I have a confession to make: I am a dyed-in–the-wool feces eater. And while I enjoy that of other animals, I am a taboo breaker of the most offensive kind in my predilection for the manure of 2-leggeds, and more to the point, my own!
Fortunately though, some of my relations, as intermediaries, do the dirty work.
Walt Whitman wrote “I am a part of everything I’ve met”. As a practicing permaculturist, I’ve refined this to “I am a part of everything I’ve eaten” as well as of the complex dance of all the organisms and energies involved in the process. Another refinement is from the idea of “food chain” to “food circle”, for the natural process is circular. In a permacultural mindset, we can redesign our way into being part of the circle of life, rather than apart from. Besides being a cool thing to do, placing ourselves in the circle of life is energy efficient as well as productive! After all, life has exquisitely evolved over several hundred million years, a sustainable complexity that produces abundance, wastes nothing; cycles nutrients and slows the flow of energy through all ecosystems. All natural systems have evolved to live off of, and contribute to this surplus.
What allowed our industrial cultures to step away from the circle of life, has been the discovery, extraction, and use of cheap, abundantly available, fossil fuel. With production of fossil fuel peaking, as well as the depletion of all easily available sources, less fossil fuel is available and at higher cost. As more countries have come “on-line” in their use and need, cost for all consumers has risen even more. Since the industrial discovery of oil, the US has been top dog economically as well as politically and militarily, and as such, took the lion’s share.
Enter: Peak Oil, Global Economy, and Global Economic Collapse!
As if a clumsy, stage magician attempted yanking a tablecloth from under a finely set table, the table has been cleared. As the dust settles and the light comes back on, the table has been reset; unrecognizable to us, and certainly not to our liking.
What will be the effects of diminishing supplies of petroleum upon industrial cultures? Fossil fuel will be available into the immediate future, but dwindling supplies and costly extraction of difficult to reach petroleum (eg. 2 miles underground beneath 4 miles of ocean depths), along with greatly increased global demand, compounded by economics (who’s got the money?) is and will result in soaring costs. The economics is simple: increased demand and diminishing supply equals ever rising consumer costs. Scarcity and demand drive value. A negative spiral occurs: Ever more demand for diminishing resources leads to a scramble for those remaining resources, as well as increasing costs. The more the resource diminishes, the more frantic the scramble, and the higher the consumer cost. Resource availability collapses under an onslaught of demand, and prices shoot out of sight. Under this fanatic pressure, resource is exploited, environment suffers, and collapse occurs! (This is neither new nor unsubstantiated: check out any ecology book).
They who have the money, get the oil! Our North American wake-up call has sounded: we are not the ones with the money!
The implications are scarily staggering for a culture addicted to cheap food, energy, comfort, import based hyper-consumerism, and transportation. We’ve had a fun ride on this rollercoaster, yet in the meanwhile, the infrastructure has developed severe cracks. Its not a matter of “if” the track will drop out from under us, rather a matter of over what period of time. Will it be even quicker than is now occurring, or spread out a little more. World powers are already pushing up to the bar and jockeying for position: wars large and small attest to that!
Fortunately, we do not have to wait until the earth beneath our feet is crumbling.
Permaculture teaches us to identify our primary needs, and design redundancy (back-up systems) to meet these. The world over, we share the same basic needs: clean water, healthy food, shelter, clean air, meaningful livelihood, security, and community.
Our focus on these pages is in creating and enhancing the soil ecosystems necessary for healthy, vital, and abundant food.
Back To Our Roots
When we eat a food, we take in some of everything that has gone into the food before us; sacred life-giving water, sun’s energy, and microbial/plant interactions. Without any of these, there is no life. Microbial activity breaks down and releases stored nutrients from previous plants and animals, making these building blocks available in easily assimilative form to currently growing plants. Plants link earth and sky, transmuting their forces into roots, tubes, leaves, flowers and fruit. From the tiniest insect to the largest carnivore, all reap the life-giving, nutritional benefits of microbe/plant interactions. And all partake of and benefit from all parts of the process. With each mouthful of food, we consumers also eat air, sun, water, earth, previously alive plant and animal bodies, and …manure!
