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HELP: How to Grow Field Crops Using No-Till, Sheet Mulch, and/or Some Other Practice?

 
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Hello,
My neighbor is -- well, was -- a market gardener and has just decided not to grow for market this year. He has offered me 5,000 square feet of full-sun growing space. The soil is okay (clay-ish but I plan to amend with compost and woodchip mulch, of which I have a nearly limitless supply). It has been tilled and grown in for the past decade: potatoes, onions, beans, etc. etc. I am hoping to grow corn, soybeans, bush beans, amaranth, flax, peas, oats, wheat, and/or other field crops to supplement my chicken feed and process the flax for fiber. I don't need much so a diversity in a small-ish space is fine with me. I have a few questions that I hope can be answered from your experience.

First, the weed load is light to moderate. I usually use cardboard sheet mulch covered with woodchips and compost in my vegetable garden but don't think I can do this for such a large area. Or can I? I was also thinking of letting things sprout and then lightly disking the weeds to kill them (twice at two-week intervals) before planting. I might have access to large clear plastic and could potentially solarize large portions. Any thoughts here?

Second, what should I do about interplanting? I was thinking of doing four-foot-wide strips the length of the field and then varying the crops from strip to strip. Any sense in planting some symbiotic plants together (i.e., corn and beans)?

Feel free to offer free-form advice. If you had this plot and wanted to grow these crops, how would you go about it?

Thanks much in advance,
Scott
 
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If the weed load is not heavy, I would put down an inch or two of compost and cover the entire area with 8" of wood chips if you have enough to do it.  I would be very excited if I had an unlimited supply of these things.  If you put the chips down in a thick layer, only really strong perennial weeds will grow up through it.

Once you're done with that, anywhere you want to plant, open a furrow in the chips down to the compost and seed or plant into the compost.  Once the plants are large enough, push the wood chips back in and enjoy watching your garden until harvest time.  You should have almost no weeding to do.
 
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hau Scott, with the unlimited supply of both compost and chips you have some options available that most people simply do not have, this is a nice problem.
Do not solarize, why start from zero when odds are you already have some sort of good microbiome going in that plot of land,

You can do as Trace suggested which is a pretty great methodology especially if you have far more wood chips than compost.

I would leave out the idea of using cardboard, you would need to presoak it so it was water saturated when you put down the first covering layer and then you would need to poke holes in it for planting corn and the other items you listed.

You can use alternating layers of compost and wood chips, laying down equal layers of both and finishing off with the wood chips on the surface.

You can lay down a thick layer of compost and then a thick layer of wood chips

You can lay down compost then double the thickness of wood chips then another layer of compost and an equal thickness of wood chips.

The purpose of all these methods is to give you a good growing medium and at the same time give the soil deep cover, leachates from that cover, with no temporary nitrogen bind from the wood chips.
Which set of layering you choose should be decided by which organisms are currently present in the base soil.
Talking with the previous farmer might give you some ideas on quantities of which organisms are most likely present by how heavy his yield was per crop item.
set up the plot with the idea of building the soil not growing the plants, if you build soil the plants will grow and use less water addition.

Strip planting is a great idea, it follows the same plan as ally planting.

Redhawk
 
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I am glad I read this since I am about to add rings of compost and wood chips around my trees.  How far from the tree trunk should I start the compost and the wood chips?  3 or 4 inches maybe?  Also how far out should the ring extend?  Maybe 3 or 4 feet in diameter?  
Is there a stop point when adding this around my trees every year?  I remember reading that tree roots can suffocate and harm the tree if they are buried under soil after the tree has grown?  
 
Scott A. J. Johnson
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Thanks for your replies! I can get enough woodchips to do a deep mulch but that was the only unlimited resource; I'll have to ration my compost a bit more carefully but should be able to do it. My neighbor had recommended solarzing it, when I talked to him. Perhaps a light solarizing of a few hours could kill the weeds and only top inch of soil microbiome instead of a more intense treatment?
Thanks again.
 
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I don't think clear plastic would kill your weeds, just make like a mini greenhouse for them... I'm pretty sure you've got to use black.
 
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I would maybe try getting cardboard out there over time. I know that near me businesses throw out a surprising amount. I think from now in starting in March I'm going to try cardboarding my gardens ahead of time. It might be too big of an area for you though.
 
Scott A. J. Johnson
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Yes! I find refrigerator boxes at my local appliance store and use them in my yard garden extensively (the only weed-free spots were mulched with cardboard.
I did find that the clear plastic took a long time: the heat was their but the weeds died due to lack of water over time.
Most of the space was tilled down to 1" to kill the weeds. I did this twice.
Thanks for all your suggestions. I'll post pictures as the season progresses.
 
Bryant RedHawk
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Dennis Bangham wrote:I am glad I read this since I am about to add rings of compost and wood chips around my trees.  How far from the tree trunk should I start the compost and the wood chips?  3 or 4 inches maybe?  Also how far out should the ring extend?  Maybe 3 or 4 feet in diameter?  
Is there a stop point when adding this around my trees every year?  I remember reading that tree roots can suffocate and harm the tree if they are buried under soil after the tree has grown?  



Distance from the trunk is dependent upon the age of the tree. A freshly planted tree can take compost and chips as close as 6 inches from the trunk, older trees need a minimum of a foot beyond the exposed roots at the trunk base.
Width of the mulch ring can be 3 feet or all the way out to the drip line, just depends on your preferences.
I would only add mulch in this manner every three years, that gives the soil enough time to adsorb the mulch, you can smother a tree if you lay down new mulch every year, the mulch builds up and that puts the feeding roots deeper under ground which limits O2 and water getting to them.

Redhawk
 
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5,000 square feet of full-sun growing space. The soil is okay (clay-ish but I plan to amend with compost and woodchip mulch, of which I have a nearly limitless supply). It has been tilled and grown in for the past decade: potatoes, onions, beans, etc. etc. I am hoping to grow corn, soybeans, bush beans, amaranth, flax, peas, oats, wheat, and/or other field crops to supplement my chicken feed and process the flax for fiber. I



We're in  the middle of something similar, half the size of yours...a neighbor offered to plow the old garden spot here on our acre and was only able to chisel plow twice before it just stayed too wet for machines out there. It's not quite but close to what they call 'gumbo'....heavy black clay.  We were left with a lot of clods and some unturned sod.  We quickly sowed a mix of buckwheat, flax, turnips, white clover and all of the flower seeds in my stash and then lightly mulched with straw.  We keep adding straw wherever we  see bare dirt and planted fifty pounds of potatoes under thick straw, five dozen sweet potato slips, peppers, tomatoes, basil, collards, chard, woad, weld and anise hyssop leaving wide bands of buckwheat that is now blooming.  We chop and drop when planting and busted clods as we went...so far so good.  The turnips are ready to thin and the flax about to bloom...and the clover looks good.

We usually make mounded raised beds the slow way (we never used a tiller) and this was the first we have ever had a flat garden in forty years of gardens...with enough straw we've been able to mark out paths and it's starting to look more 'normal'.  

I love buckwheat as a cover crop for it's quick germination, it will grow thickly enough to shade out other plants and the honey bees love it.  I try to plant it twice a few weeks apart so that there's another layer coming up under the older plants. And we can keep planting it all summer where ever there's bare soil.

There is a little bermuda grass showing up now and we try to keep up with it.  Any other volunteer 'weeds' are welcome just to hold space against that grass.

I envy your wood chips...we have a good source of straw but chips are hard to come by here.

 
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