DIFFERENT BUT COMPLIMENTARY APPROACHES
- Organic Gardening
- Biological Gardening & Farming
- Bio-dynamic Gardening & Farming
- Forest Gardening
- Agnihotra Gardening & Farming
- No-dig Gardening & Zero-tillage Farming
- Bio-intensive Gardening
- Square Foot Gardening
ANY QUESTIONS CLICK – here
It is important to realize that these are not just alternative approaches. As I said in my Introduction – “In my mind they all have something to offer and usually they are complimentary and what is more important, the result of using many approaches is more than the sum of its parts. There will always be fanatics who insist their particular approach is ‘the’ way, whether they are from the Organic school, or the Permaculture school, or the Biological school, or the Biodynamic school, etc. However I will be covering all these and more, because I have time for all these approaches, indeed I use most of these approaches regularly. The problem with sticking to one method exclusively is that one misses out on the many good aspects of the other approaches.” So you can pick and mix and use whatever feels right for you. I have used organic practices for over 40 years, biodynamic methods for many years, biological methods over 10 years, permaculture design methods for many years and Agnihotra more recently. We also started to build a forest garden, bio-intensive gardening, no-dig gardening and square-foot gardening when we worked at Waimarama Community Gardens, here in Nelson, New Zealand.
1. ORGANIC GARDENING When agriculturists and soil scientists ask for more research into the validity of organic farming and horticulture – I will always point to the largest and longest highly successful and productive organic experiment ever done in China, Korea and Japan that occurred over 4,000 years until these countries started adopting modern western practices in the twentieth century! Do they need any more proof? (See: F. H. King’s book ‘Farmers of Forty Centuries – Organic Farming in China, Korea and Japan’ republished by Dover Publications, 2004. ISBN 0-486-43609-8). In this book the organic approach is implied in all the articles, and I have covered what it means to be an organic gardener (& Farmer) in chapters 1 and 2 – ‘The Living Soil’ & ‘Building Fertility’. To give you a good definition of organic gardening, it is easier to give you guidelines as to how you can become a successful organic gardener and what that involves:
- Become knowledgeable about natural processes of plant nutrition and health and try to recreate ideal natural conditions for them.
- Use your best endeavours to revitalise the soil so it is teaming with life, in the form of beneficial micro-organisms, earth worms etc. – all of which feed the plants naturally without synthetic chemicals.
- Increase the humus content of the soil to an optimum 5.0% by regularly making and incorporating homemade organic garden compost and green manures into your soil.
- Improve the health of the soil and therefore the health of the plants, so that the plants are increasingly able to resist pests and diseases.
- Have as many species and varieties of plants, shrubs and trees as possible, to create a diverse and healthy environment.
- Use only natural supplements and methods.
- Use organic sprays as a last resort against pests and diseases, especially trying to avoid broad-spectrum organic sprays that can also kill beneficial and helpful insects.
- Never stop observing and learning from the natural ecology of your garden and environment.
‘Biodynamic Gardening’, ‘Permaculture’, ‘Agnihotra Gardening’, ‘Forest Gardening’, ‘No-dig Gardening’, ‘Bio-intensive Gardening’ and ‘Square Foot Gardening’ – are all forms of Organic Gardening. The only partial exception is Biological Gardening and Farming, based on the work of William Albrecht and Dr Carey Reams, which in the strictest sense is not ‘Organic’. However, proponents of the Biological agriculture and horticulture argue that the Biological approach is ‘beyond’ organic. That is, it uses the best of the organic approaches, but with a much deeper inclusive scientific understanding of the processes involved. Also many in the Organic movement, including myself, are starting to incorporate Albrecht’s and Reams’ Biological ideas into our own practices, and see their work, research and conclusions as the missing link for both conventional and organic approaches. Those in both the conventional and organic spheres who are either unaware or dismissive of the significance of Albrecht and Reams’ work are going to be seriously left behind. However, I digress, as ‘Organic’ is implied in most of this book, there is no point in writing a long separate section on the subject, as this would be to repeat myself.
2. BIOLOGICAL GARDENING AND FARMING
Ideal Soil Mineral Balance
The next field of knowledge about plant nutrition and soil fertility is how to obtain the ideal balance of minerals in soils. As Michael Astera, in his book ‘The Ideal Soil’ www.soilminerals.com says: “A solid understanding of minerals has been the weakest or even missing leg of sustainable agriculture up until now.” Getting the balance of soil nutrients right is essential for the healthiest soils that will grow food plants that are high in nutrients and be the healthiest for us. You can force food crops to produce high yields, but that does not mean the food produced will be high in food value. Achieving heavy yields is not the same as growing food with high nutrients and high food value. One can grow heavier crops with less food value per hectare than those with less weight but more food value per hectare.
It is here that we need to know the history of the discovery of the ideal soil mineral balance for most edible crops. In the early years of the twentieth century a division began to occur in agricultural and horticultural practice, which grew ever wider as the century reached its end. Liebig in the 1840’s had already discovered three important plant nutrients – Nitrogen, Potassium and Phosphorus and it was these sort of discoveries as well as the growth of large chemical companies that grew as a result of the need for munitions in the first and second world wars, along with the development of the petroleum industry, that led to a huge supply of agricultural chemicals which could be used to grow crops, along with a huge range of chemical pesticides and other treatments. This then became the main stream way of growing crops around the world. As a reaction to this trend, the pioneering work of Sir Albert Howard and Lady Eve Balfour in the UK, and Rudolf Steiner’s inspiration that led to the Biodynamic agricultural movement, and J.I. Rodale’s work in the USA, led to what became the organic movement, which has grown steadily ever since, albeit a small but growing proportion of total agriculture and horticulture.
Meanwhile in the 1920’s the late William A. Albrecht, PhD, and his crew of researchers at the University of Missouri agricultural station in the USA, started studying the static electrical charge of clay particles, already described, and went on over the next three decades experimenting with various combinations of mineral nutrients, growing the crops and feeding them to animals. They then measured the nutritional value of the crops as well as the resultant health of the animals that eat them. Along with the work of Cary Reams, PhD, a new vision and its practical application to agriculture and horticulture was born, which led to an understanding of the ideal balance of different mineral nutrients in a soil. This is what is now called the ‘Biological’ approach to agriculture and horticulture. As the juggernaut of conventional chemical farming gathered more and more strength and became the exclusive paradigm taught in agricultural colleges, Albrecht and Reams’ work was ignored or dismissed or worse still not even heard about, except by an exclusive number of soil scientists. As for those involved in the organic and alternative agricultural movement, little or nothing was known about their work and for those that did know something, they saw Albrecht and Reams as just advocating more of the chemical approach. However, in the mean time there have been a small but growing number of farmers and horticulturists who have adopted the biological approach and have never looked back. And for those in the organic movement with more open minds, they have at least started to look at the biological approach and see whether it can fit into their own paradigm. InNew Zealand, for instance, Kay Baxter has been instrumental in introducing Cary Ream’s ideas to the organic and permaculture movements, where Kay’s roots began. She sees this knowledge as just taking the best of the organic approach and taking it to a new level in growing nutrient dense food in a sustainable way. The result of these discoveries has highlighted the limits of understanding and oversimplification of the conventional approach to plant nutrition. On the other hand it has also shown limitations in the organic and alternative agricultural understanding of plant nutrition. For those interested in sustainable ways of growing food this is one of the most important missing links in both the understanding and practical application for growing healthy and highly productive plants with high levels of nutrients and with very noticeable levels of resistance to both pests and diseases.
The important thing to realise is that no mineral works in isolation. All of the plant nutrients interact with each other. For example, if there is too much Magnesium in a soil, it locks up the availability of Nitrogen for the plant, and this includes all the relationships of plant nutrients, including the small amounts of trace elements that are essential to the healthy functioning of a plants metabolism and indeed to the healthy functioning of soil life as a whole. This is a highly complex interrelationship within the top soil. One thing is certain, that recycling organic crop waste and animal dung, back through compost heaps is great, but if there are shortages or even absences in certain minerals, these will just continue to exist.
So, to recap: clay and humus particles attract minerals and hold on to them until released for the plant’s use. Minerals in the soil are in the form of atoms, with either a positive or negative charge. Alkaline soil nutrients are positively charged atoms called cations, and the acidic soil nutrients are negatively charged atoms called anions. The capacity of a soil to hold onto ions is called its exchange capacity. It is called the exchange capacity because ions of positively charged Hydrogen atoms that are held (adsorbed) on the sights of clay or humus particles are ‘exchanged’ for the mineral ion. The ‘capacity’ of a soil is determined by the percentage of ‘exchange sites’, in other words by the percentage of clay and humus colloids in that soil.
The first important cations are Calcium (Ca)++, Magnesium (Mg)++, Potassium (K)+, Sodium (Na)+ and Hydrogen (a free agent) (H)+ . The percentage of the cation exchange capacity (CEC) that a particular cation occupies is known as the ‘base saturation percentage’. The ideal saturation percentages for these five are:
- Calcium (Ca)++ 60% – 70% (305 Klg per hectare)
- Magnesium (Mg)++ 10% – 20% (32 Klg per hectare)
- Potassium (K)+ 3% – 5% (35 Klg per hectare)
- Sodium (Na)+ 1% – 4% (10 Klg per hectare)
- Hydrogen (H)+ 5% – 10%
The Calcium/Magnesium ratio determines how tight or loose the soil is. More Calcium, less Magnesium and the soil will be open and more crumbly. More Magnesium and less Calcium and the soil will be condensed. So, if the soil is light and sandy a ratio of 60% – 20% Calcium/Magnesium would be better. On the other hand for a heavy clay soil a ratio of 70% – 10% Calcium/Magnesium would be more suitable – as long as both together add up to 80%.
