Monday, December 19, 2016

New Perspectives

I am not prone to hero worship. People are people no matter their accomplishments. I make two notable exceptions to this rule, and both are because of their brilliant minds, minds capable of looking at an old problem with new perspectives and then using that perspective to recombine and innovate. I adore people who excel at this sort of thinking. I even aspire to do it myself. The first person I would call a hero of mine is Paul Stamets. Seriously, if you haven't heard of him, look him up. His work with mushrooms is world-changing, and that's not even an exaggeration. The second person I would call a hero of mine is Allan Savory. Again, this is someone who has looked at the world with an open mind and developed better ways to doing things that absolutely have the potential to change how we live on this planet.

Two weeks ago I had the extreme fortune of attending the Savory Institute's hub gathering. Allan Savory spoke and as one can expect of such a mind, he offered two different viewpoints that really changed my perspective. I would like to share them here.

Resources vs. Management of Resources

The first is the concept of the difference between resources and the management of those resources. It is often said that cows are the (or one of the) biggest causes of global warming in the world. Yet, the grasslands of the world were dominated by massive herds of ungulates, cows included, that numbered in the millions. So how is it that a massive population of large, hoofed animals 100,000 years ago was an integral part of a healthy, regenerative system, but a similar population of these animals today is a major threat, a significant cause of global warming? What has changed?

Quite simply, these herds are no longer being managed by natural cycles of rain and drought, summer and winter, predator and prey. They are instead being managed by people. Put another way, the cows are a resource. It is our management of this resource that is the problem, not the resource itself. To blame the resource is to shift the blame off of where it needs to lie and onto a red herring.

Using Chemicals to Manage a Biological System

We live in a culture that has forgotten that are are a part of the ecosystem and the ecosystem is a part of us. We cannot be separated from it. We are tied to the circle of life by the food we eat. This food comes from the land and is a part of the natural ecosystem. But all too often, industrial agriculture fights against the natural processes. The soil is depleted from poor practices. Natural relationships between predator and prey are disrupted, leading to a population boom in the prey (pests). All this causes problems with the crops, resulting in reduced yields.

As a society that doesn't understand our connection to nature, it is perhaps unsurprising to realize that we also don't understand the complex interplay of species that make up a healthy ecosystem. We do, however, have a very comprehensive understanding of chemistry. As the saying goes, when the only tool you have is a hammer, all problems start to look like a nail. So industrial agriculture is currently deep in the process of attempting to deal with a biological problem by using a chemistry solution. As you might imagine, it isn't working very well.

I do hope I can continue to learn from Allan Savory. I love his unique perspectives. Every new perspective gets the mental gears churning. That's where all the good ideas come from.

Thursday, December 1, 2016

Imagining Utopia

Imagine, if you will, a typical day. You roll out of bed at 5:00 in the morning, groggy. As you wake up, a feeling of existential dread settles in, same as always. You shower and get dressed, then hop in your car, driving 45 minutes in stop and go traffic on the freeway. Finally, you arrive at your office, clock in, and wander through the maze of grey cubicles to find your own grey space. You log into your computer and begin your daily task of making someone else fabulous amounts of money, most of which you will never see in your meager paycheck. During your day, you listen to one neighbor clipping fingernails, while another listens to hate speech on talk radio. Yet another neighbor has one personal conversation after another and someone else giggles intermittently as they presumably surf social media. At lunch you eat a burger that was probably microwaved and holds no real nutritional value while talking about how automation is going to take everyone's jobs in the next ten years and we will all be unemployed.

You head back to your life of grey and work out the rest of the afternoon, watching the minutes slog by like hours until the magical time of 5:00 rolls around and, elated, you get to hop back in your car and spend another 45 minutes driving home. As you walk in your front door, you see your neighbor. His house is only 20 feet from yours, but you have no idea what his name is. You've never talked. You head in, throw together a quickie dinner from pre-made ingredients made in a factory, grab a beer, and sit down to drone it all out in front of your 52" television. You know, the one you worked so hard to earn the money to buy so you could forget for a few measly hours how hard you work and how little difference you actually make.

Did that one hit a little close to home? For millions of people, that is life. Yesterday looked largely the same, and tomorrow will look the same as well. Yet here we are, fretting that someone is going to take that job that we hate. Will it be an immigrant? Will my job be shipped to India? Are they going to invent a machine that can do my job? Certainly the job is mindless. It wouldn't be hard to program a machine to do it. But then I'll be out of work. I won't be able to afford all the little things that make this miserable life bearable.

So here we all are, fighting against the inevitable to protect something we hate. But what if there was a better way? What if we could use this period of change to break those chains and envision a better way of living, a way with meaning? Allow me to paint for you a picture of a very different day.

You wake up with the sun and take a refreshing shower. Then you go up on your roof and see what is ready to pick today. You grab some eggs from the chickens, pick some spinach, chard, peppers, and garlic chives. While you are doing that, you wave to Jim, your neighbor, who is doing the same thing on his roof. Then you go downstairs and whip yourself up a breakfast burrito while you catch up on social media. Around 9:00 you head into your home office and log into work. Periodically you look out your window and enjoy the southern Arizona mountains in distance framed by the waist high green grass between.

By noon, you are done for the day. You head back up on the roof and pick some greens and edible flowers for a salad that you mix with your home made pickled beets and onions. After lunch, you head out into your community. There are only 20 homes here and you know every neighbor by first, middle, and last name. You say hi to a couple of passersby and swing into catch up with a close friend. Then you head on out to check on the cattle. You have to hike through a quarter mile of waist tall grass to get to where they are currently stationed, but it isn't bad. There are no fences and you only had to hop one running stream and it was only 3 feet wide. When you get there, you check that their water supply is functioning and observe that they have another three days of grazing until they need to be moved to the next paddock. Then you pull out your tablet and check their harnesses. The use of drone technology has allowed you to track and herd the cows to better manage where they forage. Then you hike back home, in time to see that your groceries were delivered by drone. You head out to the pond and catch a couple of tilapia to pair with fresh veggies for dinner. After dinner, you walk down the Public House (in some places they shorten it to Pub) to visit with neighbors and maybe see if you can finally beat Hank at chess.

It sounds like a very different life, doesn't it? But the technology to make it happen is already here. Let's break this down piece by piece and paint a picture about how to make this reality.

Technological Unemployment

Machines long ago took the manual labor jobs, leaving people to do the knowledge work, the white collar jobs. With the rapid improvements in AI that are currently happening, it won't be long that machines will also be able to do our knowledge work and those jobs will be lost as well. There is a lot of anxiety about this prospect and more than a few books on the subject are available. Yet answers are few and far between. The thing is, I know relatively few people who absolutely love their knowledge work jobs and gain a deep sense of fulfillment from them. I say let them take those jobs. There is more important work to be done. Let's kick start the restoration economy and employ people in the more important task of restoring our beleaguered ecosystems. At least for now, that isn't a task that machines are going to be very good at.

Rural Living

Why did people flock to the cities in the first place? Mostly it is because, with the advent of the industrial revolution, that is where the jobs were, the opportunities. But those manufacturing jobs dried up. Now the white collar jobs that replaced them are also poised to dry up. So why stay in the cities? Entertainment? Convenience? These things can be available in rural communities as well. In a decade or so, you won't even need to own a car. Self-driving cars and drones will be able to deliver goods as needed and come take you to town when you need it. The internet provides all the connectivity needed to work at a distance. And new technologies will make the labor of growing food crops a whole lot less labor intensive.

