soil food web and tilling

pommesOctober 7, 2009

Hi. I just read a lengthy article about the soil food web and that when we till the ground we basically destroy it.

I decided to dig up a large area of ground for a vegetable and flower garden next spring.

The soid is pretty heavy and needs to be mended and fed.

Now I'm wondering if I'll have success because of destroying this soil food web thing although it was necessary for me to dig begs because the areas was overrun with grass and weeds.

I also don't have enough organic mulchy stuff such as leaves, cover all the digging/tilling I've done.

Can I restore that soil food web and create an organically fertile ground before next spring?

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Just my opinion, but the idea that the SFW is destroyed is an assertion made by advocates of no till practices that needs support.

While it's obvious soil is turned over and a disruption takes place I think it unlikely it doesn't bounce back quickly.

    Bookmark   October 7, 2009 at 4:44PM
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gjcore(zone 5 Aurora Co)

Digging up an area is not going to destroy the SFW [Soil Food Web]. But going forward you might want to minimize digging/tilling.

If you can't round up enough organic matter you might want to buy some compost from a landscape supply yard. If you do I recommend asking some questions about it as well as going into the yard to look, feel and smell it.

    Bookmark   October 7, 2009 at 5:45PM
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The thing is that I've read that it's good to always keep the ground covered with organic stuff (leaves twigs, etc.)so that the SFW can re-establish itself.
I just myself started a compost pile so I don't expect my own compost for months and I'm finding it hard to get compost from somewhere here in Europe.
Would it be good just to try to cover everything with some organic mulchy stuff, like from the bushes and twigs from my own yard? I saw at the store they also have bark mulch but I'd rather not spend the money if I can just use something from my own yard.

    Bookmark   October 8, 2009 at 2:56AM
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Another possible ground cover is just a planting of ryegrass that can be tilled under as a green manure. It can also be allowed to grow as a pathway cover through the garden.
The soil food web is basically fungi and bacteria etc. They build soil structure as does roots. In reality, heavy compacted soils do not grow many fungi and/or roots, but after you break it up, both really go to town.

    Bookmark   October 8, 2009 at 6:31AM
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This ATTRA publication may be of some help.

Here is a link that might be useful: Soil management

    Bookmark   October 8, 2009 at 6:46AM
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ok, this is all really helping. I read about a lady who wrote a book about no-work gardens where basically you cover the beds with up to 8 inches of mulch, basically anything organic. She said that by doing this she had very little need of weeding, tilling or any other fertilizing, not even a compost pile. I think she basically used hay for her mulching.
I don't have access to hay and leaves drop only once a year so what else can I use besides? Can you just use any other foliage in the garden (bush branches and twigs,grasses) or is this getting kind of weird, out-there?
I have a lot of small bushes and trees I need to cut down. I just figured, if she's on to something, than I can just use a lot of what's in my garden already and save money instead of spending it on mulches,etc...

    Bookmark   October 8, 2009 at 7:12AM
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You could use twigs as a mulch, sure. What you may want to consider is how quickly or slowly the mulch material decomposes. Woody stuff breaks down fairly slowly so is nice as a longer lasting mulch, but materials that break down faster contribute more 'food' to the soil critters.

Woody stuff also ties up nitrogen as it decomposes. For this reason if you use woody material you will want to avoid tilling it in. Wood as a mulch is no problem, but wood in the soil can be. Wood products as mulch also tend to favor increased populations of bugs that may become pests such as pill bugs (not normally a problem, but can be in very high numbers) and slugs. Wood as a mulch around tender plants (as opposed to woody plants) is not my first choice.

I think you are underestimating your ability to provide organic mulches. As Maplerbirch indicated there are plants you can grow for the purpose of using them as a mulch or tilling them into the soil if you prefer tilling. Legumes whose roots will store nitrogen from the air are a good choice, but so are many others. If you google 'green mulch' or 'cover crops' you will find many possibilities.

    Bookmark   October 8, 2009 at 12:48PM
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Ok, thanks, I'll check out the green mulch. I'm hesitant to start now with a cover crop because I'm new at all this stuff plus isn't it too late being almost middle of Oct..?
We have cold winters with a lot of snow. Or Daah, I suppose you mean the plant those with the other vegetable in spring.
How is just plain ol grass for a green mulch, if you let it dry out a bit first?

    Bookmark   October 8, 2009 at 1:45PM
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Cover crops are generally planted in the 'off season' and are chopped down, tilled or otherwise killed before planting a main crop. In all cases they are killed before they can go to seed. The roots are left in the soil and the top growth can be used as a mulch.

Whether you have time yet this year depends what you try to grow and how much warmish weather you have left. It wouldn't surprise me at all if you could get a few things growing before the snow flies and the ground freezes for the year. Heck, I am in Wisconsin and still have sunflowers from the birdfeeder popping up and it's 50F outside. While the air cools the ground retains heat for awhile.

    Bookmark   October 8, 2009 at 2:47PM
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Sorry I'm such a newby at this. WEll justaguy, we get snow usually around mid-end of Nov.. Our temperatures are coming in now around the same as in your area with looots of overcast days and rain.
I'd have no idea what to plant, I'LL have to check.

I would also have access to pine needles (the short-small kind) but I've heard a lot about them creating too much acid in the soil. My main mulch source is tons of leaves because the property is surrounded by tree forests, I think lots of oak and acorn trees. I'd just have to go out there and look like a kuku-nut to bag up leaves. That might give me some time to figure out what to do for later mulch possibilities.
Boy, this is really becoming a science. Gardenings' suppose to be therapeutic though, right?

