Book Notes: The Permaculture Handbook :: Chapter Thirteen

Resuming my highly personal notes on Peter Bane’s The Permaculture Handbook (2012), here’s Chapter Thirteen: Setting Plant Priorities. Any misrepresentations of Bane’s words or work are mine alone and completely unintentional. Notes on each chapter linked here.


“The approach to diversity is continuous and iterative: expand and filter. Add species to your diet, your garden and your seed collection as your knowledge grows. Try hundreds or thousands and winnow them down to the double handful that will really feed you. Grow the rest for interest, preservation, medicine, flavor, or the many, many non-food purposes of the farm: fodder, insect habitat, soil remediation, seed production, windbreak, and beauty among them.” — Peter Bane



Herbs First: When space and time are limited. Most herbs are weeds, so they are also repairing the soil.

field of dill, Spring Ledge Farm, NH (Sept 2015)

Salad Bowl: Leafy greens. Mache (corn salad, in the valerian family) resows itself each year.  Also lettuce, chicory, endives, radicchio, escarole, and young leaves of beets, kale, and chard.

Flowers: Edible flowers — pansies, violets, begonias, sunflowers, lilies, roses, calendula, nasturtium, et al. — and others: “They buoy the spirit, represent a good potential cash crop, and are important for sowing goodwill among your neighbors and passersby. They also attract butterflies, hummingbirds, bees and other pollinators, making your garden more productive. Flowers are available for every niche in the garden from full sun to constant shade, and can — if they are not for eating — be grown in contaminated

pansies (May 2015)
calendula with bumblebee (4 Oct. 2017)

Greens: Leafy greens transport poorly and are powerhouses of nutrients, so it’s a good strategy to grow them for yourself. Pound for pound, they are also a good source of protein, though we don’t usually eat pounds of them. Spinach, kale, chard, collards, arugula, et al. In the heat of summer: New Zealand spinach, Malabar spinach, collards, and sweet potato greens; and plant other greens in shadier spots.

chard and spinach leaves, and chives (July 2013)

Small Fruits: “Some fruits like currants and gooseberries [which have been banned here in NH due to white pine blister; now some can be grown with a permit] are seldom available in commerce. And who can ever get enough strawberries? … With a well-selected assortment, you can eat fresh fruit of the most delicate types from late May through first frost with scarcely a break. We start with mulberries (which admittedly grow on a tree) and strawberries in May, then get juneberries, red raspberries, black, white and red currants, gooseberries, black raspberries, blackberries, blueberries, cherry tomatoes, ground cherries, tomatillos and in the fall red raspberries again. Everbearing strawberries yield throughout the season.” Also, hardy kiwis and grapes.

gooseberries at Paradise Lot, Holyoke, MA, June 2016

Staple Crops: The crops that provide the most calories for most of the year; in cold and dry climates, they must store well for months when they can’t be grown.

  • Potatoes — not heavy feeders so good in a new bed where soil fertility is questionable. Plant cut pieces of tubers (2-5 per spud, each with several eyes) on soil surface and cover with straw or leaf mulch; add more mulches as tops grow. Frost tender.
  • Onions and garlic — walking onions (aka Egyptian onions) can fit anywhere and are good companion plants. Yellow onions keep the best, white the worst.
  • Beets
beet harvest, Aug 2015
  • Carrots — prefer sandy soil; if you have clay, plant shorter varieties. Slow to germinate; interplant radish seeds, which germinate fast, to keep track of where the carrots are; the radishes will be up and gone in three weeks, just about the the carrots are sprouting.
carrot harvest (from previous year), March 2016
  • Brassicas — Kohlrabi: “The edible part of the kohlrabi is a bulbous stem, which we find to be sweet. Kohlrabis produce very small leaves and put most of their energy into the bulb. We eat them raw, peeled and sliced thin, with a little mayonnaise, or just plain, though they make a fine addition to soups or can be steamed. They’ll keep well in a root cellar and deliver a lot of calories.” Also Brussels sprouts, cabbage, kale, cauliflower, collards, broccoli.
Brussels sprouts, Oct. 2015
  • Pumpkins and Squash — particularly important as winter keepers.
pumpkin in field, Batchelder Mills Trails, Concord, NH, Sept. 2017
  • Shell Beans (dried) are a “good source of protein that can be stored at room temperature for months or even years. Allow them to dry fully on the vine during the last weeks of summer into autumn when rainfall is low; bring them in before fall rains. Shell them out soon after harvest and allow to dry completely before storing.” Chickpeas or garbanzos, favas or broad beans, lentils of many types, peas, mung and adzuki beans, navy, pinto, black turtle and lima beans.
friend’s rattlesnake beans, Aug. 2014
  • Grains
  • Corn – good calorie production but low amino acid profile (but can be complemented by beans, especially black beans).
  • Apples
friend’s apple harvest, Oct. 2013
  • Tomatoes – good container plants

Choose plants that play as many roles as possible: Fuel, fiber, fodder, fertilizer, fencing, flowers, forage, fragrance, fungus, filtration, farmaceuticals, fun, etc.

