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Achieving Food Independence

Table of Contents

1: Industrial Food and the Homestead Alternatives2: Soil Fertility3: Organic Matter4: Minimizing Tillage5: Garden Year--Spring6: Garden Year--Summer7: Garden Year--Fall8: Garden Year--Winter9: Orchard and Woodlot10: Forest Garden11: The Lawn12: Livestock13: Poultry14: Ruminants15: Closing Thoughts on Livestock16: Local Foods17: Bringing It All Together

4. Soil: Minimizing Tillage

We have spoken about the need to incorporate all the organic material we can get our hands on into our gardens. None of this material is lost—its breakdown into the soil creates humus, the final residue of raw organic matter. As humus content of the soil increases, it becomes darker, looser, more retentive of water, and more supportive of all forms of soil life. If our garden soil is increasing in humus, we are imitating natural systems: We are building topsoil rather than destroying it. We have a good thing going. Why stop the process? Why set the clock back to zero? That is in fact what we do when we disrupt the web of life that has established in the top layer of soil, when we disturb the soil—that is, when we till.

Tillage has become one of the most characteristic elements of agriculture. It should be one of the least. One of the biggest challenges for the sustainable gardener is to find a way to produce and harvest crops while minimizing soil disturbance. One way of doing that which we’ve already mentioned is mulching. In addition to being “eaten’’ by soil life and becoming humus, mulches shade the soil, keep it moist, and moderate soil temperature—cooler in summer, warmer in winter. All these conditions boost activity of soil microbes, earthworms, and other soil life—and as well are conducive to healthy, stress-free plant growth. (One drawback is that mulches may also boost the slug population. At the same time, they encourage ground beetles, which feed on slugs.)

Another way to minimize tillage is the use of cover crops. For crops with a smaller footprint on the bed—such as trellised tomatoes, caged peppers, pole beans, perhaps broccoli—I like to sow a thick cover of Dutch white clover on the bed when setting out transplants. Dutch white comes up really fast, and makes a tight cover smothering almost all weed growth. Because it is low-growing, it doesn’t get in the way of plant care or harvest. In addition, of course, it sets nitrogen in the soil, which is used by crop plants. This year, I will be experimenting with establishing a bed of permanent Dutch white cover, then simply planting right through the cover when setting out large transplants like brocolli, kale, etc. It will be interesting to discover how many of my preferred crops I can grow without ever killing an established cover.



When it is necessary to loosen the soil, I recommend the broadfork—like the scythe, one of those hand tools that makes balanced, overall use of the body. Its use is rhythmic, meditative, and enjoyable. (In developed garden soil, that is. It is less appropriate for working new ground.) Unlike a power tiller, the broadfork loosens the soil at depth (12 inches), but without inverting or “blenderizing’’ the soil layers or the “crumb’’ structure you’ve worked so hard to attain.

Of course, I will never be able to avoid all soil disruption. For example, I cannot imagine a way to harvest sweet potatoes without a deep and thorough digging—i.e. disturbance—of the bed. My goal is to make such radical disruption of the soil food web the exception rather than the rule, trusting that the undisturbed soil life in adjacent beds will help reconstitute the web of soil life in the disturbed site.

A strategy for developing new ground without tilling

I can imagine many of my hearers objecting: Maybe it is possible in an established garden with good tilth to forego all tillage, but you have to till in order to make a start in new ground. Maybe not. Alternative strategies present themselves, particularly attractive because I am as said a lazy gardener—a gardener who has many times attacked an established sod with a power tiller. No thanks! How about this as a strategy? Remember our reference to sheet composting above? You might first spread lime, rock powders, or any other soil amendments needed—just scatter it over the existing sod. Then lay down a tight, growth-suppressing cover such as cardboard or newspaper, and cover with compost, if available, or animal manures—preferably well aged, but raw if necessary—then cover with an additional layer of coarser materials such as leaves and/or straw. Water well to ensure that the lower layers are moist. You have now created a barrier to the growth of any existing sod plants through the sheet mulch. Given the conditions conducive to soil life in place, decomposition of the compost/mulch materials begins immediately, setting up feedback loops in which the decomposition encourages multiplication of soil microbes, and expanding microbe numbers speed up decomposition.

The next step in the process depends on the needs of the gardener. If the area must be used for cropping in the current season, she could start robust seedlings and transplant right through the compost mulch. I can even imagine strategies for getting some small-seeded crops started in the mulch, but as a practical matter that might be rather difficult to pull off. If the area can be dedicated for a full season solely to soil improvement, I would allow the compost mulch to settle, then sow a cover crop. Rye or any of the other grain grasses might be good choices, or field peas, or cowpeas. Alfalfa might be the best option, both because of its deep thick taproot and because it fixes nitrogen. Generosity with the water might be essential to get the cover started, but once established it would do wonders to both break down the sheet mulch and to start the process of loosening the soil. If you ever try this, be sure to remember what the soil was like when you started. After a full year of the program I’ve sketched, the soil will still have a long way to go, but the changes will be profound, and totally obvious.