But what's that you say? Won't we hasten ecosystem damage by spreading 7 billion bodies back out across the rural landscape? Isn't it the mere presence of humans that causes the damage to the ecosystem? Not necessarily. A human presence with the right set of tools can help repair the ecosystem. It depends on the environment.

Brittle Environments

Each environment falls somewhere on what is known as the Brittleness Scale. Where it falls depends on the availability of moisture throughout the year. As I mentioned before, the success of an ecosystem is dependent almost entirely on its ability to cycle nutrients through from one organism to the next. Non-brittle environments have consistent moisture and the humidity needed to break down organic matter. This assists greatly in the breakdown of the organic matter and the cycling of the nutrients through the system.

Brittle environments, in contrast, don't have the moisture available to bacteria to break down the plant matter and return nutrients to the ecosystem. In nature, a very different system has evolved to make this work, and it is incredibly effective. The problem is that it requires thousands of square miles of undisturbed land, and the mere presence of humans disrupts the delicate balance. This system is quite complex and I will be covering how it works in future blog posts.

So if our mere presence disturbs it, why would we want to move there? Well, it turns out that there is a method developed by Allan Savory that replicates those processes. The only problem? It requires a lot of work. With enough people and a whole lot of attention to detail, we can turn most of the deserts of the world back into incredibly productive grasslands that pump carbon into the soil and provide an incredibly productive bounty.

It could just be that this is an opportunity in disguise. We are about to be in a position where a whole lot of people are going to be looking for a new way to make a living, and finding a way that brings meaning to their life in the process is a win-win for everyone.

Thursday, November 17, 2016

May You Live in Interesting Times

There is an old Chinese curse that goes "May you live in interesting times." And yes, it is a curse. As humans, we crave stability. Interesting times are uncomfortable. But they also present opportunities. Real change is difficult for people when they have to step out of their comfort zone. But when their comfort zone has disappeared out from under them, they start looking for a new one. That is when you can introduce them to a better way. But before we get into better ways, let's take a step back. As I have mentioned before, this blog looks at the world through an engineer's eyes. Engineers solve problems. The first step in solving the problem is always to define the problem. So let's start by doing that.

So, what is causing these interesting times we live in? Personally, I think it is several things converging at once. The one thing that has most people worried these days, racism, misogyny, xenophobia, and the violence that accompany those, is perhaps not a cause, but rather a symptom. When people are thrust out of their comfort and stability, they tend to lash out and look for someone to blame. It is just human nature. The less savory aspect of our nature, sure, but part of our nature. So let me list the things that I think are at cause. To be clear, this is just my opinion, and I am sure there are many other opinions.

Extraction of Wealth
Capitalism is a system where corporations are set up specifically to extract wealth. You can't swing a dead cat without hitting yet another article talking about how the stockholders of X Corporation are pushing the leaders to cut salaries and benefits to increase shareholder value. And that practice has been going on for decades. While wealth is continually increasing, it isn't infinite. Those at the top now hold obscene amounts of wealth, but it isn't enough. They are always grabbing for more. They use their wealth to change laws and mold minds. They tell people that they are job creators and shouldn't be taxed. They create laws to reduce their tax burden. They create laws that make the public pay for their expenses while they keep the profits. All that money has come at the expense of the majority of people. We have seen costs increase and wages stagnate. We have seen our quality of life decline.

Environmental Degradation
As the population of the world pushes towards 8 billion, we are increasingly trying to find a way to feed all the people. Just as the wealth was extracted from the middle class, the nutrients have been extracted from the most productive farmland in the world. The soil, our most valuable resource, was destroyed. As the soil was depleted, the crops stopped growing so well, so we sprayed synthetic fertilizers on them. Those further damaged the soil while running off and damaging our rivers and our oceans in the process. We bunched our livestock up so they could be treated like anything else in a factory and their waste piled up and fouled the land and rivers. That carbon that was once stored in our soils was lost to the air and no more carbon was added to the soil. Combined with carbon from fossil fuels and other sources, it built up in the atmosphere, warming our planet.

Lack of Connection
I read an article recently that suggests that the root cause of addiction is a lack of connection. Ideally, this is a connection to other people, but I would argue that there should also be a connection to nature as well. Why else would so many people feel so good by heading out for a hike or camping or other versions of communing with nature? When the connection isn't there, it creates a hole. People try dumping all sorts of things into that hole to fill it, most of them unhealthy. We live in a society that has grouped us all into big cities but broken our connection with our fellow man. We paved the ground, crammed the houses together, and drove out all the vibrant natural world. It isn't healthy for us, and it creates anxiety.

I am sure the list goes on, but this is, in my opinion, the crux of the matter. So how do we solve these issues? Obviously, some structural changes are needed in the way we do things, but there are plenty of people working on that. I will let those fine people do what they do best. I am going to work on what I do best, which is technical solutions. So, you ask, what technical solution will solve all of that?

A better way to garden.

Yes, you read that right. I really think that gardening needs an upgrade. And yes, I truly believe that it can make that big of a difference. Let me break it down for you to demonstrate how this one solution addresses each of these concerns.

Extraction of Wealth
As we look at our rising monthly expenses and our dwindling paychecks, we do a simple bit of mathematics. How can I either increase income or decrease expenses? Food is a major expense for most families. On top of that, somehow the garbage foods have gotten really inexpensive and the healthy, organic vegetables have gotten really expensive. Gardening hits the expense side of that equation really hard. For a little land and a lot of work, you can grow most of your food. But what if modern technology could come into play. What if a better way to garden was introduced? What if you could grow more food with a little land and not so much work? What if you could be so productive that not only do you not have to quit your job, but you could even sell produce back. What if we created a network on this new fangled internet thingy and sold that excess zucchini and tomatoes that you previously couldn't give away. I mean, it is local and organic, right? Now it hits both the income and the expenses side of the equation while completely cutting out Big Agriculture and the other corporate interests.

Environmental Degradation
Plants pull carbon out of the air. It is as simple as that. Plants turn carbon dioxide from the air into sugar. It is their most basic of process. They then turn that sugar into all kinds of good things. Edible things. Tasty things. If more people gardened, we could accelerate that process. And we could compost the parts we don't eat and turn it into more soil. What if we gardened in 95% organic matter, adding just enough inorganic matter to satisfy some of the mineral needs of our plants. What would that look like? Healthy farmland has soil that is 5-10% organic matter and only in the top 3 or 4 inches, usually. What if you gardened in a foot or two of pure organic matter? And you make that organic matter on your own property. It comes right out of the air your children breathe. And plants don't only get rid of carbon dioxide in the air. They also scrub the air of just about every other kind of pollutant there is. Better yet, what if this new kind of gardening produced organic soil as an output? Every couple of years, you scoop out amazing, black soil and spread it elsewhere, starting over fresh in your garden.

What better connection to the earth and to nature is there than a garden? You work the soil with your own hands. You breathe of its goodness (getting lots of Mycobacterium vaccae in the process, I might add) and it brings you health. You eat the plants you grow and further that connection to the earth. It is a wonderful cycle. Beneficial insects, birds, and other wildlife are drawn to the garden. It creates something wonderful. But what about the connection to other people, you might ask? I have been gardening for almost two decades now, and I can tell you that gardeners are some of the most connected people there are. It is a great thing to have in common with people. You never lack for things to talk about. You share seeds and success stories and failures and heartache. It is a bonding experience.