Fiber plants: Cotton, hemp, flax, kenaf, agave/sisal, bamboo, willow, kudzu, grain straw, reed grass, nettles, yucca, hibiscus, cattail. Can use fig roots, honeysuckle, hibiscus, kudzu, grapevines for basketry.

yucca in flower, Jekyll Island, GA, Dec. 2016

Fertility: Comfrey can be cut (chopped and dropped) 3-5 times per growing season to provide N, K, and Ca. Also good for fertility are chamomile, yarrow, and horsetail.

floppy comfrey in bordedr, June 2016

Plants for fencing and barriers: Pleaching involves “cutting or scraping sections of the cambium layers of two or more stems, then binding these together temporarily until they grow into each other. Many woody plants can be pleached; this increases survival rates by providing each stem access to a wider root network.”


More on plant-made fencing and barriers:

“Hawthorns and some plums, with their prominent thorns, make good hedge plants, and can be partially cut, laid over and woven into living fences while still rooted. The most wicked fencing species is honey locust. Its 5- to 12-inch thorns can be deadly; they evolved to repel mastodons and mammoths which would otherwise have pushed the trees over to get at their large, sweet, protein-rich seedpods, still appreciated by sheep and cattle. … Among traditional ornamentals, I would choose lilac (Syringa vulgaris, of which there are numerous sizes and several color variants) and mock orange (Philadelphus spp), both of which have dense shrubby growth and fantastic fragrances. Forsythia is always inspiring for a week in the spring, but of little use at any other time. It makes a poor mulch as the cut stems and branches can root if covered while still green. For our own living fence in southern Indiana we selected hawthorns, roses, Japanese and other quinces (all thorny species), as well as hazels, plums, cotoneasters, aronia, serviceberries, sorbus, crab apples, willows, Italian alder, witchhazel and deciduous holly — about 40 nitrogen-fixing,fruiting or wildlife forage species in all.”



Featured image (top image) is a stand of bamboo at Blithewold Mansion, Gardens & Arboretum, Bristol, RI, May 2017.

Wednesday Vignette: A Geography of Elements


Sometimes it’s hard to tell where the land ends and the sky begins.

“To be in place here, in other words, is to be at the edge of something. It is to pull yourself into alignment with something tentative, ephemeral, incidental though powerfully felt. Something atmospheric distributed across a geography of elements that swell. A thing that turns scenes, spaces, and bodily effects into envelopes that produce worlds out of thin air.” — Kathleen Stewart, citing W. Mules & P. Sloterdijk in ‘Regionality,’ Geographical Review, April 2013

Photo taken Christmas Day, 2017, while snowshoeing

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Book Notes: The Permaculture Handbook :: Chapter Twelve

Resuming my highly personal notes on Chapter Twelve: Plants, Crops & Seeds — The Real Dirt in Peter Bane’s The Permaculture Handbook (2012). Any misrepresentations of Bane’s words or work are mine alone and completely unintentional. Notes on each chapter linked here.


“You cannot garden without killing a lot of plants deliberately. Just as we should take no offense that plants move onto ‘our’ turf, we should have no guilt about chopping, mowing or grazing them down as it suits us. Out of common sense and self-care, we should, however, refrain from poisoning plants because poison knows no boundaries.” — Peter Bane


There are 500,000 to 1 million species of plants alive on planet Earth now, just a “tiny fraction of all those that have ever lived.” Of these, we’ve used about 100,000 species over all of human history for gardening. And of those, about 10% have been used for food. About 3,000 plant species used for food and drink are now available commercially or collected in botanical gardens or arboretums, with only 150 species developed extensively for agriculture. And a “mere 20 species provide 80% by weight of the food consumed by humans.” and only a small number of cultivars within each of those 20 species.

Sort of mind-blowing, isn’t it?

