with Lichen June
Excerpted from our double certificate design course.
Plants are active participants in the vibrant and diverse community of soil life. There are more than 50 million genera of bacteria in the soil, and more than 50 million genera of fungi. Humans haven't named more than a small percentage, and we know very little about those which we have named. Thus, the vast majority of life in the soil, along with their relationships and functions, are unnamed and unknown.
By some accounts, humans have destroyed 50-80% of earth's topsoil. I find this so troubling, I almost don't know what to write next. However, this is a very clear case of, “the problem is the solution.” There is so much land devoid of life, so many layers and niches just waiting to be filled with diversity, life cycles, and carbon. Soil is an incredible and established reservoir that is ready to hold carbon, if only we nurture it back to life.
One method for improving the health of your soil is adding compost. Your food is only as healthy as the soil that it was grown in, so you'll want to give your soil biota something good to eat. In this mini class I will show you how to create your own compost.
Compost recipes and variations.
This recipe is a variation of the, 18 day Berkley method, and can teach you the basics. As you gain more experience, you can change the recipe. The greater variety of matter you put into your compost, the richer your soils become. You'll need 25-30 parts carbon to 1 part nitrogen. Some examples:
Sawdust is 500 parts carbon to 1 part nitrogen.
Fish is 7 to 1.
Urine 1 to 1.
Chicken manure 12 to 1.
Rabbit manure 8 to 1.
Horse manure 20 to 1.
Green weeds 25 to 1.
If you can increase surface area by chopping or shredding, it will speed up decomposition. You will need a lot of materials. Don't go over 4 feet high or it will squeeze the air out. You can use a gravity fall pile, or a piece of wire fence. You'll need a long handled pitch fork with 3-5 prongs, a rake, and a cover to maintain moisture.
You need 1/3 of your materials to be manure, 1/3 high carbon material, or browns, and 1/3 fresh greens. Pitch them all together and mix them up. Then water the hill until it starts to leak water. If you have food scraps, those can be incorporated into the layers and covered. Make sure to avoid: meat, bones, grease, and dairy products. Avoid materials that have come into contact with: Pesticides, herbicides, fungicides, antibiotic medications, and anything that will take your pH to one extreme or another.
Once you’re more familiar with this recipe, you can put an activator in the middle when you start the pile. These could include: Dead animal, fish, chopped comfrey, yarrow, nettle, or old compost. You have to be certain that you know your recipe, so your pile will cook and not go putrid. Some people urinate on their compost piles to increase the nitrogen. Some add menstrual blood as an activator.
Other common activators, by % of Nitrogen:
Alfalfa meal 2.4%.
Blood meal 15%.
Bone meal 4%.
Chicken manure (dry) 8%.
Coffee grounds 2.1%.
Rabbit manure (fresh) 2.4%.
Rabbit manure (dry) 12%.
Once you have built your pile, you will want to cover it if you are expecting rain. Place branches on top of the pile to hold the cover off the surface, allowing air to pass through. You can also build the pile inside to heat a greenhouse. If conditions are very hot, place your pile in the shade.
If you want to look at your compost activity under a microscope, put a handful of compost in a jar with water and shake for 10 minutes. Then get a pipette and drop one drop on a slide, under a cover sheet, to view under the microscope. Take five minutes to look at this and you will see thousands of organisms every second.
Carbon is more of a fungal food. Nitrogen is more of a bacterial food. Non-woody plants and pasture prefer bacteria rich soil. Trees prefer fungal/carbon rich soil. Flour, paper, cardboard are all fungal food. If you want more fungi in your compost, you can add something like oat flour on every turn.
You can test the temperature of your pile with a good quality compost thermometer. If the pile is hotter on the inside than the outside, then your pile is too dry. If your pile is hotter on the outside than the inside, then your pile is too wet. Compost kept between 131 – 140 degrees for 15 days will kill pathogens, parasites and weed seeds.
If you want to speed up the compost turning process, you can turn your pile every day for 10 to 12 days and get it done faster, but it will be more work. Make sure you put the outer layer in the center when turning your pile, and the inner layer on the surface.
Step-by-step guide to fast composting:
Day one: Create the pile.
Day four: turn it over, ideally putting the outer layers in the middle and the center on the surface, as you move and rebuild the pile. Replace branches and cover.
Day six: turn.
Day eight: Turn every two days.
How do you know if the moisture in your pile is adequate? Squeeze a handful of the matter from the compost pile. If one drop falls, it is perfect. More water than that, and the pile is too wet. No drops, and it is too dry.