The next set of nutrients are three anions:
- Phosphorus (P)- (35 Klg per hectare)
- Sulphur(S)- (17.5 Klg per hectare)
- Chlorine (Cl)- (10-20 Klg per hectare)
Important Minor Elements
- Iron (Fe)+ (100-200 ppm)
- Manganese (Mn)+ (up to 50 ppm)
- Zinc (Zn)+ (up to 50 ppm)
- Copper (Cu)+ (up to 25 ppm)
- Boron (B)- (up to 4 ppm)
Trace Elements Trace elements are essential, but in very small amounts, no more than 1-2 ppm. These include Chromium, Cobalt, Iodine, Molybdenum, Selenium, Tin, Vanadium, Nickel, Fluorine and Silicon.
The really interesting thing is that Nitrogen, which is considered to be one of the most important nutrients by conventional chemical advocates, is in this approach largely seen as sorting itself out once the soil’s humus is improved and the balance of all the other nutrients are achieved. To quote from Michael Astra again: If the soil’s organic matter content is 4% or above, there is likely to be a good amount of Nitrogen available. Humus in the soil generally has a 10:1 Carbon to Nitrogen ratio………..Nitrogen is found in the soil in two forms, ammonia NH4+ and nitrate NO3-. NH4+ is a cation base and can be held onto negatively charged soil colloids, humus and clay. Nitrate NO3- is more likely to be leached away, and in addition microbial action is constantly changing NH4 into NH3. Nitrogen is a component of all proteins and amino acids. When living things die, their protein breaks down and ammoniacal NH4 is released. Nitrate Nitrogen is associated with rapid growth, while ammonia Nitrogen is associated with flowering, fruiting, and plant maturity………. Some crops such as corn (maize) and alliums (onions, leeks, garlic) benefit greatly from a N boost or two during the growing season; for other crops this would only cause rank growth and delay flowering and maturity.” Another way to encourage the availability of Nitrogen is to increase the population of soil protozoa. This is done by soaking lucerne hay in rain water for a day or two, or better still make aerated lucerne tea (see ‘Liquid Manures’ in the section ‘BUILDING FERTILITY’) and then watering the juice on the soil; this greatly increases the protozoa population. Protozoa play an important role in mineralizing nutrients, making them available for use by plants and other soil organisms. Protozoa (and nematodes) have a lower concentration of nitrogen in their cells than the bacteria they eat. (The ratio of carbon to nitrogen for protozoa is 10:1 or much more and 3:1 to 10:1 for bacteria.) Bacteria eaten by protozoa contain too much nitrogen for the amount of carbon protozoa need. They release the excess nitrogen in the form of ammonium (NH4+). This usually occurs near the root system of a plant. Bacteria and other organisms rapidly take up most of the ammonium, but some is used by the plant.
The Importance of Calcium
We have already discussed Calcium in its relation to the other minerals, but the revelation for many, who are new to this field of knowledge, including myself, is the fact that calcium is a nutrient. For most of us calcium has always been seen as a way of controlling pH and helping to open up a heavy soil, but its role is much more important than that. The best thing I can do is to quote from Kay Baxter’s booklet ‘Growing Nutrient Dense Food’:
Calcium is used in plants by weight and volume more than any other mineral element. The result of all the functions of calcium is the manufacture of amino acids for the making of plant protein and human food. Thus the more calcium that is transported into the plant, the greater the plant’s ability to attract nutrients out of the air – chiefly carbon dioxide, nitrogen, potassium and magnesium………………. It is now clear to me that available calcium is the ‘key’, the missing link for most of us, and putting our energy here first will give us the greatest results. It is critical to understand that there is a big difference between ‘calcium’ and ‘available calcium’. If the plant roots can’t access the calcium because it is chemically locked up or biologically inactive, then it is no use at that point to the plants.
She goes on to explain that there are highly available forms of calcium that can be applied to the plants and the soil.
NUTRIENTS – THEIR ROLES
To understand the workings of soil it can be viewed like a battery. Low ERGS (energy released per gram of soil) is like having a flat battery.
Nitrogen (N) is the soil’s ‘electrolyte’. Insufficient N results in a low current flow. Adding Nitrogen to soil is like adding electrolyte to a battery and charging it up. A current can now flow and ions can move from the cation exchange sites into the roots. Without Nitrogen and Magnesium (Mg), green leaves cannot photosynthesise as these nutrients make up the core of every chlorophyll molecule.
Ammonium- Nitrogen (NH4) is produced as a by-product for plant growth when soil bacteria are consumed by beneficial protozoa and nematodes. A low reading indicates a shortage of protozoa or beneficial nematodes.
Calcium (Ca) has the ability to store energy like a battery and is the base against which all other nutrients react to release their energy for plant growth. Because Calcium stores energy, insufficient Calcium is like having a motorbike battery to try to start a truck. Adding more Calcium increases the battery’s capacity to truck size, but this requires more Nitrogen electrolyte to be added. So we need to be sure there is always enough Nitrogen in the system. Calcium is a carrier; it carries all other nutrients to the plant. Calcium (along with Silicon) is also a main plant cell strengthener.
Magnesium (Mg) The Ca:Mg ratio signals either soil compaction or flocculation. Magnesium and Calcium together should make up 80 per cent of the soils exchange capacity – 65% Ca:15% Mg on average. If the soil is a compact heavy clay, more Calcium to Magnesium is needed to open up the soil, e.g. 70% Ca:10% Mg. If the soil is very open, like a sandy soil, a ratio of 60% Ca:20% Mg would help to compact the soil.
Boron (B) is like the truck’s driver and Calcium is the truck. Calcium transport nutrients, but Boron keeps Calcium mobile, facilitating both Calcium uptake, but also sugar translocation to the roots, which excrete excess sugar helping a huge growth of beneficial micro-organisms around the root zone. It is also important in the processes of fertilisation.
Phosphate (PO4) is like an usher for all nutrients except Potassium (K) inside the plant. All nutrients enter the plant attached to PO4. Insufficient PO4 means a bottleneck at the root surface; nutrients can’t get up to the leaves fast enough. Phosphate is also the chief energy transfer-medium in photosynthesis, turning radiant energy from the sun into chemical energy and is essential for sugar production.
Potassium (K) helps move sugars from the chloroplasts, where it is created by photosynthesis, to the rest of the plant. Potassium converts Nitrogen to protein, regulate 50 enzymes as well as the opening and closing of stomata. It is also facilitates grain and fruit to grow to its full capacity.
Sulphur (S) improves the effective efficiency of other essential plant nutrients, particularly nitrogen and phosphorus. Plant requirements for sulphur are equal to or exceed those for phosphorus. It is one of the major nutrients essential for plant growth, root nodule formation of legumes and increases the plants ability to resist pests and diseases.
Trace Elements are also essential for healthy plant life. There are probably 40 or so elements needed for a healthy soil. Over millions of years trace elements have washed into the sea, only to be absorbed by algae, such as seaweeds. Kelp seaweed is one of the best sources of a complete range of trace elements. The plants will enjoy the trace elements it contains as well as us when we eat the plants that have been treated! Here are a list of ten of the most obvious ones:
- Chromium (Cr)
- Cobalt (Co)
- Iodine (I)
- Molybdenum (Mo)
- Selenium (Se)
- Tin (Sn)
- Vanadium (V)
- Nickel (Ni)
- Fluorine (F)
- Silicon (Si)
Humus is crucial to all soil life, soil structure, soil water holding capacity, cation exchange capacity, productivity, carbon sequestration etc.
Vegetative energy in a plant grows foliage. Calcium, nitrate-Nitrogen, Potassium and Chlorine (Cl) all provide vegetative energy.
Flowering/fruiting energy produces flowers and sets fruit. Ammonium-Nitrogen, Phosphorus, acids, Sulphur (S), Sulphate (SO4), and all other nutrients provide flower/fruiting energy. Manganese (Mn) is essential for the production of fertile seeds. There is always a balance between these two energies in plants. To emphasise one or the other energy requires a shift in the balance either way, by applying the appropriate nutrients.
Paramagnetic materials (e.g. oxygen, volcanic rock dust) increase root growth by emitting photons. ORP (oxidation-reduction potential) indicates the state of soil oxidation or reduction. To increase ORP add organic matter or dig in green matter. If the ORP levels are too high, increase the moisture content of the soil to reduce ORP.
INCREASING PEST & DISEASE RESISTANCE
As soils and crops become healthier, crops seem to progress through several stages of overall health and subsequent resistance to diseases and pests. There are several stages that a plant progresses through on its path to higher and higher levels of health and greater and greater resistance to diseases and pests.
