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Permaculture: Restoring native soil fertility

Posted 12/13/2007 10:16am by Leaf Myczack.

Back in the early seventies when I was just entering the world of agriculture as a vocation, an older  woman named Ruth Stout had been dubbed by Mother Earth News as the "queen of mulch." Her approach was to never till the soil, but to just keep adding mulch to her garden. When it came time to plant, she simply parted the mulch and placed her seeds on top of the ground, then replaced the mulch. My initial attempts to duplicate her method ended in dismal failure. What I had overlooked at the time is that over many years of mulching, she had built up wonderful friable soil.

With my failure to replicate Ruth's success, I reverted to the shovel and fork and turned up and over the garden soil. It was hard and exhausting work and slow. In subsequent years we used a horse to plow, and although that is also hard work, it was much faster. The downside was that caring, feeding, and sheltering the horse took lots of extra work. I resisted a mechanical tiller for a number of reasons; cost, fuel, noise, pollution, but most of all, the destruction of earthworms and other beneficial soil dwellers. Today we use Ruth Stout's method with great success. What changed?

In Bill Mollison's "Introduction to Permaculture,"  he writes that "the soil ecology, over some years and with the proper attention, can be changed and improved." He also states that "bare soil is damaged soil, and occurs only where people or introduced animals have interfered with the natural ecological balance. Once soil has been bared, it is easily damaged by sun, wind, and water." Conventional cultivation of the soil then not only damages soil life processes, but may even cause more extensive soil losses.

At the Broadened Horizons Organic Farm, we practice a form of no-till cultivation that is based on thick mulching of the ground in order to suppress plant growth. We have an arrangement with a local horse farm (two miles away) to pick up all their stable litter. When they clean the horse stalls, they pile it up where it is readily accessible to load into our truck and 4 X 8 utility trailer. Each week we move a ton or so of this manure / litter mix to the farm and pile it on our crop growing areas. We then turn the chickens loose to pick through and level the piles. They cheerfully do the work- a) because chickens love to scratch in loose organic material, and b) there are little food treats of corn and oat kernels for them to eat.

A six inch layer of this litter will suppress and kill mature fescue grass in a couple of months. By the time the litter has rotted down and is safe to plant food crops, the ground has turned a rich black color, free of all but the most persistent deep rooted plants such as burdock. These few holdouts can easily be dug out. After the seed has been planted, we mulch the ground with grasses we cut from our field areas. We also use wet leaves from drainage ditches when available. This activity mimicks nature in that litter from dead plants is deposited on top of the soil and digested from below. The ground covering mulch enriches the soil, prevents soil moisture loss, suppresses undesireable competing plants, and feeds beneficial soil organisms. 

This same process of soil enrichment can be duplicated anywhere if we view all the organic litter generated by nature on our lot or homestead as a resource. We would do well to abandon the myopic contemporary view of it as "yard waste."  In the natural cycle, there is no such thing as waste, only organic resources.

 -Leaf