Tag Archives: Soil

A Brief Guide to 13 Common Garden Mulches

A Brief Guide to 13 Common MulchesYou don’t have to read many gardening books or websites to catch on that mulch is highly recommended for all gardens. But knowing that you ought to mulch your garden and deciding what to mulch it with are two different things.

First off, it is important to recognize that everyone’s circumstances are unique. Factors that will affect your choice of a mulch include:

  • Your purpose for mulching.
  • The types of plants you will mulch.
  • The materials available in your area.
  • The cost of the different local materials.

Therefore, it is a good idea to know going in exactly what you are trying to accomplish, whether that is weed control or soil improvement.

Once you have a clear objective for mulching, then it’s time to choose the material, or perhaps several materials for different beds and purposes.

You are ready to weigh the pros and cons of the most common mulch materials.

Straw

Straw and hay are not the same. Straw is simply crop stubble, while hay is the entire grass plant, including seed heads. Straw is an effective weed barrier, while hay is primarily a simple mechanism for introducing a host of new weeds to your garden. Make sure you mulch with straw, not hay.

Pros:

  • Readily available.
  • Generally cheap.
  • Generally attractive.
  • Controls weeds well if applied thick enough.
  • Protects plants from frost.
  • Cools the soil in hot weather.
  • Improves soil texture.
  • Retains soil moisture extremely well.
  • Prevents soil erosion.
  • Decomposes slowly.

Cons:

  • Attracts rodents.
  • May attract slugs in cool, wet climates.
  • May contain weed seeds.
  • May contain mold.

Best Application: General-purpose vegetable garden mulching, summer through winter.

Lawn Clippings

Lawn clippings should be used with care. They should be applied only when dry and preferably in conjunction with coarser materials to avoid forming a heavy, moldy, anaerobic mat. Also, if accepting bagged lawn clippings from other people, always check to make sure that they do not use herbicides, as accidental contamination can spell speedy death to your flowers and vegetables.

Pros:

  • Readily available for free.
  • Adds nitrogen to the soil.
  • Controls weeds well provided it does not contain weed seed.
  • Conserves soil moisture.

Cons:

  • May be contaminated with herbicides and other chemicals.
  • May contain weed seed.
  • Molds readily if applied too thickly or when damp.
  • May produce odor if applied too thickly or when damp.
  • Forms a water-repellent mat if applied when damp.
  • Decomposes extremely quickly.

Best Application: Mulching summer vegetables with high nitrogen requirements.

A Brief Guide to 13 Common Garden MulchesLeaves

Leaves can improve your soil texture and nutrient profile in an amazingly short amount of time. Unfortunately, they can also be difficult to manage in the garden, as they blow away when dry and form heavy, waterproof mats when wet. Want to avoid some of the problems associated with using leaves as mulch? Shred or partially compost the leaves before applying them. As a final word of warning—do not use walnut leaves, as they are toxic to many plants.

Pros:

  • Readily available for free.
  • Protects plants from frost.
  • Cools the soil in summer.
  • Retains soil moisture very well.
  • Improves soil texture.
  • Adds many nutrients to the soil.
  • Promotes earthworm health.

Cons:

  • Tends to blow away.
  • May contain plant diseases, depending on the source.
  • May form a water-repellent mat after rainfall.
  • May deplete soil nitrogen in the short term unless partially composted.

Best Application: Protecting and enriching vegetable garden soil over the winter.

Pine Straw/Needles

Pine straw is just pine needles used for mulch.

Pros:

  • Free or cheap.
  • Attractive.
  • Controls weeds effectively.
  • Improves soil texture and drainage.
  • Prevents soil erosion.
  • Permits water penetration.
  • Decomposes slowly.

Cons:

  • Painful to handle—wear gloves.
  • Makes soil too acidic for many plants.
  • Inhibits earthworm activity.

Best Application: Mulching acid-loving plants such as blueberries, hydrangeas, or rhododendrons.

Wood Chips or Bark

There are many varieties of wood mulch to choose from, all with their own unique benefits. Cedar even provides a certain level of protection from insects. Just watch out for toxins—if you purchase your wood mulch, stay away from mulches containing dyes. Also, never use black walnut, as it contains toxins lethal to many garden plants.

Pros:

  • Readily available, sometimes for free.
  • Attractive.
  • Controls weeds effectively.
  • Retains soil moisture fairly well.
  • Adds nutrients to the soil in the long term.
  • Decomposes very slowly.

