Natural Farming is the brain child of the late Japanese farmer Masanobu Fukuoka. It emphasizes letting the plants grow as they naturally would with minimal input of the farmer. Often called lazy farming or do-nothing farming, the farmer acts as more of a supervisor instead of a worker. The hard work that would normally be done by the farmer is taken care of by the ecosystem the farmer created. It combines companion planting, No-till, crop rotation, cover crops, mulching, and the employment of worms and insects. The basic idea came to Fukuoka while he walked past an abandon rice field which was left unplowed and unworked for many years. There he saw healthy rice plants growing with the grasses and weeds, without plowing, weeding, or fertilizing. He then began on his journey of inventing and perfecting the practice of natural farming.
The four principles of natural farming are No cultivation, No fertilizers, No weeding, and No dependence on chemicals.
No cultivation- Not cultivation, plowing, or tilling the soil before planting may seem downright insane to some, and for good reason. Every civilization on earth since the beginning of time has broke the ground before planting. Many cultural festivals revolve around the act of plowing the land, and many modern gardeners feel a connection between tilling and a celebration of the new growing session. But the act of breaking, and softening the soil is done naturally in healthy soil by microorganisms, roots, earthworms, and small digging animals.
When you plow or till the soil yourself you break up the decomposing roots and kill the earthworms that make the soil soft and healthy, and since the soil doesn’t have the rebar or the workers keeping it soft it’s going to compact and harden out in the sun and rain. Instead of having an ongoing ecosystem that’s growing and improving your soil, you’re essentially starting from square one, restarting all the hard work of the previous season’s plants, insects, and bacteria. You also pull up weed seeds that lay dormant in the soil, giving them they’re chance to grow, as well as using energy and resources that aren’t needed.
No fertilizers- The idea behind this point is that by adding fertilizers (chemical or natural) you’re first off doing more work than necessary, and second, you’re interfering with your man-made ecosystem’s natural ability to maintain and improve the soil’s fertility. Which in an already assembled natural garden is completely true, you don’t need to add fertilizer or compost because with the constant breakdown of mulch, crop rotation, planting of cover crops/green manure, and with the manure of the earthworms and other bugs, your soil will have no problem maintaining and improving the soil.
Think of forest, the fallen leaves and dead wood of the trees, breakdown with the help of microorganisms and insects to build up and maintain the soil. A forest doesn’t need human to fertilizer it, everything it needs is right there with in its ecosystem, organic matter, soil workers, and animal manure.
The only problem with using no fertilizers is the beginning of your garden, which needs some help improving the soil enough to kick things off. This still doesn’t require the need for unnatural chemical fertilizers, just merely normal natural fertilizers like compost, manure, or any other broken down organic material. I’ll cover how to start a natural farming and different ways to do it later in the article.
No weeding- Weeding is another thing people think of as a classic part of gardening or farming. First time gardeners want to go out in the dirt, with their sun hat, and hoe between the rows of plants. They daydream about pulling weeds, in the soft summer breeze, “Oh, how nice it will be. Just me and nature.” But the reality is that pulling weeds freaking sucks. You spend hours out in the hot sun, pulling the weeds that are growing three times as fast as your plants. Your clothes are soaked with sweat, your back is aching, your skin is sun burned, and your palms are blistering. Three weeks in and your daydreams are now nightmares.
But the good news is weeding isn’t needed. Weeds play an important role in soil fertility in your man-made ecosystem. Thus weeds should be controlled, not eliminated. You control them by not tilling and giving them a head start on your plants, using straw mulch and ground covering plants that block the majority of weeds coming through, and as you keep up with natural gardening the weeds will become less and less prominent as your straw ground covering packs the weeds seeds deeper under your layer of organic matter.
No dependence on chemicals– When you farm and garden with the conventional way and ignore the natural needs of the plants, you’re creating weak plants and creating imbalances in the garden’s ecosystem. Unhealthy soil lacking nutrients and organic matter need fertilizers just to get plants to grow, but since the soil is still lacking much of what the plants needs it creates weak pants. Weak plants lead to diseases which then need fungicides to treat. Tilling and leaving the soil bare leads to weeds choking out the plants which then need herbicides to control. Tilling and chemical uses create imbalances in the bug population, which causes outbreaks of problem bugs that love to feast on weak plants, and then you need to use pesticides to get rid of them. But when you use pesticides for them you kill the other beneficial bugs too which leads to more outbreaks of problem bugs. So before long you have an ongoing cycle of using one chemical after another just to keep your crops alive. Not only is this way more work than needed and much more costly, it also has a horrendous impact on the environment. But when you naturally build up the soil and create an ecosystem with your farming you eliminate the need for chemicals, heavy machinery, and unnecessary work that saves the farmer time, money, and resources as well as having no negative impacts on the environment.
