1. Organic Gardening and Farming
2. Regenerative & Restorative Gardening & Farming
3. No-dig Gardening & Zero-tillage Farming
4. Biological Gardening & Farming
5. Biodynamic Gardening & Farming
7. Forest Gardening
8. Bio-intensive Gardening
9. Agnihotra Gardening & Farming
10. Square Foot Gardening
It is important to realize that these are not just alternative approaches. As I said in my Introduction –
“In my mind they all have something to offer and usually they are complimentary and what is more important, the result of using many approaches is more than the sum of its parts. There will always be fanatics who insist their particular approach is ‘the’ way, whether they are from the Organic school, or the Permaculture school, or the Biological school, or the Biodynamic school, etc. However I will be covering all these and more, because I have time for all these approaches, indeed I use most of these approaches regularly. The problem with sticking to one method exclusively is that one misses out on the many good aspects of the other approaches.”
So you can pick and mix and use whatever feels right for you.
I have used organic practices for over 40 years, biodynamic methods for many years, biological methods over 10 years, and permaculture design methods for many years. We also started to build a forest garden, a bio-intensive gardening, a no-dig gardening and a square-foot garden when we worked at Waimarama Community Gardens, here in Nelson, New Zealand.
1. ORGANIC GARDENING
When agriculturists and soil scientists ask for more research into the validity of organic farming and horticulture – I will always point to the largest and longest highly successful and productive organic experiment ever done in history, in China, Korea and Japan over a period of 4,000 years without a loss of soil fertility and crop production, until these countries started adopting modern western practices in the twentieth century! Does anybody need any more proof? (See: F. H. King’s book ‘Farmers of Forty Centuries – Organic Farming in China, Korea and Japan’ republished by Dover Publications, 2004. ISBN 0-486-43609-8).
Definition of Organic Farming
In this book the organic approach is implied in all the articles, and I have covered what it means to be an organic gardener (& Farmer) in section 1 and 2 – ‘The Living Soil’ & ‘Building Fertility’.
To give you a good definition of organic gardening, it is easier to give you guidelines as to how you can become a successful organic gardener and what that involves:
1. Become knowledgeable about natural processes of plant nutrition and health and try to recreate ideal natural conditions for them.
2. Use your best endeavours to revitalise the soil so it is teaming with life, in the form of beneficial micro-organisms, earth worms etc. - all of which feed the plants naturally without synthetic chemicals.
3. Increase the humus content of the soil to an optimum 5.0% by regularly making and incorporating homemade organic garden compost and green manures into your soil.
4. Improve the health of the soil and therefore the health of the plants, so that the plants are increasingly able to resist pests and diseases.
5. Have as many species and varieties of plants, shrubs and trees as possible, to create a diverse and healthy environment.
6. Use only natural supplements and methods.
7. Use organic sprays as a last resort against pests and diseases, especially trying to avoid broad-spectrum organic sprays that can also kill beneficial and helpful insects.
8. Never stop observing and learning from the natural ecology of your garden and environment.
‘Biodynamic Gardening’, ‘Permaculture’, ‘Agnihotra Gardening’, ‘Forest Gardening’, ‘No-dig Gardening’, ‘Bio-intensive Gardening’ and ‘Square Foot Gardening’ – are all forms of Organic Gardening.
The only partial exception is 'Biological Gardening and Farming', based on the work of William Albrecht and Dr Carey Reams, which in the strictest sense is not ‘Organic’. However, proponents of the Biological agriculture and horticulture argue that the Biological approach is ‘beyond’ organic. That is, it uses the best of the organic approaches, but with a much deeper inclusive scientific understanding of the processes involved. Also many in the Organic movement, including myself, are starting to incorporate Albrecht’s and Reams’ Biological ideas into our own practices, and see their work, research and conclusions as the missing link for both conventional and organic approaches. Those in both the conventional and organic spheres that are either unaware or dismissive of the significance of Albrecht and Reams’ work are going to be seriously left behind.
Nutritional Quality of Organic Produce
Apart from the benefits to soil life, and crop health and the long-term sustainability of this way of growing food – one of the most important facts about organic farming and horticulture is the improved nutritional content, plus the reduced harmful chemicals in food grown this way. There have been many scientific studies carried out over many years in many countries. When writing my first book ‘Organic Futures’ I found a twelve year study in Switzerland published in 1975 by Schuphan, which found that organically produce over conventionally grown food had:
• 23% more dry matter
• 18% more protein
• 28% more vitamin C
• 19% more total sugars
• 13% more methionine (an important amino acid)
• 77% more iron
• 18% more potassium
• 10% more calcium
• 13% more phosphorus
And a reduction in undesirable compounds of:
• 12% less sodium
• 93% less nitrate
• 42% less free amino acids
Similar results were arrived at by Fischer and Richter in 1986, Lairon in 1986, Abele in 1987, Bulling in 1987, and Kerpen in 1988.
Since then there have been numerous similar studies – best summarized the U.K’s ‘Soil Association’s Policy Report on Organic Farming – Food Quality and Human Health’ - see:
Also a good book to read on organic farming is the revised edition of Nicolas Lampkin’s book ‘Organic Farming’ - ISBN-13: 978-0852361917 and ISBN-10: 9780852361917 – especially chapter 15.
However, I digress, as ‘Organic’ is implied in most of this blog, there is no point in writing a long separate section on the subject, as this would be to repeat myself.
2. REGENERATIVE & RESTORATIVE GARDENING & FARMING
The concept of ‘Regeneration’ and ‘Restorative’ in regards to gardening and farming is a more recent concept. This approach recognises that it is not enough just to be ‘sustainable’ – we have to regenerate topsoils first and foremost from the destructive effects of the conventional and intensive approach and the destructive effects of ploughing even when it is used in organic farming. Farmers, who use regenerative methods, range from those that use a minimum amount of fertiliser, and sprays, to those using an organic version, and all those in-between. Generally they are aiming at eliminating synthetic chemicals and sprays completely as the soil building kicks in.
Regenerative farming is growing from the bottom up, in other words it is a grass-roots movement, like the Biological movement. Farmers are practical people, and if they can see genuine results they are more likely to adopt the idea. The important thing to note here is that where these methods have been employed by a growing number of farmers and horticulturists in many parts of the world, their soils have improved dramatically – coming back to life with increased organic matter; not only that, many have noticed increases in yields above those of conventional methods, and with much fewer inputs, thus giving the farmer increased profits, which has meant that many have found that their farms have become economically viable again.
At its best, the methods employed are three-fold:
1. Minimum disturbance of the soil
2. Growing cover crops and retaining crop residues so that the soil is always covered
3. The use of diverse crop rotations
What has been found is that when one or two of these methods are employed, the results are not as successful – all three methods need to be employed fully for the best results.
1. Minimum disturbance of the soil
No-till methods are at the heart of the Regenerative approach. The reason for this is that ploughing and other major tillage methods break up and destroy one of the most valuable of microorganisms – mycorrhizal fungi (see: the section 1, THE LIVING SOIL - Beneficial Microorganisms, Mycorrhizae Fungi).
Among the many good aspects of having thriving colonies of mycorrhizal fungi in your soil, mycorrhizae make glomalin, which they make in the walls of their hyphae (fungal threads), some of which is then released into the soil. Initially glomalin helps to make the hyphae waterproof, but it also helps to aggregate the soil – this sticky protein literally glues soil particles together, allowing water and air to penetrate the soil and produces a good stabilised crumbly tilth. Rain can then penetrate easily into the soil and become stored there, held by surface tension.
On the other hand, soil that is ploughed and broken down mechanically is anything but stable and disaggregates easily, creating a cap on top that rain runs off rather than penetrates, often eroding the top layer of soil with it. Topsoil is also lost to over cultivated soils by wind. I have personally witnessed clouds of topsoil blowing away as it was being cultivated on a dry autumn day.
Ploughing and other major tillage methods disrupt all the microorganisms in the soil and the intricate web of their activity that feeds plants in exchange for the exudates produced by the plants that the microorganisms feed on.
2. Growing cover crops and retaining crop residues so that the soil is always covered.
Green manures and cover crops in-between the crops, makes sure the soil is covered at all times. On a garden scale, when the green manure or cover crop is cut or slashed with a weed-eater (strimmer) the slash is spread over the soil as mulch, or the plants are pulled up and left to lie as mulch. On a larger farm scale, many farmers use a Roller Crimper to roll and crush the green manure flat and in line, so that an adapted seed drill can sow the next crop directly into the crushed green manure.
Left is a tractor with a Roller Crimper on the front and a seed drill at the back sowing seed directly into the trash. Leaving crop residues, such as straw and stubble after a grain crop is harvested, provides the perfect mulch through which to grow the next crop. One example of a cover crop on a garden scale that we use is a mix of alfalfa and red clover seeds sown in our brassica bed. A hole is made to plant out each cabbage, broccoli etc., then the clover alfalfa plants are cut regularly through the season and the clippings are spread around the bed and the brassicas to rot down.
In other words use both living and dead mulch to cover your soil, encouraging earthworms and all the beneficial microorganisms, including mycorrhizal fungi, as well as beneficial insects, which help to keep pests in check.
3. The use of diverse crop rotations
This is a fascinating concept. Having complex crop and cover crop rotations, with the sequence changed regularly, denies pests and pathogens the opportunity to take hold, helping to break up their cycles. This is a much more sophisticated and effective way of designing crop rotations, than using the same sequence, year in year out.
