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353-No-Till Growers Guide to Ecological Market Gardening-Encore Presentation

| Care, Podcast

No-till gardening improves soil health and reduces the gardener’s workload, all while supporting more vigorous plants with better resilience to pests and diseases and greater crop yields. My guest on this week’s encore presentation, organic market gardener and writer Jesse Frost, shares the many ways that ditching the tiller has benefited his farm and how living soil gets the best results.

Jesse and his wife, Hannah, own Rough Draft Farm, a small organic farm in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky. He shares the principles and farm-tested practices of no-till gardening and farming in his book “The Living Soil Handbook: The No-Till Growers Guide to Ecological Market Gardening.” Jesse also runs The No-Till Growers Podcast Network and has made many videos for the No-Till Growers YouTube channel

 

Farmer Jesse Frost of Rough Draft Farm in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky,

Farmer Jesse Frost of Rough Draft Farm in Lawrenceburg, Kentucky, is the author of “The Living Soil Handbook: The No-Till Growers Guide to Ecological Market Gardening” and founder of No-Till Growers Network.

 

Jesse believes that successful farming 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.”

For a brief recap of this episode, keep reading below. If you would like to read an unabridged version, you can check out the show notes from the original airing.

Before continuing with my conversation with Jesse Frost, I have a reminder for you: I am offering a one-time seed starting webinar on Wednesday, February 28, at noon Eastern. The webinar is titled “Fundamentals of Seed Starting Master Class – 10 Keys for Success,” and the cost is just $30. 

Fundamentals of Seed Starting Master Class will be recorded so those who registered but couldn’t attend live can view it on demand for a short period afterward. 

Those who sign up for the webinar will be given an exclusive opportunity to enroll in my Online Gardening Academy course Master Seed Starting, which is otherwise closed for enrollment. Up next is the relaunch of Organic Vegetable Gardening. That will be open for enrollment in mid-March, so stay tuned for details.

 

Overhead shot of Rough Draft Farm

Jesse and Hannah Frost’s Rough Draft Farm. (Photo Courtesy of Jesse Frost)

 

Meet Farmer Jesse

Jesse’s interest in plants started when he was a kid in Kentucky and his mother grew a few pepper plants. 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. 

Then when Jesse was 18 or 19, he read the late Anthony Bourdain’s book “Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly,” and it helped him make his decision to drop out of college and become a cook. He got his start as a cook in Louisville, Kentucky, then moved to New York City to pursue the career path 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 West Village wine shop where he fell in love with unrefined, natural wines. He moved on to another wine shop that specialized in these affordable, boutique-type wines and visited the winemakers behind them in France, Austria and elsewhere.

Jesse says he loved meeting winemakers who wanted him to see, taste and smell the soil in their vineyards. This was right up his alley, as he was also spending time reading about biodynamics and soil biology and how they influence wine. He wanted to understand why natural wines appealed to his palate so much more. “They tasted more alive,” he says. 

With a new outlook on agriculture, he moved back to Kentucky to pursue farming. He began a full-season internship in 2010 on Bugtussle Farm, Eric and Cher Smith’s 3-acre, off-grid, biodynamic farm with a small community-supported agriculture (CSA) customer base. Jesse called it an amazing crash course.

“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.”

Though Jesse is now an advocate for no-till farming, he had interned 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.

Bugtussle Farm also practiced dry farming, the practice of farming without irrigation, and taught Jesse the importance of composting, spreading compost on fields, and good weed management. 

During that internship, Jesse met Hannah Crabtree, a fellow intern who would become his wife.

Ditching the Tiller

Cultivating soil through tilling disrupts beneficial mycorrhizal fungi and triggers the release of soil carbon. Tilling introduces more oxygen into the soil environment, prompting aerobic bacteria to accelerate the decomposition of organic matter, which breaks down the sequestered carbon within soil aggregates, ultimately releasing it into the atmosphere as carbon dioxide.

Jesse and Hannah’s Rough Draft Farm has adopted the methods advocated by Eliot Coleman, the market gardener who authored the beloved book The New Organic Grower.” Instead of deep tilling, Rough Draft Farm began using a power harrow, which is gentler 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 says. “And we felt like there still has to be something better.”

They experimented by refraining from harrowing in their 15-by-50-foot tunnels, which are cumbersome to get a tractor under anyway. They ripped spent plants out and raked manually.

As Jesse learned more about deep compost mulching and no-till, 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 in Sebastopol, California.  

“It just all clicked into place — like I saw the potential there,” Jesse says.

He realized that he should leave 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, Rough Draft Farm experimented with no-till in their fields, and by that summer, Jesse and Hannah were so happy with the results they decided to become a 100% no-till farm.

Benefits of No-Till

Refraining from tilling has saved Jesse an enormous amount of time. He no longer spends 10 to 15 hours a week on weed removal because he uses mulch now, which suppresses weeds, and he doesn’t till weed seeds to the soil surface, where they germinate.

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. 

Jesse has also found that crop performance has 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. 

 

Wood chip pathways

Wood chips don’t meet Jesse’s mulch needs in vegetable beds but they do make good weed control and erosion for the pathways in his tunnels.
(Photo Courtesy of Jesse Frost)

 

“The Living Soil Handbook”

Photosynthesis is the engine of farming and the most important element of feeding soil and keeping plants happy, Jesse says. He writes in his book that one thing he wants readers to take away from it is an understanding of photosynthesis. The book includes Hannah’s illustrations that depict how it works. 