Soil micro-organisms make it all possible, and in fact, keep the sphere of life rolling along!
In permaculture, we learn to look for “points of intervention”. Another way to say this is: places to intervene in the system that will give us the biggest bang for the buck; achieve the desired goals with the least amount of expended energy.
Improving the soil becomes our strategy for best use of energy. If we want healthy selves, we need healthy and abundant foods. We do not find these in industrial markets (what we do find there, is going to reflect the rising costs of energy, since industrial food production has an extremely high petroleum cost as well as high transport cost). In Michael Pollan’s book “In Defense of Food: An Eater’s Manifesto”, the author says that in supermarkets, food is generally limited to the exterior aisles: the remainder of the store contains “food-like substances”.
Soil Is Not Dirt!
All terrestrial life is totally dependent upon the soil magic! Modern ecological as well as soil studies give us a more in depth understanding and appreciation of the complexities of soil. No longer can we believe it to be lifeless and inert. Soil is a mixture of bedrock weathered over hundreds of millions of years (into minerals) and organic matter; components of everything that has lived before, as well as parts (leaves, hair, skin, excrement) of currently living organisms. Nature’s crown jewels are the soil micro-organisms. We’ve called them decomposers, and list among them fungi, bacteria, nematodes, actinomycetes and numerous other micro-organisms. The term “decomposers” doesn’t do them justice! They really are “Enablers” for their lives and activities break down all organic matter, freeing up the nutrients and minerals making up the bodies of all life (plant and animal) and making these absolutely necessary building blocks available to plants. Plants incorporate the nutrients into their own tissue, and everything else (all of us!) eat either the plants or the animals that feed upon the plants, and in so doing, pass these necessary nutrients along the food circle. We all shed cells constantly, defecate, and die. Those nutrients in our bodies join the circle of life, are broken down by the enablers and returned to the natural system to keep life going.
Earth being a finite system, means there is a limited supply of everything. Without soil microbes, life would have run out of the nutrients and minerals necessary to build all physical bodies,. hundreds of millions of years ago.
Soil is an ecosystem teeming with microbes constantly breaking apart organic matter. In a teaspoon of healthy topsoil are hundreds of millions of bacteria, fungi and other organisms. Plants growing in a healthy soil ecosystem are chocked full of nutrients and minerals, healthy and vital: They who consume these plants bio-accumulate these healthy building blocks. By managing for healthy soil ecosystems, we create vibrantly healthy plants and other site inhabitants. Food is not just stomach stuffer! Food is energy, and quality of food determines quality of health and well being. Healthy, nutrient rich food makes healthy people and other animals.
We are designing for a vibrantly healthy, nutrient rich, regenerative soil system .As we begin to understand soil and its importance, strategic management steps become clear, as does a powerful tool for effective living within the circle of life: Everything we do, everything we choose to consume, and each individual action impacts the soil ecosystems, either positively or negatively! Decide to choose and act in a way that benefits the soil! Avoid choices and actions that do not. Vote with green energy! Spend your dollars supporting those who are soil friendly!
Caring for and enhancing the soil ecosystem is relatively easy, because soils needs are relatively simple and two fold: Organic matter and cover.
Torus-shaped compost pile.
Organic matter is the fuel that runs soil systems: carbon is the key ingredient. Must have it! Got to have it! Soils deficient in organic matter are poor soils, with minimal soil organism complexity and numbers. Resurrection of almost any soil condition includes the addition of organic matter! Soil acidic? Add organic matter. Soil alkaline? Add organic matter. Our first order of soil system management is: Feed The Soil! Another (and even more appropriate) way of saying this is: Feed the carbon cycle! From a chemistry perspective, soil life has evolved to break apart carbon bonds. In the process, carbon as well as other elements necessary for life are released and made available for plant uptake. This is a beautifully intricate and complex dance without which there is no life.
The strategies of this article include composting, vermiculture, use of green manure plantings, mulching, addition of soil additives (such as kelp and phosphate), foliar feeding sprays (such as compost tea), and animal manures (including humanure).
