Hoeing is Not Plowing

What is meant by “no till” or “low till?” What soil care and preparation techniques are best for the soil and for the diverse life forms that live with and interact with our cultivated crops? How much digging and disturbance of the soil is too much? What is the purpose or goal of lightly tilling the soil and removing old plant remains (called “ketumwa” in the Hopi language)? It is good to leave some of those remains in the soil for building the health of the soil and avoiding soil compaction, but how much should we leave? The following video addresses some of those questions and other issues as well, as I demonstrate some of the fall and winter soil care techniques we use here at LifeGiving Farm. I accidentally left out some of what I had planned to say in this video (memory problems), so I will say it here, in writing.

Plowing has come under much criticism in the last few decades, from agricultural scientists, environmental scientists, permaculture practitioners, and others. The problems with it include: the disturbance or complete destruction of natural ecosystems; reduction in organic matter and soil fertility (after the first couple of years of plowing a patch of land); soil compaction; soil erosion and consequent pollution of water; and decrease in productivity. The larger the parcel of land that is plowed, the more detrimental and destructive are the impacts, with industrial scale, chemically-dependent monoculture being the worst (and, tragically, still prevalent) example. Even many organic farmers say that plowing is the best way to start cultivating a new, or fallow patch of ground, and then switch to gentle tilling with hoes or other hand tools after that initial year. But that was/is not the way that traditional Indigenous horticultural practitioners, who never used the plow, prepared a new patch of land for cultivating. The use of a variety of styles of the original hoe, made from wood, bones, and antlers, gently and respectfully breaking up only the spots where we plant seeds, has been sufficient for ages and successfully keeps the people well-fed, in combination with hunting, fishing and foraging for wild plant foods and medicines. An excellent scientific study of the greater productivity of the old indigenous ways of growing crops without plows compared to European plowing agriculture (prior to the 20th century introduction of fossil fuel tractors and industrial chemical additives) was published by Tuscarora agronomist Jane Mt. Pleasant in 2011 (“The Paradox of Plows and Productivity: An Agronomic Comparison of Cereal Grain Production under Iroquois Hoe Culture and European Plow Culture in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries,” Agricultural History, Vol. 85, No. 4, Fall 2011, pp. 460-492, Agricultural History Society). We used to have a gas-powered, walk-behind tiller here at LifeGiving farm, but when it broke down many years ago, we finally stopped using those things. Hand tools, respectfully and selectively applied when needed, works just fine.

Just like Mother Earth and all of her many ecosystems and particular locations, garden planting beds, boxes, mounds, and rows each have their own limited carrying capacities and points at which overshoot might be reached. That is why we selectively weed and do the types of tilling, fertilizing, mulching and soil-tending that you see in this video. We welcome some volunteer companion plants into the beds and rows to live with all of the plants that we cultivate for food, but we can only accommodate a limited number in each place. Sometimes it is difficult to decide who among our wild plant friends should live there or not, but the interactive process of this “balancing act” is truly more of a joy than a burden, and ultimately helps to bring good health to all.

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