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To Add or not to Add

 
William James
gardener
Posts: 1012
Location: Northern Italy
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I've been debating with myself as I truck wheelbarrows full of compost and wood chip 100 meters+ across the land. The debate is between what I see as two contradictory positions held by high-profile permaculture artisans.

Positions:
1. The soil has all the nutrients you'll ever need and more, exhausting nutrients is impossible, the nutrients just get tied up and need biological activity to make them available to plants. Add nothing more than organic matter in the form of plant roots. Maybe a little compost or biochar just to get things rolling but nothing in the long-run. Bacterial and fungal activity will nourish your plants.

2. Land which is used for production and exporting plant matter lack OM and nutrients. Fruit trees or lettuce, if gets trucked out it needs to come back in. Add organic matter in the form of compost, woodchips, wood, leaf litter, and whatever OM you can get your hands on and move into position. Nutrients often get out of balance so some managing of CEC may be in order via mineral amendments or minerals-via-animal feed.

I have some ideas of who exactly proposes these 2 positions, but if anyone wants to chime in, go ahead.

While I'm leaning toward position (1) (with the idea that it would save me time and effort) to my own dismay my experience leads me to believe that my soil reacts well to position (2), requiring huge amounts of work and resources I don't have.

For completeness, I am currently working with a wheelbarrow, a fork, a big pile of compost and even more woodchips. Plus some calcium in bags for mineral amendment. To my mind it's been working reasonably well but I have no official verification of the nutrient density of the food I grow.

Any thoughts?
William
 
S Bengi
Posts: 1356
Location: Massachusetts, Zone:6/7, AHS:4, Rainfall:48in even distribution
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Unfortunately not all soils are the same and perfect. Some soils are rich in gold, others is iron, some in calcium. That is why specific places had gold mine/iron mine.

Not only did the soils not 'arrive' equally perfect everywhere but on top of that some soil had alot of rain that dissolved certain minerals more than others, once that mineral gets dissolved it then flows with the water to the sea.
Some soil has less rainfall to dissolve the minerals and so they have more than a heavier area.

Some soil have been abused for 'billions' of years, others have been refreshed with fresh soil just 50years ago by volcanoes, others by river flooding, some by glaciers depositing new boulders/sand/rock dust.

Now even if we were to assume that every single soil, over the entire earth is has the exact same ratio of calcium, iron, mineral. Not all of them have the same amount of organic matter, and bio-availability, so it would still make sense to help this along to bring some in vs waiting '200yrs' for nature to fix it. The same way how you would bring some tools in to make swales on contour.

Now if you want you can wait a few years and grow your own biomass via straw and you can import some mineral into the top layer of the soil with some 10ft tap roots that will bring up some mineral.


 
Todd Parr
Posts: 665
Location: Wisconsin, zone 4
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I'm pretty sure you already know the answer, but you can do what I did. Pick an area, plant a few different things in it. Pick an area close to it, pile on a ton of compost and amendments, cover the top with a nice layer of woodchips, and plant a few different things in it. Leave them this year to grow. Then next year, go back to wheeling in tons of stuff.
 
Steven Kovacs
Posts: 186
Location: Western Massachusetts (USDA zone 5a, heating zone 5, 40"+)
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Todd Parr wrote:I'm pretty sure you already know the answer, but you can do what I did. Pick an area, plant a few different things in it. Pick an area close to it, pile on a ton of compost and amendments, cover the top with a nice layer of woodchips, and plant a few different things in it. Leave them this year to grow. Then next year, go back to wheeling in tons of stuff.


How did your experiment turn out?
 
Todd Parr
Posts: 665
Location: Wisconsin, zone 4
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Todd Parr wrote:...Then next year, go back to wheeling in tons of stuff.


I hate to quote me, but that's why I wrote that I was hoping the easy way would work out, but it really didn't. There was no comparison between planting in my hard clay soil without amendments, and the areas that I added lots of compost and wood chips, or in a lots of areas, just wood chips. My best area is a place I had a load of woodchips dumped and I left them for a couple of years. You can easily push a pitch fork into the ground under the woodchips all the way to the handle, whereas in the "undeveloped" areas, you can hardly break the surface with a fork.
 
