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To Till, or Not to Till, and WHY

 
Posts: 61
Location: high desert and mountains of Idaho and coastal Atlantic Canada (migratory)
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To till 1 foot and to mow at 1 foot is that root-to- soot ratio which concentrates organics in that 1 foot? Does the same thing work with lawns which get continually cut at 1 1/2 inches?  Or the golf course "greens" which get cut to like 3/8 inch?

Doesn't nearly all organics come from "outside" a soil? Isn't the vast majority of the mass which makes up organics taken from the CO2 in the air?  Photosynthesis assembles this CO2 along with water and trace minerals/chemicals/nutrients into organic matter. Carbon is the stuff of life. This matter can be converted into other forms of life.  -or converted back into CO2 in waste treatment facilities. In a strange abstract way the entirety of the system of agriculture, which includes all farm land and all grazing land might be seen as a way of "feeding" our waste treatment facilities (i.e. CO2 production facilities) with the human being as just one step in that process of converting life back into carbon.  Don't try to find a point in all that. It's just an observation.

Join me in emoting. See the powerful film The Field. Here's the opening scene: "God made the world. Seaweed made that field."



Seaweed soil amendment is not a feel good myth. It is a historical reality. See the documentary shot in 1934 when this lifestyle still existed.




 
pollinator
Posts: 1559
Location: Denver, CO
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To till 1 foot and to mow at 1 foot is that root-to- soot ratio which concentrates organics in that 1 foot? Does the same thing work with lawns which get continually cut at 1 1/2 inches?  Or the golf course "greens" which get cut to like 3/8 inch?



This has to do with pulsing of the system. Letting the grass or other vegetation grow wall provides maximal solar collection area, which in turn fuels more root growth, pumping carbon deeper into the soil in the form of roots, root hairs, and exudates. Then, before the plants go to seed, the vegetation is cut (or grazed with animals.) The roots die off to balance the top growth. Then the plants start growing again, and pump another round of carbon into the soil. The chisel plowing is to loosen the soil, speeding mineralization which supports fast growth. Of course, too much tilling or plowing will cause so much mineralization that there will be a net loss of carbon. The reason for proceeding in 1 foot increments is because the first time around it will probably be too hard to pull a chisel plow through the soil at three feet deep.

Doesn't nearly all organics come from "outside" a soil?



It does. If one could just import carbon grown on another soil, that would be fine. But it will inevitably bring other minerals with it, minerals that will eventually deplete in the source soil and may over accumulate in the sink soil. And there is also the energy consumed in transport; it is much more efficient at large scales to grow in place.

Seaweed is perhaps an exception; it would be difficult to deplete the sea!
 
Posts: 59
Location: North Carolina
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My stance is pro tillage - to me a human is an animal that digs for its food - if I couldn't dig to produce food, then I couldn't imagine being alive for very long. Any system inhabitated by humans has to allow and account for this behavior.

I agree that tillage causes very real damage to the soil, and have seen healthy soil turned into concrete desert through tillage. Thankfully, there's a substantial knowledge base for minimizing and repairing the damage when it happens. Not tilling when it's too wet/dry, cover crops, encouraging worms, etc. all come to mind.

I disagree that the cultivation of annuals has only a negative impact on the soil. In my experience, many species of annual plants noticeably improve soil quality. Grasses and psuedograins come to mind, producing immense biomass in soils too harsh for many other species. I've seen radishes and turnips break up soil compaction fantastically.

Overall, tillage is a great tool that must be handled with care, much like fire. Much like fire, it would be hell to try and live without it.
 
Tom Turner
Posts: 61
Location: high desert and mountains of Idaho and coastal Atlantic Canada (migratory)
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Thanks Gilbert. Now I get the 'pulse" thing. And I like it. You, and your website, have also taught me about the balance of nutrients and the possibility that you might over-amend with certain nutrients. I had always seen it kind of like taking vitimins, if you take too many you simply urinate the excess out. A gram of vitamin C turns your urine a festively bright shade of orange. It seems to me that soil analysis should become an indispensible and integral part of agriculture, agriculture that is, that feeds their crops with their soil instead of with chemical spray tanks. The industry of inexpensive laboratory soil analysis should be a growth industry.  

Apologists for our globalized industrialized agricultural system, where it is the norm to eat foods grown on the other side of the world, make the argument that it is more healthy because we get a more balanced diet. They claim that in the bad-old-days when people ate only foods which came from the same patch of ground that deficiencies were common. If I remember correctly iodine deficiency is the common one cited. If the movement to grow and eat locally takes off then we may need to move certain nutrients around because the balance of our diets come from the balance of our soils.

