August is the month that I remove spent plants from the coastal organic vegetable garden. The beans, squash, cucumber and tomato plants that provided so much delicious produce in the months of April-mid July have mostly succumbed to various disease and insect problems because of my minimalist approach to even using organic controls. Only the eggplant, peppers and a few cherry tomato plants are worth keeping through to the fall. It is time to look toward the fall garden.
My very traditional exposure to “farming” was through my husband’s family dairy and crop farm in Ohio back in the 1970s. By traditional, I refer to land that was plowed, fertilized and sprayed with a fairly good amount of herbicides. When I first started growing vegetables in a small home garden, I gravitated to the same methods including a liberal use of insecticides. The only new thing was the preparation of compost to add to the soil to improve soil structure. When I transitioned into a one-acre garden in 2008, with an owner that desired an organic approach, it was with a new set of ideas and a much better understanding of being a good steward of the environment. The one constant, however, was my tiller, only bigger.
I had a love affair with “Tilly.” She easily turned up the soil and mixed in both compost and organic fertilizer to a depth of some 8- to 10-inches. With each new passing, another 24 inches of soil appeared. I would walk along the side of the tiller to avoid footprints in tilled soil. When the plot was finished, I raked it all smooth, patted myself on the back for a job well done, and began to stake off orderly rows for seed planting. It looked so tidy and orderly, and I thought I’d done everything right. And I had, based on the reliance of knowledge gained from the past rather than the present.
Then in 2018, I met someone who believed in a different method. That individual introduced me to book references by writers including Gabe Brown, Elaine Ingham and Jeff Lowenfels. A whole new world of understanding about soil microbes and the intricacies of life below the ground was opened up for me. Back to Eden, no-till, no-dig, permaculture, renewability, sustainability, soil biome and root microbiome have become familiar words. Attendance at various seminars and conferences has helped to increase my knowledge but has shown me that there are still heated discussions on growing methods. Basically, when I put it all together, I believe that there is no single right or wrong way because the environment is not black and white. Getting locked into just one idea might result in missing out on a better idea.
Today, I use the no-till approach unless the soil below my feet is compacted, poorly aerated, deplete in nutrients – basically just plain awful. It can be a clay soil, sticky and gummy when wet and cracked and rock-like when dry, or a sandy soil that has no water or nutrient retention whatsoever. A soil test is always the best way to begin. Tough depleted soils do benefit from a first year or two of tilling with the addition of huge quantities of compost, aerated teas and/or microbe collections. If good compost was just laid directly on top of very poor soil, it would have little effect as wind and rain would easily wash it away. Tilling will help to amend the poor soil structure in the initial year or two, even with the expenditure of some of the good soil microbes, including fungi and bacteria. The end game, however, is to move towards no-till. In year three, put the tiller away and buy a Treadlite 240-inch Broad Fork to simply aerate the soil by creating a small lift in the soil to minimize compaction. By year four or five, you should be able to retire the broad fork also.
What happens over this time period? The soil structure slowly improves. The repeated addition of organic matter in the form of compost (done after each harvest) has helped to aggregate soil particles; it has improved aeration and water retention and encouraged microbial activity. It has provided nutrients. You have helped to slowly recreate what happens in nature where plant and animal matter falls to the soil surface that is teaming with life, where it insulates the soil surface, increases moisture control, breaks down and provides nutrient that naturally move down to the roots. You have participated in the cycle of life-renewable and sustainable.
If you had continued the tilling method, the machine with its rotating spinning blades would: 1) break up fungal strands that play an important role in the soil; 2) bring to the surface the microbes and the small animal life that live below, exposing them to air and hot sun which kill them; 3) actually spot compact the soil where the tines hit and where the weight of the machine rests; 4) mix poor and good soil together, making nutrients less available to plants and animals alike in the soil biome and root microbiome.
A quick look back in history: Plow-based farming across the mid-west between 1925-1930 brought more than 5 million acres of previously undisturbed land into production. The new mechanized farming methods resulted in records crops in 1931, but led to an unexpected loss of fertile topsoil that literally blew away during eight years of drought and high winds. This name of this time period – the Dust Bowl Era. Some large-scale farms today search for methods of farming that balance the natural cycle of nature with good stewardship of the land while providing enough food to feed the masses. It’s a delicate balance that takes time and patience. Some farmers say it absolutely can’t work; others have shown that it has. It’s still a heated debate. In the home garden, I suggest you try to mimic Mother Nature. And if it all is just too much, plant an edible container garden!