In this foundational phase of plant growth and health, a plant’s needs for adequate sunlight, air, water, and minerals are all being met; an efficient photosynthetic process is absorbing carbon dioxide from the air, water from the soil, and with the energy input from the sun, begins producing plant sugars and carbohydrates. Initially, the sugars formed during this process will be monosaccharides – simple sugars such as fructose, sucrose, and dextrose. As the process evolves, more complex sugars, called polysaccharides begin to develop, which are used to create cellulose, lignin, pectins, and starches. These are produced in greater quantities as plants become healthier. Experience shows that as long as plants are photosynthesizing properly and producing pectins and other complex carbohydrates, these plants do not seem to be susceptible to soil borne fungi. Saprophytic fungi (fungi which decompose dead plant residue) such as alternaria, fusarium, and verticillium only become a problem when plants are unhealthy to the point where they no longer develop complex carbohydrates. As long as the plants are producing complex carbohydrates fungi pathogens cease to be a problem.
As photosynthetic energy increases, plants begin to transfer greater quantities of sugars to the root system and the microbial community in the rhizosphere. This increase in food for the soil microbes will stimulate them to mineralize and release minerals and trace minerals from the soil, and provide them in a plant available form. Plants then utilize these essential minerals to form complex carbohydrates and complete proteins. Soluble sugars, monosaccharides, when partnered with nitrogen, are the base materials used to form amino acids. Through the action of enzyme catalysts these amino acids are bonded together to form peptides from which complete proteins are formed. Thanks to their rapid metabolism, insects need large amounts of protein for growth and reproduction. Many insects have a simple digestive system that lacks the digestive enzymes needed to digest complex proteins. They can only source their protein requirements from plants that have elevated levels of soluble amino acids in the plant sap. Plants which are forming complete proteins and have low levels of soluble amino acids, are not susceptible to insects with a simple digestive system. This would include insects such as aphids and white flies and especially larval insects such cabbage white caterpillars and many others.
As photosynthetic energy and efficiency increases, plants develop a surplus of energy beyond that needed for basic growth and reproduction. Initially, large quantities of this surplus energy, in the form of sugars, are translocated to the root system, as high as 70% of the total sugar production. Later, the plant begins to store this surplus energy in the form of lipids – plant fats – in both vegetative and reproduction tissue. As energy and lipid levels increase, the cell membrane becomes much stronger and more resilient enabling it to better resist fungal pathogens. It appears as though once plants achieve higher lipid levels and stronger cell membranes, they become more resistant to the airborne fungal pathogens such as downy and powdery mildew, late blight and others, as well as some bacterial invaders, notably fire blight, scab, rust, bacterial speck, bacterial spot, and others. It should be noted that plants must have a thriving microbial community in the soil’s rhizosphere before they will develop to this stage of plant health, otherwise, they will lack the energy needed to develop higher levels of lipids.
The elevated lipid levels developed in Phase III are then used to build complex plant protective compounds styled plant secondary metabolites. The plant builds these plant secondary metabolites, or essential oils, to protect itself from would-be parasites, UV radiation, or overgrazing by insects or herbivores. Many of these compounds, which include terpenoids, bioflavonoids, carotenoids, tannins, and many others, contain anti-fungal and anti-bacterial properties, as well as digestion (enzyme) inhibitors which make them unpalatable to insects. Once plants achieve this level of performance they become immune to insect attack even from insects that have a better developed digestive system, primarily the beetle family. At this point, plants have a tremendous level of stress tolerance and can also cope with weather extremes reasonably well. There is also evidence that when soil nutrients are balanced the soil’s pH automatically settles to 6.4 and along with the health improvements already discussed the plant’s sap also settles at pH 6.4, which pests and diseases find difficult to cope with; higher or lower than this and problems with pests and diseases increase. Many of the above improvements in plant resistance and the reduction of pests and diseases have been witnessed by organic, Bio-dynamic, ecological, forest gardeners and permaculture practitioners for decades and there is an increasing body of research that backs this up and we have seen this happen over forty years of gardening and farming on our own property. However with Albrecht and Reams’ work, we have been provided with the missing link, which when coupled with existing sustainable approaches, will achieve even healthier crops, high in nutrients, which have very high levels of disease and pest resistance.
To summarise I will let Michael Astera speak for himself: “A wonderful thing about a balanced, mineralised soil based on the soil’s exchange capacity is that everything else becomes easier. The soil pH self-adjusts to its optimum, plant disease and insect problems largely disappear, water retention, drainage, soil texture, and the rate of decay of organic matter all become self-regulating and automatic, weather permitting. The grower knows that the nutrients are in the crop because the nutrients are available in the soil. The soil life is active and healthy and helping to make these nutrients available, and the plants growing on this ideal soil have free-choice of any nutrients they want.”
- To begin with plants make simple sugars and proteins through photosynthasis
- As they increase in health and energy, they begin to make more complex carbohydrates and complete proteins for their own needs and have excess simple sugars and proteins to excrete through their roots causing a growing bloom of soil micro-organisms which make a complete range of nutrients, including essential trace elements, available for the plant, which makes the plant even healthier
- The increase in more complex carbohydrates and complete proteins in the plant is impossible for a lot of pests to digest, because they have vary simple digestive systems, that can only cope with simple sugars and soluble amino acids
- As energy increases the plant starts producing lipids, which makes the cell membranes become much stronger and more resilient enabling it to better resist fungal pathogens
- Finally, the plant is able to start building complex plant protective compounds, called secondary metabolites. These make the plant more indigestible to the whole range of fungi, insects and even overgrazing by herbivores
New Companies & Products
Albrecht’s and Reams’ research has spawned many companies that have started to utilise this technology to produce a whole range of products. In New Zealand there are at least two – ‘Environmental Fertilisers’ www.environmental-fertilisers.co.nz and ‘Fertilizer NZ’ www.fertnz.co.nz . Environmental Fertilisers has based a lot of their work on Professor Ream’s work, whilst Fertilizer NZ is based around Albrecht’s work. These companies have developed a whole range of useful and fascinating products and services, including:
- Testing for soil nutrient imbalance and providing nutrient mix to create nutrient balance in your soil
- Beneficial soil microbes
- Compost teas
- Balanced fertilisers – containing soft rock phosphate, RPR, Humic acid, seaweed, worm compost, paramagnetic rock dust and a wide range of beneficial soil microbes composted together
- Compost inoculum, full of specially composted animal manures, minerals and microbes
- Anti-fungal products containing natural micro-organisms, complexed micronised nutrients and plant stimulating hormones and vitamins that help give plants physical and health bearing properties to combat fungal problems
- Azobacter, Nitrogen fixing bacteria foliar and root-zone feed
- Humic and Fulvic acid products
- Worm juice
- The use of Triacontanol, a naturally occurring plant growth hormone
…………..and on and on.
What excites me about Albrecht and Reams’ work is that it is beginning to be noticed and increasingly adopted, not only by those in the organic movement, but by those coming from the conventional chemical school, who would not be prepared to go down the organic route, but are prepared to take this more sustainable approach and use more natural techniques without feeling too ‘way out’. They like this new scientific approach. Albrecht and Reams’ work provides the missing link for both organic and conventional approaches to growing food. There is a genuine cross-over taking place here that many, including myself, find exciting. Neither the conventional, nor the organic schools can stand still. They are being dragged along by unfolding knowledge. Whilst some of their products are not acceptable by organic agencies, many of their products are, and have been certified by organic certification agencies like ‘Bio Grow’, There are also firms like ‘Fertco Organics’ who are using the knowledge of humates and micro-organisms in their products, whilst remaining organically certified.
I would seriously suggest that any commercial farmer, horticulturist, or even gardeners who want to study this subject in greater depth, read ‘The Ideal Soil’ – A Handbook for the New Agriculture by Michael Astera, which can be found on-line www.soilminerals.com This book should be essential reading for all students of horticulture and agriculture. This is a seminal work, based on Albrecht’s work, that makes this complicated subject understandable to anyone who is prepared to make the effort to look into this important knowledge, and more importantly to take the practical steps to make sure their soil’s mineral balance is at optimum. For gardeners, it might be easier to read Kay Baxter’s handbook ‘Growing Nutrient Dense Food’, see: www.koanga.org.nz which is based on Cary Reams’ work. Her approach is not as exacting as Michael Astera, but none the less important and useful, especially if used with the soil supplements that can be obtained from the Koanga Institute and Environmental Fertilisers.
I have found that in the gardening supply section of our local Mitre 10 store, they sell two types of the ‘new order’ biological ‘fertilisers’ that I have talked about, similar to the ones that companies like Environmental Fertilisers make. The first is called ‘Micorrcin’ made by ‘BioStart’, partly because it encourages the growth of beneficial Mycorrhizae fungi, but also it claims to:
- Improve soil structure
- Assist with the composting of organic matter in the soil into humus
- Stimulates Mycorrhizal Fungi , aiding nutrient and water uptake
- Inhibit soil diseases
- Improve Calcium uptake
- Increase root development
- Promote balanced growth
Mycorrcin is made of a ‘non-viable’ blend of fermentation extracts, by that I presume they mean the bacteria are dead, but the nutrient/mineral metabolites they have created remain viable. The second product is ‘Magical Botanic Liquid’, or MBL for short, sold by ‘OrganicDirect’ http://www.organicdirect.co.nz . It contains Humic and Fulvic Acids and I assume some other things. Humic and Fulvic acids are made from coal and increase the cation exchange capacity of the soil (see ‘Biological Gardening & Farming’ in the section ‘DIFFERENT APPROACHES’. Needless to say, Humic and Fulvic acids are present in well made garden compost and the resultant humus. However, if farmers and horticulturists are increasing their soil’s exchange capacity, so that the soil holds onto nutrients so less fertilisers are used and less are being washed into streams and rivers with negative effects – that’s a positive thing. It is certainly a better use of coal than burning it. Becoming greener takes many forms. MBL is said to:
- Aid the germination of seeds
- Increase plant root development
- Improve the health and vigour of established plants
3. BIO-DYNAMIC GARDENING & FARMING
In 1924 a group of German farmers from Silesia, who were concerned at the declining fertility of their farms, approached Rudolf Steiner for advice.
