What is Permaculture? ... It is an attempt to return to systems of small gardens. In some countries gardens produce 90% of the food. It is true in Russia. Agriculture produces very little food. It does the most destruction, it has the most land, it doesn't produce much food that people actually eat. Gardens do. So if you can increase your gardens, you can get rid of agriculture. I think, in the near future, it should be a banned activity.

Agriculture is the most destructive activity on the face of the earth. It is responsible for poisoning sixty percent of our water supplies, and ruining most of our landscape. Mining is a minor activity compared to agriculture, when it comes to soil destruction.  Bill Mollison from keynote presentation to 1997 IPC6 Permaculture conference in Austalia    What is Permaculture?

Our present agricultural scene is a reflection of the belief that agribusiness practices are necessary to feed everyone. This is a result of agribusiness lobbyists' successful work. Considering our huge exports, I don't think there can be any question of feeding ourselves for the indefinite future--but almost certainly present methods are not sustainable, being based on oil. Then, if I may paraphrase Rob, the big question is: could we feed ourselves using only what we organic growers consider sustainable practices?

The simple answer is yes, but with a big caveat. There is a model, albeit small-scale. An organic gardener who has documented yields from intensive growing is John Jeavons, author of the many variations on his title: How to Grow More Vegetables than you ever thought possible on less land than you can imagine. The caveat is that I do not recall that he has addressed meat production--which is less efficient by caloric/btu-input to caloric-yield tables--more than in passing. Changing Americans' appetite for meat is arguably more difficult than reeducating politicians about the efficacy of organic producers to feed the nation, and to convince them to underwrite the changeover, which would be perhaps less expensive than the present agribusiness subsidies that go to a few mega-corporations.

In the preface to Jeavons' book in hand (1991 edition of title cited above), Robin Leler Jeavons writes: "After 10 years of testing, 'the method' [biointensive] has produced amazing benefits, and a lot of work is still to be done. YIELDS can average 4-6 times those of U.S. agriculture and range on up to 31 times. . . . GRAINS, BEANS, and COVER CROPS present the most challenges . . . So far our yields are from one to five times the U.S. averages for these crops [soybeans, alfalfa, fava beans, wheat, and comfrey]. WATER use is well below that of commercial agriculture per pound of food produced, and may be about 1/2 that of commercial techniques per unit of land area. ENERGY consumption, expressed in kilocalories of input, is 1/100 that used by commercial agriculture. The human body is still more efficient than any machine we have been able to invent. Several factors contradict the popular conception of this as a labor-intensive method. Using hand tools may seem to be more work, but the yields more than compensate. At 25 cents a pound wholesale, zucchini brings us $9.00 to $16.00 per hour depending on harvest size. . . . Is it sustainable? The biointensive method currently uses 1/2 or less the nitrogen fertilizer that commercial farmers use. . . . However, a complete answer will require at least 50 years of observation as the living soil system changes and grows!" So even the optimists do not see a fast changeover.

Our present food supply is not only dependent on chemical cropping and intensive medicated meat production but on enormous quantities of energy, primarily oil. As I have noted before, California uses more electricity to move water than for all other purposes combined. The appropriate direction seems obvious to many of us. For agribusiness lobbyists to lose enough credibility for politicians to change their votes, the cost of oil-subsidized chemical food production will have to rise to the point of pain at the checkout counter.   with permission from: Gene GeRue, author, How To Find Your Ideal Country Home: A Comprehensive Guide http://www.ruralize.com/

News Article: Organic Farming Thrives in Europe
By PAUL AMES, Associated Press Writer

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Please feel free to post comments, questions and articles for this Gardening discussion group.  Comments on how you garden and produce your own food, tips on soil preparation to harvesting, seed propagation, drying, canning storing your food, etc., all will be appreciated.  Many persons who visit the Village will not know the first thing about growing vegetables and fruits.  Some of you have a lot of practical experience behind you, and will be able to answer questions. Please let us hear from you all!

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December 29, 1999
Karma Mechanic, THE_FOCI@hotmail.com,
SUBJECT: garden labor

Labor intensivity (if there is such a word) is a true concept in providing for sustainable garden space. Five years is the 'mark' at which efforts become next to nil in a space that is using companion gardening, 'permaculture', or whatever terms one wishes to use. I do have infromation on ordering insects and nematodes from the Beneficial Insect Co in SC. I will place the address and number here later (I do not have it here now). The labor during the first years is much more intensive than conventional gardening if the goal is to provide for a space that is sustainable in the long run. Really. . . TED

December 21, 1999
Carrots Love Tomatoes
Karma Mechanic, THE_FOCI@hotmail.com

I grew most of my own food organically by the time I was twenty-five. A book that was of import to my success was called Carrots Love Tomatoes - dealing with companion gardening issues (such as stuff like the dandelion roots to produce space for earthworms - the french intensive gardening-or double digging as someone called it in your site - the use of morning glory to draw bugs away from the veggies - etc). I long for the return to such peace and reverence with the garden. Ted

December 21, 1999
Karma Mechanic, THE_FOCI@hotmail.com

The issue of composting is simple after watching nature. The modern addition to counter soil depletion of minerals from the use of manufactured fertilizers(inorganic or 'conventional' process) is to use crushed rock in the compost.

