No-till what? Gardening?
FORT DODGE – After 10 years of trying no-till gardening in small parcels with various fruit and vegetable crops, Jiggs Baker, of Fort Dodge, has gone full no-till this season.
That includes 2,000 square feet of gardens on the east edge of Fort Dodge and his backyard garden a few miles away.
No-till crop practices have been used for decades in commercial ag, Baker, 79, said, “but you don’t hear too much about no-till gardening.”
Baker is being assisted by Mya Lacina, of Fort Dodge, who is also an Earl May employee.
“She’s the expert,” Baker said.
Lacina said gardeners shifting to a no-till practice will find it challenging at first, but as the seasons go, they’ll see a positive change in their soil profile and productivity, just like no-till farmers see in their corn and soybean fields.
“Now, I’m a nature guy, and it’s my opinion that it’s the best,” Baker said.
Baker and Lacina said no-till garden practices is a multiplier of benefits – worms break down surface plant material to build organic matter in soil, which in turn provides nutrients for plants and gives the soil more water-holding capacity, which brings plants to maturity faster.
Where most gardens are completely tilled and each hole is dug for each plant, Lacina said, “no-till keeps the soil profile intact.”
That includes not chopping up earthworms, like tillers do, and breaking down the aeration tubes worms create as they move through the ground.
The holes worms create allow rain to flow into them and also opens soil to air, both of which plant roots require.
“Earthworms are very important to the crop,” Baker said.
Baker brandished a bale hook and said this simple tool creates his furrows, disturbing as little of soil as possible.
He said he uses grass clippings as a mulch to smother weeds and to cover topsoil on hot days to keep moisture in the soil longer.
He adds fresh mulch several times through the growing season, contracting with a local lawn service for clippings, who assure him they come from lawns that have not been chemically treated.
Lacina said the clippings are pulled into the soil by worms where bacteria decomposes the blades releasing nitrogen and carbon for root uptake.
It’s a complex ecosystem that can take a few years to develop fully, she said, in a garden where full tillage has been the normal practice.
She recommended any gardener thinking of making the switch to be patient.
“It’ll take the soil a few years to regain what it lost,” Lacina said. “But they will see a difference.”
Manure – from horses seems to be the best – can be added in thin layers on the garden surface, Lacina said. But whatever the source, the manure has to be aged to allow the pH in it to balance out to keep from damaging the plants.
Baker said he believes no-tilling keeps soil temperature steady, so plants can go into the ground earlier.
With virtually no soil compaction that no-till offers, Baker said he thinks roots develop more quickly, accessing water and nutrients, creating healthier plants – able to fight off insects and fungal infections – bringing them to maturity faster.
“Not any one thing is more important than another,” Baker said. “It’s the combination of several practices that make the difference.”
Baker said he’s been gardening since his boyhood days, even showing garden produce at county fairs when he was 10.
“I used grass clippings then, too,” he said. “Gardening is fun for me. It’s my therapy.”
Being a nature guy, he said he’s concerned about all things relating to environmental health.
Besides no-till, Baker said he uses only natural fertilizers in small applications throughout the growing season, no herbicides and no insecticides.
“So when I give a head of cabbage away,” Baker said, “I tell them they may find a bug or a worm.
“But I won’t use chemicals.”
He catches rain in a barrel off his house eaves for watering his backyard garden.
His bigger gardens have no irrigation. He said the water-holding organic matter in that soil, combined with the mulch covering and roots reaching deeper in the soil faster, will have to suffice the plants.
“I’m not carrying water out there,” he said.
Baker said he grew up on a farm chasing hogs, chickens and cows. His father farmed with horses and his parents harvested corn by hand.
As a boy, he was responsible for moving the horses along with the corn wagon while his parents picked corn.
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