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Mary Lowther column: What to do instead of tilling your garden soil

Undisturbed soil contains life and nutrients that can nourish our plants

By Mary Lowther

For centuries agriculturists have worked to increase their harvests, assuming that more is better. After all, more product is needed to feed the growing population, and what farmer can say no to increased sales and greater income? As mentioned last week, the impact of the furrow plow on the European economy was so significant it was a centerpiece in one of history’s most significant works of art.

History, however, has also demonstrated the flaw in merely increasing production without concern for the land itself. When Pieter Breughel celebrated the new plow in 1555 he could hardly anticipate the consequences of soil exhaustion; it took the Dust Bowl of the early 20th century to teach us that we need to pay attention to what’s going on beneath our feet.

Undisturbed soil contains life and nutrients that can nourish our plants to a significant extent. Below the surface a complete ecosystem of interconnected mycelium creates a spongey matrix that holds nutrients and water that nourish plant growth. Plowing and tilling, quite accurately referred to as “breaking the land,” damage what amounts to the natural infrastructure, so it follows that the less we stir it up the more the soil can deliver to our crop.

Before tilling and plowing became the norm, farmers followed no-till gardening methods, and indeed still follow them in many parts of the world. I read in Masanobu Fukuoka’s book One Straw Revolution how he used this method in Japan, which started me looking for other books on the subject. After all, if someone else has gone to the time and trouble of learning something it can save me years of experimentation and frequent disappointment and I’ve always been more of a follower than an innovator. As Isaac Newton said, “We stand on the shoulders of giants.” As my grandmother said, “Listen to your elders!”

In the bookstore I found exactly what I was looking for: Practical No-Till Gardening by Andrew Mefferd, so I bought it and was not disappointed. I am inspired to try one of his suggestions; I have covered an area with opaque tarps, allowing the sun to cook the vegetation underneath while the organisms in the soil break the sod. Next year I’ll pull off the tarps and plant through the broken down material right into the soil.

I am doing this on a small scale because David thinks with a new idea it might be smarter to start small and see if it works. This from the man who planted 80 fruit trees to test espaliered fruit production! Nonetheless, despite his lack of self-awareness he might have a point this time.

But I digress. I’ve laid down tarps, weighted them down with non-sharp objects to keep them from flying off and next spring, when I remove the whole lot, I’ll spread compost and organic fertilizer as usual and plant into that without digging over the soil as I usually do. I’ll have to dig holes for the seedlings, and sow seeds in a narrow ditch I’ll form down the length of the row. Come hot weather I’ll lay down soaker hoses and mulch and keep my fingers crossed.

Mefferd points out that wood chips can be laid on top of the soil without pulling nitrogen out of the soil if they aren’t dug in. As he says: “Wood chips are highly carbonaceous, tying up nitrogen as soil life digests them. Sitting on top of the soil as mulch gives them a chance to weather before becoming part of the soil.” This makes sense to me, so in the paths I intend to lay cardboard pieces with wood chips on top to keep down weeds.

David will be appallingly smug because he’s suggested this all along and I kept vetoing it. I’ll try this out on two rows and if it’s too much work to keep the wood chips out of the garden and weeds out of the wood chips I’ll let the grass grow back. If it does work I can deal with David’s inevitable “I told you so” by thinking about how much more time I will have for other chores.

Please contact with questions and suggestions since I need all the help I can get.