But these aren't the only things that more gardening will create. As more and more people garden, especially with a network in place to sell the excess produce, it takes from the industrial agriculture machine. We know where our food is coming from. We take back control. A community space could be created to aggregate and sell the produce. People could learn what is in demand and grow to demand. A whole new market would develop with locally grown produce. Side markets could develop, like mushroom growing and local cafes. With a good enough garden technology, the labor could be reduced to the point where a service could be hired to maintain the garden, leading to more employment. The list goes on.

So what would this new garden technology look like? Well, first of all, it would use modern technologies. There are some great innovations out there now. But most people who grow food seem to be running in one of two directions right now. The first is to go all the way back to nature. It is the homesteading way. Cut out most of the technology and restore the land back to a highly productive ideal. The other way is the technological way. Cut nature out entirely and use the technology available to provide the plants with exactly what they need. Personally, I think that the answer lies in a combination of the two methods. Combine a thriving, living ecosystem at all levels with the labor saving of modern technology.

Yes, I am working on something like this. My prototype has been running for 3 years now and has performed fabulously. I am currently working on building a larger system and testing it on a grander scale. So bear with me for a little while. I need a little more time. But there are good things on the horizon. Let's make the world a better place through gardening.

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Making Restoration Appropriate to the Environment

Over the last year or so my studies have taken a bit of a different turn. While I have always been passionate about building complete miniature ecosystems and including as many of the necessary forms of life as possible to make that happen, lately I have been looking at it from a larger scale. I have gone beyond the terrarium, beyond the garden. My studies have taken me into larger areas and my interests are to either restore ecosystems to as close as possible to a natural state or to create something that closely mimics their natural state, but with humans as a necessary component, with the natural system being both supported by and supporting the humans that live in it. In doing so, several things have become very obvious to me.

The first is that the usual scientific processes that use a reductionist thinking cannot be applied to natural systems. The ecosystem functions as a whole and cannot be reduced to anything that has any real meaning. That doesn’t mean it can’t be understood. There are certain guiding principles that the ecosystem follows that provide insight. As I mentioned in a previous post, one of the key principles is the cycling of nutrients. The carbon cycle must continue to cycle because the carbon cycle IS the energy cycle. If the carbon cycle stops cycling, the ecosystem starts to die. If the carbon cycle is accelerated the ecosystem thrives.  

The second thing that has become obvious to me is that there is one overriding core function that must be maintained for an ecosystem to function. As I mentioned, the cycling of nutrients must continue. A huge percentage of those nutrients are locked up in dead organic matter, mostly of plant origin. That organic matter must decompose through living processes. In so doing, it feeds the soil organisms and promotes life while cycling nutrients. But in order to break down naturally, it must be exposed to water. The bacteria and fungus that typically do the work cannot do the work without water. Often, even humidity in the air can be enough, but there must be water.

Of course, that begs the question: What about environments with inconsistent moisture? What about environments that don’t have enough moisture in the air to decompose organic matter for several months out of the year? I live in Phoenix, Arizona, and it rarely rains here between February and June. How does the organic matter decompose? The answer is that nature is resourceful. We tend to think of dead plant matter falling to the forest floor and decomposing among the rest of the leaf litter, but that isn’t the only method. What about in the stomach of a herbivore? It is moist and full of bacteria. Digestion and decomposition are almost the same thing. It turns out that in arid and semi-arid environments, that method is actually one of the primary means of decomposition in a natural, undisturbed arid environment.

That brings me to the third thing that has become obvious to me. I have become acutely aware of late about how people think about restoring environments. The most obvious example of this is when people say “We need to stop climate change now! We need to plant thousands of new trees!” As my perspective shifts, it becomes more obvious just how short sighted this viewpoint is, though it is simple to understand how it arose.

Google Earth is a great way to tell what sorts of environments there are. Zooming out to where you can see entire continents on the screen, it is easy to see the colors of various land masses. The green ones are areas that are subjected to consistent moisture, whereas areas that receive inconsistent moisture are shown in brown or tan. While the brown or tan areas cover around 60% of the planet, most of the heavily populated and highly scientifically relevant areas are in green areas. All of Europe, all of southeast Asia, the entire eastern United States and Canada, New Zealand, and the eastern coastlines of Australia are all solid green. So it makes sense that the thought leaders would look around outside their windows and say, hey, we need more trees. Those things soak up huge amounts of carbon and store it in their trunks.

The problem is, that solution simply doesn’t work for 60% of the Earth’s landmasses. The great grasslands won’t support a forest, and even if you could find a way to get it to grow, it would displace all the organisms for whom the grassland is their native habitat.

The grasslands have evolved to work with the inconsistent moisture. The interesting thing is that they actually sequester about the same amount of carbon as the forests do, but rather than storing it in the woody trunks of trees, they grasses use the seasonal moisture to have a sort of ebb and flow between above ground tissue and below ground tissue. Dryland grasses must take full advantage of the dry season. To do that, they store energy gained from last rainy season in their roots. At the beginning of the rainy season they sacrifice roots to push leaves towards the sky. Every time they do that, it has the effect of pumping decaying tissue, and the carbon that goes with it, into the ground. As this carbon builds up, it opens up the pores in the soil and the soil absorbs more water when it rains. This allows more grass to grow, and increases the effect of pumping more carbon into the ground, giving it more water holding capacity, onward and upward. But certain processes need to be observed to keep this process functioning correctly. It is easily disturbed.

Over the last several months, I have been working towards becoming certified in Holistic Management. This is a series of techniques developed by Allan Savory to help restore the great grasslands of the planet. Over the next several posts, I will be covering several of the key concepts from Holistic Management in detail. I believe it is worth sharing.

Thursday, August 11, 2016


My current garden
In business, the key to success is understanding your business. And I don’t mean that we know exactly where we file our TPS reports. I mean understand the core of the business. In one philosophy, this is achieved by asking five very simple questions: 1) Why do we exist? 2) How do we behave? 3) What do we do? 4) How will we succeed? 5) What is most important right now?

While these questions seem very elementary, answering them can be anything but. To correctly answer these questions requires a level of introspection that many people are uncomfortable with. It requires the leaders of the business to boil down the business, its core purpose, and its core values to a simple sentence, one that rings absolutely true and one that the members of the organization can identify with.

I have been thinking recently about applying these questions to the management of ecosystems. As I have mentioned before, I am constantly experimenting to construct ever more complex ecosystems. But the more I travel down the path, the more I am finding myself asking those same questions businesses are encouraged to ask themselves. Why does an ecosystem exist? How does it behave? What does it do? How does it succeed? What is most important in an ecosystem, and what is most important right now in this ecosystem I am trying to build? But first I need to catch you, my reader up a bit. Let’s start by asking the question, what is an ecosystem?

In nature, an ecosystem is a series of living organisms that live together, forming a series of relationships. In a healthy ecosystem, the relationships are predominantly mutually beneficial. Sure, it might not seem that the coyote is providing a mutually beneficial relationship with the rabbit, but a broader look shows this to be true. The ecosystem seeks balance. The rabbit evolved as a prey species and has a reproductive rate that reflects this. In absence of predators, the rabbits overpopulate and starve when they run out of food. The predator-prey relationship is mutually beneficial to the species as a whole, if not that individual who got converted into coyote poo.

So these organisms create mutually beneficial relationships. How? What about them is mutually beneficial? The more I ask myself this, the more it comes down to nutrients. An ecosystem functions though a healthy exchange of nutrients. How do those nutrients cycle through an ecosystem?

