The No Till No Dig Way: Once You Know Why You Will Know How
With most practices once you know why you do something you will intuitively know how. It is that way with no till gardening.
When I first started to employ no till methods in my gardens I suspected it was the right thing to do, I had begun to believe it would increase yields, and further improve the culture of my gardens, but honestly I didn’t really know the why of it. I couldn’t have told you exactly why no till growing is better, and I had, therefore, some unanswered questions about how I should proceed. For instance I couldn’t figure out for myself whether or not I should uproot finished crops. I suspected that I should not, but I also worried that if the roots were left rotting in the ground the new crops I put in would succumb to some sort of rot themselves, or if I left the nematode infested roots of my tomato plants in the ground wouldn’t I be setting myself up for even more nematodes the following year? No! but why?
For a while I practiced what I thought was no till growing, I was still uprooting finished plants and wild plants. I just wasn’t turning the soil with my shovel.
My friend Pat found the book Teaming With Microbes and showed it to me. I got a copy for myself, and ate that book up! I wasn’t even halfway through Teaming With Microbes when I began to understand the why of everything I was doing in the garden. Once I learned about the soil food web I knew why I did the things I did, and it became clear to me how to further proceed.
I am impatient, and like to be able to implement practices in my gardens intuitively. I couldn’t do that without first understanding the soil food web. Once I understood that the soil contained a universe teeming with living creatures and organisms, and that plants would initiate relationships to team up with those organisms in order to feed themselves I began to better understand that my role as gardener was to feed the soil with lots of organic matter, and to protect its integrity as much as possible by not turning, tilling, compressing or polluting it. My job got a whole lot easier.
It is a tough job to have to nurture plants through their entire life cycles, constantly guessing at what their nutritional needs might be and then providing all of those nutrients and minerals regularly. It is a losing proposition doing battle with insects protecting helpless plants from hoards of unchecked leaf chewers and suckers, root boring nematodes, and countless fungal, and bacterial infections and weeds. I don’t know how a farmer could make a dime off of a farm that is dependent on the many constant and costly inputs necessary to wage a chemical war against nature.
It is sort of amusing and at the same time frustrating to see how hard people will work to reorder and reorganize nature and natural systems in order to grow plants a particular way when all along plants are glad to grow themselves, and nature is entirely capable of organizing and balancing itself so that plants can grow and produce successfully. Plants have managed to survive for millions of years without us, producing leaf, and root, fruit and seed even modifying their own traits along the way to better succeed in their environment, all without the addition of a single insecticide, herbicide, or bagged fertilizer.
Here’s a real basic description of what goes on with the soil food web: Organisms in the soil break down organic wastes and store them in their cells, or cell. Those broken down organic wastes in the bodies of soil organisms become nutrient. Nutrient stored in the body of a soil food web organism will not leach out of the soil in rain like added bagged nutrients, and is available to plants pretty much on demand. Organisms are constantly eating and being eaten and dying in the soil to be consumed by other organisms and invertebrates (like earth worms). This giant cafeteria action is why plant parasitic nematodes do not create a problem in the no till garden. They are consumed like everything else. Plants attract organisms to their root zone by leaking out almost twenty five percent of the nutrients they acquire by photosynthesis. These leaked (mostly) carbohydrates are called exudates. Exudates attract organisms to the root zone, some that keep root tips clean of dead cellular material, some which attach to the roots to store nitrogen (rhizobia bacteria in the case of legumes) or siphon in minerals and water from afar. Fungi called Mycorrhizae using plant exudates for fuel build long hollow tubes (called hyphae) attached to plants’ roots. Capable of building twenty meters of hyphae a day (Yeah, that’s 60 feet a day!) these fungi extend the reach of a plant siphoning in nutrients in the form of minerals, and water. They are also capable of bringing in specific helper organisms like phosphorus solubilizing bacteria to help consume nutrients locked up in nearby soil making them available to the plant. Ha ha, we couldn’t do it any better though we try!
Think of our own bodies for a moment. When we eat food it doesn’t just become energy for our cellular functions. After we chew it up, and drop it into a stomach full of acid it will then travel through 20 to 30 feet of intestines where enzymes and bacteria living there will continue to break it down into smaller simpler parts that can be absorbed through the walls of our intestines. Without these bacteria in our intestines digestion becomes painful and ineffective. When we become too ill to eat food we are put on an I.V. or intravenous feeding. An I.V. is used to save our lives, but it is not an ideal or most healthy way for us to obtain our nutrients. Forcing plants to use synthetically formulated nutrients that we drop onto lifeless soil is quite like putting us on an I.V. It is not ideal. The most practical, healthy, and effective way for a plant to feed is to use the soil food web. Plants that obtain their nutrition in this very natural manner grow very strong, are less likely to attract diseases or pests and are a better source of food for us.
If you would like to acquire Teaming With Microbes click on this link.
Teaming with Microbes: The Organic Gardener’s Guide to the Soil Food Web, Revised Edition
Now Go On Out And Feed That Soil!
Wonderfully written! Everyone that wants to eat their own home grown vegetables to do our body good would appreciate the analogy of the plants also getting their nutrients in the most natural way possible.
Thanks for your comment Gillian.
Fascinating info!! Thanks so much!
Adina, fantastic post! Great writing and education, as always.
BTW…I linked to your blog in my latest post…the epidendrom you gave me are thriving in their new location!!
Thanks for your comment Sara.
Thanks for your comment Kimberly. Thanks for the link. I am glad your orchids are thriving. I see you have moved away. To what county did you go?
Excellent! This should be everyone’s starting point.
Thanks for your comment and for your support Renee.