As with the adoption of ‘Biological’ methods, ‘Regenerative’ farming and horticulture is a grass roots movement. A farmer sees his neighbour getting good results and wants to know how to adopt the methods him or herself. Its emphasis is based on outcomes rather than on theories and practices. Farmers are practical people, and if they can see something is working, they often want to give it a go.
Here is a great lesson for those who garden, of are involved in community gardens, or indeed any kind or level of growing food – from the small to large scale – the lessons learned from the regenerative and restorative practices.
A Must Read:
One of the compelling books to read on this subject is ‘GROWING A REVOLUTION – Bringing Our Soils Back to Life’ by David R. Montgomery.
The author travelled around the world meeting farmers who are at the forefront of an agricultural movement to restore soil health, by ditching the plough, planting cover crops and growing a diversity of crops on their lands. ISBN 978-0-393-35609-0 (W. W. Norton, New York & London).
Also worth looking at are two sites – The Ecdysis Foundation and associated farm Blue Dasher Farm in the USA. The Ecdysis Foundation is involved with cutting edge research for transforming agriculture using regenerative principals; and Blue Dasher Farm is a farm that is a Research and Demonstration Farm using Regenerative Agriculture - see sites below:
The Ecdysis Foundation – https://www.ecdysis.bio/ Blue Dasher Farm – https://www.bluedasher.farm/ https://joyce-farms.com/pages/regenerative-agriculture/
https://www.lowimpact.org/directory/listing/regenerative-agriculture/ Regenerative Australian Farmers
3. NO DIG GARDENING & ZERO-TILLAGE AGRICULTURE
No-dig gardening is a minimum-cultivation method used by some organic gardeners, and zero-tillage farming is becoming more popular around the world, especially amongst farmers using ‘Regenerative’ practices (see above).
The origins of no-dig gardening are unclear. Two pioneers of the method in the twentieth century included F. C. King, Head Gardener at Levens Hall, South Westmorland, in the Lake District of England, who posed the Question "Is Digging Necessary?" in 1946 and a mysterious gardener from Middlecliffe in the UK, A. Guest, who in 1948 published the book "Gardening Without Digging". The work of these gardeners was supported by the Good Gardeners Association in the UK. No-dig gardening was also promoted by the Australian, Esther Deans in the 1970s, and American gardener Ruth Stout advocated a "permanent" garden mulching technique in Gardening Without Work and no-dig methods in the 1950s and 1960s.
The modern form of this type of gardening is based on the idea that in nature all soil is built from the top down. Waste organic matter falls onto the ground, rots down and becomes humus. Soil organisms, such as worms, then help to incorporate the organic matter into the soil at greater and greater depths, building up and increasing the depth of the topsoil over time. Instead of clearing the land of grass, etc., and digging the plot over, to put it simply, a compost heap is built on site and topsoil is added to the top.
They're easy to build (a morning's work!), they’re low cost, they're reasonably maintenance free, they mirror nature to create a rich, organic environment for your plants and they can be built anywhere, anytime to any design – see: Section 6, Planning Your Garden, ‘No-Dig Beds’, for details and diagrams on how to build such a garden.
In Japan, Masanobu Fukuoka started his pioneering research work in no-dig farming in 1938, and began publishing in the 1970s his philosophy of "Do Nothing Farming". His most famous book ‘One Straw Revolution’ is now acknowledged by some as one of the influences of the Permaculture movement and also influenced a whole generation of organic practitioners.
Masanobu Fukuoka (2 February 1913 – 16 August 2008) was a farmer/philosopher who lived on the Island of Shikoku, in southern Japan. His farming technique required no machines, no chemicals and very little weeding. He did not plough the soil or use prepared compost and yet the condition of the soil in his orchards and fields improved year on year. The methods he developed create no pollution and do not require fossil fuels. His methods required less labour than any other, yet the yields in his orchard and fields compared favourably with the most productive Japanese farms with all their technical know-how of modern science.
The basic idea for his rice growing came to him one day when he happened to pass an old field which had been left unused and unploughed for many years. There he saw healthy rice seedlings sprouting through a tangle of grasses and weeds. From that time on he stopped sowing rice seed in the spring and, instead, put the seed out in the autumn when it would naturally have fallen to the ground. Instead of ploughing to get rid of weeds he learned to control them with a ground cover of white clover and a mulch of barley straw. Once he had tilted the balance slightly in favour of his crops, Fukuoka interfered as little as possible with the plant and animal communities in his fields.
Fukuoka also re-invented and advanced the use of clay seed balls. Clay seeds balls were originally an ancient practice in which seeds for the next season's crops are mixed together, sometimes with humus or compost for microbial inoculants, and then are rolled within clay to form into small balls. Rather than burying the seeds, he broadcast the seed balls over his fields, spread a loose mulch of straw on top and the seeds had enough moisture and initial food to germinate and grow.
His vegetable growing also reflects his idea of growing naturally. He grew vegetables in the spaces between the citrus trees in the orchard. Instead of deciding which vegetables would do well in which locations he mixed all the seeds together and scattered them everywhere. He let the vegetables find their own location, often in areas he would have least expected. The vegetables reseeded themselves and moved around the orchard from year to year. He found that vegetables grown this way were stronger and gradually reverted to the form of their semi-wild ancestors.
Fukuoka believed that natural farming proceeds from the spiritual health of the individual. He considered the healing of the land and the purification of the human spirit to be one process, and he proposed a way of life and a way of farming in which this process can take place.
"Natural farming is not just for growing crops," he said, "it is for the cultivation and perfection of human beings."
There is no doubt that Fukuoka’s techniques have proved difficult to apply, even on most Japanese farms, and they are too technically demanding for most people to follow. Despite this, in the international development of the organic farming movement, Fukuoka is considered to be amongst the six giant personalities who inspired the movement along with Austrian Rudolf Steiner, German-Swiss Hans Müller, Sir Albert Howard and Lady Eve Balfour in the United Kingdom and J.I. Rodale in the United States.
Further Reading One Straw Revolution, Masanobu Fukuoka, ISBN: 9781590173138 has been translated into over 20 languages and sold more than one million copies.
Middle American Organic Zero-tillage
In countries like Guatemala and Honduras, organic zero-tillage has been particularly successful in modern times, especially on the steep, easily eroded hillsides with depleted soils. It has been achieved by the introduction of the Mucuna (or magic) bean into the farmer’s rotations. This combination of growing the Mucuna bean along with the adoption of zero-tillage techniques has been the key to this success. First the Mucuna beans are sown on the depleted land, which produces prodigious growth along with Nitrogen fixed by the roots and yields of 100 tonnes per hectare (42 tons per acre) are regularly achieved. When the plants have died at the end of the season, the maize is planted straight into the bean residue, with no ploughing or cultivation.
After this first green-manure crop of Mucuna beans, crops of maize are sown together with the beans. The soil comes back to life – gaining humus, high bacteria and mycorrhizae activity, and an increasing worm population. The bean plants can also be harvested for making high quality compost. Yields of grain have doubled, trebled and sometimes even more, using these methods. Mucuna beans are also eaten, often made into flour and mixed with wheat and eggs for a high protein bread.
These farmers are helped by organisations that provide knowledge and practical help to become sustainable, and the governments in Guatemala and Honduras are also encouraging this trend. The farmers get better prices for their organic produce and this along with the improved yields and greatly reduced inputs, are at last providing a reasonable living for many who had given up hope of making a living from farming. In areas like these there is a new sense of optimism amongst the peasant farmers. Many communities were dying as the farmers and their families fled to the cities to look for work. Now many are returning, as the message spreads, that it is possible to revitalize their abandoned plots of land and make a reasonable living with the new sustainable techniques that everyone is talking about.
4. BIOLOGICAL GARDENING & FARMING
Ideal Soil Mineral Balance
The next field of knowledge about plant nutrition is how to obtain the ideal balance of minerals in soils. As Michael Astera, in his book ‘The Ideal Soil’ says:
“A solid understanding of minerals has been the weakest or even missing leg of sustainable agriculture up until now.”
Getting the balance of soil nutrients right is essential for the healthiest soils that will grow food plants that are high in nutrients and be the healthiest for us. You can force food crops to produce high yields, but that does not mean the food produced will be high in food value. Achieving heavy yields is not the same as growing food with high level of nutrients and high food value. One can grow heavier crops with less food value per hectare than those with less weight but with more nutrients per hectare.
It is here that we need to know the history of the discovery of the ideal soil mineral and humus balance for most edible crops. In the early years of the twentieth century a division began to occur in agricultural and horticultural practice, which grew ever wider as the century reached its end. Liebig in the 1840’s had already burnt plants and discovered three important plant nutrients left in the ash - Nitrogen, Potassium and Phosphorus and assumed these were the three most important water-soluble chemicals that plants required. However, this was a gross oversimplification that has led to the present-day over simplistic chemical approach, which unfortunately still predominates in conventional agriculture and horticulture today. It was this chemical reductionism, along with the growth of large chemical companies that grew out of the need for munitions in the first and second world wars, plus the development of the petroleum industry, that led to the huge supply of agricultural chemicals that could be used to grow crops, along with a huge range of chemical pesticides and other treatments that we see today. This then became the mainstream way of growing crops around the world.
