Tiller Usage and Soil Health Information

Starting to build garden soil is not difficult. Most people begin by going out into their yards with a shovel or garden tiller, digging up the dirt and putting in a few plants. By following organic and natural methods and add mulch or compost, you’re well on your way to make good soil for you’re the vegetables. But in the long run, the success of your garden depends on making healthy garden soil. The more you can do to keep your soil healthy, the more productive your garden will be and the higher the quality of your crops.

Creating the garden soil should imitate natural soil communities. These include protecting soil structure, feeding the soil with nutrients from natural and local sources, and increasing the diversity and numbers of the microbes and other organisms that live in the soil.

This should revolve around two basic concepts: For more fertile soil, you need to increase organic matter and mineral availability, and whenever possible, you should avoid tilling the soil and leave its structure undisturbed.  The key to soil management is imitating natural systems. But perhaps the best answer is that topsoil is alive, and any approach to gardening that treats it as an inert substance is almost certain to be destructive.

1. Try low-tech tillage. There are almost always better alternatives to tilling, especially power tillage, which inverts and mixes the different layers in the soil profile, disrupts the soil food web and breaks down the “crumb” structure we have worked so hard to achieve. Even in the case of cover crops, which must give way to the planting of a harvest crop, it is not necessary to turn otr till them into the soil, instead, consider these alternatives:

You can bury the cover crop under a heavy mulch to kill it. If the soil is loose and crumbles easily, then the cover crop can be pulled up by the roots, shake out the soil and lay them on the bed as mulch allowing them to decompose in place.

When it’s necessary to loosen soil, use  a broad fork or other such tool  to turn over the soil.  The broad fork loosens the soil without inverting the natural soil layers or breaking down the “crumb” structure of the soil. The broad fork is much easier to use in soil that is already in fairly good condition.

A no-till way to develop soil is to lay down compost.  To get production out of the garden during the  season would be to open up areas in the composted garden for seed planting and making holes in the compost for plants.

You can plant potatoes, onions and garlic without digging. Lay your seed potatoes directly on the sod, and cover with a thick mulch. Renew the mulch as needed to keep the growing tubers well covered. When it’s time to harvest, simply push the mulch aside and pick up your spuds. Push the onions or garlic into the soil and mulch the spaces between the plants to keep weeds out and water in.

2. Adding manures for nitrogen. All livestock manures can be valuable additions to soil — their nutrients are readily available to soil organisms and plants. In fact, manures make a greater contribution to soil aggregation than composts, which have already mostly decomposed.

You should apply manure with care. Although pathogens are less likely to be found in manures from homesteads and small farms than those from large confinement livestock operations, you should allow three months between application and harvest of root crops or leafy vegetables such as lettuce and spinach to guard against contamination. (Tall crops such as corn and trellised tomatoes shouldn’t be prone to contamination.)

However, because some nutrients from manures are so readily available, they are more likely to leach out of the soil into groundwater and streams. Also, if manures are overused, they can provide excess amounts of some nutrients, especially phosphorus. Because of this, it may be best process manure first by composting.

3. Composting. Composting is a means of recycling almost any organic wastes. It reduces the bulk of organic materials, stabilizes their more volatile and soluble nutrients, and speeds up the formation of soil humus.

Regular applications compost — one to three inches per season — will provide slow-release nutrients, which will dramatically improve your soil’s water retention and help suppress diseases. 

Using compost each growing season or in the fall will help suppress weeds as well as provide nutriments. Also high-nitrogen “greens,” such as grass clippings added with high-carbon “browns,” such as dry leaves can be used as compost materials also and can be apply in layers directly to the garden bed.  Straw is also an acceptable cover for weed suppression and water retention.

4. “Mine” soil nutrients with deep rooted plants.  Some plants function as “dynamic accumulators.” That is, their roots grow deep, and “mine” mineral reserves from the layers of soil below the surface.  Many gardeners are a bit paranoid about “weeds,” but some weeds are deep rooted, and can be used as dynamic accumulators to bring minerals up from the subsoil.  The weeds can be pulled, shake off the soil and lay them onto the surface to dry and decompose in place.  When the weed plants start to make seed heads, pull them, shake off the soil and remove them from the garden to prevent huge numbers of seeds from blowing loose into the garden.

It can be necessary to use rock powders, and other slow-release sources of minerals, to correct mineral deficiencies in the soil.  You can supply minerals by purchasing organic materials.

5. Plant cover crops. Growing cover crops is perhaps the most valuable strategy that can be adopt to feed the soil, build up its fertility and improve its structure with each passing season. Freshly killed cover crops provide readily available nutrients for the soil microbe friends and hence for food crop plants. Plus, the channels opened up by the decaying roots of cover crops permit oxygen and water to penetrate the soil.

Legumes (clovers, alfalfa, beans and peas) are especially valuable cover crops, because they fix nitrogen from the atmosphere into forms available to crop plants. Mixes of different cover crops are often beneficial. For example, in mixes of grasses and clovers, the grasses add a large amount of biomass and improve soil structure because of the size and complexity of their root systems, and the legumes add nitrogen to help break down the relatively carbon-rich grass roots quickly.

There are cover crops that will work best for each of the four seasons, and for almost any cropping strategy.

6. Cover the soil with mulch. An obvious way to keep the soil covered is to use organic mulches. Using high-carbon materials such as straw or leaves and incorporate them into the soil may delete the soil of some nitrogen.  If these high-carbon sources are laid down on top of soil as mulches, there won’t be any problem. The mulch retains soil moisture and protects against temperature extremes. Microbes, earthworms and other forms of soil life can “nibble” at the mulch, and slowly incorporate their residues into the topsoil. Actually, high-carbon mulches are preferable for weed control to materials that decompose readily, since they persist longer before being incorporated into the soil food web. (Every gardener who has used mulches knows the story: You put down a thick layer early in the season, then suddenly one day notice — the garden ate my mulch!) It may be necessary to renew mulches that are in place during the growing season.

Grass clippings should not be lost as a resource — shipping them off to the landfill is a true crime against sustainability. Grass-clippings will increase fertility.

An undervalued source of organic matter is the wood fiber in newspapers and cardboard. Modern newsprint and cardboard produced in the United States do not pose environmental hazards. When establishing this type of mulches, lay down a thick layer of newspaper or cardboard, and then cover with leaves, grass cuttings and other organic materials. Wood chips also make good mulch for some situations, especially for pathways and kill mulches, and they often are free from tree-trimming services.

7. Use permanent beds and paths. A key strategy for protecting soil structure is to grow in wide permanent beds and restrict foot traffic to the pathways — thus avoiding compaction in the growing areas — and to plant as closely as possible in the beds. Close planting shades the soil surface, which benefits both soil life and plants by conserving moisture and moderating temperature extremes.  You also can mulch the paths surrounding the permanent beds.