In Permaculture* Design, we are always working to increase yield in our land while always increasing fertility and restoring top soil. In modern agriculture, yield is more of a statistic than a measure of viability of the land. The USDA tells farmers if they only loose 1 to 1/2 inches of top soil a year it is good soil management. In nature it takes 100 years to create 1 inch of topsoil. So, instead of being sustainable, modern agriculture actually is mining the soil instead of increasing it. Permaculture rebuilds top soil and the fertility of the land. If we are to survive as a species on this planet we need to reverse the trend of disappearing soil.
The modern industrial based farmer is under terrific pressure to get the highest production out of failing soil and has had to resort to using chemicals just to stay alive and viable. Unfortunately the long term effect on the soil has had us loosing millions of tons of top soil thru erosion and desertification as well as contamination. While in Permaculture Design using nature as the template, we get yield increases while no chemicals are used (which kill off the vital life of the soil – our beneficial micro-organism).
After WWII, when we lost so many of our farmers to the war, and because the industries that had won us the war, had to stay viable by converting their production capabilities into farm equipment and other products (like fertilizer, and later ‘icides’ – pesticides, herbicides, etc.) saw the U.S. agricultural scene go from the family farm to ‘agribusiness’. The mantra became “Get big or get out”. And with this came a transition in thinking to corporate profit from being good husbands to the land. The big companies provided machinery and chemicals but put tremendous pressure on the farmer to provide huge yields to feed a growing population. Just to pay for the hugely expensive equipment they had to make large amounts of money just to stay in business. It has worked for quite awhile but the toll on the land has been a gradual deterioration of the basic health of our planet.
The labor of taking care of the weeds and harvesting has transferred from hand work to huge heavy machinery and chemicals. This isn’t just because of the aftermath of the war industrially, but also people coming home and those who supported the war effort wanted a better life. Loads of good farmland was transformed into ‘house farms’ in huge subdivisions, and people started working more for big corporations or in towns rather than the small family farm. It was a big change in the ideas of what the ‘good life’ – the American Dream – is composed of.
We had a big population boom as the people came home to a much smaller population. Nature abhors a vacuum, which was filled up with ‘baby boomer’ i.e. big families. And people who couldn’t compete on the small family farm without some way of boosting their yield and thus their income couldn’t keep their land. People stopped being as self-reliant. They wanted the nice new car, the store bought clothing, the new washing machine, etc. – consumerism – and they couldn’t do that without money. Farm life before WWII was ‘make do, use up, or do without’ because it was the end of the Great Depression, and people were skilled at making their own stuff. The war brought new affluence and dependence on manufactured goods.
This isn’t blame. People need to find a way to survive and support families. But how that is done, and long range thinking as a solution have bent towards the mass production and industrial/corporate mentality. This unfortunately has become apparent as very tough on nature. Short term thinking of yield based on unnatural means has brushed aside the idea that nature is our foundation that has survived billions of years on this planet, and any large scale change in those laws pays us back in less long term survival. We are seeing this in the lower quality of the food, less nutritious, more toxic, and harder on the top soil to produce.
So, what’s the solution? It’s so convenient to walk into a super grocery store, fill the cart with every imaginable food, pay for it, and never get our hands dirty. We are starting to notice that we are paying for this convenience with high infant mortality and illness, autism, obesity, diabetes, cancer, genetic disorders, early onset Alzheimer’s, and in general shorter life spans and less personal energy, as well as the loss of general excellent health. How many people do you know who have cancer, diabetes, are more than 50 lbs overweight (even children), or who have trouble sleeping, can’t loose weight, have arthritis, and have fuzzy thinking? Even while taking lots of pharmaceuticals, and maybe because of it, we are seeing the worst health in our history. This is my personal observation but I’ll bet you can look around and see it for yourself.
