Till vs. No-Till

A 3-D view of tilling in Russia c1915

My post on lasagna gardening, which linked to a brief article by horticulture professor Linda Chalker-Scott seems to have opened a can of worms, so to speak.  Two issues came up in the comments on my post: the wisdom of using cardboard in a lasagna mulch and the pros and cons of double digging/tilling. Let’s address them in separate blog posts, beginning here with double digging/tilling.

There are some very persuasive arguments in favor of a no-till, leave the soil alone approach. Chalker-Scott in the comments section of her post on lasagna gardening says,

. . . double digging (the equivalent of tilling in agriculture) disrupts natural soil building. No-till agriculture is increasingly preferred as being more protective of the soil ecosystem. I think the same philosophy could be applied to home gardens as well. You’re right, you can boost production with a more aggressive approach to soil amendment – a similar argument is often made in conventional agriculture (compared to organic agriculture) to till, use excessive fertilizers, pesticides, etc. I guess it depends on how you regard the soil – as a medium for growing vegetables or as an ecosystem (and I’m not being judgmental). It’s a philosophical choice.

No-till agriculture advocates argue that tilling oxidizes organic matter leading to a loss in soil fertility and the creation of carbon dioxide which, in turn, leads to global warming. A case can also be made that tilling creates a soil “crust” that interferes with water penetration. And tilling disrupts mycelial networks and other soil organisms that, research has shown, form important symbiotic relationships with plant roots. 

But what about heavily compacted soils? How do you turn a lawn or driveway into a garden? It’s in these cases that I, in the past, have used double digging.

Double digging proponents would argue that the practice should be distinguished from tilling in that, unlike tilling, you don’t invert the soil structure as much when you double dig. Double digging keeps the same soil profile while loosening heavy compaction. Double-digging advocates distance themselves from the use of roto-tilling machines which invert deeper layers of soil with surface layers that contain more organic matter.

But there are alternatives to double digging and tilling that will break up compacted soils. Scott Kleinrock at the Huntington Ranch turned a former construction parking lot into a productive edible landscape without double digging or tilling. Kleinrock used what I’d call a kind of toolkit of de-compaction strategies:

  • The application of a thick mulch (Chalker-Scott suggests a minimum of 12 inches). It’s surprising how many earthworms start doing the tilling for you with a thick mulch layer.
  • Planting soil busting cover crops with thick tap roots like Daikon radish
  • The use of a broadfork or deep spader
Peaceful Valley’s “Deep Spader”
A broadfork in action

Broadforks and deep spaders get air and water into compacted soils without the damage tilling can do. Unfortunately broadforks and deep spaders are very expensive (around $200) and heavy. The deep spader Kleinrock used came from Peaceful Valley Farm and Garden Supply. I’ve tried it and it works nicely, though it’s still hard labor. If you knew how to weld you could probably make a home brew deep spader or broadfork. I’ve also successfully used a regular, inexpensive garden spading fork in moderately compacted soils.

This is clearly a topic on which reasonable people can disagree, but the no-till folks seem to have the upper hand in terms of the science. As with all gardening problems, though, context is king. Environmental factors and economic issues (those expensive broadforks) intersect in our urban gardens in complex ways. You have to make up your own mind. I’d say if you’re going to double-dig do it only as a last resort and after considering all the alternatives. While, under some circumstances, I might double-dig I would never till with a roto-tiller or invert soil structure with a shovel. But after seeing the dramatic improvement in soil at the Huntington Ranch in less than a year, I’m more inclined to try de-compaction alternatives. You could also just build raised beds and import better soil (though that strategy gets expensive).

I’ve created a poll on the right side of this blog on which you can cast a vote on tilling vs. not-tilling vs. double digging. And consider leaving a comment–I’m interested in what readers think about this complex issue.

Paleofuture Farming

From the awesome Paleofuture blog, which chronicles what folks thought the future would look like, a few notions of future farming.

Apparently, this anticipated future (which more or less came to pass) involved “lounge chair gardening.”

And, of course, factory farming:


To the generation that came up with these ideas I’ll just say that I hope the dinosaur juice that keeps those factory farms humming holds out. Personally, I’m not counting on gardening from the comfort of that hovering lounge chair while I oversee my hydroponic skyscraper operation (architects still seem to be in love with vertical farming schemes). My inner crank tells me that we might just might have get our hands dirty again. But, I have to admit, that top photo does approximate what it looks like to create Root Simple blog posts.

