For many advocates of natural farming current conventional agriculture hurts the soil, weakens plants and poisons the environment. A more natural approach is taken by Masanobu Fukuoka in the “One-Straw Revolution.” The approach he advocates has four elements: no cultivation, no chemical fertilizers or even prepared compost, no weeding or chemical herbicides, and no chemical insecticides.
Fukuoka has also called his approach “Do-nothing Farming.” Whatever it’s called it’s a useful and convenient set of strategies we should also consider whenever we are gardening, no matter how small or large our garden space.
To experienced gardeners the basic message of “Do-nothing Farming” should be very attractive. The input costs of preparing and maintaining the land are far less. Also, garden productivity stays at least the same and likely improves longer term due to improving soil structure, soil nutrition and general health. Further, improvements may be due to stimulated natural mechanisms that suppress pests and competing weeds. Strategies to improve and soil and garden outcome are easy to apply. However, if your land has been badly farmed or gardened, it will likely take more than one season for it to regain its strength and natural zest.
Here are some ways to get started with this approach to farming or gardening. These methods can be applied whether you are farming one-quarter of an acre or one acre or more. First, put away your plow or shovel. Second, get rid of your insecticides and fertilizers and don’t buy any more.
You will find that when you stop cultivating the soil the weeds will back off and lose vigor. These are methods that cooperate with nature rather than trying to change or improve on her. Weed seeds from the previous year have often been deeply buried and cultivating the soil can bring them to the surface and give them new life. Deeply buried they may never germinate–don’t give them a second chance on life. At the end of the season you can grow weeds that fix atmospheric nitrogen in the soil as ammonia. These include but are not limited to white clover, soy beans and alfalfa. The roots and nodules soften and aerate the soil. Sometimes these and related leguminous plants can also repel harmful insects. Slowly the humus will improve the character of the soil and it will re-establish itself. Earthworms and some deep burrowing insects, nematodes and even moles will be your natural tillers of the soil, rendering your plows and shovels redundant. In time and with an effective straw mulch, watering may even be unnecessary.
Over winter or in the very early spring a straw mulch can be applied on top of the clover or other leguminous weeds. While Fukuoka used rice and barley straw after he harvested and thrashed his rice or barley the previous fall, I’ve simply used straw purchased the previous fall at $3-5 a bale from a local nursery. In the fall I usually place 8-10 bales against the house in a place where it prevents the pipes from freezing over the winter. In the early spring I then taken the straw out back to the garden, cut the strings and spread it thickly around the garden and in amongst the early flowering perennials. Adding a little chicken manure at this stage, or simply letting the chickens walk around in it and do what come natural is also a good idea at this stage. The straw settles in and is a great suppressor of weeds. When the danger of frost is about gone it’s time for the chickens to leave because you’ll be ready to plant. I plant the garden using seeds or starter plants grown earlier on the porch. Often I have to nudge the settled straw off to the side, but usually I just toss in seeds –they will slip down through the straw and onto the soil. I doubt that I am as fearless as Fukuoka was in the seeding process, but he was planting mostly rice and barley and that’s not my game. But, then again, when Fukuoka planted vegetables he simply mixed a large variety of seeds in his hand and tossed them into the straw bed at the edge of the rice field and forgot about them until he started harvesting early radishes a month or so later.
The leguminous weeds and the straw mulch will add nutrients back to the soil. If it is depleted you can deliberately add more back by planting beans and peas and other legumes in a crop rotation schedule. Fast acting chemical fertilizer will generally deplete the soil of humus in a single growing season. Avoid it. Plants may not do that well until the soil strength is rebuilt, but don’t waver. Give the soil a chance to reestablish itself. Also, don’t get impatient and plant too much clover or alfalfa. Remember, natural farming is supposed to be the gentle and easy way.
Avoid using herbicides or insecticides. You may have planted too much clover or alfalfa in some locations–you can likely suppress some or all of it with spot applications of more straw mulch. Insecticides are always a bad idea. They often kill more good guys (natural predators) than bad guys (plant infecting insects). Also, frogs, lady bugs and spiders will find some of them a tasty meal. Wet weather and a nearby pond can be quite helpful in keep up the frog population. There’s also something about the matted down straw mulch that helps the hunting process for the frogs especially. But sometimes you may have a problem you can’t seem to solve. In Florida, for example, I’m never able to grow sweet green peppers inside the lanai. They get infested with tiny mites. If I move them outside soon enough they’ll soon be covered with a swarm of lady bugs devouring mites. Whether the patient recovers is all about whether or not there are enough lady bugs to do the job.
Natural farming works everywhere on all plots, small and large. Even steep, marginal land can be brought into production without fear of erosion. You have to be patient. Depending on the state of the soil when you start, it may take you more that a year to get it right, but gradually as the health of the soil is reestablished growing crops will be more and more like magic. For Fukuoka, healing the land was equivalent to purifying the human spirit. In his mind these were obviously parallel processes. I’m not there yet, but it’s an interesting journey.