The term permaculture was coined by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in the mid-1970s to describe an “integrated, evolving system of perennial or self-perpetuating plant and animal species useful to man.’
A more current definition from David Holmgren  is ‘consciously designed landscapes which mimic the patterns and relationships found in nature, while yielding an abundance of food, fibre and energy for provision of local needs. People, their buildings and the ways in which they organise themselves are central to permaculture. Thus the permaculture vision of permanent or sustainable agriculture has evolved to one of permanent or sustainable culture.’
From a values and ethics perspective permaculture practitioners believe in caring for the Earth, caring for our People and in balance and fair share. These ethics are supported by twelve principles that can guide our thinking and our designs.
To me permaculture is a state of mind that reflects well thought out logic backed up by a deep sense of well being for all. It’s entirely practical and can be implemented at a macro and a micro level, piecemeal and whole.
The Sacred Groves of Aotearoa
A case for Permaculture
There’s no doubt in my mind that we have reached a point in human history where we must decide collectively to save ourselves or not. We must adapt quickly and evolve.
In the last 40 years, primarily through human exploitation and habitat loss, the population of terrestrial and oceanic vertebrate species has dropped by over half; our freshwater species have dropped by 76%.  On our current trajectory the oceans may run out of commercial fish species by 2048.  If we change nothing, then nothing will be left.
We have exceeded our planets capacity to provide and yet there are ever more mouths to feed. With current production practices we need more than one and a half earths, and counting,  to meet the current demand we make on nature. Yet already over a billion people go hungry every day.
Backed up by solid science the dire predictions of complete ecological collapse are now commonplace news. Yet like a possum caught in the headlights, we hesitate at our own peril. To say it’s all a bit grim is a massive understatement.
When it all seems that grim, the only alternative I see is hope, a reorientation of the spirit. With hope comes the capacity to take a big breath, dig in and get on with the epic task of restoring the balance.
I see examples of this everywhere, from massive re-greening projects where tens of millions of trees are being planted to restore entire landmasses  to grassroots movements across the globe making a stand for local food resilience and sovereignty. And I see a new generation of young folk coming up through the ranks who are unobstructed by shame and have boundless enthusiasm for the future of our precious planet.
I also see new innovations in science and engineering that have the potential to move primary production away from leaky linear models, akin to the Green Revolution, to more integrated circular models.
And I do believe our planet has a tremendous capacity to restore itself just as long as we give it room. It doesn’t mean we need to leave it alone; perhaps we just need to work with it, as one would with a kindred spirit.
With the right skills and experience we may even be able to accelerate that healing process, and for me, for my journey, that’s what led me to permaculture…
My journey into permaculture began in the late 1990s. As a traveling salesman wandering the globe, I observed the steady decline of nature everywhere I turned. With a young family in tow I felt compelled to search for something I could do in response to the world’s plight, something logical and practical that would show my children a better way of living.
I can’t quite remember how but I quickly learned of permaculture and before I knew it I had enrolled in my first permaculture design course. I felt like a green Jedi Knight, and quite sheepishly, today I still do.
It’s a romantic notion, having the ability to manipulate whole ecosystems as engineers of a healthy, balanced planet, but that’s what permaculture has come to mean to me.
If you will indulge me, let’s formalise a title ‘ecosystem engineer’ and start jotting down a job description. It might go something like this…
From a values and ethics perspective you believe in caring for the Earth, caring for People and in balance and fair share. You aspire to work with nature, applying practical knowledge and science across a range of domains. You combine this with a cool head and a good deal of patience and compassion to effect whole design.
You leverage the twelve principles of permaculture in your designs and in the application of those designs. By observing and interacting [i] you seek to understand the full ramifications of your plans and actions. You catch and store energy [ii] by leveraging the abundant gifts of nature in your designs so you can obtain a yield [iii]. By applying self-regulation and accepting feedback [iv] you can adapt to the unexpected.
You use and value renewable resources & services [v] and are able to produce little or no waste [vi]. Your only by-products feed into the creation of other products or services. To develop such systems you design from patterns down to details, [vii] and your systems are integrated rather than segregated. [xiii] You apply small and slow solutions [ix] so you can build momentum and carefully adjust your course direction as you go.
You use and value diversity [x] in all it’s available forms while taking advantage of edges and margins, [xi] those special places which harbour the most available energy. Finally you creatively use and respond to change, [xii] accepting that nothing is constant including your designs. Entropy is everywhere!
While you understand that permaculture was originally born for application across land and nature stewardship. [a], because you’re such a lateral thinker you apply the same ethics and principles over other domains necessary to sustain humanity. Built environment, [b], tools and technology, [c], culture and education, [d], health and spiritual wellbeing, [e], finance and economics [f], and land tenure and community [g] can all benefit from your attention.
Tea breaks are allowed, actually the more the better, because it means you’re thinking hard about what you are doing and the implications of your actions. However you must work weekends and every other day for that matter because the world needs you on the job right now. No previous work experience is required but if that’s the case find yourself an elder or two willing to guide you while you are still potentially dangerous.
This is a job description I don’t think you’ll see in your local job column any time soon but it needs to be in my opinion. The ethics and principles embodied here, borne from the work of Bill Mollison  and David Holmgren , may be the key to saving our species.
Here’s a quote from the UN Trade and Environment Review (2013)that gives me hope that changes are in play at a much larger macro level 
‘The world needs a paradigm shift in agricultural development: from a ‘green revolution’ to an ‘ecological intensification’ approach. This implies a rapid and significant shift from conventional, monoculture-based and high-external-input-dependent industrial production towards mosaics of sustainable, regenerative production systems that also considerably improve the productivity of small-scale farmers. We need to see a move from a linear to a holistic approach in agricultural management, which recognizes that a farmer is not only a producer of agricultural goods, but also a manager of an agro-ecological system that provides quite a number of public goods and services
My take on this is that we all have a role to play as producers and consumers in agro-ecological systems. If we focus as a community on local solutions to these global problems then that could make a big difference. It’s lots of little things that may turn the tide, and for that I think we need every ecosystem engineer we can get our hands on.
Our Natural Capital
Let’s park the job description for the moment and focus on the job at hand. How do we break this planetary crisis down?
So it’s all about inappropriate management of our natural resources or ‘natural capital’ isn’t it? I like the term natural capital which The World Wildlife Fund’s Living Planet Report aptly describes as ‘an economic metaphor encapsulating the idea that our economic prosperity and wellbeing are reliant on the resources provided by a healthy planet.’
It means that the value of that apple tree in your backyard isn’t just about the fruit it produces; rather it’s about the ecosystem services it provides. Trees act as the lungs of our planet; they store carbon, build soil and provide homes and food for vast communities of life. They also perpetuate rainfall and by converting light to energy they fuel the ecological processes that we depend on.
It’s also in the ‘green health’ services that contribute to our wellbeing when we reconnect with nature and the powerful antidepressant vapors released by microbes as we dig our hands into a healthy aerobic soil. 
If you consider our natural capital as a bank account, then our crisis could simply be described as poor banking. For a long time we have been drawing from that account without putting any funds back in. We all need to start contributing to the account before we completely run out of funds.
I know that’s grossly oversimplified the state of play, but in my experience complicated challenges can be approached more easily by starting simply. Once started, positive ripple effects ensue.
So let’s run with it for now and if you will continue to indulge me lets just assume you applied for the job, had an awesome interview, Gaia thought you were great, and are now you are an apprentice ‘ecosystem engineer’, so what do you do?
The Sacred Groves of Aotearoa
Well in India there are said to be something like 14,000 sacred groves  that are treated with absolute respect and reverence. They are often dedicated to ancestral spirits or deities, have religious significance and in some cases host rare plants of traditional medicinal value. I don’t know much about these groves to be honest, but I like the concept that we can consider natural spaces, our natural capital, as sacred.
In my own country of New Zealand we began creating sacred groves in the oceans back in 1975. By developing marine reserves we protected nature so it could restore itself. We quickly realised that the benefits to the greater ocean ecologies outside of those reserves was immense.
So perhaps your first task as an ecosystem engineer is to protect the natural capital that remains intact, much like a sacred grove. For some that grove might be in the ocean, for others it might be a patch of native forest or your back yard. For me, it’s the community garden I volunteer at.
By creating and protecting these groves we provide islands of biodiversity that will help those who inhabit the planet weather the storm that is upon us. There’s no doubt some of these sacred groves hold answers to questions we have yet to ask, but if we lose them then we’ll never know.
Sadly that won’t be enough to turn the tide. Big business is running rife today heavily influencing public policy where they have no right to be; our diplomatic knees go weak at the prospect of wealth and re-election. But these big businesses only exist to supply consumers, and you are a consumer.
Task number two is to lead by example as a consumer. You have tremendous influence through your consumer purchasing power so why not use that influence for the benefit of mother earth?
One of my favourite sayings is ‘look past the label.’ Appreciate that most labels are a sales pitch designed to entice you to purchase. Do your own research and get to the bottom of things, satisfy your own ethics and principles. This concept naturally extends to the labels politicians apply to themselves to get your vote.
Still that also won’t be enough to turn the tide. We must enter a phase in our history where we do more with less. We must budget well and be frugal with our natural and financial capital. We must spend wisely.
It’s interesting to note that over 70% of the world’s food is produced by small farm holders. Industrial agriculture provides the remaining 30% and yet produces far more waste across far more land. We must do better.
Your third task entails facilitating a radical change from the linear, often high input, Green Revolution models of industrial agriculture that currently dominate our landscapes. Instead we have to move towards integrated closed loop, or circular, models that leave little or no waste.
The term ‘circular economy’  draws on the principles of nature and applies them to industrial economies. Natural systems produce no waste; they only produce by-products that are then cycled back into other systems. A circular economy seeks to achieve the same for its industrial base using the financial levers that drive that it.
In terms of industrial agriculture there is great potential to marry isolated, linear systems together into those that better mimic nature and in doing so move that much closer to being a circular system. And I believe permaculture ethics and principles can inform and guide these changes. We can grow more with less and on less land. I’ve seen this concept in action and trust me; it’s the future of primary production.
Our financial systems also need to evolve so we can incentivise those who protect and build natural capital, those who contribute and integrate into a circular economy, and penalise those who don’t. By improving our management practices for industrial agriculture and the greater economies they serve, we provide a practical response to divisive topics such as climate change. We can respond in a way that is good for all, as it provides more for less, both economically and environmentally.
Heal Yourself and Your Community
With tasks one through three in play we might well be on our way to solving this planetary crisis. What remains is a more personal task of fueling our bodies and minds to last the journey. We must also look after ourselves.
We are all essentially children of nature but many of us find ourselves isolated from nature through modern constructs and concrete. These barriers often isolate us from our community as well and in many ways prove to be unbalancing.
Task four, treat yourself well, grow some of your own superior produce even if it’s just a few herbs, a small patch of spuds or a single fruit tree. I’m a firm believer that we are what we eat and any produce can be a ‘superfood’ if you grow it well.
If we eat produce that’s full of the right minerals and vitamins, some call it nutrient dense produce, then we can build and maintain peak cellular health. With peak cellular health we feel better and we think better. We’re also more capable of defending ourselves from disease.
Epigenetic scientists, those who study gene expression influenced by mechanisms other than changes in our underlying DNA, are beginning to demonstrate that aspects of our own health condition, that essentially come from what we eat and how we live, are passed on to our offspring, the next generation. So we will pass on good genes to the next generation of ‘ecosystem engineers’.
By developing your own sacred groves you can reconnect with nature and your community. Community orchards and food forests provide an ideal way to begin, and will build communities with greater solidarity and self-reliance.
I have first hand experience with community gardens, as a member and as an administrator. It continues to astound me how they can serve as community linchpins bringing neighbours from all walks of life together as a community. They are truly wondrous things.
Moving on and in…
If you’re interested in further exploring some of the challenges and concepts I’ve briefly covered, look to the references at the end of this publication. I highly recommend both the World Wildlife Foundation Living Planet Report  and the UN Trade and Environment Review  as good base level reading for the challenges at hand.
I also want to stress that while permaculture is what I call what I do, there are folks out there fulfilling the same ecosystem engineer job description who don’t, and some have done so since well before the term permaculture was coined.
We don’t need to be precious about a label and the planet doesn’t care if we are permaculture practitioners, farmers, scientists or agro-ecologists. Over the years I have had the good fortune to learn and experience a wide range of production systems and I can tell you confidently the answers will come from everywhere and everyone.
My focus for this publication now turns back to the orchard, my training ground as a permaculture practitioner.
Much of the material on this site is the result of a permaculture diploma thesis published in 2011. The result of that thesis work is a series of Journals, originally called the permaculture practitioner, which document experience’s and lessons learnt gained in the development of an orchard on the slopes of the lower North Island of New Zealand that I no longer own.
Since that time I’ve added to the journals with [The Scared Groves of Aotearoa] that I hope provides some context to permaculture in light of the global challenges we all face as a species today.
Building onto the journals additional experiences have been documented in [A Community Orchard in Wellington] where most of the imagery on this site was taken. Plus [The Annual and Great Waiheke High School Tour] where the journals are serving some purpose in supporting a worthy school program that deserves attention.
I have always been wary of preachers who have no dirt under their nails. So, unless I see good reason to, I only cover aspects that I have direct experience with. I’ve made too many mistakes not to share them, these writings are very much about sharing and learning from my mistakes and experiences as an aspiring permaculture practitioner. I hope they can be of some value to you.
There are a number of ways I can suggest how you might best leverage this content -  You can read these sections one after the other and they will provide you a stepping stone approach to exploring permaculture.
Following [The Sacred Groves of Aotearoa] we examine what I like to call ‘keystone design’ elements, that if explored provide insight into nature as the master of design, as ecosystem engineers we ultimately look to nature to guide our designs. We then move to a number of techniques, systems and practice’s that I have used extensively as part of permaculture design for healthy orchards. And then we bring all of these elements together into a ‘whole’ design for an orchard system.
Note the journals are presented here one section after another, however for a number of years they have been leveraged as standalone bodies of work. While I am tempted to weave them together as one I don’t believe that will add to the learning, so have decided not to do so.
 I’ve included a field guide for permaculture practitioners that includes topics list, with descriptions, so you can easily locate material while in the field, I tend to do this allot these days.
 Also permaculture ethics and principles are pointed out where they are applied in practical examples, and of course references to further learning are highlighted where appropriate.
Unless otherwise stated this material is freely available for you to use licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivs 3.0 Unported License. To view a copy of this license, visit this website or send a letter to Creative Commons, 171 Second Street, Suite 300, San Francisco, California, 94105, USA
About the Author
I’m a passionate advocate and practitioner of permaculture and have been for nearly two decades now. Having formal training in organics, bio-dynamics, permaculture and conventional farming nutrient management I have been fortunate enough to gain experience across a broad range of production systems.
Much of my focus today is on urban sustainability topics, and as a member of Innermost Community Gardens which is a community resource and a medium to demonstrate permaculture applied for inner city purpose. See this recent interview discussing the importance of community + gardens in the larger global context.
If you would like to contact me you can generally find me at garden days every first and third Sunday at the community gardens. Or you can email me, please note that while it may take some time for me to reply, i always do.
This multipurpose legume can feed my livestock and provide solid fuel for heating and cooking. It can attract insects that in turn provide me with other benefits in the total design, such as honey from bees. It can protect my developing orchard seedlings and nurture the soils in and around the orchard zone. And it can help me restore my wildlife zones that surround the orchard. It has a rapid growth rate, is cheap and easy to propagate and is relatively low maintenance when planted. With so many admiral qualities it’s easy to see why the tagasaste has so much potential for us as a design element.
The tagasaste comes to us from the slopes of Las Palma in the Canary Islands. And it was here that a Dr Perez, a local medical practitioner, promoted it as a fodder crop of high potential back in the 1870s.
I understand tagasaste excels as forage in two ways. Firstly, it has a high crude protein content of up to 20-25% of dry matter and is highly palatable for livestock. Secondly, the tagasaste tree has an extremely rapid growth rate, achieving its full height of 5-8 metres, with minimal care, in as little as five years. Planted along a fence line around a paddock the tagasaste can provide supplemental feed to livestock year round, as well as provide shelter and protection from the elements.
It appears a fair amount of forage research has been conducted in Australia on tagasaste . It’s a popular choice of fodder for sheep and beef production, where other fodder crops would otherwise struggle in the salty arid conditions they have to cope with in parts of Australia.
While I have no direct experience with tagasaste as a fodder crop, from the reading and research I’ve conducted it appears there are a number of potential risks that come with it. See the downsides section further into this journal entry.
For Solid Fuel
The tagasaste regenerates quickly and can be coppiced for firewood from as early as the third season in the ground. The wood itself is reasonably dense and as such makes for good slow burning solid fuel. At the orchard we’ve experienced some surprising growth rates. On one particular season, full of hot days and wet nights, a batch of seedlings planted in late spring reached a height of three metres the following winter. These growth rates were achieved on a topsoil base that only two seasons prior had been inhabited by commercial Monterey Pines (Pinus radiata). So we were dealing with highly acidic (5.3) soils showing a distinct lack of micro and macro flora and very little available macro and trace mineral content.
To Restore our Soils
The ability of this tree to thrive in such arduous conditions and the added benefit of being a legume makes me believe that tagasaste could be used more in general soil restoration projects and for control of soil erosion. Where I live, these problems are particularly acute, as we are a country with the worlds largest man made forests. These forests are currently being cleared faster than they’re being replanted and converted into paddocks to support our burgeoning dairy industry.
In botanical terms the tagasaste is a member of the family Fabaceae (or Leguminosae) or Legumes. And legumes are particularly useful as a design element because they have the ability to fix atmospheric nitrogen.
Legumes don’t actually fix the nitrogen themselves rather they achieve this through a symbiotic relationship with compatible bacteria such as Rhizobia and other closely related species. The bacteria attach themselves to the root system of the host legume and feed off the root exudates. They then fix the nitrogen and make it available to the host legume. So we have a natural collaboration that provides nitrogen on site in the topsoil without having to purchase it or even spread it. It would be fair to say our legume gets first dibs on the nitrogen produced. In fact much of the nitrogen ends up in the various seedpods produced by legumes. Overall though we do get a net benefit of nitrogen in the surrounding soil.
Now the tagasaste is fairly promiscuous when it comes rhizobial relationships. So there’s a good chance it will form root nodules with the native rhizobia already in your soil. Rhizobial relationships are just one example of the many ways in which plants orchestrate and control the soil microbiology to their own advantage. And we’ll explore these aspects in some more detail in Journal entry four.
For Native Forest Regeneration
As an added benefit for those of us living in New Zealand I see tagasaste being recommended as a friendly exotic pioneer in native forest regeneration. Our Kereru, New Zealand’s native wood pigeon, has a particular penchant for tagasaste, especially at times when other food sources are low in winter. And in native forest regeneration, Kereru are highly valued contributors, as they eat, and subsequently discharge, the fruit and seeds of many native plants. A Kereru poop is like a seed bomb full of organic fertiliser loaded with seed pretreated to grow. So our fair-feathered gardeners will prepare, fertilize and plant native seeds. All we have to do is lure them in with tagasaste. The advantage of using tagasaste trees for this purpose is that they’re not likely to get out of control as they are relatively short-lived trees in New Zealand, from the accounts I’ve seen typically surviving no longer than 20 - 30 years, and at five to eight metres in height after a number of years the native canopy shades them out so they recede and die.
Some Tagasaste Application Notes from the Orchard
At the orchard, ably supported by a volunteer crew of family and friends, we’ve planted several hundred tagasaste in and around the orchard over the last three years. Our initial efforts to get the seedlings away weren’t very successful for a number of reasons relating to weather, pests and soil types. But after further research and adaptation of our planting plan and practices we can now pretty much count on the majority surviving that critical first season. Some propagation tips further in this Journal entry have been developed with these lessons learnt so hopefully you won’t make the same mistakes I have. In the orchard we planted one tagasaste to every fruit tree at four-metre intervals. Most of the seedlings are between one and two years older than the fruit trees so they can act as nurse trees for the seedlings protecting them from the elements. All of our trees are planted next to an irrigation channel, made by a mole plough, having a pointed shoe at the end of a long tip, to a depth of one metre and running one metre in from the orchard terrace edges. This ensures that any natural rainfall runs along and down these irrigation channels to feed the trees. We have no other irrigation in use.
The tagasaste also supports our orchard development in other ways. Each tagasaste tree sends a small number of taproots deep down into the soil. These taproots, I am told, can extend as far down at ten metres into the soil where water and minerals can be collected and passed back up to its feeder roots. The feeder roots extend up and around the topsoil layer thus supporting the restoration of the soils supporting my fruit trees and those nitrogen-fixing bacteria. That very same root system extends throughout the orchard topsoil to prevent soil subsidence and leaching.
Bees also love tagasaste flowers so by planting tagasaste beside my fruit trees I support the pollination process. I could further utilize the bees to provide honey if I chose to. While not implemented yet, this is something very much on my ‘to do’ list.
