Sometimes the best thing to do is to do nothing.
Allowing land (or a garden bed) to go fallow means giving it a period of rest. It sounds right, doesn’t it? Rather than digging, planting, irrigating, fertilizing, and harvesting, simply allow the soil a season to itself, to recover from the demands we place upon it every day. Like most things we discuss here at The Daily Garden, it really isn’t that simple.
The truth is, soil never rests
Fallow soil does what soil has always done. It provides structural support to root systems, it sequesters carbon, mineral nutrients, gases, and water. It also plays host to gazillions of chemical reactions and microscopic life forms. And the countless, amazing processes that take place in soil never actually stop and rest. [Unless, that is, it reaches sub-zero temperatures, and, even then, there’s probably still stuff going on!] Worms, insects, arthropods, mollusks, bacteria, fungi, algae, oomycetes, and chemical reactions continue, whether you plant tomatoes or not. Allowing soil to go fallow does, however, have certain benefits.
Benefits of fallow ground
Fallow ground enjoys uninterrupted natural processes that have evolved over billions of years. We know a lot, but we don’t know everything and everything. I like to believe that allowing soil to go fallow every once in a while gives time to life processes that we are not yet aware of, or that we do not fully understand. There are benefits to allowing land to go fallow that we do understand:
Different ways of doing nothing
There are different ways of allowing land to go fallow. First and easiest, you can completely leave it alone. Second, and my favorite, is to top dress the area with aged compost and then leave it alone. You can plant a cover crop that will be used as a green manure. This is called green fallow. You can till the soil (to control weeds) but plant nothing. This is called black fallow. [Doesn’t that sound like a movie title? Black Fallow Returns!] But I digress.
Cover crops on fallow land
Cover crops, such as fava beans, vetch, oats, barley, or rye can be grown on fallow land as a soil amendment, rather than a crop. These plants are left to their on devices and are treated as a green manure at the end of their normal life cycle. This returns all the nutrients to the soil, along with some excellent organic material that improves soil structure. This is especially beneficial if you have compacted soil or heavy clay. Cover crops have the added benefit of converting some nutrients into forms more usable by the next season’s crop. Having plants growing on fallow land also reduces erosion and provides food and shelter for beneficial insects. Although, ground-dwelling bees would really appreciate a small patch of bare ground, and chickens are always happy to do their part against the resident insect population!
A form of crop rotation
Allowing soil to go fallow should be part of your crop rotation or succession planting plan. Succession planting simply means sowing seeds in such a way as to constantly have something growing in a space, much the way plants grow naturally. Crop rotation allows you to keep a patch of ground as productive as possible, while switching up the crops being grown. This interrupts the lifecycle of certain soil pests, such as darkling beetles, nematodes, weevils, and wireworms. It also breaks the disease triangle for dieback, root rot, white rust, and other soil borne diseases. Incorporating a fallow year or season into the crop rotation cycle makes good sense for the health of your soil. This idea is not new
“Six years you shall sow your land and gather in its produce, but the seventh year you shall let it rest and lie fallow, that the poor of your people may eat; and what they leave, the beasts of the field may eat. In like manner you shall do with your vineyard and your olive grove.”
Allowing something to grow naturally on your fallow ground is an excellent way to hand over some of your garden tasks to natural processes for a season. If you watch closely, you may be surprised to learn something new about the way things grow in your garden!
You can grow a surprising amount of food in your own yard. Ask me how!