As a reaction to this trend, the pioneering work of Sir Albert Howard and Lady Eve Balfour in the UK, J.I. Rodale’s work in the USA and Rudolf Steiner’s inspired Biodynamic agricultural movement in Germany – all of which led to what we now call the Organic Movement from the middle of the twentieth century, which has been growing increasingly ever since.
Meanwhile in the 1920’s the late William A. Albrecht, PhD (1888–1974) and his crew of researchers at the University of Missouri agricultural station in the USA, started studying the static electrical charges of clay particles, and how they held plant nutrients, and went on over the next three decades experimenting with various combinations of mineral nutrients, growing the crops and feeding them to animals.
They then worked out the ideal balance of nutrients for most crops and measured the nutritional value of the crops, as well as the resultant health of the animals that eat them.
At the same time as Albrecht was pursuing his work, Carey A. Reams (1903-1985) was also a man ahead of his time.
Although their approaches were different in many ways, both William Albrecht and Dr Carey Reams had arrived at same conclusions – an understanding of the ideal balance of different mineral nutrients in a soil for the health of beneficial soil micro-organisms, healthy nutrient dense plants, healthy animals and humans who ate the food. Here was a new vision with its practical application to agriculture and horticulture, which has led to what is now called ‘Biological’ (or ‘Eco’) agriculture and horticulture.
As the juggernaut of conventional chemical farming gathered more and more strength and became the exclusive paradigm taught in agricultural colleges, Albrecht’s and Reams’ work was ignored or dismissed, or worse still, not even heard about, except by an exclusive number of soil scientists. As for those involved in the organic and alternative agricultural movement, little or nothing was known about their work and for those that did know something, they misinterpreted Albrecht’s work in particular as just advocating more of the same chemical approach.
However, in more resent times there have been a growing number of farmers and horticulturists around the world who have adopted the biological approach and have never looked back. This is truly a grass-roots movement, with neighbouring farmers seeing the results that their neighbours are achieving and adopting biological practices themselves.
For those in the organic movement with more open minds, they have at least started to look at the biological approach and see whether it can fit into their own paradigm. In New Zealand, for instance, Kay Baxter has been instrumental in introducing biological ideas to the organic and permaculture movements, where Kay’s roots began. She sees this knowledge as just taking the best of the organic approach and taking it to a new level in growing nutrient dense food in a sustainable way. For one of the creators of Permaculture, David Holmgren, he too has recognised the value of the biological approach to balancing the soils nutrients and has corrected imbalances in the soil at Melliodora, his Permaculture small holding.
The result of these discoveries has highlighted the limits of understanding and oversimplification of the conventional approach to plant nutrition; and on the other hand it has shown up limitations in the organic and alternative agricultural understanding of plant nutrition. For those interested in sustainable ways of growing food this is one of the most important missing links in both the understanding and practical application for growing healthy and highly productive plants with high levels of nutrients and with very noticeable levels of resistance to both pests and diseases.
The important thing to realise is that no mineral works in isolation. All of the plant nutrients interact with each other. For example, if there is an imbalance of Calcium to Magnesium in a soil, which ideally should be in the ratio 7:1 Calcium/Magnesium, and the Magnesium content is too high, Nitrogen becomes increasingly unavailable for the plant. These sorts of imbalances include all the relationships of plant nutrients, including the small amounts of trace elements that are essential for the healthy functioning of a plant’s metabolism and indeed to the healthy functioning of soil life as a whole. This is a highly complex interrelationship within the topsoil. One thing is certain, that recycling organic crop waste and animal dung, back through compost heaps is great, but if there are imbalances, or even absences in certain minerals, these will just continue to exist.
So to recap, clay and humus particles attract minerals and hold on to them until released for the plant’s use. Minerals in the soil are in the form of atoms, with either a positive or negative charge. Alkaline soil nutrients are positively charged atoms called cations (pronounced Cat-I-On), and the acidic soil nutrients are negatively charged atoms called anions (pronounced An-I-On).
The capacity of a soil to hold onto ions is called its exchange capacity. It is called the exchange capacity because ions of positively charged Hydrogen atoms that are held (adsorbed) on the sights of clay or humus particles are ‘exchanged’ for the mineral ion. The ‘capacity’ of a soil is determined by the percentage of ‘exchange sites’, in other words by the percentage of clay and humus colloids in that soil.
Cations: (pronounced Cat-I-on)
Cations are positively charged ions, and as such can be held onto negatively charged clay particles and humus colloids. They are released and made available for a plant’s use by both the excretion of Carbon Dioxide from plant roots, which becomes Carbonic Acid in water, and more importantly through the actions of microorganisms.
The first important cations are Calcium (Ca)++, Magnesium (Mg)++, Potassium (K)+, Sodium (Na)+ and Hydrogen (a free agent) (H)+. The percentage of the cation exchange capacity (CEC) that a particular cation occupies is known as the ‘base saturation percentage’.
The Ideal Saturation Percentages in a Soil For These Five Cations are:
• Calcium (Ca) 60% - 70% [305 Klg per hectare (272 pounds per acre)]
• Magnesium (Mg) 10% - 20% [32 Klg per hectare (28½ pounds per acre)]
• Potassium (K) 3% - 5% [35 Klg per hectare (31 pounds per acre)]
• Sodium (Na) 1% - 4% [10 Klg per hectare (9 pounds per acre)]
• Hydrogen (H) 5% - 10%
The Calcium/Magnesium ratio determines how tight or loose the soil is. More Calcium, less Magnesium and the soil will be open and more crumbly. More Magnesium and less Calcium and the soil will be condensed. So, if the soil is light and sandy a ratio of 60% - 20% Calcium/Magnesium would be better. On the other hand for heavy clay soil a ratio of 70% - 10% Calcium/Magnesium would be more suitable – as long as both together add up to 80%.
Anions (pronounced An-I-on):
Anions, being negatively charged cannot be held onto negatively charged clay and humus particles. There are some humus colloids that are positively charged, that can hold anions, but generally anions move freely in the soil solution. However, to become available to plants they first need to be chelated by microorganisms; for instance – Phosphorus (P) into Phosphate (PO43-), Sulphur (S) into Sulphates (SO42-), etc., which can then be adsorbed by the plant’s roots.
The major three anions are:
• Phosphorus (P), [35 Klg per hectare (31 pounds per acre)]
• Sulphur (S), [17.5 Klg per hectare (15½ pounds per acre)]
• Chlorine (Cl), [10-20 Klg per hectare (9-18 pounds per acre)]
Important Minor Elements:
• Iron (Fe), (100-200 ppm)
• Manganese (Mn), (up to 50 ppm)
• Zinc (Zn), (up to 50 ppm)
• Copper (Cu), (up to 25 ppm)
• Boron (B), (up to 4 ppm)
Trace elements are also essential, but in very small amounts, no more than 1 to 2 parts per million. These include Chromium, Cobalt, Iodine, Molybdenum, Selenium, Tin, Vanadium, Nickel, Fluorine and Silicon.
The really interesting thing is that Nitrogen, which is considered to be one of the most important nutrients by conventional chemical advocates, is in this approach seen largely as sorting itself out once the soil’s humus is improved and the balance of all the other nutrients are achieved. To quote from Michael Astra again:
“If the soil’s organic matter content is 4% or above, there is likely to be a good amount of Nitrogen available.”
And as Charles Walters has noted – Humus in the soil generally has a 10:1 Carbon to Nitrogen ratio. Ehrenfreid Pfeiffer, a practitioner of Biodynamic Farming, estimated that 5% of the total organic matter in a soil is present as Nitrogen in various compounds. That means that a soil with an ideal 5% humus content would have 5,604 kg of Nitrogen reserves per hectare (5,000 pounds per acre)! Pfeiffer also calculated that 89-133 kg of Nitrogen per hectare (79.4-118.7 pounds per acre) would be released for plants every year, and this has been backed up by a research team at Clemson University, South Carolina, USA, who concluded that 96 kg per hectare (85.7 pounds per acre) of Nitrogen would be released every year.
None-the-less, Michael Astera does suggest feeding some liquid organic Nitrogen to heavy feeding crops like maize and the onion family during the growing season, but most advocates of the biological approach advise adding some Carbon to the Nitrogen rich fertiliser like liquid fish manure, or other high Nitrogen organic fertilisers to counteract the tendency of the Nitrogen fertiliser to oxidise the Carbon already existing in the humus.
The Importance of Calcium:
We have already discussed Calcium in its relation to the other minerals, but the revelation for many, who are new to this field of knowledge, is the fact that Calcium is a vital plant nutrient! For most of us Calcium has always been seen as a way of controlling pH and helping to open up a heavy soil, but this has been for too long to miss the point. Albrecht showed in a series of experiments that it was not the raising of pH through the addition of lime to soils that improved the growth of plants, but the supply of Calcium in the lime as a nutrient that produced the results! The best thing I can do is to quote from Kay Baxter’s booklet ‘Growing Nutrient Dense Food’:
“Calcium is used in plants by weight and volume more than any other mineral element.
The result of all the functions of calcium is the manufacture of amino acids for the making of plant protein and human food.
Thus the more calcium that is transported into the plant, the greater the plant’s ability to attract nutrients out of the air – chiefly carbon dioxide, nitrogen, potassium and magnesium.”
