This spring we made a few leaps toward establishing a “no-till” system for the farm. Broadly speaking, no-till means we disrupt the soil as little as possible in order to allow the biology from earthworms to allow micro-organisms to proliferate and do the important work of making nutrients available to our crops. This is easier said than done! Anyone who gardens knows about the obstacles to even the best laid plans. Weeds and unwanted insects and critters can get out of control and cause problems that take years to sort out.
Our systems starts with well prepared beds (above). First they are “sub-soiled”- a process with the tractor that breaks up compaction to allow the ground to literally breathe, exchanging moisture and oxygen with the plants above. Second we form the beds- raising them slightly by throwing soil from the paths onto the bed. We apply compost and mulch the paths and then are ready to plant. Some crops that will spend the whole season in the ground will get mulched with straw. Many of our crops are harvested out and get replanted to something else. This is where “no-till” comes in.
Instead of running a rototiller or other equipment through the bed which would devastate the soil biology, we have a different method. We weed whack the crop residue and then “solarize” the bed by laying plastic sheets across the beds. A well-timed solarization kills the annual growth & roots of the previous crop and any weeds in the very top of the soil. Underneath that top layer, the micro-organisms that have established themselves and their own mycorrhizal (i.e fungal) network remain unharmed and ready for action. The plastic is removed and we have a clean bed to either drop new seeds or seedling transplants into.
So far in our trials we’ve had many successful successions of crops this season, and a fair share of failures. We are still troubleshooting the grass weeds that are more difficult to eliminate than something like lettuce residue. Some rolls of plastic are produced very poorly and shred after minimal use and exposure to the weather. Quality is important! Part of the point is not to waste so much plastic to grow organic crops!
Another big piece of the puzzle is the production of high quality compost to keep up the layering process that will bury our weed seeds deeper and deeper over time. (I’ll write more on that subject in the next month as we establish the piles we will be using for next spring.)
In short, we have had a good taste of how things need to work and a better idea of how to improve our methods. September is a big month on the farm as we attempt to keep up with the harvest and last of the planting while laying the foundation for a successful season in 2018.