Fertility

Tillage allows us to neglect for a while the task of replenishing organic matter because it pries from the soil’s fingers more fertility than usual. I read of one study* performed on a field tilled for 60 years without inputs. Problems were becoming apparent, but the farmer was still getting a harvest.

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It has been the same throughout history: civilizations rise and fall, often as a result of their failing fertility systems. For those that lasted, by restoring to some extent the organic matter, there were some interesting methods.

The first was to simply move from place to place, exploiting the fertility of a site, moving on to a new one once the fertility was gone. This method was practiced by a few Native American tribes.* Their particular method was called “Slash and Burn, where an area of virgin forest was cut and burned. The fertility provided from such a mass of organic matter lasted a while. This is certainly an excellent method when you have ample areas of virgin forest to work with -slash and burn, move on, and allow everything to revert to the chaos of a forest system that would slowly renew the organic matter until, in a couple hundred years, they returned to tear it down and organize it for crops again. Today such a tactic would not last long with our increasingly high population.

Many ancient cultures practiced a similar method by simply leaving the land fallow for a short time between small spans of tilling and harvesting. The ancient Israelites had in their law several different spans of time in which they were not to till a field, with the assumption they would set food by in the prior years of harvest. The usual numbers are three to seven years tilling and harvesting, to one year of lying fallow.

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[T]he ancient Egyptians, who were one of the first civilizations to use tillage, had a much more passive method which relied on the Nile river flooding to bring in organic matter from the rainforests upstream. Problem was, if the Nile didn’t flood, there was famine.

What we must realize is we are hardly in a different position today.

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In a properly managed no-till garden, we should burn less organic matter in total, but in covering the ground and supplying enough decaying organic matter to sustain the system, we use a lot of material. Bringing it in as mulch rather than broken down compost, we see organic matter in its most bulky state and realize, it’s a lot.

The Ruth Stout method is an excellent example of this. Perhaps one of the most low work, effective no-till garden methods, Ruth Stout grew excellent annual vegetables by covering the ground thickly with mulch, with some additions of manure.

When all this organic matter is added, and moisture is so well preserved by the thick cover of mulch, the soil life responds by building a home for themselves of many tunnels, creating a soil similar in consistency to crumbly chocolate cake.

The technical term for this state of soil is ‘flocculated’. Flocculation occurs when sufficient levels of active calcium are available, pulling particles out of suspension in ‘flocs’, or flakes, making the soil fluffy.

The Stout method gives excellent results in the garden. Yet again, this is not the whole picture. Take this quote for example:

The ”Stout Method” of mulching is a biological transgression similar to, though not as severe as is the social and biological transgression of polluting air and waterways with the industrial wastes. The main characteristics of the ”Stout Method” is that the soil is to be covered constantly with a thick layer of mulch hay, which requires 8 to ten tons of hay per acre annually. Based on average yields, each year 3 to 4 acres of farm soils must somewhere be deprived of organic matter replenishment so that 1 acre of backyard garden plots may get the ”Stout Method” treatment.*

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Wood chip sources we once got for free are now going to composting companies who sell the finished product by the bag to be dumped on tilled soil that will burn much of the carbon into the atmosphere. A Certified Organic CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) like ourselves can hardly find a source of clean organic matter that doesn’t charge for you to haul away their waste.

Many township yard-waste drop-offs at one time chipped up the material laboriously collected and brought to them by every yard nitpicking denizen to be carted off by the hippies for their organic gardens for free. More and more now, they sell this material to the compost companies.

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According to the United States Composting Council, there are currently four chemicals likely to end up in compost that do not break down in the composting process. Approximately 150 lawn care, or in general weed killing products, have at least one of them as an ingredient.

Aside from knowing exactly what was applied to your substrate, which in most cases of yard waste scavenging isn’t convenient -if even possible, there is unfortunately no way to tell if your substrate has these killers on them before applying to your plants without expensive testing.

Once in the soil, these toxins effect most garden plants, and can remain there for up to three years before breaking down.

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The ideal ratio is about 30:1 carbon to nitrogen. Until the substrate given attains something near that ratio, there is little the bacteria can do with it. Fungi play a role in breakdown until the carbon finds the necessary nitrogen, or is simply burnt into the atmosphere.

To put this into perspective: wood chips are approximately 200:1, fresh cut grass 17:1, straw about 60:1 depending on what source you use.

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If fresh wood chips or straw are mixed into the soil, all that surface area is placed directly in contact with the soil. If no nitrogen is added, the substrate will pull the available nitrogen from the soil, binding up the available nitrogen, and the majority of chemical processes that give fertility.