Scott Strough
Posts: 299
Location: Oklahoma
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I lean towards position 1, but you need to be both far more knowledgeable and patient. There is no "easy" 1 size fits all solution, however I believe it is possible to ramp up your biological activity to a large enough rate that huge inputs of outside organic matter are no longer needed. The amount produced on site is enough.

Having said that, for my own garden (not my crop fields) I can never wait, so I do haul in inputs of wood chips compost and hay for my garden. And in my fields year 1 especially I buy those big round bales of hay and unroll them right in the field to quickly easily mulch large areas. The nutrients in a hay vary a lot, but to get an idea, approx 35 dollars worth if you had to buy them. I can usually get old spoiled hay for 20-25 dollars a round bale. So it is worth it to me. Gradually though I am experimenting with harvesting the grass between my rows as grass clippings and using that as a mulch instead of hay. Seems just as effective so far. We will see the effects long term vs input of organic matter, but I suspect it will be equal like your 1) above. However, keep in mind, when I proposed to the USDA to trial the two, they said it was impossible and not worthy of a grant to even test the concept. So my hunch could be completely wrong. Certainly the standard thinking is it is impossible. I am running a less than scientific trial myself, because I didn't get the grant to properly scientifically test it. As I said. Early results I can see no difference.

But whether you add inputs of mulch from off farm, or mulch with vegetation produced on farm (chop and drop or grass clippings), you still need to mulch.
 
Mick Fisch
Posts: 227
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how is your land producing without the ammendments. Not all land is rich, but some is.
 
William James
gardener
Posts: 1012
Location: Northern Italy
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I've heard of a technique used in my area in which they essentially rip the soil (like yeoman's plow), move soil into bed formation (disturbing the surface and getting it weed free) with drainage along side, transplant annuals, and let it go. No further work unless it's cutting grass around target plants and harvesting. Apparently they get great results.

For my situation, the soil is spotty -- good in one spot and 2 feet away hard as a rock. It just depends. Maybe ripping would homogenize a little but I don't really have that option right now. Could get a Grelinette broadfork.

Anyway, I'm more interested in the theoretical basis for the two different theories and if one is "more true" than the other of if it's just a matter of who you believe.

William
 
Scott Strough
Posts: 299
Location: Oklahoma
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William James wrote:

Anyway, I'm more interested in the theoretical basis for the two different theories and if one is "more true" than the other of if it's just a matter of who you believe.

William
Theoretically position 1 is more correct. But in the real world is not so easy to obtain. So realistically position 2 is more correct.

The permaculturist position is to try and make position 1 more realistic, by paying attention to biological cycles and processes and greatly nuanced interdependencies and symbiotic relationships. Very few permaculture systems are that advanced though. BUT sepp holzer I believe has working proof position 1 is certainly possible at least in his biome with very advanced permaculture knowledge and techniques. Since all we need is one example to prove it is possible, that means theoretically it is right and something to work towards. But don't be surprised if you find dozens or even hundreds of "failures" for every sepp holzer type success.

In my opinion even a failure to do it 100% is nothing to worry about. ANY improvement I see as a success and there are plenty plenty of people succeeding 80-90 % or more. So I guess it depends on your POV.
 
Joseph Lofthouse
garden master
Posts: 1986
Location: Cache Valley, zone 4b, Irrigated, 9" rain in badlands.
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As I understand it, the underlying premise of permaculture is that it is impossible to have unlimited growth on a finite world. In other words, that we are running out of stuff. And that a very prudent way of dealing with that is to make more of what we use locally. Getting ride of the middle-man allows us to be more secure, because we are less reliant on inputs from far away mega-corporations. When we produce what we need locally, we are less susceptible to politics, economics, advertising, media, disruptions, etc...

Making organic matter on my farm, and using it on my farm seems like the most reliable way to get compost... If I import compost from dozens or thousands of miles away, that makes me susceptible to a huge/complex infrastructure which might experience all sorts of disruptions: Weather, politicians, money, natural disasters, recession, pesticide residues, industrial wastes, job loss, etc... I don't have to pay for organic matter that I generate on my farm.

Whenever I move organic matter from one place to another, I am adding nutrients to the location in which it is dumped, at the expense of taking them away from where they were acquired. So by enriching one area, I am impoverishing a different one. I watch that happening in small family gardens, and on a nationwide scale... I love how the nutrients of the plains are being stripped away and sent to the dairy farmers in Idaho. Those thin volcanic soils can sure use every bit of nutrition that they can get.

