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Is "one till" a viable idea?

 
J Hampshire
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My wife and I were elated to start our first garden a few weeks ago. Sprouted everything in soil blocks per Eliot Coleman and it all looked phenomenal. Then we decided to try sort of cross-breed with sheet mulching and back to Eden; ever since we heard that double digging was colloquially referred to as "bastard trenching". Tried a layer of newspaper, then compost, then wood chips. Dug down to below the grass layer and planted. Everything is dying or dead. Since everything is going to shit, I decided to double dig a section of one of the two beds... A very small section. They nicknamed it BT for a reason. This soil is not nearly as nice as I had originally thought. It's VERY clay/sandy with a pretty staggering amount of rocks. The plants might as well be in thimbles. Even the stuff I double dug isn't going to make it. But that could be from the shock. We have hopes that in the next year or two, this will be fruitful soil given the time. The worms are already quite abundant in the top two inches. I know lasagna/back to Eden are really about the long term, but we gave it a shot, just to see.

We currently rent and don't plan to be here in another couple summers. The question is; would double digging all of this, or dare I say, rototilling ONCE to get the "flywheel" moving, be a viable option? In the interest of expediency, is "one till" something to consider; but from there rely completely on permaculture/no till/soil food web ideologies...?
 
John Elliott
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J Hampshire wrote:
We currently rent and don't plan to be here in another couple summers.


Then you've come to the wrong board, you want Tempies.com, where they talk about tempaculture.

Seriously, if the patch of dirt you have available to you is going to need a multi-year makeover, do your gardening in pots. There are all sorts of interesting things you can do with containers: potato towers; salsa containers where you grow tomatoes, peppers, onions, and cilantro all in the same pot; strawberry pots; flat trays for lettuce and other shallow rooted plants; hanging baskets.

What is it that you would like to grow? Maybe there is a workaround to dynamiting your yard and bringing in a dumptruck of topsoil.

 
Michael Bushman
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Location: Sacramento, CA
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I am not a purist and double digging isn't mean to turn the top layer of crappy soil into the bottom layer and then take the even crappier bottom layer and put it on top. The point is to be turning the fresh mulch on top into the bottom and taking the lower soil which was the year before s mulch and putting it on top.

The reality is all these methods are about putting more and more organic matter into the soil, lots of ways to skin a cat.

I garden in raised beds built on a concrete patio and I get great results but we threw all the leaves and twigs into the bottom and dirt from the yard as well as bags of chicken and cow manure and the crappy "soil amendment" stuff from home depot.

So, look at the time you are going to be there and decide what makes sense. Digging organic material into the top foot or so makes sense, going whole hog trying to create deep topsoil is probably wasted effort.
 
Jose Gonzalez
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My soil and situation is similar to yours, J. Hampshire. I remember in one of Pauls podcast where he said tilling would lose 30% of the microorganisms,but 30% of almost nothing is not bad. I took that as an ok for me because I live in a desert and my soil didn't even have weeds. It doesn't matter to me,renting my home and putting all this energy and money, to make a permie backyard. The way I justified it was thinking of repairing the land by restoring the soil, go somewhere else and do it again, plus I get experience before I buy my land. Now, I have a tree
 
chip sanft
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J Hampshire wrote:We currently rent and don't plan to be here in another couple summers. The question is; would double digging all of this, or dare I say, rototilling ONCE to get the "flywheel" moving, be a viable option? In the interest of expediency, is "one till" something to consider; but from there rely completely on permaculture/no till/soil food web ideologies...?


Most of the discussion of the downsides of tilling concerns the usual approach of repeated tilling over years, which is different from the one-time startup tilling that you're describing. And some (many?) organic gardeners do till annually with okay or better results. I myself went with total no-till for one of our three garden patches and turned the others by hand. The no-till section is definitely doing the best, but I also give it the most love, making the cause/effect relationship unclear.

Thoughts about your situation:

* I wonder what and how many different types of plants you've tried. In a situation where things aren't working, I'd change tactics, and one of my favorite things just generally is planting quantities of various stuff and seeing what works where I am. I make this affordable by doing things like buying lots of packets at the end of the season, when everything is massively discounted. At the food coop here you can get fancy seeds for half price or less at the end of the season, and at dollar store they're practically giving seeds away. I also use things from food (e.g., squash seed scooped and saved) or sold as food and so much cheaper than ordinary garden seed (dried beans, popcorn, buckwheat groats, sweet potato chunks, etc.). Every bit of plant that you get to grow is organic matter and can be treated as green manure, and every bit of root that grows will help in the long run.

