Our Philosophy

Festina lente
-make haste...slowly

Sunday, May 15, 2011

When the Student Is Ready

The teacher will appear.  Along with the permaculture cadre, Nature has been my teacher for the last few years. Although I was an ecologist before that, I still thought in terms of Cartesian dualism - Nature v. Culture, in a zero-sum game.  Permaculture changed that paradigm radically, and the reintegration process has been underway in earnest ever since.  Sometimes the process is hot, like a wildfire, and sometimes it is stagnant, like a cypress swamp.  I told my wife this winter, as we settled into the new farm here in south Georgia, that I didn't feel like I had learned anything revolutionary in a while, that I was mired in one of those stagnant swampy pools.  Our best guess relied on the fact that we were repeatedly reliving the first year in our garden system, and hadn't progressed into new material since we caught the permaculture bug.

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:

No cultivation
No fertilizer
No chemicals
No compaction

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
And I was hooked!  I put it into practice again, right away, when we moved to Macon, Georgia, the following spring, where the ghetto soil yielded immediately to the gentle coaxing and nurturing it received under Hazelip's method.
My little ghetto garden in Macon, GA, 2010
 I focussed more on integrated small livestock systems in Macon than I did in Spokane, but what garden space I had became lush and fertile quickly under the French Intensive system, without any need at all for fertilizers or chemicals.  And when I say no fertilizers, I mean NO fertilizers, of ANY kind.  Not compost, not rotten manure, and definitely not 10-10-10.

Remnants of broccoli left in place.  They are clipped off at ground level, with the rhizosphere intact, and chopped up a little (which is more for aesthetic purposes than ecological, so probably wrong - Nature doesn't chop up dead plants at the end of the season and arrange them neatly across the soil surface).
Nature fertilizes her soil with the detritus of the plants growing in that place.  In a balanced, integrated system a little manure is dropped off around the plants too, by whatever is cruising by, munching on the fruit and other offerings of the plants and fungi in that spot.  However, if the only muncher is human, and that human doesn't leave an offering of manure, an imbalance has begun in the system.  After many decades of this cycle, all that is left is dry, dead, worn out dust, like what is in the fields of our new farm.  The return of human waste to the system is an issue that must be addressed if we are to even approach sustainability in our food production systems. Properly composted, humanure is safe and mineral rich, and an absolute requirement in a closed system.  (If we go no further, "closed" could for now just mean "without the massive importation of fossil fuel subsidies into the system.")  It has to go back into the system somewhere; doesn't mean that you need to pile it up around your lettuces, and gross out your as-yet-uneducated lunch guests as they gag on your special house dressing; but it has to be added back somewhere, perhaps around the blueberry bushes and apple trees, where it doesn't touch the stuff your in-laws are going to eat after their garden tour.  Nothing wrong with it, we seem to be OK with composted cow manure touching our food, but it is definitely a cultural taboo that must be approached carefully (but approached nonetheless).

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.

This season's cauliflower is spent, trimmed off at the soil surface, and laid down  in place where it grew.  The subterranean economy, hosted by the root systems of the plants that helped build it, is still intact, adding humus, anchoring fungal hyphal networks, and slowly releasing the nutrients acquired during the last growth cycle to the next growth cycle.  We took far less than 97.5% of the plant away, so the net fertility gain is positive.  Energy from the atmosphere and the sun have been sequestered into the system for our use.
From seedlings to the biggest, most beautiful heads of cauliflower I've ever seen, there was no need to add any fertilizer or use any chemicals along the way.  And the soil will be even healthier and more fertile the next round, because we took less from it that the plant added.  Still seem far-fetched?  Consider this:

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.

