Grit Blogs > Reluctant Rebels

My Complete And Utter Permaculture Failure

Jack FernardHave you ever tried something new that you were really excited about, only to have it turn out less than perfect? In my particular situation, saying that it was 'less than perfect' would be the understatement of the year. Disaster would be more appropriate. Perhaps even a disaster of biblical proportions. True, there wasn't any wailing or gnashing of teeth, but there certainly was a lot of un-Christian language being hurled about.

So what was the focus of my foul-mouthed behavior? A no-till garden that turned out to be a no-food garden.

The idea behind no-till, or sometimes referred to as no-dig gardening, is soil health. Turns out there is a lot going on in the top six inches of soil. Microbes doing sciency things, plant roots pulling up beneficial nutrients, and countless types of insects adding their touch. It's an amazing world our backyard! And when we break the ground with our tilling, we end up destroying the harmony of things - a process perfected through time.

So why is this natural process so important? Think about all of the things that you eat. How much of it comes from plants grown in that top six inches of soil? Obviously, all of your vegetables come from it. But what about the meat you eat? What fed the cow that you had for dinner last night? The truth is, we take for granted what it takes for us to eat nutritional food. Healthy topsoil is extremely important and upon realizing this, I set out to take better care of the soil that feeds me.

Unfortunately, my efforts this past summer aren't going to feed a whole lot. Of the roughly 700 bean seeds I planted, I got zero produce; as in none at all! My potato ratio was a little better with a yield of roughly 1.5 for every 1 planted. (Normally, my harvest ratio for potatoes is between 2.5 and 3 for every 1 planted.) Even the sunflowers I planted failed to blossom.

Potatoes

So what went wrong?

I did. It's as simple as that.

I do not have a good enough understanding of what is actually involved to simply plant things and expect a proper yield. Were the seeds I planted appropriate for conditions? Why did the ants have such a devastating affect? What part did the surrounding vegetation play? Why would a critter dig up my potato stock, simply to eat the sprouting eyes off of them? Why did my potato plants turn yellow and die without flowering?

It's these kindsof results that, I think, keep people from straying from the established way of doing things. Let's be honest, if your garden was the main source of food for your family, would you be experimenting or following the method that you know works? But the issue is, I'm not sure that the way we're doing things is really working.

I look across the fields behind my home and I see acres upon acres of vegetation without a single weed to be found. What kind of chemicals are we spraying so that nothing else can grow? What are these chemicals doing to the microbes or insects that have a time-tested purpose in the soil? Do we even understand the long term consequences of constant tilling; an unnatural disruption of living process? Is it possible that we are harming the very thing that sustains us?

When it comes to growing my own food, I'm about as ignorant as they come. And it may be that tilling is the best option for what I need. But then again, maybe it's not. Either way, I will approach planting season next spring with a lot more respect and a greater appreciation for the food that I do harvest.

jack
10/3/2015 7:47:46 PM

Jack -- Thanks for the encouraging words. I've considered the mulch/hay route, but I would have to bring these things in as they're not already present. And I really want to work with what I have. I'll have to do some more reading. I'm still convinced that tilling every year is damaging the ground. I wish I could talk to someone who was farming my area 200 years ago. That would be REALLY helpful!!


nebraskadave
10/3/2015 2:36:18 PM

Jack, everything you say about permaculture is true and everything you have said about soil conditions are true as well. I no till grow and have struggled through taming a derilict vacant lot that was wild pretty much all it's life. It was dumping ground for the neighborhood as well. To grow unconventionally takes a lot of effort just to maintain weed growth. I'm not entirely organic by any means but I don't spray for bugs or use conventional fertilizers. My success has been to mulch, mulch, mulch up to a foot deep with neighborhood fall leaf/grass mixture up to a foot deep. When I spread the mulch, I cut the yard waste bag and lay it flat then spread the contents of the bag over the top. In the Spring, the mulch is moved aside for the seeds to be planted in the soil beneath. By spring the foot deep mulch will be down to just about 4 inches and by the fall it will be all but gone. It composts down into the soil. Permaculture unfortunately is a long process and may take a couple years to see good results. Since you are depending on a food source from your garden, you may have to do both conventional till and do dig for a while until the permaculture starts to give you the harvest that you need. Sorry to say that permaculture is a long term process that can't normally be obtained the first season out. Compost and mulch are the keys to permaculture. Just don't be discouraged. You are on the right track. ***** Have a great permaculture day.