There is a whole world of life below our feet that is invisible to the naked eye. If you’ve watched Kiss the Ground on Netflix or started growing your own food during COVID lockdowns, you may have learned that soil is alive and that there is actually more life below the ground than above the surface. In fact, there are about 50 billion microbes in a single teaspoon of healthy soil. That’s how much life there is underground.
Unfortunately, humans are pros when it comes to soil degradation. Human activities such as heavy-chemical monoculture farming, deforestation and mining (to name a few) are some of the factors that cause the depletion of the soil’s nutrients, and in some cases by 85%. Through soil regeneration and bioremediation, we can bring the dead back to life, so to speak.
Constantly topping up our soil with compost and nutrients isn’t the only way to preserve fertility and its biodiversity. Another way to improve soil health and preserve its life is to refrain from doing the usual practice of ploughing and deep cultivation.
The problem with tillage
Deep cultivation or tillage has been a conventional farming practice over the past century. However, more research is coming to light that tilling soil and any type of soil disturbance such as ploughing, may in fact have a negative impact on the soil.
In the article, Farming in the 20th Century: A Practical Approach to Improve Soil’s Health, it states, “Tilling the soil is the equivalent of an earthquake, hurricane, tornado, and forest fire occurring simultaneously to the world of soil organisms. Physical soil disturbance, such as tillage with a plow, disk, or chisel plow, that results in bare or compacted soil is destructive and disruptive to soil microbes.”. In other words, soil disturbance can kill some of the life that resides in the soil, for example, it can cause a shift in the nematode population, causing this microorganism to flee in search of a safer environment.
The other issue is that tilling causes carbon dioxide that is stored in the soil to be released back into the atmosphere, creating an influx of greenhouse gas emissions whenever farmers are preparing to plant their crops.
The emergence of no-till farming practices
In response to the damage tilling can inflict on soil structure, more farmers are turning to no-till practices. Instead of fluffing the soil to remove weeds and prepare it for planting, no-till farmers leave plant roots behind, cutting just above the soil when harvesting flowers or vegetables.
On a smaller scale such as the home garden, the concept is usually referred to as no-dig gardening which essentially means the same thing; the soil is left alone and organic fertilisers, mulch and compost are added to the topsoil instead. Cardboard and mulch such as wood chips and pea straw are used to suppress weeds in garden paths and in garden beds. When this organic matter breaks down, it has the effect of enriching the soil and will produce food for new plants and other microorganisms in the soil.
Benefits of no-till farming
The more that carbon dioxide can be trapped and stored in the soil, the better our chance of fighting climate change. Since soil disturbance releases carbon dioxide back in the atmosphere, preventing or minimising the turning of soil and implementing no dig-gardening and no-till farming practices will help to mitigate the effects of climate change.
Since expensive machinery for ploughing is not required, farmers can reduce fuel usage, debt and avoid the expense and labor required to operate and repair machinery.
No tilling also helps to reduce soil erosion and in the longer term, can help to reduce need for extra fertilisers and inputs and thus reducing operating costs. Keep in mind that healthier soil often means better yield so your plants will grow more stronger, more pest-resistant and produce more abundantly.
Disadvantages of no-till and no-dig
No-till farming and no-dig gardening simply allows nature to take its course. When we leave the natural environment to do its work, it can be a slower process, time which is essential to many farmers and food growers since farming, no matter how regenerative and organic, is still an economic enterprise.
Weed growth is another issue that may need to be addressed as well as increased labour costs in the initial bed or field prep.
Want to learn more about no-dig gardening or no-till farming? A list of resources can be found here.
Cover image by Anthony Tran.