In response Rudolf Steiner gave a series of eight agricultural lectures which led to the development of the Biodynamic Agricultural Movement. ‘Bio-dynamic’ is derived from two Greek words, bios life and dynamos energy. Rudolf Steiner (1861-1925) was a seer who had studied the ideas and philosophy of Goethe. Around the late eighteen eighties Steiner started to develop a faculty for “spiritual perception independent of the senses”. As a result of these personal experiences he developed a philosophy and system of gaining knowledge which he named Anthroposophy and in 1912 founded the Anthroposophical Society. This impressive and enlightened man left a world wide movement and many practical applications of his ideas, including the Waldorf School Movement based on his ideas on education and the development of the children’s minds; homes and schools for defective and maladjusted children; a therapeutic movement with a central clinic at Arlesheim in Switzerland; centres for scientific and mathematical research; Eurythmy, the art of movement and speech to music; schools of drama, speech, painting, sculpture and architecture; and last but not least the Bio-dynamic system of organic farming. Steiner’s approach to farming and growing food was radically different from anything known up until then due to his being aware of subtle, unseen underlying forces that affect every aspect of life, including humans, animals, plant nutrition, the soil and the food it produces. However he not only provided an understanding of the subtle, but provided practical applications to vitalise soil and plant life and in the cases of soil depletion and soil pollution to re-vitalise soil and plant life. So far we have covered approaches to producing food that are extremely important if we are to improve the life in our soils and produce nutrient dense food; however what has been missing in our understanding of plant nutrition and the phenomenon of plant growth are the subtle forces involved. It is these subtle (or spiritual) forces of nature that are as important, if not more important, than the more obvious processes. Bio-dynamics is an agricultural science that recognizes basic principles at work in nature and applies this knowledge of life forces to bring about balance and healing in the soil. By working creatively with these subtle energies, gardeners and farmers are able to significantly enhance the health of their gardens and farms and the quality and flavour of their food. Most of the activities that take place on biodynamic farms are the same as on an organic property – making and applying compost, growing green manures, building up humus, rotating crops, using liquid organic fertilisers, etc, but over and above this is the use of special enlivened preparations and the recognition of the effects of the moon and the rest of the cosmos. The role of cows and their manure also play an essential role in biodynamics.
Bio-dynamic ‘cow horn manure’ is fundamental to biodynamic practice. Regular applications in the spring and autumn induce increases in humus formation and soil micro-organisms, such as rhizobium (nitrogen fixing bacteria), phosphate solubilisating bacteria, mycorrhizal fungi, algae, actinomycetes and protozoa. It also induces an increase in earthworms and other macro soil life, which increase the depth of humus formation up to 30cm. As a result of all this increased activity, soil crumb structure improves, there are increases in root nodule formation on legumes and an increase in the depth of earthworm activity and the depth of plant root penetration. The soil pH also rises to a healthy range and then stabilises. Another very important result of using preparation 500 is that the soil and the plants living in it become more sensitive to the subtle forces flowing into it from the cosmos and the natural rhythms and processes of nature; as a result the other Bio-dynamic procedures becoming more effective. The cow horn manure is made by placing fresh cow manure in a cow’s horn and burying it in the ground throughout the autumn and winter. The horns have the ability to absorb the life energies of the soil that are more active during the winter months. This imparts life energies to the manure, which in turn is spread over the property in the spring. To further enhance the dynamism of the sweet smelling composted manure, it is dug up in the spring and a small amount (65g per hectare) is added to warmed rain water and stirred rhythmically for an hour before spreading. This enlivens the preparation and enables the water to become a dynamic carrier of the life energy that 500 imparts to the land.
One of the most interesting things that Steiner observed was that Silica is very important in the process of plant nutrition and the building of starches, sugars and proteins. Also Silica balances the forces of Calcium. Preparation 500 enlivens the Calcium processes in the soil while 501 enlivens the Silica processes.
The first subtle energies to take into account are those that flow into the Earth from the cosmos, and those that flow out from the Earth. During the autumn and winter seasons it is as if the Earth breaths in and energy flows into the Earth from above, roots grow and plants store up their energies, and although the soil’s micro life slows as the temperature drops, Steiner perceived that on a subtle level the Earth and the soil are more alive in the winter than in the summer. During this inward flow, moisture and solidity predominate. In the spring and summer it is as if the Earth breaths out in an outpouring of energy, which results in the upgrowth and the flowering and seeding of plants. This is the period where light and air predominate. To quote Steiner from his ‘The Michael Imagination’: “During winter the earth is united with the elemental spirits. They withdraw into the interior of the earth and live there among the plant roots preparing for new growth, and among the other nature beings who spend the winter there. Then when spring comes, the earth breathes out, as it were, its elemental being. The elemental spirits rise up as though from a tomb and ascend into the atmosphere. During winter they conformed to the inner order of the earth, but now, as spring advances and especially when summer comes on, they open themselves to the order that is imposed on them by the stars and the movements of the stars. When midsummer has come then out there, in the periphery of the earth, life surges among the elemental beings who had spent the winter quietly and calmly under the earth’s mantel of snow. In the swirling and whirling of their dance they are governed by the reciprocal laws of planetary movement, by the pattern of the fixed stars, and so on. When autumn comes, they turn towards the earth. As they approach the earth they become subject more and more to the laws of the earth, so that in winter they may be breathed in again by the earth, once more to rest there in tranquillity.” This seasonal inbreath and outbreath is repeated in another cyclical event – that of the waxing and waning of the moon and more importantly the descending and ascending of the moon. As the sun rises higher and higher in the sky each day through the spring and early summer and descends lower and lower to its lowest point in mid winter; so in the same way the moon does the same, but over a 27.3 day cycle, with the descending phase being the inbreath and the ascending phase being the outbreath. Another cycle is the daily one in which the afternoon and evening are the inbreath and morning through to mid day being the outbreath. Practically, all gardeners and farmers follow the seasons and perform seasonal activities, they know about the upwelling of life in the spring and summer and the harvesting and the indrawing of autumn and winter. Traditional cultures work with the phases of the moon, and so do biodynamic practitioners, however they especially work with the ascending and descending moon, tending to sow seeds during an ascending moon when the outward and upward forces predominate, and compost making, tilling the soil, applying compost and planting out plants in a descending moon period when the inward forces that are associated with root grow and the life of the soil predominates. As the sun passes through different constellations during a year, so does the moon over twenty eight days. The constellations fall into four categories: Earth, Water, Air and Fire. As the moon passes through each quality, they stimulate different parts and processes of the plant. So, the moon in an Earth constellation stimulates the roots, a Water constellation stimulates the leaves, an Air constellation stimulates the flowering and an Air constellation the fruiting and seed production processes. Plants are deeply connected to the cosmos. As is the macrocosm, so is the microcosm. Without being fanatical, a Bio-dynamic practitioner will try to sow, plant-out, cultivate, hoe, make and apply compost etc at those times of the month that are best suited to that activity or the type of crop one is growing. For instance, if one is making compost, one would ideally make it when the moon is descending in the sky, in the afternoon and better still on a day when the Earth forces are strongest – all these periods are when the root and soil is most enlivened and the inbreath and downward forces are strongest. If one is sowing the seed of a tomato, an ascending moon would be best on a fruit day in the morning. It is of course flexible. If one sows at the wrong time one can plant at the right time and anyway it must be always remembered that the whole garden, orchard or farm and the life forms within it become increasing sensitive and responsive to both cosmic and earthly influences the more one uses Bio-dynamic techniques. And this leads directly to one of the most important points about Steiner’s approach – the enlightenment of us as gardeners and the farmers, putting us increasingly in touch with the rhythms and subtle forces of Nature of which we are intimately a part. Here is a subtle form of ecosystem. Steiner saw that a farm or garden is a living entity of which the gardener or farmer is an integral part. Recognizing that the whole earth is a single, self-regulating, multi-dimensional ecosystem, Bio-dynamic gardeners seek to fashion their gardens and farms likewise, as self-regulating, bio-diverse ecosystems in order to bring health to the land and to their local communities.
One of the fascinating things about wild plants is that they often contain minerals that are lacking in the soils in which they grow. For instance Yarrow has been found to contain measurable amounts of potassium and selenium on land that showed a deficiency of potassium and a total lack of selenium. Some thistles and chicory are high in copper. Oak and willow, which are high in calcium, often grow on acid soils. Whether the plants are able to access minerals that are otherwise unavailable in the soil, are absorbing them from the air, or able to accumulate minerals that are present in minute amounts, or some other process, is not clear. What is clear is that this ability of plants is utilised in biodynamic farming and horticulture. Liquid manures can be made of yarrow for Potassium, stinging nettle for Iron and digitalis for Phosphorus, but the most common way that this facility of plants is used is in the production of the Bio-dynamic compost preparations.
