The Walden Effect: Farming, simple living, permaculture, and invention.

No-till gardens grow more grub

Berries and figs

This year, I've been learning the dangers of no-till gardening --- you may accidentally produce enough to feed a small army.

Late summer harvest

Of our three varieties of garlic, two produced significantly more weight per bed in 2012 compared to 2011.  Music stayed the same, but I got 42% more garlic from the Silverwhite Silverskin and a whopping 88% more from the Italian Softneck.

Heading broccoli

But that's nothing.  Last year's sweet potatoes averaged 9.8 pounds per bed, giving us a total haul of 78.5 pounds of sweet tubers.  That was way too much for us to eat, so I cut our planting in half this year...and came up with a 83.5 pound harvest!  Yes, that's an increase of 114% per bed over last year.  (Guess what all of my local friends are getting for autumnal equinox presents?)

Rodent-gnawed sweet potato

Granted, there have been some downsides.  Perhaps a tenth of the sweet potatoes had been gnawed on by soil-dwelling critters despite Lucy's best efforts to dig the garden apart in search of voles.  But given such high productivity, I don't mind cutting out a few teeth marks.

Snail on basket

And, to be entirely fair, I think this year's increase in sweet potato production is also due to two other factors.  First, we only had one tiny deer incursion this summer, and sweet potatoes always suffer the worst when deer come to call.  Equally important is the fact that I gave the sweet potatoes part of the loamy front garden --- the two beds I planted on the dividing line between loam and clay produced much less than the other two beds did.

Army of butternut squash

We don't weigh most of our produce, so I can't tell you whether we saw increased production among our corn, beans, squash, tomatoes, greens, and the multitude of other vegetables we grow.  But we sure had plenty to eat and preserve this year.

Sweet corn

And I attribute a large part of that success to the health of our soil.  Doesn't that make you want to at least try no-till on a few beds next year?

(By the way, all of the photos in this post are from this week's healthy haul of late summer crops.)

Our chicken waterer is the innovative solution to keep manure out of drinking water.

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About us: Anna Hess and Mark Hamilton spent over a decade living self-sufficiently in the mountains of Virginia before moving north to start over from scratch in the foothills of Ohio. They've experimented with permaculture, no-till gardening, trailersteading, home-based microbusinesses and much more, writing about their adventures in both blogs and books.

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What variety of Butternut squash do you grow, Or which one did you start with? Iv been trying to grow Butternut for years. The problem is I can only find the variety Waltham. It would be very productive if it produced male flowers for me. It doesn't though, they just never mature like the female flowers. Thanks.

Comment by T Sat Sep 22 13:26:52 2012

Wow, that's a lot of butternut & sweet potato!

I so wish I could do no till gardening. In fact I am trying it in the herb & flower garden. But I'm trying to convert lawn space that seems to consist of patches of Bermuda grass and masses of quackgrass. So far the quackgrass is entirely happy to grow 6+ foot long winding rhizome under all my mulching efforts (so far newspaper and cardboard with shredded hardwood on top). It just grows and grows until it finds sunlight or a thinning patch of mulch. It especially loves to grow inside the cardboard. Grows up and over any barriers I put down and then works its way into the mulch from the top too.

Comment by Laura Sat Sep 22 16:29:05 2012

After reading about your success with no-till gardening I'm very interested in trying it out but where I live our ground is VERY HARD. I have 3 separate gardens, my root vegetable is 6ft wide and 500ft long, the majority of that garden is potatoes and also carrots, parsnips, beets, radishes, onions, garlic, shallots. I always thought it was necessary to till that garden to soften the ground enough for those crops to do well. I guess I'll be researching no-till some more before next year. I still have a lot of learning to do, I'm 25 and have only been growing my own garden for the past 4 years.

Comment by Bo Sat Sep 22 16:41:59 2012

T --- This is totally unlike me, but I don't know what kind of butternut I'm growing. The original seeds were from Seeds of Change in 2008, but they didn't list any variety. The one they're currently selling is described as a "productive Waltham strain", but we haven't had any trouble with no male flowers being produced.

Laura --- My father has trouble with running grasses too --- they seem pretty awful! I think I read somewhere about someone putting down a rhizome barrier, like you might do with mint or bamboo, around the whole garden, then finding a way to kill all the grasses inside. But I can't speak about that from personal experience.

