No-Till Gardening 3.0
I don’t know if any of you have noticed, early in the morning, the sunlight on the waters. How extraordinarily soft is the light, and how the dark waters dance, with the morning stars over the trees, the only star in the sky. Do you ever notice any of that? Or are you so busy, so occupied with the daily routine, that you forget or have never known the rich beauty of this earth—this earth on which all of us have to live? Whether we call ourselves communists or capitalists, Hindus or Buddhists, Muslims or Christians, whether we are blind, lame, or well and happy, this earth is ours. It is our earth, not somebody else’s; it is not only the rich man’s earth, it does not belong exclusively to the powerful rulers, to the nobles of the land, but it is our earth, yours and mine. We are nobodies, yet we also live on this earth and we all have to live together. It is the world of the poor as well as of the rich, of the unlettered as well as of the learned; it is our world, and I think it is very important to feel this and to love the earth, not just occasionally on a peaceful morning, but all the time. ——— Jiddu Krishnamurti
No-Till Gardening in Containers and Raised Beds
Over a decade ago I started experimenting with what I came to refer to as No-Till Gardening. My research and experiments began with the desire to find a simple way to naturally/organically grow the most nutrient dense foods and herbs with the highest production of medicinal/culinary compounds all while improving the quality, tilth & fertility of the soil. After experimenting with no-till for a couple years I finally fell into a period of being very successful and having a sense of ‘second nature’ about my routine. I then spent several veg/flower cycles over the course of nearly 3 years putting into place a replicable 'recipe' that included everything from a soil mix, to topdressing/mulching, foliar sprays and an exact watering routine. I took the time and forced myself to use an exact recipe because I wanted to confirm it could be replicated successfully for long periods of time in many different gardens so those starting new no-till gardens would have something proven to begin with. An exact recipe & routine to follow, get to know and in time make it their own. That’s what it really comes down to for me, getting to know your soil so well that caring for it and growing amazing plants becomes second nature.
Over the next several years, unitl today, my approach continued to evolve and I worked towards an even simpler approach with less inputs. This updated article reflects my new experiences, approach and philosphy since completing 40 cycles indoors over a ten year period of continuous growing. Let’s call it No-Till Gardening 3.0 and I hope you find it helpful in your journey!
An incredible biological system is in place that encompass’ what we call soil. The philosophy of NoTill Gardening and my motivation stems from the concepts of Masanobu Fukuoka’s Natural Farming and is based around the idea of maintaining, caring for and encouraging this natural system that occurs in soils across the globe, sustained for millions of years. His book One Straw Revolution gave me the inspiration to experiment and translate the ideas of natural farming into container and raised bed gardening. After reading I used straw as mulch for years but eventually gave way to letting the mulch develop on its own from cutting back cover crops and pruning plants.
When you build a humus & mineral rich living soil medium from scratch and follow this natural system your soil will always be fertile with the ability to grow nutrient dense fruits & vegetables and herbs rich in aromatics (the compounds responsible for the medicinal & culinary wonders humans have evolved to love and use extensively).
“To the extent that people separate themselves from nature, they spin out further and further from the center. At the same time, a centripetal effect asserts itself and the desire to return to nature arises.” - Masanobu Fukuoka
The key to No-Till Gardening is initially soil building and with that in place it then becomes soil care. While soil mixes and quality of starting material can vary from garden to garden the long term approach is the same.
Starting with a new soil mix is the time to get to know your soil. Observing the initial growth of transplants into your soil, how seeds sprout, their health, how the soil interacts with water, how your plants continue to grow in the soil, how they look after plain waterings, how they look after feedings. These are all important observations to take mental note of to see how your soil is performing.
You can start with any soil you like, the quality of your starting soil will greatly affect short-term success but long-term success is completely dependent with the on-going care of your soil and plants. This relates to the soil building aspect, you can start with poor soil but in time through the care outlined here turn into high quality soil. Although when creating soil from scratch we sure want to have the best start possible!
The soil recipes below reflect many years of experimenting with ratios of base ingredients as well as using every soil amendment you can think of. They also reflect my work towards simplicity and removing inputs I found redundant or never showed any observable difference whether they were in the soil, or not. They reflect my ‘holistic’ approach to feeding plants so we very rarely or never have to think about specific elements, a step away from the NPK mindset and a step towards nature. They reflect my research and move towards rock dust as the main (or only) soil amendment and source of minerals. Lastly, these recipes reflect my work towards a ‘water only’ style approach where liquid fertilizers are never needed and topressings are minimal in quantity and infrequent in time.
