Tilling Is Sometimes Necessary

Courtesy of Andrew B, Moon Gravity Farm, Rossland BC

Three years ago I added about 15 dump truck loads of leaves to my home garden (free, thanks City of Rossland!) to make a thick 3′ to 4′ layer before the winter. I planted potatoes in the mulch the following spring, got a good crop. Added more plants, all did well. The soil this spring is totally amazing. I definitely believe in no-till and mega-mulch. It works, and it works well given some time.

BUT, this year starting a large SPIN plot (my first) trying to crank lots of veg ASAP starting from an old pasture, there’s just no other way than to plough/till. I’m going to mega-mulch as much as I can this fall but the kind of mulch 1/4 acre requires for this approach is huge, and really depends on the dump truck driving directly onto or beside the garden to drop loads. Wheelbarrow-at-a-time for any distance is an insane amount of upfront time for gains that aren’t really seen for a couple years. And unless I just want to sell potatoes next year…

A third cent: Rodale’s roll-down cover crop system using the roller-crimper (BCS attachment available) seems very promising for SPIN scale row cropping of certain crops. I have yet to try it myself, but since it’s based on roller-crimping a cover crop at flowering time, it should work really well for late direct-seeded crops (e.g. beans) or to create a weed-free mulch for transplants. This system requires keen ecological knowledge to get the right mix of cover species that will flower at the right time, so it’s no cure-all, but seems much better than flail-mowing then tilling a cover crop.

And a fourth cent: Since I bit off more than I can chew this year between starting the garden and expanding my animal operation—dairy goats, layers, meat birds, rabbits, bees—I didn’t get to my chicken plan yet: chicken-tilling between crops by mob grazing a high density of birds for a short period of time to shallow till and fertilize. Alas, I’ve fallen back on the flame weeder until I’ve finished building the necessary bits. But the theory seems sound enough…

(I should add, since I’ve seen conversations on using rabbits for this task, that I’m not convinced by rabbit tractors. It’s much easier to keep them in hutches and bring veg/grass to them, and cleaner for the rabbits. Clean is really important since serious liver parasite cycles in rabbits have kicked in within 24 hours of being in the same place—been there, done that—so unlike chickens that can be set up and left to make a dirty barren mess for a couple days, rabbits have to be moved very regularly…and a hutch that won’t let them escape doesn’t give very good access to the ground in any case.)

In short, lots of great ideas out there, but tilling wins for fastest results with lowest initial effort (given a BCS)! In the long term, no-till deep-mulch or crimped-cover-crop systems promise less effort and better soil/food, so working on “production” systems that use these approaches AND on ways tilling row-croppers can transition to them, at least for some crops, are very worthwhile goals in my opinion!