Garden & Agriculture Archive


Permaculture Q&A: Are Swales Right For You?

Tuesday, May 27th, 2014

Next up in the Permaculture Q&A series, where we pose questions from our readers to our authors, Wayne Weiseman, co-author of Integrated Forest Gardening, talks about swales. Wondering what a swale is?

Read on to learn more about these water harvesting ditches and what questions to ask to determine if they are right for your landscape.

For more detailed information about permaculture plant guilds, including techniques for designing swales, check out Weiseman’s recently released book which he co-wrote with authors Daniel Halsey and Bryce RuddockIntegrated Forest Gardening: The Complete Guide to Polycultures and Plant Guilds in Permaculture Systems.

And, browse these previous posts from the “Permaculture Q&A” series for answers to questions about soil preparation, design patterns, invasive grasses, and more:
Michael Judd’s Blueberry Soil Mix
Permaculture: An Economic Perspective
Eric Toensmeier on Aggressive Grass and Partial Shade
Toby Hemenway on Soil and Natural Patterns
Ben Falk Talks Nutrient Cycling

Kelly from AZ asks:
If you are not going to alley crop an area, how close would you build your swales from one another?

WAYNE WEISEMAN: A swale is a dead level ditch on contour. Contour lines are depicted on topographical maps at specific intervals and they delineate not only these dead level lines but also give us indication of where ridges and valleys have formed over geological time. Swales lie perpendicular (at right angles) to the slope and pick up all water moving downslope (by force of gravity), hold it, and percolate it into the soil profile slowly. Typically we begin our planting regimes downslope from the swale so that our young plants have the advantage of this slow percolation of water and the mechanism of capillary action through the soil pores. The small feeder roots on our plants now have the utmost opportunity to drink and take in minerals from the soil in solution.

There are many variables when it comes to designing a swale into a property. The first questions to ask are whether swales are applicable based on soil type, climate, rainfall averages and slope. But even before this, it is important to observe these aspects of place over a long period and begin to understand the patterns that present themselves from as many perspectives as possible, and especially during large rain events. We need to understand from which direction the water enters the property, how it flows through the property, and where it leaves it.

Additional key questions include: What will be planted on the berm and in the swale and up and down slope from them? In what part of the country is this land? What is the macroclimate of the region? What are the goals and vision of the owners? Is this simply a homestead where production will be meant only for the family or is this a market farm? How much planning has already been done and what has already been implemented on the property? Has there been insight as to how the entire infrastructure will be laid out? Why swales when there are many techniques in order to create redundancy in our water collection strategies: keyline, cisterns, ponds and other surface catchments, etc.

Swales are simply one of many tools utilized in order to slow water down and hold it in place so that plants have the needed time and resource to grow and thrive. As we hold water on a property we also hold topsoil. These two, water and soil, are our major concerns, and without cognizance of these two most important elements we cannot take the proper steps in order to find sustenance through our gardening or farming practice.

Remember, swales are one part of a comprehensive plan and permaculture is all about comprehensive planning. We start from the whole and move to the parts. Based on our ethics and basic principles and methodologies we work backward from the whole and configure what is needed to meet our vision and goals. If swales are applicable, then by all means we have to make sure that we do our due diligence and factor in all the variables for success. The question about distance of swales is a bit premature. Good design is predicated on rigorous observation and thoughtful design.

 

Permaculture Q&A: Michael Judd’s Blueberry Soil Mix

Thursday, May 22nd, 2014

As Permaculture Month continues throughout May, some of our expert authors are answering questions submitted by our readers. Here, Michael Judd reveals his special recipe for blueberry soil mix that imitates the plant’s natural forest edge habitat.

For more do-it-yourself projects to turn your landscape into a luscious and productive edible Eden, check out Judd’s book, Edible Landscaping with a Permaculture Twist.

And, browse these previous posts from the “Permaculture Q&A” series for answers to questions about design patterns, nutrients, invasive grasses, and more:
Permaculture: An Economic Perspective
Eric Toensmeier on Aggressive Grass and Partial Shade
Toby Hemenway on Soil and Natural Patterns
Ben Falk Talks Nutrient Cycling

Danielle from WA asks:
I planted four blueberries bushes last year. They got a lot rain, so I did not water them for a few weeks, but now I see a few of them are brown. These bushes get lots of sun. Any thoughts on how to stop the browning?

