How do you view the Earth?  

Is it a gift that we should cherish so that we can continue in the eternal gifting to the next generation?  Or is it more along the lines of a prostitute?  Something we take for granted, use it, abuse it, deplete it, beat it, and when it can no longer serve our purposes we start to look for our next target?  

Me?  I’m starting to view it more and more as a gift.  Maybe it’s that I’m a father, or maybe it’s that the Lord is always slowly changing my heart.  Whatever it is, I need to learn more about cherishing it.  I need to learn that it is in the giving care to, that we receive gifts from.

Have you ever read “The Giving Tree” by Shell Sylverstein?  To me it is an incredibly depressing children’s book about love, and reminds me of how the earth is treated.  It’s due time we change this perspective as a collective whole.

We’ve all been taught there are multiple types of ecosystems around the earth, and that these are comprised of an energy transfer cycle through the living and nonliving elements in that region.  Life forms have suitably adapted to live in their individual environments and ecosystems.  We tend to think of ecosystems are vast portions of the earth, the arctic, deserts, rainforests, tropics, plains, etc.  These large ecosystems can be called biomes.

Biomes are broken into more regional ecosystems called a messo ecosystem.  This would be looking at a forest, a lake, a watershed, etc.  And of course, we can break this down more into a micro ecosystem which are significantly smaller still.  Ponds, trees, and rocks can each be their own micro ecosystem.  

These are all easy for us to wrap our heads around.  We can see the animals within each size of ecosystem.  We can see water running through it, and how food is produced, allowing us to see the energy transfer.  Where the carbon and nitrogen go, etc.  But what about an ecosystem that we haven’t been taught about?  One that is much more difficult to understand?  One that is incredibly delicate, but acts as the base of every ecosystem in the world?

What’s that you ask?

Soil!

Did you know that soil is comprised of broken rocks, minerals, air, water, living material like mycelium, and decomposing organic matter?  That it can be considered a biome, messo, and micro ecosystem?

Another name for soil is humus.  Does that sound familiar?  Humus is the nutrient rich spongy earth that is incredibly fertile.  It isn’t completely understood yet, but for simplicity’s sake, think compost, topsoil, etc.  

Humus shares a root with another word that you are familiar with, human.  Humus means of the ground, human means man.  In the Biblical creation story it talks about how humans are a humble creation exhumed from the humus.  The paraphrase is obviously mine.

Having regular contact with humus is healthy for humans.  More is being learned about the relationship between the two, and how it is actually a natural antidepressant.

Crazy!

We know a lot about the carbon cycle.  How CO2 is given off through various means, captured by plants, and processed through photosynthesis.  When plants die, they release carbon as well.  Naturally carbon is stored in the ground.  Unfortunately now, carbon is being stored in the air.  With higher CO2 levels, plants can increase in productivity, but unfortunately they do so by sacrificing their nutrient values, using higher CO2 to make more starch and sugar and less vital nutrients.

Nitrogen plays an important role in plants and soil as well.  Most of the air we breath is made up of nitrogen.  Plants aren’t capable of using nitrogen from the air.  They can only utilize nitrates from the soil for making proteins.  Rain and lightning are actually used to transfer nitrogen into the ground.  Ammonia can also be converted through nitrifying bacteria in the ground.  These bacteria and certain root nodules are responsible for making nitrates.

Plants create their protein, animals eat it, and excrete nitrogen back into the air.  When they have natural excretions and eventually die, they can put some nitrogen back into the soil.  There are also denitrifying bacteria that break down nitrates and return them to the air as nitrogen.  An over abundance of this bacteria depletes the soil of nitrates and makes soil infertile.

Scientists are learning more about the role that mushrooms play within soil ecosystems as well.  They’ve known that they help in decomposing organic material, but did you know that their roots act as a means of communication between plants, like the internet.  Trees can actually send messages between themselves via mycelium, or mushroom roots.  Messages like predator invasions that are coming, via insects, and that they need to boost their defences.  They can transfer carbon between them too.  Beyond that, trees provide sugar for the mushrooms, and mushrooms help trees absorb nutrients.  

