Permaculture Blitz with the Micmacs up in the County

By Lambert Strether of Corrente.

Since today, September 22, is the Autumnal Equinox, when the earth begins its tilt toward winter, I thought I’d write about an event from summer’s past: A permaculture blitz in partnership with a band of Micmacs up in Aroostook County; details of the project can be found here. So this is a trip report. I’ll start with some garden geekery on the blitz, and end with a small but surprising political twist. But first, the video:

The feel of a “permaculture blitz” comes through in the video, but to be safe let me cite to definition:

Permablitz (noun): An informal gathering involving a day on which a group of at least two people come together to achieve the following:

  • create or add to edible gardens where someone lives
  • share skills related to permaculture and sustainable living
  • build community networks
  • have fun

Permablitzes are free events, open to the public, with free workshops, shared food, where you get some exercise and have a wonderful time.  To be defined as a permablitz each event must also be preceded by a permaculture design by a designer with a Permaculture Design Certificate. [Julia and Charles Yelton]. The network runs on reciprocity, and in order to qualify for a permablitz you usually need to come to some first, although there can be exceptions in this case.

All of which was true, especially the food part; as it turns out, the “Micmac Farms and Trading Company” makes and sells excellent relish, among other foods.

swale Geekery aspect #1: Swales. As you can see from the photo at right, the edible garden we were creating is on a slope, and parallel grooves have been cut into the earth, following the contours of the slope:

Swales are water-harvesting ditches, built on the contour of a landscape. Most ditches are designed to move water away from an area, so the bottom of the ditch is built on a modest slope, usually between 200:1 to 400:1.

Swales, however, are flat on the bottom because they’re designed to do the opposite; they slow water down to a standstill, eliminate erosion, infiltrate the surrounding area with water, and recharge the groundwater table. When water moves along the flat bottom of a swale, it fills it up like a bathtub — that is, all parts of the bath tub fill at the same rate. The water in a swale is therefore passive; it doesn’t flow the way it would on a slope.

One of the central permaculture design principles is “stacking functions”; my raspberry patch, for example, is placed along the sidewalk, so that it functions as: (1) a source of food; (2) a barrier to sight, for privacy; and (3) a living fence, for protection; humans and other animals will avoid the prickles. Here, the swales serve at least two functions: (1) to harvest water, which will keep plants on the slope happy (for more on water capture, see Sepp Holzer); (2) to protect the Trading Company building from water flowing down the slope from the direction of the road. (It seems reasonable that water capture would improve the soil, too, beyond preventing erosion, but I’m not sure about that.)

sheetmulchGeekery aspect #2: Sheet mulch. The previous photo shows that the entire garden was sheetmulched in a day — not too shabby, because it’s a big garden — and here’s a photo that shows the process. Focusing on the ground, we notice a layer of dark soil, with a layer of wet newspaper, and in back, straw covering the newspaper. You can get a lot fancier than that, with soil amendments, and green manure, and cardboard instead of newspaper, but the basic principle of layering what you want to decay, with a lightblocker on top of the layers, and then straw on top of the lightblocker, prevails. From Sheet Mulching: Greater Plant and Soil Health for Less Work:*

Once you get the hang of it, sheet mulching can be used anywhere plants are grown in the ground. Sheet mulching may be used either in establishing a new garden or tree planting, or to enrich existing plantings. In both cases, mulch is applied to bare soil or on top of weeds. New plantings are planted through the mulch, and a small area is left open to accommodate established plants and trees.

The benefits of mulching justify putting the energy into doing the job right, using ample materials. Collect all of the materials…, and complete the mulching process in a day. A reduction in maintenance and increase in plant vigor will reward the initial effort.

Sheet mulch is put down in layers to mimic natural forest mulch: well decayed compost, weed barrier [newspaper, or even fallen leaves], partly decayed compost and raw organic matter [we substituted straws].

(Semi-pro tip: Do the sheet mulch first, then punch holes in it and pop in the plants. Do not attempt to sheet mulch around existing plants, except maybe trees. That won’t hurt the plants any, but it will sure annoy you. How do I know this… ) I’m here to testify on sheet mulch meaning less work: The only time I ever have had to weed is when I got lazy and didn’t sheet mulch an area, or got too cheap and spread the newspaper too thin. So, for a small investment of time and money at the start of the season, you get: Little to no weeding (stacked function 1), and better yet, sheet mulch captures water (2), besides (3) encouraging earthworms, who enjoy the sugars produced by the newspaper or cardboard as it breaks down. For three seasons now, I have watered only at the very start of the season to make the seedlings happy; then from a couple weeks after Memorial Day ’til frost, no watering at all. That saves on my water bill, and who wants to be dragging hoses around, anyhow?

