Those of you who have seen me in action at the nursery might get the impression that I am a driven man. I can bounce back and forth between customers, eat lunch while I’m loading plants, or answer the phone while doing checkouts and still have time to do two or three consultations a day. Truth is, once I get home I turn into a lazy man. Procrastination is one of my better attributes. I can easily forgive myself for taking a nap while the roof needs fixing or the lawn needs mowing. My idea of a good afternoon is sitting out in the vegetable garden observing my plants and nature in general.
Since I love vegetable gardening (but not the work) I have refined my methods to better suit my lifestyle. I no longer have a rototiller at the house. I have not tilled my garden in the past five years. I no longer turn a compost pile or drive over to my neighbor’s to shovel cow manure. I (and this is perhaps the greatest of my sins) allow weeds to flourish in areas that are not being used. Basically as long as my veggies have room to grow I allow Mother Nature’s stuff to coexist. Now I can almost hear some of you passing judgment but please read on before you do. These crazy ideas I’ve been getting actually have come from the cutting edge of agriculture and some of the best minds in the business.
I never tilled my garden every year but tended to do so every other year. I knew that constant tillage at the same depth could lead to compaction in the subsoil. On the other hand I understood that roots require oxygen and light fluffy soil equates to fast growth. I began to change my thinking when I heard about “no till” farming. At the time this idea was taking hold up in the corn belt states. What I heard and read about it told me that initially the harvest would drop below average as no till was practiced. However reports said that somewhere after the second or third year the harvest jumped above the normal expectation and stayed there. Research on the subject claimed that constant tillage disrupted soil organisms that lived symbiotically within the root zone. These organisms were able to recolonize in sufficient numbers to greatly benefit plants once the soil disturbance stopped. This made perfect sense to me as it always pained me to see my earthworms chewed up by the tiller. If these larger critters that I could see were harmed then it was easy for me to understand the microscopic life was suffering as well.
Soon after this I read a book entitled Weed Free Gardening. The basic premise of this book was that weeds flourish in disturbed soils. Once the initial soil improvement had been accomplished by turning in compost the author recommends the least amount of disruption at planting time plus a healthy layer of mulch or a living groundcover of some kind. After the soil has settled once again this method would result in the number of weeds diminishing as time goes by. I followed this philosophy and began adding layers of leaves and grass clippings directly to the garden during the growing season and stopped trying to maintain bare soil around my plants. I decided I was working way too hard as it was apparent that each time I disturbed the soil from my weeding that even more weeds would soon appear.
Another idea occurred when I read an article by Malcolm Beck about humus in the soil combining with oxygen to make carbon dioxide (CO2). I had been wondering why in the course of 15 years of introducing truckloads of manure and countless wheelbarrows of compost to my garden the color of my topsoil had merely changed from red to a reddish brown. According to my thinking (and my aching back) I should have a nice dark brown loam by now. Malcolm’s article gave me the answer. My constant deep tilling was causing a good portion of the organic matter I had introduced to combine with the oxygen I was forcing into the soil. Tilling and weeding. Weeding and tilling. I was done.
As I began taking more organic matter to use as mulch in the garden my compost pile began to suffer. Soon it dwindled away to nothing. At the same time I noticed that compost was forming underneath my layers of mulch in the garden. The worms were back in full force. I began noticing the white ribbons of fungal organisms running through the decaying tree leaves and chipped wood. This told me that the microbes were apparently on the increase as well. I decided that I no longer needed a compost pile. By golly, my garden had actually BECOME a compost pile. Sure it takes a bit longer to decompose this way but lazy people are generally very patient. Then the most striking revelation of all came to mind. I was finally following Mother Nature’s plan to the letter. My job became much easier. Nature does most of the work and I receive most of the benefits.
Today my topsoil is not just dark brown but absolutely black (the color of carbon). I can stick my fingers to the knuckles in it with ease. Lately I don’t even use the trowel when I put in transplants. The reddish brown layer that was my topsoil is still under there. If I dig through that I will find the successive layers of clay and silt subsoils. This is as it should be. Right now my garden is lush with native rye grass except for a few leafy vegetables that managed to live through winter. I did not plant this grass that is making fine winter cover and will feed my spring crops. Mother Nature did. As I need room to plant onions or whatever I merely pull out the rye and lay it over to the side. As soon as my seedlings germinate and begin to grow I pull the mulch back in to cover the roots.
So what about those weeds? I have begun to learn from Malcolm Beck, my friend John Dromgoole, and a host of other more experienced horticulturists that weeds do play an important role in nature. The job of weeds is to take over the disturbed areas and improve the soil so that other plants may eventually colonize. I’m certain you have marveled as I have at the depth that some fast growing weeds can penetrate with their roots. These deep extensive roots are pulling minerals from the subsoil. As the leaves die and deposit themselves on the surface they leave behind some of the minerals and the valuable organic matter they are made of. Having learned this, I am OK with weeds as long as they aren’t choking out something I planted. I allow this natural cycle to play itself out. Eventually what happens is that a higher order of plants (in my case native grasses) does establish over time. In my garden I don’t see as many of the tall, rank, fast growing weeds any more. If I disturb an area and leave the ground bare for any length of time the tall weeds will soon show themselves.
In closing I would like to be able to tell you about how much more produce I’m making. Bigger better tomatoes, squash the size of your leg, that sort of thing. In truth I really can’t since I am not set up to do controlled experiments. The blessings and curses of our Texas weather does make a big difference in any given season. I have always enjoyed working in the garden only these days I’m enjoying more and working a lot less. I invite you to do your own research and see if you come to the same conclusions. Sometimes taking the easy way out is the best way and always, without a doubt, following Nature’s plan will give the best results.
Works for me……………….Paul Dowlearn