MICHAEL JUDD: Hi Danielle, challenges with blueberries generally stem from the soil prep and pH. Blueberries are naturally a forest edge species which means that they like a very rich and loose soil that comes from a leafy compost-like medium. This is usually imitated with peat or sphagnum moss mixed with compost and soil, but I try to avoid pulling material from distant ecosystems, especially sensitive bog areas where peat comes from, and instead create my own blueberry soil mix. My recipe is 50% fine pine bark, 25% compost, and 25% top soil with sulfur pellets mixed in to lower the pH to 4.5-5.5. Mix them well into a generous sized hole before planting the blueberry. Mulch well with a pine bark mulch for the added long term acidity and moisture retention. Blueberries are shallow rooted so keep the mulch on and other plants/weeds away from their base and be mindful to not water with a strong stream that knocks the mulch and soil away exposing the roots.

Though blueberries are generally disease resistant they benefit from good air flow, full sun and spacing. If you make the soil balanced your plants should be healthy.

Hope that helps. Happy fruiting!

Designing a Forest Garden: The Seven-Layer Garden

Wednesday, May 21st, 2014

As we continue celebrating Permaculture Month here’s an excerpt from Gaia’s Garden to get you started on your very own forest garden.  

Permaculture is most frequently applied in gardening and homestead-planning, and one of the essential designs is a forest garden. Food forests, or edible forest gardens, are life-filled places that not only provide food for people, but habitat for wildlife, carbon sequestering, biodiversity, natural soil building, beauty and tranquility, and a host of other benefits — you just need to take a page from Mother Nature’s book. Toby Hemenway’s bestselling permaculture book Gaia’s Garden is here to help.

The following is an excerpt from Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture, Second Edition by Toby Hemenway. It has been adapted for the Web.

It’s time to look at forest garden design. A simple forest garden contains three layers: trees, shrubs, and ground plants. But for those who like to take advantage of every planting opportunity, a deluxe forest garden can contain as many as seven tiers of vegetation. As the illustration below shows, a seven-layered forest garden contains tall trees, low trees, shrubs, herbs, ground covers, vines, and root crops.

Here are these layers in more detail.

  1. The Tall-Tree Layer. This is an overstory of full-sized fruit, nut, or other useful trees, with spaces between to let plenty of light reach the lower layers. Dense, spreading species—the classic shade trees such as maple, sycamore, and beech—don’t work well in the forest garden because they cast deep shadows over a large area. Better choices are multifunctional fruit and nut trees. These include standard and semistandard apple and pear trees, European plums on standard rootstocks such as Myrobalan, and full-sized cherries. Chestnut trees, though quite large, work well, especially if pruned to an open, light-allowing shape. Chinese chestnuts, generally not as large as American types, are good candidates. Walnut trees, especially the naturally open, spreading varieties such as heartnut and buartnut, are excellent. Don’t overlook the nut-bearing stone piñon and Korean nut pines. Nitrogen-fixing trees will help build soil, and most bear blossoms that attract insects. These include black locust, mesquite, alder, and, in low-frost climates, acacia, algoroba, tagasaste, and carob.Since much of the forest garden lies in landscape zones 1 and 2, timber trees aren’t appropriate—tree felling in close quarters would be too destructive. But pruning and storm damage will generate firewood and small wood for crafts.The canopy trees will define the major patterns of the forest garden, so they must be chosen carefully. Plant them with careful regard to their mature size so enough light will fall between them to support other plants.
  2. The Low-Tree Layer. Here are many of the same fruits and nuts as in the canopy, but on dwarf and semidwarf rootstocks to keep them low growing. Plus, we can plant naturally small trees such as apricot, peach, nectarine, almond, medlar, and mulberry. Here also are shade-tolerant fruit trees such as persimmon and pawpaw. In a smaller forest garden, these small trees may serve as the canopy. They can easily be pruned into an open form, which will allow light to reach the other species beneath them.Other low-growing trees include flowering species, such as dogwood and mountain ash, and some nitrogen fixers, including golden-chain tree, silk tree, and mountain mahogany. Both large and small nitrogen-fixing trees grow quickly and can be pruned heavily to generate plenty of mulch and compost.
  3. The Shrub Layer. This tier includes flowering, fruiting, wildlife-attracting, and other useful shrubs. A small sampling: blueberry, rose, hazelnut, butterfly bush, bamboo, serviceberry, the nitrogen-fixing Elaeagnus species and Siberian pea shrub, and dozens of others. The broad palette of available shrubs allows the gardener’s inclinations to surface, as shrubs can be chosen to emphasize food, crafts, ornamentals, birds, insects, native plants, exotics, or just raw biodiversity.Shrubs come in all sizes, from dwarf blueberries to nearly tree-sized hazelnuts, and thus can be plugged into edges, openings, and niches of many forms. Shade-tolerant varieties can lurk beneath the trees, sun-loving types in the sunny spaces between.
  4. The Herb Layer. Here herb is used in the broad botanical sense to mean nonwoody vegetation: vegetables, flowers, culinary herbs, and cover crops, as well as mulch producers and other soil-building plants. Emphasis is on perennials, but we won’t rule out choice annuals and self-seeding species. Again, shade-lovers can peek out from beneath taller plants, while sun-worshiping species need the open spaces. At the edges, a forest garden can also hold more traditional garden beds of plants dependent on full sun.
  5. The Ground-Cover Layer. These are low, ground-hugging plants—preferably varieties that offer food or habitat—that snuggle into edges and the spaces between shrubs and herbs. Sample species include strawberries, nasturtium, clover, creeping thyme, ajuga, and the many prostrate varieties of flowers such as phlox and verbena. They play a critical role in weed prevention, occupying ground that would otherwise succumb to invaders.
  6. The Vine Layer. This layer is for climbing plants that will twine up trunks and branches, filling the unused regions of the all-important third dimension with food and habitat. Here are food plants, such as kiwifruit, grapes, hops, passionflower, and vining berries; and those for wildlife, such as honeysuckle and trumpet-flower. These can include climbing annuals such as squash, cucumbers, and melons. Some of the perennial vines can be invasive or strangling; hence, they should be used sparingly and cautiously.
  7. The Root Layer. The soil gives us yet another layer for the forest garden; the third dimension goes both up and down. Most of the plants for the root layer should be shallow rooted, such as garlic and onions, or easy-to-dig types such as potatoes and Jerusalem artichokes. Deep-rooted varieties such as carrots don’t work well because the digging they require will disturb other plants. I do sprinkle a few seeds of daikon (Asian radish) in open spots because the long roots can often be pulled with one mighty tug rather than dug; and, if I don’t harvest them, the blossoms attract beneficial bugs and the fat roots add humus as they rot.

