Tillage allows us to neglect for a while the task of replenishing organic matter because it pries from the soil’s fingers more fertility than usual. I read of one study* performed on a field tilled for 60 years without inputs. Problems were becoming apparent, but the farmer was still getting a harvest.
It has been the same throughout history: civilizations rise and fall, often as a result of their failing fertility systems. For those that lasted, by restoring to some extent the organic matter, there were some interesting methods.
The first was to simply move from place to place, exploiting the fertility of a site, moving on to a new one once the fertility was gone. This method was practiced by a few Native American tribes.* Their particular method was called “Slash and Burn, where an area of virgin forest was cut and burned. The fertility provided from such a mass of organic matter lasted a while. This is certainly an excellent method when you have ample areas of virgin forest to work with -slash and burn, move on, and allow everything to revert to the chaos of a forest system that would slowly renew the organic matter until, in a couple hundred years, they returned to tear it down and organize it for crops again. Today such a tactic would not last long with our increasingly high population.
Many ancient cultures practiced a similar method by simply leaving the land fallow for a short time between small spans of tilling and harvesting. The ancient Israelites had in their law several different spans of time in which they were not to till a field, with the assumption they would set food by in the prior years of harvest. The usual numbers are three to seven years tilling and harvesting, to one year of lying fallow.
[T]he ancient Egyptians, who were one of the first civilizations to use tillage, had a much more passive method which relied on the Nile river flooding to bring in organic matter from the rainforests upstream. Problem was, if the Nile didn’t flood, there was famine.
What we must realize is we are hardly in a different position today.
In a properly managed no-till garden, we should burn less organic matter in total, but in covering the ground and supplying enough decaying organic matter to sustain the system, we use a lot of material. Bringing it in as mulch rather than broken down compost, we see organic matter in its most bulky state and realize, it’s a lot.
The Ruth Stout method is an excellent example of this. Perhaps one of the most low work, effective no-till garden methods, Ruth Stout grew excellent annual vegetables by covering the ground thickly with mulch, with some additions of manure.
When all this organic matter is added, and moisture is so well preserved by the thick cover of mulch, the soil life responds by building a home for themselves of many tunnels, creating a soil similar in consistency to crumbly chocolate cake.
The technical term for this state of soil is ‘flocculated’. Flocculation occurs when sufficient levels of active calcium are available, pulling particles out of suspension in ‘flocs’, or flakes, making the soil fluffy.
The Stout method gives excellent results in the garden. Yet again, this is not the whole picture. Take this quote for example:
The ”Stout Method” of mulching is a biological transgression similar to, though not as severe as is the social and biological transgression of polluting air and waterways with the industrial wastes. The main characteristics of the ”Stout Method” is that the soil is to be covered constantly with a thick layer of mulch hay, which requires 8 to ten tons of hay per acre annually. Based on average yields, each year 3 to 4 acres of farm soils must somewhere be deprived of organic matter replenishment so that 1 acre of backyard garden plots may get the ”Stout Method” treatment.*
Wood chip sources we once got for free are now going to composting companies who sell the finished product by the bag to be dumped on tilled soil that will burn much of the carbon into the atmosphere. A Certified Organic CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) like ourselves can hardly find a source of clean organic matter that doesn’t charge for you to haul away their waste.
Many township yard-waste drop-offs at one time chipped up the material laboriously collected and brought to them by every yard nitpicking denizen to be carted off by the hippies for their organic gardens for free. More and more now, they sell this material to the compost companies.
According to the United States Composting Council, there are currently four chemicals likely to end up in compost that do not break down in the composting process. Approximately 150 lawn care, or in general weed killing products, have at least one of them as an ingredient.
Aside from knowing exactly what was applied to your substrate, which in most cases of yard waste scavenging isn’t convenient -if even possible, there is unfortunately no way to tell if your substrate has these killers on them before applying to your plants without expensive testing.
Once in the soil, these toxins effect most garden plants, and can remain there for up to three years before breaking down.
The ideal ratio is about 30:1 carbon to nitrogen. Until the substrate given attains something near that ratio, there is little the bacteria can do with it. Fungi play a role in breakdown until the carbon finds the necessary nitrogen, or is simply burnt into the atmosphere.
To put this into perspective: wood chips are approximately 200:1, fresh cut grass 17:1, straw about 60:1 depending on what source you use.
If fresh wood chips or straw are mixed into the soil, all that surface area is placed directly in contact with the soil. If no nitrogen is added, the substrate will pull the available nitrogen from the soil, binding up the available nitrogen, and the majority of chemical processes that give fertility.
This is quite a popular mistake in recent years. I have had several friends and clients ask me to look at their garden, recently converted to no-till and mulch, because nothing will grow. In almost all situations, they have bound up the available nitrogen by neglecting the C:N ratio.
Often the tactic that side steps this binding-up issue is to separate compost pile from garden, turning often to speed breakdown. By now you should have an idea what this is doing: burning up your organic matter into the atmosphere. This is why the nutrients used to increase organic matter should be as balanced in the carbon to nitrogen ratio as possible.
While Ruth Stout’s method illustrates the effectiveness of growing annuals with nothing but mulch, PASSIVE creates an ecology which includes its own mulch, and so sets it apart. I here use Ruth Stout’s method as proof annuals can be grown with nothing but mulch. I don’t credit her method as the direct roots of PASSIVE though, I credit its roots to a forest model.
*Dirt Farmer’s Dialogue by C.J. Pank
This is one of the really important chapter from PASSIVE Gardening explaining why the art of in-system fertility is so beneficial to a truly sustainable, healthy, low-work garden. In the later chapters the book explains Chaos Ratio, one of the most powerful tools for managing system fertility and seamlessly transitioning from yard to garden oasis. I hope to get a post out on this subject soon. Until then, I hope you find this of interest.