Sheet Mulching

Sheet mulching is a great way to prepare a new garden site. Typically, the soil is laboriously dug and tilled, rocks and roots are pried up and hauled away, tenacious perennial  weeds are battled with little success, and the whole process in repeated again next year, as the soil has returned to its previous concrete like state. Instead, we can take a page from God’s design manual. In the natural world, we don’t see expanses of bare soil, or tillers turning up the soil. Instead, a thick layer of mulch, gradually grading into topsoil, blankets the land. This layer holds water and nutrients, nurtures beneficial soil life, and protects the soil from wild temperature swings. It also works against “weeds,” God’s reset mechanism, which quickly colonize bare soil and restart the mulching process. We can gain all these benefits, and save a lot of work, by sheet mulching a garden.

In its most basic form, sheet mulching is a laying down a weed barrier, topped by a foot of any decomposable matter. The weed barrier can be cardboard or newspaper sections, depending on how ferocious the weeds are, and how large the site is. To get better results faster, however, a good mix of high nitrogen and high carbon mulches should be used, rather like building a large flat compost pile, for better decomposition. The weed barrier should cover the whole area, paths as well as beds, so that weeds can’t infiltrate from the edges. The best time to build a sheet mulch garden is in the fall. Come spring, the mulch has decomposed enough to be planted. And then you will never have to dig again; just put on a little more mulch occasionally, and pull up any weeds which sprout on top (they will be easy to pull from loose mulch.)

Sheet mulching is especially great for establishing perennial food ecosystems, which are a main focus of Permaculture.

Of course, nothing is perfect. For intensive, wide row salad production, biointensive or double dug beds, amended with plenty of compost, are a better way to go. And bare earth will heat up faster in the spring (though it will also cool off faster in the fall.)

Though we will have more than one style of garden on our site, sheet mulching will take up the bulk of the area.

Growing All Your Food— On a Backyard!

Biointensive growing is a method derived from  French intensive gardening. It is a complete and very refined gardening method, consisting of a number of interlocking pieces:

  • Double dug beds
  • Composting
  • Intensive, equidistant planting
  • Companion planting
  • Carbon Farming (growing large amounts of carbon to feed the soil)
  • Calorie Farming (growing high efficiency root crops like sweet potatoes to feed you)
  • Open-Pollinated Seeds

Using these techniques, a gardener can grow a complete diet for one person on four thousand square feet, or even less! Not only that, but the four thousand square feet will also grow all the seeds and compost needed to keep the system running. Even the worst of soils can be repaired with this soil building method. Only a little water is used, thanks to the organic mater and close planting, which shades the soil. All hand tools are used, so there is no expensive machinery to buy or maintain. The only hitch is that the supposedly complete diet grown is vegan, and like many others I think some animal products necessary to a healthy diet. However, if this method is combined with Aquaponics, we could really feed ourselves off our backyards!

For more information on Biointensive growing, read How to Grow More Vegetables, by John Jeavons. This is a very complex topic, which deserves a much better explanation than I can give here.

Aquaponics, Not Hydroponics

Aquaponics can be seen as a synergistic, organic combination of two nonorganic growing methods, Hydroponics and Aquaculture. Hydroponics is a method of growing plants in a soilless media filled with a chemical nutrient solution. It has many problems, among them the use of expensive, nonorganic fertilizers. Aquaculture is the intensive raising of fish in tanks or ponds. It has the advantage of raising large numbers of fish in a small area, but produces large amounts of toxic fish waste, just as feed lots create toxic manure runoff. In an Aquaponics system, the fish tank water is passed through a grow bed full of beneficial bacteria and composting redworms, which transforms it into the perfect food for the plants growing in the bed. Thus the problems of both systems are solved and integrated. The benefits of Aquaponics include:

  • The system is completely organic. Plants are feed by bacteria and worms breaking down organic wastes, just as they are in an organic garden. No chemicals can be used on either fish or plants; they will destroy the bio-filter.
  • It uses one tenth the water of conventional growing (all water is recirculated.) This might be important as water costs go up.
  • There is no digging, weeding, fertilizing or watering, just feeding fish and harvesting.
  • There are no worries about soil quality or availability.
  • Aquaponics fish are healthier and safer than other fish.

