Market Gardening Bed Flipping Systems: Full-till, Low-till, and No-till

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In this article, we will go over some different systems for flipping beds in preparation for the Paperpot Transplanter.

From full-till to low-till, to no-till, different approaches require different systems and tools.

What is Bed Flipping?

For any of you new to the farming scene, “bed flipping” is the layman’s term for the process of removing an old crop and preparing a bed for the next crop. While there are many bed-flipping systems in the market gardening space, the goals of speed and efficiency are typically the common denominators.

The differing factors after that come down to the farmer’s stance on tillage or soil disturbance, their approach to adding fertility, and how the next crop will be planted. Will the coming crop be direct seeded? If so, with what kind of seeder? Will it be transplanted? If so, will it be by hand or with a machine like the Paperpot Transplanter? 

Bed Prep Depends on What’s Being Planted Next

The answers to these questions will dictate how much or how little your soil will need to be prepared. For example, if you are directly seeding a crop with the Six Row Seeder or the Four-Row Pinpoint seeder, your soil needs a smooth tilth and even moisture for the seeders to function correctly. This would require a drill-powered tilther, power harrow, or a standard tiller. However, if you have a Jang Seeder, you can direct seed a bed in soil with larger aggregates, even in quite wet soil. 

Paperpot Transplanter Needs Prepared Soil

When it comes to transplanting by hand, this can still be accomplished in beds with root mass from previous crops, occasional small rocks, or other trace amounts of residue from the last crop. But if you want to run the Paperpot Transplanter, too much of this debris can get in the way.

Full-Till

A full-till approach to flipping a bed will usually include a tractor. In a small-scale farm context, this will often look like a mini-tractor such as a Kubota or, more commonly, a BCS walk-behind tractor. In this example, we use the BCS with the following implements: a flail mower, a tiller, and a compost spreader.

Full-Till bed Flipping System:

  1. Fail Mow
  2. Add Soil Amendments & Compost
  3. Till
  4. Tarp

Flail Mow

Once a bed or field block has been entirely harvested, a flail mower implement mounted on your tractor can be used to mow down the remaining plant material. The beauty of the flail mower is that it doesn’t simply cut down the plants. It chops up the material into small pieces that will facilitate faster decomposition. Setting the flail mower to a lower depth will mix some soil with the crop residue and accelerate the process even more. After mowing, the chopped-up crop residue can be left in place to be turned back into the soil with a tiller. For larger plants with more biomass (such as tomatoes and other vining crops), crops may need to be manually removed and taken to a compost pile.

Add Soil Amendments & Compost

Next, soil amendments can be added. This may be alfalfa, feather meal, blood meal, dried kelp, etc. You can create general nitrogen blends, but it’s always best to let a soil test inform what kind of amendments you add and at what ratio. Different crops also benefit from other specific types of nutrients, so the coming crop to be planted can also inform what kind of fertilizers you add. Amendments can evenly be sprinkled over the bed with a cup and a five-gallon bucket.

After this, compost can be spread over the bed. A few years back, BCS came out with a compost spreader implement to attach to the back of a walk-behind tractor. This was a huge step forward for small farms using walk-behind tractors. The spreader allows you to set the desired depth of compost to be layered (from ⅛” to 1″) and run the machine over your beds to quickly and evenly spread the compost. 

Till

Next, the tiller implement can be mounted to the tractor. A full depth till is typically six inches deep. Tilling the soil to this depth ensures killing off any remaining root systems, breaking up larger aggregates (or clumps) of soil, and turning the organic material from the surface down into the lower depths of the topsoil. Burying the old crop residue like this facilitates a faster breakdown. In addition, the tiller will mix in the compost and soil amendments while creating a smooth tilth for the coming Paperpot Transplanter.

Tarp

After tilling, one effective method for reducing the first flush of weeds is to pull a silage tarp over the bed, or block of beds, that is now ready for planting. Farmer’s Friend LLC specializes in high-quality UV-resistant silage tarps for market farmers. If there is not very much moisture in the soil, irrigate the bed before tarping. This will ensure an ideal environment for the old crop residue to break down and adequate moisture on the soil surface for inducing weed seed germination.

If the temperature is sufficient, weeds germinate under the tarp and quickly die from light deprivation. This can take place in as little as one to two weeks in the warmer seasons. Check regularly, and once the weed seeds have sprouted and died, the tarp can be peeled back and stored away. You are now ready to plant in a weed-free bed, also known as a “stale” bed.

