There are dozens of edible plants in this photo from Tyrant Farms.

Three Permaculture Lessons From a Great Summer Growing Season

There are dozens of edible plants in this photo from Tyrant Farms.

It’s hard to believe that fall is already right around the corner! We’ve even started seed trays for our cool weather annual plants.

Various winter squash, grown this summer, at Tyrant Farms. What beautiful colors and textures!

Various winter squash, grown this summer, at Tyrant Farms. So many beautiful colors and textures!

Despite the crazy weather and record rainfall we’ve experienced in our area this summer, we’re still getting huge loads of produce. We’ve been canning, dehydrating or both every single day for over a month, plus giving tons of food away to friends, family and neighbors. Sure, we’ve lost a few plants to pests and diseases (recently many of our tomato plants have succumbed to late blight), but every conventional gardener or farmer we’ve heard from in our area has experienced devastating crop losses/failure under the same growing conditions.

Why?

We certainly don’t blame them for the bad weather (something that’s out of their control), but we sure wish more growers would understand that there are things they can and should do to help their garden or farm ecosystems better endure extreme weather conditions.

What can they do? Well, we don’t have any magic plant spells to pass along, and we’re certainly not going to take all the credit for the food we’ve grown. After all, plants/seeds are only as good as the environment they’re grown in, and all we’ve done is try our best to mimic natural healthy ecosystems so that nature can work it’s amazing magic on our plants for us.

As we’ve mentioned before, we’re big advocates of permaculture, which is basically a “set of principles and practices to design sustainable human settlements,” in the words of Toby Hemenway, author of Gaia’s Garden. It’s one thing to read about permaculture and abstractly say “that sounds like a good idea.” It’s another thing entirely when you put the philosophies of permaculture to work on your little slice of earth and watch it work in a near-magical fashion.

So, we wanted to share three permaculture lessons that have really been hammered home for us this summer:

Lesson 1: Healthier Soil = Healthier Plants

Think of your soil as a car’s gas tank. A gas tank needs fuel in order for the car (your plants) to turn on and run. Industrial agriculture or even conventional gardening techniques (constant seasonal tillage, sun-exposed soil, mono-cropping, pesticide & fertilizer drenches, etc) leaves your soil’s “fuel tank” on empty.

There are two basic ways to fuel your soil food web:

  1. Naturally – Use natural, locally-sourced fertilizers such as wood chip mulches, leaves, compost, manure, etc combined with living “green manures” (nutrient accumulating and nitrogen-fixing plants). The billions of organisms in a functioning soil food web actually know how to convert these “fertilizers” to heathy soil over a long period of time.
  2. Synthetics – “Efficient” synthetic chemical fertilizers hauled in from around the world (like “Miracle-Gro”), many of which are derived from finite, mined natural resources. Synthetics operate comparably to nitrous oxide in a car, ultimately leaving the soil web starved and unhealthy.

Guess which option most farmers and many gardeners go for? Yep, #2. The conventional farmer’s (or gardener’s) “car” zooms from zero to 100mph and then is completely burned out and exhausted after one lap around the track.

The long-term result? Dead soil that is completely incapable of supporting life (or fighting off diseases and pathogens) without a constant supply of more synthetic fertilizers, water and pesticides. It’s not the soil’s fault. It’s not the seed’s fault. It’s the person’s fault.

Dead or unhealthy soil is incapable of maintaining ideal water and nutrient density levels needed for optimal plant growth under normal weather conditions without additional external inputs, much less under abnormal weather conditions (extreme drought, rain, heat or cold).

Young "Tlacolula Ribbed" tomatoes, an heirloom Mexican variety, at Tyrant Farms.

Young “Tlacolula Ribbed” tomatoes, an heirloom Mexican variety, at Tyrant Farms.

Since extreme “once-in-a-century” weather conditions are the new normal, building and maintaining a healthy, living food soil web is more important than ever for anyone who wants to drive from zero to healthy soil (and stay there) on your farm or garden. Be patient, trust the life-sustaining systems that have been growing plants for far longer than people have, and build your soil food web for the long-term with natural fertilizers.

A soil food web is a magnificent system when it’s healthy and functioning. We’ve been working to improve our soil web for a little over 3 years now, using lots of wood chips and other organic matter plus various living “green mulches” (nutrient accumulators and/or nitrogen-fixing plants such as clovers, tansies, legumes, daikon radishes, comfrey, etc). It’s been absolutely amazing and humbling to watch the results.

Some of the interconnections taking place that make your soil healthy. As far as we know, this doesn't come in a bottle and can't be sprayed onto your plants.