The pile should also be very warm. If you put a glove on and push your arm into the pile up to your elbow, it shouldn't be so hot that you say, “Ow”.
Turn the pile on day ten, day twelve, day fourteen, day sixteen and by day eighteen it should be done. When it is just warm, dark brown, fine with only a few chunks, and an earthy smell, not putrid, then it is done.
How do you fix problems with your compost recipe? If you get to day 6 or 8 and your compost is not hot enough, ask yourself:
If the pile is too wet, you've got to put a hole in the center with your pitchfork handle and place a chimney in the middle to let it steam off. If it is too dry, just water it.
If you have too much nitrogen it will loose volume fast and smell very bad. Carbon is your sponge and carbon will slow it down.
If your compost goes a little anaerobic in places for lack of air, it will present a white moldy looking powder. That is the first indicator that you've gone over the line in temperature or moisture and need to make an adjustment.
You want 10 compost heaps to an acre if you want to kick off an organic crop garden system.
Your soil will hold more water at the end of this process.
When you get skilled at turning your pile, you can do it in 20 minutes. That's 3 hours of work total for this 18 day recipe. One compost heap this size, spread around a garden, will grow vegetables for one year, for one person.
Slow compostTurning a pile every two days is not for everyone. If you are too busy, you can turn your pile once every 7-10 days. At that rate your compost will be finished in 1-3 months.
If you need to go more slowly, that's okay. You can always assess what your compost needs are when you turn it, and add accordingly.
Alternately, you can make an add as you go pile. This requires even less effort, as there is no need to separate your kitchen waste, yard debris, and clippings. Unfortunately, it decomposes at a slower rate of 3-8 months. It is prone to odor problems because the lack of turning allows it to go anaerobic. It doesn't heat up well, which means it does not kill weed seeds and pathogens. It will be less nutrient dense. It might attract pests if uncovered.
If you mix your sieved compost with sharp river sand from the inside bends of creeks or rivers, you can make your own potting mix. The smaller the seed the more sand you want in the mix, for example, carrot seeds, etc. With large seeds you can use 50/50 compost and sand.
You can also extend your compost by making compost tea.
One way that you can measure the success of your compost is to use a refractometer.
The refractometer measures refracted light through plant fluid. Inside is a gauge, and in that gauge is a blue line. It is used to measure the starch and sugars in fruit. If the starch goes up, the plant is probably feeding and happily using your compost. This shows an increase in the nutrient density in food. Caution: If you use this to measure the nutrient density of food from the supermarket, you won't find it easy to spend money on commercially grown produce ever again.
Now that you’ve seen different methods of creating compost all that’s left is to choose the method that is right for you and to do it! However, if you want to be energy efficient, make your compost near where you are going to use it! Have fun!
This miniclass is excerpted from the Soil Basics module of our double-certificate design course, taught by Lichen June.
Lichen June is a writer, speaker, educator and stuntwoman. Raised on a dairy goat farm by a naturalist mother and gardening father, Lichen was given a profound sense of ethics and relationship with the natural world. As an activist Lichen has been producing educational events and doing publicity on environmental issues for over 20 years. Teaching communication and ethics since 2008, and permaculture since 2013, Lichen studied permaculture with Geoff Lawton and Toby Hemenway, and received her certificate from PRI Australia. Lichen is the Executive Director of the NW Permaculture Institute, and co-founder of Elephant Head Educational Designs, creators of regenerative learning materials.
Further reading on this topic:
Darwish, Leila. Earth Repair: a Grassroots Guide to Healing Toxic and Damaged Landscapes. New Society Publishers, 2013.
Hosking, Rebecca. Building Soil with Regenerative Agriculture. Permaculture.co.uk: Permaculture People/Permaculture Magazine, 2015.
#compost #freepermaculture #permaculturewomen #foodnotlawns
By Heather Jo Flores
In a forest, the plants collaborate. They take turns blooming, share space, distribute different nutrients and succeed each other over generations. In our home gardens, we can create diverse, low-maintenance food forests by mimicking these patterns. In its most basic form, this is called companion planting, and gardeners have been doing it for millennia.
You probably know the classic "Three Sisters" example. Native Americans grew corn, beans and squash in a shared space because together they repelled pests and provided a successional yield. I have heard from some old-timers that there was actually a fourth Sister: lupine, a self-seeding, nitrogen-fixing biennial that was planted all around the corn patch to repair the soil.