Aquaponics are great for growing large amounts of fish and vegetables in a small area. ( Yields are about 125 pounds of fish and 250 pounds of vegetables per hundred square feet.) However, it can’t grow staple carbohydrates, whether they are tubers, beans or grains. In my next post, I will explain how another growing method, Biointensive, can do just that. . . in a back yard!

For more information on Aquaponics, read Aquaponic Gardening, by Sylvia Bernstein. Be warned that she is alarmist about population growth.

Basic Principles of Permaculture

We are called by God to be stewards, gardeners, of the world he made. To effectively fulfill this role, we need to understand and follow the basic principles underlying Creation.  Permaculture is a design method which abstracts the underlying principles from Creation and then uses them in anything we design— from a workshop or chicken coop to a thousand acre ranch or a whole village.

The Three Basic Principles of Permaculture.

1. To realize the dignity and worth of all people, known or unknown to us, and to love and care for them. We must realize that our actions impact every person now alive in some way, that the repercussions of our actions will affect all those still to be born, and that the wisdom handed on by our  ancestors should inform our actions. We should especially strive to protect those who are weak or vulnerable in any way; the unborn, the poor, those suffering persecution.

2. To realize that the earth was given to us by God for our stewardship, and that as such it merits our respect and care. It can only be brought to its full perfection if we fulfill our role.

3. We have a duty to responsibly use and invest all surplus “wealth”, in the broad sense of the term, in following the first two principles, realizing that all “wealth” originally flows from others and from the earth.

Unlike the ethical principles listed above, the practical design principles very from author to author. Here are some that I find important, in my own words.

1. Multi-functionality. In nature things always have more than one function.  A tree not only provides for its own growth and regeneration, but fills dozens other roles as well. We could follow it, for instance, by choosing trees to shade our houses which also provide fruit.

2. Diversity. In nature, everything is diverse— diversity on many levels. There is diversity of landforms, diversity of organism types, diversity of plants.

3. Redundancy. In the world around us every function or “job” is preformed by many players. That way if something goes wrong and an element permanently or temporarily drops out, the web of life remains intact and functioning.  When we do not mimic this redundancy, there is no safety net when things go wrong, as in the Irish Potato Famine, or the American Corn Blight. We need redundancy on many levels, from having several complementary sources of income, to growing several varieties of tomato.

4. Sustainability and Localism. Natural systems gain materials and energy from local and sustainable sources. Sustainable means able to carry on till the sun burns out; coal and oil are thus not sustainable. Local varies with the object spoken about, but anybody would agree that a massive “sustainable” wind farm or solar panel array in some desert, with the power being sent to a far-off city, is not local.  Everything which can be grown or made onsite or near at hand should be. If this were done, it would be easy to get the small amounts of energy necessary from local sustainable forces.

5. Permanence. In the world around us most things are permanent. Trees and other long-lived perennials make up a high percentage of most plant communities. Fertility in the soil is held there for thousands of years. The very word Permaculture is a contraction of “Permanent Culture, or Agriculture.”  We must come to rely more on perennial crops, (although annual crops are certainly important) must build up permanent fertility in the soil, and most of all, must develop permanent communities.

6. Stability. This principle is closely connected to the principle above. Natural plant communities are stable and not easily unbalanced, whereas our yards and gardens are easily destroyed by storms, droughts, or lack of attention. We must try to mimic the patterns of the natural world in our designs. That way, when medical emergencies or other factors in our lives necessitate leaving our yards untended, they can tick along without us. Perennial plants of any sort are more resilient than annuals, as we do not have to be around establish them every spring, their roots have a greater depth to obtain water, and they are through the vulnerable seedling stage. Stability will be greatly enhanced if we adapt to our climate; a bluegrass lawn in a desert will never be stable.