The earliest evolved plants — mosses, liverwort — are 800 million years old (humans are only 2-3 million years old). Flowering plants emerged from 80 to 140 million years ago, when continents starting forming.

liverwort on log, Enfield, NH, 16 April 2016

The Six Kingdoms of Life: Archaea; Bacteria; Protista; Plantae; Animalia; and Fungi. They are further subdivided by Phylla (Phyllum), Classes, Superorders, Orders, Families, Genera (Genus), and Species.

Discussion of nomenclature (and how important it is to use scientific names, not common names which can vary from place to place), taxonomy, and economic botany –most of our food and medicine comes from angiosperms (flowering plants – monocots and dicots), of which there are 254K species, and 7 of the 115 families provide the most economic value: legumes, mints, sunflowers, mallows, mustards, carrots, and lilies, plus the rose family, which includes many tree, shrub, and cane fruits and beech trees.

31 Crops that Feed Humanity – list on p. 216. Includes rice, wheat, rye, maize, potatoes, barley, cassava, oats, sorghum, sugar cane, soy, banana, coconut, apple, cottonseed, peanut, olive, citrus, beans and peas, tomato, mango, onion, sesame, date, cabbages, yam, et al.

bananas, Longwood Conservatory, May 2016

Another list, of 31 Superorders and Some Crops That Come From Them, on p. 220, divides the superorders into two groups, monocots and dicots. Bane doesn’t explain what these are, so I had to research it, and it’s quite difficult to grasp the botanical terms at first (for me, anyway), though once you’re given examples of each, it becomes intuitively obvious which are which in most cases. Essentially, a monocot has one seed leaf, often slender and long; most are herbaceous (no woody tissue) and small, and many are grasses; wheat, oats, barley, and corn are monocots, and so are palms, orchids, and many plants that grow from bulbs.

palms (and grasses), Jekyll Island, GA, Dec. 2016

On the other hand, a dicot has two seed leaves, usually rounded and fat, because they are two halves of a seed; there are many more species of dicots, including most tree and shrubs, and many annuals and perennials.

Some of the dicot superorders in his list are:
Lamianae (Mint), e.g., sesame, sage, basil, oregano, lavender, mullein, foxglove.

Violanae (Mustards and Cucurbits): e.g., cabbage, squash, cucumbers, melons, radish, violets, capers, and mustard

cucumber foliage, Aug. 2013

Aralianae (Carrots-Ginseng Alliance): e.g., carrot, celery, lovage, dill, parsnip, cilantro, fennel, cumin, anise, ginseng.

fennel stems, Sept. 2016

One dicot superorder with a lot of food crops is Liliidae (Lily), which contains onion, garlic, leek, iris, crocus, asparagus, yams, vanilla, agave, and yucca.

crocuses, April 2017

Plant Origins – Native or Exotic:

Plant origins are not important, in my view, for the purpose of keeping ecosystems in some form of ‘native’ purity. We are not only past the time when that is possible outside of very small areas, but climate change has handed us a mandate to accept and to create new combinations of plants, animals, insects and fungi in the interest not only of meeting our own needs but to preserve the diversity that is the basis of life itself.

Plant origins matter because they have shaped to a considerable degree the expectations of the organism. A plant that originated near the equator will not likely respond well to very short or very long day lengths in the temperate regions, though there are exceptions. Plants will have coevolved with insects and animals; they will have pollinators; they will have ecological niches that tell us much about how they should be cultivated. Studying plant origins can tell us where to look for analog plants, those that can function in the place of a native species, but that may have preferred characteristics, e.g., disease resistance, better flavor or higher yields.”

Later in the chapter, Bane says that plants can never accurately be said to be invasive; it’s we who have “invaded territory and unhinged ecosystems.” But he also notes that

“[a]s a practical matter, we should always be mindful to include natives among our cultivated landscapes, gardens and fields for the unseen but essential relationships they make with soil microbes, pollinators, birds and other key players in the ecosystem. And we should thoughtfully consider the qualities of exotic plants that may make them difficult to manage.”

Plant Breeding: Corn is now dependent on us: “[I]ts seed will scarcely germinate at all unless removed from the cob by humans.”


New plant traits are most likely expressed in plants with widely divergent types of parents (called “hybrid vigor”).

Crop breeding selection has focused on durability, keeping qualities for storage, uniformity, and ease of mechanical manipulation — all traits suited to commerce.

