• Post Reply Bookmark Topic Watch Topic
  • New Topic

If it is bad to till, what are my options for a good sized harvest this growing season?

 
Isaiah Ari Mattathias
Posts: 80
Location: Oregon
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
Tilling question:

I understand tilling is not good, but is there ever a situation where it's necessary? For example, I've spent much of the year reading, but not really implementing. We've managed to get some raised beds, but we will run out of space quickly. Our woodchip garden is quite small also. I envision doing a sort of light till and then afterwards use a cover crop + green manure, also something to help with erosion while also keeping soil from compacting (daikon radish?).
This would allow us to have some extra space in these rows to grow as much as possible, can/pickle/reduce grocery costs.
Is it possible to till just once, build up from there without ever having to till again, and still have a growing plot as good as our sheet mulched areas? It seems the sheet mulching will not be ready by Summer as the cardboard is still not completely composted.

Raised beds:

Is rock dust and perhaps composted goat manure enough to get it ready for planting again? Anything else to recommend? Thank you!
 
John Brownlee
Posts: 99
1
  • Likes 2
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
Tilling to start a system is not a terrible thing. I did it. The goal is to till only to start, then with proper mulching to protect the soil and prevent weeds.
The traditional permaculture method is to scalp the grass with a lawnmower, lay down a layer of cardboard, a layer of compost, a layer of manure, a layer of compost and then dig a vert small hole and plant into the actual ground. Instant raised bed! However I don't like using cardboard, and I didn't have access to manure and hadn't made compost, so I tilled. By hand. With only a shovel. And I mulched with grass clippings. That was two years ago, now I have all those things so my method is to till in the sod, plant, and layer on the partially composted manure and finished compost. Seems to be working great. Was that coherent, or have I drank too much tonight?
 
Paul Cereghino
gardener
Posts: 856
Location: South Puget Sound, Salish Sea, Cascadia, North America
15
  • Likes 1
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
Tilling takes work, tilling accelerates decomposition of organic matter, tilling leaves the soil surface bare. Tilling can affect composition of soil biota. Tilling in the wrong setting can create deserts and deplete soils.

I am not sure I would categorically call tillage "bad", although there are folks who have tried to convince me of it. I think figuring out how to grow vegetables without tilling is a grand adventure, but I still have a tillage garden and I import leaves, and make compost with chicken manure and food waste and import horse manure from neighbors and rock dust. People have been tilling to grow annuals for millennium. I wouldn't be so bold as to say they have all been simply unenlightened...

Importing rock dust and manure could provide with a diverse and complete flush of nutrients, depending on the composition and condition of the original soil, what kind of rock dust, and the condition of the manure. I think in many cases mechanically decompacting the soil before sheet mulching could improve initial results and speed soil development, particularly when the soil is physically compacted or otherwise poorly structured, or you are in a cold climate... Its just more work.

Is that sufficiently vague...
 
R Scott
Posts: 3306
Location: Kansas Zone 6a
32
  • Likes 1
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
A tiller is like a gun--it is a highly specialized and powerful tool. It can do good, but can also do a lot of damage if used incorrectly. And just like a gun, the standard answer is DON'T USE IT unless you have a base of knowledge in safe use.

If you want a zone 1 garden, till away--just make sure you lay out the beds with permaculture principles, on contour, etc.
 
Isaiah Ari Mattathias
Posts: 80
Location: Oregon
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
All very informative, as always. I've also read about using a broadfork as an alternative to tilling, seems sort of like a compromise.
There is a really awesome nursery nearby and they grow a nice garden every year. It's a relatively small plot, looks to be tilled every year. However once the season has ended, I notice they promptly put in a cover crop and within a month or so it's a nice patch of grass.
2 weeks ago it was tilled and in rows again, with the first few rows layered with compost and mulched with straw I think. I'll have to stop by and check it out, seems they grow very well, although I'm not too sure about the inputs ({in}organic fertilizers etc).
I'm going to go for it, on contour and cared for and see how it works out. cheers!
 