These are some of the interactions in a soil food web that make your soil healthy. As far as we know, these don’t come in a bottle and can’t be sprayed onto your plants.

What was once dead, acidic brick-clay soil is now rich, black soil that we can dig into with our bare hands, pulling out piles of earthworms in the process. Our soil is being restored to a living system that is teeming with microbes—and it now requires almost zero input from us (certainly not any synthetic fertilizers or pesticides). We’re surrounded by far more food than we could ever eat ourselves. Pollinators and other beneficial insects are everywhere. It’s a system designed for abundance for all the organisms that help make it work, including us (not just us).

Rich black soil at Tyrant Farms.

Rich black soil at Tyrant Farms.

It’s a paradigm-buster to imagine this, but gardening and farming don’t have to be hard, grueling work with huge fluctuations in yield (or profit) from year to year. Mimic natural ecosystems like forest systems (which require no human input to sustain or improve themselves from year to year), and you’ll get ever-improving yields with ever-decreasing work, energy input and money invested—and the system will continue to improve with time all on its own.

These aren’t new ideas. “Forest gardens” are the world’s oldest and most sustainable form of land use. For example, anthropologists now realize that the area we call the “Amazon Rainforest,” was actually a massive food forest created thousands of years ago. Most of the native populations who designed and managed these food forests were killed by imported European diseases in the mid-1600s, but their food forests are still thriving (at least the ones that aren’t being logged and cleared to grow our food).

This image from Wikicommons shows the 3-dimensional layers of a biodiverse food forest, a design that can vastly outperform modern 1-dimensional monocrops on yields as well as producing superior ecological and human health outcomes.

This image from Wikicommons shows the 3-dimensional layers of a biodiverse food forest, a design that can vastly outperform modern 1-dimensional monocrops on yields as well as producing superior ecological and human health outcomes. An additional eighth layer (not shown) is the fungal layer.

So, even if you hate nature and want to burn the planet to the ground before your children have a chance to grow up, perhaps your desire to earn a larger, more reliable and more diversified revenue stream from your land will turn you into a natural gardener/farmer.

Lesson 2: Food Crop Biodiversity = More Abundance

Another important lesson that has really hit home for us this summer: pests and diseases LOVE monoculture plant systems. When they see a whole field full of their favorite food, it’s an all-they-can-eat buffet. On the other side of this equation, farmers hate plant pests and diseases. This love-hate relationship creates a never-ending war between nature and mankind.

Hint: it’s stupid to play MAD (Mutually Assured Destruction) with another country. It’s INSANE to play MAD against every other biological system and organism on earth. It’s like being in a Ford Pinto and playing chicken with a high speed train. We’re not going to win that battle folks, and we shouldn’t even be fighting it in the first place. The reality is that nature can actually be on our side.

Have you ever walked through a forest and noticed how much biodiversity nature produces? Have you ever walked through a conventional farm and noticed how little biodiversity we try to produce there?

At Tyrant Farms, we think it makes more sense to mimic a forest rather than a corn field. As such, we’re growing hundreds of varieties of annual, bi-annual and perennial food plants interplanted symbiotically on the ~1/2 acre we currently have planted, not to mention the existing forest out back which is full of edible nuts, plants and fungi that know how to grow just fine without us. If one plant variety gets a disease or succumbs to a pest infestation we still have countless other varieties that will go on producing just fine. We’re NEVER dependent on any one type of plant for our yield.

Gourmet wild mushrooms (chanterelles, black trumpets and cinnabars). These are the fruiting bodies of mycorrhizal organisms that produce symbiotic relationships with trees.

Gourmet wild mushrooms (chanterelles, black trumpets and cinnabars) from the woods. These are the fruiting bodies of mycorrhizal organisms that form symbiotic relationships with trees, essentially giving the trees a second root system.

If we were operating under a monoculture plant system design, we might do crazy things like spray our food with chemical and biological weapons (e.g. pesticides), or try to out-engineer nature by playing “Mr. Potato Head” with transgenic technologies.

“Crop failure” under mainstream farming or gardening methods might be more accurately described as “design failure” and attributed to human causes not natural ones (except in the event of truly cataclysmic weather events like hail, tornadoes, hurricanes, etc). If nature tells you that a plant you’re trying to grow isn’t working well despite growing in healthy soil, simply grow something else (ideally a perennial plant) and enjoy the yield from the hundreds of other plant varieties that are doing just fine.

Unfortunately, this is the exact opposite approach we use to produce food for the 7 billion+ people on earth, our one-and-only shared biosphere (at least until we’re able to terraform Mars). Instead, we’re increasingly opting to put all of our proverbial eggs in one basket: a handful of nutrient-poor annual grain crops grown using methods that require constant and costly input and maintenance while concurrently destroying every single ecosystem they touch. And these crops are patented and controlled by a small handful of companies. Not a good design.

