Question of the Week
Answer: Thank you for contacting ATTRA for information on conservation tillage and no-till gardening.
Organic mulches — for example straw, hay, and leaves — have a long history of use in vegetable production. A common method is to till and prepare the soil as usual, followed by direct seeding and transplanting to establish vegetables, with post-plant top-dressing of organic mulches to control weeds and conserve moisture.
A no-till approach to mulching, however, is the use of permanent, deep mulches. Ruth Stout, who wrote articles for Organic Gardening magazine from 1953 to 1971, and published the classic book, The Ruth Stout No-Work Garden Book, is perhaps the best known advocate of permanent mulching systems for home gardens.
In the 1990s, permanent mulches as a no-till approach to commercial-scale vegetable production received increased attention through the work of Emilia Hazelip, a permaculture teacher and market farmer in southern France. Inspired by the work of Masanobu Fukuoka, the Japanese farmer who advocated a natural system of no-till production using undersown clovers and straw, Ms. Hazelip's "synergistic gardening" method featured the use of raised beds, plant residues, and companion planting.
About 15 years ago, Emilia Hazelip did a workshop in Arkansas. I was among those who attended and was inspired. I have not, however, managed to duplicate her system. I do continue to use permanent beds in my market garden, and mulch whenever and wherever I can manage to do so. Here are a few personal observations.
You can kill weeds and grass in the areas that you want to plant by using heavy mulch. Cardboard, landscape fabric, newspapers covered with wood chips, or a thick mat of straw are materials that will work. The mulch shades out already established plants, and prevents seeds
in the soil from germinating. Obviously, if the mulch is dense enough to prevent weed seed germination, it will also prevent other seeds from germinating. Depending on the material used, you can remove the mulch after the sod has been killed and plant into the residue. Or you can start vegetables in flats and transplant them into the dead sod. Or you can cut strips or holes through the mulch and plant seeds into those spaces.
Some large seeded vegetables, such as beans, corn, peas, or squash, can send up shoots through light straw mulch. If you plan to direct seed vegetables such as carrots, lettuce, and other small-seeded crops, a clean-tilled planting bed is more conducive to success. You may be able to mulch around these vegetables after they emerge, or depend on the growth of their leaves to shade the soil.
Raised beds provide some benefits, such as better drainage in wet areas, but I have found that permanent beds level with alternating permanent walkways work better for me. Maintenance is less labor intensive and the beds do not dry out as quickly in the summer.
I also use 3’ wide rolls of black landscape fabric to prevent weed growth. After rolling the fabric over a bed, I burn holes in it with a small propane torch. The holes are spaced according to what I am going to plant. Unlike black plastic mulch, the landscape fabric is somewhat permeable to water and air.
Hazelip, Emilia. No date. The Synergistic Garden. 13 p.
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