Wednesday, August 25, 2010

The Care and Feeding of Time Machines

The distinction between intensive and extensive food plant production discussed in last week’s post has implications that go well beyond the obvious. When you garden a backyard or a few acres intensively, you can spare the time, energy, and resources to do things you can’t do on an extensive farm of a few hundred acres, and the payback can be spectacular.

This week’s post is going to explore one set of these possibilities. I could be prosaic and give that set any number of labels, but half the fun of the Green Wizard project consists of pointing out the way that many of the possibilities open to us just now stray over the border into the realms of fantasy and legend, so I’ll use a slightly more colorful term for the approaches I have in mind. What we’ll be discussing, then, is the art of making and using time machines.

The gardener’s art, after all, requires a close attentiveness to time, and in particular to dimensions of time that contemporary culture doesn’t grasp as well as it should. We’re so used to thinking of time as an abstract numerical measurement – so many minutes, hours, days, or what have you – that it’s often easy to lose track of the fact that for living beings, time always has a qualitative dimension as well as a quantitative one. In the temperate zone, for example, four o’clock in the afternoon is a completely different time for living things in January than it is in August, and twenty days means something completely different for living things at one season than it does at another.

Skilled gardening depends on these qualitative differences. Most of the best gardeners I’ve ever known made it a habit to go out into the garden first thing in the morning and stand there, hands in pockets, doing nothing in particular except trying to get a sense of what the garden was doing, or ready to do, on that particular day. Most of them also had a collection of ground rules setting out the basic rules of garden timing, with wiggle room so they could be adjusted for the vagaries of weather and the like. Choosing the right time to plant particular crops, in particular, is a fine art, and usually ends up supported by traditional incantations that are handed down from generation to generation.

In the soggy Western Washington climate where I learned organic gardening, for example, it was the received wisdom that you had to get your peas in the ground by George Washington’s birthday in order to get a good crop. Where I now live in the north central Appalachians, in the same way, I’ve been told repeatedly by gardeners that it’s time to plant corn when the leaves on the oaks are the size of a mouse’s ear. Mind you, I don’t know for a fact that there’s an Appalachian Standard Mouse whose ears all the local oldtimers have carefully measured, but I’m not sure it would surprise me.

The differences between one time and another are crucial throughout the annual cycle of the garden, but they become especially so in the earlier and later parts of the growing season, when a few degrees of temperature one way or another can make the difference between successful germination and a failed crop, and the threat of an unexpected frost looms over the garden beds like Godzilla over Tokyo in a Japanese monster movie. That’s when gardeners wish they could somehow conjure up a couple of spare weeks of frost-free weather for spring planting or a spare month of good weather in fall to let some late-ripening crop finish its life cycle.

This is where the time machines come in, of course. Now of course we could call them “season extenders” or simply ways to stretch the number of weeks in which your garden can be productive, but why not go for the more colorful label?

There are two distinct approaches to the care and feeding of time machines, and you can use either or both of them in a backyard garden of the sort these posts are discussing. The first relies on the simple botanical facts that not all plants have the same response to temperature, and that crops with different seasons can overlap quite closely in an intensive garden without interfering with each other at all. The second relies on the equally simple botanical principle that temperature, not day length, determines the season limits for nearly all food crops, and cold – especially freezing cold – is the primary limiting factor over most of the temperate zone, so anything that changes the temperature in and around your plants changes their effective season.

The first time machine, as far as I know, was invented by a forgotten backyard gardener by the name of A.B. Ross, whose 1925 book Big Crops from Little Gardens I’ll be scanning and making available for apprentice green wizards as soon as time permits. Ross found that he could plant his garden in three shifts – “prior crops” of plants that germinate well in spring’s cool temperatures, “main crops” of plants that need summer heat to thrive, and “follow crops” of plants that can handle fall frosts when ripe – and do these three shifts in two rows, planted much more closely together than the ordinary garden practice of his time thought possible. His methods rely on intensive gardening methods – you couldn’t get away with them in a big field – but in their own context, they work very well indeed.

