Our Philosophy

Festina lente
-make haste...slowly

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Think Like a Watershed

In the 1940s and 50s, Australian P. A. Yeomans developed a system of water and carbon capture for his farm west of Sydney to combat the unpredictable rainfall regime common to that part of New South Wales.  He called this system '"Keyline Design," and went on to write several books on the subject.

From the Permaculture Research Institute of Australia:
"Influenced by the likes of prominent organic agriculture figures in Andre Voison, Friend Sykes, Newman Turner & Louis Bromfield (among many others!) Yeomans has been attributed with being the 1st person to accelerate soil formation through the stacking of methods, overturning the myth that it took 1,000 years to create an inch of topsoil. Yeomans proclaimed that "…the landman’s job is not so much to conserve soil as it is to develop soil, to improve his soil and to make it more fertile than it ever was…". "

Mr. Yeomans thought like a watershed, and developed a suceessful business portfolio based on his ideas that has never been matched in diversity, not in the field of permaculture, nor in the field of agriculture itself!  For broadacre applications, Yeomans is a go-to source of life-changing information, as is his student and torch-bearer Darren Doherty.  But for the purposes of this article, we will scale his ideas back to the home organic gardening level.

One of the primary concepts espoused by Yeomans, and one of his primary diversions from the Army Corps of Engineers dogma of the time, was the idea that yes, Nature wants to collect and channel water downslope into larger and larger bodies of water, moving that water off of the landscape quickly, but that we, as land managers, would be better served by holding it up high on the slope and moving it away from the drainage line, along what Mr. Yeomans termed the "keyline," and its parallels.  In order to do this, our water-harvesting contours must be slightly angled downslope away from the drainage line and back across the dry slope, rewatering the entire production area.  How many times have we seen dry pastures with lush green drainage lines?  This is the pattern we want to alter.  Spread out and retained on the slope, this thin green drain line becomes incredibly productive acreage.  And we can do the same thing in the garden.

The central bed in this photo of my garden is what has become of the two beds I built for summer veggies back in May.  I had a nice crop of tomatoes, peppers, basil, and sweet potatoes, the latter sweet potatoes working their normal magic on the soil's structure and tilth.  In 5 months, a flat of sweet potato slips turned a mound of hard, rocky, clay soil into beautiful, friable topsoil, and yielded about a bushel of storage food.

But I wanted to really get control of the waterflow on this "winter" side of the garden - the north half of the clearing that gets more sun during the low sun-angle months - so I decided to turn those first two beds into a high hugelkultur for raspberries.

A "hugelkultur" is a raised mound filled with half-rotten logs, weeds, debris, and in this case, charcoal from the wood stove (or "biochar" as it has been branded, presumably to improve its appeal).  So between the two freshly-harvested summer veggie rows I piled rotting logs from the forest, the leftover summer crop detritus, and a bunch of charcoal I had saved from the stove.  For anyone who doesn't know about the benefits of charcoal in the garden, a lot of research has been done on the subject in the last decade, spurred by the recognition of patches of fertile soil in the Amazon basin captured on satellite images.  These dark patches, or "terra preta," as they were dubbed, were the remnants of old tribal settlements along the Amazon river that had maintained their fertility for centuries!  Apparently any bit of charcoal is loaded with pits and cracks that catch and retain moisture, and serve as cation exchange sites for plant roots and their associated mycorrhizal fungi.  The increased cation exchange capacity is largely responsible for the increased fertility, and the persistence of that charcoal in the soil had kept those areas of terra preta significantly more fertile than the surrounding landscape for 500 years or more!  And in a rain forest ecosystem!  Sold!! 

So I now include charcoal in as many planting areas as I can manage, stacking yet another function on the task of wood-burning for heat, cooking, and wash water.  The cost, both in dollar terms and in energy spent on the task, of burning wood for heat is thereby diminished by another factor in the process.  When fertility in the garden increases as a by-product, the regular chore of cutting and chopping firewood becomes much easier to bear.  Ashes also get composted in the humanure pile to "sweeten" the pine shaving-dominated carbon bank that tends to turn out compost too acidic for the garden.  Another stacked function.  The more our productivity is linked and looped toward a closed system the less like "work" it seems.

Pull soil up from the downslope bed over the debris, and then down from the upslope bed, plant it (in this case with gangly raspberries from a too-shaded area of the food forest), spread compost around the plants, and add a thick layer of mulch.  Raspberries typically grow roots only to about 18 inches deep, which is about how high this mound is, and like to have a reliably moist footing.  The spongy rotting logs and biochar of the hugelkultur should keep them watered, nourished, and happy for many years.  AND, such a tall sponge up high in the garden should go a long way toward capturing every drop of water and scrap of fertility available.  I intend to do something similar on the "summer" side of the garden next year, after I've had a chance to see how this structure performs, and how the raspberries take to it. 