On my own farm, I don't move organic matter from place to place, except if it is food to be eaten. I'm simply not willing to spend the labor required to move compost from place to place. My motto is that: "where it falls is where it stays".

But... If you got plenty of labor and/or money, and want to spend it on something, might as well import as many nutrients as you can, from as far away as possible, so as to impoverish far-away places instead of the local community.


 
Marco Banks
Posts: 388
Location: Los Angeles, CA
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For my situation, option 2 was best.

When I bought my place years ago and the soil was rock hard, baked clay with little soil life and minimal fertility. By adding truck loads of wood chips as mulch every year (the so-called Back to Eden philosophy), the soil is now amazing, filled with worms and other biota, and the yield on everything has increased exponentially. Soil tests from 15 years ago compared to the soil test I did last year show a marked improvement (better than 200-300% improvement in most categories).

The permaculture solution is to mimic nature, but speed-up the time line. What would take nature 100 years to accomplish (in terms of soil building, forest succession, etc.), a permaculturalist can do in 10. I don't need to add nearly as much biomass as I used to because the soil organic matter is so much better, and the trees and cover crops give me almost all I can use now. I still will flag down a chipper if I see one in the neighborhood—hey, free bio mass—I'll save him a trip to the dump (which is a win/win/win for him, me, and the miles not driven). I wanted to establish a broad fungal network to link my trees and plants, as well as significantly build the bacterial and microbial herd: I couldn't have gotten the results I've achieved without all those wheelbarrow-loads of mulch. Had I not added all that bio mass, it would have taken decades, if it would have happened at all.

If you can get what you desire without such labor, then more power to you: option 1 is certainly easier. Kind of like making compost: if you can produce it without turning the pile, then why would you bother turning the pile. But if you want to speed-up the natural processes you'd see in a forest, it'll take effort on your part. I wanted rich and healthy soil, and I wasn't willing to wait years for that to happen, so with some effort, I've employed strategy #2.
 
Dylan Mulder
Posts: 44
Location: North Carolina
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In my practical experience, both position one and two are correct. Position one is known to be true, because through research we've found good evidence that supports it as truth. However, position two is also correct and it has to do with tillage. Here is another truth, Human agriculture relies very heavily on tillage - of course, when we till we cause a very real disruption to the soil ecosystem. As a consequence, position two becomes truth - now that we've tilled the soil, lost a lot of OM, and disrupted the flow of nutrients from soil organisms to plants, we Humans have to fill in the gap. Either we throw down some compost, haul in some chips, add some manure, spread some 20-20-20, etc. and this works. I reckon we all get good results with fertilizer, because it's basically a requirement for the majority of farmers.

I'm not demonizing tillage. It's a simple fact of agricultural life. I work on a farm, and without tillage, we'd be out of a job. We can do what we can to reduce tillage, but ultimately it is extremely challenging to eliminate it altogether and still produce any quantity of food. Heck, even natural systems are subject to naturally occuring tillage. Observe a tree that has just fallen over. After the disturbance it can take a year or longer for moss to colonize the dirt, and even longer still for larger plants to take hold again. Our fields are just like this, and so we fertilize to speed things up.

I live in a region where it is very easy to fry the OM out of the soil - It's hot and wet, just perfect for rapid decay. To succeed and make a living as a farmer, I have to do SOMETHING for fertility. But at the same time, I still have to till (and a lot!) to make a living. I call this the 'Ecology vs. Economy' problem. There has to be a balance between sustaining the land, and sustaining the self - while I'd like to stop tilling and to stop fertilizing and fully embrace position one, I have no way of doing this and staying economically viable.

In my experience, Scott Strough is correct. You really can produce enough OM and nutrients on site, but it is not easy, and can you afford to do it? Farmers like Gabe Brown have shown us that it's possible. I consider achieving the balance between OM lost and OM gained to be the ultimate goal - remember that a lot of farmers never make it this far. With great skill, you can gain more OM than you loose and still pay the bills afterwards. I'm not this skilled.

If you have to import amendments from off site in order to make a living, then so be it. It only puts you in the same position as the majority of farmers on the planet. Do what you can for ecology, but not so much that you wake up starving.
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