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Helen Atthowe: goddess of the soil  RSS feed

 
paul wheaton
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Helen would punch me in the arm if she knew about this title, but she doesn't know, so I'm safe. 

I just received and email that said



below is the link to the video I mentioned with Helen Atthowe of Biodesign Farm in Montana, followed by an article about her experiments with organic no-till farming:

Organic No-Till Living Mulch Intro: Weed Em and Reap

www.youtube.com/watch?v=zis8Hb-VDTo



And there she is. 

Helen was my instructor when I got my master gardener training in 1996.  I went into that class after reading over 100 books on gardening and a year of having a rather successful garden.  I felt like I knew about 90% of what there was to know about gardening and that I would just fill in that last 10% a bit and impress everybody with my massive knowledge.  I was massively humbled in the first 10 minutes.  I studied like a fiend and at the end of the class we were tested and, frankly, I don't think I passed the test because Helen literally changed some of my test answers after I handed it in and only then did I barely pass.  I left the class having increased my knowledge by a factor of ten and then felt I knew about 3% of all there is to know about gardening. 

In my mind, the pedestal she stands on is almost as high as Holzer and Fukuoka

In 1996 she had a pamphlet she made about composting that was an order of magnitude beyond anything else I have ever read on composting - to this date.  She maintained a fishtank in her greenhouse of a brown goo that was the stuff that she put in her compost so she could cook her compost at just the right temperature to have skillions of good microbes while the bad microbe don't like that high of a temp.  (well, the resoning for the critters in the fishtank was more complex than that, but you get the general idea)

I think studying Helen's stuff should be as valueable to anybody as studying Holzer of Fukuoka.


 
paul wheaton
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Look who I ran into at the missoula saturday market ...

helen_atthowe.jpg
[Thumbnail for helen_atthowe.jpg]
 
paul wheaton
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Helen really didn't want her picture taken.  You can kinda read that in her face. 

(I am just that obnoxious)

 
bunkie weir
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great youtube and pics paul! do you have a link to the article? i can't find it...thanks!
 
                              
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great vid! there are lots more segments on teh right side(just wanted to point that out)
 
                          
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Thanks Paul for the video link , She surely blended some different knowledge toghether and make it function to her needs.
 
paul wheaton
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paul wheaton
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Emil Spoerri
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Wow, that's amazing I didn't realize it was possible to do worthwhile crops of peppers or eggplants in the north.

Oh, black plastic... I see haha

here are longer more complete versions of the videos

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uJk4R1xpMC8&feature[/youtube]

[youtube]http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=419KzOYcjGY&feature[/youtube]

I read an article written by a farmer in the small farmer's journal about his experience trying Emilia Hazelip style vegetable gardening. One of Fukuoka's students visited and his comments were "like children's toys, if you want to feed people, grow grains".

I only half agree with this sentiment. The half that agrees is my anti vegetable side, the half that disagrees is my anti grain side.


isn't fukuoka and holzer doing something totally different?

she may be cutting out human effort, but a lot of it is replaced with machines and modern conveniences

seems like a great way to make a lot of money!


how much N do you suppose comes in from the form of irrigation water? many places in the U.S. have polluted ground water from excessive use of nitrogen fertilizer in neighboring farmland

what I see is someone taking leaps and bounds in a positive direction on the right foot, while the left foot is making progress but still tripping up on old dead wood!
 
paul wheaton
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I was able to get the movies to play.

Oh, black plastic... I see haha


I grew fantastic tomatoes and peppers in missoula without black plastic.

isn't fukuoka and holzer doing something totally different?


Exactly the same [size=16pt]AND [/size]completely different. 

They are in two very different climates and they are both coming to remarkably similar conclusions.

she may be cutting out human effort, but a lot of it is replaced with machines and modern conveniences


And she is producing a helluva lot with far less effort and machinery than others.

I hope to visit with her soon about other techniques.  Including some that use even less plastic/machinery. 

I hope that she might stop by these forums and visit with us a bit.


 
jacque greenleaf
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Paul, I for one would love to hear more about her soil-building methods. Especially the "brown goo" you mentioned - sounds like she uses it as a starter?

 
paul wheaton
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I visit with Helen Atthowe, goddess of the soil and longtime Missoula County Horticultural Extension Agent.  We start off talking about compost.  She is the most advanced composter I know.   And we talk about how composting doesn't have to be as difficult as people make it out.

We also talk about compost tea.  Especially when it is of value and when it is not.

Helen talks about her horticultural philosophy which she calls veganic permaculture.

Helen and I then explore the space of veganism in general.

