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Best way to start no dig on former dairy land ( grass and some weeds )  RSS feed

 
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I have a 6 acre piece of property that was a former dairy farm. It has been a fallow for a number of years, and when I bought it 2 years ago it was primanrily weeds, grasses and light bramble. The past two years I've had it brush hogged and the grasses have started to come back a bit. This spring I want to do some no-dig gardening, and I'm invested in the best way to go about it. There is a local place that sells good quality compost for $10 / yard. So if I want to start a 25 x 50 garden, onto of existing grasses ( with some residual weeds ) what is my best bet? I've read 4" of compost should due, do I want to try to put cardboard down, then the 4" or should I put less compost but then landscape fabric the rest ( and cut wholes for my plants ). The soil is silt-loam and is a bright red from mineral deposites, which is supposedly good for agriculture?.  I'm Just getting started and looking for some advice.
 
pollinator
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Welcome , Dereck!!

Sounds like you have a decent piece of land to start your project with. Congratulations. Mind telling us a bit more? Where is it located? What's the climate like? What's some of your goals -- self-sufficency? Market gardens? Permaculture homestead? Focus upon a particular crop family? Food forestry? Etc. Plus, how along are you in experience? Novice, intermediate, experienced?

First let me say, in my opinion there is no single "best way" to do things in permaculture. There's lots of leeway, flexibility, and possibilities. So when I'm working a new project, I often try small plots using different methods to see which works best for me in that location.

Some grasses and weeds are notoriously difficult to smother, others are easy. So a 4" mulch layer may or may not do the trick. But as weeds return, if you chop each one as they first appear, it should not be overly difficult to control and eliminate them. Many new gardeners make the mistake of waiting too long before doing something about the returning weeds. Cardboard may or may not be the answer. I've used cardboard over grass, and while initially happy with the results, I have since abandoned the method. I found the cardboard effective to a point, then it had problems associated with it-- it got slippery during wet periods making a dangerous walking situation. Yes, I fell several times. It also didn't uniformly rot away, leaving huge chunks that I ended up removing and carrying away to a hugelpit. The wind here would kick it up and make a mess.

The one thing I would say NOT to do is use landscape fabric. I've never been happy with it. Plenty of people have their own horror stories about it. Once down in place for awhile it becomes a nightmare to remove. It never rots away, but it shreds, causing hours and hours of work to remove it. And contrary to the advertising, there will be plenty of weeds growing in the top mulch plus plenty of grasses growing back right up through the weedblock cloth. I've tried even heavy duty professional landscape cloth and have had grasses grow right up through it. And those grasses that fail to make it through the fabric weave  their roots and shoots into the fabric, effectively gluing it to the soil. To remove glued down landscape cloth I've had to use my pickup truck to pull it up in pieces. Not a fun job.

Personally I've taken pasture areas and mowed them down real close to the soil. Then I run a rototiller shallowly across the top to cut the grass plants off at the soil level. The tiller is simply faster and easier than using a hand hoe to chop. I'll do this on a sunny day and have to sub dry out to uprooted grasses. The next day I'll rake off the grasses, transferring them to a compost bin. I'll cover the exposed soil with a very light mulch, just enough to protect the soil microbes.,no more than a 1/2" thick. Then I'll wait a week or two for weeds and grasses to grow back, then either chop or rototill them off. Reapply a very light mulch as needed. Then wait again for a week or two to see what sort of regrowth I have, chopping or surface tilling until the major regrow this gone. The only thing I haven't controlled this way in my farm is bermuda grass. It works for most everything else. Now with the majority of weeds and grasses controlled, I'll get on with mulching, soil amendments (after a soil testing), and gardening.

Hope these ideas help. I'm sure more folks will chime in with their own experiences. There's more than one way to start out.
 
Dereck Downey
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Su Ba wrote:Welcome , Dereck!!

Sounds like you have a decent piece of land to start your project with. Congratulations. Mind telling us a bit more? Where is it located? What's the climate like? What's some of your goals -- self-sufficency? Market gardens? Permaculture homestead? Focus upon a particular crop family? Food forestry? Etc. Plus, how along are you in experience? Novice, intermediate, experienced?



So I'm looking to develop it into a weekend summer farm and homestead. Its located in Delaware county NY ( Zone 5 A ) and water is pretty abundant as it is in the NY watershed, actually there are quite a few streams uphill of the location. I'm looking to create something that is as self sufficient as possible, utilizing technology whenever possible, I know that might seem like a contradiction. I'm an experienced builder / engineer and an intermediate Gardener, but Permaculture is kind of a new concept to me, and I find it exciting. I think eventually I would like to try a CSA  Market Garden but for starters I'm just looking to do a pilot scale of that, and provide some free produce to friends and family.


Su Ba wrote:

Some grasses and weeds are notoriously difficult to smother, others are easy. So a 4" mulch layer may or may not do the trick. But as weeds return, if you chop each one as they first appear, it should not be overly difficult to control and eliminate them. Many new gardeners make the mistake of waiting too long before doing something about the returning weeds. Cardboard may or may not be the answer. I've used cardboard over grass, and while initially happy with the results, I have since abandoned the method. I found the cardboard effective to a point, then it had problems associated with it-- it got slippery during wet periods making a dangerous walking situation. Yes, I fell several times. It also didn't uniformly rot away, leaving huge chunks that I ended up removing and carrying away to a hugelpit. The wind here would kick it up and make a mess.



