Preface-like paragraph: I have, over many years and with a lot of intention, slowly come to see the world around me as a sort of resource-scape, that is, as a world of potential resources. This can extend to people and ideas as well as physical objects and also phenomena of energy, like wind, or sun, or the action of an animal. Having made a pretty intense study of primitive technology as well as of other subsistence paradigms, I’ve been impressed deeply by the fact that different groups of people, given similar environments, or even the exact same environment, will do completely different things there and live very different lives. While we are guided by our environments, we are also very much guided by our cultural influences and what we know, or just as importantly what we think we know is and is not possible.
So? As a result of this perspective of resource consciousness, I tend to walk around constantly looking for unseen or undervalued potential that could be harnessed to make life better, more sustainable, or to make work more efficient and certainly a little just to keep myself entertained! While this view has resulted in way more ideas than I have energy to experiment with or turn into functional realities, having that view does serve me decently well sometimes. I’ve noticed in the garden that there are numerous resources that are underexploited and can be micromanaged into great usefulness. One of my main influences in this area is Farmers of Forty Centuries. It is a long, boring ass, pedantic book from the 40’s that is probably a good 100 pages longer than it needed to be. It is worth reading though for a few specific items of farming practice and, more importantly, the broader message of what can be done with resources that we might not even stop to think are useful in our modern society where views of work and resources are extremely skewed away from traditional ones. The picture painted by that book makes any western gardening I’ve ever seen seem absurdly sloppy and wasteful. We are spoiled, and that’s great in it’s way, but it blinds us to the potential around us when compared with the Asian cultures in that book who really had to figure out how to make use of every resource in the most efficient way they could come up with in order to survive their own high populations. Necessity is indeed the mother of invention. I just wanted to drop those general ideas on you before I start this specific story, because it’s somewhat relevant.
This way to geekage ---> There is a long path to get to the actual subject. But bear with me. The sights along the path set the context and this post isn’t actually just about one idea. There is an idea, but it could be summed up in a few paragraphs. But that idea evolved in a context which has specific real or perceived problems, and that context has other lessons and provides a framework for learning about the world we live in (or at least the one I live in!). And, there is more to glean than the end point idea, which after all is not an end point at all, but just part of a long evolution. It may be a good idea for me, while it may fail you utterly or be totally irrelevant to your life and work; but if we view it in a larger picture, we have more places to go from here and may find modifications, or other uses and ideas branching off of this one. So hang with me if you want to, or just go read the last couple of paragraphs.
The Pee era. I used urine as a fertilizer for over 10 years. At first I used it cautiously, but as my unfounded fears about the idea dissolved, it became the staple fertilizer. Suffice to say that it basically solved my fertilizing problems. A while back, doing farmer’s markets finally started to become a feasible reality. I can’t plan well enough to grow just how much I need, so there is always a lot of surplus, and it’s great to get something back for my work and prevent “waste”. But in order to start going to market, I had to stop using pee as a fertilizer for both ethical and presumably legal reasons, and so began a transition period.
Transition. Pee really had solved almost all of my fertilizing needs. The use of compost has always continued, but differently than I had used it up until moving to Turkeysong (more on that below). The compost is very useful as a fertilizer, but I in no way produced enough from kitchen and garden scraps here to keep everything in a large garden growing really well. Compost is an okay fertilizer, but rarely high enough in nitrogen to keep things really pushing vigorously through the season. Thus the pee. It was a semi-closed system and I learned a lot. But, with the new no pee garden, I now had a fertilizer problem. Chickens made a showing at a fortuitous time and there is now a thriving flock that is reproducing itself. They eat the food waste from the kitchen of a local hot springs resort along with whatever they can scratch up around the place. They poop a LOT! Most of it ends up all over the yard, and many times a day right on the door step. They are super poopers! Most of it dries up in the yard somewhere, but the new chicken coop has a screened false floor with a solid floor below that. So, the droppings, after falling through to the lower floor, which is well ventilated, dry out and can be accessed from both ends by scraping them out. It’s a pretty good system. No climbing into a crowded coop to awkwardly shovel out caked bedding from under the roost while breathing poo and feather dust. Yeah, right? Most people with chickens have been there and would rather not have been. Lately I’ve been feeding them their buckets of food scraps in the evening, so that they digest and poop all night in the coop. That’s the idea anyway.