We also talk about how some native plants people stand against permaculture.

podcast 015
 
T. Pierce
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fascinating interview.  still cant fanthom the veganistic mind set.  but im a self proclaimed shallow, narrow minded individual when it comes to the animal rights hooplah that is so prevalent now adays.  but thatts just me.  sorry. to each their own.  if you want that lifestyle have at it. 

great info on composting and organic gardening.

thanks for posting it.
 
Caleb Larson
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Great Podcast!

I have listened to it 3 times now, and I still learn something new each time I hear it.

Thanks Paul and Helen.  I hope you two do another podcast soon!
 
Sergio Santoro
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As far as podcast 015, my compost is cow manure (sometimes horse), whatever hay the cows throw around while eating, some bedding wood chips, and kitchen scraps.
When Paul said a 30:1 ratio of C to N, he must have meant by volume, right? Mine is 1:1 if I'm lucky.
Also, we water the pile with all the daily whey from cheese making, which boosts the lactobacillus population and our pile is steaming all right, but it gets those ashy patches where it gets overcooked. I am turning the pile every 3 days, should I do it every day to keep up with the microbes, or what is it I'm doing wrong? I thought the gray patches were due to lack of moisture.
Another point: the compost you buy is fine and very dark. Mine is brown, quite chunky, so I'd say I never really finished a cycle, sometimes for want of soil and mulch, but also because if I wait longer it will become a pile of ash.
Any insights?
Thanks.

(Can't wait to build enough soil to have a self-maintaining garden.)
 
paul wheaton
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Most manures have a C:N of 10:1 while stuff like sawdust is usually around 250:1.  
 
Sergio Santoro
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Wait, so now manure provides more C than N?
 
Emerson White
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It always provided more C than N. Even urea, which is the strongest form of N you can get out of a healthy mammal, has a C:N ratio of 1:2. The thing is that you need more C:N than you get in manure in order to have a non-smelly compost pile.
 
Sergio Santoro
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I see... So it's not that you need hay for carbon and manure for nitrogen, but more that you need hay to supply enough carbon to reach 30:1. Hmmm... that would explain why manure alone does reach some temperature.
 
T. Pierce
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so what material gives you the greatest degree of nitrogen?  i always assumed manure.  but from the podcast i belive she mentioned green fertilizer. till in cover crops?    does this give you more nitrogen then say chicken manure?
 
Emerson White
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It is extremely unlikely that any green crop will have more nitrogen than manure. If you think about it animals release the Carbon in their food as CO2, while excess nitrogen is excreted as manure and as urine (which is part of bird manure).

Edited: To remove my carelessness
 
paul wheaton
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You want to end up with C:N at about 30:1.

So if you mix some 10:1 with enough 60:1 you end up with 30:1. 

But that gets kinda complicated for a lot of folks.  So I just advocate that they put smelly stuff (manure, rotting grass clippings, kitchen scraps) in their pile and add the not-smelly stuff (sawdust, dried leaves, straw) to the point that the pile doesn't smell anymore.



 
Sergio Santoro
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Also, Helen says she doesn't let her compost cook too much to preserve the EMO, but we have so many problems with fungi and what not here in the tropical forest that I prefer to start with a neutral medium and then inoculate it with friendly guys.
So, the pile is cooking all right, but then the final result is not nice, black, crumbly compost that resembles coffee grounds... well, actually I don't know what the final result is, because we are always in a hurry to use it, and as soon it's aged enough and looks decent with start using it, but anyway I get the problem of those central patches that turn into a gray, ashy powder. On the other hand, I had some horse manure that I was composting in a tumbler and I forgot for about one year, and that was nice and black. For those who don't know, horse manure reaches very high temps on its own.
 
paul wheaton
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Sergio,

Start a thread about that in the "organic" forum.  I'll see if I can get helen to reply.

 
paul wheaton
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I made several podcasts with Helen.  I've passed those on to Suzy Bean for processing. 

One listener, Caleb, loaned me the geoff lawton Food Forest DVD.  And then Helen wanted to watch it.  So I loaned it to her thinking that Caleb would be okay with that.  Later I talked to Caleb and he said that would be fine as long as he got ten minutes of review of it from her.    Helen only watched 30 minutes of it.  And then she and I spent over an hour arguing about that and a half dozen other things.  We finished with pulling gobs of books off of my shelves and giving google a workout only to end up with our debate unresolved (30 minutes of arguing about stinging nettles:  I am not convinced that stinging nettles are annuals, helen is sure that they are;  I think stinging nettles are an indicator of high nitrogen, wet soils, helen thinks they are not)

Helen is cool with being in a podcast when it is about something she is utterly certain about.  And then I start to cast doubts on things and she wants to do twelve hours of research on it to be certain again.