Cons:

  • Sometimes contains dyes.
  • May float away during heavy rainfalls.
  • Depletes soil nitrogen in the short term.

Best Application: Ground cover for perennial beds.

A Brief Guide to 13 Common Garden MulchesCompost

Don’t have your own compost pile? You can purchase bagged compost at garden centers, but commercial compost is typically made with only a couple of ingredients and is thus less balanced than homemade compost.

Pros:

  • Can be made at home for free.
  • Improves soil texture considerably.
  • Provides valuable soil nutrients.
  • Builds the soil microbe community.

Cons:

  • May contain plant diseases unless produced using the hot composting method.
  • Provides only partial weed control.
  • Breaks down quickly.

Best Application: Feeding garden plants of all types under another mulch material.

Peat/Sphagnum Moss

Peat moss is harvested from peat bogs. It has some unusual characteristics that can be either good or bad depending on your requirements. For one thing, it can absorb water like a sponge, which improves boggy soil considerably but may allow plants to dry out in hot, droughty weather. For another thing, it makes the soil more acidic, although typically not enough to present a problem.

Pros:

  • Readily available.
  • Improves soil texture and drainage considerably.
  • Decomposes very slowly.

Cons:

  • Prone to blowing away if dry.
  • Provides no soil nutrients.
  • May hinder water penetration if applied too thickly.

Best Application: Improving heavy soils that drain poorly.

Sawdust

If you do plenty of woodworking, sawdust is definitely a mulch you should consider. Just be careful about what sawdust you use—dust from treated lumber can add toxins to your soil.

Pros:

  • Can be obtained for free.
  • Controls weeds well if applied thickly enough.

Cons:

  • Forms a water-repellent crust after a rain.
  • May make the soil too acidic for some plants.
  • May deplete soil nitrogen levels.
  • Breaks down quickly.

Best Application: Mulching acid-loving plants for cheap.

Cardboard

Cardboard is the go-to mulch if you have a serious weed problem—nothing can penetrate it! Keep in mind, though, that cardboard can be a pain to deal with. You will want large sheets to cover as much surface area as possible without leaving cracks for weeds to grow through, and you will want to cover it with straw to keep it in place but out of sight.

Pros:

  • Readily available, often for free.
  • Controls weeds extremely effectively.

Cons:

  • Extremely unattractive unless completely covered by another mulch material.
  • Makes it impossible to add new plants without removing the mulch.
  • May cause boron toxicity due to glue; soak in water before using, then discard water (or use it as a fertilizer for strawberries).

Best Application: Putting the brakes on heavy weed infestations in perennial beds when used in combination with another mulch material.

Newspaper

While many gardeners avoid mulching with newspaper for fear of lead contamination, newspapers phased out lead-based inks long ago. Black-and-white newsprint is perfectly safe for the garden these days; colored inks may still contain some heavy metals. Note that newspaper is prone to blowing around. Cover it with another mulch, such as straw or wood chips, to avoid inadvertently trashing the neighborhood.

Pros:

  • Readily available.
  • Cools the soil in summer.
  • Controls weeds effectively.

Cons:

  • Hard to keep in place.
  • Very unattractive unless thoroughly covered.
  • May contain heavy metals if colored ink was used.

Best Application: Preventing weed growth between rows in a vegetable garden when combined with straw or another mulch material.

Pea Gravel and Crushed Rock

A rock mulch is about as permanent as it gets, and it can be very attractive in landscaping. Keep in mind, however, that rock works best with heat-loving plants. It is a popular choice of mulch in cactus gardens.

Pros:

  • Fairly cheap.
  • Attractive if done well.
  • Allows water penetration.
  • Lasts a very long time.

Cons:

  • Will scatter unless contained with edging.
  • Provides no nutrients to the soil.
  • Makes improving the soil underneath impossible.
  • Provides only partial weed control.
  • Makes pulling weeds that penetrate the mulch more difficult.
  • Cooks shallow-rooted plants in hot weather.

Best Application: Around woody perennials or in desert landscaping.

A Brief Guide to 13 Common Garden MulchesPlastic

Plastic mulches come in several different colors. Black plastic is effective at warming the soil. Clear plastic warms the soil even faster, but has the disadvantage of permitting weed growth. Red plastic reflects certain wavelengths of sunlight onto the plants, enhancing the yields of tomatoes and other summer vegetables. Whatever type of plastic you use, remember that rain cannot penetrate to the soil, so you will need to combine the plastic with soaker hoses or a similar form of irrigation.

