by Lee Reich;
In his latest book, U.S. writer Lee Reich introduces us to a new way of approaching soil. Disturb it as little as possible, he says. Don't till or cultivate, not even to dig in organic materials. Instead, dig only however much is needed to, say, plant seedlings or harvest root vegetables. Following this practice, along with other, more traditional ones-such as applying a layer of mulch over soil-produces happier, more desirable plants and fewer undesirable ones, Reich says.
The introduction offers historical references that endorse leaving the soil alone and ones that go against this approach. Eighteenth-century American farmer Jethro Tull advocated pulverizing the soil so plant roots could more effectively gobble up nutrients. In contrast, a desire to make gardening less work prompted Ruth Stout in the 1950s to merely poke large seeds into the hay she used to blanket the ground. Reich says he's drawn from what has been tried and from what he's observed in nature over the past 20 years to come up with a new, low maintenance system that he calls weedless gardening.
The first chapter refutes current digging practices such as turning the soil to get rid of weeds-effective only in the short term because it exposes millions of dormant weed seeds to light and air, causing the seeds to germinate. Digging to amend soil is also ineffective because soil bacteria and fungi, fuelled by air,
then burn up organic material too rapidly, setting back seeds or seedlings that are planted immediately, and also depleting what's available for future use.
Alternatively, Reich says, look to prairies, meadows and forests for inspiration, where soil maintains natural layering from the top down.
The first two tenets of his approach to soil are minimizing soil disruption and mulching. The third tenet is to keep off planted areas. Create paths or stepping stones, and keep to them. The final tenet is to water shallowly and often using drip irrigation.
The book elaborates on these tenets, and discusses how to apply them in vegetable gardens, formal flower beds and mixed borders. Also included: what mulches to use where, use of covercrops to enrich the soil and good fertilizer candidates.
A few sections, such as how to make compost, seem extraneous to Reich's unique approach. But if you're turning conventional wisdom on its head all over the place, you might want to show that you're not completely an anarchist; that there is-as always-common, undisputed ground.