This is quite a popular mistake in recent years. I have had several friends and clients ask me to look at their garden, recently converted to no-till and mulch, because nothing will grow. In almost all situations, they have bound up the available nitrogen by neglecting the C:N ratio.

Often the tactic that side steps this binding-up issue is to separate compost pile from garden, turning often to speed breakdown. By now you should have an idea what this is doing: burning up your organic matter into the atmosphere. This is why the nutrients used to increase organic matter should be as balanced in the carbon to nitrogen ratio as possible.

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While Ruth Stout’s method illustrates the effectiveness of growing annuals with nothing but mulch, PASSIVE creates an ecology which includes its own mulch, and so sets it apart. I here use Ruth Stout’s method as proof annuals can be grown with nothing but mulch. I don’t credit her method as the direct roots of PASSIVE though, I credit its roots to a forest model.

*http://soilandhealth.org/wp-content/uploads/01aglibrary/010120albrecht.usdayrbk/lsom.html

*http://whyfiles.org/2012/farming-native-american-style/

*Dirt Farmer’s Dialogue by C.J. Pankimg_2294

This is one of the really important chapter from PASSIVE Gardening explaining why the art of in-system fertility is so beneficial to a truly sustainable, healthy, low-work garden. In the later chapters the book explains Chaos Ratio, one of the most powerful tools for managing system fertility and seamlessly transitioning from yard to garden oasis. I hope to get a post out on this subject soon. Until then, I hope you find this of interest. The photo to the side is another of the photos graciously given to me by Elora L. 

PASSIVE

I’m giving a talk today on growing annuals in sustainable, no-till systems. I’m calling it PASSIVE gardening, or permanent agriculture systems sustaining intensive (annual) vegetable ecology. More on that later. For now, I thought I’d share the talk trifold.


Any thoughts?

Foundation for the future

I’m using A bit blunt method for a lot of the new beds I’ll be planting later this year.

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Making a bare place for the N-fixers and comfrey that will feed the annuals.

One of my neighbors has a fill-dirt area on his property where people deposit rocks, shrubbery, and other “yard waste.” It just so happened someone deposited the refuse of a cement-brick wall to be pushed over the hill, which quickly disappeared to my place (with his permission, of course). I have four pallets stacked with these mostly very nice rocks. Pictured above is a little over one pallet’s worth. So there’s more coming.

I figure if they’re going to sit, they might as well be killing grass while doing it.

I also have a cherry tree that’s laid dead for two years now I’m just getting

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These logs surround a saskatoon, an Amorpha and a currant bush that have been ‘roughing’ it in the grass. This year they should have some relief.

around to cutting into ‘pucks’. The ones from last year I’ve mostly given permanent homes as steps.

Yes, the work involved in laying this mulch seems rather inefficient. I have about two hours into what is pictured. This was mostly getting wood cut and moved and the longer move of bringing the rocks into the food forest. Now that I have them at work, only small moves will take place, and there will be a lot of grass removed for which I didn’t have to use my limited resource of dried grass.

Like last year’s pucks, pretty much all these hunks of wood will be used as stepping stones until decaying into humus and feeding plants. The stones will become permanent stepping stones, with the added function of thermal mass.

That’s the end purpose. I’m looking at this mulch function as a beneficial function in-between.

IMG_0676I mention this reasoning because it seems not many people get it right away. I’ve had several people ask me what I’m doing with these rocks and wood pucks, and you can only imagine the looks on their faces when I reply, ‘mulch.’

Niche in fertility

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Since last year’s manual of bed building I have found yet another dimension to consider, fertility levels.

Piling all the material onto the beds in spring (which usually includes a sprinkling of the food forest rabbit manure) makes for a lot of nutrients swimming around.

This is one reason why I stick annuals between the young perennials the first season; the annuals suck up all this excess and make it into cover and mulch which can be cycled back. I’ve found when planting the second year, that fertility isn’t there.

You wouldn’t guess it by how the perennials explode the next spring with luxurious growth. By this time they’ve got extensive root systems established, feeding from a very deep and broad area and from stored food from the previous year.

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The purple is sage. The lovely silvery little ground cover is Silene uniflora -love it!

Annuals I stick in the second year usually limp along until they get their roots established to make a mediocre growth or die. This makes sense considering what I posted about growing annuals. They take huge amounts of nutrients.

Another point I’ve observed is the ground really needs roots to keep the soil alive. Continual growth and die off of the root hairs, besides myriad chemical interactions, keeps the ground fluffy and alive. Without them it goes hard and dead in short order.