Composting doesn’t require purchase or building of a bin to be successful. Nature composts everything without any of the above. For our convenience, we can accumulate organic materials in a pile, keep things tidy, pleasing our fellow site sharers and neighbors, and by so doing, produce a finished product more quickly. A certain mass of materials (roughly 4 ft.cubed) that bring together manures (nitrogen rich) and dried plant materials such as straw & leaves (carbon rich) at a very general ratio of 1 part nitrogen to 20-30 parts carbon, set a stage for speedy decomposition which includes pathogen and seed destroying temperatures. Some people turn the pile several times (moving the outside of the pile to the inside) for even speedier finished compost. I do not, being in no hurry, and knowing that compost happens, thanks to our life enhancers, the soil organisms, who break apart the chemical bonds, releasing the nutrients.
After the pile temperature spikes (roughly 140 –160 degrees F), and the compost temperature approaches ambient temperature, microbial activity slows down to include macro-organisms, such as compost worms, insect larvae, beetles and other crawlies and wigglers. Thus begins the process of finishing the compost, much like a wine needs a finishing period for the flavors to develop.
What has happened in the compost process is a speedy breakdown of organic matter into resins, gums and other substances, and humus, a long lived carbon particle that can hold up in the soil for many decades, acting as nutrient and water reservoir: long term fertility. The measurement of soil organic matter (SOM) is the measure of humus in a soil. When early Europeans arrived, soil organic matter measurements were as high as 9-14 percent. After decades of plowing followed by industrial agriculture’s war on natural soil, the average SOM may be 2-3 percent. (One percent is considered dead soil). Even this degree of degradation can be amended with the addition of organic matter. However, it takes many tons of organic matter to increase SOM by 1 percent.
Weeds are plants growing where we want other plants to grow. My technique of weed management has evolved from yanking them (roots and all, out of the soil and moving them to the ongoing compost pile) to waiting until they have flowered (honeybee treats!) then cutting them at the base prior to seed set, and laying them down in place as mulch. Each time above ground plant parts are cut, a corresponding root die-off occurs. The root die-off becomes instant food for the soil system, as does the slow release top mulch. Rather than upset the soil system around the plant by yanking out the entire plant and rootball, now I have an ongoing source of soil food, turning problems into solutions!
Vermiculture is the use of compost worms (Esidia foetida) to create a natural product called vermicompost, which I refer to as SuperCompost!
As far as the use of organic matter in soil enhancement: Manure is great; Compost is better; and Vermicompost is the best! Since the initial heat generated by microbial breakdown organisms in the above mentioned compost pile is high enough to kill macro-organisms, compost worms show up as temperatures moderate. They ingest leftover organic matter, further digesting it, concentrating nutrients several times higher than the surrounding material, and excrete these super nutrient packets (“casts” or egesta) out their posterior. The magic of vermicompost does not reside only in the nutritive value of these packets (which by itself, is very high), but better yet, while inside the worm, casts are inoculated with soil microbial spores, in effect, stacking its functions and producing a truly value added product!
Our strategy is to concentrate the compost worms by building a suitable bin, thereby concentrating the vermicompost. One worm, under worm-pleasing environmental conditions (adequate soil moisture, plentiful organic matter, and pleasant temperatures) can produce half its body weight in casts every day. One worm’s poop weight is truly miniscule. Our permaculture Point of Intervention is to concentrate the worms. One pound of worms, under optimal conditions, can produce one pound of vermicompost daily! Multiply this by five, by ten! Vermicompost is too strong for growing plants directly in it. Rather, it can be mixed in planting soil or transplant holes at a general rate of 1:10 (vermicompost: soil).
Green manure plants are grown for the sole purpose of soil improvement. At some stage in their growth cycle, and in accord with the scale (available tools) of the agricultural enterprise, they are either cut, disked, dug into, flailed, scythed, or just laid down on the soil, as food for the soil ecosystem. The healthier the soil system, the quicker the organic matter breakdown time, and the sooner the system is ready for planting.
At Barefoot Permaculture, (my home and ongoing permaculture site: an urban homestead in Asheville, NC, located in the southern Appalachian Mountains), my interests and practices involve inexpensive, low tech solutions available and affordable to anyone. My tools are mostly hand tools, and since I early on succumbed to Mollison’s idea of the importance of hammock time on a permacultural site, I simply scythe my green manure plants, lay them down as top mulch, and don’t expend the energy to dig them into the soil. Time will handle that matter. There are, of course, other layers of complexity behind my practice. Digging into the soil disturbs the soil microbial systems.