We left the Micmac property in better shape than we found it, and headed home. So this is the political twist part: I was talking to a husband and wife team, and they asked me what I do, and I (rather cagily) replied that I write about political economy online. “What topics do you write about? We hear a lot about Benghazi.” [Oh… kay, I thought, calculating rapidly.] “We mostly write about stories that aren’t covered at all.” [They nod.] “What’s an example of one of those stories?” “Well, we might write about why some bankers ought to be in jail.” [BIG nods, the wife’s bigger than the husband’s.] And we went on to have a very pleasurable evening; the right is often very sound on gardening and food issues.

Now, I know that’s a mother-in-law story. (“My mother-in-law says…”). But stories like this are why I have some confidence that “strange bedfellows” tactics really can have positive outcomes — as on the NSA, or Syria.

NOTE * Oooooh! I like that! “Less work”! My object is not to work in the garden; I can’t imagine why people see that as virtuous. I want to sit in the garden, and enjoy the garden, and occasionally eat some of the produce.

NOTE Photo page here.

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About Lambert Strether

Readers, I have had a correspondent characterize my views as realistic cynical. Let me briefly explain them. I believe in universal programs that provide concrete material benefits, especially to the working class. Medicare for All is the prime example, but tuition-free college and a Post Office Bank also fall under this heading. So do a Jobs Guarantee and a Debt Jubilee. Clearly, neither liberal Democrats nor conservative Republicans can deliver on such programs, because the two are different flavors of neoliberalism (“Because markets”). I don’t much care about the “ism” that delivers the benefits, although whichever one does have to put common humanity first, as opposed to markets. Could be a second FDR saving capitalism, democratic socialism leashing and collaring it, or communism razing it. I don’t much care, as long as the benefits are delivered. To me, the key issue — and this is why Medicare for All is always first with me — is the tens of thousands of excess “deaths from despair,” as described by the Case-Deaton study, and other recent studies. That enormous body count makes Medicare for All, at the very least, a moral and strategic imperative. And that level of suffering and organic damage makes the concerns of identity politics — even the worthy fight to help the refugees Bush, Obama, and Clinton’s wars created — bright shiny objects by comparison. Hence my frustration with the news flow — currently in my view the swirling intersection of two, separate Shock Doctrine campaigns, one by the Administration, and the other by out-of-power liberals and their allies in the State and in the press — a news flow that constantly forces me to focus on matters that I regard as of secondary importance to the excess deaths. What kind of political economy is it that halts or even reverses the increases in life expectancy that civilized societies have achieved? I am also very hopeful that the continuing destruction of both party establishments will open the space for voices supporting programs similar to those I have listed; let’s call such voices “the left.” Volatility creates opportunity, especially if the Democrat establishment, which puts markets first and opposes all such programs, isn’t allowed to get back into the saddle. Eyes on the prize! I love the tactical level, and secretly love even the horse race, since I’ve been blogging about it daily for fourteen years, but everything I write has this perspective at the back of it.


  1. Skeptic

    Lambert, if you are Maine based, how about an item on the Common Ground Fair or Maine Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association? The Fair was this weekend:

    I attended this twice in the 90s. It was wonderful. MOFGA at that time was the strongest organic association per capita in the US. A real tribute to Maine and its independent people.

    Look in your region for similar fairs and events. In Vermont, they have them even in the winter for example!

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      MOFGA, Fedco, Johnny’s, Unity College, and heck, the Common Ground Fair can all be seen as the institutional fruits of hippies moving up here after “the 60s” imlpoded and figuring out how and why to farm. This is a great story, and I don’t know if anybody’s written it up. I’m sure the same thing happened in other states, but for whatever reason, the institutions in Maine are really huge by continental standards: MOFGA (Maine Organic Farmers and Growers Association) is, I believe, the largest organization of its kind in the country, and Maine has a population of only 1.3 million. In addition, the Portland permaculture Meetup Group is the largest in the country, even if Portland might as well be Boston, so far as I’m concerned [ducks]. So something is happening here, way up on the margins at the end of the supply chain…

  2. William

    Very cool. If the whole country can turn of their TVs and do this kind of thing, our problems will become quite solvable and we will survive and thrive instead of descending into a distopian nightmare as we are doing now.

