As we’ve written about elsewhere, we’re big advocates of no-till organic gardening and farming methods. These methods minimize soil disturbance, meaning the vast ecosystems of life underneath your feet don’t get destroyed each season when you till. Instead, the soil ecosystem continues to develop and build.

The benefits of learning and adopting well planned no-till organic gardening & farming methods are numerous and continue to accrue over time. Those benefits include:

  • less work
  • lower costs (due to lower inputs and labor)
  • improved biological soil fertility
  • improved soil carbon and soil organic matter (SOM)
  • improved plant health
  • reduced irrigation
  • *fewer weeds (if properly managed)

All that sounds pretty good, right? If so, it might be time for you to consider learning about no-till and making the transition on your garden or farm.

Problem is, no-till organic gardening and farming is a fundamentally different approach to growing food than what we all grew up with. Also, our notions of what farming and gardening entail are largely the result of popularized media images: in a news segment or commercial about farming, are you more likely to see large tractors plowing the soil on clear cut fields or an intensive no-till organic farm – or even a food forest?

When Susan (my wife, aka “The Tyrant”) and I tell people we haven’t plowed our garden soil in a decade or that I am creating a no-till farm for Oak Hill Cafe & Farm, it seems difficult for them to compute the information.

“No till? How do you grow plants without tilling the soil?” It’s sort of like trying to describe a Prius to someone who’s only ever seen a horse-and-buggy.

Setting up a no-till organic/permaculture farm

To help you visualize how no-till organic gardening and farming works, we figured some photos with corresponding explanations would be helpful.

The farm portion of Oak Hill Cafe & Farm started off as a field of grass and weeds atop hard-packed red clay soil. How does one start a no-till farm on a site with such conditions? It wasn’t easy.

The first rows being installed at Oak Hill Cafe & Farm, in a no-till permaculture system. The farm isn't certified organic. but all of our methods meet or exceed the guidelines of the National Organic Program. No-till organic gardening

The first rows being installed at Oak Hill Cafe & Farm, in a no-till permaculture system. The farm isn’t certified organic, but all of our methods meet or exceed the guidelines of the National Organic Program.

Here’s what my partner, Chris Miller, and I did to set the farm up:

  1. Mowed the grass down as low as possible, leaving the chopped grass in place rather than bagging and removing it. (Grass trimmings are good food for soil microbes which then becomes good fertilizer for plants!)
  2. Placed about 8-12 inches of compacted leaves on top of the soil surface. The leaves served two primary functions: a) a weed block, killing all the grass and weeds in the field while leaving the plants + roots to decompose and become soil organic matter; and b) a soil amendment that would slowly break down and feed the biology in the soil (worms, fungi, bacteria, etc).
  3. Installed rows of compost (on top of the leaves) into which we put seedling transplants or direct-sowed seeds. Since the leaf layer is very high in *carbon, we also added some additional OMRI listed composted chicken manure pellets to the compost to ensure that adequate bioavailable nitrogen would be present for the plants. (*If you bury carbon-rich materials like leaves or wood chips, it temporarily locks up soil nitrogen. However, this is not the case if you simply top-dress/mulch your beds with carbon rich materials.)
Newly installed rows and new seedlings (beans and corn) popping at Oak Hill Cafe in May. No-till organic gardening

Newly installed rows and new seedlings (beans and corn) popping at Oak Hill Cafe in May.

And then we were off and growing!

The biggest challenge so far? Groundhogs, which love to eat almost everything people do.

Groundhogs, our mortal enemy. A single ground hog can seemingly do the same amount of damage to a garden or farm as a tornado.

Groundhogs, our mortal enemy. A single ground hog can seemingly do the same amount of damage to a garden or farm as a tornado.



Step-by-step: transitioning from summer corn to fall crops on a no-till permaculture farm

With our first summer growing season at Oak Hill Cafe & Farm nearly behind us, we’re now in the process of transitioning to fall crops (beets, turnips, carrots, parsley, kale, Brussels sprouts, etc.).

In this photo sequence, we’ll show you how we transitioned from rows of heirloom flint corn to rows of fall crops without tilling:

1. Harvest corn rows.

Getting started: we're just starting to harvest and clear the standing rows of corn here. No-till organic gardening and farming.

Getting started: we’re just starting to harvest and clear the standing rows of corn here.

First, we harvested the ears from rows of maize (which is called corn in the US). Initially, we’d planned to do “three sisters” (corn + pole beans + vining squash) and four sisters (three sisters + sunflowers) in these rows, but groundhogs ate all the other plants, except for the corn.

Some of the beautiful, colorful corn varieties we grew this summer at Oak Hill Cafe & Farm.

Some of the beautiful, colorful corn varieties we grew this summer at Oak Hill Cafe & Farm.

2. Cut the corn stalks, leave the roots in the ground.

Next, we used loppers to cut the corn stalks just above the soil surface, leaving the roots in the ground.

Cutting corn stalks with loppers.