Here’s how it works. First thing in spring, as soon as the soil is workable, you prepare your garden beds and start planting rows of prior crops – snow peas, early radishes, curly lettuce, spinach, and the like – with three feet between each row, putting in a new row every ten days or so, so your harvests will be staggered and you won’t end up with too much of anything to eat at any one time. Once weather permits, you start planting your main crops in rows spaced midway between the prior crops, so they begin to grow while the prior crop is maturing. By the time the main crop is maturing, the prior crop is gone, and you’ve had time to work a little compost into the now-empty rows; that’s when you plant the follow crop for fall and winter – cabbage, kale, turnips, more snow peas and radishes, and so on. By the time these are ready to put on their full growth, the main crop has been harvested. The result is that you get three harvests out of one garden bed.

Ross worked the same trick within individual rows as well, training his plants up poles, for example, to minimize the amount of ground they shaded. The only later book I know of that refers to his method, John and Helen Philbrick’s Organic Gardening for Health and Nutrition, comments that “one sometimes needs a diagram of the plantings to locate certain plants in the jungle that is likely to result.” This has certainly been my experience; it’s the only gardening method I know that results in a vegetable garden as dense as a weed thicket or an old-fashioned cottage garden, not to mention one that bears continuously from late spring through the first couple of killing frosts.

The second way of building a time machine is a good deal more popular these days than Ross’ clever method. It relies on a principle that we’ll be applying repeatedly in these posts – the ability of simple technologies to turn solar energy into useful amounts of diffuse heat. If you’ve ever climbed into a car that’s been left in the sun for a few hours on a hot summer day, and yelped when your arm brushed against a vinyl seat heated to the sizzling point, you know the basic trick: a contained space with a transparent cover that lets sun in, but won’t let heat out, warms up very effectively in the sun’s rays.

That’s the trick that our second set of time machines use. There are any number of methods of applying it, starting with the cloche. What’s a cloche? A transparent, bell-shaped cover with an open bottom that you plump down on top of a plant in spring, before the weather warms. Sunlight streams in through the cloche and warms everything inside – the air, the plant, and the circle of soil within the edges of the cloche – but the heat can’t get back out anything like as easily as it gets in. You can spend a lot of money to get elegant glass cloches with or without little vents on top, or you can take ordinary 2-liter bullet bottles, strip off the labels, cut off the bottoms with a good sharp knife or a pair of snips, and you’re good to go. Cloches are especially useful when setting out seedlings early in the season, when the cold can hinder plant growth and there’s still some danger of frost; by the time the plants are well established and starting to bump up against the limits of the cloche, the weather’s usually warm enough that you can take them off, give them a good wash, and put them in the basement for next year.

The next step up from the cloche is the row cover. What’s a row cover? Imagine a cloche grown long and wide enough to cover a good section of a garden bed – say, eight feet long, two feet wide, and two feet high. Most of the ones I’ve seen and handled have a framework of wood or one-inch PVC tubing and are covered on the top and sides with clear sheet plastic; duct tape usually plays a role in there somewhere as well. You put it over plants you want to protect against cold and frost, just as you do with a cloche. If you live in a windy area, you’ll need stakes to keep it from blowing away; if you live in an area that gets hot sun even in spring, you’ll want to make sure things don’t get too hot for comfort under the row cover in mid-afternoon, and prop it up along one long side to let excess heat get out if this becomes an issue.

Ready for the next step? That’s a cold frame, which might best be described as a permanent row cover. Your standard cold frame has wooden sides and back, and a hinged lid on top, slanted down toward the southern side, that’s made of glass or transparent plastic; the front can be wood or glazing, depending on your preference; the bottom is a garden bed. The colder your climate, the more carefully you have to insulate the back and sides and weatherstrip the opening around the lid to get good results. Think of it as a sminiature solar greenhouse with access from the top and you’ve basically got the idea. Choose the location for your cold frame well, so it will get plenty of sun in winter, and you can get hardy crops from it year round.