There are six fermented and enlivened herbal compost preparations that are added to the finished compost heap:
- Yarrow flowers (Achillea millefolium)
- Chamomile flowers (Matricaria chamomilla)
- Stinging Nettle leaves and stalks (Urtica dioica)
- Oak Bark powdered (Quercus robur)
- Dandelion flowers (Taraxacum officinale)
- Valerian flowers (Valeriana officinalis)
Yarrow Preparation 502
Rudolf Steiner called yarrow a miracle of creation. It is connected to the light forces. The leaves are very delicate and light and the roots are mainly at the surface, showing the plant is not very attached to the earth. The yarrow preparation encourages the metabolism of Potassium andSulphur.
Chamomile Preparation 503
In the compost heap chamomile is invaluable in encouraging the breakdown of proteins in a healthy way by preventing the proteins decomposing into Ammonia which would be lost to the atmosphere. Most of the Ammonia is converted into a more stable form of Nitrogen as part of the production of humus colloids, remembering that humus is comprised of 10 parts Carbon to 1 part Nitrogen. The chamomile also helps the metabolism of Calcium.
Stinging Nettle Preparation 504
The stinging nettle is said to have the forces of Mars. It contains Silica, an important mineral in Bio-dynamic understanding of plant nutrition. Preparation 504 helps to metabolise Iron, Magnesium and other minerals such asSulphur.
Oak Bark Preparation 505
Rudolf Steiner pointed out how important it was to have the right amount of Calcium in the soil if the plants were to be healthy and free of disease. He went on to say that Calcium brings harmony to the formation of the plant and does not allow excesses of rampant growth to take place. Oak bark contains about 2.5-5 per cent Calcium, however the importance of the Calcium in oak bark is that it is in a living form. Steiner said that for Calcium to have a healing effect it needs to be in a living form.
Dandelion Preparation 506
The dandelion preparation has the ability to attract and metabolise Silica. The importance of Silica is generally overlooked by conventional science, and is certainly not understood as part of plant nutrition. However it is beginning to be recognised by the medical profession. Compelling data suggest that Silica is essential for health although no recommended dietary intake (RDI) has been established. Steiner said that there is an interaction between Silicic acid in the plant and Potassium. Therefore he suggested “We must look for a plant whose own Potassium-Silicic acid relationship will enable it to impart this power to manure.” This he said was the dandelion. Preparation 506 gives the soil a living, ethereal quality with the ability to supply the substances that the plant needs.
Valerian Preparation 507
Valerian preparation concentrates Phosphorus. It stimulates the metabolism of Phosphorus and mobilises the Phosphate activating bacteria in the soil. Valerian also brings the Saturn influence of warmth to the soil.
All the qualities of these preparations are therefore available and lively in the finished compost created and when the compost is applied to the soil these qualities and transformative processes are transferred to it. The general process of making biodynamic compost is the same as already described, but with the compost preparations added. Over recent years these herbal preparations have been used to compost cow manure mixed with powdered egg shell and basalt dust in specially built pits, which is then used to spread the effects of the compost preparations around a property more quickly, especially where a property is being converted to Biodynamic practice, or where land needs revitalising after the damaging effects of conventional agriculture and horticulture.
Equisetum Preparation 508
This is not one of the compost preparations, but is used to control fungus diseases such as botrytis, etc. It is made from Equisetum arvense or horsetail plant, which grows in swampy wastes in Europe and Australia and small areas in New Zealand. The plant has a very high silica content. The preparation is used to reduce excessive water forces around the plants and so reduce the risk of fungal disease.
Peter Proctor and an Indian Revolution
Peter Proctor has been one of the most inspiring and knowledgeable advocates of Biodynamic gardening and farming in New Zealand. In the early 1990’s Peter was invited to go to Indiaby Shri T.G.K. Menon of Indorein 1993 to teach Indian farmers about Bio-dynamic farming. Until the last few years, Peter visited India twice a year to run seminars, workshops and courses for all farmers – in villages or running big estates. Interest in BD agriculture has greatly increased over the past five years among organic farmers in India. The growth of Bio-dynamic agriculture in India has been extraordinary. There are now more than 500 small and big farms practicing Bio-dynamic agriculture throughout the country. Three major initiatives, located in the north and south, are promoting BD agriculture among 3000 small farms. The Bio-dynamic Association of India is committed to provide training on BD agriculture, to link up with the international Bio-dynamic Movement and to promote and support the trade and commerce connected with Bio-dynamic Agriculture inIndia. His inspiring work inIndia can be seen on a DVD called “One Man, One Cow, One Planet”
One final point
Bio-dynamic practitioners would argue that the most important thing about Bio-dynamically grown food is that it is healthier and has more ‘life’, vitality and dynamism and generally would not be so interested in yields. None the less, some years ago when I was studying the subject of organic crop yields versus conventional yields, I found that records show that crop yields on Bio-dynamic farms were consistently higher than those on ordinary organic farms. While conceding that quality is more important, I feel that the figures are interesting. Bio-dynamic agriculture may not fit into much of the present scientific paradigm, but the results speak for themselves. Steiner himself encouraged his followers to do experiments and many of the experiments that have been done over many years point to the efficacy of the Bio-dynamic approach, even if the mechanisms involved are beyond present scientific understanding.
One of the best introductions to Bio-dynamics is to read Grasp the Nettle by Peter Procter, also Bio-dynamic Gardening by John Soper and Soil Fertility by E. Pfeiffer. And finally for those intrepid souls who are prepared to go to the source, but with a very open mind, read – Agricultural Course – Eight Lectures by Rudolf Steiner, and be prepared to be blown away.
Another form of sustainable organic food production is ‘Permanent Agriculture’ or ’Permaculture’. Permaculture has a huge amount to add to our knowledge of how to create a sustainable way of growing food. There are many aspects to Permaculture, including ‘Forest Gardening’, but its greatest contributions are its emphasis on planning and design and ethical principles, that aim to make a system of agriculture and horticulture that is integrated, efficient, uses the least amount of effort and energy to produce food and at the same time creates a healthy and pleasurable living environment. Its planning methods can be used not only for food production, but for designing communities so they can feed and sustain themselves with the least amount of energy input as well as being self-perpetuating. To quote from ‘Permaculture – Principles & Pathways Beyond Sustainability’ a definition of Permaculture 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 they organise themselves are central to permaculture. Thus the permaculture vision of permanent (sustainable) agriculture has evolved to one of permanent (sustainable) culture” Ethics is naturally inherent in any approach to creating lasting and durable systems which support ecological balance, avoid the depletion of natural resources and enhance and conserves natural processes, but what permaculture does is take this to another level by recognising ethical principles as the bedrock of its approach. The three main principles being:
- Care for the earth
- Care for people
- Set limits to consumption and reproduction, and redistribute surplus
The second most important principle of permaculture is design; designing integrated systems based on a set of principles. The core of permaculture has always been in supplying a design toolkit for human habitation. This toolkit helps the designer to model a final design based on an observation of how ecosystems interact and interpreting the knowledge thus gained in designing a system to suit the unique local situation. To go into this complex subject in any depth is unnecessary here, but I would like to touch on some of the more important aspects of permaculture. To learn more I suggest reading ‘Permaculture One’ by B Mollison & D Holmgren and ‘Permaculture – Principles & Pathways Beyond Sustainability’ by D Holmgren. Here however are a few pointers to the design concepts involved. The first concept is one of zones.
To make an agricultural/horticultural property function efficiently with as little effort as possible, the design divides the property into 6 zones. Zones are a way of organizing the layout of the property so that the most frequent activities that take place are in or close to the homestead, with at the other extreme, zone ‘5’ (the wild area) where little or no activity takes place. Zones are therefore about positioning things appropriately so that one doesn’t waste time and energy covering excessive distances to do the frequent jobs. One of the revelations of permaculture design principles is one of “why didn’t I think of that before, that’s so obvious”. Zone 0 This is the house or home centre. Here permaculture principles would be applied in terms of aiming to reduce energy and water needs, harnessing natural resources such as sunlight by using passive solar design, and generally creating a harmonious, sustainable environment in which to live and work.
Zone 1 The zone nearest to the house is the location for those activities and elements that require frequent attention, or that need to be visited often. So salad crops and herb plants herb plants, worm compost bins for kitchen waste etc, would be close to the house. Then fully irrigated gardens of vegetables and soft fruit like strawberries or raspberries, greenhouse and cold frames, propagation area, and so on.
Zone 3 The area is for field crops, sown pastures and planted forest, both for domestic use and for trade purposes. After establishment, care and maintenance required are fairly minimal.
Zone 4 A semi-wild area. This zone is mainly used for forage and collecting wild food as well as timber production.
Zone 5 A wild area. There is no human intervention in zone 5 apart from the observation of natural ecosystems and cycles.
