Friday, April 16, 2010


For years, Farmer Ricky has been seeing how no-till cardboard mulch-prepared beds can produce delicious vegetables without machinery and the kind of repetitive deep cultivation of the soil that can cause deterioration of the soil ecology. Earthworms are the key in his system - and there are lots of them, very soon after laying down the cardboard. One reason for applying for the SARE grant was to figure out what aspect of his method promotes this activity.

The 4 different beds described in the previous post are our attempt to pick this system apart a little. Here's the rationale:

Cardboard+Mulch Hay: These beds will have a layer of cardboard covered by 6" of mulch hay, Ricky's method of choice.

By covering the bed this way several things might be happening that attract the earthworms: conserving moisture, protection from predators (the robin's don't seem to want to pierce the cardboard!), temperature control, blocking sunlight, providing nutrients from breakdown.

To see which of these might be "the" factor, there are two other test conditions:

Newspaper + Mulch hay: By applying a layer of newsprint approximately as thick as the cardboard, and covering with the same amount of mulch hay, we will see if it is a property of the covering material itself (the glue effect?).

Mulch hay only: If we take away the first layer some of the shade, moisture and temperature properties will be different and we will see what effect this has. As mulch hay alone is a very common application to gardens - both permanent no-till raised beds and tilled furrow style plantings, we will have an analogy to more common practice.

"Undisturbed" beds: These will have no mulch, and will serve as the "control". They won't be totally undisturbed, though, because we have to treat them the same way as the other beds. For instance - when we applied the mulches it was a windy day, so we soaked the layers with water to keep them from blowing away - so we applied the same amount of water to the Undisturbed plots. That way, we are narrowing the search for effects to the mulch properties, not whether or not the bed got watered. Similarly, we compacted the mulch by lightly tamping it with the back of a landscape rake, so to have a "real" control on the undisturbed beds, we walked over them with the landscape rake too.

Over the course of the growing season we'll monitor the soil moisture, temperature, pH, organic matter content, presence of earthworms, and beneficial fungal colonization. We have three of each bed, so that measurements will be replicated for each condition, to provide some statistical data about how much variation there might be between beds within the larger plot.

Another exciting aspect of this research is monitoring the plants themselves for nutrient density (a term we'll look at in a future post)- we will monitor sap pH and the sugar and mineral content. Not to mention we'll monitor them for flavor!

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

Laying it Out

The test plots are on an area that was cleared of re-growth forest about 5 years ago. Nothing has been done to disturb the soil here, its virgin ground as far as agricultural use goes. The topsoil is pretty thin, some places as little as 2", at the deep end closer to 6". Not what you'd think of as prime! We are sending soil samples to get a soil profile, which will tell us what the mineral and textural composition of the soil is. We will also be sampling at the start (now), mid season, and post harvest for standard soil tests as well as some more unusual ones - we will monitor the biological activity of the soil through microbial activity assays, we'll count earthworms, and we'll be collaborating with Chris Picone from Fitchburg State College and his students to find out if agriculturally beneficial fungal mycorrhizae populate the soil.

We laid out 12 10'x10' plots, three each of:
"control" undisturbed soil :

"CBMH" cardboard covered with mulch hay:

"NPMH" newsprint covered with mulch hay:

"MHO" mulch hay only:

Tuesday, April 13, 2010

Hatching the Plots

Ricky Baruc, at Seeds of Solidarity Farm in Orange MA, has been an avid proponent of what he calls "The Cardboard Method" - a "no-till" seed bed preparation protocol he's been using for several years in his small scale commercial production. He places sheets of cardboard - appliance and furniture boxes form a local warehouse - directly on new ground, then covers it with mulch hay. At planting time, he pierces the cardboard, makes a small hole, fills it with compost, then plants into that hole. Voila! a permanent mulched bed. Well, nothing radical or new about mulched beds...
The secret ingredient appears to be he cardboard layer. Earthworms love it - most likely the protein in the hide glue that binds the layers. Masses of earthworms are drawn to the cardboard - and on their way they perform all the "tillage" the beds seem to need and enrich the soil with their fertile castings.
Ricky has led many workshops teaching people how they can transform lawn, sod, recently cleared unbroken land into productive gardens using this method. He's demonstrated it can be used to farm commercially. He has lots of ideas about why and how it works, but also a desire to "dig a little deeper" and "get to the root" of it.
Last December, we got together and wrote a proposal for a SARE (Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education) farmer grant, to investigate the properties of the soil and the plants grown in these type of beds.
We were fortunate to receive the award, and now with this early spring, have started the process of establishing 12 test plots at the farm where we will create beds in an attempt to pick apart what part of the method attracts the earthworms, measure the changes in soil properties, and measure the nutrient and mineral properties of the crops grown.
And we will document it all right here for you to follow along - as well as in a set of "TV Plots" that will have video tutorials of the process - we want you to try this at home!
Ricky and Rachel Creating a TV Plot