Ok understood, perhaps newspaper than? or would that break dow immediately . . .


Su Ba wrote:
The one thing I would say NOT to do is use landscape fabric. I've never been happy with it. Plenty of people have their own horror stories about it. Once down in place for awhile it becomes a nightmare to remove. It never rots away, but it shreds, causing hours and hours of work to remove it. And contrary to the advertising, there will be plenty of weeds growing in the top mulch plus plenty of grasses growing back right up through the weedblock cloth. I've tried even heavy duty professional landscape cloth and have had grasses grow right up through it. And those grasses that fail to make it through the fabric weave  their roots and shoots into the fabric, effectively gluing it to the soil. To remove glued down landscape cloth I've had to use my pickup truck to pull it up in pieces. Not a fun job.



I would prefer not to use plastic, I've watched a bunch of those Curtis Stone videos on youtube and he uses it extensively, making sure to burn the edges. but I understand he is doing something different more urban gardening. I may try one row just to get my own experience and see how I feel

Su Ba wrote:
Personally I've taken pasture areas and mowed them down real close to the soil. Then I run a rototiller shallowly across the top to cut the grass plants off at the soil level. The tiller is simply faster and easier than using a hand hoe to chop. I'll do this on a sunny day and have to sub dry out to uprooted grasses. The next day I'll rake off the grasses, transferring them to a compost bin. I'll cover the exposed soil with a very light mulch, just enough to protect the soil microbes.,no more than a 1/2" thick. Then I'll wait a week or two for weeds and grasses to grow back, then either chop or rototill them off. Reapply a very light mulch as needed. Then wait again for a week or two to see what sort of regrowth I have, chopping or surface tilling until the major regrow this gone. The only thing I haven't controlled this way in my farm is bermuda grass. It works for most everything else. Now with the majority of weeds and grasses controlled, I'll get on with mulching, soil amendments (after a soil testing), and gardening.



This sounds like a good approach . . . the roots of the grasses are serios . . I dug to plant a tree and it was no joke, it makes me wonder if "surface tilling" is even possible. I saw one person on the internet who recommended cutting the grass into 1' squares with a spade shovel, and then flipping them upside down and mulching on top, but I have no idea what the implication of this are from a soil perspective ... intuitively something tells me that this would mess up the soil biology, but I'm too inexperience to really know. The process you describe, is this something I may be able to do this spring? I know allot of the soil prep is usually done in the fall. Also, any thoughts on how large I should go for a pilot program ... lets say to grow enough to keep 10 - 20 folks in fresh veg.

Thanks for sharing all of your knowledge !



 
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Several years ago I helped revive an old dairy farm. There was plenty of hay & a small mountain of excellent cow pie/hay compost available. I needed a garden fast. Very clay soil with a huge amount of thick weeds. I piled up straw about 2 feet thick. Then added a foot or more of compost on top of that. Planted directly in that. Amazing results, mostly with yellow squash & tomatoes. The tires were for potatoes. That was a trial run done in a hurry. They eventually became several tires tall loaded with potatoes. Did not eat those. It was just an experiment.
hay-n-poo-tire-garden.jpg
[Thumbnail for hay-n-poo-tire-garden.jpg]
 
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My recommendation is to go to your neighbors land and dig up his soil and add it to your 25ft by 50ft area, and your land will still qualify as no till. JK.

To me it is okay to disturb your land with big horrible bulldozers to put in swales, to import rockdust, sea90 and other such amendment, and seeds and plants and water to get your system established. Once it is established I don't like the idea of having to continually having to water or import stuff or till/disturb the soil.

So I would say it is okay to till the soil and incorporate lime/rock dust/compost/swales/worm composting trenches/etc and also to digg into the soil to drop in your seeds and to transplant your seedlings. To make up for it that 1st year, I would add worm tea, mushroom slirries and baby the soil life, in addition to your garden plants.

But if you are really against it, import alot of topsoil/compost/biosolids and dump it on top of your current soil. You can even make raised beds too, I like the idea of strawbales holding in the soils vs logs/cement 'bricks'. The strawbales could also be growing oyster mushroom too, so an additional harvest and once it is done, it is now mushroom compost and oyster mushroom innoculant/spawn for some fresh strawbale.
 
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I'm tractoring chickens over my new allotment this winter:  it's mostly grass with some thistles, nettles and dock.  It's a small plot, maybe 12 feet by 36 feet, so only five chickens in my tractor!  I've also sheet mulched about a quarter of it, and will not put the tractor there.  Right now things are still growing slowly, but I hope as winter comes the chickens will be able to outpace the regrowth (they can't keep up with it now, though they're doing good work).

On a larger scale, pigs might be a better option.
 
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I'm in the process of digging manure intp a new garden that was an inch of sod over clay. I dug in about two inches of horse manure and from the looks of it I plan to dig in another two inches. So four inches of mulch sounds about right. This is for my root crops which I plan to plant into the ground. The price of $10 a yard sounds like a real bargain. I'd get that delivered now to lock up that price. I spent $42 to rent a pickup to get free horse manure yesterday; and only got a yard because of my health.

I always keep the sod in place and turn it under. And I never mulch with anything except mulch, straw or manure.
 
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I would be interested in a report and or pics of how things went th is year. Did you get a garden established? What strategies did you use on the wees?
 
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