Permaculture Q&A: An Economic Perspective

Thursday, May 15th, 2014

Want to become a better permaculturalist? Have a burning question about permaculture design? All month long Chelsea Green is taking reader questions and putting them to some of our top permaculture authors. If you want some advice from our expert authors, you can submit your questions using this form.

Today, authors Toby Hemenway (Gaia’s Garden) and Eric Toensmerier (Paradise Lot, Perennial Vegetables) discuss the business side of permaculture.

For previous posts from the “Permaculture Q&A” series check out these links:
Ben Falk Talks Nutrient Cycling
Toby Hemenway on Soil and Natural Patterns
Eric Toensmeier on Aggressive Grass and Partial Shade

Shaun from Vermont asks:
What is the single most important business strategy for the success of permaculture while earning a livable wage?

Eric Toensmeier: Hi Sean, there are a lot of “single most important things” in making a permaculture business work. If I had to pick one, it would probably be to take it seriously as a business. This applies whether your permaculture business is farming, landscaping, design and consulting, teaching, or whatever it might be.

Nobody starts a permaculture business because they are excited about record-keeping, obtaining permits, market research, or tax preparation. But businesses that take the time to plan all of these things out carefully are much more likely to succeed.

I highly recommend taking a business planning course, whether it is permaculture related or not. Clarifying your goals, understanding your markets, understanding the legal landscape, and budgeting are essential tools as much as shovels, tractors, mapping equipment, or whatever you may use. I also highly recommend Elizabeth Ü’s book, Raising Dough, which is an excellent guide to creative ways to finance your business idea once you have these other pieces in place.

Sandy from New York asks:
Can you speak to what appears to be a lack of sociopolitical analysis within permaculture education and business practices. In terms of thinking about accessibility to the classes or affordability of a design consultation firm or individual willing to share knowledge without emptying the bank. Is permaculture just another niche market in green capitalism or is it actually about building relationships and community with a shared vision for ecological preservation?

Toby Hemenway: There is no set price for a permaculture consult or plan. They cost whatever the client can afford. I know over a hundred permaculture designers, and all have sliding scales. All do at least one quarter of their work for free; in many cases it is half their work. Every permaculture teacher I know offers free classes, generous scholarships paid out of their own pocket, and does far more free mentoring than paid (I have never been paid for a mentorship, except for having my office painted in trade after a year of mentoring). Many designers—I can name dozens—travel to Haiti, other disaster areas, and inner cities at their own expense to do aid work, for free. The way they can afford this—and most of them really can’t afford it—is to have a posted fee rate comparable to other landscape designers.

