Our Philosophy

Festina lente
-make haste...slowly

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Fast Forward

Last week we revolutionized a plant's role in its landscape.  Plants are autotrophs, they form the base of most food chains, and as such they provide the fertility and energy support required not just for themselves, but also for the animals that depend on them.  Not the other way around.  In other words, plants grown appropriately don't require additional fertilizer.  Plants add fertility to the landscape, they don't take it away.  Animals take fertility away, and so does cultivation.  It's tillage that robs fertility, not the growing of crops.  If plants removed fertility from the system then the Earth would be a dusty desert all these eons after those greedy plants arose.  So we've come to the idea that, by stewarding the system like Nature would, we can simply allow the plants in our garden to fix and cycle energy from the sun and atmosphere, and realize a net gain of system energy, in the form of fertility, year after year.  Beautiful old growth forests didn't require any help from us to become what they are.

Now that we understand the pattern, and our stewardship paradigm is beginning to shift, we should look for ways to harness that natural fertility-building cycle and press fast forward.  Life is eternal; Nature doesn't care if it takes a century to rebuild fertility lost in a natural disaster.  Compared to infinity, a century doesn't even register.  But humans, we work in a time frame far shorter than eternity.  In a mere 180 years of industrial culture, we've compromised our biospheric life support systems to the point that Peak Oil ought to be considered a godsend, because the alternative is utter systems collapse and the near extinction of our kind.  There is no way that, without the massive fossil energy subsidy, the planet could support even the comparatively paltry number of humans that lived on Earth in 1800 CE.  Back then people had no electricity, no cars, no pavement, no supermarkets, and they rarely traveled more than a dozen miles away from home over the course of their lifetime.  They mostly grew what they ate, organically of course, though they obviously didn't call it that, and their economies were based first on gifting, then barter, and as a last resort, trade.  In most pre-industrial cultures, trading goods for money was considered lewd.  Only when we struck on more or less perpetual growth (for a time), from coal and oil, did we abandon personal relationships and uniqueness for standardization and trade with strangers.  And the rest, as they say, is history.

Along with most of the planet's natural resources.  You will often hear modern day philosopher Derrick Jensen talking about salmon in a cold clear mountain stream so thick that you could walk across their backs, or flocks of passenger pigeons darkening the skies (at 60 mph) for days at a time.  I've never seen anything like that.  And I can't even imagine what this continent must have looked like 500 years ago!  The landscape around me now is so bleak and desolate, so nuked and paved, (and covered in turf grass that needs to be kept green through the drought for some insane reason or another), that I wonder how it will ever recover.  We think this is just normal, and it is, for a culture seemingly bent on killing its mother.

But we're here to talk about how to make things better, not to lament the demise of the passenger pigeon or the Stellar's sea cow.  We can't bring them back with any amount of crying, or penance with hair shirt donned.  What's done is done, and those of us here only played a tiny incalculable role in the madness.  But we're not going to participate in that part of our history anymore, are we?  We hang around blogs like this to pick up new tricks for growing food with fewer inputs, or ways to sequester carbon with our activities.

So I'm going to walk through a couple of well-studied ideas for speeding up our fertility cycling so that we can enjoy lush gardens of Eden within our short lifespans.  Shall we?

Comfrey (Symphytum officinale) is probably the champion of my garden.  I turned one plant into 60 in two seasons, and they adorn every fruit tree and large shrub in my garden.  Call them my favorite horticultural handmaidens.  And I will multiply them by 4 at least again this year.  Eventually the whole 40-50 acres of crop land under my stewardship will be sporting a fine green jacket of "chop and drop" comfrey mulch.  Surely we could employ a couple of college interns full time just in the maintenance of comfrey mulch!  The one in the photo above isn't even a big one.  It's just a pup getting established.  But  it looked to me like this little nectarine tree could use some love, so it will forever be remembered (by me at least) as the first comfrey to play the role it's here to play.

Simply cut the whole plant off at the ground and drop it around the tree as mulch.  You don't have to be gentle with it, this is the most robust plant on planet Earth I think.  I find that they come back slightly faster if you leave a few of the small emerging basal leaves, but I can only see that as feasible if you only have a few to manage.  Cutting the little guys back only costs you a 2 or 3 days really.  And considering this thing will be right back to full size in a month (6 weeks tops), what's a few days?

Here you can see that the mass of comfrey cut is nearly equal to the crown biomass of the young tree.  Spread it out within the drip line of the target tree and let it break down naturally.  Comfrey is a fantastic miner of potassium, which is so important for fruit trees.  Think about it this way, all you'd need to add is a few chickens or ducks to wander, (once the system can handle their physical presence), and you've got the 3 major nutrients covered in beautiful organic forms.  And natural fertilizers like poultry litter and comfrey aren't just limited to the macros like NPK fertilizers are; they also bring an entire suite of micros to the scene too.  My gardens are fenced off into separate "rooms" to control the movement of poultry for that purpose.  They also break pest cycles in the orchard, but that's a different post.