In the middle of the so-called fly-over zone, say in the middle of Iowa, it would probably be difficult to find organic material without paying market price for it. But in urban areas there is an abundance of organic material, the product of aesthetic landscaping. Marcos seems to be very successful finding organics in LA at a very cheap price. (He might give credit for his soil fertility to his herd of long thread fungi but I think it is the 8 inches of wood chip he top dresses with every year.) In urban areas landscapers are always looking for dumping places for their organic waste (except beware the chemical rich grass clippings which have even more chemicals than what we eat out of the grocery stores). If we move towards urban/rural desegregation, then the market for alien organics opens up. Full integration might be two acres per family, 1 acre pasture bounded by wooded hedgerow, 1/2 acre garden and 1/2 acre aesthetic landscape surrounding the house which also incorporates a massive green house. People should live with the flora and fauna they intend to eat ... but no chickens in my bed, only dogs.

.  
 
Gilbert Fritz
pollinator
Posts: 1559
Location: Denver, CO
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Hi Tom,

Yes, there is so much to learn about soils. Every time I think I understand it I find a huge new piece I have to integrate into my thinking.

I agree that in the city it makes sense to import organic materials so long as contamination can be avoided. Persistent herbicides are becoming more and more common, so I've stopped importing grass and leaves from lawns I don't control. Even wood chips are becoming suspect as the city injects systemic insecticides to kill emerald ash borer. Then the ash trees get killed by other things, and the chips end up in a tree trimming truck!

I agree with you about putting some of a system into carbon crops to support the production areas. Some gardeners have four or five plots, most of which are in grass in any given year. Once a year they till up a new patch and seed an old one.

One interesting way to grow organic matter for a plot is with azolla ferns in a pond. Azolla fixes nitrogen from the air, so you would be importing nitrogen and carbon. The pond will only benefit from removed nutrients, not suffer. And the azolla mat makes a good weed smothering mulch. Azolla is one of the fastest growing plants on earth under ideal conditions.

I'm glad you liked my website! As always, when soil balancing comes up, I'd recommend Steve Solomon's book, The Intelligent Gardener. I disagree with him on some things, and his tone can sometimes be off putting, but it is the best book I've found yet for small scale growers looking to balance their soil.
 
Tom Turner
Posts: 61
Location: high desert and mountains of Idaho and coastal Atlantic Canada (migratory)
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Gilbert Fritz wrote:One interesting way to grow organic matter for a plot is with azolla ferns in a pond. Azolla fixes nitrogen from the air, so you would be importing nitrogen and carbon. The pond will only benefit from removed nutrients, not suffer. And the azolla mat makes a good weed smothering mulch. Azolla is one of the fastest growing plants on earth under ideal conditions.



Azolla?! I grew some fast growing Asian poplars (andrascogins). One grew to 16 inch diameter in three seasons (at it's base there were a couple raised beds which didn't get tilled and the andrascogin sent it's roots UP into the beds and quickly root-bound them. I've thought andrascogins might be a good way to turn human poo into firewood. But a better way would be a global market for home grown textile hemp raised on human poo. My grandmother would bring the wool from the few sheep they had to the local woolen mill in exchange for yarn. If we had a socially organized system of poo to textiles, and a hard-working diligent woman who would make me clothes -custom tailored clothes- on her high-tech sewing machine working from computer-generated patterns. That would be living large on appropriate technology.

I could live my whole life without ever consuming any of the by-products of that 2000 mile swath of corn and soy bean along I80.  But what I would really love to have is a four season greenhouse supplying me kale and other greens, but mainly kale, all year long. And I would love to have fish three times a week. My Dad said that when he was a kid in rural Boston fish was a poor man's food. Kale was the traditional poor man's food in England, "kale yards" being a somewhat derogatory name for slums. I would love to eat fresh kale and fish three times a week, but, ironically, today it's too expensive. I've thought about if that could be a symbiotic system with the fish (vegetarian tilapia) and hydroponic kale sharing the same water. But I don't have the soil nutrient and aqua biology knowledge. It seems that the hydroponic kale would want the water dirty with nutrients and that the fish would want the water kept clean of their "ahem..." nutrients, which usually demands a high exchange of fresh water, making fish farming not that attractive.  

I'm rambling here. My point/question is: Would Azollas grow in the relatively clean water of a healthy tilapia pond, the moment a tilapia relieves himself there is an azolla root to immediately take it up. The azolas keep the water scrubbed clean and then are harvested to provide rich soil nutrients which then grow the grains to feed the tilapia. Kind of a closed-loop symbiotic system to turn CO2 into protein.

Gilbert Fritz wrote:I'm glad you liked my website! As always, when soil balancing comes up, I'd recommend Steve Solomon's book, The Intelligent Gardener. I disagree with him on some things, and his tone can sometimes be off putting, but it is the best book I've found yet for small scale growers looking to balance their soil.



