This article derives from three sources: the blog I wrote for FAO (Food and Agriculture Organization of the UN) to advertize the 12th International Permaculture Conference (IPC-12) during the UN Year of the Soil; my presentation at IPC-12, and 30 years of my life spent creating forest gardens and fertile soils and helping others do the same on four continents. I should say ‘we,’ rather than ‘I,’ because many people have contributed to this garden, not least my wife and children Nancy, Ruby, and Sandy.
I called my presentations “The Answer Lies in the Soil.” And it does.
First of all, though, we need air and water. Without these two things, we can’t live today. So clean air and clean water in sufficient quantities are prerequisites for sustainable human life. However, for long-term survival, we need soil. Not just any old soil—we need enduring, well nourished, and nourishing soils which just keep getting more and more fertile. In fact, soil is demonstrably the true foundation of civilization—that is, fertile, accessible, living soil.
For soils to feed us well, they need themselves to be fed well.
The answer lies in the soil.
Soil and life—neglect it at our peril
We neglect soil at our peril. Within historical memory, Syria was a forest kingdom (1), Iraq the birthplace of agriculture (2), and Libya, the breadbasket of the Roman Empire (3).
I expect anyone reading this article will be familiar with the essential components of soil: the mineral fraction (sand, silt, clay), humus, air and water, and adequate soil structure to admit and retain these.
But the most important constituent, the one that resists erosion and minimizes workload the most, the one which makes nutrition most available to plants and animals alike, is the life in the soil itself: both the web of life and the products that come from the ending of the life cycles of all the living creatures in the soil. And they are myriad.
Does your tree have roots?
For many years now, we have started permaculture design courses with a light-hearted “entrance exam,” part of which is to ask people to draw a tree—not as a contest in drawing skills or species accuracy, but looking for one thing only. Does their tree have roots? Once folks get this, they become much more aware of the earth beneath our feet and how so much of what we depend on is not (in ordinary circumstances) visible to us.
The life in the soil may be millions of individual organisms in a single handful. Animal and plant life coexist in a constant process of exchange. Plant and tree roots provide the most astonishing marketplace, where bacteria, other roots, nematodes, earthworms, etc. mingle in the jelly-like rhizosphere doing what they do best. Green-leaved plants ensure their energy supply by producing sugars through photosynthesis which they may swap for nitrogen (nitrogen to make amino acids to make proteins) from air in the soil harvested by (for example) leguminous plants.
We all know legumes produce nitrogen, don’t we? No? Of course they don’t! Bacteria, staying in the little root nodule hotels that the plants produce, do that job. And hugely significant are the largest living organisms yet found on Earth. Blue whales? No, fungi—not mushrooms, which are only fungal fruiting bodies, but hyphae and then mycelium, vast under- ground networks of whitish thread-like material [largest yet discovered: 965 ha (almost 2,500 acres) which would accommodate a whole lot of blue whales] (4).
Healthy soil brings abundance
I talked at IPC-12 about our experience and recorded research at Garden Cottage in the Scottish Borders (5): 800 m2 (rounds up to one-tenth of a hectare or one-fifth of an acre for folks who still think in Imperial) which has so far this year produced 1.2 metric tons of food (that’s 14 tons per ha), all our firewood, and 5,000 plants and 500 trees a year for sale in our nursery—oh, and a vast harvest of rainwater and half our electricity—plus a soft living room, playspace for adults and grandchildren, an open-air classroom, a wildlife haven, and a place of general wonder.
With a thousand visitors a year, we are often asked three things: “Where is your worm farm?” “Do you keep bees?” and “What companion planting do you use?” Hmmm… “companion” from the French meaning those you eat bread with. Answer: all our trees and plants are companions. Worm farm? You’re standing in it. We estimate a worm population of two tons—based on the work of Charles Darwin (6)—but that’s another story, which is the same weight as at least 20 big strong men. Worms are a bit slower in winter, but they don’t take tea breaks, weekends off, fail to get out of bed, or insist on six-hour days. And they’re free—best WWOOFers we ever had. And bees—well, we have at least 20 species, and they keep themselves, and very healthy they are, too.
It’s all about habitat. If you create the right habitat, you get what you need. I often ask people, “What is the biggest predator in this garden?” The answer, of course, is “us” because that’s what it’s designed for. Before we were farmers, we were hunter-gatherers. What the word ‘forest’ (from the Anglo-Norman) means is not ‘trees’ at all, but ‘the king’s hunting ground.’ So, what we are doing in creating forest gardens is to get ourselves back as close as we can to being hunter-gatherers: less work, more harvest, no pollution, making the system as self-fertile as possible, recycling wastes into nutrients, and entirely dependent on the best nuclear reactor of all—the sun, and on the rain (or other precipitation) and wind cycles which are driven by the sun’s energy.
If the soil biota are our work force, the energy management bosses are surely the trees. If you do only one thing to realize your permaculture dream, plant some more trees, and more again. Trees and the continental shelves of our oceans are the things that make life possible for humans on Earth by harvesting carbon dioxide and creating oxygen. They ameliorate the ex- tremes of climate. Continental shelves we can’t manage (except to stop killing them through water-borne pollution), but trees we can.
It’s not a lot of good making extravagant claims about what you do if you don’t do research to support your theories. All you really need to do is measure things (in as simple a way as possible) and document them.
So, for several years now, we have been weighing everything we harvest by the month, by species and cultivar (in some cases) and recording them in spreadsheets. We are the same latitude
as Moscow and Alaska you might care to notice, in the Scottish Borders. As I am writing, it is the end of October 2015, and we have had one of the coolest summers I can remember (10°C or 50°F in July—it was warmer in February). Despite this, we have our highest yield ever: 1.2 metric tons as mentioned above, and two months of the year to go. You can check the yield re- cords here: grahambell.org/the-red-shed-nursery/garden-cottage- research/. A big challenge for us is preserving food so that this yield (which mostly happens between June/July and October) can be enjoyed year-round. We have now started teaching food preservation courses to help others do the same.
How can we achieve this? Well, the answer does lie in the soil. Soil surveys done (by a student from Edinburgh University plant sciences course) on seven productive organic sites around Scotland yielded the following results for major nutrients. Calcium is shown separately as its concentration is much higher than the others.
Notice Garden Cottage is significantly out in front. How is this achieved?
- Avoid bare soil as much as possible.
- Feed soils top-down through mulching.
- Minimize tillage.
- Tread lightly on the land.
- Create habitat for songbirds.
- Create habitat for invertebrates.
- Encourage flowering plants.
- Learn about and treasure “weeds.”
- Respect all the layers of the forest garden.
- Encourage fungi.
- Practice polyculture at every opportunity (there’s a world
of difference between organic sequential monoculture and what we do).
- Know your plants.
- Plant trees.
And what do you get? Well, we are what we eat. Measured from last year’s harvest on a quick analysis:
On the species front, a little more detail: there are 35 species of birds that nest in this small space, another 20 who come for their lunch, and 20 more who come on their holidays. Then add in thousands of species of invertebrates—literally.
Bugs are not going to inherit the earth. They own it. So we might as well make peace with the landlord.
This garden for many years took two hours a week. Now that we’re traveling less and harvesting it more intensively, it takes two days a week. This abundance springs from the intense focus on creating as much life as we can. There are no bad plants or bad insects in our garden. They are all part of God’s creation (whichever God you believe in). If you create an abundant habitat, you get an abundant harvest. Let nature do its work, and it will.
Graham Bell lives and works in the Scottish Borders. He and his family have created a forest garden, now approaching its 25th anniversary, which provides a great deal of food, fuel, and company (wildlife). He has written two books on permaculture: The Permaculture Way and The Permaculture Garden, which thousands of people have enjoyed as easy introductions to what permaculture means in a Northern temperate climate and the society that goes with it. He has taught permaculture on four continents. For more information, visit his website (www.grahambell.org).
Graham Bell will be teaching a Permaculture Design Course at Zaytuna Fram, home of the Permaculture Research Institute Australia from October 17 – 28 2016. Visit the course listing page here for more details and to book into this dynamic course.
1. Oedekoven, K.H. “Forest History of the Near East.” www.fao.org/docrep/e3200e/e3200e03.htm
2. Brinkerhoff, Noel. “Iraq, Birthplace of Agriculture, Now Imports 80% of Food.” www.allgov.com/news/us-and-the- world/iraq-birthplace-of-agriculture-now-imports-80-of- food?news=839296
3. Oosthoek, K. Jan. “The Role of Wood in World History.” www.eh-resources.org/the-role-of-wood-in-world-history/
4. Casselman, Ann. “Strange but True: The Largest Organism on Earth is a Fungus.” www.scientificamerican.com/article/strange- but-true-largest-organism-is-fungus/
5. Garden Cottage Research. grahambell.org/the-red-shed-nurs- ery/garden-cottage-research/
6. Darwin, Charles. The Formation of Vegetable Mould, through the Action of Worms. London: John Murray (1881)
7. The history of wheat cultivation in the Roman Empire and North Africa: en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tacfarinas
1. Bell, Graham. The Permaculture Garden. White River Jct., VT: Chelsea Green (2005).
2. Stamets, Paul. Mycelium Running: How Mushrooms can Help Save the World. Berkeley: Ten Speed Press (2005).
3. Lowenfels, Jeff & Wayne Lewis. Teaming with Microbes: The Organic Gardener’s Guide to the Soil Food Web. Portland, OR: Timber Press (2010).
4. Logan, William Bryant. Dirt: The Ecstatic Skin of the Earth. New York: W.W. Norton (2007).
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