Spots I didn’t get filled with plants last spring did just that. They got so hard I used my garden trowel like a pickaxe where before I could drive my finger in with ease. A reapplication of mulch quickly woke it back up so I could get some preferred plants stuck in.

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A new bed last year. Borage and marigolds are the only annuals. Ground covers already have the ground beneath them covered.

The main change then is to plant thickly, but a little thicker with perennials, the same amount of annuals, because there will be no annuals the next year. This makes sure all the nutrients are utilized and the perennials will be close enough to keep everything under control in the years to come. Hopefully in these beds I’m establishing now, that will be a lot of years to come.

Growing annuals

I’m always writing about perennials and no till, but I actually do a lot of annual gardening. My family’s farm has a CSA for about 20 shares that uses about 3 acres of tilled gardens.

Mortal Tree is my exposition on alternative methods, so of course I wanted to try growing annuals in a passive, no till setup.

That’s what the keyholes at the front were supposed to be; with perennials thrown in for propagation, and greater efficiency.

After two years of the first “system” (or lack thereof) there are two problems: lack of fertility, and weeds. Of course everyone has those problems, but the system was supposed to keep these to a tolerable level.

As it is, aside from mache, annuals just aren’t satisfied with the fertility. This year I didn’t harvest anything but what the perennials willingly supplied.

Ideal weed level is pulling a few weeds as I inspect the garden on a pleasant evening. Instead, I found myself clearing whole beds only to have them full of weeds again in a month.

I’ve scrutinized the system and found two problems: lack of mulch and lack of fertility in general.

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The year of high fertility

I got the idea I wasn’t cycling enough nutrients from the lack of vigor the annuals and their self seeding progeny showed. I wasn’t sure how much more I needed. Normally the tillage and compost in the big gardens makes everything grow without complaint. Now that I’m trying to make this work with comfrey and other in-system nutrients, without tillage, it’s not.

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Martin Crawford has several tables in Creating a Forest Garden that really pin down nutrients and how much different plants need, and how much different sources offer. He has a light, moderate, and heavy cropping category, then annuals.

Most of the perennial vegetables he places in the light cropping category. It takes about two cut comfrey per square meter to sustain these plants, which is about what I am applying. To sustain annual cropping takes 60 cut comfrey for that same area. Problem found.

The amount of fertility I’m accustomed to working with in the annual gardens is simply an unnatural surge of nutrients. Compost is extraordinarily rich in nutrients compared to bulk green mulch.

Also, tillage forces more oxygen into the soil, breaking down those nutrients at a faster rate. The keyholes had this advantage at first because I dug out the paths and piled up the soil to make the beds.

Problem is, the mulch apparently needed for the annuals would drown most of the perennials. In response I’m moving all the perennials out, and making the keyholes completely annual.

The best comparison I have for this so far is a keyhole bed I have near the Willow Garden in its fourth year of no till.

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It has a dug out path and raised beds too. It has one comfrey for its mulch and fertility source. As a result, I’ve had to bring in more mulch to sustain the system.

For instance, I brought in a lot comfrey from the Willow Garden to drown out some quack grass (Agropyron repens) that had moved in. It was rather effective at suppressing it. Besides some vegetable mallow over the summer, it was enough to grow some nice cabbages.

In the food forest, I’m not supplying 60 cuts of comfrey per keyhole per year. I’ve got 12 beds with an average of 1.3 square meters each. It would take several hundred plants.

When faced with a large surge of energy in a design, I always try and disperse the blow across many sources.

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Young regrowth on a coppiced amorpha

According to Martin’s fertility tables, one amorpha, based on mature canopy size of about six feet in diameter, provides the equivalent nitrogen of 20 cuts of comfrey, or 10 comfrey plants; lespedeza about the same. I’ll throw some of these in the patch so the roots sloughing off after coppicing can feed the comfrey. They need nitrogen themselves.

This still requires more space than I’ve allocated to the annual’s mulch patch. So I’ll grow some annual cover crops on the keyhole beds once in a while to fill the gap -careful to choose crops that will die when cut, frosted, or heavily mulched since there won’t be any tilling.

To really cinch the deal I have the food forest rabbit’s manure. I let a bucket of it sit out to catch rain, and harvest the resulting “tea” to feed establishing beds right now. In time it can be exclusively for the annuals.

Achieving this much mulch in the food forest will take a while. I’m moving out the perennials first, and planting the whole thing in lots of annual cover crops. The first plant to start yeilding mulch will likely be comfrey, though I might just mulch their own patch the first year to ensure they are established. The next year the N-fixers will be ready for light coppicing, then full production. I’m assuming three years before that point, but I’m quite excited to the see the results. I’ll keep you posted as it goes along.

