I gave a talk at my family farm’s plant sale two weeks ago, that was supposed to center around PASSIVE Gardening. I thought it would be rather tacky to give a condensed version of the book, so decided to give a side glance of the method, by explaining the little known art of pulling nutrients from air. This is actually the basis of the method in my mind; but I often get some queer looks when I explain it that way. I’d love to know your take on it.
“I’d like to offer something rather uncommon in the gardening world…..”
The mulch-generating polyculture for Mortal Tree’s PASSIVE garden system is going well. It’s the bed in Foundation for a future I am establishing with bricks.*
The intent for this bed, per A bit blunt method, was to shift the rocks every couple of months to kill off the grass underneath. This worked pretty well for most of the bed. I shifted the bricks in July and made a final small shift about a week ago. Above is the freshly shifted “mulch” around an amorpha.
I also tried covering a small part with grass mulch in May last year, and this took care of any weeds growing through the cracks. Below is the planting now. Like most fun times, there is a mess to clean up afterwards. This bed had a lot of fun last year. What you see is actually mulch I applied, the healthy comfrey, and some amorpha interplanted. I plucked out the little bits of green quackgrass, and look forward to some very lush, beautiful growth here come summer.
I plucked out the quackgrass when I shifted the rocks. Because they block sun and moisture loss, the rocks encourage the quackgrass to grow shallow, allowing me to just pick them up rather than pulling them. What roots did grow deeply are easily pulled because the soil is so soft under the bricks.
This soil conditioning is one if the main perks of using rocks. The soil life is everywhere, with centipedes, worms, spiders -even at this cold season. Soil between the bricks which heaved from the freezing over winter is unbelievably friable. It looks like it has been tilled.
Considering how low this soil is in organic matter, with a clay-coal base, with no amendments like sand or ever even being tilled before, I am very excited to already have such results. The moisture and soil life have brought it so far because I have created the right habitat, covering the soil. The organic matter is starting to accumulate.
Above are some amorpha leaves dropped last fall, which likely have brought in nitrogen the system formerly did not have. The plants were already beginning to nodulate in their pots when I planted them last year. If you would like to learn more about how I ensure they make nitrogen and get off to a good start, I have some notes here on Growing amorpha.
I also harvested some of the comfrey leaves last year, which I left around the plants I harvested from. This is breaking down into gorgeous soil, bringing in carbon the system did not formerly have.
Pictured is some broken down comfrey from a larger patch in the food forest. This new patch should be producing similar soil in the near future. It’s already well on its way.
*This could have been done with some large piece of canvas or the like, or a large piece of plywood. One of my clients decided to try clear plastic just to block water, which was still effective at removing the plants underneath.
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.
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.
[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.
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.*
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Green is always so tender and lush as it erupts from its hard, drab seed coat. Thankfully this only marks the beginning of much more growth to come if handled right. Take this scenario for example:
Just finishing its second year at one of my client’s home, right outside their front door, is the first installed PASSIVE-perennial vegetable garden fusion.
It is about 2/3rds perennial polyculture and 1/3rd PASSIVE annuals. The perennials provide much of the show, while the annuals give a small smatter of color and the bulk production at which they so excel.
The new placement of the garden is a major improvement of what they had. Their old garden was far behind the house, where they got little enjoyment and use of it because it was in a literal blindspot of their everyday life.
The new garden started by merely laying path. This we made of ceramic block, left over from some of the previous owner’s building projects on the property, which until then did nothing but take up space in a pile, unused.
Design I had roughly figured and drawn beforehand, which we discussed and moderated as suited our needs in process of laying the block. The final product is a series of large curves, or spirals, if you will, within each other. This created curved beds about three feet wide for easy access. Where the paths were further apart, we made small islands of stone, which had the added effect of breaking up the large spiral design, besides being a pretty addition itself.
Mulch eradicated the grass lawn on the plot. This was mostly fallen branches and mowed grass from the lawn, which for the client was formerly just another waste product they had piled for compost.
They also applied select vegetable waste to the mulch, which has popped up to their delight as cilantro, pumpkins, basil, dill, and many others we didn’t expect. Right by the house, they got some of the finest cantaloupe I have ever seen grown in this area. On my parent’s farm nearby we have tried for years to get good muskmelons, trying black plastic for heat, and irrigation to combat the dryness. So I was a bit envious when I saw these just appear from the mulch. They were smack on the southeast corner of the house though, just out of reach of the spouting which overflows in heavy rains, soaking the spot. Microclimates rule.
