Thursday, June 28, 2012

to till or not to till- part 2

the photo has nothing to do with tilling- I just like the picture.   they did fill the till (sort of) with their earnings.

Sometimes I can't help just posting a photo because it's cute.  These were my kids and their older cousin running a lemonade stand at the beginning of June, and actually making some money at it.  They set up on Grand Old Day- a big deal in our neighborhood- and cashed in on all the folks wandering past our house.

Kids are natural innovators.  They don't know what is and isn't supposed to work, so they're willing to give anything a try.

It's in that spirit, that I'm trying something new- or at least giving it another try, after being a bit dismissive about it in an earlier post.  That is, I'm trying no-till gardening.

To be scientific about it (sort of) I've tilled (if you can call it that) half of my plot at the new community garden, and left the other half untilled, but heavily layered, in the style of a lasagna garden. 

this is similar to what my plot looked like before I began
It was really kind of an accident.  On the initial workdays, I was busy working on getting everything moving, getting the water set up, trying to make sure that the original plan for the garden was being implemented.

I didn't really take time to till my own garden plot, though I had sort of intended to.  While I was busy elsewhere, volunteers piled several piles of compost on my plot as part of a general compost distribution effort, and another kind soul tilled the half without compost piles on it, while another dug parts of it with a fork.

When I finally got around to working on it, a few days after the initial crazy weekend, it honestly looked like kind of a mess.

I started working the soil on the side that had already been loosened by the tiller.  I had my digging fork and hacked away at the clumps of grass and rocks in the gravelly, weedy, soil.  It was hard work, but the soil could be worked.  Then I hit the untouched areas, and the work got a lot harder.

I pulled up some of the untouched area- enough to have about half of the 20' x 20' plot worked over, but was looking at a lot more, very painstaking labor, to finish the rest.

As a group, the task force that had started the garden had discussed the merits of tilling  versus not tilling at length.  We had even discussed having the entire garden be no-till at one point, though that seems a little bit crazy now, given how many gardeners have opted to till, and deeply at that.

the finished experimental plot- no-till on the left, tilled on the right, separated by the 2x6 boards in the middle
But the idea of not tilling had sat in my head, and when I was sitting in the dirt, in 90 degree weather, defeated by the crabgrass and gravel, the idea of not tilling seemed like  a darn good idea once again.

So the resulting plan looks like this:  the southern half of the garden- approximately 10 feet by 20 feet, was tilled down between 4 and 6 inches with a rototiller and digging fork, and clumps of crabgrass were raked out and tossed onto the northern half.  I planted 10 pounds of seed potatoes and three rows of bush beans (Provider variety- highly recommended by Fedco) along with some borage that my daughter picked out and insisted on planting herself.  I put two bags of maple leaves on top of the tilled soil to hold in the moisture.

On the northern half:  the clumps of dirt and crabgrass from the southern half, stomped on and softened up with a bit of light forking.  Then compost, maybe an inch of it, spread across the top of the untilled crabgrass and gravelly soil.  On top of that, I layered two sheets of bond paper- also known as old engineering and landscape architectural drawings that I cleaned out of my cubicle. 

I wet down the paper and tossed a little bit of compost on top of it to keep it from blowing away.  then I spread 4 bags- about 30 gallons each- of grass clippings on top of the paper- almost enough to hide the paper, so that the average thickness was about an inch.  On top of that I piled 3 to 4 inches of leaves, and wetted everything down again.

here's an idea of how it looks stripped away- compost, bond paper, grass clippings and leaves
The photo above shows what it looks like about a week after installation, with the leaves and grass pulled back from the paper.  I cut some holes through the paper to plant some tomatoes and okra a few days later and was surprised at, already, how easy, comparitively speaking, it was to work the soil.  The trapped moisture helped, and the layer of compost was as easy as butter to cut through.  Even with a plastic shovel (I forgot my real shovel that day, and had to use the kids' plastic shovel) I was able to cut down an inch or two into the hardpan- usually stopped only by the still stringy crabgrass roots.

