Healthy food starts with healthy soil
If you’re concerned about global warming and about eating healthfully, you can tackle both issues at once by becoming part of a growing movement — planting a no-till garden.
It all starts with soil. Better soil produces more nutritious crops. Tilling, and/or applying synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides kill the organisms in the soil that produce those nutrients.
Recent studies indicate we would need to eat three times as much fruit and four to five times as many vegetables to obtain the same nutrient quantities as were available in those foods in the 1940s — before plowing and synthetic chemicals became commonplace. Those nutrients include calcium, phosphorus, iron, magnesium, Vitamin C and some 40 others.
But we can reverse that. In healthy soil, thousands of micro-organisms — fungi, bacteria, protozoa, as many as 50,000 in a teaspoonful — extract sugars from the roots and nutrients from clay, rock and decomposed organic matter. They, in turn, are eaten by larger worms and arthropods — mites, sowbugs, beetles, ants, centipedes, millipedes — which shred organic matter, aerate the soil and release the nutrients in plant-available form, along with stable carbon that can remain in the soil if it’s undisturbed. Whereas, if we slice the organisms with a tiller or plow, turn them up to air, pour synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and herbicides on them, they will die.
If the soil crumbles in your hands, you know organisms are there, mixing carbon with other micronutrients, clumping it all into tiny pea-sized aggregates, leaving thousands of air pockets ready to absorb a drenching rain, prevent erosion and keep moisture in the soil in case of drought.
Lift up some leaves or last year’s mulch and look below. You might see a fungal network, white filaments, spreading in all directions. You want them. They are part of the soil food web. If you keep them alive, you become part of another web, thousands of small gardens sequestering tons of carbon in soil.
Lisa DePiano, a lecturer in the Stockbridge School of Agriculture at the University of Massachusetts, says, “During World War II, 40 percent of vegetables consumed in the U.S. were produced by Victory Gardens. The food was not just grown in farms and backyards but also on rooftops and even in window boxes. It was a national emergency.” Now, with a global emergency, she says, “People can grow their own food in a way that is not contributing to climate change, a new Victory Garden.”
But how do we plant without tilling? Here’s a proven method.
How to plant a No-Till Garden
Ricky Baruch and Deb Habib, creators of Seeds of Solidarity Farm and Education Center and the Garlic and Arts Festival, have been teaching people to make no-till gardens for more than 30 years.
Baruch started using this method out of necessity, after they moved onto rough land in Orange with acidic, rocky soil. He had been farming in upstate New York and wanted to get away from fuel-driven machinery that destroyed soil structure by tilling.
At that time, “laying cardboard down was completely off the radar,” he says. “Tilling makes no sense. It destroys the life in the soil. You just lay the cardboard down and plant right through it.”
Baruch uses a knife to cut large holes in the cardboard, or a dibble stick, a wooden dowel with a point, to puncture it and make small ones. There are many dibble sticks available, he says, remarking that ones with metal points make puncturing holes easier, as will wetting the cardboard first. Worms, attracted to the wet cardboard, will do the tilling for you and add lots of carbon. Worm castings make great compost, he says.
The cardboard takes care of the weeds, but how do they control pests?
“Healthy soil means stronger plants that are a bit more pest resistant,” Habib explains. “Our main pests are critters like porcupines who love greens. We use Havahart traps and relocate them to a nice distant forest elsewhere.”
Though some other no-till methods use wet newspaper instead of cardboard, they don’t recommend it. “The cardboard holds more air and is more appealing to worms,” Habib says. “Newspaper layers can become anaerobic when too thick,” preventing oxygen from reaching the micro-organisms in the soil.
“Crops are just like humans,” Baruch says. “They don’t want fluctuation.” They do best with constant moisture. “Cardboard will keep it moderated, just like the forest floor.”
Together, Baruch and Habib have created hands-on learning opportunities for teens and adults, in schools, prisons, various public spaces, and through workshops at their farm. Their motto is “Grow Food Everywhere.” Over the years they have taught “many thousands” Habib says. Growing community through gardening has been their passion. “Our survival is based on our reconnection to the Earth,” Baruch says.
This method, from their book “Making Love While Farming: A Field Guide to a Life of Passion and Purpose” (Levellers Press, Amherst 2019) is easy. Here’s how:
Step 1: Place large sheets of cardboard directly over grass or weeds to the garden size you want, overlapping each sheet by three inches or more to prevent weeds from growing through. Water the cardboard to keep it in place, and/or put rocks on it. Cover the cardboard with straw, mulch hay or leaves.
Step 2: To plant seedlings, such as tomato or broccoli starts, cut 6-inch or 1-foot diameter holes in the cardboard, with hole sizes and spacing appropriate for the plants.
Step 3: Shovel out the existing soil and replace or mix it with fully decomposed compost and put it in the hole.
Step 4: Put a transplant in the hole. Mulch it. Water it well.
To plant seeds, simply ply or cut away part of the cardboard, mix in the compost, as above, and drop the seeds in.
The following year, put down another layer of cardboard, building upon the good soil you’ve created.
Another variation: put down layers of wood chips, decaying leaves and finished compost. Then cover it all with cardboard and proceed as above. You can make raised beds in this way, or by digging a trench through previously planted cardboard gardens to which you have added layers.
“Each year you keep adding insta-garden,” Baruch says. “The repeated use of cardboard offers a low-maintenance system that works like nature — well.”