By Lisa Boonstoppel-Pot
Growing no-till vegetables requires a strategy with lots of mulch and use of tarps or cover crops to control weeds, say three vegetable growers.
Speaking on no-till vegetable farming at the Ecological Farmers Association of Ontario’s annual conference held in December 2021, Ryan and Isabelle Spence of Field Good Farms near Nipissing said the first step is to consider growing adaptive plants that will thrive even as the climate changes. The Spences choose to grow sea buckthorn and cherries as adaptable berries on their no-till acreage. Farming in Zone 4a and 3b, the pair have different challenges than growing vegetables in southern Ontario but many practices are province-wide.
About one acre of their growing space is no-till. Brassicas, greens, fresh onions, carrots and all legumes are grown in the tilled garden space. “Our no-till section is a plethora of all sorts of family groups that come together and have a party,” laughs Isabelle. It isn’t always the neatest space compared to the tilled beds where the couple used a tilther to smooth out the beds.
“We have seen huge improvement in our soil structure and the no-till garden has become our favourite garden. Once you change your attitude towards how you manage it, you can appreciate it,” she said.
When transitioning from tilled beds to no-till, they cover the ground with silage tarps.
They do use old-fashioned wheelbarrow and shovel techniques but also employ an Earthway seeder and paper pot transplanter to plant seeds and seedlings.
Compost is a huge part of their no-till system and they use a compost spreader from Millcreek Spreaders to bring it to the fields. They also layer heavily with straw to mulch the beds and have connected with a neighbouring farmer who grows switchgrass which they will use this year.
“Mulching is not a single-purpose thing to fight one problem,” says Ryan. “Mulching is a multi-purpose weed management and disease-management tool. When we use it around tomatoes, it prevents soil from splashing and causing blight. It’s good in a dry year and even in a wet year.”
Kristine Hammel, Persephone Market Garden
Kristine describes her farm as 100 acres of swamp, forest, pasture and vegetable fields, Persephone Market Garden is located between Owen Sound and Sauble Beach. Kristine farms with her partner Thorsten but the market garden is her own particular vocation. The pair have three young children so she chooses to market her products within 30 kilometres of the farm.
Kristine grows 40-60 different vegetable crops in uniform blocks with five foot centres measuring 100 feet long. She practices intensive crop rotation and intercropping in the garden, ensuring she doesn’t plant the same crop in the same spot every year. “We also don’t plant large areas of one crop – that would be like serving our crop to pests on a silver platter!” she says. “We move our crops around from year to year and grow different crops beside each other to confuse the bugs.”
After three challenging years of drought and wet, she decided to park the tractor and go no-till.
Daniel Mays, Frith Farm
Coming from southern Maine, Daniel Mays of Frith Farms has been growing vegetables commercially using no-till methods since 2011. His Waldorf education and Quaker upbringing defined his relationship to land and community and set the foundation for his commitment to soil health, biodiversity, human-scale practices and on-farm education. He even wrote a book about it called The No-Till Organic Vegetable Farm.
Growing three acres of vegetables in Zone 4b, Daniel employs eight full-time people which is why he can grow so much produce in such little space in the farm’s permanent raised bed system.
“My mantra is never see the soil. Keep it covered at all times,” he says.
Also a fan of mulching, Daniel uses anything from compost to straw, bark and wood chips. Over the last five years, he has used more and more cover cropping and says it has been rewarding to see the vitality of the soil from this practice. “Cover crops are good for the soil above and below ground,” says Daniel. He plants a lot of winter rye which is crimped by hand, killing the plant. Daniel creates a crimping tool using boards and a t-bar. Ropes fasten the boards to people’s feet and they stomp in unison going down the bed. “Then we pull a tarp over the bed for a few days and when we lift it, it’s like beautiful golden straw mulch.” Vegetables are grown in between the rows of rye and the dead rye becomes “grown-in-place-mulch”.
Challenges of No-Till
Growing rye as a cover crop presents challenges because it is so dense and has so much root mass, says Daniel. “It’s hard to break through the root mass to get seedlings into the ground.” He has used trowels and forks and is now researching forestry products that can poke through fibrous roots easier.
Quackgrass is a persistent and aggravating weed to conquer for Kristine. She tried pulling, letting plots remain fallow, using cover crops and it always came back. Now, she doesn’t till and uses compost and mulch and occasionally landscape fabric to smother it. She also had a change of attitude. “In the past, I felt I had to fight the quackgrass. I’ve shifted to ignoring the quackgrass and taking better care of the soil so that it pulls out easier. My soil is looser and more relaxed and I can pull quackgrass strands out (which are sometimes a metre long!) and I feel the soil is saying, ‘okay, I can let it go as I don’t need it anymore’”.
Isabelle and Ryan also have issues with quackgrass and all grasses. In the past, they would till the soil to discourage it. Now, they believe in creating healthier soil so that it is easier to pull out. They’ve also had an attitude shift and actually use quackgrass for their cheese making because it is full of minerals and tastes somewhat like cucumbers when pulled out of the soil.
Not all crops work well in no-till. Isabelle and Ryan grow carrots in tilled beds. Melons, squash and cucumbers don’t seem to thrive in no-till environments either. “I don’t think we have enough heat,” said Isabelle.
Using Silage Tarps and
Kristine uses silage tarps to keep her compost area weed free. “I don’t use it on plots because it doesn’t let water through.” When she wants some control and also moisture, she uses landscape fabric. However, she is finding with no-till that her soil holds moisture better. “This past spring was very dry and May and June were frightening. I was relieved that I made the transition to no-till because the soil was still moist.
Ryan says he has tarps and uses them but they are not a prefered solution. “Cover crops are better but we do use tarps when I know I won’t have time to get to a block of beds and weeds are coming in,” he says. It doesn’t always work, however, and it’s hard to handle when it is wet. “When tarps have water on them for a long time, they become a disgusting, slimy mess.”
Another comment was that landscape fabric is a good alternative for paths when wood chips are costly.
Other Vegetable Growing Tips:
Kristine really likes five foot centres in beds to allow for intercropping. With her wide beds, she can grow two rows of cabbages with a row of leeks down the middle and still have sufficient space to work. Daniel went from 42-inch beds to 48-inch beds to allow double cropping.
Daniel allows three or more years between growing crops in the same space. “In three years, if you plant something that could be a host for a disease, that disease is gone.”
Use cardboard: Kristine has discovered the bicycle shops are great sources of cardboard which become a source of mulch. Burlap from coffee roasters also makes good mulch.
Intercropping techniques can work great with the right combination of vegetables. One grower planted beans between potatoes which worked well for the soil but not for the humans picking the beans. Another grower liked green onions between beets because it fits in terms of agriculture and timing of harvest. Another like planting three rows of carrots with two rows of ginger.
The EFAO conference was held virtually over four days in November and December. The conference is part of a broader scope to support farmers to build resilient ecological farms and grow a strong knowledge-sharing community. ◊