 This is what's left of the plant after you chop it back.  Looks injured doesn't it?  Hehehe.  Not.  You can do this multiple times per growing season, instead of just the once that Nature would accomplish with the first hard frost of fall.  In my bioregion I expect to be able to cut my comfrey at least 5 times per season, speeding up natural fertility cycling 5-fold.  We haven't changed the way she does it, just the pace at which it happens.  If restored mineral cycles were going to require a century for Mother Nature to accomplish, we've now reduced that to a time period in which humans can think and function.

 Did I mention that I have one under every fruit tree?  I'll have several under each by this time next year.  The one above started as a single pup in January, but looks like at least 4 in this shot taken in May.  That's normal for comfrey.  It's aggressive.  Make no bones about it.  But we're talking about an intensively managed human ecosystem here. Five years from now we'll be looking for something else to do other than eat overflowing baskets of fruit.  Chop and feed, chop and feed.  Like any weed it will eventually work itself out of a job.  That was one of the main lessons from last week, and it's a tough one to get a hold of.  Don't let comfrey's beauty fool you.  It's still a weed.  Or better yet, try to see an equivalent beauty in ALL of the weeds that are there to enrich your system.  You'll reach optimum productivity and mineral density faster that way.  That was Nature's intention in sending them.

 Here's another way to use comfrey's goodness.  Chop it up and drop it in a bucket instead of on the ground.

Fill the bucket up with water and soak overnight.  Don't soak it too long in the heat.  It goes rancid fast.  Still great for compost, but I don't know about spraying it on my plants.  After the overnight soak strain it off into a pump sprayer and apply as a foliar spray to ailing plants, or healthy plants for that matter!  It's good tea.

Nature has legions of critters that turn woody biomass into topsoil, and the Kingdom Fungi is well represented among them, but even with the onslaught of these minions, large branches and tree trunks can take years, even decades, to break down.  Nature doesn't care.  She has all the time in the world.  But not so for us.  To me this is a great example of the use of appropriate technology.  I used about two quarts of gasoline in a shared family chipper to create about 15 bushels of wood chips with a greatly increased surface area to volume ratio.  This stuff will break down wicked fast compared to branches laying naturally on the ground.  Most of the mass will come into direct contact with regular moisture and soil microbes, including fungi that I am growing on purpose.  And it's not just any woody biomass, this is all from vanguard shrub and tree species like privet, cherry laurel, and water oak.  The kind of plant community that precedes a more mature, more productive one, like the one we're trying to build.  The expense of 2 quarts of gas has taken several years off of a big load of soon-to-be soil humus, which will take a whole lot of pressure off of the input requirements down the road, saving far more than half a gallon of gas.  In a developing food forest this stuff is worth a king's ransom.

Geoff Lawton says that we are the weeds that can repair the Earth.  While I'm not claiming to be as good as the weeds, I hope we can pick up important patterns through observation and interaction with Nature, learn to capture and store energy like she does, and apply those lessons in meaningful ways, quickly, for the benefit of all who follow.

Thanks to John Michael Greer for the lesson in hair shirts.  Religion seems to make people do some pretty strange things sometimes.  And thanks to regular commenter Blockhill (NZ) for pushing the conversation in the direction it's taken this week.



  1. Great to hear more about comfrey and how you are using it. I have a bunch of plants but they are struggling to establish themselves through the grass.... having no grazing animals, grass seems to be my biggest weed.

    This brings me to my point. I noticed a nice strip of what looks to be corn in the background. I am looking to grow more of the great plant but am seeking advice on how to best do this without cultivation. Normally I prepare an area but hand but is quite a bit of effort and I want to plant a much bigger area. What technique do you use to prepare the seed area?

  2. Blockhill, I have a tendency to frown more on grass than other "weeds" - the forbs are all a lot more palatable to me for some reason. I have traditionally strong herbs in this bioregion, like sage, struggling to compete against the bermuda and bahia grass in my garden. I wonder if there isn't some allelopathy going on there.

    I'm not sure I'm the person to ask on corn. The little plot you see in the background is indeed the great American grain, but I tilled that strip, and two others, to grow the 3 sisters. The one you see is the only one doing anything, but I believe it's because that part of the milpa probably wasn't cultivated like the two rows in front of it most likely were. The soil there is probably just more fertile naturally. I staged the photo to show off the nice row of course, instead of the absolute failures that are the other two;) I'm beginning to wonder if corn, like chickens, will even play much of a role in North American energy descent without some back-breeding to less needy varieties.

  3. A good post, Tripp. I am attempting the Fukuoka-no-till, natural farming approach, albeit at a very small scale with blueberries planted midst a hearty stand of liriope that I believe can be whacked down to feed the soil numerous times a growing season. They are also planted next to a northern backdrop of wisteria which threatens to smother them from any and all light...hmm..may have to make more mulch out of that wisteria... I also planted a small row of sweet potatoes with no-till among the existing broad-leaf weeds -- and wondering how this sweet Georgia clay will or will not allow tuber production. I am also using leaves saved from last fall to mulch as periods between rain have increased of late. (never understood why people rake the leaves and put them on the curb for city pick up)

    And for anyone running an air conditioner, remember that they create lots of condensate (water) that can be used for watering plants. Find that hose where it comes outside and put it in a bucket and collect it. The plastic tubing is easily found at the hardware store if you need to extend it to where you can collect it.