Just as Needed Tilling

Courtesy of Stefan, Good Time Farming, Squamish, BC

I definitely believe that there could be huge benefits to not tilling or minimizing your tilling and from what I have read and heard from other growers who minimize their tilling habits. The benefits are discovered in the longer term – 5 or 10 years maybe. I unfortunately have not been growing long enough on my current plots, but what I have noticed on the plots that I haven’t been tilling or tilling very little is the decreasing amount of inputs that these gardens require and the decreasing amount of watering, while the productivity is always increasing – and as long as I am continuously growing a crop in these beds (minimal periods of bare soil) and using the broadfork occasionally, soil compaction is
never a problem – the soil structure actually improves significantly.

We own a BCS and definitely use it when needed, but every year we seem to find ways to use it less. I bought a Tilther from Johny select this season. I was hesitant at first but for beds that are well established this tool is amazing, only tilling the surface. I am also using certified organic corn based mulch which has significantly decreased my tilling habits. For example, after a cycle of carrots I will add the necessary amount of inputs and mulch the bed (no tilling). I will then do a cycle of pac choi, harvest and replant a cycle of lettuce heads with the same mulch. when the lettuce is harvested I remove the mulch and the bed is completely weed free and ready for a round of greens with minimal prepping required.

While tilling is certainly necessary at times, I find that because we have utilized this practice for so long we often do it when it might not be necessary. I am actually finding it to be less work the more I find ways not to till or minimize the tilling of my beds but more importantly, as I mentioned earlier, the amount of inputs seems to be decreasing every year as the ecosystem in the biota of the soil is less disturbed and hence is working more efficiently.

Tilling Makes SPIN Work

Courtesy of Steve W., Just Farmin’, Liberty Township OH

I also believe in the no-till theory. The SPIN model is not based on no-till, it is based on producing food in an intense, high density planting concept to utilize small spaces to maximize production and profit in an affordable manner.

I’m Spinning on less than an 1/4 acre but the goal over the next couple of years is to get to 2 plus. I’ve been picking up equipment along the way over the last two years.  I have my cooler, TroyBilt Horse, small 3 hp tiller, Earthway seeder, hand tools and installed a 10 X 25 hoop house last year.  Most if not all thanks to Craigslist.

So I’m in my third year of following the SPIN model, and I can tell you that there is no way I could keep up without tilling my beds. I make sure I add my amendments with plenty of organic matter added. I too have seen a huge difference in my soil, soil test and the quality of my produce. If earth worms are an indication of soil structure, I can tell you that we had a hard time finding them when we first started. Today you can’t turn over a shovel of soil and not find several in each scoop. Just my two cents worth.


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!

Seed Costs for a Half-Acre

Courtesy of Curtis S., Green City Acres, Kelowna, BC
If you’re farming around a half-acre, you can expect to spend upwards of $800 on seed. I have close to 100 beds in constant salad green production, and just to give you an idea how much seed I go through for that: 2.2 lb arugula, .25 lb green leaf lettuce, .25 lb red leaf, 125 lb mustard, and mizuna,  2 lbs chard and bulls blood beets. And a lot of 2 oz packs of various lettuces.

DIY Electric Bike for Pedal-Powered SPIN Farms

Courtesy of Curtis S., Green City Acres, Kelowna, BC

My current rig is the Bionx HT 350. It cost a pretty penny, around $2400 after install and mods, but so far, I’m pretty happy with it. I was going to have to hire another employee this year to do deliveries, but after getting this, that potential employee has been made obsolete.

It’s pretty sweet to be cruising with 500 lbs of stuff at 34km / hour, and not totally exhausting myself either. We’ll see how it survives the season though. LIke I said, so far so good, but I’m probably giving this thing 10 times more use than anyone else ever has. It’s got a 2 year warranty. If it lasts this season without any problems, I think that’ll be a good sign.

The trick with these things is that they don’t have any torque when you’re hauling a heavy load, but once you get a bit of momentum, after start up, then you can really go. But you have to be careful with them, and your bike. You really use your gears like crazy, cause you go from so slow to so fast right away. So, there’s a bit of a learning curve to get used to it. What I do when I starting to move after stopping, is turn the engine all the way down, so there’s no assist, once I’m starting up, then after getting a bit of momentum, then I turn the assist on full. If you torque it too hard, you kill you battery. But once you learn how to use it, you can make the battery last way longer.

Here’s a picture.


See also Paul Hoepfner-Homme’s post.