Why No-Till? A Summary Statement

If a “Do Not Disturb” sign were posted on every piece of arable land, maybe then we would get the message that tilling the soil was a bad idea from the very beginning, and only got worse as we developed more efficient digging tools.

Soil scientists are finally getting the message and are loudly extolling the virtues of no till agriculture. However so far only a few in the agriculture community are listening.   Until recently most of the soil scientists sided with the agriculturists.   They assumed that mixing the soil layers, or horizons, created by Nature as it produces soil increases crop production.

They also said tilling suppresses the “harmful”(apparently unnecessary?) anaerobic bacteria mostly deep in the soil. Research has shown otherwise – that the ethylene anaerobic bacteria produce is essential to plant health,  particularly in making  anemia-preventing iron available to plants. Ethylene is also critical in the creation of stable humus and keeping root pathogens in check. Incidentally the term anaerobic is misleading as such bacteria need oxygen, but they get it from CO2 instead of O2. This means that soil dense with CO2 needs to be cycled in from time to time and then phased out as more oxygen rushes in. Tilling disrupts this cycling in and out.

No, Nature did not err during its millions of years of soil creation, and purposefully established layers, each with a necessary function for soil and plant health. The surface layer is rich in fungi which holds soil together, helping to resist the potential eroding effects of wind and water, and consequent pollution of our streams. Commonly the boundary between soil layers is not distinct so that water, organic matter, microbes, air and nutrients can pass freely from one layer to the next. This has proven to be a much better system than the mechanical mixing we have assumed was an improvement. The surface topsoil layer suffers the most when mixed with lower layers. Even a single initial tilling compromises the soil’s integrity, requiring five years or so, depending on the climate, soils and so forth, to regain its original layered arrangement.

In starting a garden on ground that has been deeply compacted an initial chiseling might be called for, or, in relatively small gardens, “lifting” the soil to achieve the necessary loosening, followed by cover cropping, as advocated in Permaculture manuals. I have found that even with a degraded or chemically dependent soil chemical fertilization can be abandoned immediately with a nitrogen rich mulch like grass clippings.

Our need is for food that is palatable, which happens to be mostly annuals, but perennials dominate in wild Nature.  Annuals are very fast growing which gives them a big appetite, so a particularly deep mulch is needed to supply the necessary nutrients. Wide plant spacing helps in applying thick mulch, which must be added in increments to avoid the matting that occurs with a deep nitrogen-rich mulch. At first the plant roots will not venture far from the mulch layer but in time, with cover cropping and earthworm activity they will forage deeper.

A common criticism of no till gardening is that it would require us to go back to “hunting and gathering”, which is obviously not a possibility with the present large population. Some radical changes are required however. No one needs to go hungry but many of us will go hungry if long-distance transportation of food is not ended.. I feel much greater care would be given to the soils in one’s own country than soils in a far off land. Another change that I see would be in growing more vegetables and fruits and fewer grains, which means a more vegetarian diet. This change would result in increased health and even  reduce the gap between the rich and the poor.

When humankind becomes serious in saving the planet and atmosphere no till agriculture and planting more trees, will become the norm as they are the most feasible way of sequestering carbon.

Nature welcomes each new species since species diversity provides ecosystem stability (self-correcting, self-organising capacity). So She has been heartbreakingly patient and even forgiving in our clumsy (read destructive) attempts to find a home here. It has been suggested, with great urgency, that the reason finding a constructive or creative niche has been so difficult  for us is because of ego-interference, which divides the world into self and not-self.  In Reality however everything arises within Nature, with no such division. Could it be true that saving civilization and the planet is primarily a Spiritual matter in the non-religious sense of transcending the ego? It has been reported that when such transcendence is complete there is not even a separate God.

Fertilizing and No Till Gardening

Fertilizing and No-Till

Abandoning old and deep habits is not one of our species’ strong points in my observation. In most cases there must be compelling reasons to change. So what could compel gardeners and farmers to switch from till to no-till?

It doesn’t seem likely that chemical agriculture will ever switch – finding it so difficult to change to eminently more sensible organic agriculture –until the cost of phosphorus can no longer be passed on to the food consumer, at which point it will die a natural death. Considering the dwindling supply of mined phosphorus in the world this is not too far in the future.

What might compel organic gardeners and farmers to tweak their practices to no-till? Increased cost effectiveness of no-till would certainly be a compelling reason considering our mercenary tendencies, but it is yet not decisively proven to be true. The fact that no-till is much friendlier to the planet – less CO2 outgassing, less water pollution, and so forth – is compelling only to a few.