The taking of 99% of mineral supplements is a joke due to the fact the body can not absorb and assimilate the stuff-it is a rock in pill form. It is similar to the issue of vitamin A in a pill causing an overdose as opposed to drinking say-carrot juice. Sorry about the tangent-i'll direct more attention to this if someone has an interest.

Must run now but an interesting fact: The Essene community didn't get bothered by Herods crowd until the 'Jewish Rebellion' due to the fact that no one could have other than respect for the fact that they flourished on a mountain in the desert where other peoples could not. They stuffed compost into the cracks between rocks and planted fruit trees. They fruit held water and alleviated the need for as many cisterns to hold water in the caverns.

An inexcusable way to be 'booted' from the community was to perform excretory functions and NOT take it to the compost. . .

Oh yeah be careful with that suggestion that i read earlier about putting uncomposted chicken manure in the ground-even if deeper that the roots will reach for a few weeks- it'll burn some stuff like the brain on drugs propaganda from years ago. Except you can't unplug the stove as well as with drugs.

Peace, Ted

September 12, 1999
Gene Gerue

I finally took the time this morning to read The New York Times Magazine of October 25, 1998, nearly a year old. I had saved the Magazine because the cover bait was: "Fried, Mashed or Zapped With DNA?: Genetically engineered potatoes and other crops already cover 45 million acres of American farmland. Biotechnology is agriculture's most carefully cultivated secret--and maybe the root of the next farm crisis." The actual title of the referred-to article is Playing God in the Garden, written by Michael Pollan. Lots of solid information we here already know but also much that I did not. The article focussed on potatoes and was quite thorough. The author visited Monsanto headquarters and greenhouses in St. Louis as well as agribusiness potato farmers and organic growers. In his organic garden the author planted some potatoes give him by Monsanto, a potato called New Leaf Superior, which has been genetically engineered by Monsanto to produce its own pesticide--Bacillus thuringiensis--to kill Colorado potato beetles. More on that planting later.

What snapped me awake were the following paragraphs: "Danny Forsyth laid out the dismal economics of potato farming for me one sweltering morning at the coffee shop in downtown Jerome Idaho. Forsyth, 60, is a slight blue-eyed man with a small gray ponytail; he farms 3,000 acres of potatoes, corn and wheat, and he spoke about agricultural chemicals like a man desperate to kick a bad habit. 'None of us would use them if we had any choice,' he said glumly. "I asked him to walk me through a season's regimen. It typically begins early in the spring with a soil fumigant; to control nematodes, many potato farmers douse their fields with a chemical toxic enough to kill every trace of microbial life in the soil. Then, at planting, a systemic insecticide (like Thimet) is applied to the soil; this will be absorbed by the young seedlings and, for several weeks, will kill any insect that eats their leaves. After planting, Forsyth puts down an herbicide--Sencor or Eptam--to 'clean' his field of all weeds. When the potato seedlings are six inches tall, an herbicide may be sprayed a second time to control weeds.

"Idaho farmers like Forsyth farm in vast circles defined by the rotation of a pivot irrigation system, typically 135 acres to a circle; I'd seen them from 30,000 feet flying in, a grid of verdant green coins pressed into a desert of scrubby brown. Pesticides and fertilizers are simply added to the irrigation system, which on Forsyth's farm draws most of its water from the nearby Snake River. Along with their water, Forsyth's potatoes may receive 10 applications of chemical fertilizer during the growing season. Just before the rows close--when the leaves of one row of plants meet those of the next--he begins spraying Bravo, a fungicide, to control late blight, one of the biggest threats to the potato crop. (Late blight, which caused the Irish potato famine, is an airborne fungus that turns stored potatoes into rotting mush.) Blight is such a serious problem that the E.P.A. currently allows farmers to spray powerful fungicides that haven't passed the usual approval process. Forsyth's potatoes will receive eight applications of fungicide. "Twice each summer, Forsyth hires a crop duster to spray for aphids. Aphids are harmless in themselves, but they transmit the leafroll virus, which in Russet Burbank potatoes causes net necrosis, a brown spotting that will cause a processor to reject a whole crop. It happened to Forsyth last year. 'I lost 80,000 bags'--they're a hundred pounds each--'to net necrosis,' he said. 'Instead of getting $4.95 a bag, I had to take $2 a bag from the dehydrator, and I was lucky to get that.' Net necrosis is a purely cosmetic defect; yet because big buyers like McDonald's believe (with good reason) that we don't like to see brown spots in our fries, farmers like Danny Forsyth must spray their fields with some of the most toxic chemicals in use, including an organophosphate called Monitor.

"'Monitor is a deadly chemical,' Forsyth said. 'I won't go into a field for four or five days after it's been sprayed--even to fix a broken pivot.' That is, he would sooner lose a whole circle to drought than expose himself or an employee to Monitor, which has been found to cause neurological damage. . . . "'I like to eat organic food, and in fact I raise a lot of it at the house. The vegetables we buy at the market we just wash and wash and wash. I'm not sure I should be saying this, but I always plant a small area of potatoes without any chemicals. By the end of the season, my field potatoes are fine to eat, but any potatoes I pulled today are probably still full of systemics. I don't eat them.'