Having said all that, it is very important to realise that there is no such thing as a more or less important nutrient, only the amounts of each required for an ideal balance. As Charles Walters has commented:
“All are important and all are critical in their assigned roles. For this reason deficiencies in the soil must be corrected with the best available materials and these must be applied in the right amounts. Imbalanced fertilization – that is, fertilization to permit either a shortage or marked imbalance – disturbs the soil’s living microflora – the algae, fungi, bacteria, protozoa.”
If all the nutrients are in a balanced state as described above, then the pH will automatically arrive at around an ideal pH of 6.5. A certain amount of acidity is essential – to quote Charles Walters again:
“The nitrogen fixing bacteria like the lower pH range levels. Only soils with some acidity actively will unlock the trace nutrients required for bacteria life.”
To summarise I will let Michael Astera speak for himself:
“A wonderful thing about a balanced, mineralised soil based on the soil’s exchange capacity is that everything else becomes easier. The soil pH self-adjusts to its optimum, plant disease and insect problems largely disappear, water retention, drainage, soil texture, and the rate of decay of organic matter all become self-regulating and automatic, weather permitting. The grower knows that the nutrients are in the crop because the nutrients are available in the soil. The soil life is active and healthy and helping to make these nutrients available, and the plants growing on this ideal soil have free-choice of any nutrients they want.”
The Stages of Increased Resistance & Health:
As the nutrients become balanced, soils and crops become healthier, crops seem to progress through several stages of overall health and subsequent resistance to diseases and pests. There are several stages that a plant progresses through on its path to higher and higher levels of health and greater and greater resistance to diseases and pests:
1. To begin with plants make simple sugars and proteins through photosynthesis.
2. As they increase in health and energy, they begin to make more complex carbohydrates and complete proteins for their own needs and also have excess simple sugars and proteins to spare, which they excrete through their roots causing a growing bloom of soil micro-organisms which make a complete range of nutrients available for the plant, including essential trace elements, which in turn makes the plant even healthier.
3. The increase in more complex carbohydrates and complete proteins in the plant are impossible for a lot of pests to digest, because they have vary simple digestive systems that can only cope with simple sugars and soluble amino acids.
4. As energy increases the plant starts producing lipids, which makes the cell membranes much stronger and more resilient, enabling them to better resist fungal pathogens.
5. Finally, the plant is able to start building complex plant protective compounds, called secondary metabolites. These make the plant more indigestible to the whole range of fungi, insects and even overgrazing by herbivores.
So, let’s recap:
• Clay and Humic colloids hold onto plant nutrients by static electrical charge
• Plants receive their nutrients by releasing Carbon Dioxide through their roots which makes Carbonic Acid and the Hydrogen atoms from the Carbonic Acid ‘exchange’ with the held nutrients, releasing them for the plants use
• More importantly it is the activity of soil microorganisms which flourish due to the waste sugars and starches exuded from the plants roots, which in turn release nutrients for the plants to feed on
• By increasing humus in soils, the soils capacity to hold onto nutrients – its ‘exchange capacity’ – is increased and the life of the soil is greatly enhanced
• By making sure the balance of plant nutrients in the soil are in ideal balance, soil life is enhanced and everything else becomes self-regulating and automatic
• The nutrient levels in plants increases
• Plants become increasingly resistant to pests and diseases
Mineral Balancing, Beneficial Soil Micro-Organisms, Humic and Fulvic Acids, Hormones and Enzymes, etc:
Albrecht’s and Reams’ work has spawned an increasing number of companies around the world, combining this knowledge to benefit farmers and horticulturists who wish to become more sustainable. There has been a huge growth in the scientific understanding and practical applications of using beneficial microorganisms, humic and fulvic acids, enzymes, amino acids, carbohydrates, hormones and other natural products used in weird and wonderful combinations in recent times, to provide you with balanced composts and fertilisers, both with added beneficial bacteria and fungi. Often the ingredients are composted together, which turns many of the inorganic nutrients into organic and more stable forms and increases the amount of beneficial bacteria.
These companies have also developed sprays that encourage a plant’s natural defence mechanisms and others that contain beneficial micro-organisms to combat pests and diseases, such as Trichoderma virid among many others.
These can be obtained from companies like:
USA – AEA (Advanced Eco Agriculture) and Internation Ag Labs http://aglabs.com/
‘SoilGard’ from CERTIS USA http://www.certisusa.com/
Custom Biologicals http://living-soils.com/custom-biologicals/
New Zealand – Enviromental Fertilisers http://environmentalfertilisers.co.nz/
Daltons Organic Bio-Fungicide (from Bunnings) http://www.daltons.co.nz/
Australia – EcoGrowth http://www.ecogrowth.com.au/
Superior Fertilisers http://www.superiorfertilisers.com.au/
UK – Real IPM UK http://www.realipm.co.uk/ Symbio http://www.bioorganicgarden.co.uk/
Trichoderma spray & powder from https://www.amazon.co.uk/
I would seriously suggest that any commercial farmer, horticulturist, or gardeners who want to study this subject in greater depth, read ‘The Ideal Soil – A Handbook for the New Agriculture’, by Michael Astera, ISBN 9780984487608, which can be found on-line. This book provides both the theory, in very readable form – but also very practical information on how to test, and use the results to correct any imbalances in your soils.
For a broader understanding I recommend ‘Eco-Farm – an Acres U.S.A. Primer’, by Charles Walters, ISBN 978-0-911311-74-7. This brilliant book goes into even greater depth about the whole subject, showing how out-dated conventional farming is, giving us a vision of future farming –
“It takes organic agriculture into the scientific realm and puts food production on a new plateau.”
Both these books should be essential reading for all students of horticulture and agriculture. They are both seminal works, based on Albrecht’s work, which makes this complicated subject understandable to anyone who is prepared to make the effort to look into this important knowledge.
5. BIODYNAMIC GARDENING & FARMING
History In 1924 a group of German farmers from Silesia, who were concerned at the declining fertility of their farms, approached Rudolf Steiner for advice. In response Rudolf Steiner gave a series of eight agricultural lectures that led to the development of the Biodynamic Agricultural Movement. ‘Bio-dynamic’ is derived from two Greek words, bios life and dynamos energy.
Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925) was a seer who had studied the ideas and philosophy of Goethe. Around the late eighteen eighties Steiner started to develop a faculty for “spiritual perception independent of the senses”. As a result of these personal experiences he developed a philosophy and system of gaining knowledge, which he named Anthroposophy and in 1912 founded the Anthroposophical Society.
This impressive and enlightened man left a world wide movement and many practical applications of his ideas, including the Waldorf School Movement based on his ideas on education and the development of the children’s minds; homes and schools for defective and maladjusted children; a therapeutic movement with a central clinic at Arlesheim in Switzerland; centres for scientific and mathematical research; Eurythmy, the art of movement and speech to music; schools of drama, speech, painting, sculpture and architecture; and last but not least the Bio-dynamic system of organic farming.
Steiner’s approach to farming and growing food was radically different from anything known up until then due to his being aware of subtle, unseen underlying forces that affect every aspect of life, including humans, animals, plant nutrition, the soil and the food it produces.
However he not only provided an understanding of the subtle, but provided practical applications to vitalise soil and plant life and in the cases of soil depletion and soil pollution to re-vitalise soil and plant life.
So far we have covered approaches to producing food that are extremely important if we are to improve the life in our soils and produce nutrient dense food; however what has been missing in our understanding of plant nutrition and the phenomenon of plant growth are the subtle forces involved. It is these subtle (or spiritual) forces of nature that proponents of the Biodynamic approach argue that are as important, if not more important, than the more obvious processes.
Biodynamics is an agricultural science that recognizes basic principles at work in nature and applies this knowledge of life forces to bring about balance and healing in the soil. By working creatively with these subtle energies, gardeners and farmers are able to significantly enhance the health of their gardens and farms and the quality and flavour of their food.
Most of the activities that take place on biodynamic farms are the same as on an organic property – making and applying compost, growing green manures, building up humus, rotating crops, using liquid organic fertilisers, etc., but over and above this is the use of special enlivened preparations and the recognition of the effects of the moon and the rest of the cosmos. The role of cows and their manure also play an essential role in biodynamics.
Biodynamic ‘cow horn manure’ is fundamental to biodynamic practice. Regular applications in the spring and autumn induce increases in humus formation and soil microorganisms, such as rhizobium (nitrogen fixing bacteria), phosphate solubilisating bacteria, mycorrhizal fungi, algae, actinomycetes and protozoa. It also induces an increase in earthworms and other macro soil life, which increase the depth of humus formation up to 30cm (1ft). As a result of all this increased activity, soil crumb structure improves; there are increases in root nodule formation on legumes and an increase in the depth of earthworm activity and the depth of plant root penetration. The soil pH also rises to a healthy range and then stabilises.
Another very important result of using preparation 500 is that the soil and the plants living in it become more sensitive to the natural rhythms and processes of nature and the subtle forces flowing into it from the cosmos – as a result the other Biodynamic procedures becoming more effective.
The cow horn manure is made by placing fresh cow manure in a cow’s horn and burying it in the ground throughout the autumn and winter. The horns have the ability to absorb the life energies of the soil that are more active during the winter months. This imparts life energies to the manure, which in turn is spread over the property in the spring. To further enhance the dynamism of the sweet smelling composted manure, it is dug up in the spring and a small amount – 62g in 32 litres of water for every hectare (1 ounce in 3 gallons for every acre) – is added to warmed rain water and stirred rhythmically for an hour before spreading. This enlivens the preparation and enables the water to become a dynamic carrier of the life energy that 500 imparts to the land.