Understanding these different ecosystems, and what plants flourish in each one, is a driving force behind several gardening movements.

Each gardener has different resources, in different environments, with different land and time constraints.  Gardening also provides different benefits, social, emotional, and financial to offer the gardener.  Below I will look at several different options and styles of farming/gardening, and what can be had financially from each style.

Modern Farming Practices

Unfortunately modern farming practices have failed to respect the balance of ecosystems, and soil science.  Their driving force of feeding the world is a just cause to say the least, but I believe it is time to start reevaluating.  Instead of focusing on the delicate balance of the soil in their fields, they pump them full of nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium.  The means by which they deliver these chemicals puts excessive carbon in the air.  

Putting carbon in the air when it belongs in the ground, and excessive nitrogen in the ground when it belongs in the air seems counterintuitive to me.  What do you think?  

Despite appearing to be more efficient and producing vast amounts of limited food, modern farming practices are actually less efficient.  To produce 1 calorie of food in the 1940’s it took approximately ½ a calorie of fossil fuels.  Today that has raised to 10 calories of fossil fuels.

I grew up around wheat farmers, and have worked on a farm.  You constantly hear that you can’t make money scratching the dirt.  A quick look at the numbers would suggest that is probably true.  A bumper wheat crop from where I’m from is around 50 bushels an acre.  The current price of wheat is $4.47/bushel, which would fall if everyone had a bumper crop.

50 x 4.47 = $223.5 an acre gross growing 1 crop on unrespected soil in a good year.  Even if you more than doubled this and called it $500 is that something that is economically feasible?

Potted Garden

News shock…not everyone has 10,000 acres at their disposal to make a living off of.  But, I’m going to make an assumption that everyone enjoys delicious food that is fresh and as close to free as you can get.  A potted garden is the perfect way for people with limited space to enjoy the fruits of their gardening labor.

Do you have a window, balcony, or somewhere in your apartment or house that can get a little sunlight and/or a grow lamp?  You can fill it with a couple of your favorite plants.  You can create the ideal micro soil environment for each of your different plants.

Want tomatoes?  They prefer a higher ph level, lots of compost and peat moss, limited water, and micronutrients.  Limiting the water is actually believed to increase the sweetness of the tomatoes.  This is something that is easier to regulate in a potted garden than anywhere else.  Some people say to use plant food which consists of…you guessed it…nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium.  I’ll leave that to you to decide.

For nice juicy heirloom tomatoes you will pay around $6/pound.  An average potted tomato plant should yield 12-20 pounds per plant.  That should save you around $72 in tomatoes.

Prefer rosemary?  It likes an alkaline ph, low acid, low peat moss, and sand to allow for drainage.  Make that preferred soil blend and grow your rosemary.  You can buy fresh rosemary for around $2.50/oz.  It’s hard to determine how much rosemary you could harvest from a single plant, but they will grow year round, and I’ve come across plants that you could easily harvest a couple pounds.

Potted gardens also give you the opportunity to grow unique things year round like fruit trees.  I like to grow buddha belly in pots.  It is a plant that makes your mouth go numb.  I’ve only come across them once for sale in a farmers market, and they were a dollar per flower.  My potted plants grow tons of flowers.

Potted gardens won’t provide economic stability by any means, but they will help you save a little cash, have fresh food with better nutrients and flavor than store bought, and make your place a little prettier.

Raised Beds

Raised beds in a vegetable community garden

Do you have a little more room than just a window sill or patio? Perhaps you would be interested in a raised bed.  Find a plot in your yard that receives plenty of sunlight and plan the best shape for your garden.

