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when is it appropriate to till?  RSS feed

 
Rob Sigg
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Location: PA-Zone 6
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So I have very hard clay ground that is compacted. I have raised hugelkultur beds that do well for my vegetables, and my food forest garden is doing well with just sheet mulching and perennials. I have some larger areas that are just weedy areas now and I want to improve the soil by next year so I can expand the growing area for things like kidney beans, garbanzo beans and winter squash/pumpkin. I can get a rototiller and go through that area in the fall and till the weeds and cover crop that I have now into the soil. Will that help me alot by next year? I basically need to get the ground workable fast; Im just not sure how. Anyone have any experience with this? Thanks very much!
 
Brice Moss
Posts: 700
Location: rainier OR
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if you're going to till hard clay you need to add about 2-3" of durable mulch like course wood chips to keep it broken up otherwise the first time it gets wet it just clumps back up.
 
Fred Winsol
Posts: 155
Location: Sierras
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never
 
Saybian Morgan
gardener
Posts: 582
Location: Lower Mainland British Columbia Canada Zone 8a/ Manchester Jamaica
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No Till isn't a belief system, it's a way of approaching soil "After" establishment.  #1 and only real time to till is breaking ground, Sod's a good examples, compacted earth. I'm big on chop out flip over then "decompactivate" But I'll also plant decompacter's so the condition doesn't resume. Tilling isn't an easy way out, your going to chop allot of lives into bit's. But if you can add more life to the soil then an entropic condition, then that's appropriate use of the technology.

I don't like tilling it when ground id rather plastisize the current plant and soe into the mulch created. Cuzz I don't think tilling buttercups will get me anything more than denser buttercups, so I wouldn't try to excuse tilling where there's a better way.

I tried that no till no way no how no never dogma and all I ever got where seed's that grew 2 leaves then died cuzz they couldn't get in the ground.

i would really rather keyline my way to garden bed establishment than till, but then again I don't till more than 4 inches so I'm probably just cultivating new ground and not tilling at all.
 
                              
Posts: 47
Location: Colorado, Zone 5, Cold Semi-arid
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When there is no other way, I guess.

Here in Colorado, with hardpan only a few inches down, and more than a few inches deep, with little soil on top, and no existing windbreaks, I'm coming to realize the best method is to simply throw down a pile of manure, weeds and/or clippings, on a wetted spot, water well, and top it off with heaps of straw; wet the straw, too, or it'll blow away.

It's basically composting in place, and would be more so if I added kitchen scraps into the mix.  When recently reworking my composting system, I noticed the formerly dry hard ground is now "spongy" for an inch or three and holds water easily.

If you'll be planting next year, doing this now and watering the pile (and replenishing it) when needed will give you workable soil by then, with less work than being handled by a tiller.  Imo.    Lots of critters will live in and under that pile, working it over and under and tilling the ground for you. Also, you'll have a somewhat raised bed right where you want it.

I've learned that trying to run a roto-tiller through this natural concrete is foolish and tiresome.  And hot.  Better to run a wheelbarrow or haul some buckets over a few days or weekends or months for a few minutes at a time.  If wind is a problem, use some old wire fencing to keep most stuff in place.

I also do a bit of loosening with a spade fork from time to time, especially before a rare rain.  Not too much, though, and not until the ground starts getting soft, because I'm not really that into it.
 
paul wheaton
master steward
Posts: 21401
Location: missoula, montana (zone 4)
bee chicken hugelkultur trees wofati woodworking
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the answer to this question and nearly all questions is:  it depends.

If you are by yourself on 100 acres of gravel, the answer is different than if you have 40 people on 20 acres of deep, rich soil.

In general, if there is no organic matter in the soil, there can be benefit to tilling in some organic matter.  If there is already organic matter in the soil, then you need to till in a lot more than will be released by the tilling - and that will come at a cost of more than just losing some organic matter (mycelium, tilth, soil structure, microbials, etc).  Tilling degrades any soil, but doesn't really hurt dirt. 

Tilling is also a hassle - however you go about doing it.  Seeds and patience will often do a much better job with far less effort.

 
Brenda Groth
pollinator
Posts: 4434
Location: North Central Michigan
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on our clay soil areas that were tilled in the past are the poorest soil on the property ! However, when we had fill brought out when our new house was put in after the fire, the fill was put around the new drainfield and house and was full of willow roots..

