The Living Soil Handbook: The No-Till Grower’s Guide to Ecological Market Gardening by Jesse Frost (Chelsea Green, 2021)
The No-Till Organic Vegetable Farm: How to Start and Run a Profitable Market Garden that Builds Health in Soil, Crops, and Communities, by Daniel Mays, (Storey, 2020)
Reviewed by Andy Simon
These are two recent manuals that should be on your bookshelf, side by side. You can tell by their titles that they share a focus: no-till farming. In fact, they share much more than that and you might well think that reading both of them would be redundant. However, they each have particular strengths and treasures that complement one another. Whether you already have a market garden operation or are thinking of starting one, there is much to be learned by spending time with Daniel and Jesse.
Full disclosure: I am not a commercial grower, just a small-scale no-till gardener and the Coordinator of a community garden in Burlington, VT. Also, through our community garden, I have a connection with Daniel Mays’s family and have visited his farm in Maine.
Jesse Frost and his wife Hannah Crabtree run the 3/4-acre Rough Draft Farmstead in central Kentucky. He is also the host of the excellent, “The No-Till Market Garden Podcast” in which he talks with growers and agronomists from around the world. His book is a rich compendium of ideas, stories, resources and practical tips. He is not only a farmer but a philosopher and researcher so the chapters have an impressive depth that comes from his experience, reflection and conversations with other growers. I was moved, in the Introduction, by Jesse’s acknowledgment of “the original stewards”. He gives a soulful, concise bow to both Indigenous stewards of North American lands and enslaved people who farmed here for generations. But his deepest homage is to the soil and “making that apology” to it for years of the “forceful-agriculture mindset.” He goes on:
It’s about rebuilding that relationship with the land, studying it, and constantly working to understand it. As in all relationships, you will make mistakes — and as in all relationships, it is recognizing and owning those mistakes that will keep the bond alive”.
However, The Living Soil Handbook is not primarily a work of agricultural theory; it’s a hand-in-the dirt practical manual. Jesse builds the book around his three basic no-till principles:
Disturb as little as possible
Keep it covered as much as possible
Keep it planted as much as possible
In each section, he gives you the tools (often literally) you need to make a market garden work for you and for the soil. Jesse likes to give you lots of options, depending on your specific circumstances and encourages the reader/grower to experiment with different techniques on a small scale, to run trials and record the results. His confession that begins the book — “I have never actually grown anything in my life” — sets a tone of humility that pervades all the chapters. He is generous with the stories of the mistakes at Rough Draft Farmstead and urges the reader/grower to expect and value mistakes of their own.
While there are helpful ideas throughout The Living Soil Handbook, I found particularly useful, as a non-commercial gardener, the three chapters that make up the final section of the book, “Keep It Planted as Much as Possible.” His focus on “fertility management” that leans heavily on cover crops (broadly defined), opens up new ways of thinking about how to manage even smaller garden plots for maximum fertility. Chapter 8 deals with transplanting and interplanting and features a brilliant discussion of “root complementarity”. The last chapter takes all of the concepts he has been juggling throughout the book and follows their seven biggest cash crops “from start to finish”. This chapter ends with a shocking revelation (spoiler alert): that Jesse and Hannah (his farming/life partner and the book’s illustrator) had decided to change farms!
Finally, the two appendices — on Cover Crops and on the “Critical Period of Competition” for different food crops are brilliant codas to this wonderful book. The list of resources and recommended reading continue the theme of humility as Jesse gives due credit to path-blazers and contemporaries in no-till growing.
One of those no-till colleagues, duly noted in the reading list and acknowledged several times in the text, is Frith Farm’s Daniel Mays, author of The NoTill Organic Vegetable Farm: How to Start and Run a Profitable Market Garden that Builds Health in Soil, Crops and Communities. “Like many farming authors,” Mays writes in his Preface, “I am writing a book for my younger self. These are the pages I would have most benefited from reading when I was taking my first steps as a farmer.” This gorgeously illustrated book, published in 2020, is both a thoughtful treatise on soil science and a hands-on practical manual for starting a small vegetable farm. While it has similar values and the same philosophical depth as Jesse Frost’s book, Daniel’s approach is perhaps more systematic and efficient. Mays manages to keep his eye at once on his farm’s bottom line and on the “third bottom line” of soil and community health.
The chapter progression in Daniel’s book — like his farming technique — has an engineer’s thoughtfulness and precision. He takes you through the big ideas of “Farming at a Human Scale” and “Ecological Agriculture” (Chapters 1&2), then plunges you into the nitty-gritty in Chapter 3: “Getting Started”. His charts and sidebars are clearly laid out and helpfully precise. When he discusses start-up costs for the small farm, he tells you exactly — based on his own struggles and mistakes at Frith Farm — what to buy in Year 1 and what you can easily defer to Years 2-4, and how much each item costs. If you wonder (as I did) why he suggests buying a cement mixer in the later years, you will find out in the excellent Chapter 5, “Planting: From Seed to Crop”. All of the techniques described for establishing beds, irrigation, weeding, flipping beds with minimal disturbance, and cleaning the harvested crops are helpfully illustrated with sidebars that describe his experience at Frith Farm. Like Jesse Frost, Daniel does not hesitate to highlight the errors that he made as a new farmer as well as the good decisions and luck that went into his ultimately successful small business.
What distinguishes The No-Till Organic Vegetable Farm from other recent books in this genre (including Jesse Frost) is the meticulous organization as well as the beautiful design. Each chapter and subchapter is illustrated by an abundance of charts, photos and stories that highlight the Frith Farm story. On facing pages, for example, in the subchapter “What Does Your Soil Need?”, we get a striking chart on “Availability of Nutrients at Varying pH Levels” and a series of photos illustrating their lowtech, human-powered method for distributing compost and wood chips. Daniel takes us methodically and elegantly from macro-level concerns, “Farming at a Human Scale”, through specific topics “Irrigation, “Weeds” and zooming back out to conclude with a “Measures of Success” chapter which includes “Agriculture-Supported Community” (nice twist!), “Spaceship Earth” and “Quality of Life”.
As a community gardener, I found the chapters on “Markets”, “Labor” and “Planning and Recordkeeping” less relevant but I still admired the care and thought that went into them and could see them as centrally helpful to a larger-scale grower.
Mays and Frost both epitomize the new generation of farmer/scientist/thinker/small business owner who have gravitated to no-till farming both because it works for growing beautiful vegetables and because it’s the right thing to do for Earth, her creatures and the soil. They are both principled experimenters who have written books that eloquently share their experience, their results and their beliefs. Here is the reason that I want you to have both of these remarkable books on your shelf to savor and reflect on during the off-season: they complement each other. While there is congruency in their approach to soil-nurturing, they have very different styles of writing and farming. While they are both humble in acknowledging their predecessors and teachers, they are each strikingly unique in the choices they have made. You should have both of these brilliant young farmers looking over your shoulder as you consider your next moves.
Andy is a community gardener, composter, and civic activist in Burlington, VT