Root Simple and LA Bread Bakers at Artisinal LA

This Saturday Kelly and I will be joining a panel discussion on urban homesteading along with our good friends Craig Ruggless of Winnetka Farms and goat keepers and cheese makers Gloria Putnam and Stephen Rucidel. The panel will take place at Artisinal LA on Saturday April 16th at 2 pm in Santa Monica.

I will also be taking part in a bread baking demo along with the LA Bread Bakers the same day at 1 pm.

More information at artisinalla.com.

Lasagna Gardening Simplified

First popularized back in the 1970s, “lasagna gardening” involves piling up thick layers of cardboard and uncomposted kitchen scraps on top of (sometimes) double-dug soil. The practice is touted as a way of removing lawns and improving soil with little work.

Linda Chalker-Scott, Extension Urban Horticulturist at Washington State University, proposes a vastly simpler version of lasagna gardening.  Chalker-Scott suggests skipping the double digging, cardboard and kitchen scraps. The double digging disrupts soil texture, the cardboard interferes with water penetration (I know this from experience) and the kitchen scraps create a plant nutrient overload. Instead Chalker-Scott suggests simply a very thick layer of mulch–12 inches.

Mulch is often free, as many cities give it away, and it does wonders for the soil. Mulch, in fact, breaks down into soil, retains moisture and creates habitat for earthworms.

Read more in Chalker-Scott’s post, “Is lasagna gardening really worth the effort.

California poppy tea

 
Mrs. Homegrown here:


Where we live, this is the poppy time of year. California poppies (Eschscholzia californica) are blooming all over our neighborhood, and most especially in our yard. I have to admit I have a mercenary attitude toward plants, my main thought on meeting one being, “What can you do for me?” California poppies, lovely as they are, have become more interesting to me since I’ve started consuming them. Now, don’t get concerned (or intrigued): the Root Simple compound has not turned into an opium den. California poppies are not part of the famous Papaver somniferum species, and they can’t get you high, nor are they addictive. However, they can help you relax.



I’m all for using plants that grow readily in your yard or general area, rather than trying to coax more exotic species along. There are many herbs that can be used to make relaxing teas (valerian, catnip, linden, chamomile, etc.), but this one intrigues me because it’s essentially a weed where I live. If it doesn’t grow readily where you live, I’d encourage you to investigate other herbs which grow more easily in your area. 

But for those of you who can grow California poppies easily, I’ll just say that I’ve been making tea with fresh California poppy foliage this year and must report that I really like it. I like it so much that I’m drying plants so I have a store to last me through the summer and fall, and may make a tincture of it, too. 

It makes a soothing tea. I find it useful in two types of situations: first, when I have a nagging tension headache–the kind that comes about when you’re cranky, and can’t find any way to de-crankify, because your head hurts so damned much. I find that this tea de-tangles my brain enough that the headache goes away. The second situation I take it in is when I’m really tired but am resisting going to bed for whatever reason.

What do experts say?

There’s lots of somewhat conflicting information about the California poppy on the Internets, and even my herb books at home say different things about its properties. Overall I think all sources do agree that it does have sedative quantities and that it won’t hurt you. In fact, in Europe, it’s often used as a component in sedatives for children. Taking that as a starting point, I’m trusting my own evaluation of its effect in regard to me. Everyone reacts a little differently to herbs, and everyone has different needs, so I’d encourage you to try it and see what you think.

In Medicinal Plants of the Pacific West, Michael Moore says its a “…surprisingly effective herb for use with anxiety” and “When used as a sedative, it promotes relaxation and genial lethargy.”  He notes it has some mild analgesic effects in higher doses.

One thing he does address is the question as to whether drinking this tea would make you test positive on a drug test. His answer is that though the plant does not contain the same alkaloids found in opiates, it contains alkaloids that are similar enough that they might create a false positive on an urine test. I’ve also heard firm opinions from other sources that it absolutely will or will not show up.

California Native Americans use Eschscholzia in their own way. According to Healing with Medicinal Plants of the West, the Chumash made a poultice of the pods to stop breast milk. For them, this was (is) the plant’s primary use. Secondary uses include using the root for toothache and a decoction of the flowers to kill lice.