The mycorrhizal fungus pulls the raw materials from the ground, sometimes going so far as to mine them from the bedrock below, and feeds them to the plants. The plants incorporate them into their bodies as they grow. Herbivores consume the plants and incorporate them into their own bodies. Carnivores consume the herbivores and receive the nutrients in turn. All through this process the various animals produce large quantities of feces. That feces contains not only the nutrients that passed through the animal, but also the ones that the animal “used up” and needs to dispose as waste product. The scavengers and decomposers move in and take those same nutrients and cycle them into their own bodies. The fungus grows mushrooms, the insects grow and reproduce, the bacteria multiply. These are in turn consumed by other decomposing organisms, such as earthworms. Some of the nutrients head back into the birds from here, while others continue to be broken down further into their component parts. Eventually, they get gathered back up by the mycorrhizal fungus and fed back to the plants, completing the cycle. The better this cycle functions, and the more nutrients it has to cycle through the ecosystem, the healthier the whole ecosystem is.

There is an important distinction I want to point out here. When considering the food options for an organism we are conditioned to look at caloric inputs. Where does the organism get the energy it needs to continue its own biological processes? But this is really only half of the equation. Food serves two purposes. Well, actually it serves a lot more purposes, but we are going to just focus on the big two. When an organism ingests food, it breaks it down as far as it can to get both the energy for sustaining life and the raw materials it needs to build, rebuild, and repair its own body. The foods that supply the energy are the calorie dense foods while the foods that supply the latter are the nutrient dense foods.

The nutrient dense foods are arguably more important in the long run. Sure, you need energy to live, but it is the nutrients that give health and vitality. It is the nutrients that prolong life. Nutrients are much more than making sure you are getting enough potassium and calcium in your diet, though. The form they come in also matters. There are a number of phytochemicals that have wildly diverse impacts on the body. Some stimulate the immune system. Some are medicinal. Some help organs function better. I think I can safely say that the list of phytochemicals and their impact on the human body is far from fully understood. Their impact on the rest of the ecosystem is even more poorly understood. Let me offer an easy example. Catnip has a mild, minty flavor. The phytochemical that produces that flavor is a powerful insect repellant, particularly effective on cockroaches. To cats, it has a narcotic effect. In humans, it tastes kind of nice, nothing more.

Let’s jump to the fourth question above, “How will we succeed?” To restate what we have learned: 1) The purpose of an ecosystem is to cycle nutrients, 2) The health of the individual as well as the health of the ecosystem are determined by the sheer volume of nutrients available for cycling, and 3) The diversity of form for those nutrients matters. The first thing is that the nutrients need to be present in the soil. In the long term, this is a little less important. In most soils, the necessary raw materials can be mined from the soil particles by the mycorrhizal fungus or from the air by the plants. Compost helps a lot. The addition of organic matter helps a lot. What is probably most important, though, is to not remove anything from the ecosystem that you don’t have to. You ate that cucumber and your waste is going down the toilet? I’d say that is a regrettable but acceptable loss. But those peels need to go back into the soil. That plant, when it dies, needs to go back to the soil. That’s how you retain nutrients.

How do you achieve a diversity of nutrient forms? You do that with a diversity of organisms. Different plants uptake different nutrients from the soil. They then form them into different phytochemicals. Those different plants attract different insects. Those different insects form a complex web of predator and prey. The insects in turn feed the birds. The connections go on. But the diversity of life encourages and invigorates life.

Let’s now jump to the last question above: “What is most important right now?” Given the information here, I think the most important thing right now is to increase diversity. Take another look at my garden in the picture above. Those felt bags cover about a square foot each. Given the principles of traditional gardening, each of those bags should hold about one plant: one tomato, one chard, one pepper, one bean. But they are planted much more densely than that. And they are thriving. If I have a square inch of soil, I find something to put there. It takes a little careful planning on the companions, but it can be done.

The other thing to do is to stop spraying. Yes, those aphids are killing your spinach. Give them a quick spray with the hose. If you have healthy, diverse soil, your plant will make it through. But wait, just wait. Those aphids are prey species and they are ringing the dinner bell loud and clear to baby praying mantis, ladybugs, lacewings, and a huge number of other beneficial insects. Those insects bring more insects. A healthy population of insects brings toads, birds, and lizards. Together they start to form an ecosystem. It may take a few years, but that ecosystem will balance and get down to what it does best: cycling ever increasing quantities of nutrients. And that’s the best you can possibly hope for.

Monday, July 4, 2016

Surviving Economic Instability

Successful economies are built on stability. If you know exactly where your next meal is coming from and can reliably predict no shortages, it allows you to free more of your money up for investments and spending, which are the real drivers of an economy. However, if there is even slight uncertainty, people start increasing their savings and holding off on buying things they don't need. Small events of this size are what cause recessions. The larger the uncertainty, the worse the recession. Unfortunately, we are likely headed into the largest period of uncertainty in an age. Climate change is absolutely happening, and at a frightening rate. Agricultural land is widely being poorly managed and thus used up. The grasslands of the world are almost all turning to desert. To make matters worse, our country is throwing up walls (figuratively, but maybe literally as well) and developing factions that increasingly vilify each other. These are not the sort of things that bode well for the sort of long term stability a thriving civilization is built upon.

I saw a maxim recently that really struck a nerve. "When you have more than you need, don't build a higher wall, build a longer table." I really love that one. As humans, we thrive together. We survive the hard times together. We build a civilization together. We make the world a better place together. A few people acting alone cannot do it themselves.

But what if that saying isn't referring to food and money and other tangible resources? What if you have an abundance of knowledge and solutions? What if that knowledge and those solutions are exactly what is needed? How would you build that longer table and what would it look like?

The first thing to remember is everything has a value. If you give it away for free, that is its value. I learned this from martial arts. I'd honestly teach it for free to have a good group of people to practice with. But teaching it for free sets its value. If I am not paying for class, what do I miss if I don't show up? But when someone pays for something, it sets a value. You don't have to fleece people, but give the knowledge and the solutions a value.

Once the base set of knowledge and solutions is identified, it needs to be developed, researched, and implemented. The first thing you need is a team. Honestly, this is probably the hardest part. When you are implementing something completely new, how do you find people who share the vision, who think beyond what has been universally taught and what everyone believes? It is a tough thing,and a lot of luck is involved.

Next you need a demonstration site. While you might find a few people to believe in your vision, if you want more people to believe, it has to be demonstrably true. You have to be able to prove to the doubters and naysayers that it can be done. Nothing is more fun than telling the person who says "It'll never work!" that "We have been doing it successfully for 3 years now. Want to come see?" But it needs to be more than a demonstration site. Provable prosperity is the minimum. If a demonstration site is in an area that wouldn't normally support such a thing, even better. You want to produce all the food you need on a half acre? Build it in a desert, on the side of a mountain, in a frozen tundra. If you can do it there, you have proven it can be done anywhere.

Next you need a community. You need a dedicated group of individuals willing to work together, willing to learn, willing to embrace a new version of prosperity. You need people who will go out and implement the solutions on new sites and in different ways. You need people who will talk about it and bring new members to create a growing community.

Now I just have to bring this set of ideas to life. I have a vision, a set of solutions I believe could fix our environment, bring security, and maybe even fix the economy. I have a team. I have a demonstration site. Who wants to be a part of my community?

Sunday, June 19, 2016

The Importance of Snails in Aquaponics

The two kinds of snails in my garden. Malaysian trumpet snail
on the left, Rams horn snail on the right.
I was at an aquarium store once buying a couple of fish and saw some great snails. They weren't the big flashy kinds, like apple snails or nerite snails, but rather little Malaysian trumpet snails. I could tell they were trying to get rid of them, so I asked for a few. The saleswoman referred to them as "parasitic snails." That got my curiosity up, so asked in what way they were parasitic. She kept talking about how hard they were to get rid of and what a problem they were. "But," I asked, "you called them parasitic. What organism do they infect and what harm do they do." She just found the question confusing." It was after another few moments of conversation that I found out that she didn't know the difference between "nuisance" and "parasitic." But I did get her to toss a big handful in with the fish, where I promptly introduced them to my garden.

