Leave the tilling to the earthworms

This is a native bee next box tied to a fence post in the garden.  It is a new one, so all tunnels are empty, waiting for the female bees to use them for the first time this May.
Reeser Manley | BDN
This is a native bee next box tied to a fence post in the garden. It is a new one, so all tunnels are empty, waiting for the female bees to use them for the first time this May.
Posted April 22, 2011, at 1 p.m.

The garden’s life is waking. The beds are bare, their dark soil soaking up rain one day, warmed by sunlight the next. At their surface or just below, signs of the garden’s awakening abound. Scarab beetles, tossed up in the digging of postholes for the garden’s new gate, lumber sleepily over clods of damp clay. Earthworms tunnel just below the soil surface while a stubby banded woolly caterpillar crawls lazily above them. All around, birds argue about nesting territory.

A bumblebee queen stirs in her underground nest at the edge of the garden where she spent the long winter alone, the sole survivor of a teeming summer colony. In a week or so, she will be seen flying over the garden in search of early nectar. She will be joined by adult solitary bees, awakened from a long winter’s sleep in cramped cells stacked end-to-end in an old log, searching first for mates, then for dandelions in bloom.

And the life the gardener cannot see, but knows must be there, is waking. Single-celled and multicellular, these invisible soil-builders, bacteria and fungi, begin their work of breaking down organic matter into nutrients that the garden’s plants must have to succeed. As the soil warms, their populations expand.

Into this community of life, this ecosystem called the garden, comes the gentle gardener. She treads lightly on paths made for walking, circling beds raised above the paths by years of topdressing with compost. She carries only tools that fit her hand, extensions of her hand. No plow, no tiller has ever been in this garden.

She sows seeds and transplants seedlings with the least possible disturbance of the life around them, for it is this life that will feed the growing plants, enable them to mature, to bear leaves and fruit. Weeds, if they are troublesome, are pulled by hand. She has a helper, a partner, and between them, the garden thrives.

I started gardening several decades ago at a time when double-digging of garden beds was the prevailing paradigm. Now I know better, having arrived at a view of the gardener as caretaker of the life in the garden. In this view, deep tilling of the soil is anathema.

Marjorie and I have had some interesting discussions recently on the question of when, if ever, the soil should be invaded by a spade, considering the disruption of life that this act creates.  For example, is cover-cropping with winter rye worth the disruption of soil life caused by digging in the cover crop?

Perhaps not, at least not every year. Perhaps the same goal, increasing the organic matter content of the soil, can be accomplished by top-dressing with composted manure. This was my thinking when I realized how many earthworms I kill when I turn over a cover crop. (No, they don’t grow back the missing half. They die.) Not to mention the disruption of microbial life in the soil caused by digging.

So, when I plant peas this week, I will do it as noninvasively as possible, making furrows in the soil and covering the seeds by hand.  I may relocate a worm or two, but I won’t bisect any.  And life below the inch-deep furrows will go on undisturbed. When I transplant tomato seedlings in early June, I will dig the planting holes by hand, throwing a handful of compost in the bottom of each hole to compensate for the disturbance.

Meanwhile, the native bee nest boxes are tied to garden fence posts, awaiting emergence of the adult bees residing in tunnels drilled into the wood. These small native bees have spent the last nine months in tiny cells stacked end-to-end within each tunnel, starting out life as an egg, spending the winter months as a sleeping adult. The males emerge first, followed by females, who seek out the males for mating before renewing the cycle. The pollen and nectar needed to nourish adults and future larvae will come, we hope, from garden plants, thus assuring pollination of those plants.

I can count on one hand the number of honeybees I see in the garden each summer.  But solitary bees abound, along with bumblebees, which nest beneath old tree stumps at the edge of the garden. Together, these native bees ensure the productivity of plants that depend on pollination for fruit production, including blueberries, strawberries, squash, cucumber, tomatoes and other veggies.

Nourishing life in the garden, treading lightly, minimizing disturbance of the soil, providing habitat for pollinators and other wildlife, this is the gardener’s work. Leave the tilling to the earthworms.

Send queries to Gardening Questions, P.O. Box 418, Ellsworth 04605, or to rmanley@shead.org. Include name, address and telephone number.

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