Permaculture Food Forest Garden on Quarter-Acre Home Lot

By Lambert Strether of Corrente.

Since this is the dog days of summer, I thought I’d resist the tyranny of the urgent and talk about gardening, since my garden is now fully fledged, and there’s nothing left for me to do but sit back, enjoy, and let the living system entertain all my senses; and give away the vegetables to friends.

Of course, this is Maine, and not only is our growing season short, but many of us — the undiligent who don’t start seeds indoors — got a very late start this year, partly because of a horrific winter, but also because it was miserably cold and rainy around Memorial Day, the traditional time to plant. So all my annuals are racing against time even more strenuously this year. Winter is coming. Again. But I hope for a long, warm Fall and a late frost first!

Making me rather envious of this permaculturalist in Houston, TX. (He loves the seasons, forsooth. The guy grows bananas!) The title of the video attracted me, because it suggests how much one can do in not much space, and I don’t have much space. The quarter-acre (10,890 square foot) lot of the title seems to have been the median lot size in the 70s, since decreasing, although that will vary by jurisdiction. (It is, apparently, possible to become self-sufficient on that little land, with a level of effort.)

Most of this lengthy video is a rather wide-eyed tour of the garden, which is incredibly dense with many kinds of vegetables and especially fruit trees, and it’s all worth a look, especially if you live in a humid subtropical climate like Houston, but and so I’m going to transcribe tips and principles that I think will be useful to gardeners in all climates and add timecodes, so you can skip through the video if you like. So herewith:

(The speaker is John Kohler; the gardener is Dr. Bob Randall.)


6:30 KOHLER: One of the cool things he’s doing here is his stakes, when he needs tall stakes, he basically gets the standard inexpensive T-posts, not the heavy duty ones, that have a U-grove on ’em, as you guys can see, and what he does, and I actually just started doing this, he actually uses just a bolt, and he bolts it together, and it makes it twice as tall.

Lambert: And he just drives the T-posts into the soil. This would be one way to make an arbor; I was thinking rebar. Presumably, since these look like fence posts, they’ll survive the Maine winter.

Water Tanks

7:35 Another cool thing is that he collects all his rainwater. There’s over 4,000 gallons of storage potential here, with this big cistern tier catches all the water off his roof, so he doesn’t have to use city water to water his garden; I recommend using rainwater whenever possible, because it doesn’t have added chemicals like chlorine and in some places fluorinate, and it’s what would water the plants naturally, so in this way you’re using a resource that’s free, especially during the hurricane season.

Lambert: Collecting rainwater is attractive to me, since my own town water is full of chemicals. However, I collect it with sheet mulch — I haven’t watered at all since the middle of June.

Raised Beds Made from Blocks

11:30 And he’s using these bricks, the blocks; he found these blocks to be the most efficient way to grow in the raised beds; he used wood and pressure-treated wood, before he found that was really bad because it does leach, and so now he uses the blocks, and while it might be an investment to buy the blocks once, once they’re here they’re pretty much not going anywhere, and you’ll have a garden forever.

Lambert: I have always disliked raised beds because the wood frame into which the soil goes seems rigid and linear, and having gotten rid of one rectangle, the lawn, why replace it with another? Also, constructing the frames is work, and I don’t like work. But the concrete blocks are modular, so not only could I simply place the blocks where I want the border of the bed to be, I can configure the blocks how I like; I could have a curved raised bed, for example, impossible with wood. Maybe I can find a source.


14:30 As you guys can see, we’re at the fence boundary here, I always encourage you guys to grow up to your fence boundary, make the best, make the best use of your space. So what he’s growing at the fence boundary is really cool, he’s making the best use of the space, because not only is he growing down on the bottom as a ground cover, instead of using mulch he’s growing a living mulch… These guys here are called Sweet Potato Spinach.

Lambert: Check this stat from Jackson Hole:

Granted, the government was much smaller then, so the statistic sounds a little skewed. Nevertheless, permaculture seems very comfortable with words like “the property,” or “fence boundary.” Now, I know permaculture comes from a place of beginning with where you are and what you have, and private property is all that, but I could wish that permaculture had more to say about the third form of property beyond public and private: Common pool resources. For example, is soil a common pool resource?