One of the most interesting things that Steiner observed was that Silica is very important in the process of plant nutrition and the building of starches, sugars and proteins. Also Silica balances the forces of Calcium. Preparation 500 enlivens the Calcium processes in the soil while 501 enlivens the Silica processes. Preparation 501 is made by grinding down quartz crystal down into a fine powder, which is also placed in a cow horn. This time, however, the horns are buried in the soil in the spring and left through the summer into the autumn, during the ‘light’ period of the year. A much smaller amount of 501 is needed – 2½g in 32 litres for each hectare (1 gram in 3 gallons for each acre) – which is added to warmed rainwater and stirred rhythmically for an hour before spraying a fine spray onto crops. For maximum effect 501 is sprayed over young crops when they are at the 4-leaf stage, for fruit trees when the fruit is about the size of a small walnut, and for grains both at the 4-leaf stage and after flowering.
The first subtle energies to take into account are those that flow into the Earth from the Cosmos, and those that flow out from the Earth. During the autumn and winter seasons it is as if the Earth breaths in and energy flows into the Earth from above, roots grow and plants store up their energies, and although the soil’s micro life slows as the temperature drops, Steiner perceived that on a subtle level the Earth and the soil are more alive in the winter than in the summer. During this inward flow, moisture and solidity predominate. In the spring and summer it is as if the Earth breathes out in an outpouring of energy, which results in upward growth and the flowering and seeding of plants. This is the period where light and air predominate.
This seasonal inbreath and outbreath is repeated in another cyclical event – that of the waxing and waning of the moon and more importantly the descending and ascending of the moon. As the sun rises higher and higher in the sky each day through the spring and early summer and descends lower and lower to its lowest point in mid winter; so in the same way the moon does the same, but over a 27.3 day cycle, with the descending phase being the inbreath and the ascending phase being the outbreath. Another cycle is the daily one in which morning through to midday being the outbreath and the afternoon and evening are the inbreath.
Practically, all gardeners and farmers follow the seasons and perform seasonal activities, they know about the upwelling of life in the spring and summer and the harvesting and the in-drawing of autumn and winter. Traditional cultures work with the phases of the moon, and so do biodynamic practitioners, however they especially work with the ascending and descending moon, tending to sow seeds during an ascending moon when the outward and upward forces predominate, and compost making, tilling the soil, applying compost and planting out plants in a descending moon period when the inward forces that are associated with root grow and the life of the soil predominates.
As the sun passes through different constellations during a year, so does the moon over twenty-eight days. The constellations fall into four categories: Earth, Water, Air and Fire. As the moon passes through each quality, they stimulate different parts and processes of the plant. So, when the moon is in an Earth constellation the roots are stimulated, in a Water constellation the leaves are stimulated, in an Air constellation flowering is stimulated, and in a Fire constellation the fruiting and seed production are stimulated. Plants are deeply connected to the cosmos. As is the macrocosm, so is the microcosm.
Without being fanatical, a Bio-dynamic practitioner will try to sow, plant-out, cultivate, hoe, make and apply compost etc., at those times of the month that are best suited to that activity or the type of crop one is growing. For instance, if one is making compost, one would ideally make it when the moon is descending in the sky, in the afternoon and better still on a day when the Earth forces are strongest – all these periods are when the root and soil is most enlivened and the inbreath and downward forces are strongest. If one were sowing the seeds of a tomato, an ascending moon would be best on a fruit day in the morning.
It is of course flexible. If one sows at the wrong time one can plant or hoe at the right time, and anyway it must be always remembered that the whole garden, orchard or farm and the life forms within it become increasing sensitive and responsive to both cosmic and earthly influences the more one uses Bio-dynamic techniques and preparations. And this leads directly to one of the most important points about Steiner’s approach – the enlightenment of us as gardeners and the farmers, putting us increasingly in touch with the rhythms and subtle forces of Nature of which we are intimately a part. Here is a subtle form of ecosystem. Steiner saw that a farm or garden is a living entity of which the gardener or farmer is an integral part.
Recognizing that the whole earth is a single, self-regulating, multi-dimensional ecosystem, Biodynamic gardeners seek to fashion their gardens and farms likewise, as self-regulating, bio-diverse ecosystems in order to bring health to the land and to their local communities.
One of the fascinating things about wild plants is that they often contain minerals that are lacking in the soils in which they grow. For instance Yarrow has been found to contain measurable amounts of potassium and selenium on land that showed a deficiency of potassium and a total lack of selenium. Some thistles and chicory are high in copper. Oak and willow, which are high in calcium, often grow on acid soils. Whether the plants are able to access minerals that are otherwise unavailable in the soil, are absorbing them from the air, or able to accumulate minerals that are present in minute amounts, or some other process, is not clear. What is clear is that this ability of plants is utilised in biodynamic farming and horticulture. Liquid manures can be made of yarrow for Potassium, stinging nettle for Iron and digitalis for Phosphorus, but the most common way that this facility of plants is used is in the production of the Biodynamic compost preparations.
There are six fermented and enlivened herbal compost preparations that are added to the finished compost heap:
1. Yarrow flowers (Achillea millefolium)
2. Chamomile flowers (Matricaria chamomilla)
3. Stinging Nettle leaves and stalks (Urtica dioica)
4. Oak Bark powdered (Quercus robur)
5. Dandelion flowers (Taraxacum officinale)
6. Valerian flowers (Valeriana officinalis)
1. Yarrow Preparation 502
Rudolf Steiner called yarrow a miracle of creation. It is connected to the light forces. The leaves are very delicate and light and the roots are mainly at the surface, showing the plant is not very attached to the earth. The yarrow preparation encourages the metabolism of Potassium and Sulphur.
2. Chamomile Preparation 503
In the compost heap chamomile is invaluable in encouraging the breakdown of proteins in a healthy way by preventing the proteins decomposing into Ammonia, which would be lost to the atmosphere. Most of the Ammonia is converted into a more stable form of Nitrogen as part of the production of humus colloids, remembering that humus is comprised of 10 parts Carbon to 1 part Nitrogen. The chamomile also helps the metabolism of Calcium.
3. Stinging Nettle Preparation 504
The stinging nettle is said to have the forces of Mars. It contains Silica, an important mineral in Biodynamic understanding of plant nutrition. Preparation 504 helps to metabolise Iron, Magnesium and other minerals such as Sulphur.
4. Oak Bark Preparation 505
Rudolf Steiner pointed out how important it was to have the right amount of Calcium in the soil if the plants were to be healthy and free of disease. He went on to say that Calcium brings harmony to the formation of the plant and does not allow excesses of rampant growth to take place. Oak bark contains about 2.5-5 per cent Calcium, however the importance of the Calcium in oak bark is that it is in a living biological form. Steiner said, that for Calcium to have a healing effect it needs to be in a living form.
5. Dandelion Preparation 506
The dandelion preparation has the ability to attract and metabolise Silica. The importance of Silica is largely overlooked by conventional agricultural science, and is certainly not understood as part of plant nutrition. However it is beginning to be recognised by the medical profession. Compelling data suggest that Silica is essential for health although no recommended dietary intake (RDI) has been established. Steiner said that there is an interaction between Silicic acid in the plant and Potassium. Therefore he suggested: “We must look for a plant whose own Potassium-Silicic acid relationship will enable it to impart this power to manure.” This he said was the dandelion. Preparation 506 gives the soil a living, ethereal quality with the ability to supply the substances that the plant needs.
6. Valerian Preparation 507
Valerian preparation concentrates Phosphorus. It stimulates the metabolism of Phosphorus and mobilises the Phosphate activating bacteria in the soil. Valerian also brings the Saturn influence of warmth to the soil.
All the qualities of these preparations are therefore available and lively in the finished compost, and when the compost is applied to the soil, these qualities and transformative processes are transferred to it. The general process of making biodynamic compost is the same as already described in the COMPOSTING section, but with the Biodynamic compost preparations added. Over recent years these herbal preparations have been used to compost cow manure mixed with powdered egg shell and basalt dust in specially built pits (cow pat pits), which is then used to spread the effects of the compost preparations around a property more quickly, especially where a property is being converted to Biodynamic practice, or where land needs revitalising after the damaging effects of conventional agriculture and horticulture.
Peter Proctor and an Indian Revolution
Peter Proctor has been one of the most inspiring and knowledgeable advocates of Biodynamic gardening and farming in New Zealand. In the early 1990’s Peter was invited to go to India by Shri T.G.K. Menon of Indore in 1993 to teach Indian farmers about Biodynamic farming. Until the last few years, Peter visited India twice a year to run seminars, workshops and courses for all farmers – in villages or running big estates. Interest in BD agriculture has greatly increased over the past five years among organic farmers in India. The growth of Biodynamic agriculture in India has been extraordinary. There are now more than 500 small and big farms practicing Biodynamic agriculture throughout the country. Three major initiatives, located in the north and south, are promoting BD agriculture among 3000 small farms. The Bio-dynamic Association of India is committed to provide training on BD agriculture, to link up with the international Biodynamic Movement and to promote and support the trade and commerce connected with Bio-dynamic Agriculture in India. His inspiring work in India can be seen on a DVD called “One Man, One Cow, One Planet”
One final point
Biodynamic practitioners would argue that the most important thing about Bio-dynamically grown food is that it is healthier and has more ‘life’, vitality and dynamism and generally would not be so interested in yields. None the less, some years ago when I was studying the subject of organic crop yields versus conventional yields for my book ‘Organic Futures’, I found that records show that crop yields on Biodynamic farms were consistently higher than those on ordinary organic farms. While conceding that quality is more important, I feel that the figures are interesting. Biodynamic agriculture may not fit into much of the present scientific paradigm, but the results speak for themselves. Steiner himself encouraged his followers to do experiments and many of the experiments that have been done over many years point to the efficacy of the Biodynamic approach, even if the mechanisms involved are beyond present scientific understanding.