As a general rule, you always want to have living roots in your soil, since root exudates feed soil microbes. Even though the corn plants are nearly dead here, the roots will still continue to exude a little longer, and then they’ll decompose, which will also help improve the soil. Bottom line: leave the roots of your old plants in the soil when you transition between seasons, unless your plants are diseased.

Making worm food and soil using plant debris from this year's corn crop. No-till organic gardening and farming.

Making worm food and soil using plant debris from this year’s corn crop.

Rather than hauling off the corn stalks to a compost pile, we just laid them in the paths to compost in place. By late spring of next year, these stalks will have been completely broken down and converted back into soil.

3. Rake off thin layer of leaves on top of rows.

Rake off the remaining leaf debris to prep for new compost.

Rake off the remaining leaf debris to prep for new compost.

In preparation for the next step (top-dressing with compost), we lightly raked off the thin layer of leaf mulch we’d put down over the corn rows. In June, this mulch layer was a couple inches deep and had decomposed down to almost nothing by early September. Why rake it off? To make sure we’re not locking up bioavailable soil nitrogen (as mentioned earlier) in our fall crops that are going in immediately after.

4. Top dress each row with 2-3″ of compost. 

Compost going onto rows using a no-till organic gardening and farming method.

Next, we added 2-3″ of compost to each row. Nope, no tilling required, just use the compost as a top-dressing and let rain, roots, and microbes work all that goodness deeper into the soil. We plopped on piles of compost with a wheel barrow, then spread it out evenly over the soil surface in each row with rakes.

Raking out the compost to a depth of 2-3

Raking out the compost to a depth of 2-3″. Thanks mom (aka Dr. April Gordon the Butterfly Whisperer) for the help on this balmy late summer morning!

The point of adding compost isn’t just to feed the next round of plants and boost biological soil fertility, it’s also disease prevention. The beneficial microbes in good compost help to suppress disease-causing, pathogenic soil microbes that might otherwise persist and proliferate from year to year. If you’re doing no-till in a small garden space and you do not have compost available, we highly recommend using these worm castings from Unco.

Do you have to add compost or worm castings before each planting if you’re doing no-till? Nope.

Whether or not you apply compost depends on: a) whether the next crop you’re putting in is a heavy feeder, and b) how good your soil is. Since we’ve only been working on this soil for less than a year and we’re putting in crops that require high nutrition, we needed to add compost and a little extra “poultry pellets.” It’s important to note that you can’t really over-compost your beds, but it’s very easy to over-fertilize your beds with highly concentrated chemical and mineral fertilizers.

5. Seedbed prep with a field rake.

To get a nice clean seedbed, it really helps to have a “field rake” (here’s a good field rake).

Chris Miller at Oak Hill Cafe demonstrating the magic of the field rake for doing final seedbed prep in no-till beds. No-till organic gardening and farming.

Chris Miller at Oak Hill Cafe demonstrating the magic of the field rake for doing final seedbed prep in no-till beds.

Since our rows at the farm are 36″ across and the metal field rake is also 36″ across with closer teeth than a standard leaf rake, the field rake really helps to create a perfect seedbed for direct sowing or transplanting. In this case, we direct-sowed several different types of root crops.

Corn beds cleared out and replanted with fall root crops. No-till organic gardening

Corn beds cleared out and replanted with fall root crops.

In Summary...

This is just one example of a seasonal transition in a no-till organic farm system. Take the information provided here and apply it to your garden or farm as you see fit.

At Oak Hill, we also plan to do more interplanting season transitions. Here, we're planting buckshorn plantain seedlings (which like cooler weather) underneath corn in early August. The corn provides shade for the buckshorn, which will thrive in the cool months after the corn has been removed.

At Oak Hill, we also plan to do more interplanting season transitions. Here, we’re planting buckshorn plantain seedlings (which like cooler weather) underneath corn in early August. The corn provides shade for the buckshorn, which will thrive in the cool months after the corn has been removed.

You can also get creative, especially when growing in smaller spaces! In our home garden at Tyrant Farms, we do seasonal transitions by interplanting new crops with old crops. For instance, in late summer-early fall we might put beets, kale, or lettuce in the shade of our tomato plants. As the tomato plants peter out, they’ll provide shade during the heat of the last days of summer before dying off in the fall as the edible understory plants need more sun and warmth.

On the opposite end of the sun cycle in the spring, we might transplant tomatoes and peppers in the middle of a patch of lettuce or kale (read about that in detail here). As the tomatoes grow, they’ll provide shade for the cool weather greens, thereby extending their season up to a month further into the hot summer.

Summer beans sprouting up between winter/spring lettuce and pansies at Tyrant Farms.

Summer beans sprouting up between winter/spring lettuce and pansies at Tyrant Farms.

Ultimately, you’re trying to always have living roots growing in your soil, while minimizing or eliminating soil disturbance. In our opinion, organic no-till gardening/farming is the best way to accomplish these aims, so start your no-till system now!

Questions? Ask away in the comments…