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To till or not to till  RSS feed

 
Posts: 40
Location: north-central Maine
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Hi all,

I am in the midst of planning a transition to a more independent, homestead-like lifestyle, which this summer will entail preparing growing beds in areas that are now occupied by low growth, alders, grasses and the like. Never farmed, to my knowledge.

Idle time now is filled with YouTube clips touting the merits and techniques of no-till farming and other permaculture practices, and I would appreciate some guidance on bed preparation.

I do plan to use some form of mechanization to get things started, and had thought this would be using the tractor/excavator to level areas off and try to guide drainage, and the like. I'm inclined to use a harrow or rake rather than actually till, then get to the lifelong project of building up the soil with mulch, compost, biochar, etc. I will also be learning and developing some more signature permaculture areas, but still think in terms of straight beds as I start out.

Thoughts and suggestions?

Thanks!

Craig




 
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I understand the logic behind no-tillers suggesting one initial till to get things started. I prefer to let nature get things started instead by for instance planting sweetcorn and green beans or peas. This gets biology into the soil and breaks up the clay. Once harvested I leave the stalks in place to fall over and become mulch/compost
 
gardener
Posts: 1219
Location: Middle Tennessee
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Hi Craig, what part of the globe are you located on? I like your ideas of guiding rainwater runoff and doing any minimal soil disturbance once, at the beginning. I think you're on the right track with the compost, biochar and mulch, and I think adding a cover crop this year to keep something growing in the soil will have you started off right. If you haven't already read Redhawk's threads on soil and techniques of nurturing and building healthy soil, here's a link to all his threads: https://permies.com/wiki/77424/List-Bryant-RedHawk-Epic-Soil#637639 Within those threads are just about everything one needs to know to make compost & teas, create biodynamic preparations, build soil, and the science behind the how & why all those things work.
 
Craig Butler
Posts: 40
Location: north-central Maine
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Thanks for the quick response, and the references. Will get to reading.

Craig
 
Craig Butler
Posts: 40
Location: north-central Maine
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James, I forgot to mention that I'm speaking of mid-coast Maine. And while I've just scratched the surface of Redhawk's writings, indeed there's a wealth of knowledge there. Thanks again.

Craig
 
James Freyr
gardener
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Location: Middle Tennessee
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Ok thanks for the location. Since you're not way south or tropical, that means you can plant cover crops that will winter kill, such as an oats & field pea combination. Sow those late summer, and they'll get root mass growing in the soil, helping nurture soil microbial life and provide organic matter deep into the soil, and also provide above ground biomass which can be chopped and left in place, ready for spring planting of food crops.
 
pollinator
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I think Redhawk has a "till once" stance, but have 3 inches of organic matter on top when you till. Definately worth following his advice.

Gabe brown would be worth watching on utube. Its just under an hour. I think its called " the 5 keys to soil health". This really keeps your eye on the pie, as you actually see the results of staying on the correct path. He is a no tiller..

One key to Gabe is not seeing dirt. Keep it covered with crops, mulch, or cover crops,  or a combination of the 3.
 
pollinator
Posts: 1813
Location: Toronto, Ontario
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Hi Craig.

I second James' suggestion about the winter kill green manures. It's just using winter as your seasonal chop and drop. Also, I can't stress enough how amazingly useful Redhawk's soil threads are. He really lays it out for us.

One suggestion I find myself making constantly is for on-contour swales and sediment traps. I am glad you're thinking about hydrology, because honestly, you can set things up so hydrology does all the work for you, or you can set things up so that hydrology destroys you. I prefer the first.

I also often find myself suggesting that people get soil tests done to find out what, if anything, the soil lacks. It is much better to know than to guess.

If you haven't already, look into keyline ploughing and on-contour swales. Straight lines are great for working land with giant machines, but can have devastating consequences (think Dust Bowl). Shaping the land into flat squares is a great way to remove all texture from the land, decrease water infiltration, increase erosion and topsoil loss through wind and water, and increase wind dessication.

I would mark out contour lines on your property, especially in zones where you've already identified erosion or high erosion potential. If digging is in the range from easy to just possible, you might want to consider digging swales to slow water down and increase infiltration into the soil. I like deep swales, where possible, backfilled with loose organic material and any mineral amendment, biochar, or compost I want to add. These will act as soil life bastions, where it stays wettest, longest, and where soil conditions remain most stable.