Plants take water up with their roots and use sunlight to split the water molecules into hydrogen and oxygen — the stuff that we breathe, Jesse explains. Plants combine the hydrogen with carbon dioxide from the air to form glucose — a simple sugar molecule. Through their roots, plants feed sugar to soil microbes in exchange for nutrients. 

“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 say feed the soil and let the soil feed the plant. Jesse says what we’re doing is stewarding conditions that are prime for photosynthesis. 

 

Young tomatoes in terminated cover crops

Cover crops from the off-season can become mulch during the growing season.
(Photo Courtesy of Jesse Frost)

 

Carbon Dioxide and Farming

Growers think 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. 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 consume carbon in the soil and release it in the form of carbon dioxide, and then the plant grabs it and pushes it back into the soil. 

With the enzymes that they make, the microbes in soil wrap up organic matter and soil particles into soil aggregates.  

“That’s where you get that nice crumb structure in really healthy soil,” Jesse says. “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.

 

Spring Bulb onions

In a no-tillage system, carbon dioxide is sequestered in the soil where it supports microbial life that helps feed plants. It’s one way no-till growers can combat climate change.
(Photo Courtesy of Jesse Frost)

 

Create, Promote and Maintain Living Soil

In conservation agriculture, there are three principles to create, promote and maintain 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 says. 

He explains that there’s a common confusion between soil disturbance and tillage. While tillage inflicts lasting damage on soil, which happens when pulverizing it with a tiller, he emphasizes that not all forms of disturbance qualify as tillage.

For example, broadforking soil to break up compaction can damage mycorrhizal fungi but does not have the 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 to create 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 damaging to 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 within it will also lead to more root exudates, carbon and microbial life in the soil, according to Jesse.

“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,” he says.

 

A sea of winter squash growing on hay

A sea of winter squash growing on hay. Keeping soil mulched and planted is the best thing no-till growers can do to encourage soil microbes to proliferate. (Photo Courtesy of Jesse Frost)

 

If you haven’t listened to my conversation with Jesse Frost about no-till growers, 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 keep your soil mulched with organic matter and planted? Let us know your results in the comments below.

Links & Resources

Some product links in this guide are affiliate links. See full disclosure below. 

Episode 043: Raised Bed Gardening, Pt. 2: Perfect Soil Recipe

Episode 088: The New Organic Grower: 50 Years in the Making, with Eliot Coleman

Episode 116: Understanding the Soil Food Web, with Dr. Elaine Ingham

Episode 117: Compost, Compost Tea and the Soil Food Web, with Dr. Elaine Ingham

Episode 153: The Science Behind Great Soil

Episode 201: Understanding Regenerative Agriculture and Permaculture, with Dr. Jake Mowrer

Episode 223: How Soil Microbes Make Good Soil Great

Episode 282: The Vital Role of Soil Bacteria in the Garden, with Jeff Lowenfels

Episode 283: A Soil Chemistry Primer: How Protons and Electrons Influence Soil Moisture and Fertility

Episode 305: Compost Science for Gardeners, with Robert Pavlis

Episode 339: Microbe Science for Gardeners, with Robert Pavlis

Episode 345: The Lean Micro Farm: Raise Crops with Maximum Efficiency

joegardenerTV YouTube: No-Till Gardening: If You Love Your Soil, Ditch the Tiller

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. The course is designed to be a comprehensive guide to starting, growing, nurturing and harvesting your favorite vegetables, no matter what you love to eat, no matter where you live, no matter your level of gardening experience.

joegardener Online Gardening Academy Master Seed Starting: Everything you need to know to start your own plants from seed — indoors and out. 

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.

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joegardenerTV YouTube

NoTillGrowers.com 

The No-Till Market Garden Podcast

No-Till Growers Facebook page

No-Till Growers YouTube channel

Jesse Frost on Instagram: @notillgrowers

RoughDraftFarmstead.com

The Living Soil Handbook: The No-Till Grower’s Guide to Ecological Market Gardening” by Jesse Frost

The New Organic Grower, 3rd Edition: A Master’s Manual of Tools and Techniques for the Home and Market Gardener, 30th Anniversary Edition” by Eliot Coleman

Kitchen Confidential: Adventures in the Culinary Underbelly” by Anthony Bourdain 

Dry Farming Institute: What Is Dry Farming?

“Farmer to Farmer with Chris Blanhard” podcast with Elizabeth and Paul Kaiser of Singing Frogs Farm on No-Till Ecological Farming in Northern California

PFAS Explained

The Haney Test for Soil Health

Proven Winners ColorChoice – Our podcast episode sponsor and Brand Partner of joegardener.com 

Soil3 Our podcast episode sponsor and Brand Partner of joegardener.com 

Greenhouse Megastore – Our podcast episode sponsor and Brand Partner of joegardener.com – Enter code JG10 for 10% off your order

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 was 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: Corona Tools, Milorganite, Soil3, Greenhouse Megastore, Territorial Seed Company, Earth’s Ally, Proven Winners ColorChoice and Dramm. 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.

About Joe Lamp'l

Joe Lamp’l is the creator and “joe” behind joe gardener®. His lifetime passion and devotion to all things horticulture has led him to a long-time career as one of the country’s most recognized and trusted personalities in organic gardening and sustainability. That is most evident in his role as host and creator of Emmy Award-winning Growing a Greener World®, a national green-living lifestyle series on PBS currently broadcasting in its tenth season. When he’s not working in his large, raised bed vegetable garden, he’s likely planting or digging something up, or spending time with his family on their organic farm just north of Atlanta, GA.

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