Saturday, June 18, 2005


My friend Chris asked me the other day about "no-till" gardening, which I have listed as one of my interests in my profile. I thought this would be a good opportunity for a blog-entry, so here you go!

If there's one thing I love, it's dirt. Dave makes fun of me when I start talking about it too much. He makes a fist and says "The Good Earth" in a super-serious voice.

I grew up in a rural/suburban area outside of Saratoga Springs. My parents had a big vegetable garden. We kids had to help weed. My dad would talk to me about gardening and I could tell he really loved it. He would take a handful of soil and say "Look at this soil, this is really good soil. See how it sticks together a little bit, then it crumbles? It's like chocolate cake. See how after it rains, the water doesn't stand in puddles, but soaks right in? See all the earthworms? This is good soil, this is loam." It left an impression.

Dave and I have gardened in many places together, but most all of them were in an area with very heavy clay soil. We added bags and bags of topsoil and manure and compost and peat, and dug and dug until we ached, but it never seemed to matter. The clay soil ate that stuff up and it was still clay. I wanted well-drained loam, but clay was what we had, and I figured we just had to make the best of it.

Clay soil is heavy. Turning it with a spade for years left me with a sore right hip that I still have to this day. But I didn't care, I loved to garden. I would gladly dig in the dirt all day. But I didn't have to. Now I know there is a better way.

When we bought this house, the people who had lived here before us already had a vegetable garden. The soil was pretty good, it wasn't clay, although it was rocky. Becky and Dean had a compost heap, but they had tilled it with a roto-tiller every year. Not knowing about no-till gardening, and thinking of those years of turning soil by hand with a shovel, I asked Becky if they were interested in selling the tiller. She said "No, we need this to make the garden at our new house." She patted it affectionately.

So we rented a tiller that spring and put bags of manure on the garden and tilled them in. The soil was wet that day so we probably did more harm than good. But we didn't know that.

The internet is really a great thing in many ways. I started looking for information about improving the soil and found out that some people didn't till, or even turn the soil at all. If fact, they thought it ruined the soil structure to do so.

This was a crazy idea to me. My dad had used a roto-tiller, and he had good soil. I'd never heard of anyone who didn't turn the soil. I had heard many fellow-gardeners complain (or, really, let's be honest!) brag about how hard they worked and how sore they were from digging and double digging. Who didn't dig to prepare the soil for planting? Well, this guy, for one.

You know how, when something is true, you feel it? I felt it. As I read that article, a bell was going off inside me: dingdingdingding. It was so obvious, yet I never knew it until that moment. I knew good soil, but I was frustrated because I didn't always have it, but now I knew how to get it.

I also learned from my gardener friend Ellie that you can never have too much manure. She didn't mess around with bags of manure from the garden center. She ordered a dumptruck full of composted horse manure for her garden each fall. Her garden was fabulous, so I knew she was onto something.

I got a flyer from our local farmer's market for composted manure and ordered a truckload that fall. We then raked all of our fall leaves into the manure and left them there over the winter. As we burned wood in our woodstove that winter, we dumped the ashes on the garden. By spring, things weren't totally decomposed, there were some chunky bits in there, but we didn't till. We just planted. Everything was fine. That fall we added more leaves and the next spring we had the best soil I have ever had. It's great soil. It's full of earthworms. It sticks together and then crumbles. It drains well. And it warms up a lot faster in the spring than other gardens in our area. Meaning we can plant sooner than anyone I know.

Now when other gardeners brag about their sore backs and blisters from digging, I don't join in. Why not just let the earthworms do it for you?


Anonymous keeter said...

Guilty as charged. I am a shameless braggart. My whole body is sore for days after digging my vegetable beds and I like to brag about it. After all, this is the only exercise I get all year, and I want to make damn sure people know it. I'm actually interested in the fall dump truck of manure idea, as the soil in Colorado is very ordinary and often quite hard and dense, but even then I would probably still dig and brag. Even if the shovel sank into the soft welcoming soil because of the dump truck of compost, I would still find a way to brag. Maybe I would dig, double dig, and triple dig, and then brag! Earth loving ideas cribbed from my favorite hippie or no, I still need to brag.

11:59 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Oh, interesting. Hooray for compost, earthworms, and mulch. I wonder if you have enough earthworms in there if that would be the key that would make all the difference?
(How many Ellies do you know, anyway?)

12:08 PM  
Blogger Urban Chick said...

ooh maybe you could answer my question! dh and i were watching a horticulture prog on tv and they referred to smashed up recycled porcelain as 'mulch' - surely this is wrong? shouldn't mulch be, well, mulchy and break down into the soil??

will be passing the gardening tips onto my gardener (dh!) - thank you!

2:22 PM  
Blogger Kate said...