7. Low disturbance. Disturbance is anything which comes from outside of a system and affects it. Natural disturbances exhibit two features; moderate intensity and impact, and moderate frequency.  We should mimic this pattern of disturbance in our landscapes.

8. Catching and storing energy. Natural systems are extremely efficient at catching and storing energy. The stored wealth is principally in two forms; living and dead biomass, and genetic diversity stored in propagules of all sorts. The biomass (carbon) stores minerals and holds water while protecting life, while the genetic wealth provides the  necessary diversity and redundancy that the system needs to survive day to day, as well as providing for its regeneration. In keeping with this, our landscapes should build reserves of water, minerals, organic matter, live biomass, perennial plants, and various forms of energy.

9. Cooperation. In a forest, plants share resources among themselves. The roots of many types of trees graft to one another, sharing nutrients, water and signals over wide areas, and mycorrhizas, beneficial fungi which grow into plant roots, link the whole forest into one functioning unit. We can mimic this in our yards, and in our society.

10. The true role of “Pests.” Pests are merely the natural mechanism for removing organisms which are weak or defective. Thus, it makes more sense to work on raising healthy plants and animals, and maintaining a balanced food web, than poisoning “pests.”

11. Succession. This is a very important principle. If a natural or manmade disturbance leaves bare soil, weedy annual plants jump in to fill the gap. Gradually, more permanent and complicated organisms take their place. We make lots of work for ourselves by breaking this principle, tilling gardens and mowing lawns. Instead, it might be easier and more productive to guide succession in the direction we want, learning to use late succession species in our gardens, as well as the more common early succession annuals.

12. Integration versus segregation. In the world around us there are few rigid separations. Conflicting forces and elements are generally integrated instead. In our big cites we have paved or roofed over much of the ground, and compacted whatever ground remains open. Then rivers, swollen during storms and dry at other times, threatened to sweep us away, so river channels were straightened and walled with concrete, and blocked with vast detention dams, at huge cost to the taxpayers. At the same time, growing city populations demanded continued growth of the water system. Both of these problems could be solved with small cisterns under every downspout, and simple swales and basins in the soil to trap the water and let it soak in.  Then the rivers would run slowly and steadily again, with their water filtered slowly and naturally through the soil; huge concrete works would become unnecessary; the strain on overburdened water works would be relieved; and the people would be safer and more independent each having water security.

To successfully imitate these principle found in Creation, we need certain attitudes, as well as the guiding principles, and the kind of humility which realizes that we do not “know it all” and probably never will.

1. We must be observant— before, after, and during the implementation of our design. We will have either “prolonged and thoughtless labour or prolonged and thoughtful observation.”

2. Our landscapes must help to support our basic needs. It is not enough to have a shining green lawn and tidy beds of petunias. Neither is it enough to have a “Green” yard full of native wildflowers.

3. Small is Beautiful. In all of our work, we must use small scale, slow methods and systems. This relates to our lack of total understanding discussed above. One does much less damage on smaller scales, and if something goes wrong, it is easier to fix.

4. Home. We must develop a home and family based mentality. We should look at the home and the family that lives therein as the center and hub of the world. Families must take their rightful place as the basic unit of society.

5. Wealth. This attitude is connected to the one above. We must develop different standards for measuring wealth. A family who own the house they live in and the land they farm, have many children and relatives, posses skills and crafts, have a year’s supply of food and a steady source of water, and have access to enough sustainable energy for their needs, should be considered truly wealthy.

6. We must realize the interconnectedness of everything around us.

7.The Commons. The commons have been largely destroyed by greed. We must restore and protect them. As well as the common land of the Middle Ages, there are many other commons; the air we breath, the water supply, open pollenated crops, and the energy of the sun and wind. We must stop big government and big business from controlling them.