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Regenerative Husbandry: How Your No-Till Garden Can Change the World

Timothy Boyer Ph.D.'s picture
No-Till Garden

Archaeological evidence of crops can be traced as far back as 23,000 years ago on the shore of the Sea of Galilee (1). Over the years since, the cultivation of crops has evolved through a series of missteps, that if unchanged, could lead to our extinction in the near future. Discover now, through regenerative husbandry how your no-till garden can change the world.

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The noun “husbandry” takes it roots from old Norse, where hús (house) and bóndi (occupier and tiller of soil), have combined to give us húsbóndi (master of the house). Over the years, húsbóndi evolved into the more familiar “husband” usage, where ironically man is rarely the master of his house or a tiller of soil.

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Still, husbandry is a good noun for evoking a sense of stewardship; a near-Biblical manifest of destiny that ordains mankind is in charge of the environment and is responsible for its health. Therefore, when we speak of agricultural husbandry, it is with a sense that man should follow the advice of the ancient Greek physician Hippocrates, “first, do no harm.” If only it were always so.

A Brief History About Tilling the Soil

For example, in one episode of agricultural history, Jethro Tull—a pioneer of the British Agricultural Revolution—reputedly played a significant role toward helping England achieve unprecedented success in agricultural productivity to a point where agricultural output grew faster than the population. It should be noted here that there are objections among some historians over whether men like Tull had a significant impact on Britain’s Agricultural Revolution. However, Tull was a notable figure at the time and likely held some influence (2).

Part of the success of the Revolution could be attributed to Tull’s design of a horse-drawn seed drill for planting that was a vast improvement over the previous wasteful practice of broadcasting seed by hand, followed by a light harrowing of the top soil to cover the seeds.

Tull’s seed drill could plant seeds at the correct depth automatically; and, significantly decrease the amount of seed needed to cover a field. Furthermore, he also invented a labor-saving horse-drawn hoe. Use of his farming instrument designs became popular and was referred to as horse-hoeing husbandry. But of greater impact was very likely his implementation of applying scientific methodology to agriculture. But not always correctly.

Tull, like many others involved in agricultural husbandry, had his own views about what was important and what was not. Reportedly, Tull did not approve of using manure to fertilize plants, claiming that it fouled the taste of garden vegetables grown in it (3). Furthermore, he noted that winemakers in France and Italy did not use manure in their vineyards, and that the laborers spent a lot of gardening effort hoeing around the vines. Tull eventually concluded that the use of manure was not important, but that increased aeration of the dirt around plants was the real key to their growth (4).

"… too much earth or too fine can never possibly be given to their roots; for they never receive so much of it as to surfeit the plant...," stated Tull in his book Horse Hoeing Husbandry: An Essay on the Principles of Vegetation and Tillage published in 1762.

By hoeing thoroughly enough to pulverize the soil around each plant, Tull believed that moisture and gases from the atmosphere could penetrate more readily to the roots of the crop and hence aid growth. While initially this appeared to work well, in the long run it actually led to rapid depletion of an important part of the carbon cycle of plants—its humus stores—and left the land nutritionally depleted. What Tull and his contemporaries did not understand at the time was that the natural carbon cycle—within which plants grow—is a complex equilibrium; a non-ending dance of life, death, decay and rebirth.

Basic Soil Science for Your Garden

A little basic soil science (5) here tells us that most organic soil consists of the remains of dead plant tissue, the majority of which has the primary job of holding onto moisture. The dry part of dead plant tissue consists chiefly of carbon, oxygen and hydrogen with smaller quantities of nutrients such as nitrogen, sulfur, calcium, magnesium and potassium—all of which contribute to soil fertility.

Undisturbed in nature, this organic soil is physically organized into an aboveground layer and a belowground layer. The aboveground layer is the dead, rotting plant mass you see shortly after plant death. Like mulch, it serves as a shield to protect the lower layer.

The belowground layer is the partially decomposed plant matter inhabited by soil fauna (such as moles, shrews, earthworms, insects) and microflora (fungi, bacteria and protozoans) that together further decomposes dead plant matter, while at the same time contributing their own biologic waste to a complex organic matter called “humus” that surrounds the root system.

Humus is the rich, dark coloring you see around the roots when you dig a spade into the earth as you lift a plant out for transplantation. It plays an important role in stabilizing not only the carbon cycle by sequestering atmospheric carbon into the soil, but also leads to soil aggregation and soil stability so that nutrients from the decayed plant matter are released in a controlled sustainable fashion to the roots.

Be cognizant of the fact that what within that dark matter is a complex dynamic equilibrium of the carbon cycle—a macro-environment if you will—that you are now disturbing and is the reason why transplanting some plants does not always take; or at the very least, weakens the growing plant to some degree for a time.