". . . . A few weeks after I returned from Idaho, I dug my New Leafs, harvesting a gorgeous-looking pile of white spuds . . . . whatever  I thought about the soundness of the process that had declared these potatoes safe didn't matter . . . Chances are, I've eaten New Leafs already, at McDonald's or in a bag of FritoLay chips, though without a label there canbe no way of knowing for sure. . . . So there they sit, a bag of biotech spuds on my porch. I'm sure they're absolutely fine. I pass the bag every day, thinking I really should try one, but I'm beginning to think that what I like best about these particular biotech potatoes--what makes them different--is that I have this choice. And until I know more, I choose not."
Gene Gerue author of How to Find Your Ideal Country Home http://www.ruralize.com

August 15, 1999
Tony & Moira Ryan <theryans@xtra.co.nz
Wainuiomata, New Zealand (astride the "Ring of Fire" in the SW Pacific)

Organic and inorganic fertilizers

Thank you for initiating this interesting thread. I think you are probably just a little farther on in understanding the differences between the inorganic and organic styles and philosophies of gardening than I was when, about thirty years ago I finally conceded there was something fundamentally wrong with the view of growing and the soil my University had taught me.

All my time since has been a fascinating voyage of discovery and the refining of my ideas. I can even say my position today actually owes a great deal to what I have learnt in the last two or three years as a member of the Organic list. I well appreciate that this growing knowledge is not likely ever to be complete, as new and more fantastic insights come out of continuing research. For example, I only learnt of the complexities of the soilweb in the last year and it is evident that knowledge of this vast and fundamental subject is as yet only in its infancy.

I won't comment on all aspects of your posting, as Frank has answered a great deal of it most adequately and effectively. but I will just go through his reply and add a few extra ideas and answers as these strike me.

> >Some definitions - Fertilizers are added to the soil to supply elements essential to the growth of plants. These elements include the major nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, and sulfur, as well as the trace elements such as iron, zinc, and magnesium.

This definition is correct for a chemical gardening, but not for organic growing. In the latter, while ultimately the intention may be to nourish plants any fertilizer applications are primarily directed to feeding the soil organisms (which Frank so vividly designates the Microherd). The contention is that only when a soil has a full complement of such organisms which are adequately nourished can it be said to be fully alive and in such a live soil the organisms themselves will take care of the proper feeding of the plants without any further intervention by the grower, beyond the provision of sufficient moisture and protection (as by mulching). In fact, in many cases (my own vegetable patch is one) once the soil is fully enlivened and functional, additions of any sort of food apart from compost and organic mulches is very rarely necessary. Nor is the compost needed in large quantities, a mere inch a year usually suffices (added to the surface without digging and protected by a mulch until the organisms can take it in). With such a dressing my broccoli, for instance, can easily produce main heads of around a pound weight. The only plants in my garden greedy enough to benefit from regular additions of organic fertilizer are fruit trees and roses, which receive a supplement each winter along with their annual dressing of compost. Having no problems here with animal products from our free-range stock, this often consists of pelleted sheep manure. but I sometimes substitute a fish waste/pinebark compost, which has a slightly higher content of major nutrients and also supplies a very full kit of trace elements. In fact, there are very few soils which do not have sufficient supplies of most major nutrients, if only the necessary organisms are present to make them available from the basic mineral soil or from additons like mineral powders, and quite often they can even pick up some from materials which have previously been rendered inert by chemical action - as can happen particularly with superphosphate. There is rarely any need to add extras, apart from what is contained in the compost and certainly not as much as is needed to feed the next crop.

> >Organic fertilizers are not immediately available to plants.

> This is also wrong. Compost tea, fish emulsion, and even compost itself contain materials which are immediately available even by the soluble materials test; as Bill Evans notes, larger molecules also seem to be absorbed by plants....

I suppose that in a certain way this IS correct as a large part of the organic materials applied to the soil have to go through initial processing by members of the microherd whose particular function is to extract the appropriate ingredients and prepare balanced meals for the plants. It is now becoming evident that this function is largely the province of fungi which form the soil web, and their remarkable association with plants, not only exchanging food materials with the roots but even sometimes passing food from one plant to another, is slowly and most fascinatingly being revealed. The liquid fertilizers Frank mentions are great for a "quick fix' because they can bypass the normal feeding system and be absorbed directly through the roots or even the leaves. Nor do they have to be entirely in solution as even leaf cells can apparently deal with some larger molecules (the growth-hormone Giberellin, for instance).

The trouble with any soil which has undergone a long degredation from the use of soluble inorganic fertilizers is that a majority of the necessary organisms have almost certainly been killed off and this will drastically slow down the food processing. The answer to such conditions is often to bypass the poor damaged soil initially and simply build a bed on top with a basis of unprocessed or partly processed organic materials, such as straw, fallen leaves and grassclippings. This is topped off with a layer of compost (or even in some cases just a pocket of compost) in which the seed is sown or transplants set. It sounds fantastic, but usually such crops do well and by the end of the season the underlying organic matter has so enlivened the ground beneth that a mere topping-up of the compost may be sufficient to get good growth in the following season.

> >Inorganic fertilizers - Although they are immediately available to plants, inorganic fertilizers have three main disadvantages. They are subject to leaching, which occurs when the fertilizers are washed by rain or irrigation water down below the level of the plant roots. Nitrogen is particularly susceptible to leaching.

