Down on the Farm

Our main garden is growing nicely, with the help of various forms of mulching.

The compost spreading festivities continued after being halted for a few days because one of the tractors sprung a leak in a tire. On the farm, there is always something breaking down and in need of repair. Fortunately, we caught the issue before anyone was hurt, and a tractor tire repair service was able to help us get back up and running.

In the meantime, our order of lime to spread on the hayfields was arriving. Our farm’s sandy soils lean acidic, and this natural ground rock helps to balance the pH as well as add needed calcium to the soil. A sign of low calcium in a field is the presence of daisies, which are able to thrive in such conditions and out-compete grasses and legumes. With a better pH balance and good calcium, the preferable forage crops thrive. Sheep are not fond of eating daisies, and when they are dried and baled, they won’t touch them at all, so the brittle, stalky biomass and efforts to harvest it yields no feed value. Uck.

Compared with our Allis Chalmers D-15s from the 1960s and our two old-fashioned manure spreaders, the dump truck, loader and spreader for the lime looks monstrous. Huge, wide tires support the immense weight of the spreader truck as it trundles down our winding lanes from field to field.

What would have taken us days and days to load and spread is meted out within a matter of hours — the rigs then loading up and hitting the road for the next spreading job. The yellow-white ground rock awaited rains to gently wash down into the soil.

Calcium lime is an important resource in the garden as well. Heavy feeding plants like tomatoes are especially dependent on the availability of calcium in the soil, or they fall prey to ailments such as blossom end rot. In the spring, as we prepare the high tunnel beds for our 150-plus tomato plants, sprinkling on and turning in the calcium lime, along with a healthy dose of compost, is a requisite part of the process.

Limestone (which is mined and then ground before agricultural use) is a sedimentary rock, usually consisting of organic materials such as ancient shells and coral that have been compressed. These remnants of ancient life offer current life renewal. Plenty of nutrients may be available to plants, but if the soil is too acidic, they cannot use it and therefore suffer. Just as with all other aspects in a sustainable ecosystem, the process must be tended and balanced.

In the hayfields, all of this tending can happen without disturbing the soil by gradually and gently layering on top through these spreading methods and allowing the rain, dung beetles and microbes to work their magic of integrating these amendments into the land.

In previous generations, it was believed that plowing and tilling was essential for soil health. The theory was that exposure to the sun and air brought nutrients to the soil. It turns out that the opposite is actually true — tillage causes nutrients, including nitrogen and the sequestered carbon, to escape into the air, depleting soil health. Keeping the soil covered then is critical for keeping these essential elements within the soil and out of the atmosphere.

No-till methodologies, such as our methods of tending our pastures and hayfields, are excellent for keeping the soil covered, carbon sequestered, and the permaculture microbiome undisturbed. But in the garden, some tillage is necessary for preparing the ground for the planting of annuals like beans, squash, tomatoes, carrots, etc. The old-school method of continuing to till the soil between rows of crop in the garden creates the same problem as tilling a field, but there are excellent alternatives.

Continued tilling in the garden is often used as a method of weed control. The tradeoff is loss of soil fertility but also loss of moisture retention. Mulching offers a much better alternative because it decreases weeds by smothering while leaving the soil undisturbed. Mulching also increases water retention as it hampers evaporation. In our gardens, we use three main methods of mulching: straw (or old hay), plastic and paper.

Each of these methods has its particular strengths. Straw or hay mulch is porous, so it allows the rain to penetrate, and it eventually breaks down into added organic matter in the soil while slowing down trends of warming or cooling of the earth like insulation.

Plastic mulch can be used to adjust the microclimate (black for heating the soil, white for cooling it) and can also serve to buffer sensitive plants from harmful soil microbes, such as preventing rain splash on tomatoes and therefore naturally decreasing blight.

Paper mulch can be helpful in higher traffic areas where plastic could tear, and we primarily use this method by repurposing our paper feed sacks in walkways between rows in the garden. Using these methods, tillage becomes just a once-a-year affair in the garden, conserving soil health and decreasing environmental impacts along with the need for hand weeding.

See you down on the farm sometime.

Laura Berlage is a co-owner of North Star Homestead Farms, LLC and Farmstead Creamery & Café. She can be reached at 715-462-3453 or

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