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Monday, March 30, 2009


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After years of springtime digging and plowing and turning soil in her large garden, I have a friend that has just learned the benefits of no-till gardening. She shook her head, amazed at how well the plants produced without the benefit of the backbreaking labor. "To think, all those years . . . and we could have had this much food WITHOUT all that digging!"


No-till gardening is not a new concept. It’s a concept that was documented by Ruth Stout in 1953 as she began to write about her adventures in gardening in articles published by Organic Gardening and Farming magazine. Twenty years later, these articles would be published in a bound volume called The Ruth Stout No-Work Garden Book (©1971 by Ruth Stout and Richard Clemence, ISBN 0-87857-000-4).

Ruth had become dependent upon having a neighbor plow her 40 by 60 foot plot before she could begin her spring planting. She decided to experiment with means and methods that required little outside assistance.

Ruth has maintained that most of the work associated with gardening – especially organic gardening – is unnecessary except for one thing: mulch. Permanent year-round mulch, in Ruth’s eyes, is the permanent year-round answer to all the garden chores – and anything else you expend energy on is surplus effort or just “playing.” (from the preface)

Ruth’s first chapter is entitled ‘Throw Away Your Spade and Hoe!’ She noticed that her asparagus plants had been growing without plowing for over 10 years. Rather than wait for someone to plow her garden, she decided to pull back enough of the fall mulch to make a trench and plant some seeds. She secured some “spoiled hay” from a farmer and used it as mulch to keep down the weeds, laying it 8 to 10 inches thick (not on top of the seeds). When the seedlings sprouted, she thinned the plants and pulled the mulch close to the plants. Ruth tossed decaying leaves and kitchen scraps (vegetables) into the garden and covered with the hay.

The pages are filled with her blend of blunt no-nonsense humor. She refutes her critics with reports of her harvest.


Yet another variation of the no-dig method is a process called Lasagna Gardening. Patricia Lanza introduced this method in her book Lasagna Gardening (©1998 by Patricia Lanza, ISBN 0-87596-962-3 – You can review the book online here: Google Book Review). Rather than tilling up your garden area, the author recommends that you lay out several layers of wet newspaper or a sheet of damp cardboard over the area you wish to plant. On top of this, you lay several layers of organic material alternating with peat moss. She advocates having a compost pile to supply some of the layers of organic matter. You can also use mulched leaves, grass clippings barn litter, etc. You finish with a layer of peat moss and follow this with wood ash. This is left to ‘cook’ over the winter months.

The expense of the peat moss is one drawback to this method. If you already have an established garden site with enriched soil, you will likely find it unnecessary to do much more than lay down several layers of newspaper, some organic matter and a layer of wood ash.

“The great thing about lasagna gardening, though is that you don’t have to wait to plant – you can build the garden and plant it all in the same day. To make a planting hole in a new bed, simply pull the layers apart with your hands. Set the plant in the hole, pull the mulch back and around the roots, and water it thoroughly. To sow seeds in a newly built lasagna garden, spread fine compost or damp peat moss where the seeds are to go, then set the seeds on the surface. Sift more fine material to cover the seeds and press down. When the plants have two true leaves (the leaves that form after the first pair of “seed leaves”), pull some of the coarser mulch material around them to keep the soil moist and weed-free.”

Click below to view this video of Debi Pearl's lasagna garden.

Video courtesy of Pearl Outdoors


Another life-long gardener lives near me. He is determined to stay productive, even though he is in his mid-80s – although he has cut back to working only 55 hours per week at the local grocery.

The ground he gardens is hard-packed clay and rock – not my first choice for a garden plot. Undaunted, he decided that hay bale gardening was the way to go. Today, he has a thriving organic tomato garden that brings in a nice secondary income . . . all without digging or hoeing!

He told us that he starts with 8 layers of newspaper on bare ground. On top of the newspaper, he places the bales of hay. He has the rows two bales deep. He watches the trade papers and looks for bales of hay on sale. He prefers alfalfa bales. Lately, though, the price has been very high (more than $4 per bale).

An irrigation drip line is placed on top of the hay bales (where they butt together in the row) to water the plants.

To support the leggy tomato plants as they grow, he uses some old wire fencing that he places around the bales (they used to have horses and goats). The fencing is made up of grids about 4 inches square. The openings are large enough that it makes it easy to reach inside and tend the plants. If you were trying to protect your plants from squirrels or deer (as in corn), this open fencing wouldn't do the trick. The fencing is secured with the plastic cable zip ties that are used to hold electronic cords. These can be found cheaply at any hardware store.

Then he mixes up his special soil -- mushroom compost, Black Kow compost, organic potting soil and sphagnum moss and cricket poop as a fertilizer. He mixes his potting soil blend and places it into a large garbage container, closes the lid and lets it sit until he’s ready to use it.

It is interesting to note that the cricket poop was sent to the local extension service and analyzed. The results found it to be the perfect plant food. You can read about how Cricket Poo came to be used here: http://www.cricketpoo.com/cricket_poo_story.cfm

When it's time to plant, he uses a keyhole or wallboard saw (a small saw with one blade) and cuts an opening about the size of a quart jar into the bales. He his potting mixture into the hole and adds the tiny tomato plant.

For fertilizer, he makes a tea out of the cricket droppings, pouring about a cupful on each plant once or twice a week.

Apart from the initial setup, there is little expense. I would say that if you were growing low, bushy plants (as opposed to tomatoes, or climbing vines) the setup would be even less as you wouldn't need the wire support/fencing. . . . unless you needed a way to keep out critters.

When the garden is ready to be put to bed, the cable ties are cut and discarded, the bales opened and the ground is mulched with the decaying hay.

Maintaining the garden is a matter of looking over the rows each evening and picking the near-ripe tomatoes. He picks them when they aren't completely red; they pick up color as they mature. "Just don't ever put a tomato in the refrigerator," he said.

The advantages of no-till gardening are many. In this video Dr. Milton Ganyard, of Ganyard Hill Farm, shares with us the many advantages of no-till gardening and describes his own method.

If you are thinking that you haven't enough room or enough good soil to grow food for your family, watch this video about the Dervaes family from California.Little Homestead in the City

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a perpetual student of things I find interesting and (I hope) helpful to others. Feel free to use and apply all information with a healthy dose of common sense. :-)

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