Look at all the depth those tomato roots have to enjoy.  The mounded beds will never be stepped on by humans, and the soil will get fluffier, darker, and more fertile each cycle, as new humus provides new sites for cation exchange, and microbial respiration creates a living, breathing, porous soil structure .  Tomatoes produce copious biomass that will get laid down as mulch after the first hard frost, and in soils this biologically active, disease build-up isn't a big concern.
There will also be fewer weeds to deal with as the seasons roll by.  As in any garden the first year will be a supreme exercise in weed control, but unlike a conventionally-tilled garden, as the weeds do their jobs, and as we cover and build healthy soils, they will gradually go away.  We've discussed this topic before, but it doesn't hurt to mention it again, that weeds all have a job to do.  Weeds are nature's way of repairing damaged soil.  In mature, established ecosystems you will hardly ever find any of the plants commonly thought of as weeds in the agricultural sense.  That's because in a cultivated crop field the soils are immature, biologically impoverished, and in need of repair, where in a mature, established ecosystem the soil is living and healthy.  Left to its own devices a dandelion will work its way out of a job.  If the gardener can learn to let it do it!  That stout, recalcitrant taproot that makes dandelions such a pain in compacted soils slides right out of healthy loamy soil with barely any effort.  A conversion that occurs because of the dandelion, by the way.  I know because I've seen that happen in three different gardens now.  By the end of the first season my dandelions are always spindly shadows of their former selves.

I had a mentoring client in my garden this morning, and she pointed out a dandelion in my herb garden and admitted that it made her crazy to see it there.  Then I told I was about to freak her out.  "Watch this," I said, and brushed my hand through the mature fluffy seed head, sending the little white parasols flying in all directions.  I think I could feel her heart skip a beat.  I WANT those dandelions in the garden, because I've finally come to grips with the reason they are there.  They are doing me a favor, and I am grateful for it.  And the greater the diversity of "weeds" that I allow to remain and do their thing, the healthier the soil will be when they get it done.  Each "weed" works in a different way to undo the damage of cultivation, fertilization, chemical treatment, and compaction that we humans have wrought upon the soil.  My approach has shifted from "I don't know this plant so it must die" to "I don't know this plant well enough to kill it."  That's a really big mental shift, especially for someone of my cultural background.

Here is a good view of the permanent pathways that facilitate movement around  the mounded beds in the Intensive garden.  There is no need to walk or drive on your productive soils, as these activities are highly damaging.  Your plants will thank you for choosing another route.
As the soil cycles and strengthens, in its undisturbed condition, the mineral cycle is restored, plants become healthier and more naturally robust.  The need for pest intervention is reduced to near zero.  Healthy, mineral dense, enzymatically-active plants fight for themselves.  They produce foul-tasting chemicals when a browsing animal starts munching on them, they release pheromones that signal predators to come to their rescue, and probably a hundred other tactics I don't even know about.  A truly organic vegetable will probably have a few holes in the leaves, but these little holes are also "batsignals" for the incoming predators.  A hungry caterpillar leaving a few little holes out in the open spaces of a cabbage leaf is basically signing its own death warrant in the ecological garden.  One of my hunting wasps will be with you shortly!  Fascinating stuff to watch.  Only the most vain among us can't abide a few little holes in the leaves of their vegetables.  And it requires a whole lot of unsustainable energy to intervene.  Then what have you got?  A plant that is deficient in flavonoids and anti-oxidants that would have been there to fight the plant's battles had it been left to its own methods.  Once again, human interference leads to individual weakness, and systems impoverishment.

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!!

Nothing in this picture was fertilized!  And we (and our rabbits) have been eating lettuce, spinach, and greens from these patches for two months now, and cutting bigger sweeter broccoli, with more and larger "come again" florets, than ever before.  It's all just beautiful, especially knowing that it did it by itself, without human intervention, and that because of our new and deeper understanding of Nature's ways, we can simply allow it to improve every season from here on out.


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  2. "one of my hunting wasps will be with your shortly" Grrherhahahahaha!
    I love that. its a t-shirt slogan. followed by something like, Permaculture works. or whatever.

    I am always so psyched and motivated by these posts. I wish I could afford you for a week. I would also like to have you come up to Blue RIdge and talk about Permie and sustainability and peak oil. I wonder if it would be well-attended. Im thinking...maybe.

