Wednesday, August 11, 2010

Thinking like an Ecosystem

Last week’s post on composting had, as my more perceptive readers will probably have noted, more than one agenda. First on the list, obviously, was the straightforward goal of getting as many people as possible to start practicing one of the simplest and most useful skills in the green wizard repertoire, and getting plant nutrients out of the waste stream and into the soil in the process. Still, there’s more involved here than that sensible step.

Composting, as I mentioned in passing last week, is more than just a core technology for organic gardening. It’s also a template on which a much broader range of approaches to sustainability can be modeled – or, rather, need to be modeled. It’s crucial to keep this in mind, because quite a few people who are discussing sustainability these days, with the best intentions in the world, are doing so from within the presuppositions of our current, utterly unsustainable civilization, and getting thoroughly bollixed up by the resulting misperceptions.

Organic gardening tends to be particularly prone to this sort of confusion, because the way most people grow food crops in the industrial world today – sensible and reasonable as it seems to us – is perhaps the best example of sheer, rank, bullheaded ecological stupidity on record in the last couple of thousand years or so. To grow food crops in today’s world, do you draw on the dozens of readily available and sustainable sources of plant nutrients, which happen to be the sources that plants have evolved to assimilate most readily? Do you cooperate with the soil’s ecology, which has coevolved with plants to store, distribute, and dispense these same nutrients to plants? Do you even recognize that food plants, like every other living thing, are part of ecological communities, and thrive best when those communities receive the very modest resources they need to flourish?

Not a chance. No, you get your nutrients from nonrenewable sources, because that’s where you can get them in chemically pure and highly concentrated forms, even though plants don’t benefit from having them in those forms; you treat soil as though it was a sterile medium serving only to hold plants upright and provide a sponge to hold irrigation water and chemicals, and then do your best to make it a sterile medium; you use chemical poisons to stomp the crap out of any attempt by any other living thing to help form an ecosystem involving your plants; and then you wonder why you’re stuck in a perpetual uphill battle against declining soil fertility, chemical-resistant weeds and bugs, water supplies poisoned with chemical runoff, and all the rest of it. If some evil genius had set out to invent an agricultural system that was guaranteed to self-destruct as messily as possible, I’m not sure he could have done a better job.

Still, because these are the customs we’ve all grown up with, the ways of thinking fostered by this sort of giddy ecological idiocy seem like common sense to most people. Recent discussions about “peak phosphorus” are a case in point. Our current agriculture relies on mineral phosphates, which are mined from a small number of highly concentrated phosphate rock deposits that located in odd corners of the world and are being depleted at a rapid pace. (Does this sound familiar?) The conclusion too often drawn from this is that the world faces mass starvation in the near future, because you can’t grow food crops without phosphate for fertilizer, and where will we get the phosphate?

There’s a point to these worries, since our current agricultural system is probably incapable of churning out food at anything like its current pace without those rapidly depleting mineral inputs, and even the very rapid expansion of organic farming under way in North America and elsewhere probably won’t be fast enough to prevent shortfalls. Still, it has too often been generalized into a claim that the exhaustion of rock phosphate reserves means inevitable mass famine, and this is true only to the extent that current notions of industrial agriculture remain welded into place and nobody gets to work building the next agriculture in the interstices of the present system.

It may already have occurred to my readers, after all, and has certainly occurred to me, that somehow plants grew all over the world’s land surfaces in vast abundance for something like three quarters of a billion years without any phosphate fertilizer at all. If this suggests that there’s something wrong with the logic that insists that we can’t grow plants without chemicals, it should. Nor are food crops somehow uniquely dependent on stuff out of test tubes. As proof of this, I’d like to invite you to visit a city that doesn’t exist any more, the bustling metropolis of Edo.

It’s called Tokyo nowadays, and there’s very little left of the city that was there a century and a half ago, but in the Tokugawa era – from 1603 to 1867 – Edo, then Japan’s real though unofficial capitol, had a population that varied between one and one and a half million people. Two other cities – Kyoto, the official capitol, and Osaka, the economic hub of the nation – had populations pushing a million each. Even by modern standards, then, these were cities of considerable size, and they were supported by organic intensive rice agriculture that used no chemical inputs at all. The inputs it used were human and animal manure, nitrogen extracted from the air by a common and deliberately cultivated species of duckweed, and a great deal of human labor, and its outputs kept levels of nutrition in Tokugawa Japan at levels comparable to those of European nations of the same time.

Without phosphate rock, why didn’t the Tokugawa-era Japanese all starve to death? Because ours is very nearly the only agricultural system in human history that has ever approached farming with the same sort of logic that governs a factory: energy and raw materials in one end, products and waste out the other, with no thought as to the long-term availability of the first two or the long-term effects of the last. Everywhere else in the world, farmers have known for time out of mind that life moves in circles, and that you have to feed the soil if you want the soil to feed you, and that proper husbandry pays off in richer soil and better yields even when you don’t have access to outside nutrient streams.

Thus in natural ecosystems, in 17th-century Japan, and in any other viable ecology, human or otherwise, the phosphorus used to grow plants doesn’t move in a straight line from phosphate mine to factory to farm to river to dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico. It moves in a circle, from producer to consumer to decomposer and back again. That’s true when the producer is grass, the consumer is a rabbit, and the decomposers are soil organisms that process the rabbit’s droppings; it’s equally true when the producer is a rice paddy, the consumer is a medieval Japanese farmer or samurai, and the decomposers are a different set of microorganisms. Finally, it’s just as true when the producers are your garden plants, the consumer is you, and the decomposers are in your compost pile.

In each case, the result is the same: a relatively small addition of nutrients from outside sources goes a much longer way in a system that works according to ecological processes, because the ecosystem recycles the nutrients back into the plants instead of letting them go into the waste stream. The more efficiently you keep things circling, the less you need to add from outside the system. If you can learn to think like an ecosystem, this will become as obvious as the need for vast amounts of concentrated mineral inputs seems to so many people today.

At the same time, out there in the real world, there are always inputs from outside the system, just as there are always flows out of the system into other systems, and you can learn to take advantage of those inputs. All through your topsoil and down a short distance into the subsoil, for example, humic acids – complex natural compounds produced by decaying organic matter – silently dissolve nutrients in rock particles and make them available to soil organisms and plants. The nutrient inputs that come via this route are usually fairly small, but they add up over time, and their effectiveness depends on a thriving soil ecosystem and enough organic matter in the soil to produce the humic acids.

The duckweed in rice paddies mentioned a few paragraphs back is an example of an even more crucial source of inputs. Nitrogen is a nutrient that doesn’t normally occur in soils in anything like useful quantities; fortunately there’s this big reservoir of it, right next to your soil, called the atmosphere. Various microbes spread out along the shifting taxonomic borderline between fungi and bacteria can process nitrogen from the air into nitrates and other forms that plants can use, and quite a few plants have evolved the trick of feeding and fostering those microbes so that the soil where they grow ends up full of useful nitrogen. Putting that process to work for you is one of the fastest ways to make an organic garden thrive. Unless you’re setting up rice paddies and shopping for duckweed, the plants you want to use for nitrogen fixation are legumes: peas, beans, and their relatives, which not coincidentally are a major source of protein and other nutrients your body needs.

Now of course most of us have yet another source of inputs, and it’s the one we talked about setting up last week. Even if you’ve got a thriving organic garden in your back yard, you’re almost certainly getting at least some of your food from other sources, and if you’re in the very first stages of setting up that soon-to-be-thriving organic garden, you’re getting all your food from other sources. The scraps and trimmings that go into your compost bin are therefore nutrient inputs to your garden. If you’re raking up autumn leaves and adding them in, or mowing your lawn, letting the trimmings dry out a bit, and putting them into your compost, that’s another input. This is the secret function of your compost bin: it’s a tool for concentrating nutrients from a wider area into the piece of ground you garden.

More broadly, that’s one of the secrets of successful organic gardening: you close up your nutrient cycles as tightly as possible, but you also tap into other nutrient streams that would otherwise become waste, and draw them into the eager clutches of your garden’s ecology. Traditional farming methods around the world turned this sort of thing into a fine art, weaving farms and gardens into the wider ecology of the area in richly complex ways. All this needs to be done in ways that don’t impair the viability of the systems that provide inputs to your garden, but that can be done easily enough in most cases, given a bit of finesse and a sensitivity to ecological relationships.

Your options here are very broad, and will depend on local conditions. Still, here are three common approaches to add to what you can get via the compost bin.

The first method is mulching. In many parts of North America, this has become a staple technique of organic gardeners, and for good reason; in other places, for equally good reasons, nobody does it. You get large quantities of coarse and otherwise unwanted organic material – for example, spoiled hay, autumn leaves, straw, or crushed peanut hulls – and spread a layer several inches thick over your garden beds before planting; when you plant, clear away the mulch around the seedling or the seed so it can get sunlight. The layer of mulch helps suppress weeds, keeps moisture in the soil, and gradually rots, adding nutrients to your soil.

Drawbacks? When I lived in the rainy part of the Pacific Northwest, nobody in their right mind mulched during the growing season, because mulch in damp climates is a slug magnet, and slugs in the wet zone west of the Cascades can get up to eight inches long, with appetites to match. I’ve heard from a few gardeners who had similar troubles with rats. Of course you also have to find a source of clean organic matter in bulk, and this can be a challenge in some situations.

The second method is green manure. This amounts to a living mulch for the winter season: something fast-growing that you can sow in your garden beds when the weather starts to cool off, and hoe under in the spring just before planting. The best green manures for small garden use in many cases are clovers, which are legumes and put nitrogen in your soil, and rye grass, which produces a lot of organic matter relatively quickly and breaks down easily in the soil to feed the organisms there. If you mulch, you won’t be able to use green manure, and vice versa; both are good approaches, and it’s probably worth your while to try them both on different patches of ground to see what works best in your area.

The third method is the tried and true trick of growing an abundance of legumes in your garden. Done right, anywhere in the temperate zone, this is a three-step process: you plant peas as early in spring as you can work the soil; you plant beans as soon as the weather is warm enough for them, and then you plant a second round of peas for fall harvest about the time the summer peaks and begins to decline into autumn. Any kind of pea or bean will do, so choose whatever kinds you like to eat, and plant as many as space permits; if you grow the kind that are eaten green, you can always blanch and freeze anything you can’t eat in season, and if you grow the kind that are dried and shelled, an extra pound or two of dried beans or peas in the root cellar is always a good thing to have.

There are many other ways to work the same transfer of nutrients. It’s important not to become too dependent on any source of outside nutrients that could be shut off unexpectedly – say, by problems with the economy – and it’s even more important to make sure that the inputs that you use are the sort of thing that will support the ecology of your garden rather than damaging it, as chemical fertilizers will. Within those limits, there are plenty of options; see what you can come up with.


The three methods discussed in this post vary widely in ease of information access. You can find plenty of information about growing peas and beans in any decent book on organic gardening, while green manuring is not that common in the organic field just now, for some reason, and I don’t know of a good book that covers it in any detail; my knowledge is partly a matter of experience and partly brief discussions in some of those same decent books on organic gardening, in particular John Seymour’s The Self-Sufficient Gardener. (If any of my readers know of a book specifically about this technique, suitable for home gardeners, I’d welcome the information.)

Mulching is another matter, not least because the organic gardening world has been through at least one round of pre-internet flame wars between pro-mulching and anti-mulching factions. The classic books here are by Ruth Stout, How to Have a Green Thumb without an Aching Back, and Ruth Stout and Richard Clemence, The Ruth Stout No-Work Garden Book. Those interested in all the fine details might also look for Robert Rodale et al., The Organic Way to Mulching.


A tip of the wizard's hat to reader Liz Brugman, who took the time to convert all of the Master Conserver handouts into individual searchable PDF files. The first five are available on the Cultural Conservers website, and the rest will be following shortly. Liz has asked that any corrections be sent to her at gb.heron (at) gmail (dot) com.


Richard said...