 
Sergio Santoro
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paul wheaton wrote:
Sergio,

Start a thread about that in the "organic" forum.  I'll see if I can get helen to reply.




Oh, I never saw this post! OK.
 
Saybian Morgan
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I think one factor we don't think about when we dream of shoveling off beautifully crumbed humus and then we get chunky stew beef compost slaw is you havn't sifted it. The only other mean's is to shread the carbon to death so it's like working witha classical boring sawdust chicken poo compost. It was the biggest roadblock for me as fine seed just didn't have the burrowing muscle to kick off in beef stew. 2 month's of design anguish and I finaly built myself a sifter by wrangling a cement mixer, a service cart, and a drum I found proping up a juniper bush and some pulley's. It the stuff that comes out at 1/4th an inch sifted is picture perfect, the chunky stuff that doesn't sift goes to the tree's, new bed's mixed into the soil and abused soil's which are lifeless. The sifted material is mixed with sand and a touch of burn bones and ask to make potting mix that has really been working wonderfully so far.  I dug a bed out of a pile of clay and unearthed jiffy pot's I had tried to plant stuff in during the bad ol days of ignorance. I'm practicing the psychic method of seing into the compost material's to establish a ratio like baking a cake without a recipe. Printing out or memorizing a decent chart of carbon to nitro ratio's of material's helps with the crude math one does while shoveling on the good.  Like cooking rice in the same pot as meat, you just get use to how much carbon would it take to cook off a dead hawk, or duck, or kitchen sludge. I do allot of smelling, as if pungency played a bigger role in my ratio's than bulk. I just know if this is day 1 and it wreak's like hell itle be gone by day 6, other item's look like they could cook for days without breaking down fully. I made a pile with about 50 pounds of rotting fermented whole apple's and it smelt like I was baking a pie for a week.

I really do appreciate that compost is a realm in and of itself to be mastered. It's like jet fuel for life system's, I do understand for allot of people it's just a means of ethical garbage disposal so it doesn't get much love. But I really can't think of anything better to take more seriously for natures sake.  I mean I wouldn't compost a cow in a quick turn method "without an excavator". But I wouldn't want to start feeding the land material that it may not be able to swallow natural by using material from what would better be called a dump site, than a real compost by any reasonably complex method. If I'm not going to turn a pile and just let 3 cubic meter's cook up and biologically burn off, I dont want to pull out a blackened duck 3 month's later either. I think the layering in a condition like that is much more complex that something your flipping, mixing and interacting with every few days.  I like all method's so long as they cook up, at 65-70c nothing's coming out weed or seed. That would be like being able to plant cooked food, my meat goes to 70c so I can eat it and so should the compost I feed my soil.

I got a question, because compost can be extremely fungi rich, is it possible to inoculate finished compost with oster mushroom's let's say and have it take off better than the clean straw and so on method's. My compost start's mushroom fruiting everywhere I put it, but I would love to feed it to a fungi of my choice and get double decomposition out of the chunky material from sifting.
 
Angie Greene
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I agree about Helen's talents.  Over a period of years I asked one Missoula county extension agent and then another, and then another, what to do about bacterial canker on a peach tree.  Not much luck and the problem spread.  When I heard about Helen, I called her and she made a suggestion which worked.  I have somewhat followed her in the media and am glad to see her advance in her methods and professionally.  It's great to have these forums where we can continue learning about her methods.

Now, about that brown goo.  How can I learn more about this brown goo? 

I also wonder about a variation of hugelkultur.  The kugelkultur mounds have advantages (of which I am aware so far) of built-in organic matter, good water and nutrient retention, good drainage, generate heat, and height to capture more sunlight.  It seems though that they could have a rather long lag time before the decomposition effect kicks in. Adding nitrogen materials could help but large pieces of wood might still decompose very slowly.  My idea would be to pile up very course to fine compost makings and cover with soil.  The decomposition would be quicker and there would be a wider range of nutrients.  A number of questions naturally arise. Would there be enough oxygen if small branches were included? What would Helen say about the temperature and the organisms?  Would decomposition heat the mound too much for planting right away?  Would she add some of that brown goo?
 
paul wheaton
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Todd Hoff
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Really good interview and discussion. Thanks.

She's doing it in real-life, over a long period of time, delivering on a commercial scale, that's hard argue with, and there wasn't a really strong counter to her yield arguments.