Drawbacks of Full-Till

While this approach allows for a quick turnaround and eliminates obstacles to mechanized planting, there are also some disadvantages. The tiller’s turning motion inverts the soil profile’s natural layers and, in effect, pulverizes it. This pulverizing destroys the aggregates of soil which provide dwelling places for the bacteria and fungal microorganisms, or “microbes.” These microbes are the life forms that convert decomposing organic matter into available nutrients for your plants. By reducing them, you will grow increasingly dependent on artificial fertilizers to maintain the soil’s long-term fertility. 

Overworking the Soil

 In addition, regular deep tillage can lead to compaction. Over-tilling will powderize the soil and eliminate the spaces for air and moisture to foster environments where microbial life can thrive. Years of consistent tillage lead to further compaction and dead soil.

Bringing Up Weeds

The turning motion of the tiller also brings up weed seeds from the lower depths. This creates a fresh flush of weeds after every till. Weed pressure then creates a need for more cultivation and disruption of the soil, which continues to kill off more microorganisms, leading to more dependence on synthetic fertilizer, and the cycle continues.

Hard Pan

In fields where consistent tillage has taken place, the layer of soil just below the six inches point begins to form a compacted surface from the horizontal slicing motion of the tiller called a “hardpan.” The hardpan interrupts healthy drainage, prevents healthy root development, and cuts off the ability of soil biology to thrive. 

Low-Till

A “low-till” approach to bed flipping refers to a shallower till with less damage to the web of life in the soil. Tilling only one to two inches deep is far less invasive than the full six-inch till and makes it much easier for the biology to recover and continue doing its job. Low-till can be accomplished with a few different tools: a power harrow, a precision depth roller, and a tilther–all of which achieve a similar task. Another common tool often included in the low till approach is the broadfork. Before launching into an example of a low-till bed flipping system, we’ll go over each of these tools to provide context for when they are useful.

The Power Harrow

The power harrow implement is currently the most common alternative to the tiller to allow for low-till cultivation. For the majority of the last decade, French Canadian farmer and educator Jean-Martin Fortier played a significant role in introducing this implement for the BCS walk-behind tractor to North American small-scale farmers.

The tines of the power harrow operate in a stirring motion, tilling the soil horizontally as opposed to the vertical turning motion of the traditional tiller (which inverts the soil layers). This is especially helpful for not bringing dormant weed seeds to the surface. The shallow depth settings also allow a farmer to only disturb the top one to two inches of the soil when operating the power harrow. The machine creates a smooth tilth and an ideal seedbed for both direct seeders and the Paperpot Transplanter.

The Precision Depth Roller

In recent years, BCS came out with a Precision Depth Roller (PDR), and Earth Works with a similar design called a Tiller Depth System (TDS). These implements mimic the design of the power harrow, with the roller cage just behind the tillage apparatus having depth settings in ½” increments. They mount to the back of a standard tiller and allow the farmer to control the depth of the tiller. This provides the same benefits of a shallow till as the power harrow. However, there is some debate as to whether or not the stirring motion of the power harrow is preferable to the turning motion of the tiller at this shallow depth. 

The benefit of having a PDR mounted to a tiller is that it provides the option for an initial deep till when first breaking ground on a new plot. Many no-till or low-till farmers believe that an initial till is acceptable when installing a permanent raised bed system. It can break up compaction and allow crop production to begin right away. After the initial deep till a farmer can transition to shallow tillage between plantings. Farmers can quickly rebuild the soil biology and create long-term fertility in their beds by consistently adding compost and minimizing soil disturbance.

The Tilther

The tilther is a low-tech solution for farmers who either don’t own a tractor or a tiller or are looking to reduce their usage of tractors or gas-powered machinery. First released by Johnny’s Selected Seeds, the tilther is a lightweight drill-powered “mini tiller.” It’s a simple but smart design: a standard cordless power drill is mounted to the tool, and the tiller shaft is inserted into the drill the same way an ordinary drill bit would be. A nylon rope is routed over the trigger and tethered up a long wooden handle where the operator can control the on/off. It’s lightweight, easy to use, and easy to transport. 

Unlike the power harrow or tiller, which can work the entire width of a 30″ bed in one pass, the tilther only covers half the width of the bed and thereby requires two passes. Like the other machines, it only cultivates the top one to two inches of soil. It is primarily used to break up clumps to create a smooth tilth, mix in organic fertilizers or compost, and can help incorporate any remnants of crop residue back into the soil.

The Broadfork

For those unfamiliar with the broadfork, it is a U-shaped long-handled tool with 10-12″ tines designed to penetrate the ground to loosen and aerate the soil. The tines are mounted on a bar roughly spans the width of a 30″ bed.

The farmer stands on the bar while holding the side handles for balance, pushing the tines into the ground while simultaneously leaning back to pivot the tool to a 45° angle. These cracks open the ground, reintroducing air and breaking up compaction. If the farmer leans back too far past 45° and flips up a wedge of soil, this will introduce a new bank of weed seed to the surface while unnecessarily disturbing the soil layers.

The technique is crucial with this tool, as improper use can start to have some of the same drawbacks as deep tillage. However, when used properly, it can be beneficial for bringing compacted soil back to life, especially in newly installed beds. Cracking open the ground allows air, moisture, and organic matter (all ingredients needed for soil biology to thrive) to work down to the subsoil. 

If newly installed beds are broadforked routinely as a part of the bed flipping system, usually, after one to two years, the soil will be so loose that the broadfork will no longer be needed. When you notice that the broadfork sinks into the ground with little to no effort, this is a sign that this process step can now be skipped. The broadfork has paved the way, and now the life in the soil is keeping it naturally loose and aerated. It’s similar to the “spongy” feeling of a forest floor. Though no one has cultivated or manually loosened this soil, years of consistent organic matter, moisture, and microbial life have created a naturally loosened, living soil. 

Now that we have covered the most common tools for accomplishing low-till cultivation, here is an example of a low-till bed flipping system:

Low-Till Bed Flipping System

  1. Wheel Hoe
  2. Broadfork
  3. Add Soil Amendments & Compost
  4. Power Harrow 
  5. Flame weed

Wheel Hoe

When removing the previous crop, there are alternatives to the flail mower. Farmers like Elliott Seldner and Emma Hendel of Fair Share Farm in North Carolina prefer to remove the previous crop material with a Terrateck two-wheeled wheel hoe equipped with a 20-inch collinear blade. This extra wide blade allows them to undercut two rows of lettuce at a time, cutting the necks of the plants just below the soil surface.

Not only does it cut the base of the plant, but it also unearths the paper chains (when the previous lettuce crop was planted in paper chain pots). They’ve learned that too much leftover paper chain residue in their beds will interfere with the Paperpot Transplanter when the next crop is being planted in that space. In addition to going through the beds with the wheel hoe, they will also take that opportunity to go over the paths and undercut any weeds that have emerged.

In the summer, you can leave the plant material to desiccate in the sun for a few days. After that, rake and remove the dried-up plant material, then rake again to ensure all remaining paper chains have been removed.

Broadfork

After the crop residue has been removed, broadfork the length of the bed. Remember not to go beyond 45°, so you aren’t bringing up new weed seeds and damaging your soil biology. Simply “cracking up” open the ground is sufficient for aeration.

Add Soil Amendments and Compost

Next, the compost and soil amendments can be added using the same techniques mentioned above in the full-till system: with a BCS compost spreader and five-gallon buckets for manually sprinkling the amendments. By broadforking the bed before this step, the compost and amendments can work their way down into the cracks for greater distribution. 

Power Harrow

Once fertility has been added, you are ready to shape and prepare the seedbed. A pass with the power harrow attached to your BCS will accomplish this beautifully. At a two-inch depth setting, this will be more than adequate to pave the way for the Paperpot Transplanter to be easily pulled through the bed.

Flame Weed

An alternative method to the silage tarp for creating a stale (weed-free) bed is to practice flame weeding. After the bed has been shaped and prepared with the power harrow, irrigate the bed intermittently for up to two weeks until the first flush of weed seed has just emerged as tiny sprouts. This is the perfect time to pass over the bed with a flame weeder. 

Farmer’s Friend LLC also makes a fantastic flame weeder called “The Pyroweeder.” It’s equipped to mount a standard 20-gallon propane tank to the back, with two wheels spaced 30″ apart to straddle the bed and a 30″ shield over the five torches on the front. The intense heat of the flames singes the newly sprouted weeds to eliminate the competition for your coming seedlings in the Paperpot Transplanter.

No-Till

A literal no-till approach would technically not even include a tilther in the process. However, many farmers would refer to themselves as “no-till” who still include the drill-powered tilther in their system. The line between low-till and no-till is blurry, but the guiding principles of minimal soil disturbance and no deep tillage are the same. The goal of both is to build long-term fertility in the soil.

Another tool that is debated in the no-till approach is the broadfork. Some view it as an acceptable and beneficial addition to a no-till system, while others believe it creates too much disturbance to the soil to be considered no-till. As mentioned earlier, proper use of the broadfork will avoid over-disturbing the soil, making it an acceptable addition to the no-till methodology.

No-Till Bed Flipping System

  1. Twist and pull old crops by hand
  2. Broadfork
  3. Add Soil Amendments & Compost
  4. Tilth & Rake Smooth

Twist and Pull Crops By Hand

Many no-till farmers prefer to pull out the old crops by hand. With the proper technique, it can go quite a bit quicker than one would think. Using lettuce as an example, you can quickly twist and pull each plant, snapping the base of the plant to leave a portion of the root system in the ground. The more root mass that can be left, the better. This leaves a substantial amount of organic matter in the soil to continue building long-term fertility. For the removed portion, the goal is to compost that on-site and ultimately return it to the beds in the form of finished compost.

Broadfork

After removing the previous crop by hand, raking it up, and taking it to a compost pile, next, the bed can be broadforked. As mentioned earlier, this step can eventually be skipped as the soil becomes so loose that it no longer needs it. 

Add Soil Amendments & Compost

No-till systems often include adding a thicker-than-usual application of compost. Compost is most commonly applied at a ½” to 1″ thick rate. This can do well for adding fertility but will take an extremely long time to increase the percentage of organic material if that is the goal. In no-till systems, compost is often used as a “mulch” by applying it as heavy as 6″ thick. While adding this material is labor-intensive, there are many benefits. If it’s a good weed-free compost, this thick application will smother any weed seed in the native soil below. It will also retain moisture extremely well and do wonders for increasing soil biology. 

Garden carts are a great way to transport buckets of compost to the bed where they are needed. Once the buckets are next to the bed, space them out evenly the length of the bed. Five buckets to a 50′ bed would be one bucket every 10′. Spacing the buckets like this provides a nice visual for evenly spreading the compost onto the beds. It also facilitates the task nicely when working with a crew, creating less margin for error and ensuring the compost is distributed evenly throughout the bed.

Then soil amendments can be sprinkled on according to the needs of the plot and the coming crop. Josh Sattin of Sattin Hill Farm in North Carolina uses a custom blend he made for almost all of his crops as part of his long-term fertility system. It is composed of 25% fish meal, 25% alfalfa meal, 25% feather meal, 15% kelp, 5% biochar, and 5% humic acid. He spreads 3.5 pounds of this mixture per 50 bed feet.

Tilth & Rake Smooth

After the soil has been amended with the natural fertilizers, they can then be mixed in either with the drill-powered tilther or a 30″ bed preparation rake. Johnny’s Selected Seeds sells a rake designed for this, or a standard extra wide landscape rake from a home improvement store can also work. While the tilther will provide a smoother seed bed and more efficient mixing in the soil amendments, a rake can also get the job done. Commercially produced compost is often quite smooth already and will accommodate a Jang Seeder or a Paperpot Transplanter for the coming crops to be planted. It comes down to your personal no-till convictions on the degree of soil disturbance you are comfortable with.

The previously mentioned strategies of tarping, irrigating, and flame-weeding can be employed in a no-till system. However, if your local source of compost is high quality and weed free, you can often skip these steps when planting directly into a thick layer of compost. Combined with the fact that there is no turning of the soil to bring up weed seed from below, this no-till approach can provide an extreme benefit of little to no weed pressure. 

Conclusion

Regardless of where you fall on the spectrum from full-till, to low-till, to no-till, hopefully, this article can provide you with some good takeaways as you develop the bed flipping system that aligns best with your particular context and convictions on tillage.


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About the author

Seth Davis

3 comments

  • This is exactly what I needed to read. I’m in between the full till and low till methods and just wasn’t sure how that was supposed to look. Thanks for the info! It’s brought so much more clarity.

  • Our small, human-scale farm definitely falls into the “No-Till” category. We hand remove spent crops, then broadfork (never inverting layers), then add amendments by hand, then manually disc and rake smooth. Whenever possible, we use a silage tarp to kill the weeds before and/or after bed prep. New farms are bombarded by weed seeds for the first 2-3 years.
    .
    Because we can’t afford a tilther (or flame weeder), we use a manual wheel hoe with small discs attached. It stirs only the top 1″ of soil, and gently mixes the organic fertilizer and compost into the soil. This prevents our frequent high winds from blowing it away. It also destroys tiny weeds and breaks up small clumps.
    .
    Every time we start a brand new bed it is quite laborious. But after only 3 years of no till, our sandy soil is already climbing in fertility and tilth, and rapidly decreasing in weed pressure. Silage tarps have been a life saver in our no-till system.

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