It's amazing to me how ignorant modern society is about nutrient cycles, it's really such common sense. What you just wrote should be taught to little kids. I still remember when I was a child, I realized from as early an age that I found out about the "mining to product to landfill" system, that something was wrong with it. For quite a while I thought it must be my understanding that was wrong, in my childish naivete I still thought the adults must have everything under control. Then it slowly dawned on me that I really wasn't missing anything, the way our society works is really that screwed up.

earthdoglady said...

I live in an agricultural area supported by the Ogallah Aquifer and came to the same conclusion recently; these farmers are growing fields hydroponically! The soil is used simply for holding up the plants so they can be sprayed with chemicals by ground and air. Very strange. A local newspaper story told how test wells in our county revealed that ground water has receded two feet in one year. Comments from a local farmer were, "I hope the water holds out for my lifetime".

This is some of the most fertile ground in our nation and virtually no one grows food that their family actually eats. I love to share my extra vegetables and fruit with folks in town and the comments of "Where did you get these peaches?" and "How did you grow these melons?" amazes me. The people have forgotten to grow real food. All the corn, wheat and cotton go 'somewhere else' or to the dairy or feedlot up the road. In my local women's service group I was telling them how useful earthworms are and only ONE of these farmers' wives even knew they were a beneficial creature. We have a long way to go in re-education!

Avery said...

@Richard: This is one of those topics, like sex, where learning how to do it is ridiculously easy, and not knowing a serious issue more than naivete.

On the not knowing side, I recall Jerry Mander's son in Four Arguments for the Elimination of Television, who asked him who built the mountains, and insisted that vegetables were manufactured at the supermarket. Both these things being cute in their childish form, but disturbing that children are familiar with industrial production more than natural forces.

On the teaching side, I recently watched a Japanese children's cooking show, which was as bizarre and foreign as you might imagine for an American viewer: Hello Kitty, dancing, songs, anime interludes, bright colors, the chef playing the roles of pop star or magical girl, that sort of thing. But amongst this entertainment was some very solid information. As the hostess prepared her food, the camera flashed back to previous scenes of her picking the vegetables out of the ground and planting the rice by hand, while her voiceover reminded viewers what she had needed to do at each turn of the way. The obvious message that having a process to produce the ingredients was as important (or much more so) than putting them together into a dish. How easy it is to convey this information, and yet has any American television show thought of trying it?

Astrid said...

I've used seaweed as an input with good success. I collect it in the late fall when the first high tides and winter storms coincide to wash a good amount onto shore, then apply on the garden beds with compost and autumn leaves.

pasttense said...

Here is a 1922 U. S. Department of Agriculture Farmers' Bulletin 1250 about green manuring:

greatblue said...

Thinking like an ecosystem...

A great deal of what I throw out (even if it is to the recycling trailer) is plastic packaging.

I suspect our packaging would look a lot different if stores or manufacturers were required by law to take back the packaging that they sell us. Who knows, we might go back to the old five-and-dime arrangement, where nothing was in plastic and the merchandise was overseen by human clerks.

Cradle to cradle! What a concept!

Maralyn45 said...

You have really given nice points in your blog and one should know very well that how we have to grow plants and what are the things we have to keep in mind while planting vegetables.

risa said...

We live near Eugene, land of the Slug Queen, but have successfully used deep straw mulch for over 30 years. Our current layout has the orchard wrapped round the garden, and fenced off from it. The chickens, ducks and geese interrupt the slugs and snails en route to the garden in spring, then clean up dropped fruit in the fall. They are also allowed into the garden for about two weeks each year to dig for slug eggs that got past them. And, of course, when their barn is mucked out, that goes to the garden as well. The water that's changed out from the duck ponds irrigates and fertilizes the fruit trees, which are mulched as well (with trunks fenced off from marauding chickens). We're living proof that one does not need phosphates to farm -- at least at the subsistence level.

sofistek said...

On green manuring, the Ecology Action book, How to Grow More Vegetables ... has only one page on it but includes some references on green manure, at the back. One is Clark, Wilson, China's Green Manure Revolution, another is Jeavons, John, and Bill Bruneau, Green Manure Crops in Mother Earth News, Sept/Oct 1986, with the last being Schmid, Otto, et al, Green Manuring, Principles and Practice. I don't know if they help.

The Bountiful Gardens site has some Ecology Action papers, one of which is Grow Your Manure For Free.

Again, I don't know if any are good, as I haven't read any of them, though green manure is mentioned in several permaculture and biointensive books I've read.

Cherokee Organics said...


Hope your house repairs are going OK.

You are spot on with your description of the three methods of improving soil organically. The core of what you are saying is that you are providing food and habitat to an entire ecosystem that operates above and below the ground. This ecosystem will also provide food for yourself as a by product. In addition, having food produced from a biodiverse ecosystem will insulate you somewhat from the shocks that occur in ecosystems on a regular basis. Also plants have evolved to recycle nutrients in a way that is beneficial for their future and their offspring. They've achieved what we haven't even come close to.

This is a difficult concept for farmers to grasp, especially as you quite rightly also point out that they are heavily invested in an industrial mono culture agricultural model. This translates to inputs - production - outputs + waste. A good example is a cattle feed lot in that they don't see the waste being produced as a source of inputs for the next cycle.

Here in Australia, organic methods of agriculture are still very much on the fringe.

I no longer mention my production methods in conversation with farmers around here because they simply ridicule them. However, I will state that the depth of top soil that I have is getting deeper every year and I share a significant portion of my production with the wildlife here and they hang around the food forest in preference to the natural forest. They also provide me with ready fertiliser which they kindly spread around the site (via their poo) without effort on my part.

It might surprise people to understand that I rarely water my orchard and have several hundred diverse trees which are doing quite well. Water is the key to survival here and the deeper and more active the top soil, the more water will be held in the ground for the benefit of the plants.

Time will tell in relation to a society wide transition to organic farming methods. My personal belief is that it won't occur in any large way until the price (or supply) of oil reaches a significant amount which will then equate to higher food prices. It will be a necessity thing rather than a conscious thing. The sad thing is that it takes a couple of years to transition across to a diverse ecosystem, especially in very degraded soil (ie. most of Australia) and will result in a lot of pain if handled poorly. You simply can't build up an ecosystem over night.

However, it is an accelerating system in that the longer it is applied and the more inputs are given, the healthier and more diverse the ecosystem and outputs. Very inspirational!

PS: I have read that Japanese farmers used to provide public toilets on highways to collect the human outputs of people travelling through their area. What a great idea to increase your available inputs with little effort on your part.

PPS: Mulching can be done on broad acre farms by letting the weeds run amok for a year or so and then slashing them back (and letting them lie on the soil) as a mulch. Cheap, effective and simple. If you have weeds then you have some sort of imbalance that the weeds are taking advantage of. Use them instead of trying to kill them, they are simply trying to fix up problems in the soil.

Good luck!

Yvonne Rowse said...

In the UK Garden Organic produces a 16 page booklet on green manures which is quite helpful. It can be purchased from the Organic Gardening Catalogue, which also sells a range of green manure seeds. The booklet can be found at:
In the UK we are generally so damp that a big part of what the catalogue sells is slug deterrents. My garden is tiny or I would consider a couple of hens to feed the destructive things to.

Jim Brewster said...

The idea of peak phosphorus is funny when you realize that our bones are mostly calcium phosphate. With the anticipated population reduction there will be plenty for those who care to recover it. Another plus for composting human remains.

And it occurs to me that maybe we've misunderstood all those ghouls and zombies over the years. Maybe they speak for the compost, and while brains are well and good, what they really crave are bones!

Andy Brown said...

In my mind I'm picturing those science documentary portrayals of space time, where you have the grid and where planets and suns sit and push the fabric down into little gravity depressions. And they might have a satellite slowly spiraling in like a marble in a funnel.

I guess when you strategize about your place within the larger ecology you want to design that kind of gravity. Set yourself down in the ecological topography in such a way that things like sunlight, nitrogen, water, (labor), phosphorous, humus, (allies like toads and wasps) all are tempted to spiral in to your system. And then swirl around in there as long as you can have them.

yama-mayaa said...

For the reference list: "The One Straw Revolution", by Masanobu Fukuoka.

Andy Brown said...

Here's a question for more experienced people. If I were to get serious about gardening here, the obvious green manure crop would be crown vetch, since I already have an infestation that thrives under every effort to discourage it. (At the moment this in land given over to a raggedy conglomeration of asparagus, milkweed, raspberry, rhubarb and quince, none of which is troubled by the vetch.) Would enabling it as a cover crop be wise? I know it's regarded as an invasive and can be toxic to animals.

Don Plummer said...

Re. green manure: anyone here ever tried buckwheat? I have a friend who swears by it, but I've never tried it. My son threatens me that if I ever try it he won't let me plow it under before it matures, so he can have the grain. :-)

NorthCreekNews said...

Thanks for another good basic introduction to a large subject. As an organic vegetable CSA farmer, I use all of these principles, especially cover crops and green manure. I am thinking of converting my flush toilets to humanure composting systems and my friends think I'm nuts. It just seems wrong headed to put all those nutrients down in the ground. I wouldn't use the compost on the commercial garden but there is always the fruit trees.

Mark from Colorado said...

One of the first realizations of how plants work for me was in the fifth grade. A chapter in science about agriculture, how nutrients work, of course it covered Liebig’s principles. It occurred to me that, “if this is true how does a forest work if you don’t fertilize it”? That was my beginning in organic investigations. I subscribed to “Organic Gardener”, and if you can find any of the old copy’s it would be well worth the look. Some other books I like are, “One Straw Revolution”, “How to Grow More Vegetables In Less Space Than You Can Imagine”, and “ Four Season Gardening”, oh and one other, “Farmers of Forty Centuries”.
As to the answer to the question, why such and idiotic system? One should look to, who own the mines and now the seed? I think it’s time to start thinking more Jeffersonian and unplugging from the Hamiltonian mind set.

Pat said...

Over the years I have accummulated a few really good links that tie into your post this week.
Hope that they help.
Neat development of green wizardry theme using sustainable 'over the centuries' practices but new to many of us.

All about the biology of soil

Soil testing,7518,s1-3-78-314,00.html

Brewing compost tea which adds nutrition and can be used to control pests as well

Robo said...

Read "Farmers of Forty Centuries" by F. H. King. Published in 1911, and still in print, it documents the author's observations of oriental agriculture and culture at the turn of the 20th century. It's encouraging to know that the Chinese, Korean and Japanese civilizations have survived using sustainable techniques in the past and we can all use them in the future.

Bill Pulliam said...

Excellent, nary a quibble from this former professional biogeochemist.

What you describe in paragraph 4 is exactly what drove me to become a hillbilly and move somewhere that had ecological conditions where it was at least possible to work on closing the nutrient cycles (how fast we as a household or we as a community will accomplish this remains to be seen). The conversion of vast expanses of the surface of the earth into sterile culture medium is especially horrifying to me. Most of the biodiversity in most ecosystems is in all those little things down in the soil you never see -- ecologists call soil the "poor man's tropical rainforest" (i.e. if you don't have the funding to fly to Costa Rica, just put a cubic centimeter of dirt from your garden under a microscope). The idea of eradicating this on a massive scale (PERFECTLY LEGALLY!!) was downright genocidal to me.

For those of you who have never been through the ordeal of doctoral qualifying exams, you have an examining committee of 4 or 5 faculty members, and each one has you for a day. He or she gives you a set of questions, and you spend the entire day answering them. It's a comprehensive final exam that lasts for 20-40 hours. One of my committee members always gave the same question: "Here are a bunch of statistics on economics, climate, biology, soils, etc. etc. for region X. Design an economic system for this region that will be sustainable indefinitely with the minimum possible imports and exports." Of course there was no right answer, he just wanted to see your ability to synthesize information and "think like an ecosystem." While I was working through the question, two things kept on jumping out at me as glaringly obvious. First, there could be no such thing as "waste." All byproducts of everything had to be retained within ecological and economic cycles -- including all human waste and other animal waste. Second, from an ecological perspective, concentrated urban areas produce NOTHING. Sure they have vital economic and societal functions, but from an ecological point of view all they did was take lots of high-quality resources in and spew a lot of low-quality "waste" out. Of course, there could be no waste, so all this effluent from the cities had to be captured and redispersed through the landscape somehow. The energy necessary to do his would put a natural limit on the size of these urban areas, and set what the "urban/rural" population ratio needed to be.

