Vegetable production that protects the soil

Have you ever felt completely out of place? Watched, even? That’s how I felt returning to the city after spending the school holidays in the country. My fondest childhood memories are in the garden with my grandpa, watching the neighbours’ cattle, building things, bird watching, and exploring forests and creeks.

I feel so much wonder and joy in Nature that I have made my life’s mission to preserve it for everyone’s benefit, including future generations. I pursued a career in biology fueled by this passion and the conviction that increasing our knowledge would allow us to conserve and restore our ecosystems better.

While doing my PhD, and later working as a researcher and teacher, I had 3 realizations: 1) Agriculture is the biggest contributor to biodiversity loss globally (through land conversion, water overuse and pollution, pesticide use, etc.); (2) while biodiversity loss and climate change are urgent issues, good science takes a long time, and in the end it may or may not translate into better policy; and (3) spending my days sitting in front of a computer was going to destroy me physically and mentally. These, combined with the discovery of promising ways of producing food that support biodiversity, pushed me to start a farm.

I read a lot for years before taking the leap. I remember vividly finishing the great book “Teaming with Microbes” by Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis and thinking: “disturbing the soil is a bad idea”. Since then, I have become more familiar with the impacts of tilling: the destruction of soil aggregates and structure (which may affect water and air infiltration), the damage of soil life (particularly organisms larger than bacteria, like fungi, earthworms, etc.), the aeration of the soil (which leads to oxidation of soil organic matter and the release of CO2 into the atmosphere), the pulverization of soil particles (which may lead to erosion, compaction and other issues), and the stimulation of weed seeds, to name a few. So I decided to give no-till a try.

My partner Joanna and I had the immense privilege of having access to some land that had been a hay field for over a decade. That meant a nice blank slate, but also no infrastructure. While we built a little cabin, we started a home garden to trial the chemical-free methods I was planning to implement in the future market garden. We tarped the area from October to May. Then, we tried the lasagna method: lay down cardboard, 8 to 10 inches of old hay over it, and 2 to 4 inches of compost on the very top, then plant straight into it.

We had beautiful crops that year and learned a very important lesson: perennial grasses with rhizomes such as quack grass not only survived the tarping, but also poked through all the lasagna layers without a problem. This led to a lot of weeding and a second very important lesson: our relentless weeding on year one was followed by an almost grass-free garden on year two. So no-till can work if you don’t mind the initial labour investment.









Figure 1: Our first no-till garden, built using the lasagna method,

in the spring (left) and summer (right)

 Later that season, Joanna started an off-farm job, and I started prepping the future market garden while working at a local farm. Since then, Joanna has managed our home garden and I manage the commercial side of our farm. At a scale 5 times the size of our home garden, I didn’t want to be pulling grass all summer long, so I decided to take a different approach to establishing my ¼ acre market garden. I first tarped the area for 14 consecutive months[1]. Then, I decided to do a one-time tillage with a small rotovator a family friend had gifted us, to cut the sod in chunks. Then, rake and fork in hand, I painstakingly removed all the grass roots I could find[2].

Once I had a soil free of roots, I shaped thirty two 30 inch wide by 50 foot long permanent beds by laying down 6 inches of compost, and spread woodchips between them, creating 18 inch pathways. I also established 3 hedgerows (one on each long side of the garden, and one running down the middle) containing bird houses, perennial flowers, shrubs and small trees to create habitat for wildlife.

I have never tilled again, and I don’t plan to, because I don’t think it would be advantageous in any way. In fact, every time we disturb the soil (to bury pipes, for example), we see the effects: erosion, rampant weeds, poor water retention and infiltration, etc. We avoid all of these issues with no-till. I don’t practice no-till to be cool or trendy. I do it because it contributes to my goal of enhancing biodiversity and it is practical.

Four years into farming commercially at a small scale, the only weeds I have to deal with are air-dispersed pioneer plants like dandelion, lambs quarter, clovers and grasses, with the odd legacy hairy vetch. All in all, I spend less than 8 hours weeding in the whole season. That is 15-20 minutes per week, often casually while I harvest or plant. Most of the weeding is keeping the clovers and other plants growing in the hedgerows from invading my beds. Mind you, I put a lot of weeding hours in up front removing the sod, but it was so worth it.