Bryan Jasons
Posts: 62
Location: Maine
2
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
Should be fine. The soil probably sucks anyway, so tilling it once won't do much to make it worse. Sounds like you know what you're doing, mulching and cover cropping to prevent compaction and weeds etc. I'd say do it.

You could use diluted human urine and some shredded leaves in addition to the manure and rock dust. Can't hurt to buy a cheap PH meter and some lime as well, so long as you don't overdo it with the lime.
 
John Brownlee
Posts: 99
1
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
I agree with Bryan 100%, go ahead with your plan and you'll be fine. My only addendum is if you have clayish soil be sure to use agricultural lime as opposed to dolomitic limestone as dolomite has a lot of magnesium which will make the clay "close up" and drain even worse.
Actually now that I think about it, if your soil is acidic use hardwood ashes as opposed to lime to correct pH. And keep in mind that ashes only have two thirds of the alkalinity of the limestone. So if you would need to apply 60 pounds of lime to adjust the pH you would actually need to apply 80 pounds of wood ashes to achieve the same effect. Wood ashes add a lot micronutrients to the soil, and are a lot more sustainable than limestone. Also you could check the pH of your rock dust, as that might have some alkalizing power in and of itself.
 
Isaiah Ari Mattathias
Posts: 80
Location: Oregon
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
John Brownlee wrote:I agree with Bryan 100%, go ahead with your plan and you'll be fine. My only addendum is if you have clayish soil be sure to use agricultural lime as opposed to dolomitic limestone as dolomite has a lot of magnesium which will make the clay "close up" and drain even worse.
Actually now that I think about it, if your soil is acidic use hardwood ashes as opposed to lime to correct pH. And keep in mind that ashes only have two thirds of the alkalinity of the limestone. So if you would need to apply 60 pounds of lime to adjust the pH you would actually need to apply 80 pounds of wood ashes to achieve the same effect. Wood ashes add a lot micronutrients to the soil, and are a lot more sustainable than limestone. Also you could check the pH of your rock dust, as that might have some alkalizing power in and of itself.


Thanks John, when you said 60/80lbs, is that per acre or? That's a whole lot of wood ash
 
Bryan Jasons
Posts: 62
Location: Maine
2
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
Test it with a meter first and see if you "need" lime at all. And of course it depends on what your crops are, some don't care about PH, like turnips in my experience, and other crops need a more specific PH e.g. beans - for the symbiotic bacteria to fix atmospheric nitrogen it can't be acidic, and I think they get heavy metal toxicity with the low PH.
 
Paul Cereghino
gardener
Posts: 856
Location: South Puget Sound, Salish Sea, Cascadia, North America
15
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
RE BROADFORK - what a wonderful tool. I think of it as an alternative for double digging or root crops that penetrate deeply. Comparatively a rototiller is more about incorporating surface litter and creating a seed bed, and will only bite 6-8 inches, compared to a broadfork fracturing down to 12-18"

RE WOODASH - while it may be lower in total Ca/Mg than lime, I have always understood that it releases to the soil solution MUCH faster, so has stronger short term effects but less long term effect, compared to lime which will mineralize (release) Ca over several years, and not much at all over the first several months (commonly applied in fall for spring effects). I'd have to do more research to be confident.

RE TILLER - the risk is tilling too wet (smearing blobs), or too dry (pulverizing to dust). You should be able to shovel a chunk of soil, drop it and have it break apart (which never happens in clay soil... which is the kind of soil most likely to be trashed by a tiller). For very intensive soil improvement on a small plot consider bastard trenching (the English phrase I believe), where you are burying organic debris in trenches to deepen soil while creating your seed bed. Maybe do one bed each year.