* I'm wondering if the problem might lie in a combination of things, including the ratio of woodchips to compost etc. As you probably know, the decomposition of wood ties up nitrogen. So while long-term it enriches soil with organic material, in the short term you need to compensate. You might consider adding manure or diluted liquid gold (9:1 ratio or so) to help with that.

* Clay and sand, the two things you name as dominating your dirt, are quite different and each has its positive aspects. BUT both can lack organic matter. So you'll may need to keep adding as much as possible. Woodchips etc. are good, but in your place I'd think about stable scrapings and/or well aged ruminant manure as a quicker approach.

* Vermiculture produces not only castings that you can use as fertilizer but also worms that you can release to help jumpstart your local population.

If I may add a final piece of advice, it'd be to not worry about ideology. See this as a chance to experiment with all sorts of wild and crazy permaculture plants and organic+ methods. You're improving the soil, which is improving our home (i.e., Earth), and you are preparing a gift for the next residents. In the meantime, you'll also be gaining valuable experience that will help you in the long run. And if you keep at it and keep trying different things, you're likely to get some veggies out of the deal, too.
 
John Polk
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...and at dollar store they're practically giving seeds away.

I checked out our local Dollar Store the other day, and they had seed packets @ 10 for $1.
 
Bryant RedHawk
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J Hampshire wrote:My wife and I were elated to start our first garden a few weeks ago. Sprouted everything in soil blocks per Eliot Coleman and it all looked phenomenal. Then we decided to try sort of cross-breed with sheet mulching and back to Eden; ever since we heard that double digging was colloquially referred to as "bastard trenching". Tried a layer of newspaper, then compost, then wood chips.  Dug down to below the grass layer and planted. Everything is dying or dead. Since everything is going to shit, I decided to double dig a section of one of the two beds... A very small section. They nicknamed it BT for a reason. This soil is not nearly as nice as I had originally thought. It's VERY clay/sandy with a pretty staggering amount of rocks. The plants might as well be in thimbles. Even the stuff I double dug isn't going to make it. But that could be from the shock. We have hopes that in the next year or two, this will be fruitful soil given the time. The worms are already quite abundant in the top two inches. I know lasagna/back to Eden are really about the long term, but we gave it a shot, just to see.

We currently rent and don't plan to be here in another couple summers. The question is; would double digging all of this, or dare I say, rototilling ONCE to get the "flywheel" moving, be a viable option? In the interest of expediency, is "one till" something to consider; but from there rely completely on permaculture/no till/soil food web ideologies...?


In this situation you will find better success by either growing in containers (most portable method for when you move), or building raised beds.
Since you are renting, it would be advisable to check with the landlord about any method.
If you are certain to be moving I sure would not go to the effort needed to double dig gardens. You would need to spend a lot of money on amendments to add to the soil prior to replacing it, all the effort will be used up in two years since you would be gone to a new place.

Container gardening works great, you can grow everything in containers (even trees can be grown in containers), and there are these benefits to consider: you can take them with you when you move, usually have fewer bug issues, easier to improve the soil and microbiology.
 
Jay Grace
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One till is perfectly acceptable.  Just as soon as you till mulch it before it compacts back down.
You can do it without tilling once but it would just take a bit longer.

one of the benefits of double digging in a grass covered yard is to

A. Get rid of the grass

B. Bury the grass in the bottom of the trench to add organic material back to the ground.

One of the problems you are having is because there is topsoil then there is just plain old dead dirt.  Most places have less than an inch of topsoil. 
Plain old dirt will be hard pressed to sustain a garden plant.

My suggestion is to double dig then mulch with every piece of compostable material you can get a hold of.

Fall is coming up and people in town will be bagging up their leaves and placing them on the curb for you.
Just make your rounds the day before garbage day. 

Wood chips from tree companies or your county.
Small limbs about the thickness of your finger are good too.  Lay them on the dirt before you mulch.

Another thing people forget, you need to water your mulched area even if you don't have plants there to encourage critters and fungi to start breaking down the mulch and so the worms will be your "micro" tillers.
 
Trevor Stewart
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Tilling even once destroys all the work the microorganisms have done, in some cases that means all the work that's been done over millions of years. Tilling once and you never get it back.
 
Gilbert Fritz
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Tilling even once destroys all the work the microorganisms have done, in some cases that means all the work that's been done over millions of years. Tilling once and you never get it back.


Assuming somebody else has not already destroyed it.

And in a city, and even many places in the country, somebody already has: lawns, parking lots, compaction, grading, building, dumping toxins, spraying chemicals.