How to use:
 
You can make tea with any of the above-ground parts of the plant: leaves, stems and flowers. You can use these parts fresh or dried. I’ve been using fresh so far. I just stuff my tea basket with fresh leaves, pour hot water over them and let it steep a good long time–maybe 10 minutes. I put a saucer over the top of the cup to help keep the tea warm. The long soak ensures a stronger, more potent brew, obviously.

All the sources I’ve read note that this tea is unpleasantly bitter. I’ve not found that to be so, but my palette may be affected by Erik’s ongoing fascination with bitter Italian greens. Sometimes I throw some mint in with it just to liven up the flavor, but I honestly don’t find it unpleasant straight.

(ETA: Coming back in September to add to this post. Now that summer is almost over, I can say that the plants get more bitter as they get older and the weather gets hotter. It’s the first flush of growth that’s most palatable.)

In terms of dosage, all I can say is that the more of the tea you drink, and the stronger you brew it, the more pronounced will be the effects. If I just want a bedtime brew, analogous to chamomile, I’d just make a cup of tea as I’d make any cup of tea. If I have a headache, I’ll make a small pot of tea (2-3 cups) and brew it strong and sip it until I feel better.

You can also tincture the plant, fresh or dry, in alcohol, and take it in that form. This isn’t the place for a tincture how-to, but if you already know how, Moore says: Dried plant tincture: 1:5,  50% alcohol; Fresh 1: 2; Both 30-60 drops, up to 4x a day, for anxiety. 

I’ve heard that the root can be held against a sore tooth–in places other than the Chumash source–but I don’t know if it works. Some sources I’ve read use the root as well as the above ground parts for tea, but I’ve not tried it. I’ve decided that the root must have slightly different properties than the foliage and haven’t stirred myself to investigate those yet. 


Growing California poppy: 

If you live where this plant is native, all you have to do is throw some seed around your yard in the fall, and the plants will magically appear after the winter rains. There is no special care or soil prep to be done. You don’t even have to bury the seed. The plants will thrive on their own until the summer heat and dryness kills them. Before they go, though, they will spread seed and more plants will appear the next year on their own. I’m not so sure how you’d grow it in other climates, but I assume you’d toss the seed around after the last chance of frost. If anyone has experience growing California poppy in other climes, please let us know what you do.

Nanny state precautions:

You should maybe not drink a lot of this and then drive, or operate drill presses, table saws, curling irons, etc. You probably should not mix this with prescription drugs without consulting your physician, especially if you’re on sedative drugs. If you’re pregnant or breast feeding, you know the usual drill–consult your practitioner. And anyway, that part about drying up milk might be of concern. Finally, California poppies are protected by state law. It’s illegal to pick them except in your own yard.

Dry Farming

Jethro Tull–the agriculturalist not the rock flutist

According to a 2010 report by Ceres “Water Risk in the Municipal Bond Market,” Los Angeles ranks number one in water supply risk. But we’re not alone. Many other US cities including Atlanta, Phoenix and Dallas also face a future of water insecurity.

Due to these water risks we’d all do well to consider ways to grow edibles without supplemental irrigation. This may sound absurd at first, but I’ll note that in our garden we’ve discovered, quite by accident, that many plants such as prickly pear cactus, cherry tomatoes, cardoon and pomegranates will do just fine in a climate where it doesn’t rain for six months out of the year.  Scott Kleinrock at the Huntington Ranch proved that you can grow chard in Southern California with almost no irrigation through a hot summer (the chard thrived in the Ranch’s food forest under almost complete shade).

As an avid gardener in a dry climate I certainly use a lot of water for my vegetables. Most modern vegetables are adapted to copious watering. But this was not always the case. A classic book Dry Farming by John Andreas Widtsoe, first published in 1911 and available as a free download in Google Books, describes how many farmers got along without the modern conveniences of supplemental irrigation.

A dry farmed wheat and alfalfa field in Wyoming from Dry Farming

Other than the advice to till frequently (tilling, among other things, destroys beneficial fungal networks), Dry Farming has some good tips:

  • Maintain soil fertility 
  • Plant deeply
  • Plant varieties adapted to dry farming
  • Know when to plant
  • Pay attention to soil structure

The main takeaway for us home gardeners will be the development of drought tolerant veggies. Native Seed Search is a good start, but seed saving will be the ultimate solution. We’re simply going to have to breed drought tolerance back into our water hungry vegetables. Combined with passive water collection techniques such as sunken rather than raised beds, those of us in arid climates can grow a surprising amount of food with a lot less water.