    1. tiebie66

      Agreed, I was especially struck by the enthusiasm with which the kids participated. Very healthy in so many ways!

  3. craazyman

    well the Micmacs look prettty neat. They’ve even got a sweat lodge and the sacred herbs and the circle and all thaT.

    I read once about a native American shaman who took a bunch of engineers into a sweat lodge. After a while the spirit wind started to blow, even though the lodge is sealed on all sides, and then a wrench materialized and dropped straight out of nowhere onto the floor.

    The engineers were so freaked out they panicked and ran. that must have been hilarious. A wrench. Engineers. get it? Sometimes the spirits have a sense of humor.

  4. Dawes

    Permaculture is a valuable set of tools and techniques that anyone can learn and use.

    Beware of the Permahustlers that want to sell you expensive courses. Your public library probably has all the instructional materials you need for free.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      It’s important to guard against hustlers where found.

      However, I reject the idea that everybody, at least, can learn everything that can be learned from a permculture course from books. Plenty of people take cooking courses, or art courses, or creative writing courses, and find the lifetime of experience that a really skilled teacher can share really useful, moreso than books.

  5. diptherio

    My father is a big gardener. I mentioned the sheet-mulching method to him and he scoffed. Apparently he’d already given it a go and had run into problems due to mold/mildew growing in the mulch and damaging his plants. Any thoughts on dealing with that problem, things he may have been doing wrong?

    1. William

      What your father mistook for something harmful was actually exactly what is expected to happen. White strands and fuzzy material is mycelium, the growing body of a fungi. Most soil fungi you cannot see, it is not much bigger than bacteria. Organic gardeners love to have a soil high in fungi, fungi being one of the primary indicators of healthy, living soil because they break down material that microscopic animals cannot and they help keep the soil biology in balance. Old-growth and rainforest soils are the highest of soil types in number and diversity of fungi.

      Heavy mulch, especially when it is not tilled every year, supports the rich biology that makes soil fertility available to plants. A soil can test very poor in available NPK and micronutrients, but usually is actually very fertile if it is made more healthy by supporting fungi and other microbes. It is the microbes that make the nutrients that are already IN the soil AVAILABLE to the plants in a form that plants can use. This is the foundation of organic farming. It is “organic” because carbon materials are put in or on the soil to feed the life that naturally exists there.

      I would encourage your father to continue to learn about mulching and soil-building in general. The trouble he had with his plants was very likely the result of something out-of-balance in the soil. If the soil had seen a good deal of commercial fertilizers, pesticides, etc., it will take a year or two to get it healthy again. Most organic farmers have a tough time the first years due to this effect if they began with conventionally farmed soil. Fungi in that situation is his best friend, because they WILL break down harmful chemicals. Some common mushrooms will thrive in petroleum-soaked ground, deriving energy from a substance that otherwise leaves soil perfectly sterile. See “Mycelium Running” for a good read.

      1. William

        I should add that, as well as improving the soil fertility, many plants exist in direct symbiosis with fungi and other microorganisms. We are only beginning to learn the extent of this (this kind of research doesn’t get funding). Everyone knows about the nitrogen-fixing bacteria that grow with legumes–that kind of relationship exists in maybe millions of different ways, only some of which we know about. Some are very complex. Plant roots and the other life in the soil most certainly have developed these mutually beneficial relationships over the billion years they have been living together.

          1. Lambert Strether Post author

            Although I like to know what your father was growing.

            For example, I get blight on my tomatoes, like almost everybody. Blight is airborne, so sheet mulch doesn’t prevent it (except insofar as the plants are stronger and have more resistance).* However, my soil also has TMV. Because the sheet mulch prevents the virus from reaching the stems and leaves to the plants, TMV doesn’t affect them. (When I didn’t have sheet mulch, and watered all the time, the plants would get splashed with soil, so were badly affected.)

            Agreed with William on the mycelial mat.

            NOTE * Thinking in three dimensions, the blight generally comes from the north with the prevailing wind. So I might think about a wind block to mitigate.

  6. Brent Eubanks

    Strange: They appear to be tilling with picks, and then sheetmulching. That strikes me as a lot of unnecessary work. One of the great advantages of sheetmulching is that all you need to do by way of prep is knock down the tall weeds. There is no need to remove low-growing weeds, or to till. The lightblocking takes care of the weeds, and the worms take care of the tilling.

    Permaculture: the art of applied laziness.

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