Allowing garden beds to grow out cover crops provides a volume of biomass for soil development. Yet all that mass gets in the way of fall garden preparation. What options are available for organic gardeners?
Small Scale Brush Clearing Options for Organic Garden Preparation
You can turn cover crops, grass, and even weeds into nutrients to feed your soil. These options depend on the amount of space, the slope of the land, and the garden design.
Brush-clearing options include:
- Bush hogging with a tractor. You'll need a seven-foot clearance and the ability to turn around. Perfect for long-level areas where a tractor can drive through.
- Small flail mower or mower. This is perfect for wide-level terraces or market garden beds. Not so good when you have larger wide areas.
- Scything by hand. You'll cut long grass that layers well to mulch beds. The problem is how long it takes to do a large garden area.
With the flail mower, you get finely chopped material that decomposes quickly. You can also cut very low to the ground. This often terminates any cover crop easily. We use a BCS 739 with a 30″ flail attachment.
Transforming Brush and Tall Grass Into Healthy Soil
Growing beds at the end of the spring season provide biomass that can feed the soil. This carbon feeds microbes, whether you chop, drop, mow, or flail. The key is low mowing or shredding to increase surface area.
Scott Vernon is mowing the bottom terraces in the demonstration garden with a bush hog. He is carefully maintaining a contour path across sloping land. This keeps him on the terrace.
This terrace is almost too narrow to manage with a tractor. Upper-raised beds put the tractor operator at risk of turning over. It's important to choose the equipment appropriate for your project.
For two days, we used a scythe, a flail mower on a BCS tractor, and this bush hog to clear overgrown beds from the spring season. This left inches of organic matter as a surface residue for beds. It's part of our series on permanent raised beds.
During the growing season, scything makes cleaning up individual beds easy. However, preparing a large garden for fall planting needs faster preparation. That's where equipment may be the answer.
You don't have to own equipment to get this done. With the right garden design, you can rent, borrow, or barter someone to help you. That design provides easy access to appropriate tools.
As this demonstration garden moves towards no-till permanent raised beds, flail mowing, and scythe work well. Start with the tools you already have or can access.
Should You Till or Not-Till Your Garden Beds Between Seasons?
In a temperate climate, you can grow for two or three seasons. Most of the time, heavy mulching with chop and drop works well. No tilling is necessary because beds are not compacted in any way.
The equipment can do more work in less time for bed shaping, micro-earthworks, and large areas. Growing out beds with four to six-foot-tall vegetation requires a lot of elbow grease and time.
In most cases, you can cut very close to the ground, then plant your next crop of plant starts. This garden's soil is still very hard with Virginia red clay. Deep rooting cover crops are necessary.
Less residue maximizes soil contact of broadcast seed. That's why crop residue will receive shallow tillage before planting fall cover crops, greens, and daikon radish. This also helps to level beds when shaping terraces.
Level terraces maximize water soakage while reducing erosion. Using natural vegetative strips to separate terraces helps eliminate nutrient runoff. You don't need to till deeply between seasons; let plant roots work for you.
The best practice is to till for earthworks and initial soil preparation. After beds start to mature, terraces have shape, and water spreads slowly; then, use a broad fork to loosen up beds. With the right design, you'll use less fossil fuel and calorie energy over time.
Does Chop and Drop Work to Improve Soil Biology and Feed The Soil?
Yes, chop and drop returns biomass to the soil. It turns surplus plant material into food for biology when done correctly. Chop and drop at this scale is like composting.
Composting in place crop residue helps feed the soil food web. If microbes, worms, and enzymes exist, they will continue to grow with the new organic matter you add each season.
Mowing, mulching, or layering grass growing post-season adds carbon to the soil. You don't need to till or incorporate these materials into the soil. You can do this for smaller gardens by spreading long-cut grass or straw in layers.
Grass-fed tree systems transform into food forests over time yet often start as organic vegetable gardens. Any organic crop residue adds carbon to the soil, but the best is what you grow in place.
Why It Takes A Certain Type of Biomass, Further Points To Consider Handling Tall Grass
You don't want to dump your grass clippings in your garden. Those cuttings are too small and tend to mat. And be mindful of seed. Some of what we were cutting went to seed, meaning grass and weeds will return.
In a temperate climate, you'll get the best results mowing, top dressing with manure, then using shallow tillage to shape beds. Adding carbon material only doesn't feed the soil. Also, consider soil Ph, inoculations, and mineral contents.
When earthworks are necessary, perform these modifications after cutting grass. Large earthworks will start by removing topsoil, but you can turn soil down the slope for bed preparation. Wide-level beds are easier to manage.
Overall several days of work to incorporate this organic material boosts soil quality. Clay is holding more moisture, is easier to work, and is turning darker in color. After cover crops grow out, more nutrients will become available.
What are you doing with your end-of-season biomass? Are you tilling too much or too little? What about a bed design that improves your ease of growth? Write anytime with your questions.
Do you have an acre or so to dedicate to gardens? Discover useful methods for gardening on slopes, large garden design, and holistic land management in this unique newsletter, https://www.prosperityhomestead.org/newsletter/
Scott Vernon founded the Sustainable Homestead Institute, which teaches sustainable development, ecological design, and natural reliance. Learn more at http://www.sustainablehomestead.com/
If you want to get more from your small farm, homestead, or estate, … Justin Hitt is a Permaculture Design Consultant with more than two decades of experience with organic gardening. He teaches the practical application of critical thinking, entrepreneurial ecology, and homestead management. Practical insights for practitioners, estate owners, and homesteaders. To see if his insights are right for you, join our free newsletter.