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No Till vs. Cover Crop

 
          
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Are these ideas opposed to each other?

If you plant a cover crop, how to you plant what you want later unless you till it back in?
 
Leila Rich
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To me, these things are entirely complimentary.
In my garden, no till means no major digging rather than none at all.
I pull back the mulch,  chuck on my cover crop mix ( it's never just one and there's always a legume or three), scratch it up, water it and ignore it.
When I get around to it/need the bed, I get out my big hedge-trimmer thingies and hack it all off near the ground, leaving the tops on the surface. That's usually enough to kill things off. I usually add compost when things've wilted, then just plant into it and mulch.
My garden's relatively small and there'll be loads of methods for different situations.
 
                              
Posts: 47
Location: Colorado, Zone 5, Cold Semi-arid
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I plan to broadcast grass seed where I want it, when the cover crop isn't yet high enough to block all the soil, and before the next cutting, so that the cut cover crop then becomes a mulch for the scattered seed.
 
Paul Cereghino
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You would need some kind of disturbance to weaken the cover crop other than tillage.  Perhaps:

Mulch
Covering with weed fabric
Flood
Cutting
Rolling/crimping (per rodale experiment)
Patch tillage
Burial
Livestock/Poultry

Your method and timing of introducing the next species (by seed, cutting, or transplant) to take maximum advantage of the disturbance.

Tillage is a dandy disturbance -- time honored tradition, but fads will come and go. 

I think you really have to understand your existing cover, the nature of the disturbance and the nature of the introduced species, and recognize that you are breaking trail.
 
Alison Thomas
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I think in one of Paul's podcasts - no12 - Helen Athowe (sp?) says that they trampled the crops whilst working them and that weakened the cover crop.  That's if I remember correctly as I've only had the chance to listen once and my two year old was climbing all over me at the same time!  If you get chance to listen then I think it's at about the 25 min mark.
 
                          
Posts: 56
Location: Bremerton, Washington
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Spot on, Paul!

I would like to mention my own experiences.  I planted crimson clover for a cover crop one fall in my small garden (15'x15' area).  In spring I simply ripped it up by hand and laid it down where it grew.  Most stalks broke easily, as they were crisp and tender.  Some were ripped up by the roots. 
I covered everything with straw for extra mulch, and made holes in that mulch to plant things.  So I didn't till the soil, but the soil was slightly disturbed.

I think there's a real difference between deep tillage vs. quite shallow soil disturbance.  Soil organisms that live in the top few inches of soil will die if buried too deeply.  Minimal soil disturbance helps maintain healthy soil structure.

Also, I fully believe that bare soil is like an open wound on Mother Earth.  I see it as my duty to get it covered as quickly as possible with mulch and crops, like a band-aid to protect her.  I see my job as a gardener is to be mostly a servant of the soil.  Crops are merely my wages if I've been a good and faithful servant.  Therefore I grow and protect the soil carefully.

Methods like this helped me turn my soil from pale, dusty, lifeless stuff to crumbly, humusy, earthworm-rich beds in just a year or two.
 
Alison Thomas
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CrunchyBread wrote:
I see my job as a gardener is to be mostly a servant of the soil.  Crops are merely my wages if I've been a good and faithful servant. 


What a lovely way to think 
I'm trying hard, I hope I get some wages!
 
Terri Matthews
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Location: Eastern Kansas
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I chose cover crops that would winter kill.

I COULD have just dibbled in seeds, but I was doing conventional gardening then and instead I mowed it and dug in the cover crop. The minute my shovel hit the soil I knew that I had made a good choice: my heavy clay soil was much improved from just the roots of the cover crop!
 
Mekka Pakanohida
Posts: 383
Location: Zone 9 - Coastal Oregon
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.375 wrote:
Are these ideas opposed to each other?

If you plant a cover crop, how to you plant what you want later unless you till it back in?


Hazlips vegs became the cover crop in the veg beds for the next generation of planting polycultures.  Her work is amazing and picked up where Fukuoka stopped in some cases.
 
            
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Location: California
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Good things being said here. I'd reiterate there are varying degrees of tillage. I like to consider any way possible I can disturb the soil structure less in transitioning from crop to crop, with mechanical tillage at the very end of the line as a last resort.
 