When I was growing up, maybe one child in a whole school was over weight. We never heard of autism. Kids got measles, mumps and all the childhood diseases and nobody died of it. I never heard of anyone having childhood diabetes either, or cancer. It just didn’t happen. But we all were according to today’s thinking all eating ‘organic’ foo. Many of our families had home gardens, mothers canned their own produce, even in subdivisions, and they cooked or prepared all our food from scratch. Cake mixes didn’t exist and when they came on the market, the good cooks laughed at someone being so lazy they couldn’t even make up their own recipes. This was over 70 years ago in my own lifetime, and much has changed since then, but I see trends. Prepared foods, fast foods, and junk food then were just treats if they were even available.
So, when looking at the health and well being of people, with the last 70 years of change from well grown food from naturally fertile land, to industrially grown, chemical filled, and less nutritious food, I see fat kids who sit around all day with no energy, and parents complaining of no energy as well, taking loads of pharmaceutical medications, with bad mental health, again with the pills, and not doing well.
Permaculture Design science and technology came into our culture about 30 years ago from Australia as a result of the work by a man named Bill Mollison. He saw how the world was changing and after 7 years of trying to address the problem politically, he realized that the government was really about people protecting their self interests fed by corporate agendas. So, he went out into the outback and spent 4 years observing how nature worked to sustain itself and the laws upon which it did that. This became Permaculture Design.
When the laws were understood (23 natural precepts) he was able to formulate methods to reverse the destruction, using nature as an ally instead as an opponent to be overwhelmed and conquered with forceful solutions.
The intention of Permaculture has always been to provide survival sustainably while healing the earth and her systems. We have a growing population while we are using up the resources easily obtained, and introducing a great deal of waste in the process. The ocean is a major source of our oxygen supply but it is increasingly being polluted and whole areas are dying as the kelp beds (oxygen generators) are being wiped out. We are on a sinking ship unless we get smart and start working with nature.
The alternative is ever more desperate measures, and as a predictable result wars over resources, and depopulation from disease and famine. This is what nature (and history) does when something goes out of balance. It kills off imbalanced elements. When the marmot population in the Midwest a number of years ago from no predators (killed off by people such as wolves), disease spread out thru the marmot populations killing off 85% of them. After that the health of the colonies improved – nature’s way. If we want raw nature to intercede, this is what we can expect with our world. Or we can be smart and do something now while we have time and some remaining resources.
In our own lives, we have to rethink our consumption so we become part of the solution rather than the problem.
We can influence the market place by how we spend our money. If we demand packaging be made from recycled paper instead of plastics that never break down, the market will eventually respond. Already companies have developed ‘edible’ beer 6pack holders. No plastic is used. People are demanding organically grown produce and we are seeing sections in the grocery stores now that have organic and pasture raised foods. Restaurants are providing locally grown organic food instead of the mass produced corporate foods. Even now we are seeing farmers markets where food producers are directly providing seasonal organic produce and even preserved foods in glass not plastic containers.
On a personal level, people are awakening to the reality that growing at least some of their own food in gardens, or joining local farmer CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture – subscription food) is more nutritious, safer, and healthier, not to mention tastier. Having that 10’ x10’ plot in the back yard can grow an amazingly high yield of food. Certainly all the tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, etc. in the summer and all the greens, root vegetables, broccoli and other cool weather crops can be grown abundantly if one knows how to garden.
The internet has abundant YouTube videos on Permaculture techniques and how-to tutorials. Google: organic gardening; permaculture gardening; DIY backyard gardens. A wonderful small scale Permaculture book is “Gaia’s Garden” by Toby Hemenway.
Additionally, by growing your own food in a garden, you can choose the varieties you eat that are more nutritious and have more variety than the few kinds of each type of vegetable or fruit available from industrial farms. There are still a number of very reputable seed companies specializing in heirloom and heritage varieties of an amazing array and diversity. If you have never eaten a garden grown Cherokee Purple heirloom tomato, you haven’t ever really tasted tomato.
By saving the seeds from heirloom, heritage and ‘open pollinating’ varieties provides an almost endless supply of seeds year after year for your own use, and abundant extras for trading, selling, and to start seedlings which can also be sold to friends and family.
Permaculture techniques include how to create beautiful rich fluffy fertile soil by collecting organic matter with a minimum of things that need to be purchased. See a book called “Lasagna Gardening” for the way to build soil from scratch. In Permaculture we call this ‘sheet mulching’. In one season you can create what nature takes 300 years to make as natural top soil in a forest or savannah (grassland) environment.
