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To till or not to till - first use of clay soil

 
Wladimir Bonsegnori
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Dear Permies,

I will soon start growing food on a small piece of land that consists of clay soil that has not been cultivated for the last 30 years. I would prefer not to till, but there are really a lot of weeds there and the alternatives to tilling that I researched do not seem to be very atractive: solarization would use cardboard and/or newpapers, and I would prefer not to use them since I imagine that the soy used in the cardboard glue is very far away from being organic.
What would be, in your opinion, the best and healthiest solution to prepare this soil for cultivation for the first time? Is there something like soft tilling, that would not disturb the soil a lot?

Thanks, permies. I learned a lot from you here. You are the best.
 
David Livingston
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Have you looked into mulching ( wood chips , straw etc )or green manure ?

David
 
Judith Browning
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Location: Arkansas Ozarks zone 7 alluvial,black,deep loam/clay with few rocks, wonderful creek bottom!
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Wladimir Bonsegnori wrote:Dear Permies,

I will soon start growing food on a small piece of land that consists of clay soil that has not been cultivated for the last 30 years. I would prefer not to till, but there are really a lot of weeds there and the alternatives to tilling that I researched do not seem to be very atractive: solarization would use cardboard and/or newpapers, and I would prefer not to use them since I imagine that the soy used in the cardboard glue is very far away from being organic.
What would be, in your opinion, the best and healthiest solution to prepare this soil for cultivation for the first time? Is there something like soft tilling, that would not disturb the soil a lot?

Thanks, permies. I learned a lot from you here. You are the best.


We've been using a meadow creature broadfork
There is some discussion about broadforks here at permies broadforks
A broadfork will help aerate and 'fluff' the soil...not turn or mix the layers. Using one when the soil is the right moisture is tricky though...too dry is impossible here and too wet damages the tilth, especially for a clay soil....the second time around, after the first forking, is a joy...

We are using one on very compacted soil that has no rocks and it is hard but working well.....On the compacted area (50' by 50') I was able to plant oats and chicory and daikon radish before much of the grasses and weeds came up in the spring so what we haven't forked is mostly oats and chicory and radish and now I planted buckwheat just before mowing the oats and it is up nicely too.
The forked beds are growing well, tomatoes, sweet potato, chard, melons, beans and cucumbers...there is still some grass to keep cutting back but I think we'll win this one
 
Joseph Lofthouse
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If it were me, and I had the equipment... I'd use a plow to turn over the soil and bury the grasses and many rhizomes too deep to re-sprout. Followed by disking...

 
Dylan Mulder
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Location: North Carolina
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A little more background information on the space would be helpful for making informed reccomendations. 30 years since it has been cultivated? What has it been since then? What kinds of weeds - is it mostly perennial grasses? What kind of equipment do you have access too? Will you be planting annuals or perennials in the space?

I also have very heavy clay soil, and the biggest problems I have with any newly prepared soil are usually compaction, weeds, and low organic matter. At work we have a tractor drawn rotary plow, but in my own space I'm restricted to hand tools. Here's the strategy I've found that works for me.

I start by tilling the space, removing the plants that are there. I use a hoe for this. To decrease the amount of hard labor I have to do, I'll repeatedly mow the space, prior to tilling, until the perennial grasses root systems have mostly died off. I'll follow this with a tap rooted crop to help alleviate the compaction and improve the soil. I usually use radishes or Chantenay type carrots which handle clay well. Oh, and by the way - if you're farming for profit, carrots and radishes are a lucrative crop - at least here anyway. At work, we sell both at 3$ a bunch, with a good radish bed yielding around 2$ a square foot. Profitable soil improvement!

After I seed, I'll apply a light dusting of compost for immediate organic matter and soil critters. Radish is a quick crop, so by the time they're out, I'll slap in winter squash to help deal with weeds. They shade the soil and form a dense cover as they mature, so they'll keep a lot of weed seed from germinating. By the next year, the space is more suitable for many kinds of crops. If I skip the first steps and try to plant someting fine rooted first, it usually ends in crop failure.

If I'm planting perennials, I'll do the above steps, but follow the squash with something that produces a lot of carbon rich woody chaff, like grain. After harvesting and knocking the chaff down, there's a mulch for young shrubs that's ready to go - no hauling wood chips around. Planting perennials straight into soil that I haven't run annuals through first usually ends in tragedy.

If I had the equipment, I'd do what Joseph suggests and follow it with the scheme I outlined above.
 
alex Keenan
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Your details are lacking, so I will talk about my heavy clay soil in Cincinnati Ohio

First, there are weeds and there are weeds.
think rock, paper, scissors
I have goldenrod, giant ragweed beats golden rod, etc.
So one goal is to see what weeds are currently growing and what can outgrow them.

Second, every weed has a life cycle.
I am one of the few people who love giant ragweed. It is an annual that I feed to my poultry. If you cut it before it produces pollen you have great mulch.
It can also produce a canopy so tight that it kill all the other weeds. The trick to using it is to either have a stand in a area you will not use for other things, or to sprout it and plant the seedlings. This means that you do not get seeds living in the ground for years. So long as you cut it all down before it seeds you are golden. you can likely do a fall planting after you cut it down.
Another plant I love is wild burdock. It lives two years, so long as you cut the flower stalks no issues. Again, I sprout and plant seedlings so I do not get seeds in the ground for years. Burdock produces deep roots and alot of top cover.

Third, try some experiments
Several people have talked about prodcasting cow peas or legumes in seedballs.
I will be experimenting with some new cowpeas this year. I will broadcast them this weekend and use a weedeater to cut down all the weeds on top of the cowpeas.

Fourth, some soil tests are not bad. It helps to know what you are starting with.
In my case we have alot of poultry so I have to watch the phosphorous levels they tend to get high in my chicken waste.

Fifth, carefully dig a few holes and look at what soil structure you have.
Soil has micro, meso, and macro pores. Hopefully you will see worm tunnels and other structures.
Note how far down the structures go. Look at the soil profile as you go down. Should be leaf or grass litter on top and organics generally decrease as you go down.

It is now summer in the Northern half of the world. So assuming you are not down under, you should have a very good idea of what is growing on you clay soil.
So start by investigating and letting this discussion know of some of the details you have observed related to you clay soil area.
The more information you can supply, the better the advise people can offer you.
 
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