Bill Pulliam said...

(cont. - ran over length)

Phosporus is replenished by natural weathering from ubiquitous mineral sources at a slow, steady rate. No ecosystem is perfectly tight, there is always a slow leak out the bottom. This slow leak just needs to be about the same as the slow rate of release from natural soil and bedrock minerals, on a large scale. This is all happening at a geological time scale; one of the advantages of having lived a half a century or more, though, is that you realize that geological processes actually DO happen fast enough for you to perceive and work with them during a single human lifetime!

The concentration of nutrients from a large area into a small food-producing area to me is one of the most important ideas in creating long-term sustainable agriculture. If you can focus those slow geological processes into a smaller plot you can create local hot spots of high productivity without draining the landscape. This is one of the most important basic concepts that permaculture has assimilated by the way (but don't think for a second that they invented the idea -- anyone who has ever mucked a garden with stable manure from grazing livestock or raked up the autumn leaves and put them in the compost bin has done the same thing). The same thing happens in nature on a large scale in places like estuaries, where even before humans were messing things up all those slow leaks from the upstream world accumulate and combine with tidal energy to fuel extremely productive ecosystems. On a smaller scale it happens in creek and river bottoms where the downhill movement of water and materials concentrates nutrients and fertility in rich productive ecosytems. No accident that the first places cleared for farming in much of eastern North America were the bottomlands.

Bill Pulliam said...

One thing to remember about what we conventionally think of as "fertile soils."

The way this concept has been applied, the soils describes ad "fertile" have been the ones that for various reasons have accumulated a large stockpile of nutrients that conventional agriculture can exploit in a non-sustainable way. Prairie soils were "fertile" because theur semiarid climate and moderately slow decomposition meant that they had huge reserves of soil organic matter that was full of nitrogen and retained tons of other mineral nutrients. So when you break the sod, sitr up the soil, and in some cases start irrigating, you get a huge release on nutrients and enormous crop yields - for a while. Then you deplete the reserves, the pulse passes, and you start applying external fertilizers. Same thing with these desert soils that are so "fertile" when irrigated. Thanks to the lack of rainfall, all their phosphorus is still in the soil, not having been washed away. So dump on some water and some ammonium nitrate and *boom* fantastic plant growth -- for a while. Soon enough all sorts of things go wrong, and you wind up with the same sterile culture medium dependent on external fertilizers.

Our notions of a "fertile soil" need to be retooled from those of the westward expansion and industrial agriculture boom eras.

Kirk said...

So there it is: industrial efficiency = ecological stupidity, plain and simple! Thanks, JMG, from an ecosystem ecologist.
If ecological thinking were universally applied, would there be peak anything? Burn oil, sequester the extra CO2 in trees, burn wood, etc. But we come back to matters of energy; how concentrated is the source of (insert material)? Organisms use energy to concentrate materials into their bodies, so those bodies, or accumulations thereof, become the next best source of the material.
To Andy Brown, see the pps from Cherokee Organics. Weeds are just trying to save the soil.

Ksmcc said...

I like the system outlined in Lee Reich's Weedless Gardening (, which uses mulch, intensively planted beds, and cover crops, along with minimal soil disturbance, to build topsoil. Instead of green manures he advocates cover crops. Depending on which ones you plant, they help suppress weeds while building soil nutrients and humus with their root systems. Some of them fix nitrogen. Then they winterkill and create mulch. Green manures, on the other hand, are tilled into the soil, and tilling, according to Reich, destroys soil structure and burns up organic matter too quickly by injecting oxygen into the soil.

Reich gardens in the Northeast, and so do I, so I don't know how this would work in other climates. However I would echo what Risa said about the value of chickens in controlling slugs and other garden pests. We are keeping chickens for the first time this year, and although they are fenced out of our garden, they free range around it. The slugs disappeared after the chickens arrived. In addition our compost volume and quality has increased markedly.

DIYer said...

The hardest nutrient (of the big three) to hang onto, even in an organic garden, is potash.

Potash, the element potassium (or Kalium hence the symbol K), is more electropositive than sodium, and its ions are an essential part of the electrolyte mix for any living thing. It only exists as an ion in aqueous solution in the biological world. Almost all of its compounds are water-soluble.

It has a stronger tendency than phosphorus to be lost as water leaves the system. In our industrial living arrangement, virtually all of it is excreted into drinking water and sent down the sewer. (duh)

But even on an organic farm, it goes into the groundwater and works its way toward the nearest stream, heading for the sea.

This is the other important function of trees -- in addition to fixing carbon, they can recover biological potash from deep in the ground. It's worthwhile considering the way in which potash moves when locating an area for an organic garden (or an outhouse).

Flagg707 said...

Here's a news item on research being done on using skimmed raw milk as an input to recondition soils:

Might be something worth trying for those of you with access to raw milk.

gregorach said...

Another thing to watch out for with mulching is that if you mulch with a high-carbon material, its decomposition may result in "robbing" nitrogen from the top of the soil...

Andy Brown @ 8/12/10 4:44 AM asked:

"If I were to get serious about gardening here, the obvious green manure crop would be crown vetch, since I already have an infestation that thrives under every effort to discourage it. [...] Would enabling it as a cover crop be wise? I know it's regarded as an invasive and can be toxic to animals."

I'd avoid it. One of the characteristics of a good green manure is that it shouldn't be too hard to get rid of when you want to.

I'm experimenting with green manures at the moment... White clover is pretty good, but it's not as easy to hoe off as I'd like once it's established. Good cover though... Buckwheat is looking promising, but it's not producing as much material as I would have liked, and its coverage doesn't seem to be as good - but that might be down to the nearly-exhausted bed I'm trialling it in. Next on the list will be Phacelia tanacetifolia, which has the advantage of being a half-hardy annual... Some of that will be going in late in the season, in the hope that the frost kills it off before it self-seeds.

Paul Steer said...

I live in the Greater Vancouver region, where Norway rats are as commonplace as the giant slugs that JMG has referred to. Mulching encourages slugs, but compost provides a warm, dry home for rats in the Wintertime, as I have learned through successive attempts at composting using various applicances, all of them at ground-level.

I realize that my rising sense of horror and revulsion at the very sight of rats in my compost has its roots in deep memory, and is probably a projection of my repressed knowledge that it is probably rats and not cute and loveable chimpanzees that human beings, as a species, are most closely related to; it is for this reason that I am more inclined to opt for the more technologically complicated, and admittedly expensive option of a raised, geared, crank-driven drum composter, such as this one:

Adrian Ayres Fisher said...

A most thought stimulating post.

Let's hear it for clover in lawns!

Do you suggest rotating your bean plantings on a three year schedule? "Oats, peas, beans and barley grow..."

Just as in Edo, Japan they were working with regionally native species and within the regional ecosystem, I'd like to suggest the same for green wizards. Planting native flowers, grasses, berry bushes and trees helps augment your backyard ecosystem by providing added natural complexity and increased numbers of relationships. I can't even begin to describe here the flows(?) I observe among birds, insects, and plants.

I'm experimenting with native berries. Just picked my first ever crop of black chokeberries (Aronia melanocarpa)for jam yesterday. Left some for the birds.

To Andy Brown: Are you in the US? Crown vetch is an invasive, non-native plant that it is worthwhile trying to at least contain if you can't eradicate it. Perhaps a thick layer of cardboard, newspapers, burlap bags and several inches of mulch? Followed by planting something else the next year?

To Earthgoglady: Parts of my home state Illinois (in the top five globally for best soil) are considered food deserts because of only industrial soy and corn production. This is slowly starting to change.

Scientists at U. of Illinois have confirmed that even with added supplementation of organic material, synthetic fertilizers actually deplete soil nitrogen. Big news in the heart of corn country.(


I'd like to recommend Food Not Lawns by H. C. Flores because in addition to ecological food gardening, it includes ecological design, building community and working with groups: in my estimation vital skills for green wizards.

Also Thinking in Systems by Donella Meadows, an excellent primer for laypersons. Inputs, outputs, etc. well explained.

pdxbiker said...

I recently acquired a pair of hens, which I keep in my backyard. Everyday I place fresh straw in their coop, which helps capture the nitrogen in their droppings before it turns to ammonia. When I mow my lawn, I mixed the accumulated straw and clippings in a 2:1 ratio for composting.

Kelsey said...

I've spent this growing season reading up on green manures and cover cropping. The best resources I've found are two books from SARE: "Managing Cover Crops Profitably, 3rd ed" and "Building Soils for Better Crops". Both can be found at
They are written for farmers but are very approachable and easily used in smaller gardens. The other good resource is Cindy Conner's DVD "Cover Crops and Compost Crops in Your Garden" which is available at:
The DVD is truly inspirational. She farms biointensively and has great advice for green manuring and composting.

Resurgent Viking said...

Thanks for this new series of posts. I don't have any hints to share at this moment, but I just remembered how much of this I actually learned in elementary school. I don't know about other parts of the world, but in the eastern part of Germany (the Soviet occupied zone) where I grew up in the late 1980s, our school had quite a big garden where we grew lettuce, tomatoes, beans, strawberries and various other vegetables and fruit. We learned about composting, killing vermin and weeds and fertilize using a brew of stinging nettle, and so on.

Sadly, I have forgotten much of that and right now I'm just an apartment dweller with no garden whatsoever (not even a balcony). Feels like the time to change that.

Also, wouldn't it be great if kids at school learned some basics of gardening? Maybe getting some fresh air and learning to appreciate the work it takes to grow some healthy vegetable would do everyone some good... but that's just my idealism talking. I guess everything needs to get much worse before someone puts ideas like that into practice.

John Michael Greer said...

Spent much of the last week dealing with leaky plumbing in the kitchen ceiling, not to mention pieces of kitchen ceiling! Apologies to those whose questions didn't get answered. Things are stable now, so I should have an easier time responding to comments here.

Richard, it would be great if somebody were to do some children's books on basic ecology!

Earthdoglady, that's terrifying to hear. I wonder what they're going to do as the transportation system starts to get hiccups.

Avery, famine is still a matter of living memory in Japan. I suspect that makes attention to where food comes from seem a bit more relevant.

Astrid, a good example! Thank you.

Pasttense, thanks for the link.

Greatblue, in a future that will be short of everything but human beings, the old-fashioned store that uses labor instead of plastic will likely make a lot of economic sense.

Maralyn, thank you.

Risa, the phrase "marauding chickens" makes me think of something out of Gary Larson! Still, of course you're right; there's always a way to manage it.

Sofistek, many thanks for the references!

Cherokee, exactly. The key to the entire organic method is that feeding the soil ecosystem is tyhe best way to feed plants. We'll be covering this from other angles in posts to come.

Yvonne, thanks for the reference!

Jim, that's good. Maybe it's time for a comic book on the order of the old Swamp Thing comics -- Compost Creature, maybe, with a shambling shape of half-decayed vegetable matter moaning "Bones! Waaaaant Bones!"

Andy, an excellent metaphor! You get today's gold star.

darius said...

Andy Brown: Avoid crown vetch; it is highly invasive and you'll never get rid of it. It's great for erosion control on steep banks, but not where you might want to grow a food crop.

Don Plummer: buckwheat is a decent annual cover crop. I plant it in my garden paths; when it's mowed, there's something in the grassy leaves to deter weeds from growing.

JMG... yes, plants of some sort have been growing for a very long time, just not the majority of what we call food plants. Agriculture is somewhere between 4,000-10,000 years old, depending on continent. Before than, humans thrived on meats, a few tubers and berries. Our human systems have not yet evolved to digest and utilize nutrients from seeds (the grains and legumes we have developed).

sgage said...


As a biogeochemist, you might get a kick out of this:

A question I got from one of my commitee members (he was a somewhat elderly plant cell physiologist, but a "big picture kind of guy) was:

"Trace and describe the processes involved in the path of a calcium atom from its precursors at the Big Bang to a ripe tomato". I had a real good time with that one. It sort of integrates a lot of concepts!

