Given the vagaries of what passes for springtime in western South Dakota, we are prone to channel Shakespeare’s Hamlet: “To plant or not to plant, that is the question: Whether ‘tis time to seed and endure the angst of storms and seasonal outrage or take up the tiller and take arms against the soil…”
What? Take up the tiller? Take up arms against the soil? Oh, no. Let’s not do that. Instead, let’s consider a no-till garden. Within the last 10 years, the concept of a no-till backyard garden or no-till small market garden has received a lot of note. There is every good reason to turn our backs on the tiller and face our responsibilities to the soil.
Explore the library of books written by enthusiastic no-till home gardeners. One of them, “The Organic No-Till Farming Revolutions” by Andrew Mefferd, (New Society Publishers, 2019) is subtitled High-Production Methods for Small Scale Farmers. The book has an excellent introductory conversation about how no-till systems work, its advantages and disadvantages. Though the book is aimed at small-scale farmers, there are strategies and information that can be easily utilized by backyard gardeners.
Medford’s interviews covered three small farms that practice mulch grown in place, one farm that utilizes cardboard mulch, two that work with deep straw mulch and twelve that practice using deep compost mulch.
As has been said by farmers and gardeners for centuries, the first crop is the soil. The organic matter and the carbon in it play critical roles in soil health and its ability to produce healthy crops.
Soil carbon is the driver of microbial action to digest minerals and make them available in the soil. The aggregates in healthy, well-fed soils create space to store water and air in the soil. Tilling breaks down this vital physical feature and leads to soil compaction that leads to more tilling and more compaction. Tilling breaks apart beneficial soil fungi and the aggregates that resist soil erosion. Organic matter can absorb and hold six times its weight in water, reducing water use. Organic matter increases the ability of the soil to hold nutrients. All of these good things can be accomplished in a small garden. The need for synthetic fertilizers is greatly reduced or eliminated.
The United States Department of Agriculture-National Resources Conservation Service (USDA-NRCS) issued a remarkable statement: “Tilling the soil is the equivalent of an earthquake, hurricane, tornado, and forest fire occurring simultaneously to the world of soil organisms. Physical soil disturbance, such as tillage with a plow, disk or chisel plow, that results in bare or compacted soil is destructive and disruptive to soil microbes and creates a hostile, instead of hospitable, place for them to live and work. Simply stated, tillage is bad for the soil.” Of course I would add to the list of destructive implements, the backyard tiller.
We can look over our mulch-covered, no-till garden and channel the English poetess, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and softly whisper, “How do I love thee? Let me count the ways. I love thee to the depth of your fungi and the breadth and height of your mulch…”