The reasons to adopt no-till gardening methods are many, from improving soil health for more vigorous plants to reducing the workload on the gardener. To explain the range of benefits that come with ditching the tiller and what to do instead, my guest this week is farmer and author of The Living Soil Handbook, Jesse Frost.
Jesse and his wife, Hannah, are market farmers with a small organic farm in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky, known as Rough Draft Farm. Jesse was, until recently, the host of “The No-Till Market Garden Podcast,” and he has created numerous videos for the No-Till Growers YouTube channel. He’s also the author of “The Living Soil Handbook: The No-Till Growers Guide to Ecological Market Gardening,” which shares the principles and farm-tested practices of no-till gardening and farming. Jesse believes that raising crops successfully comes down to creating the best possible conditions for photosynthesis to do its work. “Really all we’re doing is managing photosynthesis,” he says. “Farming is just what we call it.”
Before proceeding with my conversation with Jesse about no-till gardening and living soil, I want to pause to remind you that I have a new book out, “The Vegetable Gardening Book: Your complete guide to growing an edible organic garden from seed to harvest.” It’s chock full of insider tips and new-to-you information that will help you step up your gardening game and tackle challenges.
And on tap for 2023 is my new Online Gardening Academy™ premium course, Organic Vegetable Gardening. Sign up for the waitlist here.
How Jesse Frost Became Farmer Jesse
Jesse says his interest in plants started when he was a kid and his mother grew a few pepper plants — which are still his favorite things to grow. They were cayenne peppers, he recalls, and he loved picking them and putting them in mason jars that his family kept on top of the fridge. “I don’t think we ever used them, but they made excellent decorations,” he says.
When Jesse was 18 or 19, he read the late Anthony Bourdain’s book “Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly.” It influenced his decision to drop out of college and become a cook, which he did for a few years in Louisville, Kentucky, the state he grew up in.
He moved to New York City to pursue cooking further but says the city is distracting with too much to do — like drinking. He took a month to figure himself out and got a job in a wine shop in the West Village, where he fell in love with unrefined, funky, more natural wines. He moved on to another wine shop that specialized in these affordable, boutique-type wines and had the opportunity to visit the winemakers behind them in France, Austria and elsewhere.
Jesse says he loved meeting winemakers who didn’t want to show him their big fancy wineries and tasting rooms but rather wanted him to see, taste and smell the soil in their vineyards. At the same time, he was reading up on biodynamics and soil biology and how they affect wine. He wanted to learn why these natural wines appealed to his palate so much more. “They just felt more alive — they tasted more alive,” he says.
Jesse was inspired to look at agriculture in a different light. That, combined with his love of food and cooking, got him thinking he could be a farmer. He moved back to Kentucky to pursue farming. He began a full-season internship in 2010 on Eric and Cher Smith’s 3-acre, off-grid, biodynamic Bugtussle Farm, which had a small community-supported agriculture (CSA) clientele.
“The main farmer, Eric, would take us around and show us the trees and teach us all the different wildlife, teach us about all the different trees and the plants and the forest and the wildflowers,” Jesse says. “And we would learn all these different things and all these different techniques. So it was just an amazing crash course.”
Jesse shares that even though he did a lot of running and push-ups in New York, when he got to the farm, his body was just not prepared for the work that was before him. “I can’t believe anybody does this. This is a wild lifestyle,” he remembers thinking his first two or three weeks on the farm. “And then after that, I couldn’t imagine doing anything else.”
Once that switch flipped, there was no looking back, he says.
It was also during that internship that Jesse would meet Hannah Crabtree, a fellow intern.
Though Jesse is a no-till farmer and advocate today, the internship was on a farm that practiced tillage. The fields were tilled once a year to turn in cover crops, and then either tilled again or harrowed to prepare for planting. “They did use tillage, but they used it responsibly,” he says.
The farm also practiced dry farming — farming without irrigation. Today on his own farm, he uses very little irrigation, which is possible in Kentucky with all the rainfall they get annually.
Bugtussle Farm also impressed upon Jesse the importance of composting, spreading compost on fields, and good weed management.
Find a Mentor and Do the Work
Jesse says one thing he learned while a cook was the importance of having a mentor. What often happens in farming is someone will buy the land and then look around for someone to teach them how to farm, he explains, but it needs to be treated like any other industry, where you learn the craft first and then explore turning it into a business.
In addition to having a mentor, Jesse emphasized the importance of doing the work and being physically and mentally engaged, including reading a bunch of books on the subject. When he becomes interested in a subject, he dives into it, finding all the best books on the topic and consuming all of them.
Problems with Tilling and What to Do Instead
Tillage involves either removing all the roots from the soil by ripping them out, or tilling the roots into the soil and giving the soil some time to digest the roots before planting something else there, Jesse says, but he notes that tillage poses a number of issues.