The final step in the succession, the ultimate backyard garden time machine, is a solar greenhouse. This isn’t a simple project, and needs to be put together by someone with at least basic carpentry skills. If that’s you or someone you know, though, don’t hesitate, because a solar greenhouse in a good location can have spectacular payoffs, starting with a year round vegetable supply. If you can arrange to have it backed up against a south-facing wall of your home, for that matter, it can turn into a source of solar space heating – we’ll be discussing that in a later post.

The value of all these methods for extending the growing season, and making seven months do the work of nine or more, is simple enough when you remember that the system that supplies fresh vegetables and other nutrient-rich foods to your local grocery store is spectacularly dependent on an uninterrupted flow of cheap petroleum-based fuels and agricultural chemicals. It’s likely to be a while before supplies of bulk grains and dry legumes run short anywhere in North America, but a serious disruption in petroleum supplies – something that could happen for political or economic reasons with essentially no warning – could leave most people in the industrial world scrambling to get access to anything else. Having a thriving backyard garden that keeps you and your family comfortably supplied with vegetables is one kind of security; being able to teach other people in your neighborhood how to do the same thing is another kind of security, and both are worth having.


The two books referenced in this week’s post are A.B. Ross, Big Crops from Little Gardens, and John and Helen Philbrick, Organic Gardening for Health and Nutrition. The latter is readily available; the former is tolerably rare, and (since it’s long out of copyright) will be scanned and posted on the Cultural Conservers Foundation website as soon as time permits.

There are any number of good books on cloches, row covers, cold frames and solar greenhouses. Three books that have been mainstays of my library are Rick Fisher and Bill Yanda’s classic The Food and Heat Producing Solar Greenhouse, William Head’s Gardening Under Cover, and the predictably massive and detailed Rodale Press book on the subject, James C. McCullagh (ed)., The Solar Greenhouse Book. All three of these have detailed plans for solar greenhouses, and the latter two also cover some of the smaller species in the same family of time machines.

Wednesday, August 18, 2010

Two Agricultures, Not One

Talking about the future after peak oil is a challenging thing. One of the things that makes it most challenging is the extent to which so many people seem unable to imagine any way of doing things that isn’t business as usual in some lightly modified form. Last week’s post made a passing reference to this odd blinkering of our collective imagination, in the context of current worries in the peak oil blogosphere about “peak phosphorus.”

It’s true, of course, that the rapid depletion of the world’s reserves of rock phosphate, a key ingredient in chemical fertilizers, is a serious short term problem. Today’s agricultural systems depend on chemical fertilizers, and there aren’t any other abundant and highly concentrated sources of mineral phosphate available to be dumped into the intake hoppers of fertilizer factories. Still, this doesn’t mean that we’re all going to starve to death; it means that the way we produce food nowadays is not long for the world, and will be replaced by other ways of producing food that don’t depend on mass infusions of nonrenewable resources.

Those other ways already exist, and have the benefit of well over a century of practical experience and testing. What makes it difficult for many people to notice them, or factor them into a sense of the future, is that they don’t look like industrial agriculture at all. To borrow a metaphor from computer technology, they aren’t plug-and-play components; they presuppose radically different relationships among land, resources, farmers, crops, and consumers; and as they expand into the space left blank by today’s faltering industrial agriculture – a process already well under way – the new social forms defined by these relationships differ so starkly from existing forms of food production and distribution so greatly that many people have trouble fitting the new possibilities into their view of the future..

Of course this same pattern pervades nearly all current debates about peak oil. Consider the endless bickering over the potential of renewable energy. Most of that bickering presupposes that the only way a society can or should use energy is the way today’s industrial nations currently use energy. Thus you get one side insisting that windpower, say, can provide the same sort of instantly accessible and abundant energy supply we’re used to having, using some equivalent of the same distribution systems and technologies we’re used to using, while the other side – generally with better evidence – insists that it can’t.