With minimal identification from me, the offensive weeds like quackgrass and thistle were casually plucked whenever found, and the garden has been a serendipitous mass of vegetables since.
Quick growth of a cover crop mix planted that fall, and continued additions of grass mulch they got from the lawn, with a chance find of some straw the husband, Hans, got at his work, bolstered the store of the organic matter ready for breakdown over winter, effectively blocking anymore weeds.
This left us with a clean spread of grass mulch, with patches of green herbs and vegetables popping up. It was quite nice for what could have been an awkward establishment phase. This year, it only got better.
Over winter I designed the planting, ordered seed and plants, starting out many of the plants for the client in my greenhouse. Transplanting happened as the plants were ready, such that I completed the list by June. A picture of the initial planting list I sent them is below. A few things we skipped, a lot of things were added.
When out shopping at a local greenhouse for example, a couple artichokes somehow tagged along home and made themselves happy in the new garden. One of these bloomed, and gave two smaller buds for eating.
At the top of a hill, the garden has a wonderful microclimate. Of course, being close to the white brick house helps too. So I figured lots of things normally too tender for our climate might even overwinter here. The artichokes are just one of several accidental warm climate additions that slipped in. I’m chaffing to see how they fare.
In the annual planting area, there is comfrey and Cystisus scoparious for the permanent mulch making system. Cystisus stays low, so won’t block the view across the garden. At the east edge, Amorpha is planted in a row of wild daylilies to provide ample mulch for the perennials, and a small surplus for the annuals. Across the driveway, to the west, is a long line of Amorpha with comfrey at its feet to block wind and provide further mulch if necessary.
We added a bamboo bean tipi for a focal point this year, with tomatoes around the base.
These were mostly heirloom slicer tomatoes. We would have planted some cherry tomatoes, but the variety they planted the year before, “Matt’s Wild” had taken propagation into its own hands and now their persisting progeny couldn’t be chased out of the garden with a stick. Fruits thickly festoon the bramble of branches they make though, so this isn’t too much of a problem. If anything they choke out the less desirable weeds.
Self seeders like this, and perennials that provide stock for annual propagation, are the next step in the PASSIVE method I want to refine, so keep an eye out for more examples like this.
Annuals such as calendula, and biennials like salsify (Tragopogon porrifolius), good at self seeding, were planted nearby in the perennial polyculture to cover the ground between the young perennials. A very pretty variegated mint is more permanently filling in the cracks. In the annual area we planted mache as a self seeding groundcover. See my post on its use here.
With all the mulch poured on the garden from the yard, there was descent fertility, although higher later on. This wasn’t until the end of the summer, because it was dry and bound up and not feeding the soil until we got rain. It’s fascinating to note that, although watered a few times with a sprinkler, this did not have a noticable effect on the mulch and its breakdown -hence fertility. One good summer’s rain, and the mulch suddenly changed color, and so did the garden.
The compliments are starting to roll in from my clients’ friends on how the garden looks so nice. The wife, Elora, is an artist in several media, and lately made a series of really cool macro lens pictures of the plants titled “A Garden Meditation.” Check it out here.
It is, as they tell me, their new entertainment to sit on the porch and watch the bees and butterflies flit around the lush growth and radiant colors. They have sent me several pictures of salads and tomato harvests they have made thus far, and posted a good bit to their social media pages if you want to take a look.
The best thing about the situation is it’s just year two, and only the beginning of what should become a very long lived, productive, PASSIVE-perennial gardening system.
Book update: I know some of you can’t check my posts released on Fridays until Monday, so I am offering PASSIVE Gardening as a free gift again today.
Almost any device -smartphone, tablet, desktop -of almost every brand, can download the Kindle app that allows the device to display kindle books. Just click on the “Read on any Device” next to the book picture. At any rate there is no need worry about having a device that can support it.
I do understand some do not like extensive reading on an electrical device though, so will have a soft cover copy out soon.
The book had 700 downloads last time. No reviews yet, so the race is still on to see who shatters the silence. In whatever order they come, I am particularly excited to see a review from you.
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.