A guild is any group of species that exploit the same resources, often in related ways. Guilds are groups of plants, animals, insects, etc. that work well together. Some plants may be grown for food production, some to attract beneficial insects, and others to repel harmful insects. When grouped together these plants form a guild. Everything that is added into the system either improves the system or degrades the system. Finding those plants or animals that complement each other, is the first step in designing a useful system. The Three Sisters of maize, squash and beans is a well known example. Guilds can be thought of as an extension of companion planting.
We have already discussed the idea of vertical layers in the ‘Forrest Gardening’ section. Layers are one of the tools used to design functional ecosystems that are both sustainable and of direct benefit to man. A mature ecosystem has a huge number of relationships between its component parts: trees, understory, ground cover, soil, fungi, insects and animals. Because plants grow to different heights, a diverse community of life is able to grow in a relatively small space, as each layer is stacked one on top of another. There are seven recognized layers in permaculture. The canopy: the tallest trees in the system. Large trees dominate but do not saturate the area, i.e. there exist patches barren of trees.
- Low tree layer: dwarf fruit trees, citrus trees and other short trees
- Shrubs: a diverse layer that includes most berry bushes
- Herbaceous: may be annuals, biennials or perennials; most annuals will fit into this layer
- Rhizosphere: root crops including potatoes and other editable tubers
- Soil surface: cover crops to retain soil and lessen erosion, along with green manures to add nutrients and organic matter to the soil, especially nitrogen
- Vertical layer: climbers or vines, such as runner beans and lima beans (vine varieties)
Layers can also be used by growing climbing plants up structures and buildings; for example climbing peas and beans, instead of dwarf varieties. The advantages are that the climbing plants take up relatively little ground space with the space saved being used to grow salad crops, spinach and other low growing crops. Cucumbers, melons and some of the smaller squashes can be grown up trellises fixed to walls, free standing pergolas and other permanent or temporary structures.
Animals are usually incorporated into the site design. Chickens can be used as a method of weed control and also as a producer of eggs, meat and fertilizer. Some types of agroforestry systems combine trees with grazing animals such as cattle and sheep. Some projects avoid the use of animals. However not all permaculture sites keep animals for meat, eggs or milk. Sometimes animals function as pets or are treated as co-workers of the site, eating foods normally unpalatable to people such as slugs and caterpillars, being an integral part of the pest management by eating some pests, supplying fertilizer through their droppings and controlling some weed species.
One lesson we can learn from diversity and its application in growing food, is that to stick to one particular approach exclusively is defeating the notion of diversity. Diversity is not about exclusiveness, but inclusiveness. Permaculturists have always used compost, and mulches and many of the techniques that other organic farmers and horticulturists use. Permaculture’s real value is in introducing those aspects of growing sustainably that have been lacking. Just as many proponents of organics are starting to look at Albrecht’s and Reams’ work on balancing nutrients, so David Holmgren has begun to recognise the importance of Albrecht’s work: “Permaculturists have tended to ignore the powerful positive changes to long-term soil productivity and health that can be affected by carefully selected and timed mineral applications. This is understandable, given the history of detrimental effects of incorrect use of (mostly soluble) minerals and the emphasis in permaculture on biological solutions. Rock minerals are powerful medicine that can easily be overused or misused. Nevertheless, permaculturists who ignore the potential benefits they offer may design systems that do not provide the mineral balance essential for livestock and human health…………………….. At Melliodora we have found that many of the emerging limiting factors to health and productivity of our place have had there origin in mineral imbalances that we had not adequately dealt with. In recent years, we have been using soil testing (based on Albrecht methods); refractometer testing of plant sap and broadly based observation skills to guide remedial applications of minerals.” Permaculture has a huge amount to offer those involved in creating truly ethical, efficient, sustainable, evolving and flexible systems for growing healthy nutrient dense food and creating what can be beautiful productive environments that are a joy to live and work in.
Further Information: Introduction to Permaculture by Bill Mollison – Tagari Publications, ISBN 0 908 228 08 2, is a good place to start and for those who want to go deeper into the subject the original publications – also encouraging permaculture as part of The Localising Food Project see: www.localisingfood.com
- Permaculture One: A Perennial Agriculture for Human Settlements
- Permaculture Two: Practical Design for Town and Country
- Permaculture: A Designer’s Manual
5. AGNI HOTRA GARDENING & FARMING
For some, Agnihotra might sound very strange, but read on anyway with an open mind. I have found it to be yet another tool in developing healthy soil, healthy food and healthy humans. Agnihotra is an ancient Vedic technology that taps into the massive flood of energy or life-force (Prana) that comes from the sun at the exact moment of sunrise and sunset. It is a particular type of ancient fire practice called Homa. Homas are healing fire practices described in the Vedas used principally to heal the environment. This daily flood of energy from the sun is being reduced and distorted by pollution in the atmosphere. Agnihotra purifies the atmosphere, allowing the life supporting energies from the sun to flow through in abundance over a radius of 375 metres, and 12 kilometres high! Regular daily practice in the same area creates a local biosphere with its own micro-climate that is more balanced than surrounding areas. So, how is this applicable to gardening and farming?
Homa Organic Farming
Homa organic farming utilises this ancient Vedic science of Agnihotra and other healing fires to vitalise, nourish and heal nature, as another way of producing chemical free food. Homa organic gardening and farming can show how to get maximum yields out of a minimum area of land, how to keep soil fertile, how to keep water pure, and how to keep the atmosphere unpolluted and nutritious. Homa injects nutrients into the atmosphere preventing pests and diseases and attracting natural predators. This ancient technology recognised that a large amount of a plant’s nutrients come from the atmosphere. One of the most important nutrients of course is Carbon (from Carbon Dioxide CO2) that plants use to create sugars for their energy, and the cellulose to build their cells and help to build their proteins. Because of atmospheric pollution, these processes are reduced. To quote from ‘Eco-Farm’ by Charles Walters & C.J. Fenzau – “Mount Wilson observatory in California has published figures to the effect that all farm acres have lost 10% of average sunlight intensity during the last 50 years, and 26% reduction in the ultraviolet part of the spectrum. So, Agnihotra purifies the atmosphere, improving the absorption of atmospheric nutrients, increasing light intensity as well as focusing the full force of the life supporting energy of Prana from the sun, thereby increasing plant growth and yields, as well as greater health and a reduction in pests and diseases.
Agnihotra is practiced in the morning just as the sun strikes the earth as it rises above the horizon; this occurs a few minutes after the official sunrise time. In the evening it is practiced a few minutes before official sunset. The great thing is, that in this modern age, we can use our Tablets, iPhones, laptops etc., to know exactly when to perform Agnihotra – to the second – making it even more effective than in the past. To find out the exact times for your area, go to http://www.homatherapie.de/ subsection: ‘Zeitenprogramm’ and type in your address for the exact coordinates and times for your location. Agnihotra is practiced using a specially made inverted copper pyramid, in which is lit thin pieces of dried cow dung and ghee a few minutes before the allotted time. At the exact time two pinches of whole brown rice mixed with a little ghee is added to the fire twice, during the chanting of the prescribed mantra. The rice used should be whole brown organic rice, which has been sorted to remove any broken rice. The ghee should be made from organic unsalted butter. This sounds very exacting, and it is, but once you have sorted a reasonable stash of sorted brown rice, made a good pot of ghee and dried a good amount of cow dung, you are all set to perform this healing ritual. All the implements used in the Homa are made of copper, such as a long handled spoon to add the ghee and rice, and copper tongs for handling the pieces of dried cow dung. Copper is used, as it is a conductor for subtle energies.
Drying the Cow Dung
Collect fresh cow dung from milking cows, preferably from an organic farm. Take a handful at a time and pat them down lightly onto an untreated wooden board, into pancake-sized discs, and then let them dry in the sun. If the weather looks changeable, you can dry them in a glasshouse or Polytunnel. Once the tops have become crusted you can turn them over to dry on the other side. I use a broad wallpaper scraper to flip them over. They need to be cracking dry, before storing in a large paper bag or container.
Homa Farming Methods
- Obviously the first step is to perform Agnihotra regularly on the land that is being farmed (preferably twice a day).
- As the ash is full of Prana (life-force) and a whole range of micro-nutrients, so one of the things to do is to spread the ash around your crops and water in.
- Put ash in the water source that is used to water the plants.
- Plant the seeds and seedlings with ash. Sprinkle ash around the rootlets of the seedlings.
- Agnihotra ash-spray: spray foliage regularly with water infused with Agnihotra ash.
- In diseased conditions spray ash-spray every 2nd day before sunrise or after sunset, alternating with Biosol spray and then bring back to a maintenance level e.g. once a week – ash water spray alternating with Biosol (see below for details).
There are other more advanced methods, which I won’t go into here, but the above are the basic practices.
How to Make Agnihotra Ash-Spray & Biosol
- Take a (preferably copper) container or drum (50 litres).
- Add a half a handful of Agnihotra ash, stir in once and leave exposed to the sun for 3 days, protecting from rain, debris and animals.
- Filter the water through a fine sieve into a clean spray pack and spray foliage and around the base of plants.
