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Simple Ways to Build Better Soil and Fight Climate Change

It’s the end of May. I’m wearing a down jacket, fleece-lined leggings, waterproof pants and a rain poncho for a mostly outdoor workshop on no-till methods for “low-maintenance, climate resilient, bountiful gardens and farms,” at Seeds of Solidarity Farm and Education Center in Orange, Mass., where Deb Habib and Ricky Baruc have been farming and teaching carbon farming and gardening for more than two decades. It will be 46 degrees, windy, rainy—and I want to be here.

soilbarrow

Just two days ago the temperature reached into the 90s and it will soon soar again. Five other participants have come to learn no-till methods, to become part of the solution to reverse climate change. 

How can small-scale farmers and gardeners make a difference? Plants draw down carbon dioxide, sending more than half the carbon through their roots as sugars, where living organisms—arthropods, nematodes, fungi, protozoa and bacteria—store it. In exchange, they provide micronutrients to the plants. More life in the soil means more nutrient-dense vegetables. Billions of beneficial microbes live in just a teaspoon of soil, all of them depositing carbon. If the soil isn’t tilled or saturated with synthetic chemicals, retaining its biology and its structure, tons of carbon can remain there for centuries. 

According to Dr. Rattan Lal of Ohio State University, “a mere 2 percent increase in the carbon content of the planet’s soils could offset 100 percent of all greenhouse gas emissions going into the atmosphere.” 

We need the world’s 500 million large-scale farmers, 700 million small-scale farmers and millions more back-yard gardeners to sequester tons of carbon, as much as two tons per acre.

Gardening With Cardboard

“Interest in no-till has gone from ‘who does this?’ to ‘how do I do this?’” says Deb Habib. Today she and Ricky Baruc will teach us three planting methods, all using cardboard, lots of it. Their enthusiasm for cardboard has multiplied, along with their greenhouses, fields and raised beds.

We stand before a field of garlic, planted into a cover crop killed by silage tarp, which is a heavy black plastic used to prevent sunlight from creating further plant growth and weeds.

“You delete the cover crop if you till it in,” Baruc says. “When you till, you bring weed seeds up and perpetuate the cycle. Silage tarp gets rid of weeds. But it doesn’t build soil.” Cardboard does, and with repeated use of cardboard, “the soil will be richer next year than this year,” he says. 

At Seeds of Solidarity Farm and Education Center, cardboard is used to suppress weeds, conserve moisture and build soil as worms and other organisms break the material down.

At Seeds of Solidarity Farm and Education Center, cardboard is used to suppress weeds, conserve moisture and build soil as worms and other organisms break the material down.

“No-till is a phenomenal labor saver,” he continues. “It eliminates time spent plowing or rototilling.” And, “farm equipment compacts the soil, and water can’t penetrate. When you plow, you disturb and kill soil life.”  

The rain has slowed as we lay down cardboard and shovel compost. 

We learn method #1, for large seedlings: Two participants place large sheets of cardboard directly on weedy ground, then dig holes about a foot in diameter in a few places, fill them with well-aged compost, and plant tomato seedlings in each hole, pressing firmly to create depressions around the plants so rain will soak in. 

A tomato seedling is planted into a hole cut in the cardboard, then backfilled with compost.

A tomato seedling is planted into a hole cut in the cardboard, then backfilled with compost.

On to method #2, for small seedlings: We shovel compost directly onto untilled ground, lay cardboard over it, soak it with water to soften it and cover it will well-aged wood chip mulch. With a dibble stick—a short wooden dowel with a pointy end—Baruc stabs the cardboard, creating holes about two inches in diameter, then places bok choy seedlings into them.

Method #3 is for sowing seeds: If the ground is dry, wet it first. Place cardboard directly onto untilled ground, wet the cardboard, cover it with compost. Sow or scatter-sow seeds.  

Inside a greenhouse, Baruc lifts moist, disintegrating cardboard to display hundreds of wriggling worms. They eat cardboard, multiply quickly, leave their carbon-rich castings, turn and aerate the soil. 

“The best worm food is cardboard,” he says, “and the best plant food is worm poop.” He holds up fluffy soil, dark with carbon.

I’ll need to return on a dry day, to look more carefully, get rain-free photos and savor the gentle ambiance of this small two- to three-acre farm.

Just Add Compost

Four days later it’s sunny, warm. I walk down the farm road, past burgeoning fields, stopping to read the many hand-lettered signs. One quotes Rumi: “Let the beauty we love be what we do.”  

Crops glisten in late afternoon sun, a time Habib has set aside to talk with me. I find her bending over one of many raised beds, transplanting flower seedlings started in the greenhouse. Her ungloved hands lift soil and tamp the seedlings in place. 

“How do you get such good soil?” I ask.  

“I add compost and leave cardboard on top all winter,” she replies. “For perennials, you patch the cardboard around.”  

Suddenly she pulls out a large weed, dock, with almost no effort! Ordinarily its long taproot grips tenaciously. Here, it just slips from the loose soil, root and all.

Habib says many gardeners want to know how to control pests.  

“Really, the question should be ‘how do I build healthy soil?’" she says. "You’ll have a better, more beautiful garden that helps mitigate climate change, supports a diverse ecosystem, conserves water, creates plants more resistant to pests and reduces labor.”  

“Ricky runs the farm,” she says. “I run the non-profit.” They teach in health centers, prisons, gardening groups, guiding people of all ages to “work with nature, not against it. Our tagline is Grow Food Everywhere.” Habib encourages people to “start small, be successful and grow.”

During Covid, she says, “a lot of people started gardening. It can feel overwhelming. But with no-till and cardboard there’s no need to weed and water.” And the gardeners benefit, too. “There are bacteria in soil that release serotonin,” she explains. “Growing plants can be horticultural therapy.”

Walking up the road, we meet Baruc in front of a sign quoting the Indigenous Elders and Medicine People’s Council statement at the United Nations Convention on Climate Change. With great respect, he reads it to me: 

“To date, the sacred has been excluded from all discussions and decisions. To survive climate change and see the future we must heal the sacred in ourselves and include the sacredness of all life in all discussions, decisions and actions.”  

What does that mean to him? 

“If you’re treating the soil as sacred,” he says, “you don’t destroy it by tilling and killing the life in it. If it weren’t for 12 inches of soil we wouldn’t be here. It’s imperative that we grow food and wake up to indigenous wisdom.”

The slanting sun casts gold over a field of garlic Baruc planted by hand. For decades, starting small, on forested land not considered farmable, he and Habib have made a livelihood by planting without tilling. They believe we need more small farms, “for food access and to have more carbon sinks,” Baruc says. Their methods, requiring no investment in machinery, enable more young people to consider farming. They are committed to teaching others to regenerate soil, grow healthful nutrient-dense food and sequester tons of carbon.