Speeding up succession can take some strange forms, especially as tilling.
Tilling was originally introduced as a fertility enhancer, ‘bringing light into the soil’ as the ancient Zarathustrian texts put it. Today, science is well aware that oxygen, and several other components of air (nitrogen in a roundabout way), play crucial roles in the fertility of soil and the breakdown of organic matter. Tilling makes a huge surge of breakdown of organic matter, hence fertility, by shoving a ton of oxygen into the soil while killing a lot of the soil life -more organic matter for breakdown. It’s a goose that laid the golden egg situation though, as this massive onslaught cuts future fertility short unless things are carefully managed.
As you may have noticed in Niche in fertility, the fertility corresponded with fine tilth (fluffiness) of the soil. I use natural means of getting a good tilth by mulching. This worked because the mulch held moisture and food that attracted worms, and killed the resident grass, leaving a ton of organic matter and little tunnels for air to enter.
Remember too, if I neglected replacing the grass with preferred plants, the soil structure went flat, hard, dead.
This is because plant roots and soil life maintain soil structure. It’s worth noting the excellent results I get from mulching aren’t just from the mulch, they’re also from the grass I’m killing underneath. The deeper and more prolific the roots the better the end result.
The average lawn, even if the nicely clipped grass is green, won’t offer quite the same benefits. By cutting the grass short, we cut its roots short, as roots grow in relation to tops. Without grass clipping or leaves to feed worms, there is little insect or soil creature activity, so about 4 inches down the soil is hard as a rock and lifeless.
I have had the luxury of letting mine grow as tall and as deep as it will with only one or two mowings a year. Those roots are deep as they can get.
In short grass situations, a good compromise is to get air into the soil by sticking a garden fork or shovel into the ground and gently lifting -not turning, just loosening. This keeps the delicate strata of bacteria and myriad soil life in order but allows roots to penetrate soil that would be very hard to break up.
I’m bringing an area of my parent’s greenhouse into production that’s been under two layers of plastic and one of weed barrier for years now. The soil is completely unamended clay. I know from experience in other parts of the greenhouse that plants cringe at the idea of puncturing their roots into this kind of stuff and just throwing a layer of compost on top will make for stunted plants.
I’m not too keen on tilling either, but I’ve got a schedule I have to adhere to so succession needs to happen fast.
So I pryed the ground. In some spots (notably by the edges of the plastic) it broke up and cracked whereas others hardly budged. You can see the hardness of the ground in the collateral damage of the mission. I had to finish with another shovel.
Bill Mollison was quite a proponent of this method of soil rejuvenation as prescribed for Keyline systems. On a large scale this was done with a keyline plow that cut into the soil violently. This shook up the soil on top of slicing it, and in Permaculture I and II Mollison praises the effects, highly recommending it for speeding up succession.
So the next time you start a new bed, take into consideration whether the soil is compacted or not. The effect of a quick pry with a garden fork may save years of succession time. Strange I know to bring any tilling into the picture, but done right, it does hardly anything but good.