My thoughts on our garden set up, first published in The Chautauqua:
Our garden is a mess. From the distance of our kitchen window, it looks fairly normal. Long, brown rows where seedlings are starting to poke through, separated by yellow straw mulch that is holding in the moisture and keeping the weeds down.
Get closer though and you'll see last year's corn stalks and other dried plants still layered on the ground. 'Weeds' are poking up through the straw mulch and whole patches of lamb's quarters are being allowed to grow. Instead of tilling under the whole garden and then planting, we used a rake to move aside our mulch and only tilled exactly where we planned to plant. We did this in order to preserve the moisture in the soil that can be lost by tossing up the soil and letting the wind have access to it. We also are choosing to let the microorganisms in the soil live. The work of Dr. Elaine Ingham and others like her have revealed the complex web of life that live in our soil and that participate in order to have healthy soil and healthy plants. Most of these organisms live in the top inches of soil and tilling disrupts and kills them thus setting back the long term health of the soil. Our garden isn't at the point, yet, where we can eliminate tilling completely but we feel better knowing that we've left the majority of the soil intact and are letting the soil feed itself rather than applying external fertilizers.
This is also why we are a bit more relaxed when it comes to weeding. We are removing the plants that are coming up close to our seedlings so that there is not competition for our vegetables, but in the areas where we haven't planted, we are not planning to actively till or kill the 'weeds.' Recent research is showing that it is at the root tip of plants where a great deal of nutrient transfer and soil transformation takes place. Our teachers have impressed up on us that it is better to have roots in the soil, no matter whose roots they are. Thus our weed control will come in later, not allowing plants to go to seed and spread, but in the mean time we are not breaking our backs over hoes. We are letting our geese help out: they do enjoy the fresh sprouts of dandelions and grasses.
Because we didn't clean out our garden last fall, it also means we are finding some treasures as we let things grow. We have head lettuce that self-seeded and is weeks ahead of the lettuce I planted this spring. We've found garlic and onions sprouting – we expect that our fall help missed them or the stalks were broken and the bulbs left in the ground. I haven't had to put any new dill or cilantro in this year as I have nice patches coming up on their own.
Gardening this way is a big shift for me – I keep wondering what the neighbours must think when they drive by. But by the time I make it to the far end of my garden – having picked a few 'weeds' along with some herbs and leaves for supper and watched our geese travel between rows, snacking, I have a smile on my face and peace in my heart.