Further Information: One of the best introductions to Bio-dynamics is to read Grasp the Nettle by Peter Procter, published by Random House, ISBN 978-1-86941-657-7
Also: Bio-dynamic Gardening by John Soper, published by The Guernsey Press Co, ISBN 0-285-63279-5 and Soil Fertility by E. Pfeiffer, The Lanthorn Press, ISBN 0-906155-12-6
And finally for those intrepid souls who are prepared to go to the source, but with a very open mind, Agricultural Course – Eight Lectures by Rudolf Steiner, Translated by G. Adams, ISBN 978-1-85584-148-2
Another form of sustainable organic food production is ‘Permanent Agriculture’ or ‘Permaculture’. The concept of Permaculture was developed and coined by two Australians, Bill Mollison, an Australian researcher, author, scientist, teacher and biologist, and his student David Holmgren, in 1978. Permaculture has a huge amount to add to our knowledge of how to create a sustainable way of growing food. There are many aspects to Permaculture, but its greatest contributions are its emphasis on planning and design underpinned by ethical principles, whose aim is to make a system of agriculture and horticulture that is integrated, efficient, uses the least amount of effort and energy to produce healthy food and at the same time creates a healthy and pleasurable living and working environment. Its planning methods can be used not only for food production, but also for designing communities so they can feed and sustain themselves with the least amount of energy input as well as being self-perpetuating.
To quote from ‘Permaculture – Principles & Pathways Beyond Sustainability’ a definition of Permaculture is:
“Consciously designed landscapes which mimic the patterns and relationships found in nature, while yielding an abundance of food, fibre and energy for provision of local needs. People, their buildings and the ways they organise themselves are central to permaculture. Thus the permaculture vision of permanent (sustainable) agriculture has evolved to one of permanent (sustainable) culture”
Ethics is naturally inherent in any approach to creating lasting and durable systems which support ecological balance, avoiding the depletion of natural resources and enhancing and conserving natural processes, but what permaculture does is take this to another level by recognising ethical principles as the bedrock of its approach. The three main principles being:
1. Care for the earth
2. Care for people
3. Set limits to consumption and reproduction, and redistribute surplus
The second most important component of Permaculture is design; designing integrated systems based on a set of 12 principles. The core of Permaculture has always been in supplying a design toolkit for human habitation. This toolkit helps the designer to model a final design based on an observation of how ecosystems interact and interpreting the knowledge thus gained in designing a system to suit the unique local situation.
The 12 Permaculture Design Principles are:
1. Observe & Interact
2. Catch & Store Energy 3. Obtain a Yield
4. Apply Self-Regulation & Accept Feedback
5. Use & Value Renewable Resources & Services
6. Produce No Waste
7. Design from Patterns to Details
8. Integrate Rather than Segregate
9. Use Small & Slow Solutions
10. Use & Value Diversity
11. Use Edges & Value the Marginal
12. Creatively Use & Respond to Change
To go into this complex subject in any depth is unnecessary here, but I would like to touch on some of the more important aspects of Permaculture. To learn more I suggest reading ‘Permaculture One’ by B Mollison & D Holmgren and ‘Permaculture – Principles & Pathways Beyond Sustainability’ by D Holmgren. Here however are a few pointers to the design concepts involved. The first concept is one of zones.
To make an agricultural/horticultural property function efficiently with as little effort and work as possible, the design divides the property into 6 zones. Zones are a way of organizing the layout of the property so that the most frequent activities that take place are in or close to the homestead, with at the other extreme, zone ‘5’ (the wild area) where little or no activity takes place, apart from natural processes. Zones are therefore about positioning things appropriately so that one doesn’t waste time and energy covering excessive distances to do the frequent jobs. One of the revelations of permaculture design principles is one of “why didn’t I think of that before, that’s so obvious”.
This is the house or home centre. Here permaculture principles would be applied in terms of aiming to reduce energy and water needs, harnessing natural resources such as sunlight by using passive solar design, and generally creating a harmonious, sustainable environment in which to live and work.
The zone nearest to the house is the location for those activities and elements that require frequent attention, or that need to be visited often. So salad crops and herb plants, worm compost bins for kitchen waste etc., would be close to the house. Then fully irrigated gardens of vegetables and soft fruit like strawberries or raspberries, greenhouse and cold frames, propagation area, and so on.
This area is for more extensive vegetable gardens, the orchard and small livestock, such as chickens. This would also be a good place for beehives, larger scale composting, and so on.
This area is for field crops, sown pastures and planted forest, both for domestic use and for trade purposes. After establishment, care and maintenance required are fairly minimal.
This area is a semi-wild area. This zone is mainly used for forage and collecting wild food as well as for timber production.
This is the wild area. There is no human intervention in zone 5 apart from the observation of natural ecosystems and cycles.
A guild is any group of species that exploit the same resources, often in related ways. Guilds are groups of plants, animals, insects, etc. that work well together. Some plants may be grown for food production, some to attract beneficial insects, and others to repel harmful insects. When grouped together these plants form a guild. Everything that is added into the system either improves the system or degrades the system. Finding those plants or animals that complement each other, is the first step in designing a useful system. The ‘Three Sisters’ companion planting, comprised of maize, squash and beans grown together is a well-known example. Guilds can also be a combination of animals and crops, such as chickens and sheep in an orchard, both of them manuring the fruit trees, mowing the grass and eating pests.
Layers are one of the tools used to design functional ecosystems that are both sustainable and of direct benefit to man. A mature ecosystem has a huge number of relationships between its component parts: trees, understory, ground cover, soil, fungi, insects and animals. Because plants grow to different heights, a diverse community of life is able to grow in a relatively small space, as each layer is stacked one on top of another.
See: FOREST GARDENING below for more details.
Layers can also be used by growing climbing plants up structures and buildings; for example climbing peas and beans, instead of growing dwarf varieties. The advantages are that the climbing plants take up relatively little ground space with the space saved being used to grow salad crops, spinach and other low growing crops. Cucumbers, melons and some of the smaller squashes can be grown up trellises fixed to walls, free-standing pergolas and other permanent or temporary structures.
Animals are usually incorporated into the site design. Chickens can be used as a method of weed control and also as a producer of eggs, meat and fertilizer. Some types of agroforestry systems combine trees with grazing animals such as cattle and sheep.
Some projects avoid the use of animals, so not all permaculture sites keep animals for meat, eggs or milk. Sometimes animals function as pets or are treated as co-workers of the site, eating foods normally unpalatable to people such as slugs and caterpillars, being an integral part of the pest management by eating some pests, supplying fertilizer through their droppings and controlling some weed species.
One lesson we can learn from diversity and its application in growing food is that to stick to one particular approach exclusively is defeating the notion of diversity. Diversity is not about exclusiveness, but inclusiveness. Permaculturists have always used compost, and mulches and many of the techniques that other organic farmers and horticulturists use. Permaculture’s real value is in introducing those aspects of growing sustainably that have been lacking. Just as many proponents of organics are starting to look at Albrecht’s and Reams’ work on balancing nutrients, so David Holmgren has begun to recognise the importance of Albrecht’s work:
“Permaculturists have tended to ignore the powerful positive changes to long-term soil productivity and health that can be affected by carefully selected and timed mineral applications. This is understandable, given the history of detrimental effects of incorrect use of (mostly soluble) minerals and the emphasis in permaculture on biological solutions. Rock minerals are powerful medicine that can easily be overused or misused. Nevertheless, permaculturists who ignore the potential benefits they offer may design systems that do not provide the mineral balance essential for livestock and human health…………………….. At Melliodora we have found that many of the emerging limiting factors to health and productivity of our place have had their origin in mineral imbalances that we had not adequately dealt with. In recent years, we have been using soil testing (based on Albrecht methods); refractometer testing of plant sap and broadly based observation skills to guide remedial applications of minerals.”……………..David Holmgren.
Permaculture has a huge amount to offer those involved in creating truly ethical, efficient, sustainable, evolving and flexible systems for growing healthy nutrient dense food and creating what can be beautiful productive environments that are a joy to live and work in.
