"The soil is the great connector of lives, the source and destination of all. It is the healer and restorer and resurrector, by which disease passes into health, age into youth, death into life. Without proper care for it we can have no community, because without proper care for it we can have no life." Wendell Berry
Every year I see cycles repeat themselves. Observing patterns and cycles in nature is a helpful tool to help you rehabilitate the ecosystem in your backyard. The healthy cycles of nature flow like spirals in which they are always enriching themselves. For instance: The leaves that fall from trees decay into the ground to renew and rebuild the rich topsoil that provides the nutrients for next year's understory. It can take up to 1000 years to build one inch of topsoil.
Other cycles I see people take part in look like a hamster in his wheel-- many of these have to do with how we steward our yards. Creating a garden in one weekend, whether by constructing a raised bed, using a tiller or racing through another fast and furious back breaking method can certainly provide instant gratification (and probably some other forms of gratification too) is better than not having a garden at all. That being said, truly healthy plants require truly healthy soil that takes time to build. You can measure the health of your soil by examining it's "tilth". Soil tilth is defined as: The "Physical condition of soil, especially in relation to its suitability for planting or growing a crop. Factors that determine tilth include the formation and stability of aggregated soil particles, moisture content, degree of aeration, rate of water infiltration, and drainage" (britannica.com/science/tilth).
Tilling soil destroys its tilth. It literally rips apart the living web of communities that form a soil ecosystem. In the long term, conventional tillage causes the soil to break down and become compacted (britannica.com/science/tilth). Tilling the soil might get rid of weeds instantly and make the soil nice and fluffy for an immediate planting, but this sort of "instant gratification" is the equivalent of using a a credit card that creates a soil health debt with a compounding interest rate. The more you spend, the exponentially longer it takes to get out of debt. Instead of having a garden that is more independent in its self preservation, not taking proper care of your soil binds you to a hamster wheel of constant toil: weeding, fertilizing, controlling pests and disease, irrigating etc. I'm not saying that if you have perfect soil then you don't have to pay attention to and care for your garden. I'm saying that having good soil lessens the time that you have to spend care taking. Soil health is certainly not the only factor that lessens the time you spend bound to your garden, but it is an important one.
The more you observe soil, the more you can tell the difference between healthy thriving soil versus compacted "dead" soil. It takes some time to see the benefits of building a healthy soil ecosystem, but doing so is one of the smartest investments in your garden that you can make. The interest compounds in profit rather than loss. Not only do you lessen the work that your future self has to put into your garden, but you also grow stronger, more resilient plants that need fewer inputs (conventional or organic). Better soil tilth holds and releases water more efficiently and more effectively. The soil behaves more like a sponge and less like asphalt thereby greatly reducing erosion and run off. Over time, this creates more drought and flood resistant gardens. Weeds are also much easier and more fun to pull out of healthy rich soil than out of compacted concrete soil. These benefits come from the tiny communities built by microorganisms thriving in their own healthy ecosystems below the surface of the soil. They form web-like structures that are the base of sound tilth. This is one of the many garden toils that we can not perform as well as nature, so step back and let her do her thing. Consider this working smart, rather than hard-- there are plenty of things to always be doing in the garden, why make more work for yourself? Look closely to see the white fibers coming out of the log below. This is mycelia-- an excellent indicator that you have a great system of interconnected microorganisms working together to optimize your soil tilth-- as nature intended.
Here is one easy way to start a no- til garden bed ideal for the next year's growing season:
Locate the area where you want the bed to be. Choosing a spot in the summer is a good idea because the sun is at the angle of peak growing season and the trees are leafed out, so you know where the sunny and shady spots will be this time next year. Lots of people create a garden in a spot that is sunny in the spring, but by the time summer rolls around, the garden is shaded out because the tree canopy is leafed out and the angle of the sun has changed. Summer shaded gardens are nice for extending your cooler growing season crops. They also great make great native plant shade gardens. Growing native plants is growing food for the other inhabitants (our insect friends) of your ecosystem and is arguably just as important (I'd argue even more so, sense insects can't exactly visit the farmers' market and they are quite literally starving out of existence) as growing food for yourself. It's lovely to have a mix of sun and shade pollinator beds.
