Saving the Soil: New Farming Techniques
On Friday the 14th of November, I attended the Quivira Coalition. One striking presentation came from Singing Frogs Farm called Soil is Life, Tillage is Death: A Future with No-Till Vegetable Agriculture. The presentation discussed the role that healthy soil plays in a garden and the importance of not tilling. Tilling is very simply defined as preparing land for crops, with no further detail. However, the act of tilling is using tools to rip out the leftover matter from an old crop and turn over the soil, exposing what was underneath the surface to the air. The lecture was both entertaining and highly informative.
An Example of Tilling
The presentation began with the bold and powerful statement: Soil equals life. Without healthy soil, life cannot flourish. The practice of tilling is harmful to the soil and does not create a healthy environment for the crops to grow in. Therefore, tilling is destructive and should be removed from farming techniques. Soil needs to contain a myriad of organisms and nutrients to be healthy and sustain life. Tillage abolishes organic matter in the soil, reducing both the helpful and necessary organisms and the nutrient content of the soil. In fact, several other presentations cited the absolute importance of healthy soil to a prosperous and well-functioning growing experience. Fred Kirschenmann and Christine Jones both discussed the vital role that soil plays in both good crops and sustainable farming.
Farming without tilling has many benefits. When soil is nurtured properly, it returns better, stronger, crops in larger quantities, and has a much higher water holding capacity. This means the amount of water the soil can absorb, for example when it rains, before the water simply runs off the soil. The soil will have more organisms such as mycorrhizae, a fungus that assists plants with Nitrogen fixation. If plants cannot fix nitrogen, they cannot photosynthesize as well and the plants are stunted or die. Using the no-till methods, Singing Frogs Farm was able to grow more for a longer growing season, despite the fact that their average temperatures were lower than other surrounding farms. Singing Frogs Farm also did not have to mulch their soil or weed it. They did not have parasite issues. They needed to water far less frequently. And finally, they were able to plant between three and seven consecutive crops in any one of their planting beds over a twelve months, whereas traditional farms can plant one or two crops at most.
Healthier soil results in a higher water holding capacity, less weeds, and less pests. From an environmental standpoint, this means that water usage can be drastically reduced. Agriculture is one of the top water consumers, and reducing the need for water will protect one of our most important resources. Finally, the lack of pests and weeds will diminish the need for pesticides and herbicides. These toxic chemicals damage the environment as they kill all insects, good and bad, and can pollute water sources and therefore the entire surrounding environment. Finally, if the soil is naturally made healthier, there will no need to use fertilizers. Artificial fertilizers are toxic the life. Well over half the nitrogen in fertilizers isn’t even fixated by the plant and instead enters the atmosphere as a potent greenhouse gas. No-till soil is safer and more sustainable soil.
Farming without tilling follows these four fundamental rules:
- Disturb the soil as little as possible.
- Always keep plants growing in the soil.
- Protect and insulate the soil.
- Grow a variety of plants in the soil.
Each rule ensures that the soil will not be damaged or lose its content of nutrients and organisms. Rules number one and three especially enforce this, because delicate organisms living below the surface can be destroyed if the soil is turned over and exposed to the air, or if it is exposed to harsh temperatures from over exposure to sun or during the cold seasons. Rule number two ensures that the soil remains a living organism and does not stagnate. This can be achieved with cover crops when food crops cannot be planted, such as during the winter. Finally, rule number four ensures that the same nutrients aren’t constantly being depleted from an area of soil if the same plant grows in it over and over again. Plant diversity keeps the soil diverse as well. Singing Frogs Farm even planted a variety of plants at the same time in the same bed, such as lettuce and broccoli, to protect the soil by shading and insulating it. Another method that Singing Frogs Farm used in conjunction with their no-till was hedgerows. The hedgerows provided warmth, shade, nutrients, decreased soil erosion, and attracted pollinators.
This information can be used in our smaller scale DOT garden. Currently we are growing diverse cover crops in the field to sustain healthy soil over the winter. However, several of the boxed garden beds have been harvested and left bare. While cover cropping for such a small, specific area may seem like too much work, I believe the results will be beneficial to the soil in these planters. We do grow a variety of plants in these planters, but we are not constantly keeping plant matter in the soil, and it is not sheltered from the elements. Growing a cover crop will solve these issues. Finally, planting some hedgerows is an easy way to add more life and nutrition to our garden and its soil.
Singing Frogs Farm website: http://www.singingfrogsfarm.com/Home.html