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Till, cover crop and till again?  RSS feed

 
Posts: 31
Location: Olympia, Wa
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Hey all,

I have new property that is all ugly grass that I want to convert to my food forest. My plan was to start next season but I am itching to get going now! My soil is mostly sand with a bit of clay, heavily compacted, very low on nitrogen and OK on P and K. I live in PNW, South Salish Sea so we get lots of rain for half the year


Here is my idea...

1.till the yard with a serious tiller to break up hard soil. Will do this before the rainy season.

2. Scatter lots of seeds an water daily as needed. A mixture of seeds that can overwinter. Should help break up the soil, add nitrogen, and prevent erosion from rain. Probably a premixed bag from a nursery. Any suggestions?

3.come early spring till it into the soil to add organic matter and nutrients.

4. Plant my tree guilds and keyhole garden beds.

How does this sound?
 
Posts: 114
Location: Tyler Texas
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I had hard soil that would not grow weeds. I ripped it as deep as  I could scratch the surface and broadcast planted a high diversity seed mix adding lots of winter rye.  Each year I saw major improvements.  Keep planting high diversity cover mixes, when mature broadcast more seed, and roll or lay them over when they get tall.  Keep the soil covered at all times!  I don't recommend tilling poor soil more than every other year.

The diversity of seed ensures that something will grow well.  Mixes can also be designed to mine minerals and provide nitrogen or carbon to the soil. I had to alternate.  High Carbon cover crop in the spring, nitrogen crop in summer, and carbon, tall carbon mix in the fall. The tall winter crop preserved nitrogen and carbon in the crop over winter instead of it leeching away all winter. There was not enough nitrogen to grow two high carbon crops at first.

In 3 years of spring, summer, & winter seeding cover crops we had actual soil!  Now we have a food forest with alley cropping and cover cropping in between.

I purchased my seed here : Green Cover Seed . Buy the 50-pound bags and get 5-gallon buckets with lids. save your extra seed for the next season.  I used sea salt  in the 50-pound bag to add back trace minerals, but you can get a soil test then add back specifically whats missing. Add amendments before you break up the soil.

I don't have my pictures of the transformation with me, but take a look at Farmers Under Cover

You know its ready for trees when trees start planting themselves!

This process was FAR FAR cheaper than buying  wood chips and adding nitrogen fertilizer..
 
Chris Emerson
Posts: 31
Location: Olympia, Wa
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Thanks dan. My hope is that this will be the only time I till. After this first year I hope to build the soil up with Mulch and compost. Thanks for the link
 
pollinator
Posts: 1131
Location: Big Island, Hawaii (2300' elevation, 60" avg. annual rainfall, temp range 55-80 degrees F)
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Tilling in a cover crop is one way to try, but I'm from the K.I.S.S. school of thought. Since your aim is tree guilds and keyhole gardens, I wouldn't bother tilling.i wouldn't bother trying to 100% eradicate the grass at the beginning. The grass is providing surface stability, a root system for helping soil micro organisms & other soil life, and shading the soil surface. It's actually your cover crop. As it grows too tall, I'd use a lawnmower to bring it down in height, leaving the clippings in place to act as a soil building mulch.  Then as I had compost or mulch available, I'd apply repetitive light layers, allowing the grass to help hold it in place during high winds or heavy rains. Eventually your mulch layer would get thick enough to be decomposing, thus adding to soil nutrients. Perhaps at this stage I'd do some shallow tilling to kill off the grass, or perhaps I'd just start adding a thicker layer of compost/mulch to do that. Or perhaps I'd allow the grass to stay, just mowing it to control the height.

My own orchards were planted in an existing abandoned pasture. I do keep a compost mulch under the trees to provide nutrients because my soil is a young tropical soil, thus not very fertile. I don't heap the mulch up against the tree trunks since that will eventually damage and kill the trees. In some locations I have a cover crop growing among the trees ......sweet potatoes grown for their leaves, Okinawan spinach, taro, turmeric, mint, catnip. Yes, some pasture grasses still grow, but the mulch tends to keep it under control. A machete keeps the height down.

Just a thought about other possible options.
 
Posts: 330
Location: SW PA USA zone 6a altitude 1188ft
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Do you have a neighbor who has cattle, or maybe sheep that could be let into your fields? Trade some forage for the nitrogen improvement. Then till later. Is your place fenced?
 