I did run a tiller over it several times to rake out the willow roots (pulled them later that I missed) and the soil was quite good and grew plants well, but it had ALREADY been dug and moved to the area where it was tilled (fill)..so it had already been  disturbed..

Be careful, tilling can destroy good land
 
Rob Sigg
Posts: 715
Location: PA-Zone 6
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My position has always been as Paul described, however in my case this year I feel that its something I need to do. Its just me and I don’t really have the time or resources to build the soil by next year. My goal is next year because our food bill is out of control since we eat zero processed foods unless we process it. With our economy continuing to decline, there is a sense of urgency to get this up and running. The only resources I have currently are a lot of legume seeds, hard wheat seed, chickens and a free rototiller. I figured my best course of action would be to let the chickens loose towards the end of summer, till all of the weeds and current legumes into the top few inches and then grow winter hardy cover crops over winter, chop it for mulch in the spring then plant. I don’t ever want to till again, nor do I think I will need to.

My property was farmland prior, and mostly weeds the last few years before it was developed. All of the topsoil  was from the property which is mostly clay, and it is heavily compacted from all the equipment used during construction. I have swales and a pond in place to catch water, I just need the soil to be easier to work with quickly. I believe that most of the ground is currently dirt, void of complex life.
 
                            
Posts: 126
Location: Ava, Mo, USA, Earth
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If you have a source of affordable mulch, straw, old hay, leaves or manure of almost any type, you will get better soil quicker without tilling.    If you put it on now, by spring you will be able to plant any of the above under what's left of the mulch and the roots will do fine.  If you get the mulch deep enough and make sure it has enough water and Nitrogen, you could probably start with a cement slab and grow a good crop by next spring.

 
Rob Sigg
Posts: 715
Location: PA-Zone 6
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I think I could find manure, and leaves...not sure about organic straw in this area. The problem is I really dont have a vehicle for moving the amount that I need. And its a matter of time right now, in the fall I will have more time for tilling especially since my brother will do it for me
 
Gord Welch
Posts: 64
Location: Oregon
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On clay, I'd probably till at least the first 3 years and then let the roots take over. If you have pigs, you can let them do the tilling, right. But be careful not to leave them on to long.
 
              
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I'd till only if the soil that was being converted to 'bed' was heavily compacted through machinery/animals/concrete or road.  And I would rip it, rather than till.

Then I would start soil building, organic matter building.  At a minimum, cover thickly with mulch or a nitrogen-fixing cover crop and water.

Pasture, I'd leave that to a Yeoman's Plow or someone more experienced in it.
 
Brenda Groth
pollinator
Posts: 4434
Location: North Central Michigan
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could you chisel plow, rather than turn over the soil?
 
Rob Sigg
Posts: 715
Location: PA-Zone 6
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Its not a huge area, so basically any type of equipment is not really an option. I guess its big enough that its manual labor but small enough that I cant really use equipment apart form a small scale rototiller.

Right now its grass/weeds smothered by cardboard, and then wood mulch. This was all done last year. This year I have my legumes growing in it with squash and of course weeds have taken over as well. Stuff will grow in it , but not very well because of the hard pan underneath, and the swales are not big so its not huge water retention.
 
Gord Welch
Posts: 64
Location: Oregon
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Rob, if you aren't aware, check out European walking tractors. They're like "garden rototillers", but they have a PTO like a 4 wheeled tractor, so they have a huge range of implements that can be attached. I think you might find the rotary plow to your liking - I love mine. It doesn't chop up worm or turn the soil layers - it throws the soil to the side keeping it in its respective layers.

BCS and Grillo are the brands most sold in the US, with BCS being the more common here. Check out www.earthtoolsbcs.com or videos on youtube.

Here's the rotary plow in action on youtube: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=de7vMFasJEU
 
Matthew Fallon
Posts: 308
Location: long island, ny Z-7a
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i happened to have owned a 3´ wide tiller for a long time.. i only ever use it to break new ground for beds,or doing the same for others. 
a broadfork is another nice tool for non gas small scale tilling job...
theres always double/triple digging if youve got the time and energy or manpower. thats just for home-scale gardens to me,not acreage!!!

i dont ever see a need or reason to till an area once youve established it though.
 
