Does no-till gardening work on clay? Or concrete-like ground that fails to let water through?
Elizabeth shares her story and solutions in my latest video:
Elizabeth’s Story of No-Till Gardening on Clay
Elizabeth is a fit, strong woman with endless enthusiasm. I headed to her garden with my camera to learn what I could about her experiences with improving the hard, airless, poor soil in our area of Alabama.
She stands in the middle of a fenced-in garden, surveying her domain, and I start the recording.
“So we cleared all of the trees in this area and were left with just a whole bunch of baking dirt,” Elizabeth says. I have seen the soil outside her garden, so I nod. It is horrible, hard stuff.
“And we came in, this was about two years ago, came in and put straw on top, or hay on top. And when we finally moved out to this property, we started putting wood chips on top. And so we’ve had two years of wood chips sitting on top of the native clay.”
“So in all of my learning, I’ve been very excited about deep mulching, no-tilling, working on the microbiology in the soil. I’m a big believer in the microbiology in our gut, and I feel like it is mirrored – that plants will be healthier if there is a good balance and a good population of bacteria in the soil as well. So along those lines, I have not tilled and I have mulched, but the mulch is sitting on top of hard pan clay. So when we go without rain, which is rare because we get more rainfall here than in, I believe, any other place in the country. When we have those wonderful moments where there isn’t rain, the garden is the best ever, and each season it gets better and better. And yet when we have our weeks of rain, every day, I can come out here, stick my shovel three inches down, and there is a pool of water and the plants just die. So I’ve really been battling that hard, hard impenetrable clay.”
She breaks up a piece of the ground with a braodfork to show what is happening beneath the surface.
“So it was time to harvest the sweet potatoes, which I’ve been using in the walkways as a ground cover, and a tilling device, and a livestock feed, and food for us. And it’s been great. So it was time to harvest the sweet potatoes, and David loaned me his broad fork, and for the first time ever I was able to go 14 inches down into the ground. And when I would try to lift up, I realized I had this beautiful, beautiful layer of decomposing mulch, and nothing could penetrate it. And so as I lifted up I realized it would take decades, I think, for my plants to break through that brick. And so I am now using the broad fork to mix in some of my surface organic matter, and just break apart that clay, so that I’ll have 14 inches at least that the water will be able to drain down, the nutrients will be able to get down, and the roots will be able to get down, so that hopefully that will expedite turning my clay into living soil.”
“So you can see all of the compost decomposed, but then nothing’s getting through there.”
“How long would it take for roots to penetrate this?”
“I was told, ‘Oh, use daikon radishes. They will drill through that clay.’ So okay, I’ll give it a try. So here we have a daikon radish and it’s going through my mulch. Isn’t that wonderful. Look at that. No till. Wonderful, beautiful. But then let me use the broad fork and let’s see if it made it into the clay. It never made it to the clay.”
“It would have hit and bounced off. (Yet this soil on top) is fantastic.”
“This is what I wanted, and I thought that the worms would mix it all in for me, but nothing can get through (the hardpan layer). So I’m going to broad fork and mix in my living organic matter, allow biology to begin working at least in 14 inches. And when I broad forked this morning and really mixed things up, I then covered it with wood chips so that I’m not exposing all of the biology to the sun and the elements and whatnot. So I’m hoping to have a combination of a no-till philosophy, but I’m having to till to get through my brick layer here.”
“I wanted you to come see this, because in looking online and reading books I hear about all these different methods, and I want to try them. And part of the fun to me is not just getting the produce in the end, but to see how things work. This is just a big science lab to me. And so I wanted you to come see and be able to show people that in this situation, this is how the deep mulch has worked. It has given me more productivity, more life than I think I would have had if I had just tilled this soil, or this dirt, this clay. And yet, it needs to be amended a little bit. My plan needs to be amended. And to me, this would be an educational experience for people to see what the deep mulch does in this situation.”