 
Tim Malacarne
Posts: 226
Location: South central Illinois, USA
2
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
I use a tiller quite a bit on our clay based garden. There are pros and cons to everything. Tilling vs mulch like Ford and Chevy stuff, IMO. Tilling will be very good for building organic matter in your soil. We add sand as well. Keep on with the composting! We've had vole infestations under mulch, with tilling the voles are not so encouraged. Tricky little buggars, voles!
 
J.D. Burnette
Posts: 30
Location: Kingston, TN
1
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
Tilling has gotten a super bad rap just like most fossil fuel devices. There are times that using the "bad" technologies for "good" makes them totally appropriate. If you are doing something like SPIN farming or market gardening you HAVE to till in order to be successful on a small plot.

Tilling will, over a long term deplete your soil of nutrients, compact the soil, and present niche opportunities for weed seeds to fill. If you are going to be on the land for a LONG time then you want to till minimally. If you are renting land or only a temporary steward you can till a little more as nature will over time correct any damage you may have done.

As long as you are tilling in more organic matter than is being vaporized and lost when you turn the soil then you are in a +EV(expected value) situation. Cover crops will also help, as stated above, in a multitude of ways.

An alternative is, as mentioned above, the broadfork. But, you will need to sheet mulch with something like a tarp for 2-3 weeks and then come at it with the broadfork right before planting your bed.

Rock dust will be more or less inert if your soil biology cannot process it and make it bioavailable for your plants. I'd also suggest adding seaweed extract to your compost so that you are providing all the minerals from the earth and sea.
 
bob day
Posts: 344
Location: Central Virginia USA
14
  • Likes 1
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
Elaine Ingham--www.soilfoodweb.com

there is a whole lot more going on with tilling than just losing nutrients --i don't want to say never till, but i haven't yet seen in this thread the mention of microrhizae (sp?)- those little fungal tubes that transport water and nutrients large distances and are totally destroyed by tilling, or the soil bacteria that actually make those nutrients available to the roots of the plants

To some extent we're all just whistling in the dark when it comes to understanding the magic that goes on underground and within the body of a plant. but tilling is known to shift the balance of microbes from fungal to bacterial-- and those bacteria go nuts consuming and using up nutrients,, i'm sure somebody out there can correct me, but if there is any fertility in the soil at all tilling will cause about 40% of it to go away. She does recommend use of compost tea,, but it has to be aerobic as does compost-- that means a bubbler providing oxygen while the tea is brewing.

If you want to get really serious get a soil sample to a soilfood web lab and they'll tell you how to balance things out to grow what you need to grow, and probably have better advice about tilling or not.

The more i learn the more i know i don't know, but right now Elaine seems to be at the cutting edge of understanding soil biology and what makes plants grow

before her i was looking at keyline plows and perrenial cover crops to build soil,, now she claims to be able to build soil applying the right microbes.

anyway, in the end i'm going to have fun with what i do,, I'm going to play with the dirt, study as much as i can, and try and make reasonable decisions about use of technology --including tilling--and i know i didn't recommend one way or the other, just wanted to throw in my two cents

 
Bev Huth
Posts: 36
Location: AR, USA
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
We did have to till to get a decent garden going here. (Blasted AR red clay!) had to till, add compost and cold manure form horses and rabbits, till again, plant cover crops, till those under, then plant the food the next year but, now we don't till, no reason for it, we have good food beds and turning in a little compost or cold manure in the fall is all we need to do, that we do by hand.

I agree, a tiller is like a gun, a powerful and useful tool when used properly but, use it wrong, or over use it and, it does more harm than good.
 
Leila Rich
steward
Posts: 3999
Location: Wellington, New Zealand. Temperate, coastal, sandy, windy,
88
  • Likes 1
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
Ok. I know it's been asked a miilion times in a miillion ways: what does tilling mean to you?
There always seems to be this massive definitive difference.
In NZ, some people must crank up the rotary hoe, but in the USA it seems quite standard practice.
I'll fork over a patch occasionally, but that's as far as I'd go.
A broadfork would be nice
 
Renate Howard
pollinator
Posts: 755
Location: zone 6b
9
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
If you know anyone with some little pigs they do a wonderful job of tilling and add fertilizer and dig in organic matter (if you give it to them) at the same time. Left on a plot for too long they can wreck the soil structure, as many say they're great at sealing ponds, picture that in your garden! But the soil bacteria seem to really take off after something has been "pig-tilled"! I'd follow that with something like annual ryegrass as a smother crop, it fixes nitrogen and has lots of fibrous roots to get things really going underground. It should die off naturally in time for some summer/fall crops to be planted.