            
Posts: 177
Location: California
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Also, I think ATTRA has a graph of the results from some studies with roll/crimp kill of cover crops (it may be the Rodale Inst. studies someone was referring to). It shows which varieties performed well as candidates for the system (i.e. died when the roller was passed over them) and also serves sort of a general list of popular cover crops and effective ways of killing them (mow, winter kill, etc.). I might add though that if you're just taking about a backyard plot, you probably don't need to design a roller to kill your cover crop. I think cropping short with a scythe or a weedwhacker and laying the cuttings over the tops of the roots (and maybe some mulch) for a good smother is just as effective in most cases.
 
John Polk
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Once you have developed good tilth, a good broad fork should be all you need.
It will provide a light mixing without the damaging effects of high speed steel.
 
                                              
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John Polk wrote:
Once you have developed good tilth, a good broad fork should be all you need.
It will provide a light mixing without the damaging effects of high speed steel.



I second that. That is an amazing tool for sure. You can do a large area in good soil with not much trouble. compaction can be an issue even in good soil, and I think a broadfork is a happy medium between the idea of tilling, and no till.
 
          
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Thanks for all of the replies. 

I planted a cover crop last year (I'm new at all this) and wondered how I was supposed to plant unless it was turned under? 

I used my stirrup hoe to work it back in - so based upon the responses, I did not "till" it because I didn't use a rottotiller.

So, am I still cool, still in the in crowd?
 
                                              
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.375 wrote:
Thanks for all of the replies. 

I planted a cover crop last year (I'm new at all this) and wondered how I was supposed to plant unless it was turned under? 

I used my stirrup hoe to work it back in - so based upon the responses, I did not "till" it because I didn't use a rottotiller.

So, am I still cool, still in the in crowd?


Its not the rototiller exactly. With a broadfork, you still get the aeration, but you dont mix the soil layer to much. you generally already need a good soil for them to work their best, and in such conditions they are easy and fast, and efficient to use.

you might say a broadfork is between no till and tilling. you get the benefits of both in my experience. which also appears to be the ideal for me. Most of the good no till set ups Ive seen, had conditions and crops that made it work, we arent all so lucky. It is a sound premise though, the webs of biota in the soil, are a real thing, and much more important then the credit they get in a "modern" farming context.

someone that was very against tilling, might not agree with the idea of a broadfork offering benefits of both mentalities i dunno.

the few times i used cover crops, i used a hoe and pulled along the soil in such a way it pull/cut them out. disturbed the soil some, but not to much. still working out the ideal ways on that myself.

and as far as being on the in crowd, i cant speak for others here as Im rather new here myself. I seem to offended some folks, and shared and learned from many others...

but for me personally, the mere fact your getting your hands in the soil in positive ways, puts you in my in crowd. for what its worth. 
 
Alison Thomas
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I sowed wheat last autumn without tilling.  We cut down the pasture (which we'd already cropped for hay in the summer) and just broadcast seeded.  It has come through OK but isn't ripping away like in all the conventionally-grown crop fields around us but then it's not getting dosed with chemicals every week!  The rabbits have set it back a bit in the winter (and our goats I dare say) but now that there's more choice of things growing then both animals are leaving the wheat alone (the goats now prefer my barley  :roll.  I don't know if we'll get a crop but I've decided to wait and see - if not then we'll use the straw as mulch for the next experiment 
 
John Polk
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Yeah.  Winter/spring can be brutal with the wildlife/livestock eating whatever they can find.  Many parts of the US had a hard winter, and wildlife pressure was really noticeable.
 
                            
Posts: 32
Location: Vancouver Island, BC
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I was just reading this interesting article on this topic yesterday.  This farmer says he just cuts his cover crop down really close to the roots, and then puts a layer of mulch (straw?) on top.  The mulch acts like a blanket so that the cover crop cuttings quickly decompose into the soil.  After a couple of weeks, he pulls off the mulch and has soil he can plant into.  Interesting to hear about this done on a scale larger than my garden beds!

http://www.certifiedorganic.bc.ca/rcbtoa/training/soil-article2.htm
 
Mekka Pakanohida
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Location: Zone 9 - Coastal Oregon
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tipafo wrote:
I plan to broadcast grass seed where I want it, when the cover crop isn't yet high enough to block all the soil, and before the next cutting, so that the cut cover crop then becomes a mulch for the scattered seed.


