No-Till Without Mulch: Pros & Cons
[Beuna Vista Gardens in Hawaii, where good compost is hard to come by, utilizes a no-mulch no-till system]
A growing part of our mission at NTG is to test—and talk about our experiences with and opinions on—different no-till systems. Like Food Lab, just with farming. A place to not only share other’s approaches, but give them an honest go, and provide some objective feedback. One of those systems is arguably the most straight forward of all of the no-till systems out there—the no-mulch no-till, sometimes called physics balancing.
Similar to what is used at places like Neversink Farm and Ace of Spades and Buena Vista, among others, physics balancing does not rely heavily on mulch as a cover material, instead relying more on balancing the soil minerals with amendments, then the soil “physics”—the physical properties of the soil itself—with different materials like peat moss or compost or, in our heavy clay context, sand. Whatever it may need to gradually move it toward a more loamy texture. Leaving the roots of most crops in the ground will also do the same thing over time.
Note: if this system has interest to you, consider signing up for the Neversink Farm Course—and you can read our review here. Disclaimer: Conor is a regular patron and sponsor, so we like to show him love when/where we can.
Basic Bed Prep
Beds are flipped or cleared however works best (at the end of the above video, I give an example of a bed flip, or two if you count the kid playing on the tarp method). Then, amendments are applied according to one’s soil test, including a Nitrogen source: composted chicken manure, alfalfa or feather meals, or high N compost are popular and widely available (we’ll be doing comparisons between alfalfa an composted chicken manure soon). Some amount of physics balancing with peat moss, clay, sand, etc. comes next. All that is raked or harrowed or tilther’d (yes spell check, that’s a word now, get over it). Then, the bed is ready to be planted.
Pros (bullet style)
Good seed to soil contact
One of the issues we have experienced with the deep mulch system (as described here) is that seeds can struggle to germinate well in compost mulch. This is not as big of an issue when the there is not layer between the seed and the soil, or really no mulch at all. That said, you can offset the germination issues by increasing your seeding rate and keeping the surface of the bed moist until germination (you’ll not only need overhead, but a good timer as well).
Saves labor in bed prep
The bed prep as described above is… about it. There are no heavy barrows of compost, or filling said barrows or dumping then raking said compost. It’s just a couple five gallon buckets worth of material and a rake.
Easier to irrigate with drip
Watering gets more complex in some ways with this method, but also less if you are in an area with expensive or low access to water and need to use drip. We are not. I loathe drip particularly because of the installation time and the constant need of replacing, and do our best to only use overhead in the field (maybe we’ll do a drip vs overhead breakdown soon, too?). But if you had to use it, this would be a better option than deep mulch were drip will fall straight through the compost (or hay or straw) mulch to the soil below. Which, again, not as much of a concern with transplants.
I don’t mention it in the video, but in a deep compost mulch system, if you should put on some really unbalanced compost, there is not a lot you can do about it except pull the plants out and rake off the compost. And I’m talking perhaps about very excessive P or toxic levels of some other nutrient. Possibly a residual chemical. Whatever.
In order for the system to work long-term, your cultivation game needs to be on-point. They will come up, as nature abhors the bare soil, and so cultivating will be a regular activity, especially in the beginning. Again, Neversink is a great example of someone with an A-game cultivation setup.
What you gain in soil to seed contact, you lose in water retention, therefore irrigation is a necessary element to no-till without mulch, but cultivation will help as well. I realize some people scoff at the idea of a “dirt mulch” from cultivation, but I have dry farmed in a tillage system for years before going no-till and it is a thing. It does work. Further, some soil loss is possible.
Irrigation may not be a pro or con depending on your water situation. if you don’t have a lot of water, I would suggest not using this method as the water retention is low. Whereas, if water is cheap and abundant, go nuts. Balancing the physical properties of the soil, over time, will help improve the water holding capacity of the soil, as well.
There are pros and cons to cultivation. It can be a way to add minerals, but it can also disturb good soil structure and require a lot of labor, arguably more than the aforementioned wheelbarrows o’ compost. I think in some ways, however, the no-mulch no-till can be a great way to get garden weeds in check before going to a deep mulch system, if that is the ultimate aim.
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