This is where the raised beds become fun, you can design them however you would like.  The typical layout is rectangular.  You can make it as large or as small as you want.  Simply build up the sides at least 6 inches to hold the soil in.

There are other common patterns to think about for your raised bed.  If you plan several rectangle beds you should possibly consider a keyhole garden.  This design allows you to easily access the majority of your beds from one central location.

Do you prefer to not take up yard space, but have a large deck or patio?  Look into pyramid gardens?  It is a design that stacks beds on top of each other to form a pyramid.  This is great if you are looking to grow herbs.

Once you have your garden layout planned and built you can start to focus on the what you want to plant and the types of soil you need.  Raised beds are small enough that you can easily focus on individual soil types, but large enough that you can increase your productivity dramatically.

One way to build up the soil content in your raised bed is utilize the lasagna gardening technique.  No, a lasagna garden isn’t similar to a pizza garden or salsa garden.  It gets its name from the layering that goes on, similar to lasagna.

You layer all sorts of different material, newspaper, cardboard, straw, leaves, grass clippings, compost, manure, topsoil, or whatever else you want, in your bed in the fall so that it has all fall and winter to slowly decompose.  In the spring cover it again with compost and/or potting soil and you will have a rich, fertile bed to start planting.

Do you like to dig?  Do you have access to lots of rotting wood, and logs?  Do you live in a drier climate?  Maybe you would be interested in hugelkultur for your beds?  You dig out a trench or pit in the shape of your bed and fill it with logs.  On top of the logs you layer organic material, topped with compost and topsoil.  The logs slowly break down over many years, and act like a sponge for your garden.  They absorb excess water, and release it during drier times.  This is the method I currently use, and you can read more about it here.

Now you can start laying out your garden.  To maximize its yield, simply divide the entire garden into individual “pots”.  Every 6 inches, tie a string across your garden in both directions.  Now you have square pots throughout your entire garden.  Plant 1 to 4 plants per square.  If you are planting larger plants you can plant 1 plant per 2 or 4 squares.

Using the same numbers as above you can quickly see how much this technique will save you in groceries with just 1 bed.


Photo from Green City Acres website

If you want to devote your entire yard to beds, and spend much more time in the planning, maintaining, and harvesting portions as well as adding a distribution leg, you could make a living from beds in a small yard.  Curtis Stone regularly makes $75,000/year from his ⅓ acre yard selling produce to chefs and at farmers markets in British Columbia.  

Permaculture

Do you have a little extra space, and a great love for nature?  Permaculture might be right up your alley.  

“Permaculture is a philosophy of working with, rather than against nature; of protracted and thoughtful observation rather than protracted and thoughtless labour; of looking at plants and animals in all their functions, rather than treating any area as a single-product system.” 

      Bill Mollison (Co-founder of permaculture)

Say what?

It sounds really hippyish you say.

Maybe it is, but replicating nature seems like a smart choice to me.  

So what does this look like on a practical level?

12 permaculture principles - Google Search

As you can tell, this isn’t an overnight plan, or something you can integrate in an afternoon or long weekend like the gardening techniques mentioned above.  

Here is the description of a garden from a family in France that practices permaculture.

                  Photo from Ferme du Bec website

The farm itself is 1 km from the village. This 1.8 hectare site, in the enchanting setting of the Bec valley, classified as Natura 2000, is a showcase of the concepts of permaculture and organic farming.