    I still dont fully understand. Lets say my lettuce -which was bitter btw, is over. Typically I would pull that out and add my own compost and maybe some forest dirt and then put a summer crop in that. if you just leave the dying lettuce, then i cant use that box. I dont have that much garden space. so... what to do?

    My sugar snaps and strawberries are awesome though. sad to report some horrible weed that is heavy waxy lettuce like leaves at the floor with a shoot of ugly purple flowers has taken over my field. I dont use a herbicide because of my bees and also because i like the buttercups and daisies.

    great post - always shining through with light and goodness. I really like you.

  3. Thanks for the spam, Oxy...moron.

    Ande! You rock. Great to have you. And I'm glad you liked my hunting wasp visual! (What about the "special house dressing" line? I particularly liked that one.) Good chance I'll be in Blue Ridge second week of July. I'd be glad to do a workshop/lecture while I'm there if you could get some folks to pool together some petrol and Mercier fried pie money for me.

    OK, so here's what you'd do with your lettuce bed. Clip the lettuce off at the ground, slip in the next round of summer plants next to the lettuce stumps, and use the lettuce to mulch them. The lettuce leavings shouldn't cost you any room really. See you soon;)

  4. I understand that nature has 'perfected' the process of recycling wastes and improving the complexity of the overall system.

    However nature doesn't have the same time pressures that humans bring to the equation (with our long term memory and fear of death).

    You say "Nature doesn't chop up dead plants at the end of the season..." perhaps because it doesn't need to. Since the natural system is eternal there is no concept of the preciousness of time. By applying our knowledge of the systems and processes and our calculative capacity we should be able to increase the pace of nature to conform to our time frame while achieving maximum benefits for minimum effort.

    One example is I often take weeds or end of season crops I have pulled and dump them in an enclosed area where the chickens spend the night. The birds then break down the material which I eventually add back to the garden. I realise this is more energy / effort on my part but the chickens benefit, the garden gets improved and conditioned organic matter for the soil and it possibly helps with disease and pest cycles.
    (I could bring the chickens to the garden but I find them difficult to contain and they compact the soil.)

    It seems to me that humans, operating as a subset of nature, can overlap different systems and processes to achieve an increase in complexity but also optimise the timing or speed, provided this isn't a detriment to the integrity and sustainability of the system. We can be a catalyst that dictates (to some extent) the pattern rather than attempting to derive a pattern from the disorder and 'chaos' of nature.

  5. Another startlingly novel approach that reduces labor and produces more--I like it.

    Definitely with you on never removing plant material and letting it fall where it may when weed whacked. (We have a dry fire season here and have to cut everything down or the firemen do it for you and bill you).

    We allow other homeowners gardeners to dump their high grass clippings on our property as well as raid the neighbors green cans.
    Have started constructing "burn piles" of brush and logs and just letting them sit and rot. Huge increase in reptiles and other critters, including mason bees that pollinate our trees.

    Thanks for your inspirational blog.

    So what you're saying is that in the case of a raised box with lettuces and other crops you would cut the plant off at ground level and take the hard stems and leaves away?
    What about root crops like potatoes, yacon, sunchokes? How about garlic? You have to dig things up, thus disturbing the soil.

  6. Do you still rotate crops? I've found that if I grow tomatoes in the bed for more than one season I get blight. Does this system improve the soil so much that you no longer have to worry about crop rotation?

  7. Blockhill, I totally agree with your take on speeding up natural processes. In large part I think that's what permaculture is about - observing Nature's patterns and stepping up the cycle in order to meet restoration goals within a human time frame. For example I use comfrey extensively in my garden as a fertilizing mulch that can be cut and laid down 3-5 times per season instead of just the once at frost like Nature would do. Ultimately I suppose the wisdom of that approach will be judged by its long-term results. What we can say is that it seems to work pretty darn well within the time frame of permaculture's judgement - the 30-ish years since Permaculture I was published. I write about permaculture because I haven't run into any better options! It sounds to me like you are doing wonderful things, and I'm not passing judgement on any sound permaculture practices, just expanding on a garden idea that has worked really well for us for 3 seasons now.