The objectivity required to separate an idea from an off putting source is admirable. Kudos. Quite often the opposite is true, often people want to know the source of an idea before they form their judgement about it. That is a negative aspect of the academic principle of citation. It, perhaps unwittingly, forms ideological camps. The ultimate test of a truly courageous objective thinker is one who could quote Adolf Hitler (surely he said something quotably good). I can't do it though, I don't have the courage. I've had too many ideas rejected out-of-hand because of my own off-putting-ness or the pigsty where I might have found such a pearl of wisdom (E.G. quoting GK Chesterton or Eric Hoffer in a forum of high-brow intellectuals).

.
 
pollinator
Posts: 244
Location: La Mesa, Cundinamarca, Colombia
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We sort of, kinda, till, but only once: we're busy making terraces and we do it for a lot of different reasons. Erosion control and loosening our compacted clay soils, creating a flat surface to walk and work on, water control etc. The results are great, things grow faster and bigger, the difference with plants growing on slopes is huge. But after we're done digging all our zones one and two, which is about a hectare (2.5 acres) I never ever want to do it again! So we'll turn to every permaculture technique to make sure nature herself will maintain the improved situation by herself. Mulching, chop and drop, you name it. It's just too much work to till (or dig terraces) by hand.
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Posts: 35
Location: The Ozarks
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Here was my small-scale experience:

Tilled the garden into existence for time's sake, then put on cardboard and then straw. First round was pretty good.

The next year, we pulled off the cover for most of the beds and re-tilled to "fluff" the dirt and add more worm castings, and re-covered.

That year we noticed a marked decrease in fertility and health in the tilled beds, but a marked INCREASE in the ones we didn't get to. The double-tilled beds didn't have the mushrooms and worms, but had many pests and strangely "blank" dirt-absence of life. The untilled beds made me regret tilling anything.
I would say untilled was better than what we started with, and tilled was worse.

I generally view human-tilling as a form of earthworks. Sometimes it can save you time/money for the initial planting. If your soil is healthy, the bugs do the real "tilling" for you, and not just once a year. Also, tilling some plants like grasses under the soil seems to be a nitrogen problem, but if you used it as surface fertilizer, you attract more free continual-tiller/fertilizers like worms.

Also, tilling is a lot of work. I don't want to bother if I won't get a lot of direct benefit. As it is, it has brought negative stuff so far.

Now, we did this with clayey soil. I wonder if different soils score differently on the success/failure scale of tilling?
 
pollinator
Posts: 2224
Location: Kent, UK - Zone 8
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Joseph Lofthouse wrote:I love tilling perennial beds. It's a great way of incorporating organic matter into the soil and of minimizing annual weeds and some grasses. I till my raspberry patch under in the fall (only works with fall bearing raspberries).  I till asparagus, sunroots, chives, Egyptian onions, mints, etc... The perennials come back just fine after tilling.  I rejuvenate the strawberry patch by tilling.



Joseph. I have never even heard of this - eg tilling raspberries with the intention of them coming back. Can you talk us through the details?
 
pollinator
Posts: 8298
Location: Victoria British Columbia-Canada
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My soil is mostly rock flour. Not much structure to destroy but all the minerals a boy could want. I don't purposely dig deep and turn every portion of soil. Instead, I scrape the surface to remove unwanted growth, and then cultivate planting furrows. Organic materials are always incoporated during this process. When you look at the improved and unimproved soils at my place, it is dead obvious that this tilling has made vast improvements.

My brother Brady occupies a similar patch of ground. He is constantly digging, whether it be to plant things or to dispose of pet poop and other organic waste. After 10 years on the same spot his ground has vastly more organic matter and is highly productive. He never tills it all completely , but most areas see regular disturbance during planting and harvest. Plenty of root crops.

For me, no till is a great way to go when producing grains on the Great Plains. Soil in this temperate rainforest seems to improve every time it's disturbed and amended.
.......
Most of the tillage at my place, is done by worms, snakes and other critters. I dump lots of organic materials on the surface. The critters eat it, burrow in it and drag it around.
 
Posts: 156
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When I tilled my clay soil for the first time as far as I could go I couldn't believe how much soil I ended up with- at least 5 times more volume than I started with. I could have filled a raised bed with that soil and still had more left over. That's how compacted the soil had become.

I removed it all, filled the garden with just horse manure and a thin layer of the original clay soil on top to stop the smell and flies, and to hold seeds in place. A few weeks on and the vegetables grown in the fresh manure are growing like crazy. When I plant any seedling deep down I don't need any tools, just a thin stick which sinks through with ease. I'm letting it build up in volume over time just through adding organic materials on top with time. My point to this is that no tilling will ever be required of this garden bed so it's entirely a non-issue to me now. It was hard work to dig out the original soil but a lot less work after that.
 
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