If you get truly overwhelming amounts of water, and/or your land is relatively flat, you might want to consider long, shallow depressions on contour instead of swales. They will have a higher capacity, and will be better suited to moving excess water off the land (though in that case, I would also consider straw bale sedimentation dams perpendicular to the direction of flow that would allow water to pass through, catching sediment out of the water).

Finally, if you can't dig, but you have deadfall material and other woody bits, you can create above-ground on-contour sediment traps from logs, tree limbs, and rocks. You might think that this won't do much, but in actuality, it would gather sediment deposited by wind and water, gathering bands of mineral and organic material that trap water, soil life, and eventually allow seeds to germinate and grow. You could just leave it to the pioneer species of the area, or you could design a swale guild for your property, using the pioneers that are first on scene that like to punch down through rocky soil, and a soil improvement guild featuring nitrogen fixers and other supportive pioneer plants. Even a guild that featured, say, alfalfa and, I don't know, clovers and a feed the birds or a pollinator garden mix would get established and start trapping even more sediment, accumulating more raw materials for soil.

If you mulched, say, with wood chips, overtop of your sediment traps, or even in their complete absence, the mulch would trap sediment, too, building soil.

As to clearing and making changes to the land, what are your short, medium, and long-term goals on the land, Craig? Also, how do you feel about livestock?

You've probably already heard the famous sepp holzer exchange about someone objecting to using pigs' rooting to till fields, or some such, that ends with Sepp's pronouncement, "...then you must do the pigs' work." I would suggest that you think about if and where animals can be used to help clear the land. What you've described sounds like land that I would try clearing with goats. If you aren't interested in it yourself, you might want to see if there's anyone in your area that grazes their goats on brush; you might even get something for the offered grazing.

Now to the meat of it: Should you till?

I don't think so, personally, from what you've said about what's growing there, but the final determination rests on your soil test, and if you need to add anything. If, say, you lacked calcium and organic matter, but your pH was right, I would drop a three inch layer of wood chips over everything, add gypsum dust and grit in quantities suggested by the soil test (I believe Redhawk said, in one of his threads, that gypsum broke down slowly, becoming available for soil life over time, such that adding too much wasn't really an issue, so I would go heavier rather than lighter, especially if the soil particles are largely the same size, or if there were issues of excess soil water retention), and if the soil was compacted, I would do a one-pass till just to get the organic matter and amendments into the top layer of soil, and never till it again.

If the above was all true, but (lets say I had a microscope with me to check these things) the soil life was already thriving, I would use a tool designed to aerate the soil and allow the amendments on the top to sift down a little without inverting the soil structure. I know some people like broad forks for this. In that way, you can improve your soil life without killing off your soil life.

That's it for now. I hope you find some of it useful. More specific information might yield better suggestions, and we're suckers for pictures, but thanks again. Keep us posted, and good luck.

-CK
 
pollinator
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Location: Los Angeles, CA
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If your first course of action is to move soil, shape the land, level spots, dig swales, etc., then there will certainly be significant disturbance of the soil.  At that point, what's the difference of tilling things a bit to create your initial seed-bed?  Yes, that first year, it certainly will not hurt anything that hasn't already been turned upside down.

But if your long-term goal is to go no-till, then you've just got to break the cycle at some point and find a way to no-till seed.

Let me echo watching Gabe Browne's stuff on Youtube.  I love that guy.  He's a North Dakota farmer, surrounded by hundreds of other less successful farmers who are slowly warming to his "non-conventional" ways.  In fact, "conventional farming" with it's reliance upon tillage, chemical inputs and mono-cropping is anything BUT conventional when compared to the way nature functions.  Gabe is the farthest thing from some purple-permie guy walking barefoot through his food forest.  He's the most profitable farmer in Burliegh Country ND, and he's doing it all no-till with heavy animal integration.  He's doing this on a massive scale and has seen two indisputable truths:  1.  He makes more money off his land than anyone else around him., 2.  HIs soil is more healthy with each passing year, as measured by soil tests and soil organic matter.

Browne says that he realized that he had to sell all his tillage equipment.  Cold turkey.  Had he not done so, he would have been tempted to go back and retreat on his no-till goal.  So whenever you choose to go no-till, you've got to make the commitment and then not look back.