On Fukuoka the history of the bow and arrow versus the gun comes to mind. The bow and arrow was far better weapon than the gun for a few hundred years. The advantage of the gun is it is reproducible. Anyone can be taught to shoot a gun effectively in a short period of time. A bow takes years of training and constant training. The gun won. Is Fukuoka's method the bow and arrow?
 
Geoff Kegs
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This would be nicer without spam - anyway, I'll ignore it from here on out.

That was a good podcast.  Very beneficial.

I hope for the sake of general knowledge that you (Paul) have come to the realization that you probably know more like .000000000000001 % of what there is to know about growing food.

It is so incredibly complex that I don't think the combined humanity knows 1% of what there is to know.

Just the biochemistry of the soils alone is ridiculously complex.

What we are trying to do is nothing more and nothing less than a nutrient transition.  Food is nothing more and nothing less than chemistry - but that chemistry has to be right - and in much of modern foods it is most definitely not.

Ideally, sustainability and efficiency are completely dependent on one another.  There are some serious problems with petrochemical based herbicides and much of the studies associated with how some of them affect the soils are ongoing.

This goes far beyond that idea of "hey that stuff is poison - why apply it to the soils?" 

Agriculture is thought of in most places as a sub-profession.  Disrespected, full of uneducated worker class types who don't earn much for a living.  That will be doing a 180 as food prices continue to increase - and especially as we continue on in the post-peak oil era. 

Organic foods will eventually no longer be a luxury.  Eventually, agriculturalists will be held to standards higher than doctors, lawyers, and billionaire moguls.  ...and that time is coming. 

Until then, we only have ourselves to pursue the understanding of Agri-Ecology and how to work within the means of natural biochemistry to ultimately increase the conservative transition of environmental resources to tasty, natural, organic nutrient sinks we typically call food.

We will need to enlist the help of all the resources of those filling ecological niches in the environment.  That means including animals. 

forests are the future of food.  We will depend more than ever on species diversity in the future - the same humans are destroying today.

I like the idea of a continuous harvest.  It can work just like we think it can - but the idea is ahead of the society.



 
Tyler Ludens
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Kegs wrote:


I like the idea of a continuous harvest.  It can work just like we think it can - but the idea is ahead of the society.






Part of this is learning to eat new things.  Most of the current human diet is made up of something like 6 crops, when there are hundreds (thousands?) that are edible.  But learning to eat unusual plants takes some doing.
 
John Polk
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Reminds me of one time at the market I bought a couple of rutabagas, and some kid saw me.  As i continued down the aisle, he picked one out of the bin and said "Ew, mommy.  What are these?"  "I don't know. PUT  IT  BACK!"
She had a whole shopping basket full of frozen entres.
 
Dave Bennett
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My "primary" compost pile is black and smells like it is good enough to eat except in the very early Spring before I have had the opportunity to wake it up for the season.  I have found over the year that multiple compost piles is the only solution to producing a truly healthy soil amendment.  Some of that reasoning began when I converted my flushing toilet into a planter and built a composting toilet.  That compost is kept completely separate from the "food sources.  I feed my worm bed with the rabbit poop and I always add the worm castings to my compost pile and turn it well before I use any of it.  The human waste compost doesn't get used for 2 years and then only after it has been cooked with lots of green matter.  Every year I have started a new human waste compost pile so I always have one ready to incorporate into my usable pile.  I would love to "pick" Helen's brain about compost because while I have been composting since the 50's I would suggest that my knowledge regarding "composting science" can always be improved.

I listened to the podcast after I made the above post.  Excellent interview it was really informative.  I agree with Helen regarding the population.  We are living with finite land resources.  Sure there are millions of acres that sit barren but there is a reason for that and mostly is that those areas of the world aren't inhabited because they are only suited to sustaining limited populations of humans.  I might suggest that you get some dirt under your fingernails Paul.   I have been gardening since the early 50's and have only discovered recently that some of my "experiments" were meager attempts by a young boy at "forest gardening" and permaculture.  I just thought I was gardening.  How could I have known that is was something else?  I was in elementary school.  It is really sad to hear how excited that alfalfa grower was to plant GMO garbage.  I cannot live around  such vast expanses of chemically dependent agriculture.  It makes me suicidal.  That's why I left California in '86 and came back to the east coast.  I know it is here too but not on such a grandiose scale.  Anywho.........great discussion Paul I truly enjoyed it.
Peace.

 
Geoff Kegs
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H Ludi Tyler wrote:
Part of this is learning to eat new things.  Most of the current human diet is made up of something like 6 crops, when there are hundreds (thousands?) that are edible.  But learning to eat unusual plants takes some doing.