Chris Emerson
Posts: 31
Location: Olympia, Wa
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John Duda wrote:Do you have a neighbor who has cattle, or maybe sheep that could be let into your fields? Trade some forage for the nitrogen improvement. Then till later. Is your place fenced?



No, that would be nice. We will have chickens hopefully next year. I plan on making a solid, sturdy and fox proof coop. And then getting extra chicken fence to move around the yard as a mobile pen. But that is next year.

I have not watered the grass at all so there is not much for ungulates to chomp on anyways. I couldn't get myself to water grass even though we are on a well. It just feels wrong to me. Lol
 
gardener
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Location: Fraser River Headwaters, Zone3, Lat: 53N, Altitude 2750', Boreal/Temperate Rainforest-transition
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Here's another alternative:

If you have adequate water available year round, and rain for half of that, then I would go straight to trees, and-particularly in your location-Red Alder. 

If you have recent logging activity somewhere near you, there is bound to be very young red alder growing in the broken soils along the logging roads, trying to heal the damage.  Do not feel bad about taking them, as the logging companies will brush them down with machines so they don't consume the road.  Go map these out this fall, ribbon them, and in the early spring, before they leaf out, go hunt them down and bring a pile of them home and transplant them all over your land that your want to food forest. 

Water them.  Leave them.  Water them again, as the ground indicates it's need. 

As these trees grow they will build nitrogen rich soil communities and humus from the rich leaves. 

Then figure out where you want your food forest species.  Plant them amongst the Alders, using them as nurse trees, and as the need arises, chop and drop the alders out of the picture.  Every time you chop a limb, part of the root dies and releases it's nitrogen forming community into the soil where it is available to your crop trees.  Even leaving the Alders alone, as they become mature, they will provide excess nitrogen and share it with nearby trees. 

This fall until the ground freezes, you can dig holes and fill them with materials that will break down with the winter rains.  These can become planting spots for your future crop trees.    
 
pollinator
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Plant the trees. I see no reason to wait, so long as its the proper time to plant.

If you do till, add 2 to 3 inches of manure and dont till again (,redhawk approved). Make sure you get something planted before rains erode your soil. 

Tilling can create a bigger mess than what you started with. A new weed may come up in big numbers from all the disturbance . It may rain for the next week, etc.



I'm succesfull using a hay layer spread out lightly over the seeds i broadcast. It keeps the seed in place, keeps ground moist, adds organic matter and increases germination over just broadcasting.

There is more benefit from leaving the root in the ground. A better solution is letting the grass grow tall, spread your seeds, then crimp(kill) the grass. In your small area, this can be a 4ft 2x4 with a rope on each side(like a kids swing).  Hold a rope on each hand, use your foot to push on the 2x4, bending the grass down to the ground. Only reason i dont do this is i have cows,  so i use their spent hay as a cover. There are crimpers available that mount to atvs or tractors,  but your lot is small. The seed will sprout through this.




 
Posts: 15
Location: Central NY, Eastern Edge of Oneida Co. ,Town of Trenton
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A good cover crop that should over winter for you is fava beans, you would ideally want the smaller "horse beans" sold for this exact purpose, don't forget the inoculant to add nitrogen. Another cover crop that will over winter is Sweet Clover provided you can kill it before it finishes flowering ( it will become a pervasive weed) it will help with the compaction as well as adding nitrogen.
    Definitely do check what trace nutrients, ph, manure, etc. you need before you plant any perennials, it is much easier to make major additions when you can till everything up.
 
Chris Emerson
Posts: 31
Location: Olympia, Wa
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wayne fajkus wrote:Plant the trees. I see no reason to wait, so long as its the proper time to plant.

If you do till, add 2 to 3 inches of manure and dont till again (,redhawk approved). Make sure you get something planted before rains erode your soil. 

Tilling can create a bigger mess than what you started with. A new weed may come up in big numbers from all the disturbance . It may rain for the next week, etc.



I'm succesfull using a hay layer spread out lightly over the seeds i broadcast. It keeps the seed in place, keeps ground moist, adds organic matter and increases germination over just broadcasting.



I am concerned about tilling for a few reasons. But we should not get heavy rains for another month (maybe). Historically we average 2" this month but October doubtless to 4". This gives me about a month until the heavy stuff comes down.