An important reason that organic soils do not become depleted as easily as their chemically-fed cousins is that soil humus, acting like a sponge, easily holds spare supplies in the root zone and largely prevents leaching. The leaching of nitrogen is also counteracted in organic soils both by N-fixing by free-living soil bacteria and also Rhizobium bacteria which form nodules on some legume roots.  Interestingly nature maintains some control over this process and Rhizobium species at least will not fix nitrogen where plenty is already present in the soil.

As well, a heavy application of chemical fertilizers can "burn" seedlings and young plants. This is actually a process of drying out, or desiccation, due to the presence of chemical salts within the commercial fertilizers. The burning is due to ex-osmosis when the soil solution becomes so strong around the roots it actually draws water out of them.

>A third problem associated with the use of commercial fertilizers is that overly heavy applications can build up toxic concentrations of salts in the soil and create chemical imbalances.

> >Organic Fertilizers - Unlike chemical fertilizers, organic material does more than provide organic nutrients. It also improves the soil structure, or tilth, and increases its ability to hold both water and nutrients.
Very true.

Several factors actively improve the tilth in undisturbed organic soils. An important agent is a good deal larger than the microherd -the earthworm- which makes a system of pores throughout the soil wtih its tunnelling, allowing access of air and water and ensuring free drainage of excess moisture. The loose porous soil also encourages wide and deep spreading of root systems.

Another very important aid is the production of Glomelin, a sort of natural glue, by a group of soil fungi. this gives the soil body and stability encouraging soil strength, so that it can even stand a certain amount of being walked on without collapsing the pore structure.

> >As microorganisms in the soil break down the organic material into an inorganic soluble form, a slow release of nutrients is provided over a longer period of time.

I would leave out "inorganic", in many cases exchange of materials with soil fungi (various sorts of mycorrhizae in particular) may be of molecules rather than merely ions.This is probably a healthier situation for plant growth.

I would omit "probably".

>an oversupply of a nutrient such as nitrogen can lead to lush, succulent tissue growth which is more vulnerable to fungal and bacterial entry, more appealing to some insects, and more prone to stress injury from heat, cold,or drought.

Indeed any of these problems is likely. This ungoverned and unbalanced take-up of inorganic materials is one of the chief problems with chemical nutrition. It can be compared to humans subsisting only on snack-foods.

> >With organic fertilizers a buildup of toxicity in the soil is unlikely, as long as the amount of organic material incorporated into the soil is fully decomposed.

According to the very successful no-till practice virtually all food materials are applied to the soil surface only, so this problem will probably never arise. However, many people like to bed transplants in a little pocket of pure compost. As long as the material used is a fully-matured compost, this should cause no trouble.

> >On the other side of the coin, there are some disadvantages to the use of organic fertilizers. As noted above, they are not immediately available to the plants. The manure which is applied to a vegetable garden in the spring may not be broken down into organic form by soil bacteria (and thereforeavailable to plants) until midsummer.

it is unlikely to be needed till then anyway (if at all)

> > If organic nutrients have been added to soils continually on an ongoing basis, this may not be a problem. However, if you are just beginning to rely solely on organic material as a nutrient source, your garden may experience an initial nutrient deficiency until thesystem is in place.

> Not if you use finished compost....

I agree with Frank (see my comment earlier on planting on top of a damaged soil).

> >The amount of nutrients and the exact type of elements available from a   given amount of manure, compost or other inorganic fertilizer can only be guessed at. (snip) It is therefore a less exact way of providing for a plant's nutritional needs. With inorganic fertilizers, the type and amount of any given element in the fertilizer formulation are known.

It is all very well knowing exactly what you are putting on, but I doubt any grower who uses inorganic methods can tell with equal exactitude what available food residues are still left in the soil and how much additional nutrient is really needed There is no simple way to analyse the soil solution as exactly as there is in a hydroponic setup and so-called complete soil analysis gives not much more than general indications.. I guess this is often responsible for the over and unbalanced effects of feeding crops in chemical growing, even if regular and expensive soil analyses are carried out. It has been found in many cases by organic growers that conventional soil analyses came up with warnings of deficiencies which were not born out in subsequent growth. this is because the soilweb can often make available elements which under non-organic conditions are locked up (see my earlier comment on phosphorus avaiabilty)

> These materials can be analyzed if desired, but an inch of compost has all the nutrients you would want, and if it is good finished compost, you can put away your illusory fertilizer calculations and just let Nature do her thing, as she has for countless millenia.... So forget the simplistic hydroponic explanation, and think about the soil as a complex ecosystem, which when fully alive delivers to plants what they   need from the soil, in ways we are still only beginning to really understand....

> Frank---finds the whole NPK solubles mode of thinking more than a little out of date ( I hope nobody is offended by my saying this.....)

Good on yer Frank, took the words out of my mouf!!  Moira

Tony & Moira Ryan <theryans@xtra.co.nz
Wainuiomata, New Zealand (astride the "Ring of Fire" in the SW Pacific).