Chicken Pee. So, I now have a fertilizer supply that I can use on my market garden. The chickens collect and concentrate nutrients into a reasonably convenient form and I can collect a bunch of it from the coop. Chickens are designed efficiently. They use the same hole for sex, egg laying, pooping and peeing, everything except eating and breathing. But of course they don’t actually pee at all. We pee out the vast majority of our nutrients, but with chickens it all comes out in one package. So, I really am still using pee, just dessicated chicken pee! I don’t have an endless supply, but I hope with careful use, and augmentation from other resources I have access to, I won’t have to import much of anything to keep the garden going; which would make me happy since I like to keep imports low. I’m also very hesitant to bring in manures from the outside as they almost inevitably have some seeds of weeds which I don’t yet have here in this somewhat remote location.
No dig, dig? Another part of this whole picture is that when I moved to Turkeysong, I also stopped regular digging of the garden beds. I quit digging because I was terrified of a small, root eating organism known as symphylans which had devastated my last garden. These little suckers are a true plague. Word on the street was that the best way to encourage the tiny centipede-like bastards was having high soil organic matter to feed them, along with a loose soil structure so they can move around easily. Well fuck me runnin’ backwards, those two things combined just happen to be the two holy grails of organic gardening dogma that I’d been trying to achieve for years! Take home point, I didn’t want to dig in tons of undigested organic matter anymore. I tried that in my last garden when I experimented with seriously adopting the bio-intensive method, which means lots of deep digging, and digging in lots of compost. It didn’t work out so well. The symphylans population exploded. It was also (biointensive propaganda notwithstanding) a ridiculous amount of work. Your mileage may vary.
The evils of soil crusting >:( Now this bit is really important to my story. Soil crusting has always been one of my major problems in gardening. When the soil structure is damaged by watering and cultivation, it crusts over when watered or rained on, sealing off the surface and preventing the exchange of air. Crusting also forms a barrier to water penetration making watering, inefficient and wasteful due to run off. Sometimes it seems to make watering almost impossible, yet the more you water, the more crusting occurs, drats! Furthermore, compacted soil is a pathway for water to travel up from below and be evaporated back into the atmosphere. It’s basically like a wick for removing water from the soil. These problems are really frustrating and have been an issue in virtually every soil I’ve worked with, from sandy loam to clay. Honestly, I’m surprised soil crusting doesn’t get more play. It is a key problem in gardening.
Organic matter my ass. One commonly proffered solution to crusting is to increase soil organic matter content. I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that’s bollocks. It’s not that it doesn’t work at all (you’ll see that it actually works for me presently), but I’ve never seen it work well when digging compost in, except when the organic matter content is quite high, which really entails digging in an enormous amount of compost... enter symphylans. That also usually means basically buying or composting a whole shit ton of something to build a soil that has a huge proportion of organic matter. Otherwise, whenever you dig the soil you pull up more low organic matter subsoil onto the bed surface, and you’re back to crusting. That’s my experience anyway. Also, exposing organic matter to oxygen allegedly increases oxidation ultimately lowering organic matter, so that's a losing battle.
Cultivation, is it really evil? The other solution to soil crusting is good old cultivation. That’s the typical solution and seems almost essential in large scale agriculture. Cultivation loosens the soil to break capillary action, stopping evaporation. It can also kill weeds and allow water to penetrate the surface. Problem is, the more you cultivate the more you smash the soil into fine particles (dust), destroying the structure, and the more easily it crusts again when watered. So, you just have to keep doing it. You ideally want the top 4to 6 inches or so of soil to be almost dust-like for the best moisture saving effect. Negative press aside, it’s not always the evil system it’s sometimes made out to be and has a place. I used regular cultivation the first year I was here and I was amazed at how far I could go between waterings if the soil was re-cultivated as soon a possible after watering and without fail. It was one of the best gardens I ever grew, though not just because of thorough cultivation. I’m not sure I’m done with cultivation gardening, and I just see it as a tool in the tool kit, though I have to admit, it seems somewhat less than friendly to the concept of soil building and probably a somewhat shoddy way to treat the land longterm.
