Soil and Plant Properties in Cardboard Mulch Prepared No-Till Beds

Project Overview

Project Type: Farmer
Funds awarded in 2010: $6,107.00
Projected End Date: 12/31/2012
Region: Northeast
State: Massachusetts
Project Leader:
Rachel Scherer
Heritage Fields Farm
Richard Baruc
Seeds of Solidarity Farm

Annual Reports


  • Vegetables: cucurbits


  • Crop Production: conservation tillage
  • Education and Training: demonstration, on-farm/ranch research, workshop
  • Production Systems: permaculture
  • Soil Management: earthworms, organic matter, soil analysis, soil microbiology, soil quality/health
  • Sustainable Communities: urban agriculture

    Proposal summary:

    Agriculture as we know it is changing, and needs to change. We must come up with ways of producing food that are less dependent on machinery and tilling, in order to keep farms viable in an age of diminishing fossil fuels and climate change. Fertile soil must be biologically created on site,with practices that utilize locally available resources, reducing reliance on importing fertility, while creating ecologically vital soil.

    Small farmers are in a strong position to transition to practices that reduce reliance on fossil fuels and build soil through no/minimum-till techniques. The changing demographics of farming indicate that mall farms ranging from 1-5 acres are a fast growing sector. Urban and backyard farming is also increasing. Many people lacking the resources to purchase machinery or large expanses of acreage are becoming small farmers. The "no"-till practice described in this proposal addresses these populations and sectors of farming.

    This proposal investigates the “the cardboard method.” By layering cardboard on previously untilled land, we have repeatedly observed the attraction of earthworms to the beds, where within 8-12 months their actions help to transform the soil into suitable growing beds and add fertility with their castings. Examination of plant roots as well as the soil itself has shown the presence of mycorrhizal fungi, known to improve nutrient uptake, and colonized roots are better able to resist soil pathogens.

    The cardboard no-till method has also been applied successfully on our farm for the creation of “instant” mulched beds; here we layer cardboard over the soil, cut holes in it, remove plugs of the soil beneath the hole and fill with compost, then transplant tomato or squash seedlings into the holes.

    Project objectives from proposal:

    The project proposes to document the impacts of the cardboard method, as applied on a small commercial farm. We will follow newly created beds through one growing season, and assess soil and plant quality in beds created under controlled conditions specifically for this study, as well as in established beds currently in production on the farm. We will teach other farmers and gardeners through workshops, and document best practices that will be included in a print manual and a series of digital video how-to’s to be shared widely with other farmers, agricultural networks and community food practitioners through local, regional and national organizations.

    In order to share not only these techniques, but also their impacts on soil and plant health with other farmers and gardeners, we propose to quantify our observations with extensive soil and plant monitoring. We will be testing the concept of using cardboard to create self-sustaining growing beds where tilling, annual bed-making, weeding, watering, and fertilizing, and their impacts on farm labor and costs as well as soil and water conservation are minimized.

    Any opinions, findings, conclusions, or recommendations expressed in this publication are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the view of the U.S. Department of Agriculture or SARE.