Even in the pristine wilds, wherever you find annuals, you will find soil disturbance: landslide, wildfire, animals burrowing or wallowing, tree blowdown, flooding, etc. Large numbers of annuals will not be found in old growth forests and most other undisturbed habitats.

In short, annual crops are disturbance adapted.

And, sheet mulching is a huge soil disturbance; it will completely and drastically change the soil microbiota, chemical balance, and nutrient cycling.

 
John Polk
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If the soil is really poor, then there is almost no life in it.
A single tilling, followed by the incorporation of organic matter and amendments will bring life into the soil.  A single tilling loosens the soil, and creates spaces for air and water to enter.  Without sufficient air/water, soil cannot sustain biological life.  Incorporating organic matter into that 'new' soil will bring it to life.  Plant something fast growing (such as buckwheat) into it - it doesn't matter if it winter-kills - as long as it gets some roots into the new soil.  Within months, it will have more than double the life that it had to start with.

This is called 'building (or growing) soil'.  If Mother Nature hasn't done it yet, it may take her another millennia to do so.  Jump start the process so that Mother Nature has the tools she needs to do her job.

 
R Ranson
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J Hampshire wrote:My wife and I were elated to start our first garden a few weeks ago. Sprouted everything in soil blocks per Eliot Coleman and it all looked phenomenal. Then we decided to try sort of cross-breed with sheet mulching and back to Eden; ever since we heard that double digging was colloquially referred to as "bastard trenching". Tried a layer of newspaper, then compost, then wood chips.  Dug down to below the grass layer and planted. Everything is dying or dead. Since everything is going to shit, I decided to double dig a section of one of the two beds... A very small section. They nicknamed it BT for a reason. This soil is not nearly as nice as I had originally thought. It's VERY clay/sandy with a pretty staggering amount of rocks. The plants might as well be in thimbles. Even the stuff I double dug isn't going to make it. But that could be from the shock. We have hopes that in the next year or two, this will be fruitful soil given the time. The worms are already quite abundant in the top two inches. I know lasagna/back to Eden are really about the long term, but we gave it a shot, just to see.

We currently rent and don't plan to be here in another couple summers. The question is; would double digging all of this, or dare I say, rototilling ONCE to get the "flywheel" moving, be a viable option? In the interest of expediency, is "one till" something to consider; but from there rely completely on permaculture/no till/soil food web ideologies...?


Good for you, practicing your forever skills in a tempory place.  So many times I've seen people come to farming/growing food with zero experience and expect it to be all sunshine and rose coloured tomatoes.  Like hell it is!  Do what you can where you are.  Improve the soil.  Learn how to do everything wrong.  In the end, the place is better than when you started and you know how to overcome that hurdle in future.  Show 'em that you care in spite of it being a rental property.  Maybe you care more about the soil because it is a rental property!  After all, we all 'rent' our space on this earth for a short while before we become compost.  Renters may just feel the temporary nature of their home stronger.

Is one till a viable idea?  There's a lot of contrary opinion about this.  You have everyone from Fukuoka who (although starting with a previously tilled field) advocated never tilling on one hand and Carol Deppe who in her book the Tao of Gardening, shows us some excellent examples of nature doing tilling and encourages us to till sometimes. 

I've taken two gardens from hardpan (with 1/4 inch of shitty top soil) to 2 feet of top soil in a little over two years (three winters, two summers).  I do this the way my great grandfather did it (the last of my line to farm before industrialization came along) which is to trench my compost (uncomposted).  This is much easier if the garden is dug or tilled first.  However, I don't like the tiller and only do it the once.  The rest of the time, as soon as something is harvested and there is a bare patch in the ground, I trench some compost (including the stems and debris from the plant that was just harvested), being sure to dig in as deep as I can into the hardpan, then plant immediately.  If the area is too large to have done in a week, I chrome it and sow a cover crop, wich will later be trenched in with the compost.  I've thought about double digging, but it seems like a lot of work and the results don't seem so quick as my current method.

Areas where I've done this quickly become like food forests as soon as I leave.  Lots of volunteer vegetables that are acclimatized to our area.  Fruit and nut trees popping up everywhere.  Because I don't heat age my compost, there are a lot of seeds in there, nuts, fruit seeds, &c.  The soil is rich and lofty (because I do my best not to step on it once it's dug).  What better gift to give the next residents than the start of a food forest?

Is there an example in nature that does this?  Probably on a smaller scale.  However, humans have been using this technique to quickly improve soil without degrading it for generations.  Even Fukuoka had a kitchen garden that was dug.