I was a skeptic.  I owned a rototiller and turned my garden soil annually.  I was late to the wonders of cover cropping.  I discovered the amazing benefits of using wood chip mulch long before the "Back to Eden" movie was made, but everything that that movie describes has been my experience as well.  I've only started to do animal integration (chickens) in the last couple of years, but it's amazing what a difference that has made in productivity and fertility.

You've just got to cross the line and then don't look back.  Once you stop tilling, you'll wonder why you ever did it in the first place.  Within 3 years you'll be amazed with how great your soil has become.

After you've done your earthworks and such, I don't think you'll need to till.  Just broadcast your cover crop seed and rake it in lightly.  Plant a broad mix of 10 to 20 different varieties: broad leaf plants, grasses, warm season and cool season plants, nitrogen fixers, and even some flower seeds in there as well for pollinators.  Keep every last bit of carbon on site.  Mulch like crazy.  Consider integrating wood chip mulch into your system.  Built soil fungal networks by continually adding biomass to the soil surface (various organic mulches and cover crops). 

Make the jump and don't look back.

Best of luck.
 
Craig Butler
Posts: 40
Location: north-central Maine
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Let me begin with "wow." I can't thank you all enough for the generosity of knowledge and wisdom. It's back to school for me. I'm excited for the summer to arrive and for me to get to see more closely what the land has to offer and what I can do with/for it. I'll be in touch.

Craig
 
pollinator
Posts: 1361
Location: cool climate, Blue Mountains, Australia
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There's one thing the no till crowd did not answer to me: how to make a non till fine seedbed to grow carrots and parsnips and the like. I am not OK with making little holes in the mulch, because I want to grow carrots on the whole bed (I would be OK with doing it for turnips since they are not very popular).
 
pollinator
Posts: 223
Location: Western North Carolina - Zone 7B stoney
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I would check out the idea of Keyline irrigation for your crops, also consider planting something like mangold beets.  They are great at breaking up the soil, and you can just let them rot in the ground to help begin your fertilization.  Here is a link to download the Keyline Irrigation pdf, which explains all of the theories and methods pertaining to it.  Keyline plowing is all about conserving water, and keeping it on your land as long as possible.  This is a way to defer irrigation costs over the long term.  https://soilandhealth.org/wp-content/uploads/GoodBooks/The%20Keyline%20Plan.pdf
 
Marco Banks
pollinator
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Angelika Maier wrote:There's one thing the no till crowd did not answer to me: how to make a non till fine seedbed to grow carrots and parsnips and the like. I am not OK with making little holes in the mulch, because I want to grow carrots on the whole bed (I would be OK with doing it for turnips since they are not very popular).



A hard-tine rake is your best friend.  You simply rake back the mulch until you get to the clean black soil, rough it up a little bit, and plant your seeds.  You are not turning the soil over and the little bit of soil disturbance from the rake is minimal.

Once your carrots (or whatever) have sprouted, it's easy enough to rake the mulch back close to the growing plants.

For cover crops, rake back the mulch, broadcast your seeds, scratch them into the soil a half-inch or so, and them toss a light layer of mulch back over the top.  The cover crop will push up past the wood chips/mulch, and will easily grow through it and fill in the space.

I harvest all my own carrot seed, so at the end of the summer, I've got bags of it.  What I'll do when I want to plant carrots is leave the chicken tractor in one place for 3 or 4 days.  The girls will scratch up the soil really good and leave a lovely layer of poop on the ground.  Then I broadcast the seed over the bed and scratch it into the soil.  Sometimes I won't even rake back the mulch.  I'll just toss the seed over the space (mulch and all) and gently rake it around a bit.  The carrots come up like a lawn.  You've got to thin then out then, but sometimes I won't even bother to do that.

 
Angelika Maier
pollinator
Posts: 1361
Location: cool climate, Blue Mountains, Australia
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Thanks that sounds good! We have our chicken in the fruit yard. Chicken tractor might be good for the beds which are not inside the enclosure but most of our veggies are enclosed, would be a bit cumbersome to mive the enclosure in the enclosure. I like very much the idea of a chicken tractor for some of the chooks probably without the rooster. Does your chicken tractor have a wire underneath?
So you don't even hoe your beds? Simply rake a bit or do you hoe lightly from time to time? To take chicken for hoesing is a really great idea, but it needs to be foxproof.
 
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