My view to the northwest is of an unblemished snowfield. The snow is clean and bright, the sky a brilliant blue. The landscape is as untouched as the new year.. What will I do with 2010? How will I approach my landscape?
Recently a friend of mine said he was gearing himself up to buy a tiller for his tractor, usually used for work in the woods and plowing snow. His wife chimed in that he was tired of the rackety rack of his rototiller. I suggested he give up tilling altogether.
There was a momentary silence, but he allowed that this next door neighbors who had beautiful gardens just did a little hand digging.
I went on to talk about the ‘lasagna’ method I used to enlarge my vegetable garden. This did take work, but no tilling, to set up. I mowed the area as low as possible, then spread at least four inches of chicken manure and compost and watered it all. Ideally this layer could have been deeper. Next came sheets of cardboard, making sure that there were generous overlaps. I watered this as well.
The final layer was soil, not-very-wonderful-loam I had delivered. I planted pole beans, squash and tomatoes in this 10 by 10 foot extension and it produced abundantly. No tilling. And hardly any weeding. The squash vines went everywhere, covering the ground, forbidding the arrival of many weeds.
Growth was exuberant because the plant roots reached through the rotting wet cardboard and into the rich compost and soil. Worms also loved this cardboard covered environment, increasing in population, aerating the soil and enriching it further with their castings. So lush was the growth I could hardly move around in this section to harvest. I needed more space.
So this past spring I mowed down another section, I didn’t have much of my own compost but I did have a load of wonderful compost from Bear Path Farm. This time, I put down the little unfinished compost from my own pile, watered it, laid down cardboard, and topped it with Bear Path compost instead of soil. This 10 by 12 foot extension gave me a little more room so I could have more generous paths. The paths were created using cardboard and wood chips.
Now the mystery. I don’t know why this is. I had always heard that you could mulch with compost, but didn’t understand why compost on top of the soil deterred weeds, when beautiful compost in the soil grew such beautiful vegetables and flowers. I still don’t understand it, but I can attest to this truth.
I was enjoying my new paths, and nearly weed-free garden so much I spent the summer mowing, spreading a layer of chicken manure and unfinished compost, and laying down lots more cardboard topped with free woodchips, an unexpected benefit of last year’s historic ice storm. My plan is to plant a row of black raspberries and another squash patch in this section in the spring. All it will take is pushing aside some of the wood chips, spreading some compost and then planting. No tilling.
No till techniques, whether called lasagna gardening, sheet composting, or composting in place, have several benefits. When working with nature and natural processes erosion is prevented, moisture in the soil is conserved, and the soil is enriched. You will be constructing new rich soil every season, instead of disrupting the system.
To maintain this type of garden more compost needs to be added every year. Add another layer of newspapers or cardboard, water it, and add another thick layer of compost for planting.
You can see the need for compost never decreases. We can never have too much compost. Fortunately materials for compost are everywhere beginning in the kitchen with fruit and vegetable scraps, and moving out to newspapers, lawn clippings, autumn leaves, weeds, old garden vines and spent plants, as well as straw, and rotted hay. Those who are lucky may have access to animal manures. Never use pet manure!
Some worry that hay will introduce weed seeds. I saw that Daniel Botkin of Laughing Dog Farm in Gill had lots of hay bales in his productive market garden. He says he uses them to help create micro-climates, and when they are well and truly rotted and all the weed seeds have sprouted and died, he uses it as mulch and compost.
As my friend and I continued our conversation he asked if I was suggesting that he spend $100 on rotted hay instead of buying new equipment or repairing the rototiller. I replied that it was certainly an option. I do know that he has a big compost pile and chicken manure so he is already well set up.
I pointed out that he would be working with nature, saving energy (no fuel for engines) and possibly his own energy. At least over the long haul, and that’s the way to think – long term benefits for our own health and the health of our gardens, and hence the health of our planet.
I look at my snow covered fields and the new year before me. I think of the poet Marie Ponsot’s new book Easy and the poem, Simples. “what do I want/ well I want to/ get better.”
Happy New Year. Happy Gardening.
Between the Rows December 26, 2009