As David Homgren says, always be leery of great master plans.  Develop a site incrementally, organically, as you figure out what works and what doesn't.  It does absolutely no good to build and plant this great big beautiful garden only to find out that this crop doesn't like its neighbor, or that this other variety doesn't like your soil.  Or, as some well-meaning permies found in New Guinea, that their water-harvesting contour swales in that high rainfall climate super-saturated the mountainside and caused devastating landslides.  They thought they were teaching the natives some clever tricks compared to their "primitive" water-shedding methods, only to end up looking like idiots.  Don't end up looking like an idiot.  Work patiently, and at a human scale, even if people make fun of you for "not getting enough accomplished."  The permaculture literature is adamant about this approach, and advocates a "grow by chunking" strategy that duplicates what works, with variations for micro-site variability, and discards what doesn't.  Take your time, so that you don't have to spend twice as much of it later.

Here is a good example of what I mean.  To the left of my developing low-tunnel you can see the regular undulating pattern of raised beds, overgrown by grass and pioneer species.  My neighbor Kathy, bless her efforts, had this great master plan in her mind to build all these raised beds and grow tons of food.  She must have spent weeks and weeks piling all that soil up with her shovel, planting huge gardens in the beds, and an obscene amount of water to keep them moist enough to grow anything!  Raised beds oriented up and down a slope are good for one thing: shedding water quickly downhill.  And they are very good at it, as well as washing precious topsoil down with the rain.  My task for our garden then is to reorient the layout into a keyline configuration, harvesting rain and nutrients across the slope, moving them gently outward, away from the drainage line. 

Increased moisture better nourishes the soil's microbes, invertebrates, and fungi, and saturates the rotting logs and charcoal, and, coupled with ample carbon biomass on the surface initiates a topsoil-creating positive feedback loop in the garden.  With a level of maintenance that decreases year after year, the stacked keyline swales of our developing garden will retain moisture very effectively high on the slope, building soil structure and tilth, multiplying the beneficial microbial and fungal soil community, which in turn builds more stable humic substances necessary for optimum plant health.  Healthy, organically-grown plants are able to feed their mycorrhizal partners more increasingly nutritious root exudates - sugars in the first years, then proteins, then more and more high-energy fats as the soil improves.  Healthy mycchorizal symbionts, in turn, are then capable of expanding their reach (hundreds of yards away from the garden!), shuttling more water and mineral nutrients back to their favorite florae in those deep raised beds, and converting underlying bedrock into soil humus.  Which of course, as I wrote last time, increases the soil's ability to hold water and facilitate cation exchange, creating bigger, healthier plants, capable of fighting their own battles without human intervention, adding more mulch to the soil in the process, more nitrogen and more carbon, more water holding capacity, etc.  A mere one percent increase in soil organic carbon increases the soil's ability to retain water by 100,000 gallons per acre!  (Yes, it was worth saying again!)  And healthy organic soil under permanent mulch coverage managed with a no-till regime contributes about 80,000 lbs of microbial corpses per acre per annum, and another 10,000 lbs of worm castings just as gravy!  Doesn't take too long to increase the soil organic carbon content by 1% at that rate.

P. A. Yeomans was right.  Under knowledgeable stewardship, it doesn't take 1000 years to build an inch of topsoil.  I've done it in, oh, one growing season.  By thinking like a watershed, capturing those all-important drops of rain, leaves, dust, etc, we can all do it.  It isn't magic, but it sure does feel like it when you help it happen.

Happy gardening.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Teaching Running Water How To Walk

I'm urban farm-sitting, up late at my uncle Andrew's dining table - this is my uncle Andrew who is 6 years younger than me, my dad's youngest brother, and he and I grew up more like brothers than anything like an uncle/nephew relationship, so in true Southern style, let's call him my "brother-uncle" - late in the evening after a fun but financially dismal farmer's market deep in the heart of Atlanta.  We had a potluck Thanksgiving dinner with the market community, and over some really good food I got to know a few people better that I'd been meaning to get to know better for a while now. 

I'm actually kind of amazed at how common something akin to the worldview expressed on my blog is among that crowd, for starters.  The percentage of farmers marketeers aware of energy descent and its implications is far higher than it is in the average population.  Nearly everyone there is expecting things to change radically in the not-too-distant future, and I'm talking scenarios like the end of the automobile age, currency collapse, and the like.  Some have a "bail bag," or something similar, set aside, if not a well-armed, well-stocked bunker, or "doomstead," as I've heard them colorfully called.  An emerging friendship with a guy about my age exposed a bag full of MREs, matches, silver coins, and a couple hundred rounds of shotgun shells...to be ready to go, just in case. 

