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Monday, April 22, 2002

Till/no till

I used to despair of ever getting the garden tilled. Here in western Oregon it generally rains, rains, and rains until about the fifth of July. Throughout this time, if you pick up a handful of "dirt" and drop it, like the tilling manuals say, it will hit the surface with a wet splapp!! -- just like a Better Boy tomato -- thus failing the ready-to-till test.

So, what's a gardener to do?

We have weeds like nobody has weeds. You can hear them growing at night. Neighbors like to lean on the fence, shake their heads, and say, "Oh, my. Need some herbicide in there!" Well, thanks but no thanks; we had a serious run of birth defects among tree planters' families back in the seventies, including mine, and it turned out to have something to do with the herbicides that were used to keep the clear-cuts free of brush. I figure the big chemical companies owe me about forty thousand dollars so far, but let's just say for now, no herbicides on this place, thank you.

So, ok, what to do? I learned, some years ago, by trial and error, that with a long-handled potato fork I could "spade" wet ground: the tines don't seem to compress the soil the way an actual spade does. I turned the clumps upside down, and the roots of sod and weeds, ripped by the fork rather than cut off cleanly by a spade, stood upside down naked in the sunlight, rapidly drying up, a satisfying scene of mayhem. But the earth itself remained stubbornly cold and damp, even for peas.

Something more was needed.

During one hot, dry summer not too long ago, I tried to water my plants from little irrigation ditches, as I had seen done in a garden book somewhere, but the plants were drying up anyway, because the rows were too far apart for the ditches to have any effect.

A little exploration with a spade taught me what most of you old-time gardeners already knew: most of the water goes straight down.

You have to water the roots of a plant to do it any good, because if the watering is hitting the ground just a little outside the reach of the plant, it will miss the roots entirely as it goes by on its way to the aquifer.


If I can water only straight down, said I to myself, then I can also DRY straight down. As with sun and shade, you can manipulate water levels by opening up or blocking paths for water -- or rain!

The next winter I bought some stuff I had been avoiding: sheet plastic. 4-mil black and clear. I experimented with both, spreading them over various areas of the garden, and found that the clear plastic seemed to actually encourage weed growth, though it did dry out the soil enough to till.

The black plastic seemed far superior. Every green thing underneath it died, and stayed dead, though worms did not seem to be at all discouraged, and moved about underneath quite freely. I've since heard that the clear does work, but it has to be tucked under the earth around all the edges -- absolutely all -- in order to deny air to the weeds and get enough temperature to kill them and their seeds. The black plastic seems much less effort.

When I don't have enough to do the whole surface of the garden (which is always), I spread out what I've got, and three weeks later, go back, pull all the the plastic away, till the dry spot, and spread the plastic over the next space for the next three weeks. Thus there is always some earth dry enough to work, even in constant rain.

Meanwhile the clear plastic comes in handy after all. In the freshly prepared ground, I can plant whatever rows of seeds interest me at the time, let it rain on them one night for sprouting, then cover the rows with a sheet of clear plastic for three to six days so the seeds won't drown, then remove. And voilá! A garden up and running, even as the cold rainwater keeps up its endless running from the downspouts round the house. Where there is a will, I suppose, there is almost always a way. Now if I could just find a way to keep my wellies from loading up ten pounds of clay every time I go outside!


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