Is plowing bad for soil?
After having trouble establishing vegetables I sought some advice from an experienced natural farmer.
He told me to “Plow the soil once for the last time to awaken the soil”. I was really shocked by this. I thought plowing was bad in any circumstance I said to myself… Did I miss something?
I looked through Masanobu’s books for all references on plowing. I could find only one vague indirect reference to plow the field before starting a farm, all other references were all about how bad plowing was. I could also find a reference by Bhaskar Save on plowing the field once.
So I started thinking about it for some time and it is slowly started to make sense.
First of all, we need to ask the question: Why do people plow in the first place?
When asked the local farmers here why they plow they would say that “The best soil is deeper, the deeper and more frequent one plows the better”.
Other farmers might say that “Plowing removes the weeds and makes seeds easier to plant”. Yet others simply say “My parents have done it, my grandparents have done it, and it works”.
More educated ones would say “It is to prevent succession”.
Maybe there is some truth in each of these, but none is really correct.
Those Who Did Not Plow
At a certain time in history plowing was only done in small parts of the world, and before that time nowhere at all. I do not know the exact history of plowing, but at some point, people realized that if a field was plowed, especially if that field had hardened or compacted soil the crops would grow a lot better. Then in their logic, they thought that if a field is plowed once and increases fertility then plowing it 2 times is even better, and 10 times even better than that. Soon you got people plowing all over the place.
Plowing once will work to increase fertility, plowing a second time will work too, but slightly less tho not noticeably different. Plowing many times a year; year after year is self-destruction and one of the reasons for rampant desertification, besides chemical fertilizers, it is the quickest way to remove fertility.
And altho the plow spread across the world, still there were many people who did not plow which were the tribal people that lived in or near the forest. As plowing is essentially anti-forest – those people who depended on the forest did not have any reason to take up the plow. So then how did the non-plowers farm?
Most of the non-plowing tribal people used only a sharp stick to poke holes into the soil and place seeds into it. This could be done because the soil was fertile and loose with a good structure. This good loose soil was maintained by the forest. When the tribal people wanted a field for vegetables or crops they cut down a small part of the forest and burned it. This is also called slash and burn agriculture.
The soil of the field would remain fertile for around 5 years, but after that period the soil would start compacting and eroding from the sun. As the soil hardened weeds became more aggressive and harder to manage as the weeds were desperately trying to heal the soil.
So after 5 years, the field would be completely abandoned and a new area of forest would be cut and burned. The abandoned field would soon be covered with weeds and as the years’ progress trees would grow up and the soil would slowly recover. This recovery period would generally take 5 to 10, up to 50 years. In the meantime, the new field would be depleted and so the old recovered field could be re-cut and re-burned again.
This is probably how our ancestors have farmed for tens if not hundreds of thousands of years. With the much smaller human population back then this type of farming was completely sustainable.
As you can see it is possible to recover the soil and nature completely by never plowing and simply growing a mixture of weeds, root crops, and trees; but the progress is really slow.
We can speed up the process with plowing, but only if we are very careful because plowing is like raping mother earth.
Move With Nature In The Same Direction, Not Against It
Before we start aimlessly plowing we need to ask ourselves: “What does nature want or need?”
So what nature wants is the following:
- Permanent living ground cover of plants or trees to protect the soil from eroding elements.
- Permanent capture of sunlight for the production of biomass.
- High organic matter content.
- Damp and cool soil.
- Thriving and biodiverse populations of microorganisms and insects.
- Loose soil to allow oxygen and water penetration.
- Loose soil for easy root growth.
Nature can achieve all of the above completely on its own. In degraded soil that has low organic matter; compacted soil; and no thriving microorganisms, the first thing that will happen is that many kinds of grass and herbs with deep roots will grow. The weeds that will grow first on such degraded soil will usually have the following characteristics:
- Sun tolerant.
- Drought tolerant.
- Flood tolerant.
- Grows fast.
- Spread seeds fast.
- Can thrive in soils with low fertility.
- Self-pollinated (no need for cross-pollination).
- This is all from what I have observed on my own land.
As the herbaceous weeds grow and die year after year slowly the soil will become better. The roots will penetrate the soil causing the soil to be plowed and soften. When the roots die and the leaves fall to the ground this will increase the organic matter content and create a mulch layer. The mulch layer of the previous year’s growth combined with the living groundcover of the present year will prevent the soil from drying out and together will reduce the evaporation rate and cool down the soil.
All of this combined will allow for the perfect micro-climate to make insects and microorganisms thrive. The burrowing of these microorganisms and insects will further plow the soil and the breakdown of organic matter will increase fertility and loosen the soil more.
