I met Annalisa Wild Miller at the Maine Agricultural Trade show, but I was rushed with other things on my mind so I didn’t get to talk with her much. I took note that she mentioned something about an article her husband, Joel, had written in Small Farmer’s Journal (SFJ). I don’t get SFJ, so I didn’t know what a fantastic photo essay it was about their trials with no-till transplanted onions until I recently got my hands on a copy. Joel has been kind enough to share his photos with me.
The timing is perfect because it’s just about the season for onion transplanting at many farms in the northeast. If you have a patch of forage radish that did well last fall, consider trying this method instead of tilling before transplanting. Joel and Annalisa aren’t the first farmers I’ve heard say that one of the best parts about this “system” is that it saves valuable time in spring. With spring weather what it is, that time can be the difference between getting early crops in early and having to wait out some rain storms. Here’s their story from the beginning.
I’ve always assumed that 17″ would be too far apart to get good weed suppression, but Joel found this spacing was sufficient. It was intentional, as it prepped the field in advance for 34″ onion rows in spring. Because they use horsepower, straight and even rows are essential. I’d call this precision cover cropping.
In the past, they had tried seeding forage radish in mid-September, and found that this did not give enough time in New England for optimal performance. There seems to be consensus that the first week of August is optimal for radish seeding in New England.
After nearly four months of good growth, the radish winterkilled with nights in the teens (F). Unlike the mid-Atlantic, there is no danger that radishes will not winterkill here.
In early April, the snow melted and the radish residue was minimal. The gooey mat left after the snow quickly disappeared. The lack of residue is essential for allowing the soil to warm up and dry out.
Soon after snow melted, the crew was transplanting onions into the field. By placing the onion plants (or any plants/seeds) directly in the radish holes, two important things are achieved (three, if you include the fact that this keeps them in a straight line!): the root channels left by the radish roots are easily accessible to the cash crop’s roots; and the nutrients from the radish are concentrated where the cash crop needs them. Especially important for allium crops, radish and other brassicas recycle large amounts of sulfur in addition to nitrogen and phosphorus. In fact, Joel did not add fertilizer to the onions. Not having to prepare the beds before transplanting “helped us get one big mark off the planting list before the early season rush really started.”
Joel has more information on equipment and working with his team of horses in the SFJ article (Summer 2014 issue). Although we’ve never actually met, he and I will be presenting a workshop on integrating forage radish and reduced tillage systems into organic vegetable production at the MOFGA Farmer to Farmer conference this coming November and I’m really looking forward to hearing what else they’ve been trying.
Oh, and how did the onions come out? Very well!
Thanks very much to Joel and Annalisa Wild Miller for sharing their experience and their photos.