Ironically, as much as I am a true believer in perennial polyculture gardening, I don't grow the Sisters. I like to hill my corn (like potatoes) and that disrupts the baby beans and squash. I also find that the corn patch needs more than just the beans (and/or lupine) to repair the soil. So I plant the corn, let it get a few inches high, then plant potatoes in between the stalks. Every week or so, I hill up the dirt around the corn and potatoes with a hoe. I do plant squash, but only on the ends of the rows, so that they can sprawl out away from the patch.
Then, after harvesting corn and potatoes, I cover crop the whole thing with fava beans over the winter to repair and hold the soil for the next rotation.
In permaculture, we use food forests to grow as much as possible on a small piece of land. Using those principles, we design garden beds with a collection of complementary perennial trees, shrubs, herbs, ground covers, roots and annual vegetables called "guilds" that are placed in a microclimate landscape best suited for the group. The idea is to group plants together for specific reasons, encourage them to spread into permanent, self-managing landscapes, and thus reduce the amount of effort it takes to grow food.
You don't have to plant a whole food forest at once. You can carve out niches and build one guild at a time. As they grow, these plantings will attract birds, pollinators, microorganisms and fungi. Over time, as you add more and more guilds, your entire space will yield to nature, becoming your own handcrafted Eden.
How to Build a Guild
So exactly which plants do we group with which other plants? It takes a lifetime to learn all the differing functions, get familiar with the size of plants at maturity, with their growing patterns and individual needs. There are some great books on the topic, and any search for "companion planting," "food forests" or "perennial polycultures" will keep you busy reading and designing all winter.
For now, I offer you a handful of my personal favorites from years of experiments with hundreds of plant combinations that yielded mixed results. These are the guilds that I continue to plant in every food forest I design.
Blueberries, strawberries, valerian, yarrow, spinach/lettuce/orach
Blueberries are slow-growing, water-thirsty and thrive in an acidic mulch like sawdust. Strawberries also enjoy the acidic mulch, and can get well established as a ground cover before the mature blueberries shade them out. Valerian and yarrow are clumping, blooming medicinal perennials that attract beneficial insects and help build soil for the berries. Together they look great and share space without much intervention. Sow the spinach between the spaces and alternate with patches of lettuce and orach.
Apples, horseradish, clary sage, kale
Apples cast deep shade and only a handful of plants will thrive under them. Horseradish repels diseases common to apples, and the two are a classic pair. Because I often use it in my apothecary, and because it doesn't mind a bit of shade, I add clary sage. The fuzzy, aromatic biennial, which grows up to 6 feet tall, glimmers throughout year two with huge plumes of purple flowers. Interplant a few different kinds of kale and you will have a rainbow of foliage.
Figs, seaberry, canna, comfrey, squash
If you have space, this guild is epic in every way: year-round harvest, giant flowers, mulch crops and vegetables. Visually, it's Jurassic. Figs can get quite large at maturity and tend to sprawl. Between those sprawling shoots you can plant comfrey, which will fill the space with fuzzy foliage and tubular flowers that pollinators love. Seaberry fixes nitrogen and also produces a tart, seedy fruit that can be dried or added fresh to a wide array of dishes. The canna has edible roots (similar to tapioca) and needs a bit more sun, so plant it on the southern edge. Poke in your squashes around the border to give the tendrils room to run.
Peaches, rosemary, marigolds, arugula, zinnias, cucumber
Peaches don't cast a ton of shade. They tend to be sparse with skinny leaves. This means that companions that wouldn't do well under other fruit trees will do just fine under a peach. I like the way rosemary looks, especially when joined with annual plantings of marigolds, arugula, zinnias, and other tall, showy annual flowers. Cucumbers do enjoy full sun, but smaller varieties can thrive in mottled shade, and I have grown some beauties as a ground cover in this guild.
Pears, echinacea, beets, poppies
There is something about a pear tree in bloom that always reminds me of the iconic Virgin of Guadalupe image that I grew up with. To me, the way a pear tree holds its blooms looks like an angel. As a sort of tribute to that beauty, I plant echinacea with pears. Echinacea is a clumping perennial with fancy daisy-like coneflowers in purple, green, white and pink. It's medicinal and beneficial to gardens, with a network of thick roots that help to break up the soil and increase nutrient distribution. Beets fit perfectly in the spaces between, and the foliage is visually splendid in this combination. If you want to make it really beautiful, add some poppies, but keep in mind that poppies are heavy feeders, so you'll need to compensate the soil.
