If you are a homesteader, you are probably a gardener. The garden’s bounty can feed the family and livestock, and can be sold at farmers’ markets. Many people believe that they must have a huge tiller to have a large garden. I would like to briefly discuss a simpler method, more in tune with nature, and easier on the pocketbook: no-till gardening, or deep mulch gardening.
No-till gardening would probably not be manageable on a scale of many acres, but it works splendidly well in a large home garden and market garden. It is based upon the work of Ruth Stout, who was a contributor to Organic Gardening magazine many years ago. An excellent reference with greater detail can be found in The Ruth Stout No-Work Garden Book, by Ruth Stout and Richard Clemence, Rodale Press, 1971.
Some years ago, we owned a used tiller, and tilled the vegetable garden soil every spring. I battled weeds all summer with a hoe. Even though I tilled in large amounts of compost every year, our clay-based soil would turn into something akin to pottery under the hot Midwestern summer sun. Hoeing weeds in this hard soil was an arduous chore. It dawned on me one day, as I toiled with my hoe, that my flowers looked so lovely and healthy, surrounded by their thick mulch, and that my flowers cost me far less work than my vegetables. I had always rejected the total mulch system, feeling that there was a need to loosen soil on our homestead through tilling. Then I looked at the hardened soil under my feet and reality finally hit me.
I converted my garden to deep mulch no-till the following spring. At first, my main problem was obtaining sufficient mulching materials. Over the years I’ve found a number of sources for mulch, however. I use old, moldy grass hay that is unsuitable for livestock feed, grass clippings, and leaves. Contrary to myth grass clippings used as mulch do not smell when spread out as mulch. My preference is for moldy hay, and I am constantly on the lookout for homesteaders and farmers who have a ruined hay crop. Leaves run through a mower make an excellent addition to the mulch layer in the fall. I can obtain all of these mulch materials for free or a nominal cost. I apply our compost under the mulch annually.
To create a new garden bed, it is best to start in the fall. Mow the grass down close to the ground (scalp it). Preferably, apply regular newsprint (nothing that is slick and glossy) over the entire new garden area, to totally block out sunlight. Over this, apply a layer of compost, several inches thick if you have enough. Apply the mulch over the compost until the total cover is about one foot deep. Leave this over winter, and in the spring you will not need to till. The mulch will mat down over time. It is best to apply it when the weather is not windy. Once it has been wetted down thoroughly with rain or irrigation, it will not tend to blow around even in our high winds.