Manual of bed building

IMG_5759Group and Conquer, A bit blunt, and even some link posts on this blog all revolve around the non-ground-breaking task of building no-till beds from turf.

As you can tell, these posts are a shared learning experience, with changes for the better always turning up. This year I did a lot of bed building, both for myself, and alongside several clients, resulting in new found tricks to really make a new bed weed free, and productive, fast.

First is the timing. While it is entirely doable to mulch and kill grass at any time of year, I find it easiest done just before the grass breaks dormancy in early spring. It seems to be a vulnerable time for the grass, I assume because it needs sunlight to jump start for the year. In fact mulch laid at this time of year often gets by with no weeding or raking at all.IMG_5270

I also find raking dead grass in spring is much quicker and easier to do than mowing with a scythe. I’ve noticed this is a relatively long lasting mulch -at least as much as green grass mulch, despite its being broken down over winter a little.

So I mow less in fall to leave more grass for mulching in early spring, do less work mulching, and get better results all around.

The idea of long grass I know isn’t attractive to a lot of people. A lot of permaculture designers stress that its not necessary for quality design.

It’s not. But it is far better. Deeper roots, more diversity, more growth, greater stability Through wet and dry wheather are just some of the benefits of letting grass grow tall and harvesting on scheduke like the one I’ve mentioned; but slow growth is better than no-growth. By all means, adapt as your circumstances allow.

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Another detail is using bulky, woody material as a base layer –not on top of the mulch. This way it holds the mulch higher off the ground, making that much more space for the weeds underneath to overcome. It also puts the wood where it will hold more water, and so grow more beneficial fungi.

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There is no question your mulch will be successful if the weeds are half dead before you even lay the mulch. Putting something completely impenetrable over the ground such as rocks, or logs, as explained in A bit blunt, is probably one of the best findings I made this year. It weakens even pernicious weeds like thistle, and allows for progress to be made while you’re waiting for grass to grow, as I did in the picture above. Every time I got some grass, I would clear as much room as I had grass for, and move the logs onto fresh grass.

Finally, or rather first, have plants propagated and ready for planting. Nature wants to make that site productive. If you don’t, nature will –with the same grass you just cleared. As soon as the plants underneath are dead –probably a week or two after mulching –less if you’ve used logs ahead of time, get that bed planted with mulch makers, fruit bearers, nitrogen fixer, anything you want. Definitely don’t leave the bed empty.

Of course perennials take a long time to grow to full size, so plan on adding fillers such as annual nasturtium or nitrogen fixing peas, beans, or vetch to occupy the gaps until the perennials move in.

With such a good start, it’s wise to build onto a bed rather than start a new detached bed; this conserves your efforts, and allows some leverage of the existing plants.

One way this can be done, as explained in Martin Crawford’s “Creating A Forest Garden” is putting an impenetrable mulch at the edge of a bed whose ground cover is a runner (mint, strawberries, etc. ). This lets the runners grow out, (underneath in the case of mint, on top in the case of strawberries). All the while, the grass is languishing beneath the mulch, so once removed, it allows light to the root runners, earth to the vine runners. The product: instant ground cover.

About the same thing happens with violets. Such as one spot with violets growing among grass, fall aster and others on which I laid a very thick layer of mulch. The grass and everything else were never seen again; the violets, I suppose because they can tolerate very, very deep shade, not so. They broke through!

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Of course I am trying hard in other parts of the food forest to establish such a ground cover. So I was more than pleased to see this. But just a note for the reader: violets are not killed by mulch.

And there is my review of bed building for the year. New developments to come I’m sure. Any experience from you, reader, is very welcome in the comments below.

Fruiting factors

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The biggest, most perfect apple on this tree left with a deer this morning. I figured if they’re ripe enough for the deer, they must be ripe enough for me. I estimate that one apple would have pushed the total weight well over 5lbs though.IMG_5773

Being a gift, I don’t know the exact age of this ‘Red Delicious’ tree. It would seem to be on dwarf rootstock though.

The guild entails three comfrey,  some musk strawberries, chicories, parsnips, a blueberry (which gave about two handfuls of fruit earlier this year), japanese wineberry. I planted a peashrub     (Caragana arborescens), and a false indigo   (Amorpha fruticosa) in there earlier this year, and seeded vetch, borage, and field peas, pulling them up at flowering to feed the tree. The guild has never been dug but for transplants, never been fertilized but by plants growing in it. Only thick grass mulch established it.

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Interestingly, the other apples, despite blooming just as much, gave little or no fruit, in direct relation to how developed the guilds are around them. This one is the most developed.