Pros:

  • Readily available.
  • Warms the soil by 5 to 20 degrees, depending on the color.
  • Makes an effective weed barrier, depending on the color.
  • Retains moisture extremely well.
  • Increases the yield of heat-loving crops like tomatoes and peppers.

Cons:

  • Will blow away unless weighted down.
  • Provides no nutrients to the soil.
  • Makes improving the soil underneath difficult.
  • Prevents water penetration.
  • Overheats the soil in hot weather.
  • Creates an anaerobic environment toxic to plants.
  • Becomes brittle when exposed to sunlight unless covered with another mulch material.

Best Application: Warming the soil in the spring, particularly around warm-season vegetables.

Landscape Fabric (Geotextile)

Landscape fabric should be covered with another mulch material for both looks and longevity. Keep in mind that some weeds can grow through the fabric.

Pros:

  • Permits air and water to enter the soil.
  • Suppresses most (but not all) weeds.
  • Lasts many years if protected with rocks or wood chips.

Cons:

  • Expensive.
  • Makes adding new plants to the landscape more difficult.
  • Makes pulling weeds that penetrate the fabric more difficult.
  • Inhibits earthworm activity.

Best Application: Around landscaping perennials.

Black Gold Organic Potting Soil

Black Gold Organic Potting SoilFor whatever reason, finding quality potting soil is very difficult anymore. Most brands seem to harbor diseases, weed seeds, and bug eggs. And the nonstandard brands frequently appear to be nothing more than poor-quality topsoil dug up from the “manufacturer’s” backyard!

In light of this dilemma, we currently recommend Black Gold organic potting soil. Not just because it is organic (although that is certainly a plus), but primarily because several years of use have yielded satisfactory results in the form of healthy plants without unexpected weeds or small swarms of gnats flying around the seedlings.

Peat moss and forest humus provide a light, loose texture that works well for starting seedlings indoors. Compost and screened earthworm castings add just a little bit of all-natural nitrogen for a good start (of course, potted plants will still need to be fed periodically).

Shop around a bit before you buy—the prices do fluctuate and sometimes (but not always) a bigger size is a better bargain.

2019 Reading Challenge: Sustainable Agriculture

2019 Reading Challenge: Sustainable AgricultureStart 2019 right with some fresh inspiration! Try a reading challenge!

This year’s theme is sustainable agriculture. To complete the challenge, all you have to do is read 12 books, one from each of the categories listed below, by the end of the year. If you can read an average of one book per month, this should be no problem.

The categories are:

  1. A book published by SARE (Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program).
  2. A book written by Joel Salatin.
  3. A book about soil health.
  4. A book about sustainable practices written prior to 1950.
  5. A book about sustainable agriculture published in 2019.
  6. A book with the word organic in the title.
  7. A book about composting.
  8. A book about real food.
  9. A book about agripreneurship.
  10. A book about environmentally friendly farming.
  11. A book about natural pest control.
  12. A book about rotational grazing methods.

A few rules:

  • Books in electronic formats count.
  • Both fiction and nonfiction books count.
  • You can read the books in any order.
  • Books cannot be counted twice, even if they fit into more than one category.

Need some help finding the books? Check out The Homestead Bookshelf to browse our favorite titles. Then sign up for On the Range, your free weekly country living update (learn more here). At the end of every month, we’ll suggest a book for one of the categories.

Let us know what you decide to read! We’d love to hear from you!

What is Vermicompost?

What is Vermicompost?Vermicomposting is the process of creating compost with the aid of earthworms. While all composting relies on microbes to do much of the work, vermicomposting allows worms to come to their assistance.

The worm starts the composting process by ingesting organic matter and breaking it down with digestive enzymes. However, the digestive system of an earthworm is rather inefficient, only absorbing about 5% to 10% of the food the worm eats. This is good news for vermicompost, because the rest of the organic matter, now moistened and considerably broken down, is excreted and offers a rich buffet for hungry microbes.

Note that vermicompost and worm castings are not the the same. Worm castings are simply the excrement of the earthworm. Vermicompost includes worm castings, but also worm bedding, food, and remains in various stages of decomposition, all supporting a vibrant community of microbes.

 

How Vermicompost is Made

Vermicompost is typically made in a “worm bin” filled with bedding (usually shredded paper) and organic material for the worms to eat. A suitable worm habitat is further created by keeping the bin dark and moist.

Two worm species are typically used:

  • Red wiggler (Eisensia fetida).
  • Red worm (Lumbricus rebellus).