This seems so wrong to me I have hard time responding.

A cover crop for grass?  Grass is so insanely invasive that it chokes out trees for nutrients, and you are using cover crops to increase your lawn?

 
                              
Posts: 47
Location: Colorado, Zone 5, Cold Semi-arid
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I have no "lawn" to speak of.  A few clumps of native grass by the downspouts, and in other secluded nooks, and weeds between bare patches of wind-blasted dirt.

http://www.flickr.com/photos/tipafo/5635759095/in/photostream

If the covers take, they'll join the weeds in a soil building mulch.  I hope.
 
philip Wick
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The idea of crimping the crop did indeed come from Rodale Institute.  I believe that the fields are rolled with a front end crimper with a chevron pattern on it.  I think they have used hairy vetch as a cover crop and then crimped it and used the fields to then plant tomatoes and the like.  More interestingly, for the smaller scale, folks have used the metal cross bars that are used in manure spreader apron and, with rope attached to the hole at each end, walked through their gardens and laid it down every foot or so when the cover crop is succulent thus crimping it too.  I haven't tried that approach--yet--but it seems like an entirely plausible approach that would work in the same manner.
 
Paul Cereghino
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In a similar vein to crimping, you can use a sharpened spade to chop a crop -- every few inches.  Some gets pushed udner ground, roots are damaged.  Tops are half chopped, half crimped.

A turning fork makes a reasonable substitute for a broad fork (particularly when you have done work to deeply loosen a soil, like double digging in the past).

I think the concept of 'when your soil is in good tilth' is really important... it that your results may get better once you have brought your soil to a certain state of tilth.  We have a cold site in a cool wet spring climate, with a silt loam soil, and I conceptually value the oxygen-driven nitrogen release and drainage provided by spring spading for my cold weather crops, and need to push the season to get the good out of spring before the rain stops.

I think you'll find a full range of till to no-till approaches here.  I suspect that religious adherence to a particular bed management approach gets in the way of gardening, natural or otherwise.
 
Brice Moss
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Location: rainier OR
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instead of running the rotary plow on the gravely I am using one of those garden claw thingies that all the harware stores have been selling, works great and fast in loose soil and takes on the clay with a bit of effort, but running it is work so I wont get carried away with the tillage the weeds that I pull get laid over the paths for this year, and I'll make sure my paths change places

I may still have to buy a unit of mulch or some crappy hay and till it into the law though
 
alex Keenan
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When looking for no-till or till you are really looking at
1. Soil structure such as porosity, particle size and percentage distribution, etc.
2. Soil chemistry such as pH and nutients.
3. Soil biology fungus, bacteria, and small critters
4. Local ecology meaning what plants and animals are living in this location.
5. Local climate such as heat days, rain days, etc.
Where I live in Ohio there are very few places where nothing will grow. But different areas have different flora and fauna. My current location has some of the poorest soil in Southern Ohio. It is heavy silt clay with almost no slope to it. Dig a well and you are lucky to get three gallons a minute. The water table is high in late fall, winter, and spring. And the water table drops considerably in summer. So the key for me is to see what is now growing on the land. I have found three plants to be very useful.
a) Prickly Lettuce, Lactuca serriola
b) Burdock
c) A plant that I only know as cow weed.
These three plants grow locally and burdock only produces seeds in the second year. The other two have to be cut down before they seed in first year. They grow very tall crowd out other plants. They are easy to pull out and they provide great mulch. These are idea plants for chop and mulch.
 
John Polk
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Burdock (Arctium lappa) is an incredible plant for growing biomass.

A neighbor has a wild patch about 4 feet wide, running the length of his parking area, along our fence.
We inherited some of his seeds on our side of the fence.
In an area approximately 5' x 5' we had dozens pop up this spring. They got chopped down in June.
Enough biomass to fill 3 wheel barrows full.

Our other neighbor, also adjacent to his patch, inherited a single plant last year. That plant was 8' tall, and about as wide as tall.
When his gardener showed up to 'weed-whack', he carefully cut around the burdock. He probably thought it was a new tree!

When I move, I plan on taking a sack full of seed-burs with me. An endless supply of compost/compost tea.


And, this picture looks scrawny compared to what we had.
 
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