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Is robbing Peter to pay Paul really permaculture

 
Michael Vormwald
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Location: Central New York - Finger Lakes - Zone 5
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It occurs to me as I 'rob' the grass clippings and leaves from my property to enrich my garden soil that I'm really robbing Peter to pay Paul. As the soil in my garden improves, the soil beneath the lawn and the trees suffers. Makes you think.
Now I suppose if you get organic materials from 'off-site' that would otherwise be wasted, it's a different story. Then still, is it really sustainable and/or permaculture?
 
Charles Tarnard
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I think as long as you're not strip mining your grassy areas, the sun provides enough energy to help regenerate the soil there. There is definitely a balance to be struck, but it isn't automatically an irreplaceable removal.

*not an expert
 
John Elliott
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Our job as permaculturalists is to move things from where they are in excess and going to waste to places where they are lacking and plants are in need.

Nature is kind of haphazard, which anyone who has tried to keep both a dog and a nice lawn can verify. The dog is a great source of nitrogen for the yard, but he (or she) leaves too much nitrogen in one spot and it is "just right" in a circle a few inches away. If only the dog would learn to pee in the grey water cistern that feeds the drip irrigation system! In this regard, chickens are the preferred pet, for they never leave a pile of too much nitrogen in one place, they just have to scratch and fling it.

The same is true of trees. They may drop a lot of leaves in the fall, but there is an excess there, the tree has to be prepared for Old Man Winter to blow a lot of that away before it can be broken down for next year's growth. And grasses have evolved for an herbivore to come by and give them a haircut and move on 20 yards to deposit some fertilizer. Fungi do a lot to even this out below ground; their hyphal networks can transport nutrients over quite a distance.

I think we can all agree that if any robbing needs to be done, it is to surreptitiously snag the bag of leaves the neighbor has set out at the curb and use that for compost and yard mulch.
 
Bertolt Stanish
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Location: Spring Hill, TN, USA
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If you control the area with grass, then arguably yes you are robbing the soil below the grass to enrich that in your garden. Lawns are generally just awful for the soil, and if you aren't bound by local laws or regulations, the pure permaculture choice would probably involve reducing its size or converting the lawn altogether. As far as wastes from incredibly wasteful practices outside of your control, yes those are all fair game if you are using them to set up stable systems. David Holmgren talks about this in his book Permaculture: Principles and Pathways. Basically he argues that using non-renewable resources is usually acceptable if the result is renewable systems. The most shocking of example is perhaps using bulldozers to set up ponds and water catchment, much of which can last centuries if left alone, so it's almost certainly worth it given the soil you are generating and the carbon you are capturing in the long run. But if everyone, or even a small fraction of people, started doing permaculture, many of those non-renewable resources would dry up pretty quick, so the more endogenous soil renewal techniques we can develop/learn, the better. Hope that helps you answer your question!
 
Mark Chadwick
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Then there's the root:shoot ratio. Cutting the leaf leads to root sloughing that rots in the ground adding to the soils fertility.
 
Cj Sloane
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This has been a problem in some cultures where they take too much detritus from the forest and it effects forest fertility. There is a formula that works but I'm not positive what it is.

It's would be better to take material from a plant you want to disadvantage if you have something like that. In my case, I've got lots for reeds which makes good mulch since there are no seeds. Some people grow crops specifically for this purpose that can handle cutting like comfrey.
 
Cris Bessette
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Michael Vormwald wrote:It occurs to me as I 'rob' the grass clippings and leaves from my property to enrich my garden soil that I'm really robbing Peter to pay Paul. As the soil in my garden improves, the soil beneath the lawn and the trees suffers. Makes you think.
Now I suppose if you get organic materials from 'off-site' that would otherwise be wasted, it's a different story. Then still, is it really sustainable and/or permaculture?


This is something that has occurred to me also, but have finally resolved in my mind that just like life in general- moderation is key.

About an acre of my two acre property is wooded, and every Winter/Spring I take some amount of the leaves fallen there and put
them on my garden beds and around fruit trees,etc.

