Wednesday, August 10, 2016

The Learning Garden Leads The Way

The Learning Garden has been at the forefront of a new movement on how are foods are produced. Borrowing heavily on some fine agricultural traditions (One Straw Revolution; essays by Wendell Berry; several books on soil and biota of the soil) combined with some 50 years of gardening experience, The Learning Garden moved to planting without straight rows from the beginning. The discouragement of straight rows was done on purpose to change perspectives on the plants themselves. A break with the past was needed and we wanted to show everyone, we were not making the old mistakes.

This type of gardening might be called messy, but that is a response to what we grew up knowing of raising food. We thought those straight lines were done for the plants but they no, they suit a human paradigm. Today in the garden, we like how the breaking of straight lines leads us toward breaking up our old ideas about agriculture. The straight lines of the past were done to increase production and the ease of work for the farmer – but that was always predicated on tilling the soil. We don't till the soil (and we strongly urge you not to as well) and automatically, we are free to plant our plants anyway we want and not using rows allows us to fit more plants in per square feet.  The increase in plants helps shade the soil and make the immediate microclimate more forgiving.  

We aren't into a clean field – meaning, weeds are tolerated. In fact, in fallow beds we let them grow with impunity. There is nothing worse than bare soil and so we would rather have weeds growing up until the time we plant it.  Furthermore, many of those "weeds" are fantastic forage for insects - and we want more insects not less.  Leaving the weeds to flower - along with our crop plants to flower - provides sustenance for a bee population declining in free fall and for butterflies and birds.  The idea is to have a large insect population to reach homeostasis in the soil.

Instead of tilling the soil, we put out 3 inches of compost in Fall and three more in Spring. This feeds the critters in the soil and they "plow" this material into the soil. Thousands of trips of worms and other critters mix our compost with the soil, feeding themselves in the process and causing vast multiplication of their kin. From this, we get soft loamy soil that absorbs up to 40% more water than unamended soil, with less loss of topsoil. Furthermore, the soil is pliable, soft and easy to plant. The critters in the soil increase the fertility of our soil without adding costly petroleum-based fertilizers and we get the compost for free!

We import large quantities of this material – turning waste products from other households into rich, fertile soil instead of being dumped into land fills. This composted material without tilling actually sequesters carbon in the soil. If farming were to do this kind of agriculture, we would be over 50% on our way to ameliorating the excess carbon in the atmosphere.  (Put another way, the old style of agriculture - that is to say the agriculture from the 1950's to today - is the largest contributor of carbon in our atmosphere! Our little garden does not sequester that much carbon - but it shows the way.)

So, while we don't look like a conventional garden, our way offers a number of benefits:
  1. There is no need for tilling and all that expense of energy, mechanical as well as human.
  2. Plants are grown without the addition of expensive fertilizers and in the complete absence of pesticides. (These two points and one above are all reduction of our dependency on fossil fuels!)
  3. What was once a waste product going into our ever fuller landfills now becomes an integral part of food production – nothing is really wasted.
  4. The lack of tilling the soil means our garden is a carbon sink removing carbon from our atmosphere and sequestering it in the soil, where it once was before modern farming released it into the atmosphere at such an alarming rate.
  5. Allowing weeds to persist in unplanted areas helps keep insect populations high and in homeostasis.
  6. Permitting some plants in our garden to go to seed further supports our insect populations and allows us to save seed for next year's crops - increasing the number of locally adapted seeds that will produce in the LA Basin with its soil, water, and Mediterranean climate - all different from the rest of the country.

The benefits we create for ourselves and the world are too important to ignore. In the future, this is what gardening and farming will look like, not so far away. The expense of fossil fuels and their lack of availability is going to increase the price of fertilizers and pesticides to the point that they will no longer be efficient enough to be worthwhile. We will let the insects reach a point of homeostasis where there are no significant losses from insects as they take care of one another. Tilling with fossil fuels will become as rare as hand-writing letters are today. Food will be grown locally and the food miles will be measured in steps.

And carbon will be sequestered in the soil and the soil will once again hold water for a much larger space of time.

We can take a little mess for all this good.