To till or not to till, that is the question. The no-tillsystem works well if the ground is well-tilled, otherwise it is best to till. Tilling works best the less you till, A rototiller tills too much, destroying soil tilth although it appears to make it look like good tilth. Tillonly until you can no-till, then no-till until you need to till.
If I could insert your hands in a fertile, clay humus complex, and your fingers wiggled around deep into the soil, I could dispense with distracting dogmatic phrases like till and no-till and you would just know. An imagination of happy expanding roots intertwined with exploding microbe populations probably brings truth closer to light than is possible with words. Let’s picture what’s going on in the dark places underneath the soils covers.
Earthworms are way better at tilling than humans. The no-till system would be better named the “earthworm-till system”. We can tell a lot about soil quality by looking at the worms. Few, skinny, pink, dry earthworms indicate poor tilth while fat, colorful, slimy worms in abundance are a good sign.
Balancing minerals helps the worms. Calcium is the key. After incorporating a 50-100lbs of finely ground, high-calcium limestone to every 1,000 sp. Ft. (1-2 tons/acre), it’s a good idea to add some live lime. Microbes are already active in lime that has been in an animal, such as eggshells, ground bones, or rotted white oak bark.
If we have time, a cover crop of buckwheat is an excellent way to mobilize the unavailable form of calcium in the limestone to an available form. Earthworms love buckwheat. Calcium flocculates soil layers by poofing up the clay particles, and the best way for it to get in there is through the earthworm’s gizzard and digestive tract.
Other rot dusts supply other minerals that help create good garden soil. Rock phosphate, green sand, basalt, granite and even wood ashes are good to sprinkle on your garden at about 10lbs to every 1,000 sq. ft (400lbs to the acre). They need to be tilled in either by you or an earthworm.
There are lots of other tillers in the soil, and no better way to employ their help than by adding good compost, Composting is two processes, one of breaking down organic matter, and the other of building up the clay humus complex. Always add clay soil to the compost pile, otherwise you’ll end up with just some good looking broken down organic material. Good compost smears when rubbed between your finger and thumb.
Once we’ve got the minerals and biology working, we are well on our way to good tilth. But we have to break up the subsoil and loosen the ground deeply so the minerals and microbes can do their thing. A no-till garden starts with double digging the beds.
Dig a foot-wide trench about 10” deep at the edge of the bed and take the soil out. Now fork or pick the clay subsoil another 10” deep, but leave it there. Adding sand, limestone and gravel down there is a good idea. Push the next foot-wide strip of soil on top of that and then break up the subsoil underneath it, continuing to the end of the bed. The first soil is then used to fill up the last trench.
Now you can stick a hoe handle 20” deep into your bed and feel extremely satisfied. By keeping the beds only three to four feet wide, we never walk on them again. And by keeping a decomposing mulch on top, we have a no-till garden. I mean an earthworm-tilled garden. Lasagna gardening (layering) works great if the soil is loosened and easily penetrated to a depth of 18 to 20 inches.
In a bigger garden, we also use soil biology to till, but we have to help them a little, Cover crops have roots that create soil tilth, after they are mown in the spring, I slowly run the chisel plow though the garden. This destroys the active soil microbes.
I believe this is where confusion arises with words trying to describe what goes on underground. So let’s use our imagination and picture happy soil microbes living off of the roots of our cover crops, say a stand of crimson clover. Life is good with all the food coming from the clover’s root exudates, and they are making love and having lots of babies. A microbe can have babies at three seconds old, and have lots of great grandchildren by the time they are nine seconds old. It happens fast.
But all of a sudden life is not so good, as the clover is mown and a trench is made through the garden a foot apart by the slowly moving chisel plow. Clover microbes die by the millions, creating food for earthworms and other soil life. But now the gardener must do the hardest thing to do, which is nothing.
We must not keep on tilling, but simply wait a few days and let the soil life till for us. Clover microbes may be devastates, but the summer microbes wake up and say, “it’s about time y’all are gone and we get to make love and have lots of babies ourselves”. So that is what they do, and when we slowly pull the chisel plow through the garden again, the crimson clover givers up the ghost and we retain good tilth.
After a few more days and another pass with a harrow behind the chisel plow, we plant the garden, but only if it isn’t going to rain. We never plant seeds before wet weather, because we want to rake over the rows three days later. This allows us to avoid deeper tillage as we keep the soil always loose on top.
Vegetable loving microbes now quickly dominate the underground scene. We help them, and our tilth, by either mulching or creating a dust mulch. Never use wood chips for mulch, unless they are unrecognizable as woodchips. Hay is our favorite mulch, because our farm produces tons of hay and I like everything to come from the farm.
But I can’t mulch all 10 acres of gardens as we have 35 hungry cows, our winter time compost makers. So, after every rain, when the soil dries just enough to work, with a buttery feeling, we straddle the rows with a small, light cultivating tractor and gently break up the soil surface. This checks evaporation by creating a dust mulch on top of the soil so capillary action, which is moving moisture to the top, cannot move moisture out into the atmosphere. This surface tillage allows us to export 150,000 pounds of produce off the farm annually without ever using irrigation..
Deep fall plowing, and then doing nothing is another great tillage practice so you can no-till later. In the garden, just shovel up the soil and leave it. Winter rains soak in and then freeze, which tills the soil in a very positive way.
Always let nature till for you, until the ground gets compacted and you have to help nature by gently getting some air in the soil. And don’t let words and concepts, like till and no-till get in the way of a lively imagination of what is happening underground, Stick your hands deep into mother earth, stretch out your fingers and think like a plant.