Permaculture courses have always been at prices far below that of other workshops (a 2-week course with room and board costs the same as the tuition alone for a 2-day facilitation or management workshop). I have never known a teacher to turn anyone away for lack of money. You do have to ask, though, because we have found that if we advertise discounts, everyone, including the affluent, and the well educated who practice voluntary simplicity, ask for them, which denies access to the truly needy.

Unfortunately, there is a strong sense in the alternative community that everything should be free or discounted, but that turns out not to be sustainable. In a recent survey, out of 80 professional permaculture teachers and designers, only 2 were supporting themselves solely from permaculture work. The rest needed jobs in the mainstream economy to make ends meet. The real question for me is, if permaculture is valuable, why is it not valued among the sociopolitically aware community?

 

RECIPE: Maple Mushroom Martini

Wednesday, May 14th, 2014

Permaculture designer and author Michael Judd gets really excited about mushrooms. So when he found this recipe for a mushroom infused cocktail, he was barely able to contain himself. It may sound strange, but Judd swears this sweet mushroomy cocktail is magically delicious.

The following recipe is an excerpt from Judd’s Edible Landscaping with a Permaculture TwistIn addition to a few tasty treats, this book takes readers on a step-by-step process to transform a sea of grass into a flourishing edible landscape that pleases the eye as well as the taste buds.

For another type of homemade hooch, try this dandelion wine recipe from Wild Fermentation by Sandor Katz.

Cheers!

Edible Landscaping with a Permaculture Twist: Maple Mushroom Martini by Chelsea Green Publishing

Permaculture Q&A: Eric Toensmeier on Aggressive Grass and Partial Shade

Monday, May 12th, 2014

Permaculture questions are being answered throughout the month of May by our expert authors. Submit your questions here and read on to see what Eric Toensmeier, author of Paradise Lot, Perennial Vegetables and co-author of Edible Forest Gardens, has to say about invasive grasses and the best plants for shady spots.

Review previous posts from the “Permaculture Q&A” series here:

Ben Falk Talks Nutrient Cycling
Toby Hemenway on Soil and Natural Patterns

Casey from Idaho asks:
Grass takes over my garden beds each spring. I appreciate the ground-cover function, but it out-competes my preferred annuals and perennial producers. And I trust that the problem is the solution, but I can’t see the solution in a permaculture context. How do I bolster the productive cultures when grass is so persistent and aggressive?

Eric Toensmeier: Hi Casey, we have found there is really no middle ground with aggressive lawn grasses in our perennial plantings. You can have trees and larger shrubs with grass beneath them and they will be pretty happy as long as the grass is routinely cut or grazed. But if you want to get into smaller shrubs or perennials our experience is that you really want to nuke the grass.

In our previous garden we had some beds where grasses crept back in and we ended up having to pull out the desirable perennials, sheet mulch the entire bed again thoroughly, and replant our perennials. After that we made sure to keep a mulched perimeter around our beds so that grass could not creep in. You could try rhizome barriers as well, like installing edging maybe 8 to 10 inches deep (depending on what kind of grass you have).

In another situation we had set up long thin mulched beds with long thin grass pathways between them. This really maximized surface area for the grass to get back into the beds and gave us a huge amount of weeding to do. Note that there are some grasses like some of the fescue’s which are not at all aggressive and make very fine path grasses. In our present garden we thoroughly sheet mulched the lawn (such as it was) in the beginning and have really not had any trouble to speak of with grasses returning.

The other approach is something I’ve seen in a food forest in Mexico. They use African weeder geese at a rate of 10 per acre to thoroughly eat down all of the grass until it is completely suppressed. Then they plant a lot of herbaceous species, and reduce the geese to two per acre. This particular breed of geese, raised and taught that grass is food, eat almost nothing but grass and clover, leaving almost all of the herbaceous crop species alone (with a few exceptions). If you are able to have geese in your garden, this seems like a great way to have happy geese and keep the grass under control.

Killian from California asks:
I’m designing a small, very shaded backyard garden in the Seattle area with Homeowner’s Association limitations. I am not a fan of raised beds unless needed (least change), but am thinking of using them throughout this design to alleviate drainage issues, including planting a number of dwarf fruit and nut trees in them. Thoughts?

Eric Toensmeier: Hi Killian, the first thing you’ll have to deal with is your shade problem. There are very few fruits and even less nuts that grow in full shade in your climates. Currants, evergreen huckleberry, mahonia (sour!), and thimbleberry are among your full-shade fruit options. Can you do anything to increase the amount of sun, like take down some trees or trim branches off your neighbor’s trees that come over your property line? Once you get into partial shade there are a lot more options. Good fruits for partial shade include medlar, quince, pawpaw, super-hardy kiwifruit, currants, gooseberries, and raspberries. Hazelnuts are probably your best option for nuts in partial shade.

If you have drainage problems, you could grow some things that don’t mind wet feet, like elderberries, blueberries, saskatoons, aronia, and quinces. I recently saw a very nice raised berm system at East Hill Tree Farm in Vermont using the hugelkultur system. Hugelkultur involves partially rotten logs and branches to form the base of the berm, packed with soil and compost materials. They mulch and plant right into it even the first year. This is probably quicker to establish then fancy raised beds if you have access to the raw materials. Certainly regular old raised beds should work fine, but fruits and nuts are big plants and would require fairly big beds. Hugelkultur is unlikely to be loved by your HOA, but sometimes they ignore backyards. Don’t negelect the steath edible landscape in the front yard, featuring lovely ornamentals that happen to be edible. See Lee Reich’s Landscaping with Fruit for some ideas.

With all that said, here in our garden in Massachusetts we have been able to grow some food in full shade and an awful lot in partial shade. The areas which were poorly drained due to clay (though perhaps not nearly as badly as yours), we were able to improve using a broad fork and increasing organic matter. Check out this video for a tour of a corner of my garden that includes four perennial vegetables perfect for shady spots.

Permaculture Q&A: Toby Hemenway on Soil and Natural Patterns

Thursday, May 8th, 2014

As Permaculture Month continues, we are putting our experts at your disposal to answer your burning permaculture questions. If you have a question to submit, fill out this form.

Below, Gaia’s Garden author Toby Hemenway talks about soil structure and explains how permaculture is based on the replication of patterns found in nature. For previously answered questions about nutrient cycling, check out this post from Ben Falk author of The Resilient Farm and Homestead.

Dave from Illinois asks:
I’m thinking of buying some vacant land in Michigan, about 1/2 mile from a lake. Looks like the soil is sandy, as would be expected. What kinds of strategies would you use to hold water in the soil if you wanted to plant trees and perennial crops? I’m guessing clay would be one strategy, but wouldn’t that seep in fairly quickly?

Toby Hemenway: I would work with the local extension service and other agencies, since they have a great deal of experience in building soil structure. Usually the best course is to plant cover crops appropriate for the soil, as adding organic matter and humus is the most effective way to build water-holding capacity, and it also builds fertility. Proper rotational grazing can also work wonders, but you need to know what you are doing with that technique. I would not add clay, as that creates a very artificial soil structure that will quickly revert to the old soil type.

Jeremiah from Wisconsin asks:
In Bill Mollison’s seminal book, he talks a lot about all sorts of natural patterns such as fractals, wave patterns, etc… Most of it went way over my head. How do you use these mathematical patterns in your actual permaculture designs?

Toby Hemenway: Patterning is a hard concept to grasp at first, and I have several chapters written on a book on patterning in design. Permaculturists look at what functions the design is supposed to achieve—how are we moving people and materials around, blocking wind, creating warm microclimates, etc —and then look for patterns that help do that.

For example, nature uses branching patterns to collect and distribute energy and materials, the way roots and branches of a tree collect and distribute sun, water, and nutrients. If there are places to collect or distribute things in our design, maybe a branching pattern is needed. That’s why many garden paths are in a branching pattern; we’re collecting and distributing water, food, mulch, compost materials, and so on. Mound and lobe patterns can increase surface area and exposure—are there places that we need to do that? Spirals are usually patterns of growth and flow—where are those things going on in the design?

Working well with patterns means understanding how a few basic patterns are used in nature—how is nature working with branches, waves, spirals, fractals, pulses, networks, and such?—and seeing what functions we have going on in our design—are things in the design collecting, growing, strengthening, flowing toward or away from, and so forth? Then see if there are patterns for arranging the pieces of the design that will do that. We let the design tell us what patterns will make life easier, rather than force a pattern on the design.

For more information on how to work natural patterning into your landscape, download this free excerpt from my book, Gaia’s Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture:

 Ecological Garden

Permaculture Special Sale: Ready, Set, Grow!

Wednesday, May 7th, 2014

Want a great garden? Take a page out of Nature’s book and you’ll find growing food is easier than you ever imagined.

Just add a permaculture twist to your garden design and you can spend less effort, improve the health of your soil, and enjoy a bountiful harvest.

Chelsea Green has been the go-to publisher for key home-scale permaculture books for thirty years. Learn more about this simple but revolutionary system with these groundbreaking books—on sale for a limited time.

Need a recommendation? We’re here to help. Email us at [email protected].

Don’t forget for the month of May we’re putting our pioneering permaculture authors at your disposal for a month-long Q&A session designed to help you become a better permaculturalist. Read more…


Discount codes do not combine with other offers—our books already on sale for example.
Free shipping for orders $100 or more is applied after the discount is applied. (U.S. Orders Only).

Permaculture Sale until June 1st
The Resilient Farm and Homestead
Retail: $40.00
Sale: $26.00
Edible Perennial Gardening
Retail: $22.95
Sale: $14.92
Integrated Forest Gardening
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Edible Forest Gardens (2 volume set)
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Gaia's Garden, 2nd Edition
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Edible Landscaping with a Permaculture Twist
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Paradise Lot
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The Permaculture Kitchen
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Growing Food in a Hotter, Drier Land
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Sepp Holzer's Permaculture
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Grass, Soil, Hope
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Perennial Vegetables Set
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Edible Cities
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Food Not Lawns
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The Small-Scale Poultry Flock
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The Holistic Orchard
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Top-Bar Beekeeping
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Natural Beekeeping, Revised and Expanded
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Permaculture in Pots
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Letting in the Wild Edges
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Earth User's Guide to Teaching Permaculture
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Sowing Seeds in the Desert
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Outdoor Classrooms
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The Earth User's Guide to Permaculture
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People & Permaculture
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The Basics of Permaculture Design
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Desert or Paradise
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The Woodland Way
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Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond Vol. 1
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Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands and Beyond Vol. 2
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Permaculture
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Permaculture Pioneers
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The Permaculture Way
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The Earth Care Manual
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The Permaculture Garden
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The Uses of Wild Plants
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How to Make a Forest Garden
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Permaculture Plants
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Permaculture Design
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Permaculture in a Nutshell
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Getting Started in Permaculture
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Designing and Maintaining Your Edible Landscape Naturally
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Holistic Orchard with Michael Phillips
Retail: $49.95
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Perennial Vegetable Gardening with Eric Toensmeier
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Sale: $19.47
Natural Beekeeping with Ross Conrad
Retail: $24.95
Sale: $16.22
Top-Bar Beekeeping with Les Crowder and Heather Harrell
Retail: $14.95
Sale: $9.72

Discount codes do not combine with other offers—our books
already on sale for example. Free shipping for orders $100 or
more is applied after the discount is applied. (U.S. Orders Only)

Permaculture Q&A: Ben Falk Talks Nutrient Cycling

Monday, May 5th, 2014

Happy Permaculture Month!

Throughout the next few weeks, we are putting our pioneering permaculture authors at your disposal for a month-long Q&A session. If you are looking to become a better permaculturalist, there’s still time to participate! Submit your questions here.

Below, award-winning author of The Resilient Farm and Homestead, Ben Falk talks about the importance of harvesting and cycling nutrients.

Keira from British Columbia asks:
What has been the most important thing you’ve learned from indigenous food (fibre, fuel, etc) systems?

Ben Falk: I’ve learned that even degraded and inherently challenging landscapes can be regenerated and maintained as highly productive, low-input, no-till, perennial agricultural systems offering yields of fruit, nuts, fiber, fuel, meat, milk, perennial grains, and vegetables.

In America, we have few examples of such systems and therefore need to look elsewhere to find truly sustainable cold-climate agricultural systems to replicate and adapt. Permaculture with its emphasis on low-input, self-fertilizing, diverse crop arrangements (otherwise known as “guilds”) and no-till approach is particularly suited to producing food and fuel crops on degraded and sensitive landscapes (which is most of America). An important concept to remember is that land design needs to be continually adapted to accommodate America’s hill lands, cold-climate, and abused soils.

Your land’s ability to produce is dependent upon its ability to capture sunlight, rain, snow, wind, atmosphere and other forces and transform those forces into food, medicine, fuel, and other yields. That transformation depends on sunlight being processed through functional water, soil, plant, fungi and animal systems. The most important thing I’ve learned working with these systems day in and day out is how crucial it is to conserve, harvest, and cycle all nutrients. Examples of nutrients are manures, urine, crop residues, woody biomass, food scraps, rock minerals, and sand. Even though nutrients can also be referred to as “wastes,” they certainly should not be allowed to go to waste and flow off site. Nutrient conservation is key.