40% Canadian Sphagnum Peat Moss or coco coir
30% Compost and/or Castings (humus)
20% Perlite, Pumice, Scoria or Rice Hulls
To the base soil above add per cuF:
1-4 cups Volcanic Rock Dust
1/2 Kelp Meal
1/2 cup Alfalfa Meal
1/2-1 cup Neem and/or Karanja Cake
Handful of worms per pot/bed
With this mix we reduce the aeration component down to 10% coming from just the biochar and rely on the work of roots, worms and soil life to naturally provide plenty of oxygen to the root zone. If you don’t have access to, or want to skip the perlite or pumice, this is a great mix I’ve had lots of success with growing in No-till containers and raised beds.
50% Sphagnum Peat Moss or coco coir
4-5 cups per cuF Rock Dust
Handful of worms per pot/bed
*Click Here* Our Soil Section contains information about peat vs coco and perlite vs pumice vs scoria
- You can use 100% peat moss, 100% coco coir, 50% of each or any ratio in between. This portion is a light neutral base medium to any potting soil and is pretty crucial for initial root growth, air penetration and water retention. Over time microbial life and worms in the soil will aggregate and homogenize all of the organic matter in your soil and within a year there won’t be any observable difference in the organic matter in your soil (compost vs peat/coir).
- In place of peat moss or coir you can make leaf mould at home, if you’re up for the challenge see our article on peat moss vs. coco coir for more details!
- If using Rice Hulls be aware it does decompose so it will not be a permanent source of aeration. You might consider using 10% rice hulls with 10% perlite, pumice or scoria plus 10% biochar and that will provide an excellent 30% initially to get started and 20% long term is plenty. As you can see from recipe 2, I am comforrtable with as little as 10% total long term (biochar).
- Rock Dust is my main source for ongoing mineral/nutrients in these recipes, the amendments in recipe 1 can be interchanged with any number of amendments you might want to use or have better access to. They are short term nutrient sources and I personally like starting with these to help kickstart growth for the following reasons:
- Kelp: Wide range of macro/micro nutrients, hormones and enzymes
- Alfalfa: High in Nitrogen, phytohormones
- Neem/Karanja: High in nurients, particularly Sulphur, and includes pest prevention compounds to help prevent soil borne pests like fungus gnats and root aphids.
- The quality of your starting compost is the most important part of a potting soil! Starting with a high quality humus source will make the entire process that much easier. The lower quality/quantity humus (compost and castings) one starts with can lead to poor plant growth whether it’s due to lack of nutrients, soil life, anaerobic conditions and so on. Do your research, find out what is available locally and start with the best material you can!
- Making your own is an excellent choice and you can control exactly what goes into it including pre-composting your soil amendments. There are plenty of resources out there to help start your own composting projects and I at least urge everyone to keep a simple pile or bin for your kitchen and yard scraps!
How you mix your soil will depend on how much you need. You can mix right in your container or bed with a shovel/rake. You can mix in a storage tote and pull from there as needed. Larger amounts you can lay out a tarp and use a shovel and rake as well as folding the corners of the tarp towards the opposite corner to fold the material onto itself, in between rakes and shovel turns. One can rent or borrow a cement mixer, I personally don’t like this method as you end up witih many pockets on unmixed ingredients inside the mixer but many people do prefer a cement mixer.
Reference our soil mixing video on instagram or tiktok but I like to mix the ingredients in this order.
- Peat moss and/or coconut coir mixed with your perlite, pumice and rice hulls first. Now you have your neutral base material together.
- mix compost with biochar and amendments. This is an important step for me as it is soil life in the compost that will break down the amendments and it is the biochar that will both house microbes as well as store nutrients.
- Then mix these altogether and you’re ready to use your soil!
- In the end, it really doesn’t matter which order you mix your ingredients but the process noted above has worked easiest for me but as long as all the ingredients get mixed together evenly is all that matters!
Over the years our approach to soil has grown to focus on humus + minerals enhanced with biochar. The idea is that we provide a soil mix holistic in nature. By starting with a humus (compost) based soil mix loaded with life and adding minerals you are giving your plants the perfect starting point to then create the soil biosphere it prefers! Plants are in control of the chemistry of the soil. There is an organized network of trillions upon trillions of many different microbial life forms in the rhizosphere (the thin layer around plant roots that touch the soil) in constant communication with plants. Microbes consume the rock dust and in turn exude plant available nutrients and through root exudates communicate with soil life in order to encourage microbes to produce the nutrients they want. Biochar then provides plenty of space for excess nutrients to be stored and called upon as needed, along with being sponges for water storage.