Another alternative to tilling to kill grass is to put some big black plastic tarp over the area for a few consecutive sunny days. The heat generated kills all the grass and most weeds (those with deeper roots seem to be able to survive it but they can be hand-pulled if they're a nuisance). The soil structure is preserved and it can be ready to plant pretty quickly after that. If you know anyone who uses a pool cover, that's just about perfect, and how I came up with the method in the first place (neighbor laid his on the lawn to dry before folding it then got busy for a few days).
 
Alex Ames
Posts: 404
Location: Georgia
5
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
Tilling is fine. I don't do it because I don't want to.

Thirty years ago my Mother bought a fancy new tiller. Man what a job
that thing did! I lived about 3 hours away at the time but I would call to
compare gardening notes. So I asked her if the new tiller had helped and she
shot back "I hate it!". So I inquired further and she explained that the plants
got huge and super healthy but wouldn't stand upright in the pulverized soil!
 
David Miller
Posts: 281
Location: Harrisonburg, VA
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
Bev Huth wrote:We did have to till to get a decent garden going here. (Blasted AR red clay!) had to till, add compost and cold manure form horses and rabbits, till again, plant cover crops, till those under, then plant the food the next year but, now we don't till, no reason for it, we have good food beds and turning in a little compost or cold manure in the fall is all we need to do, that we do by hand.

I agree, a tiller is like a gun, a powerful and useful tool when used properly but, use it wrong, or over use it and, it does more harm than good.



Totally agreed, eventually my broadfork will be of use. Until then I'm building organic matter with overwintered compost crops and manures in my zone 1.
 
David Miller
Posts: 281
Location: Harrisonburg, VA
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
Alex Ames wrote:Tilling is fine. I don't do it because I don't want to.

Thirty years ago my Mother bought a fancy new tiller. Man what a job
that thing did! I lived about 3 hours away at the time but I would call to
compare gardening notes. So I asked her if the new tiller had helped and she
shot back "I hate it!". So I inquired further and she explained that the plants
got huge and super healthy but wouldn't stand upright in the pulverized soil!



Totally agreed on the lack of soil structure and the consequences therein with tilling. I'm only doing it to build soil structure to something that will support life.
 
David Miller
Posts: 281
Location: Harrisonburg, VA
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
bob day wrote:Elaine Ingham--www.soilfoodweb.com

there is a whole lot more going on with tilling than just losing nutrients --i don't want to say never till, but i haven't yet seen in this thread the mention of microrhizae (sp?)- those little fungal tubes that transport water and nutrients large distances and are totally destroyed by tilling, or the soil bacteria that actually make those nutrients available to the roots of the plants

To some extent we're all just whistling in the dark when it comes to understanding the magic that goes on underground and within the body of a plant. but tilling is known to shift the balance of microbes from fungal to bacterial-- and those bacteria go nuts consuming and using up nutrients,, i'm sure somebody out there can correct me, but if there is any fertility in the soil at all tilling will cause about 40% of it to go away. She does recommend use of compost tea,, but it has to be aerobic as does compost-- that means a bubbler providing oxygen while the tea is brewing.

If you want to get really serious get a soil sample to a soilfood web lab and they'll tell you how to balance things out to grow what you need to grow, and probably have better advice about tilling or not.

