Garden Amendments as Placebos

I just finished writing an article for Urban Farm Magazine on the subject of aerated compost tea (ACT for short). It proved to be one of the most contentious subjects on which I’ve ever tried to, as Mark Twain liked to say, “corral the truth.”

It got me thinking about other controversial soil additives popular in organic gardening and farming circles right now such as rock dust, mycorrhizae additives, and biochar.

Now I prefer not to touch these topics with a hundred foot pole. But let me go out on a limb with a thoughtstyling outside of the usual debate about the benefits or worthlessness of these soil potions. I’ve started wondering if the strong anecdotal evidence supporting things like ACT, biochar etc., might indicate a kind of ecological placebo effect at work.

Note: I’m not saying that placebos have no value or that, “It’s all in your head.” Quite to the contrary: the placebo effect is powerful and causes real changes in the physical world. Even hardcore skeptics agree with me on this (note also the downside to placebos in that article). As the fifteenth century alchemist Paracelsus said, “You must know that the will is a powerful adjuvant of medicine.”

So could working with these soil additives be a way of focusing human will, of changing human consciousness towards the goal of healing the damage to nature that we’ve caused? And what about biodynamics? I suspect a consciousnesses shift within human hearts and minds is what Rudolf Steiner was really trying to do with his, admittedly bizarre, preparations.

On the opposite, non-interventionist side of the gardening spectrum, I’ve been re-reading Masanobu Fukuoka’s books. Fukuoka advocates a radical, almost (but not entirely) hands-off approach to natural systems. Paradoxically, Fukuoka was striving for the very same shift in consciousnesses, though by entirely different (Eastern) means. As he put it, “The ultimate goal of farming is not the growing of crops, but the cultivation and perfection of human beings.”

I think we would do well to spend more time investigating the intersection of human consciousness and ecology in the years ahead. Our survival may depend on it.

Now, as Marshall McLuhan was fond of saying, “If you don’t like that idea, I’ve got others.” So let me know what you think in the comments . . .

Ladies of Manure 2013 Calendar

Just when our Kickstarter fatigue has reached terminal limits, this crazy pitch shows up in our mailbox to make our day. Two words: Humanure Cheesecake.

(Err…two words you really don’t want to see together, ever,  now that I think about it. Sorry.)

As teachers, we spend a lot of our time trying to convince people to mulch and compost. Return it all to the earth, people!

We’re particularly fond of throwing down the humanure* gauntlet, partially because it really is a very important subject,  and partially for the shock factor and the giggles. Some audiences are primed for this challenge. For others, it’s the first time they’ve ever heard of the concept, and by the look on some faces, I imagine them thinking:

  • “Nope. Not even if civilization is burning down around my ears.”
  • “Note to self: Never visit these people at home.”
  • “They want me to keep poop around the house. Poop. Around my house.”
  • “Hmm, I’m sensing some sort of potty-training trauma here. Definitely an unhealthy anal obsession.”
  • “Funny, they don’t look like hippies.”

It’s an hard nut to crack, the poop nut. This environmental non-profit called The Fertile Earth Foundation is going about in a bold way, by trying to make manure sexy and fun. To be fair, the calendar isn’t all about humanure. (Then it would have to be called Jenkins Girls Gone Wild or something.) It’s about composting of all sorts, but humanure certainly gets much more play in it than it does in your average cheesecake calendar.

Take a look. They’re doing a Kickstarter to raise printing funds. What do you think? Think it will turn people on to the wonders of decomposition? What do you think it will take to make even basic composting a more commonplace activity? Do you humanure? If not, what keeps you from doing so?

*If humanure is new to you, check out the Humanure Headquarters for everything you could possibly want to know.

Aerated Compost Tea: Does it Work?

There’s a lot aerated compost tea brewers on the interwebs!

I’ve been asked by Urban Farm Magazine to write a short piece on the pros and cons of aerated compost tea (ACT for short). I’ve been sifting through the peer reviewed literature on the subject. Most of the studies show, at best, mixed results. And, honestly, my bias is against gardening techniques that require gadgets or novel techniques with no analog in nature. I’ve also tried it myself and found that a thick mulch of plain compost seems to work better.

That being said, I want to present a balanced story. I’m interested in hearing from readers about their ACT experiences. Have you tried it? Do you think it works? Or are you skeptical? Leave a comment or send me an email with your name, where you live and whether ACT did or did not work for you. I’d like to gather some anecdotal reports for the story and your help is greatly appreciated.

For those of you not familiar with ACT, here’s a good explanation with some resources via Permaculture Magazine: What is compost tea (and how do you make it)?

On the con side of ACT, horticulturalist Linda Chalker-Scott has a set of pdfs as well as a long list of ACT studies on her gardening myths page.

A Review of Masanobu Fukuoka’s Sowing Seeds in the Desert

First published in Japanese in the mid 1990s, Masanobu Fukuoka’s book Sowing Seeds in the Desert: Natural Farming, Global Resotration, and Ultimate Food Security is now in English in a beautiful translation published by Chelsea Green.

Fukuoka’s writing deals with the tricky practical and spiritual issues involved with our place in nature’s synergistic complexities. To intervene or not to intervene is often the question when it comes to what Fukuoka called his “natural farming” method.

Fukuoka councils a humbleness before nature, a cessation of the materialist drive to understand and control. Fukuoka illustrates this approach in a pen and ink drawing reproduced in the book. Of the drawing he says,

I call it “the cave of the intellect.” It shows two men toiling in a pit or a cave swinging their pickaxes to loosen the hard earth. The picks represent the human intellect. The more these workers swing their tools, the deeper the pit gets and the more difficult it is for them to escape. Outside the cave I draw a person who is relaxing in the sunlight. While still working to provide everyday necessities through natural farming, that person is free from the drudgery of trying to understand nature, and is simply enjoying life.

Paradoxically his natural farming method involves, on the one hand, letting vegetables reseed on their own and revert to their wild ancestry, while on the other avoiding the neglect that led to the loss of hundreds of trees at his parent’s farm when he first took it over. And in the second half of the book he suggests a radical interventionist approach to what he calls “deserts” (by which he means areas ruined by human activity). Here he chronicles his trips to wastelands in India and the Central Valley of California. Fukuoka suggests carpet bombing these areas with seed pellets (a how-to for making seed pellets is included in an appendix). And the content of those seed balls? Whatever will re-vegetate the landscape most effectively regardless of whether those plants are native or not in order to achieve what Fukuoka calls a “second Genesis.” As he puts it,

I would mix the seeds of all plants–forest trees, fruit trees, perennials, vegetables, grasses and legumes–as well as ferns, osses, and lichens, and sow them all at once across the desert.

Nativists will cringe at this suggestion but to me it makes a lot of sense. Fukuoka says that these desertified areas lack the seeds needed to recover on their own.

Sowing Seeds in the Desert is a book steeped in a passionate Buddhism. The real desert is in the human heart. It’s our hearts that Fukuoka is trying to heal and by so doing, bring about that second Genesis.

When people try to grow crops using human knowledge, they will never be anything more than farmers. If they can look at things with an empty mind as a child does, then, through the crops and their own labor, they will be able to gaze into the entire universe.

Those unfamiliar with Fukuoka’s philosophy should start by reading The One Straw Revolution. And if you want to get the nitty-gritty how-to on how to apply his natural farming methods you’ll want to pick up a copy of  The Natural Way of Farming. Sowing Seeds in the Desert serves as a deeply moving coda to his life’s work. And it got me to start sowing the seeds in my own front yard desert. Thanks to a winter rain, a mixture of clover and greens is now sprouting beneath the fig tree that graces our front yard.

Thanks to the wonders of Youtube, you can watch an hour long documentary about Fukuoka here.

What To Do With Old Vegetable Seeds

In short, throw them around.

We’ve got a lot of expired seed packages sitting in a shoe box. And I’ve been reading a newly published translation of a book by the late, “natural farmer” Masanobu Fukuoka (review coming soon). Fukuoka inspired me to distribute those old seeds around our micro-orchard to see what comes up.

Fukuoka has some tips in his book The Natural Way of Farming for creating a semi-wild vegetable garden:

  • Include nitrogen fixers (in my case some clover seeds)
  • Use daikon and other radishes to break up hard soil
  • Sow before weeds emerge

Scott Kleinrock has used the same strategy at the Huntington Gardens. Here’s what his semi-wild vegetable garden, growing in the understory of some small fruit trees, looked like in January of this year:

And there you have it–vegetable gardening with a fraction of the work.