Biosol Materials used for a 20-litre tank:
- Earthworm castings (vermicompost)……….. 6g
- Fresh Cow Dung……………………………………… 6g
- Cow urine (optional)……………………………….. 0.75 litres
- Agnihotra Ash………………………………………… 19g
- Copper Shree Yantra disc………………………… 1 unit
- Rain or Spring Water………………………………. 15 litres
- Put one Copper Shree Yantra at the bottom of the tank facing upwards. (The Shree Yantra geometrical design is engraved in copper and, according to traditional knowledge, is a powerful energy attractor).
- Make two hundred litres Agnihotra ash water solution (i.e. 250g Agnihotra Ash in two hundred litres of water). Let it stand for 3 days before use.
- Collect 80kg fresh cow dung, 80kg vermicompost and 10 litres cow urine (optional).
- Mix vermicompost, fresh cow dung and Agnihotra ash water together thoroughly in a vessel outside the tank. Pour the slurry from this vessel into the tank. Make sure all ingredients are mixed well and the valves are closed before pouring.
- Seal the tank.
- Fix a hosepipe to the gas outlet and run the hose into a bucket of water so that gas can escape as it is formed without allowing extra air to enter the tank.
- Allow to ferment for about 30 days.
Application of Biosol:
- As plant food
- When plants are diseased
- To control insect and pest attack
- To rejuvenate plants and enhance plant growth
Benefits to the Soil & Water
There are many reports of the benefits of Agnihotra and ash on farms. They include rejuvenating polluted and poor soils, correcting pH levels, reducing salinity levels, increasing the availability of Phosphorus, increased aeration of soils and increasing the water holding capacity of soil. There are reports of improved water quality by adding Agnihotra ash to it.
Personal Health Benefits
Apart from the benefits to the garden or farm already described, there are important personal benefits to you your family and neighbourhood. When sitting and performing Agnihotra stress dissolves and the mind is effortlessly centred, brought into balance and harmony. If you meditate at this time, it becomes very deep and easy in the atmosphere of Agnihotra. Both the fine smoke breathed in from the fire and the resultant ash can be used to cure illnesses and ailments. It is interesting, in my experience the smoke is not acrid, it doesn’t irritate your eyes or make you cough, in fact it is quite sweet.
Healing Ashes: The energy from the sun and the power of the mantra is locked into the ashes of the cow dung that develop in the fire. As a result, the ashes can be used to benefit the plants animals and humans. The fine pale grey ash from a complete burn can be ingested in water or fruit juice. The ash can be used by adding to a container of filtered water, left to settle, and the infused water drunk several times a day. The ash can also be mixed with ghee into a healing ointment.
Further Information: More information and the equipment to perform Agnihotra can be obtained from the Australian website http://www.agnihotra.com.au/ including dried cow dung, if you are not able to obtain any yourself.
6. FOREST GARDENING
Forest gardening takes the whole idea of bio-diversity even further. Forest gardening copies a forest, but nearly everything in the forest or woodland is edible, or useful in other ways. Ordinary trees are replaced by fruit or nut trees, bush fruit, shrubs, herbs and vegetables. It uses companion planting, which can be intermixed to grow on multiple levels in the same area, as do the plants in a forest – this is called layering. One of the main differences between a forest garden and the typical food garden is that a forest garden relies to a greater extent on perennials, although not exclusively. Most vegetable gardens include a few perennials, such as Rhubarb, Asparagus etc. but the majority of crops are annuals, or biennials such as tomatoes, lettuce or carrots. To understand the difference this makes, consider the role of annual and biennial plants in nature. They colonize and cover disturbed ground and in one or two seasons, they sprout from seed, grow to maturity, ripen fruit and seed, and then die.
Most of the annual and biennial crops we grow in our gardens grow fast and need full sun. They do not thrive in shade. In nature they cover patches of bare ground quickly. Over time, however, as the annuals protect and build the soil of the disturbed area, they give way to perennials, and these are the plants we want to establish in a forest garden. Most gardeners are used to a fair amount of disturbance and change in their gardens, from tillage, crop rotation, and so on. In contrast, a natural forest tends to maintain its character over time, and resists rapid change. Changes in plant species do happen in a forest, but they usually take place slowly.
The goal of the forest gardener is to follow these patterns and establish a largely perennial polyculture from which food is harvested with minimal disturbance. There are vertical layers in a natural forest, formed by several groups of perennials. The biggest are the trees, which need the full light of the sun to thrive and support their massive growth. To get that sunlight, they grow high and wide, forming a canopy of leaves to soak up the sun. On the other hand, shrubs have learned how to thrive in the shade of the canopy, where there is less light. Examples of these are mostly what are called the soft fruits, e.g. Raspberries, Gooseberries, Blackberries, Boysenberries, Red and Black Currants and the smaller nut trees like Hazels – all the wild versions of these are forest edge plants, or plants which grow in forest clearings. These are called understory plants. Intermediate between these two classes of plants are the vines, growing in the shade but reaching for the full light of the canopy. There are versions of forest gardening that are more open and where a proportion of annual and biennial vegetables and grains can be grown in forest clearings and leaving some to seed themselves for next season.
This kind of approach to growing food is very diverse. So, improve the humus content of the soil, aim for an ideal balance of soil nutrients and create your edible forest or woodland and you will create a healthy edible environment. However, this form of growing food is restrictive if it is the exclusive way of growing food on a property. I would suggest a more useful approach is to include a wider range of ways of growing food including forest gardening along with areas of annual crops, or the incorporation of annual crops in the forest garden itself, either individually or in designated areas.
Further Information: Creating a Forest Garden by Martin Crawford is a good place to start.
7. NO-DIG GARDENING & ZERO-TILLAGE AGRICULTURE
Mulching leads very neatly on to the ‘no dig’, ‘no-tillage’ approach. No-dig gardening is a non-cultivation method used by some organic gardeners and no-tillage farming is becoming more popular around the world. Although no-tillage usually involves conventional fertilisers and sprays, there are examples of organic versions. The origins of no-dig gardening are unclear. Two pioneers of the method in the twentieth century included F. C. King, Head Gardener at Levens Hall, South Westmorland, in the Lake District of England, who posed the Question “Is Digging Necessary?” in 1946 and a mysterious gardener from Middlecliffe in the UK, A. Guest, who in 1948 published the book “Gardening Without Digging“. The work of these gardeners was supported by the Good Gardeners Association in the UK. No-dig gardening was also promoted by Australian Esther Deans in the 1970s, and American gardener Ruth Stout advocated a “permanent” garden mulching technique in Gardening Without Work and no-dig methods in the 1950s and 1960s. The modern form of this type of gardening is based on the idea that in nature all soil is built from the top down. Waste organic matter falls onto the ground, rots down and becomes humus. Soil organisms, such as worms, then help to incorporate the organic matter into the soil at greater and greater depths, building up and increasing the depth of the top soil over time. Instead of clearing the land of grass, etc and digging the plot over, a compost heap is built on site and top soil added to the top, to put it simply. They’re easy to build (a morning’s work!), they’re low cost, they’re reasonably maintenance free, they mirror nature to create a rich, organic environment for your plants and they can be built anywhere, anytime to any design.
1. Build your no-dig garden preferably in the autumn to allow the materials to break down before planting, approximately 3- 4 months
2. Mark out the area making the beds no wider than one can reach to the middle easily without having to tread on the bed
3. Push a garden fork into the ground, rock it back and forth & lift it a little to aerate the soil. Do this over the entire area before laying down the new bed to encourage root penetration and drainage
4. Remove invasive and perennial weeds, docks, dandelions, convolvulus, couch grass etc
Gather together wet cardboard sheets (or wet newspapers) , fresh grass clippings, horse manure (or cow, sheep, or chicken manure), leaves, dry grass, spoiled hay or unsprayed straw
5. Dampen the soil thoroughly before laying the new bed, if it is dry, to prevent the ground from sucking moisture out of the bed of new materials
6. Cut down any grass or weeds & lay it on the ground or stomp it down
7. Add a layer of horse manure or fresh grass clippings & water
8. Cover the garden area with layers of overlapping wet newspaper (1-2cm thick) or preferably use 2-3 layers of overlapping thick wet cardboard
9. Alternate thin (8cm) layers of green (nitrogen rich, manure, grass clippings) & thicker (30-40cm) layers of brown (carbon rich, leaves, straw, hay) & water each layer
10. Finnish with 10cm layer of garden soil & compost mix
11. Cover with 5-10cm layer of straw
Visit: http://www.no-dig-gardening.org to see videos and get a lot more information from Bob.
In Japan, Masanobu Fukuoka started his pioneering research work in no-dig farming in 1938, and began publishing in the 1970s his Fukuokan philosophy of “Do Nothing Farming“. His most famous book ‘One Straw Revolution’ is now acknowledged by some as one of the influences of the Permaculture movement and also influenced a whole generation of organic practitioners. Masanobu Fukuoka (2 February 1913 – 16 August 2008) was a farmer/philosopher who lived on the Island of Shikoku, in southern Japan. His farming technique required no machines, no chemicals and very little weeding. He did not plough the soil or use prepared compost and yet the condition of the soil in his orchards and fields improved year on year.
The methods he developed create no pollution and does not require fossil fuels. His methods required less labour than any other, yet the yields in his orchard and fields compared favourably with the most productive Japanese farms with all their technical know-how of modern science. The basic idea for his rice growing came to him one day when he happened to pass an old field which had been left unused and unploughed for many years. There he saw healthy rice seedlings sprouting through a tangle of grasses and weeds.
