Timing is everything when it comes to soil building and healthy crops. If you till, tilling at the right time can make major differences in terms of the amount of damage to the soil and its recovery. Too wet or too dry, too warm or too cold will turn tillage into a terror. If you plant your main crops too late, companion plants and cover crops will overtake them before they are strong enough to compete; plant them too early and freezes or frosts may harm them in many climates.

On our farm our goal is to have up to six harvests per growing space per year, generally two to three for people and two to three for our livestock. Having multiple harvests means planning ahead and having a soil building game plan. Here is the plan that I generally follow to improve my soil. 

RELATED: Rapid Soil-Building Techniques to Kick-Start Your Garden

Breaking New Ground

  • Apply mulch in early fall. Include 2 inches or so of rotted wood chips, straw and so on.
  • Add chickens for four to 12 weeks to remove weeds and such. The length of time depends on the amount of space, number of chickens.
  • Lay down cardboard or other materials to keep those pesky weeds at bay.
  • Backfill with dirt and “compost in place,” lasagna-style, to improve soil.
  •  Mulch compost in place to trap moisture and heat.
  • Let material work for six to eight weeks, but be sure it gets enough water to stay active and moist.
  • Put in chickens to turn compost, reduce pests, add nitrogen and accelerate breakdown of materials into soil and humus.
  • After the hard-working chickens have done their job, remove them 30 to 60 days before planting crops.
  • Next, reapply mulch as needed to continue to trap moisture and heat.
  • Plant in the spring. First-year beds will be friendly to root crops (potatoes, sweet potatoes) and heavy feeders. In my experience, first-year beds built this way don’t mix well with onions.

RELATED: Soil Building Techniques Using Mulches And Fertilizers

Improve existing Gardens

  • After summer harvest is over, re-mulch in early fall (late September).
  • Bring in your faithful chickens for four weeks.
  • Add low tunnels over beds for your winter crops.
  • Lightly re-mulch if needed.
  • Give it a break! Allow soil to rest for 30 to 60 days.
  • Make the move. Transplant winter crops into low tunnels, harvest as ready/needed.
  • Prepare transplants for  early spring planting.
  • Depending on your growing zone, in March to April, place transplants for late spring crops into low tunnels.
  • Re-mulch your growing spaces as necessary.
  • If you see it is needed, a few weeks after transplanting, sow cover crops such as clovers and vetch.
  • In May to early June, harvest crops. If needed, give cover crops a few more weeks to grow.
  • After harvesting, move chickens into appropriate spaces to remove pests, crop residues and cover crops.
  • After chickens have tilled an area, allow the space to remain open and let it rest for 30 days.
  • Plant fall crops, using shade cloth if needed for heat-sensitive transplants.
  • Once fall crops are growing well, plant companion plants or cover crops, or a second crop of lettuces and certain greens.

Note: You can follow a similar procedure for summer’s heat-loving crops, such as tomatoes, by not planting a spring crop  and planting instead in May and June.

This article originally published in THE NEW PIONEER® Spring 2015 issue. Print and Digital Subscriptions to THE NEW PIONEER magazine are available here.

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