Lay a nice thick layer of cardboard down on the ground (or old black plastic that you want to reuse-- i.e. the garbage bags from last year's leaves that you rescued off of the side of the road) and secure it with bricks, or anything substantial you can find lying around. I like to use limbs that I find on the side of the road both to secure my cardboard and to line my garden beds.
Leave the cardboard for about a month or so to kill the grass. Remove the cardboard for about a week, so the dormant seeds can sprout. Replace cardboard to smother out new growth. Be sure to secure your cardboard better than the photo indicates--make sure you get the edges down. This is my yard and the method I use, but the photo does not accurately indicate how well I secure my cardboard.
Aside from choosing a no-til route to create your garden bed, there are many other things you can do to build your soil health. You can use your own creativity as to how you want to build the soil in your garden bed. Consider making multiple beds and experimenting with different methods. For instance, adding a nice thick layer of wood chips (can find for free from an arborist or by looking into "chip drop") will do wonders for a great garden, but it probably won't be ready for another two years. I use logs that I find for free on the side of the road to add organic matter to my garden beds. These logs not only break down and add richness to the soil, but they also provide habitat and food sources to support the other creatures in the backyard ecosystem. I use them to line my beds and to aid in slowing the flow of water down hill because my gardens are on a hillside. You could find some horse, rabbit or cow poop for free somewhere and put that on your bed. The poop can spend the rest of fall winter and early spring breaking down nicely. If you are getting horse poop, I would recommend looking for some that is already mostly composted. I also like adding mushroom compost, biochar and other microorganisms to my gardens. My experience with biochar is that it provides me some very appreciated relatively instant (in a year or so) improvements in my soil tilth. Keep your beds mulched with something to protect them from wind and rain erosion. There is not much point in putting in the effort of covering your bed in horse poop, only to let it dry up in the sun and blow away on a crisp fall day-- I know this from experience. There are plenty of other things you can do to build your soil tilth-- consider doing a google search to find out what is right for you.
I find free composted horse poop and gather bags of leaves from the side of the road and use them as a mulch. This way, I am not only enriching my garden, but I'm also rescuing countless moth caterpillars that would otherwise go in the dump or get shredded. Over 90 percent of moths' eggs overwinter in the fallen leaves. These eggs hatch into the fat juicy protein and antioxidant rich caterpillars that baby birds require for food. Baby birds can not digest bird seed and it can take anywhere from 5,000-9,000 caterpillars to feed one nest of babies! (Doug Tallamy) . So please consider not sending nature's soil builder and bird food to the dumpster. If you decide to cover your bed in leaves, I like to put some dead limbs or plant stems on top to keep the wind from blowing the leaves off.
Plant cover crops-- not only because they are beneficial to the garden, but also because many of them perform multiple functions. Austrian cow peas are great because you can eat the protein rich sprouts in the winter. They are a nice green treat! Other great cold season cover crops include barley, oats or wheat-- these you can use as additional mulch in the warm months when you pull them up. Legumes fix nitrogen in the soil--Crimson clover's beautiful bloom is a lovely harbinger of the growing season. Mustard green roots emit "biofumigants" that can kill nematodes. "Brassica and mustard cover crops are known for their rapid fall growth, great biomass production and nutrient scavenging ability. However, they are attracting renewed interest primarily because of their pest management characteristics. Most Brassica species release chemical compounds that may be toxic to soil borne pathogens and pests, such as nematodes, fungi and some weeds. The mustards usually have higher concentrations of these chemicals" (sare.org/covercrops).
I like planting buckwheat in the warm months because it flowers quickly, feeds pollinators and keeps weeds at bay.
Brassicas are "biofumigants". Also, great to eat!
Crimson clover won't bloom until around end of May or early June-- beautiful to look at and adds nitrogen to your soil!
Here is a nice mix of edible greens (kale, chard and violet greens), medicinal pollinator plants (yarrow) and left over bolted mustard cover crop. All tucked in together nice and cozy in their mulched rich soil!
I hope you find at least half as much joy in nourishing your relationship with soil as I do. The end.