31:00 The last thing I want to show you guys, in the back there, it looks like a big tree, but that’s not a tree, it’s a giant clumping, not a spreading, of bamboo. Bamboo is a great crop to grow. Some varieties of bamboo can be edible and actually quite tasty, and even so, just growing the bamboo there, it’s an incredible resource, it grows relatively fast, and he has bamboo stakes for free!

Lambert: Bamboo stakes wouldn’t rust! I’d love to grow bamboo, but I’m not sure it’s possible in Zone 5a.

Stacking Functions

Lastly, Kohler interviews Randall: What’s the one most important thing you want to share?

34:01 RANDALL: Every single thing you put in a landscape you can get many uses out of. Many uses. And every time you add a use to something you are reducing your work [yay!], you are getting ore out of it, you are saving materials and energy. You can get more uses of space, you can get more uses out of relationships between two things, more uses. Some of them can be decorative, but you can get all kinds of uses.

… I often give as an example the tangerines that we grow here. Tangerine of course produces good fruit, and excellent juice, much better than orange juice in the stores. But it does other things; it has fragrant blooms in the springtime. It’s an evergreen plant, so it looks good in the landscape, but it also can shade a wall, and in this climate, with our 90-degree summers, keeping the shade, keeping the sun off the walls is a big deal. And then they have somewhat thorny trunks, and the leaves make things dark, so birds like to nest in them, it’s a very safe place for a bird to nest. The leaves are a larval plant for the Giant Swallowtail butterfly, the largest butterfly in North America. And then they’re trees. Trees absorb carbon. Trees stop soil erosion. Trees keep water on the property. Trees create mulch. How many uses did I come up with?

Lambert: My raspberry patch stacks far fewer functions: Food by the raspberries, privacy by the height of the canes, protection from animals and drunken students by the thorns, bait for Japanese beetles from the leaves (so they don’t devour plants I really care about). But stack functions it does!

I find this weaving together of functions into new systems far more congenial and lively than optimizing existing systems for single functions, like debt-to-GDP ratios, for example. Or never-satiated greed.

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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. abynormal

    where Do You fined the time Lambert…all a prosperous wonder!
    a few Free eBooks recently emailed:
    *Raised Bed Gardening – 5 Books bundle on Growing Vegetables In Raised Beds & Containers
    *Sustainable Gardening: Essential Guide To Grow Your Own Organic Garden And Save Money Through Mini Farming (sustainable gardening, mini farming, organic … essentials, mini farming
    *No Work Urban Front Yard Vegetable Gardening: The Easiest Way To Get Fresh Tasty Veggies For Your Whole Family (Food and Nutrition Series Book 1)
    *Apartment Gardening Today: Learn to Grow a Complete Garden in a Small Space (Container Gardening, Plants

  2. abynormal

    an Man worthy of the 8th Wonder…
    “Payeng planted and tended trees for over 30 years until they accumulated into the Molai Forest. Imagine if Ryan Gosling’s character in The Notebook cared about the environment instead of Rachel McAdams and devoted years of his life to preventing the erosion of his home island instead of sweating over that stupid farmhouse. He’s like the Dos Equis “Most Interesting Man In The World” except instead of being a dilettante lad rag fantasy advertisement, he’s just a real guy who planted a banaynay amount of trees to protect his family and the environment.”

    (anyone know what a ‘banaynay’ is?)

      1. abynormal

        bahahahahaa ive looked everywhere i can think of
        found ‘Banaynay’ will help you rid double chin and so on…skeer’d me

    1. Jeremy Grimm

      I went to the website you pointed to. You should have mentioned all the plant files and gardening databases there ( Dave’s Garden must have an ace webmaster. There was a plants database, insects database, and even a what was termed ‘The Garden Watchdog’ which collected and organized user ratings of over 7,000 mail order seed and plant sellers. I was surprised to see all this information maintained and made available through a commercial website like this.

      I live in the Northeast a bit South of Maine and started to wonder whether there might be some kind of winter hardy bamboo that could be substituted for shade trees. I hate going to the store for a few minutes to steaming hot black payment parking lot with absolutely no shade or every little bit of shade already taken — even at the furthest reaches of the parking lot. The tiny shade trees placed around commercial developments (after the developer tears out all the existing trees and strips off most of the topsoil to make things flat) won’t provide shade for anyone before the little strip mall or bank or now days large shopping mall — goes bankrupt and gets torn down, re-gratted and flattened and built with some other commercial building, parking lot and tiny trees. Bamboo, as fast growing as most bamboo is might at least have a chance to provide some shade before the next churn of “improvements”. I suspect that it might be less expensive than trees if it caught on.