What nearly always gets missed in these debates is the fact that it’s quite possible to have a technologically advanced and humane society without, for example, having electricity on demand from sockets on every wall across the length and breadth of a continent, or mortgaging our future to allow individuals to zoom around in hopelessly inefficient personal vehicles on an extravagant system of highways. The sooner we start thinking about what kinds and forms of energy wind turbines are actually best suited to produce – rather than trying to forcie them onto the Procrustean bed of an electrical grid that was designed to exploit the very idiosyncratic kinds of energy you get from fossil fuel supplies – the sooner windpower can be put to use building an energy system for the future, rather than propping up a failing one from the past. What stands in the way of this recognition, of course, is the emotional power of today’s ideology of progress, the purblind assumption that the way we do things must be the best possible way to do them.

A similar set of blinders blocks the way to a clear sense of our agricultural options in the age of peak oil. It’s indicative, for example, that a recent post here on composting brought several denunciatory responses insisting that there was no way for one family to produce enough compost to fertilize a 640-acre wheat farm or the equivalent. In one sense, that sort of response is quite correct; in another, it’s completely beside the point, because you wouldn’t use homebrewed compost to fertilize a 640-acre wheat farm at all. Composting, especially on a home scale, is aimed at a different part of the complex land use pattern of a sustainable agricultural system.

If you hopped into a time machine and went back to visit farm country a century or so, to the days when sprawling interstate highway systems and fleets of trucks hadn’t yet made distance an irrelevance over continental scales, you’d notice something about the farms of that time that you won’t find in most farms today: each farm had, apart from its main acreage for corn or wheat or what have you, a kitchen garden, an orchard, a henhouse, and a bit of pasture for a cow or two. Those had a completely different economic function from that of the main acreage, and they were managed in a completely different way. Their function was to produce food for the farm family and farmhands, where the main acreage was used to produce a cash crop for sale; and they were worked intensively, while the main acreage was farmed extensively.

The shift in prefixes between these two words defines a nearly total change in approach. Extensive farming, as the term suggests, involves significant acreage. It maintains soil fertility through crop rotation and fallow periods, rather than through fertilizers or soil amendments. The basic tools of the trade are a plow and something to draw it – horses or oxen, when you don’t have factories to produce tractors and fossil fuels to power them – with add-ons up to and including the huge horse-drawn combines that lumbered over American fields in the 1920s. The crops that you can grow with extensive farming in temperate regions, in the absence of cheap abundant energy, are pretty much limited to grains, dry beans and dry peas, but you can produce these in very substantial amounts, and they store and ship well, so they make good cash crops even if the only way to get them to market is a wagon to the nearest river system and a canal boat from there.

Intensive gardening has to be done on a much smaller scale; among other reasons, the labor it requires is too substantial to be applied to acreage of any size. It maintains soil fertility by adding whatever soil amendments are available – compost, manure, leaf mold, a fish buried in every corn hill, you name it – and the basic tools of the trade are a hoe and somebody who knows how to use it. The crops you can grow in an intensive garden account for everything other than grains and dry legumes, from the first spring radishes to the leeks you overwinter under straw; the chickens, the cow, and the fruit from the orchard all belong to this same intensive sector and participate in its tight cycles of nutrients. In an age without fossil fuels, very little of what can be grown intensively can be transported over any distance without spoiling, so intensive growing is always done close to where the food will be eaten.

That’s why every farm in the America of a century ago had its own intensive kitchen garden, orchard and livestock, and it’s also why every American city a hundred years ago was ringed with market gardens, chicken farms, dairies, and the like, to keep the shelves of urban grocers filled with something other than grains and dried legumes. It’s also why most American urban houses from a century ago, even the cramped little row houses that were built for factory workers, had a little plot in back that got at least a few hours of sunlight a day. That was where the kitchen garden and the hens went; they were as much a part of an ordinary urban household as the pantry.

