When you look at a cut in a hill or other natural earth formation, chances are that you will see multiple layers of sediment. Organic material builds over time resulting in environments hospitable to life.
However, traditional agriculture is based on tillage and plowing: the breaking and turning of soil with technological implements. No-till agriculture focuses on the layered approach of nature: building up rather than digging down. No-till is a concept with many methods. These methods can be implemented in organic home gardens and on large-scale organic farms.
One method is called sheet mulching. A whole host of possibilities exist with this form of no-till agriculture. Generally, a weed barrier is placed over vegetation, often sandwiched between either compost or manure. The weed barrier can be cardboard or newspaper. Above the weed barrier is a very think layer of straw or other mulch. Above this layer is compost, which serves as the layer for new plants. Above the plantings would be a top layer of mulch to cover the soil.
A similar method to sheet mulching would be to use straw bales and put a layer of compost on top. If the straw bales are wet, then the roots of the new plants will grow right into the straw bales and thrive.
Another similar method is called hugelkultur. This method involves placing logs on the ground a building mounds on top of them. The wood rots to provide a moist, fertile base for plants to grow. Above the logs are layers of small wood pieces, plant material and soil.
A method used for hundreds of years in Germany, hugelkultur has been popularized by Sepp Holzer in books and workshops. He builds massive hugelkultur beds that can be taller than an adult human.
The retention of moisture in hugelkultur beds makes it attractive to people who want to conserve water resources.
Raised beds and container gardens can be effective for the home gardener, especially in an urban setting. People can start a raised bed on clay or pavement, and within a small space. It should be noted that with all no-till systems, the less compaction the better. It is important to avoid walking atop or running machinery on these systems, if possible.
Forest gardens, also known as food forests, can be a dynamic vertical form of no-till agriculture.
Forest gardens generally consist of seven layers, mimicking nature. The top layer is the canopy, which consists of large trees such as oaks that anchor the forest garden. The secondary layer is the fruit tree layer. Next is the shrub layer which may have berry bushes. Then comes the herbaceous layer, which is where many vegetables grow. Next are root crops such as carrots. Then comes ground covers like strawberries, and seventh are the vines.
This system is what one would find in a forest that was left to grow on its own. In a small area, a plethora of species may be found. Crops in the same vertical space mature at different times during the year, and provide mulch for each other. Birds, butterflies and beneficial insects are attracted to this environment. It is an authentic ecosystem that provides clean air, water, and shade.
The use of cover crops is an important aspect of no-till agriculture. A cover crop is planted to keep the soil from eroding. The crop is not there to be sold, but rather serve as a placeholder. After a season the crop can be crimped to serve as mulch. Rye, hairy vetch and crimson clover serve as good winter cover crops, along with Austrian winter pea, and winter wheat, rye and barley. Buckwheat, cowpea and sunnhemp are some good summer cover crops. A field full of cover crops is overflowing with beneficial insects, pollinators and multitudes of natural life.
The Rodale Institute has developed a roller-crimper machine to turn a crop into mulch. The blades are aligned in a chevron pattern and twist in a spiral fashion along the outside of the cylindrical roller. The curves allow for the blades to continuously touch the ground and the weight is distributed in a fashion to allow for a smooth and steady roll across a field.
It is important to note that the roller does not cut the cover crop. It breaks the stem and leaves it in place. If the cover crop was cut, it would move and result in bare, uncovered soil. By keeping the crop connected to the ground, the process results in an effective mulch that covers the whole field.
Some farmers may ask “why not just bale the crop?” The advantage keeping the cover crop is that it adds nutrition to the soil, it retains moisture, and it prevents erosion. Over time the microbial life in the soil thrives and the crop yields are increased. It also reduces costs with regard to amendments, mulch, composting, and weed prevention. It saves the farmer a tremendous amount of time, because it makes the whole process simpler.
The roller is mounted on the front of a tractor while the planters are on the back. Cast iron is used for the wheels in the back of the tractor.
For small and medium-sized organic gardens, this roller method can be utilized. The gardener can improvise a roller with a wooden plank to crimp the cover crop, or a push lawn mower could be used with a roller rather than a blade.
Choosing no-till agriculture can have vast ramifications. This is more than just a minor decision. The quality of the soil, the food, and the health of life on earth will be directly improved by this choice.