Small Farmer's Journal

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Low Tillage Radish Onions

by Joel Miller of Lee, NH

In the summer of 2011, we had a small plot in one of the house gardens that was in need of a cover crop in early August. The previous season we had tried sowing Tillage Radishes in mid September and found this was too late for us in southern New Hampshire because of the reduced growth before the killing frost. Now we decided to try planting them the first week of August to see how that compared. Without putting much further thought to it, we ran the Planet Jr. every 15” or so across the garden. The radishes came up quick, filling the garden canopy completely that fall, and the following spring we found the plot was clean of weeds and rows of open holes were left where the radish roots had been growing. Well, we had a few extra onion plants that spring and decided to plant them in these holes, since we already had very clear lines laid out for us and a clean seedbed. With such little weed pressure and no need to disturb the soil for planting, the soil structure was left almost entirely intact and held moisture very well. We didn’t irrigate or fertilize this crop, beyond a compost application the previous July before sowing the Tillage Radishes. Our intention was to see how the crop would perform in a similar condition to how we would manage it in our fields. What we got were the best looking onions that have ever come out of our gardens. With these good results, we thought that this experiment might be worth trying on a field scale.

The following photo essay describes the August 2012 planting of Tillage Radishes, laid out in preparation for our spring 2013 crop of onions. This layout can work for many other early spring crops as well. We have since used the same design for spinach, carrots, beets, and lettuce. Besides recycling the absorbed nutrients of the cover crop directly into the planted row, the main benefit of this system is the planting pattern it provides without the need for any preparatory tillage in the spring.

Low Tillage Radish Onions

A month long summer fallow started us out with a stale and very mellow seedbed. Here we show how our homemade roller levels and firms the soil to prepare for direct seeding the Tillage Radishes with the Planet Jr. This step may not necessarily be wise since it will encourage weed seed germination. It has made following the row marker on the Planet Jr. easier though, which is crucial for the proper spacing of the stand and why we have included it here. In this photo you can see a cover crop of field peas and oats in the adjacent garden.

Low Tillage Radish Onions

This shows how we used the Planet Jr. (seed hole #13) with the row marker set to very clearly mark out our rows on 17” centers. This planting was done the morning after a half inch of rain on August 9th. The conditions were perfect and it was a joy to walk barefoot behind the planter.

Low Tillage Radish Onions

Two weeks after planting, the radishes are up and looking nice.

Low Tillage Radish Onions

October 10th the radishes have filled in the field and are standing beautifully. Brushing aside the thick canopy reveals large roots that tell us they are doing the job expected of them. Besides being a row marking system for us, they are also “bio-drilling” their tap rooted selves down through the compacted subsoil underneath.

Low Tillage Radish Onions

Planning ahead to next spring, we were a little worried about the amount of winter killed residue that these giant radishes would leave behind. Thinking of our early cultivation and not wanting to be clogging up the cultivator, we decided to very quickly graze our small dairy herd through the stand for one day. They went right for the greens and sampled a few roots but seemed to prefer the tops.

Low Tillage Radish Onions

Right after the last snow melted off in the first week of April. Radish residue is present but thinner than we expected.

Low Tillage Radish Onions

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