Thus America a century ago had two separate systems of food production. You would have seen exactly the same thing in most other countries at the same time; if you left your time machine parked in some Iowa barn, hopped the train to New York, and booked passage on a tramp steamer headed around the world, you could count on finding much the same sort of double system busy at work in most of your ports of call. If you caught the train to Paris while your ship was taking on cargo in Marseilles, you would find that the market gardens around the French capitol were using the ancestor of today’s deep bed intensive gardening to keep their customers supplied with produce; if you had time to kill in Kowloon while the cargo from Marseilles was unloaded, you could travel inland a bit and see another ancestor of today’s organic gardening thriving on little patches of land, while the monotonous green of rice paddies spread in every direction around them.

The great transformation of American agriculture in the middle decades of the twentieth century, which was exported around the world under the banner of the “Green Revolution” a few decades later, centered on the abandonment of the intensive half of this system, and its replacement by extensive farming of all the crops that used to be grown intensively. That transformation was only possible because chemical fertilizers could (temporarily) replace the nutrients intensive gardening methods put into the soil by other means, and because petroleum-powered transport could (just as temporarily) make it possible for produce to be shipped across continents and oceans without spoiling, either in processed form or more recently in some semblance of its fresh condition.

The Green Revolution in particular was surrounded by massive propaganda campaigns about feeding the world, but I trust most people by now realize that much of its actual agenda focused on turning the rest of the world into a source of luxury crops for the industrial nations. The model they used was the one pioneered in the early 20th century by American fruit companies in Central America, right up to and including the corporate-backed kleptocracies that contributed the phrase “banana republic” to the English language. The project was a success, in narrowly economic terms; the replacement throughout the Third World of small farms growing food for local consumption with big farms growing export crops for overseas markets duly followed, as did the mass expropriation of land that has flooded Third World cities with dispossessed farm families ever since, and the inevitable famines and public health crises as well. Recent attempts to turn what foodstuffs are still produced in the Third World into automobile fuel for the industrial nations are simply one logical outcome of the same process.

Unfortunately for the architects and beneficiaries of this system, though perhaps fortunately for a good many others, the whole project depended on huge supplies of fertilizer feedstocks and fossil fuels, neither of which have turned out to be available indefinitely. For the world’s nonindustrial nations, then, the end of the industrial age thus ushers in a difficult but ultimately positive shift in which the mechanisms of foreign export, along with the wild distortions of political and economic power they produced, come apart at the seams. For the world’s industrial nations, on the other hand, the end of a system that kept shoppers happily supplied with strawberries in January promises to usher in a time of food crisis in which a system of intensive local production will need to be revived in a hurry.

It’s thus not accidental that the material discussed here in recent posts has focused on exactly the sort of small-scale intensive organic gardening that is well suited to fill this niche in the human ecology of the near future. For that matter, it’s not accidental that much of the last half century or so of research and experimentation into organic food growing has focused on exactly this sort of intensive production; it doubtless helped that it’s a lot easier to afford a backyard or two for experimental garden plots than it is to arrange for 640 acres or so to use some innovative organic farming method or other – though this has also been done, with good results. Some of my readers may be in a position, now or in the future, to try their hand at extensive farming using organic methods to produce grains and dry legumes, and a century from now maybe half the American population will be making their livings that way, but they will also have their own kitchen gardens, henhouses, and so on – and a much larger fraction of readers here and now are in the position to do the same thing.

The productive potential of intensive gardening, especially under emergency conditions, should not be underestimated. A team of researchers at pioneering organic-gardening group Ecology Action found, on the basis of extensive tests, that it’s possible to feed one person year round on a spare but adequate vegetarian diet off less than 1000 square feet of intensively gardened soil. (The details are in David Duhon’s book, listed in the resource section.) In the more troubled parts of the future ahead of us, some of us may have to do just that; a great many more of us will need to be able to garden in order to pad out potential irregularities in a food supply that’s desperately vulnerable, over the short term, to fluctuations in the price and availability of fertilizer feedstocks and fossil fuels. The victory gardens of past wars are likely to be a useful template for the survival gardens of the deindustrial future.