Well that's a part, you're right - but that is equivalent of one grain of sand in a dune of issues that essentially dominate the agricultural picture.

-----------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

I cannot discuss this issue with complete liberty, as I have pending business interests that requires some diligence on my part, but let me just say a few words:

I am an agriculturalist, I have a degree in it, and although I specialize in forest management, I am adept at some level of understanding of how soils produce many different kinds of plants.  I have research, laboratory, and field experience that puts me in a unique position in this sector.  I am nothing special, just a country boy that knows a little bit about plant physiology and soil biochemistry...and when I say a little bit, I mean it.  I cannot even hold a complete discussion with a PhD. level specialist.   

Earlier this year I placed a bid on an international project to redevelop an agricultural area that is having significant problems for a number of reasons.

The primary basis of the previous and current failures of the land in this area is one of poor management of the resources, but the resource was poor to begin with.

We are dealing with an area that supplies an abundance of agri-food products to an urban area of which the basis is REQUIRED inputs to make the leached, highly acidic soil even produce anything - and there are several other layers of problems in addition to that!

I'll just say that we (Americans) are lucky that we have soil at all.  Productive soil, ...and when all is analyzed carefully, that is the most important thing there is on the land and will ever be from our perspective.  Much of it is being liquidated at this moment in multiple ways.

Some regions do not have such resources, and rely on importing a majority of their food.

The agricultural problem is HUGE - This is BIG PICTURE material.  The largest problem I see in this whole score is the economics -   

We are talking about interests in the $ trillions U.S. internationally, with an agricultural system heavily invested in GMO/molecular biology oriented products, chemicals to produce pesticides and high density, high chemically-altered animal farms and $billions U.S. in the farm implement and tractor business.  This entire system is heavily based on petroleum products, the extraction of which continues to cause problems - all things considered - the oil and natural gas folks have been extremely competent in restricting problems, but there is no such thing as perfect.  The costs are higher with non-renewable resources, but the energy:cost ratio is far higher yet - even still in this post peak oil period - but it will not remain that way forever, hence the NON-renewable issue.

To those thinking the organic permaculture system is the way to go, I'm with you.  I 100% support using this system where it is possible to use it - but it is absolutely not possible to use it everywhere.  Small farms are indeed more productive than large ones, but without the application of knowledge (particularly in regard to soil conservation - the most important knowledge actually), even small systems will fail.

Agricultural studies are not only unfinished, they are just beginning.  Local, sustainable agriculture systems are THE way to go for worldwide agriculture.  The challenge is how to redevelop the socio-economic system to encourage it.   

It all starts with proper ethics...and that is where I see the real hard work that needs to be done.  Proper care for the soil is incompatible with greedy money grubbing money men who are hell bent on driving Bentleys around and jetsetting across the world in private jets.

Helen is right about the population though.  She is spot on.  We don't have so much of a population issue in this part of the world, but certainly in other (India in particular) parts there is a crisis ongoing.

We have not reached our carrying capacity of the land - but it is not a good thing to test it.

I'll just leave off there - I've got work to do - see ya!



 
Andrew Michaels
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Great. I don't eat any meat, dairy, or eggs and haven't since 2004, and I do my best to avoid animal products, but I don't call myself a vegan. It just seems like the smart thing to do for your health and the environment. I see the ethics angle as well, but that's not the main issue for me.

paul wheaton wrote:
I visit with Helen Atthowe, goddess of the soil and longtime Missoula County Horticultural Extension Agent.  We start off talking about compost.  She is the most advanced composter I know.   And we talk about how composting doesn't have to be as difficult as people make it out.

We also talk about compost tea.  Especially when it is of value and when it is not.

Helen talks about her horticultural philosophy which she calls veganic permaculture.

Helen and I then explore the space of veganism in general.

We also talk about how some native plants people stand against permaculture.

podcast 015
 
Tyler Ludens
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Location: Central Texas USA Latitude 30 Zone 8
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Kegs wrote:

To those thinking the organic permaculture system is the way to go, I'm with you.  I 100% support using this system where it is possible to use it - but it is absolutely not possible to use it everywhere. 



Where do you think it is not possible to use it?

 
                                                
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Kegs,

 Never doubt yourself even in a discussion with a PhD...I always tell myself, not everyone graduated at the top of the class.
AND any PhD worth their salt should be able to explain the topic so you/I can understand it.

I'm not looking to feed the world. I'm just looking for a few tips on how to improve my garden, with the understanding that we all don't plant in the same dirt.

 
 
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