Nature has evolved “top-down” feeding: a look in the forest reveals leaves on the forest floor, and a system of decomposition that is on the soil surface, just under the leaves. Almost all soil activity occurs in the top 2 inches of soil: this is the zone of maximum air and organic matter deposition. Vertical dwelling earthworms rise out of their burrows, grab mouthfuls of surface organic materials and drag them down into the earth, yet the vast remainder of the soil system accomplishes their work at or very near the surface (a wooden post in the ground rots only at the surface edge, not 2 feet down). In healthy forests, soil systems act like a huge mouth just under the leafy forest floor! Nature has worked out the nuts and bolts, and following her example by designing and using top down mulching systems, allows us to work less and achieve more. We cannot improve on this already-in-place system!
In permaculture, we model the best of nature. The only time we see bare soil in natural systems, is following severe disturbance, such as severe fire, flood, or exposed soil from the recent retreat of glaciers. Immediately nature begins to close off the disturbance, heal the wound, and revegetate the site. A predictable array of plants appear, much like white blood cells in our bodies, an initial response team of wind-blown and animal carried seeds, whose job is to get up and green, roots down, anchor the soil, halt degradation of the soil system, pump in organic matter and buffer extremes of temperature and moisture, thereby ameliorating (improving conditions of) the site. Less harsh after a season, the improved site conditions allow and attract arrival of the second team of responders, longer lived annuals and perennials. Each stage of plant community with its own evolving microbial as well as animal counterparts, further ameliorates the site, until a healthy, stable, mature ecosystem is in place.
Bare soil is an abomination! Either a vegetable cover or mulch is necessary to buffer extreme environmental effects of moisture and temperature, Both are limiting factors in ecosystem health, and thereby, points of intervention. Using mulches allows us to stack our functions; both protecting soil from extremes, and feeding the soil through top-down applications.
Most soils worldwide are deficient in phosphate, an element necessary for successful flowering and fruit development. Other elements too, are missing from agricultural systems, both industrial and small scale, depending upon the cultural practices. Any extractive agriculture, where materials are removed from the system, results over time with loss of minerals and nutrients, thereby impoverishing the site as well as quality of food produced. Until we start employing regenerative practices in our agriculture that emphasis soil health, most of us are working with impoverished soils. To get our systems up and running, our strategies include importing needed soil additives. With loss of minerals accompanying any soil disturbance, and with knowing that whatever is not held in the soil/plant systems finds its way into water, and all water heads down to the sea, our strategy for reintroducing mineral vitality to site can focus upon kelp and other seaweeds as important soil additives.
Worldwide, phosphates are usually a limiting factor, and are a necessary input: slow release rock phosphate the better choice. Bird manures concentrate phosphate, so using chicken manure is also a good practice.
Once a site is remineralized and working well, minerals are recycled within the system, and our need for added inputs decline. One strategy is to let nothing organic leave your site: recycling everything gets it back into the food circle. Nutrients are like a bowl of money: if we are always taking money out of the bowl, at some point we run out. There is no more!
Our practice is that whenever we take some out, we put some back in. This way, the bowl is always full, and we have created a regenerative system!
One of the most exciting practices to come into public awareness in the last few decades is the power of making and using teas as a foliar feed. Science long ago discovered mouth-shaped cells (stoma) on the underside of leaves, that opened and closed, acting to “breathe” out gases. Their time of opening and closing are temperatue/time related.
Gardeners throughout time are continually experimenting. Before long, foliar feeding (spraying nutrient rich liquid on the leaves) was found to bypass any limitations in the soil, such as high or low pH, which binds and makes unavailable nutrients in the soil. With foliar feeding, the nutritive solution went through the stoma cells, directly into the plant. Foliar feeding has evolved beyond fertilizer to include “teas” made of compost and vermicompost, which include herbaceous material, seaweeds, and other natural substances. Elaine Ingham, of Soil Woodweb Inc, has researched the most efficient and healthy methods of making and using compost teas that include and optimize beneficial soil micro-organisms. These types of tea can be sprayed directly on the plants as well as soils rich in organic matter.
