Whelp, I hit my first blogging slump. I knew when I started this little blogging adventure that it would be hard to make time for writing in the midst of packing up our current farm operation, building out the barn in VA, starting to prepare the VA land, still working our PA jobs, raising a young toddler, and doing all the other things that fill up day-to-day life. And yet, the blog muse called. I’m glad he/she did. And I still think it’s a great idea to write about this transition while we’re in the midst of the transition. It just so happens that part of the transition is not having nearly enough time to do all the things I want to do–such as blogging.
But back in the saddle I go! There’s certainly no shortage of things to write about. Seeing as there’s no way I can give updates on everything we’ve been up to in a single post, I thought I’d start with the fun of our recent “no-plow-make-do method.”
For all our years running a small-scale CSA, we’ve depended on a BCS. BCS’s are Italian-made walk-behind tractors.
They’re basically super-powerful rototillers with the capability to attach various implements–tiller, bush mower, plow, etc. We love our BCS: we love that it keeps us on our feet, that it uses less fuel, that it compacts the soil less than a standard tractor would, and that it keeps us from getting larger than we want to while doing the jobs we need it to. But the BCS has limits. Or at least we have limits when it comes to working with our BCS. Our plow attachment works great for plowing up individual beds for the raised-bed system we’ve come to depend on. It also works great for things like hilling up potatoes. And our little plow is capable of plowing much larger plots of land, but we’ve found that wrestling that plow across larger tracts of unplowed pasture or sod is just not worth the toll it takes on our bodies.
So when Tim decided he wanted to get some of our future garden plots plowed up so we could sow a cover crop and begin to prepare the soil for next season, we thought at first that we’d have to find someone to borrow a “normal” tractor and plow from. Maybe it was our lack of connections, maybe we were feeling lazy, maybe we were feeling extra creative (let’s go with that)–whatever the case, we decided to consider some alternatives to traditional plowing.
Tim was recently reading a book on grape-growing, and happened across a paragraph on solarization. It’s a method that some grape growers use (and I imagine other types of growers as well) to prepare the soil for planting. It’s pretty simple, and basically involves laying plastic over the designated ground to kill weeds and grass, as well as detrimental funguses and microorganisms.
Turns out we’ve got a TON of plastic. We’ve been in the process of de-constructing our high tunnel (an unheated greenhouse where we over-wintered salad greens), and in the process took huge sheets of plastic off of the structure. A few years ago, my cousin also handed down some plastic to us from his own greenhouse operation. We assumed when we moved we would just be pitching most of this plastic. But, instead, our Mennonite thriftiness manifested itself in a whole new way. Plastic sheets became our plow substitute.
We knew there were some risks with this experimental method. A) All that plastic could simply blow away at some point during the month between our VA work trips, leaving the sod exposed and our efforts wasted; B) the plastic could be too effective, killing valuable soil microorganisms. For grape growers concerned with fungus and disease, there’s a certain attractiveness in sterilizing the soil. But we don’t want sterile soil. We want all that good bacteria and all those microorganisms doing their thing down there in the dirt, helping to make our soil healthy growing ground. On the other hand, we know that plowing also kills (or at the very least disturbs), a lot of that invisible soil life, so we figured we might as well give this other method a shot.
It turned out so well! There was really nothing fancy to our method (let’s be real–the day we use a “fancy” method for anything will be the day pigs fly). We measured and staked out our designated plots, stretched plastic across the ground, and threw logs and other miscellaneous heavy objects on top to keep it in place.
After a month away, we returned to find the grass dead and browned, but plenty of organic matter still covering and protecting the soil. Granted, it was a little more organic matter than we reckoned for. When Tim initially tried to run the tiller over the ground, the tiller tines immediately got tangled up with dead grass.
So, we made hay–the least efficient way possible. Or that was what it felt like. We didn’t know what else to do except get some rakes out and hand rake the dead grass out of the plot. When Tim first suggested using rakes I thought, “you’ve got to be kidding me.” But while it was tiring labor, it actually went a lot more quickly than I imagined. And these are the things you do when you’re starting a homestead, right? You hand rake piles of dead grass on a humid July afternoon because you don’t have a plow and you certainly don’t have a hay tedder.
Well, it did the job. After our raking efforts, Tim was able to run the tiller across the ground fairly easily, getting a deep enough till to sow some buckwheat and start building that soil fertility. Add-on bonus is that we used all that dead grass to mulch our asparagus, grapes, and some of our fruit trees (more on those soon).
Fun part is that we were only halfway done prepping those garden plots. We initially started by laying plastic down for two of our four plots, so after getting rid of all that dead grass and tilling in the buckwheat, we moved the plastic sheets over to the adjacent plots to start the process over again. This time, we thought enough to mow the grass a lot shorter before covering it, hopefully minimizing the need for future raking.
A neighbor stopped by while we were moving the plastic. He’d already heard about we young organic buck-starts moving back to Tim’s home place. When he stopped to chat, we pointed out the obvious–that we were laying huge sheets of plastic down on the pasture like a big quilt. And his response was: “Yeah, I see that. So, now, is that the organic way?”
I had to grin. And say in response: “Nope! This is the make-it-up-as-you-go, make-do-with-what-you’ve-got way.” Which is almost as good, I’d say.