You may already be wondering, what does this have to do with teaching running water how to walk?  Bear with me just a moment if you will.

We spent a significant portion of our time inspecting and admiring the various forms of lighting and heating devices on display at the after-hours, and after dark, outdoor potluck dinner tonight, and talking about ways to keep closed living space more comfortable with wood stoves.  People who actually face, and smart people who understand that they might soon be facing, these sorts of new challenges tend to do that sort of thing apparently; heating a dwelling without fossil fuels takes up a significant portion of one's time after all.  But yesterday our heat-activated, wood stove-mounted fan from Lehman's arrived, so I had something special to add to the conversation.  It runs on a tiny dynamo, the current created by the temperature differential between the hot solid base and the cooler aerial radiator, or that's my take at least, and it spreads the heat nicely around our little tent house, giving us an extra 5-10 degrees of warmth I'd estimate, based on the first night's use anyway.  We need to see how it performs on a really cold night before I crow about it too much, but I'm hopeful; Mrs. Small Batch Garden and I were outside the covers at times last night, shedding PJs, with outdoor temps in the low 40s.  That used to at least merit the top sheet and comforter, if not the goose down.  Not bad for a $150, virtually indestructible device.  At full speed - the hotter the stove is the faster the fan spins - it moves 150 cubic feet of air per minute, which means, theoretically, that every bit of air in our 2400 cubic foot "yurt" crosses the wood stove every 16 minutes.  I pencilled that out in my head while I was lying awake and too warm on the comforter at 2 am this morning; makes it easier for my brain to understand.  The 150 cfm figure doesn't tell me anything.  But that kind of "valuable information," shared in the middle of the night, annoys the Missus to no end.

Speaking of getting to know people better that I'd been meaning to get to know better for a while now, I met an internet friend in person a couple of weeks  ago - a fellow who calls himself "ProgressOrConserve" on the peak oil sites.  I can't help but call him "Sam Elliott," because that's pretty much who he sounds like on the phone.  I always want to ask him what's for dinner.  Beef would be my guess.  Maybe some roadhouse food.  Nice guy though.  After three and a half years of online conversation, he and his wife, Mrs. POC, came to visit us at Small Batch, 40-ish miles west of their 5 acre homestead, just a good day's horse ride if it comes to it.  The meeting had been too long coming.  They actually offered us the use of some old family land and a farmhouse in need of "some work" outside of Athens, GA, earlier this year, before we ever met.  A lot of old family land, so we thought hard about it.  Big livestock systems were on the table.  In the end we chose full ownership, and I think the right place, and I think Mr. and Mrs. Elliott agreed.  They loved Small Batch.  During their visit we had the 10 second tour of the "house" (yep, nice tent, bro!;), and a more protracted tour of the land and my rough designs for it.

A transitional phase mountain forest moving toward a climax system dominated by white oak, red oak, and white pine.  The co-dominant Virginia Pine population is steadily dying out as succession moves the system toward maturity.

By my estimation our property was clear-cut 50-60 years ago.  Fast-growing Virginia pine colonized the denuded landscape fairly quickly thereafter, following a shrubby pioneer seral stage dominated by dog fennel, fleabane, broomgrass, and blackberries.  That's the dominant suite of plants I'm clearing from my neighbor's overgrown garden plot right now, including seedling Virginia pine, so I'm simply extrapolating that onto my adjacent acreage half a century ago.  On most of the property the red and white oak nursed to health and height underneath the Virginia pine is overgrowing, shading out, and killing its benefactor.  The nurse pines are all coming down, one way or another, so dealing with this literal windfall of pine biomass appropriately is the first big ecological question to be dealt with here.  Do it right and the system benefits mightily, and my gut says to lay as much as possible of it down on contour across the landscape to slow runoff and promote infiltration, deteriorating into organic topsoil over time.  We're creating "Polish swales," as Rocky Mountain permaculturalist Jerome Osentowski calls them, on top of hard rocky soil instead of dug into it, that are inexpensive, nourishing, and great for water retention. 

Penny Livingston-Stark calls these sorts of techniques "teaching running water how to walk."

Slowing water down as it makes its way toward the creek - retaining its potential energy higher in the landscape, moistening the soil more thoroughly, and getting more uses out of the water before it runs offsite - these should be primary goals for the mountain forest gardener.

