To Till or Not To Till: Lessons Learned from Inexperience

Jonathan and I work very hard to research and learn about every aspect of anything new we introduce into our farm systems whether it is a new kind of flower or a new system of managing our permanent raised beds.  But there is no way around it: we are young and inexperienced flower growers and we have made several mistakes over the season that have taught us invaluable lessons.

Fall DIY bucket

Late fall flowers

We are currently in the process of transitioning our farm over to “No-Till” management.  We created permanent raised beds on the farm and we believe that the fastest way to return tilth, health and life to our soil is to never till the beds.  This was an idea that I (Megan) had been thinking about for a while but simply had no idea where to start.  What is “no-till” farming you might be wondering?  Well, it is a method of farming that does not disturb the soil life and the soil layers with a tiller.  It is more of a natural process of farming that is less invasive to the soil.  It relies heavily on cover cropping and it also helps to reduce weed pressure on the farm by not turning over new weed seeds with the tiller.  This year we ran across 2 different resources to help us get started.

Bare Mountain Farm in the Willamette Valley in Oregon runs a 2.5 acre cut flower farm using no-till methods.  They have been posting their trials and what they have learned on their blog. We stumbled across their blog and I instantly felt that we had found a gold mine of information for how to begin this unusual method of farming.  They are willing to answer any of our questions and are such an inspiration for Jonathan and I as we start out figuring out what No-till means on Spring Forth Farm.  Thank you Tony and Denise!

The second resource we found was an organic farmer in Quebec who uses a no-till system on his farm in conjunction with silage tarps.  His name is Jean-Martin Fortier and he wrote a book called The Market Gardner where he details a lot of his farming practices.  He uses an old European method called “occultation.”  This method uses large black silage tarps to kill weeds and speed up decomposition of organic matter on beds instead of tillage.

Well, we jumped off the deep end!  We bought a silage tarp, stopped tilling and started tarping.  Here is a photographic journey of what to do and what not to do!

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INCORRECT tarping

(Above) We learned that we have to mow down everything before we put on the tarps or it doesn’t work.  We felt a bit sheepish that we didn’t mow first.  We will from now on!

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BEFORE tarping

(Above) When we bought the land in Nov 2013, it was formerly in tobacco and was left as a bare dirt field.  We hastily seeded fescue and clover to prevent soil erosion.  We made a rookie mistake and let them all go to seed!  Fescue became a terrible weed in our new beds and we will be dealing with it for a while to come.  So, we tarped the beds to see if it works when done properly.

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AFTER tarping

(Above) Wow! after 4 weeks, the tarps killed the initial flush of weeds.  There is a much smaller flush coming back, but it is more manageable.  See the tarps in the left-hand part of the photo?  That is what they should look like on the beds.  Found earthworms for the first time in our beds too.

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Seeding cover crop

(Above) One of the biggest hurdles we are trying to figure out with the no-till system is how to get cover crop seed to germinate in beds that have crop residue in it, without tilling the seed in to get good soil contact.  We tried putting a straw mulch down over the newly seeded beds this year.  We will let you know if it works.

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Newly planted beds of garlic and onions

This past week we rushed about seeding beds of onions, garlic, and flowers before more rain came.  In the process of doing this I gasped as I realized that we had a whole box of ranunculus corms (bulbs) that we had not planted yet.  We ordered this flower in a fever of excitement over the summer even though we had never grown it before and knew that our soils were less than ideal for this flower.  We would also need to build a temporary greenhouse tunnel over the bed for the crop to survive the winter and bloom in May.  We decided this past Saturday, after much back and forth and tears (on my part!), to nix the crop and cut our losses.  It was simply too overwhelming to figure out how to build a greenhouse tunnel this winter.  We had taken on too much this year on the farm and with the home building in the mix, something had to go.  This was yet another reminder to grow our business slowly and to carefully weigh each new crop or farming system before we add it.

Even though we have made lots of mistakes this year, we have had lots of successes too.  We are already looking forward to improving and fine-tuning the management of Spring Forth Farm for the 2016 season!

Stay tuned for more updates on the no-till experiment.

Black-eyed susans

Just planted a lot of black-eyed susans last week to grow through the winter and bloom in June!

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7 thoughts on “To Till or Not To Till: Lessons Learned from Inexperience

  1. I just love how you all report on the mistakes and failures as well as your successes. Baseball players and dedicated fans know so well how failure is part of the “game.” A player who gets a hit one-third of the time, but makes an out two-thirds of the time, is an all star!!! Baseball is all about learning how to fail and learn from it so you can have success when it counts. You all are great examples of how important it is to take good risks and try new things, knowing that some failure will happen, so that you can become successful. And it’s a good thing that in farming you don’t need to fail two-thirds of the time to be all star farmers!

  2. How was the cover crop germination under straw mulch? Did it work out? Just wondering, because I’m dealing with the same issue. Thanks!

    • Hi Kevin,

      We don’t actually use the straw for weed control: It doesn’t do a good job with our perennial weeds, especially nutsedge. Instead, we use burned landscape fabric for weed control, which does a much better job for us. (You can see a picture of the landscape fabric in the post.) Since we don’t till, we use the straw to help our cover crops germinate, to help retain soil moisture, and to add organic matter to the beds. For cover crops, we broadcast the cover crop seed on the beds and then spread straw on top of it at a rate of 1-2 bales per bed. So far, it has worked well to get the cover crop to germinate, but an overhead sprinkler would help it work even better. Sometimes, we also spread straw under the landscape fabric and then transplant into it, but we do this for soil health, not weed control.

      Hope that answers your question,

      Jonathan

  3. Pingback: We learned that we have to mow down everything before we put on the tarps or it doesn’t work. We felt a bit sheepish that we didn’t mow first. We will from now on! – laststrawrevolution

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