March Toward Seed Monopoly: Post-war farmers, instead of saving seeds from year to year like their great-grandparents, purchased hybrid seeds promising higher yields. In the years after World War II (“and the violent decades of revolution and upheaval that preceded and followed it as old empires collapsed and former colonies threw off their masters”), governments understood that hunger was dangerous to the established order so they were very interested in growing high-yield wheat, corn, and rice. Seed dependency increased because the new seeds were all hybrids that corporations owned; ownership of these corporations “was tightly integrated with the elites of the former Western imperial powers. The patenting of life forms was, through intense political pressure applied behind closed doors, legally enabled in the 1970s so that profits from hybrid seeds could be maximized.”

Hybrids: When two similar hybrid plants are crossed, you get F1 (first filial offspring), which will include only a few plants that will resemble the parents. Takes 6 or 7 generations to stabilise hybrid seeds so they produce true to type.

Lots of risk to hybrid breeding strategy: blight, susceptibility to other diseases and to insect devastation.

“Hybrid seeds, in and of themselves, are not evil. But the expansion of their use to support increasing intensification of agriculture worldwide, combined with plant patenting laws and the destruction, intended or otherwise, of landrace diversity in staple crops throughout many of the largest agricultural centers of production in the global South, saw a massive increase in monoculture and a dramatic narrowing of the genetic diversity underpinning agriculture itself. This has placed the very future of humanity in jeopardy.”


The Ethics of Diversity: “The cultivation of diversity, which leads to resilient ecosystems, is a principle in permaculture but is also expressed in our ethical injunction to ‘Care for the Earth,’ which means to respect and conserve all species. Every garden farm should strive to introduce and maintain more plants than it can crop. In part, this is a strategy for selection, but at a deeper level it is a strategy for survival, for diversity is the life raft of life itself.”

Climate change has shifted North American USDA zones northwest by an average of 15 miles per year for the past 20 years. 1990 vs. 2006 map (but he spelled January wrong!):


Politics of Diversity: Big Pharma (a few global corporations) control an integrated product line of agrochemicals, seeds, GMOs, and drugs. Independent research shows strong links between genetically modified food and allergies, degenerative disease, and reproductive failure (p. 227, cites a 2011 report). Yields of GM crops and nutritional values are lower than from conventional varieties, but they are proprietary, so profitable.

Polyculture: Nature is a polyculture, so we can “have some confidence that this strategy will work when applied to cultivated systems.”

Planting in Guilds: A guild is an assembly of cooperating plants whose lives are intertwined; the elements within each are mutually supportive, fully integrated. He describes the Native American “three sisters” guild of corn, beans, and squash: The (green) beans bring nitrogen to the system; the corn provides a stalk for the bean vines to grown on, and corn is an amino acid complement of beans, nutritionally; and the squash provides ground cover to deter insects and mulch the soil, and nutritionally it offers calories, betacarotene, and minerals. Another plant to grow in this guild is the flower cleome, which is a trap crop for the squash beetle.

bean-squash teepee, July 2012
3 sisters guild, Massachusetts Horticultural Society, Boston Flower Show, March 2017

Typically a guild is organized around a single tree or small group of trees of a single species, usually fruit or nut trees. Then shrubs and herbs can be planted nearby to give ground cover, build soil, repel pests. Growing in guilds means less weeding, better pest control, less staking. Something should be in bloom at every part of the growing season. See the Bee Forage list in Appendix 2. Plant species with many small flowers are good for predatory wasps, which attack garden pests. Note what works.

baptisia and yarrow in my fruit guild, under peach trees, June 2017

Finding and Filling a Niche: Find or create a niche for each species in a guild, and conversely, survey niches to find the right plant to occupy them.

“The central role of plants in polyculture stems from their rootedness. Once planted, they can only move slowly by incremental growth of by distributing their seeds, tips, or stolons into new territory. So spatial relationships to other species become critical to the design of cultivated environments. This architectural aspect of gardening has visible and invisible components. Up to half of the biomass of most vascular plants, the vast majority of species, lies underground, out of sight.”

Annuals grow from germination to seed production in one year. They are not meant to endure in one place but to succeed to (be replaced by) other species.

Biennials germinate and grow in the first year, then set seed in the second (after a season of dormancy).

angelica is a biennial (June 2016)

Perennials — which can be woody or non-woody, herbaceous, shrubby, tree-like — grow from their roots each year and can live for centuries, some taking years to set seed and some setting seed on an irregular basis. Woody perennials grow a new layer of cambium (the living tissue just below the bark) each year, which means that their stems and branches thicken each year. Each limb takes energy, so plants will abandon limbs to conserve energy to grow cambium; that’s why pruning is a good practice, to divert energy where it’s needed.

