Wednesday, July 13, 2016

No Till? I Think Not.

I've been fascinated by small-scale successes with no-till gardening, such as lasagna gardening, but so far on our little farm, it is simply not working for commercial growing. I have 7000 square feet of raised beds now, and more on the way. In time, however, I will greatly reduce tillage. I cannot even fathom how my friend Dominic would manage 3 acres without tilling. He uses a cultivator on a row-crop tractor.

In my case, the tractor goes into the field once, when I first busted the sod. First I plowed, then harrowed. To get raised beds ready, I tilled, then amended the soil before planting and mulching. Since we use no herbicides, the weeds still creep in, particularly Cynodon dactylon, AKA wire grass, AKA Bermuda Grass and, yes, AKA Devil's Grass. It grows up and through the wire mesh we keep around our raised beds and colonizes new areas but growing roots from its runner through layering.

You cannot get rid of it without chemicals. On our patio, far from our food, I do spray Roundup on calm days. I've used it concentrated and carefully for years on stumps of Tree of Heaven.

In the garden, however, poison is out of the question. So I reach for the tiller whenever I replant a bed.

Wire grass can be reduced or even killed by shade, but that's no help in a sunny vegetable garden. Some plants form a dense canopy, such as sweet potatoes or our big crop of Thai Peppers, but the wire grass is still around, biding its time even under 6 inches of wheat straw mulch.

We own two tillers, a walk-behind with rear tines and forward and reverse gears. It's a beast. I use it for new beds or those badly overgrown by wire grass. For other beds during rotation, I use a handheld tiller to break the weeds' hold on the soil, then rake out with a for-tine cultivator or field rake. I then add amendments, usually four parts of our homemade compost, one part rock dust, one part fireplace ashes. That yields the holy trinity of gardening: Nitrogen, Rock Phosphate, Potassium.

I call this method "low till" and it does keep weeds manageable.  I try never to till too deeply.

But who wants to live on a golf course? No one that I'd want to drink with. Or have as a neighbor.

My method of low-till cultivation has kept weed pressure manageable, though I have to go around after rain and pull long runners of grass out of and around our beds.

Nature will win this battle in the long run. So be it. Wire grass is excellent in lawns and shakes off drought and even dog-urine attacks that leave brown circles in our field.

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