Brag away my dear Keeter! I love to brag too. Modesty shmodesty. :-)

E- Yes, earthworms are needed to aerate the soil and I think lots of organic matter is what gives you the earthworms. They seem to like coffee grounds and autumn leaves.

UC: Interesting about the recycled porcelain. I have no idea. If it keeps down weeds and it keeps in moisture than I suppose it is mulch.

I think in the old days people would throw their garbage into the garden and it eventually broke down and added to the soil. That's because a lot of their garbage was made of stuff like leather, wood, paper, wool, bones, cloth, etc. They called it "manuering". Manure wasn't just animal waste, it meant garbage in general that you put back into the soil.

I read about this in "The Seasons of America Past" by Eric Sloane.

Another interesting thing was that they considered stones to be good fertilizer, and they would clear a feild and pile the stones into mounds and leave them there for a year, then make them into walls. I suppose that some of the minerals from the stones did add something to the soil. If that is true we are all set, our yard it glacial till and it's full of rocks of every size! :-)

5:22 PM  
Blogger Meegan said...

Wow, you know your stuff! I was proud of myself for planting flowers in two pots a couple of months ago. They're both dead now.

4:32 PM  
Blogger Tania said...

Yesterday I was daydreaming in my kitchen as I was washing dishes, and I was thinking of all the kids who are going hungry in NYC this summer, and all the crap food they get fed when they sign up for lunch programs (processed snacks, maybe a piece of fruit, white bread sandwich, etc.). And I was thinking what a horrible shame it was that poor people in the city don't have dirt to grow their own food. If you don't have money here, you don't have food, period, because all the dirt is built on. But I remember growing up that much of what we ate came out of the yard: greens and fruits and herbs. We bought rice, milk, butter, cheese, fish, meat, and seasonings, but everything else came out of the yard. It would be awesome if there were some way to not only give food stamps to the poor but to find unused plots of land, or even roofs and terraces, and help people grow more of their own food. I know we don't have enough dirt and enough time to grow the majority of our food here in the city, but I think of all those open rooftops all over New York and what a waste it is, how nice it would be if there were soilboxes up there with tomatoes and stringbeans, squashes, melons, parsley and thyme, strawberries,'s not as uber-natural as your gorgeous no-till garden, but wouldn't it be marvelous? Buildings could compost their waste up there and use it to fertilize their rooftop gardens. I know, I'm so pie-in-the-sky. But is it such a bad idea?

8:45 AM  
Blogger Kate said...

I love that idea Tania! I don't think it's pie-in-the-sky at all. In fact, isn't there a community garden system in NYC?

We used to do the community garden thing when we lived in Albany. We would sign up for it and I think it cost $10.00 for the season. Plus they gave out free seeds.

The annoying thing was that when we'd put so much work into the little plot, kids would roam through at night and just wreck stuff for no reason. I mean, I wouldn't mind so much if they just wanted some free produce but they would destroy everything and throw garbage around.

Why? Maybe seeing something productive and hopeful and growing was painful to them, feeling that their own lives were lacking that feeling? I don't know.

Maybe lower income people don't have the extra time and energy to put into something like that, struggling to just survive, so they feel angry to see that other people have time/energy/money to garden?

Maybe that's condescending and really it's just because kids have this wild rebellious energy and want to wreck stuff for fun, the same way they drive over mailboxes out in the country. To overturn things that look boring and "settled".

Anyway, it kept happening and that ruined the community garden thing for us. It helps if the community garden is fenced and people who belong to it have keys.

Joanna has a whole little container gardening thing going on on her fire escape. I bet lots of people in NYC do. And every bit of organic matter helps fight the pollution etc. Hey, you have asthma right? Did you know having a few houseplants improves your indoor air quality so much? It really does. I bet you know that though. :-)

9:11 AM  
Blogger Bubbles said...

I like that you said "you can never have too much manure." Soil must be one of the only areas in life where this is true! Happy gardening ~ dig that loam baby!

10:19 AM  
Blogger Tania said...

Yeah, I thought about using those plots of unused land to grow things, but 1) I'm sure the city would think of it as squatting, and 2) vandals. (I think kids just do that crap because they're bored.) Rooftops, though, I'm convinced, there's something...I've seen the community gardens, but there really aren't very many, and yes, they're all under lock and key.

And yeah, I know about the houseplants clearing the air, but one of my cats eats any houseplant I bring in, munches it right down to nothing, and then pukes all over the TV. Alas.

2:37 PM  
Blogger BarbaraFromCalifornia said...

You seem to know so much about soil, plants and gardening.

This is also my husband's hobby, and passion. He has about 4 different breds of Datura plants, several nightblooming jasmine plans from around the world, exotic fruits and trees, everything. In fact sometimes too much! But I have to admit, that in the spring, it is glorious.

Enjoy your garden too.

4:08 PM  
Blogger chris said...

Thanks for writing this. I am going to have to try it next summer.

7:13 PM  

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