The red wiggler is particularly popular because it is easy to care for and produces castings quickly and efficiently.

Of course, you can theoretically dig up any old earthworms in your backyard to populate the worm bin, but there is no guarantee that you will find effective compost-building species this way. A surefire solution is to order red wigglers online.

Finished vermicompost looks very much like high-quality soil, but it is incredibly rich in microbes.

 

Feed the Worms

Most kitchen scraps and waste paper products make good worm food. However, you will want to avoid anything that produces a foul odor, especially if your worm bins are indoors. That includes meats, oils, dairy products, onions, garlic, potatoes, and anything in the mustard family, such as broccoli. Also note that worms are not a replacement for the neighborhood recycling facility—they cannot process plastic or aluminum.

 

Benefits of Vermicompost

  • Quick and easy. Vermicomposting does not require the precision or labor that hot composting requires to turn out a successful batch. And it has a distinct advantage over cold composting methods—it’s quick!
  • Year-round composting. Worm bins can be kept inside in the winter, allowing you to make compost for use first thing in the spring.
  • High in beneficial soil microbes. Microbes thrive where worms work, and they are particularly abundant in worm castings. Adding vermicompost to depleted soils can yield dramatic results in garden health.
  • All the benefits of organic matter. Soil that has been amended with vermicompost will not dry out quite so quickly in the hot summer sun, and it has improved texture and nutrient content. (Note that this is true of all forms of composting.)
  • A good use for kitchen scraps. Well-fed worms will repay you by improving your garden soil, which in turn will bring more (and healthier) produce into your kitchen.

 

Some Drawbacks

  • Expense. Remember, you will only have reliable results with certain worm species. This means you will likely have to buy worms, adding to your gardening costs. (You will also need to purchase a bin the first time out.)
  • Small quantities. Regular composting methods can produce more compost much quicker than earthworms can. You will want to use your vermicompost selectively to feed the plants that need it the most.

 

Making the Most of Vermicompost

Vermicompost is equally suited to trees, vegetables, flowers, and potted plants.

Because vermicompost is made in relatively small quantities, gardeners will want to use it wisely. A good rule of thumb is to use it to fuel rapidly growing plants.

The best place to apply vermicompost is around the drip line of the plant. Imagine a circle on the ground around the plant roughly marking its circumference. This circle is called the drip line because, if you were to spray the plant with water, this is where the water would drip off of the leaves. Many hungry roots are waiting just below the drip line. Spread the vermicompost on top of the soil along the drip line.

So will vermicomposting meet your needs? Likely not if you have a large garden. For a small garden (or for a good hands-on science project), however, it can be a quick way to improve poor soil.

C:N Ratios of Common Organic Materials

C:N Ratios of Common Organic MaterialsThe carbon-to-nitrogen (C:N) ratio is often considered to be of utmost importance in composting, particularly hot composting. If the C:N ratio is too high, the compost will break down extremely slowly. If the ratio is too low, the pile can produce a displeasing smell as excess nitrogen escapes into the atmosphere in the form of ammonia.

While many gardeners probably obsess over C:N more than is strictly necessary (and those who use cold composting methods typically do not need to worry about it at all), attention to the C:N ratio of your compost pile can keep it working smoothly and quickly. And it may be useful for troubleshooting!

Experts disagree on the optimal C:N ratio, but most scientific literature typically recommends something between 25:1 and 30:1. Higher ratios are fine if a slow composting process is acceptable.

 

The C:N Ratio List

Here’s a list of the average C:N ratios of common compost ingredients, pulled from a variety of sources:

  • Swine manure: 6:1.
  • Aged chicken manure: 7:1.
  • Hairy vetch: 11:1.
  • Fresh-cut alfalfa: 12:1.
  • Table/kitchen scraps: 15:1.
  • Used poultry bedding: 15:1.
  • Fresh cattle manure: 15:1.
  • Sheep manure: 15:1.
  • Legume hay: 17:1.
  • Fresh grass clippings: 20:1.
  • Coffee grounds: 20:1.
  • Clover: 23:1.
  • Horse manure: 25:1.
  • Vegetable scraps: 25:1.
  • Mature alfalfa hay: 25:1.
  • Wood ashes: 25:1.
  • Rye cover crop in a vegetative state: 26:1.
  • Freshly pulled weeds: 30:1.
  • Garden waste: 30:1.
  • Used horse bedding: 45:1.
  • Peat moss: 60:1.
  • Leaves: 60:1.
  • Fresh corn stalks: 60:1.
  • Oat straw: 70:1.
  • Wheat straw: 80:1.
  • Pine needles: 80:1.
  • Rye straw: 82:1.
  • Shredded newspaper: 175:1.
  • Hardwood bark: 223:1.
  • Sawdust: 325:1.
  • Shredded cardboard: 350:1.
  • Wood chips: 400:1.
  • Softwood bark: 496:1.

