Minimal tillage and alternative machinery

 When we started our vegetable garden, the only tool we had was a rototiller, and what did we use it for! At the time, it seemed to us the best invention of all time. Some passages allowed removing weeds and crop debris while preparing a good seedbed loosened. Worked like this, the ground was so light that you could put your whole hand in it.

However, as we gained more experience and learn more about soil biology, we have achieved something about the tiller. The latter was very useful for helping us quickly prepare the boards, but it did nothing to improve soil health. At first glance, the tool seemed to do everything right -incompact the soil and improve drainage -, but in reality, it was the opposite. Instead of building the ground, we slowly destroyed it, but surely.


As we had established our market garden on rented land, we did not overly concerned. We were more interested in its practicality in the short-term than in his long-term health. But when we settled in permanently, it became obvious that we had to deepen our knowledge of the structure of soil and rethink our working methods. It was Eliot Coleman who was the first to tell us the right direction. In his book The New Organic Grower, one of our cult books at the time, Coleman describes different tillage techniques, but it also raises the idea that the best way to perhaps cultivating would reduce tillage at a minimum, or even eliminate it. It argues, however, that the main obstacle would be preparing the ground as efficiently as conventional farmers. We understood what he meant because the intensive cultivation of vegetables is very demanding in terms of the preparation of the ground. Organic matter must be incorporated to maintain its fertility, the seedbeds must be prepared to promote germination, the ten e must be loosened and ventilated to acclimatize young plants and crop residues must be eliminated before preparing a new seedling. In short, you have to stir a lot of soil.


At Les Jardins de la Grelinette, we have joined from the start to a minimal working philosophy from the ground, to replace the traditional mechanical plowing with biological plowing. According to this approach, earthworms play a role of foreground for soil health - their tunnels ventilate and drain it, while their excrement bind particles together - and that's why we want to see them proliferate. We are also of the opinion that microbes, fungi, and other organisms, provided we do not come to interrupt their work by inverting the ground, can do much of the work necessary for the maintenance of loose and fertile soil. Although this may seem perfect in itself, it is all to us even necessary to work the land mechanically to prepare the beds for transplanting and broken seedlings. It took us many years to find the right tools and techniques to do so effectively without damaging the soil structure and the organisms that live in it.


After several seasons spent doing different experiments, we are now using a method that is organic, practical, and suitable for commercial production. In mid-summer, preparing a plank looks like this:


~ Green manures and crop residues are shredded using a flail mower. A black tarpaulin is then placed on the board for a period of two to three weeks. The result is the smothering and sanitation of old cultures.


~ A tarabate is then passed to ensure aeration of the soil in-depth and facilitate the rooting of the vegetables that benefit from it.


~ The amendments are then spread over the plank, then incorporated using a harrow rotary set to a depth of S centimeters. The rotary harrow is fitted at the rear of a roller which weighs down and equalizes the surface board.


~ A rake finally removes all the debris and stones on the board, which is then ready to receive a seedling.


The time required to prepare a board, not counting the one passed under the tarpaulin, is about 15 minutes. To optimize this time of preparation, all the tools we use are standardized to work a surface with a width of 75 centimeters and accomplish the work in one single run. Here are in more detail the different elements of our system.


Plank work permanent


Permanent beds are the foundation of our intensive cropping system. They allow an optimal organization of space and work and provide an ideal environment for plant growth. The fact that they are permanent is decisive because this is what allows us to build and maintain the soil in the best possible way. After several years to follow this method, I can hardly imagine that can grow vegetables differently ...


Here is a list of the advantages inherent in growing on ridged beds:

Better soil drainage. Raise the seedbeds above ground level allows rainwater to be drained out of the cultivated area and keeps moisture near the roots, where it is necessary. In our northern climate, this

aspect is crucial.


Early warming in spring.

As the planks are raised a few centimeters from the ground, they capture more rays. of the sun in early spring. The sooner the soil dries up and warms up, the sooner it is possible to sow and transplant. In addition, plants will grow there faster.


No soil compaction. We do not circulate not on the boards during the growing season and this is all the more true for heavy machinery. In this system, only the aisles are trampled. In avoiding compaction, the soil is kept loose, which allows the roots of vegetables to descend depth.


Better harvests. Contrary to single rows separated by aisles, in a system of permanent boards, the plants are evenly spaced across the surface of a large bed of seed, thus allowing a higher density. In other words, an increased production space per square meter.


Build the ground. Use the same plank system and aisles year after year allows you to concentrate organic amendments where they are needed: on the boards. Given the large quantities of fertilizers and compost required in an intensive system is the most economical way to build soil.

No need for a tractor. By adopting the system permanent planks, we avoid having to reshape new planks every year. This is the best way to cultivate without a tractor. For work and to shape large surfaces each year, it is essential to have a tractor if we want to work efficiently.


For all these reasons, I encourage new growers to adopt the plank system. permanent when planning the organization from their market garden. That being said, the adoption of permanent planks requires a good dose of preparation. Topographic imperfections must first be corrected and a system of underground drainage should be installed if necessary.

When a vacant site is taken over, whether it is in meadows or fallow land, it is almost inevitable to contract the necessary machinery (plow, chisel, rototiller, etc.) from a farmer to make the land “workable”. Removing large rocks from the ground is another operation that can require a tractor. You might as well take the opportunity to establish an effective action plan to eliminate certain formidable perennial weeds, like quackgrass, dandelion, and thistle. In this regard, when working the soil using large discs or harrows can be helpful.


Once the ground is prepared, the real work begins. The work of fitting out the planks may take a few weeks, depending on the size of the garden. Ours took a long time since we had about 180, all 30 meters long. We have started by marking the perimeter of each plot (which should have 16 boards of 30 meters). We then used strings to demarcate the width of the boards, then we dug the earth alleys to put them on the boards. It was a lot of work, but we were motivated by the idea that this job would only be done once.


While we were doing the planks, we have also added large amounts of organic way to improve soil quality. We had a "gravelly loam" of good quality, but we have incorporated seven wheelbarrows

per 30-meter plank of compost rich in peat. We also added lime to raise the pH of the soil, which was slightly acidic. Some market gardeners add sand to clay soils and clay to sandy soils. In addition to compost, these amendments help improve soil structure.


For the height of the mounds, my recommendation is to shovel them about 20 centimeters from the ground. Over time, the earth will sag: after one or two seasons in cultivation, the mounds should rise to about 10 to 15 centimeters from the ground. It is useless to thresh more because there is no benefit in doing so; on the contrary, it represents a greater burden of work at a time when there is still a long way to go. At our farm, we do not grass our paths with clover, as many market gardeners do. The main reason is that we use the land of alleys to butter the planks which are sagging. The dirt from walkways is also convenient for burying tarpaulins and floating covers.