In soil gardening, worms are particularly useful. They perform a number of benefits to the soil. In an aquaponics system, snails can be just as useful to the water ecosystem as worms are to the soil, if not more so. They perform a number of beneficial functions in the tank. First and foremost, they are the clean up crew. If you overfeed your fish, your snails will gobble up all that extra food in short order. If a fish dies and you don't notice, the snails will jump on it and gobble up the remains in just a few days, lessening the impact to the water chemistry. They also act as an extra food source for the fish, particularly if you have tilapia. The tilapia will eat the little ones whole and will eventually figure out how to pick the shells apart on the big ones to pluck out the juicy bits.

In fact, because of these two facts, snails end up being a useful indicator of how accurately you are feeding your fish, which can be particularly useful if you feed them sinking food pellets. If you are overfeeding your fish, the snails will latch onto the ready food supply and increase in numbers rapidly, multiplying in just a couple of weeks. If you are underfeeding your fish, the fish will turn to the snails as a source of food, and the snail population will plummet. They are even a good indicator of water quality. If you have a water quality problem, perhaps caused by a big rotten fish, low oxygen levels, or some other problem, the snails will attempt to escape the water. So if you come check on your tank and there is a big line of snails right at the water's edge, you know you have something to fix.

Another useful function is the role they play in cycling minerals, particularly calcium. If your water supply is hard, like mine is, there are lots of calcium salts in the water. In aquaponics, this can be particularly tricky. Water is added, bringing with it more salt for every gallon. But the water leaves the garden via evaporation, leaving the calcium behind. The snails make their shells by pulling the calcium out of the water. When they die, or are eaten, that little calcium pellet falls to the bottom of the tank. If you run your tank for several years, the snail shells build up. If calcium is short, the living snails will get their calcium from the dead snail shells. If there is plenty, they just pile up. I love scooping the old shells out and adding them to my garden soil. They act as a slow release calcium supply in the soil.

The question is, what kind of snails do you want? First of all, don't get the ornamental snails. A lot of those are considered beneficial in the hobby aquarium because they don't reproduce rapidly. That's actually a problem in aquaponics. You want lots of snails. There are two main kinds of snails, Malaysian trumpet snails and rams horn snails. The trumpet snails have a long curl to their shells and are shaped like an elongated cone. The rams horn snails curl outwards and don't form any kind of a trumpet shape. There are a couple of other kinds of pond snails out there as well that have an intermediate cone shape.

The Malaysian trumpet snails can be useful in their own way. The shell shape helps them burrow through sediments, where they prefer to live and eat. In their burrowing, the perform much the same function as the earthworms do in soil, they aerate the sediment and help eliminate anaerobic patches which can become smelly. However, their shell is too hard for the tilapia to eat. They can still be useful, though. As they overpopulate, just scoop them up and toss them in the soil. They are pretty tough, but they can't move around outside the water and only survive a couple of days. Or, if, like me, you have a pet turtle, you can just use them as supplemental turtle food. I have a little 3 stripe mud turtle. His beak has no trouble crushing the hard shell of the trumpet snail and he considers the long shape to be perfectly bite sized.

The rams horn snails are the preferred snail in aquaponics. I have had a few of the medium conical snails and they work well, too, but don't thrive and reproduce as well as the rams horn snails. The primary food source of the rams horn snails is algae, extra food, and whatever other organic debris ends up in the tank. They can get up to a half inch in diameter, though that is rare. The few I have gotten that big always earn the name "Monstro the Snail" from me. Usually they are much smaller, maybe a quarter of an inch in diameter.

So I hope you consider adding snails to your aquaponics garden. I know I love what they do for mine.

Sunday, June 5, 2016

Making Humus

First I want to be clear. I am not talking about hummus, the yummy dip that comes from various cuisines around the Mediterranean. I am talking about humus (pronounced HYOO-mus). Humus is a type of soil derived from fully decomposed organic matter. It is black and rich and just about the best thing you can have for growing plants. But humus isn’t just more compost or similar. It is stable and retains itself long term in the soil.

So if it is so great for your plants, how do you get it? Well, that’s the problem. Humus is quite possibly the most valuable substance on the planet, even if nobody realizes it . Everything that supports our life on this planet, from the air we breathe, to the water we drink to the food we eat depends on humus. But nature makes it very slowly. As a kid my dad always told me that it takes nature a thousand years to make an inch of topsoil (which is mostly composed of humus). While I don’t think it takes quite that long, there is certainly not enough that it can be sustainably harvested, even on a small scale. Plus, current farming practices degrade the topsoil rapidly. Tilling in particular is very damaging to the humus.

However, we can make humus. Before we do so, there is one thing we need to understand. What is humus? Quite simply, humus is distilled from decaying organic matter. The problem is that the process of distilling the humus isn’t very efficient. You can’t take a cubic yard of fall leaves from your yard and get a cubic yard of humus. That cubic yard of leaves might give you a couple of tablespoons of finished humus. After 3 or 4 years. But it isn’t quite as bad as it sounds.

The basic formula is this:

Organic Material => Organic Matter => Humus

Organic material is just about anything that was produced by a living thing. Woody debris from plants are best. Add it to your compost bin and compost the heck out of it. The composting process removes most of the bulk that is going to go away. That cubic yard of leaves will give you a gallon or so of finished compost. Then add that to your soil. Over the next several years, that will break down further into a beautiful humus.

Now there are just three things to remember:

1) The reduction. When you realize just how much organic matter reduces to make good humus, you will join the legions of us who spend lots of time creating a huge composting operation. It really is the most important thing you can do for your garden.

2) The reason humus is so great is that it feeds the living organisms in the soil that form the ecosystem your plant is existing in. By adding compost, you are feeding the soil organisms. The fact that you are making more and more humus from the process is actually almost secondary. Feed your soil!

3) When you stop feeding your soil, the humus starts to break down and will eventually be lost. Actually, this is happening all the time anyway. It is just that regular additions of compost add humus to the soil faster than it can break down.

So go out and make more of the real black gold, the basis for our existence on this planet!

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Wake Up Sheeple!

Okay, first of all, let me say that I despise that phrase. The concept that people who are missing some facts that you have, fail to see their impact, or just don't care are somehow either asleep, bleating sheep, or both, is just insulting and really, really condescending. However, "I feel I may have some information that would be worth considering and perhaps incorporating into your cognitive model" lacks the same punch.

So what idea do I think is worth incorporating into your cognitive model? Let me start with the ideas that I believe to be mistaken. There are actually two opposite opinions that I want to cover here:

1) Nature alone cannot feed our population.

Hunter-gatherer societies cannot sustain large populations, even in a pristine wilderness. There just isn’t enough food available out there to go around. To compensate, we invented agriculture. But eventually that wasn’t good enough so we invented fertilizers and huge equipment. But we know that soon even that won’t be enough. We need to find ever better ways. Nature brings pests and diseases, so everywhere we see a hazard, we cut out nature. Hydroponics and large scale urban vertical farming are great examples. One book on vertical farming stated that urban vertical farms would be sealed with air locks, positive pressure would be applied to the whole building, and workers would have to change their clothes upon arriving, all to make sure no pests got in.

