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Grow the Change You Want to See

Sunday May 20th is Plant a Seed Day in North America. I love this collective food-security inspired call to action to plant a seed, but why stop there? Let’s plant thousands of seeds to grow food for our families, and for those without means or access to fresh produce.

Also, during this season of renewal, let’s plant the seeds of hope. Hope that we might grow something beautiful and hopeful out of the ashes of tumultuous times.

In permaculture circles, when faced with an obstacle or an over-abundance or shortage of biology or insects, water, nutrients, etc, we lean heavily on the foundational principle “within the problem lies the solution”. One celebrated example of this principle in action is the “you don’t have a slug problem, you have a duck deficiency,” declaration offered by the father of permaculture, Bill Mollison.

Ducks, such as the beautiful Khaki Campbell garden patrollers pictured above, eat slugs, lay delicious and nutritious eggs, deposit nutrient-rich manure, and can ultimately, provide a cash-crop revenue stream. Ducks may not be an urban option, but chickens are. Chickens love eating bugs, slugs and snails. They make great family pets, and they turn kitchen and garden scraps into free food and compostable N-P-K.

Within the “problem” of too many crop-eating slugs, we can find “solutions” that eliminate pesticide use, increase crop production, reduce input costs, improve soil biology, and create income.

A bait egg in the chicken yard at Edible Acres Permaculture Homestead in New York State

More on the Garden Food Web:

  • If you have chickens, you could provide a valuable neighborhood service by helping others compost their surplus green kitchen scraps -- a service that could be easily re-paid at the rate of $1 per free-range organic egg.

  • Slugs are just doing their job by eating decomposing and stressed foliage. Killing them with chemicals is both unjust and unnecessary, especially considering that slugs are rich in minerals and protein, and provide about 100 calories each of energy, to hard working hens.

  • Chicken and duck manure are both good sources of the macro nutrients nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, and are relatively quick to compost. Duck poop is more liquid than chicken poop, which helps it break down quicker.

  • To attract ducks and chickens to specific areas of your garden one patch at a time, entice them with treats then corral them with temporary fencing. Be sure to include a source of fresh water to aid in swallowing and digestion.

  • Most cities that allow residents to raise chickens, specify hens only, as roosters are noisy by comparison.

  • To keep natural predators away from backyard chickens, consider setting a several-weeks old bait egg at a far-away (from the predator-proof coop) point in the garden each night. This tried and true trick is a favourite of permaculturists.

Edible Acres Permaculture Homestead chickens dining on green garden and kitchen waste from their neighbours

We can manage excessive rainwater puddling and runoff caused by new-normal extreme weather events like atmospheric rivers, by planting water-gobbling rain gardens of lush native plantings, digging swale garden pathways to direct rainwater to amphibian-friendly ponds and collection areas, encouraging lush moss “lawns” to house beneficial insects and reduce erosion, and installing rain barrels to collect un-chlorinated water for seed starting and irrigation.

Within the “problem” of too much rain, we can find “solutions” that sequester carbon, increase native bird and pollinator habitat biodiversity, cool down the garden during summer, and capture and store water on-site.

Shortly after this rain garden pond was furnished with tree clippings furniture, slug-gobbling frogs moved in

More on Rainwater Management:

  • Methodologies for rainwater harvesting (RWH) and means of storage vary by region, but it is always a very good idea. Some quarter-million gallons of rainwater fall on our roof over the course of a year, so we couldn't possibly harvest it all above ground. Even if we did, severe cold snaps would crack the entire system wide open. Seasonal rain barrels are a great way to start RWH, and to become familiar with and appreciative of this precious water resource.

  • It is very simple to disguise irrigation swales and ditches as garden paths -- simply dig down about 18-inches, add a 12-inch or so layer of small round drain rock (not crushed), and cover with 6-inches of beautifully soft wood chips.

  • A backyard pond will attract frogs and other amphibians that love to munch on slugs and snails. Birds will be attracted to the pond as well, broadcasting poopy fertilizer over your gardens as they come and go. Be sure to create natural pond riparian edge-like habitat for critters as well, using found objects and tree trimmings. An inexpensive bubbler can help keep standing water oxygenated.

  • Use rainwater to give germinating seedlings and soil biology a non-toxic break. Chlorine and chloramine can kill beneficial organisms and fungi.

  • Mossy lawns hold water like a sponge, which is not only beautiful, but also beneficial during summer droughts.

  • Currently, I am seed-starting indoors in living soil -- that is, soil that is alive with microorganisms and fungi, and fertilized with worm castings, kelp and sea minerals. I use small fans do prevent damping off, and I irrigate with rainwater exclusively. This goes against conventional wisdom about using sterile soil-less mix, but it works for me. Interestingly, it works for nature too.

Seed starting trials day 14: Top, living soil irrigated with rainwater. Bottom, sterile soil irrigated with tap water

We can manage the forecasted doom and gloom nitrogen and potash fertilizer shortages by ignoring them entirely and instead embark on a program of regenerative gardening and organic land care. Plant companion and cover crops of legumes to fix nitrogen in our food gardens, top-dress only (no till) with organic compost, dust lightly with wood ash, and add domestically-sourced micro nutrient rich glacial rock dust and sea minerals to re-mineralize soil and improve structure and moisture retention.