I wish I had the blue books that I filled with my response...

Ruben said...

@ Paul Steer

I like to think of rats and mice in compost as providing some of the mechanical digestion--just as we break food up with our teeth to make it easier for our gut to digest.

John Michael Greer said...

Yama-mayaa, thanks for the reference.

Andy and Don, I haven't tried either one so can't comment usefully.

News, get that humanure toilet! We'll be talking about that in a forthcoming post.

sgage said...

Here's a good reference that I don't think I've seen mentioned yet:

Ecology For Gardeners
by Steven B. Carroll and Steven D. Salt

Lots of good stuff to think about while you're pulling weeds, etc., and just looking around in the garden.

sgage said...

"Andy, an excellent metaphor! You get today's gold star."

An a well-deserved one! I sometimes think of a mature ecosystem as a series of water-wheels or turbines, with the outflow of each one being the inflow to the next, down and down and down the energy well.

Sunlight pouring in is the "water".

Sometimes, when I sit by an abandoned beaver pond on a sunny Summer day, or on the ledge where I look out over my woodlot, I can practically hear all the wheels humming...

I think one of those Odum boys originally put this notion in my head.

John Michael Greer said...

Mark, that's exactly the question more people need to ask themselves.

Pat, thanks for the links!

Robo, I've read it, and cited it here on the report maybe a dozen times already!

Bill, that's good to hear. Many thanks for the additional details -- and particularly for the stress on the redefinition of fertility, which is a crucial point. I'm not sure how to frame the redefinition, but the point that I think needs to be grasped is that fertility is a moving target -- soil isn't fertile or infertile in the abstract; it's always in process, gaining or losing nutrients and tilth, and participation in that process is much more important than where you are at any given moment.

Kirk, exactly. If we ran society as the ecosystem it is, there would be peaks, but they'd be as rhythmic and repeated as waves or seasons: various flows would increase and decrease, always in balance, always maintaining conditions so that the whole system maintains its climax community in undisturbed zones and moves regularly through seres in disturbed ones. You'd rarely or never get a pulse waveform like the Hubbert peak, up once, back down once, and then it's over forever.

Ksmcc, thanks for the reference! I'll check it out.

DIYer, an excellent point -- and one of the many reasons why leaf mold is worth adding to your garden.

Flagg, thanks for the link!

Gregorach, a good point. That's one of the reasons to make sure you have plenty of legume crops if you use mulch, so there's still enough nitrogen to go around. Urine is another good source of extra nitrates, of course.

Paul, you can certainly use a more complex composter if rats trouble you. Still, I'm a bit startled by your suggestion that rats are more closely related to human beings than chimpanzees are. I don't believe that's the case. Perhaps you'd care to offer a source.

Adrian, I don't use rotation in the usual way; instead, I intercrop -- all the different vegetables are mingled in with one another, rather than being in separate beds -- and shift locations within that pattern. More on this later. Thanks for the book recommendations!

Pdxbiker, hens are well worth having. I'll be discussing them and other backyard livestock down the road a bit.

Kelsey, thanks for the references!

Viking, no argument there. If I had any say in the way schools are run, a lot of current nonsense would go out the door, and gardening and basic ecology would take up part of the space. So would some other things -- but that's a rant for a different time.

John Michael Greer said...

Darius, actually, hunter-gatherers in the Middle East were harvesting grass seeds many millennia before agriculture became the main food producing method in the region. The same was true in what's now Mexico, where corn was developed. The evolution of cooking -- our remarkable trick of predigesting foods outside the body -- has played a massive role in our evolutionary success, since it's expanded the range of foods that can support human populations well beyond that of most other species.

Sgage, that's great. That's exactly the sort of natural history that more people need to learn! Thanks also for the book reference.

Ruben, I like that. A rat, in other words, is simply a plump and furry earthworm.

frijolitofarmer said...

Gene Logsdon's Small-Scale Grain Raising (Second edition, I don't know about the first one) has information scattered throughout about green manures, cover crops, intercropping with legumes, and green mulches.

The reason John Jeavons' How to Grow More Vegetables... dealt so lightly with green manuring is because he advises against it. He claims that, according to research his organization has done, they get much richer soil from growing "compost crops." The idea is that rather than tilling plants into the soil to rot, where they may temporarily lock up whatever carbon or nitrogen is present (thereby depriving the plants you're trying to grow), you instead grow plants that develop a lot of biomass quickly, harvest those, and deposit them into the compost pile where they'll be composted much more thoroughly and efficiently than in your garden soil.

I've tried to run my farm on an ecological model, but it's not without its challenges. Rather than buying chicken bedding from the farm store, I get sawdust from a local sawmill. I'm aware, though, that it could close down someday. That would leave me relying on dried leaves, which I've done before, but that's something that has to be gathered once a year and stored. Otherwise, I have to let the grass grow long and use the trimmings.

These alternatives also require balances. The fastest way I know to gather leaves is to suck them all up with a vacuum mulcher, compress them into plastic bags, and store them in a loft. But the mulcher requires a great deal of electricity (or rather, the fuel used to generate it). If I do it by hand, which takes a lot longer, I use many more bags. Investing more time means I have to make up lost income, which I can do by raking other people's leaves for a fee, but that means driving, and if I'm using more bags, that means more trips. Then, of course, I have limited space to store the full bags, pressuring me to use the mulcher or use less bedding or raise fewer chickens or build more storage space.

Feed has been another issue. I don't presently have land to grow feed for all my chickens, so I thought to use wastes from a large bakery nearby. Before I made any such arrangements, though, I was approached by a feed salesman offering GMO-free feed made from locally-grown grains. This feed mill, though, is about 100 miles away, whereas the bakery is about 6 miles. Each has arguments favoring it as the "greener" option, but both are vulnerable to going out of business.

Trying to make my farm as resilient and self-sustaining as possible while balancing all these competing concerns is leading me to the reluctant realization that the best strategy is to focus on producing food and fuel for my own family, while producing goods for sale takes a back seat.

backtothegarden said...

JMG, have you seen the book "Just Enough" by an american architecture professor living and teaching in Japan. It looks at Edo Japan from the perspective of (1) Peasant Farmer; (2) City Carpenter; (3) Lower-ranking Samurai. The title captures the sense that the ethos of the culture sought sustainability thru the use of "just enough" resources; not too much, not to little. And it has lovely hand-drawn illustrations.

Bill Pulliam said...

gregorach --

That nitrogen immobilization in straw and other low-carbon mulches (wood chips, shredded paper, etc.) is a short-term kind of thing. The N doesn't go anywhere, and as the mulch continues to decompose it is released again. If you leave the old mulch to rot in place while applying new mulch on top (basically in situ composting), on balance there's no net loss from the soil. It can be a short-term thing though, like if you dump a bunch of wheat straw or wood chips on rapidly growing young corn, you can see an immediate negative response in the corn plants. So don't do that! But for an overwinter mulch, or early season before planting, go for it! By the time the plant roots need the nitrogen the mulch should have mellowed enough that it'll be no problem. Also fine to keep topping up existing mulches with a little fresh straw etc. that will gradually compost its way on down. You can also use it as a layer interbedded with N-rich materials like manure, especially if you are doing the whole sheet-mulch thing.

Rainfall in most of the northern hemisphere has a fair amount of N contamination in it from car exhaust etc. This N in the rainfall will be grabbed by your fresh mulch and help work its C:N ratio down. It's even possible that in the long run a high carbon mulch might increase the total N in your system by encouraging free-living nitrogen-fixing microbes to colonize it and start taking N out of the air. I haven't seen the latest research, but back in my active days there were several studies that looked at the rate on N accumulation in initially barren systems (like fresh volcanic mudflows, or a giant experimental sandbox) and found it was about twice as high as could be accounted for by measured sources. It seemed that the free-living N fixers might have a way of kicking in under circumstances when N is in short supply, at least when you give them a chance to.

William Hunter Duncan said...


For the record, I'm a mulcher. I'm also going to plant clover and peas soon, then cover them with wood mulch after the freeze.

As one writer to another, I invite you to look at your language in paragraphs 3 and 4, specifically your use of the pronoun "you" instead of "we". I do nothing of the sort as you describe; we do it widely as a culture. It comes off more harsh, I think, than you intend, more accusatory. That said, you are the most insightful writer on these topics, that I'm aware of. Thank you. It is a great service.

William Hunter Duncan

marielar said...

As usual, an excellent post,

Just a few comments

I cant praise and recommend enough:
Farmers of Forty Centuries by F. H. King.

It is undeniable that conventional agricultural practices have done everything possible to speed up soil degradation through mining, erosion, salinization and many other unholy practices. But soils naturally undergo a degradation process and are not blessed equally when it comes to inherent fertility.

Over time, soils will loose phosphorus, either by leaching, preferential flow (movement in the network of soil macropores) and also fixation in chemical forms which are for all purpose extremily stable and that the plants cant get at. If one is blessed with a young soil not too far along the weathering process, there is enough phosphorus to support lots of biomass(I am passing the details on how tropical forests get away with thriving on very poor soils by storing P in the vegetation). But with some soils which are really deficient in P, its addition from outside sources is mandatory to obtain any kind of yields and the cheapest and most efficient way to do it is often with chemical fertilizers. Not everybody has access to the large quantities of organic wastes it takes to build up the fertility of a depleted soil. It is the same for other nutrients such as K, Ca, Mg...Japanese recycled considerable amounts of fish wastes and seaweeds to bump up the fertility of their soils. Native South Americans appear to have done the same with Terra Preta soils. My advice would be, recycle all you can but have your soil tested and correct nutritional deficiencies while you have access to relatively cheap sources of P, K, Mg, Ca etc...On our farm we do recycle bones because we have large piles of manure we allow to compost for two years. But I am not sure it would fly very well in an urban environment.

Also, the best choice to fix nitrogen in the vegetable garden is the broad bean (Vicia faba). Peas and beans do poorly in comparison.

katsmama said...

I am a teacher in a middle school- ages 11-14, roughly. I'd like to address the question of ecology books for kids- Dorling Kindersly has a well-illustrated ecology book which has good explanations of systems. It is pretty approachable for middle school aged kids. In fact, DK is one of my favorite publishers for science books- copious illustrations and clearly written text. As for teaching organic gardening in schools, at the middle level in the US, there is a push for literacy, math, and what they call "21st century skills" which is a loose agglomeration of computers and video production. We no longer have a shop class, and home ec is offered one period per day for 9 weeks at a time. We are in an older building, which has a greenhouse in the science department, shop and kitchen space, but the trends in the curriculum have shifted away from hands-on building and making, and towards interaction with pixels.

Cathy McGuire said...

Thanks for all the great info on Japanese farming. With an eye toward your eventual publication, a question on this section:

"The Japanese cities relied on intensive rice cultivation" – so most of the people there ate a simple rice diet? I assume the overlords had special foods, but there were fewer of them. This is what we won’t have now, and the “great deal of human labor” I assume refers to peasants… must these two parts (simple diet/peasants) be essential?

I agree about the 8 inch Pacific NW slugs! And they come in all sizes below that, down to speck-sized… the only mulch that worked (and only one season, ‘til it became clogged with soil) was hazelnut shells… slugs hated them.

I’ve gotten both Odum and Buschbaum from the library, but I’m starting small with Odum’s “Ecology and Our Endangered Life-Support Systems” (1993). Very well written!

@GreatBlue I suspect our packaging would look a lot different if stores or manufacturers were required by law to take back the packaging that they sell us. Who knows, we might go back to the old five-and-dime arrangement, where nothing was in plastic and the merchandise was overseen by human clerks.
Oh, how I long for that day to come back! The amount of plastic packaging is sickening, and I can’t conceive of how it is more efficient than human clerks.

@Cherokee If you have weeds then you have some sort of imbalance that the weeds are taking advantage of.
Yes, I’d heard that you can figure out what the imbalance is from which weeds are thriving… I need to find a book about that!!