“I’ve been really excited about what sweet potato does in the walkways as a ground cover. So here I am. I’m mulching, I’m not tilling. Or at least I wasn’t until I got this broad fork and learned what the situation is deep down below. But having planted all of these sweet potatoes in the walkways, my intention was that the roots would send sugars down into the ground, microbes would like it, I’m suppressing weeds, I have greens to eat, the pigs have greens to eat, and oh at the end maybe we’ll get some sweet potatoes. Maybe we won’t, but who cares? It’s a workhorse anyway. So I simply took the slips that grew up out of the ground, I cut them. I stuck them down in the ground and I walked on them all year long and they did a wonderful job.”
“I think I’d like to make a shirt that says, ‘stick a fork in it.'”
“We can see the sweet potatoes, I believe, like the daikon radish, went to my hard layer and stopped. And over here, you can see my nice mulch and my hard layer that really nothing much gets into.”
“These roots, I think, were growing up in the mulch layer, not going down into that hard clay. So I thought that I was just going to come in and harvest sweet potatoes, but the broad fork has taught me I need to go in and actually break up 14 inches deep, break up some of this clay. But again… it hits the hard dirt and it’s done.”
“So what I did today was I deep forked this area. I got 14 inches down, pulled up, tried to break up the clay, let some of my mulch and biology get down in there. I then also forked in some chicken run dirt. We put our bags and bags of leaves, the chickens they’ll add their manure, and they will compost those leaves for us and turn it into leaf mulch. So some of that went in here, and then I covered it with wood chips so that it wouldn’t be exposed to the elements. And I can now plant my seedlings in this area. And I’ve learned, so far since we’ve been at this property, and trying this garden for two years, I’ve learned that I don’t do very well direct seeding. I think those rains come, the biology, the worms, the cutworms, they all come up out of the swamp and they eat anything. Or maybe they’re just hanging on for dear life. I don’t know. But direct seeding is not working as well for me. Although this season, I’m doing better with direct seeding than I have the previous two years. So it’s coming.”
“In the walkways, I’m sold on sweet potatoes, early summer, late spring, going ahead and putting slips in the walkways. And then when I harvest the sweet potatoes, I plan to put the winter rye in. And when it starts to get too tall to walk on, I can just mow it or whatever. That’s going to get good roots in there, sugars in there, organic matter, and winter rye is supposed to roots really, really deeply. Maybe that will help me with my clay, and then when it’s time to terminate it, I can mow it and I can stick my sweet potato slips in there again.
The pigs will eat what’s above the ground, the pigs will eat what was under the ground. And then I get to eat the pigs.”
“It really works. It’s beautiful,” Elizabeth says, holding a handful of beautiful humus. “And I think if it weren’t sitting on top of a paved road, that is essentially what I feel like that clay is, I think it would work really well. So if we can break up the clay and let this continue to go deeper and deeper, I think I’m going to really be able to garden.”
“So while we were clearing the land to prepare to build and to make room for the garden, they cleared all of the trees. And we were not able to come in immediately the next day and cover the soil. So the hard clay that you see when I put my broad fork down in the garden, this is exactly what it was two years ago. And so at the very least, my mulching has given me a nice layer to grow in, and it has prevented this from just getting harder and harder and harder.”
“(These sweet potatoes are just what) I harvested from the northern half of the garden.”
“What you saw before on the other porch was from the southern part of the garden.”
“And the intention was not really to get sweet potatoes. The intention was just to cover my walkway so I didn’t have to weed them, and to break up the soil!”
“If I were to start a garden right here,” Elizabeth says, waving towards a piece of untouched bad ground, “with the experience that I have gained over the past two years, I would come in and I would broad fork this area. I would add compost or some sort of organic matter, manure would be super, but you need some organic matter forked into it, and then I would immediately cover it. And I think that would just be a wonderful way to get started. And once you’ve established that, I can’t help but think that you just continue to mulch, and your plants will feed your soil and your biology that’s in the soil. And you can use the crop residue to continue to mulch as well.”
My Final Thoughts on No-Till Gardening
Don’t be afraid to dig into the gardening tool kit if your favorite method isn’t working. Experiment like Elizabeth and see what works. Ideological purity is no way to grow food, son. Especially in these uncertain times. No-till gardening may work great in some situations and not cut it in others. Don’t be afraid to change tactics.
Fail fast and learn as you do until you find success.