Clarification: dry farming is not growing during the rainy season (which is called “rainfed agriculture”). Dry farming uses strategies to store water in the soil during the rainy season and then grow during the dry part of the year. Though controversial, dry farming traditionally involves tilling.  It also requires much greater spacing of plants. For more information see the website of the California Agricultural Water Stewardship Initiative.

No Need to Knead

The Los Angeles Bread Bakers held their debut demonstration today thanks to the folks at Good. As you can see from the picture above some serious bakers showed up.

Teresa Sitz and Mark Stambler

Teresa Sitz demonstrated her wild yeast no-knead bread. You can read her recipe over on the LABB Facebook page.

Wild yeast breads have a number of advantages over breads made with commercial yeast. Due to higher acidity they keep longer and have a tangy, more complex flavor. Some say they are better for you. I love the magic of creating bread with just flour, water and salt.

Thanks again to Teresa and Mark Stambler for sharing their expertise.

Power of the Patch

Our littlest Ramshackler sits on a hand-me-down car seat whenever we venture for a drive. After six years of use, the cover started to show some wear.


I thought about buying a seat cover or making one from scratch. I decided against both. We don’t need a new $50 seat cover. And I would prefer to sew something else, like pants for the kids or even some skirts for me, rather than the intricate seat cover. Then I realized a patch was all that was needed.
My son and I went to my stash. He selected the fabric, a former footed sleeper that both he and his brother wore when they were infants. The severed footies became hand puppets while I sewed. Together we headed to my studio and created a solution in about twenty minutes.
Ready to ride.

Whistle Stop Book Tour of the Northwest

              Erik does in fact bear an uncanny resemblance to Pierre Trudeau. Credit: Duncan Cameron/National Archives of Canada, PA-136972

Rodale, the publisher of our new book, is sending us on a speaking tour of the Pacific Northwest to promote Making It. Bringing this sort of groovy, DIY info to all you hardcore locavores, transitioners, freegans, goat herds and urban hillbillies in SF, Seattle and Portland seems a bit like bringing coals to Newcastle. But heck, we’re not complaining– we’re thrilled to be able to head north into your gorgeous lands.

San Francisco Events:

Friday, April 29, 7 PM: Speaking at Book Passage
Corte Madera Book Passage Store–not the one at the end of Market, the one on the other end of the ferry line: 51 Tamal Vista Blvd., Corte Madera, CA 94925

Saturday, April 30, 12 PM: Meet us at 12 noon on the lookout point of Sutro Heights Park.

We’ll take a walk along the cliffs and forage a salad, then hang out and chat while we eat. BYOB and anything else you want to eat or share. Afterward we might retire to the Cliff House for cocktails. If it’s pouring rain that day, you’ll find us at the Cliff House bar instead of in Sutro.

Seattle Area Events

Sunday, May 1st, 2 PM: Speaking at the Elliot Bay Book Company  
1521 10th Avenue, Seattle, WA 98122

Sunday, May 1st, 7 PM: Speaking at the Land Trust Building on Vashon Island
This talk is brought to you by a partnership between Books by the Way and the Vashon Island Growers Association (VIGA)

Monday, May 2, 7 PM:  Speaking at  the University Place – Pierce County Library
3609 Market Place W., University Place, WA 98466

Portland Events:

Tuesday, May 3rd: Possibly will do a gathering in some public place this evening, to meet any of you who want to come out and chat. TBA. Suggestions welcome.

Wednesday, May 4, 6-7:30 PM: Lecture at The People’s Food Cooperative
3029 Southeast 21st Avenue, Portland, OR 97202

(And before you all ask why we’re not speaking at Powell’s, the answer is we’d love to, but they’re all booked up. The timing wasn’t right. We hope someday to speak there, and will definitely be visiting anyway just to look around.)

Los Angeles Bread Bakers Demo This Weekend

First off, along with co-founders Mark Stambler and Teresa Sitz I’m proud to announce the Los Angeles Bread Bakers (LABB). Click on the link to join us via Facebook.

This Saturday April 9th at 2 p.m. LABB will demonstrate how to create a starter (levain) at Good Magazine’s Launch Weekend. The event will take place at:

Atwater Crossing
3229 Casitas Avenue
Los Angeles, CA 90039

Looking forward to meeting new LABBistas. LABB’s goal is to share techniques, put on workshops and build wood fired ovens.  If you’re not in LA we hope you’ll consider forming bread baking groups all over the world!