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Cultivating Questions Ridge-Till Revisited

by Anne and Eric Nordell

Over the past six years of cultivating this column, we have tried to answer the questions addressed to us via rural delivery. For a change of pace, we decided to devote this space to a topic of interest at the small group tours held at our farm last year. Many of the participants seemed genuinely excited about trying the alternative tillage techniques we have adapted to market gardening. Of particular interest was our experimental practice of no-till planting vegetables on cover cropped ridges.

We will let the following photos tell the story of how this hybrid planting system evolved. The Ridge-till Revisited photo essay begins with a brief review of the principles and practice of horsedrawn ridge-tillage as described in the Winter 1998 column. It then looks at the advantages of reducing tillage even further in the case of no-tilling the ridges with alliums in 2001. The results of this new development were so encouraging that we think it might be the key to no-tilling produce in our cool climate. Our optimism is based on the fact that the soil in the cover cropped ridges stays much warmer than under the same amount of cover crop residues in a flat field.

Ridge-till Revisited also details recent mechanical and biological improvements which have made ridge-till planting and cultivation more efficient and effective using the team and the old riding cultivator. We realize that these tools and techniques may not be of practical interest to most growers. We document them here just to underscore the importance of building a measure of flexibility into a sustainable cropping system.

For instance, the raised ridges made it possible to begin planting on schedule during the wet month of April last year. In the next issue, we hope to show how we were able to keep up with our successive plantings of peas, lettuce and spinach during the drought conditions of May by forming low planting beds and adapting lister planting to vegetable production.

Just to show how easy it is to design this sort of flexibility into a well-defined rotation, we have included our 2001 crop plan in this column. The map indicates the essential elements of the bio-extensive cropping system – alternating the half-acre strips between cash crops and fallowlands, and rotating the cash crops between those planted EARLY and those planted LATE. The accompanying field notes detail the diverse mix of cover crops and tillage techniques which can be plugged into this simple, straightforward rotation. We think this “organized flexibility” helped to make last year our best season ever despite the wild swings in the weather.

Cultivating Questions Ridge-Till Revisited

2001 Field Notes

Field 1
rye and italian ryegrass skimplowed mid-August and replanted to oats middle of September

Field 2
rye and vetch skim-plowed late April and planted to squash peppers, dried flowers, summer lettuce, spinach and peas late May and June, and interseeded with sudex followed by a cover crop of rye seeded mid-October; beets and carrots planted early July and interseeded with rye

Field 3
rye cover crop surface-tilled in July and planted to a mix of sudex, field peas and forage soybeans early August; mulched strawberries in middle of the field surface-tilled late July and planted to ridged rye the end of August

Field 4
oats ridge-tilled in April and planted to spinach, peas and carrots interseeded with buckwheat followed by a rye cover crop in mid-September; no–till garlic on north edge double-cropped to late lettuce and spinach

Field 5
rye and triticale on north half of field deep plowed late June and replanted to oats and buckwheat which was surface-tilled mid-August, then replanted to oats on ridges late August; rye on south side deep plowed early May and replanted to oats which was surfaced-tilled late July, then planted to oats and peas on ridges late August

Field 6
rye and hairy vetch surface-tilled mid-May and planted to fall lettuce, spinach, carrots and cole crops mid-July through August, and interseeded with rye late August

Field 7
rye, spelt and italian ryegrass deep plowed mid-July and reseeded to rye and hairy vetch mid-August

Field 8
oats, peas and forage soybeans surface-tilled in April and planted to early potatoes, lettuces, zukes, peas, onions and strawberries; strawberries and onions on south side of field interseeded with hairy vetch late June; everything else interseeded with buckwheat followed by a rye cover crop mid-September

Field 9
rye, spelt and triticale surface-tilled early July followed by oats and Canadian field peas planted mid-August

Field 10
rye and vetch deep plowed early May and planted to storage potatoes, spinach and carrots late May, then interseeded with sudex and vetch followed by a rye cover crop seeded early October