Bare soil is an unrealised opportunity, and dangerous.

cover crops at Paradise Lot, Holyoke, MA (June 2016)

Section on propagating plants (pp. 234-238), genetic and vegetative methods.

Saving Seeds: Store them dry and cool, in small labelled envelopes. Once dry, store in airtight jars. Most veggie seeds can be stored for several years.

Sprouting seeds: To germinate seeds, don’t let soil dry out. Once sprouted, light misting at least every day and sometimes much more often until in the ground. Potting mix for seedlings: 1/4 garden soil, 1/4 sand, 1/4 vermiculite, 1/4 compost. Add rock phosphate, green sand, and limestone.

germinated seeds

Transplanting, rather than planting seeds in outside ground, means no tilling.

Alternate Planting Strategies – direct seeding, broadcasting:

  • Direct planting with a dibble stick
  • Scratch a furrow
  • Plants seeds in soil at depth 4x their diameter, with squash, corn, and beans a little deeper, and garlic, onion sets, and large fruit and nut pits deeper still. Plant tiny seeds like carrots on the surface.
  • Can broadcast cover crop seeds: With large seeds, get them high in air so they fall in a scatter pattern. Keep small seeds close to the ground.
  • Use seed balls for weedy or brushy areas.
planting garlic (Oct 2017)


Featured image (top image) is a tiny section of a tomato tasting at a local farmstand in NH, Sept. 2016. Each year they trial and taste-test about 40 varieties of determinate and indeterminate tomatoes.

Autumn Leaves + Winter Sunshine

“She seemed a compound of the autumn leaves and the winter sunshine …” ― Virginia Woolf, Night and Day

That’s the way this day in late November felt, now recollected: a compound of autumn leaves and winter sunshine, walking woods and field, the small system of Winant Trails in the state capital of Concord, New Hampshire.

Autumn leaves aplenty, some still clinging, many underfoot:


And the sunshine!

beech leaves swirling in sun
rock cairn and rock circle with oaks leaves and sun

Sunshine on wintergreen (Gaultheria procumbens), some wine-leaved with red berries …


And sunshine on this claw-like fungus …


I think this is turkey tail fungus (Trametes versicolor) but it might be false … I think because I can see tiny pores, it’s the real thing:

Here’s a little jelly fungus:


Some other little things —

Partridge berry (Mitchella repens), which has berries all winter long:


Leaves and stem of another prostrate forest floor plant, trailing arbutus (Epigaea repens), whose white or pink flowers I look for in May here in N.H.:


This was another little thing I saw, not completely natural:


And then these green washes: algae on fungi in a stump, like a gaping mouth with vertical teeth …


… And greenness on this log; what made the perfect little holes?:


Moss grows in a cut tree stump:


Random trees are labelled:


And there’s a fenced-in water tank at the top of the trails:


A clearing midway up the trails provides long views of far-off mountains:


In fact, you can see snow on one mountain, which was not widespread in late November but is covering everything here now.











Wednesday Vignette: Perceiving the Light


Above, fertile fronds of sensitive ferns, against rock, with fall leaves.

“As the brain of man is the speck of dust in the universe that thinks, so the leaves — the fern and the needled pine and the latticed frond and the seaweed ribbon — perceive the light in a fundamental and constructive sense. The flowers looking in from the walled garden through my window do not, it is true, see me. But their leaves see the light, as my eyes can never do. They take it, as it forever spills away radiant into space in a golden waste, to a primal purpose. They impound its stellar energy, and with that force they make life out of the elements. They breathe upon the dust, and it is a rose.  — Donald Culross Peatie, Flowering Earth (1939)

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Book Notes: The Permaculture Handbook :: Chapter Eleven

Here are my highly personal notes on Chapter Eleven: Soil — The Real Dirt in Peter Bane’s The Permaculture Handbook (2012). Any misrepresentations of Bane’s words or work are mine alone and completely unintentional. Notes on each chapter linked here.


This chapter is long and very detailed concerning soil science. And guess what? Today is World Soil Day! Listen to this great 1A radio program on soil health, titled “The Ground Beneath Our Feet,” that aired yesterday, especially to Oklahoma farmer Jimmy Emmons, who changed his mind and changed his entire way of farming.

