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talkin’ ’bout that no-till (wah wah)

January 14, 2010

she totally fell for it

yo homies. i know it’s been a while since i rapped at you, but dude’s been busy. what with getting engaged, pecans, prepping the bus (only to break down), the holidays, and just plain keepin’ it real, there’s not a whole lot of time to be blog posting.  but now that things have slowed down a bit, i can get back to why they really keep me on board here: my epic blog posts.  so get ready, because this post is going to come hard and fast.
today’s topic: no-till gardening, what it is, why it’s important, and why i believe it embodies the spirit of “waste not”.  for the sake of convenience, i’m going oversimplify things and cut through minor semantic nuances that could make this post just plain confusing. first, a  review.

till, sucker!

what’s the first thing gardening books tell you to do when you want to start a garden? till it. they usually tell you to use a rototiller to prep the beds so you can plant into it, like this guy——>

well…that’s fine and all…until you multiply the number of people doing this into the hundreds of thousands, for years and years using bigger and badder equipment:

moldboard plow doing what it does best

until  you run into this:

nobody likes the dust bowl

whoa.  that got intense, fast.  but that’s what tilling does to the soil.  it completely overturns the top 4-6 inches of soil, aerating it, clearing off whatever is growing, improving the drainage capacity, and giving your plants a jumpstart on the weeds…and it does it all at intensely fast.   but as with all things done for human convenience, somebody or something has to pay the price.  in the process of tilling, the life in the soil is destroyed, soil tends to compact over time, erosion increases, water holding capacity decreases over time, organic matter gets burned up quickly, massive amounts of carbon is released, weed seeds are brought up from under the soil, and it usually requires a cheap energy source.  when you combine all these things together, you get “worn out” soil that needs increasing mechanization and the addition of chemical fertility to make it habitable for vegetation. yipes.

total anarchy

for a good chunk of people, the choice has been bigger machines, using chemicals up the ying yang, and sowing robot seeds.  for others, anarcho-primitivism.  for me, i feel drawn towards the “no-till” alternative.  instead of flying off the handle with some tirade about the glories of no-till, i’ll just tell you about my experience with it at the World Hunger Relief farm.
starting with a weedy, cement-soil field, i (well, me and my dad) spread compost on3 50ft beds, laid about 4 inches of mulch, took a huge bar and smashed open holes, then transplanted melons, egg plant, and zucchini into them. the mulch kept the weeds down (so i didn’t have to till it).  it also helped keep the soil moist, and reduced erosion.

human powered manure spreader

cool hat, man

while these vegetables were growing, i prepared 3 more beds by solarizing them laying transparent plastic over them, then letting the sun bake all the weeds and weed seeds without having to till.  also, once the growing vegetables were past their prime, i relay planted a cover crop into them.  this will build the organic matter in the soil, helping it to retain water better, build up the microbial life in the soil, which will help later mineralize the nutrients from the compost/organic matter that isn’t readily available to plants, thus reducing fertilizer needs! booyeah!

hairy vetch relay planted into aging broccoli (in the solarized bed)

peas growing amongst sorghum-sudan grass stubble

After the cover crop had grown big,  i chopped it down (by hand, oh yeah) and planted directly into it. the remaining stubble acts as a mulch and also will be broken down and mineralized into nutrients for the plants, while also improving soil texture.
in my opinion, planting using the no-till method in tandem with cover cropping, mulching, solarizing, and mowing makes a lot of sense.  ideally, after doing this for a while, the soil will have been improved to the point where it won’t need fertilizer and will yield just as much or more than conventional methods.  plus, it takes less labor and energy.
and that’s where “waste-not” factors in.  most commercial producers rely heavily on cheap fuel to power their machinery to cultivate the land and they rely on cheap fertilizer to meet yield requirements.  planting using the no-till method empowers people to move away from heavy machine use and focuses on building and maintaining healthy soils.  my no-till garden is definitely not producing on a commercial scale, but i would like to believe that with more time and management effort it could be possible to rely on human power and biological processes to grow enough food to provide for a community’s nutrition needs.  could it be possible to cut out wasteful energy use, depend on local resources, and to creatively live off the land you live on? i hope so. god, i hope so.
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