      Unfortunately, we have golden bamboo growing around my area, and that stuff has given the entire bamboo family a bad name. A well-behaved bamboo used in a few places would do a lot to repair bamboo’s undeserved bad reputation.

  3. Skeptic

    Low Tech Water

    Modern demands for water, like house sizes, have increased tremendously over the years.
    I live in a rural area in a house that is sixty years old. It has an original dug well that will go dry in a drought or overusage of water. This happens in summer only. So, we put up gutters and now collect the rainwater off the roof into barrels for the garden. The overflow is run down near the well to seep into it and keep the well area moist. We haven’t had any water shortages since doing this. We got the barrels and pipe,etc. ourselves and it ain’t Front Cover House and Garden but it works well.

    Other people around here didn’t like their dug wells, so they “modernized” and went to drilled wells. One neighbor down the road put in a drilled well at a cost of $12,000. But it had too much iron, undrinkable and unusable for washing clothes. So they now buy water in town to drink and wash their clothes elsewhere.

    Modern, New isn’t necessarily better.

    1. susan the other

      better to have thousands of small catchments – it’s a no brainer… not that reservoirs can’t be very useful if used properly.././

      1. susan the other

        Lambert, This was wonderful. My eyeballs are rotating wildly. Love Bob Randall. And right in the heart of Texas – the Lion’s Den no less. I’m gonna buy a conestoga wagon and head east, old woman. Well, maybe an airstream trailer and a heavy-duty truck. Really. The synergy of life. On a planet of many uses. As long as we keep our MIC from destroying it completely. That is the challenge. So who doesn’t lover Dr. Bob? Even Little George loves him. I bet.

    2. Dana

      Dug wells also don’t get near the natural filtration that deeper drilled wells do. Animal dung, lawn and farm chemicals, stuff spilled on roads, it’s all in the water from a dug well. Safety is the main reason for tapping an aquifer.

  4. scott

    Houston’s climate is a bit better for gardening than Dallas. Here, it’s a race between the last frost and the first 100 degree day (when the tomatoes stop producing). Cabbage moths are so bad that you can go to bed one night with a row of kale and the next morning have nothing but stems. Right now I have only Swiss Chard (which neither the heat or bugs seem to bother). I’m letting the soil rest until September, when I’ll grow a cover crop like peas and oats, then till it in with this year’s compost and biochar.

  5. Kokuanani

    Lambert, do NOT under any circumstances grow bamboo!!! It spreads and takes over everything. Its “runners” will come up through an asphalt driveway.

    I once spent nearly a year digging bamboo, and its every-present and resistant-to-herbicide runners out of a side yard. If you’re going to put it somewhere, surround it by a below-ground concrete wall that goes at least 18″ deep. Otherwise, it will consume you.

    1. jgordon

      Some kinds of Bamboo do that. Many don’t. I’m growing a Buddha’s Belly bamboo plant in my yard right now, which is an ornamental clumping bamboo that doesn’t form the kinds of runners you describe. Also, herbicides are evil. Don’t use them.

      1. optimader

        I dig the effort, not enough basil :(
        My friends in Arezzo grow bamboo for stakes to get plants started in their gardens, so yeah probably a variety that isnt crazy invasive.

        I have been using electrical conduit, very strong/ stiff because it has section( it’s round) and has survived many many Chicago seasons. For vine plants , evenly planted stakes and string monofilament between them and stake a tiedown on each end. rip plastic grocery bags into strips and or old teeshirts and lightly twist them to use an hangers. The UV eventually disintegrate them them.
        I’ve taken this strategy last year, and the tomato and cucumbers on these are very happy. I used kiln dried untreated oak pallet wood. No stone border, seems like unnecessary work

    2. MtnLife

      What you were pulling doesn’t sound so much like bamboo as it does Japanese Knotweed. It looks very similar to bamboo and rivals kudzu for destructive power and removal/eradication being a ginormous PITA.

  6. jgordon

    Permaculture does address areas beyond what a society has agreed is one’s own private property. In fact, it spends quite a bit of time and effort addressing that. There are three concepts I’d point you towards for further research in that regard:

    1) Zones – Areas classified by how convenient they are to reach, starting outside your doorstep at zone 1 to your neighbor’s yards and uncultivated/wild areas much further away at zones 4 or 5 (there is some debate about whether or not there is a “0” zone inside the home–I’m sort of in favor of that. It’s a flexible design concept).