“The soil is an animal which is everywhere a mouth.” — Emilia Hazelip


Soil is the most changeable of all elements in agriculture. The living organisms in the top foot of soil may equal 11 tons/acre. “Soils are created from an interaction of energy (chiefly from the climate and living organisms which transform it into action) with resistance, expressed as a function of geology — or parent rocks — and the resulting landforms that they reveal over time. The weathering of rock creates habitat for soil organisms at the same time that it grinds minerals into finer and finer particles which can be eaten by plants and microbes, and even by small soil animals.”

ground beetle in soil, my garden, April 2012

Soil is not solid. It’s filled with “the action of plant roots, fungal hyphae and burrowing animals which distribute living and dead organic matter from the surface to deeper layers, pull minerals from parent rock, and open channels for air and water to circulate. Small soil animals, searching for food, consume dead plant and animal tissue and excrete pellets, casts, frass and other manures which bind bits of inorganic material with organic waste and digestive secretions to form colloids. Earthworms are particularly effective and powerful in this way, leaving behind them not only burrows that become channels for air and water, but nearly perfect packets of plant food in the form of their castings.”

earthworm, my yard, April 2015

Layers of soil, top to bottom:
The Organic Layer covers soil, breaks the fall of raindrops, and prevents erosion. It also provides food for lots of foraging animals.
Just below this layer is the Accumulating Layer (“A”), “the topsoil horizon of conventional soil science,” where “organic residues of decomposition accumulate.” It has the largest percentage of carbon of any soil layer, and in temperate zones, there can be up to 20% organic matter in this layer.
Below this, the Elluviation Layer, where “minerals are being leached by the percolation of water.” Tilling soil mixes the Accumulating and the Elluviation layers.
Below this, the Banking Layer (“B”), sometimes called the subsoil, traps some leached minerals. Levels of organic matter are low here.
Below this upper subsoil is the Chemical Layer (“C”) “of broken and weathered rock.”
Next, the Durable Layer (“D”), or bedrock, which is not necessarily solid; it can be “fractured and permeable” due to chemical composition or seismic activity.

glacial erratic boulder on nearby trail, NH, April 2016

Ninety-seven percent of the bodies of animals, plants, microbes are made up of four elements: Hydrogen, Oxygen, Carbon, and Nitrogen. All occur as gasses and are cycled through the atmosphere, freely available. The remaining 3% consists of Phosphorous, Potassium, Calcium, Sulfur, Magnesium, and trace minerals, and these are the limiting factors in plant and animal growth and health. So the focus in soil repair is the minerals: healthy ecosystems retain them.

In temperate climates (not in tropical), “soil is built by the development of durable carbon in the form of humus, long-chain molecules created out of biomass by living organisms in the soil. … So building soil fertility in cool regions means adding organic matter to soil from the top down as mulch.”

hand-crafted compost, my garden, June 2017

Bacteria: the most common organism in soil; one teaspoon contains millions of them. Aerobic (flourish with oxygen) and Anaerobic (flourish without oxygen). Anaerobic bacteria evolved before photosynthesis and an oxygen-rich atmosphere. All the bacteria that consume dead organic matter are aerobic, but if they lack O2 for a bit, they just slow their metabolism and stop eating.

The Oxygen-Ethylene Cycle: This is a complicated little bit of agronomy and if it interests you in detail, please read the chapter or study the diagrams below.

Briefly, this is all about how gasses produced as anaerobic bacteria feed (ethylene and ammonium nitrogen) can cause nitrogen to dissolve and flow away, and when it does, iron (common and abundant in all soils), changes itself from ferric iron (red or rusty) to ferrous iron (black) by releasing an atom of oxygen into the now reduced atmosphere of the soil:

This has tremendous implications for soil fertility and agriculture because it initiates the assimilating phase of soil nutrient transfer to plants. Ferrous iron reacts with a precursor found in leaf litter to convert it into ethylene gas, helping to further inactivate aerobic bacteria. Iron in its ferrous form also sheds its bonds to phosphate, sulfate and ions of trace minerals, dumping them unceremoniously into solution. And this new and rather promiscuous ferrous iron then forms bonds with particles of clay and organic matter. As it does so, ions of magnesium, calcium, potassium and ammonium which had been occupying those sites are displaced, also into solution. The highest concentration of this activity is in the rhizosphere or tiny envelope of water surrounding the root hairs of plants. Thus, as soil microsite conditions change from aerobic to anaerobic, all the plant nutrients — nitrogen, phosphorus, potassium, sulfur, calcium, magnesium and trace minerals, which had until then been held tightly to soil particles — enter into solution and can in that form be taken up by plant roots. This does not occur when the soil is constantly aerobic, nor does it occur when nitrate nitrogen — the form typically applied as chemical fertilizer — is present in large quantities. So industrial farming, by tilling soil and applying nitrate fertilizer, is preventing normal processes of soil nutrient assimilation by plants.

