Practicing What I Learnt in my Agroecology Course
Lilla Schottner, PSM (Urban Agriculture)
If you are a weekend warrior when it comes to your garden, despair not! For, here is an easy, no-dig gardening method that is a gain without (or very little) pain! It is also an excellent way to recycle fall leaves and old cardboard. I could not wait to try it out when I heard about it, and want to share my experience with you so that you, too, can try it!
Starting a new experiment: To start a “no-till garden” at the University of the District of Columbia (UDC), I had a perfect combination of learning about it in my agroecology (ENSC 512) class in fall 2020 as well as a shared interest with my friend Marybeth, the vice president of the UDC Garden Club. Two novices bonded by our enthusiasm, we started discussing our project in November 2020. After a few conversations, we decided to locate our no-till plot next to UDC’s Garden of the Senses, also known as the herb garden. Below is an account of our experiment, but first, let us understand what a no-till garden is.
Also called a no-dig garden, no-till is a gardening method where the soil is not disturbed. It is a way of keeping the carbon in the ground because digging releases carbon into the air, adding harmful gases and accelerating climate change. Think of a no-till garden as a layering method (photo 1, left), much like making a cake. We layer ground cover materials one on top of the other to grow vegetables (and other plants), which we then eat. No-till farming is different from the no-till gardening I talk about here in that it is a conservation agriculture method where the land is subject to zero- or minimal tillage. In the no-till gardening method, in addition to not digging the land, we add layers of mulch. While both methods conserve soil moisture and help with carbon sequestration, the no-till gardening method is excellent for controlling weeds.
Layering our garden: The first layer we put down was dry leaves from trees in the Tenleytown and Van Ness neighborhoods. We covered the plot evenly to get rid of weeds and grass by depriving them of sunlight. This made our work very easy because we did not need to dig up all the grass and weeds manually. The second layer consisted of discarded cardboard boxes we found at home or were happily donated by friends (what are friends for, eh?!). Before laying down cardboard, we removed the non-degradable plastic tape from all boxes.
We then evenly spread a layer of compost, which we picked up from the Fire Bird Farm and on Van Ness campus. This was layer 3 (photo 1, middle ) on top of dry leaves and recycled cardboard. Compost provides the nutrients that plants need but it is important to use live compost because the microorganisms living in the compost continue to enrich and loosen it. If the compost is slightly moist and warm to the touch, it is a good indication that it is teeming with beneficial organisms.
Before spreading compost, we edged the plot with excess cardboard to suppress weed invasion into the plot (photo 1, right. In some places, we used 2-3 cardboard applications. In addition, we used intensive planting to suppress weed growth, and we put wood chips and dry leaves on the paths between the beds. The layers were then left to settle over winter.
Planting diversity: The exciting phase came in the spring when we actually started our garden in the pre-conditioned beds. We direct-sowed common vegetables like radish, spinach, swiss chards, beans, and zucchini. Seedlings of tomatoes and peppers were started indoors and then transplanted. Watering the garden was not a concern because we were lucky to have had enough precipitation in D.C. during springtime! In the summer months, we used straw mulch on top of the beds to conserve soil moisture and suppress growth of weeds that came with the compost.
In addition to the vegetables, we planted some sunflowers (photo 2, left) on one side of the new garden. Sunflowers are fascinating plants with multiple benefits: they remediate urban soils by soaking up heavy metal contaminants. Like corn and wheat, they are excellent compost crops, adding carbon and nutrition to the soil. Their roots help to break up compacted urban soils, and let’s not forget that sunflowers feed pollinators, birds, and other wildlife. In addition to being gorgeous, sunflower is a significant contributor to the thriving biodiversity in D.C.
In June-July 2021, when summer approached, we staked the tomato and bean plants (photo 2, right). By September 2021, in total, we harvested fifty pounds of tomatoes, collards, peppers, basil, and green beans. In the spring and early summer, the volunteer gardeners have benefited from the harvest. They took home radishes, spinach, and some tomatoes. The university’s food pantry opened in mid September; since then, we donated 15 pounds of tomatoes and peppers to them. The tomatoes were sumptuous and tasted divine, convincing us that no-till gardening is an excellent way to grow vegetables! Although we did not try any fruits, we are sure that small fruits like strawberries can be grown successfully. Left: The map of our no-till garden
In conclusion, we demonstrate an easy and effortless, no-till garden method to grow your favorite flowers and vegetables. It is also a good way to recycle old cardboard. Speaking for myself, I was eager to test what I learnt in my class and was richly rewarded!