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Soil Care Basics:
Protecting Soil Structure with Alternatives to Tillage

Table of Contents

MulchesGarden LayoutOther Strategies

Other Minimal-Tillage Strategies

Consider well before assuming that tillage, especially power tillage, is “necessary.” Almost invariably, alternatives exist. Power tillers are stressful to use—loud, stinky, and jarring—and worse, invert and mix the different layers in the soil profile, disrupting the soil food web and breaking down the “crumb” structure we and our friends in the soil have worked so hard to achieve. Even garden-size tillers tend to form “plow pans”—compression zones formed by “spanking” of the soil by the rotating tines—which resist penetration by water, earthworms, and plant roots. Even in the case of cover crops which must give way to the planting of a harvest crop, it is not necessary to turn them into the soil, as usually recommended. When working at the garden scale, alternatives include: Simply bury the cover crop under a sufficiently heavy mulch to kill it. (You’ll be amazed at how quickly the soil life digests it.) If the soil is in loose, friable condition, it is easy to pull the cover plants up by the roots and lay them on the bed as mulch. Certain plants such as rye and vetch are difficult to kill without tillage, but cutting them immediately above the crowns after seed stalks or flowers form will kill them. Use the sheared top growth as a mulch to help break down the roots more rapidly. Chickens can be used to till in cover crops. They cause some disruption of soil life, of course, especially fungal hyphae networks and the larger animals such as arthropods, nematodes, earthworms, ground beetles, etc. However, the disruption is only in the top couple of inches of soil, does not invert layers or pulverize structure deeper down, and is likely to be quickly repaired, especially as the birds’ droppings give a boost to bacteria and other soil life.

When it is necessary to loosen the soil at depth—as in a “young” garden whose soil has not yet “mellowed” sufficiently to grow good root crops—I recommend the broadfork, a hand tool that, like the scythe, makes joyful, all-round use of the body in a rhythm that becomes a garden meditation. Unlike a power tiller, the broadfork loosens the soil without inverting its natural layers or breaking down its “crumb” structure which we and our soil allies have worked so hard to achieve.

The broadfork is much easier to use in soil that is already in fairly good condition—it is not the tool of choice for converting a tough grass sod over compacted soil to new garden ground. Does that mean that in this case we are forced to revert to power-driven steel? Not on my homestead, where once again chicken power comes to the rescue. Normally I would rotate the birds on to another plot after a week or so to prevent excessive wearing of the pasture sod, but in this case “excessive wearing” is exactly what I want. I use electronet to “park” a flock of chickens on the sod I want to convert to garden. With their constant scratching, the birds kill and till in the sod. I remove the birds, grow a mixed cover crop, and then return the chickens for another round of tilling. Now the new ground is ready to start working as garden. Be sure to note the state of the soil before you start—the changes by the end of the season will amaze you. [NEED PHOTO OF CHOOKS WORKING SOD]

If you don’t have chickens, a no-till way to develop new ground is to lay down a “layer compost” or “sheet mulch,” (described in Increasing Organic Matter: Composts), heavy enough to kill the existing sod. If you can be generous with watering through the germination phase, you can start a cover crop in the top layer of the sheet mulch, the roots of which will greatly accelerate the breakdown of the mulch. Plant a second cover in the fall. This strategy works better if you can give the area over completely to soil building for a full year. If you have to get some production out of the ground the first season, simply open up holes in the sheet mulch and plant (a strategy that works better with some crop plants than others).

One way to get significant production on new ground in the first season is to use pototoes to do the heavy work for you. Simply lay your seed potatoes directly on the established sod, and cover with a thick mulch. As the sod plants die, their fresh green matter converts readily to a flush of available nutrients for the heavy-feeding pototoes, and the potato roots speed breakdown and loosening in the root zone of the sod. Renew the mulch as needed to keep the growing tubers well covered. When time to harvest, simply push the mulch aside and pick up your spuds. The new garden soil still has a long way to go, but it’s well on its way.

The only time I do disruptive tillage in the garden is when digging root crops such as potatoes (if not mulch-planted), sweet potatoes, and burdock. With such crops, I dig deeply and thoroughly with the spading fork—a total disruption of soil structure and inversion/mixing of its natural layers. My goal, however, is to make such intensive disruptions the rare exception rather than the rule, and trust that the intact soil life communities in surrounding beds will soon help reconstitute the soil food web in the disturbed areas.