Mulch is god! I knew I had to solve the problem of soil crusting, and if I didn’t want to cultivate extensively, that left mulch. Mulch is GOD! Right? Just ask Ruth Stout, or a young and enthusiastic mulcher. Get in with a real mulch enthusiast with limited experience, and you’d think all your problems will be solved forever and that we are all just a few bales of straw and some lawn clippings and leaves away from solving all the problems of horticulture and maybe beyond. Combine mulching with gogi berries, biochar, blue green algae, perennial vegetables, and ducks and there’s no stopping perfect plant and human health and “no work” food production! Ok, I’m being a dick, but we deserve it. It is so tempting to see something as having the real potential to just sort of “fix” everything. I know well enough, because I’ve been that eager inexperienced mulch promoter. Most of these fairytale happy ending stories we tell ourselves have at least a grain of truth, and often much to offer us if we can actually see, or more often after we inevitably see, through experience, the limitations and pitfalls that are not visible in the theoretical realm, and which we don’t really want to see anyway. Mulch is not god. It changes the landscape in ways that are often very useful to us and to the health of the soil. It’s effects are sometimes super awesome. I’m a big fan and semi-regular practitioner, but some of those changes can conflict with our food producing and land care goals. Creating habitat for voles and insects came to my mind as particular problems in considering deep mulching for my garden. It’s bad enough in any garden where there is always some habitat for insects. Deep coarse mulch can create a veritable pest metropolis from which an army of insects can march a whole few inches to chow down on your carrot seedlings, or in which voles can find the rodent equivalent of mcdonaldsplayland to move into, complete with a food supply... weee! I do use deep mulch, and what I might call semi-deep mulch, here and there, but experience had already taught me that if I used it in the entire garden, I would have considerable negative issues to deal with. That may vary by environment, but enough said there. I’d also be out collecting the stuff all the time, because it takes a ton of material to do deep mulches in a large garden. That reason alone is enough to scrap the idea. No thanks Ruth.
Works pretty good. My eventual solution, partly influenced by some no dig gardener/writers, was to use finished compost as a mulch. Since I would be composting food waste and garden stuff anyway, and didn’t want to dig it in, this seemed like a good solution. I’ve used all my compost on the surface of the beds for something like 6 or 7 years now. It works pretty good for me. I don’t have as much as I want. Each time I plant something new it gets a sprinkle of compost, usually almost enough to cover the bed surface visually, so under 1/2 inch thick. Some washes away with runoff when I water, and I still get quite a bit of crusting. But overall, for my system and my soil, gardening style, and so on... it’s been pretty good. I do have to cultivate some when crusting gets bad enough in an area (usually due to running short on compost, loss during watering, rodents helping me do some digging, or having had to dig the area recently for harvesting roots and weeding). I use a hula hoe (aka strap hoe, stirrup hoe, reciprocating hoe, scuffle hoe) for cultivating, generally trying to slice below the soil an inch or so leaving the top relatively undisturbed. I wish I had more compost, but I get by. I sift it through a half inch screen and throw all the big stuff back into the next batch. That puts a lot of half digested material on the beds, and I prefer it that way, because larger bits of stuff cover the soil better. I’m kind of bummed if the compost gets so finished that most of it is very fine and not recognizable as pieces of plants and stuff, because it doesn’t do the main job I need it to as well as it would if it was in bigger pieces, and it washes away more easily. I also sometimes use coffee grounds picked up at a coffee shop in town, which adds to the effect and contributes quite a bit of nitrogen.