@Yvonne My garden is tiny or I would consider a couple of hens to feed the destructive things to. I haven’t found that my chickens eat slugs.. of course, 8 inch slugs can be intimidating! ;-} But it could also be a feast… stupid chickens… but then, if they just ate the slug eggs next spring, that would take care of it!

@Resurgent Viking wouldn't it be great if kids at school learned some basics of gardening? There are places in the US where that’s happening… check out to see how Oregon is encouraging students to learn the basics of ecology.

Cathy McGuire said...

BTW, there are many children's ecology books, or at least books that point kids toward the earth cycle. Some are here at
and I found several others at Amazon. It was good to know; I hadn't researched it before, but you got me curious.

Mel, Foxtail Farm said...

In regard to crownvetch, at least in pasture situations it's fairly easy to get rid of. There are actually extension fact sheets that discuss using crownvetch as a hay crop, and the big difficulty is that it recovers slowly from being cut. So if you want to get rid of it, let it get about to the flowering stage and then cut it down to the ground (I use a sharp scythe for this). I can't vouch for this working in a garden setting, but in my pasture I've got some pretty large swathes that used to be all crownvetch that are now filled in with grasses and other legumes.

Now, if anyone can give advice for managing field bindweed and smooth bedstraw, I'd really be in good shape! I'm constantly cutting the bindweed off of my garden plants and young trees, and bedstraw is worse than crownvetch for choking out all the grass in the pasture.

John Michael Greer said...

Farmer, living an ecologically smart life in an ecologically stupid society is always a balancing act. I'll be discussing some of the pitfalls involved in an upcoming post.

Garden, I haven't! I don't keep up with recent scholarship on the period as well as I'd like -- only so many hours in the day, alas. Thanks for the reference.

Bill, that's most interesting. Do you happen to know if there are seasonal patterns in the anomalous N accumulation?

William, er, in modern colloquial English usage "you" often functions as an indefinite pronoun, of the sort many other languages have. The harshness in the passage was deliberate, though not aimed at any one individual.

Marielar, thanks for the info! One thing, though: a fair number of people can't eat fava beans without getting ill from them -- it's a genetic problem, common to Mediterranean peoples but not limited to them. As for their superior nitrogen fixing ability, well, all I can say is I've never had a problem with too little nitrogen when using compost and other legumes.

Katsmama, granted, the public schools these days are still stuck on a notion of the future that has nothing to do with reality -- when, that is, they're not just teaching to government-mandated tests. My guess is that homeschoolers and private schools will have to lead the way here.

Cathy, the situation in Tokugawa Japan was a lot more nuanced than you've suggested. Like all complex human societies, Japan at that time was profoundly hierarchical; unlike most modern societies, they didn't see any point in pretending otherwise. That said, a spectrum consists of something other than its two ends, and there was a vast middle ground -- including a lot of farmers -- between the abstract categories of "overlords" and "peasants."

Interestingly, the place of farmers in the formal hierarchy was just below samurai, and above craftspeople and merchants; it was entirely acceptable for samurai to farm, while they couldn't get into trade without losing their status. Of course the formal hierarchy wasn't always an accurate measure of power; a rich Osaka rice merchant might have more actual power, and certainly had more wealth, than many nobles, and there were some very poor and downtrodden farmers in the provinces, but it's important not to map a simplistic model (of the sort very common these days) onto the very complex reality of that time. Or any other, including this one.

As for rice, one thing people in societies with abundant fossil fuels forget is that when everybody does a great deal of hard physical activity every day, and central heating doesn't exist, the most important part of the diet is its caloric content, and you get most of that from carbohydrates. Everybody in medieval Japan ate a lot of rice, because that was the most readily available source of calories.

Everyone supplemented their rice with other foodstuffs, depending on income level and social class; Japanese peasant cooking, like peasant cuisines from around the world, does a great deal with readily accessible vegetables and cheap local proteins, while the daimyo (nobility) and those Osaka rice merchants ate some very fancy stuff. Still, rice was the basic staple; we'll talk soon about the importance of bulk grains and dried legumes, and the differences between the farming that produces those and the gardening that, in societies without fossil fuels, produces much of the rest.

Mel, check with your local herbalist. If smooth bedstraw has the same medicinal properties as other members of the same family, you may be able to find a market for it. I knew of farmers in Oregon who had bad problems with Klamath weed until they found out it's also called St. John's wort, and made arrangement for herbalists to come collect it by the pickup load for free.

Apple Jack Creek said...

Mel: Bedstraw is a member of the madder family ... I understand you can make red dye out of the roots (I found some out back and plan to try it this fall). If you have a fibre addict in the area, they may harvest it for you too!

Archdruid: You have once again inspired me to “get to work building the next agriculture in the interstices of the present system”. (such wordsmithing!)

hapibeli said...

We use compost tea in 55 gallon food grade barrels. Seaweed, fish offal, compost from the kitchen, singly or all together. Drop them in the barrel, or whatever lidded container you have, add h2o, let sit in the summer sun for 2 to 4 weeks [ or 3-4 months during the winter], and voila! Stinky, yet FANTASTIC liquid for all plants! I even heard today of dipping a dead sheep [ probably any animal would do], in the container, and while constantly using and adding water, you have a steady supply of tea. Sounds delicious doesn't it! :-) :-). Well, I guarantee that it works like a charm. Our garden is lush and full of life. Seaweed is easy for us as we live on an island, but it's all available to anyone who looks for it.

MisterMoose said...

We recently harvested our peas and left the roots with the nitrogen-fixing nodules in the soil, and covered the area with mulch before planting a crop of peppers and other things. We've discovered what others have noted: fresh leaf mulch will inhibit nitrogen in the short run, so we are letting the stuff mellow out longer in separate leaf bins, where we shovel it back and forth between bins to aerate and cook if as fast as possible.

We recently planted a bunch of comfrey in some marginal soil to be green manure for next year. From time to time we add bone meal to our tomato plants to provide the phosphorus they need to maximize fruit production. I'm with Jim Brewster; if there is a massive die-off when our industrialized society collapses, there should be more than enough bone meal lying around in all those human skeletons...

A few years ago when we still lived in the suburbs of Chicago, we were the first in our neighborhood to start gardening in both front and back yards. In the fall we would gather up the big yard bags full of fallen leaves and put them in the bins in our back yard to cook down for mulch. Otherwise, the leaves would have been collected by the sanitation or public works departments and taken to a dump or landfill or somewhere "away."

The same thing happened with the grass clippings in the summer time, although we discovered that we had to be more careful about the grass. It all depended on the chemicals (fertilizers and pesticides and weed-killing herbicides) that the individual homeowners used on their lawns.

I was amazed that otherwise intelligent heighbors would buy bags of fertilizer to grow their lawns, then cut the grass and get rid of the clippings in big plastic bags... Basically we could get as much organic material as we could haul off for free, thanks to all of our neighbors who were perfectly happy to be rid of it...

So, it occurs to me that a hundred years or so in the future we may see raiding parties from neighboring villages trying to carry off each others' fallen leaves, grass clippings, manure piles, and other organic materials, to take home to mulch their own gardens. Anything to maximize the amount of imported materials to keep their own food supply growing...

LewisLucanBooks said...

Slugs: As with many things, just keeping on top of them for a short period of time works wonders. I had a small place and when I moved in, the yard was over-run with slugs. I'd water around sunset and then go out an hour later with my flashlight (now I'd use my solar one) with a spray bottle with ammonia and water (something about it being better for the soil then salt...). Putting down a board or cardboard concentrated the slugs.

The first year it was every night, the second every 3 nights or so and then once a week.

Many people moan about how invasive running bamboo is. I had a little clump. I wanted it to expand. I just shoveled little rows of horse manure where I wanted it to run. The bamboo I had only sprouted for 2 or 3 weeks a year. A shoot, when cut, would not re-sprout. Good eating, too. So that running invasive bamboo? Not a problem as long as I rode heard on it for a short period of time every year. Bamboo leaves also provided a good mulch.

I guess the point I'm trying to make is that you can save yourself a lot of grief if you just kind of observe the rhythms of things. Pay attention, when attention needs to be paid. The rest of the time just enjoy the snow on the bamboo or the slug free garden.

Cherokee Organics said...

Hi all,

To Andy Brown: What a difference another continent makes. Vetch is sold here as a green manure crop. Very good it is too.

At this point it might be worth mentioning that the concept of "weed" is a human construct. I'd like to use the word pioneering plant rather than weed.

People around these parts think that blackberries, bracken, pittosporum undulatum etc are weeds. I'd like to say that if they were truly weeds in the commonly used sense of the word, then they'd have taken over the face of the planet. They haven't quite achieved this yet. On the other hand, people miss all of the very large eucalyptus obliqua trees which can also be rightly described with the same qualities of a weed. Seems a bit selective to me.

I'd recommend that you try an experiment with your vetch and see how it goes over a season or two. Give it a chance to go to seed and then immediately mow it all and leave the mulched remains spread evenly over the surface of the soil. See what happens then. It won't look like a manicured lawn though! Try clearing a small space in the mulch and growing some seedlings. Old growth forests work in this manner (minus the mowing of course!) and they certainly don't require phosphates brought in from around the globe.

I tend to look at "weeds" as part of the biodiversity of the ecosystem. On my block, they are encouraged and given a chance. They haven't taken over the place yet.

I hope I'm not going to get burned at the stake for being a heretic.

If they are taking over then it is probably an indicator that something else is very wrong with your ecosystem.

To Bill Pulliam: I've read recently that it took 15 years to exhaust the soils in Australia's native grass lands of their natural fertility and biodiversity once we introduced hard hoofed cattle and particularly sheep. All of Australia's native animals are soft footed and as such do little damage to the soil and water systems. We've really created environmental problems for ourselves here through our own lack of understanding of the ecosystem. The last thing that the people who brought those non native animals in to Australia thought about was about damage to the ecosystem. Sad really.

Good luck!

Cherokee Organics said...


Herbal lore was all a practiced art for peasants as it could very well make the difference between an empty and full belly. Also some plants are toxic at times, whilst other plants can be treated for their toxicity in certain ways. eg. Like washing Warrigal (or New Zealand) spinach to get rid of the oxalic acid.

Good luck!

Dr. Rasmus said...

One topic that should be mentioned in this context of composting and organic gardening is BIOCHAR. This agricultural charcoal is a soil amendment that allows the soil to better hold on to nutrients and moisture. It is carbon that is non-biodegradeable, meaning that it has been permanently taken out of the global carbon cycle. We can do this on a very large scale ("reverse carbon mining", "carbon re-fossilization") and fix the atmosphere. Please check out the website of the International Biochar Initiative for much more information.

blue sun said...

One book that talks about nutrient cycles is ‘Cradle to Cradle’ by McDonough and Braungart. They make the distinction between technical nutrients and biological nutrients. Kept separate, they can be endlessly cycled—technical nutrients in industry, and biological nutrients in the natural ecosystem.

Because our modern society has lost sight of these fundamentals, we have created “monstrous hybrids.” An example would be your average sneaker. The leather is no longer tanned with natural tannins. Nowadays they use heavy metals. And unless you separate the two, the hybrid is useless to both cycles. It’s not easy for industry to recapture the heavy metals in the leather, and of course, you would never throw sneaker leather in your compost pile (I’m not sure if it would even decompose) but you could put leather made with natural tannins in there.

As for green manure, Edward Faulkner discusses the concept well in ‘Ploughman’s Folly,’ as does Albert Howard (one of the founding fathers of organic farming along with F.H. King). You can read their works at the Journey to Forever webiste: (P.S. – you can access many of the classic Organic texts here)

Andy Brown said...

Thanks for those who chimed in on crown vetch. I was debating whether to take on the long campaign of eradicating it (as I've been doing with invasive bittersweet and honeysuckle) -- or find some rationale for coexistence. I guess I'll continue for now on my less ambitious efforts to contain it. Maybe the extra nitrogen will be a treat for a few of the more neglected plants down there.

Luciddreams said...

