Things I've Learned

“Do-Nothing Farming”

     It’s a term coined by Masanobu Fukuoka in The One-Straw Revolution, An Introduction to Natural Farming.  “When you get right down to it”, he says, “there are few agricultural practices that are really necessary…no need to plow, no need to apply fertilizer, no need to make compost, no need to use insecticide.”  Okay…I get the no insecticide thing, but don’t even till the ground?  Really?  Everyone knows you’re supposed to dig a hole, plant a seed, then cover it back up with dirt for it to grow, right?  I mean, every book on gardening I’ve ever read starts with this basic fact.  Now this man is trying to tell me to scrap everything I know and do…nothing?  Okay.  I’m still listening…

     What Fukuoka is saying is that, when we humans interfere with the natural processes of nature, it’s like a scientist who “pores over books night and day, straining his eyes and becoming nearsighted, and if you wonder what on earth he has been working on all that time – it is to become the inventor of eyeglasses to correct nearsightedness.”  Basically, he says, the reason why our modern approach of applying increasingly complex techniques to farming has become necessary is because the natural balance has been upset:  “To the extent that trees deviate from their natural form, pruning and insect extermination become necessary…If a single new bud is snipped off a fruit tree with a pair of scissors, that may bring about disorder which cannot be undone.”  Wow!  Who knew I was bringing so much chaos into my garden with all of my snipping?

     So, if everything I’ve been doing up until now has been in violation of nature, what do I do now to get things back on track? I asked myself.  Well,  to begin with, Fukuoka says that there are four principles of natural farming:  no cultivation (no plowing or even tilling of the soil), no chemical fertilizer or prepared compost, no weeding by tillage or herbicides (weeds should be controlled, but not eliminated), and no dependence on chemicals (sturdy crops produce a healthy environment).  Alright, but can’t I even scratch the surface of the soil…just a little?  It just seems wrong to go against this very basic cultivating technique.  Well, according to this permaculture guru, “When the soil is cultivated the natural environment is altered beyond recognition.”  According to other permaculture books, he’s exactly right: when the ground is tilled, nitrogen bonds are broken, fungus webs are destroyed, countless beneficial worms, bugs, and insects are shredded, soil is compacted, and the fallow field becomes a haven for strong weeds.  Hmmm, as much as I enjoy weeding (it’s my favorite time to converse with God), I’m kind of liking this idea of not having to do so much of it.  Now, where to begin?

     Mr. Fukuoka specializes in growing grains: rice, barley, and rye (although he’s used this same technique with fruits and vegetables), so I thought grains would be a good place for me to start, too.  I ordered, from  Bountiful Gardens,  one packet each of hulless barley and oats to try out this year –the perfect crops for testing the technique, I think.  Mr. Fukuoka’s method for planting is simple.  First, he broadcasts the seeds onto the un-tilled (but prepared) ground, then, covers it with a layer of straw hay – that’s all there is to it!  (The straw is fundamental to his method of growing –connected to fertility, germination, weeds, and water management.  Unfortunately, it is also something that he says he “cannot seem to get people to understand”).  Of course, his One- Straw Revolution  has much more to it than I’m describing here, but stripped down to it’s bare bones, it really is supposed to be this simple.  So I’ve decided to give it a try.

     Unknowingly, I started with the no-work method this past fall, employing a technique called “sheet mulching” to build my vegetable beds.   Instead of digging into the ground to remove the top layer of sod, I had added organic matter on top of it, in layers, and let it decompose.  This “Do-Nothing” method was off to a great start!  To make it even easier, I asked my youngest son if he’d like to help me with the planting.  At first, he let out a little moan, but when I told him that we weren’t going to be digging, that he wasn’t going to be getting dirty, and that all he needed to do was sprinkle a little seed over the ground, then help me cover it with hay, he was quite intrigued.  So, we put on our shoes and jackets, gathered up the seed packets and headed outside to “plant”.  