Soil layers. The compost makes quite a difference in crusting. One thing I’ve noticed, is that since I don’t dig regularly, the organic matter stays in the top layer of soil. It doesn’t just stay on the surface. Worms come up and grab pieces pulling them underground. moles voles and gophers do plenty of digging for me and I have to plant, harvest and occasionally cultivate. But a lot of it stays in the top inch or two of soil. I’ve noticed that even when I do get crusting, it is not as bad as it could be, and is somehow still permeable to water and air relative to the crust that forms on a dug soil. That’s because this top layer is quite high in organic matter, which builds up over the years. This effect simulates a natural soil profile more closely than a cultivated soil does.
Artificial, but how artificial?But, a garden is not a natural environment! My symphylans problem in my previous garden highlighted that fact. What I am after is an artificial environment that can pump up the plants to realize the potential bred into them through the ages to grow plump and juicy. But, I want that effect, without upsetting the balance so much that I create some unintentional problem that is going to bite me in the ass (in a bad way ;). Mulching with compost seemed like a good solution. I really could use more of it. I’d like to make more compost. Materials are abundant. I live on 40 acres of mostly forest, and organic materials supply is not an issue! There is also plenty of seed-free green grass to collect in season. Any farmer out of that super boring book Farmers of Forty Centuries that I mentioned earlier would be appalled at the lack of use of the resources available to me. But alas, energy is in short supply and I do have other things I want to do, like compulsively writing blog posts for hours and hours. Besides, like I said, it works pretty good the way I’ve been doing it.
Chicken pee tea. So, were getting close to my simple, but really cool idea (close is relative). Since I don’t dig the garden beds (see footnote *) my options are to use my chicken manure on top of the beds, or use it as a tea. Both work well and have advantages, and I’m using both currently. I’ve been sifting the dry chicken manure and applying the fine siftings to the beds. That works nicely and contributes to the prevention of soil crusting, while building organic matter in the top layer of soil as long as I don't dig. As the bed is watered and bugs and worms and microbes do their work, the nutrients leach into the soil over time. Direct application has it’s advantages, but manure tea also has advantages. Being full of soluble nutrients, manure tea gives a quick boost when it’s wanted. It can also be applied very evenly for efficient use. Using soluble fertilizers in general provides the potential to keep plants growing strongly with regular applications through the growing season. Soluble v.s. non soluble fertilizers is a whole can of worms, but I like to use both and it works for me.
Tree mats. I make manure tea by soaking the poo in water and then straining it out. The tea is diluted and then applied straight to the beds/plants and usually watered in immediately. Applications of course stop some time before food is harvested. I usually leach the manure several times over the course of some weeks before it is pretty spent. When I’m done I have this wad of left over half digested manure. I used to throw it in the compost. I had an idea a while back. I’m not sure if it’s at all practical for home production, but I have no doubt that the actual product would be pretty awesome once made. The idea was to make a sort of paper mat out of manure and pulped up cardboard and other fiber stuff like that. It would be a large, thick, probably circular mat for mulching trees. You could incorporate all kinds of fertilizers and nutrients and nutrient containing stuff in there like seaweed, bone meal, etc, which would leach out and feed the tree over the years. It would also provide a moisture conserving mulch and eliminate competition for a few years if it was thick and durable enough, which would really be it's main use. It could be a good use for all that cardboard and paper filling dumpsters everywhere. Practical to make or not, I’m convinced that it would be completely awesome, solving a bunch of problems in one item and allowing the quick establishment of trees with very little work and in many cases without watering, even in our dry summers.