Brewsters post on Zombies reminded me of something I've been thinking about lately. Death as nexus to life...or the circle that JMG has been pointing at. This is what's wrong with western society. It has been scrubbed clean of death. If you aren't in healthcare/fire/ems/police try to see a dead body that is not a preserved pickle formerly a relative of yours. Unless you are in one of those professions, or studying to be, you won't be able to succeed unless by accident (driving by a wreck). The Western world has been so insulated from death for so long that it has become taboo and enabled the creation of people afraid to compost because of the bugs???? Life is not sterlie and neither is death. The preserved pickles of toxic protoplasm once attached to life is the only thing that is sterile. Sterile does not occur in least not to my knowledge. So we (industrial civilization) have sort of been trying to kick water uphill.

Glenn said...

The Samurai and Lords were fairly greedy after the Tokugawa shogunate froze the class structure. There were repeated demands that the peasant farmers eat less rice and make do with coarser grains like millet. They pretty much wanted to squeeze the peasants for all they could.
It was a sustainable society, with a lot of culture and literature; but it was not terribly fair or just.


Bill Pulliam said...

JMG-- "Bill, that's most interesting. Do you happen to know if there are seasonal patterns in the anomalous N accumulation?"

I don't think the sampling was often enough or the changes rapid enough to resolve seasonal patterns. I believe one of the studies was a chronosequence of mudslides on Mt. Shasta of different ages. I do know that the ecosystem simulation model I worked with for many years was not able to replicate these sorts of experiments unless you arbitrarily cranked up some N input beyond what was generally measured. Free-living (non-symbiotic) N fixation was just a prime suspect; it is very hard to measure directly as the world is full of N2, NO2, NO3, and NH4 at any given instant so finding a small flux amidst the heavy traffic can be quite a challenge. I did a little googling and did not find any specific recent research, but that does not mean there isn't any out there. I wonder if there is a stable isotope signature for biological nitrogen fixation?

Anyway, like so many other things in nature, when an ecosystem is short on available N there is SOMETHING that has evolved to exploit the less available forms (like N2) that will kick in. Potentially N-fixing cyanobacteria are everywhere, all the time (even on the surface of the monitor you are reading this on), and there are many other taxa that can do the trick under various conditions of light or dark, O2 or no O2, etc. Something just has to turn on the enzymes.

Now, this won't grow your cabbages this winter; but it might help you manage your soil over the next decade and century.

Cathy McGuire said...

My compost heap seems to be doing a robust job! I just found a hammer that I’d mislaid last year – in the middle of the compost – and it was like an ancient artifact already! Warty with rust and the wood handle eaten in strips… powerful critturs inhabit my pile!

@JMG one thing people in societies with abundant fossil fuels forget is that when everybody does a great deal of hard physical activity every day, and central heating doesn't exist, the most important part of the diet is its caloric content, and you get most of that from carbohydrates. Wonderful! That means I’m ahead of the curve! ;-) But it sounds a bit like the “foodstuffs gap” wasn’t as broad between rich and poor as might be in US today (if only because so much fresh stuff goes toward making junk food!!)

@Lucan I guess the point I'm trying to make is that you can save yourself a lot of grief if you just kind of observe the rhythms of things. Pay attention, when attention needs to be paid. That’s very wise… it’s also sometimes impossible when one is juggling “outside jobs” with the home garden! This conflict in timing just keeps tripping me up, even though I have a fairly flexible freelance schedule. But Murphy’s Law seems to keep coming up and those intense garden times overlap with the intense paid job times… still, your point is absolutely correct.

Joel said...

Those who can't eat fava beans, can use them as a green manure with mulch.

Each seed stores enough calories that the seedling can push through at least an inch or two of mulch. They are frost-hardy enough to survive winter in at least some of your readers' climates. Cutting them down leaves the roots to rot in the soil, and allows the option of tucking the aerial portion under existing mulch, adding new mulch on top, or using the green plants as mulch.

Some close relatives in the vetch family are also widely used.

Some perennials are also useful for fixing nitrogen, including alder (which isn't a legume) and runner beans.

>the shifting taxonomic borderline between fungi and bacteria

I thought there was a bright and stable line between these two groups, in that fungi all have organelles, are (individually) much more massive than bacteria, and produce chitin rather than cellulose.

Mark said...

Here are two methods that came to mind:

Think like a forest and build soil (fertility) from the top down by sheet mulching -- or sometimes called lasagna gardening. Most simply, it is organic matter -- which means anything you would compost -- applied directly on garden beds, or used as the foundation for a new garden bed. When starting a new bed, waste cardboard or newspapers are widely used (industrial waste stream) to suppress any existing plants, which rot after dying, in turn creating fertility. A less dependent method is to use bulk carbonaceous matter such as dry leaves, straw, hay, large leaves (burdock), pine branches or hugulkulture, which is the piling of rotting sticks, logs, or tree/shrub trimmings to suppress existing plant growth. On top of your "weed barrier" you apply any bulk organic matter available, including unfinished compost, and let it rot for a season, or create small "compost pockets" to plant seedlings into.

Secondly, planting hardy and fast growing leguminous shrubs intermixed with your vegetable crops. As they grow, you simply chop and drop the growth onto the soil, which acts as mulch and breaks down into rich soil. When you prune these species of plants, the roots also prune themselves. As this happens, the nitrogen fixed from the atmosphere into little nodules (by our bacteria friends) breakdown alongside the roots and rootlets, creating a slow and steady release of nitrogen and organic matter.

Common wild plants of the N. American temperate climate (which produce seed that is readily available, even in cities) that fix nitrogen are Redbud,Honey locust, Black Locust, Bristly Locust, Wild Senna, and Blue False Indigo to name a few.

Mel, Foxtail Farm said...

"Mel, check with your local herbalist. If smooth bedstraw has the same medicinal properties as other members of the same family, you may be able to find a market for it."

I'm not sure if there's any such beast as a local herbalist here in rural eastern Ohio, but I will keep my eyes open for one! The internet was not particularly helpful on the medicinal properties of bedstraw, but it did mention using the root to make red dye. That's definitely something I want to look into, being very interested in fiber production and processing. Thanks for the tip!

Ric said...

It doesn't take Peak Oil to put a dent in our current medical industry:

Are you ready for a world without antibiotics?

We've driven over 3,000 miles in the last few weeks covering over a dozen states so far and we're still not done. I could write a book about all that we've encountered, but the short version is that there is no doubt in our minds that the collapse is already under way. Now is the time to act.

Thank you, JMG, and many of the contributors to the comments for keeping the fire to our collective feet.

greatblue said...

Re storing autumn leaves for compost: I've seen people rake up their leaves in the fall, put them in plastic bags, and bank them against the foundation of their house for the winter. I assume the bagged leaves provided fairly decent insulation. Never tried it myself and I'm not sure about the fire-safety aspect of the practice, but here in the North Country I doubt fire would be much of an issue under the snow...

Re ecology textbooks, JMG said in an earlier post: "If you’ve got enough background that a serious textbook holds no terrors for you, one to get is Eugene P. Odum’s _Fundamentals of Ecology_, probably the classic statement of the ecosystem approach." I got it out from our library and, while I can't say that I was terrified, it was a bit more rigorous than I was willing to spend the time on. However, I did find another textbook that seems to cover the same ground in a more readable way. The book is _Environmental Science: The Way the World Works_, by Bernard J. Nebel with editorial assistance by Edward J. Kormondy, Prentice-Hall, Inc., Englewood Cliffs, NJ. 1981. ISBN 0-13-283002-7. Lots of illustrations, many of them line drawings. I'm not an expert by any means, so take it FWIW.

greatblue said...

Re teaching ecology to kids, this looked like a useful resource: TeachEngineering Resources for K-12

I just looked at the activities a bit. A search for ecology yielded 16 activities; compost: 4 activities; soil: 74 activities; recycle: 37 activities; solar energy: 63 activities; energy: 187 activities; water: 295 activities; pollution: 88 activities.

Red Neck Girl said...

There are several things I intend to do on my boarding stable. I'm shooting for at least 40 acres and since it will have 40 stalls I'm going to have a lot of stuff to compost, eventually. But initially I intend to use a manure spreader on at least half of my future pastures. It will have the dual purpose of adding organic matter to the soil and seed the soil with a good grass mix. After several passes with the spreader before winter I should have a nice grass mixture in that section and as has been mentioned before in these posts will be able to retain moisture better as the soil builds up. Then I'll repeat with the other half of future pastures. It goes without saying I'd be spreading stall 'waste' on a regular cycle.

One of the perks I'll add to the stable is an offer for boarders to grow a garden. From what I've seen many of the people in this area aren't into raised bed, intensive gardening and settle for a few feet of rows for some seasonal fresh food. So to encourage intensive gardening I'll put my first garden next to the two acres I intend to offer for garden plots. (If you don't have room for a horse you likely don't have room for a garden. Besides, if Mom or Dad is bored while the kid does horse up keep this is something for them to do in good weather!) There is also a perk for me in these extra gardens. They'll provide for more flowering plants for a hive or three of bees!

This will also make it easy for me to build up a network of like minded people in the area. Think of it as a sneaky way to convert people to the support of Mother Earth while winnowing out those who have a completely mechanical mindset!

Adele Cosgrove-Bray said...

In our garden, used straw and manure from the chicken coup also go on into the two compost bins. The hens roam the garden and eat most pests. A few plants get pecked at too, but the damage is less than was from slugs, snails etc.

If this works on a small, back garden scale, there seems no logical reason why it couldn't work on a larger scale.

Geoff Hamilton's and Bob Flowerdew's books on organic gardening is well worth looking into, by the way.

gaias daughter said...

I don't know of any good ecology books for children, but there are a lot of good books geared toward gardening with children. Sharon Lovejoy's books, for example, as well as Gardening with Children (Brooklyn Botanic Garden All-Region Guide)by Monika Hanneman (Paperback), Sunflower House (Books for Young Readers)by Eve Bunting (Paperback).

A question I have -- a while back, I read something about the benefits of using human hair as compost and/or mulch. When I approached our local hairdresser, she advised against it. She warned that any drugs people had been taking would be in their hair -- as well as any chemicals used to alter the hair. I'm wondering if anyone has used hair and what precautions they may have followed.

KL Cooke said...

With all the mulching and manuring going on, you might want to google Senate Bill S510, if the subject hasn't come up before.

Don Plummer said...

Jim Brewster wrote:

"The idea of peak phosphorus is funny when you realize that our bones are mostly calcium phosphate. With the anticipated population reduction there will be plenty for those who care to recover it. Another plus for composting human remains."

The Farmer among the Tombs
I am oppressed by all the room taken up by the dead,
their headstones standing shoulder to shoulder,
the bones imprisoned under them.
Plow up the graveyards! Haul off the monuments!
Pry open the vaults and the coffins
so the dead may nourish their graves
and go free, their acres traversed all summer
by crop rows and cattle and foraging bees.
--Wendell Berry

LewisLucanBooks said...

Something about hens in the garden sparked a memory. Riding the school bus in the early 60s through acres and acres of mint. (Washington State is a leading producer.) Now, sadly, covered over with burb after burb.

There were flocks of geese in the mint. They'd eat EVERYTHING except the mint. Weeds, bugs, everything. So at the end of the season you'd have mint, well fertilized ground and plump geese for the holidays.

Jaime M. De Zubeldia said...

I've been working on small/family-scale food producing systems in the Sonoran desert near Tucson, Arizona since 2007 in cooperation with many other community members who share an awareness of the importance of regional food security and energy efficiency among other things.

Ironically, and very thankfully, I have recently been hired by the local community food bank to scale up the compost production and alternative fertilizer production for their existing organic farm project as part of a CDC grant (stimulus money) targeting obesity. My official title is now "Compost Outreach Coordinator". On a personal level, I have taken up this position to incorporate an educational component which will account for the hidden energy costs in producing quality food, and track the waste associated with it so that an honest picture of the limitations of food production in Pima County can be established along with a model of how to replicate sustainable farms throughout the region.

I would like to use aspects of your composting posts, quotes, and historical references with your permission in some of my educational projects. Would that be ok assuming appropriate credit is given?

Supreme composting articles by the way. Do you have any other literature recommendations concerning the use of composting techniques by other historical cultures (pre-industrial)?

