How To Flip Baby Greens Beds in No-Till
[We’ve been there, starring at a spent bed of arugula—stirrup hoe in hand—wondering if no-till is worth it…]
Almost without question, bed flipping baby greens is the biggest head-scratcher when it comes to no-till market gardening. Many growers can conceive starting a no-till garden, or even flipping beds after something like carrots or kale, but what about crops that don’t come all the way out at harvest? Or have an easy enough stem to clip and compost. Like baby greens—how do you go from say, arugula to the next crop without tillage?
When the tool comes out that will gently remove a crop and leave the bed in tact, it will absolutely revolutionize our industry (wink-wink nudge-nudge, tool people), but until then we have to get a little crafty. Here is what we have seen so far.
Championed by growers like Bryan O’Hara of Tobacco Road Farm, solarization is an interesting option. O’Hara says on a sunny day, he can mow a crop, cover it with clear plastic, and have it ready to replant in 24 to 48 hours with little damage to soil life. That’s pretty promising, but what about when there is little sun or maybe it’s late fall, early spring, or just plain winter in a high-tunnel? What then?
In episode two of the podcast, and also in this amazing thread on the forum, Alex Ekins of Ace of Spades Farm laid out a pretty compelling option with the weed-whacker/spin trimmer with metal blade in which he simply cuts the plants back at surface level (he gives tips for how to most efficiently do this on the thread). He then collects all the organic matter in a wheel barrow to be relocated to the compost pile.
Pull or Cut
When I posed this question of how to flip beds on the forum, podcast guest Joshua Sattin of Sattin Hill Farm suggested simply pulling them. It’s time consuming, but effective. We always like leaving the roots in to build organic matter (which is easier when you do as few baby greens as we do) so for us we generally do the same, but instead of pulling we cut with a knife.
The flail mower is great, but it generally does not cut low enough and regrowth is likely. Maybe in conjunction with a tarp or clear plastic. One interesting option that Ben Hartman talks about in his episode of the podcast is simply using a mower with a bag. When I imagine the perfect tool for this job, that is basically what I come up with—something that can cut low and also remove the debris at the same time. Perhaps if you had perfectly flat beds (not me), you could set your mower low enough to do this without too much damage to the soil. Then, take you bag off and dump it in the compost or on your kids soccer coach after a big win.
Tarps are nice, but slow in comparison to O’Hara’s solarization. In my experience, it takes at least one full week to fully terminate a baby green bed even in the heat of our Kentucky summer (90s or hotter). Also whatever you are tarping has to be flat against the ground like it does for solarization so this step can really only be used in conjecture with another like mowing or rolling/crimping/smashing.
I really really want the flame weeder to be an option, but it mostly hasn’t been in my attempts (I use the five torch flameweeders.com weeder). If you could slightly damage the previous crop (if a tender one) with a crimping, then flame it, that may hold some potential. If anyone has tried this approach, let us know! Otherwise, give it a shot for us, the worst that could happen is you have to stirrup out scorched arugula?
Onto scuffling. If you’re okay with a little scuffle/stirrup/hula hoe action right at the bed surface, I have used this technique with fair success. Simply sharpen the f___ out of your implement, and keep it sharp, and run it right over the surface. It is certainly more disruptive than others, and you end up cutting into the soil regardless, and sharpening your blade a lot, but it is one low or no-till way to get a crop like lettuce or arugula out without hand pulling or tilling. We’ve also cut the handle of one stirrup hoe down to about 12” so we can move above the bad—backwards—just to be able to change positions while removing a whole bed, which can get monotonous.
An idea that Farmer Aden posed on the thread about this, if you have the opportunity to go from a baby green to a transplanted crop maybe you could plan your garden around these flips, using the spent green perhaps as an understory cover crop. Let it grow out after your last cutting, roll/crimp/smash it, then transplant into that, because you don’t need a perfect seed bed for another baby green? This, I suppose, will only work if you’re not only or primarily growing baby greens… and crazy enough to try. Again, experiment with a bed, and please share your results!
This may not be applicable, but it is worth thinking about for cover crops in the Spring at least. One potential option my mentor Eric Smith of Bugtussle Farm suggested was crimping your cover crops during the last hard frost (for us that’s March). The crop wouldn’t be at full length perhaps, but anytime you run over green matter when it’s frozen it will die (drive through a pasture after a frost for an example). That’s a pretty clever idea, but it does have limited application for us as it is mostly only useful in the cold. Maybe there could be an implement that sprays liquid nitrogen onto plants and freezes them? Though that may not fly in organic certification. So “Dry Ice” it is!
This is really getting out of hand…
The Tool We Need
So, what would be perfect? A tool that conforms to the bed tops, is easily adjusted for height and width, easily sharpened, or at least not easily dulled, and cuts razor close to the surface, removing the tops and sucking them into a bag or bin that can be easily dumped. I realize I am basically describing a mower, but Ekins has pointed out that the Terrateck baby greens harvester (which, WANT), could be modified to do just that. Something perhaps a little less, I don’t know, multi-thousand-dollary, would be nice, but the concept is a good place to begin.