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Growing Organically Since 1982

No-till at Many Hands Organic Farm, Part 2

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

By Julie Rawson

Healthy monster tomatoes

I write this on September 26, the day after a pretty serious frost on at least half of our farm. Today I want to talk about the use of wood chips in beds as mulch. We had some stunning successes with the method that we devised to plant, do an initial weeding and then mulch with wood chips that were partially decomposed, acquired from our local DPW. We had best ever crops of onions, both long season and spring green onions, lettuce in wood chip mulch, spinach, carrots, parsley, basil, Swiss chard, kale, and tomatoes. Beets, which generally were not as beautiful as I would like them to be, and cucumbers did not fare as well. Winter squash did fairly well. The chips that we used around the cucumbers and winter squash were fresh last fall, and I think that it was a mistake to use them, perhaps because of too much mineral tie up.

In some of our chard and basil beds we sowed crimson clover on top of the chips, which germinated nicely, and seemed to provide great ground cover and a constant fertility drip to the crops. I look forward to how crops grow in these beds next year.

Fungus laden soil surface at MHOFWe are seeing a lot of fungal work, right on and around the surface of the chipped beds. And early in the morning there are thousands of fragile mushroom bodies sprouting. 

For the fruit crops we placed deep mulches of chips around black raspberries, strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, grapes, strawberries, gooseberries, and some of our 100 fruit trees – but only had enough chips to mulch a handful of these rather large trees.

Wood chips are great for maximizing easy maintenance, especially with perennials and also with the crops like carrots and onions that are so hard to keep weeded. I intend to continue this practice, with the caveat that I find partially decomposed chips and don’t incorporate them into the soil, but leave them on top, and pull them aside as is necessary for replanting.

We cardboarded and then leafed and chipped almost an acre of land last winter that we then subsequently used for vegetables this year. The ½ acre that out-distanced the rest of the farm this year had been fallowed in 2014 with first cover crops, then over-wintered cows, then the cows came back, then the turkeys had a turn at the field before we put down the cardboard in late fall and winter of 2015.

Earthworm counts skyrocketed, and the brassicas, aside from some slug damage in cabbage, have pumped out the poundage. Today we picked over the broccoli for the 6th or 7th time, harvesting some side shoots that were 3 inches in diameter, and the kale remains a very high quality. Cabbage looper presence is very minimal.

In this field the tomatoes were planted through the cardboard, then tied to a fence, and extra chips were added for mulch. These plants, which miraculously missed the frost last night, are pumping out tomatoes now still, from tall and luxurious plants.

We removed the cardboard on six or so beds in this field and found the area teaming with earthworms. In this area we planted summer squash, soybeans, green beans, peppers, tomatillos, eggplants, and celery. The deep green color and mammoth frame size of all of these plants has been astounding, along with the ruffly, fractal–laden edges of the leaves. Only the green beans succumbed early to Mexican bean beetle and had only a modest showing. The fruit quality on the squash, tomatillos, peppers and eggplant is outstanding.

The quality and quantity of the produce from this field has opened our eyes to a new level of expectation of performance and quality for our vegetable crops. At this date a lot of the crops on the rest of the farm are in senescence, looking more like what I expect for late September/early October.


  • The combination of cover crops, animal manures placed by them, cardboard and leaves and chips has immensely improved fertility and crop quality.
  • Wood chips as mulch will save lots of time weeding and improve soil quality below the surface. I am hopeful that next season will show more benefits.
  • We will make more serious efforts to use our animals – chickens, pigs, cows, turkeys – in the “off season” to enhance soil quality, hopefully after well thought out cover crop rotations.

Areas for further study

  • Best ways to prepare a bed for planting in a no till setting. We hope to work more with solarization, larger quantities and more thoughtfully prepared composts from local materials

Practices that we have incorporated and will continue to build on

  • Annual application of minerals based on soil test analysis
  • In season drench with liquid fertility – we presently use Plant Sure from Agri-dynamics
  • In season foliar feeding with liquid fertility, fermented products
  • Interseeding of cover crops with plants when they are large enough to tolerate the competition – crimson red clover is a very good choice
  • Use of cocktail cover crops late in season for winter-kill (areas to be planted in April and May) and perennial covers (for later planting in June and July)
  • Using more land not so intensively – growing one or two crops in a bed rather than three and returning the area earlier to cover crops and/or animals
  • Maintaining green 20” pathways between 4’ wide beds to maximize photosynthesis, and water management – both for drought (this year’s struggle) and for excessive rain (next time we have that).

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