So, what does this have to do with Tull’s mistake of aggressive hoeing of the soil around plants? It actually is the same reason why modern agriculture is at a crisis today. When soil is tilled, the aboveground and belowground layers that give life to humus becomes aerated. This aeration causes the soil microorganisms to proliferate and thus accelerate the decomposition of the dead plant matter. This in turn super-feeds the growing plants. However, the tradeoff (and consequence) is that the carbon cycle equilibrium is now disrupted leading to release of carbon from the soil into the atmosphere and thereby significantly contributing to greenhouse gases, warming temperatures and climate change.

Furthermore, the disturbed soil no longer has the aggregation it once had that helped control the feeding of nutrients and moisture to the plants. The humus in effect becomes depleted and the soil is found to be less fertile the next growing season.

The agricultural industry knows today, what Tull failed to realize back in the day when the practice of his theories did lead to increased production initially, but then declined in the following seasons. However, modern agricultural practices take a “beat the environment into submission” approach with added fertilizers and gene modifying to artificially force the soil to support crop growth under conditions that are non-ideal regarding the more-sustainable carbon cycle equilibrium.

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Recently, there is reason for some hope as big corporations are beginning to recognize the unsustainability of current agricultural methods and are now promising to begin regenerative farming trials (6,7). However, this is more likely in response to studies showing that regenerative farming is more profitable than current methods (8) rather than as matter of becoming good stewards of agricultural husbandry.

How to Become a No-Till Gardener

So, what does this mean for the gardener in his or her own backyard? It means that growing food for a plant-based healthy diet is easier and more beneficial following proven no-till, living-design gardening practices, that will save money on the costs of operating a garden and improve the nutritional value of the food that goes into the body.

To learn about how to build a no-till garden, here is a short video showing how to get started this Spring.

For a more in-depth video on no-till gardening, here is a longer video by the same videographer that is an excellent instructional learning tutorial on the why’s and how’s of no-till gardening.

Furthermore, adopting no-till practices to your gardening is a significant way of giving back to the community by improving the environment and contributing to the fight against global warming.

“Regenerative agriculture is an approach to farming which aims to give back to the earth and leave it in a better place. It builds soil, increases biodiversity, improves water cycles and sequesters carbon. It’s really a way of farming that was traditional prior to industrialization—we call it going back to a new way of farming” 9.

If you have tried no-till gardening or have questions about it, please remark on this article and we get back to you with the answers you need for your healthy plant biology and gardening needs.

Timothy Boyer has a Ph.D. in Molecular and Cellular Biology from the University of Arizona. For 20+ years he has been employed as a freelance health and science writer. Today, with a background in farming and an avid home gardener, Timothy continues writing about science with a focus on the connection between plant biology and gardening for healthy living. For continual updates about plants and health, you can also follow Timothy on Twitter at TimBoyerWrites.

Image Used: Courtesy of Pixabay

References:

1. Ainit Snir, Dani Nadel, Iris Groman-Yaroslavski, Yoel Melamed, Marcelo Sternberg, Ofer Bar-Yosef, Ehud Weiss. The Origin of Cultivation and Proto-Weeds, Long Before Neolithic Farming. PLOS ONE, 2015; 10 (7): e0131422 DOI: 10.1371/journal.pone.0131422

2. Professor Mark Overton Agricultural Evolution in England 1500-1850. BBC.com History; http://www.bbc.co.uk/history/british/empire_seapower/agricultural_revolution_01.shtml

3. Jethro Tull Horse Hoeing Husbandry: An Essay on the Principles of Vegetation and Tillage (page 30); John Adams Library (Boston Public Library) BRL; Online copy available at Archive.org. https://archive.org/details/horsehoeinghusba00tull/page/14/mode/2up

4. Jethro Tull Horse Hoeing Husbandry: An Essay on the Principles of Vegetation and Tillage (page 20); John Adams Library (Boston Public Library) BRL; Online copy available at Archive.org. https://archive.org/details/horsehoeinghusba00tull/page/14/mode/2up

5. Alexandra Bot and José Benites The Importance of Soil Organic Matter Key to Drought-Resistant Soil and Sustained Food Production; Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, FAO SOILS BULLETIN 80, Rome, 2005. http://www.fao.org/3/a0100e/a0100e00.htm#Contents

6. General Mills online news release Regenerative Agriculture: We will advance regenerative agriculture practices on 1 million acres of farmland by 2030; 2019 https://www.generalmills.com/en/Responsibility/Sustainability/Regenerative-agriculture

7. Gosia Wozniacka, Civil Eats Can regenerative agriculture reverse climate change? Big Food is banking on it. NBC News Oct. 29, 2019; https://www.nbcnews.com/news/us-news/can-regenerative-agriculture-reverse-climate-change-big-food-banking-it-n1072941

8. Claire E LaCanne, and Jonathan G Lundgren. Regenerative Agriculture: Merging Farming and Natural Resource Conservation Profitably. PeerJ vol. 6 e4428. 26 Feb. 2018, doi:10.7717/peerj.4428; https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5831153/

9. Regenerative Agriculture—The Farming Practice That Could Save The World The Chalkboard Mag Oct. 17, 2019; https://thechalkboardmag.com/what-is-regenerative-agriculture

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