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Are leaves always a good thing to rototill in?  RSS feed

 
Dar Helwig
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Putting in a garden for next year. About 8 inches down the ground is hard clay. What I have rototilled is also somewhat clayee. My compost pile never finished composting so I am going to let it continue working. I have another pile of shredded and mostly non-shredded leaves from last year that are hald way broken down. They are a black mass that is quite moist. I shredded so of it and it came out looking like black dirt so I guess it was getting close to being compost. I decided to just spread the whole pile on my garden and till it in. It will add organics to the dirt and make it more able to hold water and permit drainage. My question is, since the leaves where not properly composted can they actually do harm to my soil? It seems to me that any organics added will have to be an improvement. What do you think? It will have till nest spring to decay further.
 
William Bronson
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Location: Cincinnati, Ohio,Price Hill 45205
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Rototilling in carbon that isn't fully broken down could cause nitrogen deficiencies.
Your compost sounds pretty far along, if the bed will be resting until spring,you should have good results.
 
Hester Winterbourne
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Leaves always go on top.  The soil life can then hide under them and take them down into the soil as needed.  They also help to reduce the impact of rain on the soil surface.
 
James Freyr
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Hi Dar, in general, adding not properly composted leaves will not *harm* your soil, it just may not be the ideal practice. The only time it may be a detriment is if the leaves came from a clearly sick tree, and adding those leaves can sometimes just add the plague to the soil. I have a lilac bush and a ornamental japanese cherry tree that have some disease and I rake up their leaf litter and dump them in a separate place in the woods and don't add it to my compost.
 
s. ayalp
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In my opinion the fastest remedy for clay soil is incorporating organic matter. So for an immediate impact I would rototill it with enough coffee grounds to help for nitrogen deficiency and also to encourage worms. Back to the eden style will sure work but it might take time.
 
Ben Zumeta
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Location: Redwood Country, Zone 9, 60" rain/yr,
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If you are going to till, adding organic matter is necessary to make the benefits out-weigh the harm, even in the short term. Long term, tilling is just creating a more distinct hardpan at the bottom of the tiller's reach.

I agree with those who suggest adding leaves and other organic matter to the surface instead. Ideally use as diverse a mix as you can. If you can add forest duff and other microbe rich organic matter (seaweed, manure, etc), layer or mix it and let it improve the soil passively over the winter. It'll improve the soil in the long term far better than tilling as you will get fungus and bacteria doing things you could never do for the future garden.

I'd analogize tilling to doing your kids homework for them, they may get better grades that year than doing it themselves but will not develop. Just as your yield the next season may improve with tilling, but you will become dependent on tilling and will see decreasing yields whereas if you just let the soil biology evolve and develop you will get a more resilient and self-sufficient garden.
 
Marco Banks
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Please don't till.

Pile the organic matter on the soil surface.  Permaculture principles mimic nature.  You can speed up biological succession, but you can't improve upon it.  Mulch heavily on the soil surface and let the worms and fungi incorporate that carbon down into the soil profile.  If you can plant a cover crop into your mulch layer, all the better. 

If you do this, you'll have rich soil within 2 years.  If you till, even tilling organic matter down into the soil, you'll create a soil that will be dependent upon your ongoing inputs. 

 
Dar Helwig
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I rototilled in my mulch/compost today. Sorry, all you anti-till people. I promise that this fall I will much heavy on the surface but I was bothered by the unhealthy look of my soil. I definitely see  a difference in the texture and the color has gone from a drab gray to a more brownish color. Looks better to me for what thats worth. I applied my whole compost pile which was about 12, or so larfe wheel barrow loads to a garden of 20ft x 40ft. So I guess thats about  a wheel barrow load for each 100 sq ft. Sounds like a lok to me but it sure didn't change its looks that much. If i had more I would put it on.

When I get some good garden growth going, will this have any effect on the underlying clay? Or am I just going to have to keep adding to the surface to build up more depth?
 
Su Ba
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15 years ago I started out with really poor soil, if one would call it that. Every couple of weeks for the first year I tilled in a 3" layer of shredded organic material, anything and everything. I'd grind up grass, light twigs, leaves, small brush, whatever with the old lawnmower. Some was lush green grass clippings, high in moisture and nitrogen. The rest was dry, stemmy, or woody. I'd also tilled in fresh horse manure which I hand gathered from neighbors' pastures. Yes, it was work. I didn't try growing crops the first year, but I did hand scatter oats as a cover crop so that the ground would be covered in the areas I couldn't till frequently. The sprouted oats got tilled in before they grew much taller than 8"-10". I didn't have compost back then. I just gathered and ground up every bit of organic material I could get my hands on and rototiller it in.

To this day I can see the difference between the area that got this treatment and the areas that didn't. The area where I spent a year tilling in ground up organic material still out produces my untreated garden areas, and the soil maintains moisture much better.

Conclusion........for me, spending that year repetitively tilling improved my soil far better than any other method I've tried. Just my own observation on my own homestead farm. Now would this work for clay? I don't know.

I'm well aware that there is an anti-tilling sentiment among permies. They remind me of it on my blog from time to time. But I tend to do what works best for me in my situation. Thus I lightly till between each crop, incorporating more organic material and other soil amendments before planting the next crop. That means that every two to four months most of my garden area gets tilled.
 
Ben Zumeta
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Location: Redwood Country, Zone 9, 60" rain/yr,
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Seems to me, that you at least tilled in the most beneficial way with all that organic matter and it will give you a better garden this year than had you not tilled and just planted without mulch. But this is a straw man comparison, as I would bet you could have spent the same amount of money and time as you did on the tiller on something else to build the soil, i.e. kelp, manure, woody debris, even on bulk soil itself, and built a raised bed that would greatly exceed the yield you will get with this tilled area.  The simple deep mulch and no till method will start to surpass a tilled plot in 3 years or less and I would bet you get to that point faster without tilling in the first place. Its amazing what piling diverse organic debris does to the soil beneath it with a little time.
 
John Saltveit
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I moved into my house 9 years ago, with horrible, pesticide laden horrible clay. We didn't till. We just added wood chips and leaves.  I planted trees and bushes, and when I did, I put in old rotted wood and gravel in the holes for the trees/bushes. I also tried to connect the holes to at least one other hole so it wasn't a "clay pot".  Every year it has gotten steadily better and all of the types of plants have gotten healthier. Now I have good soil, but it continues to get better, and I continue to avoid tilling, partly to support the fungi in the soil that we would kill with tilling.
John S
PDX OR
 
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