Toward a Do-nothing Gardening, pt. 1: Soil Fertility (Lazy Gardening)

“How about not doing this? How about not doing that?” Masanobu Fukuoka, author of “The One Straw Revolution”, asked himself this question when developing his do-nothing method of farming. And I’ve asked myself the same question over the years as we’ve simplified our approach by gradually eliminating a number of gardening products and practices. But what about our remaining gardening practices? Can we simplify them further and get closer to Fukuoka’s do-nothing ideal while still getting great results? Today I’ll take a look at our gardening practices that maintain soil fertility. I’ll talk about how we’ve simplified them so far, and consider if any of them can be simplified further, or even eliminated, in the future. Making enough compost for our garden could be very time consuming and back breaking work, especially if we turned the compost frequently in order to make it as fast as possible. So, early on I asked the question “how about not turning compost often?” The approach we settled on is to have multiple piles that are started at different times for an ongoing supply of compost. Some are dedicated to slow composting and some to fast composting. The slow piles typically have a higher carbon to nitrogen ratio than the hot piles and don’t contain any food scraps. They don’t heat up very much and break down more slowly. They contain plenty of course brown material, which helps keep air in the pile, and we never turn them. We would turn them if they became anaerobic and smelled bad, but it’s never happened. So, the slow piles don’t require any work other than adding the organic matter and removing the compost. We also turn the hot piles as little as possible. Our rule of thumb is to turn them only when the center reaches 150 F or 66 C. This ensures that the pile doesn’t get too hot, but minimizes turning. Typically, we turn a hot pile only once or twice. Using temperature as a guide also tells us if we need to add more green ingredients to heat the pile up, or more browns to cool it down. Our fall/winter compost piles, which may not reach 150 F because of the cold are turned only once in early spring. Another technique we use to minimize turning is to punch holes in the compost with rebar. This gets oxygen into the pile and also allows us to add water. If needed, more green ingredients, like coffee grounds, can be added to heat up the pile as well. Minimizing turning helps us get a little closer to a do-nothing garden, but after years of applying compost to the garden, it’s possible that we can get even closer. In the spring, we’re going to have our soil tested. If the test shows large nutrient surpluses, we’ll significantly cut back our compost production. Though we’ll continue to compost organic matter generated on site, we’ll stop collecting additional resources like used coffee grounds and our neighbor’s leaves, at least until the nutrient levels are no longer in large surplus. For the most part, keeping composting worms to process food scraps doesn’t require much effort, but harvesting castings can, especially if you manually separate the castings from the worms. To keep the work to a minimum, we use flow through worm bins. As food is added to the top of the bin, the worms naturally migrate to the top where the fresh food is, leaving their castings below. Castings are then harvested from the bottom. Though some worms remain at the bottom, we don’t worry about separating them from the castings. Instead, we just add them, along with their castings, to the garden. Because we mulch our garden beds, the worms have enough food to survive in the garden. As with compost, if our soil test shows a large surplus of nutrients, we’ll scale back on our vermicomposting operation, and possibly find a new home for some of our worms, taking us another step closer to a do-nothing garden. When Fukuoka asked – “how about not doing this, how about not doing that” – he actually decided not to make compost. Instead, he returned organic matter back to the soil as mulch. As we go forward, though we’ll continue to make compost, I expect our emphasis will shift from compost toward mulch, especially if the soil test shows nutrient surpluses. Mulching is considerably less work than composting and releases nutrients into the soil more slowly. This shift in emphasis will definitely be a step toward a do-nothing garden. Fukuoka also used nitrogen fixing cover crops, and so do we. It couldn’t be easier to plant our fall cover crops mix, which includes a variety of legumes and oats. The legumes need at least a couple months to fix nitrogen, so we plant them a couple months before the first frost, and they die back in the winter, so we don’t even have to chop and drop them. Nature ends up doing almost all of the work for us by fixing nitrogen and killing the crops before spring planting. This is a perfect example of a do-nothing gardening method! We’ve been using compost, worm castings, mulch, and actively aerated compost tea for years with the intention of building a healthy soil food web, but I’d think after all this time the soil would be well inoculated with beneficial microbes, and a simpler maintenance regime might be in order. The only way to find out is to do less and see what happens. So, when I ask “how about not doing this, how about not doing that”, I can’t help but wonder what would happen if we stopped using compost tea. Would we notice a difference in the garden? Wouldn’t the compost, worm castings, and mulch be sufficient to maintain a healthy soil food web? So, this year I plan to conduct a compost tea field trial. I’ll set up two identical garden beds and plant the same crops in each bed. One bed will receive compost tea applications, the other won’t, and I’ll compare the results in some detail. I also plan to stop using compost tea in the rest of the garden and make informal observations about this year’s crops compared to those from previous years. Over the next several weeks, I’ll share more of the details about the field trial in videos and in the Home Garden Field Trials g+ community. If you’d like to participate in the trial, help develop a standard compost tea recipe for the trial, or provide input on the field trial guidelines, please join the Home Garden Field Trials Community. There’s a link to the community in the description below. I do think it’s possible to get closer to Fukuoka’s do-nothing ideal while continuing to get great results. If our soil test in the spring shows nutrient surpluses, we’ll cut back on our production of compost and worm castings. And if we don’t observe benefits from compost tea in the field trial, we’ll stop making compost tea, significantly decreasing our labor and increasing our leisure time in the garden. Well, that’s all for now. Thank you very much for watching and until next time remember you can change the world one yard at a time.

