I cannot believe it is Day 6 already. The PDC here at Ridgedale Permaculture is zipping by with mountains of knowledge being scaled, some incredible insights discovered and droves of dynamic learning opportunities happening at each stage. Since I’ve been writing this blog my creative self has been trying to discover the most efficient way to communicate everything that is going on here it Ridgedale. I guess what is coming out is a kind of stream of consciousness, experiential, data recording… so I just hope it’s nothing too all over the place and somewhat digestible. But hey, as we learned yesterday, lumpy is good so…. perhaps I should have called the blog ‘PDC porridge’.
Our morning review session reminds us that the most productive forest gardens are called mid-succession ecologies due to the fact that this is where we see all layers displayed. At least this is the stage of a forest system that we should be aiming to recreate if we want to factor more cropping into the vertical spaces of our site in the cool and temperate climates.
We talk about Guilds and the measures that Richard has taken here in the tree lanes at Ridgedale. Species such as nitrogen fixers like Red Clover and Phacelia, plants that also provide pollination and insectary feedback loops, soil de-compaction (comfrey) and Siberian Pea shrub which offers feed for chickens, a mulch source and even human nutrition if needed. Ground covers that are supportive to the fungal rows between the grasses they are trying to establish here.
A key learning point from this morning was the analysis of a graph that demonstrated the amount of particular life forms in the soil over time. What it indicates is that over time bacterial dominated soil, an environment most suitable for annual plants (like vegetables) and grasses (or in an area just before the bacterial/fungal convergence), complexes to a dominance in fungal life forms through succession. The point is to visualise what this means to any productive element in your garden or site. “As systems complex, fungi increases, carbon increases, water holding potential increases and you end up with forest floors; spongy, rich, bouncy old growth forest. I like the sound of that soil.” R.P. Trees and perennial plants root much deeper and as a result pull up lots more nutrients which also results in highly nutritious and beneficial food available on the soil surface in this self- replicating system. Life begets life.
All of Richard’s fruit trees arrived as bare root plants, so he informs us of the bare root dip he prepared to make sure the plants had a super helping hand before being planting in their rows along with mycorrhizal fungi, scattered rock dust and topped with a woody mulch, all aimed at developing a fungal oriented environment. Happy, healthy soil = happy, healthy plant. “Nearly all plants on this planet have evolved to have a symbiotic relationship with mycorrhizal fungi, nearly every single plant” - R.P. "Our job as designers, especially within the context of restoring damaged soils and ecosystems, is to assemble elements in patterns that allow life to thrive. Surviving ain't thriving!"
Before the morning tea we glance at tree nursery and seed sources and lists of perennials and annuals to build guilds and polycultures, integral worldwide resources that each of us can utilise to benefit our ventures and everyone we interact with in the future. A favourite of mine is mentioned, pfaf.org, founded by Ken Fern who was a bus driver in the U.K. and decided to chuck that in with the intention of growing one type of the 8000 different types of plants that grow in the U.K. What resulted was a database of over 25,000 useful plants from all over the world. A result of these resources is that we can start to build or be of benefit to existing seed saving networks, developing on-site nurseries to carry on research and to benefit our project, our community and the planet… bam!
Looking at the establishment of a forest garden we are once again looking to aim for mid-succession patches and no matter your climate, “there are different methodologies that all lead to the same scenario” R.P. We start by designing the canopy layers and the main trees, to work out how far to space these apart to be of greatest productive benefit in the cool & cold climates. Start to plan in how things needs are going to be met over a long period of time in order to reduce inputs that can be met on site through biological means. It may take some years to replace, but if you set about getting it right early on, you will suffer far less in 5-10 years time.
We learn about critical spacing of trees in cool temperate and Mediterranean climates. That grass is the death of trees, as is the drying out of their roots. Some tricks we pick up: when you design a forest garden, think about access and the paths you’ll be walking on and use them as dividers between elements – start by designing patches, depending on the types of produce you intend to harvest. It’s essential to work in scale when preparing designs, which aids the ability to visualise. More tricks with Google Earth using a projector to give us our simple scale map. Once done, breaking your site down into smaller parts so you do a little bit very well – stretching yourself too thin is very expensive and very costly in energy. Richard explains the importance of working on whatever you’re working on intensively then building out when you have an established ecology.
A major component if being able to supply nitrogen needs and Richard outlines how to consider these needs being planned how things needs are going to be met sustainably for a very long time so you can spend more time in other integral elements of your life (family, surfing, etc.). We’re really looking at timing here that’s been matched with guilds and/or resources combined with planned manageable tasks. “You’re building up an ecology that you can add to. We’re creating intensive changes in small manageable places.”
We move into dryland strategies looking at net and pan or boomerang plantings, monitoring drip lines to maximise water catchment, adding grasses like Vetiver to assist with erosion control and the importance of ‘bomb-proof’ mulch.
Using a Mediterranean plot of land as an example, where water is a limiting factor, “I would throw all my resources at doing this once, creating what I like to call Restorative Mulch”, a combination of wet newspaper or cardboard under random crop waste, under municipal compost (inoculated with some finished compost), followed by something carbonaceous like straw. “It’s a restoration piece that I’m never going to be doing again, a once off very important job.”
By following this with some kind of creeping groundcover, you’ve generated water retention and carbon production that mimics a forest floor, a naturally occurring pattern of mulch, decay, succession and stratification. Anti- evaporation strategies are key to Dryland Water Management; Deep mulch, living ground cover, windbreaks and multiple layers of plants. Can you design for what will be happening when carbon cycles, water cycles and nutrient cycles are restored to what they once were?