Tagasaste are fairly easily propagated from seed. Though you will need to scarify the seeds to get them to germinate. Scarification is a natural process involved in the germination of seed. It involves breaching the natural seed coating by mechanical, thermal or microbiological methods. In the case of tagasaste the most effective scarification method I’m aware of is to soak the seed in recently boiled water for one minute before sowing. When you sow your seeds it’s a good idea to include some soil from under the parent tree into your potting mix. That soil should serve to inoculate your new seedling roots with the same compatible nitrogen-fixing bacteria employed by its parent.
A fully-grown tagasaste is quite frost hardy, down to -9 degrees Celsius. I learnt the hard way that tagasaste seedlings are quite susceptible to frost and should be planted well after the last frost. Conditions present on the slopes of Las Palmas provide us with some important clues as to the growing conditions required of tagasaste. Tagasaste enjoy reasonably dry friable soil types and can struggle in wet boggy soil. In these conditions they can get root rot and die quite quickly. Being a coastal tree tagasaste are fairly salt tolerant. Tagasaste are very tolerant of pruning and it pays to prune them to suit the form you’re looking for otherwise they tend to go a bit straggly. To grow well, tagasaste benefit from a reasonable amount of phosphate, and for those of us in New Zealand, this can be a problem, as our volcanic soils tend to retain phosphate in a form that’s unavailable to our plant roots.
Based on the evidence of a soil test, to boost the phosphate process, we applied 40 milligrams per square metre of reactive phosphate rock (RPR) once in spring, for the first two seasons. RPR is a slow release phosphorous. Please understand these quantities, or any other provided in this journal entry, should not be considered as recommended guidelines. They are simply what I decided to implement at the time..
Now while RPR is a great source of phosphate I’m mindful of the fact that RPR can only be obtained from sources outside of my own country. So there is an embedded energy cost involved with RPR that makes it unsustainable for continued use. Also be aware that RPR is a byproduct of uranium mining, as the elements often occur together. Sources from different regions around the world have shown higher than normal levels of radiation and cadmium. So if you’ve determined that you need phosphate and you use RPR check with your supplier about the source first and what guarantees they can provide you of its safety.
Research is coming to light that shows that soils with high levels of microbial activity and humus are able to lock up toxins, and to a certain extent radioactive elements, through a complex biosequestration process. However should these fungal dominated processes die down then the pollutants can just as easily return to biological circulation.
By using RPR we’re helping the seedlings to get away so that they in turn assist with the soil restoration process. Ongoing and sustained use of RPR without reason could actually hinder the soil restoration process. Let me explain, In much the same way as TV dinners stop people cooking, ongoing use of phosphate may send out signals to my plant community to stop nurturing the natural processes involved in mining phosphate. To explain this a little better I need to touch on the important role of fungi in our soils and another symbiotic relationship plants have with a specific type of fungi called mychorrhizal fungi.
Fungi play a crucial role in the health of our soils. There are over 100,000 known kinds of fungi and some believe ten times that waiting to be discovered. There is one particular group known as mychorrhizal fungi that play a vital role in unlocking nutrients from the soil and making them available to plants.
Mychorrhizal fungi form symbiotic relationships with plants and in exchange for root exudates they mine the soils for nutrients and water and then deliver these directly to the root systems of our plants. They can effectively extend the reach of a plant root system by an order of 700 to 1000 times!
In the book Teaming with Microbes by Jeff Lowenfel’s and Wayne Lewis  fungi is described as living containers of fertiliser. And this is a good way to envisage how fungi can work for you in the orchard. Fungi are particularly adept at mining phosphorous, and other nutrients such as calcium, copper, iron, magnesium and zinc. And they do this by releasing powerful enzymes that unlock these nutrients from the soil and then transport those back to our plants root systems in an available form.
It is now believed that up to 95% of all plants have mychorrhizal relationships. And it is also known that while fungi are hugely beneficial they are also extremely intricate and fragile. Such things as pollution and rototilling can easily disrupt them.
Continued use of RPR may undermine the natural relationships my plant community has with mychorrhizal fungi. In a way it’s like I’m flooding the nutrient pool within the orchard with a freely available resource and the plant community could well decide to limit the exudate production as a consequence. So we need to find ways to promote the fungi in our soils and they’ll do the hard work of unlocking key nutrients and minerals, such as phosphorous, for us. To support this natural process at the orchard we applied 300 grams of lime per square metre on an annual basis. Into season four, with more soil testing, it was decided for the time being that these regular applications were no longer needed. We’ll go into some detail on this and soil testing in journal entry seven. We applied lime because we want to use the calcium that’s in lime.
Lime can be obtained in numerous forms. It will work faster if you apply a finer grind. To get the best out of a lime application it pays to supplement it with the trace elements Boron and Cobalt along with some high quality humic acid granules to chelate and hold all of these amendments in the root zone better. The cobalt contributes to B-12 formation and works with boron to make the calcium in the lime more available.
Note: In researching types of lime for the orchard I discovered in Nourishment Home Grown, by Dr A. E. Beddoe , that Dolomite, a calcium magnesium blend, should be avoided, as every pound of magnesium available in soil chemistry will release a pound of nitrogen. On the flipside it’s good to know that we can use magnesium in certain forms, some use Epsom salts, to reduce soil nitrogen in and around our plants if need be.
Unfortunately rabbits, hares and possums all saw my tagasaste seedlings as fine dining. Failure to protect them meant rapid and certain devastation. Over the years I’ve developed a four-point pest protection plan that works well. My current protection plan involves spraying, or dipping, new seedlings with a commercial product that I believe is made up of egg powder mixed into a resin. When applied to plants, on a dry day, it sticks to the leaves and makes them unpalatable to rabbits, possums and hares. If you apply this formula as your seedlings are being planted it’s very effective.
A homegrown alternative can be made though I don’t have any experience with this. To make one litre (protects 50 seedlings) take five fresh eggs mix with 600 ml of water and add 150 ml of acrylic paint (preferably white with a reasonable solids %) and mix well. Spray about 20 ml onto each seedling. It would pay to try this formula out on a test tree first.
The first encounter a pest has with your seedling is vitally important, as the pest will establish a foraging routine. So if they are deterred first off then the chances of your seedling being eaten down the track is much reduced. As the tagasaste is so rapid in its growth habit I tend to spray with this resin every six months to ensure complete foliage cover up until they’re big enough to survive the foraging. Secondly I protect the new seedlings with a physical barrier. At the Orchard I install plastic tree guards as the seedlings are planted. These tree guards stay on until the third season. Then I apply a commercially available paste that produces a smell that deters possums from foraging. Lastly I’ve installed possum kill traps in the bush surrounding the orchard. These traps are quick and merciful and as they are installed on the side of a tree so the risk of trapping non-target species is largely mitigated. Any deceased possums are recycled in and around the fruit trees.
A Natural Approach
So you can see at the orchard we’ve used tagasaste to accelerate a significant soil restoration process and to protect our slower growing fruit trees.
While conventional orchards tend to focus on the immediate soil conditions around the root ball of fruit bearing trees, we’re using tagasaste and a number of other similarly important design elements to facilitate a whole health approach where the ecosystem in and above the ground is healthy and natural. Ultimately this approach, while more work intensive at it’s inception, is more balanced and aligned with nature, so the effort to maintain this regime down the track should be reduced. It took three years to get our soils to the point where we even considered putting in the first fruit trees. And today our trees would still be considered seedlings, so I’m not declaring victory yet, but already we’re noticing the reduction in ongoing maintenance required. I strongly suspect this has much to do with the whole health approach we’ve taken.
I can’t say I’ve found much of a downside working with tagasaste for my purposes, in my own bioregion. Though, as with every element in a design, there is always the potential for it to behave differently in other conditions and/or environments.
While I have no direct experience with tagasaste as a fodder crop from the reading and research I’ve conducted it appears there are a number of potential risks that come with it…
I’ve heard of a rare condition observed in some cattle in Australia called `tagasaste staggers’. This condition is thought to be caused by mycotoxins, which are toxins produced by fungi that readily colonize crops, on tagasaste when in flower. If you’re concerned about this then perhaps you could consider planting the tagasaste as a windbreak away from the fence line of your paddocks so you can regulate foraging to suit.
Also phenolic compounds (tannin like compounds) are produced by tagasaste when under stress, said to be more prevalent in summer, and can interfere with the protein metabolism in a ruminant leading to a protein deficiency. Supplemental feeds with a high protein source such as lupins to your animals in autumn are recommended to overcome this problem.
Tagasaste also really struggles without free draining soil so for many of you reading this Journal entry it may not pan out to be as useful for you as I find it. Though don’t despair, there is likely to be an alternative option in the same family that will be better suited to your local conditions.
Alternatives Legumes to Consider
The Leguminosae Family really has a lot to offer us as permaculture practitioners. If you don’t have access to tagasaste where you live, and/or your local conditions don’t suit it, then there’s a fair chance you can find a substitute, with similar benefits, within the same family that will grow well …
Masanobu Fukuoka, in his book “The One-Straw Revolution” , talks of the morishima acacia, which is utilised in his Orchards, in Japan, in much the same way as I have with tagasaste. He notes the ability of the morishima acacia as a legume to nurture soils, as an attractant for beneficial bugs such as ladybirds and bees, as a windbreak and as a fodder crop for livestock. We will discuss insights from Masanobu Fukuoka in more detail in journal 5 on understory. This is one of the books I always have nearby.
Members of the genus Caragana, which comprise some 80 species of flowering plants in the family Fabaceae, could also provide an alternative. The Siberian Pea Shrub (Caragana arborescens) has a similar archetype to tagasaste and is well known to be an excellent source of protein for poultry and source of pollen for bees. It has also been noted as an excellent windbreak and in its ability to prevent soil subsidence.
The Mgunga Tree (Faidherbia albida) from the savannas of Africa has been widely publicized recently as local scientists have discovered that it can boost nearby maize crop yields by an order of 280 percent. As a legume it fixes and accumulates nitrogen and then, at the same time farmers are sowing their crops, the Mgunga goes dormant and drops its nitrogen rich leaves onto the soil for the maize crops to take advantage of at just the right time a nitrogen boost is needed.
Other members of the Acacia genus such as A. pravissima, A. retinoides and A. cultriformis are said to demonstrate many of the same qualities as tagasaste and are able to handle clay soils that tagasate won’t tolerate.
Alfalfa is a widely used legume in agriculture used as a soil conditioner and forage crop for cattle. We’ll look more into the use of legumes, and pasture species, as a component of an Orchard `Understory’ in a later Journal entry.
The botanical name for the tagasaste is Chamaecytisus palmensis. From the Latin translation we have charmae, meaning prostrate or on the ground, and cytisus meaning clover. And palmensis provides us with the plant origin, which is Las Palma.
There’s a paddock not far from the orchard that’s covered in row upon row of comfrey. The soil in that paddock is some of the best soil I’ve ever seen. It’s the colour of dark chocolate and it’s teeming with life. It’s soft, friable and it smells like well-matured compost. I now know, after working with comfrey for some time, that these are the tell tale signs of a well-established Comfrey plot. Comfrey is good for your soil!
When I first saw that paddock, some years ago, it was the first time I’d seen comfrey in action. I already knew comfrey was supposed to be good for your soil but to see it working its magic on such a scale really got me excited. It felt like I’d discovered something new and important. After some investigation I found out that the benefits of comfrey were indeed well researched and publicised decades ago. And the results of that research were quite outstanding and profound. With so many redeeming features It just seems odd to me that comfrey isn’t as well known as it should be today.
Well I think it’s time for the world to rediscover comfrey, the King of Accumulators, and I believe comfrey has the potential to address many of the problems now facing modern agriculture as a component of an approach more in tune with nature. And I hope this journal entry provides a worthy introduction to you on the benefits of comfrey.
Common comfrey (Symphytum officinale) comes to us from the hedgerows of Europe and has a long and rich history more so as a medicinal herb than for its application in agriculture.
I’m no Physician so I’m not going to tell you how to use comfrey to improve your health. But what I can tell you is the history of common comfrey as an agent of healing.
Perdanius Dioscorides , a Greek physician who practiced in ancient Rome during the time of Nero, made the first documented record of a medicinal herb known as `Knitbone’ over 2000 years ago in Materia Medica , the precursor to all modern pharmacopeias, used as part of a poultice to close up wounds and as a tea in treating `bloodspitters’ and `hernias’
Over the years comfrey has been spoken of as an `old women’s remedy’ attributed with a slew of astonishing cures of various maladies of the digestive system and in accelerating healing for wounds and broken bones, hence the name Knitbone. I believe its healing qualities are largely attributed to a substance found in the roots and terminal buds of comfrey called Allantoin. Allantoin, first discovered in the allantois (part of a developing mammal embryo) and also excreted by maggots as they debride wounds, is a cell proliferant.
Though today most modern herbal references will caution against internal consumption of comfrey due to the presence of natural toxins known as hepatoxic pyrrolizidines, which, in certain levels, are known to cause acute reactions and/or slower chronic conditions of the liver.
Our attention in this journal entry turns to the modern hybrids of comfrey and their application in the garden and orchard. The modern cultivated comfrey we use in the garden and orchard, or Russian comfrey (S. peregrinum), is thought to be a first cross hybrid of the common comfrey (S. officinale), and prickly comfrey (S. asperrimum).
Known for it ‘mucilaginous’ properties, in the late 1880’s, Henry Doubleday tried unsuccessfully to develop stamp glue from comfrey. With more research Doubleday came to understand the potential for comfrey as a fodder crop and as a source of protein and spent the last 30 years of his life researching and promoting comfrey. It was his dream that comfrey would one day feed a hungry world.
Lawrence D Hills, who established the Henry Doubleday Research Centre in 1954, continued Doubleday’s research. He identified a number of parent strains and from those 30 distinct varieties. He decided at the time that each variety would be identified by the word `Bocking’ the place where his first trial plots were grown, and a number. The most common variety of comfrey used for agriculture is bocking number 14 as it has very high potash content compared with other varieties and is a very hardy plant.
A Mineral Mine
In Comfrey, Past, Present and Future, Lawrence D Hills describes comfrey as a mineral mine for plants. By deploying a series of taproots that extend deep down into the soil comfrey is able to extract and accumulate large quantities of potassium (around 7%) and to a lesser extent phosphorous (around 1%), calcium (around 3%), magnesium and other trace elements.
The comfrey leaves act as storage bins for the cache of extracted minerals. The resulting proportions of minerals stored make for a well-balanced, readily available form of fertiliser that’s ideal for many of our most popular crops such as potatoes, onions, tomatoes and citrus fruit.
The comfrey leaves themselves have so little fiber and so much protein, resulting in a carbon to nitrogen ratio of 14:1, that they will break down rapidly when harvested. For this reason comfrey has been referred to as `Instant Compost’. I like this term because it gets you thinking of comfrey as an instant compost source and the ways in which you can use that compost. Comfrey leaves are commonly applied as a layer in the build process of compost piles, as an `activator’, employed to fuel the composting process.
Kay Baxter’s book, The Koanga Gardening Guide  has a liquid fertiliser recipe based on comfrey. In a barrel pack it with comfrey leaves and then fill it up with water. Stir it daily and once the green leaves have disintegrated remove the fibrous stalks with a garden fork. The resulting liquid fertiliser is perfect for tomatoes and indeed many of your other gross feeders undiluted. Kay also recommends leaving the drum uncovered as hover flies; beneficial predators who like eating aphids, love to lay eggs in the liquid feed barrels. You’ll see what look like maggots with long tails wiggling through the water. They’re the hover fly larvae.
My own liquid fertiliser set up is fairly rudimentary but it works. I like to keep two on the go; one prepared a week before the other. This means during spring and summer I always have access to liquid fertiliser. Using Kay’s recipe I prepare mine in large plastic rubbish bins chalking the date prepared on each so I have an idea of when I can use them. I prepare them well away from the house so I can leave the lids open for hover flies and wont upset everyone at home with the smell.
Stir it daily and after about a week you’ll notice a putrid smell coming from the liquid. This is a sign that the proteins from the comfrey leaves are beginning to break down. Continue stirring daily and after approximately 10 days, once the leaves have disintegrated, I extract my liquid fertiliser from the rubbish bin with a nine-litre bucket and pour it wholesale over my garden beds. The remaining fibre, left at the bottom of the rubbish bin, is cycled through the compost heap.
Sometimes I find it just as convenient to work raw comfrey leaves in where I need it. I hand cut my comfrey with a machete and then run over the leaves with a lawn mower so I end up with an easily applied mulch amendment. If you do this be careful to cut well above the base of the leaf otherwise you may inadvertently end up transplanting sections of the crown root and you’ll end up with comfrey popping up all over the place.
A comfrey barrier, using modern cultivated comfrey, planted around a garden can provide a very effective barrier for weeds, like Kikuyu (Pennisetum clandestinum), and also provide a healthy supply of raw comfrey leaf for your liquid fertiliser. But be careful to ensure you don’t plant comfrey close to anywhere that will be dug over at any stage. Comfrey roots extend beyond the reach of the plants themselves. So be sure to account for this when you plan your weed barrier and make sure the variety you have is indeed the modern non-self seeding variety. See the propagation tips later in this journal.
Comfrey leaves can be used at the time of planting various crops such as potatoes and onions. Extensive trials in the United Kingdom and elsewhere have shown that potatoes provide consistently heavier yields if they are grown in trenches laid with comfrey leaf. In New Zealand this would only be possible for mid and late potatoes, as the comfrey will still be dormant when its time to plant early potatoes. Though for early potatoes you can incorporate cut comfrey leaves to good effect into the soil as you heap soil around the growing plant.
You can grow comfrey just where it’s needed as a fertiliser and that’s what we’ve done at the Orchard, more on this later.
Russian comfrey is a perennial fodder crop, in the Lucerne class for nutritional value. By volume comfrey can produce twenty times more protein than soya beans! The world record comfrey production in a single growing season is 124 tons from an acre plot; in temperate regions 50-60 tons are possible. So as a source of fodder all of this means you can feed more livestock from less land.
Lawrence D Hills amassed a good deal of information from those using comfrey as a source of fodder. I have no practical experience in this topic at the orchard though I thought it appropriate to share some insights.
What I found of great interest reading through Comfrey, Past, Present and Future, is that with an average protein content of 24% of dry matter and low average fibre content of around 10% comfrey makes for an ideal fodder supplement source for pigs and poultry.
Comfrey has in the past been used as supplemental food for pigs particularly for fattening and for sows to boost milk production. It has also been used very effectively as a cure for scouring in pigs and other livestock.
Comfrey and poultry are thought to be highly compatible. The digestive systems of the fowl are quite intolerant of fibre. With too much fibre in their diets their digestive systems can slow down and egg production will drop. A good rule of thumb, to maximize egg production, is to keep the total fibre content of your poultry diet to between 5 and 8%, and nearer to the lower limit the better. This is where comfrey can play a role. Extensive trials in United Kingdom during the 1950’s showed poultry to be consistently healthier when fed comfrey as part of their mash. Egg production was boosted, egg yolks were yellower and richer tasting due to an increase in vitamin A, and the eggs showed a marked increase in riboflavin, niacin and vitamin B12.
Comfrey is one of a select few in the plant kingdom able to synthesize vitamin B12. For vegetarians, who rely on eggs and milk as a primary source of vitamin B12, B12 boosted eggs from poultry fed on a diet supplemented with comfrey could well be worth further research and exploration.
Talking to some folks who have experience with comfrey and poultry I understand that for many animals comfrey is an acquired taste. You may be able to wean them onto comfrey but the best way is to introduce it is when they’re young so it becomes a staple in their diets otherwise it may be ignored. A good way to feed comfrey to poultry is cut, thrashed and left hanging in the chicken run. Comfrey planted just away and along the perimeter of the run can also provide regular access to comfrey leaf.
If you have room you could implement a dedicated comfrey plot then run chickens through the plot to keep the plot weed free (In most cases the chickens will seek out the weeds in preference to the comfrey). By doing this you will also allow the chickens to fertilise the comfrey. Then when the comfrey is cut it can be feed back to the chickens in their coops. This is something I’m looking forward to trialing at some stage in the near future on another site.
Note: There is some potential for the bioaccumulation of certain natural occurring toxins, known as hepatoxic pyrrolizidines, in the products of animals fed on comfrey. An aspect we’ll discuss at the end of this journal entry.
Some Comfrey Application Notes from the Orchard
At the orchard we’ve planted comfrey in a ring of four to six plants around every fruit tree. It’s so vigorous that it suppresses other weeds that might compete with my fruit trees for nutrients.
By planting comfrey around the root zone of my trees I let it work for me in collecting minerals, the major proportion of which is potassium, and nutrients and then depositing them in the topsoil layer as they die down over winter. Trees only begin storing potassium when the temperature gets below 15 degrees Celsius so you can see these events coincide quite nicely.
The potassium we get from comfrey can make our trees stems stronger and the leaves thicker. When in fruit production potassium determines how many fruit are set and how large the fruit will be.
The comfrey also retains moisture around our trees. This is good news for the trees and also for the community of life in the orchard. As we don’t use any artificial irrigation at the orchard this is particularly useful during those long hot days encountered over summer.
I’ve heard from others who have planted comfrey too close to their trees experiencing rot and disease so best to keep your planting around the root zone leaving a gap between your comfrey plants and the tree trunk.