One unexpected wrinkle was the extra ingredients found in the bags of leaves and grass left by neighborhood folks earlier in the spring.  We had invited the general public to deposit bags of yard waste at the garden site in April in order to have a ready source of organic matter to build up the soil, in the way that I am right now.  I and the other gardeners now have an easy source of organic matter to draw from.  But yard waste means different things to different people, and in one bag of partially composted leaves I also found- dog turds.  Dusty, old turds that looked as if they had sat out in the winter for a while and dried out, but still turds.

I hadn't realized what they were until I had spread them over the garden.  Once they were there, there was really no point of trying to get rid of them, as they'd already broken apart and disintegrated in spots, so I've resigned myself to try to appreciate the nitrogen they're introducing to my soil, and determining not to plant any root crops in this area for the next year or two.

While the conventional wisdom is that dog turds carry disease that can be passed to humans, I'm not sure what the verdict is on those that have sat through a Minnesota winter, then spent time in a black plastic bag for several months in the hot sun.   I'm not really happy to have to deal with them now, but think that they may have been somewhat neutralized by the cold/hot treatment as well as by the passage of time.  Either way, I'll keep on the safe side for now by not planting carrots, and washing my tomatoes and okra well.

some of the other gardeners have made their plots truly gorgeous in the last two weeks

For now, the plants seem to be growing well.  Potato spouts are starting to pop, and the bush beans are getting going as well,  The tomatoes on the no-till side are Red Calabash, given by WHD of Off The Grid in Minneapolis, joined by some okra I started in our backyard, and some random squash seeds from someone in my office.

It looks good to me- but still a far cry from some of the other lovingly tended garden plots of some of the other gardeners.  As one of the founders of this project, I feel like I should have a standout garden- but it's just not going to happen.  There's no way I'll find time to have both a productive and beautiful garden- at least not this year.  I'll settle for educational and maybe interesting.  Experiments aren't supposed to be pretty anyway.  The final verdict will be in the fall- seeing how well the tilled and no-till sides produced.

Then again- the really final verdict may come next spring, when I sink my shovel into the soil again- and see how much the earthworms and mycorrhizal fungi really were able to accomplish without the intervention of the tiller.  That may make it all worthwhile.


  1. I am dying to hear how this turns out....

  2. I've worked with both methods in the past (when I had my own property) and, after several years of experimentation, I fell into a pattern of no-till with a frequent top-dressing of compost for perennials and a light till with lots of deep mulch and compost for annuals, which I suppose could be considered no-till as well.

  3. Hi Ruben! I will post the results this fall or next spring- whenever I'm able to dig into the soil again safely. So far both sides are doing well. We'll see what fall brings. BTW- we had another friend of yours drop off food a few weeks ago- so thank you!

    Martin- I've fallen into the same pattern as well after a few years of experimentation. This happened to be an opportunity to really test the efficacy of lasagna gardening- mostly because I had run out of energy to dig. I like the 'light-till' solution, and use it in my yard.

  4. You will be stunned next spring when you sink your shovel into the soil. When I first started with the no-till method and lasagna gardening, I was happy to be recycling, but oh dear...what a mess. I was astonished how well this method works. You will be too!

    I'm your neighbor in northern WI. I grow many of the same things you do. For the first time ever in all my years of gardening here, my grapes ended up with a fungus. A nasty one at that. My grapes look the same as your shriveled cherries.. I have no organic solution to preventing the fruit fungas. I'll be watching your blog for possible solutions. I hate to resort to using a chemical fungicide, but I've come to learn that if I do not, the fungus will remain. Is it possible for fungus to survive in our cold winters?

    My red currants produced more berries than ever in all this heat. And I had raspberries coming out of my ears. Just gobs of them! I planted two pear trees last summer, and they are thriving (in zone 4!!)

    Are you thinking about planting peach trees? What variety? I'm considering peach trees too.