To Till or Not to Till

When people think of a garden or farm, they think of well organized rows, with neatly lined paths, and freshly tilled earth. However, tilled earth might not be the farming practice of the future. Many organic farmers are leaving the tiller behind and focusing on a more natural style of farming, where soil is untouched and certain types of weeds are allowed to grow and thrive.

 One of the most important elements, crucial to all life on earth, is Nitrogen (N). It is critical to the synthesis of proteins crucial for development of other cells in the bodies of plants and animals alike. However, Nitrogen is most commonly found as a gas, Earth’s atmosphere is comprised of almost 80% of Nitrogen. When soil is turned over in the tilling process nitrogen begins to evaporate, immediately venting from the exposed soil back into the atmosphere. Because we need nitrogen so readily for nutrient dense veggie production, it is up to farmers to devise ways to lock nitrogen into the soil for prolonged use for nitrogen heavy crops like tomatoes, eggplant, and squash.

Large scale agricultural producers (over)use artificial nitrogen rich fertilizers, leading to widespread pollution and algal blooms that harm the environment. Now, as farmers and the public’s attention is turning towards more sustainable practices, people are focusing on reducing environmental impact and damage.

Knowing that nitrogen is commonly found in a gaseous state, not tilling, or tilling less, is crucial to cultivating a dense network of bacteria, archaea, and fungi. These small organisms consume and ingest organic matter (decomposed plants and food scraps) and contain the elements, like Nitrogen, within their bodies, and within the soil. These organisms then gather around the roots of plants and exchange crucial nutrients. Furthermore, because this microbiology is present on the root zone, it is optimal to leave these roots and root balls in the soil when turning over your garden for the new season. Root balls act as an infusion of organic matter, and an inoculation of microbiology keeping the soil alive and thriving for the new crops. This process repeated season after season can create a dense network of microbiology and decomposing root systems, paired with minimal to no tilling and seasonal compost top dressing can create a rich soil almost anywhere for healthy veggie production year after year.

-Hal Roberts, Lettuce’s Director of Agriculture 

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