Further studies show that some beneficial microbes, sprayed on leaves, will occupy sites on the plant, and act as a living guard against disease organisms: a true bio-control! A key technique in formulating live compost tea, is the use of a bubbler (to create an oxygen rich solution) as well as addition of a small amount of natural sweetener, such as molasses (micro-organisms like the sweetness, much like sugar and yeast, and in the presence of oxygen, boost their populations big time!
Animal manures are a good source of organic matter, carbon, nitrogen, and other nutrients for the soil ecosystem. If you are fortunate to have access to composted manure piles, especially from naturally raised animals, the richer your site will become. Manures should be composted, or at least, well aged prior to application. Too much of anything is pollution:
12 inches of manure overtop of your soil is most likely too much. Having access to toxic levels is not a problem most of us will encounter. Cattle manure is well digested and doesn’t need much aging. Keep in mind that small levels of application seldom generate much heat (a 4 ft. by 4 ft. pile would). Horse manure is also valuable, depending upon what type of bedding material is used (some materials, such as, black walnut and cedar, can suppress plant growth). Pig and chicken manures must be composted prior to use, since both, are too strong for fresh use, and will burn plants.
Bunny manure is ready to use. An easy, productive, and natural polyculture is bunnies over a vermiculture bin.
After getting ideas of effective small animal polycultures from E.C.H.O. Institute in south Florida, during a 2001 project in Rwanda, teaching design of productive systems for very small plots of land given to village women following the genocide, I designed a productive, 4 tiered, small footprint, stacked animal polyculture with rabbits on top, then chickens over ducks with compost worms at the bottom. (This intensive polyculture was necessitated by site size: women often with several children, were given a site roughly 35 ft. by 35 ft, on which to build their wattle and daub home, latrine, gardens and fruit plantings. Protein was scarce, and the concentrated manures gave them both soil fertility as well as a small bit of income by selling the excess to neighbors, allowing the children to attend school. These “protein high-rises” had a footprint of 10 ft by 3 ft by 5 ft).
The easiest manure for us to harvest, compost, and use is our own! Instead of flushing it “away” in drinking water, removing our share of ingested nutrients from our local circle of life, concentrating them with the feces of others as well as industrial waste in municipal sewage systems that periodically release untreated sewage containing heavy metals, antibiotics and all other pharmaceuticals into local waterways causing untold ecological problems, we can rejoin the circle of life by responsibly adding our share of nutrients back into our local system. Since reading Joe Jenkin’s “Humanure Handbook” after attending my first PDC at The Farm in Tennessee in 1994, I have flushed my home toilets a total of 21 times. Instead, I have a new happy holiday: June 22 is when I harvest my finished humanure compost, and wheelbarrow it up to my garden and orchard. Such a beautiful compost! And the first harvest surprised me with a upwelling of tender tears as I realized the implications of this act: I now was more deeply connected to and a part of the life processes on my site!
Invitation to Become a True Radical
In these pages, we’ve been introduced to the complexities of soil ecosystems, centering on Nature’s crown jewels, the soil micro-organisms. We’ve learned the basics of soil care and enhancement through a discussion of compost, vermicompost, green manures, additional inputs, foliar feeds, and manures. Information along with application and experience blends into wisdom. Our moment of power resides in the present.
After being introduced to these concepts, take a personal pledge to become a friend and champion of soil. Realize that all of our actions and choices impact the soil community, either for the better or for the worst.. Since all life depends upon the health, vitality, and complexity of the soil ecosystems, how can we not honor this most important life enhancing process?
Being soil conscious, as well as friend, champion, and enhancer of soil is true, holistic radicalism. You can do it silently, proclaim it on a tee shirt or keep it in the closet: just do it! Doing so provides easy entry into the circle of life!
Andrew Goodheart Brown wears many hats: Permaculture teacher and practitioner (always looking for a PDC to teach); International consultant for small scale agricultural projects; Endangered species observer; Naturalist and field biologist; Organic gardener & home orchardist; natural food chef and teacher; home brewer & artisanal bread baker; fermenter, and broom maker