June 10,1999
Gene Gerue

Everybody seems so enamored of composting, I guess the Rodale people have done a good sales job, as that has always been one of their claims to fame. The longer you garden the more you will look for time and labor savers. Composting is a time and labor waster. You need not even compost kitchen waste, just dig a hole in a garden bed, toss the waste in and cover with dirt. Soil microbe heaven. For fresh manure, make a wide trench in a bed, spread the manure, pull dirt over it. Chicken manure is hot, so bury it deeper than new roots will reach for a few weeks. A bit of manure mixed with lots of shredded leaves and grass clippings and about the same amount of dirt created new beds this year that my garden animals love and they are responding by feeding the veggies beautifully. I am having the best potatoes ever. The plants are so vigorously healthy that chewing insects are not hurting the plants at all. All I have done since putting the cut-up spuds in a trench and covering with a bit of soil is to keep hilling with the rest of the trench soil and then lots of grass clippings, plus using a weep hose for watering. The new potatoes are so good I can't keep my hands or my mouth off them. You know you are hooked on gardening when you get a thrill from pushing your hands into the dirt and feeling up a potato plant.   Gene Gerue author of How to Find Your Ideal Country Home http://www.ruralize.com

June 5, 1999
Weeds for insect control

...... If we can provide the right conditions so that predators survive in our patch, we should not expect to have to do their work for them and in the process unnecessarily deprive them of their legitimate food supply. I fear we too often still to a large extent retain the interventionist attitude of the chemical grower and a change of mindset is urgently indicated. New studues on how the well-balanced system works are also leading to a rethink about the presence of weeds in the garden and the part they can play in pest control. For a very long time the received wisdom has been to destroy weeds, not only where they compete directly with a plant's living space, but also anywhere in the vicinity, under the mistaken notion they act as a reservoir for pests which will inevitably move over on to the plants.

In practice, the presence of weeds is much more likely to keep the pests AWAY from the plants, as very often the wild species is actually preferred as a host over the crop plant. Before quoting a couple of examples from recent research though I should just like to mention some interesting observations of my own on the greenhouse whitefly, which bear out the idea that pests, just like us, have distinct food preferences.

I have had whitefly in my glasshouse for more years than I can remember, and have tried almost every conceivable way to rid myself of them with little or no success. They have always attacked just a selection of plants, mainly fuchsias, some pelargoniums and occasionally my tropical hibiscus and always been really bad on the lone tomato plant I annually grow in the house for early fruit. Unfortunately, the house is used all year, so there is no empty phase to break the lifecycle. However, with fewer hosts in cold months I felt a policy of attacking them physically at that time might have a chance of success. This consisted of going round the affected plants on cold mornings (when the pests are extremely lethargic) and simply squashing all the adults I could find and searching out leaves with sedentary young (which I either wiped clean or removed the whole leaf). As it happened, of all the plants overwintering in the place only the fuchsias seemed to be hosting whitefly at that time, and as there were only around half a dozen of these, the task was not too onerous. On the first few rounds the adults were clustered thickly on the tip leaves of all plants, but as my assaults on the young began to take effect the numbers of adults found quickly fell and towards the end of the winter the count was down to a few stragglers, very often solitary on their chosen leaf, though I never quite got rid of all of them..

Anyway, to bring the story up to date, my forays had been sufficiently effective that they remained at a very low ebb all summer and I do have hopes this winter may see the end of them, but the reason I have told this story is because of an interesting finding over last summer. As the season progressed, there was a slight resurgence of the whitefly, though well below the normal levels, but what was interesting was where they were feeding and I will give you the scores :-

Old fuchsias light-moderate infestation
Young fuchsias few-nil Pelargoniums Nil
Hibiscus Nil and
Tomato NIL

With the very low level of infestation it was obviously possible for all the whiteflies to suck on their favourite tucker and none had to be content with second, third (or even fourth) choices.

Now for the promised results of research on weeds as preferred food

1) In an Indian study Diamondback Moth (an important pest of the cabbage family) preferred to lay its eggs on wild mustard rather than cultivated brassicas, so the wild plant made an excellent trap crop.

2) In a study in Texas on peppers leafminers preferred adjacent pigweed and mostly left the peppers alone. Naturally, if the pigweeed hadn't been available the insects would have made do with the peppers.

In pursuit of this idea, people now sometimes include a regular "weed bed " in their property which will either attract beneficials or lure bad bugs to provide food for the good ones. Besides the oft-quoted queen Anne's Lace and daisies of various kinds one list I have includes postrate spurge, chickweed, goldenrod, ragweed, mustard and redroot pigweed, and of course any other member of the Umbelliferae as well as QAL. Of course, to do their stuff all these have to flower, but their actual seed setting can be quite closely controlled, so they don't spread everywhere. Moria

with permission from

Tony & Moira Ryan <theryans@xtra.co.nz>
Wainuiomata, New Zealand (astride the "Ring of Fire" in the SW Pacific).

No till Gardening
March 30,1999


Is anyone using the Ruth Stout's way of heavy mulching? Is this what no till is about? Same procedure?

I think you could call Ruth Stout the mother of the no-till approach. I haven't read her books for years and rather think techniques may have moved on a bit from her original ideas, but she is basically very sound.

The last year was till, mulch, compost, fish emulsion, left the plants on the ground over winter, now.......