The more i learn the more i know i don't know, but right now Elaine seems to be at the cutting edge of understanding soil biology and what makes plants grow

before her i was looking at keyline plows and perrenial cover crops to build soil,, now she claims to be able to build soil applying the right microbes.

anyway, in the end i'm going to have fun with what i do,, I'm going to play with the dirt, study as much as i can, and try and make reasonable decisions about use of technology --including tilling--and i know i didn't recommend one way or the other, just wanted to throw in my two cents



Is this person selling these microbes? I know that mulches create soil carbon and soil life. I know that green manures make my soil more fertile/arable. I hope we can find an open source beneficial mycorrhizae and bacterial databank mapped in native soils but until then, I'm skeptical of folks selling snake oil.
 
Natalie McVander
Posts: 63
5
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
Depending on the level of moisture in your cardboard, you could plant right on top of it.

I'm picturing your cardboard on top of earth, covered in mulch, so the earth and cardboard are relatively moist.

If you take a pitchfork and randomly poke some holes in it, you could effectively plant some things directly on the top of the cardboard, let the roots go through the holes into the soil, and pull your mulch around your plants.

Ah, never mind. I see you are talking about new ground.

I don't think tilling is a horrible thing. Only if it is already in pretty good shape do you destroy the structure of your soil.
Hardpan? Yeah, till it and get a little ahead. Or loosen it with a spading fork.
If your soil is hard and has little organic matter and earthworms, tilling in some organic matter can be very beneficial.

However, it's not necessary. You can plant seedlings right on top of the soil and mulch around it. Maybe fork up the soil a bit just below for good root contact, and keep moist. Layers of mulch each successive year will build the soil very quickly.
 
Natalie McVander
Posts: 63
5
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
mycorrhizae

All soils contain this. Healthy soils contain a lot of it. If you have poor soil, adding in mycorrhizae can help.

As I understand it, it is simply a naturally occurring fungus that attaches to the roots of plants and increases their uptake of nutrients.
It won't last in the soil, unless you are feeding the soil what it needs anyhow.

If you use it on your seedlings in your greenhouse, they will outperform the ones that don't have it, but once in the garden, it will even out as time goes on.
 
Isaiah Ari Mattathias
Posts: 80
Location: Oregon
  • Likes 1
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
So glad I asked this question, amazing the responses and what I'm learning.
After much thought we decided to forego the tiller for now, as we have many inputs we can use and needed to buy seed and compost. Next year I know to gather much more organic matter because you can never have enough compost.
No doubt in the future we may need one, but I'm holding off for now.
I've collected from the company kitchen and sorted about 7,400lbs of pre-consumer compost (mostly fruits, breads and veggies) since about March 2013 and given to worms, pigs, compost pile, goats, chickens and dogs. Being in such a cold climate, the food stays remarkably cold, however Summer is another story. I've also gotten as many boxes as I could. People know me as the crazy farmer trash collection guy lol.
So here's what we've done in the past few days. After doing it however, I'm wondering how we're going to still put in the swale(s). We may have to move it, but hopefully it is established within the next few weeks.
I was offered a good size of free wood chips, if only I can arrange transport. This was a great find, because we experimented early on with a wood chip (after seeing the film Back to Eden) garden and it worked amazingly well.


35x25 area


backyard, smaller wood chip garden. wife is doing small rows this year. this one is about 1 year old.


raised beds.
 
Myron Weber
Posts: 67
Location: Orange County, CA, USA
1
  • Mark post as helpful
  • send pies
  • Quote
  • Report post to moderator
Howard Garrett aka the Dirt Doctor is a resource overlooked by the permies community - maybe because he doesn't self identify as a Permaculture guy and he focuses on helping everyone adopt better methods regardless. He has a lot of resources on bed preparation and building soil fertility, microbes, and fungus. Here's a short article but there's a ton more on his site.
http://www.dirtdoctor.com/Bed-Preparation_vq3029.htm
 
2017 Appropriate Technology Course at Wheaton Labs http://richsoil.com/pdc
  • Post Reply Bookmark Topic Watch Topic
  • New Topic
Boost this thread!