Generally speaking, as a nitrogen fixer, I habitually sprinkle white subterranean clover seed, both as a cover crop and as a living mulch in beds and paths. It makes an awesome cover, attracts pollinators, and can be easily removed when you decide to plant something new. For best results, mix organic clover seed — coated in bacterial inoculant — with fluffy, finished compost and keep it in a bucket for easy access. If there's a spot with bare soil, sprinkle the seeded compost around and make sure it gets evenly watered until the clover is established.
Finally, please remember that just because plants in a guild support each other, that doesn't mean they don't need your support. You need to weed, prune, mulch and clear. You need to harvest the food, save the seeds and participate in the cycles and seasons. A food forest is an ecosystem, and the gardener should be a part of that. In fact, for the first three years, your newly planted guilds might need some extra attention. Think of the baby plants like little puppies — you have to train them, nurture them, and raise them, but if you do a good job, they will be your best friends for many years to come!
#permaculture #freepermaculture #permaculturewomen #growyourown #foodnotlawns #DIY
Using Earth, Fire, Air, Water and Spirit to as a tool to design my journey to Andalucía
The meaning of spirituality I connect with is one which is Earth based and includes being guided by, grounding in and celebrating the different moon and sun cycles, which in turn determine our patterns of days, months, and seasons. Central to this form of spiritual experience are the 5 elements — Earth, Fire, Air, Water and Spirit. These aspects are deeply linked to my permaculture life, work and activism.
This year I have undergone a big life change from being a hill farmer and palliative care nurse in a remote part of the Yorkshire Dales, to moving to the hills of Andalucía, Spain with my partner, dogs and cats, to a house with just under 2 acres of land. This post shows how I have used the 5 Elements to explore how my knowledge and practice of permaculture can be transferred and adapted to my next life chapter design.
In the Dales I spent years using permaculture tools to improve the health of the soil on the farm. Carefully designed grazing systems with a wide diversity of agricultural animals made big differences to the biodiversity in the grazing land and the edge with forestry land. I used animal manure combined with structures such as raised beds, hot beds, polytunnels, and then lots of successional planting. This greatly improved the fertility of the soil and also generated extra heat to be able to grow a range of species and variety of both annual and perennial plants I never thought possible.
Here in Andalucía, the soil is dry, rocky, dusty and steep. I won't be farming any agricultural animals so I need to design how I am going to create and maintain the highest level of soil fertility as I can. Many different perennial and annual plants grow here that I have no experience in growing, so there is much learning to be done.
The Earth Element is also about ensuring life force and motivation is given to other aspects of life, and I intend to use the specific qualities from this element to design and carry out some of the ideas and projects on my ‘to do list for my move here. This will include looking at what I will do in terms of my right livelihood, creativity and taking responsibility for my own health. Designing for this diversity should help to ensure that my life here is as resilient as possible.
Winters were long and cold in the Dales. Soon after we arrived there we invested in a heating system that heated the cottage there well, provided hot water, and allowed us to be able to cook slow stews and soups through burning local wood. We often needed to keep one stove lit for most of the year, so we needed a constant supply of dry wood. We also designed a storage system for the large amounts of wood needed, to be as effective of human energy and time as possible. Our outdoors fireplace was also a really core part of our lives, providing a focus to cook outdoors and celebrate events.
Sun hours in our remote part of the Dales were very few and we designed food growing, animal care and our own holistic health to maximize the use of the available sunlight.
We need to heat our house for the coldest months of the year here in Spain and are already planning a wood burning system and accessing local wood to burn. Wild fires are also a very real danger in the summer months and how to avoid them and then protect our home and animals if they do occur, is something that is really key to our future life here.
The sun shines for about 340 days of the year at our new home which is a really big change for us. Yields we can obtain from that amazing energy include growing a much more diverse and abundant range of food and the potential for heating water and generating electricity for power. The strength of the sun can also be damaging in the hottest part of summer, and creating shade for both our food growing and outdoor living spaces will be part of the design.
Energy and action are also inspired by the element of Fire and I am in the process of using this inspiration to explore how I am going to take my permaculture work (lots of energy and action!) forward from here. I plan to finish my Diploma soon, but then what? And how will it integrate and balance with the other aspects of my life to make sure my energies are used as efficiently as possible?
It rained a lot at our North Yorkshire home, with the yearly average being over 100 inches. Improving the compacted soil, and planting trees, (especially willow) helped to improve the impact of excess water on the grazing land. The raised beds and a human made drainage channel (which used a wide water pipe, perennial plant growth and a mesh outlet, to avoid soil erosion) had a really positive impact in avoiding plants being damaged by excess water.
