Don’t Plow Your Garden Unless You Must | In the Bush
Lake Minchumina – While I enjoy the substantial work of plowing our large garden, I recently read about the benefits of no-till gardening, and I’m almost always in favor of it. Yet I have always plowed, I plow this year, and plowing will continue to be one of my Brobdingnagian chores every spring for the foreseeable future.
I do not contemplate this lightly; gardening consumes a large part of my life, gardening sets in april to november, processing the pumpkin and providing the majority of our vegetables for the whole year.
It is an enigma. I fully understand the harmful consequences of turning over and gross disturbance of the ground. This brutal approach to gardening disrupts the microbial life, especially the fungal sprigs, which give the soil vitality and therefore health to my vegetables which in turn nourish me and nourish me.
These are the organisms responsible for breaking down organic matter to release the nutrients necessary for plants to thrive, even helping them to take up those nutrients in exchange for some of those good things that only photosynthesis can produce. They lend substance to the soil and help it hold together, retaining both moisture and nutrients.
The common misconception that plowing lightens the soil, allowing roots to penetrate easily, does not hold water. Instead, loosening the soil promotes erosion and loss of organic matter and nutrients by wind and water. Plowing is also long, tedious and repetitive work. So why would anyone do it if they didn’t have to?
I guess that’s the problem. I have to do it.
I mainly plow for two reasons. One is weed control. Plowing kills most growing weeds, especially if done in sunny weather. I let the plowed and exposed weeds dry out and die, then rake the plowed soil, exposing any roots which, if buried, can take root and grow back. The loosened soil allows a hoe to penetrate deeply, easily luring weed survivors later by the roots to eliminate the rascals instead of watching them come to life.
The spinning tines also bury most of the weed seeds on the soil surface, often too deep to germinate. While this may simply delay a weed problem, since underground seeds can survive for years until plowing safely brings them to the surface, it effectively slows down the otherwise rapid cycle of seeds, weeds. .
However, the main reason I plow, the one that convinced me that no-till was not an option for me, is the soil temperature. Soil in the interior of Alaska stays below freezing for six or seven months of the year, thawing only two or three weeks before planting. During our short growing seasons, soil temperature can make or break germination and growth.
Cold weather crops like carrots and beets slow down their germination at sub-optimal temperatures. Other seeds, planted in cold soil, wait and wait for the soil to warm up before even starting to germinate, while a few heat-loving crops – beans come to mind – reward the enthusiasm of premature planting by rotting in place, never coming back up at all.
As you know, restarting a garden shifts harvest time earlier. In some vegetables, this can make the difference between ripening or the amount of a crop. The warming of the subterranean soil accelerates this process. In addition to speeding up germination, heat increases all of this great microbial activity, speeds up nutrient uptake, and speeds up enzyme activity and metabolism, and therefore growth, in plants.
Therefore, I plow our entire garden – excluding the raised beds – as soon as the soil dries sufficiently after the snow melts. Plowing efficiently pulls the icy ground from the subsoil upward to warm it in the hot May sun, while burying the warm soil above the surface to heat lower levels.
After a few days to allow the temperatures to stabilize, I will once again, plowing perpendicular to my initial furrows, to repeat the process of stirring and heating. In addition to maximizing soil heat, this catches any missing soil and breaks up clods, making raking and seeding easier.
The exceptions, at least in my garden, are raised beds. Raised one to two feet above the surrounding soil, their contained soil heats up quickly, and because I added copious amounts of compost, the weeds are easily lifted by their roots. These areas don’t require plowing, and if we built the whole garden in raised beds, I could set the bar.
Unfortunately, with several thousand square feet of garden, the idea of putting everything – even the cool-loving potatoes and broccoli – in raised beds is cringe-worthy: it won’t happen. It lets me raise that damn bar every spring.
A few years ago, I had only finished plowing three-quarters of the garden when the belt broke. I ordered a new one, which took a month to arrive. Therefore I put in the garden without finishing the work.
Well guess what. Everything was growing properly in the formerly plowed soil despite a few clods. But the untilled areas experienced poor germination, with stunted and stunted vegetable growth and creeping, unable to weed weeds.
The result: Please don’t plow your garden. Unless you have to.
Lifetime trappers and residents of Bush Miki and Julie Collins have written three books. They live in Lake Minchumina.