This time, though, it's meant a lot of thinking. I recently read Gaia's Garden by Toby Hemenway and came away with lots of ideas. Actually, I should say that I re-read it. Years ago, I read it and dismissed it out of hand. At the time, I was a suburban gardener, and though I had a small plot of vegetables, we had a lot of lawn, and a whole buncha flower beds. Now..there is nothing wrong with flowers--I love flowers. But you can't eat them. And at the time, I thought of the flower beds and the vegetable beds as two very separate things. And so they remained. But now of course, things are very different for me, and I work the land as a whole. Yes, I have flower beds and vegetable beds and they are separate, but I am trying to understand how they relate. This is why, I think, when I picked this book up for a second time, I started to see the picture I didn't see before.
In a nutshell, Gaia's Garden is about permaculture. Permaculture is an idea, I believe, that started in Australia, when a man named Sepp Holzer and a number of other very smart down-underers looked around at their wasteful society that farmed completely idiotically, said "This is stupid", and decided not to participate. Instead what they decided to do was to go the opposite way, stop wasting everything, and start to create landscapes that worked with the earth, instead of against it. Seems as though Australia has the same problem we do. We (as a culture) throw out everything, and farm in a way that's not only non-sustainable, but is horribly damaging as well. Essentially what permaculture is about, to my understanding, is to work the land the way nature would do it, but in a way that is beneficial to you; i.e. you get food from it. It's a holistic viewpoint that nurtures the growth of plants instead of forcing the growth of plants. And it does the nurturing by putting back in the earth just as much as it takes out. It takes things that would seem to not be related and relates them and has them work together. It's a very interesting idea.
For me, I combine this with another idea, the idea of holons. As you know, housing has always been a problem here at Chicken Scratch, because with the exception of the house for us, there was nothing here. Na-da. We fixed this problem by building and building, and now we've got a whole bunch of little houses for everyone. Twelve, actually. Twelve buildings, some little, some big-ish on this land, and it looks like a little village.
I'm not complaining. I love the little village that we put here, and I think it's wonderful. We built as the animals arrived and we had the money, and that's what worked for us. It also gives me the unique problem of making all those little buildings and their very separate occupants work together. When I had heard the idea of holons, I immediately knew that it applied to us. Basically, all the buildings (and their occupants) on this land are separate, and yet still part of a whole. So there's a duck holon, a goat holon, a chicken holon, and so on. They are all different, with different needs and producing different things, but are part of the whole which is our homestead (and the homestead itself would be a holon, and that of the community, but I'm not going that far). In truth, the different buildings that we have actually made it easier to see this, as I intentionally have to go between the areas from one animal to another. So really the idea was beating me over the head the whole time, I just didn't see it!
What permaculture strives for is to make all the systems' inputs and outputs work together so that everything that is produced is used somewhere else. This goes not only for the products of your work, but also for the waste products of your work. Perfect example: your chickens. Your input to your chickens is the feed you give them. The output the chickens produce are three things: One is eggs. We keep chickens so we can eat eggs. Another is meat. We keep chickens so we can eat meat. But the chickens, in their work producing the eggs and meat, also produce waste. They poop. If we're stupid, we take the waste and throw it in a black bag and let the garbage man haul it away. We've then broken the system. If we're smart, we take the waste and throw it in the compost pile or on a fallow bed and let it go back to the earth it came from, thereby putting back the nutrients the chickens took from the earth to nourish themselves. Permaculture. See? Can we go further with this idea? Oh yeah. And I will. But not today.
Today I want to leave you with the few points that have been have really required my brain to churn. Call me a slow learner if you will, but these things went against everything I had learned about gardening before. No, I have no idea where I learned these things, but now I need to unlearn them, and it's not the easiest thing. So the points I have been mulling lately are these:
- The earth likes to be kept busy, and therefore bare earth will never stay bare for long. Basically, this tells me that my ritual of "putting the garden to bed" every fall was wrong, wrong, wrong. Earth is like the kid that won't go to sleep. It likes to have something to do. Cover cropping, anyone? Or how about growing on through the winter? Anyone like that idea? I know I do.
- Related to the above point, rows of vegetables with nothing but earth in between is not the best way to grow things. Why? Because Mother Nature isn't going to leave that earth bare. Nature abhors a vacuum, and she'll fill it in with something. Most likely it'll be weeds that you don't want, and then out comes the Round Up. Don't use Round Up folks, it's bad, horrible news. Keep your earth covered. Mulch, mulch, mulch. (I will draw aside here and say I knew about the mulch, and I mulch everything I can get my hands on. And I don't grow in rows. But I do love looking at other people's rows--I think they are the prettiest, tidiest things and I love to look at them so, so much. I have row envy. There I've said it. Think what you will of me.)Beds, which are what I use, are only slightly better. The ground is covered better, and there are better yields in a smaller amount of space, which suits me well, since most of my property is wooded. But in both of these methods the plants are all segregated--beans here, corn here, squash here, and so on. It would be better yet to do companion planting, or even better (according to permaculture principles) to plant in guilds. Guilds are like companion plantings on steroids, when all the plants are all willy-nilly and different and helping each other out to grow better. I have a LOT of trouble with this principle. I like things kept separate in the garden--it's so much neater. Permaculturists call this use of many guilds a "food forest". It sounds lovely, but I don't know if I'll ever get there. Too much willy-nilly-ness for me.
- Nutrients UNDER the roots of a plant are better than nutrients ABOVE the roots of the plant. This one I learned this season, and I'm still trying to wrap my head around it. The garden in the front is a "lasagna" garden, basically a bunch of crap like dry leaves and grass and rabbit and chicken poo formed up into some sort of bed shapes on top of my front lawn with some topsoil on top (because I was going to use the beds immediately--if I was not, I could have waited a season for the stuff to break down, or if I was really brave, just planted in the stuff right then and there-however, I think we've already established that I'm not that brave.) and that garden is kicking the ass of the garden in back, which is a tilled garden with enriched soil. Never mind that the back garden is three years old and has been enriched for all three years consistently. The front garden is miles ahead of the back one. MILES.
- Now you'd think this idea would be a duh, right? After all, roots grow down, not up, so nutrients under them would be more quickly accessible to the roots as they grew down, instead of waiting for the nutrients to filter down from above. Yeah, you would think that. But I am so programmed to planting in "dirt", you know, the brown crumbly stuff? Yeah, that. I was so set to be planting in "dirt", that planting in leaves and rabbit poo and straw felt completely freaky and I expected it to fail spectacularly. It has not. More the fool I.
- As a side note, I recently watched the film Back to Eden, and though I had some trouble with all of the narrator's views (he is very religious, and I am not, but there is room on this earth for all of us), he grows in what is basically wood chips-successfully. No "dirt" to be found. If you are interested, I would say check it out. It proves the point above quite well.
'Till next time, I'll be ponderin',