Most people would now reckon to cover up those old plants with a winter mulch of fallen leaves and/or other materials to rot them down for spring, however you will still get good results if you follow your usual routine but omit the tilling. Slash or string-trim down whatever is growing in the area (weeds and all). Put over this as thick a layer of mulch as you can manage(fallen leaves/straw/other) and then the compost as your planting layer. (Incidently, if you don't have enough compost it is possible to economise and just apply pads of it over your planting sites or along your rows.) Once the planting is done you can then put the thick protective/weed suppressing mulch between your plantsas Ruth suggests. I presume you use the fish emulsion to minimise transplanting shock, but if you have a soil which is already alive it is unlikely you will need to apply any more during the season to carry the crops. Moira

with permission from

Tony & Moira Ryan <theryans@xtra.co.nz>

Wainuiomata, New Zealand (astride the "Ring of Fire" in the SW Pacific).

Raised Beds  12/31/1997

For many of our married years, my wife and I lived in populated areas, but we usually had space to spade up enough lawn to plant a vegetable garden. Those summers, we seldom bought food items, and by fall, we definitely felt healthier having eaten fresh and organically grown produce. Now when circumstances have made it difficult to garden, we feel something is amiss.

In earlier years, we rented or borrowed a roto-tiller, or paid someone else to work up the soil, then planted seeds and transplants in standard rows according to the directions on the seed packets. Pulling weeds and howing, and watering the bare, tilled earth kept us busy almost all our "spare-time." Because row gardening requires much more watering, and leaving enough room for cultivating and walking between rows required much more space, we eventually opted for raised beds. Lots of time and energy was saved, and much more produce could be grown on the same area of land. Somewhere along the line, we acquired we acquired John Jevon's How to Grow More Vegetables, and discovered we already were following many of his Bio-Intensive Gardening methods, and adopted others such as "double-digging".

Plants can be planted much closer together than normally recommended if some attention is given to adding sufficient compost and nutriments. Once grown, the leaves of the plants themselves shade the ground, keeping down weed growth and help to retain moisture in the soil. A bed that is 6 to 8 inches higher than the path, and 4 foot or less wide, allows one to kneel in the path and weed by hand when necessary, and harvest the crops without compacting the soil. In following years, use of a hoe and a hand rake is all that is required to rework the soil.

I make my beds by laying out the area with stakes, marking the paths and beds with string, then, on my knees, using a flat edge shovel to throw the loosened dirt from the path areas onto the beds. My paths are about 18 to 24 inches wide. This hand method of making beds I find to be relatively easy, and not all that time consuming. It is possible to make a good sized (35' x 75') plot of beds with a days effort. For the increase in production, ease of care, less water requirements, and the avoidance of further tilling of the soil, raised beds seem well worth the effort to me.

I have sometimes used the "double-dig" method of soil preparation in locations where the soil has been heavily compacted. This process alone results in a bed higher than the unworked areas or walked on paths. To begin, the first row of shovel fulls are laid aside, then another shovel depth is turned over in place in the bottom of this first row. The top dig of the next row, is placed on top of this loosened first row, and the process is continued across the width of the garden resulting in approxmately 20" of loosened, aerated soil.

In the shallow layer of topsoil of the tidewater area where we are now located, it is not helpful to "double dig". At least in this sandy soil, I would not expect to ever have to roto-till or plow the garden area again, a hoe being sufficient.

Scattered small patches can be prepared for planting squash, pumpkins and melons, or whatever one wishes. I am anxious to try starting a larger garden plot in a field without tilling to see the results, this spring. Sometimes I use untreated wood beams, cinder blocks, logs, or rocks to wall in a raised bed, but I like to be able to move them when I want to, and do not always want to do the added work to wall them in.

Appearance is not always that important to me. In the Fall,  I use a hoe to work up the soil again, then mulch the beds with whatever organic material I have to use. In the spring, I rake the mulch into the paths, or uncover areas for seeds or transplants. By Fall again, this material has deteriorated, and composted, so I rake this newly created soil, with it's numerous earthworms, back onto the beds. My paths are used as trench composters in this way, which helps keep down the weeds in the path and provides a soft area on which to kneel and walk throughout the growing season.

Growing one’s own transplants is a very rewarding and cost saving part of gardening. A month and a half before the recommended times for planting, I use flats, and styrofoam cups (I know, I am looking for more sustainable methods) to start seedlings in our sun room. I use a vermiculite, potting soil, and pearlite mixture as the growing medium. Instead of keeping the entire room at 60+ degrees, I use a stack of shelves covered with a plastic film, and a burning light bulb at night. I hope to perfect my solar greenhouse experiments so I can get a full month's jump in the spring and at least another month on the other end without having to use fuel to heat the greenhouse.

I have found that the lessened lumination provided from the short days of winter make it impractical to grow most items throughout the year, and am working on food drying methods and cold storage to carry us through the few months when growth does not occur. Sprouting seeds and growing greens such as buckwheat and sunflowers indoors can easily supply all ones needs for greens during the winter.