Yes, there’s a reason it takes $20 billion per year in US tax-payer-funded subsidies to pay *part of the real price of our terribly designed food system (*health care, bioremediation and war sold separately, see store for details!).

Cheap food isn’t cheap. It’s just very good at hiding its true costs.

Lesson 3: Everyone With Access to Land or a Sunny Window Can Help Themselves and Help Each Other

As we may have mentioned, conventional gardening and farming techniques utilize poorly designed, antiquated food-production and distribution models that make farmers (and their slave labor) work hard and spend a lot of money to grow a small handful of commodity crops. This model is ecologically and economically unsustainable, not to mention the damage these foods have on the unfortunate people who have to eat them due to a lack of choice or lack of awareness. Just like every puff on a cigarette increases your risk of chronic disease or illness, so too does every bite of pesticide-covered food that you or your kids eat. This isn’t fringe science or a conspiracy theory, it’s a well-known fact that also happens to be supported by common sense.

The only entities that truly “win” (at least in short-term profits) under the industrial food regime are the global chemical companies that sell their new and improved “nitrous oxide,” magic potions and miracle cure seeds that they claim will finally win the war with nature. No doubt, the company’s salesmen will be back next season with a new, improved formula to sell industrial farmers and consumers. After all, there are quarterly results and shareholders to consider, not to mention multi-million dollar bonuses if the company’s financial goals are reached. Priorities.

“This year we’re gonna do it Mr. Farmer, we’re gonna beat that damned nature with our new improved snake oil… will that be cash or credit?” Right. “Fix it” until it’s broken, then hook the world on your patented “solutions.”

Does industrial agriculture make about as much sense to you as swimming against the current in a river? Hope so.

Swim harder!

Trying to head upstream? Just swim harder!

Eventually, the river is going to win the battle. Unless, of course, you realize that you should listen to the river and aim downstream, working with the river’s current rather than against it.

With well-designed, hyper-local food-production systems linked to larger organically grown staple crop farms (ideally based on perennial plants) we could actually have a permanently sound way to feed every person on earth with real, healthy foods regardless of their location or socio-economic background.

As an added bonus, we could concurrently HEAL the earth as we grow our food, not destroy it as we presently do. Imagine if everywhere a garden or farm went, the ecosystem improved, rather than getting ravaged. Also, it just so happens that using organic plant matter as fertilizer increases soil biomass and acts as a huge atmospheric carbon sequestration system.

Even the USDA says, “The long-term conversion of grassland and forestland to cropland (and grazing lands) has resulted in historic losses of soil carbon worldwide but there is a major potential for increasing soil carbon through restoration of degraded soils and widespread adoption of soil conservation practices.”  

In our view, sustainability is a worthy aim IF you have a healthy ecosystem to protect/maintain. Unfortunately, that’s not where we are at the moment. We need food-production models that actually restore ecological health to the biosphere (sustainability isn’t enough), such as those proposed by various branches of permaculture and/or restoration agriculture.

As the FAO says,

“The objective is to reverse land degradation due to deforestation and inadequate land use/management in the tropics and sub-tropics through the promotion of improved land use systems and land management practices which provide win-win effects in terms of economic gains and environmental benefits, greater agro-biodiversity, improved conservation and environmental management and increased carbon sequestration.”

That sounds like a good idea to us.

Pretty isn't it? That's your home planet (and ours too).

Pretty isn’t it? That’s your home planet (and ours too). Let’s learn from it and take care of it.

Get In! The Food Movement Is Only Going to Get Bigger…

Even if you’ve never grown a plant in your life, new information technology makes it very easy to share ideas, best practices and plants (or seeds) with each other. No matter who you are or where you are, you don’t have to remain uninformed, uninvolved, hopeless and helpless. It’s your health and it’s your planet too.

Gotta window with some sun? Access to a patch of dirt you can start nurturing and growing food on? Great! Start small and fast wherever and however you can have the most impact and the most potential to learn. Link up with people and organizations near you who are doing great things—they’re everywhere! Meet in person and grow food together. The more connections you form, the stronger and more vibrant your community will be.

As an added bonus, the food you grow will not only taste great, it will also be healthy and free. So jump aboard the food movement today, and start learning to “know or grow” your own food!

7 Comments

  1. You got that rich black earth in just three years? How deep is it?
    we are working with a converted lawn that had maybe a few inches of topsoil on top of at least six feet deep of pure sand (we saw that deep when an excavator dug a trench from the new well to our house to install the piping). With straw mulch we have built maybe an inch of black earth in two years. Hopefully with the Stropharia mushrooms our soil-building process will go faster now. Still – your soil looks amazing so I do think we will try to mimic your methods! It’s mostly the chipped wood that does it??