    Christopher, I have the hardest time getting some people to see that getting rid of any biomass is the same as throwing away fertility. A lady the other day was telling me she wanted to make and sell compost on her rural property, and when I asked if she meant from the site's biomass she said, yes, just the leaves and such. Two-pronged screw-up: one, she would be removing this season's fertilizer, and two, she would be exposing her soil to the elements. I suggested some other options obviously.

    About the lettuces, no, I don't take anything away except the bits I eat. Clip it off at the soil surface and mulch the soil with whatever you cut. The hard stems I tend to cut into pieces. I'm still sorting out the root crops (my lack of sitting still have cut me short on evidence in that regard), but both Mdm. Hazelip and Herr Holzer have good advice on the subject.

    Thanks for the kind words.

    Su, same problem as the root crop advice, I haven't sat still long enough to get any reliable data on the matter. Two thoughts though: most older permies still rotate crops, which would suggest that they'e worked it out to be the best way, but I'm not sure they use these methods in their gardens, and Nature doesn't rotate crops, so there's no precedent. Tomatoes in wild systems tend to grow under last year's tomatoes. I don't think Fukuoka had any problems with disease build-up in his semi-wild veggie patches, and always made mention of superior flavors in those fruits. Still, hard to put your garden on the line to test such things. And most modern cultivars have been bred under unnatural conditions for many generations. Who knows what they can or can't do? My advice would be to rotate crops while acclimating heirloom cultivars to your site in hopes that one day you can stop rotating and just let them grow themselves pretty much where they want to. And please work on a perennial tomato!

    Here is permaculture guru Rosemary Morrow's crop rotating pattern, for anyone interested: legumes, brassicas, nightshades, alliums, root vegetables, then start again with legumes. Don't plant the same family in consecutive years, e.g. potatoes after tomatoes, so watch lumping potatoes in the "root veg" category.

  8. I think your garden is esthetically beautiful.

    Here in CA last Fall, I shook handfuls of those fluffy Dandelion seeds all over an empty raised garden bed and gently covered them with soil. January and February supplied me with all the tender, delicious dandelion greens I could possibly eat.

    Then Fukushima happened and I haven't been in my garden since. I'm now learning to adapt to greenhouse gardening. At least for the few decades until the soil is no longer radioactive...:o(

  9. linnah, thanks, and will you do an experiment with me? If you haven't already, I'd like you to have the radiation levels in your garden measured by a professional, or a kit that you send to a lab, and share that data with me. Then, if the readings are appreciable, I'd like you to spread a thick layer of wheat straw over your garden and inoculate it with oyster mushroom sawdust spawn. The mushrooms should be able to bio-accumulate and digest the radiation, in one season most likely, and you'll be back out where you belong. If you're concerned that radiation will continue to enter your garden for the next few decades, and that one treatment won't be enough, then learn to garden with lots of mushrooms all the time. Which to my mind is preferable anyway, radiation or not!

    Seriously, I'd like to know how it goes. Lots of people would.

  10. I read the post a few days ago, but just last night had time to sit down and actually watch the video-WOW. I know you have talked about it before, and I thought I was hooked then, but I am really hooked now. Can't wait to start planning for the next crop that will go in the ground.
    And, she is so cool, Emilia(sp?). I want to be a bridesmaid in her wedding.

  11. Hey Polly! That is fantastic. You should see the new beds I'm laying out in the market garden, where the potatoes and onions were this spring. As I harvest them west to east, I'm digging up proper French Intensive beds. Why I ever tried anything else is beyond me! This stuff really works. I'm so excited that you're going this way too, so let me know how I can help! I carry a mean spade...

  12. Haven't been on in a month and when I do get on you wow me again. Thanks Tripp. Watched the Hazelip videos and sent them on to my parents. I am thinking that if we started a lasagna bed this fall then next spring would would be all set to start with the fukuoko method without having to do that initial dig.