Tilling breaks up the beneficial mycorrhizal fungi in soil and releases soil carbon. Tilling also adds more oxygen to soil, which stimulates oxygen-loving bacteria to consume more organic matter, which breaks down the sequestered carbon in soil aggregates and releases it into the air as carbon dioxide.
Rough Draft Farm has adopted the methods touted by Eliot Coleman, the market gardener who authored the beloved book “The New Organic Grower.” Instead of deep tilling, the farm began using a power harrow, which Jesse says is more gentle on the soil and digs shallower.
“We were still fighting a lot of weeds, and we were still getting a fair amount of disease,” Jesse recalls. “And we felt like there still has to be something better.”
They began experimenting by refraining from harrowing in their 15-by-50-foot tunnels, which were cumbersome to get a tractor under anyway. Rather than using a machine, they ripped spent plants out and raked. When they planted something else in place of the plants they had simply ripped out, they had success.
As Jesse learned more about deep compost mulching and no dig, he had assumed it was too nutrient-heavy. But then he heard an episode of the “Farmer to Farmer” podcast, hosted by the late organic farmer Chris Blanchard, with Elizabeth and Paul Kaiser of Singing Frogs Farm, based in Sebastopol, California.
“It just all clicked into place — like I saw the potential there,” Jesse says.
He realized that he should be leaving the roots in place when he removes plants, to maintain the biology and the carbon in the soil, and that he was missing a mulch layer. Starting in early 2018, they experimented with no-dig out in their fields, and by that summer, they were so happy with the results they decided to become a 100% no-till farm.
“The No-Till Market Garden Podcast”
In 2018, no-till was still a fairly new concept in modern agriculture, and Jesse had a lot of questions. He decided that the best way to get answers was to start a podcast. “The No-Till Market Garden Podcast” was born.
Jesse is a firm believer that information should be handed out freely, so he used his podcast to reach people with specialized knowledge and share it broadly. He retired from hosting the podcast at the end of last season, but the show continues with rotating hosts. He says they will bring new insights to the program and ask questions that he wouldn’t have thought to ask.
More Benefits of No-Till
Ditching the tiller has saved Jesse an enormous amount of time. He no longer has to spend 10 to 15 hours a week on weed removal because he uses mulch now, which suppresses weeds, and he isn’t tilling weed seeds to the surface, where they germinate.
“I don’t think we give enough consideration to how shallow-germinating a lot of weed seeds are,” he says.
For example, it doesn’t take much soil disturbance to bring up spiny pigweed seeds, and spiny pigweed plants are not easy to kill with tarps or flame weeding, Jesse points out.
“They require good physical cultivation, and when you cultivate, you bring up more seeds,” he says. “So it can be really challenging, but because they’re shallow-rooted, if you mulch over top of them, they’re much less likely to germinate. It is not a weed that we have any issue with on our farm — and we used to. That was one we battled all the time until we started mulching heavily.”
Jesse has also found that general crop performance is improved as well as flavor. “The greater your crop performance, the greater your profitability,” he says.
Though diseases and pests have not gone away completely, the farm has fewer disease and pest issues. When there is a problem, they investigate that particular bed and determine if compaction, moisture management, nutrient management or another factor is causing the issue so they can address it.
“The Living Soil Handbook”
Early in his book, Jesse writes that one thing he wants readers to take away is an understanding of the photosynthetic process. The book includes his beautiful and simple description of photosynthesis coupled with Hannah’s illustrations depicting how it works.
Photosynthesis is the engine of farming and the most important element of feeding soil and keeping plants happy, Jesse says.
“It all comes down to that process of photosynthesis, and it can get very complicated,” he continues. “And there are certainly elements of photosynthesis that are still not very well understood, as in all things.”
What we know about photosynthesis, he explains, is that plants take water up with their roots and use sunlight to split the water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen — the stuff that we breathe. The process continues with plants combining the hydrogen with carbon dioxide from the air to form glucose — a simple sugar molecule that is the building block of all life.
In the form of root exudates, plants feed sugar (carbohydrates) to soil life in exchange for nutrients. And they use carbon to make their own roots and leaves.
“Everything on Earth is reliant to some extent — some more than others — on photosynthesis,” Jesse says. “We are all made of sunlight. We’re all made of sunlight, carbon and water, and nutrients.
As growers, we always talk about feeding the soil and letting the soil feed the plant. Jesse says what we’re really trying to do is steward conditions that are prime for photosynthesis.
Growers are thinking about water, where it’s coming from and its quality. We think about sunlight, how intense it is and if it needs to be diffused somehow. And we should also think about carbon dioxide, Jesse says.
“A big thing that is overlooked is how important that carbon cycle is,” he says. The cycle includes soil respiration: microbes consuming carbon in the soil and releasing it in the form of carbon dioxide, and then the plant grabbing it and pushing it back into the soil.