By combining nutrients with subsoil, atmosphere, water, sunshine, and some human ingenuity we can develop strategies to rapidly produce fertile topsoil. I review several of these strategies and how we are utilizing them on the Whole Systems Research Farm in my book, The Resilient Farm and Homestead (Chapter 4: Fertility Harvesting and Cycling)

Vance from Ohio asks:
Is it safe to use human urine as a fertilizer and if so, what is the best way to go about using it?

Ben Falk: Speaking of cycling nutrients, harvesting urine is one of the best ways to feed back into the system that feeds you. Human urine is completely sterile and safe to use as a fertilizer, unless you are very ill. You can urinate right at the base of fruit and nut trees. Or to water vegetables, you can save your urine in buckets then water it down 10 to 30:1 or so. If used properly, urine is a perfect plant fertilizer with many nutrients and nitrogen. However, be aware that urine becomes highly active and odorous once it leaves your body. Your best bet is to use it fresh while the nitrogen content is at its peak.

Check out this excerpt to read more about my experimentations with urine on the Whole Systems Research Farm

The Resilient Farm Homestead: An Innovative Permaculture and Whole Systems Design Approach by Chelsea Green Publishing

Food Justice: What it Means and Why We Need it

Thursday, May 1st, 2014

By Elizabeth Henderson, longtime sustainable agtivist, Chelsea Green author (Sharing the Harvest: A Citizen’s Guide to Community Supported Agriculture), Farmer at Peacework Organic Farm and co-Founder of the Agriculture Justice Project.

I come to my understanding of Food Justice from the perspective of my life as an organic farmer since 1980. Access for inner city and low-income people to healthy, clean, nutritious food is what you hear about most in news about food justice. According to USDA Economic Research Service in its annual report for 2012 on food security – nationally 48.9 million people live in households that are food insecure. In NYS 13.2% of all households are food insecure and 5% suffered “very low food security,” with more severe problems, deeper hunger, cutting back and skipping meals on a regular basis for both adults and children. 21.6% of all children live in food insecure households. Despite these distressing statistics, both houses of Congress agreed to cut the funding for nutrition programs in the Farm Bill of 2014.

Three Aspects of Food Justice:

  • Access to healthy, locally grow, fresh, culturally appropriate food
  • Living wage jobs for all food system workers – farmers, farmworkers, restaurant, food service, processing plant. . .
  • Community Control through cooperatives, faith-based initiatives, community organizations

In Central/Western NY, where we have rich soils and many extremely productive farms as well as gardens, there is no shortage of food.  Hunger comes from poverty.

Every bit as crucial as food access is just treatment and living wages for the people who grow, wash, cook, transport and sell our food.  Over 17% of the jobs in this country are food related.  If everyone who touched food (including both farm workers and farmers) made enough money to pay for high quality food out of their wages, our food system would be on its way to greater fairness and long-term economic viability.

Race Gender Wage Gap

Our society as a whole looks down on jobs that get people dirty.

Vocational studies are for youngsters who do poorly at academic courses. We call picking vegetables “stoop labor,” and the majority of the people who do this work are undocumented migrant farm workers whose average annual wages amount to less than $13,000 a year, according to the United Farm Workers. NYS law requires farmers to pay hired workers minimum wage, soon to rise to $9.00 an hour, and federal law requires paying legal H2A “guest workers” $9.60 an hour, but there is no requirement for time and a half for work over 40 hours a week, and even if you work 60 hours a week year round, minimum wage is poverty pay.

And there is no protection for farm workers who want to organize.

The National Labor Relations Act excludes two groups of workers – farm workers and domestics. Farm workers are not covered by the limited protections afforded to other workers by the National Labor Relations Act, particularly the right to form unions that is so much under attack these days. And protections for farmers in negotiating contracts with buyers are lacking too. The reality is that both family-scale farmers as well as farm workers in this country are in desperate need of fair trade.

Farmers Share Retail

My work as a farmer has largely focused on developing the Community Supported Agriculture (CSA) model as a way to ensure a decent living for family-scale farmers based on a fair contract with the people who join the CSA and agree to share the risks with the farmers. We started Peacework, the first CSA in western NY, during the winter of 1988-89. This season is our 26th. My involvement led to writing Sharing the Harvest: A Citizen’s Guide to Community Supported Agriculture (Chelsea Green, 2007) which tells our story based on interviews with hundreds of CSA farmers and organizers.