    As for Tomatoes. I found that when I allow the tomatoes to drop their fruit on the ground and trust them to do their own thing, the next year I get lots of tomato "weeds" all over the bed. The ones that I do not move grow strong and healthy. I grew tomatoes this way 3 years in a row without any sort of disease problems. They were on the south facing wall of my house, right by my drier vent which was probably beneficial beings that I am in Tacoma, WA. Then unfortunately I got uber depressed about being in Tacoma and the Daisies took over. Daisies are pretty and yummy but rather invasive....

  13. @Zenobia33- I'm excited to hear that you could grow tomatoes in the bed for three years and get healthy volunteers. Were the plants heirlooms? I don't think hybrid tomatoes would come back that well. Living in Tacoma must be a bummer if it caused you to abandon your tomatoes. Have you thought of moving up here to Seattle?

  14. Zen, thanks for the info on the tomatoes! About what I figured, and I expect they are heirlooms. Just as a word of caution, I've tried doing the build-up without digging out the permanent pathways, and it has never been as good. Not exactly sure why. But the good part is, if you can do the digging you can save yourself the hassle of building the lasagna, which is never as easy as it seems like it should be! Once dug, all you need is a thick carbon-rich topper. Wheat straw is my poison of choice.

    Su, the real trouble with hybrids is that they don't volunteer true to type. The F2 generation will be some unknown, and typically not very desirable, offspring. Now, the following year you'll probably get some fruit worth eating, but you'll have no idea what to expect. Something more like one of the original parents of the hybrid you started with.

    I heard an interesting concept regarding the heirloom vs. hybrid debate last night. One of the most common complaints about heirlooms is a lack of yield. This guy said that a plant only has access to so much nutrition, and therefore taste. More fruit, higher yields, just dilute the flavor and mineral density. Which means we have to eat more to get the nutrients our bodies need. Now apply that to the obesity epidemic in this country and tell me how we really got there.

  15. I don't know what kind of tomatoes they were. I got them at a nursery, they were a roma type because of all the tomatoes Romas are my favorite.

    Yes, definitely would dig out the permanent paths. I look at that part as integral to the sheet mulching process. The dirt from the permanent paths sort of.....seeds the beds with the micro organisms. I also mix partially finished compost in with new stuff. I don't know if my concept is valid or not, just seemed to make sense.

    I have always thought the reason for obesity is starvation.

