Regenerative veggie patch - Minimise soil disturbance
One of the most important regenerative principles that our farmers practise under the heading of soil health is to minimise soil disturbance. This is also referred to as no till, or zero till.
This is the big one! Tilling or digging over the soil breaks up the spaces between the soil particles where the microbes live - imagine a good soil structure like a city of multi story apartments, with the microbes happily watching netflix in their own private residences. Getting your shovel in there and turning everything over is the equivalent of demolishing that city, with the microbes having to re-build their homes before they can get back to their favourite series again. So this means no more digging, once the bed is established!
Plant roots and microbes both need air, water and food in order to grow and flourish. For setting up a veggie bed, that means you need to have light, fluffy aerated soil, with a good amount of organic matter and clay particles to hold water. So this is where establishing a veggie bed has a once off excuse to get out the shovel - compacted soil won’t be able to grow happy deep rooted plants or host beneficial microbes. So dig over your veggie bed to 40cm deep, incorporating organic matter such as compost into the soil. It’s then how we manage the plants going forward that allows you to retire the shovel. This veggie bed here has grown my glass gem corn over summer, and now I’m preparing it for our winter garlic crop.
For my glass gem corn crop, I created a veggie bed up here in Wandering that was an old compacted paddock that hasn’t grown anything but guildford grass and cape weed in years. It was also hard as a rock, despite being a beautiful water holding loam once established. So it got the shovel treatment to start with, and lots of well rotted sheep manure and compost was incorporated. It was then mulched with straw and fed fortnightly with seasol, powerfeed, worm castings and a product called CS Black, made by Cropping Solutions.
After the corn was harvested, I put another wheelbarrow load of compost and worm castings on the top of the bed, and let the grasses that had self seeded to take over the bed for the remainder of summer. The grasses' roots grow deep into the soil, and provide the organic matter for the following crop - in this case, garlic.
So the ‘zero till’ difference with this grass cover crop, is that I didn’t dig the grasses in or pull them out. I used my secateurs to cut the grass off at ground level, leaving the roots in situ, before adding another load of compost on top of the bed. This keeps the soil structure intact, and the microbes happy!
You can see this on the roots of the plant below, showing how the soil is starting to cling to the roots like dreadlocks - that’s the soil biology forming a relationship with the plant roots.
After adding another layer of mulch, we planted the garlic cloves we’d saved from last year’s crop into the bed and watered them in with the same liquid concoction as mentioned above.
Zero till veggie gardening can take a bit longer, as it can require a cover crop being grown in between crops. Alternatively, growing multiple crops together can ensure lots of roots are kept growing in the soil to keep feeding the microbes, and providing more organic matter for the soil food web.