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No-till discussion

  • Subject: [cg] No-till discussion
  • From: Don Boekelheide dboekelheide@yahoo.com
  • Date: Sat, 4 Feb 2006 13:36:47 -0800 (PST)

Hi, all, especially Ken and Steve,

I've been following the discussion of tillage with
interest. Wish we could all go out for good beer or
good coffee and talk about this topic for a good long

I agree with Steve's view that no-till is one
technique among many that may or may not be the best
option for community gardeners and urban farmers. 

No-till has ardent proponents, like many other garden
techniques, from the good ol' gardener who swears by
Sevin dust and 10-10-10 to the biodynamic advocate who
brews herbal teas only at certain phases of the moon.
Nothing wrong with this, unless 'only my way' ideology
takes root that dismisses all other perspectives as

My experience indicates that at least adequate
vegetable production is possible with a wide variety
of techniques. Applied with common sense and ideally
with a solid foundation in soils and agricultural
ecology, many different approaches can have desirable
outcomes (improved nutrition, happy and engaged
gardeners, a healthier environment and - with luck -
economic benefits).

When most modern agronomists speak of no-till, they
are a long long way from Ruth Stout's deep mulching.
Instead, mechanized no-till is heavily reliant on
heavy applications of herbicide and soluble N, and the
equipment that goes with it (and, in the US,
genetically engineered seed). 

Scaling this down to community and urban levels is
tricky. It becomes even trickier when you try to
replace the chemical controls with organic approaches
such as cultural or biological controls (mulching,
flaming, etc).

One practical problem in urban community gardens and
CSAs is what to do if you have perennial weeds (here,
Bermudagrass can be awful). These are problems with or
without tillage, and if you want to go certified
organic, you're wise to deal with this problem first.

I also agree with Steve that if you are going to go
for 'traditional' mechanized tillage on an on-going
basis, you are wise to purchase tractor-scale
impliments - but only if you really need them. Farmers
being absorbed by cities often have good equipment,
and can contract to do heavy soil prep. Certainly, if
you buy, a good front drive/rear tine tiller or rice
tractor is about a minimum.

I also suggest that you'd be wise to get equipment
that can work with vegetable beds (roughly 1m wide).

The 'Alan Chadwick' sequence of deeply preparing beds
by hand, then leaving them relatively undisturbed for
a number of years while adding topdressings of mulch
and compost, can work very well as a non-mechanized
option (or for hiring out a ripper out every 5 years
or so)

I do have two 'theoretical' queries on no-till

First, 'no-till' is rare in natural ecosystems. Large
ruminants disturb grasslands with milling behavior
(Savory); in forests, temperate and tropical, trees
fall in storms, insects and other animals excavate the
soil. Misapplication of the moldboard plow certainly
did terrible damage to prairie soils; but properly
managed tillage may be beneficial in agricultural
ecosystems - it certainly can't be dismissed as

Second, most vegetable crops are first stage
succession annuals or biennials, adapted from
ancestors that may well have evolved to fill disturbed
places. My suspicion is that veggies coevolved with
humans on our garbage middens, heavily disturbed (and
fertilized) places. Whatever value no-till may have
for field grown small grains, it may be singularly
inappropriate, ecologically, for vegetables.

I also worry that community gardens in a fixed
location, particularly those without a clear rotation
system, may eventually run into problems, since the
natural tendency of annuals is to be replaced over
time by climax vegetation. We are in effect 'stopping
time', repeating first stage succession over and over
without a rest period (such as 30 year rotation the
First Nations people used here in the Southeast). Just
piling on compost could create a very strange soil
situation with over 10% organic matter. Perhaps we can
learn from stable vegetable gardens in China and other
places - do they periodically move on, and shift
vegetable growing elsewhere? We mostly think about
garden stability only in terms of 'long term leases'.
Hope ecology will let us just leave it at that...

Meanwhile, back in the community garden, I've observed
that different gardeners who are passionate about
growing and deeply engaged - Ken seems to be an
excellent example - can produce very nicely, thanks,
with whatever techniques they are comfortable with.
Like vegetables,gardeners can adapt. Successful
gardeners are engaged, observant, and mindful of
basics like water and timing.

Enough ranting - last thought - one piece of wisdom
from no-till (I'm talking organic/ecological no-till)
is that community and home gardeners do not
necessarily require mechanization to succeed. Buying a
rototiller seems to be almost a rite of passage for
community gardening programs, but I question that use
of funds in most cases. Renting, hiring a local
farmer, or working with a local hort school or
business may be cheaper and make more sense.

On the other hand, as Steve says, if you have a large
space and a limited labor pool, buy the best (and most
flexible, simple and solid) machinery you can afford.