Bill Pulliam said...

Mark -- Redbud (Cercis) is actually anomalous among trees in the legume family (Fabaceae) in that it does NOT fix nitrogen.

darius said...

Speaking of bacteria, check this out.

It's something to consider...

Cathy McGuire said...

Here's an interesting idea for Green Wizards who are land poor!
A sweet swap for homeowners

…She had worked out an agreement to let Tull, owner of Creative Green Sustainability Coaching, hold three-hour organic gardening workshops in Coughlin's large fenced yard once a month. In exchange, Coughlin watched her yard "go from zero to edible soil." She also gets to reap the bounty of vegetables that have followed…,0,7090427.story

@Gaia’s Daughter any drugs people had been taking would be in their hair -- as well as any chemicals used to alter the hair. I'm wondering if anyone has used hair and what precautions they may have followed.
That would also be true of all the pesticides on the skins of veggies (for those of us not able to afford a strictly organic diet) and the humanure that folks are sending back to compost...and the bones of animals, etc… so I wouldn’t use bleached, dyed or permed hair, but otherwise, I’m thinking we can’t totally escape the chemicals that are in our environment these days. Just IMO.

Greg Reynolds @ Riverbend said...

SARE has a book " Managing Cover Crops Profitably" that covers green manures and cover crops.

Planting a grass and a legume together produces lots of organic matter (collected carbon) and nitrogen. The grass and broad leaves do not compete very well against each other, as they fill different ecological niches.

The mixture can be something that you can eat like peas and oats or soybeans and wheat, typical summer annuals. You can also plant a vigorous combination of winter annuals ( like rye and vetch ) late in the fall.

A productive organic system needs a year or two of soil building for each year of harvest.

Greg Reynolds
Riverbend Farm

wahkiacusw said...

Another exciting post, but what really stood out to me was the statement about "the nitrogen extracted from the air by a common and deliberately cultivated species of duckweed,"

Can you point us in the direction of some research that establishes duckweed's ability to fix atmospheric nitrogen?


Windward Walt

Kevin said...

It's getting awfully mulchy around here. I can just handle the worms, but slugs and *especially* centipedes really bring out the suburban weenie in me. I'm going to have to work at this.

Ric, I for one would much appreciate a redact of what you've encountered during your travels, when you have time for it. I'd be very interested to learn what's going on across the USA which confirms that collapse is happening even as we speak.

John Michael Greer said...

Apple Jack, thank you. A lot of people are working at that -- though a lot more are needed!

Hapibeli, that's reminiscent of Granny's secret recipe for Kickapoo Joy Juice; a dead rat to give it body, an old boot for kick, etc.

Moose, good. With any luck the hostilities will end with a treaty obligating all concerned to plant more trees and grow more legumes!

Lew, true enough.

Cherokee, one of my teachers used to insist that the word "weed" means "an herb with useful properties that haven't been recognized yet." My spouse and I deliberately cultivate quite a few "weeds" in our garden, since a good many common weeds are also very medicinal.

Dr. Rasmus, biochar's been discussed here several times. It does seem to work very well in the tropics; I've seen mixed reviews in the temperate zones, and would like to see more good experimental tests to settle the matter one way or the other.

Blue Sun, very good points -- and thank you for the links!

Lucid, bingo. I had the advantage of working in nursing homes for several years to pay the rent; when you're the one taking vital signs on somebody as those signs go to zero, and then get to wash up the body so the people from the funeral home don't have a mess on their hands, you get to know the guy with the scythe fairly well. Far too many of the people I know have never had any contact with death, and get very freaky about what is, after all, a normal, natural, and -- think about this for a moment -- healthy process.

Glenn, that's another very crude generalization, and one for which there are many counterexamples. As for "just and fair," is it any worse to try to talk peasants into eating more millet than it is to try to talk working class Americans into running up college debts that will leave them financially hamstrung for life?

Bill, there's obviously some very interesting research to be done here!

Kevin said...

I forgot to ask: by mentioning clover as "green manure," do you mean that plant can be grown, then harvested and used as a fertilizing agent, without any actual manure being used? Such that one could even grow a "lawn" of clover that's pleasanter to be around than animal dung? If so, it sounds to me like the way to go. Or is that just my wimpy wishful thinking?

John Michael Greer said...

Cathy, I'd be careful about leaving tools where your compost critters can get them -- they might start building their own little empire...;-)

Joel, sure, but one of the points of growing legumes is that you can feed them to your family. As for the border between fungi and bacteria, it may be settled now, but it's certainly done a lot of shifting over the last fifty years!

Mark, both good options.

Mel, the herbalist I've got here at home tells me that pretty much all the plants in the Galium genus have medicinal properties, so it's worth checking. If you can find a good local library, see if they have books on what the First Nations in the area did with local plants; that may give you some clues.

Ric, I rather liked the way Matt Savinar summarized one of my posts: "The collapse is here, but it's not widely distributed yet." As for antibiotics, the writing's been on the wall there for two decades now. Time spent looking up older ways of fighting infectious diseases will not be wasted.

Greatblue, I'll see if I can find a copy of that book to look over. Edward Kormondy, who was involved in it, is worth reading; he wrote a nice little book, Concepts of Ecology, which might make a good alternate for Basic Ecology.

Girl, sounds like a plan.

Adele, it can certainly work on a larger scale, but the backyard scale is the one I want to concentrate on just now. Thanks for the book recommendations!

Daughter, I'll be talking about this down the road a bit. Still, the short form for now is that there are toxins in everything, there's a balance to be struck between what we'd like to do and what we reasonably can do, and it's critical not to let the perfect become the enemy of the possible. If it's your own hair and that of your family and pets, by all means use it.

KL, I googled it and found one Facebook post making loud claims with no documentation, as well as a couple of dozen articles about unrelated bills at state legislatures. Always check your facts...

Don, nice! I'm also thinking about a bit in Stewart Udall's intro to William Catton's seminal work Overshoot, which talks about how nature's bankruptcy proceedings against industrial humanity will sooner or later begin to foreclose on the standing crop of human flesh...

Lew, all I can say is "Yum."

Jaime, you may certainly use anything I post, so long as credit is given. As for the composting traditions of the past, the history of agriculture is a challenging subject scattered in specialist literature; you pretty much need to research each culture individually. A good cross-cultural history of composting would be a first-rate doctoral project for somebody.

Darius, no kidding. We have a lot of relearning to do before antibiotics fail completely, or we can expect to have to learn the hard way.

Cathy, yes, I saw that! An inspiring bit of exchange.

Greg, that's for farming, not for gardening. We'll be talking about the difference in the next post.

Walt, it's not every species of duckweed, it's a specific one used by Japanese and Chinese paddy rice farmers. I'd check King's Farmers of Forty Centuries for starters.

John Michael Greer said...

Kevin, yes, clover as green manure doesn't have to be fed to an animal; it doesn't even have to be processed -- you just hoe it under before you start your spring planting. You don't need to mulch, either, if that's not the way you want to go. Still, you shouldn't do without a compost bin, and that does involve making peace with creepies and crawlies. They're your friends, remember.

KL Cooke said...

Here's some facts, or at least, opinions

tom rainboro said...

I've been following the last couple of weeks without finding it necessary to add anything. Here's a few points now. I wouldn't spend much money on compost bins. In the EU at least, a variety of commodities seem to be shipped around in plastic drums, volume about 220 litres. They have large necks and screw tops and here in SW England are re-sold from the farmers' co-ops for about £20. I use them for composting, but also as water butts and for making cider. The ones I use have previously shipped pickles or lemons or olives. You can cut the bottom off and use that as a trough. This reminds me that WATER is a vital resource in the garden. Despite having 50 inches a year here I still ended up with a dry garden in July. Industrial society again provides us with an amazing 'cast-off' - the IBC container. Anyone else use these? I bought a 1000 litre one, previously used for liquid soap, for £30. This will collect water from a shed roof. It's staggering that a container such as this is considered a waste product!
As winters here bring rain that hammers on my soil I have taken to trying to cover every inch of ground. I might use compost, mulch, newspapers or green manure. I started with a green manure of Italian ryegrass and red clover. Local organic farmers use it as a short-term ley. It is sown under a cereal crop and left to grow after cereal harvest. Then it is grazed by sheep or broiler chickens. The ryegrass will germinate late into September but the clover seems to like it warmer, and a firmer seedbed. I've found the clover very good this summer for attracting bees but have now moved to a smaller white clover and actually sow that under brassicas, leeks etc..
The issue of continuous soil cover reminds me that the book 'One Straw Revolution' has been referenced here again. This is not so much a book as a series of rants. The principle being followed is that your system of agriculture should be appropriate for the location. The author spent many years perfecting his own system and came up with a continuous cover, no till approach. This does not mean that it is appropriate for where you or I live. He relied on a near 12 month growing season in order to rotate wheat/barley with rice, growing each successive crop under the straw of the previous. This system cannot be described as 'no-work'. (Have under ever tried harvesting cereals by hand?). His system for sowing rice involved pelleting it by hand in clay (to avoid it being eaten by sparrows)! Should someone recommend this system to you I suggest you ask whether this is what THEY do. If they say 'yes' then ask to visit their garden! The peak oil community seems somewhat divided into those that think that the skills we need can be found by googling at a computer and reading fashionable textbooks and those that think that our great grandparents had most of what we need. I'm pretty much in the second group. (OK, I know both have their merits). As I sit here I look out on to a farm that practises a continuous cover, no-till, low input system. It is known as 'permanent pasture' and supports lamb and beef. Parts of southern England (the chalk downlands) might have been under this syetm for 4000 years. It supports a diverse wildlife of plants, insects and birds. Sustainable?

mageprof said...

About a month ago I spent a leisurely dinner talking with a very elderly retired nurse, who remembered first hand the days before antibiotics were available. She said that it was done by incredibly strict protocols, e.g., if your uniform brushed against anything that might be a source of infection, you left the ward, went back to your dorm, bagged everything you were wearing, took a full shower (scrubbing yourself down completely), put on fresh clothes and went back to work.

She also said the nurse:patient ratio was close to 1:1 back in those days. In the iron-lung wards it had to be 1:1 exactly, because the power could go out anytime. Whenever that happened, you had to work the iron lung's mechanical back-up system by taking hold of a lever and rocking your whole body back and forth, to work the machinery at a rhythm that suited your individual patient. If you didn't, your patient would die very soon. Sometimes you had to keep rocking back and forth for hours on end, as the power didn't always come back on very soon. (You really got to know your individual polio patient under that system!)

Something like that could work in the post-antibiotic age. But the cost of nursing has gone up since then, and the cost of food and housing for the nursing staff. (It seems from what she said that the nurses weren't allowed to have homes and lives of their own, outside of the wards and the dormitories, or even to leave the hospital buidings very often.)

Cherokee Organics said...


Your comments to Dr. Rasmus regarding biochar seem to echo my own experience with it.

It came about because we have an abundance of large fallen trees which fell during the fires of Ash Wednesday which went straight through my property in February 1983. It was a big fire and you can still see scorch marks on trees even today.

As a bit of background, we are in a temperate environment (there were snow flurries here today) and the trees are all hardwood. Rainfall varies between about 600mm and 1,200mm and is fairly constant throughout the year.

As an experiment though, if you take a chainsaw and cut into a fallen tree which has been on the ground since Ash Wednesday, the timber below the charcoal layer is perfect. You could mill it. The charring does not hold any water, in fact it protects the fallen tree. It's the work of the termites and fungi's that turn that tree into soil. Remember that it's been on the ground for 27+ years.

Secondly, if I have a burn off of the regrowth and fallen branches which I collect in a pile, I am always left with charcoal as different parts of the fire burn at differing temperatures and with different oxygen supplies. I started digging the left over charcoal into the soil after reading about biochar. The result: After a year, I now have charcoal in the soil, however it looks the same as when it went into it and in no way encourages water retention or speedy growth of plants, or even development of the humus in the soil.

Maybe we don't have enough microbial life in the soil, who knows? Or, it's a knock on effect of the source of the charcoal being from hardwood (770kg/m3). Who knows? The only thing I know is that I'm not pursuing biochar anymore.

