Working a 9-to-5 job, I don’t have time to pull weeds every day so I sure won’t be able to do so during TEOTWAWKI when time and operational security are scarce. So, I have spent a lot of time experimenting with techniques to reduce weed growth and improve soil conditions that require minimal inputs and labor. Here I present three methods of preparing new garden beds and maintaining existing beds that require only hand tools. These techniques are particularly suitable for individuals who want to turn existing sod into high-intensity gardening as happened in March of 2020 when many suburban and urban homeowners frantically tried to turn lawns into beds when they realized the fragility of the food chain.
In addition, these techniques eliminate the use of small engine noises. During situations like the breakdown of civil order or hyperinflation, it may be very important for operational security to minimize small engine noises so as to not signal the presence of abundant food at a particular home. And for the elderly or ill, these techniques do not require much physical labor besides bending over.
1. Sheet Composting
The most popular of these no-till methods enrich the soil while providing weed suppression by blocking sunlight. I originally used this method of sheet composting to convert portions of my lawn into rich garden beds without a tiller or tractor. Also called lasagna gardening, the sheet composting technique uses layers of carbon and nitrogen biomass. Begin with a heavy layer of cardboard or if not available newsprint. Layer more carbon materials onto this layer. Leaves, [some types of] sawdust, [some types of] wood chips, or [some types of] rotten logs are ideal. Then cover with nitrogen-rich material such as kitchen scraps, lawn clippings in small amounts, or animal droppings. Keep layering nitrogen and carbon until you have at least 2’ of material. I have found that you want at least around an 8:1 ratio of carbon to nitrogen. And also, be careful not to put “hot” nitrogen materials like chicken litter immediately on top of your base cardboard layer as it will quickly reduce the ability of the base to block sunlight. In arid climates, water occasionally.
How long it will take for the compost to cook will depend on your area, but we have been able to plant in 4-6 months after laying down all the material. Sheeting composting in fall or winter when you have access to leaves is a perfect time to prepare for spring planting. When it is time to plant, simply take a spade and dig right where you want to put the transplant or direct seed. Leave the rest of the bed undisturbed. When beginning sheet composting, it is easiest to plant transplants or tubers. However, it is certainly possible to direct seed. You can work the seeds into the layer of compost without disturbing the soil, though in our experience this may result in uneven germination. Or, simply dig a 1” deep by 3-4” wide trench with your hoe. Plant seeds in a trench and then, after thinning, throw compost heavily around the small plants as you have disturbed the weed bed in the trench. For plants like watermelons that grow best in a mound, I’m not shy about pushing the dirt around, but I then place sheets of newspaper to cover the mound except where the seed was placed.
Using sheet composting substantially improved my soil and yields, and it provided a very low tech way to convert sod into productive land. I would recommend using this method now while many of the inputs are easily available. Cardboard is very easy to source from appliance or grocery stores. When I go into town in the fall, I pick up more than enough bags of leaves on the curb. And while I would never buy a cup of coffee at a certain coffee chain due to its support of evil, I will take their coffee grinds for free which they give you if you ask.
However, I would not recommend using sheet composting solely as your method of bed preparation in a crisis situation. It is very hard to acquire enough inputs (compostable materials) to scale up production even at a time when you can simply pick them up off the curb. In TEOTWAWKI, it would be extremely difficult for most people to gather enough inputs. In addition, there is a risk that during subsequent years of sheet composting you will develop intractable perennial weeds. For this technique, the primary mechanism of weed control is blocking sunlight from weeds while minimizing exposure of the layer of soil that contains weed seeds (the weed bed). However, unless one is consistently putting down very thick and large amounts of opaque material, you are not killing the weeds but simply retarding their growth. We have found that after 3-4 years of sheet composting that we develop significant problems with Bermuda grass infiltrating the bed. This plant grows via rhizomes so it spreads its roots underneath the composting layer, and it grows up immediately when the bed is disturbed or the material cooks down.
If you have ever laid a windowpane on the ground during a project, you will know that when you come back a week later you will have bare dirt. Solarization traps sunlight to increase the temperature of the soil and vegetation. In addition to substantially killing existing weeds and weeds in the weed bed, this method has benefits for controlling fungi, nematodes, and other pests. Studies have found a 94% reduction in weed seeds in solarized beds compared to non-solarized beds (Masabni and Franco, 2017). To solarize, you can either till or simply scrape the soil with a hoe to remove as many plants as you can. Lay down clear plastic. Painter’s plastic is standard, and I would recommend at least a 3 ml thickness. Non-standard sources for foraging in a crisis include shower curtain liners or clear vapor barriers on insulation. Leave the plastic in place for at least four weeks. For spring planting, we laid our plastic down in the last week of January. Since it is darker and colder now, I am going to keep it down until I am ready to plant in 3 months.
Once I am ready to plant, I will take the plastic off and move it to another plot to prepare the bed for summer planting. I cover the active bed with a layer of rotted compost (leaves from the fall, chicken litter, rabbit droppings, and kitchen scraps) to provide a layer of mulch. I run drip irrigation on top of this and then a light (2”) layer of new leaves but hand watering is of course a fine option. After you harvest, it best to cover up the soil. An easy way to do this is to plant a cover crop like rye or clover. Direct seed the cover crop by lightly working the seeds into the layer of mulch and then water well. Mow it down and compost or feed to the animals when you are ready to solarize again.
The final method of no-till garden management is similar to solarization but has a different role in the survival garden. Like solarization, occultation raises the temperature of the soil through the greenhouse effect. The opaque plastic of occultation also prevents sunlight from reaching the plants and seeds in the bed, unlike the clear plastic of solarization. Because sunlight is deflected, there is a relatively lower increase in soil temperature compared to solarization. To use occultation, clear debris and plant material using a hoe then tightly fit a tarp or black plastic over the bed. Leave in place in at least 6 weeks and spread compost and plant without tilling.
Compared to solarization, one advantage of occultation is that a tarp is more likely to be found in the prepared household. Tarps can also be reused more times than painter’s plastic. In addition, occultation may harm pose less harm to the beneficial microrganisms of the soil compared to solarization which has more of a sterilization effect (Smith et al., 2017). One disadvantage of occultation is that it takes longer to provide adequate weed suppression. Smith and colleagues (2017) found a complete removal of weed seeds from the weed bed at four weeks using solarization but only a significant reduction of weed seed count at six weeks using occultation.
Putting the no-till garden together
All three techniques are suitable for gardening in an austere environment, and particular application will depend on your available resources and context. For improving existing beds, sheet composting in the offseason or solarization followed by mulching with compost are very effective techniques. If sheet composting, I would still recommend periodic solarization after the organic matter has completely broken down to reduce the weed bed. If converting sod into productive land, I would suggest mowing the grass as short as you can and then using occultation to kill at least the visible grass. Next, use sheet composting for at least the first season to improve and aerate the soil. After a bed has been established, plant cover crops followed by seasonal solarization and mulching with compost.