  16. Hi Tripp, long time since I read your blog, and I am so glad to see you are still at it!
    So do you not use a compost heap/pile at all?
    Also do you practice companion planting yourself, as in friendly flowers/herbs next to vegetables? I am curious what you think of my methods:
    I rotate my "families" of vegetables (legumes, nightshade, etc.) in raised beds, but I planned/charted out a whole bunch of intensive plantings for each bed that is rotated. For instance when I grow tomatoes, in that same bed I also grow onions, sweet and hot peppers, garlic, basil, parsley, borage, cosmos, sweet william, marigold and petunia. I have white clover growing underneath as a living mulch. When I rotate the tomato bed, all of that is rotated with it.
    In the cucumber bed, I have tons of beets, radish, dill, nasturtium, marigold, cosmos and petunia. I use grass clippings at first until the cuke leaves are big enough to shade and then no more mulch is needed. All that is rotated with it. The pole beans have lettuce underneath and lots of snapdragons. The bush beans lots of sage and coriander and are planted later with more beets and spinach. In the permanent strawberry bed I have an extra tomato plant and a bunch of onions as well as lettuce, comfrey and borage, and creeping thyme as a living mulch/border. Strawberries are also planted into the permanent asparagus bed, which has lots of coriander and basil and borage and petunias in it too. Etc. Three of my beds are 4' x 20' raised beds, with a fence and raspberries with chives, garlic, horseradish, and tansy under them down both sides, clematis and grape vining up the back shady side and morning glories climb over the front gate (eight feet high - we have lots of deer.) Two more beds are 4' x 50' raised beds, and all veggies and annuals are rotated among roughly four of them. All of them have at least three or four permanent perennial plantings such as rhubarb, bee balm, lupine, coneflower, roses, Egyptian walking onions, peonies, coreopsis, hardy geranium, and rosa rugosa. One still has lots of daylilies and daffodil bulbs that come up every year due to the previous gardener who lived here, and I made that into a semi-permanent onion bed with strawberries and celery and petunias throughout. I am also a lover of comfrey and have so far about twenty of them tucked into whatever corners I can fit them in.
    I usually add annuals every year - lots of coriander, parsley, basil, borage, zinnia, and petunia. The bees seem to love my garden, and the hummingbirds haven't failed to show up either. I do use compost: mostly composted chicken poop/straw (deep litter method for our long winters in Vermont) plus pulled weeds, yard clippings, branches, and kitchen waste (including meat, and my chickens turn the piles for me, as they are located inside their pen.) In spring I remove the straw mulch from the tops of beds and dress them with the finished compost, and do not till at all, although I do pull up all the volunteer raspberry suckers and any grass that sneaks in, and I disturb somewhat when I plant tomatoes, since I lay most of the plant in the ground then.
    It seems to be a system that is working very well, but thanks to you I am going to start using comfrey leaves as a mulch too. I have done the bucket soak thing in the past, and often add their leaves to the compost pile, but it never occurred to me to just lay them down on the ground directly as mulch. It would work very nicely under new bean and cuke plants in the early summer, or all around the onions.
    So what would you do differently in my garden? I am curious to know your permaculture perspective. Speaking of chicken food, I am trying something new this year too: mangels. I am told that Laura Ingalls Wilder kept her chickens laying all winter by feeding them mangels. We shall see!
    Thanks! P.S. I am convinced that the reason for obesity is malnutrition.

  17. I forgot to tell you, I do remove my annual and veggie plants from the ground and put them on the compost pile at the end of the season and usually let it sit for a year before I use it. I guess this is mostly because our winters are so long and cold that nothing much happens in the way of composting during that time. I think if I left them lying down where they grew, most of their biomass would still be a big bulky tangle on the ground by the time I wanted to plant in spring...


  18. Puma, if we all had gardens like yours we would be well on our way to whuppin' this thing called energy descent! I'm jealous.

    I'd say keep experimenting with what you've got going. Mostly I think plants just enjoy growing together, and I think I mentioned the couple of combos that don't - beans and onions, carrots and parsnips. My rule of thumb is to focus on planting a variety of root structures together as much as anything. Other than that, I say stack them in wherever they seem happy!

    About removing plants, I honestly think that one of the secrets to my garden is composting in situ, leaving the plants where they grew. I believe that they collect and build the minerals they need for the spot they're in, and when they die they leave them there for the next generation. Of course, if you're rotating crops, and I still haven't made up my mind about crop rotation, it doesn't seem very natural to me, then it's probably just as effective to distribute those minerals in the form of compost to all areas of the garden. Where I would most strongly recommend a habit change is in pulling up the spent crops by the roots. Clipping them off at ground level and leaving the rhizosphere and its microbial economy intact seems to be a moneymaker in my garden. And it's a lot closer to how Nature does it, so I automatically tend to think it's a keeper!

  19. Tripp, that's a very good idea I think, snipping off instead of pulling up by the roots. I will try that.

    I knew about carrots not being good with parsnips (or coriander) but I do have a few onions volunteering from last year near an alternate planting of sunset runner pole beans. Neither one seems to be bothered so far, but I will watch and see.

    As far as rotating the beds, I thought about it and I guess I will just imagine that Mother Nature blew the seeds a little bit, "over" to the next bed! Although I just today noticed *another* volunteer tomato plant, this time growing in my cucumbers, which was last year's tomatoes (the first one grew in the compost heap, and another is, weirdly, growing in my windowbox geraniums on my back deck. I am curious to see where that one thinks it's going.)

    Thank you, and good luck with your garden this year!!

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