    • Susan says:

      The depth of our good soil depends on how long we’ve been working on it. Our whole yard is now an edible landscape, but we started out in the back yard about 3.5 years ago (in the winter). Our best soil is in our hugelkultur beds (a permaculture technique) that are also top-dressed biannually with 6-8″ of old wood chips from a nearby tree care company. The hugelkultur beds probably already have a couple of feet of incredibly rich, nutrient-dense soil in them. Our newest growing areas are less than a year old. Due to time constraints, we didn’t hugelkultur those beds. We turned over the sod/grass, put a layer of cardboard on top as grass & weed blocker, piled on a 6-8″+ layer of “leaf mold” and then another 6″ of wood chips on top of that. The soil isn’t as deep there, but the soil that is there is really healthy. After a few more years of adding leaves, wood chips and compost in addition to living green mulches, those beds should be in great shape too.

      King Stropharia will definitely speed up the decomp on your wood chips. Within a month or two, the wood chips will be completely bound together with mycellium and after 6 months, the chips will be almost entirely broken down into soil. You’ll also get great mushroom harvests during that time. Stropharia can grow HUGE (the size of dinner plates) so be prepared to dehydrate some because they’ll give you far more than you can eat during a single fruiting.

      So, wood chips are a big part of what keeps our soil growing and staying healthy. Basically, keep your soil covered and fed with organic matter. Exposed soil is like an open wound on a person, and weeds are nature’s “scab.” Kind of a gross analogy, but it’s true!

  2. Thanks for the reply and for the explanation of your soil fertility!

    yes – I’m committed to mulching and keeping the soil covered, for sure. My bigger garden got messed up due to a mulching error on my part a few years ago – I covered it with ripe hay which was full of seeds and ended up with a serious infestation of couchgrass over a large proportion of the garden! That was a major setback, but I’m getting back on track now.

    I actually saw a tree pruning truck go by with a wood chipper and followed it up the road to where they were working on the same day that I left you my first comment – I got a free load of fresh chipped hardwood branches and leaves! Certainly not enough to mulch 6″ deep everywhere but damn it’s a start! So, thanks for showing your rich soil and giving me inspiration! I did feel a little eccentric, driving up the road in pursuit of a wood chipper… but then again it paid off. :)

    I do want to dehydrate the mushrooms in the future – especially as mushrooms dried outdoors with their gills exposed to the sun produce an extra dose of Vitamin D. We had a great crop though – enough to give some away and to experiment with different cooking methods. Tell me do you dry them outdoors or do you have a dehydrator? What size pieces do you cut them into before dehydrating? Thanks!

    • Susan says:

      That’s really neat to hear about the mulch truck appearing on the same day! Kudos to you for keeping an eye out for opportunities. We love the fall when everyone puts out free piles of leaves for us to take back to our compost pit. Free organic soil!

      The only mushrooms that we know of where you can increase the Vitamin D2 content via dehydrating gills up in the sun is shiitake mushrooms. There might be others, but we just don’t know about them. We actually grow those and wrote a blog post about them a while back: http://www.tyrantfarms.com/diy-how-to-grow-shiitake-mushrooms/#.UhOP-WRDres. We do put our shiitakes out gill side up for a day or so in the sun before putting them into our Excalibur dehydrator, otherwise they tend to end up with quite a few bugs in them, not to mention the unpredictability of rain and humidity that can really set back drying progress.

      For other smaller mushrooms like black trumpets, bicolor boletes, etc we just put them straight into the dehydrator. If they’re a thicker meatier mushroom, we’ll often cut them in half or into chunks to help them dry faster. Hope that helps and keep up the good work in your garden!

  3. Jonathan says:

    This is a great article. You even inspired me to get on the ball about acquiring wood chips. I called up a place and they said they will deliver them for free the next time they are over near us!

    We have really thick hard clay soil that is not worth anything for growing. Been putting down leaves each year, but its gonna take a lot more than that.

    • Susan says:

      Thanks Jonathan! We started with terrible red clay soil too. Two things really helped: 1) we hugelkultured as many of our beds as we could (very interesting method that is worth reading up on if you’re not familiar with it), and 2) top amending with organic matter. A living soil web (worms, microbes, etc) can’t eat fertilizer but they sure do love organic matter like wood chips and leaves. Building really good soil is definitely not a super-fast process, but it’s worth planning for and being patient. Our soil is still a work in process but it has been amazing to watch how far it’s come in only a few year’s time.

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