Tilth on a Gravel Pit

Adding straw over poop pilesIts January, the middle of winter in the Pacific Northwest, and most people are not thinking about their garden or the task of gardening.

But out here, in the mountains, our homestead is performing very important garden related activities that influence the sustainability of the land to support not only the animals that graze it, but also the humans that depend on it for some food.  In fact the picture to the left shows a very important process underway which will lead us to looking like the picture you’ll see at the bottom of this article.

When first purchased, this land had the most excellent feature of being very well drained, a big plus in the Northwest known for wet, damp, and basic rainforest type qualities. The reason for its drainage: the land is essentially a gravel pit. In fact, if not for our plan to build a guest ranch featuring yurts for the public to “glamp”, it could have been sold to one of the several quarries that also exist out this way. All you will find if you took a shovel and started digging is rock, rock, sand, more rock, and occasionally some jade (which is rock too). Basically, this mountain area is not known for its agricultural operations.  You’ll find all those types of farms down in the lowlands,  the place where millions of years ago the glaciers that passed through here took all the soils and deposited them, leaving nothing but rock, boulders, and gravel behind.  So, there was a big challenge ahead of us if we were to set up a homestead, and that was essentially to create soils. Actually, the goal was to create Tilth, or healthy soils, or healthy soil micro-ecologies; and no, the solution didn’t reside in hiring a fleet of dump trucks to bring that dirt back up here from the valleys below.Turkeys occupy pasture and create tilth

Instead, we veered towards an approach espoused in Permaculture principles: letting nature do the work while the humans cultivate around the edges, giving a little nudge here and there. Of course, there was the initial hard labor of clearing logging debris, stumps, pulling brush and blackberries and bracken fern, but our story really starts after we’ve cleaned the land and burned the debris (in a way, we used nature’s own forest fire approach to step the land back to an alpine meadow stage of growth when we burned the stump piles). In fact, we did what most would do after that task: threw pasture seed mixes down with a good dose of lime to sweeten the soil. But still, the story of tilth doesn’t end there, heck, it doesn’t even start there. 

The concept of creating tilth has to do with setting up a cycle where nature is in balance with the uses of the land by humans and animals in such a way that both are replenished, indeed both benefit from abundance. So, while those grasses were growing we had a few more tasks ahead of us. One task was that of installing fencing, both perimeter and cross-fencing to create pastures for the herd of alpacas to graze. Again, here is where our approach differs from the norm, we took these large swaths of land and divided them into the smallest units of pasture we thought we could manage (or had a supply of fencing for. Indeed, later we even subdivided those into smaller pastures!) Closer to the barn area, we created a series of paddocks which contained the essentials for the herd: shelter, hay feeders, and water sources. So instead of having a larger field for a herd of animals to live upon, we not only separated their living quarters from their grazing spaces, but we also created the ability to control where, when, and how much of the pastures would be grazed by the herd at any given time.  This concept of rotational grazing became a cornerstone of herd and pasture management that sets us up to have a healthy cycle which promotes tilth, which gives us abundance.  That’s a step in the right direction.

Chicken Tractor does its job in the pasturesTo complete this cycle of tilth, we still had some steps in the cycle to manage.  For example, how do we feed the pastures that are feeding the herd? How do we manage the animal manures in the pastures? How do we overcome mossy spots, which are so prevalent in a rainforest, so that grasses will grow instead?  For this we turned to using a tractor, of sorts, a chicken tractor!  Its referred to as such because it performs all the functions of a tractor (harrowing, raking, spreading manure) and then some (weeding, bug eating, fertilizing). As the herd moves through the pastures during the summer, the chicken tractor follows them and does its job (see my previous blog entries for more details about the chicken tractor). This moveable flock of birds has the effect of scratching up mossy spots, decimating the biting fly population that lays their eggs in animal manure, and feeds the grasses with a high nitrogen fertilizer they produce from all the bugs they eat!

It’s a smooth running cycle with observable results during the spring, summer, and fall seasons when the grasses are growing.  Then the weather starts to change and winter brings a slowing down of growth and even some dormancy.  Its not a time when we want to see animals grazing, the pasture simply cannot keep up. In a traditional approach of just giving the herd a large field to live on, we’d eventually see more and more bare ground as grasses get eaten away and mosses start replacing them. The field itself can no longer maintain itself as a food source for the herd. In fact, nature is now combatting the effects by turning towards the more opportunist plants which can survive such conditions, that’s moss. However, in our approach, we return the herd to the barn area for the winter where we have stored their winter allotment of hay, and the pastures are allowed to rest. 

Winter shelter for the herd at their hay feedersNot all stops there however, still there is work to be done around the barn!  During the winter time, the two largest paddocks in front of the barn are open to the herd.  They quickly devour anything green in that area, essentially causing the ground to go fallow and bare.  They gladly leave manure on the ground there too. The rest of the barn areas, including the sheltered areas,  have a layer of screened sand instead of dirt. This is the area they sleep, eat hay, drink water, and grow their awesome fiber. We keep these sandy areas raked and cleaned on a daily basis, picking up any manure piles to the compost bins for use in the garden beds.

As for the front paddocks, a different strategy is afoot there. Instead of poop pickup, we practice poop cover up.  All the raked waste hay and additional straw gets added right over the manure piles in that front area.  This ground is exposed to the weather, and the chickens from the coop, and decomposes over the winter time.  Because we are adding sequestered carbon in the form of straw, we don’t have bacterial problems, overly muddy areas, or any smells. 


Wheat grows tall in the paddock during the summerA natural decomposition is occurring, with the aid of the roaming chickens, and what we end up with is two paddocks with a rich fluffy bed for planting in the spring. This past season we grew wheat and veggies there. This next year we’ll see more wheat and oats. As pasture grazing season kicks back in, these paddocks get closed off from the herd and planted with grain crops.  The grain crops give us a harvest not only of grain, but of straw which we can return right to that space to help increase the tilth. Thus, the cycle is complete, continuous, easy to manage, and beneficial not only to the humans and animals which use it, but also to the land and the micro-biology that calls it home as well. 

Wheat Harvesting

This approach to managing the land has many side benefits as well.  Because of the rotational grazing, we are able to break all parasite and worm cycles, and thus there is no need to give deworming medications to the herd.  Because we add more carbon to the manure in the paddocks, we don’t worry about a rise in bad bacteria, like E. coli, that could make the herd sick.  In fact, we do regular tests of the manure we pick up from around the barn to see what our levels of bacterias,  Strongyles, and Coccidia are and have yet to see any rise to cause a concern.

What we’ve achieved is a healthy balance of flora and fauna interacting with each other to the benefit of each other. That’s Tilth!

About David

Making manifest the change I want to see in the world through the hospitality of a humble little homestead campground with yurts and alpacas.
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