Building up your soil– The main and most important thing to do when beginning to farm or garden is to improve the soil, because healthy soil makes healthy plants. How do you do this? You add a good variety of organic matter. Once the organic matter breaks down, you will have a good amount of humus, good balance of nutrients, and you’ll already have the bases for your own manmade ecosystem. How you do this depends on what kind of organic material you have on hand, where you live, and how much time before you want to start planting. You can just start natural farming but it will take about one to three years before your soil is good. If I had to do it all over this is how I would do it:
- I would start in the fall and cut the grass as low as possible in the area to be planted.
- Spread an inch or more of compost, manure, other organic matter, or a combination all of them over the area. I have a bunch of animals on my land so I like to collect all the manure I can and spread it on the area in layers with compost. For example, a layer of cow manure, sprinkle some chicken manure, layer of goat manure, than a layer of compost. *Try not to get fresh manure because it could burn your plants, or let the manure sit for a month or two before planting.*
- Plant buckwheat and cover the seeds with straw mulch (grass clippings work great in a smaller garden). Buckwheat is great for your first plant because it grows easily, adds organic matter, and germinates/grows so fast that it chokes out the weeds.
- After the first frost kills the buckwheat, plant winter rye with clover or vetch and cover the seeds with the buckwheat straw.
- After the heat kills them off, you can either start planting a summer garden, or plant more green manure plants. Whatever you choose cover the seeds with the organic matter of the previous season.
- Once fall comes around again you just start over, maybe separate you garden into two halves and do one side seasonal cover corps and the other seasonal produce, and switch each season. You can also add more compost or manure between eat step above if you have it for the first year or two. After the second or so year it won’t be needed as the mulch and green manure plants provide more than enough food for the soil.
Mulching, weed control, and planting- Mulching with straw is an important part of natural farming and serves many purposes. It retains water and shields the ground from direct sunlight leaving the soil soft, moist, and cool so the worms and insects can thrive and seeds can germinate without drying out. It constantly breaks down to feed the plants, worms, and microorganism, as well as improving the soil by adding organic matter. But quite possibly it’s most important job is controlling weeds, and it doesn’t do it in the way most people would think, by you putting it around the base of established plants in the hopes of choking out the weeds (It can be, but not at this point). It controls the weeds by making them grow up through one more layer than the seeds you sowed. You see when you sow your seeds and put a layer of straw mulch on top, the seeds lays between the older ground cover from the season before and the fresh straw mulch on top. The sowed seeds just think they are in dirt so they grow up through the new straw and put their roots throw the older ground covering until they reach the dirt. The weed seeds are stuck growing out through the last season’s ground cover and the new straw mulch. These gives your plants more time to grow big enough to fight the weeds for their space, and as each year goes by the ground cover gets thicker packing the weed seeds, that are waiting to come up, further and further down.
When scattering the mulch over freshly sowed seeds you have to scatter the mulch randomly over the freshly sow seeds. You don’t want the straw mulch to be uniform and lineup because that makes it hard for the seeds to grow through it. Think of if you had a pile of sticks fall on top of you, you want the sticks to be randomly stacked on top of each other so your hand can worm its way through the spaces in the sticks. If the sticks were to be lined up in rows on top of you your hand won’t be able to get through because there are no little spaces. Think of the growing seedlings as your hand trying to grow through the straw.
Now I plant in two different ways. Group plants are plants that grow close together in a random fashion. Mostly grain or cover crops plants like rye, buckwheat, oats, rice, flax and the companion plants that go with them like clover or vetch. The other is single plants, plants that are more or less farther away from each other, large plants in rows. Plants like tomatoes, corn, squash, cucumbers.
- Group plants– Group plants are plants that grow close together in a random fashion, and are harvested all at one time. Mostly grain or cover crops plants like rye, buckwheat, oats, rice, flax and the companion plants that grow with them like clover or vetch. I sow them by just grabbing a handful and sprinkling them as evenly as I can in the growing area, covering with an inch of straw, and then watering. Fukuoka use seed balls to sow and then covered them with straw, but I find it’s more difficult to get an even planting that way and the straw keeps the seeds moist enough for germination with just straw over naked seeds. Since these plants are so close together, and normally have companion plants growing with them, they usually do a good job on their own of choking out the weeds.
- Single plants– single plants are larger plants in rows that produce throughout the growing season and need space between each plant for the grower to walk through. Plants like tomatoes, corn, squash, cucumbers etc. I sow them by marking of my rows with sticks and sprinkling the smaller seeds like tomatoes, on top of the last year’s ground covering, however far apart I want them for each plant. Then putting the straw on top. For the larger seeds like corn or squash, I may push them into the ground covering a bit before spreading the straw on top. After they have grown up a bit I like to put some more mulch around each plant, just to give and extra hand with fighting the weeds (plus it retains more water and adds more humus). If I’m planting companion plants with them later on, I just move the straw out of the way, put the seeds down, and cover it back up with the straw.
Crop Rotation – Rotating crops is very important. If you grow any one thing in a single area it will eventually deplete the nutrients in the soil as well as increases the chances for pest and diseases. Plants that are in the same family shouldn’t be rotated for each other because the same pest and diseases run in the family. It’s not difficult, change where you plant each plant every year. Also try to plant heavy feeders in the spot you planted your beans and legumes the year before.