• Introduction to Permaculture by Bill Mollison, Tagari Publications, ISBN 0-908-228-08-2, is a good place to start, and for those who want to go deeper into the subject the original publications:
• Permaculture One: A Perennial Agriculture for Human Settlements, ISBN-10: 0938240005
• Permaculture Two: Practical Design for Town and Country, ISBN-10: 0908228007
• Permaculture: A Designer's Manual, ISBN-10: 0908228015
Also encouraging permaculture as part of ‘The Localising Food Project’ New Zealand see: www.localisingfood.com
New Zealand https://www.permaculture.org.nz/
UK Permaculture Association https://www.permaculture.org.uk USA Permaculture Research Institute https://permaculturenews.org Canada Permaculture Association http://www.permaculture.ca/
7. FOREST GARDENING
Forest gardening takes the whole idea of bio-diversity and Permaculture, even further. Forest gardening copies a forest, but nearly everything in the forest or woodland is edible, or useful in other ways. Ordinary trees are replaced by fruit or nut trees, bush-fruit, shrubs, herbs and vegetables. It uses companion planting, which can be intermixed to grow on multiple levels in the same area, as do the plants in a forest – this is called layering.
One of the main differences between a forest garden and the typical food garden is that a forest garden relies to a greater extent on perennials, although not exclusively. Most vegetable gardens include a few perennials; such as Rhubarb, Asparagus etc. but the majority of crops are annuals, or biennials such as tomatoes, lettuce or carrots. To understand the difference this makes, consider the role of annual and biennial plants in nature. They colonize and cover disturbed ground and in one or two seasons, they sprout from seed, grow to maturity, ripen fruit and seed, and then die.
Most of the annual and biennial crops we grow in our gardens grow fast and need full sun. They do not thrive in shade. In nature they cover patches of bare ground quickly. Over time, however, as the annuals protect and build the soil of the disturbed area, they give way to perennials, and these are the plants we want to establish in a forest garden.
Most gardeners are used to a fair amount of disturbance and change in their gardens, from tillage, crop rotation, and so on. In contrast, a natural forest tends to maintain its character over time, and resists rapid change. Changes in plant species do happen in a forest, but they usually take place slowly. The goal of the forest gardener is to follow these patterns and establish a largely perennial polyculture from which food is harvested with minimal disturbance.
There are seven vertical layers in a natural forest, formed by several groups of perennials. The biggest are the trees, which need the full light of the sun to thrive and support their massive growth. To get that sunlight, they grow high and wide, forming a canopy of leaves to soak up the sun. On the other hand, shrubs have learned how to thrive in the shade of the canopy, where there is less light. Examples of these are mostly what are called the soft fruits, e.g. Raspberries, Gooseberries, Blackberries, Boysenberries, Red and Black Currants and the smaller nut trees like Hazels – all the wild versions of these are forest edge plants, or plants which grow in forest clearings. These are called understory plants. Intermediate between these two classes of plants are the vines, growing in the shade but reaching for the full light of the canopy.
1. The canopy: the tallest trees in the system. Large trees dominate but do not saturate the area, i.e. there exist patches barren of trees.
2. Low tree layer: dwarf fruit trees, citrus trees and other short trees
3. Shrubs: a diverse layer that includes most berry bushes
4. Herbaceous: may be annuals, biennials or perennials; most annuals will fit into this layer
5. Rhizosphere: root crops including potatoes and other editable tubers
6. Soil surface: cover crops to retain soil and lessen erosion, along with green manures to add nutrients and organic matter to the soil, especially nitrogen
7. Vertical layer: climbers or vines, such as runner beans and lima beans (vine varieties)
There are versions of forest gardening that are more open and where a proportion of annual and biennial vegetables and grains can be grown in forest clearings and leaving some to seed themselves for next season.
This kind of approach to growing food is very diverse. So, improve the humus content of the soil, aim for an ideal balance of soil nutrients and create your edible forest or woodland and you will create a healthy edible environment. However, this form of growing food is restrictive if it is the exclusive way of growing food on a property. I would suggest a more useful approach is to include a wider range of ways of growing food including forest gardening along with areas of annual crops, or the incorporation of annual crops in the forest garden itself, either individually or in designated areas.
Creating a Forest Garden by Martin Crawford, ISBN-10: 1900322625 – is a good place to start.
8. BIO-INTENSIVE GARDENING & MINIMUM TILLAGE FARMING
Bio-intensive gardening and farming is one of the most productive forms of producing food there is. Traditionally woman gardeners and farmers around the world have grown food this way, and the yields outstrip larger scale conventional techniques that use all the modern paraphernalia. It usually involves raised beds, with or without sides. The beds are around 1.2 metres wide (the same as a no-dig bed) so that one can reach to the middle easily without having to tread on the soil.
Often the soil is initially double dug and manure or compost incorporated as the beds are made. A trench is dug out at one end of the bed, 1 spade depth 30cm (1ft) deep. The dug out soil is moved to the other end of the bed. The subsoil at the bottom of the trench is then loosened with a garden fork, then the soil is dug out of the next trench along with composted manure or compost and placed in the first trench next to it and the process completed until the final trench which is filled with the soil from the first trench. The result is a bed that has been tilled to a depth of 60cm (2ft). When an entire bed has been double dug, the soil will have greater drainage and aeration, which allows the roots to grow much deeper and reach more nutrients.
This is the only time digging is done! From then on the only soil loosening done is a once a year aeration wriggling with a fork, or better still use a ‘U-Bar’. The tines on the U-Bar are 25cm (10in) long. Whereas double digging a 9 square metre bed can take several hours, tilling the same bed with a U-Bar can be done in 20 minutes. The soil is never turned over again after the initial double digging, just loosened and aerated.
Crops are not planted in traditional rows according to a square pattern, but are planted in a hexagonal or triangular pattern in the bed so that no space is left unnecessarily unused. These wide beds and close spacings not only allow more plants per area, but also enable the plants to form a living mulch over the soil, keeping in moisture and shading out weeds. Sowing crops in boxes to plant out later saves garden space.
Newman Turner, a British organic farmer in the nineteen fifties and author of ‘Fertility Farming’, ‘Herdmanship’, and ‘Fertility Pastures’, was one of the pioneers of minimum cultivation and organic farming. He was influenced by the famous book of Edward Faulkner’s ‘Ploughman's Folly’ published in 1951, where Faulkner argued the destructive effects of ploughing and wrote of his experiments in farming without the use of the plough.
Newman Turner gave up ploughing and used disk harrows instead, with the addition of sub-soiling where necessary. Sub-soiling consists of pulling a tough 30-40cm (12-16in) sharpened blade through the soil, with a rectangular flat blade set about 30 degrees. This is the farming equivalent of the ‘U’ bar. When pulled through the soil the sub-soil is loosened and aerated without inverting it. He then added compost to the surface and lightly disked the top 3 or 4cm (1-1½) allowing the largely undisturbed worm population to do the rest.
Further Information: How to Grow More Vegetables: And Fruits, Nuts, Berries, Grains and Other Crops Than You Ever Thought Possible, by John Jeavons, (now in its ninth edition) ISBN 978-1-60774-189-3
Fertility Farming, by Newman Turner (1951). London, Faber & Faber Ltd. Revised edition (2009). Austin, AcresUSA. ISBN 978-1-60173-009-1
9. AGNIHOTRA GARDENING & FARMING
For some, Agnihotra might sound very strange, but read on anyway with an open mind. I have found it to be yet another tool in developing healthy soil, healthy food and healthy humans.
Agnihotra is an ancient Vedic technology that taps into the massive flood of energy or life-force (Prana) that comes from the sun at the exact moment of sunrise and sunset. It is a particular type of ancient fire practice called Homa. Homas are healing fire practices described in the Vedas used principally to heal the environment. This daily flood of energy from the sun is being reduced and distorted by pollution in the atmosphere. Agnihotra purifies the atmosphere, allowing the life supporting energies from the sun to flow through in abundance over a radius of 375 metres, and 12 kilometres high! Regular daily practice in the same area creates a local biosphere with its own micro-climate that is more balanced than surrounding areas.
So, how is this applicable to gardening and farming?
Homa Organic Farming:
Homa organic farming utilises this ancient Vedic science of Agnihotra and other healing fires to vitalise, nourish and heal nature, as another way of producing chemical free food. Homa organic gardening and farming can show how to get maximum yields out of a minimum area of land, how to keep soil fertile, how to keep water pure, and how to keep the atmosphere unpolluted and nutritious. Homa injects nutrients into the atmosphere preventing pests and diseases, and at the same time attracts natural predators.
This ancient technology recognized that a large amount of a plant’s nutrients come from the atmosphere. One of the most important nutrients of course is Carbon (from Carbon Dioxide CO2) that plants use to create sugars for their energy, and the cellulose to build their cells and help to build their proteins. Because of atmospheric pollution, these processes are reduced. To quote from ‘Eco-Farm’ by Charles Walters & C.J. Fenzau –
“Mount Wilson observatory in California has published figures to the effect that all farm acres have lost 10% of average sunlight intensity during the last 50 years, and 26% reduction in the ultraviolet part of the spectrum.”
So, Agnihotra purifies the atmosphere, improving the absorption of atmospheric nutrients, increasing light intensity as well as focusing the full force of the life supporting energy of Prana from the sun, thereby increasing plant growth and yields, as well as greater health and a reduction in pests and diseases.
Agnihotra is practiced in the morning just as the sun strikes the earth as it rises above the horizon; this occurs a few minutes after the official sunrise time. In the evening it is practiced a few minutes before official sunset. The great thing is, that in this modern age, we can use our Tablets, iPhones, laptops etc., to know exactly when to perform Agnihotra – to the second – making it even more effective than in the past.
To find out the exact times for your area, go to: http://www.homatherapie.de/ subsection: ‘Zeitenprogramm’ and type in your address for the exact coordinates and times for your location.