But this method doesn't work for everyone.  Different locations work differently.  There are so many different ways.  The whole idea with the deep mulch, that would work in some locations but seriously fails when tried here
 
J Hampshire
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R Ranson wrote:Good for you, practicing your forever skills in a tempory place.  So many times I've seen people come to farming/growing food with zero experience and expect it to be all sunshine and rose coloured tomatoes.  Like hell it is!  Do what you can where you are.  Improve the soil.  Learn how to do everything wrong.  In the end, the place is better than when you started and you know how to overcome that hurdle in future.  Show 'em that you care in spite of it being a rental property.


Thank you! The first few replies from when I originally posted this weren't totally grasping the idea/being as constructive as I would have imagined. But since then, people's reception have evidently increased, as I haven't checked this post in a couple months.

First and foremost, I have excellent news; the change in the top soil is happening! Wood chips are breaking down quickly and covered in mycelium, bugs are abundant, the newspaper is totally broken down, the grass layer is nearly gone and can easily be punched through with almost no effort. The sub soil is still quite beige, rock-laden, and granular. However, seeing the progress I am unquestionably convinced, and prepared to vehemently defend, the miraculous nature of this practice. There is no doubt that deep, rich, quality topsoil is simply a matter of time. Not doubting it, and actually seeing it happen, are two different things. Belief, and witness, are equally powerful. Once the spring rolls back around the entire area will be much easier to work/oxygenate/remove rocks/perhaps double dig.

I feel like the one major drawback to this ideology, actually has nothing to do with the practice; but everything to do with the delivery of the information. We tried it because we saw multiple reports, that you simply could. Just plunk down some newspaper, compost and woods chips and never lift a finger. I feel like this method needs to come with a heavy disclaimer: "This should only be done in late summer/early fall, it takes a very long time/don't even attempt this without a year in between." It should be called "patient planting" not "lasagna gardening." However, that's obviously not quite as catchy for marketing purposes, so the chances of that are quite slim.

It's shaping up that we will probably be here through next summer, so round two is even more exciting than round one! Knowing our space, seeing all the life that can come from such a tiny area is so wildly fascinating and empowering. Very excited to continue to the process. Or, let the process continue, as it were.
 
Bryant RedHawk
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It is my belief that there are many methods that will reach the same end goal.
Which one to use can be best determined by observation then action.

When we want to "improve soil" what we really want is to add carbon in the form of humus, to that end.
You can:
1). Dig in compost or other forms of carbon containing plant matter.

2). Grow long term (1 year) cover crops that are a blend of straw types and legumes for nitrogen fixation, then crimp roll or press down this crop twice during the year of growth.
This allows the broken straw type plants to reseed, and begin decomposing while the legume crops continue to grow. at the end of this process you turn these crops under and plant your crop plants.
This method is very suitable for both improving the soil nutrient content, adding carbon and providing good bacteria and fungi to the soil. IF you can add a round of animal foraging to this mix, all the better.
Many people think that "green manures" are great for building soils.
These tend to be short term solutions since you are doing short turnaround mineral mining instead of giving the plants time to add large amounts of carbon and nitrogen by cutting short their life cycle.
It is always better to let a cover crop go to seed before you either chop and drop or crimp roll, this way you are giving back to the soil larger quantities of nutrients as well as great amounts of carbon becoming sequestered into the soil.
This builds the soil faster and allows better use of the cover crops abilities for soil improvement. It also takes less of your energies and time.

3). you can go strict no till, but unless you are willing to wait several years for carbon infiltration, your initial results will be less than most desire.

4). you can Double dig, which in the cases of extreme compaction might be the fastest way to get air down into the soil, which allows the microorganisms the ability to flourish quickly.

5). simply laying items on the surface, while eventually effective, does not get those components down into the top 18 inches of soil (where all food plant growing roots like to live) quickly, this method is very dependent upon the earth worms.
planting deep root plants helps this along by their rotting in place thus making pockets of humus from surface to tip of root (daikon and rape are perfect examples of this).

In the end it is more a matter of how much time you can spend on soil improvement vrs. how quickly you need to be able to produce a crop for food that determines which of the many methods out there will work best for your particular plot of land and your particular needs.
In many cases it will be found that a combination of methods will be not only the most appropriate but also give the fastest results.
Do not ever make the mistake of thinking there is only one way that is best, when that happens, you have limited your ability to heal the land for the purposes of growing good, healthy plants.

These are things that I have found out through all my years of studying the earth mothers methods.
 
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