In time a body of soil will become more and more adept at serving the main species of plant(s) growing in it. This is due to the plant root exudates continually doing their job at exchanging “this for that” with soil bacteria & fungi. There are countless species of microbes in the soil and different plants will encourage the population growth and dominance of certain species that are better at providing what the plant needs. This is part of the beauty of No-Till Gardening, the development and maturationf of complex and specific populations of bacteria and fungi that excell at living in your plants soil and feeding and protecting your plants. Over time these microbes and the group of elements (whether phosphorus, potassium, sulphur et al) they ‘mine’ for the plants increase in availability. Excess is stored in soil aggregate, large clusters of humus molecules, and even further compartmentalized within worm castings to be used at a later time. This is how we build forever soil and create thriving soil ecosystems that can grow food and medicine for generations to come!
This is an incredible system of living organized chaos that we need not interrupt. Humus, organic matter, and the life held within is the delivery system to plants, the minerals (rock dust) is a forever nutrient source. It is complete. Rocks, and the dissolution of rocks, is the original source of all nutrition on Earth. This is the basis for our style of No-Till Gardening and the ongoing care to maximize soil fertility and plant health. It is that ongoing care that is the funnest part of gardening: cover crops and companion planting! Mulching everything that isn’t consumed and occasionally giving small amounts of outside inputs back to the soil to replace what was consumed (harvested) rounds out the process!
Every part of the plant that is not consumed can be reincorporated back into the soil it came from. This closes the loop, continues the nutrient cycle crop after crop after crop! Leaves and stems etc can simply be placed or let to drop onto the topsoil where it will decompose into humus and increase the nutrient content of your soil, the nutrient potential of the soil and the amount of life in your soil.
Wherever and whenever possible, always have something growing in your soil! Whether a container, a raised bed or in the ground, it doesn’t matter. As we will discuss below, the most important thing you can do for maintaining and long term soil health is to keep plants growing in them, and when they can’t, mulch it!
Now with that important statement out of the way, we’ve mixed up some soil to start with, but what’s next?! Get some roots in your soil of course! It is the roots of plants that stimulate the microbial activity that will help your main crop thrive harvest after harvest, the sooner roots populate your soil and create a functioning rhizosphere the sooner your forever soil will be running like a well oiled machine.
One of the best ways to start growing and improving soil is planting a cover crop (or living mulch depending on how you want to define it but for simplicity we will use the term cover crop here). You can plan ahead and allow a cover crop to grow for a few weeks or more before planting your main crop, or you can plant them alongside your main crop and companion plants all at the same time! Totally up to you and I hope by the time we are done you have a solid understanding to be able to make the choice that is best for your setup and situation as it is not the exact beginning process that is important but the ongoing care which is the same in the long run either way!
Cover Crop is a term that encompasses any plant grown specifically to improve soil, provide ‘green manure’ and have been utilized for thousands of years. Some cover crops have a secondary benefit where part of the plant is harvested as a food crop. Legumes hold a special place as a cover crop in that they are often grown in succession or in between rows to fix Nitrogen and provide mulch. Peanuts, beans, peas and lupines are all legumes that will improve soil, increase Nitrogen and provide a food harvest.
Some cover crops like alfalfa and yellow sweet clover have very strong and deep roots able to penetrate over 30 feet in the ground. These plants transport minerals otherwise innaccesabile and store them in their leaves. when mulched these minerals become part of the top soil. Over time these deep roots help increase the depth of topsoil and depth at which other plants roots can reach as they follow in the path the alfalfa roots took.
Some cover crops like Daikon Radish have massive tap roots that can help break up dense clay like soils, when left in place the large root breaks down leaving behind pockets soft organic matter.
Other cover crops like mustards in the brassica family are grown as biofumegants. Their roots release a gas that kills pathogenic fungi and are often planted in succession in areas or with crops susceptible to pathogenic fungi.
Still other cover crops are planted for specialty purposes, such as buckwheat which is adept at making phosphorus available, while also attracting pollinators with hits blooms, smothering out weeds with its quick growing biomass and thus creating fast mulch.
In general Cover Crops share these benefits:
- Roots increase aeration
- Improves water penetration
- Helps retain water (reducing evaporation), shades soil from sun/heat
- Roots stimulate and increase microbial activity
- Leguminous cover crops fix atmospheric Nitrogen
- Roots hold soil in place preventing erosion
- Roots penetrate deeper into the (sub)soil scavenging nutrients and increasing mineral availability
- When cover crops die back it becomes mulch, depositing those scavenged nutrients/minerals on the topsoil, and then decomposes back into the soil further adding humus and increasing microbial activity & nutrient availability.