The comfrey will continue unaided to improve the soil structure in the orchard with those deep reaching taproots. And it will do so for the life of the orchard!
The modern cultivated comfrey that’s most common today doesn’t propagate well by seed. This is because the flowers have a false bottom that blocks insects from pollinating them. You may notice little holes in the side of your comfrey flowers made by bees as a successful workaround for this particular pollen harvesting challenge. Though the result is that pollination just doesn’t quite work for modern cultivated comfrey.
So we can’t propagate modern cultivated comfrey easily by seed, which means comfrey won’t take over. It stays where it’s put. This is a good thing because once you plant comfrey it’s very hard to remove. When you plant a comfrey plot there’s a good chance you’ll have it for life so plan carefully.
Comfrey will grow in most soil types though the soil needs to be reasonably loose and friable so those tap roots can dig their way deep enough down into the soil for the plant to thrive.
Comfrey is very easily propagated either through root cuttings or root crown sets. Any piece of root cutting is likely to produce a new comfrey plant so long as it’s kept moist and submerged in the soil. All you need to do is ensure is that the thicker end of the root is at the top of an upright planted cutting and make sure you keep the immediate area weed free.
Another way that I’ve propagated comfrey successfully is to cut the roots into 4-5cm lengths, put them in a damp coffee sack and hang the sack in any environment where it’s warm and deprived of light. Over the course of a few weeks keep the sack damp, the root cuttings will sprout and they can then be transplanted directly into the soil.
The method I prefer and use the most is to pot my root cuttings and sprout them in my hot house before transplanting. I get a near 100% success rate with this method and for me it’s less work. With a couple of friends helping me I can easily pot two hundred or so root cuttings in a couple of hours. And I know I’ll end up with two hundred comfrey plants ready to transplant four weeks later.
Root crown sets are also easily propagated. Using a spade it’s a fairly easy task to slice off the root crowns and then cut them into cubes of around four cubic centimeters, then plant them in much the same way as you would a root cutting. From my experience root crown sets will bloom almost immediately after transplanting.
Don’t worry about the donor plants where you took your cuttings. Within a matter of weeks you’ll find new leaves emerging from the ground where you previously harvested.
The best time of the year to propagate comfrey is late spring when the new growth on the donor plants has matured. This is about the same time you would first harvest your comfrey leaf. Though don’t worry too much if you can’t at this time as comfrey cuttings will come away at most times during spring and summer.
So once you have your cuttings sprouted and transplanted then the only other task is to feed them nitrogen. Comfrey needs a good deal of nitrogen to grow well. A comfrey plot is in effect a method of exchanging crude nitrogen for a balanced organic fertiliser.
Two good sources of natural nitrogen that you could use are poultry manure and/or urine. Two parts water to one part urine makes for a perfect comfrey fertiliser applied whenever you feel the need. Another option is to install a pigeon loft right where you’re growing comfrey. The Pigeons will fertilise the comfrey for you every morning and evening.
If you’re using comfrey around your fruit trees I would advise against harvesting these for your liquid fertiliser. Better to use a dedicated comfrey plot or harvest from your weed barrier.
The Comfrey Plot
I have two dedicated plots of comfrey back at home. One of these is on a hillside that was previously covered in wandering willie (Tradescantia fluminensis) and greater bindweed (Calystegia silvatica). Over the course of two seasons these weeds have been well suppressed and I can now harvest the comfrey leaf from this plot for my liquid fertliser.
So when you establish your plot keep the area around the comfrey weed free. This is especially important in the first season while the comfrey is establishing itself. And in later seasons be sure to clear the weeds out around the comfrey in spring when the first comfrey shoots start appearing.
A comfrey plot should be regularly cut throughout the season. The world record plots for comfrey production recorded up to six cuts in a single growing season. I typically do four. Though in the first season after planting don’t harvest any comfrey leaf so the plants can develop and put all of their energy into getting those tap roots as deep down as possible into the soil.
If you’re soils are poor then you will need to feed your comfrey plants plenty of nitrogen to get them established. See suggestions for feeding in the propagation tips. In one of my plots at home I’ve sown white clover (Trifolium repens) and red clover (Trifolium pratense) as an understory to the comfrey. As clover is a legume it will fix nitrogen into the surrounding soil and it will help suppress the weeds in and around the comfrey.
As far as I’m aware comfrey doesn’t have any major pest problems. It is a member of the order Boraginacae and as such avoids the multitude of viruses and eelworms that most modern crops seem to struggle with.
Comfrey likes lots of water and if the taproots can’t get down far enough into the soil then it may suffer from water stress and be attacked by things like leaf miners.
A Natural Approach
At the orchard we’ve use comfrey to nurture our soils and feed our trees. I know that comfrey will continue to do this, unaided, for the lifetime of our orchard. So we’re saving on labour costs.
Comfrey also saves us money as once established we can rely on it to make available to our orchard trees many of the important mineral and nutrients present in the soil. And we know that it does all this work sustainably and in a way that does no harm to the orchard and supporting environment.
Once you plant it then it’s very hard to remove. Though I believe pigs are very good at comfrey eradication as they dig into the soil and eat the roots out completely. I’ve also had reports of geese eradicating comfrey, as they love eating comfrey above all other plants, and successive sheet mulching eradicating comfrey. But I don’t have first hand experience with either of these.
As described earlier another potential downside would have to be the presence of hepatoxic pyrrolizidines, or PA’s, in comfrey. PA’s are naturally occurring toxins found in around 6000 plants across a number of plant families.
PA’s have been known to cause acute reactions and/or other slower chronic conditions of the liver. As a result most modern herbal references will caution against internal consumption of comfrey.
What I’m interested in is the implications of these PA’s for me in the garden. And while I haven’t done this yet I’m considering using comfrey as a supplemental feed for my chooks back at home. Here’s what I discovered so far…
PA’s have been found in milk ( Panter and James, 1990), eggs and honey (Jameson et al., 1990) in some cases from animals foraging, or fed teas, from ragwort, another plant containing PA’s. Though I’ve not seen any such studies done on the presence of PA’s from products of animals foraging on comfrey. If you do find some information on this please let me know.
There is also some uncertainty about the safe levels of these compounds ( Dolan et al., 2010 and references within) that might present a danger to animals and humans. In Comfrey, Past, Present and future, the edition I have was published in 1976, Lawrence d Hill shares a significant body of research presented by Dr D. B. Long that attempts to determine just that…
Dr Long notes that “Prolonged and extensive use of comfrey herbage as a feeding stuff for animals has failed to reveal any deleterious effects, but rather that of considerable benefit to the health of livestock”
So studies were conducted on the alkaloid content and toxicity between the chemistry department of the University of Exeter, the Toxicology Unit of the Medical Research Council at Carshalton and the Michaelis Nutritional Research Laboratory at Harpenden. From the research conducted, with the help of quite allot of rats and a fair amount of comfrey from differing strains and hybrids, and other considerations, Dr Long asserts “that it may be concluded there is no toxic hazard from the use of comfrey herbage”
Tests on various parent strains and hybrids showed that the modern cultivated comfrey hybrids, the ones we generally use, to have far less alkaloid concentrations in them than that of the wild variety prickly comfrey (S. asperrimum). It was also interesting to note that these tests indicated the alkaloid under test proved to be quite an unstable compound and easily oxidized. Dr Long hypothesizes that, as livestock tend to eat comfrey only when it’s `wilted’, at that time enzymatic breakdown of the alkaloids in question could well have begun.
I’ve noted similar observations with respects to ragwort. It appears under certain conditions, including aerobic composting, that PA’s in ragwort break down relatively quickly, in weeks, (Crew et al., 2009).
So that’s what I’ve discovered so far. Providing recommendations and/or guidance to you on this topic is not something I’m comfortable with as it’s not my area of expertise. Though if I have one recommendation it’s that you do your own reading on this topic and if you can get hold of a copy of Comfrey, Past Present and Future, so you can review Dr Long’s body of research for yourself.
Personally, I can speak for myself, I remain comfortable in how I use comfrey in the garden and orchard as a mineral accumulator around my trees, as a liquid fertiliser and compost and mulch amendment.
As a potential fodder crop I’m comforted by the research presented by Dr Long. Though I’m equally confounded by the ongoing debate that appears to continue on this topic. Given the obvious potential comfrey has as a fodder crop it would be good to see more research conducted on this topic. I’m keen to explore the concept of using `wilted’ comfrey as a supplement for my chooks. A topic I intend to further research, more on this in the next section.
The botanical nomenclature of comfrey is confused. As such you may see modern cultivated comfrey, or Russian comfrey, going by the name S. uplandicum or more commonly S. peregrinum. Russian comfrey resulted from a rare first hybrid crossing of the Common comfrey (S. officinale), and Prickly comfrey (S. asperrimum).
Comfrey Research - Program Update
Hepatoxic pyrrolizidines, or PA’s, are naturally occurring toxins found in around 6000 plants across a number of plant families. PAs have been shown to exhibit hepatoxicity in mammalian species and bio-accumulate up the food chain, further background provided in the previous section of this site.
The toxins, PA’s, are a concern as there isn’t much known about how dangerous they are, how they travel in the plant and on through to those who consume it. And we don’t know what happens to the toxins when the plant is harvested.
This research program assumes the PA’s are indeed toxic and we’re trying to learn about what happens to them after the plant is harvested. If the program can prove that the toxins do degrade over time concerns about comfrey consumption and the unknowns could be mitigated because we will, after a process, end up with a safe product.
In early 2015 a project was initiated to investigate if pyrrolizidine alkaloids (PAs) in Symphytum spp. (comfrey) plant material degrade during composting. PAs have been shown to exhibit hepatoxicity in mammalian species and bio-accumulate up the food chain. While reported cases have been attributed to chronic exposure rather than acute, it is important to prove that PAs degrade during composting. An analytical method is required to accurately determine levels of PAs in comfrey plant material.
Symphytum spp. (comfrey) plant samples of > 500 grams per sample were taken at the same time and then frozen at 0, 1,2,3 and 4 weeks. Initial tests on the control leaf (0 weeks) utilizing mass spectrometry for previously tested for PAs from other plant products has proved inconclusive.
In order to progress more research is required to better determine the specific PAs involved so a specific standard, test and analytical method can be developed.
Further research has now identified the main PA’s commonly reported in comfrey to be Echimidine, Symlandine and Symphytine. Other PA’s that may be present include Intermedine, Lycopsamine and Lasiocarpine.
For the next set of experiments Echimidine will be used as an external standard, as it is commercial available and is commonly reported in comfrey. Once the external standard is available a lab method will be devised and a test plan initiated for further mass spectrometry on the control leaf, and if successful on test leaves. This will require further funding which at the time of writing is not yet available.
A Rich Bounty of Minerals and Nutrients
At least once a week the dogs and I head down to the local beach for a walk. In the back of the utility wagon I always carry a three-pronged rake and a weed bag. Tools that make collecting seaweed a lot easier. On this particular beach, assuming we’ve had some recent stormy weather, there’s always a reasonable chance we’ll find a good mixture of green, brown, red and white seaweed.
Most of you will have heard that seaweed is good for your gardens and orchards. But what does it provide and how does it help? Well it’s a long list!
At the top of the list would have to be the shear variety of minerals and trace elements seaweed contains. While seaweed contains some amounts of phosphorous, calcium and magnesium I value it more in the orchard for the trace elements it supplies. Seaweed contains upwards of sixty different trace elements that are uncommon in other mineral sources that we might typically use in the orchard.
Thanks to the actions of a number of natural chelating compounds, organic molecules that chemically bond themselves to minerals, present in seaweed the trace elements come in a form that can be immediately taken up by our crops. These chelating compounds not only unlock the trace elements they also hold them nicely in the soil, ready for our crops, so they are less likely to leach away. As an added bonus they continue work on trace elements already locked away in the soil. The net result is a gain of trace elements in excess of the amount supplied by the seaweed.
While small in quantity certain trace elements play a critical role in the development of plants and our trees. To put this into context lets look at just a few of the more notable trace elements and their role in plant development:
So you can see how important trace elements are to our developing trees and to plants in general. Seaweed also synthesizes vitamins. The browns and reds have been used for thousands of years in medicine and as a source for dietary supplements, containing good levels of beta-carotene, B1, B2, *B12, C, D and E. *As I understand it certain bacteria associated to the seaweed we collect contribute the majority of the B12 present with seaweed.
Seaweed, like all living things, contains carbohydrates and lipids that break down to simple sugars and fatty acids respectively to feed the micro flora in our soils. This natural bioconversion process makes nutrients more available to our surrounding crops.
Proteins, too, both structural and active ones like enzymes, also break down firstly to polypeptides and then to amino acids. A small proportion of these molecules may be taken up directly by some crops but these also feed our microflora, which in turn can break these down to elemental nutrients like NPK, etc.
Nucleic acids constitute the genetic material in the cells of seaweed. They’re essentially a specialised polysaccharide, a long chain sugar (carbohydrate), with a phosphate backbone and are therefore rich in phosphorus. The phosphorous is made available to the surrounding micro flora and in turn to our crops as the micro flora biodegrade.
Seaweed also contains polysaccharide molecules known as alginates. Alginates, or alginic acid, can play a role in soil building as they help to form the soil colloid. The salts formed by alginic acid bonding with soil metals act as soil sponges sucking up all the available moisture and retaining that in the soil in and around our plant roots. The soil crumb structure is improved and the roots of our trees find it easier to develop their roots systems. We end up with better water retention and less leaching.
The substances secreted by soil bacteria in the presence of seaweed include organic chemicals known as polyuronides. Chemically similar to alginates these polyuronides also serve to condition and stabilise the soil.
A number of hormones present in seaweed are also very useful in the orchard as promoters of growth. These include gibberellins, known to promote stem growth, and auxins, a class of hormone that promote the coordination and growth of the stems and roots of plants. Auxins are the active constituents in the rooting hormone you buy from the garden centre.
Seaweed supports our crops directly, through minerals, nutrients and hormones and indirectly by supporting the soil building process and the micro flora that live in our soils, which in turn feed our crops.
The merits of seaweed in horticulture have been known for a very long time … A practice known as `lazy beds’ has been practiced for centuries around Ireland and Scotland on coastal areas where little or no topsoil exists. Left to rot in beds seaweed combined with sand or sandy soil and in some cases fish waste has served as a topsoil replacement in which to grow potatoes, turnips, swedes and oats.
When it comes to harvesting seaweed you should check with your local authorities in the first instance to ensure you can indeed collect it legally and which beaches you are allowed to collect it from.
Also as permaculture practitioners we need to be mindful of the fact that everything plays a role in its’ own ecosystem and by removing seaweed from the beach we can disrupt that ecosystem. Beach cast seaweed no doubt provides a habitat and a food source for a myriad of life forms.Ecologically, it makes sense to pick up seaweed on bathing beaches, as authorities are more likely to remove it anyway. I also recommend harvesting only after a storm, when there is plenty to go around, take only what you need and make sure you leave plenty still on the beach to fulfill it’s natural role.
The brown types have far more alginates in them than the others. In brown seaweeds alginates contribute somewhere in the order of 10-30% of dry matter.
By far the easiest way to apply seaweed to an orchard or garden is to incorporate it raw and fresh either in the mulch layer, if you have one, or on top of the sward. By applying raw seaweed you can be sure nothing is lost from the seaweed as it might be if it were processed in some other way.
Though if you don’t live near the sea you can purchase a dry seaweed meal and apply it as you would fresh seaweed. Or you could make a tea out of a commercial seaweed extract.
In Seaweed in Agriculture and Horticulture W.A Stephens , a pioneer in the field of seaweed extracts, shares the results of many field trials using seaweed extract.
In one case in 1965 John Cooke of Funtington in Sussex produced 565 pounds of potatoes from six sets. At the time it was believed to be a world record crop. He achieved these results using a mixture of bone meal, wood ash, straw and compound fertliser as well as cow, pig and poultry manure together with seaweed. The seed potatoes were soaked in a 25 percent solution of seaweed extract for two hours once a fortnight over a six-month period prior to planting. Once planted the potato haulms were foliar fed seaweed extract every two weeks.
Trials on vegetable seedlings showed that when soaked in seaweed extract for 24 hours vegetable seedlings showed much improved root development and suffered little shock when transplanted. Numerous field trials with seaweed extract used as a foliar spray in orchards demonstrated improved fruit production and up to four times the shelf life of fruit once picked when compared to trees not sprayed.
Now some of the commercial processes used for creating seaweed extracts are not easily replicated at home but if you have time and dedication you can make your own.
Some Seaweed Application Notes from the Orchard
In the past, at the orchard, we’ve employed a recipe for making a seaweed extract described in Grasp the Nettle  by Peter Proctor. To make a batch of seaweed extract simply half fill a 40-gallon drum with fresh seaweed then add a quantity of warm water (30 degrees Celsius) to make an initial solution and then top it off with cold water. If you can use rainwater so much the better as fresh rainwater contains less chlorine and chlorine will do its best to inhibit the fermentation process. Leave the drum in a warm place, to assist the fermentation process, and give it a stir once or twice a week to aerate it. In two months you should end up with a sweet smelling clear brown mixture. When that occurs strain it and you’re left with the concentrated liquid.
As we implement biodynamic principles and practices at the orchard we also incorporated biodynamic preparations (502-507) to our tea at the beginning of the fermentation process. We’ll discuss biodynamics and biodynamic techniques in journal entry six.
The resulting concentrate was applied at a rate of 10% to a water solution; once again using rain water if possible, as a foliar spray three times a year at the orchard. Before using your own brew wholesale on your orchard trees you might want to test it out on a small sample area first.
Foliar spraying is a method of applying a specific solution as a spray onto the leaves of plants and trees. This is a pretty expansive, complex topic and one I’m not going to attempt to cover in any great detail in this journal entry. However to understand why we use seaweed as a foliar spray let’s look at the basics behind this practice.
Field trials with seaweed have shown that plants treated, through foliar sprays; with seaweed products have shown improved leaf vigor and better resistance to pests.
It appears from my own reading on the subject that more research is required to fully understand why plants benefit from this specific treatment but many agree that this is due in part to the minerals and trace elements we get from seaweed. Some also believe that naturally occurring antimicrobial substances found in seaweed also contribute to foliar health.
The healthier the leaf the thicker it becomes. And the thicker it becomes, generally speaking, the more sugars it can generate from photosynthesis so the healthier our trees become. The healthier the tree is the more resistant it is to disease and pests.
Foliar spraying can be a highly efficient and targeted treatment but there are many factors governing its success and that is why many report greatly varied results from the application of foliar sprays. To better explain this we need to dig into some basic botany.
Our orchard seedlings gain nutrients from both the soil, through their roots, and from the air, through their leaves. Both are leveraged to get the right levels and balances of energy, nutrients and minerals in place for optimal health. Leaves are responsible for photosynthesis. They achieve this through chlorophyll filled cells, in a region of the leaf known as the mesophyll layer. The skin of the leaf known as the epidermis, and the cuticle, a thin waxy layer covering the epidermis, work together to protect the mesophyll layer from sap sucking insects and from dehydration. Stomata, slit like openings in the leaf surface 9 as can be seen in the image below), also work to regulate hydration, air and plant food energy both in and out of the leaf. Each stomata slit is opened and closed by two modified epidermal cells. These stomata provide us a back door, so to speak, to get the contents of our foliar sprays past the defense systems and into the leaves themselves.
In our fruit trees, as they are deciduous, the majority of stomata can be found on the underside of the leaf. They are extremely sensitive and for foliar feeding to be truly effective we want these stomata to be open as much as possible during spraying. Stomata tend to contract in hot temperatures, to conserve water, so it’s best to apply foliar sprays is in the very early morning or evening when temperatures are a little cooler. When spraying with a backpack sprayer we spray the solution as fine mist. The finer the better and we also tend to spray upwards so we’re achieving good coverage of the underside of the leaf surface.
If you want to get more serious about foliar sprays you can buy specialist spray units that homogenize and electrically charge the solution so it adheres to the leaf surface more effectively. I have no personal experience with these tools.
You can also use the seaweed tea, with a spreading agent such as soap or detergent, as part of a natural insecticide spray. The potassium ions from the seaweed tea are directly insecticidal. So, for example, a good control for aphid infestations would be seaweed and detergent in a dilute spray. The potassium also kicks in to bolster the plant’s general resistance to pest organisms once the initial infestation is suppressed.
Seawater is in itself full of minerals and trace elements. A seawater foliar spray made from one part seawater to twenty parts fresh water is a great addition, from time to time, to your irrigation plan.
My personal experience with foliar spray solutions is limited to seaweed and indeed some biodynamic applications that I’ll cover in journal entry six. Aside of foliar spraying, whenever it’s possible, we also incorporate fresh seaweed around the drip line of our trees at the orchard.
We also apply good quality compost in and around our trees at least twice a year. One of the many components of that compost is seaweed. Aside of the various minerals and nutrients that seaweed provides it also acts as a compost activator so helps to get the compost pile cooking when it’s made.
So what is Good Quality Compost?
So while we’ve touched on the topic, lets take a quick look at what makes for good quality compost.
At a high level compost creation involves microorganisms breaking down raw materials and then synthesizing them into what is known as humus.