     First, we removed the black plastic layer (supressing the weeds and helping “cook” the organic matter below, speeding up the composting process)  that was covering each of the plots.  “You mean we’re just going to throw the seeds on top of that?” my son queried, with the same skepticism that I was also thinking.  “Yes”, I replied, “It’s a new technique that I’m learning about from a man who lives in Japan.”  “He doesn’t think it’s a good idea to disrupt this soil”, I continued.  “Do you see this giant pillbug?” I asked him.  “Yes”, he said, and added,  “I saw an even bigger one over here!”   I joined him to search for the larger specimen.  When we found it I told him, “That bug is quite happy right now. He has all the food he needs right here.  This is where he’s made his home.  If we dig and rake the ground now, we’ll probably destroy his home, and interrupt all of the good work he’s been doing – decomposing, fertilizing, and tilling for us!”  “Mmmm”, my son thoughtfully replied.  Next, I grabbed a handful of grains and showed my son how to broadcast them over a small area.  I placed a small handfull in his hand and let him give it a try.  He worked on one end of the bed, I tarried at the other, and we met somewhere  in the middle to finish off the packet of seeds.  Feeling like seasoned veterans, we turned our efforts toward the second bed and were finished with the seeding portion of the job in a matter of a couple of minutes.  Finally, I demonstrated how to spread the straw hay over the top of the seeds.  We both worked on separate beds, and in about ten minutes, the task of planting out the beds was complete.  It truly was the easiest and fastest method I’ve ever tried!  I am eager to see, in the next few weeks, what kind of production we get from employing this “direct seed, no-cultivation” method out at our homestead.  

Mr. Fukuoka has truly opened my eyes and mind, even more, to what “natural” farming is and, really,should be.


3 thoughts on ““Do-Nothing Farming”

  1. Very interesting. I’ll be anxious to hear how your new crop turns out. So if I wanted to plant a few veggies, can it be done on ground that was tilled one year ago & never touched since? Would like to do some tomatoes at a minimum…maybe some peas if I could really get my act together fast…and strawberries? Any advice based on your learning would be appreciated! 🙂

    1. Yeah, absolutely…just start where you’re at! Ground tilled a year ago will have established some type of basic ecosystem. I would start laying down some natural materials on top of it now, though. If you’ve got a paper shredder and you shred, start tossing that on top of it, and your kitchen waste, too (no meat, dairy, or fat), then go get a bale of straw hay (less than $10 at a feed store) and put down a layer of that over the top of everything. In fact, I’d get the straw hay on even if you don’t have the other stuff to put on yet, because you can always go back and tuck the other stuff under the hay througout the season. If you do this now, by the time you plant the tomatoes, you’ll have some nice hummus for them to grow in. (I’m assuming that since you’re starting small you’re going to start with plants, not seeds? BTW, I can start a six pack for ya –I have a ton of seed left –and you’d have a good heirloom variety) If you want to start peas, it’s not too late to do it – and you could do your own test to see if Mr. Fukuoka’s method works. Maybe do half the pack the traditional way, digging a furrow and planting, and broadcast the rest on top of your untilled plot, then toss the hay on top. It’d be fun to see how they each perform! If you plant the peas on the south or east side of the plot, and put up a trellis for them to grow on, you can plant the tomatoes in front of them when their season comes. Some other herbs and flowers would be nice to tuck in here and there, too. As for strawberries…here’s my feeling on that: the straw makes a really great home for snails (boy, did I find that out the hard way!) and they loooooooooove strawberries! So, I’m wouldn’t mulch with straw around them. Here’s what I would do, and this information comes from Starter Vegetable Gardens, by Barbara Pleasant – this book would be PERFECT for you!!! All you have to do is get a couple of bags of topsoil or tree and shrub planting mix from the garden center (along with your strawberry plants). Lay the bags down on top of the ground where you want the bed (even on top of grass), cut out a rectangular window on the upper surface of each bag, leaving the sides and 2 inches of each top edge intact, like a picture frame, then plant the strawberries right into the bag and you’re done! I’m not sure if the plastic will totally decompose over the year, but if it doesn’t I’d yank it out at the end of the year…and you’ll have started a new “no-work” bed to build off of. Oh, one last thing: strawberries are going to be permanently planted in this place (unless you want to dig them up and move them or get rid of them), so make sure you situate it accordingly. Another way to grow strawberries is in hanging pots – you don’t have to deal with as many bugs getting to them that way, in strawberry pots, or in wine barrels. Experiment, and see what works for you the best!

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