Till or No Till? (and a dead ‘possum)


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I am slowly converting my gardens into no-till beds with heavily mulched aisles. This tends to use a lot of mulch–especially initially, but it is great for conserving moisture and cutting down on weed control issues. The area shown above is a small bed with incorporated cattle panel trellis that I am carving out of the west side of the gardens that I mulched entirely with wheat straw last year.

The wheat straw I used as mulch ended up being a combination mulch and green manure–there was a good amount of wheat seed left in the bales, and it all sprouted (that’s why the background in this shot looks a bit like a lawn). Rather than it being a nightmare, it has been a benefit: when it gets a bit long, I just mow it.

The mower blades are set high enough (and the mulch is compacted enough) that it just takes off the fresh green growth and drops it right back onto the ground to decompose.

There are a number of good reasons to switch to no-till, not least among them cutting back the use of petroleum. Tillers churn the soil, breaking up the soil structure and its fine web-work of nutrient-carriers.

Tillers also tend to leave a hard pan right below the depth to which they work the soil. The top layer ends up being fluffy, but immediately below that you get a rock hard, non-draining sheet of (in these parts) clay that plant roots can’t penetrate to get the deeper nutrients.

I much prefer creating these permanent beds that can be worked deeply with a broadfork or digging fork. After a bed is created, I don’t turn the soil at all–I just drive the fork as deep as it will go and lever it up a bit, then shimmy the fork back out the way it came. Then, I use my hand-tiller to break up the clumps on the surface (this can be done in slightly wetter soil than a tiller can be used), separate the roots of any weed seedlings from the soil, and incorporate a little air to help them break down quickly.

This method gives you a fine tilth, and doesn’t upset the natural soil strata. It breaks up the mycelium network a little, but nowhere near as much as churning the soil mechanically. The mycelium network is basically a vast fungal “root system” that breaks down and transfers nutrients in the soil–it helps your plants get the food they need. If you want some fascinating reading on the subject of mycelium–see the Paul Stamets interview in the February 2008 issue of The Sun.

To make this particular bed, I used my digging fork to skim off the top layer of wheat straw and dumped it into the aisle. Then I dug the remaining straw into the soil with the same fork (this is a little more soil disturbance than I usually do–but this will likely be the only time I actually turn this soil). It’s a little hard to see with this image, but it really lofts up the bed, and the line between the compressed, mulched aisle and the fluffy bed is well-defined.

If you’re wondering what the rubber s-hook thing is–it’s an attachment point for a strand of electric fence wire. Harry runs a number of hot wires in differing patterns throughout the course of the season from one cattle panel trellis to another to discourage the deer. The tufts of baling twine are from the Brandwine tomato plants I had growing on this trellis last year. The pet taxi in the background was my night housing for last year’s ducks–I dragged it down to spread that manured bedding on my elephant garlic.

Overall the place is a bit of a mess right now as we try to get things spread, turned, mowed, and generally ship-shaped.

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I think Vega found this lovely opossum corpse in the barn.  One minute she was poking around in the barn and the next minute she was standing over this dried-up leathery thing out in the upper gardens with a look of pride on her doggie face.

There are a number of feral cats in the area, and they do a great job keeping the gardens free of most smaller rodents. But every once in awhile they leave a present for the dog, and she thinks she’s doing me a favor by sharing it with me.

You’d think she’d stop trying to chase them, when they give her “treats” like this.  One of these days, she’s going to corner one in a spirit of playful good humor, and she’s going to get a face full of claws.  Will she learn from this experience?  Probably not.

I do not think anything short of an altercation with a mountain lion will teach Vega that cats exist for any purpose other than a good chase (and then it will be too late for her).  She’s not really even interested in catching them, as far as I can tell.  The combination of greyhound and border collie blood causes her to believe with every fiber of her being that other animals exist to be roused, chased, and herded for her own personal enjoyment.

I appreciated her generosity with these aged remains, but I removed the “gift” from the garden and hung it on the fence facing the road. Maybe it will scare the deer away. Or maybe I just have a sick sense of humor from growing up in a family that ran a trapline. I swear I will take it down before I schedule a farm tour.

By the way–yesterday I got in the shell (English) peas. I used to grow all three kinds of peas–shell, snap, and snow. But peas are arduous to pick and process, so I cut back to doing mostly just snap peas. This year, one of my CSA members made a special request for these, so I decided to give it another go.

Also got in some kohlrabi (both purple and white), rucola selvatica arugula (a slower-growing and spicier strain), Persian garden cress, and a little five color silverbeet (aka rainbow chard).

This morning–more snow–which promptly turned into a slushy mess when it hit the warm ground. Then, an hour or two of rain, followed by a few more flakes. I believe tonight we are supposed to get a couple more inches of snow.

Well, at least I don’t have to water.

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