From that time on he stopped sowing rice seed in the spring and, instead, put the seed out in the autumn when it would naturally have fallen to the ground. Instead of ploughing to get rid of weeds he learned to control them with a ground cover of white clover and a mulch of barley straw. Once he had tilted the balance slightly in favour of his crops, Fukuoka interfered as little as possible with the plant and animal communities in his fields. Fukuoka also re-invented and advanced the use of clay seed balls. Clay seeds balls were originally an ancient practice in which seeds for the next season’s crops are mixed together, sometimes with humus or compost for microbial inoculants, and then are rolled within clay to form into small balls.
Rather than burying the seeds, he broadcast the seed balls over his fields, spread a loose mulch of straw on top and the seeds had enough moisture and initial food to germinate and grow. His vegetable growing also reflects his idea of growing naturally. He grew vegetables in the spaces between the citrus trees in the orchard. Instead of deciding which vegetables would do well in which locations he mixed all the seeds together and scattered them everywhere. He let the vegetables find their own location, often in areas he would have least expected. The vegetables reseeded themselves and moved around the orchard from year to year.
He found that vegetables grown this way were stronger and gradually reverted to the form of their semi-wild ancestors. Fukuoka believed that natural farming proceeds from the spiritual health of the individual. He considered the healing of the land and the purification of the human spirit to be one process, and he proposed a way of life and a way of farming in which this process can take place.
“Natural farming is not just for growing crops,” he said, “it is for the cultivation and perfection of human beings.” There is no doubt that Fukuoka’s techniques have proved difficult to apply, even on most Japanese farms, and they are too technically demanding for most people to follow. Despite this, in the international development of the organic farming movement, Fukuoka is considered to be amongst the six giant personalities who inspired the movement along with Austrian Rudolf Steiner, German-Swiss Hans Müller, Sir Albert Howard and Lady Eve Balfour in the United Kingdom and J.I. Rodale in the United States. ‘One Straw Revolution’ has been translated into over 20 languages and sold more than one million copies.
Middle American Organic Zero-tillage
In countries like Guatemala and Honduras, organic zero-tillage has been particularly successful, especially on the steep, easily eroded hillsides with depleted soils. It has been achieved by the introduction of the Mucuna (or magic) bean into the farmer’s rotations. This combination of growing the Mucuna bean along with the adoption of zero-tillage techniques has been the key to this success. First the Macuna beans are sown on the depleted land, which produces prodigious growth along with Nitrogen fixed by the roots and yields of 100 tonnes per hectare are regularly achieved. When the plants have died at the end of the season, the maize is planted straight into the bean residue, with no ploughing or cultivation. After this first green-manure crop of Mancuna beans, crops of maize are sown together with the beans.
The soil comes back to life, gaining humus, high bacteria and mycorrhizae activity, and an increasing worm population. The bean plants can also be harvested for making high quality compost. Yields of grain have doubled, trebled and sometimes even more, using these methods. Macuna beans are also eaten, often made into flour and mixed with wheat and eggs for a high protein bread. Molacus and Chicuna beans are also used in the same way to produce rich and fertile soils, revitalizing both the soil and the farmer’s lives. These farmers are helped by organisations that provide knowledge and practical help to become sustainable, and the governments in Guatemala and Honduras are also encouraging this trend. The farmers get better prices for their organic produce and this along with the improved yields and greatly reduced inputs, are at last providing a reasonable living for many who had given up hope of making a living from farming.
In areas like these there is a new sense of optimism amongst the peasant farmers. Many communities were dying as the farmers and their families fled to the cities to look for work. Now many are returning, as the message spreads, that it is possible to revitalize their abandoned plots of land and make a reasonable living with the new sustainable techniques that everyone is talking about.
8. BIO-INTENSIVE GARDENING & MINIMUM TILLAGE FARMING Bio-intensive gardening and farming is one of the most productive forms of producing food there is. Traditionally it has been done by woman gardeners and farmers and the yields outstrip larger scale conventional techniques that use all the modern paraphernalia. It usually involves raised beds, with or without sides. The beds are around 1.2 metres wide (the same as a no-dig bed) so that one can reach to the middle easily without having to tread on the soil. Often the soil is initially double dug and manure or compost incorporated as the beds are made. A trench is dug out at one end of the bed, 1 spade depth (30cm). The dug out soil is moved to the other end of the bed. The subsoil at the bottom of the trench is then loosened with a garden fork, then the soil is dug out of the next trench along with composted manure or compost and placed in the first trench next to it and the process completed until the final trench which is filled with the soil from the first trench. The result is a bed that has been tilled to a depth of 60cm. When an entire bed has been double dug, the soil will have greater drainage and aeration, which allows the roots to grow much deeper and reach more nutrients.
This is the only time digging is done. From then on the only soil loosening done is a once a year aeration wriggling with a fork, or better still use a ‘U-Bar’. The tines on the U-Bar are 25cm long. Whereas double digging a 9 square metre bed can take several hours, tilling the same bed with a U-Bar can be done in 20 minutes. The soil is never turned over again after the initial double digging, just loosened and aerated.
Crops are not planted in traditional rows according to a square pattern, but are planted in a hexagonal or triangular pattern in the bed so that no space is left unnecessarily unused. These wide beds and close spacings not only allow more plants per area, but also enable the plants to form a living mulch over the soil, keeping in moisture and shading out weeds. Sowing crops in boxes to plant out later saves garden space.
Newman Turner, a British organic farmer in the nineteen fifties and author of ‘Fertility Farming’, ‘Herdmanship’, and ‘Fertility Pastures’, was one of the pioneers of minimum cultivation and organic farming. He was influenced by the famous book of Edward Faulkner’s ‘Ploughman’s Folly’ published in 1951, where Faulkner argued the destructive effects of ploughing and wrote of his experiments in farming without the use of the plough. Newman Turner gave up ploughing and used disk harrows instead, with the addition of sub-soiling where necessary. Sub-soiling consists of pulling a tough 30-40cm sharpened blade through the soil, with a rectangular flat blade set about 30 degrees. This is the farming equivalent of the ‘U’ bar. When pulled through the soil the sub-soil is loosened and aerated without inverting it. He then added compost to the surface and lightly disked the top three or four centimetres allowing the largely undisturbed worm population to do the rest.
9. SQUARE FOOT GARDENING
Square Foot Gardening is a more organised and precise form of bio-intensive small raised gardening, without the double digging and regular forking. The phrase “square foot gardening” was popularised by Mel Bartholomew in his 1981 Rodale Press book and subsequent PBS television series. The practice combines concepts from other organic gardening methods, including a strong focus on compost, closely planted raised beds and biointensive attention to a small, clearly defined area. Proponents claim that the method is particularly well-suited for areas with poor soil, beginning gardeners or as adaptive recreation for those with disabilities. The surface of the raised garden bed is divided into one foot (30cm) squares, with the use of fine sticks, or better still nylon cord or fine rope nailed to the wooden edges of the bed. The planting layout is planned on paper like the illustration, which can be repeated for a longer bed. Common spacing is one plant per square for larger plants (broccoli, basil, etc.), four plants per square for medium large plants like lettuce, nine plants per square for medium-small plants like spinach, and sixteen plants per square for small plants such as onions and carrots. Plants that normally take up yards of space as runners, such as squash or cucumbers, are grown vertically on sturdy frames that are hung with netting or string to support the developing crops. Each year the crop design is rotated or moved so that the same plant families are not planted in the same place. The logic behind using smaller beds is that they are easily adapted, and the gardener can easily reach the entire area, without stepping on and compacting the soil. Advantages Conventional gardening requires heavy tools to loosen the soil, whereas in this method, the soil is never compacted and it remains loose and loamy. Weeding takes only seconds to minutes, due to the light soil, raised beds, and easily accessed plants. Harvests per foot of garden are increased due to the rich soil mixture, well-spaced plants, and lack of weeds produced when following this method. Water Savings The soil mixture that is advised should have water-holding capacities, so that the garden needs water less frequently, and in much smaller quantities than when using other gardening methods. Water is also spared by hand-watering directly at the plant roots, so that there is very little waste and tender young plants and seedlings are preserved. A drip-watering system can be installed to drip water in the centre of each square. Very little weeding One benefit of this close planting is that the vegetables form a living mulch and shade out many weed seeds before they have a chance to germinate. Companion Planting Natural insect repellent methods like companion planting (i.e. planting marigolds or other naturally pest-repelling plants) become very efficient in a close space, so using pesticides can be avoided. The large variety of crops in a small space also prevents plant diseases from spreading easily. Accessibility Having a raised box garden (70cm high) or other raised container allows easy access especially for those who wish to garden without bending or squatting, or to make gardening easy for wheelchair, cane or walker users. Further Thoughts This is a very useful way of gardening for beginners and for those who have limited space for growing vegetables and is particularly good for deep raised beds. The bed can be built on a wooden or concrete deck for those who do not have gardens. Square foot gardening is good for beginners because there is an easy to follow plan and each square is dealt with separately so one doesn’t get overwhelmed. Further Information Square Foot Gardening: A New Way to Garden in Less Space with Less Work by Mel Bartholomew. Publisher: Rodale Press. ISBN: 1579548563