The application of the concepts of permaculture to agriculture aims to create a harmonious, autonomous and sustainable ” edible landscape “. We grow vegetables, fruits and berries, aromatic and medicinal plants (800 varieties). An original design allows a particularly intensive production, by natural means, practically without using fossil energies. To the west of the plot, a forest garden(food forest, edible forest, a concept originating from tropical regions aiming to recreate an edible forest), where fruit and berries grow from our home, but also from different regions of the world (goji, goumis, saskatoon, ragouminiers, feijoas, kiwifruit, aronia, mayberries, almond trees, strawberry trees, sea buckthorns, platemakers, junipers, blackberries …). The forest shelters prevailing winds two garden islands which benefit from a privileged micro-climate. The reflection of the sun on the surface of the pools contributes to this. The reeds growing in the ponds serve as forage for animals and mulch on the islands. An aquaculture experience (common carp) is conducted, to the delight of kingfishers, egrets and herons …agroforestry gardens combine fruit trees, permanent mounds and cultivated bands worked in animal traction. A carefully cultivated 600m2 greenhouse and flat mound gardens according to the American system of Eliot Coleman allow a vegetable production all year round. A circular garden, the ” mandala garden “, of 800 m2, is equipped with round permanent hills, complementary to the flat hillocks. Small grasslands allow to keep animals (draft horse, donkey, ponies, sheep) in the heart of the farm, renewing with the so fertile association between breeding and cultures.

All these small environments interact, fulfill various complementary functions and promote a beneficial micro-climate. The whole is more than the sum of the parts. Nothing is lost, everything is recycled inside the agro-ecosystem. The cultivated biodiversity is very important and animals as well as humans have their place in these gardens. Wild animals are also abundant, especially birds with a large number of species observed. This biodiversity allows greater resilience to climatic accidents.

1000 m2 cultivated are identified and are the subject of a study over 3 years with the INRA and AgroParisTech . French and foreign agronomists (Japan, Brazil, Cuba …) come to the farm to observe this experience.

The creation of these gardens was a very rewarding experience for us. Since the Neolithic, the valley of the Bec, like the adjacent valleys, has not been cultivated because the soil is very shallow: a layer of topsoil about twenty centimeters only covers a bed of flint and gravel. Conditions are therefore particularly unfavorable to market gardening. In addition, a valley bottom is a pocket for the cold air that flows from the surrounding hills and the frost is frequent there, until late May sometimes. However, the implementation of permaculture concepts has led to the creation of intensively productive orchards and gardens. A surface grown in market gardening of 4000 m2 produced 80 to 120 weekly baskets in 2011 and the margin of progress is important.

This agro-ecosystem is designed to become increasingly fertile and self-sustaining over the years. Creating fertility, abundance in a rather ungrateful environment, is possible by allowing the potential of nature to express itself. Work in the direction of life rather than against it!

“Pleasure is also a harvest,” said Bill Molisson, the founder of permaculture. Beauty is a form of food and we see throughout the year, to the happiness of our visitors, that harmonious gardens do more than nourish the bodies. They also nourish the senses, the emotions and the soul of humans. The farms of tomorrow must produce quality food, but also reconnect humans to nature.

Photo from Singing Frogs Farm website

The Singing Frogs Farm in California practices permaculture and not till on their 8 acre farm, and have been able to average $100,000 per acre from their produce. That takes a lot more effort and planning than most people are willing to put into their gardens.

Ideas and practices from any of these styles of gardening can easily be interchanged.  Experiment with what works for you and your garden.  Try new ideas that you get.  My wife’s grandfather raised corn.  He had an idea to sow seeds in the evening when the soil was warm.  His neighbors would sow in the morning.  Every year he would brag that his plants were sprouted several days ahead of his neighbors.  Share your ideas, successes, and failures with others including us.  It will help everyone improve the health of their gardens.

This is why we all need to start looking at alternatives to massive modern farms.  We can already feed the world’s population, now let’s start putting nutrients back into our food.

Now What?

So now what?  Now you have some ideas, start to implement them.  I’m planning to start diving more in depth in different micro farm practices and having others do some teaching as well.  

What about if you only have room for a potted plant, and want to practice permaculture?  Cultivate is working to develop a platform that brings people together for this purpose.  Do you want to do more than your property allows, or do you have the property but not the energy?  Let me know, and I will do what I can to connect you.

Let’s all start working together, and maybe, we can start to change our yards, neighborhoods, cities, and world together.

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