I practice no-till gardening. My hybrid method draws from the best of today’s techniques, including strip composting, lasagna gardening, and square foot gardening.
I create wide beds (3 to 4 feet) and layer on as much organic material as I can find. I layer twice a year, in the early spring and in the late fall. Before, during, and after the active season these layers break down. Worms and other organisms pull the materials into the soil and further process everything. The result is a deep, rich soil in each bed.
I plant directly into the layers, which is why I like to start replenishing existing beds in the fall or build new beds in the very early spring. This gives the stuff time to break down partially before sowing seeds (I cover small seeds with a little potting soil).
I look for free organic materials whenever possible, and that’s not as hard as you think. I keep stores of newspaper, shredded paper, and cardboard boxes in the garage. I pile up leaves and grass clippings, and haul in manure. During the winter I toss leftovers out on the beds, and I make compost but there is never enough. Sometimes I buy bagged compost.
I get free manure from a number of sources. Most comes from the county fairground, and it is a mix of goat, sheep, horse, and cow manure collected during the fair. In the spring and summer I also get fresh pig manure from there but I compost it first. This year I will also haul in some alpaca manure from friends.
Today was a perfect day to start hauling in a manure layer. I have been waiting for a sunny day without wind. The temperature was 57 degrees and snow still covered parts of the ground. Perfect early gardening day.
I don’t have a pick-up so I use my camper van. Most of the year the van is clean and ready for an outing, but right now it also serves as my manure hauler. I use seven 5-gallon buckets and two large plastic bins. I put the wetter, fresher, heavier manure in the 5-gallon buckets and fluffy stuff mixed with light bedding in the bigger bins.
My goal today was to start layering some new flower beds. I have a supply of shredded paper, brown paper bags, newspaper and leaves (all thanks to friends who drop these at my house). I like to use grass clippings but don’t have any at this time of year.
I made two runs out to the fairgrounds and, using the other materials just mentioned, I layered up two beds, each about 3ft x 5 ft.
The layer sequence: newspaper, leaves, shredded paper, and manure. The manure weighs things down (see photo below, showing partially covered shreds, leaves and newspaper…it is hard to get shots without a shadow at this time of year).
Does this seem too early for soil prep? Hopefully we will get a more snow, which will help things break down nicely. Since these are flower beds, they won’t get much more attention from me until May and by then, the layers will be crumbly. Worms (who love newspaper and shreds) will do the tilling for me and by next fall the layers will be completely broken down. At that time I will layer on more of whatever I can get!
My existing flower beds will get their annual layers as the weather permits. I did not have time to replenish them in the fall of 2011.
I did fall- layer all but two of the beds in my vegetable garden (approx 2000 sq ft), so I have those two beds to layer now as well.
After planning, I recommend next creating new layered beds and replenishing those not done the previous fall. This is labor-intensive and all the trips to the county fairgrounds to get manure get tedious (about 100 trips throughout the year).
However, once done, you are free to do the more fun things, like planting!
As I write this the wind is howling again. I put on extra manure just in case! Wind is a big hazard at this time of year…just glad I got out for a few hours today. It will probably be at least another week before conditions are good again. In the meantime, I am finishing up my seed orders!
Other comments about no-till garden beds
• In 2011 I added a layer of soil. I found this through a local contractor who had removed soil to build a house (too bad for the homeowner). Anyway, I paid about $100 for two dump truck loads. Each bed in the vegetable garden got a 2-3″ layer.
• This is my 5th season. The first couple of years I bought expensive peat moss, but I didn’t feel it was worth it. Now I only purchase bagged compost.
• This year I will add some sulfur to the beds. Closer the planting time, I will simply broadcast some over the beds. I may also bring in an organic source of phosphorus.
• In the rows between the beds I layer cardboard and straw, to keep weeks down!
Let me know if you have any questions!