With how compacted this soil is can I get away with not tilling and still have the cover crop take hold? If I do as you say and broadcast then throw a light layer of straw to cover will that work? This sounds like a good option. When you do it, is it over bare soil or have you done it in something like my situation? Thanks
 
Roberto pokachinni
gardener
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Location: Fraser River Headwaters, Zone3, Lat: 53N, Altitude 2750', Boreal/Temperate Rainforest-transition
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When you till in compacted soils, particularly if you have clay content and moisture, there is a certain depth that the tiller tines will reach, and when your job is complete that depth will be much harder as it has been forced down and sort of polished by the tiller tines. This is called a tiller-pan, or plow-pan or hard-pan.

With how compacted this soil is can I get away with not tilling and still have the cover crop take hold?

  This depends on the plant mix.  You need good penetrating spike roots (dandelion/chicory/diakon/alfalfa...) to break up the compaction. 

Tilling can create a bigger mess than what you started with. A new weed may come up in big numbers from all the disturbance. It may rain for the next week, etc.

Your grassland is at a certain stage of evolutionary growth toward becoming a forest already.  This is called succession.  Open spaces want to become forests in your region, and so generally the longer term that the grassland has been in place, the more fungi are present toward it supporting healthy shrubs and trees, now or in the future.  When you till, you knock the soil community, particularly the fungi, back to square one, or nearly so, or-in these terms-back to the first stage of succession.  The first stage of succession is generally made up of annual and perennial weed species.  In addition to all the new weeds, a lot of grasses will come back from the broken up roots after being tilled, even with many passes with the tiller.  
 
wayne fajkus
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Chris Emerson wrote:
With how compacted this soil is can I get away with not tilling and still have the cover crop take hold? If I do as you say and broadcast then throw a light layer of straw to cover will that work? This sounds like a good option. When you do it, is it over bare soil or have you done it in something like my situation? Thanks



Plenty. My best example is a temporary road through my property. Skidsteer,  tractor, and truck all using that same path. The end result is 2 tire trails with no grass at all. This is probably more compaction than you have. If the ground is not bare, the hay may not be needed as it is erosion control and keeps the seeds from washing away. It's extra organic matter for you and wont hurt one bit. Mowing short before application would help get the seed down closer to ground.

Annual rye is excellant for this in bare dirt or existing lawn (overseeding). But diversity would be better. I get deer food plot seed mixes. Look at the tag. Seems like it is either rye based or oat based with a bunch of others mixed in (clovers, brassicas, peas, etc).

One advantage you have is a water source. With water, dang near anything will grow. When i overseed(over existing grass/pasture) i spread the seeds after it rains. A week later it sprouts. If it fails after that, its cause i have no way to continue watering it(central tx). You do.

 
gardener
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Around here, plants grow in the roadways, and in driveways, and in cracks in stones. Basically if there are seeds, and water, something will grow and thrive regardless of how hard the soil is.
 
master steward
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I've got gravely loam soil, and am a bit north of you. I'm also on a north-facing slope, and am converting grass to food forest. I've been doing it one-tree at a time. I dig the big hole, put the grass at the bottom of the hole, stick the tree in the hole, fill with dirt, and apply mulch (usually my duck bedding, but before I had ducks, I just used leaves) and plant as many "guild" plants as I can find (hostas, comfery, wild and domestic strawberries, chives, and sorrel are favorites of mine).

One thing that seemed to help a lot was sprinkling nice forest soil over the area, as well as making a mushroom slurry (blend up mushrooms in a blender with some water, apply to garden bed). Both these things will make the soil more fungal. Trees like more fungus, grass likes more bacteria. This actually seemed to really help keep the grass from growing back as quickly.

My grass still grows back pretty fast, especially when I first planted the trees. And, my fruit trees still aren't producing as much as I like. So, I can't say how sucessful my method is, but it's what I've been doing for the past 5 years!

As for applying cover crops. Two years ago, I wanted to grow some buckwheat to hopefully repel the bindweed I had growing in my grass.  To do that, I applied buckwheat seeds (I got them in bulk from High Mowing), mowed the grass as short as I could, letting the clippings cover the seeds, and then sprinkled as much duckbedding as I could scrounge up over the area. The buckwheat actually germinated and did pretty good! I would think that method could work relatively well with quite a few cover crop seeds. They might not out-compete the grass, but they'll add some diversity.

Another cover crop I've had a TON of success with is daikon radishes. The things LOVE me and have been self-seeding themselves for two years now. I would definitely plant some of those!

You might also want to get in touch with Daron Williams here on permies (https://permies.com/u/209591/Daron-Williams). He's in your area, and does restoration work, and might have some really applicable advice for you.
 