A little further down the road, as the resource and energy base for conventional farming begins to run noticeably short, the shift toward a more sustainable extensive agriculture will have to follow. I don’t expect to contribute much to that, as I don’t have any experience with large acreages; green wizards in training who are interested in pursuing extensive organic farming thus will have to do a fair bit of their own homework. For the moment, though, intensive gardening is the more urgent of the two, and it’s also the one with which I have some thirty years of hands-on experience in one form or another. The habit of abstract speculation about other people’s knowledge is not as useful as some seem to think; more useful and more important just know is teaching what one knows.


There are plenty of books on small-scale organic intensive gardening available these days; everyone has their favorites. John Jeavons’ How To Grow More Vegetables is among the most popular, though there are also plenty of people who swear at it rather than by it. Most of these latter seem to like Steve Solomon’s Gardening When It Counts, so having both of these on your shelf may be a good idea. Mel Bartholomew’s Square Foot Gardening is particularly good if you’ve never grown an edible plant before. Two other favorites of mine, out of print but readily available on the used book market, are John Seymour’s The Self-Sufficient Gardener and Duane Newcomb’s The Postage Stamp Garden Book.

The claim that intensive organic gardening can feed one person year round on less than 1000 square feet is documented in detail in David Duhon’s book One Circle, out of print and not always easy to find; my copy was purchased at a book sale where, to their lasting discredit, an organic farming and gardening organization that will go unnamed here was selling off their entire library of Seventies green wizardry books for pennies on the dollar. Another book that covers some of the same ground, and supports the same claim, is John A Freeman’s Survival Gardening.

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.

Wednesday, August 04, 2010

A Friendly Greeting from Annelids

Over the last few weeks, this blog has sketched out the basic outline of a green wizardry rooted in the appropriate tech movement of the Seventies but reshaped to meet the needs of the deindustrial future now taking shape around us. So far that outline has been drawn on a relatively abstract level; that’s useful as a starting point, but the practical dimension has to be addressed if a project like this is to have any impact at all on the profoundly concrete predicament facing the industrial world.

Hardly anything is so common nowadays as abstract enthusiasms that never quite find their way down to the messy realm of action in the world. The peak oil blogosphere is a particularly good place to spot them; just look for the people who insist that fourth-generation fission reactors, or fusion power, or algal biodiesel, or ethanol, or – well, you can fill in the blanks yourself – is going to save us all and permit some version of business as usual to continue indefinitely. I’ve already discussed at some length the many reasons why that isn’t going to happen, but set that aside for a moment; even if one or more of these technologies did happen to be a viable response, what actual contribution to that response is made by posting enthusiastic comments about it on internet sites?

As the old proverb has it, talk is cheap, and talk on the internet seems to be cheaper than most. One of the reasons behind this blog’s recent shift from analysis to action is precisely that we have plenty of the former and not enough of the latter. Thus it’s time to roll up our sleeves, break out the tools, and get grubby. In this post, and over the weeks and months to come, I’ll be examining specific pieces of the appropriate tech toolkit, sharing my experiences with them, and offering tips on at least some of the available resources. Not all my readers will be in a position to use all of the things that will be covered; some of my readers may have been doing one or another of them longer than I have. If you’re in either group, please be patient; many other readers won’t know this stuff, and each of the techniques I’ll be covering casts useful light on green wizardry as a whole, so you may just learn something anyway.

That latter point is especially true of the subject of this week’s post. Ask a hundred people who don’t practice organic gardening what the heart and soul of a successful organic garden is, and you’ll more than likely get a hundred different answers. Ask a hundred people who do practice organic gardening the same question, and my guess is that a majority of them will give you one answer: the compost bin. What some of them will go on to tell you, and most of the others know intuitively, is that the humble and lovable compost bin is the template on which the entire structure of any future sustainable society will pretty much have to be modeled.

Step out back with me, at least in some imaginary sense, and you can see how this works. My current compost bin is a roughly cubic object four feet on a side, made of recycled lumber and chicken wire, snugged up to the fence that surrounds my backyard garden. Every day, kitchen scraps and garden waste goes into it; every spring, a wheelbarrow load or two of rich brown dirt comes out of it and gets worked into the garden beds. There’s lesson number one for a sustainable society: the word “garbage” simply means a resource we aren’t clever enough to use yet.