One method I have used successfully to get an early start is to first cover an area or entire raised bed with black plastic for a few days or weeks, plant seedlings such as zucchini squash, then cover them with clear plastic draped over wire hoops. The plastic is held down by placing the edges in trenches and covering them with earth. Slits are then cut lengthwise across the top for ventilation, and to keep the temperature from climbing too high. The first time I was utterly amazed how well they grew, and we had squash for salads and cooking a full two to three weeks earlier than from other plants which had been set out later after the last frost date, without the covering.

No till gardening is another viable possibility I am learning about and will try this year. I once thought the ideal was to work up the soil the first time, then avoid compacting it by walking only on the paths between the beds. Recently, trying out the permaculture school of gardening methods, I have found that even the initial planting can be done without any tilling of the soil, even in heavy sod if one has sufficient time to prepare the beds by piling on newspaper, leaves, and almost any other organic matter several months before planting. Without tilling (spading, plowing or rototilling) none of the earth structure, microbes, earthworm channels, etc. are disturbed, allowing the topsoil layer to grow in thickness and vitality in a surprisingly short time. No till, as used by modern large scale agriculture is quite different from the organic no till approach. They rely on widespread use of herbicides to prevent weed growth, a very destructive practice both in the short term and long term. Mulching, and close planting, and insect resistant healthy plants takes the place of herbicides in healthy soil.
We feel it is very worthwhile to try to avoid using pesticides and fertilizers that may seem to help in the short run, but have harmful affects to our own bodies and the complex ecosystems of the garden and soils. Our produce may not look quite as perfect, sometimes, as that on the grocery shelves, and we expect to feed a certain percentage of our crops to the insects. We encourage insect eating frogs by sinking tubs of water in the ground, and always try to move as many praying mantas nest into the garden area as possible. A lot of the green cabbage bugs can be picked off by hand, and squashed, though some seasons it seems impossible to keep up. This is one of many areas of gardening in which I need to better educate myself. Can anyone help me out on organic bug control methods?  Jerry B.

May 10, 1999
Tools we use
Tony and Moria

Us no-tillers have found we can get by with a very limited kitset of tools. I find I need:

1)Something to shift compost from bin to carrier- I happen to have an old shovel, but a spade will do the job. I also have a very sturdy wide-bladed trowl useful for moving small amounts of compost. It has the handle on top of the blade and is called a trovel. I think it a treasure, but I heard a male gardener opining it was useless!!!

2)A rake mainly for spreading compost, also for collecting up leaves (along with a yard brush) (an old kitchen dustpan/scoop is handy for collecting up the last of a leaf pile one has swept up)

3)A light "weeding" fork. For any odd job, but mostly getting out deep-rooted weeds or for shifting perennials.-- My most useful tool by far,

4) A spade - for transplanting, cutting through turf or paper (can be used for loading compost if no shovel or pitchfork). If you do a lot of moving plants around, especially large ones an big heavy garden fork may also be needed. Although we almost never break tools now, in our early days of dealing with a soil full of boulders we broke quite a few getting the most arkward ones out. Fotunately, at that time at least, our local hardware shop would fit new handles (possibly they still do).

5) A narrow trowel, a handfork and favourite hand-weeder (handfork probably not essential if your weeder is effective). Everybody seems to have their favourite hand weeding tool. I use an NZ invention consisting of a single curved wire tine on a handle and called (with justification I think) a Wonderweeder.

6) A good quality pair of secataurs, a pair of larger "snips" and a proper pruning saw. As I have pruned professionally for over 30 years my secatuars are of the best. They are made of high-quality steel and areremarkably small and neat, which is essential, as I have a very small hand. They are also kept clean and sharp at all times. I also have a cheap pair of rachet secataures with a fibre-glass body, which I can carry round with my weeding kit and it doesn't matter if they occasionally get left out in the weather. They are fine for light pruning and cutting back in the borders or trimming pot plants.

7) I do have a hoe and very occasionally use it to make furrows for planting things like onions, but wouldn't buy one now if I was starting.

8) Some sort of transporter. I think the need for a barrow is minimal in the average suburban garden. Although we have one, I often nowadays move compost or mulch with a couple of plastic buckets and weeds or leaves with a carry-bag as I find this much less effort than manouvering a barrow. I think if I was getting a transporter now I would go for a cart. Buckets are marvellous for transporting everything from weeds to compost and mulch or weeding tools. When weeding I also have beside me a "nasties "bucket for weeds like couch or convolvolus or oxalis, for unwanted bulbs and for odd bits of glass or plastic which turn up in the beds..

I buy the cheapest kind, getting several if I see them on special, and they last up to about 5 years, but eventually become brittle. For storage I use large ones with lids, scrounged from painters or people with swimming pools and for making compost tea we have plastic garbage cans.

10) heavy duty "dumpy" hammer (for hammering in stakes)

11) String ball and twist tape (for fastening plants to stakes). Plus a pair of snips for cutting the string.  Moira

with permission from
Tony & Moira Ryan <theryans@xtra.co.nz
Wainuiomata, New Zealand (astride the "Ring of Fire" in the SW Pacific).

What's the best book on no-till gardening?

I see someone was recommending Ruth Stout. Her works are undoubtedly the classics of this genre, but I think are somewhat outdated by modern developments. If you are building a soil from scratch (soil dead from long application of artificial fertilizers or over, say, heavy clay) the Australian writer Esther Denes "Gardening without digging" gives a very good starting routine. (This book is quite rare, even over this side of the Pacific, but might be available second hand somewhere). I am afraid I don't have any modern book on the subject, but really the principals are very simple.

