Stubble Planting: Hidden Worlds and No-till Gardens


I’ve been perusing a beautiful new book by Barbara Pleasant, The Complete Compost Gardening Guide. Pleasant invites us into the rich underworld of our backyard soil, asking us to see it as a living food web, rather than a simple input-output system.  In one of my favorite sections, she discusses the microscopic fungi that live on or near the roots of plants.  These mycorrhizae send a web of hyphae, or “rootlets” into the soil, which increase plants’ access to moisture and nutrients.  When the hyphae die, they decompose, feeding protozoa, bacteria, and all sorts of hidden “soil critters,” as Pleasant says, releasing even more nutrients for our crops.  It’s a symbiotic relationship–the roots provide shelter and structure for the microfungi, and the fungi bring increased health to the plants.

The upshot for us as gardeners is a welcome one–more mulching, less digging.  Digging interrupts this delicate system.  But Pleasant’s book goes even further than the recent move to no-till gardening:  when we pull up plants from our gardens, such as the spring peas that are now finishing up, we also pull up this hidden mycorrhizael ecosystem, and a rich source of soil health.  Her suggestion?  Just cut the tops off of spent plants, and leave the stubble.  New seeds can be planted around the previous plants’ root structure, and will benefit from the beautiful food web thriving beyond our vision.


Off to the compost heap.
Off to the compost bin.

It was a sad day when I realized those gorgeous snap peas we’d been feasting on were finally spent.  But I loved thinking of the world beneath the soil as I cut the plants off, leaving the roots.  I’m letting this bed lie for a couple of weeks before starting the winter garden there–pac choi, kale, cabbage, beets…


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