Rob Sigg
Posts: 715
Location: PA-Zone 6
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Well here is my alternate plan to tilling, and im not sure if it will do enough or not.

Right now the area is filled with lentils and chickpeas, pumpkin and squash. There is probably only 1-2 inches of descent growing soil under the wood mulch. I plan on letting the chickens in the area around August 15th  for 2 weeks. Im hoping they will clean out any bugs and fertilize it. My only concern is that they will peck at the squash and pumpkins. After their 2 weeks I plan on broadcasting a mix of daikon, black mustard, buckwheat, flax and various bush beans onto the area. Within a week I will mow/weedwack all the vegetation down except for my squash/pumpkin so that the seeds have some fresh mulch on top of it. Then I plan on broadcasting hard winter wheat and/or rye into the mix, along with fava bean. I plan on letting that grow until April of next year. At that point I will broadcast buckwheat into the mix for a early spring cover crop, and chop down the wheat/rye for mulch.


Any thoughts on this plan?

 
Fred Winsol
Posts: 155
Location: Sierras
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No till is the best. 

I think the best known work on all this is by Wes Jackson of the Land Institute,  a short quote:

"With Natural Systems Agriculture we want to help broker the necessary marriage of agriculture and ecology. Our program with graduate research fellowships is heavily invested in students. We write and talk around the country in public forums, universities and research establishments. Wherever we go, we stress the necessity of integrated approaches to agriculture. We want to end the 10,000-year trend of agriculture which erodes the very soil on which our sustenance depends. "

http://www.landinstitute.org/vnews/display.v/ART/2004/08/20/412b72dcdd4f7?in_archive=1


 
Rob Sigg
Posts: 715
Location: PA-Zone 6
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Thanks, but im curious what people think of my no till plan. I agree that no till is best, but how to get the soil I need by next year with the resources I have is the issue. If it can't happen then Id like to know that.
 
Gord Welch
Posts: 64
Location: Oregon
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Rob, I feel that 2 weeks is probably a bit long of a time to keep chickens with vegetables. Perhaps you'd consider a shorter time or breaking it up. I think short periods of a couple of days in and a couple of days out might be better. If they eat all the bugs and plants they like, they might move on to the plants you love... By rotating them in and out they might not get hungry enough to try all the plants available. Also, are you planning on eating those plants?... be careful of too much fresh manure

I also like weeds very much for loosening soil. Generally tap rooted weeds are excellent at this and they're free!

Your plan looks expensive with the cost of all those seeds, but certainly it should do wonders for your soil. Keep in mind, though (depending on how thickly you broadcast the grains), they form a sod.
 
Rob Sigg
Posts: 715
Location: PA-Zone 6
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SaftreraWhoth wrote:
Hi,everybody,I am new.welcome to help me to the themes.I'll thank you for you greatly.


The plants that are in the area for the chickens are just lentils(for ground cover and forage), some winter squash/pumpkin and weeds, so Im not overly worried about the manure, and you might be right about 2 weeks being too long. There is only 4 chickens, so Ill have to keep an eye on them.

I actually don't have any expenses doing it this way since I have all the see for free through my company. They are rejects and samples that I have collected for the last year in hopes of using them for such a need. Im glad to hear you think it will benefit the soil, I hope its enough for next year.

Can you elaborate a bit more on the sod concern with grains? Thank you.
 
Gord Welch
Posts: 64
Location: Oregon
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Can't say for sure with the chickens... but keeping an eye on things is always best.

I'm glad you don't have to pay for all those seeds! To my eye, every plant can benefit the soil and the right mix can do wonders.

As for the sod... well, sod it sod. It's a thick tangle of shallow roots that tends to preclude many things from germinating. I recall winter rye as being particularly thick. My experience is that so long as it is mixed in with other seeds, it shouldn't be a problem. If the grain is thickly planted it is more difficult to work the soil in the spring. What I don't know about is planting into such a sod...
 
Rob Sigg
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Location: PA-Zone 6
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Gotcha, that is what I thought, but wanted to make sure I understood completely. Thanks for your input. This is a big deal to me and I dont want to waste my time or money on something that wont benefit the land.
 