In industrial farming, they use a technique called ‘mono-cropping’ meaning thousands of acres of growing the same one crop – soy, corn, cotton, wheat, etc. What happens when you do this, besides the fact that nature never grows plants like that, is there are no barriers to insect populations. Nothing stops them from reproducing because there are so few predators because there are no breaks in the crops to support animals or other insects that would eat those bugs. So the farmer has to kill them with chemicals so he has a crop left. In nature (and Permaculture Design) there is bio-diversity – i.e. many kinds of plants growing together harmoniously, supporting each other, and confusing the bugs. Mono cropping is like Wal-mart for bugs. By integratively planting many varieties, and breaking up large growing areas with an ‘edge’ of trees or bushes that support the predators, you usually don’t have to use chemicals. But when you do use chemicals you kill off the predators too so next time the pests reproduce fastest and it takes more and more chemicals in a cascading problem. But then you can’t easily plant with huge machinery either when they have to go around hedge rows or wind rows of trees among the fields.
When you are not mono-cropping you can’t sit in an air conditioned cab drinking your soda while you drive the acres planting or harvesting. But your chances of getting cancer from the chemicals you have to spray drops to almost zero. But you aren’t paying hundreds of thousands of dollars to pay for the equipment either.
My husband’s Iowa family, farmers, have had a very high rate of cancer and diabetes. They live in the heart of industrial farming. His parents’ generation routinely lived into their 90s. That area heavily sprays agricultural chemicals now.
So how do we actually feed a world which is growing in population faster than old ways of agriculture could feed them? That is the thinking in higher elements of the culture. Purveyors of genetically modified seeds and their accompanying herbicides say they are making it possible to feed the world with higher yield using less labor. But the crop failures using GMO varieties are never discussed.
Contrarily to this PR agenda from companies like Cargill and Monsanto is a UN study that was conducted where they found that small farming organic farming practices would actually do a better job of providing than the industrial method. For one thing we are running out of commercial sources of phosphorous, a necessary mineral for the flowering and root development of plants. We are killing off our bees, responsible for 3 our of every 5 bites of food we enjoy, with pesticides, who are critical for pollinating the plants. (China and Japan have killed off substantial populations of their bees and now must hand pollinate. This is why in Japan a pear costs about $7.) We are loosing our top soil at an alarming rate by big machinery which compacts the soil down 6 to 8” below the surface, and when flooding occurs, that top soil just flows off the land. Wind picks up the dry soil in drought conditions loosing more.
In earlier days before farmers used the huge farm machinery, they broke up big fields with wind breaks of trees and bushes around the edges of the fields. This prevented loss of top soil thru wind erosion. It also helped hold in the top soil during flooding. And it provided habitat for the natural predators that killed off pests.
In the Midwest every homesteaded farm had to have an acre of trees called the woodlot, which were interspersed thru the huge open prairie land. This was required to claim a homestead when people moved into the land in the 1800’s and early 1900’s. These trees provided oxygen, and through evaporation from the leaves called transpiration, they generated rain, and they acted as wind barriers as well.
We have pretty much eliminated the wind rows of trees, and when the rain stops coming, the wind has no barriers and takes thousands of tons of soil off the land. The worst example of this was in the 1930s in the southwest with dust storms that made millions of acres of farmland useless. When big farms with their huge machinery had trouble negotiating the fields because of the rows of trees, they were removed. The practice of having vast open spaces with no wind breaks continues to this day. It has eliminated one of nature’s best sources of bio-diversity of the ‘edge’ phenomenon where the change in kind of environment fosters an environment that supports a greater bio-diversity than the surrounding areas. It has been re-discovered that by growing several rows wide of wild plants and flowers regularly through these huge mono-crop farms has almost eliminated the need for pesticides, and has increased soil fertility. Nature provides if allowed to operate. This practice has also been saving the bees where implemented.