Lesson number two requires taking a shovel and turning the compost. Once you’ve done that, let me introduce you to a few million of my closest friends: the living things that make compost happen. What organisms you get in a compost bin will be determined by how hot and fast you like to do your compost, and this in turn will be determined by what ingredients you use and how you tend the pile. “Hot,” by the way, is not a metaphor; a compost bin with the right mix of high-nitrogen and high-carbon materials can produce so much heat in the process of decay that you’ll need to hose it down daily in the summer to keep it from catching on fire. In that kind of heat, very little thrives except the thermophilic bacteria that drive the decay process, but they do thrive; a friend of mine still glows with pride when he recalls the compost pile he built in his 4-H days, which hit a peak temperature of 190°F and finished turning its carefully chosen layers of garden and kitchen waste into ripe compost in only fourteen days.

If you prefer a slower and lazier process, as I do, you can expect to get most of the major animal phyla in your compost bin, along with a bumper crop of fungus and an even larger population of microbes. Most of the critters you can see without magnification will be annelids and arthropods – that is, worms and bugs – and you’ll see a lot of them; a good magnifying glass will show you an even more diverse ecosystem; if you have a microscope handy, put a little of the compost in some distilled water, shake thoroughly, pipette a bit of the water into a well slide, and make the acquaintance of a giddy assortment of single-celled organisms who play their part in turning waste into a resource.

You also have the option of having a more limited fauna in your compost. People who live in apartments, condominiums, or houses subject to idiotic regulation by homeowner’s associations usually find it more functional to use a specialized form of composter called a worm bin. This is exactly what it sounds like, a bin full of dirt that’s also full of worms. You feed your vegetable scraps to the worms; they devour them, and excrete some of the best fertilizer you’ll find anywhere. Unlike compost bins, worm bins are easy to run indoors, are completely odorless, and can work well on a very small scale; I’ve known single people living alone who kept worm bins, and used the very modest output to keep their potted plants green and growing

One way or another, the livestock in your compost bin is essential to the composting process; without it, what you get isn’t compost but stinking goo. There’s a reason for this. What happens in a compost bin is exactly what happens in ordinary soil to the vegetable matter that falls onto it in the normal course of nature: decomposers – living things that feed on dead matter – eat it, cycle the nutrients in it through their own life processes, and then excrete those nutrients in forms that plants can use. What makes a compost bin different is that you, the green wizard, tinker with the conditions so that this natural process can happen as quickly and efficiently as possible, so that you can put the results in your garden where you want it. This is where lesson number two for a sustainable society comes in: instead of wasting your time trying to fight nature, figure out what she wants to do anyway, and arrange things so that her actions work to your advantage.

Lesson number three requires a little more attention to the details of composting. To keep your livestock happy and healthy, the compost needs to be damp but not soggy, and it needs to get plenty of oxygen. You need to be careful not to overdo the nitrogen – for example, too much freshly cut grass from your lawn will turn your bin into a soggy mess that smells of ammonia, because grass that’s still moist and green has too much nitrogen in it. (Leave it lying for a couple of days before raking it up, so that it wilts and starts to turn brown, and then you can add it to your compost bin with good results.) Different styles of composting, fast or slow, have their own detailed requirements, and worm bins have slightly different requirements of their own.

All these requirements have some wiggle room built into them, but not all that much, and if you stray too far beyond the wiggle room, things won’t work right until you fix the problem. Nothing else will do the job. You can’t bully or wheedle a compost bin; if you give it what it needs, it will give you what you want, and if you don’t, it won’t. It really is as simple as that. This can be generalized into lesson number three for a sustainable society: nature doesn’t negotiate. If you want her to work with you, you have to give her whatever she wants in return. Oh, and by the way, she won’t tell you. You have to figure that part out for yourself, or learn from someone who’s already figured it out.