Agnihotra is practiced using a specially made inverted copper pyramid, in which is lit thin pieces of dried cow dung and ghee a few minutes before the allotted time. At the exact time two pinches of whole brown rice mixed with a little ghee is added to the fire twice, during the chanting of the prescribed mantra. The rice used should be whole brown organic rice, which has been sorted to remove any broken rice. The ghee should be made from organic unsalted butter. This sounds very exacting, and it is, but once you have sorted a reasonable stash of sorted brown rice, made a good pot of ghee and dried a good amount of cow dung, you are all set to perform this healing ritual.
All the implements used in the Homa are made of copper, such as a long handled spoon to add the ghee and rice, and copper tongs for handling the pieces of dried cow dung. Copper is used, as it is a conductor for subtle energies.
Drying the Cow Dung:
Collect fresh cow dung from milking cows, preferably from an organic farm. Take a handful at a time and pat them down lightly onto an untreated wooden board, into pancake-sized discs, and then let them dry in the sun. If the weather looks changeable, you can dry them in a glasshouse or Polytunnel. Once the tops have become crusted you can turn them over to dry on the other side. I use a broad wallpaper scraper to flip them over. They need to be cracking dry, before storing in a large paper bag or container.
Homa Farming Methods:
1. Obviously the first step is to perform Agnihotra regularly on the land that is being farmed (preferably twice a day).
2. As the ash is full of Prana (life-force) and a whole range of micro-nutrients, so one of the things to do is to spread the ash around your crops and water in.
3. Put ash in the water source that is used to water the plants.
4. Plant the seeds and seedlings with ash. Sprinkle ash around the rootlets of the seedlings.
5. Agnihotra ash-spray: spray foliage regularly with water infused with Agnihotra ash.
6. In diseased conditions spray ash-spray every 2nd day before sunrise or after sunset, alternating with Biosol spray and then bring back to a maintenance level e.g. once a week - ash water spray alternating with Biosol (see below for details).
There are other more advanced methods, which I won’t go into here, but the above are the basic practices.
How to Make Agnihotra Ash-Spray & Biosol:
1. Take a (preferably copper) container or drum (50 litres).
2. Add a half a handful of Agnihotra ash, stir in once and leave exposed to the sun for 3 days, protecting from rain, debris and animals.
3. Filter the water through a fine sieve into a clean spray pack and spray foliage and around the base of plants.
Materials used for a 20-litre tank:
1. Earthworm castings (vermicompost)........... 6g
2. Fresh Cow Dung............................................. 6g
3. Cow urine (optional)...................................... 0.75 litres
4. Agnihotra Ash................................................ 19g
5. Copper Shree Yantra disc.............................. 1 unit
6. Rain or Spring Water..................................... 15 litres
1. Put one Copper Shree Yantra at the bottom of the tank facing upwards. (The Shree Yantra geometrical design is engraved in copper and, according to traditional knowledge, is a powerful energy attractor).
2. Make two hundred litres Agnihotra ash water solution (i.e. 250g Agnihotra Ash in two hundred litres of water). Let it stand for 3 days before use.
3. Collect 80kg fresh cow dung, 80kg vermicompost and 10 litres cow urine (optional).
4. Mix vermicompost, fresh cow dung and Agnihotra ash water together thoroughly in a vessel outside the tank. Pour the slurry from this vessel into the tank. Make sure all ingredients are mixed well and the valves are closed before pouring.
5. Seal the tank.
6. Fix a hosepipe to the gas outlet and run the hose into a bucket of water so that gas can escape as it is formed without allowing extra air to enter the tank.
7. Allow to ferment for about 30 days.
Application of Biosol:
• As plant food
• When plants are diseased
• To control insect and pest attack
• To rejuvenate plants and enhance plant growth
Benefits to the Soil & Water :
There are many reports of the benefits of Agnihotra and ash on farms. They include rejuvenating polluted and poor soils, correcting pH levels, reducing salinity levels, increasing the availability of Phosphorus, increased aeration of soils and increasing the water holding capacity of soil. There are reports of improved water quality by adding Agnihotra ash to it.
Personal Health Benefits:
Apart from the benefits to the garden or farm already described, there are important personal benefits to you your family and neighbourhood. When sitting and performing Agnihotra stress dissolves and the mind is effortlessly centred, brought into balance and harmony. If you meditate at this time, it becomes very deep and easy in the atmosphere of Agnihotra. Both the fine smoke breathed in from the fire and the resultant ash can be used to cure illnesses and ailments. It is interesting, in my experience the smoke is not acrid, it doesn’t irritate your eyes or make you cough, in fact it is quite sweet.
The energy from the sun and the power of the mantra is locked into the ashes of the cow dung that develop in the fire. As a result, the ashes can be used to benefit the plants animals and humans. The fine pale grey ash from a complete burn can be ingested in water or fruit juice. The ash can be used by adding to a container of filtered water, left to settle, and the infused water drunk several times a day. The ash can also be mixed with ghee into a healing ointment.
More information and the equipment to perform Agnihotra can be obtained from the Australian website http://www.agnihotra.com.au/ including dried cow dung, if you are not able to obtain any yourself.
10. SQUARE FOOT GARDENING
Square Foot Gardening is a more organised and precise form of bio-intensive, no-dig small raised gardening, without the double digging and regular forking. The phrase "square foot gardening" was popularized by Mel Bartholomew in his 1981 Rodale Press book and subsequent PBS television series. The practice combines concepts from other organic gardening and no-dig methods, including a strong focus on compost, closely planted raised beds and biointensive attention to a small, clearly defined area. Proponents claim that the method is particularly well suited for areas with poor soil, beginning gardeners or as adaptive recreation for the old or those with disabilities.
The surface of the raised garden bed is divided into one 30cm (1ft) squares, with the use of fine sticks, or better still nylon cord or fine rope nailed to the wooden edges of the bed. The planting layout is planned on paper like the illustration, which can be repeated for a longer bed. Common spacing is 1 plant per square for larger plants (broccoli, basil, etc.), 4 plants per square for medium large plants like lettuce, 9 plants per square for medium-small plants like spinach, and 16 plants per square for small plants such as onions and carrots.
Plants that normally take up lots of space such as running crops like squash or cucumbers, are grown vertically on sturdy frames that are hung with netting or string to support the developing crops. Each year the crop design is rotated or moved so that the same plant families are not planted in the same place. The logic behind using smaller beds is that they are easily adapted, and the gardener can easily reach the entire area, without stepping on and compacting the soil.
Conventional gardening requires heavy tools to loosen the soil, whereas in this method, the soil is never compacted and it remains loose and loamy. Weeding takes only seconds to minutes, due to the light soil, raised beds, and easily accessed plants. Harvests per foot of garden are increased due to the rich soil mixture, well-spaced plants, and lack of weeds produced when following this method.
The soil mixture that is advised should have water-holding capacities, so that the garden needs water less frequently, and in much smaller quantities than when using other gardening methods. Water is also spared by hand-watering directly at the plant roots, so that there is very little waste and tender young plants and seedlings are preserved. A drip-watering system can be installed to drip water in the centre of each square.
Very little weeding
One benefit of this close planting is that the vegetables form a living mulch and shade out many weed seeds before they have a chance to germinate.
Natural insect repellent methods like companion planting (i.e. planting marigolds or other naturally pest-repelling plants) become very efficient in a close space, so using pesticides can be avoided. The large variety of crops in a small space also prevents plant diseases from spreading easily.
Having a raised box garden 70cm high (28in) or other raised container allows easy access especially for those who wish to garden without bending or squatting, or to make gardening easy for wheelchair, cane or walker users.
This is a very useful way of gardening for beginners and for those who have limited space for growing vegetables and is particularly good for deep raised beds. The bed can be built on a wooden or concrete deck for those who do not have gardens. Square foot gardening is good for beginners because there is an easy to follow plan and each square is dealt with separately so one doesn’t get overwhelmed.
Further Information: Square Foot Gardening: A New Way to Garden in Less Space with Less Work by Mel Bartholomew. Publisher: Rodale Press. ISBN: 1579548563 10.
So, when deciding which methods to adopt I would say “use all the approaches discussed”, but you will have to decide which are the most important approaches that will have the biggest impact on regenerating and breathing life back into your soil, reversing the destructive trends that are destroying our topsoils, and those that will have the biggest impact in reversing CO2 in the atmosphere.
• Being as 'Organic’ in your practices as possible and will help to sequester lots of carbon into the soil.
• Using ‘Biodynamic’ subtle practices to bring healing and balance to soil life, and vitality to the food produced.
• Using all three aspects of ‘Regenerative’ gardening and agriculture, to build soil organic matter and create ‘living’ soil, including ‘Minimum or Zero Tillage’ to build soil organic matter, build a resilient soil structure, and preserve soil microorganisms, especially those essential mycorrhizal fungi.
• Using ‘Biological’ practices to balance soil nutrients, increase soil microorganisms and increase plant resistance to pests and diseases.
• Using strong life forces through 'Agnihotra' practices – purifying the atmosphere and water in the area – and reducing pests and diseases and encouraging beneficial insects, birds and microorganisms.
• Using Permaculture to create the most efficient design practices, to make gardening more efficient, sustainable and ethical.
Having said that, all the methods described above will help to revitalise our soils, increasing their carbon content, whilst reducing CO2 in the atmosphere. The choice of which combination you use is up to you.