In the Garden:
New England
October, 2003
Regional Report

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This soil-enriching organic matter comes in a lovely package.

Preparing the Garden for a Long Winter's Nap

A hard frost put an end to most of my vegetable garden, and the deer took the kale down to nubs (it could have been worse, I found a bear print early in the summer), so I decided it was time to spruce things up and prep the soil for spring planting. This is not a garden space I can overlook. For one thing, it's close to my back deck, but the main reason is that I've, shall we say, "invested heavily" in it. That part of the yard used to be quite sloped, so I had it leveled with a back hoe, then built a retaining wall along the high side. Last spring I added about six yards of compost (the pricey, delivered kind). By the time I pay for a fence next spring to keep out the wildlife, I'll have the most valuable tomatoes in town. So, this garden will get treated right.

To Till or Not To Till?
I used to till under old vegetable plants every fall, but now I pull them, leave the leafy parts on the soil, and head for the compost pile with the rest. I mow fallen leaves with the lawn mower to shred them and then spread them on the garden beds. If I had a chipper/shredder, I'd shred all the stems and stalks, and just leave them on the soil. I prefer not to till. In addition to being disruptive to the soil and its creatures, there are other good reasons to minimize tilling.

Tilling brings up weed seeds to the light of day. If I leave them buried deeply, they can't germinate. Overtilling can damage soil structure and increase soil compaction. The pore spaces that contain air and water in the soil are susceptible to damage from those tines, and when they collapse, the soil can't hold as much air or water. I saw this effect years ago when I got antsy to get into the garden early one spring and didn't wait until the soil was dry enough. After tilling, the soil behaved like clumps of concrete. I learned my lesson.

Earthworm Habits
The most interesting reason I've found to minimize tilling is related to the activity of our chief soil enrichers, the earthworms. Researchers at the U.S. Department of Agriculture soil lab in St. Paul, Minnesota, delved into the habits of earthworms and how they make use of the organic matter in soil. It turns out earthworms have an innate "memory" of where this organic food source is located and they keep coming back for more, similar to the way bees "remember" where certain types of flowers are and keep returning for more nectar. As earthworms move through the soil, they create tunnels that improve the movement of air and water. But it appears that not all tunnels are alike.

If the organic matter has been tilled into the soil at least 6 inches deep, earthworm tunnels tend to be horizontal. If the organic matter is left on the surface, the earthworms create vertical tunnels as they travel upwards to find food. Vertical tunnels provide the best pathways for air and water penetration, and curiously enough, the soil beneath vertical tunnels contains more beneficial microbes than the soil beneath horizontal tunnels.

I appreciate it when what's best for the soil turns out to be less work for me. I still have some compost to spread on the garden but I'll enjoy the peaceful honking of the geese passing overhead as I work, and leave the noisy tiller in the shed.


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