Water here in the hills of Andalucía is precious. There is virtually no rain between April and September, and the winter rains are often short and very heavy, with potential for damage to land through flooding and erosion. Systems such as capturing and dispersing rainwater, utilizing grey water, optimizing organic matter in the soil, mulching and growing drought tolerant edible plants are already being considered as part of our design.
Water in the non-physical aspect guides our emotional selves. Water flows, as do our emotions. Healthy emotional health can mean working on aspects of our mental heal that we are ‘stuck’ in, so that positive flow can take place. How can I use permaculture principles and tools to promote my emotional well being during this transition time? Starhawk talks a lot about the connections of grief and the water element, (‘the well of grief’). Being mindful of the loss I have experienced over recent months and years will also feature in this part of my people care/self care designing.
The exposed location and height of the farm meant that there could be damaging winds throughout the year. Restoring many of the barns and dry stone walls on the farm and planting trees along field edges improved the shelter and then health and welfare of our agricultural animals. Also choosing native hardy breeds of sheep, cows, pigs and poultry ensured they would thrive well despite the weather conditions that the strong gales brought with them.
Where we chose to site the various edible gardens, raised beds, polytunnel, planting further windbreaks and then choosing type and variety of edible plants designed for short growing seasons, meant we could protect our growing spaces from winds that contributed towards limits to maximum potential.
The winds at our new home can also be strong, and especially so in the winter. Designing our food growing areas to include shelter against strong winds will make a huge difference to the varieties of vegetables, fruits and herbs we can grow and the length of the growing season they will have.
Communication and connecting is the inner strength from Element of Air, and here in Andalucía there is an abundance of different factors emerging for this — making beneficial connections with new friends, community and neighbours. Sharing permaculture knowledge and experience with them: Finding systems to have positive communication with friends and family now many miles away, and engaging further with parts of the global permaculture community, particularly those who are undertaking permaculture work in the local area or in similar geographic and climatic locations.
Glennie Kindred describes the Fifth Element, Spirit, as ‘the force that unites all the actions of the elements together, so that there is no separation….’ Back in the Yorkshire my spiritual practice mainly focused around celebrating the Wheel of the Year sun festivals, alongside the cycles of the moon, in connection with patterns the farming seasons. My nursing work and interest in using permaculture in designing how we die, also links deeply to spirit and that same cycle flow of life an death. In addition I spent time on a daily basis appreciating my spiritual connectedness with the land I worked on and grounding myself in the present, while honouring the power and energies of the five elements.
It feels reassuring and comforting to know that in Spirit, the patterns and practices that have given me so much meaning and peace in the past will transfer to my future. There will be changes of course, open outdoor fires will be saved for winter months for example, and I can already see that the arrival of rain will be a time for celebration and gratitude…but fundamentally the wheel will keep turning just as it has done, and within it there is much here to connect to.
Using the five Elements has been a really useful tool in my move here to Spain. As well as exploring the differences in using permaculture principles and ethics in our two homes, its also really helped me to identify some really beneficial connects between the knowledge and practice I feel confident about in my life in the Dales and my design for our resilient future here in Spain.
The following resources have helped with this post
The Earth Path — Starhawk
Sacred Earth Celebrations — Glennie Kindred
Earth Pathways Diary 2015
Earth Activist Training PDC, California 2013 — Starhawk and Charles Williams
Growing food In a Hotter, Drier Land — Gary Paul Nabha
This article is also published on my blog at Kt Shepherd Permaculture
The text from this post is published as an article “Permaculture and The Five Elements” in Permaculture Magazine Winter 2015 No 86
#spirituality #ecofeminism #freepermaculture #permaculturewomen #permaculturedesign
This resource is brought to you by
Food Not Lawns,
Permaculture Women's Guild, and Heather Jo Flores.
Subscribe to the #freepermaculture blog via email and get fresh articles every week! This does not add you to other lists, but you can opt into those below.
You're good to go!
Writers! Let's Crosspollinate!
We'd love to feature your article here and/or swap guest posts with you.
Join the #freepermaculture public discussion group
FREE Permaculture Coloring Book!
Watch this video to learn about our online Permaculture Design Course with advanced certificate in Social Systems Design.
FREE Introduction to Permaculture class
Enjoy the first module of our double-certificate design course, absolutely free.
Pay-what-you-want online course: