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To Till or Not to Till. That is the Question.

As summer ends, Fink Farm is covered in a mulch-like layer of used bunny straw, coffee grounds and heat-melted plants.  As we discuss fall plantings, a question looms unspoken: Do we dig holes for individual seedlings that we sprout outside the garden first or do we rip out the by-gone plants, prime the rototiller and grind, chop, rotate and mix it all into the soil.

Once upon a time, my philosophy would have been: if you have earth-moving equipment, use it.

But reading Amy Stewart's book, The Earth Moved; On the Remarkable Achievements of Earthworms, makes me unsure. For example, Stewart writes:

"Add up the number of earthworms and other soil-dwelling creatures like mites, springtails, ants, and spiders, and there may well be more living things in one of my four-by-four vegetable beds than there are humans in all of rural Humboldt County where I live.  Include the nematodes, and the population of one of those vegetable beds starts to rival that of the state of California . . . One teaspoon of soil could hold a billion bacteria, for example.  It is here -- at this microscopic level -- that scientists are only just beginning to appreciate the critical role that the earthworms play in the web of life that exists underground."

What I'm learning from Stewart is that soil and its residents are a magical liminal ecosystem that makes plant life possible. Earthworms, fungi and bacteria break down soil and the materials in it.  They make nutrients more available to plants. They neutralize toxins, kill parasites and prevent diseases. Earthworms plough through the soil refining it, aerating it.

Violently disturbing the soil also disturbs the hardworking communities underground. We could plant a whole garden by digging as little as possible and scooping in compost just at the bottoms of holes where plants will sit. The top surface would still look disorderly, but it will eventually decay (or be eaten and turned into soil) by the intact communities.

On the other hand, if we mixed the soil well with its decomposing top layer and the harvest of the compost bins, we'd be chopping through more of the remaining roots of the yucca plant.  Perhaps the soil would be retextured enough that we could have carrots that looked like Frankenstein planted them. Perhaps the clay would be moderated enough that the soil would hold on to water better.

What to do? What to do?

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