 

Using C:N Ratios

Gardeners often simplify matters by thinking in terms of color—materials with a C:N ratio higher than 30:1 are browns, and materials with a ratio lower than 30:1 are greens. (Note that high-nitrogen materials can actually be brown in color and vice versa.) However, a compost pile that has a ratio of 30 parts brown material to 1 part green material actually has a disproportionately high amount of bulky carbon. If you are using browns:greens instead of C:N, you will want to use the ratio 1:1 or even 1:2, both of which take bulk into consideration.

Do the math to see why 1:2 works. Let’s say we’ve chosen to use one part leaves for our brown and two parts fresh grass clippings for greens:

  1. Add the ratios of each part (60:1 + 20:1 + 20:1 = 100:3).
  2. Reduce the fraction to find the C:N ratio of the mixture (100:3 = 33:1).

This C:N ratio is slightly on the high side, but with patience should come out just fine. The mathematics will work on any other combinations of ingredients we choose to evaluate.

Also of interest is how the C:N ratio applies to plant residues left on the surface of the ground to protect the soil. The same 25:1–30:1 rule applies. If the ratio is lower, soil microbes will eat up all of the available carbon too quickly and leave the soil bare. If the ratio is higher, the microbes take a long time to eat up the high-carbon materials, leaving a great deal of chunky debris in the soil. Furthermore, the microbes will need to absorb more nitrogen to balance their diet, and this will have to come from the soil—leaving less nitrogen available for growing plants.

The practical implications? Often the best cover crop is a blend of high-carbon grains and high-nitrogen legumes. This mix, highly favored among organic gardeners, works because it keeps the C:N ratio close to optimal.

The C:N ratio will also affect the mulch you use. Wood mulches are attractive in ornamental gardens, but they pull a great deal of nitrogen out of the soil to balance out their high carbon levels—not good for growing sweet corn. For a vegetable garden, something a little closer to the optimal C:N ratio will foster healthier plants.

What is Permaculture?

What is Permaculture?As you enter the field of sustainable agriculture, one term you will come into frequent contact with is permaculture. Permaculture is a very complex, systems-oriented topic and is thus difficult to summarize without leaving out any pertinent information. This discussion is intended to be merely an introduction.

In short, permaculture seeks to imitate natural systems and take a holistic approach to sustainable living and growing food. This emphasis on natural design results in a system that can be modified and applied anywhere around the globe (thus its appeal to urban gardeners). No design element is emphasized more than another because the key lies in the interaction of elements. In other words, the whole is larger than the sum of the parts.

The word permaculture was originally a portmanteau word combining permanent and agriculture. It is now considered a combination of permanent and culture, reflecting an expansion of the system into all aspects of society.

Note that, while permaculture is usually organic in nature, it is much more than simply growing things without chemicals. What is typically regarded as “organic farming” is often a prime example of a focus on one part of the system to the exclusion of all others.

A Little Background

The roots of permaculture go back as far as interest in sustainable farming practices. The term itself, however, originated from the subtitle of a 1929 book by Joseph Russell Smith, Tree Crops: A Permanent Agriculture. The concept of forestry agriculture sparked interest among those seeking ways of making farming sustainable.

Besides forestry agriculture, other ideas and systems from the early and mid-1900s that may have influenced the various renditions of permaculture include:

In the late 1960s, Australian scientist Bill Mollison and his student David Holmgren began their observations of the rise of industrial agriculture and its consequences. A brief examination of the loss of biodiversity, topsoil, and water quality associated with commercial farming convinced them that a more sustainable system needed to be developed. As a wildlife biologist, Mollison was particularly disturbed by the effect farming was having on natural ecosystems. However, he quickly came to the conclusion that he wanted to respond with a positive solution rather than impotent rage. The result was the term permaculture (coined in the mid-1970s by the scientific duo) and the system it represented.

Permaculture has continued to evolve since its creation. One of the earliest changes came in the 1980s, when the focus shifted from farming specifically to society as a whole.