In GROW BIOINTENSIVE COMPOSTING and GROWING COMPOST MATERIAL by Ecology Action Staff , humus is described as “A partially decomposed, transformed, synthesized and more `stable’ form of organic matter than the original plant materials.”
Humus is packed with microorganisms, primarily bacteria and fungi, and they provide us with good quantities of nitrogen, biologic carbon and other minerals present in a form that is both stable and available to the soil community. These primary constituents of compost are vital to the health of our soil community. A good quality compost could well have a high humus content of around 30-40% organic matter.
I have a growing collection of GROW BIOINTENSIVE material and have always had John Jeavons - How to Grow More Vegetables than you ever thought possible on less land than you ever imagined - on hand at all times. Ecology Action, the organisation behind the GROW BIOINTENSIVE techniques are rediscovering the principles behind old traditional farming methods through solid science and thorough research.
John Jeavons attests that with GRO BIOINTENSIVE it’s possible to grow an amount of soil in 8 and a half years that it normally takes 500 years to grow’
Now compost and seaweed are literally worlds apart but you can see how they work together to support soil health and that of our orchard trees. In permaculture the design process is very much about finding common connections between design elements and working with them as part and parcel of the whole design implementation. We’ll leave compost there for the moment. In Journal entry six, on Biodynamics, we’re take a closer look, but for now let’s direct ourselves back onto the subject of seaweed.
A Natural Approach
At the orchard we use seaweed in a number of ways to assist the soil building process. We’re also using seaweed to feed the communities that live in the soil and nurture our trees.
The fantastic range of trace elements and nutrients seaweed provides will also be taken up by our trees improving their health and the potential of the fruit we grow.
The work we do with seaweed at the orchard is part and parcel of an overall permaculture design that includes other design elements, techniques and practices working together as system.
Aside of the good things seaweed provides us it also known to bio accumulate toxins and heavy metals if they’re present in the water. And if you introduce such things into your garden there’s a reasonable chance they’ll make it into your crops. So it’s not a good idea to collect seaweed near industrial zones. Find a source that comes from relatively clean water and you should avoid these problems.
The Soil That Feeds the World
I saw my first Aerated Activated Compost Tea bubbling away in a greenhouse at Hohepa Farm at Poraiti on the North Island of New Zealand. I was, at the time, attending a course in applied Organics and Biodynamics. It was for me a life-changing experience full of discoveries.
It was during that course that I was handed a copy of Teaming with Microbes, The Organic Gardeners Guide to the Soil Food Web written by Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis. This book described a community of life that was for the most part hidden from view tending our soils and feeding our crops.
I was, of course, aware of the various inhabitants living in the soil before reading Teaming with Microbes. Bacteria, Fungi, Protozoa, Nematodes, Arthropods and Worms are all familiar names to many of us. Though on reflection I really had no idea of their ways and means, of the complex relationships they share and have with the food we eat.
Teaming with Microbes presents a clear message and that is that all we need to do is work with this community in the soil and in return it will work for us for free. And yet much of the food we produce in the world today is grown in ways that undermines and opposes the soil community. Herbicides, pesticides and soluble fertilisers can disrupt and destroy the delicate balance the soil community strives so hard to maintain in our soils. It just seems so counter intuitive to oppose a community of life whose very existence revolves around making our soils and our crops healthy, and yet, primarily through our own ignorance, many of us do just that.
Leveraging recent research including that of Dr Elaine Ingham, a soil microbiologist renowned for her work with the life that resides in soil, Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis, in Teaming with Microbes, turn the lights on the soil community in a way that’s easy to understand and entirely practical. They describe an approach to soil restoration and health that involves understanding the soil community and working with soil mulches, compost and Aerated Activated Compost Teas, or AACT, as tools in the soil restoration process.
In this Journal entry I’m going to share with you how we’ve utilised AACT as part of an overall soil restoration plan at the orchard.
With AACT we’re simply taking a sample of fungi and bacteria from high quality aerobic compost. And we’re breeding these microbes, through heat, aeration and in some cases additional supplements, in water. The resulting tea can then be applied as a spray and a soil drench. So you can get some of the microbiological benefits of a compost pile over a large area without having to actually spread compost.
Before we dive into our application of AACT let’s first look at a couple of underlying concepts that will help us to understand more about the soil community and where AACT could fit into your own soil health regime …
Plants, Controlling the Soil Community
The soil community is no doubt more complicated than we can imagine. Every day new discoveries are being made about this complex community of life that we so freely influence through our horticultural pursuits. In fact in the time I’ve taken to write this journal entry a new revision of Teaming with Microbes has been published describing a newly discovered member of the soil community call Archaea, previously thought to have only existed in extremely hot water environments such as geysers and hot pools.
Another recent discovery is that plants are very much in charge of the soil community; they manage the soil community to their own benefit. Some of the energy they gain from photosynthesis is used to produce exudates. that are leached into the soil. These exudates, primarily made up of carbohydrates, lipids and proteins, are secreted in and around the plant rhizophere, a zone extending only a few millimeters in and around the plant roots, to attract and feed bacteria and fungi. Bacteria and Fungi are the primary decomposers of the soil community.
There are so many types of bacteria evolved for so many purposes in the soil. But functionally overall they excrete enzymes that are able to break down organic matter into their most basic forms.
Fungi are similar to bacteria in that they also excrete enzymes to break down organic matter. Though there are two important advantages fungi have over bacteria. Firstly the enzymes fungi employ have greater effect on more resistant plant matter than bacterial enzymes. Secondly fungi are much larger than bacteria and unlike bacteria they can grow. Fungal threads, or hyphae, are capable of extending over much greater distances to get the food they want.
So near the bottom of the food chain, these fungi and bacteria in turn attract and are consumed by larger soil microbes such as nematodes and protozoa. And it is the waste products, which includes a cache of minerals and trace elements, from these larger soil microbes that our plants require.
So you see we have a natural bioconversion process controlled by plants to gain the nutrients and minerals they need from the soil. This natural interplay continues as our nematodes and protozoa are in turn consumed by arthropods. Arthropods, animals with segmented bodies, jointed appendages, and a hard outer shell called an exoskeleton, are a large family of creatures. They include such things, as insects and spiders and they tend to eat each other and are also eaten by much larger animals like birds and lizards. These cycles of life all work the soil to our plants benefit in the conversion of nutrients that can be readily taken up by plants and in the development of a soil structure that supports this nutrient conversion process. It’s a fragile and complex balance that can be easily disrupted. It makes me wonder what sort of impact we make to soil health when we weed our garden beds or plough our fields? So you can get a sense of the influence we have on this community of life every day.
In effect by applying AACT we’re boosting the foundation of the soil community to promote it’s health. If we do this our crops will benefit and so do we! Much of the soil that feeds the world is tired and has been severely undermined by unsustainable production practices, used to grow plants and protect them from the very creatures that as part of a balanced community would normally contribute to the health of plants. As part of an overall soil health plan AACT, combined with pioneer planting, can play a vital role as the first important steps in the restoration of these damaged soils.
AACT Application Notes - A Recipe for Soil Restoration
Simply put, with AACT, we are using a sample of high quality aerobic compost to breed the bacteria and fungal elements of that compost in a measure of tepid water. This is achieved by aerating water at around 20 degrees Celsius for around 2-3 days. Just so you understand the scope we’re talking about here, in one teaspoon of compost you can encounter up to a billion bacteria, 300 metres of fungal hyphae, up to 50,000 protozoa and 300 nematodes. By the time we’ve finished the aeration process we will have at least quadrupled the bacteria and fungal counts.
Don’t confuse AACT with compost extracts, leachates or manure teas. These latter treatments are for the most part anaerobic, without oxygen, whereas AACT is an aerobic treatment where oxygen is present. Anaerobic conditions generally lead to trouble. For a start these conditions kill off the good microbes we want to promote in our soils. And secondly they are a perfect breeding ground for harmful plant and human pathogens.
Interestingly enough, rather like brewing our own beer, we can come up with variations of the AACT that can be bacterial or fungal dominant to suit a particular purpose. We talk about this a little more later on. What’s more impressive about AACT is that it’s cheap and only requires 25 litres per acre to be effective. Here’s how I make AACT for our the orchard…
1. A Bucket or Drum - I use a fifty-litre brewers drum with a tap at the bottom. This is enough to cover a couple of acres at a time so one can do the math to come up with smaller or larger versions if need be.
2. An air pump - Good aeration is key to get the most of an AACT. Aeration gives the beneficial microbes, the microbes that help our plants grow, the edge to flourish ahead of those non-beneficial microbes, the ones that don’t help our plants grow. An air pump will provide plenty of aeration to make the AACT process more effective. The water needs to be made turbulent from the aeration.
Note to those with no power: While I have no experience in this I’ve heard from others that have made AACT without air pumps. To do this I understand you prepare your tea in a wide container, with a large air to surface interface, and make sure you stir your tea as often as you can so it doesn’t go anaerobic. Though just understand with this approach the risks of your tea going anaerobic are much higher. So be ever more vigilant to those conditions arising and if they do arise then don’t use the tea.
3. Some fish tank tubing - We need bubbles and plenty of them. In order to do this I use fish tank tubing, approximately 5mm in diameter, and drill small holes in the last 20 cm’s of tubing. Fold the end of the tube over, to seal it, and secure the seal with a rubber band. This technique makes for a cheap and easily cleaned bubbler.
4. A fish tank heater - I prefer to heat the water up slightly, to say 20 degrees c., so as to accelerate the process. This can be easily achieved with a fish tank water heater. All is not lost if you don’t have access to a heater. In fact some folk prefer to use ambient temperature, the same temperature the resulting microbe rich solution will be applied to.
5. Some good quality compost - This is one of the most important components of AACT. We need high quality aerobic compost, much like we described in journal three, that’s alive with beneficial Bacteria, Fungi, Protozoa and Nematodes. The microbes that help our plants grow. High quality compost will contain for the most part beneficial microbes as the process of composting works against those non-beneficial microbes and pathogens. I’ve used a mixture of compost types for my AACT in the past and will continue to do so.
If you’re new to compost making, and AACT, and wondering where to start you could look to biointensive compost methods, which uses combinations of immature vegetation and mature vegetation as well as good topsoil, see GROW BIOINTENSIVE COMPOSTING and GROWING COMPOST MATERIAL by Ecology Action Staff in the resources section of this journal entry.
Using compost based on green manures alone for AACT can reduce the risk of introducing some of the more harmful anaerobic bacteria types and pathogens, normally found in the gastrointestinal tract of mammals, that might come through the manures present in unfinished compost. Of course the only real way to be 100% sure you have good compost is to get it biologically tested, but smelling compost can provide some very useful indicators…
Regardless of the type of compost used if it smells bad, think of vomit, putrefying matter and/or vinegar then it’s a sign that anaerobic organisms, and their by-products could largely dominate the compost, so it shouldn’t be used. If it smells of ammonia then it’s a sign that the compost may well be under cooked, i.e. it hasn’t finished the composting process, and then once again I wouldn’t use it.
Good compost smells of `good soil’, a clean, fresh, earthy aroma. That `good soil’ smell I believe is largely attributed to the presence of actinomycetes, which are aerobic bacteria. So it’s a good indicator that we have a healthy batch of compost.
Conversely if compost is overcooked then I wouldn’t use it either as it won’t be as alive and full of microbes. So our resulting tea won’t be either.
Another way to test compost is to plant something in it and just see how well it grows. Good quality compost supports good plant growth.
An alternative to compost that you could use for AACT is vermicast, from worms, which is full of beneficial microbes and plant growth hormones. Though I would also use the `good soil’ smell test on it as well. If our worms haven’t been treated well then those beneficial outputs wont be there in good quantities. Treat worms just like any other livestock. Ensure they have the right environment to thrive and they will create good vermicast. For 50 litres of AACT I use about 10 cup fills of compost or vermicast.
6. Old sacks - Some people just throw the compost directly into the water. While this certainly provides good mixing it means one has to strain the end product before putting it into a sprayer. I prefer to put the compost in an old coffee sack cut in half and hang the sack end in the water. The sack is secured by a bungee cord secured around the neck of my brewers drum.
7. De-chlorinated water - Stream water is best as it’s fresh and already full of life. However if this isn’t possible then tap water that’s been de-chlorinated with a water conditioner is fine. If there is no other choice other than to use chlorinated water then it can be aerated it for 1 or 2 hours before the compost is added. The chlorine should have evaporated by this time.
So we have our clean bucket set up with an air pump above the lowest end of the tubing so if the power cuts out then the pump won’t turn into a siphon and waterlog the pump. We then run our tubing, with holes, to the bottom of the bucket. I then fill the bucket to the three quarter mark with water and begin heating the water. Aerating the water while we’re heating speeds up the process.
With a bucket of water under aeration we now add mature compost. Putting 10 cups of compost or vermicast into our sack, hang the sack in the drum and secure it by wrapping a bungee cord around the neck of the bucket. This also helps to keep the heater secured and in place.
Aeration and heating are continued for approximately 2-3 days, longer is ok. The tea should turn coffee brown. It’s good to monitor for that `good soil’ smell. If things smell funny then something is amiss. Another good indicator of a healthy tea is that the temperature will have gone up slightly on account of the increased metabolic activity.
Often if we don’t aerate enough then the mix can go anaerobic and start to stink. If so I abandon that mix, discarding it responsibly, where it will do no harm and away from any areas produce is grown on, and start again.
With the tea complete we strain the mix into our delivery system. For small areas like garden beds I just use a watering can. For the Orchard I use a backpack sprayer though making sure it’s not sprayed at high pressure. We’re dealing with living microbes here so we do our best to treat them gently.
If new elements were introduced to the tea making process such as equipment, ingredients, methods etc, I’ll do a test batch first and apply it to a small sample area, monitoring for any bad side effects, before considering wholesale application.
I spray early in the morning or evening so the full power of the sun doesn’t kill our microbes. And I make sure we use our tea soon after it’s made. I understand the shelf life for an AACT, once it’s made, is not that long.
Tests by the folks at the Soil Food Web , the organization established by Dr Elaine Ingham, have shown that after 6 hours the oxygen levels can be lowered by over 300%. If your tea isn’t used within that time then we’ll need to aerate it again and potentially add food to the tea to feed the microbes.
Clean the Equipment - It’s really important to clean the equipment after each AACT. Without aerated water our brewing kit contents can easily provide the perfect breeding conditions for anaerobic microbes. So we could inadvertently infect our next tea if we don’t clean our kit thoroughly after each one is done. As those sacks we use are quite hard to clean I replace them quite regularly to ensure I’m not passing pathogens on from one tea to the next.
Most vegetables, annuals and grasses prefer their nitrogen in the nitrate form and as such do better in alkaline inclined soils dominated by bacteria.
Most trees, shrubs and perennials prefer their nitrogen in the ammonium form and as such do better in acidic inclined soils dominated by fungi.
So why is this useful and how does it relate to AACT? Well one can actually promote bacterial or fungal dominance into an AACT to suit a specific application. As an example, for an established Orchard application it would make sense to promote fungal dominance. Bacteria have a much better time of it in the tea making process than Fungi. So the best way to promote fungal dominance is actually in the compost before applying it at the beginning of the tea making process. A few days before the tea is set up, mix in some simple proteins like soybean meal, powered malt, oatmeal, oat bran or powdered baby oatmeal, at a proportion of four teaspoons per cup of compost, to the compost you plan to use in the tea making process. Keep the mixture in a warm dark place and after about three days it should be covered in white mycelia hyphae, so we end up with fungal dominant compost ready for the tea making process.
If we’re producing a tea for our vegetable beds we may want one that is bacterial dominant. Simply add two tablespoons of non-sulfured molasses, cane syrup, maple syrup or fruit juice to twenty-five litres of water in the tea at aeration time to ensure bacterial dominance.
In much the same way that AACT can be tailored to specific applications it can also be applied to support specific targeted treatments. For instance a bacterial dominated tea can help to fight pathogens like dollar spot. A fungal tea can help fight powdery mildew by outcompeting them.
I understand that when adding foods to an AACT the oxygen burn rate goes up. If oxygen isn’t replenished at a greater rate than what is consumed then the tea will become anaerobic. So we try our best not to overfeed the tea and ensure we keep them well aerated.
At the Orchard
The teas we’ve applied at the Orchard have evolved over time. When we first started work on the orchard we were dealing with soil that had been previously been inhabited by Monterey Pines, Pinus Radiata, and the soil pH was highly acidic (pH 5.3). We had some major fungal dominance going on. And while fungal dominance is a good thing for orchard soils at the acidity levels we were dealing with the soil minerals and nutrients get locked away. So we had to find a way to bring the soil acidity down enough for our pioneers, the understory and our tagasaste trees, to get away and begin the process of soil restoration.
Over the course of two years we applied a number of treatments as part of an overall soil health plan that we’ll cover in more detail in the journal entry seven of this series. A bacterial dominant AACT tea was one of those treatments. Whenever we could get to the orchard a bacterial dominant tea made from our standard recipe, ten cupfuls of compost with four tablespoons of orange juice and two cupfuls of vermicompost added at the start of the tea making process, was applied with a backpack sprayer on and around the orchard soils.
Vermicast, from worms, is bacterially dominant as worms eat more bacteria than anything else. And that’s why you’ll find more worms in bacterial dominant soils than fungi dominant soils. So it’s a useful amendment in a bacterial dominant tea.
After two seasons the understory and those tagasaste trees that had survived the frosts, pests and droughts were all beginning to look well established. It was time to plant our fruit trees, from this point on our AACT formula changed to a more balanced recipe with no additives. Now we’re into the second season after planting the fruit trees and it’s time for us to get some more soil testing done to establish how our overall soil restoration plan is progressing and what treatments, including AACT’s, need to be effected going forward. Though I suspect as the fruit trees mature and our soils achieve a more healthy and balanced state we’ll potentially utilise fungal dominant teas as a soil drench in collaboration with compost. I suspect they’ll be applied as soil drench in autumn after leaf fall, to speed up leaf decomposition and to help prevent disease growth through the leaf litter, and early spring on an annual basis.
As a foliar spray we’ll apply AACT on our trees a couple of weeks before bud burst, so our beneficial microbes have good leaf coverage, thus leaving little room to for undesirable microbes to set up shop. And if no leaf disease occurs then further applications up to once a month may occur if we get time. I also understand it’s not advisable to apply AACT at the peak of pollination.
So we touched on the subject of vermicast as an alternative compost, or amendment in our teas. But there’s so much more that’s good about worms and their byproducts that we should spend some time looking just a little closer. Teaming with Microbes cites some astounding facts about worms…
Charles Darwin once said that every particle of soil has been through a worm at least once! Every acre of healthy soil can have up to three million worms in it, capable of moving eighteen tonnes of soil in one year, and from that produce somewhere in the order of ten to fifteen tonnes of vermicast a year!
In the pursuit of food worms dig and dive through the soil, passing volumes of soil particles through their gizzards and shredding organic matter down to a size that can be consumed more easily by symbiotic bacteria living in their intestines. And it is the byproducts of these bacteria that are absorbed by the worms for nutrition. They build tunnels and burrows that aerate the soil and provide paths for plant roots to establish themselves more easily. They break down organic matter and pass it back to the soil as vermicast, enriched with microbes and plant available minerals and nutrients.
Worms do such a good job of unlocking these minerals and nutrients that vermicast, as compared to soil; can have 50% higher organic matter than the soil that hasn’t been passed through a worm, up to seven times more available phosphate content, five times more nitrogen, and three times more magnesium and up to one and a half times more calcium available than that of the soil it resides in.
Vermicast is like black gold to our soils and to our trees and by applying AACT to our soil we boost the very foundations of the community in which worms play a very significant and beneficial role.
A Natural Approach
As permaculture practitioners we seek to understand and collaborate with the natural world in a way that gains the produce we need while at the same time caring for the land and those we share the land with. AACT aligns with these objectives perfectly. It’s a cheap and effective way of improving soil health.
AACT and its part in the soil community have enormous scope and potential for gardeners working towards more sustainable and cost effective practices. Though remember AACT is only one, and often one of the first treatments in the overall soil restoration plan. The microbes you liberate onto your soil, through the AACT application, will need to keep feeding. This is where pioneer planting as well as mulch and compost applications comes in to play.
We’ll cover pioneer planting, and the orchard understory, in the next journal entry. And then we’ll bring these other treatments together into the overall soil restoration plan in journal entry seven.
Now what I have described about the soil community and AACT in this journal entry is rudimentary at best and describes only how I’ve applied AACT to my own situation on a non-commercial orchard. My hope is that it conveys enough to help you to understand how AACT can fit into the big picture and how practical making your own AACT can be even at the smallest end of the scale.
Teaming with Microbes is one of those books I always have nearby. It has a great deal of information on the soil community, aspects of soil health, AACT and how to apply AACT to different applications and situations. I certainly recommend doing your own reading and research before you begin making teas.
For those of you reading this with a commercial angle in mind I’m afraid it’s not in the scope of this journal entry to cover applications, nor the rules and regulations that I’m sure are in abundance, around AACT for commercial production. In addition to Teaming with Microbes perhaps look to Dr. Elaine Ingham’s book - The Compost Tea Brewing Manual - Latest methods and research 5th edition  for a comprehensive manual on making, applying and assessing compost tea applicable to both the home gardener through to the commercial grower. I would also consult with a local knowledgeable authority and relevant standards body on the topic.
