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Surface cultivation as a no-till technique

The Dutch hoe and broad fork are traditional tools used in surface cultivation.I've already written a long post about sheet mulching, one good method of growing plants without tilling the soil.  The problem with sheet mulching is that it requires gobs of organic matter.  Can you get similar results with less outlay of cash?

A traditional British method of gardening without tilling is known as surface cultivation.  Farmers usually till or dig the soil the first year to loosen the ground and increase soil pores, but after this they merely layer two to four inches of compost onto the ground each year and plant without tilling.  A special hoe known as a Dutch hoe cuts off weeds just below the crown, leaving the roots in place to increase fertility of the soil and leaving the tops in place to mulch the soil surface.  By the third year of surface cultivation, very few weeds are left since new seeds aren't turned up through tilling.

My gardening technique has aspects of surface cultivation in it, and I'm looking forward to that decline in weeding (two years from now since my 2008 garden went to seed and set me back a couple of years.)  Robert Kourik notes that the tedious weeding in surface cultivation can be minimized by mulching as much as possible.  My father has good luck laying damp newspapers around his vegetables, a method that I may have to try next year.  This year's grass clipping mulch has also been highly effective.

The problem with surface cultivation, beyond labor-intensive weeding, is that productivity often begins to decline after 5 to 6 years when soil compacts.  Some farmers simply till their garden at that point and begin again.  Others use a spading fork or broad fork to loosen the soil without tilling.  I suspect that simple crop rotation may do the trick in our garden --- we grow enough root crops that require the ground to be churned up during harvest that we will probably end up digging every bed at least once or twice a decade.

This post is part of our lunchtime series reviewing Robert Kourik's Designing and Maintaining your Edible Landscape Naturally.  Read all of the entries:

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