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This is the World Organic News for the week ending the 19th of March 2018.
Jon Moore reporting!
As I discussed last month with the new vision statement for the podcast and blog, “Decarbonise the air, recarbonise the soil.”, in mind I’m calling on my listeners to put forward ideas for an interview episode once a month. If you know anyone who is doing either part of the vision, I’d love to hear from them or, indeed, from you if you are on the front line doing the work.
This week I’m going back to first principles.
What are these first principles? I’m glad you asked.
There are, to my mind three basic truths to earth friendly gardening/farming.
I am aware these appear to fly in the face of 10,000 years of agricultural/horticultural practice.
So let’s look at what those 10,000 years have created, shall we?
From Iowa State University Extension and outreach
tillage has all along been contributing negatively to soil quality. Since tillage fractures the soil, it disrupts soil structure, accelerating surface runoff and soil erosion. Tillage also reduces crop residue, which help cushion the force of pounding raindrops.
Without crop residue, soil particles become more easily dislodged, being moved or 'splashed' away. This process is only the beginning of the problem. Splashed particles clog soil pores, effectively sealing off the soil's surface, resulting in poor water infiltration.
The amount of soil lost from Iowa farmland each year is directly related to soil structure, levels of crop residue remaining on the soil's surface, and the intensity of tillage practices.
Basically, ploughing to turn under crop residue, a practice designed to increase soil organic matter destroys soil structure, seals the soil from the atmosphere and leads to soil erosion. Remember: no soil, no food. While soil erosion is a cumulative effect, eventually only subsoil or bedrock is left, if the system continues to its logical conclusion.
Over the past 10,000 years, from the beginning, new land was available for cultivation or top soils were so deep the losses were not catastrophic.
We have reached a point where urban populations are now covering those deeper soils or they have gone. Land better suited to grazing is being put to the plough as animals are confined as factory widgets in feedlots rather than as ecosystem components where their grazing improves the grass cover, the soil health and the soil carbon. Think about the removal of the bison from the North American plains and the eventual dustbowl of the 1930s. This appears to have been a common line of cause and effect across human history.
So to first principle number 1. No digging. This is most easily understood in a gardening context. The best way to do this, I’ve found, is in raised beds. Raised beds are created by piling organic matter, compost, animal bedding, decomposed leaf mould, that sort of thing onto an organic mat of some sort. I find cardboard is ideal, newspapers work well too.
For our younger listeners, just google “Newspapers” to discover how we used to consume news in the olden days.
End Podcast footnote.
To plant into this material simple use you fingers to push larger seeds into the organic material. To plant seedlings a cut is made with a knife and the now topsoil is opened, the seedling inserted and the cut closed by pressure. It is actually much is to do than to describe.
Larger implements have been developed for doing this on an agricultural scale. The basically consist of a knife blade, followed by a seeder followed by wheels reclosing the cut. The timing in agricultural settings is important. If planting into pasture, this needs to be timed to coincide with the dieback of summer or winter growing species. So Autumn and Spring. If part of a cereal rotation, then into the stubble from the previous harvest.
If you’re following the Fukuoka method, then seed is simply broadcast over the growing cereal crop a couple of weeks before it’s harvested. The new crop is growing when the old is harvested and, as a general rule, survives the harvest without any dramas. The straw from the harvest is spread over the new crop and it pushes through that.
The systems to avoid digging have been developed. They are in growing use and the world’s sols are the better for it.
No digging goes hand in glove with principle number two: No bare soil. In a garden context, this means “overplanting” when observed from a conventional standpoint. The effect of this is to protect the organic material growing medium and provide extra harvests of other organic material.
Let me explain. As the plants grow, some stems are edible, more food, those that are not are thinned as the leaves grow to cover the soil. The thinned plants are dropped onto the soil surface, protecting the soil, decomposing into it and giving space for the growing plants to expand.
In an agricultural setting, it means leaving stubble, and shredded storks covering the soil. These then become food for the soil biota as they protect the soil from wind and water erosion. As the soil biota pull this material in the soil structure, they are actually adding carbon to the soil. When soils are left bare they leak carbon, in the form of carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. So covered soils have the double effect of reducing CO2 emissions and drawing carbon out of the atmosphere to create more complex, more richly alive soils which grow stronger plants. Win, win, win!
Principle number 3: No chemicals.
This includes fertilisers, pesticides, herbicides and fungicides. Why? They destroy soil structure, soil biota and plant coverage. Thereby violating both of the other principles. They may not turn the soil but by killing off the soil biota they achieve the same effect.
Now it is possible to grow things by ploughing, having bare soil and spraying chemicals but, and this is a big but, this is a Faustian bargain. The cost of this system is first and foremost, topsoil. Not much but enough to have an effect over time. Say 1% of topsoil per year of industrial farming. This is the obvious effect. We now know there are other, less visible effects.
These relate to both soil and atmospheric carbon as well as nitrous oxide from nitrogen based fertilisers. The longer the soil is bare the more CO2 it dissipates. The long term effect of this, in human terms, is ppm of CO2 in the atmosphere above 400 ppm. This has the effect of rendering many areas of agricultural practice unsuitable for purpose. The grape growers from episode 107 are an example. Excessive use of monetarily cheap nitrogen fertilisers leads to nitrous oxide leaking into the atmosphere and it too is a greenhouse gas.
If we avoid or better yet, decline to use synthetic additives we gain better soils, a more benign climate with the twin benefits of CO2 not leaking into the atmosphere and soil carbon percentages improving, we lower input costs and break the farmer/chemical company dependence cycle. This takes courage but it can be done.
So, in summary there are three principles for good organic growing
By following these three principles, a farmer can free themselves of debt, grow healthier soil and thereby healthier plants and animals and they lower the demand for chemicals and the profit incentive for chemical companies to produce these soil destroying substances.
All of the above effects also leads to healthier environments, waterways and, yes, people.
And with that I’ll draw this episode to a conclusion. Remember: Decarbonise the air, recarbonise the soil!
As a podcast listener you may be thinking of producing your own podcast but you’re not sure where to begin, drop over to mrjonmoore.com and check out my course. I have been teaching this at Community Colleges around town and have developed an online version. There’s a link in the show notes. Classes start whenever you’re ready, I’d love to help you into this way of communicating.
A transcript of this episode is available at worldorganicnews.com
Thank you for listening and I'll be back next week.
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