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Permaculture

Soil Science

In the previous installment, we delved into what nitrogen is, why plants need it and how plants, bacteria and humans get it. Today we will delve into how it moves through our farms and interacts with global systems. The concept of a biogeochemical cycle is useful in thinking about how elements behave on a micro and global scale. As can be seen in the roots of the word, a biogeochemical cycle involves biological, from organism to ecosystem, and abiotic systems such as the atmosphere. It makes sense, on a planet whose continents appear green from photosynthetic organisms from space, that life is a driving force inextricable from chemical and geological processes. Humans, of course, need to come to terms with this reality. We cannot live on the planet without changing the planet, and the kind of planet we will have to live on will be the direct result of our actions. Other examples of biogeochemical cycles are those for water, carbon and sulfur.

soil formation

New England is a weird place to farm. We live in a mostly tree covered landscape of rolling hills, weathered mountains, deep ponds, swamps, rivers, outcroppings of bedrock, and once in a while, some really nice soil. In many areas, soil can change from heavy, wet clay to rocky, sandy soil in a matter of a hundred feet or so. This patchwork effect is increased by the crosshatching of millions of miles of stone walls built by the first European farmers in this area as they tried to eke a living from the rocky ground. It has even been posited that the orneriness of New England’s soil is at least partly responsible for the same trait found in its farmers.

But where did this landscape come from? Why are we blessed with perched water tables, endless crops of “New England Potatoes”- field stones- and house sized boulders seemingly dropped from space in the middle of our woods and fields?

One of Jeuji’s nutritious wild salads

Julie Rawson has worked with lots of beginning farmers over the years. But this year is her first time being partnered with a permaculture mentee. Jeuji Diamondstone of Worcester, with her urban backyard of Jerusalem artichokes, hazelnut bushes, and dandelions, is developing something quite unique. In the third season of the developing of her permaculture oasis, Jeuji, a NOFA/Mass member and avid learner, sought out some help from the NOFA/Mass beginning farmer mentorship program. Over the winter, we looked far and wide for the right fit for Jeuji, not an easy task. Yet, with 40 years of growing experience and experimenting with "a lot of things on her farm," Julie offered. Jeuji says, "I wasn't sure about it at first because Julie admitted that permaculture wasn't her strong suite, but it has been awesome getting to know Julie and her farm, and any time that I am in a place that is growing things, it is beneficial. I am learning."

Jack, Ronnie and Rattan Lal

In late February a number of us received invitations to a May 3 – 5 conference outside Paris titled, “Sequestering Carbon in Soil – Addressing the Climate Threat”. The invitations came from a small consulting firm called Breakthrough Strategies and Solutions that had been tracking individuals and groups active on the carbon sequestration issue. They had put together funding from several non-profit sources for a gathering to:

On June 17 Jono Neiger, local agroecologist with a lifetime of experience in regenerative design, will present the following workshop: Permaculture Homestead Design: How to Assess and Plan Your Sustainable Homestead. It will run from 10am to 3pm at Wildside Cottage and Gardens in Conway.

According to Jono: “The work of building the dream homestead starts well before the first garden is dug or the greenhouse is built. Creating an efficient and flourishing home and garden, one that yields abundantly but needs few inputs, requires skillful planning. Each element must intelligently connect with every other element in the system.”

Tomato and pepper trays under south window

Here it is mid October and we are surrounded by beauty and abundance! Two nights ago (October 14) it was predicted we’d have our first killing frost. Pru and I spent the day harvesting and hauling all the tender fruits. The kitchen and basement are overflowing with baskets and crates of ripe and almost ripe tomatoes, sweet and hot peppers, tomatillos, and winter and summer squash. Now the task will be to preserve the bounty: the tomatillos and jalapenos plus our previously harvested garlic and onions will become a spicy hot green salsa. As I write this, the delicious, aroma of green tomato, tomatillo and immature butternut squash curry is wafting my way as Pru is simmering it on the wood cook-stove.

At Gray Dog’s Farm in Huntington, MA, Ross Hackerson is exploring a novel question: how can livestock, forage grasses, and nut, fruit, and other useful trees all be integrated together for maximum ecosystem benefit while also producing high-quality food? This integrated system, called silvopasture, is modeled after a savannah ecosystem where large ruminants and predators roam through grasslands dotted with trees. Each element (ruminant, predator, understory grasses, trees) is integral to the functioning of the system as a whole.

Healthy monster tomatoes

Healthy monster tomatoes

I write this on September 26, the day after a pretty serious frost on at least half of our farm. Today I want to talk about the use of wood chips in beds as mulch. We had some stunning successes with the method that we devised to plant, do an initial weeding and then mulch with wood chips that were partially decomposed, acquired from our local DPW. We had best ever crops of onions, both long season and spring green onions, lettuce in wood chip mulch, spinach, carrots, parsley, basil, Swiss chard, kale, and tomatoes. Beets, which generally were not as beautiful as I would like them to be, and cucumbers did not fare as well. Winter squash did fairly well. The chips that we used around the cucumbers and winter squash were fresh last fall, and I think that it was a mistake to use them, perhaps because of too much mineral tie up.

In some of our chard and basil beds we sowed crimson clover on top of the chips, which germinated nicely, and seemed to provide great ground cover and a constant fertility drip to the crops. I look forward to how crops grow in these beds next year.

Connor is an ecological designer and environmental planner with a background in small scale diversified farming. He specializes in agro-forestry and multi-productive forested landscapes on farms and conservation properties, combining work on food production, conservation, and re-integrating people into the natural world. He has an M.S. in Natural Resources from UVM’s Ecological Planning program. He resides in Montague, MA and works throughout the Northeast.

Permaculture uses ecology as the basis for designing integrated systems of food production, housing, appropriate technology, and community resilience. We‘ll cover definitions, history, ethics, and some principles & techniques. You will walk away with a framework for understanding the connections between social and ecological health and a method for designing solutions.

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