Learn more about the soil community through the books referenced, or even better do a course, so you can learn how to make great AACT, and the knowledge you will gain will help you to approach soil health as a vehicle to producing better healthier food.
If done properly there really are no downsides to AACT. Though understand that whenever one breed’s microbes there’s always the potential to breed the ones we don’t want. Without some form of biological lab test it’s not possible to ascertain exactly what proportions of what microbes are in your teas.
Generally speaking, for AACT, if our inputs and production techniques are of high quality then the outputs, our beneficial microbes, will be present in masses and they will have out competed the non-beneficial microbes. Using thoroughly clean equipment, high quality aerobic compost full of beneficial microbes and plenty of aeration will ensure the best possible prospect of making good AACT.
Once you get into making AACT it would pay to get your initial tea’s tested so you’ll be able to verify your production inputs and methods are on the right track. The folks at soil food web offer testing services around the world as well as training courses and workshops on how to practically assess the quality of your ingredients and teas. See the resources section further in this journal entry.
Be aware that if, for some reason, non-beneficial microbes are introduced to your garden and/or orchard from any source then the potential exists for those microbes to persist there for some time. As an example, In discussing E. coli as an indicator of fecal contamination in tea and of the presence of other human pathogens, Dr. Elaine Ingham, in The Compost Tea Brewing Manual – Latest methods and research 5th edition, explains that if one consumes `unwashed’ vegetables anytime within one hundred and twenty days of a source of questionable material being applied to those vegetables then there is a possibility E.coli could still be present, “especially if that crop production system doesn’t have adequate aerobic organisms to out-compete the coliforms.” Though “a good washing will likely take care of the problem, both on your hands and on the surface of the vegetable.”
So a healthy soil community will not only support the health of our crops but can also have a direct bearing on how long non-beneficial microbes persist should they be introduced. It also impresses on me the importance of maintaining high standards in hygiene for ourselves and for our harvest when handling produce from the garden through to the dinner table. An aspect I have perhaps been a tad too relaxed on in the past.
In addition, to reduce the potential for contamination when purchasing compost from a commercial source, Dr. Ingham recommends that we ask for their E. coli test results, to ensure they are indeed monitoring and managing this risk, and if we can also get active bacteria and fungi counts as they are part of the protection mechanism as well.
I remember the day very well. It was early in the New Year and I hadn’t been able to visit the orchard for some time though I knew the area had experienced an extended dry patch of up to six weeks with no rain. In the drive up to the orchard every field and paddock I passed by looked like tinder ready to go up in flames. With no artificial irrigation systems to speak of I feared the worst for my little orchard. As I approached it appeared those fears were soon to be realised. At a glance the orchard looked no less alive than the surrounding countryside. I couldn’t even see my seedlings amongst head high grass and thistles, all long dead from the drought. And then, as I walked into the orchard, hardening to the fact my orchard had expired under the sun, I spied a patch of green. And there, tucked in under the grass, spreading across the orchard, was my understory…
On closer inspection while it was certainly struggling, it had diminished to the point where it was holding onto life just above the soil, I could see that it had evolved to the conditions with some species all but disappeared while others were playing a dominant role. Those that remained were holding the Sun at bay. I discovered the soil underneath was damp to the touch and there were armies of bugs trundling along, all I’m sure, benefiting from the cover provided and the moisture that had been retained by the understory. I found my seedlings benefiting in a similar way to the comfrey plants surrounding them still certainly struggling but holding on all the same.
I have no doubt that the understory saved the day. The rains came a couple of weeks later and the understory evolved again. An understory is a constantly changing landscape. So what is an understory? Well to many it is simply a ground cover of low-lying vegetation living under a forest canopy.
To the aspiring practitioner of permaculture the understory can provide an indispensable set of tools that can be employed to condition our soils, accumulate and distribute minerals and nutrients, to shelter and attract beneficial insects and even deter other insect pests.
In this journal we’re going down to the understory to see what it can do for us and we’ll examine our own understory at the orchard. But first of all we’ll take a look at some important founding concepts, employed as best we can at the orchard, from Masanobu Fukuoko, Japanese Taoist and a pioneer in the art of no till farming…
The One Straw Revolution
On his fathers hillside orchard on the Island of Shikoku in the south of Japan Masanobu Fukuoka (1914-1988) developed a style of farming he coined `do nothing’ farming. Not to be taken literally `do nothing’ farming revolves around the assertion that nature is the true perfectionist and practitioners of farming should disrupt nature as little as possible to obtain a truly sustainable yield.
Indeed by taking natures lead Fukuoka was able to, over time, obtain yields comparable to any other farm in Japan at the time for much less ongoing effort and with a minimum of external inputs.
Fukuoka summarised his approach in four basic principles …
The first was no cultivation; rather he left the earth to cultivate itself, through promotion of a healthy balanced soil community. An aspect explored in some detail in journal entry four.
The second was no chemical fertiliser or prepared compost. He looked to his crops and understory, topped at certain times of the year, as a living compost, to build carbon and humus.
There would be no weeding by tillage or use of herbicides, his third principle. Rather he employed various natural techniques to control weeds, some we’ll explore further in this journal entry. To establish plants without tillage, and to protect his seeds from birds and mice, Fukuoka devised a number of techniques to encase his seeds into clay pellets. With these techniques he was able to make enough seed pellets in one day to cover several acres.
His fourth principle advocated no dependence on chemicals. To ward off disease and pests Fukuoka focused on growing sturdy crops in a healthy environment so their natural defenses were strong enough to protect them.
The Natural Way of Farming
With a unique insight into natures ways, amassed through keen observation over many seasons, Fukuoka was able to effect natural succession strategies to successfully grow rice, various grains, vegetables and produce from the orchard. As a simple example…
In his fields, in autumn, just prior to harvest, white clover and seeds of other fast growing winter grains would be broadcast amongst the rice fields. In this way the seeds were sheltered and protected from the elements and from those who would otherwise consume them. The seeds would have just enough time to germinate and sprout to a few centimeters tall before the rice was ready to harvest. Cut with a hand sickle, so as to effect topping rather than tillage, the rice would be harvested and threshed and the remaining rice straw scattered back to the field to return carbon and compost to the soil. Knowing the right time to sow each crop and the right time to harvest was key to achieving success.
Fukuoka,as described in the ‘One Straw Revolution  also employed various techniques to influence succession such as flooding to weaken clover and weeds so seeds from the next crop could out compete them. In the Fukuoka’s mandarin orchards permanent ground cover, or understory, of various species were introduced…
He would rely heavily on legumes, as the pioneers of the understory, to support the four principles in his orchards. Clover and alfalfa were the first species used to establish a permanent ground cover.
As legumes they are particularly useful as a design element because they have the ability to fix atmospheric nitrogen, something we discovered back in journal entry one on tagasaste. Remember nitrogen is a core element in the amino acid building blocks of protein structure, which are vital to healthy plant growth.
Vegetables were also grown amongst the fruit trees and understory. Once again timing was key. To grow spring vegetables a swath in the understory would be cut away just as the winter species were receding. The seeds would be randomly scattered on the ground and the cut understory would be layered, as mulch, back on top of the seeds. With this method, in a semi wild fashion, Fukuoka would successfully grow burdock, cabbage, tomatoes, carrots, mustard, beans, turnips and many other kinds of herbs and vegetables.
Following germination the understory would require cutting back maybe two or three times to allow the vegetables to flourish.
To compliment the understory, in much the same way as we have with tagasaste in our orchard, Fukuoka leveraged the morishima acacia as a legume to nurture soils, as an attractant for beneficial insects, as a windbreak and as a fodder crop for livestock.
At the orchard we’ve employed a diverse understory that we believe will benefit the soil community and our trees…
An Understory Dominated by Clover
As with Fukuokas method’s, clover varieties dominate our understory. I think of subterranean clover (Trifolium subterraneum) as the foundation, and stalwart, of the understory. So called because seed development occurs underground, an aspect unique to this particular clover variety, subterranean clover is as tough as old boots. It’s able to withstand drought conditions many other species in our understory would expire in. Being self-fertile it can propagate without the help of insects.
Dutch white clover (Trifolium repens) provides the primary biomass for the understory atop the subterranean clover. It’s an aggressive clover that we can employ to outcompete other invasive grass species that would otherwise dominate the orchard. As it responds more favorably to foraging than most other species we simply top the whole understory in late winter and late summer to give white clover the edge it needs to flourish.
Red clover (Trifolium pratense) although present year round, tends to present itself in our orchard more so in winter when the other understory species have died back. So nitrogen fixing continues through all seasons.
All of the clovers we employ make for excellent fodder for poultry and if location weren’t an issue for us we would certainly incorporate ducks and/or chickens, at times, to the orchard and into the overall design.
Fukuoka often introduced ducks to his crops. They would provide their own direct benefits, such as eggs and meat, as well as manure, full of nitrogen and phosphate, to enrich the soil.
To better manage pests
We employ a number of herbs, primarily from the Umbeliferae family, to attract beneficial insects to the orchard. Beneficial insects, in this context, are insects that prey on other insects that if left unabated could cause problems for us at the orchard. Lets call them insect `pests’ Aphids, lemon tree borer, leafrollers, codling moth, cicadas, and midges all have the potential to undermine the health of our fruit tree seedlings and their produce. If you’re reading this with your vegetable garden in mind be aware that the list of insect pests can grow substantially.
They are pests only in an unbalanced ecosystem where, left to their own means, they would breed above and beyond their natural order.
So complete eradication of these pests is not the aim. Rather we’re looking to promote the presence of their natural controlling agents so a balance is achieved.
For instance, ladybirds, in their larval form, are adept hunters of aphids as are hover flies and lacewings. Both the hover fly and lacewing prefer to pray on small soft bodied insects so will also make an impact on leafrollers.
Parasitic wasps and flies can also play a role as natural control agents. Parasites spend a good deal of their early lives inside the pest host, or their eggs, and eventually kill them emerging in their adult form.
When they’re not eating pests, or being hosted inside one, our beneficials like the odd drop of nectar and barring ichneumon wasps, which can be quite large, comparatively speaking, most of our beneficial insects are very small and as such prefer very small flowers to forage on for nectar. And that’s why they tend to be attracted to the tiny flowers from herbs of the Umbeliferae family. At a glance these herbs appear very similar, all standing around a metre, more or less, with clusters of small white flowers. They include dill (Peucedanum graveolens) bishops weed (Ammi Visnaga) and queen anne’s lace (Daucus carota) also often referred to as the `wild carrot’ We also use white alyssum (Lobularia maritima benthamii) in our understory mix for the same purpose.
So we have a wide range of flowers that should encourage our beneficial insects to stay right where we want them. Though aside of a good diet of insects pests and nectar they also need water and shelter nearby.
The understory can provide some shelter, as can the edges and slopes of our orchard terraces. While we haven’t done this yet, artificial shelters, made to mimic the tunnels and hideaways our beneficial insects prefer as homes, could also be employed.
The increase in biodiversity and habitat should encourage other beneficial insects, such as spiders and ground beetles, to make their homes in our orchard also.
Another way we manage insect pests is with flowers that produce chemical deterrents such as nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus) Nasturtium is known to deter aphids and whitefly from nearby plants. So it’s useful in and around the orchard.
Though not yet implemented we hope to augment the understory at some stage with marigolds (Calendula officinalis) known for their ability to deter much larger pests, such as rabbits and possums.
For Pollination and as Green Manure…
We want bees around in abundance, to support pollination and fruit set as our seedlings mature. The bees will collect both pollen, their source of protein, and nectar as their carbohydrate source to feed the hive. Now as a general rule of thumb blue flowers tend to attract bees more so than others…
We employ phacelia (Phacelia tanacetifolia) often called the lacy phacelia, as our primary bee attractor. It produces long running nectar rich blooms that are also favoured by many of our beneficial insects, such as hoverflies and parasitic wasps. We also use chicory (Cichorium Intybus) and buckwheat (Fagopyrum esculentum) to attract bees.
Buckwheat provides additional benefits; with up to 16% protein content it can be an important fodder source for poultry. It’s also able to obtain and cycle phosphate more effectively than most other plants. All of our bee attracting plants are good green manure crops, crops that when topped or turned over provide raw organic material and nutrients to support soil building and conditioning.
In line with Fukuoka’s principles we do our best to leave the topsoil layer alone so we never turn over our green manure crops. Rather we top the whole understory twice a year. We tend to lean on these live green manures as key sources of organic matter and for humus building at the orchard.
For Soil Conditioning
Our understory works above the ground and below. The diverse range of species we employ, and their equally diverse root systems, cultivate the earth at different depths. And as they thrive and expire they leave behind organic matter that will contribute to the humus content of our soils. In their place pockets and tunnels, which can fill up with air and water and indeed members of the soil community, will remain.
We leverage the deep reaching taproots of the daikon (Raphanus sativus) sometimes called the Japanese radish, lucerne (Medicago satvia) also known as alfalfa, and comfrey (Symphytum peregrinum) much like organic crowbars, to break through the clay layers we have present in the soil so we can ensure good soil drainage.
Comfrey, as we discovered in journal entry two, is able to extract and accumulate large quantities of potassium (around 7%) and to a lesser extent phosphorous (around 1%), calcium (around 3%), magnesium and other trace elements. The comfrey leaves act as storage bins for the cache of extracted minerals. The resulting proportions of minerals stored make for a well-balanced, readily available form of fertiliser that’s ideal for our seedlings. Planted in and around the drip line of our seedling roots comfrey will suppress weeds and retain moisture at ground level. In winter the comfrey leaves die back and deposit their cache of minerals right where our seedlings need them, up in the topsoil.
In a balanced system grasses are equally as important as the other understory members. While the orchard terraces began as predominantly couch grass, summer grass and crowfoot grass we have also introduced Elles Cocksfoot. Elles cocksfoot (Dactylis glomerata) is tough drought hardy grass that is known for it prodigious root mass that should contribute to the organic matter in our topsoil over time.
Establishing our Understory…
Fukuoka once said that he knew more about what can go wrong growing agricultural crops than anyone else in Japan. But he persisted and he eventually succeeded. And this I believe is very much the case with an understory. There are so many variables involved in understory development that it’s hard to predict with certainty what will happen. And once you have an understory it will evolve and it will change with each season. It’s always in a state of transition.
Our first seed mix was made up of dutch white clover, subterranean clover, red clover, phacelia, chicory, buckwheat, dill, bishops flower, parsnip, ammi visnaga, fennel, daucus carota, bergamot and alyssum. At that time, given our desire to have an understory dominated by clovers we went heavy with clovers. On reflection I think maybe a bit too heavy on the clovers. I still prefer a clover dominant understory but I believe, given a clean slate, I would scale back the clover proportion to be more evenly balanced with the other species. Then as need be I could re sow individual species to tune my understory evolution
The proportions used and the application rate you might use really comes down to your own design goals and the specifics of the site you’re dealing with. So no one rule fits all I’m afraid. For those of us in New Zealand the folks at Koanga Institute in New Zealand offer a premade mix that will ensure you have something growing year round. We implemented an understory that we thought most applicable to our situation and environment. For the most part it worked as expected but not everything panned out as we had planned. This seed mix was applied in spring after our first and last visit of a digger to remove some old tree stumps, shape the terraces and create channels for natural irrigation along each orchard terrace
While tillage of the earth is not advocated by Fukuoka, with no other irrigation systems to speak of, we saw this activity as a once only must do activity. The actions of the digger weakened the established grass species so we grasped the opportunity to sow our understory seeds. I must point out that once again, contrary to Fukuoka’s principles, we brought in prepared compost and mixed it with lime flour, as a source of calcium, and RPR, a source of phosphate. This was a conscious choice based on the results of a soil test that we’ll describe in some detail in journal entry seven. Though needless to say with the soil in the condition it was in, after many years as a commercial pine forest, we decided that without these amendments our understory species wouldn’t germinate well and the birds would have consumed the majority of our seeds.
Given our situation I suspect Fukuoka would have employed his seed pellet technique but with no prior experience in seed pelleting we decided not to attempt this.
In the first month it was such a buzz to watch our understory burst into life and take hold. The combination of spring sun and rain meant that within a month we had a knee high understory and we could see everything, aside of the chicory and daikon, coming through.
After two months the phacelia, dutch white clover and alyssum largely dominated the landscape while random pockets of members of our Umbeliferae flowers had established themselves well.
The comfrey was really struggling I suspect due to a lack of nitrogen so every time we appeared at the orchard we’d pee on the comfrey. It seemed to work as in the second season, once their taproots had firmly established themselves, they took off.
Towards the end of that first summer the change in the overall environment above the ground, was quite profound. I remember soon after Christmas sitting on one of the orchard terraces and I could hardly hear my own thoughts from the buzz of insects that had made our orchard their home. The previous season the only insect activity we noticed was flies. Though not all was well…
We noticed the clover was being outcompeted in quite a few areas by the resident grasses. If I had a sickle, and I knew how to use one, I would have used it but instead employed a petrol weed eater to top the entire understory in late summer giving the clovers a slight advantage over the grasses. In badly affected areas we topped again in late winter. This technique works really well for clover and after a couple of seasons the clover really took off.
Our phacelia also struggled coming into the second season. I’m still trying to work out why it continues to struggle. But now along with alfalfa and red clover, we re-sow in spring. Spring is by far the best time to get legumes away.
I noticed chicory coming up, in small patches, for the first time in the third season and I can’t say I’ve seen a daikon yet!
On the lowest terrace reeds became the dominant species up until the third season when the clover finally succeeded in establishing itself. After some research I came to understand that reeds tend to persist when drainage is limited and soil moisture content is high.
The mere presence of those reeds provided me with an insight into the soil conditions on that lower terrace. And it got me thinking about what other insights I could gain from the rest of my understory…
Every plant has a story to tell
Of all the awesome things I’ve learnt developing my orchard for some reason this topic intrigues me the most. Our ancestors weren’t able to leverage modern soil labs as we do today, so with knowledge and experience passed down from generation to generation they were very adept readers of the stories that plants, and indeed the soil, offered.
So I began to explore this subject a little further, and I found that learning about your soils from your plants has some distinct benefits over our modern soil testing techniques.
The first, and I think one of the most important, is that your understory can provide a continuous and live feed of information, so you get history and you begin to get a sense for the evolution of your soils as you develop your orchard. Whereas a soil test provides insight into only a single snapshot in time.
The second is that your understory, as it covers your entire orchard, can provide a more complete sample of information as compared to an aggregated soil sample, of perhaps no more than two hundred grams, used for soil testing.
The third, of course, is that it’s free. With these benefits I can see how useful it would be to develop these skills…
If we can learn to read our wild endemic plants we could learn much about the history of our soils on the land before we begin
manipulating the site to our own designs. The wild plants and indeed our own introduced plants can tell us many things about our soil structure and makeup, mineral content, nutrient levels, acidity and many other aspects that are key to producing healthy nutrient dense produce.
Some introduced species and the stories they tell are better understood than others. Clover is a good example of that which is a bonus for us as our understory is largely dominated by clovers. For instance in soils lacking in calcium the leaf margins of all clover species become scorched. There are other symptoms of calcium deficiencies but I distinctly remember seeing these scorch marks in the first season. I was concerned that there wasn’t enough water to support the understory but on reflection, and from subsequent soil testing, it may have been caused from a lack of calcium.
Learning to read soil conditions from our plants, and understory, is an entirely new subject for me. I think it will take some time and good deal of experience before I can trust my observation skills and not lead myself astray.
I certainly wouldn’t consider abandoning soil testing at any stage. Rather I see soil testing and the ability to read your plants as complimentary. We’ll dig into soil testing, and a technique known as visual soil analysis, further in journal entry seven.
But for now, understanding that there are important insights to be gained, I’ll be looking more closely at my understory and keeping more notes on my observations so with some good resources, I’ve listed a number in the references section [33-37] of this journal entry, I can continue to build on my knowledge.
A Natural Approach
I’ve only had experience with the understory implementation at my own orchard. The research I’ve gathered and the notes produced in this journal entry I hope will provide you with some useful insights that might help you develop your own understory as part and parcel of whole design.
Fukuoka’s principles can serve us all as guides in the whole design process. Nature’s way, as Fukuoka advocates, is indeed the most sustainable. With Fukuoka’s principles and the concepts we’ve explored here you can start to think about what your understory might be composed of and what species would flourish and provide the benefits you desire in your own environment and situation.
In Design Your Own Orchard Kay Baxter shares her experiences on orchard development and their related understory’s from a number of different situations and climates. As Kay proves there really is an understory for every situation…
I think it’s fair to say that more sustainable paths can take longer to travel. Fukuoka, for instance, spent many years honing his techniques before he was satisfied he had it right.
And for many of us the soils we are working with are severely demineralised. To restore our soil back to life, in a way that will enable us to grow food that is truly healthy for us, we need to bring in the minerals we know are deficient and in the right proportions with others. Once we have these mineral relationships in place in our soils, combined with other systems and soil restoration techniques, we can achieve sustainable growing conditions. We explore this subject in much more detail in journal entry seven.
