Diane Miessler: Step away from the Rototiller: No-till gardening, saving the planet
“In the spring a young gardener’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of rototilling the vegetable garden,” to butcher a quote of Lord Tennyson’s. But wait! Consider this before you till:
I was once like you — I itched to till those nice grasses and weeds into my garden soil, to fluff it up and nourish the coming tomatoes.
Then I went over to the “dark side.” Dark, as in rich, dark, carbon-filled soil.
True, rototilling gives soil microbes a springtime binge on green matter, and it’s sometimes helpful for already dead soil.
It also, however, kills or removes lots of things that you want in your soil.
Your innocent-looking rototiller is killing or removing:
1. Mycorrhizae (my-co-RY-zee: literally “fungus roots”), for starters — those long, fast-growing strands that you sometimes see under rotting logs.
I think of mycorrhizae as soil’s circulatory system. They twine around plant roots, and extend their reach much farther and faster than roots could grow — sort of like living hair extensions.
They then bring back nutrients the roots wouldn’t be able to absorb otherwise, along with water from afar.
Mycorrhizae “will work for food;” they exchange nutrients and water for carbon sugars that plant roots exude (think “sweat”).
In the process, they further digest the carbon into more stable, darker hunks of soil.
2. Worms — those things you may love or hate, depending on if you’re a 10-year-old boy making a squeamish girl scream; that screaming girl, or (like me) a compost goddess with a love for worms that borders on unnatural.
Those worms eat decomposing plant matter, turning it into rich “castings” (poop), and further stabilizing carbon that plants have pulled from the air.
3. Water and life. When soil has the ideal, crumbly texture for tilling, it’s also ideal for soil life — microbes, mycorrhizae, worms, archaea (the oldest known soil microbes, that give good soil its smell), and other very small things we haven’t even discovered.
Tilling lets that water evaporate, drying up the parts that come in contact with the air, and chopping up — or making soil inhospitable to — the life we want there.
“Why do we want that life there, Diane?” you ask. Excellent question, alert reader.
Life puts the “crumb” in “crumbly soil, that’s why. We want it there because it’s part of a long, long food chain that sequesters carbon in soil and makes it healthy.
This “soil food web” (a term coined by soil biologist Elaine Ingham) breaks down nutrients into smaller chunks that plant roots can absorb.
In the process, they make your clay or sandy soil into the crumby black stuff gardeners love: tiny clusters of carbon and other organic matter cemented together by microbial slime (this is the same stuff you feel on your teeth in the morning – those decay-causing microbes are hanging on for dear life, hoping you won’t brush and floss).
The more dry, exposed, and “fluffed up” your soil is, the less hospitable it is to life. That includes worms, germs, and your arugula.
4. Carbon. Carbon! As in carbon dioxide, the greenhouse gas we’re trying to make less of so we have a nice planet to give our grandchildren.
Carbon is what makes rich topsoil dark.
It gets there via the soil food web, and leaves when it’s mingled with oxygen and they make carbon dioxide and float up to destroy the environment as we know it. And it was such a nice planet.
Bottom line: for a healthier garden and planet, keep your soil covered with mulch or, better, live plants, and don’t do carbon and oxygen mixers by “fluffing” your dirt. And ask your farmer if they till.
So, what do you do after you drive your rototiller off a cliff? Here’s what I suggest:
A few days after a good rain, pull up any weeds in your garden and lay them on the dirt.
Cover all that with about six inches of straw. Spread organic snail bait to get a jump on the little buggers.
When you’re ready to plant, scoot the straw aside, loosen the spot with a pointy hand hoe, and tuck in your seeds or seedlings.
Add compost and/or if needed to loosen soil if it’s clumpy — the soil food web will take care of that eventually.
Soil is the second reservoir of carbon on the planet. Deep ocean is the first. If we save the soil, the soil may just save us.
Diane Miessler, RN and compost goddess, lives in Nevada City, where she grows many things, including grandchildren.
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