Mulching over larger areas with differing materials produces a more effective result and builds soil humus far quicker.

I don't think that in a temperate environment that there are any free rides.

Things just break down quicker in a hotter more humid environment.

I'd be interested to see what other people have experienced with this?

Good luck!

LynnHarding said...

I am excited to hear that milk can be sprayed on fields. I have a small herd of dairy goats and, with no money to comply with state regs, I cannot sell their delicious milk or raw cheese. We feed ourselves, our dogs and chickens but there is still a lot that has to be dumped. I have been putting it in the compost or heating it to 185 degrees, putting in vinegar and making a sort of panir that we freeze or give to chickens and them compost the whey. I have wondered what the consequences are of putting milk fat in the compost. I also worry about pouring the waste water from rinsing the glass jars into my drain for I know that milk fats will eventually clog my septic system. What I do is to give the jars an initial rinse in cold water, pour the water into a big bucket and use it to water the raised beds.
Because of the pipe clogging effect, could anyone here offer a suggestion as to how I could spray 1) milk 2) skimmed milk 3) whey or diluted milk without destroying my sprayer? I have enough trouble cleaning my sprayer after spraying diluted fish emulsion fertilizer and that isn't nearly as much of a problem as milk.
I am very excited about spraying my excess milk, whey and waste water. Could anyone offer suggestions as to the physical device that could do that?

darius said...


I have friends who use Bokashi/ Effective Microorganisms™ for household waste composting, and add a bit of the liquid to their household drains to prevent unwanted build-up of fats, oils and grease in the traps. I see no reason why an EM solution wouldn’t keep sprayer lines clear of milk fat build-up as well. Why not ask the guys over here:

Don Plummer said...

Bill Pulliam wrote:
"Redbud (Cercis) is actually anomalous among trees in the legume family (Fabaceae) in that it does NOT fix nitrogen."

Shucks! I just planted one thinking it would be a nitrogen fixer. Oh well, I can still enjoy the flowers when it blooms. Plus I also planted a Kentucky coffee tree (Gymnocladus), which is also a leguminous tree.

Glenn said...

As a note on anti-biotics. My wife recently developed an ear infection, and there was some delay getting the prescribed eardrops. A neighbor brought over an onion poultice, which she kept on the lymph nodes on her neck for 3 hours. It not only helped the ear infection, it pepped her right up. I haven't seen her with that much energy in 2 years. Still hasn't worn off, over a week later. Seems she's had a lymph system infection for a long time, and the onions pulled the toxins right out.


mageprof said...

I see that something fell out of my comment about an elderly nurse who remembered hospital care in the days before antibiotics: "She said it was done by ..."

Hwere "it" referred to "cross-infection," that is, the transmission of an infection from one patient in a ward to others. The occurrence of cross-infection, she said, was much lower back then, under the strict protocols of her younger years, than it is now with the use of antibiotics.

I suppose when bacteria evolve to resist all our antibiotics, we can always follow these strict protocols in our hospitals.

Luciddreams said...

I've been reading a book titled "All New Square Foot Gardening," by Mel Bartholomew. His angle is that anybody can garden without bothering themselves with understanding soil ecology. The book is very simple reading. Basically his system is to lay down weed cloth and build a 4' by 4' foot bottomless box out of 2X6 boards. Then he has you fill the box with equal parts of compost, vermiculite, and peat moss. If you buy the compost he wants you to buy 5 different brands because of the fact that every company will use a staple material for the carbon input so this will ensure a good variety. Then you divide the box into 16 square feet and plant each square foot according to the plants size.
I got the book cause I was interested in learning raised bed gardening. He insist that 6" is all the plants need for their roots. He also says you don't need fertilizer. After you harvest an annual he just has you add some more compost to the square foot you harvested. His system seems pretty fool proof but for some reason I don't like it. For one you have to have to water very frequently. The other thing I don't like about it is putting the weed cloth down would seem to cut the plants off from the earth. I suppose adding the compost will add the microbes that would be needed for healthy soil ecology and you wouldn't have a problem with weeds. I'm thinking about building a box and trying his system out. Any thoughts?

Ric said...

Kevin: I just posted some thoughts on our recent road trip. It's just a brief skim. If I had taken notes, I could write a fair-sized book.

A thought occurred to me while doing all the driving that doesn't have much to do with compost, but it does touch on the idea that waste is really a resource being viewed by an unimaginative mind. I'm re-reading Barzun's From Dawn to Decadence and was struck by the young ages of some of those we view as major actors in history. We tell our adolescent (itself a recent invention) "children" they can't and shouldn't, stupefy them with seizure-inducing movies and video games, and if that fails, drug them and even institutionalize them. While we will no doubt be hated by future generations for our waste of fossil fuels, the waste of humans at the most energetic time of their life both mentally and physically must be at least as shameful.

And then there is this: Youth Unemployment Hits Record High. Maybe we won't have to wait for future generations to hate us; the current one has good reason to feel they have been sold some very expensive snake oil.

Kevin said...

Thanks Ric for the lowdown. What I've noticed without going anywhere much is the decline in road quality, even in a region long thought rich (SF bay). Also, there are the trash divers. They've been around for many years of course, at least in urban areas, but the quantity of people regularly going through recycling bins to collect bottles and whatnot has recently shot up in my neighborhood.

About rats being viewed as furry earthworms: I prefer the worms, and tend to think of rats as disease vectors. I've read that bubonic plague has been found in certain small mammals in the Pacific northwest, which is not exactly comforting information. Mageprof's remarks are a propos, for I've also heard that polio has still not quite been stamped out in some parts of the world, which means it can come back. What with the decline in the usefulness of antibiotics, the future of public health and medicine doesn't look altogether reassuring.

I'm delighted to hear about the clover. I love clover.

John Fry said...

JMG - thank you, very thought provoking. I don't know when I might get back to your blog so I want to post this now for any who will find this useful.

I recently began raising Black Soldier Fly grubs to feed my chickens and it has been a roaring success. I am in the hill country of Texas and my only issue is keeping the heat in the bins down to acceptable levels using water and fans when it's 100 degrees ambient and 113 in the bins.

In a couple of months I have expanded from one bin to six and each probably has 30,000 immature grubs presently. I'm sourcing waste livestock feed from my local feedstore buddy - broken bags, buggy feed, out of date and such, in addition to all of our vegetable and fruit scraps.

They are extremely voracious and each female lays on average 700 eggs, so with anywhere from 10 to 20 females laying on any given day the numbers escalate rapidly.

The mature grubs are high in protein and fat and feeding them to my hens has increased the quality of their eggs, especially the yolks.

There is a wealth of information at

I highly recommend this form of composting to anyone in the southern states where the BSF is abundant. It fits well with your concept of facilitating that which nature is already good at doing.

Kevin said...

Ric, our culture's infantilization of youth strikes me as one of its more repugnant attributes, especially when I consider the ethical implications of habitually doping kids on Ritalin as a way of suppressing their natural energy. Why was this never found necessary in previous epochs? As others have already mentioned here, it's one of the things that are sure to go as industrialism recedes into the past, and good riddance. In this case.

Yes, future generations will indeed have good reason to hate us for squandering fossil fuels. It's really such an incredibly dumb thing to do. I've downloaded a video of Aldous Huxley saying as long ago as 1958 that oil would run out, and he was by no means the only farsighted person then, so it's not like we haven't had plenty of warning about it.

I would guess the biggest pot of snake oil going around these days is massive student debt in service to a now or soon-to-be useless "higher education," as JMG has suggested. What an odious con.

Cathy McGuire said...

@MageProf …I suppose when bacteria evolve to resist all our antibiotics, we can always follow these strict protocols in our hospitals.
I wouldn’t count on it; staffing is going down, and has been nowhere near the levels of the time you refer to…and with the economy in the dumps and everyone cutting/slashing costs… no one would give a nurse time off-unit to change and shower! I used to work in a hospital – you barely have time to wash your hands!!

@LucidDreams …Then he has you fill the box with equal parts of compost, vermiculite, and peat moss. If you buy the compost he wants you to buy 5 different brands… That is such a perfect example of the consumer society! “Don’t understand anything, just buy these products”… my family falls for that every year – my father used to raise “tomato in a box”, using just those protocols and yes, you get success… but the cost of the results is as much as the hothouse veggies you can get in the stores (or more!) And buying/wasting all that soil each year (yes, they toss it, and start and new foamcore box each year) is the opposite of what Green Wizards are learning – it’s consumered ignorance. Don’t let them snooker you!

Anyone familiar with Zero Waste Alliance Their web looks good, but I wonder how much effect they’ve had (I live in the area, but I’m not familiar with them. They talk about the no-waste concept quite a lot on their web.

LynnHarding said...

Thanks for the suggestions on drain clearing. As to Mel's Mix, I have built raised beds to those specs since his first book came out in 1983 both with and without the underlying filter fabric and never noticed much of a difference. Of course, this method assumes that you are just raising a few annual veggies and you aren't trying to rehab a large acreage. Annual vegetables are very hard on the soil which is why many people are looking to perennial crops. Mel always suggests adding compost for this reason. He isn't trying to work with cover crops to send deep roots into the soil. He is trying to produce a lot of foot in a small space. I think of his beds as basically large flower pots. The roots of most annual veggies don't go very deep.
That said, why even use the filter fabric? Just put down some cardboard.

Bill Pulliam said...

Don -- Redbuds are definitely worth the space regardless of what they do or don't do with soil N! It's one of the high points of early spring around here when the redbuds come into bloom and the still mostly leafless woods are full of "purple haze." We've often wondered about the fact that Jimi Hendrix lived in Tennessee when he wrote that...

Black Locust is one of the most widely planted N-fixing trees in Appalachia, and it's mid-spring white blooms are nothing to scoff at either. It's especially used for rehabilitating badly eroded areas. It's actual effectiveness as compared to other options, I'm not sure of.

mageprof said...

Cathy McGuire wrote in reply:

"@MageProf 'I suppose when bacteria evolve to resist all our antibiotics, we can always follow these strict protocols in our hospitals.'
I wouldn’t count on it; staffing is going down, and has been nowhere near the levels of the time you refer to…and with the economy in the dumps and everyone cutting/slashing costs… no one would give a nurse time off-unit to change and shower! I used to work in a hospital – you barely have time to wash your hands!!"

No, I'm certainly not counting on it. (I'm such a pessimist . . .) What I suppose will actually happen is that the mortality rate in hospitals, like the jobless rate in society at large, will skyrocket over the next 10 or 20 years.

Don Plummer said...

Ditto your opinion of redbuds.

Black locusts grow wild along the roadsides around here. They're lovely in June when they bloom. Some people consider them a weed because they're so prolific and they grow so fast.

I understand the wood is quite rot resistant, too, but it's hard to find in the lumberyards.

LynnHarding said...

Black locust is one of the most useful trees on earth. Its blossoms feed beneficial insects, it fixes nitrogen and it grows quickly and burns well. It also doesn't rot and is a natural alternative to pressure treated wood. Negatives: I think that either the bark or leaves or both may be poisonous to horses or goats and it is hard to work with (mill and drill.) Black locust trees were brought over on the early ships from England, so I have been told. I have also been told that they were once native here and were starting to return even without the europeans.
So here is what the government in Massachusetts has done: banned their sale and their planting. They say that they are invasive. We should be so lucky as to be invaded by something useful for a change. Your tax dollars at work!

Jeff said...

Dealing with slugs: They LOVE beer. the cheap kind too. pour beer into pie pans or something similar. Set at intervals around your garden. Slugs drink, drunk, drown.

I use straw mulch and that's how I keep them under control. Works like a charm.

Bill Pulliam said...

Black Locust is native to southern Appalachia including the Ozark/Ouachita region, from PA south to AL and west to AR, MO, and OK. It is introduced farther north and west. So its status as native versus potentially invasive weed depends on where you are.

pasttense said...

Here's an Oil Drum discussion of a proposal for a massive Civilian Conservation Corps-type organization (natural resource projects for youths from the Depression era) for permaculture: