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.

Why You Should Avoid Staking Trees

The correct way to stake a tree. Image from the Vacaville Tree Foundation

To answer the question of why tree staking should be avoided, one can turn to the latest Extension Service advice or to the nearly 2000 year old words of Seneca:

No tree becomes rooted and sturdy unless many a wind assails it. For by its very tossing it tightens its grip and plants its roots more securely; the fragile trees are those that have grown in a sunny valley. It is, therefore, to the advantage even if good men, to the end that they may be unafraid, to live constantly amidst alarms and to bear with patience the happenings which are ills to him only who ill supports them.

Moving from practical philosophical advice to practical horticultural advice, let’s say you have a tree from the nursery that is too weak to stand on it’s own. Or you need to stake a tree planted in a public place to keep people from pulling on it. What do you do? Linda Chalker-Scott, Ph.D., Extension Horticulturist at Washington State University has some advice:

•    If trees must be staked, place stakes as low as possible but no higher than 2/3 the height of the tree.
•    Materials used to tie the tree to the stake should be flexible and allow for movement all the way down to the ground so that trunk taper develops correctly.
•    Remove all staking material after roots have established. This can be as early as a few months, but should be no longer than one growing season

Now, back to the philosophical: Seneca’s tree analogy is a good example of a system that benefits from chaos and shock. This idea is the subject of Nassim Taleb’s new book on what he calls “anti-fragility“.

By contrast, natural or organic systems are antifragile: They need some dose of disorder in order to develop. Deprive your bones of stress and they become brittle. This denial of the antifragility of living or complex systems is the costliest mistake that we have made in modern times. Stifling natural fluctuations masks real problems, causing the explosions to be both delayed and more intense when they do take place. As with the flammable material accumulating on the forest floor in the absence of forest fires, problems hide in the absence of stressors, and the resulting cumulative harm can take on tragic proportions.

For more advice on tree staking see:

North Carolina State University’s Staking Recent Transplants

University of Minnesota’s guide to Staking and Guying Trees

Linda Chalker-Scott’s pdf on The Myth of Staking

Update: Please note an exception to these tree staking rules regarding certain kinds of dwarf fruit trees. See the comments for the details. Thanks C.

Saturday Linkages: Cat Houses, Office Gyms, Cooking in Compost and More . . .

A cat house designed by Frank Lloyd Wright


Gourmet meal cooked in compost: http://www.7dvt.com/2012earthiest-roast …

The Fixer’s Manifesto http://manifesto.sugru.com 

Short film about Safecast, the hackerspace-created, crowdsource radioactivity monitoring project http://boingboing.net/2012/11/21/short-film-about-safecast-the.html …

Vintage Cat House Designed by the Office of Frank Lloyd Wright – http://www.moderncat.net/2012/11/09/vintage-cat-house-designed-by-the-office-of-frank-lloyd-wright/ …

Just in time for the holidays . . .

How to “unshop” on Black Friday: http://wp.me/p2H7hX-v 

Office Gyms

Treadmill Desk http://livingsmallblog.com/2010/06/07/treadmill-desk/ …


Next Steps For The Bike Movement In Santa Monica (p. 2/2) http://la.streetsblog.org/2012/11/20/next-steps-for-the-bike-movement-in-santa-monica-p-22/#.UKwAP7vnRYI.twitter …

One for the Dustbin: The 85th Percentile Rule in Traffic Engineering http://streetsblog.net/2012/11/16/one-for-the-dustbin-the-85th-percentile-rule-in-traffic-engineering/#.UKhxrZ-16m0.twitter …

For these links and more, follow Root Simple on Twitter:

Picture Sundays: US Postal Service Creates World’s Ugliest Stamp

I got some stamps out of a machine at the post office yesterday and this is what got barfed out. Is this a sign of the imminent collapse of the US empire or just evidence that the email thing is making the post office go broke? Either way, you’d think the Postal Service would be embarrassed by this graphic design nightmare.

How do we get them to reissue this one? I may not be a big fan of the American Poultry Industry, but that sure is a fine looking stamp.

Thankfully the post office lets you make your own stamps.

So how about one with that beekeeping donkey from yesterday’s link dump?

Or that menace of poultry keepers, an angry raccoon.

How about a composting toilet?

Or a tribute to the Mayan/Zombie/2012 Apocalypse.

Welcome to the new Root Simple!

The Root Simple Information Hub

After six years of semi-disorganized blogging, we’ve cleaned up our act. We hope this new design will make it easier to find the information you need, whether your want to access an old post, look for some specific information, or find out if we’re doing any events. Also, this new layout is what’s called a “responsive layout,” meaning it should look as good on your phone or tablet as it does on your desktop computer.

We want to thank our designer, Roman Jaster, pictured above, for a beautiful job!

Thank you, too, to Caroline Clerc for the charming drawings in the header.

Some features:

  • We’ve really cleaned up our tags (aka categories), to make information easier to find. In the top menu bar you’ll see some of the major categories, but also be sure to click on “All Categories” to see the full list. Relevant categories also appear to the left of every post.
  • We’ve finally started a project we’ve long wanted to do: creating short how-to videos. We’ll post about each new one as we finish them, but you can also always find them under the “Video” tab as well as on our YouTube Channel. We’re also working on making the videos “video podcasts”, so you can sign up to download them automatically.
  • On the subject of podcasts, we have long promised podcasts but have decided to focus on video production for now.
  • Keep an eye on the “Upcoming Events” in the right-side menu bar. More info will be found under the Events tab at the top.
  • A hint for searching: The search box at the top of our layout works pretty well, but if your search is a tricky one, Google often works best. Just enter “root simple” in quotes and then the subject, e.g.: “root simple” olive oil moisturizer

With any change there’s always bugs. If you experience any technical difficulties with the design, please let us know! And when you do, be sure to mention which browser you were using (Firefox, Chrome, etc.) when you had the problem. You can comment here or email comments to [email protected]