Bo --- I've found that poor soil improves much faster if managed no-till than if tilled. While it seems like you fluff up the soil when tilling, you actually destroy the soil structure and oxidize organic matter, so troublesome spots get more and more troublesome. With no-till, worms thrive and organic matter gets mixed deep into the soil. Add in cover crops (oilseed radishes especially), and in a few years you'll have great soil!

Comment by anna Sat Sep 22 17:50:36 2012

Bo, this past summer I did a no till potato patch. I did get more potatoes out of it then planting the usual way. I have bed rock so putting a layer of manure, cardboard, loose straw, forest litter and and finishing it off with a good layer of top soil. Now I did mix in some branches from the forest litter and the potatoes loved to scoot their little buttoms into the creveses that the branches made in the bed.

I have created 2 more no till, raised beds that are a mixture of lazagnia and huggle culture. And I am working on a third one next to the older one. I have coliflour growing in one new bed and am trying to sprout peas in the old bed.

Give it a try, you'll love it.

Comment by Mona Sat Sep 22 18:16:11 2012
Mona --- Thanks for chiming in! It's great to get another data point on no-till vs. tilled.
Comment by anna Sat Sep 22 19:29:22 2012
I was planning on putting some crimson clover seed on my root vegitable garden as soon as i finish my digging. I'm not sure if its too late for that already, our first frost is usually mid october? I was wondering how cover crops work if they arent tilled in, and then how to go about planting? I wanna try planting without tilling next year, so do I just dig a little hole for each potato or long trench and what about direct sow of seeds, again just a little trench or what? One more question, at harvest time how do I go about digging up my potatoes? The way I've been doing it is pretty much dig up the entire garden to search for every last potato but then the garden when I"m done is looking like its been tilled. Should I just dig directly under each plant and hope im getting em all? Sorry for all the questions, just tryna learn what I can from you guys
Comment by Bo Sun Sep 23 14:26:53 2012

Bo --- I tried crimson clover, but it didn't seem to be a no-till winner. Unfortunately, it's too late to plant my favorite, no-till, winter cover crops, so your best bet is probably just to mulch the ground heavily and wait until spring. Check out our cover crop tag for lots more information on our trials and errors with cover crops in a no-till system.

Harvesting potatoes (and carrots, etc.) is the one time I really disturb the soil in my garden. There's no real alternative to just digging them up! I do tend to just dig where the plants are, though, which keeps the intrusion to a minimum. I figure a few little tubers left behind isn't the end of the world.

I generally sprinkle small seeds on the surface to sow, or make shallow trenches with my hoe for larger seeds (like peas) or for seed potatoes. I've got a lot of basic information on planting a no-till garden in my book, which should help you out, I hope!

Good luck converting to no-till!

Comment by anna Sun Sep 23 16:46:49 2012

I'm putting in a big new garden area for next spring. This big flat area was used as RV and trailer parking by the previous owners, so this dirt is hard packed!! I figure if no- till will work here, it'll work anywhere!n half of the soil is decent and half is awful awful pumice and pretty useless. The biggest challenge will be finding enough good compost. I've scouted out cardboard, I can dig manure ( uncomposted) from the neighbors horse corral, but the actual good digested compost is going to be harder. I'll get some from my compost bin, but not nearly enough! Do you think if I put tons of fairly new horse manure on the top, it will be ready by spring for a growing medium? Thanks, deb

Comment by Deb Sun Sep 23 19:15:29 2012

Deb --- Too bad you just missed the boat for winter cover crops --- oilseed radishes probably would have perked that area right up.

I add semi-raw horse manure all the time. The only downside is that weed seeds will sprout, and if you don't mix in soil it sometimes crusts up during dry weather if you scatter seeds directly on top. But if you take those issues into account, you should be fine.

I'll be very curious to hear the results of your experiment!

Comment by anna Sun Sep 23 19:51:05 2012

Anna, yep, my timing is often too late! :-) But I will try it and see what happens. I started a second compost bin and will add some more red worms - hope that'll get it moving and produce more good stuff by next spring. But I am in zone 5 and winter is approaching!
It's a challenge here for sure.
Now if I can only keep the: Deer Bears, Free range cattle out of it! ( they're the worst!)

Comment by Deb Sun Sep 23 21:11:11 2012
Deb --- Now I feel lucky that we don't have free range cattle in our garden.... Good luck!
Comment by anna Mon Sep 24 12:49:46 2012

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