    2) Sectors – those factors (and the direction they originate from, if applicable) such as wind, sun, HOAs, neighbor/familial relationships, etc. Anything that originates outside of your immediate area that has influence over your design will be considered here.

    3) The Permaculture Flower – which incorporates the previous two concepts and elaborates on them. This part is mainly used as a rubric to check if you got your ethics right as well as whether or not your design was holistic enough. But mainly this is used by the designer to see if he (or she) has done enough thinking and consideration of the community and the environment in a design.

    Anyway, those are some of the things that are taught in permaculture design courses. If it’s really something that interests you, just go ahead and take one. They aren’t super difficult.

  7. Aaron Layman

    I’ll have to check this out, as I was prepping a new garden bed this week. It is my personal opinion that digging in the dirt is a lost art. Here in Houston at least, there’s no telling what you’ll find when you start turning over the soil. Certainly a good idea to dig around a bit if you like your plants to grow because developers and builders here are notorious for installing landscaping directly in the poor clay soil. After they put your plants in a clay hole/pot to suffocate, they’ll dress things up with copious amounts of mulch, great nests for fire ants. LOL!

    Happy gardening!

  8. sleepy

    I love to read gardening stuff, and the different ways people do it.

    A couple years ago I removed all the sod from my front yard and seeded it with native Iowa grasses and forbs. It attracts an amazing variety of butterflies, different kinds of bees (even honeybees which I hadn’t seen in years), beetles, hummingbirds, and baby rabbits use it to hide out in spring.

    I’ve got strawberries, raspberries, asparagus, tomatoes, potatoes, watermelons, garlic, and herbs in the backyard. I just like to wake up in the mornings and see what’s grown overnight.

  9. Eeyores enigma

    There is no way possible this is self sustaining, not even for one person yet alone the 2.5 to 3 person average.

    He produces no fats and without fats you will quickly develop all sorts of health problems.
    Even in his climate you will get periods of no production on many plants.
    Growing food is not a magical event. You get out of it exactly what you put into it. Meaning that property would need literally tons of inputs every year in order to maintain production. And no the trimmings and waste produced on the property is nowhere near enough to compost down and maintain production.
    Believing in this concept is like believing that a perpetual energy machine is just around the corner so we don’t have to worry about peak oil. Ridiculous!

    Permaculture is fun and productive but it in no way represents a solution to feeding 7 billion or even 1 billion people. I take that back, if the world population was only 1 billion and everyone actively practiced permaculture we might have a chance.

    1. OIFVet

      So this guy in Houston does not raise animal fat. True enough, it is an urban lot after all. It doesn’t mean that permaculture excludes the possibility of incorporating animal husbandry into it. This program from BBC in fact demonstrates that animals be can and are part of the process: And it is still a matter of climate. In the proper climate, avocados can replace animal fat. Fatty and quite refreshing.

      1. TheCatSaid

        Regarding animals, Allan Savory ( has been doing mind-blowing things to restore desertified land without external inputs other than livestock. His TED talk and–even better–his talk at Tufts (and separate clip of Q & A afterwards) are spectacular.
        Reclaiming the desert, providing ample food supply, restoring waterways and addressing global warming at the same time–impressive.

        1. davidgmills

          I rate Alan Savory’s TED talk as just about the best of all time. I haven’t seen his Tufts talk so I will have to check it out.

    1. Mell Pell

      John Kohler is a constant presence on YouTube. He has a large following and with close to 1000 videos is one of the most popular gardening guys on the web. He was the one that was most responsible for getting me into Organic Gardening. However, I don’t think that he is very knowledgeable about the science of organic gardening. In fact, I think that he is guided primarily by spiritual leanings.

      This is a video he did about the Mittleider method:
      In it lays out that his number one concern about the Mittleider method ( see 15:13) is that it disrespects the soil organisms. So in this formula, the organisms have feeling that need to be respected. Maybe they have little souls too. If I take a step in the garden do a million little souls go to heaven? This idea by the way is central to organic gardening. Wikipedia has this to say:

      “An organic farm, properly speaking, is not one that uses certain methods and substances and avoids others; it is a farm whose structure is formed in imitation of the structure of a natural system that has the integrity, the independence and the benign dependence of an organism”
      —Wendell Berry, “The Gift of Good Land”

      Organic gardening grew out of Bio-dynamic agriculture, an expressly spiritual moment.