Permaculture is now popular among sustainable farmers across the world. Elements of permaculture design have influenced many more farmers who do not adhere dogmatically to any particular theory (e.g., Joel Salatin).

The Three Core Tenets or Ethics

  1. Earth care. This implies provision for all forms of life. The idea is that a healthier earth will better enable humans to thrive. This first tenet of permaculture trickles down into all aspects of the system. While permaculture recognizes that not everyone is in a position to grow all of their own food, it does require that all choose to make purchases that are compatible with a healthy environment.
  2. People care. This implies that all people should have access to the resources necessary for life. Enjoyable lifestyles free from tedium are also a priority. Permaculture emphasizes that all people have value and should be treated with respect. It also encourages strong community ties, fostered by local trade.
  3. Fair share. This implies that no one should take more than they need from the system and that all should return what they do not need back to the system. Permaculturists tend to view the third tenet as the antithesis of the industrial model.

The 12 Principles of Design

  1. Observe and interact. Food systems truly customized to our unique circumstances cannot be achieved without observing how nature works. This demands that the farmer slow down and take time to think, rather than constantly rush from one to-do to the next.
  2. Catch and store energy. Surplus energy should be harvested and stored for times of need, whatever form it takes. Solar energy can be captured in a cold frame or greenhouse. Water energy running out the downspout can be stored in barrels or cisterns. Nutrient energy in the form of surplus animal manure can be conserved in the form of compost.
  3. Obtain a yield. Work without an adequate return is a waste. Permaculturists fully expect to eat the fruits of their labor. They may even trade or sell the surplus. They also tend to expect a harvest of intangibles, such as satisfaction with their work.
  4. Apply self-regulation and accept feedback. No one escapes responsibility for their own actions.
  5. Use and value renewable resources and services. Examples of this principle include saving seeds, growing mostly perennial plants, and building a house out of local natural materials.
  6. Produce no waste. Permaculturists are often advocates of recycling and composting everything from paper to dinner scraps to household wastewater. They are also big fans of labor efficiency—the system is typically designed with a view to letting ecosystems sustain themselves with as little effort as possible.
  7. Design from patterns to details. Stepping back and observing patterns and interactions comes first in permaculture. The details can be filled in as necessary.
  8. Integrate rather than segregate. Permitting interactions between different parts of the system promotes sustainability. Permaculture seeks to build “guilds” of symbiotic plants and animals rather than a patchwork of “vegetables here, chickens there, and corn field over yonder.”
  9. Use small and slow solutions. The bigger the design, the more inputs it will require to keep it running. This principle precludes allowing huge multinational corporations to handle the world’s food supply (even the world’s organic food supply).
  10. Use and value diversity. Diverse food systems are less likely to collapse under pressure than monocultures. Furthermore, diversity within the system maximizes efficiency. Diversity is reflected in the emphasis of permaculture on layers of food production. For example, a tree canopy will be supplemented with an understory layer of smaller shade-loving trees followed by a layer of shrubs such as berry bushes. No permaculture system can ever be labeled “cash crop farm,” “poultry farm,” “pig farm,” etc.
  11. Use edges and value the marginal. Permaculture practitioners believe that the transition zone from one ecosystem to another is often the most productive part of either ecosystem. This principle is utilized by maximizing the area devoted to edges and borders. For example, a pond might be constructed with a meandering shoreline to increase the amount of area devoted to the transition zone between land and water.
  12. Creatively use and respond to change. In fact, despite its emphasis on “permanent,” permaculture allows for relatively little permanence, mimicking nature’s pattern of ecological succession. Livestock is rotated, crops are rotated, etc. Even fruit tree plantings are mixed up, with different species and varieties intermingled.

The Benefits

Permaculture advocates often list the following benefits of their system:

  • Innovation.
  • Better quality of life for the farmer due to increased variety and lowered risk of crop failure.
  • Beautiful natural landscapes.
  • Adaptability to any environment, even an urban backyard.
  • Inexpensive production.
  • Reduced labor requirements.

The Challenges

It has been noted that a permaculture system is only as good as the designer. Because permaculture is inexorably founded on ethics and observation, the whole system breaks down in the hands of the unethical and the unobservant. The permaculturist must be willing to continually learn, grow, and plan.

Permaculture and agroforestry are not inherently synonymous (although one might think so reading some descriptions of permaculture systems). Permaculture is, by design, adaptable to any ecosystem. But the heavy emphasis on creating forests may present a challenge to those seeking knowledge on practicing permaculture in native grassland environments. Building a grass-based permaculture system will require particularly close attention to nature and some dedicated research.