And at the orchard it took three seasons before we were comfortable that our soils had transformed enough to the point where they could support our fruit tree seedlings.
Implementing an understory that works for you in your situation will take time. And there’s no doubt you’ll encounter your own unique challenges before you succeed. But with some patience and fortitude you’ll get there…
I’ve never seen a more content cow than a Biodynamic cow! And it wasn’t until I first saw my first biodynamic cow that I started to understand what one might actually look like and indeed how many cows I must have come across before that weren’t content. If you don’t know what I mean visit a Biodynamic farm, look into the eyes of a biodynamic cow and I think you’ll start to understand. It can be most enlightening.
I know this all sounds a bit odd. And why is this relevant? Well cows play a big role in biodynamics and to me their health and vitality serve as indicators of a production system in balance and in tune with nature. We’ll talk about cows in a bit more detail later on in this journal entry. But before we do that lets look at the basic concepts behind Biodynamic Agriculture...
Biodynamics is life and energy
In the previous journal entries we’ve talked about certain design elements and design practices that work to support the soil community. With a healthy soil community humus continues to build and humus is the foundation, some say the pantry, on which the soil community and our trees can thrive.
Biodynamics, derived from the Greek words “bios” for life and “dynamos” for energy, is very much in tune with this philosophy and indeed soil health is of paramount importance to biodynamic practitioners. Though biodynamic practitioners go beyond the soil and seek also to tune in to the cosmic elements, such as the sun, the moon, our planets and their relationship to the stars, to understand their rhythms and how those rhythms influence crop production.
Working with these two dimensions, biodynamic practitioners are said to be able to stimulate the organic processes and bring about a sensitivity within the soil and crops so that they can come to a full and balanced expression, their maximum potential so to speak.
The Cosmic Interplay
It all began with an Austrian man by the name of Dr Rudolph Steiner. Dr Steiner was a philosopher, a scientist and a mystic. Responsible for the anthroposophical philosophy, Dr Steiner’s appreciation of the natural world order was truly unique for his time.
In 1924, at the request of a group of organic farmers, who despite following organic practices were suffering diminishing crops, Dr Steiner delivered a series of lectures that have become the basis for modern biodynamics today. In those lectures Dr Steiner described how our crops and trees not only grow through the soil, and soil nutrients, but also through the influence of the cosmos.
It’s hard to imagine how cosmic bodies so far away in space can influence our crops on the land. But then again it only takes a trip to the beach, to watch the tide change, to see how one of those cosmic bodies, the Moon, can effect a force powerful enough to move oceans.
Biodynamics places great importance on the positions of the moon, sun and planets in relation to the zodiac constellations. And with an understanding of how these natural cosmic rhythms affect seed sowing, planting, applying certain manures or sprays, biodynamic practitioners leverage their knowledge of these influences to produce better crops. As just one example take the Moon and Saturn for example. When they are on opposing sides of the earth their forces radiate into the earth from opposite directions. The moon’s forces are said to bring in the calcium processes, which in our crops is related to propagation and growth. Saturn brings in the silica processes, which is related to the building up of substance in roots leaves and fruit. The balancing effect of these two forces is said to produce very strong plants from seed sown at this time.
So you can see it can be quite a complex topic though luckily most biodynamic associations publish a calendar every year for members that make the cosmic interplay and it’s practical application on the farm much easier.
Dr Steiner also believed that in order to maximise the effect of the cosmic influences the soil must be alive. And over the generations our soils have become weaker and less receptive to the cosmic influences. Where as modern conventional agriculture applies acid based fertilizers in what could be described as a reductionist view, where it’s the substance that builds the plant, Dr Steiner devised natural amendments or preparations that enliven manures and in turn bring vitality, as apposed to substance, back to the soil and plants. We shall explore these preparations soon. But this, I think, is a good time to revisit the humble cow.
The Humble Cow
The value cows have in the application of biodynamic principles cannot be overstated. They really are the backbone of the biodynamic practice.
Experienced biodynamic practitioners will reverently describe to you the cow as a regal beast well connected to both the earth and the cosmos through its horns. The horns and hooves, as concentrated skin, reflect back and hold within the cow’s organism, the forces it uses in the process of digestion. The cows dung is permeated with the astral and etheric forces that are vitally important in the process of plant growth.
The Biodynamic Preparations
Dr Steiner prescribed a number of preparations that leverage these unique properties from the cow. The principal and often first amendment applied by biodynamic practitioners to a new plot of land is called preparation 500 or cow horn manure.
Twenty five grams of the resulting preparation 500, a dark brown earthy substance, is mixed into thirteen litres of pure water with a special stirring action, best described as a vortex action, with a stick or brush, for one hour. The vortex action not only mixes the solution well but it is also said to enliven it such that it is more receptive and easily taken up by the life processes and by the earth. Applied with the sweeping action of a brush or branch, preparation 500 is normally applied at dusk, in autumn and spring, ideally when the moon is in a descending phase, when the earth is said to be breathing in, and can be applied up to four times a year.
I don’t think it would be a huge leap of faith to consider some of the properties of preparation 500 similar and complimentary to that of the Aerated Activated Compost Teas we explored in journal entry four. Recent research comments cited by Peter Proctor in “Biodynamic Agriculture in India”  shows preparation 500 to be `a most highly active material biologically’. Knowing this and what we already know about the role soil microbes have in humus building, again from journal entry four, it would be fair to assume that preparation 500 applied as a soil drench introduces and promotes a wide range of soil microbes and it is the soil microbes and the life force they support that are responsible for accelerating humus development. This, I believe, goes some way to explaining why biodynamic soils require 25-50% less irrigation than conventional soils.
To complement the humus developing preparation 500, Dr Steiner prescribed another preparation made from finely ground quartz crystals known as preparation 501.
Brix is a measure of the carbohydrate or sugar content and is an aspect of plant health and produce nutrition that we will go into some detail on in the next journal entry. The higher Brix level lowers the freezing point of the plant, which can be quite useful if you’re expecting heavy frosts and you want minimize the potential damage to your trees.
To prepare 501 a good clear and well-formed crystal of quartz silica is wrapped in hessian cloth and pounded with a hammer. The resulting pieces are refined with the grinding action of a mortar and pestle, and then further refined into a fine dust between two sheets of glass. Mixed with water into thick slurry, the quartz is packed into a cow horn and left overnight to allow excess water to come to the top so it can be poured off before burying. In direct contrast to preparation 500, 501 is buried in spring and lifted in autumn. One gram of the resulting preparation is mixed with the same vortex action for one hour, with thirteen litres of water. It is applied as a foliar spray, on the one day every month when the moon opposes Saturn, at sunrise.
So you see how preparation 500 and 501 compliment each other, one working the soil humus and root zone, 500, and the other, 501, working to boost the photosynthesis factories of our crops for maximum health and yield.
The Compost Preparations
In addition to preparations 500 and 501 Dr Steiner prescribed a number of other preparations, called 502-507, which are derived from various medicinal herbs. When applied to new compost they support the task microbes have of humus building and of making certain key minerals available. So let’s have a brief look at these preparations and the basic process their raw constituents undergo to become preparations...
Some of you reading this maybe thinking “what an odd collection of ingredients?” Well they might be odd to you today but perhaps to the organic farmers in Germany, back in 1924, they may not have been that odd nor that hard to get hold of. Indeed what they may reflect is a local implementation of concepts, only understood by Rudolph Steiner, into practical and achievable preparations for the given situation. Luckily, for most of us, you need not worry about how you’re going to get these ingredients as you can order the completed preparations, as sets, from your local biodynamic association.
The Biodynamic Compost Pile
In journal entry three we looked at what makes good quality compost. Here’s what we discovered…
At a high level compost creation involves microorganisms breaking down raw organic materials and then synthesizing them into what is known as `humus’. Humus, a partially decomposed, yet transformed and more stable form of the organic material we began with, is packed with microorganisms, primarily bacteria and fungi, and they provide us with good quantities of nitrogen, biologic carbon and other minerals present in a form that is both stable and available to the soil community. These primary constituents of compost are vital to the health of our soil community. A good quality compost could well have a high humus content of around 30-40% organic matter.
Back in journal entry one we described fungi as living containers of fertilizer. Well bacteria can also be described in much the same way. They are second only to fungi as the primary decomposers of organic matter and form the very foundations on which the soil community thrives.
In A Home Gardeners Guide to Growing Nutrient Dense Food, Kay Baxter  tells us that in the Waikato, a region of New Zealand, carbon has been lost at a staggering rate of 30-40 tonnes per hectare over the last 30-40 years! (According to Waikato University and other figures) As a result animal effluent and mineral amendments readily leach out of the soil and pollute the waterways that feed into our lakes and catchments.
So you can see organic matter and humus from compost is so vital to our soil health. Microbes only begin to “wake up” when soil organic matter content reaches 2%. They thrive at around 4-6% in temperate climates and around 3% in tropical climates. The compost preparations, 502-507, are used in the preparation of biodynamic compost, and in fact to any processes which use fermentation.
In Biodynamics, the vitality of the compost is of prime importance and that the process of composting serves to retain and transform the original vitality of the materials that make up the compost, without loss. Now making good biodynamic compost is quite an art. So look to the references and recommendations at the end of this journal and you’ll find some great resources on the art of biodynamic compost making. See Grasp the Nettle and Making Biodynamic Farming and Gardening Work and Biodynamic Agriculture in India both by Peter Proctor
With biodynamic compost one set of the compost preparations, 502-507 are added at the time the compost pile is initially made. They are said to bring about an order and balance in the decomposition of the compost material. The final product has such a range of beneficial microbes that serve well, when applied, to combat soil born pathogens. For orchards apply biodynamic compost at a rate of five to ten cubic metres per acre per year.
Cow Pat Pit (CPP)
The biodynamic compost preparations are also used with another soil inoculant known as Cow Pat Pit or CPP. Devised by Maria Thun , a pre-eminent expert in biodynamics, CPP is said to stimulate the soil community and aid in the breakdown of organic and mineral matter.
Back in the 1980’s, following the Chernobyl Nuclear disaster, authorities found that soils in the fallout zone regularly drenched with CPP were free of radioactivity. From this I think we could draw some interesting connections. You may remember back in journal entry one, on tagasaste, we learned that soils with high levels of microbial activity and humus are able to lock up toxins, and to a certain extent radioactive elements, through a complex biosequestration process. So it appears CPP does a good job of promoting the soil community and humus building in our soils. To support this in Biodynamic Agriculture in India Peter Proctor cites some recent research from Chennai India that shows CPP to have a wide range of useful fungi and bacteria colonies, as well as plant growth regulating hormones, subtilin a bacillus with anti fungal properties and the wood rotting fungus tricoderma and pseudodermus. So it’s good for our soils and it could help to lock up toxins and radioactive elements that might otherwise make their way into our produce. It’s also quite versatile in that it can be applied in a number of different forms. Some of the more common forms that I have some experience with are:
As a soil drench, it can be applied with any compost application and when green manure is turned over as a way to get the effects of the compost preparations, 502-507, over the land. It can also be used in conjunction with preparation 500.
As a foliar spray, and as a component of a tree paste onto our orchard trees to reduce the risk of fungal and certain insect attacks that aren’t so good for our trees. As a component of tree paste, it also helps to repair and strengthen the bark. We’ll go over a tree paste recipe we use at the orchard in a moment. And it can be used to soak seeds and tubers, such as potatoes, to encourage root development and protect against blight.
With such a wide range of applications I prefer to make my own supply so that I have plenty on hand when I need it. It’s really quite easy to make up. Originally devised by Maria in wine barrels many now choose to make CPP in pits surrounded by bricks.
The basic process involves digging a pit 90cm by 60cm and 30cm deep. The sides are lined with bricks and the base left bare to the earth. The bricks are able to soak up water and help to keep the whole pit from drying up, which is not desirable. 60kgs of cow dung is mixed with 100 grams of powdered eggshells, to bring in the calcium processes, and 100 grams of powdered basalt dust, to bring in the silica processes. Mixed or dynamised for at least fifteen minutes, ideally for an hour, the final solution is deposited in the pit to a level no more than 15 cm’s. The top is then smoothed off and a row of six holes made to 3 cm. Preparations 502-506 are then each deposited in their own hole. The valerian preparation, 507, is mixed with water and half added to the final hole. The remainder is sprinkled over the dung, the bricks and over a damp hessian sack that is used to cover the pit.
After the first month the dung should be opened and turned with a fork to aerate it, and then every week after that. After two to four months, depending on where you are and the time of year, your CPP should be ready. Finished CPP should smell a lot like finished compost, with a fresh earthy smell. It should also be high in humus so will feel silky if rubbed between your fingers. You can use it straight away or store it in glass jars in a cool place, surrounded by peat, for up to two years.
At the Orchard
I have to be honest with you I don’t consider myself as a model biodynamic practitioner, well at least not yet! To be a good biodynamic practitioner I believe you must be a very good planner; with biodynamics the timing of your preparations and treatments is key. This, by the way, is also true of good permaculture practitioners. And while I consider myself a good planner, for the most part, I struggle to adequately plan activities at the orchard as precisely as is required by biodynamics. This is primarily due to the remote nature of my forest and orchard.
Now, as a more seasoned practitioner of permaculture, I understand my original site selection for the orchard was fundamentally flawed. In permaculture we call this a type 1 error. Maybe another way to describe a type 1 error is to have a shaky foundation for a house. It’s very hard to fix and will always work against you. With the Orchard being so remote my ability to understand the local patterns of nature, that should influence my application of the biodynamic practices, is also hindered. That aside we do as best as we can at the Orchard.
At a minimum we apply one 500 drench, with CPP, in the autumn and one at spring just as our trees are coming out hibernation. It would be good to do two in autumn and two in spring but we haven’t managed this yet. Hopefully this coming season we will.
We also apply a 501 foliar spray once in spring to help boost the photosynthesis process of the new leaves in formation. And when the time arrives for our seedlings to bear fruit we’ll apply another just before harvest with an aim to enhance the Brix levels.
As 500 and 501 are complimentary in nature it’s not a bad idea to apply the sprays quite close to together. Some folks practice what is known as sequential spraying, where 500 is applied in evening and the following morning 501 is applied. The timing should be such that the 501 is applied on the morning of the day before the Moon is opposite to Saturn.
In spring we apply biodynamic compost, put down the previous autumn, around the root line of our trees. We apply as much as we have available which is between one and two cubic metres over a quarter acre.
And whenever we can we apply CPP as a foliar spray. We do this at the end of the days activities. For me it seems to be a nice way of completing the day’s work, to sit down and stir a CPP and then apply it with the backpack sprayer across the entire orchard.
During winter we apply a tree paste to the bark of our seedlings. The tree paste helps to seal away any wounds from fungal disease.
We experienced some nasty cicada damage in the first growing season and found the tree paste particularly useful in treating these wounds. The tree paste we use is also said to deter various boring insects from making our trees their breeding chambers. The recipe I was given and use is four parts clay (bentonite clay is recommended if you can get it), two parts cow manure and one part diatomaceous earth.
Diatomaceous earth is a naturally occurring sedimentary rock that is full of the fossilized remains of diatoms. It acts as a mechanical insecticide. In other words it scratches the exoskeleton of insects and dehydrates them. So given the choice insects tend to go elsewhere. Diatomaceous earth can be refined into a number of products for differing purposes. Be sure to use insecticide grade diatomaceous earth for your tree paste and not the more dangerous heat-treated diatomaceous earth used for swimming pool filters. I recommend you employ a dust mask whenever working with diatomaceous earth and wet the diatomaceous earth before you mix it in. It’s quite a fine abrasive substance that you don’t want in your lungs.
Mix these ingredients in with enough stirred preparation 500, with CPP added, to produce a paste that can be brushed on or smoothed onto your trees by hand.
A Natural Approach
There are just too many practical examples out there to dispute the effectiveness of biodynamics. It works!
As you’ve seen in this journal entry modern science is only just starting to catch up with biodynamics. I believe this is because we are only now just starting to truly understand the complex elements and dimensions of the natural world that effect soil, plant and human health.
Many of us see ways in which horticulture, using practices like biodynamics, can take the next evolutionary step. A great example of an industry that appears to be doing just that is Viticulture. Vineyards are moving in droves to convert to biodynamics and from what I’ve heard from some of the people I know in this industry there are some very good reasons behind this. Wine making is big business! And truly effective implementations of biodynamics can significantly lower the operational overheads associated with viticulture and it can boost production. Though the successful marriage of viticulture and biodynamics extends beyond these operational aspects. As we now know biodynamics works in a way that is intimately linked with the energy patterns of nature both terrestrially and cosmically. And of course these patterns are unique to every location. These unique properties contribute to a concept well known in traditional wine making circles known as Terroir.
So you can see how compatible biodynamics and viticulture are. Terroir touches on an important biodynamic concept that we, as humans, exert such an influence, or ego, on everything we do that we are placed in a unique position of responsibility. Of course this concept compliments our own values and ethics from permaculture in that we believe in caring for the earth, our people, in balance and fair share.
In this journal I’ve covered only what I know about biodynamics, as a novice, and how I implement biodynamic practices for a small-scale non-commercial orchard. A one-man orchard! There are many other aspects to biodynamics that I haven’t covered nor have I had experience with.
Also please be aware that my description of the preparations and how they are concocted is rudimentary at best and should serve only as an introduction to the concepts and methods employed. If you’re contemplating practicing biodynamics you can read some of the books I’ve referenced or even better look to some training.
For those of us in New Zealand we are fortunate to have a world-class course in applied Organics and Biodynamics run by Taruna College in the Hawkes Bay. Seek out your local biodynamic association and they’ll be able to recommend a course for you.
I don’t think there is a downside to Biodynamics. If you explore Biodynamic’s further you’ll encounter aspects of theory that modern science is not yet in a position to explain. To be a Biodynamic practitioner certain elements of `Faith’ are required and for some, including myself, this will come as a challenge. I wouldn’t call this a downside, rather I would call it an opportunity to grow and learn. Be open and accommodating of new concepts, even if you don’t get them, otherwise you may struggle to embrace Biodynamics.
We live in interesting times, Every day over a billion people suffer from starvation. And every day there are more and more mouths to feed. For various reasons, from changing weather patterns, to fluctuations in the price of oil, to the cost of production inputs, food prices are on the rise. Food security is becoming a very real issue for all of us. Today a good proportion of the produce that makes it to our tables is grown using systems that harm the earth and those we share the earth with. These production systems are proving to be unsustainable.
Historical records of human habitation have in many ways provided a window on the future for us; even the greatest civilizations on earth were only as strong as the food systems they relied upon. If we continue to plunder our natural resources as we do today, working in opposition to nature, our fates are sealed. It’s just logic really.
Though unfortunately, while big business maintains a firm grip on those who lead us, logic and common sense are often encumbered by personal and economic agendas. It would seem that we are between a rock and hard place. Though despite these overwhelming challenges I feel oddly positive…
There’s no doubt now that we need to change our ways if we are to survive and thrive. And with change comes opportunity. Devising local solutions to these global problems I think is important. If I can become more self-resilient then I become less of a burden on these already pressured systems, I will feel more empowered and I can help my community do the same. At a local micro economic level we can find ways to grow our own produce in a way that does no harm to the earth and those we share it with.
Rather than focus on the appearance of our produce, a modern spin on quality, size or shelf life, our attention needs to turn to growing produce that is of the highest nutritional benefit possible. If we do this then chances are the produce from our own back yards will be far superior to anything we’ve put on the dinner table before. And there’s no doubt in my mind that soil remediation that works with nature is the foundation for all of this.
So in this journal entry we’re going to examine soil remediation as it pertains to `growing healthy produce’ in our own back yards and how new leanings into this topic have contributed to my own soil remediation strategy at the orchard. To begin lets hit the topic at a high level through the following concepts…
We are what we eat…
We really are what we eat. And I don’t think you would find many people who would care to disagree with this statement. Though what I’m coming to realize now is that this statement goes far deeper than I ever thought. More on this later on but for the moment take on board that perhaps one of the most empowering things we can do for our own health and for that of our own genetic legacy, our children, is to grow and consume healthy produce from our own back yards.
I’m also confident that the connection between soil health, plant health and human health runs deep. As a general concept truly healthy produce can come from truly healthy plants, or trees, and that is underpinned by truly healthy soil.
Unfortunately today truly healthy soil is an exceedingly limited resource. The earths topsoil is like a bank and the industrial monocultures employed by our primary industries have been taking and taking from that bank for decades now without putting anything back in. The topsoil bank for most of us is empty. So growing healthy produce today is more often than not reliant on remediating and building soil.
A Stake in the Ground
So let me a put a stake in the ground on what makes for a healthy tree. I understand some crops are purposefully stressed to gain the desired produce but at the orchard, if the soil/plant/human health connection holds true, then a healthy tree is indeed the target and endgame for all of our efforts…
As I write this today I think most plant scientists would agree that a plant needs at least seventeen‘essential’ elements i.e. those that cannot be replaced,to sustain life. Though plants also contain a wide range of ‘non essential’ elements, in the order of thirty to sixty, that over time many I’m sure will proven to be vital cogs in a healthy plant machine.