      I just saw this video:
      Where the speaker hints that the Rodale Institute ( The top organic farming “science” center) is cooking the books. This is consistent with my view. This is a not a science, but a religion. Guys like Kohler are proselytizing not trying to grow food.

      In any case, when I started gardening I followed John Kohler’s advice and I uses horse manure and rock dust as my fertilizers. Immediately I got fertilizer burn due to high nitrogen content in the horse manure. In this video:
      Jim Kennard tears Mr. Kohler apart. I was particularly impressed by his argument that much of the received wisdom about pesticide runoff is in fact wrong and that Kohler himself is most likely producing more toxic runoff from his garden ( due to his use of kelp meal ) than a Mittleider garden.

      Having said all this I want to backtrack and take the opposite tack for a minute. I think that imitating nature in a garden is not just good common sense, but good engineering practice. If you don’t understand a system it makes sense to copy it as exactly as possible down to the last defect in hopes of producing something that works about as well. What aspects of a natural system should we try to emulate? I want large quantities of lettuce, radishes, tomatoes and onions in as small a space as possible. Should I try to emulate a rainforest? Clearly not. By the way, in what natural setting does two inches of horse manure arrange itself neatly in a raided bed of vegetables? Thinking it over, I decided that the best emulation of a natural setting includes all of the components. You need plants AND animals mutually providing food for one another. This is the ecological “natural” system. I have decided to experiment with aquaculture ( the practice of growing fish and plants together). This system with fish waste used to fertilize the plants and plant waste used to feed the fish is becoming popular. What it is NOT is organic agriculture. It relies on large tanks, pipes, pumps and plants grown without soil. In a word, industrial agriculture.

      On another topic, Yves Smith wrote a piece some time ago contemplating a world with seven billion people reduced to subsistence agriculture. I thought this was a morbid but prescient article. If this does come to pass, do you think that all those kitchen gardens will have a steady supply of horse manure and rock dust?

      1. Lambert Strether Post author

        “Plants AND animals” sounds a lot like Polyphase Farm. As far as spiritual leanings and knowledge, I was saying, with “rather wide-eyed,” what you are saying in a nicer way (because I am famously diplomatic). For me, the truth is what happens in the garden. And I agree completely on including “all the components.” I arrived that the same place on aesthetic ground.

          1. HotFlash

            Correct spelling is Polyface Farm, owner is Joel Salutin. That should get you lots on the Google.

      2. art guerrilla

        burn from horse manure ? ? ?
        1. i don’t know of ANY manure that is used fresh directly (unless you count worm castings), but horse manure is certainly not as ‘hot’ as chicken or others that would definitely burn…
        2. IF you had fresh horse poo, that should be aged or composted or turned into a plot that is going to lay fallow…
        3. but even fresh horse manure is not that burny, i use that -um- shit all the time… maybe since the stuff i get from my neighbors is ‘diluted’ with sawdust, etc from the stalls…
        4. maybe your horses are eating jalapenos… 8^)

      3. JCC

        I’ve been using horse manure as a soil amendment/fertilizer for 20 years and never had any problems with burn, and since I get it for free it has saved me a small fortune in buying oil-based fertilizers, which, despite the Mittlieder “hydroponic-lite” method statements, is huge run-off problem in the Finger Lakes region of upstate NY (according to Cornell Ag School anyway). You just have to know how much to use, when to use it, and get it partially composted.

        The problems I see with the Mittlieder method is that is is expensive and doesn’t use good old fashioned dirt. He recommends a combination of sawdust, perlite, builders sand, peat moss, and Styrofoam pellets, all materials that are not found anywhere in my backyard, and obviously in great need of lots and lots of weekly feeding with store-bought fertilizer.

        As for Kohler, who cares if he proselytizes a little (and it is pretty little)? I don’t check out his videos for information on his spiritual proclivities, I check out his videos for ideas on desert garden growing, not to mention some interesting garden tours. Sure, he’s a little goofy, but so what? If I waited for the perfect human being to give me some ideas on backyard food raising then I’d be buying store-ripened tomatoes, garlic, cucumbers,basil, etc. forever.

