In an effort to investigate principles of regenerative farming, I am sharing about how we manage tillage at our farm.
In his book The Living Soil Handbook, Jesse Frost defines tillage as "anything done to the soil that does not ultimately promote soil health" (p. 27). When I think about tilling the earth, an image that comes to mind is a tractor with a plow moving through a field, turning soil over, breaking it down, and forming it into beds. This is mechanical tillage, and it can lead to compacted soil, weedy surfaces, soil erosion, and unhealthy soil. Sometimes mechanical tillage is needed, but it is important to make an educated choice for your own farm.
Alternatives to mechanical tillage are low-till or no-till practices. Low-till methods include the use of implements such as the broadfork that break the soil open but do not turn it over. No-till practices mean that the ground is not disturbed at all. Compost, mulch, and/or amendments are added to the soil and then planted into.
One of the best benefits of no-till growing is less weed pressure. When the soil is tilled and turned over, weed seeds are raised to the surface where they sprout and spread. It may take a couple years to see a decrease in weed pressure after moving to no-till, but it definitely helps.
Another benefit of no-till growing is being able to easily pull root vegetables or tulip bulbs out of the ground. An added benefit to this is that a bed can easily be transitioned to another crop, which saves so much time. If we start the growing season with a thick layer of compost and mulch, we can plant right back into the same bed after cutting the previous crop out of the bed. As we find ways to farm smarter, a no-till system is helpful.
Finally, soil health is the most important benefit to no-till farming. By farming without disturbing the soil, we are able to leave in place an intricate and balanced soil structure that helps with drainage, plant health, and carbon sequestration.
"In living soil, plant roots and soil aggregates bind the soil together, creating vital stability. Earthworms carve tunnels, making it easier for air to come in, carbon dioxide to leave, and fungal hyphae and plant roots to thread their way through" (Frost, 23).
In an effort to move toward no-till, we use a low-till method at Sourwood Creek Farm that incorporates a broadfork. The broadfork is pushed into the ground and gently breaks the soil surface and helps break up compacted layers of soil. The back beds above have been broadforked over three growing seasons with compost and mulch added to it each year. The soil is now to a place where we can simply add compost and mulch without needing the broadfork. The beds in the foreground are newer and received their first round of broadforking this fall and were very compacted.
To be transparent, half of the beds at the farm were formed with an initial till, cardboard, and compost and half were formed using compost and were tarped for 3 months to kill weed seeds. With both kinds of beds, we planted into the compost the first season with annuals. After cutting down the plants at the end of the growing season, the beds were broadforked, amended, and mulched in preparation for the next season.
Looking at the different methods of bed preparation, here are some of my real-life observations from growing on each section for multiple years.
1) The beds that were tilled have had much higher weed pressure than the beds that were tarped.
2) The beds that were tilled were much easier to broadfork after their first season and are now to the point where they no longer need to be broadforked.
3) There is good drainage on both sets of beds as we get a high amount of rainfall in our region. The back half of beds with the initial till have mulched pathways. The front half of beds formed with tarped compost have living pathways. The front half does tend to be muddier, but I am also in the process of reseeding the living pathways and improving the mix of cover crop that grows on the pathways to make sure they always have a cover growing.
4) We have been able to easily harvest carrots, onions, and garlic in our no-till beds. This is our first year with a no-till tulip bed. I am looking forward to the ease of harvest.
5) We leave the root structures of plants in place as we cut out a crop and transition to another crop. This leaves the plant roots in place to break down and feed the soil and keeps the soil from being disturbed even further. We plant around the root structures of the flowers as we put in the next crop. That has been a really easy way to transition a no-till bed and has saved a lot of time.
6) We get beautiful plants out of this no-till system with beautiful soil full of earthworms.
Thanks for coming along for the ride as we continue to learn, observe, and investigate how to create and maintain healthy soil. The Living Soil Handbook by Jesse Frost is a great resource for anyone interested in diving in further to soil health.