The way I look at it, as long as I only use the top layer of leaves or so (don't leave the soil bare) and don't take leaves from the same places repeatedly, then I am simply redistributing some of the good stuff around within my "system" to the places where it benefits me. I am harvesting excess and redistributing, while leaving the harvested areas undamaged.

As for sustainability- the goal is to try to emulate a closed system, but in reality, we are not building biodomes cut off from the outside, but integrating our little cycles into the big Earth cycles.



 
George Meljon
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There are always moving parts, on or off property. On property, you can manage what happens and observe. I wouldn't be too concerned about using grass clippings, or leaves that blow into the yard. In my case, for example, the leaves are squelching the grass and leaving the yard dryer in those areas in the summer. I'm going to clean it up better this year and allow the grass to be healthier and stronger to prevent desiccation and erosion.
 
S Bengi
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Location: Massachusetts, Zone:6/7, AHS:4, Rainfall:48in even distribution
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Yes you are correct in that for humans to survive we have to "ROB" from our surrounding.
We rob the forest for firewood, we rob the lawn to make our veggie garden more productive.
We rob the bee for honey, We rob other animals of oxygen so that we can breath.

Is this "robbing" to survive/get better results permaculture, would it be best if there were no humans?
Maybe that is someone's definition of permaculture.

Inmy tiny world permaculture is defined as taking small steps to be rob less, be less destructive and be more restorative, continually improving
If I now grow 200lbs of fruits per year in my backyard with no fertilization, vs importing 200lbs of fruit from Columbia. That to me is permaculture.
If I now eat locally produced grass-fed beef vs imported Brazilian beef. I am doing better.
It is quite possible that never eating any type of beef or meat is even more permaculture. And if that is what someone does more power to you.

SO I dont see permaculture as a binary 0 or 1.
I see it as 0=bad non-permie and 1000=perfect god-like permie. With most of us on permies sitting at 173=regular humans.
 
Cj Sloane
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Cris Bessette wrote:
As for sustainability- the goal is to try to emulate a closed system...


I disagree. I think the goal is to mimic nature which is not really a closed system. It's externally solar powered.
 
Cris Bessette
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Cj Verde wrote:
Cris Bessette wrote:
As for sustainability- the goal is to try to emulate a closed system...


I disagree. I think the goal is to mimic nature which is not really a closed system. It's externally solar powered.


Yeah, thats where the "emulate" comes from, as you mention, its not really a closed system.
 
Zach Muller
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I see a lot of trade offs in my developing system. For now I keep some lawn and let all the clippings from it stay in place, which builds organic matter and covers the soil under the pecan and oak. The garden gets covered with fallen leaves and chop and drop trees, and a lot of cover crops. So the hackberries, mulberries and redbuds getting chopped seem to get the short end of the stick, but they are tenacious enough to keep growing. It's all about finding a balance that will work with the time frame you have in mind.

Before I read principles and pathways I wanted to make my garden with no external inputs, there are so many lush csa annual gardens relying on heavy organic matter inputs and when their resource dries up the land they farmed will be no better than it was before they started amending it. For my own garden I wanted to create a natural fertility building system, that will always be getting better even when my external resource streams dry up. This is one reason why I have ended up with very local plants for ground cover and biomass creation. After I finished the book I reconsidered the free wood chips I could get and decided to cover some eroded gravel areas I have with the chips, with the hopes of building soil up for future use. With every external input I always weigh it's potential energy, energy to bring to the site, and it's use. The way geoff lawton refers to using appropriate technology, or David Holmgren talks about creative use of fossil fuels are both getting at a good concept- there are ways to use resources creatively, which could foster a sustainable system and there are ways to use resources like a constant crutch where your system will fall apart when the crutch is removed. This can be applied to natural resources on site as well.
 
Cj Sloane
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S Bengi wrote:...We rob other animals of oxygen so that we can breath.


I think there are more positive ways to look at it. Do we rob other animals of oxygen or do we breath in oxygen and exhale CO2 and help plants that breath that in and give us back oxygen?
 
Michael Vormwald
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Hmm - I see it in principal and obviously have concerns...then again in many/most small cities and towns leaves are collected annually and discarded and the tress show no apparent signs of distress. Makes you wonder.