“In turn, plants feed soil organisms at their roots in order to enhance water and nutrient uptake and also to stimulate respiration by aerobic bacteria which cyclically exhaust oxygen in the rhizosphere, initiating anaerobic conditions, the production of ethylene gas and nutrient assimilation. This entire process is cyclic, a rocking back and forth at millions of microsites throughout a healthy soil between aerobic and anaerobic conditions, between digestion and assimilation. Both phases are necessary for dead matter to be consumed by microbes and resurrected by living plants. Conventional agronomy fails in every way to respect this normal and natural process.”

Taking the Measure of Soil:
Soil texture: gritty, spongy, buttery, smooth, sticky.
Soil series: names (e.g., Haworth, Bartholomew, Niagara) associated with soils of a distinctive texture in a given locale. (USDA)
Soil structure: platey, prismatic, blocky or granular in a continuum from compaction to good tilth. Healthy soils are more granular (larger clods)
Organic matter: living and dead organisms and their residues.
Soil pH (percent Hydrogen): measures acidity and alkalinity in soil on scale from 1-14, where 3 is acidic like lemon juice, 7 is neutral, and anything above 9 makes plant life difficult. Good garden soil is 6-7 pH. All soils approach neutral when organic matter is added.

sticky dirt removed from a hole I dug for a shrub, June 2017

Mineral Composition and Balance: Nitrogen (N), Phosphorus (P), and Potassium (K) are the nutrients most heavily used, but calcium (Ca), Magnesium (Mg), and Sulfur (S) are also important and lack of them can limit growth. Trace elements, as many as 40 of them, are also needed; these all occur in the human body and have some metabolic function: Zinc (Zn), Manganese (Mn), Copper (Cu), Boron (B), Iron (Fe), Molybednum (Mo), Cobalt (Co), Chlorine (Cl), Iodine (I), Sodium (Na), Chromium (Cr), Flourine (F),  Selenium (Se), Vanadian (V), Germanium (Ge), and Silver (Ag).

Environmental Analysis: Assessing mineral balance in soil.
1. Is the soil likely to be acidic or alkaline? Depends on geology and geography.
2. Is the soil old or new? (in geologic time)
3. What is the soil’s texture? Clay (which has a huge surface area and a strong electrical charge) holds minerals more than sandy or silty soil.
4.Does pollution affect your soil’s pH? E.g., Tennessee and Ohio valleys and New England are major downwind areas for coal emissions from the Midwest (coal makes soil acidic).
5. Has the land been farmed chemically? (and thus been depleted of organic matter)
6. Is there heavy metal contamination, historically or currently? Especially in older urban areas and any place near former salvage yards, tanneries, chemical plants, gas stations, metal plating and wood treatment facilities; lead was not removed from paint and gas until 1976 and soils nearby may contain lead. Also soils near roads and highways more than 35 yrs old. Also cadmium (tire abrasion), mercury and arsenic (coal), radioactive isotopes (around the 108 commercial nuclear reactors in the U.S., with a dozen sites seriously contaminated)
7. What plants are growing in the soil? Some plants indicate what’s in the soil. Nettles like rich loamy soil, rhododendron and mountain laurel like highly leached, acidic soil.
8. How well are the plants growing? Plants with deformities, yellowing leaves, lots of pests, poor flowering and fruiting indicate mineral deficiencies. Brix reeadings (measures level of sugar in plant tissues) can indicate mineral nutrition in soil.

mountain laurel at nearby nature preserve, Nov. 2015

Repairing and Rebuilding Soil:
Add organic matter! It “increases food for soil microbes that create humus [which increases] the carbon content of soils increases their water- and
mineral-holding capacities.” Add it in two ways: by growing plants, “which put their roots down into the soil layers where they introduce photosynthates or sugary and starchy root exudates to feed soil microbes, and where these roots regularly die and are sloughed off to decompose.” Also lay green and brown vegetative material (as compost or chop & drop or however) on the soil surface so fungi and soil creatures can incorporate it into the soil layers: “The soil’s mouth is at the surface, not 3, 6 or 10 inches down. Plowing to incorporate plant residues is not unlike forcing unchewed food down someone’s throat with the notion that this will help them to eat.”

Keep a mulch cover on the soil at all times to protect soil from erosion by wind and rain, to protect soil organisms from drying, to conserve soil moisture, and to feed the soil.