Figure 2: One-time tillage, followed by root removal and laying down of compost and woodchips involved in the establishment of the ¼ acre market garden

The market garden is mostly dedicated to quick-growing vegetables like salad greens, roots, summer fruits, and herbs. I try to get between 2 and 4 different crops from every bed in our 24ish week growing season. When removing a crop, I always keep the roots in the ground, except when the roots are the crop, of course. To remove thin-stemmed plants like arugula and spinach, I use an electric mulching lawn mower at the lowest setting possible. If the plants are too tall for the mower, I scythe them at about 4 inches off the ground prior to mowing. For thick-stemmed plants like lettuce or tomatoes, I cut the stem just under the soil surface with a large harvest knife.

The removed biomass goes to feed our laying hens, to mulch another crop, or to the compost pile. Then, I either direct seed or transplant the next crop. I don’t love hauling compost around, so I only apply a 1 inch layer at the beginning of the season on every bed. That, along with some minor crop residue, seems to give us enough fertility for the season. When there is a long enough window of time between crops, I add cover crops into the rotation.

All the vegetables are sold from the farm. Every Monday I send a list detailing what is available to both retail and wholesale customers, and they place their orders from there. I also run a salad subscription, a type of CSA but only for salad ingredients. People can choose to pick up at the farm or have their orders delivered (within a 30 Km radius). Veggies are harvested just in time to get them off the field, washed, packed and delivered. They never stay in our fridge for more than 48 hours. That way, freshness and shelf life are maximized, and labour and products are never wasted. Some things like herbs are even harvested in front of the customer, so they don’t wilt.

In addition to the market garden, over the last two years we have established a 1/10 acre cut-your-own flower garden, a 1/6 acre you-pick berry garden, and a 1/4 acre agroforestry patch with three rows of fruit trees and wildflowers, plus storage and cover crops growing between them. I used the same method – till once, remove grass roots, lay down compost/mulch and/or plant crops or cover crops- for everything[3]. This has been successful at producing good crops with minimal weeding so far.

At a larger scale, removing perennial weeds manually may be impractical, but there are a lot of promising no-till methods gaining momentum for mechanized operations. For example, a large- scale farmer could do an initial tillage, grow a quick crop like wheat, plant a dense winter cover crop like rye, crimp the cover crop the following spring, and then plant another cash crop into the mulch created by the cover crop using a no-till drill.

If the cover crop establishes and grows well, and the timing is right (which admittedly takes time to master), the farmer could smother the weeds and make mulch and compost on site. All with minimum inputs of labour, fuel and seed, increasing soil organic matter and fertility along the way. Many vegetables growers use landscape fabric or other weed barriers to deal with perennial weeds in a no-till system. I personally prefer organic mulches like compost, leaves or straw.

Figure 3: Nature’s Apprentice Farm in its fourth year. Recently planted agroforestry patch in the front, market garden in the back, flower and berry gardens and solar panels on the right

Farming is the hardest work I have ever done, but learning from Nature every day is my favourite thing (that’s why we called our farm Nature’s Apprentice Farm). The researcher in me loves doing experiments and sharing successes and failures with others. This fall, we are doing a no-till trial to establish a ½ acre forest garden using a deep leaf mulch system with the help of a research grant from the Ecological Famers Association of Ontario.

Since we started, our soil organic matter has been rising steadily, we’ve enjoyed more and more diversity and abundance of life at the farm, and I’ve been able to pay myself an increasingly higher hourly wage (still very modest, but I hope to keep the trend going). If you need help implementing no-till in your garden or farm, please get in touch! I love to help people in the offseason.

If you want to learn more on your own, there are wonderful resources out there. My favourite books on the topic are the Living Soil Handbook by Jesse Frost, and the No-till Organic Vegetable Farm by Daniel Mays. Any of the content at (YouTube, podcasts, forum) is amazing and free. I have learned so much from them that I decided to support their work at

I dream of a future where most people are involved in growing food and they do so in a way that allows both the human and non-human world to thrive. Although our farm is still very new, I believe it is a good proof of concept that the use of regenerative principles, like avoiding soil disturbance, increasing diversity, keeping the soil planted and covered, and not using any chemicals, works for both Nature and people, including the farmer. I highly encourage every producer, regardless of scale, to give this a try. It is a practical, economical and beautiful way to live and grow.


Alberto Suárez

Nature’s Apprentice Farm

Pakenham, ON


[1] Even after this much time, including a summer cooking under the tarp, some of the grass came back once we removed the tarp and there was a timely rain. I have to tip my hat to these plants!

[2] All this material was piled over branches and logs to create a hugelkultur that was later planted with fruit trees.

[3] This may not be necessary at all if you don’t have persistent, perennial weeds like quack grass or bindweed.

How No-Till Can Grow On You