Slowly spiraling out to even more fertility, biodiversity, and soil improvement.
Next short-lived pioneer trees will start to grow up between the weeds, these trees often have the same characteristics as mentioned above. The trees will send their roots ever deeper down to break up the soil even more and their canopies create more shade and biomass.
When the pioneer trees become bigger the weeds underneath them are shaded out and will start dying. These sun tolerant weeds will be replaced by shade-loving weeds which grow slower, but are usually more biodiverse and provide food for animals. As time goes on different animals come in and their pooping also brings in extra fertilizers and new seeds from other areas.
Finally, the giant long-living trees start growing up under the canopy of the pioneer trees. The long-living trees usually can not handle sun and drought at a young fragile age and need lots of nutrients to grow well, yet when they are mature they can handle all the sun, droughts, and provide their own fertility through the constant leaf litter. Once they outgrow the pioneer trees, just like the weeds in the beginning the pioneer trees will die and slowly disappear.
Where Plowing Comes In
What is plowing, anyway?
In the list of what nature wants above plowing can only achieve the last 2 of creating loose soil, but it is these 2 things that create the conditions for all the other things.
What nature is trying to do with aggressive weeds is to make the soil looser while at the same time trying to do everything else at once (covering the soil, increasing organic matter, increasing biodiversity, preventing soil erosion, and so on).
As this process is quite slow and we as human beings are not able to live so long, we can help speed up the recovery with plowing, but only if we do it right.
And the right thing to do is to plow only once and never again. And immediately after plowing we must either sow a fast-growing crop or plant fast-growing trees or both.
This is because when we plow a field all vegetation is lost and the soil is exposed to the sun and rain which will cause further erosion; so we must prevent this from happening by covering the soil with living plants. When the soil is plowed only once we have already achieved what nature wants and no further plowing is needed ever again if one follows the direction of nature.. namely permanent groundcover and the Guiding principles of natural farming [Link will be added later]
If we keep further plowing after having plowed once then the soil will start degrading and eroding more and more. Once the soil is loose, making it even looser by plowing more will turn it into a sand-like texture. Then as the vegetation is lost and the land is left bare, naked, and exposed the topsoil will go away through rain and wind. Furthermore what is leftover will cook in the sun and all microorganisms will die and the soil will harden again… One will be left worse off than before.
Do note here that I am specifically talking about highly compacted and hardened soil, if your soil is already loose or sandy I believe there is no real need to plow once, instead rapidly increasing biomass and organic matter content is the best thing to do. And if your soil is already fertile and healthy then plowing even once will be extremely destructive.
Some people may say that plowing even once is bad as it kills off the microorganisms helping soil fertility. However degraded compacted soils usually have very little biodiverse and thriving microorganism populations, because the environment for them is not conducive.
Therefore plowing degraded soil would not be as bad as it is made out to be.
It is true that one can plow the soil through plant roots and insect activity, but in hard compacted soil roots and insects will have a difficult time even pushing through the soil, so why not help them out once and for all? As we plow the soil once for the last time on a hardened soil we allow nature to spiral more quickly into the next succession of achieving its goals and you as a natural farmer will be rewarded for it.
What I Have Done
I have taken both sides on my farm. The “plow once for the last time” method works well for vegetable fields, because vegetables usually have shallow roots compared to trees. Most plows can only plow the surface and will never be able to plow as deep as tree roots grow.
For planting trees it is also beneficial to do the “plow once” method, but it is not entirely necessary as tree roots can penetrate the soil more easily.
Before I knew about the “Plow once” method I had already planted a lot of trees and mulched the land with large wooden branches and small twigs. It would be very hard to maneuver a plow through the area. However, I still have a small area which is about 15% of the land where barely any trees are planted. I have asked my neighbor to plow this area with is a traditional ox-drawn plow.
I shall see how the non-plowed and one-time-only plowed fields will compare throughout time and maybe I will post an update on it.
So if you already have degraded compacted and hardened land with low organic matter and lots of weeds then plowing once for the last time will help to activate the ecosystem and give it a boost in the right direction, but only if immediately after you start sowing seeds and mulch the area or else all your efforts are for nothing.
After this time the soil will be allowed to be plowed naturally through vegetables, root crops, trees, microorganisms, insects, and animals. Yes it is possible to never plow the soil even once and just let nature do its job, but it will be slower; tho even with careful management this process can be sped up.
(Note: the picture above is a mountain near our home that has been plowed for Cassava. Photo was taken by Stephanus.)