With the enzymes that they make, the microbes in soil are wrapping up organic matter and soil particles into soil aggregates.
“That’s where you get that nice crumb structure in really healthy soil,” Jesse says of soil aggregates. “But when you take a tiller through there, you break up all those soil aggregates. It releases that carbon dioxide. These oxygen-loving bacteria really thrive in this environment. They consume a lot of that locked-up organic matter that now is really readily available.”
And because the soil has been tilled, there are no plants left behind to take up the nutrients from that released organic matter and carbon dioxide, he points out.
“In a no-tillage system, you’re not having that intense release of carbon dioxide,” Jesse says.
Dead soil that has been overfarmed for a long time probably does not have a big microbial biomass and needs to be fed plants, cover crops and compost for a while to get re-established, he says.
Principles to Create, Promote and Maintain Living Soil
In conservation agriculture, there are three principles of creating, promoting and maintaining living soil.
“The best things that we can do for the soil are to keep it covered as much as possible, keep it planted as much as possible, and disturb it as little as possible,” Jesse explains.
He says soil disturbance and tillage are often conflated. Tillage is anything that causes long-term harm to the soil, such as pulverizing it with a tiller, but not all disturbance is tillage, he says.
For example, broadforking the soil to break up soil compaction can certainly damage mycorrhizal fungi, but it’s not having that extreme pulverizing effect. Broadforking compacted soil makes the soil more capable of feeding itself and being healthy — it’s anti-tillage, Jesse says.
Applying compost is another way of creating healthy soil, but not just any compost will do. Compost that is loaded with plastic, forever chemicals such as PFAS, and persistent herbicides will be detrimental to your crops.
Keeping soil covered as much as possible reduces weeds, compaction and erosion and can be accomplished with plants, compost and mulch.
“You want carbonaceous materials on top of the soil as much as possible, even if it’s degrading plant matter,” Jesse says, “Anything that’s just keeping the moisture in, keeping the sun off the soil from dehydrating things and sucking the moisture out of it.”
Keeping the soil planted to maximize the photosynthesis that occurs in it will also lead to more root exudates, carbon and microbial life in the soil.
“We can add tons of amendments and stuff, but there’s nothing that’s going to gather microbes, there’s nothing that’s going to feed your soil better than plants,” Jesse says.
Pick the Best Mulch for Your Region and Circumstances
The kind of organic mulch that’s best for you will likely depend on what’s locally accessible. For Jesse in Kentucky, there is not much access to straw because grain production is minimal. Finding organic sources of straw is even more difficult. Straw that’s been treated with an herbicide to dry it out faster, a process called desiccation, is not straw that you want around your tomato plants or any other broadleaf plants, Jesse says. And poorly harvested straw may contain grain seeds, he adds.
Though Kentucky does not have a lot of straw to go around, it does have hay. Straw is the seedless stalks of grain plants and doesn’t contain many nutrients, but hay comes from nutrient-rich grass plants.
Hay tends to be full of seeds, and the seeds readily germinate in the hay itself — no soil contact is needed. But Jesse loves hay. “It’s very nutritious,” he says. “If it’s good for animals, it’s good for the soil.”
Whenever he uses hay mulch, the soil is much better the next year. However, it must be used strategically. If you plan to direct sow seed in that plot the following year, he doesn’t recommend hay, because the hay seeds will sprout there too. But if you intend to put transplants there rather than seed, hay mulch can work out. Jesse’s chickens eat many of the hay seeds before they can sprout, and he uses tarps at the beginning of the following season to kill off residual seeds.
My major concern with using hay as a mulch or in compost is persistent herbicides. If the hay you use came from a field treated with broadleaf herbicides to kill thistles and other weeds, it will weaken or outright kill many of your crops. But Jesse knows his hay producer and knows that the hay is never treated.
Jesse finds that leaves are a great soil amendment and compost input but they blow away too easily to be a good mulch in his windy region. Wood chips are also not effective where he farms because all the rain washes out the chips.
Jesse is experimenting with partially decomposed wood chips. Fish hydrolysate (ground up and liquified fish) is added to wood chip piles to help the chips decompose a bit. Once the chips are lightly composted this way, they are added to soil with a reduced risk that the wood will suck up the nitrogen in the soil.
He recently visited Louisiana, where cotton trash — the refuse from cotton production — is readily available. And up north, salt marsh hay is used. Though salt marsh hay contains seeds, in the absence of salt water, the seeds are much less likely to germinate.
Every region has something that can be used as an effective organic mulch, compost input or soil amendment. It just takes thinking outside the box sometimes.
Jesse’s Four Types of Compost
Jesse classifies compost in four ways based on its intended use: mulching compost, fertilizing compost, nutritional compost and inoculating compost.
