Spring Tillage

Oliver, five years old, our grandson, Miriam and I are kneeling in freshly turned soil in the Studio Garden about 10 o’clock in the morning, sunny blue sky, 60 degrees, mid-March, brightness sounds around us. I put my hand down about 8 inches into the furrow and pull up a cool moist sticky clod of soil. We break it apart, an earthworm squiggles free, Oliver is after it, lots of root hairs stick out.  I hand Miriam and Oliver a piece of the soil to feel and seeking comments from what is perceived. It is moist and cooler than the air, has a silky feel, breaks about when rolled about, lots of stick togetherness texture. Miriam says it is perfect for planting, Oliver is wondering where the worm got off to. Kneeling in the soil we start to warm, the sun’s rays make us feel like it is in the 80’s. Oliver and I take off a layer of shirts, he shows me that he has learned how to unbutton buttons, a monumental accomplishment of which he is duly proud.

This morning we are trying to determine if the soil is ready for planting. I am looking at a few scattered clods full of winter wheat roots still not broken down, clumps of soil of tiny almost invisible root hairs, a silky colloidal feel, moisture, temperature. Each spring we are anxious, waiting till just the right soil and weather conditions, eager to get going yet knowing acting too early when all is not right has consequences that could diminish soil quality for the rest of the year or even years. Farming like so many things of our life is made up of a lot of small actions along the way, and each matter in often surprising ways.  

What to do now so we may plant? There is no set law, just lots of theories. The Law is if you dig and dig or till and till the soil structure will disintegrate and the soil will eventually not be able to support plant life, or any life.  Therefor lots of theories, lots of ‘why this happens and explanations of how to avoid soil degradation and at the same time get that bit of earth ready to grow what we want it to grow and not what just would desire to grow there at this time of year. There are principles to guide us;  from 10,000 year of attempting a few - do this and that will happen precepts have arisen. Why does it happen? This is where the theories start arriving. Like watching Wallace Steven’s blackbirds:

I was of three minds,

Like a tree

In which there are three blackbirds.

In the past one hundred years the approaches that have been developed for growing and harvesting food from people asking how and then why seem to have been multiplying at the rate of Moore’s law. The issues are manyfold; How to get the soil to grow just the plant that we want grown and not the millions of other plants in the shortest amount of time producing a vibrant healthy plant and thereby crop or food to be eaten and at the same time reinvigorating the soil and increasing the fertility so after this plant is harvested the next one is ready to be planted and the cycle continues and improves and becomes easier faster cheaper and better results(like Moore’s law again) for as long as we humans are planting. Oh, and not wear and grind the farmer into the ground so that at the end of the process they have some energy left to eat the food.

Our approach at the moment is spread several tons of compost and dig 12 inch deep furrows into the soil with a chisel plow and let the air and warmth into the cool to cold spring soil which at the same time starts pulling out plants that have grown as a cover crop all winter. This process, so this theory goes kills off millions of microbes which thereby wakes up another host of soil organisms to eat the ones dying off and they spit out all sorts of nutrients which tell the soil to tell the seeds that it is time to sprout and grow because the nutrients are waiting. The trick or art or science is; if it doesn't rain again and soil moisture is low enough, to come again with the chisel plow to rip up more plants and roots and create more furrows and right when the seeds want to sprout disturb them and tear them out. I do this process a few times until the soil is screaming out to grow a crop. Then we put the crop we want to grow in the ground like potatoes, onion sets and plants, peas, beets, carrots, radishes, arugula and other plants that like to grow in the cool season.

The issues we face of raising food and working with the soil are many and complex seen and unseen, obvious and occult, earthly and cosmic.  All of nature and the cosmos can seem to be against us or for us - we feel like Child Roland at his Dark Tower facing this ringed emensity of giants against us. Moisture, temperature, the moon, the sun, day length,  the stars, warmth, longitude and latitude, millions of competing seeds, soil structure, microbes, fungi, bacteria, biology, mineralgy, microbiology, astrology, cosmology, and the biggest being banking and bills to pay are all part of the decision process.

Like the education of a child all the work we do, all the soil we work with, all the seeds we plant develop and ripen at a later time. The work we do to assist the sprouting, growing yields beneficial or not so beneficial or even disastrous results and fruit as the plant or person progresses further along in this earthly soil filled life. This whole formative process must be continually within view in order to develop a genuine farming (or teaching) method, based on real life perception.

Today it is sunny in the low 60’s.  No matter what we are going to get those potatoes (pontiac reds and Kennebec)  onions, peas, carrots, beets in the ground. Next the summer garden rises into focus.

Farming like so much of our life is something that I hope we can all agree on and that is that the long run is made up of a bunch of short runs.That seems obvious. The surprising thing is that we live our short runs as if that isn’t true.

 Not see? Because of night perhaps?- why, day

    Came back again for that! Before it left,

    The dying sunset kindled through a cleft;

The hills, like giants at a hunting , lay,

Chin upon hand, to see the game at bay, -

    “”Now stab and end the creature - to the


Not hear? When noise was everywhere! It tolled

   Increasing like a bell.  Names in my ears,

   Of all the lost adventurers my peers, -

How such a one was strong, and such was bold,

And such was fortunate, yet each of old

   Lost, lost ! one moment knelled the woe of



There they stood, ranged along the hill-sides, met

     To view the last of me, a living frame

      For one more picture! In a sheet of flame

I saw them and I knew them all. And yet

Dauntless the slug-horn to my lips I set,

     And blew. ‘“Childe Roland to the Dark Tower came.”