In the Summer 2008 SFJ we reported on our initial experiment using the fallow field cover crops to generate enough mulch materials for a 380’ row of un-irrigated winter squash. Encouraged by the excellent crop growth and yield despite the dry, hot conditions of 2007, we repeated the experiment the following years, trying to determine the optimum ratio of land in straw producing cover crops to cash crop area. In 2009, we finally got it right: we seeded a 36’ wide strip of rye and medium red clover in September of 2008, then, in April, 2009, we skim plowed a 12’ wide area in the middle of the overwintering cover crops for planting the winter squash.
To weatherproof more of the market garden in 2011, we tried a variation on the grow-your-own mulch system we developed for producing winter squash in the fallow fields. We discovered it was possible to mulch row crops like tomatoes, peppers, carrots, onions and leeks by moving windrows of rye into the pathways. Although awkward to handle at first, we soon got the hang of picking up an 8-10’ length of twisted rye straw in our arms and walking it from the fallow lands into the adjacent vegetable field.
We have relied exclusively on rye for the grow-your-own mulch experiment because it is such a perfect match for many of our spring and summer vegetables. Established in early-to-mid September at our northern Pennsylvania location, rye produces a prodigious amount of biomass by the end of the following May. Mowing the rye at this time eliminates the possibility of volunteer grain. And raking the conveniently grown straw next to the adjacent vegetables a week or two later coincides nicely with the soil temperature and moisture requirements of tomatoes, peppers, zucchini, onions, leeks and winter squash. This year we branched out a little, trialing different cover crops for other growing windows.
A farm is never a static entity, a healthy farming system is something that grows and learns and builds upon itself with experience and time. Any successful farming system is ultimately the summation of an intelligent response of the farmers, eked out through years of trial and error, to the unique characteristics of their particular piece of ground. The farm cannot exist as a fixed point in time but only as the cumulative result of cyclical effort, exhaustion, and rejuvenation.
Primary tillage is the first step in readying land for the reception of seeds or transplants. Just as the gardener breaks ground with a spade, and then breaks up clods with a hoe, and finally levels all with a rake, so does the farmer have a basic armory of tools to perform these functions on a larger scale in order to create a seed bed. Our primary tillage begins with the moldboard plow.
These days I call myself a farmer. However, I was not born into the farming life. In my late teens and early twenties, I began to have the creeping suspicion that my privileged upbringing in a first-world household, my secondary education and suburban lifestyle had left me completely bereft of any useful skills with regard to the fundamental situation of being a human animal on the planet. When I came of age I had this gnawing suspicion that in the first eighteen years of my existence on earth I had learned next to nothing of the kind of skills that would allow a person to survive in the natural world.
After plowing and then spreading the fields with compost, the next step in our method of primary tillage is to roll out the disc-harrows. The disc harrows have traditionally followed the plow because they do an excellent job of breaking up any clods and of further turning and incorporating any surface trash that might not have been fully turned by the moldboard. The weight of the disc also has a leveling effect on the soil in preparation for seeding.