Bane discusses the work of P.A. Yeomans and his Keyline system, developed in the 1930s and 40s. Involves dams and furrows, and if you’re interested, read the book.

He also talks at length about swales (ditches dug on contour), water bars (berms to divert water), pits and ponds, terraces — collectively, small earth works. Again, read the book if this interests you.

Feeding Soil:
Crop rotation – rotate crops that bear from different parts (root, leaf, fruit, seed).
Grow cover crops (long list on pp. 209-210. (Below, buckwheat grown as cover crop in Windsor, Vermont, Oct. 2016)

Grow cold-hardy fertility crops (vetch, turnips, mustard) in winter to restore fertility.
Intercrop, e.g., strips of legumes between strips of grain.
Grow perennial crops in islands at end or edge of garden beds. (Below, some of the perennials I grow in and alongside my main vegetable bed, including echinacea, blueberries, elderberries, asclepias, and perovskia.)

Chop & drop mulch. Mulch with cardboard, newspapers, junk mail, wood chips, straw bales, animal manure, cocoa hulls, peanut hulls, pine straw.

leaf/soil mulch and straw mulch (from neighbours) in my bins, May 2015

Compost is not a panacea for soil repair or maintenance, but useful; make it with ratio of 20-30:1 brown or dead material to green or manure (highly nitrogen-rich material) and keep it moist.
Mineral and microbial amendments, like lime (calcium carbonate), wood ash (for potassium, alkalinity, Ca, P; don’t just pile it on soil but treat it like salt and sprinkle lightly), urine, rock phosphate (promotes fruiting and flowering), seaweeds, fish emulsions, etc.
Mycorrhizal fungi: Bacteria dominate alkaline soil (and produce more of it; fungi dominate acidic soil, humus-rich soil that’s not disturbed or tilled. The hyphae (feeding strands) of fungi can be very long, so fungi can mobilize nutrients over a broad area (but the hyphae are also very vulnerable to tillage and agrichemicals). Fungi also contain powerful enzymes to break down substances like chitin (cellular coating of insect bodies), animal bones and sinews, and long-chain C-based molecules like petroleum and pesticides. Most importantly, fungi “develop relationships with plant roots and appear to be critical for plant nutrition. Plants only moved out of water and onto land some 400–460 million years ago, after aquatic plants developed symbiotic relationships with fungi. As many as 95% of all plants, possibly more, have root associations with fungi, called mycorrhizae. As they break down dead tissues, fungi take minerals, including nitrogen in the ammonium form, into their bodies and hold them, swapping them in trade with plant roots for sugars, or releasing the whole lot upon death.” To help fungi, don’t till or use chemicals in the garden. We can also grow our own fungi through a process called inoculation (mycorrhizal inoculants can be purchased commercially).

fungus growing in purchased Coast of Maine organic Quoddy Blend Lobster Compost, April 2016
someone holding Stropharia rugosoannulata (wine cap stropharia) mushrooms, grown from inoculation, at Steve Whitman’s, Plymouth, NH, Sept. 2014


Featured image (top image) is an earthworm and beetle in my yard, June 2014.

The density of every day

Today walking around the lake, we had stopped, searching for the cause of raucous & ongoing avian alarm calls — by crows, mourning doves, others — when two women with their dogs asked what we were looking at; they told us that “sometimes there’s something really special” at the lake. We walked on, still looking skyward for the source of consternation, and within 100 yards spouse located the probable source up in a bare tree:


Quite a lovely, and deceptively tranquil-looking, red-tailed hawk. Special to see, and special to have it remain even after it knew we were watching.

But there were other special things today, too, like this mossy yard we’ve often admired:


And the mountain and lake view on a chilly early December day:


And this area around the brook that feeds the lake:


We also saw special red squirrels, grey squirrels, winterberry, rosehips, red-twig dogwood, some flowering dandelions!, rugged trees … and a lone loon still on the lake, which is 2/3 or 3/4 iced over (I wrote the NH Loon Preservation folks when we got home to let them know — loons need a good deal of open water to take off and land, and being iced-in would be a crisis); the loon photo is poor but we had binoculars and confirmed the ID.


I took this photo the day before of the ice:

lakeicingupbKezarLakeSuttonNH2Dec2017 *

“We must open ourselves up to the density of the everyday world. Mindfulness does not need any special environment in order to happen. True, some surroundings can be more helpful or favourable, but mindfulness can come to us anywhere. As long as we make a little effort. As long as we remain awake and present.” — Christophe André  in  “Mindfulness: 25 ways to live in the moment through art”

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