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Sunday, June 24, 2012

No-Till Polyculture

I am one of those who think no-till has a lot going for it, in conjunction with mixing vegs in the bed (polyculture). This way, worm activity is not devastated by tillage. Roots of weeds, starved by the mulch of sunlight, rot in place, adding to the capillary action of worm (and assorted bug) tunnels. The variety of vegs means that their rooting action will vary in depth and in nutrients sought out. It's harder work for plant predators to find what they are looking for (and when they get there, it's healthier than they'd like), so there is little or no need for chemical applications. The mulch, at our place, typically consists of cardboard (tape removed), straw, leaves, grass clippings, compost, sawdust, barn bedding, chopped cornstalks -- almost anything we can get our hands on that's organic -- even twigs -- applied in the fall, and weathered down a bit -- through which we plant.

In summer we continue adding these layers -- to the paths. The worms appreciate it, the garden needs much less irrigation in dry conditions, and the paths are in this way made productive. The resulting "sheet" compost, next spring, can be raked up into the beds. Ultimately you get raised beds without having had to build walls for them.

This garden is nineteen years old. The soil, practically a brickmaking clay when we came to it, has improved every year, despite its having never been fallowed. It stands as a proof that farming need not deplete soil, adding a burden of silt and life-snuffing chemicals to a watershed. Monoculturists hooked into the Monsanto system of GMO seed, tillage, chemical soil prep, insecticides, herbicides, fungicides, and farmworkercides cannot agree with this, as they can see it's too labor-intensive -- or, as I would put it, provides too many jobs. But I know of no reason why joyful farming (which no-till polyculture can be) should not attract a new generation into the fields.

Here I've run out of cardboard and resorted to burlap (which we buy for 50 cents a bag from a coffee shop) to finish out my last path. Burlap, commonly made from jute, will do the job but lasts too long -- it will have to be taken up at the end of the season and stored somewhere, by which time it will be messy.

I'm aware, too, of the deficiencies of both straw and cardboard. The wheat grass that will sprout doesn't bother me -- I'll just flip over the straw. But what chemical residues might there be in it -- and in cardboard? Don't know. I'm taking my chances here, reflecting that the food I'm growing is in all likelihood better than I can get at the supermarket and way less expensive than if I tried to get straw or its equivalent only from organically certified sources, or got all my food from the "organic" stands at the farmer's markets. Everyone has to draw their own line on safety, although, from things I've read, governments all over are increasingly interested in enforcing safety standards designed to squeeze small and subsistence farmers out of business in favor of the Monsanto model.

I remember reading that a mid-sized farm (not strictly organic but very progressive) uses a system somewhat like mine, but with rolls of unbleached kraft paper, which they unroll and spread over both beds and paths every year. Same chemical questions occur to me over this paper as over the cardboard.

What I'd like to see is the return of industrial hemp. Yes, I know it would be a monoculture, but it would be a great improvement over mowing the forests and digging or pumping black poison from the earth in order to get the products that could be made (in many cases bettter made) with hemp. You may grow it any way you like, but I will patronize you if you 1) grow it organically, and 2) set up a mill (a very small one, served by happy cooperative owners, will do) to make a kraft paper in rolls, in, say, 36 and 48 inch widths, cross-marked and punched for grid planting, and certified by a cooperative tilth organization to be just right for mulching smallholder or cooperatively managed organic polycultural subsistence, CSA or market farms.


Featured in the photographs: rhubarb, Golden Bantam corn, assorted green beans, red, Yukon Gold and German Butterball potatoes, rhubarb, sunchokes, raspberries, pumpkins, climbing cucumbers, runner beans (hopelessly hybridized Scarlet and Hungarian). Not shown but present: elephant garlic, hard-necked garlic, Egyptian onions, white onions, leeks, yellow and green zucchini, four varieties of indeterminate tomatoes, spinach, many kinds of lettuce, delicata and butternut squashes, kale, bok choi, collards, beets, eggplants, basil, chives, oregano, parsley, celery, rosemary, thyme, sage, lavender, poppies, four kinds of mint, blueberries, comfrey, dandelions (encouraged), goumi, blackberries, hops, quince, and assorted cherries, apples, pears, peaches, mulberries, grapes, hazelnuts, kiwis, chickens, ducks, geese, grass pasture, rose hips, and a coppice woodlot. Some years also sunflowers, broccoli and tomatillos. We are not regarded as a farm by the authorities.


  1. Anonymous2:55 PM

    Do you know about Vindana Shiva?

  2. Oh, yes! http://www.navdanya.org/

  3. We use the same methods for weed control. Mostly that consists of laying down newspaper layers or feed bags, covered by straw. They decompose into soil by the next spring although I wonder, as you do, about hidden toxins that may be found in paper. I try to respect what weeds themselves do for our soil and continue to experiment with weed control. http://bitofearthfarm.wordpress.com/2012/04/26/what-about-weed-control/

  4. Yes, we're fond of dandelions and lamb's quarters for one thing. Late in the summer, the poultry appreciate cat's ears, as well, which many mistake for dandelions. All these do good things for soil with their roots. We tolerate some clover in the garden as a nitrogen fixer. We have trouble her find ing feed bags that are not either plastic or do not have a plastic layer between the two paper layers :(

  5. Chiming in to say how I WISH we could grow hemp. It's such an amazing crop!


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