My peas are up, I'm still cutting broccoli. Winter has
been too warm - the Polar Express is just sitting up
there over the horizon, waiting until the peaches

Don Boekelheide
Urban Ministry Community Garden
Charlotte, NC, USA

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> Today's Topics:
>   1. Re: tractor, etc (Steve Diver)
>   2. Central Calif: Community Gardens in Morro Bay
> area? (Carola Clasen)
>   3. ACGA 25th anniversay issue (Bill Maynard)
>   4. 2/27 bilingual English/Cantonese workshop -
> 'Composting in the
>  City' (adam36055@aol.com)
>   5. no-till (minifarms@aol.com)
> --__--__--
> Message: 1
> Date: Fri, 03 Feb 2006 12:22:18 -0600
> From: Steve Diver <steved@ncat.org>
> To: Minifarms@aol.com
> CC: fred.conrad@acfb.org,
> community_garden@mallorn.com,
> market-farming@lists.ibiblio.org
> Subject: Re: [cg] tractor, etc
> Hi Ken -
> Fyi, Dripping Springs in Huntsville, AR, tried
> no-till beds
> for about five years, but found that soil compaction
> was
> increasing and making it difficult to transplant and
> so forth.
> They purchased a tractor and spading machine, and
> after they'd seen the results they said they would
> have gotten started with full-scale market farming
> equipment at the outset, twenty years ago.  It makes
> land preparation so much faster and efficient during
> short windows of time in the wet springtime, it is
> suitable to soil incorporation of cover crops, and
> you can improve soil organic matter through
> proper tillage and humus management.
> So they no longer employ no-till beds as Mark Cain
> had written about several years ago.  But they still
> employ
> a full-scale organic mulching strategy, using over
> 1,600
> bales of straw mulch (or sometimes wheat hay) on
> three acres of beds, raising flowers and veggies.  
> Interestingly, the farm neighbor who sold his
> tractor
> and spader combination with Dripping Springs went
> the other direction.   Patrice Gros moved into town
> at Eureka Springs, AR, and started an intensive
> market
> garden using no-till beds. 
> So Dripping Springs went from tillage with walking
> roto-tillage and hand tools, to no-till, then back
> to
> tillage with tractor-equipment.  
> Patou's Garden went from tillage to no-till,
> especially
> integrated with top mulch. 
> It probably says that farmers and gardens use
> appropriate methods for appropriate situations.
> And secondly that methods change and morph
> thru emerging growing seasons as tools and
> techniques
> and concepts unfold.
> No-till has worked well for warm-season transplant
> crops (nightshades and curcurbits) and for
> large-seeded
> direct drilled crops (corn and beans), but many of
> the
> small-seeded direct drilled crops and delicate
> transplants
> (carrots, parsnips, beets, cole crops, specialty
> greens) are
> better suited to a clean seedbed, or more quickly
> transplanted into loose soil.
> One market farmer that you may wish to know
> about is Doug Walton in Muskogee, OK.  For
> several years he employed no-till beds, integrated
> with cool-season and warm-season cover crops
> that were chopped down by a string trimmer
> (weed eater) with a plastic flair head attachment. 
> This procedure was followed by hand raking the
> green mulch onto beds, followed by hand
> transplanting. 
> Doug is now working full-time on behalf of farmers
> markets and sustainable agriculture, so his market
> garden is on hold.
> Since many gardeners coming into community
> gardens are beginners, regular soil preparation
> is common.  Fortunately, I'm confident that modern
> organic gardening techniques can maintain and build
> soil health in its many aspects using proper tillage
> and humus management.  No-till might be offered as
> a class to cg gardeners, so people can explore this
> method and add it to their toolbox, as a mulch-based
> option.
> Last week I shared slides and notes at the
> TOFGA conference in Texas on the mechanical
> roller-crimper method of no-till production,
> emphasizing the weed suppressive cover crop
> mulch that results, and I expect that several
> organic
> vegetable farmers will be looking into this no-till
> method quite seriously in your home state.
> Steve Diver
> Fayetteville, AR
> P.S.  cross-posted to market-farming, fyi
> Minifarms@aol.com wrote:
> >Fred,
> >
> >You do not need to till, plow, etc.  I have seen a
> video in which the
> >Agriculture Extension service agent said, "the
> worst thing that can happen to
> >soil
> >is the use of a roto-tiller."
> >
> >200,000,000 acres worldwide is in no-till.  Over
> 50% of the small  farms in
> >Argentina are no-till.  It works.
> >
> >
> >Mechanized:  1985-2000, Dr. Morrison, TX research 
> station, proved that
> >permanent beds, with permanent tracks,  increase
> yields 15%.  In 2002, A D
> >Hughes
> >[806-866-5667] decided  to go no-till and purchased
> a no-till planter.  He
> >planted the cotton, harvested the  cotton, planted
> wheat, knocked down the
> >wheat
> >and he was ready to plant  again.  His cost went to
> the  basement.  Buster
> >Adair [806-755-2532] has been  no-till [cotton] for
>  twenty years.  Steve
> >Groff
> >[cedarmeadowfarm.com] has been  no-till
> [vegetables,  corn] for 30  years [I
> >have seen this operation].  A farmer can not be
> no-till without a no-till
> >planter and/or no-till  drill.  !It  works!
> >Mini-farms:  Fukaoka Farm, Japan, has been no-till
> [rice,  small grains,
> >vegetables] for 70  years.  Dripping Springs 
> Gardens, AR, has been no-till
> >[vegetables,  flowers]  for 8 years.  An Indian
> farmer has been no-till
> >[vegetables]
> >for 5  years.  A Malawi  farmer has been no-till
> [vegetables] on  permanent
> >beds for 25 years [I visited his farm].  A Honduras
> farmer  has been no-till
> >[vegetables  & fruit] on  permanent beds on the
> contour (730  slope] for 11
> >years [I visited this farm].  Ruth  Stout [USA] had
> a  no-till garden for 30
> >years and 7,000 people visited her garden.  !It
> works!
> >Ken  Hargesheimer
> --__--__--
> Message: 2
=== message truncated ===

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