By inter-planting various crops and interspacing it with wild plants and flowers to support the pollinators, farmers are getting much better production – i.e. yield increase. And they are upgrading their profit because they are eliminating the need for so many chemicals. By planting wood rows around their fields, they are loosing less top soil. By having wood lots or allowing portions of their land to revert to forest, they are getting more rainfall. If they design these wood rows and natural plant areas into their land, they can also carefully harvest them for medicinal plants and usable wood products. There is an entire subject called Agri-forestry which is a science of using woodlands to produce sustainable products while fostering wild plants and animals.
On a smaller scale, by growing your own food even if only a few raised beds, there are several techniques that will give you a source of safe, uncontaminated, and healthy food. By using a raised bed instead of trying to bust thru hard packed lawn or clay soil, you can put into place about a foot of good organic soil over a weekend instead of it taking 5 years of amending poor soil so it actually grows good root systems. I recommend starting out with 2×12 untreated lumber but after about 4 years this rots and you have to either replace the lumber, or just start out using double celled cinder blocks which don’t rot. The advantage of cinder blocks is the cells (holes) can be filled with more soil and used to plant flowers that bring in the bees to pollinate. They are perfect little planters for perennial herbs like mint or thyme that don’t like to have their roots disturbed. If the perennials are planted with the annuals their roots get disturbed two times a year. I painted mine a lovely green to make them prettier.
Using ‘square foot gardening’ technique (read the book “Square Foot Gardening”), you can take a relatively small area and grow a lot of different kinds of food plants and have a variety of vegetables. It’s an easy book to read for beginners and gives lots of examples and good pictures to follow.
In a small garden, the most valuable thing besides the good organic top soil is the actual space you have to grow things. When you integratively plant (many kinds of plants not rows of the same plant) you can take advantage of the fact that some plants need more root space and some need more above the soil space, so you can plant them close together and get double the yield. By growing in 3′ or 4’ squares instead of rows, you don’t waste space for pathways and you don’t compress the soil by stepping on it. If your beds are 4′ x 8’ you can reach both sides of the bed without stepping on them, and that way you keep the soil light and don’t compress it, better for root growth.
I place stepping stones every 4’ along such a rectangular bed so I have a place to put my foot to balance when planting or harvesting without compressing the bed. On a 12’ bed this means 3 flat stones or bricks set in the middle of the bed from each side.
I don’t ’till’ my soil because that disrupts the soil structure of delicate micro-organism organization that transports nutrients and information within the ecology of the soil.
Instead I do a seasonal sheet mulching to increase the organic matter content. This is a way to fertilize the soil and increase yield. I do however do some shallow cultivation if I want to bring some compost or other nutrient rich substances into the root level of the soil.
I also dig a hole where I am putting a seedling or plant and into that hole (4” or so deep) I add compost or a mix I make to enrich the soil. That mix is composed of various nutritional and fertilizing soil components. Usually there is some top soil, a bit of crushed granite for the minerals (in the form of all-purpose sand), some worm castings, crushed egg shells, used coffee grounds, composted manure, and if the soil where I’m putting a plant is dense with clay, some vermiculite or perlite to lighten and add drain-ability. These are mixed well and after putting a handful or so into the soil, I mix it in with the existing garden soil, then plant. I like to water it before adding the fertility mix, then again after the plant is planted. Over that I shift a bit of top mulch around the new plant. This holds in the moisture and helps prevent stress to the plant.
Another way to increase yield in a garden bed is to use ‘companion’ planting, which is called a ‘guild’ in Permaculture. This means a collection of plants that are known to be compatible, and in various ways help each other – by providing protection from bugs or pests (like marigolds), fix nitrogen into the soil (such as a legume – beans, peas, etc.), attracting pollinators (flowers), providing support for climbing plants (like corn stalks or sunflower stalks), or just help with flavor enhancement (basil for tomatoes), or one gives the other protection from the sun (broad leaves of squash plants around corn plant to hold in moisture and cool the soil with shade), or protect from wind (as in okra growing next to pepper plants which tend to be brittle).
A book called “Carrots Love Tomatoes” is an excellent book with companion plants well documented and listed for easy plant planning. When plants help each other, there is less pest damage, better nutrient uptake, less failure, and happy plants, not to mention less need for human intervention.
