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Lee Reich on his no-till garden

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This article comes from the NOFA/Massachusetts 2016 June Issue Newsletter

By Julie Rawson

Lee spreading compost

This month’s interview takes us to Lee Reich. Lee lives in New Paltz, PA and is well known to NOFA members for his years of presentations at NOFA conferences in the region. He is the author of several books, including Grow Fruit Naturally, The Pruning Book, Uncommon Fruits for Every Garden, Weedless Gardening, A Northeast Gardener’s Year and Landscaping With Fruit. Lee has had a large-scale garden for 30 years, and his annual vegetable production includes a 2000-square-foot garden and a 400-square-foot greenhouse.

Lee is certainly one of the longest practicing no-till growers in the NOFA network, and he thinks a lot about appropriate systems, sustainability, and carbon sequestration. He is a self-confident, no-nonsense guy. We started the conversation with a list of assertions on his part about no-tlli:

  • No-till does work
  • It surely works on a small scale, and Lee ponders on how to ramp it up to a larger scale
  • No-till is better for plants and also sequesters carbon
  • It results in higher organic matter in the soil
  • There is a better water relationship to the soil
  • It doesn’t disrupt fungal hyphae or earthworms
  • There are less weeds

Lee got into no-till by reading Ruth Stout, and what he sees as the seminal work, Ploughman’s Folly, a 1943 book by Edward H. Faulkner. He also adheres to the work of Rosa O’Brien, a market gardener in England and author of Intensive Gardening (1956). She espoused a lack of fear of weeds and recognized the benefits that they bring, picking up complementary nutrients and protecting the soil surface. Her no-till methods effectively managed weeds. Eliot Coleman has been another important farmer in Lee’s cadre of gardening influences.

After gardening intensively for 10 years, Lee decided that he didn’t want to battle the weeds any longer and went completely no-till. Now he is looking at ways to ramp up his system to small farms of 1-4 acres, perhaps larger. Lee’s soil measures 15% organic matter and no compaction. People come up with a lot of systems, but Lee suggests that one should check in after ten years or more to see if they are still doing it and how it looks.

Lee talked about his journey:

“I read about not tilling, and in 1984 I decided to stop, putting in permanent beds. I wish I could say I had a complicated formula. I stopped tilling and then every year I lay down compost one-inch thick and put wood chips in the paths. I made enough compost to do that. I don’t tailor this to any particular crop. I am sure I could get by with less, a half-inch at this point would probably be enough.”

Lee aspires to set aside one or more beds per season to grow cover crops, but hasn’t yet added that practice to his system. He does grow some cover crops in beds whose cropping is finished before the end of September, but he hasn’t wanted to sacrifice a bed for the entire season. Once beds are cleared, his cover crops of choice are oats or barley, sometimes mixed with peas, all of which winterkill so do not need tilling. His basic system hasn’t changed over the years. Through reading Sir Albert Howard, he learned about the soil being biologically active, such that you could add anything and the microbes would gobble up and make use of it.

Lee ponders the limitations of his system for use on a lager scale, like how to make all that compost. He feels that one way to do this is to access the many organic materials that are waste, like treated sewage, wood chips, and other things that the farmer can use. At the end of the growing season, Lee pulls everything out, giving it a twist, and takes it away and composts it. 

“I think the plants are healthy enough for me. Regarding disease problems, I get some tomato leaf spot and early and late blight, but I am very thorough in cleaning up. I take off the tops and major roots. I rake up anything that is on the ground. I get cabbage worms every year. I will do a spray of Bt – 1, 2 or 3 sprays. I have some flea beetles on my eggplant, and I get squash borers every once in awhile. I have some insects, but nothing earthshaking. Regarding weeds, I weed five minutes per week during the growing season. My major problems are quack grass on the garden edge, and oxalis – two species – one taller growing, and one that creeps along the ground and has purplish leaves. It is hard to see. Sometimes I spray vinegar on the soil.”

Lee went on to discuss mulching materials:

“Generally I do not use mulch, but instead use a very intensive planting system, and mulch would get in the way. I used to collect grass clippings, however I am interested in true sustainability. For me to take grass clippings and use that as mulch isn’t sustainable for the grass. I have used leaves as mulch. I have a sign out that says ‘wood chips wanted’. I haven’t had to buy them yet and have a pile that I draw from. Some people talk about ramial wood chips. I will use whatever chips I can get. I don’t want to see any bare soil, so I use them in the paths and add them when needed. The beds have gone up a little above the pathways. I made a computation a few years ago that if there was no mineralization of the compost, each bed would be 4 feet high. The level of the ground in the garden has gone up over the years.”

A lot of Lee’s renown is around his fruit growing expertise, which he discussed here:

“When I plant fruit, I will use a compost mulch. I am emulating natural systems. I add everything from the top down, except if the pH is not good, I will add lime in the planting hole. Otherwise I spread on top of the ground, using compost then straw or hay. Usually I mulch with straw or hay from my small field next door. If I need more nutrition I could add soybean meal.

“My berry plantings are next to my garden. Every year I pick up many truckloads of leaves and lay them 8-12” deep. The soil doesn’t need anything else. I have a field of an acre that I brush hog once per season. Through the season I will mow with a scythe for mulch or for the compost pile. By the time I get back to a certain area, it will have had a chance to grow back and rebuild fertility.”

A lot of his thinking and collaborating with other growers at this point is around using no-till practices in a larger, more commercial farm setting, a laudable goal in this time when we all understand the need to lower CO2 levels in the atmosphere.

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