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No-till and community gardening

  • Subject: [cg] No-till and community gardening
  • From: Don Boekelheide dboekelheide@yahoo.com
  • Date: Wed, 23 Aug 2006 21:03:32 -0700 (PDT)

Hi, all,

I'm saving up my 'news service' posts for a quiet
time, since we're having some lively exchanges. This
is great, you guys!

Anyway, on our no-till discussion: I appreciate Ken's
perspectives, and agree we all are better off for
reading Roland Bunch (2 Ears of Corn is a classic
book, his organization World Neighbors is up there
with Doctors Without Borders and Heifer Project as
effective non-profits working throughout the world -
this from a returned Peace Corps volunteer (as Adam
says about old 60s folks...)). Likewise, Fukuoka (One
Straw Revolution) and Howard Garret (a credit to
Texas) and Ruth Stout and Elaine Ingham

However, on-going field trials at NC State and NCAT
are not showing good results with organic no-till for
vegetables, though there's been some progress. In
addition, no-till as normally practiced by industrial
farmers has little to do with Ruth Stout - when most
agronomists speak of no-till they are talking about a
technique that relies on heavy herbicide applications.
I remember hearing that when Fukuoka's son screwed up
a field, the master knocked everything back with
Roundup and started over. This isn't slanderous -
Sarah Stein of 'Noah's Garden' uses Roundup against

The point is that organic practice, in the truest
sense of ecologically sound agriculture that builds
the health of the soil and of the community, is not
something we'll reach via our beliefs, no matter how
strongly we hold them. It's a journey, involving
direct engagement with the astounding and messy
natural world of which we are all a part.

My own feeling is that the no-till literature needs to
be tempered with the range management literature of
Savory and others, who point out that healthy
grasslands are not static, but heavily 'tilled' by the
milling behavior of large ruminants (Mike is right,
worms do a lot of tilling, but so do a host of other
creatures). Also, we need to practice ecological
mindfulness. What are our domesticated vegetables but,
most of them, first stage succession annuals and
biennials that are adapted to disturbed soils,
particularly disturbed soils with high organic content
(aka, poop, pee and pits) near human habitations? Most
of our veggies are not Graminaceae, or even monocots.
Simply applying no-till to all plants and situations
makes about as much sense to me as using cactus
culture, sand in an adobe pot, to grow water lilies.

But this is all fodder for an ongoing debate. For
community gardeners, I see 3 practical issues:

First, whether someone is a Ken, absolutely passionate
about no-till, or a guy like Mr. Boggs in my community
garden who we might call a 'digger' - he has a little
Mantis that he constantly is beating his soil with - I
say "Happy gardening". Within as broad limits as
possible, bounded mostly by safety and common sense, I
think a wide variety of techniques should be welcomed
in community gardens. That way we can learn from one
another. I'll admit, I prefer to have an
'organic-only' section whenever possible, but even
that isn't absolutely necessary. The most important
thing is to give people a place to garden and to
reconnect to the planet and each other.

Second, while 'pure' organic no-till has its
proponents and skeptics, a couple of fundamentals are
worth remembering: Although you don't need peatbog
organic matter levels >10%, adding generous amounts of
high quality compost and/or composted manure is about
the most beneficial thing you can do for your garden
soil. And though an initial vigorous 'double digging'
is a tried-and-true technique (John Jeavons spoke at
the recent ACGA conference, mentioning 'aikido
digging...'), you don't need to do it every single
season. In fact, on the contrary, even Alan Chadwick
didn't advocate constantly double digging - he did a
lot of 'tilthing', just fluffing the top of the soil
with his little tiny garden fork. The U-bar, Elliot
Coleman's gadget, is a very cool way to open soil
without inverting it. 

In short, it's like 'punctuated equilibrium' in
evolutionary theory - you double dig in compost and
fertilizer when soil is impoverished. Afterward,
however, you manage the garden with minimum tillage
and mulching, plus you use mulch and rest soil by
rotations and cover crops.

Last point follows from this. Garden programs spend
lots of money on buying tillers and/or rototilling the
garden every year. In many cases, I believe, this is
unnecessary and even counterproductive. For an initial
soil prep in a new site with very garden-unfriendly
soil, I think the best tool is a large tractor with a
ripper to open the soil, and a powerful rotovator to
work in compost and needed nutrients (especially P
that doesn't move in soils). It's the mechanical
equivalent of a herd of buffalo having a stampede.
Around here you can find a local farmer to do this
kind of work - they need the money (might not be so
easy in the urban Northeast, granted). Once you are
done, you can switch to hand tools and
no-till/mini-till for a decade, with a good front
drive tiller needed occasionally only for trouble
spots, certain types of weed control, and impatient

Sorry about the long post -

Don Boekelheide
Urban Ministry Center
Charlotte, NC

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