No Till Gardening and The Soil Food Web

In June I went to the Spoiler’s college reunion.  It was held over 3 days and I only attended the reunion dinner so that all the spouses had plenty of time to get to know one another before I got there.  Needless to say, I was really the odd person out.

But that’s okay.  I had the wonderful good fortune to be seated next to a couple from Martha’s Vineyard who loved to garden.  So the 3 of us talked about gardening all evening and I wasn’t bored for a moment.

I recount this story because at one point in the conversation they were telling me that they tilled their garden every year.  And I smiled and said, “You know, like so much of what we learned when we were younger, everything changes.  The names of the plants, the names of the birds and all the gardening advice.  Now we’re not supposed to till the garden anymore–it destroys the soil food web.”

“The what?” They asked and we never lacked for conversation from that moment forward.

Actually, no till gardening has been around for quite some time.  I was an early adopter because I always adopt anything that is easy for me and means I don’t have to dig in my heavy clay soil, particularly when it’s wet in the early spring.

I believe I first heard about it when Lee Reich wrote a book by the name of No-Till Gardening around 1994 or so.  I have to confess I didn’t read the book, but I read enough about the topic–and he excerpted portions of his book for gardening magazines that I did read–that I was convinced that it was the way to go.

This story in Marketplace kind of raised my hackles because it suggested that while no-till gardening methods could be a way to deal with drought conditions, farmers that employed them found they needed to employ more chemicals.  We are, of course, talking about huge agricultural farming and not small farms or backyard growers.  I just never like to hear the words “more chemicals.”

I used modified “no till” when I built my raised bed last spring.  For a  refresher (or for those of you who might be new to the blog, here’s that post:

One thing I don’t do–but which is suggested in no till gardening–is to pile on  mulch 6-8″ deep on top of the existing soil.  While the soil in this bed is very good because I imported it, we still have unusually wet springs and generally monsoonal summers.  If I’m going to “mulch” at all, I’ll top dress the bed with compost in the fall when the majority of the vegetables are removed.

What are the advantages? Soil that is continually renewed, generally weed free gardening (it is this part that I don’t get–obviously the commercially guys are not doing the mulching step either!) and much reduced irrigation needs because of the mulched beds.

Also all the “beneficials” like earthworms that aerate the soil, and nematodes and mycorrhiza that help with root development, are left intact in no-till gardening.  They are not chopped to bits by the whirring blades of a machine.  And of course there is no gasoline or fossil fuel use and no noise pollution either.

In my case, the bed in thickly planted, and the leaves shade the soil and generally reduce the need for irrigation as well.  In the commercial farmers case, I should think cover crops could help with both soil fertility and weed reduction–but what the heck do I know?

As I often say when I have “crop failure” (or a deer eats my beans or a chipmunk wipes out my seeds), I sure am glad I don’t farm for a living!

2 thoughts on “No Till Gardening and The Soil Food Web

  1. Bridget August 11, 2012 / 2:51 pm

    Nice one for spreading the word when the opportunity arose.

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