Transitioning to a No-Till Garden
I did the same thing in 2019; lots of tillage.
I had a successful garden both years. However some things bothered me. I would water the garden, then dig down some to see how deep the water went, only to see that water infiltration was very poor in the highly tilled soil. And following a decent rain, I would often see where water ran off the garden, creating small gullies and eroding the soil.
The summer of 2020, in one of my first changes towards reducing tillage, I limited the width of tillage to the row, basically an 8-inch wide swath (row spacings are three feet wide). This worked well. I noted that water infiltration started to slowly improve. And I really liked the firm ground between the rows; I could walk in the garden after a decent rainfall to harvest produce and not get my shoes all muddy.
Also during the summer of 2020, I went to a gardening workshop at the Menoken Farm. I took in a lot of information and started thinking of ways I could improve the soil health in my garden. One of the first steps involved purchasing some alfalfa bales and spreading the alfalfa on the ground between the rows. I did this to add some organic matter to the soil and to reduce evaporation.
In 2021, I continued with the same practices. Some things I noticed; I had robins in my garden all summer, most likely reflecting higher worm populations (and a healthier soil). Also, when I took a spade and dug up a chunk of dirt, I observed multiple worm holes. That seemed to be an indicator that reducing tillage was having a beneficial impact.
About the middle of the garden season in 2021, I made a decision to go fully no-till in 2022. However, I wanted to do a test run first. Thus, mid summer, I did some succession planting. I took a knife, stuck it in the row, dropped in a seed or two in the opening, then pushed the soil back together with my hands. I did this with bean, lettuce and cucumber seeds. Results were excellent as I harvested those crops in the fall. This gave me hope that I could proceed with no-till for the entire garden in 2022.
Side note; by eliminating tillage of the row, I will not harm the worm population in that 8-inch swath in the spring.
As part of the transition, I made another management change in 2021. A usual end of year task was to pull up the harvested plant material by the roots and dispose of it. However, this time I cut the plants off at ground level; I read that leaving roots in the ground can be very beneficial to help build organic matter in the soil, for water infiltration, etc. I chopped up the top growth and put it in a compost pile. I also planted some cover crops in the fall (after harvest), including daikon radishes which have long tap roots, specifically in an area where the ground was compacted. I will leave the radishes in the soil to add organic matter and improve water infiltration.
This spring, I am going to harvest “free” high-quality water by moving snow from huge snow banks in the shelter belts to the garden.
Prior to planting, I will clean the garden by removing old residue, except for the roots from last year that will be left in the ground.
My planting process will start with the use of a broadfork down the row. I will do this to gently loosen (aerate) the soil, while at the same time, maintaining the layers in the soil (no mixing of the soil). I will then place a hose on the ground for a drip irrigation system (the only overhead watering that I do this year will be rain).
On one or both sides of the hose, I will define the rows. My plans are to use a knife or CobraHead@ to lightly open up the soil to the proper depth for seeding. I will place the seeds in the soil, along with some worm castings (store purchased), and then close the ground by pushing the soil back together with my hands.
I will plant wide rows as a way to have more of the ground covered with growing plants (my rows spacing are three feet wide) and to limit weed production. I am going to then sprinkle a combination of home-made compost, well-aged sheep manure (~10 years old) and coal (reduced to small particles) over the rows.
I am also going to spot plant a wide variety of sunflowers in each row to attract pollinators and to eventually add more compost to the soil via the roots.
For the open space between rows, I am going to experiment with a number of alternatives including: 1. placing chopped alfalfa hay on the ground, 2. planting cover crops (field peas, white clover, etc.), 3. placing leaves (chopped up) from oak trees and the top layer of soil that was under those leaves on the ground (obtained in a coulee where the leaves pile up year after year and decompose — I’m thinking this is very rich and diverse material), 4. placing bagged grass from the mower on the ground and 5. planting annual flowers (to attract pollinators).
My plans are to update this information (and with photos) as I gain more experience, make more observations and refine management practices. Stay tuned.