Field 11
rye deep plowed late May and replanted to buckwheat, italian rye grass and clover mix mid-June

Field 12
surface tilled oats, peas and beans planted to sweet onions, zukes, lettuce, peas and spinach in May and interseeded with sudex and/or vetch followed by a rye cover crop early October

Ridge-Till Revisited

Building the Ridges

Cultivating Questions Ridge-Till Revisited

1A. We formed these ridges the end of last summer in field 5. The cover crop of oats and Canadian field peas just getting started on the ridges grew about 20” tall before dying back at the onset of winter. Note the large quantity of coarse organic matter worked into the hilled up soil. We have found that concentrating lots of fresh organic matter into the ridges noticeably improves soil quality and planting conditions in a ridge-till system on our silt-loam soils.

Cultivating Questions Ridge-Till Revisited

2A. The trick is to shallowly incorporate a cover crop before building the ridges the last week of August. In this case, we surface-tilled a spring planted cover crop of oats along with a light application of compost and lime. We also worked the oat and peas seed into the surface of the soil at this time so that…

Cultivating Questions Ridge-Till Revisited

3A. …when we formed the ridges with the disc-hillers on the cultivator, the organic matter and seed was concentrated in the hilled up soil. We like to think of these ridges as long, low composting windrows where conditions are close to ideal for good decomposition.

Cultivating Questions Ridge-Till Revisited

4A. In fact, when we tried out the Solivita soil quality test kit from Woods End Lab, these ridged fields tested the highest in biological activity. The test results did not come as a complete surprise considering that the cover cropped ridges contained all the requirements for a high rate of biological activity as measured by the respiration rate of the soil. For one, the raised ridges are extremely well aerated. At this point they were also filled with a live and actively respiring root system. Most importantly, there was plenty of fresh organic matter in the hilled up soil to feed a growing population of earthworms and beneficial bacteria and fungi.

No-Tilling the Ridges with Garlic

Cultivating Questions Ridge-Till Revisited

5B. An added advantage of the cover cropped ridges is the soil remains much softer and looser than under the same cover crop planted on flat ground. For this reason, we decided to try using the old riding cultivator for no-tilling garlic on the ridges rather than the much heavier subsoiler pictured in the Summer 2001 photo essay on Horsedrawn No-Till Garlic. To be sure, the lightweight cultivator would not be practical for penetrating firm soil on flat ground, but it did a wonderful job of opening up a furrow on top of the cover cropped ridges for handplanting the garlic cloves.

Cultivating Questions Ridge-Till Revisited

6B. When we asked some of the participants at our small group tour last fall how they liked no-till planting garlic on the cover cropped ridges, they said it was actually easier and faster than their clean-tilled systems, and they commented on how nice and crumbly the soil was in the no-till planting furrow. This hands-on measure of soil quality particularly impressed us since we had received 3/4” of rain the night before and the soil in our flat fields that afternoon was way too wet for tilling or planting.

Cultivating Questions Ridge-Till Revisited

7B. This photo shows the 2001 garlic crop coming up on the ridges in Field 4 a full two weeks earlier than the mulched garlic planted on flat ground next door. To conserve moisture, we mulched the pathways with clean wheat straw, intentionally leaving the ridgetops exposed so that the soil would remain warm around the young plants. As a result, the garlic on the no-till ridges stayed two leaves ahead of the mulched crop all season long, maturing a week earlier and allowing us to spread out the harvest.

No-Till Onions on the Cover Cropped Ridges

Cultivating Questions Ridge-Till Revisited

8C. The whole month of April in 2001 was too moist to even consider tilling our flat fields. To plant the onions on schedule, we decided to try no-tilling this allium on the ridges as well. As you can see by the way the cultivator wheel was sinking into the pathway, the soil was still plenty wet the third week of April. The ridgetops, however, were perfect for no-tilling.

Cultivating Questions Ridge-Till Revisited

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