Seems fair. If one is involved in a nature-based learning cycle, the lessons of perennial systems never have a chance to form if one just picks up, digs up, and moves every year. I have plenty of fruit trees that have spent three seasons in three different gardens. They have nothing good to say to you if you cut them off at the roots every winter. In essence we've been attending our freshman year at the University of Nature over and over again. Not that it wasn't worthwhile! We learned a whole helluva lot about establishing a permaculture system! And as far as being able to help first year permies get established, we might be some of the best. We have 3 straight years of learning-by-doing in the first year of site establishment. Our systems get bigger, better, more connected, and more quickly productive every time. It's like having two do-overs of the most important year of your life. No complaints, but the education was starting to slow and lose its luster. I can only imagine what teaching first grade year after year must be like. Wonderful, rewarding, but sacrificial too.
When I had that mental breakthrough back in January '09, I was watching the interview with David Holmgren on Peak Oil and his book 'Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability' that you'll see linked in the right-hand column of my blog under "Videos Worth Watching." And boy was it ever worth watching. Rocked my world, and I've never looked back. Immediately I sent the video link to everyone I knew and cared about, so that it could change their world too. When that didn't work I sent the list of books I'd been reading recently, telling them that if they'd only read these books, in this order, that a wonderful paradigm shift would be their reward. What a fool. When the student is ready, the teacher will appear. And not before. And probably never by the same route someone else takes. So I stopped trying to help people get there, wherever "there" was, and just started practicing what I was preaching. And yes, now I'm writing about it, but I'm not forcing anyone to read it!
Had I thought about it for even half a second, I would have recalled that even I had seen that interview before, several months earlier in fact, in Florida, before we left for Washington. Nice guy, this David Holmgren fella, has some interesting ideas, I remember thinking, but nothing earth-shattering. I wasn't ready yet. But when I was, it became the atom bomb that forever changed me, separating me from my dualistic agrarian nature, and giving me a more vigorous connection to how natural systems work that I'd never known as an ecologist.
About the same time I watched a YouTube video called "A Fukuoka-Inspired Permaculture Garden," created by Emilia Hazelip. Emilia grew up in Spain, then interned at an organic farm in northern California in the 1960s (where, incidently, she was one of Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters). After becoming distressed about the methods her farm owners were employing - cultivating, manuring, etc - she started studying Masanobu Fukuoka's work, and adapted his revolutionary theory to her climate and production goals, creating the French Intensive Method of gardening. I was fascinated with Fukuoka, and enthralled by Emilia's new gardening system. The tenets made so much sense to me, based on the way Nature works:
I put her model into practice immediately, and produced the garden that served as the header photo for my blog for nearly the first year. It was amazing...
|My first permaculture garden in Spokane, Washington, 2009|
|My little ghetto garden in Macon, GA, 2010|
But here's the real eye-opener for most agricultural people. Plants don't take fertility from the system, they add it. They are autotrophs, which form the base of the food chain upon which all animals and fungi exist. Plants are the reason we're here, not the other way around. A plant takes only about 2.5% of its mass from the soil; the other 97.5% is collected from sunshine and atmospheric gases. In effect, plants are "fixing" free nutrients from the larger system into yours. Plants are Nature's anti-entropy devices. Without them, animals wouldn't last very long in the ensuing maelstrom. So the very basis of western industrial agriculture, the very basis of agriculture actually, all 10,000 years of it - the idea that plant production takes from the system and requires added fertilizer - is wrong. If that were the case animals and fungi wouldn't exist.
Cultivation is what robs the system's fertility. Hence the 'No Cultivation' rule. Cultivation breaks down soil structure and supercharges microbes that, like marine organisms, would very much prefer their oxygen in small filtered doses, thanks. Yes, initially you can get some extra performance from the soil food web by churning it up, but the reward downstream is a biologically impoverished system that requires increasing intervention. Increasingly expensive intervention. Enter American agriculture as Exhibit A. We don't have topsoils in this country, we have "growing media" that hold plant roots in place, and act as delivery systems for an ever-larger, more toxic chemical cocktail that supposedly produces food. It produces a ton of something, but I'm not sure I'd call it food.
In a garden of this type, where, after establishment, the soil is never disturbed more than what is required to pop a seedling into it, the soil food web is healthy and robust, and can gain 10,000 lbs/acre of earthworm castings, and nearly 80,000 lbs/acre of bacterial corpses in one season. The "supercharging" that cultivation causes burns up this organic matter very quickly in the presence of excess oxygen, leaving your plants as the only carbon source available to maintain the ~25:1 carbon:nitrogen ratio required by the soil microbes. Once they turn on your plants' carbon bank, the only recourse is some sort of pesticide. Keep your soil cycling nutrients slowly, and keep a carbon bank on the surface from which withdrawals can be made at will by microbes as nitrogen becomes available. The straw mulch laid around the cauliflower in the photo above was pretty much spent by the end of the plant's life cycle. But we had huge delicious cauliflower, that didn't require any additional attention, in exchange for the carbon donation at the beginning. Once the system starts getting established there will be less and less need for additional mulches.
I've known this stuff for over two years now. I've actually taught this material in a professional setting. But until our experiential systems dealings progressed beyond the establishment phase I had a hard time soaking this one in. Perhaps it was my lecture on the subject last Tuesday, coupled closely with the cauliflower going to rest that helped it all click in my head, but suddenly, just this week, I finally understood the lesson. And if you can skip all the pig-headed resistance, and pick up on this idea earlier than I did, you will be light-years ahead of the game in an energy descent world. In essence we're talking about a food production system that requires nothing more than a shovel and some mulch. To me, the hardest part of it is wrapping your head around ideas that fly in the face of 10,000 years of enculturation. Cultivation - that's just what we horse-powered farmers do! But we did it during a phase of human existence when there was always more to take. Always more virgin land to be cleared, always more energy to burn, always more bank loans to take out when we needed them. Now all of that is changing. In a contractionary future we won't have much if any of that. We'll need to develop methods that actually realize a net gain of energy, that put more calories on the table than we invested in getting them there. And we haven't done that in a looong time. This method of gardening is a giant step in that direction. Please watch the Hazelip videos as soon as you can. I promise you won't regret it.
Emilia, I can't thank you enough!!