For many gardeners interested in organic gardening, it’s natural to want to till the soil before planting, but there’s growing evidence that this may not be the best course of action. By tilling healthy soil, you’re tearing up valuable mycelium (the web-like structure of fungi in the soil that is instrumental in bringing nutrients to plant roots) and wreaking havoc on earthworms and other underground inhabitants. “When you don’t disturb the soil, you don’t disturb the soil food web. The beneficial insect habitat is remarkable,” said Helen Atthowe, a lifelong student of soil improvement.

After leaving Montana in 1979, Helen studied at a farm in northeast Georgia that employed Masanoba Fukuoka’s techniques. Fukuoka, the father of natural farming, appreciated the perfection of nature and worked for decades to reach the same level of simplicity in growing his own crops.

Permanent Organics

In the late 1980s, Helen transitioned a 200-acre vegetable and fruit farm in Missoula, Montana, from an integrated pest management system to an organic one. As the years passed, she leaned more toward “permanent organic agriculture.” She tilled less and less and relied upon cover crops to provide organic residue and an ecological balance. Now she spends time between her cabin in Montana and Woodleaf Farm, an organic  farm tucked into the Sierra Nevada foothills of California.

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