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Permaculture

Picture 120

per·ma·cul·ture

/ˈpərməˌkəlCHər/
Noun

The development of agricultural ecosystems intended to be sustainable and self-sufficient.

Picture 120

 

“Permaculture is a philosophy of working with, rather than against nature; of protracted & thoughtful observation rather than protracted & thoughtless labour; of looking at plants & animals in all their functions, rather than treating any area as a single-product system.”
Bill Mollison (from the permaculture.net website)

I’m learning what permaculture is.  This is a course that will be taught by someone else (Penny Krebiehl and Craig Schaaf), so I have a functional knowledge, but not the technical knowledge needed to teach it.  In many ways, it seems to me that permaculture is what our great grandparents did, whether they lived on a city lot or an 80 acre farm.  They studied their situation, which included the land, the climate, their social situation (this was important in the water sharing west as well as the urban areas), and their total resources.  They figured out the best way to get the most production, both food and financially, that their situation would allow.  They sought to work with the land as much as possible because they didn’t possess the petroleum means (tractors, fuel, fertilizer) to force their will.  This is, to my understanding, the essence of permaculture.  It’s the construction of a productive system that uses the components to benefit and sustain each other. 

A row of chicken "tractors" marching across a field.  The birds leave behind well fertilized forage for the next grazers.

A row of chicken “tractors” marching across a field. The birds leave behind well fertilized forage for the next grazers.

On our farm, we graze animals to build the soil to grow healthier plants to have food to graze the animals on.  For our efforts we get meat, milk, and eggs.  Plus, the animals provide the raw material for compost to enhance the soil of our garden so we have good vegetables.  Any organic “waste” from the butcher shop or milk processing (such as whey when I make the family’s cheese) goes back into the system one way or another.  This is one example of permaculture.

Since soil is the key to growing anything, it is a critical component in building your permaculture system.  Craig Schaaf is an experienced farmer and respected teacher of this kind of agriculture.  Craig has modeled his farm on Eliot Coleman’s work, focusing on soil building to achieve amazing harvests from small spaces.  Craig will be teaching us how to use what’s naturally available to us to build a well mineralized soil that can support intensive planting.

turnipsThis is a class that I anticipate will be of great use to beginners who just want to know where to start.  I recommend it as the starter class if you’ve never grown a thing in your life. Permaculture ideas provide an umbrella for you to understand sustainable, organic type farming.  Soils are the foundation of all growing.

I also anticipate that this class will be full of information for those of us who have been growing all sorts of things for most of our lives.  There is a lot to know about permaculture and soils and building a sustainable system.  Your farm or garden will benefit from your time with Penny and Craig.  We will be inside learning the basics, but also out in the field applying what’s in the books.  In this class you can learn:

  • Principles of permaculture – your guides as you observe and plan.
  • Ethics of permaculture – how to apply the principles to your land and your life.
  • Soils – applying permaculture to the foundation of all that you will grow.
  • Design – Planning your food growing enterprise with permaculture principles and ethics in mind.

Hope to see you here!  Introduction to Permaculture and Soils

The Life of the Soil

Biochar made from a cow bone.

BioCharSoil is the foundation of any farming venture.  Soil is the building block of life.  Dirt is where we started and it is the source of what we need to keep going.

A well tended soil can boast a million species of bacteria in one gram–and that doesn’t count the fungi, molds, worms, and other creepy crawlies.  This is a “living” soil.  All these small inhabitants perform myriads of functions that maintain or grow the soil itself, feed plants, and exchange, sequester, or release nutrients and atmospheric gasses.  These functions are all crucial to us.

Unfortunately, the folks who have developed our agricultural fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides since the 1950′s looked primarily at the plants growing on the surface.  They got very good at feeding plants, killing weeds, and annihilating creepy crawlies.  They neglected the life under the crust, to the great detriment of the soil.  Farmers and gardners are facing the need to use more and more fertilizer and pesticides to get the same results because the soil is dead or dying and unable to truly nourish the plants, leaving them weak and vulnerable.  Some weeds are even beginning to show resistance to Round-up.

All is not lost, though.  You can grow soil for your plants, whether it’s lawn, flowers, or vegetables.  There are two things to look at in a shovelful of dirt: minerals (the building blocks of life) and living creatures (the vehicles and factories for moving, storing, manufacturing, and making the minerals bioavailable to plants).

Chicken manure and bedding makes great compost.  This pile is being turned/aerated and is steaming hot.

Chicken manure and bedding makes great compost. This pile is being turned/aerated and is steaming hot.

You can have your soil tested for mineral content by special labs, but keep in mind that different plants like different things.  If you want high production from your garden plants (as a market gardener would), this is worth the investment.  For a home gardener it can be simpler.  The answer is compost.  Compost is decomposed organic material.  It is full of the vitamins and minerals from the material it was made from.  You can add certain amendments, which we’ll cover another time (and for sure in the Soils and Biochar classes), but compost all by itself can be complete enough for most gardening.  Compost is becoming easier to find all the time, but it’s also easy to make.  We’ll cover that in class, too.

How to encourage “life?”  Compost actually comes with the biology that made it.  It is usually already alive with the decomposers of the soil.  In addition you can add worms, leaf mold (a great source of nutrients and fungis and molds), and a 5 gallon bucket (or lots more) of dirt dug from a woods.

Biochar made from a cow bone.

Biochar made from a cow bone.

Biochar provides the perfect environment for encouraging a living soil.  Charcoal in various degrees has been used by native cultures and third world farmers for centuries.  It was discovered in the Amazon and provided the native tribes a way to grow food for a huge population on  what is otherwise very poor soil.  Biochar is the carbon carcass or organic material.  Usually it is from wood, but can be made from bones, plants, or anything dense and organic.  It is produced at high temperatures (much hotter than your woodstove or grill) so that the impurities and toxic gasses are consumed and what is left is very pure.  The flora and fauna of your soil love to take up residence in the millions of apartments comprising the biochar.  Nutrients can be stored and slow released as plants need them.  The char will also act as a sponge for water so that the effects of drought are mitigated.  This is most obvious in poorly nourished, arid soils.  In good soils, you should find you need to add less compost or other amendments over time.

Corn without biochar on left, with biochar on right.

Corn without biochar on left, with biochar on right.

Here is a photo of our field trials with biochar.  This was sweet corn planted in the field.  It didn’t get water other than rain and dew.  The yields were better from the corn on the right – bigger ears, better filled out.  The biochar corn stayed green longer into the fall, making the earless stalks better fodder when we grazed them off.   The beds were treated the same other than the biochar.  This wasn’t an exactly scientific study, but it provides good anecdotal evidence for the effects biochar can have.

Soil is a living thing, not just dirt.  You can have soil that will grow nutritious vegetables with the addition of compost.  Plus, by adding biochar you can supercharge your soil.  We can show you how!

References: National Geographic: A Cubic Foot

You can also read more about biochar on Baker’s Biochar.