            
Posts: 177
Location: California
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Chickens will eat anything.. they'll go for the bugs until they're gone but after that it's your pumpkins. Mow a few weeks before you seed down too.. don't want to sow into green clippings.
 
maikeru sumi-e
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Have you thought about using white clover? As I recall, it does well on clay soils and gradually breaks them up. The only drawback to it is that it's not particularly drought tolerant, but if you are in an area with enough water, it should flourish. It would also provide some weed control and chicken forage, though you would need to clip or mow it hard before seeding anything else into it.
 
Rob Sigg
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Location: PA-Zone 6
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I have thought about the white clover, but at this point I didnt want anything too permanent because I need to plant more things both annuals and perennials. I think it would do great in our soil since we have some naturally here already, I thought about just letting that spread. The chickens really love the clover heads. Thanks everyone!
 
John Polk
steward
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Location: Currently in Lake Stevens, WA. Home in Spokane
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The 'trouble' with white clover is that (especially in northern areas) it is the first to flower when the honey bees break winter dormancy.  It is what they seek to refill their larders. That's bad? you might ask.  Depends (as everything else in life).  To feed the bees (and KEEP them there), you need to let it flower, which also means that it will reseed itself.  That means you have now established a perennial crop...Heaven forbid.  You can then either chop 'n drop, or till it under, but it will reappear when mother nature tells it to.  Will you ever rid yourself from this 'evil'?  Probably not...it is more persistent than dandelions...take heart though, pull it and throw it to the chooks...they will repay you in eggs.  Next spring, it will be back, just as if you had reseeded it...a true perennial (beneficial) weed.
 
                        
Posts: 66
Location: San Diego
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New to this forum but I wanted to add one comment from personal experience. There is one case where tilling is a necessity and that is if you are bringing in topsoil to top a clay bed. If you just put down the topsoil water from rain or irrigation will pass through your topsoil and then flow across the top of the clay. What happens then is that the topsoil is slowly eroded away not at the top where you can see it happening but at the interface of the two soils. You can lose all of your topsoil that way without ever knowing it is happening. To avoid this you have to put down a layer of topsoil and till it into the clay so you have an intermediate zone that is part clay and part topsoil. That avoids the interface. You can then add the rest of your topsoil.
It's true this is interfering with things but it is also true to nature. In very few cases does topsoil over clay exist with a sharp interface. If the ground has had that natural composition for many years the insects, worms and soil microbes will have usually already built your mix by carrying topsoil into the clay by their vertical migrations.
 
Rob Sigg
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Location: PA-Zone 6
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Im hoping that the daikon and other grains that Im going to grow as cover crop will help form that layer to them together. Am I wrong?
 
                        
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Location: San Diego
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Daikon and other large deep rooted crops are excellent ways to build your mixed interface IF you can get them to dig into the clay. When you pull them they leave a chimney that your topsoil will sift down into. The reason I say IF is that daikon in topsoil over clay will often grow down into the topsoil and make a right angle turn when it hits the clay instead of digging down into it. Chicory may be a better choice. It also has a large root but is more aggresive about penetrating clay. If you have livestock chicory, especially the broad leaved ones used as cattle browse, is a very nutritious crop for rabbits, chickens, goats etc. The greens are edible to humans but quite bitter so seldom used in that way.
 
Rob Sigg
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Location: PA-Zone 6
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Oddly enough I have chicory growing everywhere except the area where I need it lol. The area where I need it is mostly thistle and grasses, tons of grasses. I believe that this tells me there is enough organic matter under the mulch to grow some crops.

 
                            
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If it's any thing like my yellow clay the earthworms don't even try to penetrate it.

Mulch or topsoil layered on it washed down to the lowest corner after heavy rains or snow melts.

I finally ended up layering sand and mulch on it and tilling that in. That loosened the clay enough that I could plant fava beans it. Then I turned the hogs in after the beans were up a bit.
 
John Polk
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Location: Currently in Lake Stevens, WA. Home in Spokane
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I think Paul said it best earlier:

Tilling degrades any soil, but doesn't really hurt dirt. 


If you have lifeless dirt, a good deep tillage with organic material (half finished compost would work well here)  spread several inches thick before tilling, will both break up a hard surface, and blend in life-giving organic matter.  After that, the soil will improve each year as you add more life to it.  Don't pull your plants at harvest...leave their root structure in the ground to add tilth as deep as they have penetrated.  Each year, the new roots will go that much further.
 
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