We fly to Thailand to explore the Tropics and see that when you have a disturbance you can maximise the opportunity that is left behind. Try running pigs and following them in with initial plantings, then as that develops, expand on that edge. Perhaps it’s a swale edge, following the water ballooning in to and under the berm, and that’s where you start planting. Making sure that timing, earthworks and plantings occur just before the rains so that it will allow the soil to heal up and plants establish themselves.
In the tropics 90% of the biomass is up in the air, so you need to put that back – using mulches in the tropics is great but they disappear very fast, so use woody (machine mulch even) matter initiially and plant based (chop and drop) mulches, but you can grow biomass very fast to mulch, trying to build fungal biomass fast
Key point - “All of the ways of implementing these systems are based on small concentrated efforts that are slowly built upon.” – R.P.
One of my favourite topics, seeds, is up next, looking at seed stratification & scarification. “Perennials From seed are much harder than growing annuals in the cool/ cold climates.” Good thing we’re here then to learn about possible dormancy of some seeds which will require stratification. Others may have a waxy shell which requires scarification (a seed that would have perhaps gone through the digestive tract of an animal) – making a slit in the surface to allow water to penetrate.
With stratification we learn about planning a calendar and how to cool our seeds using silver sand or moss and a fridge or root cellar, making sure to label it in a water proof way and placing them in a seasonal order to respond to the pattern in which we predict they will germinate.
By the end of this session I’m very confident I can head home to start planning my growing nursery which will help me support the several first small sections of my forest garden.
Before lunch we head to Morocco with Geoff Lawton to wander around a 2000 year old productive forest of dates, palms, figs, pomegranates, tamarind, carob, bananas, grapes, quince. “A classic oasis desert fruit forest” G.Lawton., before to heading to the other side of the globe to Vietnam where he narrates us through a 28 generation old food forest. “An vision of the past…and of the future, the only future we have.” G. Lawton.
The afternoon session sees us embracing totally appropriate technology to catch up with Ben Falk from Whole Systems Design and author of ‘The Resilient Farm and Homestead”. Ben’s project does do some large projects, one at a prison which sounded cool, but mostly home owners who are looking to “resilientify their life”.
We start in the kitchen and look in the medicine cabinet (lavender, calendula, liquorice, etc), then head out to the grounds of the site which is in its 11th year. The structure of the gardens clearly demonstrates the elements of forest ecology that we have been discussing the last few sessions, terraced garden beds that lead to shrubs backing on to a Black Locust canopy along one of the northern boundaries.
Heading into one of those semi-forested areas we discover some Black Walnut with Jerusalem Artichoke understorey acting as a food storage system food storage system, we stroll on to the earth shape based and establishment phases of the site that is lined with proactive herbaceous species like mullein, comfrey and bee balm. An healthy apple tree neighbours this patch as it thrives by stretching it’s roots into the heavily de-compacted and re-nutrified soils. The Whole Systems Design focuses “on growing de-compacted soils.”
From where there is an excess or abundance of resources to where there is a lack – the valleys are the rich, the ridges are the poor – Ben describes this as the basis of regenerative design. “when we have a rain event, the water that would have run…. is now shunted out to what is the driest ridge of the property.” – focussed on micro-climate, focussing on the southerly facing aspects – focus on areas that are least changeable early on, dealing with easily changeable elements later.
Water - slow it, spread it sink it. Ben suggests some serious considerations for any land owner. Are you asking that question about every square metre of your property? What is the water doing here and what am I doing to slow it down and store it?
Vikfus to Ben, “Did you set out with specific parameters and did you have to compromise any of those when you chose the site?” Ben responds that the major aspects he looked at were micro- climates, landform, access and the over all microclimate of the site within the state, but given that this was, at that stage, a short term solution, he was mostly looking for a location close to school until he graduated. Eventually he simply fell in love with the view and everything else was secondary. This was not the intended long term site, the original plan being to renovate the house, sell it and then move on once he concluded is Architecture graduate school education.
Having now decided to stay, Ben explains he really likes the site because it’s very challenging, with lots of degraded areas and is very representative of most parts of up state Vermont. One of the overall goals is being able to live in a way that sustains them so that they need fewer and fewer resources from off site and in a way that enhances the ecological characteristics of the site.
My mind fair exploded (again) when Ben showed us his soil inoculation system using ‘Wine Cap’ mushrooms (Stropharia rugosoannulata) and old burlap sacks, handfuls of which are translocated into the base of perennial trees when potted out so they have a mycelium bomb that will spread out as a nutrient support network once they are field planted… brilliant!
Later in the course we will catch up with Christian Shearer, Albert Bates and Eric Toensmeier. Given the amount of questions that Ben receives during the call, and the excitement of the group, one can see the massive benefit of being able to hook up with professionals worldwide, sharing a vast amount of climatic and practical design information that can be experienced visually. This is one of the major opportunities that make the PDC and internships at Ridgedale unique.
AGROFORESTRY (Integrating Trees into Agricultural Systems)
- Silvo Pasture (with grass)
- Silvo Arable (with crops)
Richard explains that common opinion in traditional agriculture is that trees will get in the way of the machinery, however if designed consciously you can start to integrate trees as wind breaks, nutrient pumps and water sources into our systems. You can start stacking crops, storing a long and short term timber supply (coppicing and pollarding), fruit, forage, habitats and insectary sources.
We expand this topic allowing us to understand the establishment of row tree plantings and when choosing tee lane and farming machinery, the differences between power-harrow’s and rotovators and the associated impact on the micro-organism communities within the soil.
Hedgerows, which used to designate the open pastures of England, are explained as both a complimentary system for animal and pest control, behaving as a windbreak and shelter belt, a habitat for birdlife, and reptiles and possibly providing some kind of yield depending on your curiosity…”future-proof fencing”. And if you’ve got a bill hook and a little skill you can make a tidy packet in back pocket every season by wandering around your neighbors pastures.