CENTRAL POINT, Ore. (AP) — At first glance, the garden at the historic Hanley Farm appears to be fallow under a cover of thick mulch.
But closer inspection reveals rows of garlic and onions planted between the straw mulch layers.
"Bare dirt is not good — bare ground is not good," said Nick Mahmood, 36, a seasoned gardener who swears by no-till gardening.
"We really focus on keeping the ground covered with organic matter so we can create a zone in the soil that has adequate air, moisture retention and habitat for life in the ground," he added.
Mahmood is one of four members of the nearby Daisy Creek Farm who have linked up with the Southern Oregon Historical Society to establish permanent no-till agricultural practices at Hanley Farm.
The historical society owns the 37-acre spread in Central Point.
"For us, it is important to be taking care of the soil," Mahmood said. "We are looking at long-term soil fertility and soil care. When you promote soil life, you promote a healthy biodynamic existence in the ground."
As the name suggests, no-till gardening is a way to grow crops each year without disturbing the soil through tillage.
The technique increases the amount of organic matter and nutrients in the soil while retaining water much longer than tilled soil. It also decreases erosion while preserving the rich variety of soil life.
The gardeners mulch with everything that provides soil-friendly organic matter: animal bedding, wheat straw that has weathered, wood chips, leaves, pine needles, bark.
"What we use is really wastes from society," Mahmood said.
He and the other young farmers from the Daisy Creek Farm — Emma Abbey, 25, Kurt Holmes, 28, and Elizabeth Worcester, 27 — practice the Ruth Stout method of mulch gardening.
Beginning in 1944, Stout developed her minimalistic approach to gardening which calls for using year-round mulch to eliminate much of the labor associated with traditional gardening.
Her books include the 1955 classic, "How to have a Green Thumb without an Aching Back: A New Method of Mulch Gardening."
This marks the second year the gardeners have been cultivating no-till farming at the historic Hanley Farm. They are expanding it this season.
"Once you get it going, all you do is throw mulch on to suppress the weeds," Mahmood. "Basically, we get all the organic matter in place, then throw soil on top of it and grow into that soil. By the time the roots get down into that organic matter, it has been consumed on microbial action that is coming up. We are building soil versus losing soil."
While they don't use machine or animal power, they have a small herd of Icelandic sheep as well as Toggenburg goats. Both the sheep and goats are known for browsing.
"We also have a pair of donkeys to protect them from coyotes," said Holmes, a native of New Hampshire who handles the livestock on the farm.
Like the sheep and goats, the donkeys — Slim and Freedo — produce for the good of the garden, Holmes said.
"What we collect near the barn and inside we bring out here to the garden," he said. "And anything out in the field we leave to provide nutrients for the soil."
He noted this marks the first time in a long period that the fields will not be tilled.
"We are trying to re-establish the soil ecosystem so we can get grass growing for the livestock," Holmes said. "It is good soil here."
That soil will soon be teeming with vegetables, said Worcester. She is a former Minnesotan who manages Hanley Farm's CSA — community supported agriculture — which provides boxes of produce for subscribers. She previously worked on an organic farm in Arizona.
"We'll have all kinds of tomatoes and peppers and beans and peas and chards and kale and squash and potatoes and onions and more," she said.
"We like to stick to crops that people know," she added. "Many of the varieties we use are heirlooms."
Abbey, who has an educational background in sustainable science, is the education program coordinator at Hanley Farm. Part of her role is to teach young students about historical farming endeavors.
"This whole scene at Hanley is a dream come true for me," she said.
Last fall, the group, working with students from a local elementary school, hand-seeded one field in front of the old Hanley farm house.
"There has been a lot of machine work on the soil here that didn't do the soil any good," said Mahmood. "It compacts the soil, ruins the structure and kills the diversity."
Mahmood became heavily involved in gardening nearly a decade ago after working for Outward Bound and in outdoor education at Prescott College in Arizona where he holds a degree in alternative education.
"The main goal of this is to establish systems that aren't requiring outsource input," he said, adding he believes there is no need for gardeners to buy commercial amendments to the soil.
That's not to say they don't intervene with nature, he stressed.
"If you want a plant to grow big, it needs to be what is dominant in that spot," he said. "Say if I'm going to grow something in this grassy area here, I'm going to make a space that is devoid of other plant life."
Otherwise, the plant would be competing with everything else, he said.
"We weed around the plants," he said. "But we leave pathways full of grasses and weeds that occur here. But wherever we want thing suppressed we keep mulching."
Information from: Mail Tribune, http://www.mailtribune.com/