        1. juliania

          If you don’t have a quarter acre, have limited transportation ability, no access to lovely horse manure – don’t despair. The above is me – I have about a livingroom sized garden out back, concrete path out front. The solution is, on that concrete path you place large-sized plastic tubs from the local nursery – used ones they should sell you or give away. Coming up soon your neatness afflicted neighbors ought to be putting out bagsful of leaves they don’t want. They are throwing away Black Gold. Start taking walks around the neighborhood. Gather ye bags.

          This season I have made ten huge bins of composted worm stuff in my front alley. All kitchen waste goes in, of course, and trimmings from the back. I never throw anything compostable away – never.

          Worms? Any soggy pile of leaves, look underneath. There your babies will be, free for the asking. Get started! It wasn’t called ‘The Earth’ for nothing. Make more of it.

  10. Bee Habitat

    are these plants NEONIC free? are they organic?
    how do i found out?

    most plants are treated with bee killing chemicals that can last up to 4 years on woody stems of plants, up to 2 years in the plant and soil.


  11. TheCatSaid

    The most inspiring and practical approach I’ve come across to gardening in active partnership with nature is Machaelle Small Wright’s Garden Workbook.
    The principles can be used to any gardening “system” (permaculture, raised beds, biodynamic, no-dig, Ruth Stout, etc.)

    1. JCC

      Mel Bartholomew’s Square Foot Gardening method also has some good approaches that can be combined with basic permaculture principles.

  12. davidgmills

    I would suggest that all gardners here learn all you can about terra preta (Portugese for black earth). It seems that the ancient Amerindians figured out that if you add charcoal to the dirt, it does amazing things to the soil. (Some research indicates that it is these small areas of terra preta -about 3 to 10 % of the Amazon forests- produce the basis of the Amazon jungle, and that due to them, the entire jungle is arguably man-made).

    A gram of charcoal has about 9,000 square feet of surface area and to microorganisms it is both a luxury hotel and a gourmet restaurant. Charcoal lasts on average about 1,300 years in the soil and some pieces found in the Amazon have been dated to over 5,000 years. It sequesters carbon on very long geological scales and puts carbon where it is badly needed — our soils.

    I have been charcoaling my yard for about eight years (live on about .4 acres) and have added about 800 pounds of charcoal to it in that time. It just does amazing things to the ground, especially if the ground is clay (like mine and like the Amazon). Most research shows it will reduce water usage by about 17%. Amazing stuff. Also known in English as biochar.

    If you decide to do it, add only lump charcoal. Do not use briquets (Fillers are full of bad chemicals). Or make your own. Charcoal can be made by making wood smoulder rather than letting it ignite. Smoulder it long enough to drive off the water (a gray smoke), the gas (a yellow smoke) and the oils (a blue smoke). No smoke and you are done.

    1. Lambert Strether Post author

      And read 1491, by Charles C. Mann, which has an amazing dicussion of terra preta in the Amazon, at least in part an edible forest, by design; he considers Amazonia to be humankind’s largest work of art.

      1. davidgmills

        I know of the book though I have not read it. What is also interesting is the author’s claim of how many indigenous people there were before 1492 and the staggering numbers of indigenous people who died from European disease.

        Here is an interesting BBC documentary on the subject titled “The Secret of El Dorado”:

  13. Paul

    Well here in Europe it has been a dismal season for vegetables. I grow my vegs for 4-6 people, between my family, my old mother, friends and neighbors. I had been thinking of building a tunnel to shelter crops such as tomatoes and eggplants etc from the wind, the pelting rain and the occasional hailstorm, all of which this year hit hard and turned my little plot of land into a really sorry mess. I discovered that a friend of mine actually has such a tunnel. Well, his season hasn’t been better than mine – the soil was so waterlogged that the tunnel structure acted as a huge cold steam bath. His tomato plants too were hit by the peronospera disease and his growing season was just as bad as mine. Which raises the point of how do we modify our growing techniques and what tools must we implement to successfully cope with climate change.
    Are there any websites / forums dedicated to this subject?

