Have you ever tried something new that you were really excited about, only to have it turn out less than perfect? In my particular situation, saying that it was 'less than perfect' would be the understatement of the year. Disaster would be more appropriate. Perhaps even a disaster of biblical proportions. True, there wasn't any wailing or gnashing of teeth, but there certainly was a lot of un-Christian language being hurled about.
So what was the focus of my foul-mouthed behavior? A no-till garden that turned out to be a no-food garden.
The idea behind no-till, or sometimes referred to as no-dig gardening, is soil health. Turns out there is a lot going on in the top six inches of soil. Microbes doing sciency things, plant roots pulling up beneficial nutrients, and countless types of insects adding their touch. It's an amazing world our backyard! And when we break the ground with our tilling, we end up destroying the harmony of things - a process perfected through time.
So why is this natural process so important? Think about all of the things that you eat. How much of it comes from plants grown in that top six inches of soil? Obviously, all of your vegetables come from it. But what about the meat you eat? What fed the cow that you had for dinner last night? The truth is, we take for granted what it takes for us to eat nutritional food. Healthy topsoil is extremely important and upon realizing this, I set out to take better care of the soil that feeds me.
Unfortunately, my efforts this past summer aren't going to feed a whole lot. Of the roughly 700 bean seeds I planted, I got zero produce; as in none at all! My potato ratio was a little better with a yield of roughly 1.5 for every 1 planted. (Normally, my harvest ratio for potatoes is between 2.5 and 3 for every 1 planted.) Even the sunflowers I planted failed to blossom.
So what went wrong?
I did. It's as simple as that.
I do not have a good enough understanding of what is actually involved to simply plant things and expect a proper yield. Were the seeds I planted appropriate for conditions? Why did the ants have such a devastating affect? What part did the surrounding vegetation play? Why would a critter dig up my potato stock, simply to eat the sprouting eyes off of them? Why did my potato plants turn yellow and die without flowering?
It's these kindsof results that, I think, keep people from straying from the established way of doing things. Let's be honest, if your garden was the main source of food for your family, would you be experimenting or following the method that you know works? But the issue is, I'm not sure that the way we're doing things is really working.
I look across the fields behind my home and I see acres upon acres of vegetation without a single weed to be found. What kind of chemicals are we spraying so that nothing else can grow? What are these chemicals doing to the microbes or insects that have a time-tested purpose in the soil? Do we even understand the long term consequences of constant tilling; an unnatural disruption of living process? Is it possible that we are harming the very thing that sustains us?
When it comes to growing my own food, I'm about as ignorant as they come. And it may be that tilling is the best option for what I need. But then again, maybe it's not. Either way, I will approach planting season next spring with a lot more respect and a greater appreciation for the food that I do harvest.