When using companion planting, these companions can grow fairly close together and mixed up within a bed – called integrative planting. I rarely do a row of plants. Instead I will mix up the plants in a bed, leaving room for root growth for each one, and keeping in mind which ones need more sun than others. Some plants grow large and some grow smaller so I leave room between the plants to allow for the larger plant’s growth needs. Tomato and pepper plants tend to grow up supports and spread out like a small bush. Under them can grow lesser sized plants like lettuce which enjoy the shade in the heat of summer, or carrots which don’t need a lot of aerial space (aerial means above ground), but need deep soil. I often plant in a grid pattern either square or diamond shaped placement, then in the middle of those shapes put in a nice little vertical plant in the companion family. This makes the best use of the soil space.
Another key way to best utilize the space in a bed is ‘succession’ planting. That’s when plants mature and are harvested mid season leaving a space open. Into this now open space (after throwing a bit of fertilizing mix and digging it in), put another of the companion plants which have the right maturation timing. Often I plant beets which mature mid summer, and into the space I place radishes or carrots, maybe some bok choy etc. Some plants are regularly harvested after a fairly short period of time and can be succession planted every two weeks or so, leaving some space at the beginning of the season or planted with very short growing plants like radishes in anticipation of sequential planting for continuous harvest. Certain kinds of head lettuces grow in a short time and can be replanted in the space of the harvested plant after adding in a bit of fertilizing mix. When reading seed packets they will say ‘plant every two weeks for continuous harvest’ telling you this is a sequential crop.
In order to keep the soil moist and cooler than the heat of summer, I make sure I keep a goodly layer of mulch over any raw soil. Sometimes I use a couple of layers. I like to use un-composted chicken poop with accompanying bedding as a first layer, then over that fine wood sawdust (my husband is a woodworker), or unsprayed straw (never hay which is loaded with weed seeds), or unsprayed lawn clippings, or chipped up autumn leaves.
This organic matter composts in place adding to the organic matter of the soil, but it also feeds the worms and settles, so it has to be replaced one or two times in the summer. Fresh manure is high in ammonia and will burn roots so don’t mix this into the soil, top-spread it only. Sawdust doesn’t do well to be mixed into the soil until it is thoroughly decomposed as it will compete below the surface with the roots for nitrogen in the soil. If you brush the mulch it out of the way of the new plant, then move it back over the area after the new plant is in the ground, and a bit more added, you will add to your yield by happier plants.
Another way to add to your yield is to have multiple uses for the elements in your garden. Not just plants, but how you use them. For exampl: by growing calendula, aka pot marigold, you not only attract pollinating bees but also help kill off bad nematodes which will attack certain plants like tomatoes, but the flowers also make a wonderful medicinal ingredient to help skin in salves and ointments. When you practice this Permaculture technique of multiple uses for every element, every separate use of an element increases the yield.
When you compost your pulled up weeds, dead stems of spent plants, the dried stems of herbs after the seeds or leaves have been separated from them, or re-use anything, this is an increase of yield for soil building. Waste no organic matter if you can help it.
When you pull weeds that contain seeds on them, rather than putting them in the trash or the compost pile, put them in a bucket or barrel of rainwater to rot, you are recycling the minerals in that weed. You also keep the seeds from going in the compost to later germinate by rotting in the water. This ‘weed water’ then can be used to make compost/manure tea for fertilizing, and the rotted plant matter can then safely go into the compost pile to make use of the organic solids.
Every effort you make to retain organic matter within a given location keeps that resource within the system to be used again and again. Every re-use is a gain and yield. It’s how you look at a resource.
Making a long narrow ditch in an otherwise useless space, then filling it with rotting and useless firewood or tree branches, covering it with pulled up and unwanted sod where you are converting a yard to growing space, then covering that with a couple of feet of sheet mulching makes a wonderful fertile planting area. If you plant trees or bushes on the downhill side of the hillock (called a berm), the roots will reach into the rotting wood which retains water like a sponge once it breaks down somewhat, and you don’t have to water as much or at all because rainwater or runoff is captured in the ditch, held in by the wood fibers, and becomes accessible to the plant. This technique is called Huglekulture. It can make an otherwise unusable space, like on a steep hillside or barren space, usable. Thus it becomes another source of yield.
