Monday, August 22, 2011

Back to Eden

I had an idea to write a review of the film "Back to Eden" on my blog, even before the official release. But that's way too much work and I don't feel up to a full-blown discourse right now. Besides, I'm not a film critic. I doubt the film will win any awards on the technical side of things - it's well done, but the cinematography didn't blow me away. Where this film really shines is the content. What Paul, et al, are doing is simply amazing.

As a minister of the gospel of Jesus Christ I am very pleased to see such an integration of faith and practice at work. As a gardener I am further encouraged to listen to God and watch for his hand at work in my garden, teaching me his ways. As a member of the human family, this film makes me hopeful. We can do better and this is one way forward that makes too much sense.

Go watch it. The full film is available free. Be blessed!

Back to Eden

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Deodar Guild

No, that's not a new race of beings for a fantasy action adventure game. It's a plant name and a concept in a combination perhaps never seen before.

Deodar is the name of the beautiful cedar trees along our fence. There are four Cedrus Deodara 'Aurea', or Golden Deodar Cedars planted just outside our backyard fence along the south side of our property. They are well established landscape trees with a drooping aspect and golden color. But what sort of benefits do they provide beyond beauty? What other functions do these trees have? This is a very 'permaculture' question - are there stacked functions at work in these trees?

That's where the Guild concept comes to play. I recently finished 'Gaia's Garden' by Toby Hemenway. I highly recommend this book for anyone seeking a better understanding of permaculture practices that can be adapted for home scale use. A plant guild is an intentional community of plants grouped in order to maximize benefit from shared proximity and stacked function. A good beginner example is the 'apple guild'. Google it if you want to know more about it. I'm talking about a Deodar guild here - something never seen before, as far as I can tell.

Hemenway suggests a means of developing plant guilds by researching native plant communities. I discovered a plant survey from the Himalayan region of India where the Deodar Cedar is native. I found a short list of plants that nature has thoughtfully placed around Deodar cedars. Then I did a brief search on each - first to learn what the common names were, since the list was in Latin nomenclature, then to see if any could find a home in my yard surrounding my trees.

This was an exciting process of discovery. I found plants in the shrub, vine, herb and ground cover levels that could be easily adapted to my microclimate as guild plants surrounding Deodar cedars. Here's what I found: Viburnum, Artemisia, Lonicera and Indigofera. Let me parse that for you - Highbush Cranberries, Tarragon, Honeysuckle, and Indigo. Ah, that's better.

The Viburnum could be the blooming variety, but why not pick one that fruits? Sheep berry or blackhaw would work too, but I know that Highbush Cranberries work in this region. The Artemisia is the Wormwood family (mugworts and sagebrushes too). But again Tarragon provides an edible, medicinal herb as well as purported insect control to protect other plants.

I could plant a vining Lonicera, or Honeysuckle, but here in the Pacific NW we can grow Blue Honeysuckle bushes, or Honey Berries. Just like blueberries they need two varieties to polinate. Hmm...Territorial seed company sells Honey berry bushes in just such a pairing. How 'bout that. Finally an Indigo, like the Hairy Indigo is a forage/compost crop that fixes Nitrogen. It will probably die back in the winter, but Indigofera Pseudotinctoria stays 2'-3' high and likes full sun.

Throw in some clover for a spreading ground cover and I'm well on my way to a thriving Deodar Guild. Two berries - one red and one blue, plus an herb and a nitrogen fixer/compost crop, all of which should (theoretically) do very well in my location around my beautiful cedar trees...this oughta be fun! Now it may be a while before we can afford any new plants but I have a head start on the selection when the time comes. If any of you readers have any thoughts on plant guilds, let me know what you think of my combination.

Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Soil's the Thing

For a short while now I have been fascinated by the gardening of folks like Ruth Stout, Emilia Hazelip, Masanobu Fukuoka, and most recently Paul Gautschi. If these names are not familiar, here are some links:

On Ruth Stout:

On Emilia Hazelip and Synergistic Agriculture:

On Fukuoka:

On Paul Gautschi:

These approaches all have one thing (at least) in common - a covering of mulch. Almost all of these methods would be considered 'organic' in that there is no pesticide or herbicide use. But they are radical in that they go beyond organic into what is described as 'natural' or 'synergistic' by adding a no-till and no-fertilizer approach. There is no compaction of the soil, so it stays loose, rich and moist beneath a covering of hay, straw or mulch (or even wool!).

I have become convinced that these are not just one-off experiments or exceptions to the rule that just happen to work because the gardeners are actually fertilizing or cheating in some way beyond the prescribed rules of the method. It makes beautiful sense when you stop to consider how nature functions, and, as Paul Gautschi says, how God designed the world to be.

As a preacher I know how hard it can be to 'get out of the way' and let the Holy Spirit do its thing. But when I am successful in delivering a faithful message (not necessarily fancy or fitting but simply faithful to deliver the pure gospel truth) I can see the result in the many folks who say to me, "How did you know what to say? You were speaking to me today!" I tell them it wasn't me, but God found favor enough to use my foolish faithfulness and despite my sinful condition managed to connect with you through the Holy Spirit.

I think it's the same way with the soil. We tinker with it by adding compost, fertilizer (even organic), etc. and then what? We have to keep tinkering in order to maintain the imbalance we created by overfeeding or undermining the natural processes already at work. So how do we get out of the way and let nature do what it's already wanting to do? And how does it work?

The what to do is well covered by the folks already linked above. The how is another story altogether. That's covered in great but easily digested detail in this book, "Teaming with Microbes" by Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis.

I checked out a copy from my local library and devoured it in a few evenings. The soil food web is the amazing universe of life beneath our feet. Or, rather, to follow Hazelip's advice - no compacting the soil - in our garden beds. I learned that plants actually communicate with the soil life by exuding and secreting substances (exudates) from their roots that attract microbes which will turn organic matter and other soil critters into nutrients the plant can use, in a form the plant can uptake.

This is cutting edge science that stands poised to reverse the green revolution; it's that radical. This is the why behind the mulching methods and, not to put it too lightly, every functioning soil system on the planet.

Suffice it to say my approach to gardening has shifted dramatically since awakening to the soil food web. My job is no longer to feed the plants, but to feed the soil. Soil remediation and repair is possible with a few simple steps like sheet composting to get the process started, then patience and time as nature does the rest. In fact, the soil can be repaired very quickly in the span of a few seasons of intentional 'work', allowing a cover crop to do it's thing unseen beneath the surface. In nature this process of gradual rebuilding and succession takes several years. We can duplicate this process and shorten the timescale by bringing together the elements needed then getting out of the way.

Okay...enough for now. Can you tell I'm excited about this? I hope you'll take the time to follow these links and do some research on your own.

Until next time, happy gardening!