Chris Emerson
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Location: Olympia, Wa
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Thanks for all of the great ideas, info and support. What a great community. My wife and I decided to Not till the yard and instead I purchased a bunch of seeds from grow organic. A lot of places were sold out.

Daikon Radish Seed (Oilseed)
Garden Combination Mix Inoculant
Peaceful Valley Sod Buster Mix
Peaceful Valley Premium Soil Builder Mix - Raw Seed


We plan on broadcasting a lot of seeds and cover with a thin layer of straw. I am excited to see how this turns out!
 
gardener
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Those are great seeds to be spreading Chris, good finds.
Lay down the daikon first then use the others at two to three day intervals (you want to do this so the daikon can be on the road to germination first because the others will beat it out and might smother the baby daikon preventing it from growing).
Don't lay down the straw until you get all the seeds spread, then water well.

Redhawk
 
pollinator
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For many of the reasons some folks listed above, I would not till. As has also been mentioned, I would add get tillage radishes in your mix, turnips as well. If this were my place, I'd build on top of what you have and not try to break up what's below. I'd be confident that successive layer of organic matter that you grow and lay down and let decompose will give you plenty of infiltration and soil building, especially if what you're wanting to do is grow trees and filling keyhole gardens. Redhawk's sequence is right on. But, you could even try some seed balling to help your slightly longer-term seeding sequencing.

It's been my experience that garden tillers cause compaction over time. Yes, there is a fluffy top when you first till, but that doesn't last long and one or two rains later and you have all those small tiny granules compacting down eliminating the needed airspace. After a few years of tilling in the same space, people's garden beds end up sunk down from the surrounding non-tilled soil. This is not even mentioning what it does to the microbial life and exposing soil to sun and rain. Why is sun a problem? Direct sunlight on soil can raise the surface temperature to a place that is harmful to soil bacteria. As we say, "keep the amour on the soil." In northwest Missouri, it can be 90 degrees F on a sunny day and the surface temperatures of exposed soil can get up to 120 degrees F. Eeeeeek!

 
Su Ba
pollinator
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Just to add my own comment about tilling damage. As Dan stated, I believe that long term tilling can damage the soil. I think numerous trials and situations have demonstrated this to be true. But it depends......... Yes, Permie advice usually comes with the declaimer "it depends". In Chris's situation, repetitive tilling would need to be done thoughtfully with soil science understanding. Simple repetitive tilling by itself would most likely not help. But there are situations where tilling can have benefits.

In my homestead farm, I started out with very shallow (0" to 2" of soil in most areas, some had a bit more, before I hit pahoehoe lava or aa lava chunks). The soil was hydrophobic. Where it had been compacted with a bulldozer and cinder pressed into it, it failed to drain heavy rain water. My method to farm this land so that it could provide our own food plus extra for trading & selling was to repetitively till between each crop. Compost and mulch was top dressed every month and eventually tilled in when a crop was harvested. After doing this for 15 years I now have growing areas with 6"-8" of garden soil, some beds are actually as deep as 12"-15".

My orchard area was tilled about 3 times a year, tilling in a deep layer of compost and soil amendments. I did this for 3-5 years depending upon the location. Now I simply top dress some compost while keeping the soil mulched. No need to till anymore. Oh yes, I had to hammer the lava in order to create a hole for a tree. Quite a job just the get each tree planted, but the system worked.

Rather than tilling resulting in compacted, dead soil that has sunken, my beds are just the opposite. But that's because I don't just simply till and walk away. I constantly add compost, various soil amendments, plus I'm a big user of mulch. I'm actually creating a sort of garden soil. It works for me on this particular farm.
 
Chris Emerson
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Location: Olympia, Wa
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Excellent info, thanks everyone! Staggering the planting will help I am sure, good idea.

People keep saying to spread a thin layer of straw. That sounds very relative to me. In my mind I am thinking that I can still kinda see the ground after I lay the straw. Does that sound about right? The area I am going to work on this year is about 1600 Sq ft I am trying to guess how many 2 string bales of hay that will take, any ideas?
 
wayne fajkus
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Yes. You can still see some ground. Its not as critical in your case since you have existing grass. Getting the seed to contact ground would be important. I think watering would do that. Actually, water would be the most critical thing.

Here is a pic of one of mine. While it looks solid, its probably 5050 over bare dirt.
20180828_101447-640x480.jpg
[Thumbnail for 20180828_101447-640x480.jpg]
 
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