- Flowers attract & benefit pollinators
- Many are medicinal and edible
You’ll find a selection of our favorites here on the site including our newest organic clover blend and buckwheat!
Roots ’n Rhizospheres
Roots scavenge nutrients and increase mineral availability and as you prune, chop n drop or they naturally die back all that biomass becomes your mulch layer, depositing those minerals on your topsoil to decomponse back into the soil increasing organic matter, microbial activity and nutrient availability in an ever increasing positive feedback loop.
Cover crops or living mulch are supporting plants, they exists to directly benefit your soil and your food or medicine crops, but some are medicinal like the clovers and alfalfa, or a food crop like peas and beans.
Companion plants often play a supportive role such as marigolds and cilantro to help deter pests, while secondary crops like the way we plant carrots, radish, garlic, strawberries and basil is called intercropping, we are taking advantage of different levels of the vertical canopy to increase and diversify our harvest within the same square footage.
The beauty of nature is in the symbiosis of the shared phyllosphere above the soil and rhizosphere below the soil.
Growing a variety of plants together have so many benefits, imagine all the different roots and associated mycelia fully penetrating your body of soil, it looks and functions a lot like a brain, or the webbed network of data exchange that is the internet, by buildling soil and growing plants in it, you’ve put a vast network of fast travel and communication in place that allows water and air to move more efficiently but perhaps of most significance there is now a superhighway for bacteria and fungi to travel in and between plant roots and colonize different areas that is in constant motion and changing based on the needs of individual plants.
One of the most fascinating topics I’ve researched is the correlation between certain Plant Growth Promoting Rhizobacteria (PGPR) and secondary metabolite production like terpenes, the compounds that give medicinal and culinary herbs their aroma and flavor! This greatly sparked my interest in companion planting aromatic species together. For example, it is many of the same bacteria creating relationships with the roots of basil as there are cilantro, or rosemary and so on. But different plants will maintain varying populations of different species of PGPR to varying degrees across space and time. As plants grow and their needs change plants will create root exudates to attract different bacteria that provide different benefits. My thought process is that if Basil is growing by itself and calls upon a different bacteria, by having the rhizospheres of other aromatic herbs intertwined there is a greater chance all of the plants can quicker and greater access to different PGPR thus allowing each of the plants a greater chance to express peak health and produce maximum amount of these precious aromatic compounds we are all seeking.
You can mulch with straw, leaves, wood chips etc at any time…but I have really enjoyed closing this loop and allowing the plants to create their own mulch. As plants grow they will create plenty of biomass to use as mulch. We’ll begin to prune overgrowth & chop n drop the clovers etc and especially after your first harvests you will potentially have an excess of leaves, stems etc to mulch with!
Mulching and the mulch layer is where the whole process of No-Till, growing cover crops & companion plants comes full circle. The plants uptake nutrients and store them in their roots, stems and leaves. Once we prune or the plant dies all of this plant biomass and the nutrients are returned to the soil as nutrient rich organic matter. It is consumed by bacteria and fungi and goes through the worm. The entire process is creating a more fertile soil, a longer lasting and mature soil, a soil medium that becomes ever more conducive to vibrant plant growth. Mulching is the simple process of returning everything to the soil that we do not consume and has so many inherent benefits to plant and soil health.
This is the system that naturally evolved on this planet millions & millions of years ago, this is how plants grow and thrive, this is how life is sustained!
A no-till system that includes mulching helps keeps your soil at peak performance. There is a constant renewed source of organic matter/humus (including humic and fulvic acid), enzymatic activity, microbial activity and thus plant nutrient availability. Nothing can replace the benefit one will receive when all of this is allowed to occur directly in your soil and to remain untouched aka with no-till!
I once said if there was truly any magic occuring in the soil it would be in that otherwise hidden layer above the soil but beneath the mulch where the death and decay of organic matter is consumed by the unseen world and turned back into the base elements. The building blocks of life that will then pass through a worm, or a roly poly, before inevitably one of these plants roots will grasp onto it, pull it inside and with countless other microscopic building blocks of previous life, the plant will incorporate it into its living cellular structure.
One of these days, I will make pesto with that basil growing as a companion and you guessed it, those elements will become a part of my living cellular structure. Every living creature today is built with elements that for countless times prior has been the physical structure of an incredible variety of life forms since their journey from the stars, and yes we’re still talking about the raw elements of the universe, the minerals and the rock dust I’m always talking about in our soil blends….the original source of fertility and life….the rocks of the planet.