Plants need a good deal of carbon, which they get from carbon dioxide. Plenty of oxygen and hydrogen that they get from water, and lots of solar energy, from the Sun, to provide the driving force behind photosynthesis. Some of the energy they gain from photosynthesis is used to produce exudates that are leached into the soil. These exudates, primarily made up of carbohydrates, lipids and proteins, are secreted in and around the plant rhizophere, a zone extending only a few millimeters in and around the plant roots, as a form of currency in the process of trading with the soil community for the minerals and nutrients that they can’t obtain through other means.
With a successful trade our plants then synthesize those raw materials into more complex compounds and sugars, complete proteins, vitamins, enzymes etc that are all applied in the task of growing and reproducing. Their seed, our food, will be truly healthy if all of these contributors are readily available, in the rights quantities and proportions, for our trees to employ. But for that to happen our soil needs to be teaming with microbes…
A Soil Teaming with Microbes
In journey entry four we gained some insight into the soil, as a complex living and breathing entity, or community, made up of a myriad of life forms and relationships. This community, like any other biologic entity, needs to breathe, to drink and to feed in order to thrive.
At a structural level, in order to support a healthy soil community teaming with beneficial microbes, the soil needs to be well aerated. A good rule of thumb I am told is that half of the total soil structure should be filled with air pockets, and about a third to a half of those air pockets should eventually accommodate free draining moisture.
A healthy soil community also needs plenty of humus. Humus acts as both the home and the pantry for our soil microbes. The more biologically active humus we have in our soils the more microbes can live in it. And the better that is for our trees.
It’s a symbiotic relationship that begins with our tree root exudates and the fungi and bacteria they attract. These primary decomposers excrete enzymes that are able to break down organic matter into their most basic forms. They in turn attract and are consumed by larger soil microbes such as nematodes and protozoa. And it is the waste products from these larger soil microbes, which includes a cache of minerals and trace elements, which our trees desire…
The Multidimensional Role of Minerals
It wasn’t until Kay Baxter, the founder and CEO of the Koanga Institute here in New Zealand, introduced me to the insights of Dr Alan Beddoe that I began to appreciate the vital contribution minerals make to the soil community and to my orchard trees.
In his publication - Nourishment Home Grown Dr Beddoe applies Dr Carey Ream’s theory of biologic ionization, or RTBI, to gardening and growing produce. From what I’ve read of the life and times of Dr Carey Reams, 1903-1985, he was an extraordinary man and a mathematical genius that counted Albert Einstein as one of his true friends and colleagues. So the story goes he once chided Albert Einstein saying, “You know how to take matter apart but you don’t know how to put it back again” to which Einstein replied that figuring out how to do that was a job for Reams.
Reams theory of biologic Ionization, or RTBI, is just that. It’s all about energy to matter conversion and how matter breaks down to energy again as part of the cycle of life. He spent much of his life applying RTBI to the human health condition. In Nourishment Home Grown Dr Beddoe presents a number of principles, 29 in total, that we can apply to our production systems so they have the most potential to support healthy plants and crops that in turn can provide a harvest, packed with minerals and nutrients, vital to human health.
Combining experiences gained from over four decades of growing healthy organic produce, using heritage genetic lines, Kay Baxter builds on the work of Dr Beddoe in her own publication - A Home Gardening Guide to Growing Nutrient Dense Food. With Kay’s guidance, and these books, I’m beginning to see minerals as more than just inert amendments applied to correct an assumed or measured soil deficiency. Rather, as the building blocks for all biologic life, they exhibit chemical, physical and electromagnetic properties, or dimensions, that our soil community and plants strive to capture in various ways in order to grow and reproduce.
Throughout the journal entries leading up to this one we discussed some of the major minerals and the various roles they play in the soil and in our trees. Let me summarise:
At the Orchard
Ok so we’ve covered some important concepts. Now it’s time to move from the concept level down to a practical level. When there is seemingly so much to consider often the hardest question to tackle is “where do you start?” Well I think careful observation is invariably the first step in any design and at the orchard that was no exception. With good observation leveraging a technique known as Visual Soil Assessment, or VSA, it’s possible to quickly assess the soil quality so one can determine what aspects need work or improvement.
Visual Soil Assessment
Using mainly visual cues, hence the name, visual soil assessment [41-46] helped me to gain insight into the physical and biological characteristics of the soil but also, to a lesser extent, the mineral properties. There have been a number of different visual soil assessment methods developed over the years. From the ones I’ve worked with, to get started, all you really need are a few tools from the garage. The most critical of which is a spade to dig out a soil profile. It begins with a sample, a slice of soil. By characterizing the soil types against various charts and physical tests its possible to determine the soil type or form, the stability and the resilience.
A number of factors such as soil structure, porosity, colour, number and colour of soil mottles, biological counts such as earthworms, panning, and the degree of clod development and of soil erosion are all assessed using visual guides and scored.
What I also found useful at the orchard was actually drawing the soil profiles and horizons. It honed my observation skills down to a level of detail that was useful.
Visual soil assessment also looks to plant indicators as cues, much like we discussed in journal entry five on understory. Characteristics such a crop emergence rates, crop height at maturity, the size and development of the root systems of your plants and the occurrence of any root diseases all provide valuable insights into your soil health over time.
At the orchard, from my first visual soil assessment, I encountered friable silt loam topsoil showing clearly discernible and stable peds, or units of soil structure, that could be best described as a mixture of crumb to blocky. Further down I encountered a number of subsoil layers that included clay and charcoal. All supported by a dense clay layer atop of an old riverbed substrate about a metre down. So we had a reasonable soil structure to work with…
Though biologically speaking the results were less promising. We encountered very little humus and not a single worm to speak of. I like to think of worms as the canary's of the soil community. If you have plenty of worms then you can bet the soil community is in a reasonably active state. With no visible soil community to speak of but lots of mycelium I figured we were working with soils dominated by fungi, which implies soils of an acidic nature. With the site previously occupied by a monoculture of Monterey pines I’d always suspected I would be dealing with acidic soils, the extent of which I would later confirm with a lab soil test.
Various grasses including summer, crowfoot and couch grass, some hawkesbeard and dandelion dominated the understory above the topsoil. Though the combined root mass really hadn’t made much progress in working down into the topsoil at all. A sign perhaps that the soil offered little in the way of minerals and nutrients for our plant roots to pursue.
That first visual soil assessment served as an important baseline on which to compare with other subsequent ones down the track. I think the trick is to do them regularly and at fixed intervals and in doing so you get a front row seat to the visible evolution of your soil. It’s a relatively easy technique to get to grips with and your only cost is time spent and a spade. If you’re keen on learning more about visual soil assessment look to the resources at the end of this journal entry for further reading.
At the orchard we also employed a drainage testing method described by Kay Baxter in her book Design Your Own Orchard. Bringing Permaculture Design to the Ground in Aotearoa . It’s best to conduct this test while the soils are still damp, in autumn and winter. Dig a hole forty centimeters deep and keep it full with water for twenty-four hours. Empty it to fifteen centimeters below the ground surface and measure how long it takes to drop by another five centimeters. If it takes longer than an hour then you may have a drainage issue. If that’s the case then you might want to conduct more tests in and around your orchard site to determine the extent of the problem and if a plan needs to be hatched to address it.
So we learnt a good deal from visually assessing the orchard soils. It’s even possible to glean some insights on the types of minerals present in the soil. Though getting an accurate baseline on what minerals are present in the soil and in what proportions is important, and the only certain way to get that is with a soil lab test…
A Lab Soil Test
There’s quite a range of readily accessible lab soil test types and methods around today. You really have to know what you’re looking for and I would recommend you do your own research on each soil test considered before you spend money to have them done. I can only speak to the soil testing techniques I’ve encountered and had some experience with through the orchard journey.
Following the visual soil assessment I had a conventional mineral test done. At a high level I believe the procedure involved mixing my soil sample with water and a chemical extract, in this case a strong acid, to dissolve the nutrients so they can be filtered out and accurately measured. This type of soil test provides scores in absolutes i.e. this is how much calcium you have in your soil. While that’s useful it doesn’t tell me how much of that calcium is indeed biologically available to my trees. You see our tree root exudates break down the nutrients so they can be absorbed. The exudates they employ are weak carbonic acids.
So a soil test that better emulates the root exudates, by employing similarly weak acids, should give me a more accurate view of what nutrients are actually available to our plants and trees. Such a test exists, it’s called a Reams test, and we’ll talk more to that type of test, and the results from one conducted a few seasons down the track, later in this journal entry.
Nevertheless the results from our first conventional mineral test, employing stronger acids, served as an important baseline on which to move forward…
At the pH I discovered, 5.3, my soils were indeed acidic. A pH measurement is essentially a count of hydrogen ions. The less hydrogen ions around then the lower the pH is. The pH scale goes from 1, being highly acidic, through to 14, being highly alkaline. A pH of 7 is said to be neutral, neither acidic nor alkaline. I’m interested in soil pH because it can help me understand what types of microbes may be present in the soil. At lower pH levels fungi tend to outnumber bacteria and, as we’ve discussed before, this has implications on the type of nitrogen we’ll have in the soil.
Most vegetables, annuals and grasses prefer their nitrogen in the nitrate form and as such do better in alkaline inclined soils dominated by bacteria. Most trees, shrubs and perennials prefer their nitrogen in the ammonium form and as such do better in acid inclined soils dominated by fungi. Now while our fruit trees may indeed prefer acidic soils, at a pH of 5.3, I think even they would struggle. At these levels soil microbes tend to move to greener pastures and minerals get locked away. Establishing an understory, made up of primarily annuals and perennials, would be a struggle.
The test also confirmed that the orchard topsoil was severely mineral deficient. For some minerals - calcium, magnesium and phosphate, the levels encountered bordered on marginal. The remediation strategy would need to address these issues…
A Design for Soil Remediation
With the visual assessment and initial soil test results in I felt reasonably confident that I had enough information on which to develop a design for soil remediation. A four-stage plan would focus on soil structure first, topsoil restoration, pioneer planting and then natural mineral accumulators on which to migrate nutrients right where they were needed.
In the following I’ve combined plans with actions in an attempt to keep it brief. To develop a soil structure that could cater well to a healthy soil community I began with the implementation of what are known as swales, think of a series of terraced ditches. With the orchard on a northeast facing slope, and in an area that is known for it’s bountiful annual rainfall, swales would ensure what topsoil and subsoil amendments we applied in the future stayed where they were.
So while we had machinery in to remove the pine tree stumps we had some earthworks done to create our swales. To be honest with you what we actually ended up with more closely resembled terraces with very slightly curved depressions. I’ll certainly do better next time but for the most part I think the terraces were effective.
An irrigation channel, made by a mole plough, having a pointed shoe at the end of a long tip, to a depth of one metre and running one metre in from the orchard terrace edges was also employed. These channels aerated the soil, also providing channels along the drip line of our trees for water, and penetrated through the clay layers ensuring adequate drainage. The disturbance to the soil community by such earthworks was significant. But in this case we saw it as a one off activity that would ultimately provide a much better long term home for the soil community.
After approaching the structural aspects of our soil remediation my attention turned to the process of topsoil restoration. Firstly with organic compost. This was the only ever commercially prepared compost we’ve utilised at the orchard. At the time I could only afford enough to provide a couple of centimeters of compost coverage across each terrace. Mixed in with the existing topsoil the compost provided a boost to soil humus, and hence the soil community, as well as provided a good medium to incorporate our first understory seed mix in.
We followed the application of compost with a soil drench of preparation 500, the humus builder [see journal entry six]
Aerated Activated Compost Tea [see journal entry four], or AACT, was then applied as a soil tonic. Bacterial dominant brews were initially employed to facilitate the migration of soils from fungal dominance to a more balanced scenario that would better support the understory and pioneer plantings.
To support this, calcium, in the form of fine powdered lime, at a rate of three hundred grams per square metre and phosphate, at a rate of forty grams per square metre in the form of reactive phosphate rock [see journal entry one], or RPR, was added as the compost was applied. Please understand these quantities should not be considered recommended guidelines. They are simply what I decided to implement at the time. As we alluded to in journal entry one, be aware that RPR is a byproduct of uranium mining, as the elements often occur together. Sources from different regions around the world have shown higher than normal levels of radiation and cadmium. So if you’ve determined that you need phosphate and you use RPR check with your supplier about the source first and what guarantees they can provide you of its safety. Also I believe that when applied at the same time, calcium and phosphate bond together, one of the byproducts of that process is heat, and that has the potential to kill seeds in the topsoil. So if you were sowing seeds it would pay to wait a while, some say up to fourteen days, before proceeding.
Next came the understory seed mix [see journal entry five]. The understory, a range of plant species that provide low level ground cover, would fulfill a myriad of roles for us in the orchard from soil conditioning, both structural and biological, to facilitate nitrogen fixing and attracting beneficial insects.
We also planted tagasaste seedlings [see journal entry one], a very tough and ideal pioneer tree for our site. As deep penetrating multipurpose legume trees they would help to condition and bind the soil as well as facilitate a natural onsite conversion of atmospheric nitrogen in the topsoil. These fast growing trees, reaching three to four metres within a couple of seasons, would shelter the slower growing fruit trees from the elements and when coppiced would provide more raw material for humus development.
By late spring, with the pioneers in place and the understory flourishing, it was time to begin planting comfrey [see journal entry two] in and around the drip line of our trees. Comfrey, with its deep taproot, would support soil conditioning and act as a mineral miner for our developing trees, particularly with potassium. And then came occasional amendments of seaweed [see journal entry three] bringing in trace elements, alginates for soil colloid forming and plant growth hormones.
Down the track a bit…
Over the course of the next two seasons annual applications, in spring, of calcium and RPR occurred at the same initial rates. Whenever we were able to applications of AACT and a biodynamic spray regime involving preparation 500, 501 and cow pat pit [see journal entry 6] were also administered. By the end of season two I could see that distinct and positive changes were occurring in the soil. The worms were back. And the understory root mass has extended much deeper into the soil. The soil was darker and it had that rich soil smell, which I now know is a sign that certain beneficial aerobic bacteria, known as actinomycetes, were in abundance.
With the signs for soil health all looking very positive it was decided that the fruit tree seedlings could go in the following season.
I really should have had conducted more regular soils tests, at least annually, but it wasn’t until the end of the fourth season that I eventually got around to doing another. This time around I proceeded with a Reams test…
A Reams Soil Test
The Reams soil test , developed by its namesake, Dr Carey Reams has potential to provide insight into more than just available minerals and nutrients but also other aspects such as soil compaction and tilth, weeds and pests that might persist and also crop quality and production potential. Using a chemical extract, known as the Morgan extract, a weak acid that mimics the exudates our plant and tree roots employ, we get a good picture of the biologically active nutrients that are available to our trees. I conducted my test in spring. Late summer would have been better as nutrient draw is at it’s most in the late part of the growing season. So we gain an important peak load measurement.
There’s a bunch of information we can get from a Reams soil test, most of which I’m afraid we won’t cover in this journal entry. Though to get the full value out of a Reams test I understand that you need to look past the individual scores and delve more into the ratios provided by a combination of scores. An aspect I’m still coming to grips with.
The calcium to magnesium ratio is an important one. The desired ratio is 7:1. Our result was 12:1. This combined with a pH result of 7.3 and a calcium reading of 2145 kilograms per hectare, as compared to a desired range of between 2000 and 5000, leads me to believe that my bacterial dominant aerated activated teas (AACT) combined with my calcium amendments and nitrogen fixing legumes perhaps worked a little to well. As a result I plan to tweak my AACT to be fungal dominant for a while. And perhaps hold off calcium amendments for the moment until my magnesium levels come up a tad, possibly with more seaweed teas and /or potentially other amendments. The calcium to magnesium ratio can also provide a picture of soil compaction. Soil compaction can be largely influenced by aeration and the attraction and repulsion characteristics of the particles in our soil. If you think of two magnets repelling each other, well soils with the proper ratio of minerals are said to exhibit much the same behavior. A ratio lower than 7:1 is prone to compaction.
The phosphorous to potassium ratio is also very important. At a result of 0:1, as compared to the desired ratio of 1:1, for orchards, there is some work to be done here. This result supported by a score of 46 kilograms per hectare of phosphorous, to a target of between 100 and 200 kilograms makes me wonder if my applications of RPR was a little on the light side. Also RPR is a slow release form of phosphorous. It ensures a steady trickle of phosphorous, rather than a flood as exhibited by other fertilizer forms used, so wastage and leaching is minimized. Though it can take quite some time before it breaks down enough to become available and in our case I believe that aspect has contributed to these test results. At the levels we’re seeing there just isn’t enough phosphorous to facilitate the effective transport of minerals into my trees. So I need to find an alternative short-term supply for my trees on the expectation that the RPR will kick in down the track.
Now if my orchard were just outside my doorstep I would look to incorporating ducks to the orchard. Poultry manure provides good levels of phosphorous and we also get other benefits such as pest control and indeed the potential for eggs and meat. But I’m afraid the orchard is just too remote to entertain that possibility. So I have to look for more amendments with which to introduce phosphorous. And I think the answer may lie in another naturally occurring phosphorous form known as soft rock phosphate.
Soft rock phosphate is colloidal, that is the particles are small enough that they neither float nor sink in water, and due to their size they present much more surface area and as such are more available to our soil microbes and our trees. In this form the phosphorous doesn’t tend to get locked away as other forms can do. Though I have no personal experience with this at the orchard I understand that oats and lupin green crops are adept at unlocking calcium and phosphorous that is usually unavailable to plant roots, so perhaps another angle for you if appropriate. As we described earlier phosphate, once it’s completed the task of depositing minerals into our trees, is recycled back into the soil to begin it’s task anew. By maintaining optimal soil humus and biology we can ensure we retain this precious mineral and avoid future leaching.
I think as I learn more about Reams testing I’ll gain more confidence in interpreting these results and I’ll be able to decode more from them than I can today. For the moment I shall tread carefully and seek advice from those who know this topic better than I.
Going forward I can see the two types of soil lab testing I’ve employed at the orchard being quite complimentary, the conventional mineral test, employing stronger acids, tells me what minerals are in the soil. While the latter Reams shows me, of the total, what proportions are biologically available to our trees. The combination of results will tell me if I need more raw amendments applied or if I just need to find better ways to unlock the minerals that are already there.
From Healthy Trees comes Healthy Produce
If I had a strong suit it would be soil first and then perhaps plant health. I’m no nutritionist, I’m a gardener. Though if I am indeed in the game of growing truly healthy produce, then I believe I need to understand more than I do today about the human health condition and nutrition. This looks to be one of the next steps in my own personal journey. It’s an aspect I’m only just beginning to explore.
Of course it’s a huge subject/s and I’m quite weary of discussing topics I don’t have a good deal of personal experience in. But what I’m comfortable sharing here is at least what topics and angles I intend to explore on this particular leg of my journey. Here’s the logic trail…
Elements and minerals, as the building blocks for all biologic life, provide the raw materials for this to happen. In this we share a common bond with the soil community and with our trees. We all need minerals!
In Kay’s booklet A Home Gardening Guide to Growing Nutrient Dense Food she points to research from Westin A Price, a dentist back in the early 1900’s, who discovered that western diets were sadly lacking in minerals, down to 25%, and fast soluble vitamins, down to 10%, as compared to more traditional and tribal diets of the time. Today Kay estimates that most of us are getting about 5% of the minerals we need to maintain human health at it’s peak cellular level, and maybe if we’re lucky 1-3% of the fat soluble vitamins A and D. But if we eat produce that’s full of the right minerals and vitamins, some call it nutrient dense produce, then we can build and maintain peak cellular health. With peak cellular health we feel better and we think better. We’re also more capable of defending ourselves from disease.
Epigenetic scientists, those who study gene expression caused by mechanisms other than changes in our underlying DNA, are beginning to demonstrate that aspects of our own health condition, that essentially come from what we eat and how we live, are passed on to our offspring, the next generation. It reinforces my belief that growing really healthy produce in our back yard on healthy highly mineralised soils is well worth the effort. It can affect our health today significantly, and because of the resulting changes to our genetic expression, the health of our children tomorrow.
So we need produce grown in highly mineralised soils supported by a healthy soil community. Kay also believes we need to leverage heritage plant lines when we can, as these plant lines are much better at taking up minerals then our modern hybrids, because modern hybrid lines have been breed and adapted themselves to mineral deficient soils. What I find interesting is that two trees, side by side, can look exactly the same and yet when tested exhibit a 1000:1 difference in mineral content. So on a day to day basis in the garden and orchard, if we can’t tell from appearances, how do we determine if our plants and trees are getting all they’re need to produce truly healthy produce? This is where a device known as a refractometer could come into play…
BRIX and the Refractometer
You may encounter folks in the fields and orchard armed with a device known as a refractometer. The refractometer  is a device that measures the level of diffraction of light, caused by the presence of dissolved solids, through a liquid medium, or plant sap in our case. You’ll find these folks rolling leaves between their hands and pressing them through a garlic press to get a sap sample, a drop of juice, onto the refractometer.
The measured light diffraction index, known as degrees Brix , has been used for many years to provide an indicator of sugar levels in produce. Though sugars aren’t the only dissolved solid you’ll find in plant sap. The concept of correlating brix levels to mineral levels, thus providing some insight into nutrient density, is gaining popularity.