At this point those of my readers who don’t already have compost bins full of a couple of million good friends will have divided into two groups. The first group consists of those people who are eager to get to work making compost; the second consists of those people who are backing nervously away from the computer monitor, hoping that annelids, arthropods and thermophilic bacteria don’t crawl through the internet and follow them home. If you’re a member of the latter group, you’ve probably already come up with a hundred plausible explanations why you can’t possibly compost your kitchen scraps, or even tuck a worm bin in the utility closet where it will be odorless, harmless, and comfortably out of the way. Still, you know as well as I do that the hundred plausible explanations aren’t the real reason you don’t want to take up composting. The real reason you don’t want to take up composting is the Squick Factor.

The Squick Factor is the ingrained and unreasoning terror of biological existence that’s hardwired into the psyches of so many people nowadays. Composting, remember, is about decay. Things put into a compost pile rot, and they get eaten by worms and bugs. Even when you’ve got your compost in a nice expensive bin made of textured recycled black plastic that nobody but a homeowner’s association could find objectionable, and the only scent that comes off it reminds you of summer meadows from childhood and can’t be smelled at all more than six inches away from the bin, composting triggers the Squick Factor in many people.

There’s another name for the Squick Factor: biophobia. Compost is life – damp, oozing, crawling, slithering, breeding, dying and being reborn – and life in the raw scares the bejesus out of most people in the industrial world these days. It’s an old, old phobia, and weaves its way through the history of ideas from ancient times, showing up with particular clarity in apocalyptic fantasies; still, ours is the first civilization in history that has had, however temporarily, enough energy and resources to let its more privileged classes pursue the fantasy of an existence free from biological realities.

The squicky feeling many people get when they contemplate putting their overaged bean sprouts into a compost bin is one reflection of our culture’s traditional biophobia. If you’re going to become a green wizard, though, that attitude is one you’re going to have to learn to do without sooner rather than later, because most of what we’ll be doing involves getting elbow deep in life. If the thought of having a compost bin or a worm bin sets off your Squick Factor, it’s important to recognize that fact and accept it, but it’s also important to go ahead anyway, take the plunge, and discover that the worms in your worm bin are the cleanest, quietest, and least demanding pets you’ve ever owned.

Next week we’ll begin the process of weaving composting into the wider realm of intensive organic gardening, one of the core systems of green wizardry, and make a first pass through some of the ways that the different elements of appropriate tech integrate with one another. In the meantime, if you aren’t composting yet, seriously consider giving it a try; if you are, tell your annelids and arthropods that mine said hi.


Most books on organic gardening have a chapter on composting, and for most purposes the information in those chapters is as much as you need. If you want a book specifically on composting, the classic practical book is Let It Rot! by Stu Campbell, which includes a half dozen different designs for homebuilt compost bins. Green wizards who want to get into the fine details should look for J. Minnich’s The Rodale Guide to Composting and Daniel L. Dindal’s Ecology of Compost. For worm bins, the book to get is another classic, Mary Appelhof’s Worms Eat My Garbage, which covers everything you need to know about this apartment-sized form of composting.

Better than any number of books is a Master Composter program. These exist in some communities, and are worth their weight in fertile topsoil; if you can arrange to take the classes, do the volunteer work, and earn the certificate, you’ll finish the process knowing a heck of a lot more about the fine art of composting than I’ve had space to cover here, and you’ll be prepared to teach it to others, which is an important part of a green wizard’s work.

If you don’t have a lot of construction skills yet, or your spouse is willing to tolerate a nice textured recycled plastic composting bin in a quiet corner of the backyard but draws the line at chicken wire and recycled lumber, check with your local garden supply or go to any of the dozens of online garden stores. A good but not overpriced compost bin will set you back somewhere between $100 and $150. Don’t get the tumbler kind – those are for batch composting, which only makes sense if you generate large amounts of vegetable matter at a go. The kind you want has a hatch on the top to put in kitchen scraps and yard waste, and a hatch down below to take out finished compost.