For me the most compelling reason was a deepening trust, over decades, in Nature’s way – that by an invisible hand Nature is self-organizing and self-correcting, provided she is not interfered with. Through the study of soil I saw that tilling was such an interference.
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Employing Nightcrawlers (Lumbricus Terristoris)

There will always be those who during economic hard times, and particularly economic meltdowns, prefer to take personal responsibility for food security rather than join angry protesters. Of course access to land will be necessary and in many cases there may not be enough land to feed oneself and perhaps dependents. It is recommended by some that very close spacing is a good way to maximize production, but I am not one of them. Though close spacing economizes space above ground, the roots below are cramped which would tempt the gardener to resort to costly soil additives of many kinds. A better practice would be to increase topsoil depth. In this regard nightcrawlers should be employed as nightcrawlers are Nature’s premier topsoil builders.

Rather than ingesting organic matter that is already in the soil they prefer organic matter at the surface and bring it down deep through vertical tunnels, mixing it with subsoil which provides the grit for shredding the organic matter. Like other earthworms they prefer partially decomposed organic matter that provides them with digesting microorganisms. These tunnels also transport oxygen and water, essential for the survival of both worms’ and plants. Surface mulch, therefore, is needed to keep the worms constantly fed. Even cover crops would need to be mulched, otherwise the earthworms may spend too much time hibernating at the bottom of their tunnels.

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Feeding the World

It’s reported that half the planet’s life-sustaining topsoil now resides under water in rivers and the oceans, not ever to be retrieved. Even the remaining half is not actual topsoil, or at least does not have the full complement of fertility and tilth that characterized the soil that was lost.

Fortunately the lower quality topsoil that remains can be upgraded quickly, but not by turning under large quantities of organic matter, as such tilling depletes the key ingredient of inherently fertile soils – stable humus. Through the decomposition of cover crop roots subsoil will also become part of the topsoil complex. In this manner the original depth of topsoil can eventually be achieved. Food can be produced during this soil building process, using high nitrogen mulch.. Applying natural fertilizers and amendments (surface application) can assist the production of food while such supplements are still affordable and/or available.

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The First True Revolution in Agriculture

When we speak of agriculture we naturally think of tilling the soil, yet we have known for a long time that tilling results in soil loss and therefore is not a sustainable form of agriculture. Though organic agriculture is purposed towards sustainability it is mired in the futile attempt to prevent soil loss while still tilling the soil. Agriculture without tilling is now being looked at but surface tilling (cultivation) is deemed necessary for weed control. This is not true. Cultivation keeps a constant supply of weed seeds close to the light needed for sprouting. In my garden beds where I have avoided disturbing even the surface of the soil for several years the weed situation has become quite manageable, though there continues to be the encroachment of grass from the grass paths. This “problem” could be exploited by permitting the narrowing of the garden beds and a widening of the paths for a time, since the encroaching grass adds root organic matter.

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Just Dirt?

Just Dirt?

There is a recent study that puts together statistics on soil erosion from more than 125 sources. It says “the US is losing soil ten times faster than the natural replenishment rate while China and India are losing soil 30-40 times faster than the natural replenishment rate”. The study goes on to say “worldwide, as a result of wind and water erosion in the past 40 years 30% of the world’s arable land has become unproductive”. The study also says that the soil that is washed away harms other ecosystems, including our oceans and atmosphere. Obviously a food crunch is on the horizon.

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Proper Stewardship of our Renewable Resources

It was assumed that by adding free trade to the global markets hunger and starvation would be greatly alleviated, if not yesterday’s problem. Hindsight has shown otherwise. Free trade simply opened the door for the exploitation of weaker nations by stronger nations, particularly, though not exclusively, in regard to the appropriation of natural resources. In a better world each nation would take care of all of its people first, with any excess of resources applied to the trade balance. Failing that we must rely on emergency relief, which is never adequate and may not even be available in the future. At the present time we are faced with an equally dire situation, if not more so –  we are fast running out of non-renewable resources. As a consequence future generations will become ever more dependent on renewable resources.

This brings up the matter of the stewardship of the basic renewable resources – soil, air and water. Although in my articles my focus has been on soils, these three resources cannot be effectively addressed apart from each other. Degraded soils (loss of carbon) result in degraded air (excess carbon) which in turn degrade our oceans – warming and acidifying them, causing climate aberrations worldwide. It is important to notice that the degradation of soils came first, so the secret to restoring balance in the atmosphere and oceans lies not only in reducing fossil fuel emissions but also in sequestering carbon in our agricultural soils where it is critically needed, and not in underground or under water pools where it is concentrated and made highly toxic.

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