It’s an intriguing field and one that I find quite exciting because it has the potential to provide some real time insight, literally taking seconds to test, of the effectiveness of my soil remediation as it pertains to growing healthy nutrient dense produce. Here’s how it is applied...
For our trees a Brix reading of less than twelve indicates a mineral deficiency or imbalance. Plants and trees with these low readings tend to have more simple sugars in them than complex ones. As we know simple sugars are well suited to the digestive systems of fungi and bacteria, but also insects. So a plant with a low Brix is more susceptible to pest attacks and disease.
When the Brix level is over twelve our trees have more complex sugars than simple in them and their proteins tend to be complete proteins. When our trees are in this state they are said to be nutrient dense and the produce they create is more likely to be nutrient dense.
I’m now the proud owner of my own refractometer and I’m testing my trees whenever I can and also my vegetables and herbs back at home. I believe Brix levels vary during the course of any given day. So it’s important to conduct testing at roughly the same time of day as previously tested and also from more or less the same spot tested on the plant or tree. It’s been quite satisfying to see a steady climb in Brix levels as I add amendments to the soil and to my compost. When the level goes above eight or nine I am told that our trees become more receptive to mineral absorption through the leaf processes. So a good time to employ regular highly mineralized foliar sprays, seaweed teas etc.
I’ve purchased a number of foliar sprays from a company who knows the nutrient dense subject well and have formulated specific sprays for differing growth stages of plants. If you’re unfamiliar with foliar spraying you could look to journal entry three for some notes on this technique.
So that’s the basic application of the refractometer as it applies to nutrient density. From what I gather the concept of deriving indications of mineral levels for nutrient density from refractometer readings is somewhat controversial today. It may take more time, as more field research becomes available, for us to fully understand it’s potential in the garden and orchard. I will continue to explore this topic finding what research I can and through direct application. From my own early experiences with annual crops I can see that plants with higher Brix certainly seem stronger, more resistant and resilient to pests and I can taste the difference in the produce.
If you’re interested in growing nutrient dense food I recommend you get a copy of Kay’s booklet - A Home Gardening Guide to Growing Nutrient Dense Food. Kay’s booklet also points to further reading on the subject.
A Natural Approach
I’m learning new things every day and I suspect my soil remediation plans will evolve. But I’m comfortable what’s been implemented at the orchard is indeed good for the soil, for those organisms sharing the orchard with us and ultimately good for our trees.
There’s no doubt that you’ll encounter a vast range of potential design elements, techniques and systems to employ in your own soil remediation strategy. Look past the labels, so to speak, and learn as much as you can about each so you can incorporate them into your own designs with confidence.
What I find quite satisfying is that by combining tried and true organic practices with new techniques and systems soil remediation has taken on a whole new level of definition for me. Ultimately that should ensure my treatments and inputs can become more targeted and less wasteful.
What I’ve presented here in this journal entry could be considered quite onerous and complicated. And I must admit as I learn more I realize how little I know. But don’t let it put you off putting a potato in the ground today! If you’re new to this subject perhaps start simple and implement maybe a couple of techniques or design elements that can play a role for you today, as you grow produce, and into the future as part of a soil remediation evolution. Take things at your own pace and enjoy the journey.
Speaking of pace be mindful that nature moves to it’s own. And in soil remediation you’ll find that some things take much longer than you planned on and in other cases much faster. It is indeed a moving target so keep your eyes on it as much as you can and you should be fine.
It’s been some time since I began writing these journals and I find myself going to back to them from time to time, more so when I’m in the field and I’ve forgotten something. So the concept behind this section is to provide a way to quickly find a topic and look it up through a selectable links [As soon as I figure out this Wiki code stuff :)]
About Permaculture - Permaculture prime directive, Permaculture definitions, A Designers Manual by Bill Mollison, Permaculture One by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren,
The Sacred Groves of Aotearoa - Regarding World Wildlife Living Planet Report 2014, the planetary boundary framework, Farm Managed Natural Regeneration, Lessons on the Loess Plain, Greening the Desert, Bill Mollison on Permaculture Design Courses, the 12 Principles of Permaculture, Dave Holmgren Essence of Permaculture, UN Trade and Environment Report 2013, Definition of Natural Capital,Identification of an Immune-Responsive Mesolimbocortical Serotonergic System, Sacred Groves of India, Conscious Consumers NZ, on Circular Economies, Rabobank Pathways to a Circular Economy, Ellen Macarthur Foundation, On Epigenetics
Tagasaste - A Keystone Design Element - Journal Entry 1 - On the concept of Keystone Design Elements, Tagasaste as Fodder, Tagasaste as Solid Fuel, Tagasaste on Soil Conditioning, on the nature of Nitrogen, regarding Legumes, Tagasaste for Native Forest Regeneration, Tagasaste planting strategies for Orchards, growing Tagasaste from seeds, on the nature of Phosphate, Reactive Phosphate Rock uses and constraints, Mychorrhizal Fungi, Teaming with Microbes, on the nature of Calcium, Nourishment Home Grown by Allan Beddoe, Lime supplements, Seedling Pest protection, Pest deterrent formula, Alternative legumes to consider, Masanobu Fukuoka The One Straw Revolution, Tagasaste Nomenclature
Comfrey - The King of Accumulators - Journal Entry 2 - Comfrey origins, on Allantoin, Comfrey Bocking varieties, % minerals extracted by Comfrey, Comfrey carbon to nitrogen ratio, Kay Baxter’s Comfrey liquid fertiliser recipe, Koanga Gardens, Comfrey and potatoes and onions, Comfrey as fodder, Comfrey and vitamin B12, Potassium storage of Trees, Propagation tips for Comfrey, Establishing a Comfrey Plot, Comfrey and hepatoxic pyrrolizidines, Comfrey research project update, Comfrey Nomenclature
Seaweed - An Eminent Bioaccumulator - Journal Entry 3 - On chelating compounds, benefits of Trace Elements, the nature of Iron, the nature of Copper, the nature of Manganese, Vitamins + Lipids + Carbohydrates + Proteins + Nucleic Acids + Alginates + Growth Hormones in Seaweed, regarding Lazy Beds practice, Seaweed harvesting considerations, Seaweed in Agriculture and Horticulture W.A Stephens, Seaweed and Potatoes, Peter Procter’s Seaweed Extract recipe, regarding Foliar Sprays, basic plant botany, natural insecticide spray, what is good quality compost?, GRO Biointensive How to Grow More Vegetable, GRO Biointensive Composting and growing Composting materials, on bio-accumulation in Seaweed
Soil Building - Aerated Activated Compost Tea - Journal Entry 4 - Insights from Jeff Lowenfels and Wayne Lewis on the Soil Food Web, Teaming with Microbes, Actions of Bacteria + Fungi + Protozoa + Nematodes + Arthropods + Worms, Aerated Activated Compost Tea [AACT] Introduction, on plants controlling the soil community, AACT application notes - a recipe, on reducing the risk on introducing Anaerobic microbes, indicators for healthy compost, Vermicast, AACT timing and application, Dr Elaine Ingham and the SoilFoodWeb organisation, Nitrogen forms, tuning the AACT brew towards bacterial or fungal dominance to suit different crops, application at the orchard, regarding worms and their actions and benefits, Charles Darwin’s book on worms, The Compost Tea Brewing Manual - Latest methods and research 5th edition, the downside of AACT an the risk of introducing non-beneficial microbes and precautions to take.
Orchard Understory - An Indispensable set of Tools - Journal Entry 5 - Masanobu Fukuoka’s four principles of do nothing farming, natural farming example, regarding legumes, on Subterranean Clover (Trifolium subterraneum), on Dutch white clover (Trifolium repens), on Red clover (Trifolium pratense), the nature of Phosphate as the ‘Usher’, regarding Beneficial Insects, on the Umbeliferae family, on nasturtium (Tropaeolum majus) and marigolds (Calendula officinalis) as natural pest deterrents, on phacelia (Phacelia tanacetifolia) chicory (Cichorium Intybus) and buckwheat (Fagopyrum esculentum) to attract bees, on daikon (Raphanus sativus) lucerne (Medicago satvia) and comfrey (Symphytum peregrinum) for soil conditioning, on Elles cocksfoot (Dactylis glomerata) for biomass generation, Understory establishment tips, regarding Visual Plant Analysis, Leaf colour examples to indicate deficiencies, The International Permaculture Solutions Journal Volume 1, Number 3. A Yankee Permaculture, Test your soil with plants by John Beeby, Designing and Maintaining Your Edible Landscape Naturally by Robert Kourik, Roots Demystified by Robert Kourik.
Biodynamics - Living Soil and the Cosmic Interplay - Journal Entry 6 - Biodynamics Term, Cosmic Interplay example, on the importance of the Cow, preparation 500, BRIX, preparation 501, preparation 502, preparation 503, preparation 504, preparation 505, preparation 506, preparation 507, the Biodynamic Compost Pile, regarding Carbon, Organic matter and Humus, Cow Pat Pit, Biodynamic Tree Paste, Terrior,
A Design for Soil Remediation - Journal Entry 7 - What makes for a healthy tree?, Rule of thumb for a healthy soil structure, Humus, Biologic Ionisation and Dr Carey Reams, Kay Baxter on Nutrient Dense Food, Design your own Orchard. Bringing Permaculture Design to the Ground in Aotearoa by Kay Baxter, Roles of Nitrogen + Phosphorous + Potassium + Carbon + Calcium + Trace Elements, Visual Soil Assessment techniques, Various references for VSA techniques, , Kay’s drainage test, about conventional lab soil tests, 4 stage soil remediation plan, Reams soil testing, Carey Reams’ Testing & Evaluation Methods by Arden Anderson, RPR versus Soft Rock Phosphate, Regarding human nutrition, Epigenetics, BRIX and the Refractometer, A home gardeners guide to Growing Nutrient Dense Food by Kay Baxter
A Community Orchard in Wellington - Seed ball recipe, Innermost Gardens
Innermost Community Gardens is a living example of permaculture ethics and principles in action right in the heart of Wellington City, New Zealand.
Through the hard work of many dedicated folks over the years an old bowling club has been transformed into an urban oasis that includes annual beds, a model orchard and a developing food forest.
The team at Innermost run regular garden days, host workshops and training around sustainable production practices. The gardens and hall facility provide a meeting place for the community in a park like setting with walkways surrounded by natural art forms and sculptures.
Innermost is and always should be a Sacred Grove of Aotearoa, an Island of biodiversity, available to all who want to connect with nature and to explore sustainable principles applied to the art of making high quality produce. Permaculture ethics and principles serve as the foundation on which Innermost operates.
Back in 2011 development began on converting a lawn space into an urban orchard. The aim was to produce fruit for the community and to demonstrate an orchard system that could be easily accommodated into small back yards such as those typical in Wellington.
The soil at the time was rather waterlogged with dense clay layers supporting a nice friable loam but biologically lean soil type, discovered with visual soil analysis techniques. So the task at hand included elements of soil remediation. Standard lab soils tests as well as reams tests were conducted and it was no surprise that present and available minerals were also lean, .
The design elements, techniques and implementation aspects for staging were modeled after those described in the permaculture practitioner journal series.
On a very cold and wet winters day in 2011 a brave band of volunteers planted a range of bare rooted deciduous seedlings, mostly heirloom sourced from a local supplier with rootstocks appropriate to local conditions. The trees were planted at intervals closer than you might leverage in a typical country orchard. The trade off for more produce from less space would be a more regular and structured pruning program, an element we were prepared for and in fact suited us as part of regular workshops we might run every season.
The tree trenches were prepared the week before, square holes to challenge the new seedling roots, with seaweed at the bottom. At the time of planting a combination of existing soil plus compost enriched with an organic mineral amendment was added to the top soil layer. The seedlings were planted in the same direction they had been raised in so the roots didn’t need to adjust too much to their new orientation. The normal protection mechanisms to prevent pest damage and stakes were in place (see the Tagasaste section for more detail)
Come spring that year and the task of soil restoration began by breaking the ground to disturb the established grass layer with spades and picks and hands. A rototiller helped to disturb the soil across a large area that was immediately amended with Innermost compost, a biologically active compost enhanced with specific raw material waste from hundreds of kitchens from the Mount Victoria community [we consider our compost bins as the heart and soul of our gardens]
A seed mix described in this resources was amended with coffee husks, to observe application, and sown over the compost, raked and pressed in thoroughly. The understory species planted would over time condition our soils, accumulate and distribute minerals and nutrients, to shelter and attract beneficial insects and deter other insect pests.
The applications rates for seed application were double the portion than those recommended, not really necessary but we wanted to be sure of getting a reasonable strike rate up front. in the following 8 weeks, despite feeding near every bird in Wellington, the orchard understory had sprouted and was taking hold.
You know it takes quite a mental shift for many of us to look at what appears to be a messy orchard full of weeds to one of complex organic nature by design. It was easier for those involved in the project because we had indeed implemented the design. Bit for passers by who may have preconceived notions of an orchard it would be more difficult to grasp our design. As a result offers began streaming in from people who wanted to weed for us and a near tragedy occurred in some well meaning folk who decided to mow our developing understory for us.
Whats interesting is that the understory fought back and where it had been mowed, to the north of the orchard, was now and still is dominated by broadleaf varieties. It’s apparent the area in this part of the orchard has had more soil conditioning, through the persistence of a range of taproots, than others.
Come summer, early 2012, and the understory had bloomed, now dominated by blooms of Phacelia, Queen Anne's Lace and Yarrow and and you cant hear yourself amongst the bees and other bugs, the beneficial insects have arrived.
Fast forward 12 months and the makeup of the understory was quite different, understories are a constantly evolving landscape. The orchard was now dominated by the broadleaf species and Chicory. The soil, while dry from a long hot summer, was mellow and as dark as chocolate for at least 20 centimetres. The soil has transformed and the trees were showing no signs of disease. The citrus however were struggling showing signs of magnesium and nitrogen deficiency. More compost mulch is added as is 1 teaspoon of Epsom salts to a bucket of water for every tree. Whenever land a fish is landed from the harbour the carcass finds it way under the shallow roots of the citrus trees. Despite the best attempts two of the four citrus are lost. Comfrey plants sprouted from root cuttings have subsequently been planted in rings of 4-6 plants around every tree in the orchard.
In an attempt to add to the understory with flower species a technique pioneered by Masanobu Fukuoka is employed [see journal entry 4 on understory] to make seed balls.
The seed balls were made from both bentonite clay and red clay, 5 parts clay to 1 part compost and a number of flower seeds were combined with cayenne pepper in the mix to prevent birds from eating the balls. The mixture was watered down until consistency pliable enough to roll the balls was achieved. It took an afternoon to make a couple of hundred and then they were left in the sun to dry and harden. The general concept is that the balls protect the seeds from predators, pests, the environment and then when rained on they begin to germinate. This technique promises to germinate seeds without tilling the soil.
At the next gardening day the seed balls were into the orchard. I must admit it was hard to determine how effective these were over time. In areas where grasses dominated I don’t think we had a good germination rate. Though where there were areas where clover dominated or in the mulch layers around the trees they certainly did germinate well. Our timing was also a little off deploying this technique at the height of summer and I’m sure we would have had a better strike rate perhaps twelve weeks earlier.
Three years on and the fruit trees were developing well to the point where most were close to 3-4 metres tall and apart from ties for pruning no further supports or protection were needed. The pruning regime involves a combination of single leader to multiple leader type so we have canopies forming at different levels. Some damage from cicadas and split trunks, perhaps a potassium deficiency, were treated with a biodynamic tree paste made with some of the spare clay from our seed ball exercise [See journal entry 6 on Biodynamics]
Perennial crops were also planted, mostly berries, as part of the understory. And a beneficial insect home made from old pallet timber. It had 3 spaces, one for bumblebees, one for spiders and bugs, and another for Wetas.
For the first three seasons most of the developing fruit was removed on or trees so the trees could put their energy into establishing their root and trunk systems as opposed to producing fruit. In 2014 we decided to let some of the trees go to fruit. An abundance of small plums were quickly consumed by both human and avian species.
Early 2016 and everything is now in fruit. We have thinned fruit in order to mitigate any stress on developing branches particularly with the Monty’s Surprise Apples, which are very large fruit. Plums that were small and abundant last year are now more substantial though less in quantity. Some of the berry crops are in fruit now. Overall we’re pleased with the health and vigour of our trees, apart from systemic peach leaf curl problem there are not other signs of disease, treated in the past with a fungal dominant aerated activated compost tea and some copper. The understory has done it’s work and we are now mulling where to take that into the 2016/17 season.
For me success is reflected in the comments of those who visit our garden. I remember a very knowledgeable biodynamic gardener who runs a local community support agriculture scheme, came to talk to the innermost team and unprovoked commented that he sensed a profound and positive energy transformation in the gardens following the orchard deployment. It’s great to get that sort of feedback and now with an additional food forest development into the second season of implementation we are hoping to build on that unique inner city natural capital.
If you’re keen to get involved with Innermost Gardens you can find out more here - http://www.innermostgardens.org.nz/
Every year for the past 7 years now Anton Forde and I, ably assisted by a raft of volunteers, have taken Waiheke High Schools year 12 and 13 Viticulture classes on a great tour around the country.
The concept Anton has developed for this annual tour is one I think needs to be replicated around schools everywhere. It begins with the students learning in the class, in small part with these journals, and with their hands in the soil at the Waiheke High School gardens. The students are tasked with the challenge of creating a product, whether that is garden produce or services for offer that is then packaged and offered for sale. With the funds received the class put their hard earned money towards an annual tour, which serves as a reward for their achievements.
The tour element is where I come in. My challenge, which isn’t hard to be honest, is to find hosts and experienced practitioners of sustainability who are willing to spend some time with us and share their stories. The support we’ve had for this tour never ceases to astound me and the straight up and down way those we spend time with are willing to share the good and the bad that they face on a day to day basis is gold for these students.
Over the years we have had the good fortune to experience a wide range of production practices that span from the conventional through the less conventional. We’ve encountered growers, producers and end chain suppliers giving the students a new lens into the fields that they might one day consider pursing careers in. For the students involved, who spend much of their time in a smaller island culture, we hope these tours provide a window into systems they’ve not encountered before and on a scale they not used to.
There have been so many inspiring encounters for everyone though for me some encounters really stick out as highlights I’ll not forget. Erin Simpson and Clare Buckner at Te Koha Organics allowed our students to experience life as woofers on their Biodynamic Orchard learning all about the joys and challenges of getting high quality produce from the soil to the consumers.
Kay Baxter and the team at Koanga gardens taught us about the challenges facing conventional production systems and introduced us to the concept of nutrient dense produce an aspect that sent me on a path to better understand what is truly healthy produce and how to enhance my own production systems as you will have seen in these journals.
Peter Procter and Rachel Pomeroy have been so generous with their time on a number of occasions. Under their kind instruction our students have built some of the best compost piles I’ve ever seen. Under the stars we have all benefited from Rachel’s knowledge of the cosmic interplay our crops and production practices have with the stars and planets that surround our little planet.
The down to earth practical element of sustainable production that our hosts have shared with us is something young people need to understand and fortunately through these first hand encounters our students have. Connecting aspiring young practitioners to experienced practitioners and to our elders is something that our current learning systems are challenged with.
At the end of every tour we find a quiet place to have a swim, or a picnic, and reflect on the tour and to discuss what we’ve learned. It’s a magic wee tour and I am thankful for the opportunity to spend time chatting with these students contemplating their lives beyond school.
Every year we look for new encounters and experiences for the students, if you’re interested in sharing your story or hosting our students please contact me.
There have been so many people involved in the development of these journals. I am grateful to those who have invested in my learning over the years and those who continue to coach and guide me today.
To Shar Packer, Kay Baxter, Laureen Bamford, Phyllis Tichinin, Dan Hemenway, Jeff Lowenfels, John Ridout, Adam Shand, Darren Castelyn, Grant Lyon, Richard Self, Peter Proctor, Rachel Pomeroy, Hugh and Mike Packer my sincere thanks for your contributions to these writings. John Ridout, I miss our chats, may you rest in peace my friend.
I would also like to take this opportunity to thank those who have supported my comfrey research. This project has not been as straight forward as I first envisaged, welcome to the world of science Tim :) but progress has been made.
Special thanks to John Holt and my brothers Mike and Hugh who gave me the energy to get the comfrey research project off the ground and to Mike who developed the initial science plan to make it all real. To Bryant and Olivia Richardson who provided marketing work in kind to develop my pledge me campaign I am truly indebted to you both. And to all of the Pledgeme campaign supporters who are listed on my Pledgeme page my humble thanks for your support and faith in this project, I will not let you down.
To my wonder dog and best mate Cara who is currently having her belly rubbed underfoot as I write this, thanks for keeping me company rain or shine, and for the raised eyebrow on many an occasion preceding and preventing another type 1 error, you are the wisest being i know.
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this website seeks to ensure that all content and information published at this Web site is current and accurate. The information at this website does not in any way constitute legal or professional advice and this website cannot be held liable for actions arising from its use. In addition, this website cannot be held responsible for the contents of any externally linked pages.
this website has attributed any third party images and/or content as requested and appropriate. If you feel this has not been done properly please contact me immediately and I will take down the material.