Every time you make use of a resource this is a yield. The idea is to make the most efficient use of all your resources.
If you can make a design more efficient for your own physical energies, this increases overall yield. If you don’t have to hand carry water but have a good drip system, or passively hold water in the soil such as above, this increases your personal yield. If you can place elements in most efficient locations so you don’t have to move around unnecessarily or too often this is more yield of your time and energy. If you make your beds tall enough that you don’t have to bend over too far or uncomfortably, you don’t exhaust yourself or strain your back, and can work longer hours, this increases yield. You get the picture.
Another style of planting to increase yield is what is called a ‘Food Forest’. This is like a super orchard. It makes use of all the vertical spaces in an area. Plants are positioned so they utilize the sunlight and aerial spaces most efficiently. This is done in 7 layers of types of plants. 1st are ground covers, 2nd herbaceous plants, 3rd small bushes, 4th, dwarf trees, 5th canopy tall trees, 6th vertical vines, 7th roots. Most of these plants will be perennial or self seeding which means continuous harvest with a minimum of human intervention. Basically they only need to be kept pruned where needed, mulched until falling leaves do the natural mulching, watered where needed from long lack of rain, and harvested once planted. When well planned a food forest can supply fruit and food, herbs and other useful plant material for many years, almost solid yield thereafter. Other yields from this can be a source of cuttings for new plants to sell or extend the food forest, basket making material from vines, many kinds of medicines from perennial herbs, and food for bees if you keep them.
One last wonderful yield is how we make our pathways. Between beds in the annual vegetable gardens and in the food forest areas, we use coarse wood chips delivered to us by the local electric company from their maintenance of through ways of high powered lines, cutting away overhanging branches and small trees growing along the lines. They have to get rid of these wood chips and deliver them free for the asking. We layer them about 4” thick for great pathways, keeping down the mud, and weeds. But after about 3 years they decompose into the most wonderful black compost.
We have a box made from 2x4s the size of the top of our wheel barrow that fits over it neatly, covered on the bottom with ¼” hardware cloth (welded wire mesh). We shovel the pathway dirt onto it, and work it through the mesh. What is still un-decomposed we put back onto the path with additional new wood chips, and the black compost we mix with other ingredients and add back into the beds. This yields bushels of the best organic matter compost you can’t even find in the nurseries. And it’s free for the cost of some labor.
We save seeds every year from the plants of the last season and sell them or use them to replant. We collect and process the native plants that have medicinal value and make our own medicine and skin preparations. We dehydrate our own culinary herbs and peppers for spice and sell or use them. We collect rain water. We collect vines both planted and native and make baskets. All of these things are yields.
I hope this gives you a new way to look at survival and sustainability. With a little ingenuity and some happy work, you can live quite well on very little money expenditure. And your footprint on the planet becomes very small while actually increasing the health of the land, while increasing your health and well being, and the well being of the native life forms around you, because you aren’t poisoning them too.
One of the hidden yields to using these techniques is the fact that we forward our wonderful heirloom plants through time, and protect and foster the wild plants, animals, bugs and micro-organisms in our soil. We need our wild life forms because they form a web of life of nature itself. We never know when we will need a wild living thing to save us in future need. Bless the wild things.
Diann Dirks 9-4-19
Here is an excellent article about succession planting from our friends at Pinetree Seed Company https://www.superseeds.com/blogs/know-your-roots/succession-gardening-planting?fbclid=IwAR3WmqyospGyRsnN_V3jpDMbA0ixgbPmN53Mr2MTblS3vHhi3-GrsWYwEyc
* Permaculture Design – a scientific system of environmental design and useage based on an ethic: care of the earth, care of people, equitable use of the abundance thus provided from “permanent agriculture” which is based on natural law in the form of 23 precepts – founded by environmentalist and visionary Bill Mollison in Australia