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No Till Intensive Vegetable Culture:

O'Hara book coverreviewed by Julie Rawson

First I must let you know that Bryan O’Hara is a very good friend of mine and someone with whom I share a passion about no till, nutrient density, soil restoration and pesticide-free farming methods. We are in the same “tribe” as it were. What I most like about Bryan is that he has a strong sense of self, is never afraid to go against the norm, is thoughtful and kind, is eminently generous with his time for others, takes real charge in his life, is family centered, and has an ever curious nature and is ever willing to evolve his methods. I like his book dedication – “To increasing the abundance of life.”

This book is humble, as is Bryan, and in this book he offers his perspective while not eschewing the perspectives of others. Taking us carefully through his process of evolution as a farmer in each chapter, one gets a sense of where he has been and how it has built on his present practices. From the introduction: “…These methods are successful because they are interconnected, actions rely on and assist other actions. Growers may do well by carefully following these methods. However, the primary objective of the manual is to help growers formulate a set of actions that may be best in their own environments, and in that regard some methods described herein may be more appropriate for adoption than others. As such this manual is meant to develop growers’ abilities for their own situation, but it is certainly not the last word on vegetable growing technique.”

Chapter 1 discusses the four elemental states of primary importance for vegetable growing – soil, water, air and sunlight. Here he describes digging a hole to get the best look see on what really is going on down there, and then discusses the two areas of biological recycling – around decaying organic material and around the living roots of plants, and then reminds us that the grower has a huge impact on these processes. “Well aggregated soils are rarely found in commercial vegetable fields” says Bryan, but then encourages us to make that the priority with good examples of how that can be done. “Anytime growers disturb the soil’s air and water balance through tillage, excessive irrigation, or inappropriate fertilization, they may create such a dramatic upset of the balance that nutrient balances manifest in crops.” Regarding sunlight, Bryan states, “This management of the crop canopy is an essential aspect for maximum health of a crop and the soil environment.” Bryan is very concerned about how pollution has severely impacted all four natural elements. Sunlight is blocked by particulate matter in the atmosphere, rain is contaminated. Bryan is very concerned by weather control and excessive climate engineering that goes on at this time in history. According to him, “the growing environment is rapidly changing and the ability to change with it is primary.”

Balancing Crop Growth – Chapter 2 – starts with some good things to observe – Do seedlings spring out of the ground quickly, are the initial leaves relatively large and remain green, is the growth rate steady and uninterrupted, is maturity on time, are the plants sturdy and not brittle, do plants not lodge (fall over) in times of climactic stress, are stems thick with balanced intermodal distances, are the leaves large and plentiful, are freshly dug roots a vibrant white, especially at their tips? Later he discusses plant polarities – the varying forces of yin and yang or female and male qualities. A reminder here that an example of excessive growth force will bring on aphids, which is often linked to excessive fertilization. This chapter excels in its tips about how our human intervention should be in the name of managing for balance, with good examples of the outcomes of various management strategies. He relates interesting information about how tillage encourages more bacterial dominance, higher pH and annual weeds, while non-tillage supports more fungal dominance, a slightly lowered pH and perennial weeds. According to Bryan, “Likely the most important nutrient ratio to pay attention to in crop production is carbon to nitrogen ratio.” I enjoyed this tip that pigmentation in certain crops is only developed characteristically when growing conditions are balanced, for example Red Salad Bowl and Red Sails lettuces.

Chapter 3 covers the preparation of the land for no-till. Here he talks about the pros and cons of tillage, clearing woody growth, tillage tools and techniques, primary and secondary tools, subsoiling tools, transitioning to reduced tillage, bed layout considerations, and conversion directly from sod to no till. I remember a presentation that Bryan made years ago regarding subsoiling tools where he articulated the value of breaking up plow pans. Silly me didn’t take that to heart enough to practice it until this past year. I marveled all season in 2019 at the boost in fertility and crop quality after taking this step after first 35 years of tillage followed immediately by moving to no till for the next five.

The no till techniques chapter explains quite well his practices in a step by step fashion that is very helpful for those who want to follow it, from mowing to solarization, other smothering techniques such as black tarps, crimping, organic herbicides, flaming, etc. Next he goes into great detail about how he applies the compost critical to his system.

In Seeding and Transplanting he discusses seed quality and germination, making a case for home grown seeds and then goes again into careful detail about how to directly seed with broadcast recommendations for many crops, discusses tools and demonstrates with pictures, and also covers seeding in rows and also transplanting. Chapters such as this one are why he calls this a manual rather than a book. One will be referring back to this many a time for detailed help.

As he proceeds through the book Bryan covers Mulching and Irrigation, Crop Rotation and Planting Cycles, Soil Fertility and Crop Health, and Fertilization Materials and Methods. I like how he discusses the positives and negatives of straw, wood chips, hay, stone dust, coffee grounds and cardboard. I had an ‘aha!’ moment in the stone dust section regarding my pesky slug problem in our no till system. Stone dust could probably add some fertility at the same time that it would probably deter slugs. Here are some tips worth passing on. “Diverse crop rotations along with interseeding and interplanting crops help to maintain flexibility in the soil life which will further support the successive vegetable plantings.” “Each farm has growing conditions that favor certain crops and growers will do well to favor those crops.” I for one can’t grow eggplant to save my life! And here is a controversial statement that many growers hotly debate. “Crops are historically rotated by plant families in order to avoid weed, insect and disease pressures. However, when these conditions are dealt with through soil fertility and balance, there is much less need to set up rotations on this basis.” Bryan thinks that if a crop grew well the soil biology that resides there will help to bring another excellent crop.

Regarding steady nutrient release he suggests that paying close attention to surface residue decomposition is a must, making sure that there is always surface decomposition going on. He suggests that the increase in organic matter also impacts soil porosity with all the impacts of this condition on soil, water, air and soil life diversity. Bryan does discuss laboratory soil testing, but considers these tests as secondary to observation of soil and plant growth and health.

In the mineral section I gleaned these insights: Biological nitrogen fixation can be substantial in highly functioning soils. Sulfur, copper, manganese, molybdenum and carbon are important in balancing nitrogen. Maintaining a balanced flow of nitrogen and carbon leads to an abundant and balanced well-fed soil microbiology with associated appropriate nutrient release. Highly functional soil life is key to phosphorous availability. Calcium is related to cell wall strength, good storability and freeze resistance, along with flocculating the soil structure. Excessive use of nitrogen fertilizers is particularly implicated in human magnesium deficiencies. Adequate potassium generally leads to improved flavor and coloring. Sodium increases the electrical conductivity of the soil. Sulfur is a critical component of proteins. Silica is often not very accessible in soils though it is needed for strength in exterior surfaces of plants. Along with more minerals and micronutrients that he discusses he talks of the merits of things like blood meal, bone meal, fish fertilizers, manure, raw milk, seed meals, seaweeds, molasses and humic substances. In the end of the fertility section he lists a number of home prepared fertilizer blends with suggested use and timing.

In the chapters on compost and IMO’s Bryan goes into great detail about how he manufactures these materials. Again, here this book used as a manual will be very helpful for those wanting to make their own.

Weed, insect and disease control – Bryan discusses how to destroy the weed seed bank and weeds themselves, has great pictures of appropriate hand tools, encourages us to use nature as our ally with pests and diseases, touches on breeding for resistance, how to encourage beneficials, and the use of row covers.

A very complete chapter on winter growing with low tunnels will be very helpful for those so inclined. In the Harvest and Marketing chapter he talks about efficiency in cutting and how growers need to work with their staff to be thinking of the next cut while actualizing the present one. I learned this same trick when reading music – always being one measure ahead of yourself. Bryan had told me this trick in person once and I never lost that very useful tip.

I end with this quote and a thumbs up to Bryan for putting together this well balanced book of heart and head that will be sure to inspire you to better collaboration with your own natural growing system. “…as we work with creation, the gods’ universal plan, the angels, faeries, nature spirits, and one another, we have the gift of being able to build a better future for those who will come after us.”