Hügelkultur in dry climates?

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Image: Urbania Hoeve.

Hügelkultur, popularized by permaculturalist Sepp Holzer, is the practice of burying logs in a mound to create a raised bed that composts in place. As the logs break down they add organic matter and create, in theory, a rich soil full of air gaps, fungal and microbial life.

But the thought of mounding anything in our dry climate doesn’t make sense to me. As I said in my post about the pros and cons of raised beds, if I didn’t have contaminated soil I’d grow my veggies in the ground. A Root Simple reader from Cyprus, which has a very similar climate as ours, said that Hügelkultur experiments there had not worked out. I’ve also heard that Geoff Lawton is skeptical of the practice in dry climates. And I’ve found no peer reviewed research on the practice.

But I also want to keep an open mind. I get asked about this practice a lot and have to confess ignorance. If you know of a Hügelkultur experiment in a dry climate please leave a link. Perhaps there’s a dry climate variation?  Has anyone seen any research? Have you tried it yourself?

Village Homes: A Model for Sustainable Suburbs

I’ve recently discovered a truly inspiring housing development in Davis, California. This is not new news–it was built in the 1980′s, but it’s new to me and worth sharing.

Village Homes is the brainchild of architect/developer Michael Corbett. It encompasses 70 acres and 200-some homes. It has all the space and privacy that brings people to the suburbs, but it’s designed with considerable intelligence. For instance, the homes are all designed according to passive solar principles, so their heating and cooling bills are considerably reduced. Some have even have green roofs. But more interesting is the landscaping, the massive network of bike/walking paths and the creative use of public space.

The entire development is essentially a big food forest. All of the rainfall is captured and instead of being directed to the sewer system, it runs to swales between the houses, to nourish fruit trees. The resulting space is a lush park full of edibles, from exotic jujubee trees to grapes to almonds. Residents can stroll around in the abundant shade and pick fruit at will. Only the almond crop is off limits–the almond crop is harvested every year and sold to support the the gardening services for the entire development. There are also community garden space available for those who wish to raise more food crops than their own yard space allows.  The lush growth coupled with the reduced asphalt surfaces makes the whole development 10 degrees Farhenhiet cooler in the summer than the surrounding suburbs.

I could go on and on, but perhaps the best way to get a feel for it is to watch the 10 minute video above. It’s hosted by Permaculture guru Bill Mollison, who’s a big fan of the development.  It’s well worth the time to watch it all the way through.

Also, here’s a short paper on the development, which gives all the pertinent facts, friendly for quick skimming: Village Homes: A model solar community proves its worth.

And finally, here is a video someone took during a site tour given by Michael Corbett, the developer. It doesn’t have as many visuals as Mollison’s video, but has some good insider tidbits in it, as well as discussion of some of the other features of the development, like office rental space and day care.

Asking the Right Questions

Golden Tree and The Achievement of the Grail

Sir Galahad Discovering the Grail by Edwin Austin Abbe (1895)

The legend of Percival’s search for the holy grail is an odd one. Spoiler alert! Percival finds the holy grail not through solving a riddle or answering a question. Rather, he asks the right question. In his first trip to the grail castle and the wounded Fisher King who oversees it, Percival doesn’t know what to do or say. It takes him years to find the grail castle again. On his second encounter (depending on the version) he either asks simply, “What ails thee?” or “Whom does the grail serve?” In this way, he finds the grail.

I was thinking about this myth this weekend in Larry Santoyo’s Permaculture Design Course when Larry stressed the importance of asking the right questions. It got me thinking about the kind of questions we need to ask about the many subjects covered on this blog.

Take for instance bees. Mainstream beekeepers ask, “How can I get more honey?” when they should be asking the same question Parsifal asks, “What ails thee?” That is, “What is in the long term interest of the bee’s health?” This is the question Michael Thiele and Kirk Anderson both ask. It’s a wise one to ask, since our health is inextricably entwined with that of the bees.

Or think about aisles of poisons and traps at all those big box stores. What if instead of asking, “How do I kill this pest?”, we asked, “How do I create conditions inhospitable rats/possums/raccoons/coyotes?” Maybe instead of buying poison (or worse, setting snares) we’d, for instance, stop leaving pet food out at night.

What questions do we ask in our neighborhoods? We often, myself included, ask questions such as, “What number do I call to anonymously report my neighbor for having a car up on blocks in the front yard?” A better question might be, “How do we foster the sort of community where neighbors aren’t strangers?” Communities where, if I have a problem with a neighbor I can simply have a civil chat because I know them and we’re friends. A short answer to this question, by the way: throw a party and invite the neighbors.

Like most legends there are many layers to the Percival story. Carl Jung considered it to be central to understanding ‘what ails’ Western civilization. Percival, according to Jung, embodies the reconciliation of the masculine and feminine, the logical and intuitive. But Percival’s quest begins and ends, not through some grand gesture, but through humility, through asking a simple question.

Before and After Permaculture

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An aspirational alternative to the future of jetpacks and space colonies I blogged about yesterday, came to me via the folks at Petaluma Urban Homestead. Noting that I said I was going to sit in on Larry Santoyo’s Permaculture Design Course (PDC), Suzanne of Petaluma Urban Homestead sent me before and after photos of her backyard saying, “This is what happened after I took my PDC!”

Radish Surprise

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A volunteer radish–I think it is a daikon–sprouted up in a little clear pocket of our yard. We let it go, ignored it. It grew bigger, and bigger, and bigger. Usually a radish is harvested early, so we never see how big they can get.

This one got huge, then burst out into hundreds of tiny purple flowers. Hummingbirds, honey bees and all sorts of flying insects visit it all day, every day. It has become one of the queens of the garden.

The picture below is horrible. The radish plant really is quite pretty,  the equal of any ornamental flowering shrub–but as bad is the picture is, it gives you some scale. See the bales of our straw bale garden behind it?  I think it must be pulling water from there, which accounts for its size and longevity. It’s gone a little past its prime now– a couple of weeks ago the blooms were thicker.

By the way, radish blossoms are tasty food for people, too.

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Anne Hars’ Top Ramen Keyhole Vegetable Garden

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“I call it my Top Ramen garden,” says gardener, Root Simple neighbor and artist Anne Hars, “I planted things that go well in Top Ramen.” Hars is referring to her keyhole vegetable bed that she created this winter. With the keyhole, Hars has made good use of a very small front yard with a dense planting of Ramen friendly veggies including bok choi, three kinds of kale, sunflowers, carrots, peas, garlic, radishes, spinach, romaine lettuce, cilantro and parsley.

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Anne with husband Bill and Petra the chihuahua.

She was inspired by a video by the British charity Send a Cow that shows the construction of a keyhole bed in Uganda. Keyhole beds are raised, circular vegetable gardens that contain a compost pile in the center. The compost pile provides nutrients and worm habitat. The keyhole form is said by permaulturalists to maximize space and ease of access.

Hars’ keyhole bed replaced two square raised beds that were made out of wood. “Gardens have to be rethought every couple of years and I feel less guilty then I did when I was using wood,” says Hars referring to the straw wattle she used to edge the keyhole. Straw wattle is a (mostly) biodegradable material made out of rice straw and plastic netting. You can find it at irrigation supply stores and on order at Home Depot. It comes in 25 foot lengths.

Soil for the bed came from the ground, from bagged soil that used to be in the wooden raised beds and from compost that Anne makes herself.

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“I’m going to plant things under things,” says Hars. As the winter garden reaches maturity Hars plans on putting warm season crops in under the winter greens. “It will be a lazy summer garden.”

Ute, one Anne and Bill’s two chihuahuas, agrees.

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.

Sources for Interesting Perennial Crops

A fruitless search for a fruiting olive tree caused an existential crisis here at the Root Simple compound. With a few exceptions, most nurseries in Los Angeles cater to the mow and blow set. You’re more likely to find parts for your leaf blower and a flat of petunias than anything worth growing. Good luck finding olives.

In the midst of my frustration I stumbled upon a interesting list, put together by the USDA, of retail nurseries and perennial crop resources. You can view that list here. Here’s three sources I found particularly interesting from that list:

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