    1. MtnLife

      It sounds like his tunnel has some ventilation issues in addition to drainage. The only people I know with disease free tomatoes are under some sort of cover (well, mine are okay atm, but I know that’s only temporary). Not sure what his setup looks like but if raising his beds are not an option he could run drainage down the sides of his beds (more or less make the walking paths into French drains). Raised beds drain better and warm earlier in the spring. I didn’t have the money to do all that so after the initial tilling (I just turn it with a pitchfork now) of my beds I tilled the walkways right down to the hardpan and put all that soil onto the beds. I then put pine/fir kindling (or any unburnable crap wood) on the bottom the path and covered that with mulch. This gives the beds lots of drainage (and water storage in the mulch), the mulch also helps to insulate the beds (which are now not “raised” all that much to the eye), and it creates a nice soft walking path. It does sink a bit as the mulch/wood decomposes but not terribly. Mixing grass clippings in with the stuff on the bottom also helps it not be a total nitrogen leech.
      The tunnels need to be ventilated and there are a number of ways to do that. Some people orient them lengthwise to the prevailing winds and open both ends, the bottom 30-40 cm or so can be left so as to be a rollable/liftable flap, there are heat activated greenhouse windows (all you need are the actuators if you frame a small area of plastic out), and others put electric (solar) fans on the ends to facilitate air movement. Tomatoes, being air pollinated, also benefit from the fan or fan/window option. You can use bordeaux mixture to prevent the downy mildew but long term use builds up copper pollution. I hope any of this helps.

      1. Paul

        Thank you – I appreciate the pointers and will definitely look into them!
        My point was another one, namely that conditions have changed so much that what used to work just fine without resorting to phitochemicals and artificial fertilizers no longer seems to be working and on a larger scale the destruction is just overwhelming (e.g. Italy claiming this horrid weather caused 1.3bln —billion— in agricultural damages in the northern regions).
        Everyone needs to adapt their techniques to this new environment, and fast, otherwise it could turn ugly fast

  14. Wade Riddick

    Rainwater in Houston has no “added chemicals?”

    Are you kidding?

    Even if it’s not in east Houston, it probably comes pre-polycabonvinylated.

  15. different clue

    Some evil force is preventing my comments from registering at all if they have a link in them. But sometimes comments without a link still register. So I will mention a couple of titles and groups without offering any links.
    Mell Pell up above noted the problem of a religious observance basis to “organic agriculture and gardening”.
    This problem has been noted by others. It didn’t used to be that way. The early start of the modern organic agriculture movement was as a definite response to definite problems of dwindling soil fertility and its attendant dwindling yields and declining quality. Amateur science buffs like Lady Eve Balfour and professional agronomic scientists like Sir Albert Howard began trying to study and experiment their way to finding solutions. They called their work and movement “organic agriculture”. There may be a wikipage on “organic agriculture” giving this history.
    Organic agriculture became a low-science religious movement in this country with the advent of J. I. Rodale and his Organic Farming Magazine and then Rodale Press. More recently the Rodale Organization has done some scientific observation and experiment withIN the BAsic restrictionism of its psychologically religious roots.
    Gardener/Farmer/former Seedseller Steve Solomon, author of several books, recently wrote a book about his experience of this problem. It begins with many pages of personal testimony about his youthful and middle-aged practice of Strict Rodale Organic Gardening and the destructive erosional attrition the food thereby grown began to work on his health and physical body. He then gives testimony about how he found his way to some missing science of soil and plant nutrition. He then gives testimony about how applying this scientific knowledge to his efforts stopped his health from decaying beyond what it had already decayed to.
    He wrote a book about all that, plus the “how to” and “why to” called The Intelligent Gardener: Growing Nutrient Dense Food. Among other things, it explains how to take soil samples and where (what good labs) to send them to, and how to interpret the results and design soil input/management programs based on those
    interpretations of results. There is now an organization of people taking this approach called Soil Analyst Cooperative. Search-engining the phrase Soil Analyst Cooperative brings up only three entries on Yahoo’s “alltheweb”, which is not too many to read through and consider.
    There is another website in this vein called High Brix Gardening which is partially constructed. There is a good info-dense book without the Rodale Restrictions called The Organic Method by Bargyla Rateaver. Some copies may still be available through the Acres USA bookstore.
    The Rodale approach is still so basically religionistic in its basic psychology that it might well be referred to as Kosherganic Gardening. Or Halalganic Gardening, if one prefers.

    1. different clue

      Oh, and re-reading Mell Pell’s comment even more closely I note that Wendell Berry is offered as a giver of the last word on the ethical/religious basis and purpose of Organic Agriculture. I hope Mell Pell will take heart in the realization that Wendell Berry is a poet and a literature academic by profession. He is no agronomist and he is hardly the last word in eco-biologically correct agronomy. So don’t feel limited by Berry’s poetic opinion.

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