The problem with this thinking is that nature has developed some really amazing tools to work with, but most of them really only function properly as a part of a functional ecosystem. You can’t build that ecosystem if you are too busy excluding most of it or poisoning it into submission.

2) We should give up technology and move back to nature.

This opinion is the counter-point to fallacy #1. These people see the damage done by industrial farming and the wholesale destruction of natural systems and want to toss the whole thing and move back to nature. The idea is that the only way to fix the problems caused by modern life is to throw them out, go off the grid and build a regenerating farm using natural systems.

The problem with this is that just because a technology is being used incorrectly or inappropriately doesn’t mean it is inherently bad. Sure, some parts are bad. I think we could do without glyphosate entirely. But we have some really amazing tools at our disposal that could be a wonderful part of the solution.

So what new thought should be incorporated into people’s cognitive model?

The natural world has developed a whole host of tools that perform a spectrum of functions. It is only through understanding of those tools and their interactions to each other that we can truly solve the problems facing us today. Modern technology can be used in conjunction with natural functions to accelerate the functionality of the whole system.

In essence, by combining human technology and understanding of natural processes we can sort of hack nature to create something better than both, but that is still regenerative. Compost is a perfect example. You will never, in nature, find a well-aerated pile of decomposing organic matter of precisely the right mixture of high-nitrogen and high-carbon material. However, someone figured out that if you create such a thing, the process generates heat and supercharges the soil creation process. It is a combination of natural and human processes to create something that works better than either.

But compost is just the beginning. With a deep understanding of a wide variety of organisms and how they work, combined with some serious systems thinking, a whole new technology could be devised. We could use those natural processes and recombine them into regenerative solutions that solve problems, provide a greater quantity of local, nutritious food. In the process, we surround ourselves with life and bring nature back into our cities, living side-by-side with the people.

This blog is called Mad Bioneer. The –neer is a take-off from engineer, and to that end I like to gear the content here towards practical solutions. And I am not looking win-win here. I am at the least looking for win-win-win. Just how many different functions can we really fit into the solving of one problem? Let’s take a look at an example problem and see what we can come up with.

Problem: Food Waste

Description: Food waste is a huge problem in America. We leave it on our plates in restaurants, we let it go bad in the refrigerator, we let it expire in our cupboards. When thrown out, it rots and smells bad. It attracts vermin, from rats to insects, that in turn spread disease and become a nuisance.

I read a book on vertical farming recently and the author tackles this issue. His suggestion is to burn the food waste to provide energy to power vertical farms. I can’t imagine the energy density is all that great on food waste, and burning it just turns it into greenhouse gas without any side benefits at all. I think we can do better.

The immediate thought is to compost it. It would have to be mixed with lots of brown matter, but in most cities, that can be provided from yard waste. In the process, great soil is produced in large quantities. Win-win. Not good enough.

A simple chicken composter
The bacteria consuming the food don’t give any other functions other than producing soil. Chickens would be a great addition. Scrap the addition of brown matter and feed the scraps to chickens. Chickens are omnivores. They prefer bugs, but will take food scraps and can eat just about anything we eat. They will gobble up leftover food, and leave behind some high nitrogen packets. In the process they produce eggs and meat. Win-win-win. Still not good enough.

If you dump a huge pile of food waste in a bin where chickens can get to it, it will start to rot. While chickens are omnivores, they aren’t scavengers. We need something else to do the bulk of the processing while it rots. Give the chickens one to two days with the pile of food waste, then move them to the next pile. Now we bring in black soldier flies. Black soldier fly larvae (BSFL) are voracious consumers of rotting food waste and thrive on high protein waste that is a little rich for earthworms. In the process, given the right container, they self-harvest and provide an easy, high-quality, high-protein food source. We have fed our chickens already. Let’s use this step for something else.

The BSFL could be fed to tilapia in an aquaponics or similar setup. The protein from the food waste becomes fish food. They process it into meat and their waste products go to fertilize plants in the other part of the system. So now you are producing meat and vegetables off of the waste reclamation process and you haven’t even gotten soil yet.

Unfortunately, BSFL don’t make very good compost. So they would just take up the early part of the process. They pick out the rich foods and the rotting foods and begin the process of breaking them down. But they don’t need to be left in forever. At this point, you add that brown material from your municipal yard waste collection to get the mixture right and add worms. This step will probably take the longest. But when the product is mostly complete, you can add the chickens back in and let them gobble up the worms and any other bugs in the system.

By carefully choosing the vermin we introduce to the system (chickens, BSFL, tilapia, and worms rather than rats and cockroaches), we are able to control the benefits the process confers. Sure, it takes longer, but look at all the production that is gained and value that is added.

Problem #2: Yard Waste – tree trimmings

Problem Description: Tree trimmings are a constant part of suburban life. We like our trees and we like them neat. But sent to the landfill, the organic material rots slowly in a low oxygen environment, producing methane and taking up space.

Some municipalities are now chipping the woody waste and composting it to produce soil. While this is a better solution, it still doesn’t add enough value. How about if we chip those branches up and pasteurize them. Then we can grow gourmet mushrooms on them, like shiitake and oyster mushrooms. While the mushrooms will do the hard part of the decomposing process, they won’t quite finish it off. Worms do a really great job of turning finished mushroom blocks into soil. The worms could then go to feed chickens. So now you have produced mushrooms, eggs, and meat from the process as well as healthy compost to add to soil.

These are just ways to handle resources destined for decomposition. The same thought process can be applied to a variety of problems, including food production itself. All it takes is some deeper understanding of the organisms and processes involved and some systems-level thinking. Let’s get on this.

Monday, May 2, 2016


Soil in the rain forest is some of the poorest on earth. Plants absorb the nutrients they need through their roots, relying heavily on the plants being soluble in water. A rain forest, true to its name, rains almost constantly. That rain picks up the nutrients in the soil and washes them away. The various living organisms try to hold on to those nutrients by locking them away in their bodies, but eventually those nutrients are returned to the soil. The soil cannot hold on to them. So when explorers discovered lenses of dark, black, fertile soil in the interior of the Amazon Basin, it came as a big surprise.

The soils came to be called terra preta soils and have been the subject of much study. Due to the high concentration of pottery sherds, bones, charcoal, and other indicators of human life, it was obvious that the soils were made by a previous civilization. But it was initially unclear why the soils retained such a high degree of fertility, with fertility possibly even increasing over time instead of degrading as would be expected. It turned out that the cause was the concentration of charcoal in the soil that was doing it.

The study of this soil led to the discovery of biochar, a form of charcoal produced by pyrolysis, creating the charcoal at high temperatures and in a relatively low oxygen environment. The physical and chemical structure of biochar acts a lot like the carbon commonly used in water and air filters. It is extremely porous, leading to a high surface area, one that is really good at cation exchange. For the lay person, that means it bonds with a wide variety of compounds, holding them in place. In a carbon filter, this means it bonds with soluble lead, arsenic, and chlorine, things you want removed from the water so it is safe to drink. In soil, this capability is more applicable to nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium. Biochar in soil can hold on to the very nutrients that plants need to survive and thrive.

The benefits don't stop there, though. Because of biochar's porosity, it is also very good at retaining water. Interestingly, the open structure of biochar seems to be an ideal support for microbial life. Beneficial bacteria and fungi thrive in the environment created by biochar. The nutrients bound to the biochar are easily accessible to the microorganisms crawling all over the surface, where they can become a part of the life cycle of the soil, eventually to end up in plants.

So what does it mean for food production? Biochar has a huge potential in agriculture. One of the great frustrations of modern agriculture is that soil fertility is falling. To combat that, soils are heavily treated with synthetic fertilizers. Those fertilizers wash away readily in the rain, meaning that more need to be added. But it also causes a problem downstream. All that fertilizer in the water causes an algae bloom. That algae bloom is followed by the algae dying. As the algae in the water column starts to rot, it steals oxygen from the water, killing fish, crustaceans, and anything else, creating a dead zone. The annual dead zone on the Gulf of Mexico reached 6400 square miles in 2015. All that fertilizer used to make that dead zone was purchased by farmers, each one hoping that that fertilizer would go to their plants.

So what if something could be added to the soil that helped all that fertilizer stay in place? What if that amendment also increased water retention, thereby increasing drought tolerance? What if it also increased beneficial microbial activity, the very activity that supports plant growth? And where does it come from? We really like having trees in our cities, and we like them to be well trimmed. Those trimmings typically head for the landfill. What if we diverted that waste product instead and made our soils better? That biochar could be added to farmland, and just like in the Amazon Basin, that fertility could be realized for hundreds of years. Biochar can take hundreds or even thousands of years to degrade in a natural environment, and it improves the soil that whole time.

But what about more modern, higher tech growing methods? Could biochar be used as media for hydroponics or aquaponics? I have seen a lot of discussion of the possibility online, but very little actual data on whether it works or not. I think that an analysis of what biochar does and how it would apply to hydroponics and aquaponics might be in order.

Again, biochar absorbs nutrients and holds on to them. It will do this with huge amounts of nutrients. Now, biological activity can access those nutrients (remember the "exchange" part of cation exchange) and help feed them to the plants. But that means two things for aquaponics and hydroponics. The first is that the biochar is going to absorb a LOT of nutrients until it is filled up. In land-based agriculture, the biochar is typically "charged" or pre-filled with nutrients before being added to the soil. In hydro- and aquaponics, that doesn't necessarily have to happen, but the grower needs to know that the biochar will take its fill before the plants can get it, and that process can take some time, perhaps weeks or months.

The second thing to recognize is that it is the biological activity that exchanges all those cations. Fungi is particularly active in that process, but bacteria are also important. Without that living system, the biochar will just act as a nutrient sink that will have to be filled before a regular nutrient profile can be maintained.

Biochar in a properly alive media would have a stabilizing force on the nutrient load of the media. Once it is full, the bacteria and fungi can access it if nutrients drop too low and it will absorb when nutrient loads are too high. Adding it while a tank is cycling might help lessen the stress on the fish, but the grower might want to refrain from adding plants until the nitrate level starts to climb, indicating that the biochar filter is full. Also, adding it as a supplement to the media rather than as a media in itself would be a good idea, perhaps 20% or less.

As for me, I do aquaponics with soil. The soil I create is a vibrant, living community that holds its own nutrients pretty well and should have no trouble accessing nutrients held in the biochar. I am working on expanding and creating new aquaponics beds and will be trying biochar as a supplement to the soil in the system, probably at around 20% of total volume. I will report back on how that worked when I have more information.

Friday, April 15, 2016

Soil Nutrition

I have already talked about soil as a living organism, one that needs to eat. But what do we feed the soil? What does a healthy diet look like for a soil ecosystem? In a natural setting, the organisms don’t really travel around all that much, so the soil gathers what falls to it and runs the most efficient recycling program possible. But in a system managed by people, we choose what to feed it.

Let's start with human nutrition. I know the old food pyramid is a bit out of date, but it is a great place to start. At the bottom of the pyramid is the bulk of the foods to eat, the breads and cereal group. These are the calorie dense foods and are important for the daily energy needs. Just above that are fruits and vegetables. These are the nutrient dense foods and make sure the body has all the nutrients it needs to properly rebuild itself. Next up are the meats and dairy groups. These are primary sources of protein, the material needed by the body to build more tissue and grow. At the top of the pyramid are the sweets. These are the junk foods that should be eaten sparingly. Each of these has a corresponding source in soil nutrition.

First of all, there are the carbohydrates. Carbohydrates give the energy needed to grow. In soil, just as in human nutrition, the more complex the carbohydrates, the better. In human nutrition, the bottom tier are simple carbohydrates like refined flour and sugars. Then there are more complex carbohydrates, like whole wheat. The more complex, the longer it takes for your body to digest them, and the longer the energy spike is spread out. Simple carbohydrates give a lot of available energy quickly, often followed by a crash, while complex carbohydrates give sustained energy for hours. In soil, though, there is an even more complex carbohydrate that is unavailable to humans for energy: wood. The cellulose in wood, which is indigestible to us, is actually just chained together sugar molecules. It takes some special enzymes to break those chains, but for those organisms that can, there is a lot of energy available. Fungus, particularly those that produce mushrooms, are quite good at this. Like the very complex carbohydrates they are, those woods take a very long time to break down, often years, but in the process they provide the soil organisms a sustained source of energy.

Then you have the nutrient dense foods. This one needs to be looked at a little differently. Yes, fruits and vegetables are good for the soil, but more in the form of compost. Compost adds a huge amount of nutrients to the soil. All that broken down plant matter once contained the nutrients the original plant needed to grow and survive. But compost isn't the only source of nutrients. Soil is pretty good at breaking down stone as well, though it does it very slowly. One thing that the most fertile soils in the world have in common is lots of mechanically weathered stone. During the last ice age, the glaciers over Canada ground up stone into a fine powder and deposited them in what is now the American Midwest. The soil there is incredibly fertile mostly because of that stone. Chemically weathered stone has lost most of its nutrients in the weathering process, but mechanically ground stone still has the nutrients intact and the mushroom mycelium in the soil, often the mycorrhizal mushrooms, will mine it out to give to the plants. As for sources, rocks with colors are typically better. Greensand and rock phosphate are great sources. Granite dust would be good as well.

Next up are the protein sources. Plants really are the original source of protein, but there is one caveat. Chlorophyll combines carbon dioxide and water to make sugar and oxygen. Plants have the ability to produce huge amounts of sugar, and have learned to be very versatile with how they use it. They use it as bribes to animals in the form of fruit and nectar. They chain it together to make wood, they use it as a bribe to the mycorrhizal fungus. But there is only so far the one tool can go, and it can't make protein. Protein is made from chained up amino acids and each of those have nitrogen molecules. While we swim in an atmosphere made of nearly 80 percent nitrogen, it isn't accessible in that form. It has to be converted to nitrate to be usable by plants. If they get the nitrate they need, they will make all kinds of protein, and usually grow a lot in the process. So how do we give the plants nitrogen? There are several ways. Compost again is a great source. Animal waste is another great source, with waste products of herbivores, like rabbits and llamas, being preferred. Nitrogen fixing bacteria are also great, often in the form of the relationship they create with certain plants, like beans, peas, and clover.

The last group is the sugar group, that which gives a quick burst of energy followed by a crash. In people, this should be used sparingly, or, better yet, not at all. In plants, synthetic fertilizers fall nicely into this group. Synthetic fertilizers give a large burst of readily accessible nutrients. In the short run, they are immediately usable by the plants, resulting in a quick burst of growth. In the long run, they aren't really healthy for the plant, but also stimulate soil bacteria and help deplete the natural reserves of humus in the soil. So extended use of synthetic fertilizers is bad for the soil and the plants and is not advised. Instead, give your soil a lovely diet of healthy organic matter and lots of it!

Friday, April 1, 2016

The Most Important Concept

Let’s say you discovered a concept. This isn’t even a new concept, just one new to you. And let’s say it caught your eye, changed your worldview, and occupied your thoughts for some time. And let’s say that through that thinking process you discovered that this is the most important concept that there is, that without this, life on Earth would cease to exist. Then you look around and see that despite this concept being fairly well understood in the scientific community, almost no one else understands it. And not understanding it is driving people’s actions in a way that is causing a huge amount of long term harm. What would you do? Would you harp on it quite a bit? Me too.

So what is this concept? Quite simply: Soil is a living organism.

Okay…that doesn’t seem so ground breaking. But let’s take a moment to examine this, maybe look at it from a slightly different angle that might clarify things. You are a living organism. You are composed of a tight association of smaller organisms that all have the same DNA. Each organism has a job, a purpose, to help the whole system function optimally.

Soil is composed of a tight association of smaller organisms that all have different DNA. Each organism has a job, a purpose, to help the whole system function optimally.

Let’s take the biological approach. To understand an organism, you need to understand its food source, how it acquires its food, and the role it occupies in the ecosystem it occupies. Let’s deal with those one at a time.

What is soil’s food source? Well, nothing, you might say. The different organisms eat each other. Well, yeah, sort of. But what happens to an animal when you stop giving it food. It begins consuming its own body, losing weight in the process. As it loses weight, it loses functionality, until the whole system is no longer able to function and it perishes. Our soils worldwide are doing exactly this. Soil feeds on decaying organic matter. Wood, roots, leaves, and sticks form the bulk of soil’s diet, but dead insects, rotting mushrooms, and feces provide sustenance as well.

How does soil acquire its food? In a natural ecosystem, it falls to the ground from the vegetation growing above. It doesn’t matter whether it is a forest or a grassland or something in between. Everything dies eventually and gravity delivers it to the soil to be consumed.

That little pile of mostly decomposed vegetation at the top
was living clover just one month before this picture was taken
What role does soil play in its ecosystem? Disease causing organisms aside, the organisms that evolve in an ecosystem evolve to play a role in the healthy version of that ecosystem. Soil needs decaying organic matter to survive, right? So why doesn’t it just kill all the plants and feast? That’s a lot of food in the short term and no food in the long term. So it could just keep the plants sickly and they would drop small numbers of leaves frequently and die early. That is a better long term solution, but it is a recipe for a permanent diet of not quite enough. No, anyone who has tried to maintain a landscape in their yard knows that the more plants you have and the more lush and healthy they are, the more debris they drop to the soil surface. So soil has a vested interest in keeping the plants lush and healthy and growing as fast as possible. How do they do this? They break down the nutrients in the decaying organic matter and feed them back to the plants so they have what they need to grow more.

Just how poorly is this concept understood? In 1975, Masanobu Fukoka wrote The One Straw Revolution. The book chronicles his decades long quest to get academia to understand the concept that the organic matter needs to be returned to the soil. We still aren’t there. In fact, I recently found this great video from a soil scientist at the Soil Conservation Service trying to convince farmers that soil is alive and needs to be treated as such. We are just not getting it.
And as we starve our soils, they become emaciated and unable to do their job, so we dump fertilizers on them, hoping that the chemicals will make up the difference. But it can’t really. Living soil does so much more than just hand out nutrients. It stores massive amounts of carbon in its body (finished humus, the final form of organic matter in soil is over 50% carbon), it serves as a sponge to soak up rainwater and reduce runoff and erosion. It works with the plants to increase resiliency and reduce the impact of diseases. As we let our soils waste away and die, our fields lose productivity, and right at a crucial time when we are trying to figure out how to feed a lot more mouths.

So remember, take care of your soil and feed it with lots and lots of decaying organic matter. Our lives all depend on it.

Tuesday, March 15, 2016

Coppicing and Pollarding

My moringa trees pollarded for the new year
I recently read a great article about a concept that is new to me: coppicing and pollarding. The concept is that both are methods of pruning trees such that the wood is harvested continuously without damaging the tree. The branches are cut off at a smaller size and used for whatever they are needed for, usually firewood or crafting, like basket weaving. The only difference between the two methods is that coppicing is done at ground level while pollarding leaves a length of trunk that is topped. As far as method, I am assuming the central trunk is cut just above a junction in the first year. After that, multiple branches grow from just below the cut and those are left for several years until they are harvested. 

The more I learn about gardening, the more I realize that soil is a living thing and needs to be fed properly. Think of it like people, but with a longer metabolic cycle. While people's metabolic cycle is measured in days, soil's is measured in years. Adding synthetic fertilizer is like you eating a candy bar (well, crystal meth is probably a better comparison), where you get a quick rush and lots of energy, but then you crash afterwards. Compost is a little better, probably a little more like whole wheat bread. It is still a carb. The body uses it up, just a little slower. Wood, though, wood is the ultimate complex carbohydrate. And I don't just mean that metaphorically. Wood is actually a whole lot of sugar molecules chained together, just like starch. The only real difference is that those chains are a lot harder to break. Good chunks of wood will feed your soil for years and years. 

Coppicing and pollarding seem like a great way to get that wood. So how do you add it to the soil? Just grind it up and mix it in? Well, no. Adding sawdust directly to soil in large amounts can be deleterious to your soil. Surface area is the key. Sawdust and wood chips have a lot of surface area and mushrooms will jump in and take advantage of that, but in doing so they draw the nutrients they need to make that jump. They completely deplete the soil of available nitrogen, which is really bad for the plants.

On the other side of the spectrum, there is burying logs. A log over 8 inches in diameter can feed the soil for decades, but it won't release any nutrition at all for several years and when it does, it releases really slowly. Plus, if you don't plant it deep enough, that large chunk of wood just below the surface looks like a wall to a small plant and suddenly your plants don't have soil deep enough to meet their needs.

How I create garden beds. This one was inoculated
with king stropharia mushrooms
With coppicing and pollarding, you can generate a lot of small branches in the 1-2 inch range. Dug down into the soil, hugelkulture style, can give you soil a long burst of really good nutrition and really help build the soil web of life for 5 or more years. Plus, those branches can be used to grow mushrooms. The usual recommendation is to grow mushrooms on logs over 4 inches in diameter, but smaller logs will work if they are bundled tightly. Better yet, the branches can be inoculated and then buried once the mushrooms have taken hold, giving the gardener the ability to harvest several flushes of mushrooms from their consistently improving garden soil. 

The article mentions oak, hazel, ash, chestnut, and willow as good candidates for coppicing and pollardiing. From my experience, I can say that elm, palo verde, and elm would also be great. If you live in Arizona, scrub oak would be one of the best for coppicing. But there is a tree I have only recently been growing that I think could possibly be the best for this method: moringa. The moringa tree is an insanely fast growing tree. From a seed sprouted indoors in the spring, a moringa tree can reach 12-15 feet in height and have a trunk diameter of 2-3 inches. They are completely intolerant of frost, but in cold climates they grow fast enough to be treated as an annual. In warmer climates, if the root ball can be kept from freezing, they can die all the way back to ground level and grow back bigger each year. I have seen a tree get killed back to the ground by a 20 degree F cold snap, only to grow to over 15 feet tall and have a 3 or 4 inch trunk the next year. Plus, the pods they grow, which taste like asparagus, are only edible on new wood. If the tree is left full size, the pods that grow on old wood will be bitter. As you might imagine, any wood grown by a tree this quickly, isn't very hard. In fact, it about as soft as balsa wood. In the garden, it will probably last 2-3 years. That means that 5 trees could feed you and your garden for years to come.