And, of course, conventional agriculturalists argue that permaculture cannot match the yields of modern farming methods. But they are not the only ones. Some biologists also note that the natural forests permaculturists seek to mimic are not capable of feeding the world—in fact, that is why humans developed agriculture.

Again, this post is merely an introduction to a complex topic. Permaculture is an involved subject in and of itself; plus it takes on a variety of forms as it is adapted to varying circumstances. Farmers of all stripes and beliefs use permaculture, and the system tends to reflect their different values. If you are interested in permaculture, take the time to search for a presentation that will fit with your values, as well as your natural ecosystem.

Helpful Resource

You Can FarmYou Can Farm
This book from Joel Salatin is an excellent demonstration of permaculture-influenced agripreneurship. Read our full review.

11 Applications for an Agricultural Interest Besides Farming

11 Applications for an Agricultural Interest Besides FarmingRunning a farm or ranch is not the only way to cash in on your agricultural interest. These days, there are plenty of fields where a knowledge of agriculture and agricultural sciences can be a plus, and where you will have an opportunity to aid those who have chosen to work the land.

Here are a few ideas:

  • Veterinary medicine. Practitioners experienced with livestock work closely with most large farms and many smaller ones, as well.
  • Inspections. Inspectors ensure that USDA and FDA regulations are enforced. Some work in laboratories, others in processing facilities.
  • Scientific research. Science and farming go hand in hand. The points at which agriculture and science intersect are too many to list here, but just to give you an idea:
    • Soil science, the study of the soil and its management and conservation as it relates to farming.
    • Botany, the study of plants of all types. Botanists may research anything from breeding crops for hardiness to the conservation of native species to new food, fiber, and medicinal uses for familiar plants.
    • Plant biology, the study of how plants work, particularly from a genetic perspective. Plant biology differs from botany in that the former seeks information in the lab while the latter seeks information in the field.
    • Animal sciences, a broad field covering the standard American livestock species plus other farm animals kept around the world. Animal scientists can focus their attention on subcategories including physiology, livestock management, nutrition, breeding/genetics, and diseases.
    • Food science, the study of and experimentation with food ingredients and processing techniques with a view to improving food products.
  • Agricultural engineering. Not the same as genetic engineering. This field involves designing logistical solutions to farming problems and needs. Machinery design is a major focus of agricultural engineering, but some engineers work with livestock housing, processing plants, food storage facilities, dams and reservoirs, or even water quality solutions to minimize pollution.
  • Historical scholarship. Some historians pin their focus on agriculture and rural living, preserving and interpreting the past of farming to aid us in understanding its present and future.
  • Agricultural economists. The study of all aspects of agribusiness, including management, law, policy, and rural sociology.
  • Agricultural meteorology. A specific branch of meteorology that connects weather events with their effects on crops and livestock. Agricultural meteorologists forecast crop yields, animal performance, and enterprise risk.
  • Agricultural communications. This field covers a wide array of talent from PR, advertising, and marketing experts to those who write about farming-related topics in magazines and newspapers.
  • Extension. Extension services provide much of the information beginning farmers rely on to get started.
  • Accounting. Many farms hire accountants and bookkeepers to make sense of those tangled numbers.
  • Trucking and heavy equipment operation. These people do everything from transport food to operate hay balers.

Pros and Cons of No-Dig Gardening

Pros and Cons of No-Dig GardeningAre you looking for new ways to improve your garden soil faster? Have you thought about ditching the rototiller?

No-dig gardening, no-till farming’s little brother, offers an exciting way to improve soil with less labor of the back-breaking variety. It also presents a far more natural way to garden—after all, Nature doesn’t own too many rototillers.

Are there pitfalls? The answer is yes. Even so, no-dig gardening may be right for your garden.

Let’s look at the pros and cons to determine the situations where no-dig gardening will be most effective.