Darren Doherty's mnemonic device for this primacy in permaculture, agroforestry, and keyline design is "first blue, then green, then black," meaning slow the water down and infiltrate it (the blue), then the plants will grow better (the green), and then more soil carbon will be produced (the black), creating a positive feedback loop that creates richer and healthier soil, and therefore plant and then animal communities, every year.  It's a regenerative, procreative, circular process instead of a linear, and ultimately destructive one, like modern conventional agribusiness tends to use.  And, just as putting our new fan's 150 cfm capacity into terms of how often the air crosses the stove helped me get a clearer mental grasp of what was being accomplished, (despite the missus's midnight indifference), having a grasp of real world numbers to clarify the benefits behind "first blue" is useful.  A mere one percent increase in soil organic carbon (OC) content increases that soil's water holding capacity by 100,000 gallons per acre!   This sort of OC increase is easy to achieve in one season when water is held up higher on the landscape and forced to infiltrate the soil, instead of running across it.  Moister soil of course promotes happier, lusher plantings that grow faster and produce more biomass that drops onto the soil surface, increasing soil OC again for the next season, which in turn retains more water in the soil, and...you get the idea.  Positive feedback loop.  By simply teaching running water how to walk, we enrich our food production systems passively and continuously.

This is the same view to the south as the photo above, just pulled back a little farther, showing the beginnings of my borrowed "Polish swaling" process.  This contour pathway holds hundreds of gallons of water up higher on the landscape, promoting infiltration instead of runoff.   This process will be repeated and improved upon across the whole property.  Note the two tall stumps astride the path - Virginia pines that have been dropped and used to retain the slope right around them.
I'll post a picture of the vegetable garden next time - I haven't got a good one today and I'm not at home to fetch one - but I've been doing similar things there.  This month I converted the first two summer French Intensive beds into one large raspberry hugelkultur at the top of the garden.  This big raised "mound culture," in Austrian permaculture guru Sepp Holzer's jargon, containing piles of half rotten logs and charcoal (biochar) within it, will go a long way towards arresting and infiltrating many thousands of gallons of rainwater that would have otherwise run off along the primary drainage line.  In Australian P. A. Yeomans' concept of keyline design, contours are not built to be exactly level, but rather sloped slightly away from the drainage line, rewatering the whole of the slope in question instead of collecting the water in ever-larger channels in the typical veining drainage pattern found in nature.  We live at the very top of our little watershed and our efforts at terraforming so far have placed an emphasis on stopping water flow right at the peak.  Subsequently, the whole landscape below benefits from that retained potential energy.  As cheap abundant fossil energy stocks play out, becoming more familiar with natural energy flows, and how to control and use them, will be increasingly important.  Controlling water flow passively for our benefit is perhaps the number one priority for organic systems in an energy descent scenario.  (More on this in an upcoming post called "Keep Your Eye On That Brass Ring.")

The upslope side of our little tent cabin, adjacent to the first apple/herb planting.
You can't quite make it out in this shot, but the top left edge of the photo is also the top of the eastern slope of the geographic saddle on which we live.  Our first gardens around the house start right at the edge of the gravel road that runs squarely on top of the saddle between us and our lovely nieghbor, and are mulched heavily.  I've since laid several yards of oak mulch over the wheat straw, and it retains runoff water very effectively, right at the top of the watershed.  It takes a whopper of a storm to see any water at all running out from under the mulch along the back edge of this orchard area.  Also not quite visible up to the left are a few logs I cut from a troubling pine tree dropped back in late spring (you can see the stump at the end of the fence); the herbs and fruit trees just below them are doing much better than the ones in areas without logs, lending credence to the idea of using the nurse pine crop in this way.

The stretch of field fencing provides a little protection and supports a few varieties of muscadine that I intend to graft together to make a living fence, maybe Spring '14.  Once it's well-established I think the wire support fencing can come out.  Never seen a living fence I didn't like!  And when the walk from the workshop - currently our house - to the compost area involves admiring this kind of biological architecture, and a handful of sweet native grapes, how much less like work will it seem?

We could spend a week on this topic, and get into some really encouraging strategies and statistics, although I think you'd probably rather do it with Darren Doherty and/or Penny Livingston-Stark.  I did, a few Halloweens ago in Aromas, CA, and it was very worth it.  Update photos of these developing areas will of course be featured in future posts.

First blue, then green, then black.  I think we can use that as a metaphor for adapting to the emerging realities of energy descent in general, as well.  In learning how to move from having dense fossil energy do everything for us to doing most of it with our own brains and muscles, and a fair amount of it not at all, I think it's above all important to move slowly.  Let the descent process infiltrate and fertilize your worldview.  What's most important? 

Think like a watershed. 

First blue.  Adjust your own oxygen mask first.  Learn how to mimic Nature's most fundamental successes and the rest starts to cascade automatically.  That's the hardest part for fast-paced Americans, I think.

We don't need to plan for every eventuality; what we need is a mental toolkit with new guidelines for navigating strange waters in the years ahead.  So far permaculture has come in pretty handy for that.

Don't panic.
Tripp out.