We made it! It occurred to me at some point that I could make tree matts with my manure left over from making tea, but of course it’s probably too involved to actually do here practically speaking. I would need an outboard motor or the like to mix it all up. Besides, there isn’t enough manure. So, I just mixed the chicken poo sludge with water to form a sort of slurry and dumped it out onto a bed. With a little watering, the half digested slurry spread out pretty evenly, forming a solid mat of slow release fertilizing mulch! It’s true that much of the nutriment has been leached out, but some remains too and much of it locked into the undissolved organic matter. This method covers the soil almost completely if applied generously enough. It drastically slows evaporation compared to a compost mulch only bed, but won’t wash off at all. It provides food for worms and other bug dudes who work near the soil surface, opening the soil texture to allow penetration of air and water. It feeds the plants slowly, and also initially through a dilute, but still very substantial manure tea effect. It of course protects the soil from crusting due to watering and rain. And, it provides organic matter as it breaks down into fine bits and is slowly incorporated into the top layer of the soil. It uses the product of a process that is already underway, so there is no “extra” preparation work except stirring. It is easy to apply. The effect is durable; it’s thick enough to provide a substantial effect, but not so thick as to make deep multilayered habitat for an army of insects; so, it seems a good compromise between creating bug habitat and thoroughly covering the soil. It just seems pretty awesome! It doesn’t work for everything. I don’t use it on small seedlings. I couldn’t use it on carrots because it would just bury them. But it works great for larger plants such as squash, tomatoes, peppers, cole crops etc... and it seems ideal for onions and leeks. Burning plants is a non issue since it is already pretty well leached by the time I’m using it. I’ve been playing with this a bit for a few years, but now that I have to use a lot of manure tea, and have a lot of manure, I have more of the slurry to use and have applied much more this year. I’m pretty sold on the idea, though still have an eye open to the possibility of unforeseen issues cropping up. I’ve also used horse manure, which worked great, maybe even better because of all the pieces of stringy fiber in it.
The beginning of the end. Like I said, this doesn’t have to be an end to the evolution of ideas. Our accumulating knowledge, our input from other people, our observations of all kinds of things, an ever deepening understanding of the habitat we live in and modify, an ever increasing awareness of the resources available to us and the idea that there are more that we haven’t yet recognized, and maybe most of all, an awareness of the utility and beauty of the potential that exists to combine all these things into functional systems, can all come together to form a foundation for success in adapting to the places we’ve landed in and which eventually, through close association, come to be home to us. These ideas are very much at odds to most of what passes for modern life. Creatives, entrepreneurs, and many others do use this kind of thinking in the habitat of modern civilization, but many have no need in the paint by numbers lifestyles made available to us by industrial life. That doesn’t fly so well when you are trying to bring forth some kind of living on the land from available resources. Our lands and ecologies are unique and changing entities. They have their own characters which change with the seasons, over time, and with our inputs and the consequences of our habitation, intended or otherwise. This post has been largely an excuse to talk about those ideas and the specific ideas and things that I do surrounding, and leading up to this one simple expedient, which solves some problems that I face. Should you run out and find some manure and start using manure tea so you can have some slushy poop to dump on your garden beds so that you don’t have to dig and will have awesome soil that brings forth giant leeks flushed with the color of life giving nutrients? I don’t know. Maybe. Okay, probably ;), but that’s not really the point. The point is more that we can benefit from being aware that there are almost limitless possibilities, and be open to the evolution of integrated ideas that can lead to systems that work for our goals, lifestyles and resources.
The end of the end. I hope someone made it all the way through, and that this rather long discussion has been of some use in promoting, or reinforcing, some useful general concepts as well as offering some more directly practical information that might be of use to you and your situation. Tips and tricks are great, but I’m more and more convinced that our broader philosophies and beliefs can be the real impetus for our “success”. They form a foundation for our goals and inspiration, the choices that spring forth from the values we decide that we want to embody, and ultimately the specific things we manifest. They even largely define what we think success even IS. Specific systems can be shared out among us, but life on the homestead is not paint by numbers and a particular idea or method might serve as much or more as a stepping off place or stimulant of new ideas than something to be directly adopted.
(* footnote re: not digging beds: I rarely dig beds, but I’m not religious about it or anything. If a bed gets compacted I dig it, and I am trying a little digging prep for carrot beds to see if I can get the uniform roots the farmer’s market customers want (edit: It didn’t help. No real difference between carrots in dug and undug soil here). I do really try to avoid actually turning the soil over, unless I’m trying to work in some permanent amendment very deep, like when digging in biochar. I know people who are terrified of digging or turning the soil at all though, which just seems silly.)