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I started a small garden plot about four years ago. That first garden was kind of a disaster. I had no idea what I was doing, but it was good experience. The next year, I expanded and tried adding more plants. It was a little better but nothing to write home about. I spent a lot of time in the garden doing all of the things that I thought I was supposed to do: weeding, tilling, fertilizing, spraying for bugs and pruning. The next year was kind of the same but I stopped spraying for bugs and started using organic fertilizer and other organic amendments.
Then, I started researching more about alternative methods to gardening. Things really started to change for me as I realized that the standard, well-accepted gardening methods may not be the best for me or my garden. I started to learn more about no-till gardening. Wait! What?!? You don’t have to till your garden? How is that possible? I started thinking more about natural soil health over the long term and less about what to add to the soil each season.
This past gardening season, I approached my garden is a completely different way, and the results were pretty impressive. I spent less time in the garden than I ever have before, and I had at least as much, if not more, of a harvest than I have ever had. As I went through this season, I learned a lot, so next season will be even better.
There are lots of methods to get to your desired outcome. Just look at all of the gardening books and websites where you can find conflicting information about the same thing and where different people swear by different methods to get the same outcomes. Gardening is just as much art as science (and some luck), so what works one year may not work the next year. What works in one region may not work in another. And what one person swears has always worked for them may not work for you.
Here are the things I tried and the things I learned. Take what you want and leave the rest. I am starting a new garden area that will be managed completely differently than the current garden area I have, so I will update you on that once it gets going.
So let’s get to it…..
The first thing I did differently is putting in a cover crop. This was the second season I planted a cover crop, which actually gets planted in the fall. The first time I planted a cover crop, I hadn’t yet gotten on board with no-till gardening, so I tilled that first one in the ground. If you aren’t familiar with a cover crop, it is simply planting seeds in the garden during the off-season instead of leaving the ground bare. Depending on the crop, you can harvest it or chop it down and let it mulch the garden.
There are various cover crops that can be used. I used winter wheat and planted it around the first frost date for my zone. In the spring, I let the sheep into the garden to “mow” down the winter wheat and fertilize the soil. The benefits of the cover crop are that they add nutrients, especially nitrogen, to the soil, prevent weeds, prevent erosion, help maintain moisture in the soil and many others.
I will not be planting a cover crop again this fall, because I ended up going with a deep-mulch method in this garden. My new garden area has a cover crop down right now to help the soil get healthy for spring.
Winter wheat was an okay choice for a cover crop, but I probably could have found something better. There are mixes out there that have clovers, legumes and even radishes to help with soil compaction and nutrition. Here’s one cover crop mix I really like
Friday, October 12, 2018
I didn’t want to till the soil because there are many benefits to leaving it alone. The biggest thing that I learned about tilling is that it destroys fungal networks and good bacteria that naturally occur in the soil. These little guys that we can’t see are playing an important role in helping keep the soil nutrient rich, ward off diseases and help organic matter decompose. When we till the garden, we are disturbing the natural balance of the soil.
But how do you not till the garden? What about weeds? Then I came across a really interesting book. Gardening without Work for the Aging, the Busy and the Indolent by Ruth Stout has some interesting thoughts about gardening. Stout used a deep mulch method in her garden. There are different ways to use deep mulch. Deep mulch just means that you put down a deep layer of something that will protect the soil and decompose over time. It also helps with smothering out weeds. Just think how much time you will save with no weeding!
Stout used spoiled hay, but you can use any type of organic material, such as leaves, wood chips, straw, grass or anything else that will cover the soil and break down over time. I chose to test out this method and used straw as mulch. I didn’t follow Stout’s method exactly as described because I started out in the spring. Ideally, you would put down the mulch in the fall and let it sit through the winter. I was way behind, so instead of putting down the minimum of eight inches, I put down maybe three or four inches.
Start early. Get the straw or hay or whatever you use, into the garden as soon as you can. Give it time to settle and start to break down. I didn’t find this method until the spring, and it worked great, but it would have been even better if I had started it earlier.
Know your mulch source. I have heard so many stories of people using hay or straw or even manure that has herbicides in it. Your seedlings will not like being mulched with herbicide-laden straw. They will die. This, thankfully did not happen to me. I did; however, buy straw that contained a lot of wheat seeds. The straw smothered the weeds, but it grew a lush layer of wheat. I ended up buying more straw to put on top to smother the wheat. Now I have a good source for clean straw and know what to look for and what to ask.
Another mistake I made was putting the mulch way to close to the stems of the plants. I had the straw mulch right up to the stems of my tomatoes. It rained. A lot. My tomato plants started dying off. I couldn’t figure it out. Then I realized the mulch was doing such a good job of holding in the moisture that it was drowning my tomatoes. Luckily, I was able to remove some of the mulch in time to save the majority of the tomatoes. Just make sure that you leave a couple of inches between the mulch and the stems of your plants.
Before putting down the straw, I tested my soil and found that it was lacking in nitrogen. I used blood meal to try to get some nitrogen into the soil a little faster. I also put down a pretty hefty layer of manure and compost before adding the straw. These steps probably weren’t necessary, but I wanted to have some quick wins toward soil health for this season.
I didn’t use any fertilizer or soil amendments after initially putting down the blood meal, manure and compost. My plants grew big and produced well. At first I was confused about how I would even add anything to the soil if I wasn’t supposed to till it in and if there was a layer of straw on top. That’s where top dressing comes in. You can simply put the compost or amendment on top of the mulch and let the rain wash it into the soil to add nutrients.
It isn’t always necessary to add anything to the soil. Always test your soil before adding anything. Plan ahead. I will test my soil this fall to see if it is lacking anything. I can add what it needs now so it has time to break down and will be ready for spring planting.
If you have compost or manure to add, you can always put it on top of the mulch. There is no reason to till anything into the soil. It’s even better if the nutrients can slowly be absorbed into the soil through a natural process.
There are so many methods to have a successful garden. Figure out what is important to you. And don’t worry if things change and you decide to take your garden in a different direction. One of the great things about gardening is there is always next season!