    Bookmark   October 8, 2009 at 3:07PM
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You know, if the "soil food web" advocates were correct, our ancestors would have died of crop failures because they TILLED.

    Bookmark   October 8, 2009 at 4:22PM
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I read that if you add organic matter when you are tilling (actually, what our ancenstors were doing adding manure during tilling) you are not doing too much of damage. Well, if soil is not soaking wet of course.

    Bookmark   October 9, 2009 at 10:45AM
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luke_oh(zone 5 NE Ohio)

Pommes,This time of year I like to clean up my garden and add composted manure from my neighbor, with a dairy, and leaves that my neighbors rake into bags and drop off at my house. I put up a sign each year "Bagged Leaves Wanted" and it works great. And yes, I do till it under before I plant in the spring. I always enjoy sharing my harvest with my neighbors to show my appreciation. Giving a box of veggies is one of the most enjoyable part of gardening. Luke

    Bookmark   October 13, 2009 at 4:53PM
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dchall_san_antonio(8 San Antonio)

You know, if the "soil food web" advocates were correct, our ancestors would have died of crop failures because they TILLED.

They did die. When the crops failed or when nature failed the people by providing poor weather, those who did not move away died. A notable exception was the area of the Fertile Crescent. Yes they had their crop failures (and people died) but because they had vast ability to move at the same latitude, they could plant the same crops and raise the same animals as they and their ancestors always had.

Anyway, getting to the question, yes you can restore your soil over the winter the same way Mother Nature does it: You cover the soil with a layer of leaves and keep it moist. Tilling does not destroy the bacteria. It breaks the fungal hyphae and then they die. They are the long term solution to most soil issues so you don't want to hurt them.

    Bookmark   October 17, 2009 at 11:08PM
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If the word "excessive" was added to "tilling" I might think there may be some potential for short term damage to the soil biota.

My recommendation, don't till excessively.


    Bookmark   October 17, 2009 at 11:33PM
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jonas302(central mn 4)

excellent point Lloyd Once a year is a lot differnt then cultivating every week

Also I wonder what freezing weather does to the microbes and such they probly die and the eggs or spores grow in the spring?

    Bookmark   October 18, 2009 at 2:48PM
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tsugajunkie z5 SE WI

"I would also have access to pine needles (the short-small kind) but I've heard a lot about them creating too much acid in the soil."

Don't worry about it, they aren't a problem. Use the pine needles.


    Bookmark   October 20, 2009 at 6:27PM
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pommes: I think the take-away here is: Don't till unless you have to. There are several situatiins that lead one to till: double-digging to loosen the soil; turning under cover crops - although this can be avoided; weeding, in severe pressure areas. But otherwise heed the Plowman's Folly and avoid it. Agriculturally it hastens soil erosion, which we can ill afford, and it buries the top two inches of soil that tends to be the most fertile because of decomposition of leaf litter and natural mulches. Regards, Peter.

    Bookmark   October 22, 2009 at 2:18PM
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organicdan(z5b Nova Scotia)

Pommes, Your question is a very good one and worthy of some research as well as digesting the responses given.

Before I get into details of the Soil Foodweb, I say gather a soil sample for analysis and send it off now before the rush in spring. The quick analysis report will identify what is needed for your soil based on what you intend to grow.

Give it a good deep till now and cover with a thick mat of leaves and fresh grass clippings. This mulch of carbon and nitrogen material will feed the bacteria and fungi, particularly the fungi over the winter. Most of the bacteria will go into hibernation until spring; they do not die.

The green manure (cover crop) is best started as harvest ends. You can even sow it while other plants or residue remain. Rye is good for weed control and a red/crimson clover is good for deep roots. Both are great as green manures. Look into green manures for understanding their contribution. Think of them as additions to your crop rotation. Look into cover crops to understand the uses and variety of options. A lot will depend on your soil too. Look at the range of legumes, grasses and grains in answer to the soil test analysis. The organic matter is always something that will be needed. Manures and compost whould be well aged or cured; meaning reasonably stable and not looking like the original materials.

In the future you can limit the depth of your tillage to limit soilweb disruption. Set your depth control for 3-4 inches. Add your compost or other organic material before spring tilling so it gets mixed into the soil.

The soil foodweb is the community of organism that contribute to good soil structure and nutrient cycling. Stucture and cycling are what determine how well crops grow. Avoid soluble fertilizer. Look for the organic stuff that is usually crushed mineral rock or derived from organic matter. The organic stuff will be process by the soil organizes more or less as the plants need it. Organic fertilizers will last for years versus the chemical stuff.

As the soil foodweb balances organism population you shall enjoy optimum production. A healthy soil (foodweb) is dominated by benificial organism which protect against diseases and pests.

Definitely plan a rotation. Each plant family contributes differently to the foodweb. Each plant family also takes differently. Plan heavy feeders after contributors; especially with a legume (and green manures) contributing to nitrogen needs.

The strongest recommendation I can offer is to lay out permanent beds. Walk only on the paths, even when tilling.

Don't forget the soil test. You may need to change the soil pH which is best initiated in the fall so the change occurs over the winter.

Good luck and keep the questions coming.


ps - Do check out ATTRA and google 'soil foodweb' to gain further understanding.

    Bookmark   October 22, 2009 at 5:57PM
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you never have to till if you need to loosen the ground use a subsoiler (deeper than plowing) on a tractor for large area or broadfork on small area

    Bookmark   April 17, 2010 at 11:34AM
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I am a neophyte when it comes to organic gardening with only two seasons under my belt, but I can recommend a great book I read recently that really opened my eyes to importance of soil biology.

"Teaming with Microbes", by Lowenfel and Lewis.

    Bookmark   April 17, 2010 at 12:15PM
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