Within the “problem” of global fertilizer shortages, we can find “solutions” that grow more nutrient-dense food, increase soil biology and moisture retention, sequester carbon, reduce erosion, eliminate chemical fertilizer run-off, shorten the supply chain, and eliminate fossil-fuel powered extraction and production of commercial fertilizers.

A modified wine barrel captures and stores rainwater from the glass roof over Frank Giustra's tomato garden beds

More on Regenerative Land Care:

  • Building healthy soil is fundamental to mitigating the affects of climate change, reducing the surface temperature of the earth, sequestering carbon, halting the acidification of oceans, and feeding the world.

  • Regenerative farming at the large-scale family farm level is gaining traction, but progress is slow. If the US government were to see the global fertilizer shortage "problem" as an opportunity to morph the current farm (subsidy) welfare budget, into a conventional-to-regenerative transition "solution" we could be on-track to sequestering climate-altering quantities of CO2.

  • The food that we eat is a product of the soil it is grown in. Healthy, living soil produces healthy, nutrient-dense food. Food grown in heavily synthetically fertilized dead soils, produces food lacking in essentials nutrients.

  • By practicing no-till farming and gardening (don't dig), utilizing cover cops, integrating grazing animals and poultry, and planting a diversity of crops, we mimic nature and in so doing, can sequester carbon, build soil biology and improve water retention, reduce wind and water erosion of topsoil, reduce surface temperatures enough to affect local weather and reduce drought, save money by diverting synthetic inputs, and increase crop and nutrient-density yields and farm profits.

  • Practicing regenerative land care in small ways at home, normalizes the process, encourages dinner table conversation, involves children and neighbours, and fosters greater understanding of the simplicity of the "solution".

Layers and diverse planting of vegetables, flowers & herbs, create raised bed microclimates and deter insect pests

We can manage summer heatwaves by planting tall heat-loving crops like corn, pole beans, and trellised squash, that can-not only manage extreme temperatures, but provide life-saving relief to more tender crops planted beneath and in their shade. Adding activated biochar to our soil will attract and retain moisture and nutrients in perpetuity, and sequester carbon. We can mulch generously with clean straw, perennial herbs or pollinator flowers, and plant a low-profile soil-cooling cover crop like strawberries.

Within the “problem” of too much heat and drought, we can find “solutions” that increase food production, improve soil biology and moisture retention, reduce pest damage by increasing crop diversity, reduce dependence on municipal water, and provide pollinator and beneficial insect habitat.

Clean, chopped organic mulch helps retain moisture, deters weeds, and improves soil biology

More on Managing Heat Waves:

  • Diversity, density of plantings and soil health are fundamental to overall food crop health and plants' ability to withstand intense heat and irrigation pressures, and avoid pest damage.

  • Creating soil health is the single best way to create stress-tolerant healthy plants because "bugs don't eat healthy plants". Unhealthy and stressed plants, on the other hand, emit visible and invisible signals inviting insect pests to come for dinner.

  • We plant small summer and winter squash and also cucumbers on 5-foot high obelisk trellises that provide shade and part-sun conditions for other crops like garlic, radish, beets, carrots, celery and spinach.

  • Adding a thin top-dressing of biochar to your compost heap on occasion will inoculate the biochar with microorganisms and nutrients, help regulate moisture, and create an odour-filtering blanket layer. Adding the compost eventually, to the soil at a ration of 10-20% biochar by volume, transfers its benefits in perpetuity, to the soil.

  • We mulch raised pots and containers with clean, chopped organic straw for uniformity, and I leave it to decompose naturally and beneficially over the winter. The composting mulch helps the soil warm earlier in the spring, and it keeps weeds from competing with seedlings and young plants.

  • We mulch paths and in-ground beds with moss, small native docks, ferns and violets, and a mixture of home-shredded native mulch made from gardening trimmings. The naive mulch is both beautiful and richly bio-diverse, contributing to successful colonization of beneficial fungal networks in the root zone. Mulch keeps moisture in the soil, harbours diverse biology, helps sequester carbon, and helps prevent desertification.

Native mulch in a children's fairy garden mimics nature's soil-building logic

The myriad “solutions” to all of these “problems” can be found by observing nature and by adhering to the overarching ethos of Earth Care, People Care, and Fair Share.

Permaculture, that is “permanent (or perennial) agricultural” defers to nature’s logic and strives to mimic natural systems that do not require extraordinary inputs or interventions. Excess does not factor into the equation at all; an attribute that on its own speaks to the very root of all that has gone wrong in the world, but also how we might repair it.

Forest habitat-critical Douglas squirrels use moss mulch and dried native grasses for nesting material

“Urban” permaculture, admittedly, requires imagination and some level of forgiveness. We do the best that we can, with what we have, within guidelines imposed by community and with respect for our neighbours, to live beautifully and regeneratively.

If we were all to apply basic permaculture principles and ethos to all aspects of our lives, there would be no wars or refugees, no food insecurity, no economic or racial inequality, no poverty, no climate crisis. Imagine.

On Plant a Seed Day and every day, let’s plant the seeds and do the work, and grow the change that we want to see — together.

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