26 thoughts on “Toward a Do-nothing Gardening, pt. 1: Soil Fertility (Lazy Gardening)

  1. Your videos are just superb. Very educative. Thank you so much. We too are trying permaculture in our forest farm – [ ] but still a long way to go.

  2. Dude, you're doing it wrong. You're still clinging to Western Superiority "Man Can Do Better Than Nature", you don't add Compost Tea or Organize Your Plots. Bugs are your gardeners, and Random is the mode of planting.

  3. Don't cut back on the composting…. turn it into a CASH CROP!!!

    What is the estimated return on investment on cover crops? Seed is getting EXPENSIVE. Do they provide enough benefit?

  4. patrick, I love your ideas, many I use some you take a step further…. I prefer the work that matters….

  5. This may be a remedial question, but how do you measure the temperature of the compost pile?
    Also, I would like to thank you because I've been having trouble with the progression of my compost bins and I believe this clarifies a lot.

  6. I tried worms but see no point to it. Saw food scraps as being better used in the outside bin. I don't see the big point to castings. I'd rather work on earthworms outside that actually do far more. Yep – just don't get the attraction.

  7. Thank you for mentioning the "The One Straw 12evolution" what interesting ideas. I'm really enjoying this book.

  8. I'm growing tomatoes directly in a raised bed of leaves. I wasn't sure how well it'd work, so I only transplanted one, then when it did well, another, then later another. They're doing great, growing big and have flowers and everything. I was concerned they wouldn't get enough nutrients in non-composted leaves, but doesn't seem to be an issue. The leaves are breaking down beneath the top layer. What's more, the leaves act as great mulch, so I don't water nearly as much as elsewhere, and I didn't have transplant shock or anything. It was like they'd been there from the start instead of re-planted.

  9. The simplest you can make a food garden is to get a stick, poke a hole in the ground at the right time of the year, drop in seed, cover, and wait. You can't get any simpler than that. Well, maybe if the soil is loose enough to use your finger, but that's unlikely. Poke dirt, drop in seed, cover, wait.

  10. If you make Legumes, make sure you pressure cook them as they have some of the highest content of Lectins and Lectins are a plants defense against predators and they attach to your stomach lining and cause inflammation which can lead to auto-immune disease if you are already under stress. Peanuts have the worst lectins of all.

  11. I literally just throw seeds into my yard and grow what grows. So far kale and marigold is this winter seasons winner. I just pitched carrot seeds and mixed bird seed outside today for spring.

  12. 1
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  13. Since google+ has been shut down, is there a new place that people can coordinate information about field trials? I have conducted many on my own and would love to share information.

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