Every time I muck out a stall in my barn, I direct my wheelbarrow to one of my garden plots to dump it. From there, all the straw and manure will sit for a few months and age on those plots while it slowly breaks down.
During that time, there are hundreds of microbes underneath that are just waiting for those nutrients to pass through to them. Your soil is a living creature. Maybe not a creature, but full of microorganisms. We have been trying to switch over completely to no-till and are almost complete.
Most gardens and fields are plowed every spring. This is where the crop residue that sits on top of the soil is plowed underneath and then mixed into the soil at the same time. Pretty much the opposite of no-till.
When you leave a plot of ground as no-till, the crop residue becomes weathered while breaking down forming a thick matting of soil cover. With no-till you plant directly on top of last year's plantings as well as any additional compost that you have added. No-till relies on the natural process of material breaking down.
Growing up, we would get out the roto-till every year and plow each section of the garden. Our thoughts were to give us a smooth planting surface that was weed free. Sometimes we would go back through multiple times to loosen the soils repeatedly.
Little did I know that every time that I broke up the ground, I was releasing carbon that organisms in the soil thrive on. The health of your soil is constantly being built upon.
If you plant your garden every year, those plants are removing the nutrients that feed them. Without replenishing those nutrients, your plants will fail.
Some people use fertilizer and realize that there are plants that are heavy feeders, such as tomatoes. Those plants require a lot of nutrients to flourish. If you add compost to the top of your soil, it will feed your plants as it continues to break down and build your soil up. This practice is what we consider as making healthy soils.
By leaving the residue from the plants before, you also can control most erosion issues. If you have bare soil— whether plowed or bare — a heavy rainstorm can displace layers of your soil and wash it away. When you leave last year’s plantings, the ground now has something that is anchoring it. Keeping that top layer will hold everything in place — as well as help to filter the water through the roots that are below and waiting to absorb it.
You can also reduce soil compaction by not constantly running machinery over the top of your planting area. Anything that is heavy or constant will push the air and water pockets out of your soil. Those pockets can hold the water and help it to move to the crop roots. I always compare compacted soil to a plant that is suffocating.
The main drawbacks to switching to no-till are pretty much the weed control. With a tiller you can slice those roots in half or uproot them altogether. Then if you wanted, you could walk through and pull those other roots up from the soil and toss them out of your growing area.
With no-till you need to get enough cover down to form a thick matting that will suppress weeds to where they can’t come up. The problem is, that takes time — sometimes a few years to get it to the level you want it to be at. The problem is that many of us lack patience.
I always tell anyone wanting to switch to organic gardening that they probably aren’t going to have the results they are looking for until about three years in. But when that time has passed and you are finally looking at a properly maintained plot, it will be like the sun is directly shining down on you, while a choir sings your favorite song off to the side of you.
If you are transitioning and finding it difficult to keep the weeds down, consider planting some cover crops. They will sprout and occupy any exposed soil which will hopefully crowd the weeds out. Just be sure that you don’t crowd out your plants that you are trying to grow as well.
At the same time, no-till is working underground to be inhospitable to weeds such as bindweed. Bindweed, which winds itself and entangles everywhere it can grasp onto, thrives in unbalanced soil.
If your soil is a heavy build such as clay, plant some radishes as your cover crop to help loosen the soil from below which will help immensely. The improved soil structure will be the best benefit that you could ask for as a gardener or a farmer, and you’ll most likely never have to worry about your garden being washed out.
For more information on no-till or cover crops, visit our local Soil and Water Conservation District. They have an office near the La Porte County Fairgrounds, next door to the Animal Shelter. The great staff there would love to help your garden grow and arm you with all sorts of knowledge for the growing season.
Sacha Burns is an organic gardener and owner of Sunkissed Organics in Pinola. She may be reached at email@example.com