Members and farmers harvest greens together early in the season at Peacework Farm.

Peace work Farm

An aerial view of Peacework Farm, Welcher Road, Newark, New York

What the CSA model offers is a steady source of revenue and the chance to negotiate with your customers (buyers) to get a fair deal – pricing that covers the farmer’s full costs and pays the farmer a wage and even benefits such as health coverage or a pension fund. That is not profit – but it is a lot better than most ag deals or we would not have lost 4 1/2 million farms since I was born.

Carlos Petrini, founder of Slow Food, points out that farmers and their customers share a common fate. Petrini calls for food that is “good, clean and fair” and urges consumers to become “co-producers” with their farmers. Direct sales through farmers markets, on farm markets but especially CSA gives us the opportunity to transform the relationship between farmers and consumers. By sharing the risks of farming, consumers become co-producers in Petrini’s sense.

But what about food that you purchase in a store, restaurant or food service?How can you influence fairness in mainstream markets?

I have been representing the Northeast Organic Farming Association (NOFA) in an effort to answer this question by creating a social justice labeling program: Food Justice Certification. A sprinkling of farms and businesses has already been certified in Canada, Oregon, the Upper Midwest and Florida. In January, Swanton Berry Farm and Pie Ranch became the first farms to be Food Justice Certified in California. And in April, the Agricultural Justice Project (AJP) will announce the first three certifications in New York State – West Haven Farm, Green Star Coop and The Piggery Eatery and Butcher Shop, all in Ithaca.

Food Justice Certified

AJP is a program jointly sponsored by four not-for-profits that work on behalf of farmers and farm workers. Since 1999, NOFA, CATA (the Farmworker Support Committee, Comite de apoyo a los trabajadores agricolas), Florida Organic Growers and Consumers (FOG) and Rural Advancement Foundation International (RAFI-USA), have been engaged in a stakeholder process to write standards for fairness in the food system.

The program is designed for all agricultural production systems, fiber, and cosmetics, as well as food. Candidates must meet high bar standards that have been negotiated among food system stakeholders including both farmers and farm workers.

The standards (which can apply to farms, buyers, distributors, processors and retailers—every link in the supply chain from farm to table) include:

  • Fair pricing for farmers
  • Fair wages and treatment of workers
  • Safe working conditions
  • Fair and equitable contracts for farmers and buyers
  • Workers’ and farmers’ right to freedom of association and collective bargaining
  • Clear conflict resolution policies for all throughout the food chain
  • Clean and safe farmworker housing
  • Learning contracts for Interns and apprentices
  • A ban on full-time child labor together with full protection for children on farms
  • Environmental stewardship through organic certification

The goal is to change relationships so that everyone benefits. More information, including contact information, is available at: www.agriculturaljusticeproject.org

By purchasing food with this label, consumers will ensure that farmers receive a fair percentage of the “food dollar”, allowing for a stable and dignified life for the farm family. Farmworkers will receive a living wage, and be able to adequately provide for themselves and their families. And the broader community will develop a bond with those who work the land, support the economic well-being of farmers and farmworkers, and gain access to food produced in accordance with their principles and ethics.

Such a model would be one concrete step in progressing toward a more sustainable food system, in which, as stated in the principles of the International Federation of Organic Agricultural Movements, the “entire production, processing and distribution chain [would be] both socially just and ecologically responsible.” In this alternate vision, farm work would be valued by the larger society in direct proportion to the importance of food in peoples’ lives, thereby allowing family farmers to remain on the land, and farmworkers and their families to live a full and healthy life.

If we are to have a local food system that reliably provides most of the food needs for the population of our region, we must shift our spending priorities. The people who grow our food, farmers and farm workers, must get a fair share so that they can go on producing and lead decent lives. They do not need or even want to live like corporate CEOs. Many of the organic farmers and homesteaders I know would be happy to serve as models for a living economy based on the principle of ENOUGH. The Nearings, Helen and Scott, projected an ideal of four hours a day for bread labor, four hours for creative and artistic activities and four hours for conviviality.

Because of economic pressures, these days, people trying to make a living farming are so far from that ideal it is not funny. But if we at least begin demanding that farmers and farm workers should make a living wage with full benefits, (health care, compensation for injuries and unemployment, and retirement) from a 40 hour week, we may start moving towards true food justice that will sustain us into a future worth living.


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