounts of produce from this garden and for trucking in compost and mulch. The “wasted” space allows the soil to rest and recharge fertility after being “pulsed” with heavy feeding annual vegetable crops. The hope is that by incorporating so much cover crop and perrenials that the plot will add fertility over time without additional inputs.

Another specific goal I was trying to design into this layout was a rotation system to significantly reduce the pest pressures of conventional vegetable gardens. Circling the entire perimiter with a diverse mix of flowers designed to attract predatory insects will force any pests to run a gauntlet before reaching the crops. For the same reason every year, the rotation crosses a perenial bed to force any pests that over winter to search far and wide for their food-increasing the likelihood that they will become food themselves in turn. As the rotation crosses the flower bed, it “drops” one bed, once it reaches the “bottom” of its three bed section it will cross back to the top. I tried to show this in the PDF but it got wicked busy. I may try again as this description is rough too.

The Rotational system divides the crops into groups by Plant Family, allowing 2 beds per plant family per year. Following the rotation ensures that 6 years passed between each plant family residing in each bed. Added layers of biodiversity and productivity can be added by incorporating succesional plantings in each bed to get two crops, and/or preceding or succeeding each with a short season cover crop to rebuild soil structure.

This design can be cut in half or more by shortening the beds from 40′ to 20′, 10′ or less, and can be expanded indefinitely by stacking layouts next to each other. I also plan on making this a “no-till” using chicken “tractors” to incorporate cover crops and fertilize the beds after harvest and before plantings. By not breaking the soil surface you encourage immensely more productive and diverse soil ecosystems, and it also makes it Peak Proof by taking out the fossil fuels completely.

I have 3 more books on this subject in my Winter Reading queue which should help me fill in the holes of the successional plantings in each bed each year, and also to get more specific with the plants I will place in the Perennial Beneficial Beds. This will eventually be made into a “page” under sustainable ag as I fill in the gaps. I also fully intend on putting this design into practice at the Market Garden this year, and the learnings once I put spade to soil will be legion.


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