Soil Without Toil

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Organic Ade

Soil Without Toil!

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Witch Hazel
the "easy organic"

Every spring it begins.

Gardeners drive to the local nursery or hardware store, and load up their cars with bag upon bag of soil amendments - peat moss, gypsum, manure, compost, and topsoil - itís expensive! There are so many things weíd rather be spending our money on, like that new snail vine from Thompson and Morgan, or that gorgeous glazed pot set at the garden store. 

But sad experience tells us that without good soil, the garden flops. Right? And let's not even get started on the whole yearly affair of tilling, plowing, turning, double digging, cultivating, and raking. Itís enough to make you think about taking up another hobby. But the soil is where it all starts, and if you skimp on the soil, then your plants will be skimpy too.

So why is it that the hardpan soil you started with still bounces your tiller around like a ping pong ball?  And, why does that sandy garden patch still drain water like a sieve? And, what happens to all that soil you cart in every year? Where does it all go? It can really wear you down! Well, Iím here to give you a break. Soil building doesnít have to be expensive and hard, and it doesnít have to be a carefully measured science, either. When given a chance, nature will take care of most of your needs. All she needs is a little elbow-room. So quit crowding her out of your garden, and listen up.

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Build up your soil

No matter what kind of soil you have, it is ideal for growing something. In all but the most extreme situations, there is a lovely or tasty plant you can put right in the soil you start with, from clay to hardpan to sand to swampy muck. SOMETHING will thrive. So instead of trying to improve ALL of your soil, spot treat around your pickier plants. That will stop spreading your resources so thin. Once you have reduced the area that needs work to manageable sizes, then itís time to get to work. 

Conventional wisdom has us working and turning the earth with shovel, pick and tiller. It is supposed to give us fluffy soil, weed reduction, and available nutrients. This isnít actually true. Take even the best fluffy worked garden soil and fill a pot with it. Within a few months with no compaction other than watering, that soil will be a brick. Tilling actually destroys soil structure, kills off the beneficial fungal, bacterial, and insect life that maintains plant health, and can also bring weed seeds up to the surface where they will germinate. It can also take one pesky taproot of a weed, and chop it up so that you will have ten or twenty weeds where the one used to be. So while there is always a place for tilling, it isnít actually a good thing when used every year. Enough organic matter in the garden will result in a natural, slow-paced movement of nutrients, water, and oxygen through the soil. Worms, rain, roots, fungi, and even the garden pests like woodlice, snails, moles and voles, can contribute to the general health and structure of the soil. Tilling is seldom needed. (a humus rich soil, perfect without tillage).

Grow Your Own Soil!

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Mixed cover crop

So how do you work in soil amendments down deep where they are needed? Well, how about growing them? Iíve sat in horticulture classes where I was told that topsoil is a limited commodity and cannot be replaced. Well, my response to that is unprintable - but makes good fertilizer... How did topsoil come to be in the first place? It was grown. And it can still be grown. When you plant deep rooted plants such as Alfalfa, Tyfon, and Daikon radish as cover crops, you are breaking up the soil and providing access for rain and oxygen to reach deeper into the soil. When they are cut off at the top and die, the roots left in the ground will continue to decompose, preparing the way for the next generation of plants, while the top portion of the plant, shredded and left to lie, will provide protection and nourishment for germinating seedlings. Each consecutive planting of cover crops will work itself deeper and deeper into the soil, loosening clay, tightening sand, and absorbing excess water in mucky areas. A single well-planned year can give you six or more inches of humus for your garden. And not a single shovel lifted, nor a wheelbarrow full of amendments hauled at the expense of your breaking back.

When you try this method of gardening, you will undoubtedly notice that while the well screened and sifted peat and topsoil and compost you have used in the past disappeared without a trace into the native soil in your garden, the roughly chopped, semi-finished materials that create your humus layer in your no-till garden simply work themselves in and stick around a while. They still need to be replenished, but by continuing to use your plant trimmings and compost on the soil you can keep it going for around four to seven years before you need to cover crop it again, and the results will be even better. It isnít too hard to explain this phenomenon. Tiny broken down particles of ideal garden soil have no staying power. The weather in one season will cook them right back to the soil you started with. But when you use big, chunky, semi finished or unfinished compost, woodchips, manure, leaves, grass - whatever - it takes time to break down. Since organic material tends to become spongy while it rots, it forms a matrix under the soil of air and moisture that cannot be recreated or improved upon by any gel polymer. The plants have easy access to everything they need, and the soil is stabilized, not as vulnerable to erosion, drought, or flood.

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Mulch - looks nice, tastes good!

I have been told that the down side to this method of gardening is that the soil is too chunky for starting small seeds, and it looks sloppy. Well, there are ways around this, too. On top of every layer of plant material, you can use decorative mulches of wood or chopped leaves, with a little organic fertilizer mixed in for good measure. It looks nice, rots down with the rest of the organic material, and there is no problem. For the seeds, you can move aside the top layers of chunky organic material to expose the well-rotted undersides. THAT layer will easily germinate happy little seedlings of even the finest dust sized seeds. 

The cover cropping can also serve two purposes. Not only can you provide organic material, nutrients and soil conditioning, but also you can use the cover crops as pest control. Sudan Grass (sorghum) for instance, repels nematodes even as it provides wonderful humus and feeds the beneficial fungi in the soil with its natural sugars. Fast growing cover crops can also choke out pernicious weeds, like poison ivy, bindweed, devils ivy, creeping charlie, henbit, and other garden pests. Planting cover crops, which provide a habitat for beneficial insects can greatly reduce your pest problems in the garden, reducing or eliminating the need to spray. And, planting low growing cover crops around the base of your taller plants as living mulch, can attract beneficial insects, provide protection from soil splash on the underside of the leaves, and hold in moisture even in hot weather.

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Red clover and alfalfa

So here you are with great garden soil, and only the expense of the cover crop seeds for a year. You can maintain and help it along, of course, by continuing to add organic matter - as much and as varied as possible. Newspaper and cardboard are great to lay in the paths, or to use as weed barrier, covered with your more attractive mulch. They rot, and worms love them, so they add to the structure of the soil in one season. No lifting and re-rolling a damp, muddy, and usually odorous plastic sheeting out of the garden. Not to mention that the cardboard and newspaper are free and are small enough to easily handle on your own.

Of course, the cover crops can only accumulate and hold as many nutrients as the soil already holdsÖand some soils just donít have what it takes. So soil amendments are necessary from time to time. But when the structure of the soil is right, the nutrients will not be lost due to erosion or percolation, and will be held in the soil for your plants to use. When it is used, and the plants returned to the soil as scraps and compost, it isnít completely lost, either, and subsequent applications can become lighter, and less frequent, saving you time and money.

So why not stop fighting mother nature for a year or two and put her to work for you? 

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