The EverBed Approach to No-Till
The best fertility your soil will ever receive is photosynthesis.
In short, if you want to keep the life in your soil happy, diverse, and thriving, then you need plants to be constantly converting sunlight, water, and carbon dioxide into delicious sugars for microbes. Even in Winter. Those microbes then fetch the plant nutrients, loosen the soil for plant roots, protect the plants from disease, as well as a whole host of other benefits. Conversely, when a crop senesces or is simply harvested out, the microbes will leave with it… unless another plant is there to take it’s place.
It is from this basic natural system which the idea behind EverBed no-till derives—beds are ever-planted, ever-growing, ever-feeding the soil life. So, I want to take a few minutes and describe my trials with EverBedding, the potential I see for it, and the real/potential downsides.
To be clear, EverBed is less of a system and more of an ideal (like no-till, it’s more of a guideline than a prescription). With EverBedding, you would—theoretically—have all of your beds planted at all times, preferably (though not dogmatically) to marketable crops. Very little time, if any at all, would be taken between one crop and another. Developing this into a replicable system, one that can be studied and improved upon, will take some time (and some teamwork, folks... just sayin’).
Setting up an EverBed
Because an EverBed will almost never go out of production, time should be taken to set the bed up for long-term success. An Albrecht method soil sample should be taken and the minerals added as suggested by the lab. If the soil organic matter is low, perhaps a one time tilling-in of good compost could be in order before shaping the bed (this goes for all no-till). Beds should also start out as weed free as possible since weeding in a situation where the bed is never out of production will have to be done with hand tools or by hand. No tarps or flames or solarization possible with plants always a’growing, though perhaps solarizing or tarping the area before planting would be a good idea.
A deep compost mulch should be applied the first year of at least 6 inches. I will talk about maintaining fertility and cover in a bit.
Proper spacing should be heeded in all planting—all the time—always, but especially with EverBed, where the next crop is often planted between the previous before it is removed. My OG EverBed provides a good example: Last year lettuce was transplanted in Summer directly into a bed of mature celery. The celery provided enough shade for the Salanova lettuce to establish in the heat, then the celery was harvested 14 days later or so, allowing the lettuce to grow. Green onions were then transplanted into the lettuce after I harvested it once but before I removed the plants. The lettuce was later removed and the green onions matured. Kale was then be transplanted into the green onions. The green onions were be harvested while the kale grew. The kale was harvested until it became too cold, then covered with row cover to prevent erosion and keep the kale plant—roots—alive through Winter.
As I write this, the kale is beginning to flower. I want to save seed from it, and in early May transplant tomatoes into the bed before removing the kale plants entirely. By May, the bed will have produced five crops without ever being out of production.
Note: in EverBedding, crop roots are always left in the soil to continue feeding microbes and to build organic matter. You remove a lot of organic matter when you pull root crops. In Everbed, the roots remain in the soil—plants are simply cut at soil surface and composted. Yes, we’ll get to carrots.
EverBedding relies heavily on transplanting, and those transplants are generally interplanted where possible, but not exclusively. If you’re planting baby greens or something that can take on—or in some cases require—tight spacing like carrots, you have to completely clear the previous crop out before the next. No way around that (at least, not one that maintains your sanity). Preferably, the clearing/sowing would happen within 24 hours. Preferably—preferably—though, it would happen immediately.
The only exception to the roots-in rule is root crops like carrots, sweet potatoes, potatoes, beets, etc.. These obviously have to be removed (or find a killer market for carrot tops?) to sell and you’d have root crop weeds down the line (missed carrots may be my number one weed on the farm).
Try to pair crops that require two rows with crops that require three (i.e. 3, 2, 3, 2 ,3) so that you can transplant the three row crop into the three empty spaces, or visa-versa. Interseeding and interplanting are encouraged for maximizing bed space and staggering harvest/planting to maintain a [mostly] complete living cover.
Alex Ekins experimented with allowing one row of baby kale to grow up into leaf kale while removing enough to sow some arugula below it. This was an interesting innovation with some potential for baby green producers to have a leaf crop after an initial baby green yields decline.
There may be some amount of improvisation required, though it would not be hard to plan an EverBed or a few EverBeds given the guidelines above. Developing a rhythm will be essential, and it may take a few beds across a few seasons to internalize the approach. Planning is a potential downside to this, however, and a good system should be developed to make it have the intended effect of constant photosynthesis and consistent production. That said, it’s a bit of a thrill to find unused space in an Everbed and experiment. Get creative, but keep copious notes (or plenty of photos on your smartphone).
Here are some considerations: having interplant friendly transplants on hand for openings (scallions are wonderful for this one); developing a system of seeding when you don’t have them on hand, mixing companions; complimenting the root depths, spacing for canopy, etc. Over time, a repertoire of crop cycles could be developed in a whole-season bed plan, much like crop planning is done now, though the crops would overlap instead of waiting for the first crop to be harvested before planting the next. Creating patterns of crops (like repeating the lettuce-follows-celery example above) that can be replicated and deployed over a bed for a whole season would be ideal, but you’d still have to have some flexibility—and a plan B—when a crop fails or circumstances change. Here is where those extra interplant friendly transplants in the greenhouse will come in handy.
A small amount of compost can be added before transplanting among other crops. High protein meals like alfalfa are a good addition as they can easily be spread around already growing crops without negative effect to give the next crop a good chance to establish and thrive. Emulsions and compost teas will make sense, as long as proper sanitation is still heeded since you will likely be spraying market crops during harvest periods. Perhaps it is better to use dip than foliarly apply compost teas to avoid any possible contamination? Any exposed soil should always be covered with compost to help retain moisture.
For Winter, covers or caterpillar tunnels may be put in place to keep the beds in production through the cold. Cover crops are fine, too, though the bed should be sown in something that will keep photosynthesizing until spring: ryes, vetches, and clovers would be preferable to winter-kill crops like peas and oats. Failure to do so can result in not being able to call yourself an EverBedder ever again lest the message boards bad-mouth you into obscurity. Really though, let’s give each other a break on who calls who what a just farm better. Pound it.
Edible winter-hardy crops like kales, collards, spinach, lettuce, and mache can provide both income and photosynthesis over the colder months. So can roots like carrots and leeks, but the difficulty would be in establishing the next crop during a mid-Winter harvest (at least, here in zone 6 and beyond). Garlic has a lot of potential to fill the Winter Everbed here, as well.
The biggest issue centers around planning. Crop planning is challenging, because each crop needs to go into a space with some, but not too much, competition, allowing both it and the soil to thrive. So sunlight, ventilation, root zone, all of it has to be taken into account. This can be a limiting factor and there are bound to be mistakes early on. Another issue is that most everything has to be transplanted. Marking rows when the beds are already established is an extra step and long-term conundrum, because the spacing for the fourth crop is dependent upon the third, the third on the second, you get the idea. The prospect of having my whole market garden in Everbeds is mind-bending, but it could also shrink the footprint of the garden considerably.
Ultimately, I feel the idea has some potential because it simultaneously accomplishes the main principles of no-till farming: keeps the soil covered, planted (and in rotation), undisturbed, and producing income (though that’s the lesser of the consideration here) as much as possible.