Cj Verde wrote:This has been a problem in some cultures where they take too much detritus from the forest and it effects forest fertility. There is a formula that works but I'm not positive what it is.

It's would be better to take material from a plant you want to disadvantage if you have something like that. In my case, I've got lots for reeds which makes good mulch since there are no seeds. Some people grow crops specifically for this purpose that can handle cutting like comfrey.
 
John Elliott
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Michael Vormwald wrote:
Hmm - I see it in principal and obviously have concerns...then again in many/most small cities and towns leaves are collected annually and discarded and the tress show no apparent signs of distress. Makes you wonder.


The leaves get discarded in one kind of sack, and another kind of sack is used to bring in chemical fertilizer. Just think of how many sacks they could save if they put the leaves in the empty fertilizer sack.*




*The truly observant will be asking "why do we need to be using any sacks at all?"
 
Peter Ellis
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Michael Vormwald wrote:It occurs to me as I 'rob' the grass clippings and leaves from my property to enrich my garden soil that I'm really robbing Peter to pay Paul. As the soil in my garden improves, the soil beneath the lawn and the trees suffers. Makes you think.
Now I suppose if you get organic materials from 'off-site' that would otherwise be wasted, it's a different story. Then still, is it really sustainable and/or permaculture?


It might be worth looking at the really big picture for a minute. Everything is in flux, everything is changing, everything is a product of the transformation of something else. There is no constant. Mountains erupt out of what were flatlands as tectonic plates meet, or magma forces it's way up from deep in e earth. The mountains erode, stone breaking down to become soil. Life forms attack the minerals in the rocks and soil, taking them for their (very short term) purposes.
Other life forms attack those. Sunlight gets captured and put to work, again changing one thing onto another.

Our soil used to be ocean bottoms and mountain tops, but right now it's our soil. In the big picture, we have barely been here for a blink of an eye. In that time we have had a disproportionate impact, but taking our lawn clippings from here to a spot a few yards away - that really is not anything. Take it miles away, then you start having some real impact, you start looking at things like the Dust Bowl.

At the level you are addressing, Michael, Nature is not sustainable. She does not try to be. Everything is in a constant state of change, of becoming something other than what it is now.
 
William James
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One thing that is interesting is that the place you describe as 'my property' is in effect a system. If you take grass from one part of the system an put it in another part, it's still part of that system which created it.

This is not the same situation as the problem with 'inputs'. If you were giving your grass to your neighbor, he would have the problem of 'inputs' and you would have the problem of having to recoup your lost externalities, if you were in fact planning on having a permaculture system.

Various problems of inputs arise when your system is too dependent on the addition of external sources. This could be biomass, manure, any myriad of fossil fuel products, external human labor, money, etc.

One problem is the quality of external inputs or their toxicity, the other is making your system depend on them. You can justify making your system depend on external inputs in the beginning, but as time goes on the hope is that external inputs will diminish because the system is providing it's own resources (your example of cutting grass and mulching somewhere else fits here -- essentially you are not 'robbing peter to pay paul,' paul is paying paul).

Now, mineral inputs are another subject. If you are growing food or growing animals on land, that land should probably be re-mineralized, since you're taking minerals off the land in the form of fruit, vegetables, and animal products. Remineralizing happens in a forest, I imagine, simply because the roots of the trees are so far down that they are pulling up lots of minerals. But when we start to use the land and take elements away from that land, the minerals are gone.

A lot of people try to remineralize at the source, which is the animal in animal based systems. If you're only growing vegetables you might add minerals to your compost (phosphorus is a good example).
They do this economize and lower the input burden of re-mineralization, but still you are adding mined mineral inputs.

Another tactic is human manure to try and get back some of those externalized minerals and not lose so much.
Yet another tactic is letting nature re-coup the minerals over time (fallowing or a longer-term forest-annual succession cycle).

Whatever the tactic, the goal is to slow the release of your resources you have on site to a minimum and trying and use processes internal to the system to provide the resources that inputs would provide.

Hope that's clear.
William
 
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