If you already have a live soil with lots of organic matter and worm activity, all you need to do before planting is to spread a layer of finished compost over the weeded but undug surface at least 1" deep. Seeds may be sown in this and transplants set out by digging through the layer as deep as is needed to accomodate the roots, while as far as possible leaving the compost still on the surface around the plants. The compost layer being living material should not be allowed to dry out and it is usually protected by spreading a summer mulch over it. The best material for this in my opinion is wilted grass clippings. This, if the thickness is gradually built up to 2 or 3 inches, will not only protect the compost, but feed the soil as it breaks down, insulate it against cold and heat and prevent a lot of evaporation in hot weather while at the same time discouraging the germination of weed seeds - a wonder material indeed. Of course grassclippings are not the only possible mulch material, Ruth Stout used hay, but I rather think she lived on a farm, or at least in a rural area, where she could get this easily. For townees lawn clippings are much easier to come by. Pea straw is easy to get where I live and is also very popular for this sort of mulching as it is soft and intertwines to make a convenient mat and also is quite high in nitrogen. Varous cereal straws could also be used, but do have disadvantages, notably they are very high in carbon and so less good as a feed, and being stiff and stalky they do not bed down very well and may blow about if winds are strong. Yet another possibility is small hedgeclippings and I am sure your imagination will suggest others.

In winter, treatment also differs from the old till routines, where often it was recommended to rough up the soil and leave it open to frosts to break down the clods and kill overwintering insect pests. We can now see this is a ridiculous thing to do, as it destroys a large part of the soil structure, which then has to painstakingly rebuild itself, and while it may kill some pests, it is also doing a great deal of harm to the useful soil organisms. No-till methods call for a winter mulch which protects the soil and its inhabitants and gradually breaks down to provide food and structure in spring. In effect it is composting in situ, just as nature does it, and as in a conventional compost heap one wants a good mixture of carbon-rich browns and nitrogen-rich greens. The favourite source of browns for this purpose is fallen deciduous leaves (or straw, sawdust or wood shavings) while the greens might be more grass, crop remnants, green weeds, a fall green manure crop such as vetch or faba beans, or some animal manure. (When a green manure crop is ready, it should simply be mowed or slashed down and mixed with browns on the surface. It should not be dug in.)

If a lot of this mulch has survived on the surface in spring, it may be drawn aside to allow a layer of made compost to be put on, and then replaced as the first edition of the summer mulching. If very little is left, though, just put the new compost layer on top of it. I haven't mentioned routines for problem soils in this posting, but if your patch falls in such a category, you could let me know and I will try to give you a method of dealing with it. Moira

with permission from:
Tony & Moira Ryan theryans@xtra.co.nz
Wainuiomata, New Zealand (astride the "Ring of Fire" in the SW Pacific)



The area which surrounds the Liberty Bell replica in the middle of our commons area is a joint venture of everyone who wishes to contribute their time, tools, and seeds or transplants. In this time of plenty, the need may not often arise, but the produce is meant to be used by anyone who wishes to use it. As more persons avail themselves of the fresh produce, more is planted each year.  Already it has grown four-fold from it's inception, and land is allotted in the new New Liberty Village for it to expand indefinitely. Conceivably, almost the entire community could sustain it's vegetable and fruit needs. There is no rule or law saying if you pick from the garden, you must work in it, but perhaps surprisingly to some, there have been very few admonitions needed, nor anyone restricted from picking, yet the work that needs to be done gets done. Nature has a way of generously magnifying it's bounty many times  ... a small handful of seeds becomes many meals!

The success of the commons garden is illustrating in a powerful way a principle that some here are working towards manifesting. We have a long way to go, but the idea that if everyone paid attention to others needs and did what he could do to help out without thought of recompense, each person would find that less and less does he have to concern himself for his own needs. A sense of family among neighbors can develop and lead towards regions of well-being previously unknown. These ideas are experimental and no doubt rudimentary, but we are very curious to see the outcome over time.

While many of us have our own family or home gardens, there is still something different and gratifying in working in the common garden.  It is a total act of free will; there is no onus placed upon one if he or she does not participate. You can see for yourself that the plants seem to pick up on the good feelings as well!

Upon occasion, there have been persons, that for one reason or another have not had employment and have chosen to spend a great deal of time in the garden for a period until they tire of it or find something else to do. Being free to use the crops, they certainly do not have to go hungry. Seldom has anyone felt that someone was taking undue advantage.

Many persons who had never gardened before learned here, and more than one have chosen farming as a way of earning money, supplying our stores with their produce to sell. Several persons have become interested in the horticulture of non-hybred seeds, and have worked with I-Beam Development Co. to begin and maintain a community seed bank. They are well on the way to developing a flourishing seed company. In short, the commons garden has been a healthy, gratifying adventure for New Liberty Village. Have any of our visitors had experiences with community gardening? If so, please tell us about it.

 Any experience, articles or discussion on seed propagation welcomed: POST

 Any books or publications on Agriculture, food supply and storage, or gardening that you recommend?  POST
Any links you recommend on Agriculture, gardening, and food storage?  POST

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