Pros

  • Easier on the back. Digging and tilling are hard work. Eliminating those two steps is a great choice for gardeners who are elderly, have back problems, or are a little bit lazy. Add a raised bed or planter to bring the plants up to knee or waist level for even more comfortable gardening.
  • No damage done to soil life. Rototillers tend to disrupt the lives of beneficial bacteria, fungi, and earthworms as they work. While these soil communities will recover before the season ends in organic gardens, the traumatic event is a setback to their work. No-dig gardening fosters life in the soil without interruption.
  • Reduced soil compaction. This one may come as a surprise to you. After all, tillage is supposed to be the way to loosen up the soil in the spring. However, at the farthest depth that the blades can reach, they actually stop turning the soil and start packing it down. If tilling continues at the same depth every year, the soil immediately below the tillage zone turns into hardpan. No-dig gardens will not suffer from compaction as long as the soil health is properly attended to and clearly defined footpaths are provided to avoid trampling the soil.
  • Soil aeration. No-dig gardening is precisely how plants thrive in nature. No wide-scale tillage and subsequent exposure of bare dirt occurs. Organic matter such as fallen leaves and dead grass lies on top of the soil and decomposes over time. Why is having the organic material on the surface important? Because it encourages earthworms to come up from beneath to reach the material, and worm tunnels promote soil aeration.
  • Better use of rainfall. Tillage leaves large areas of bare soil exposed to the sun, wind, and driving rain. The combined action of the baking, the evaporation, and the pounding results in soil with a hard crust on top. This crust in turn prevents rainfall from readily soaking down to the roots. Soil that has not been tilled stays friable, and the layer of mulch on top further aids in the capture of moisture.
  • Fewer weeds. Tillage brings weed seeds up to the surface of the ground to germinate. This can be used to advantage by tilling repeatedly during the same season, allowing several weed crops to germinate only to meet their demise at the hands of the rotating blades. Unfortunately, a lapse in the tillage routine can create a disaster. No-dig gardening keeps piling layers of soil and mulch on top of the weed seed bank, preventing it from ever sprouting and smothering the few weeds persistent enough to attempt germination. Unless you are introducing new seeds from an outside source, you will end up with fewer and fewer weeds the longer you no-dig.
  • Fewer pests. Another counterintuitive effect of no-dig gardening. Tillage is often recommended to expose insect eggs and larvae to the elements (and any helpful chickens that happen to be around). But many gardeners feel that, when done with an eye toward soil health, no-dig gardening seems to attract fewer of the bad bugs, probably because the plants are far healthier overall and have more stable connections with soil lifeforms that offer protection from attack. (The only exception is slugs, as we will see in a moment.)

Cons

  • Scale limitations. No-dig gardening implies the use of mulch and compost. Unless you have the ability to produce industrial quantities of these two ingredients, no-dig gardening will be nearly impossible in a large garden. Going no-dig works best in combination with intensive gardening methods such as square foot gardening.
  • Difficulties with starting in seriously compacted soil. For example, former driveways. Ideally, you will choose a different site for your garden and avoid this problem altogether. If this is not an option, you will probably need to till at least once, likely more than once. The good news is that in this case you will not disrupt the soil community since the odds are pretty high that there isn’t one. (Do not be fooled by naturally clay soils that have not been abused; these are still often quite suitable for no-dig gardening with some care.)
  • Need for designated pathways. No-dig gardening makes it doubly important that people and animals do not traipse through the beds. This can be hard to prevent in some garden plots. If this is your problem, consider a raised bed.
  • The need for plenty of mulch. With no-dig gardening, mulch is absolutely essential to keep the soil healthy and the weeds in check. (The good news is that mulch is strongly recommended for any style of gardening anyway.)
  • Slower soil improvement process. Tilling in soil amendments can create perfect soil instantly. Building the soil layer by layer takes longer at first, although it promotes healthier soil structure in the long run.
  • Slugs. If you live in a wet climate, you will want to be careful with the types of mulch you use, as a stable layer of decomposing straw or grass will invite slugs to move in. This should not be an issue in dry climates.

Conclusion

Yes, no-dig gardening is a very natural way of building good soil. However, it requires an investment.

These two tips may make the transition easier for you:

  • Keep your garden small. Except for those who engage in serious canning, most gardeners can grow all the produce they need in a remarkably limited space provided they use it efficiently. Consider Mel Bartholomew’s advice from All New Square Foot Gardening—plan on 48 square feet for every adult and 27 square feet for every child in the family, the space to be evenly divided between salad vegetables, dinner vegetables, and vegetables for preserving, giving away, or trying out for the first time. A large no-dig garden is hopelessly unmanageable for most gardeners.
  • Consider using straw as your primary source of mulch. High-carbon mulches like wood chips and cardboard have to absorb a great deal of nitrogen from the soil to decompose, leaving less available for your plants and increasing the risk of insect pests, not to mention reducing your harvest. Straw breaks down much quicker, keeping nutrients available in the soil where they belong.