Mulching compost is highly carbonaceous, chunky compost. “It’s not something you’re going to want to work into the soil because it’s still breaking down but can make a really excellent moisture barrier and something that even, in certain circumstances, could be something you could plant into,” Jesse says.
On Jesse’s farm, they mulch a bed really thick with mulching compost and then plant in something that goes deep down into the native soil for nutrients, such as tomatoes. The mulching compost will decompose over the season, providing additional nutrients. Slower crops like carrots can also be planted into mulching compost if kept moist enough.
Fertilizing compost is high in nitrogen, like composted or partially composted chicken manure. It can be used to feed soil but should not be used as a deep mulch. If planted into directly, the plants will likely die or produce lots of leaves but no fruit because there are too many nutrients.
Inoculating compost is designed specifically to encourage soil biology to proliferate with diverse bacteria and fungi. Jesse’s book includes a recipe for inoculating compost that his farm makes every year to sprinkle into soil mixes or to use for compost tea. It includes inputs such as vermicompost, which is a great inoculator and great fertilizer but hard to make a lot of and expensive to purchase in large quantities. So he has to make sure to use his inoculating compost strategically so there is enough to go around.
One of the experts on compost and the soil food web who Jesse looks to is Dr. Elaine Ingham, a past guest on “The joe gardener Show.”
Nutritional compost is well-balanced compost that “has all the things.” It has a broad array of nutrients to feed plants everything they need to thrive. Raised bed mix is a good example of this because it is complete — a transplant can go right into it.
The Haney Test and Biological Tests
The Haney Test is a new type of soil test that measures soil respiration and the level of soil nutrients that are readily available to plants. It was developed by Rick Haney of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Ag Research Service in Temple, Texas.
“Soil tests often test for just what’s there and not necessarily what’s available, which are two kind of different things,” Jesse says.
He is exploring soil tests that determine the balance of bacteria to fungi and the presence of predatory microbes, arthropods and nematodes. Using these tests each year will tell you if you are actually improving the soil food web in your garden.
Jesse has, for years, used traditional base cation exchange soil testing, also known as the Albrecht Method. The test reveals the soil’s pH level and what nutrients are present or deficient.
“Soil testing is interesting, and it definitely gives you some glimpse into what’s going on in your soil,” he says, adding, “It is limited. I don’t think it will ever be as exact as we want it to be because soil is just way too dynamic.”
Organic Vs. Synthetic
Humans can’t feed plants better than nature does. But we can work in concert with nature to ensure the best conditions possible to enable and encourage the soil and the microbes within it to feed plants.
Rather than synthetic sources of nitrogen, we should be applying chicken manure or alfalfa meal, Jesse says.
“Let the actual microbes do that job because they know how to do it,” he says. “That’s what they’re built for. So if you’re going to feed the soil anything, feed the microbes something and let them feed the plants.”
I hope you enjoyed my conversation with Jesse Frost on living soil and no-till farming. If you haven’t listened yet, you can do so now by scrolling to the top of the page and clicking the Play icon in the green bar under the page title.
Do you practice no-till gardening to promote healthier soil? Let us know in the comments below.
Links & Resources
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joegardener Online Gardening Academy™: Popular courses on gardening fundamentals; managing pests, diseases & weeds; seed starting and more.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Organic Vegetable Gardening: My new premium online course membership opens in 2023. Sign up for the waitlist here.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Beginning Gardener Fundamentals: Essential principles to know to create a thriving garden.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Growing Epic Tomatoes: Learn how to grow epic tomatoes with Joe Lamp’l and Craig LeHoullier.
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Master Pests, Diseases & Weeds: Learn the proactive steps to take to manage pests, diseases and weeds for a more successful garden with a lot less frustration. Just $47 for lifetime access!
joegardener Online Gardening Academy Perfect Soil Recipe Master Class: Learn how to create the perfect soil environment for thriving plants.
“Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly” by Anthony Bourdain
Disclosure: Some product links in this guide are affiliate links, which means we get a commission if you purchase. However, none of the prices of these resources have been increased to compensate us, and compensation is not an influencing factor on their inclusion here. The selection of all items featured in this post and podcast were based solely on merit and in no way influenced by any affiliate or financial incentive, or contractual relationship. At the time of this writing, Joe Lamp’l has professional relationships with the following companies who may have products included in this post and podcast: Rain Bird, Corona Tools, AeroGarden, Milorganite, Soil3, Greenhouse Megastore, PittMoss, Territorial Seed Company, Earth’s Ally, National Wildlife Federation and TerraThrive. These companies are either Brand Partners of joegardener.com and/or advertise on our website. However, we receive no additional compensation from the sales or promotion of their product through this guide. The inclusion of any products mentioned within this post is entirely independent and exclusive of any relationship.