Skip to main content

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?

Popular posts from this blog

Hand-Knit Trellis Now Ready for Climbing Foot-Long Beans

Just as the "June" gloom is starting to burn off, I finished my knitted trellis for the garden.

It completely surrounds one of our bamboo tripods, with space at the bottom for tending the romaine lettuces growing within the tripod.

It's knit out of nylon twine on US 35 needles. While the nylon has no stretch (the way a wool yarn does), the huge gauge has loads of give. The piece was knit flat with ties attached along one edge.  It is tied to the tripod along one leg.

One some early samples for a knitted plant trellis, I experimented with lace patterns.  They look lovely, but I realized two things. One, once the plants grow up the trellis any knitting pattern is lost. Secondly, the plants and leaves need space to grow in and out of.

I used a pattern for a shawl: k1, yo, k2tog and then repeat. I got lost a number of times: the yarn-overs drifted over other stitches on occasion. As this was a speed project that won't be visible ones the beans grow over it, I didn't w…

Tomato cages for determined vines

Last summer’s tumbling tower of tomatoes has made me rethink the standard tomato cage.  They are great for determinate tomatoes that grow like shrubs. They are useless for indeterminant tomatoes that spread out like a thoroughbred on the home stretch.

A search for alternatives led me to discover these ideas:

My new favorite cauliflower recipe

We've had a couple of glorious weeks of sunshine that caused the cauliflowers to race right into the bolting stage. They've all been harvested and eaten.  We're just waiting for some spare time to take out the leaves and stems to make room for something new in the garden.

Karen and I have slightly different perspectives on what to plant: she likes novelty -- rainbow or watermelon radishes or purple or gold cauliflower; I'm more of a traditionalist; the novelty varieties never seem to turn out as well as the originals.