Sunday, August 25, 2013

Farms, Gardens & Epidemics! – Part 2: What They Have in Common as Tools for Building Resilience

In this three-part series we’re exploring how farms, gardens and epidemics illustrate the permaculture principle, Integrate Rather Than Separate (or “stacking functions”), and through this principle, how they might contribute to building personal and community resilience. Last week we looked at Masanobu Fukuoka’s “do-nothing” approach to farming, as described in his book “One Straw Revolution” and saw how he was able to leverage elements of his farm’s eco-system to accomplish more with less. However, as I also pointed out, farming is not necessarily practical for most people to take up. So, this week we’ll be looking at the garden and how we might achieve similar goals.

The Home Garden: More Than Just Another “Pretty Face”

In residential settings people may often view gardens as simply ornamental or decorative landscaping (your neighbor with the green thumb’s vegetable or herbal garden not withstanding!). However, the home (or community) garden can have quite a few more tricks up its sleeve than you may have realized. In Gaia’s Garden, Second Edition: A Guide To Home-Scale Permaculture, Toby Hemenway describes other potential benefits they provide and how to go about implementing them. Here are just a few:
  • outdoor physical activity or exercise
  • in addition to utilizing rain water, the ability to otherwise hold it onsite and then later, slowly release it back into the environment, thereby helping to reduce the load on local sewer systems
  • utilization of trees and bushes, which in addition to their potential for providing edible fruits, berries or nuts, through strategic placement, can help manage heating and cooling loads, by providing shade in the summer while letting sun through in the winter.  They can also serve as wind or firebreaks or a form of natural fencing to deter intruders” (both animal and human!)
  • habitat for birds, insects and other animals, who in turn help to control or eliminate undesired pests, potentially replacing or mitigating the need for expensive and possibly harmful fertilizers and chemicals often used for this purpose
  • material for the compost pile, a dividend arising out of a garden’s “waste”, which can then be continuously returned (or reinvested) to build and improve the garden’ soil health and structure, potentially reducing or eliminating the need for commercial fertilizers. . .
. . .beginning to see a pattern here?

These benefits are very similar to those described by Fukuoka using his “do-nothing” approach!

permaculture corner in my gardenThe specifics of how to design a garden in this way is beyond the scope of this post, so again, I encourage you to check out Gaia’s Garden for yourself (or any other of the numerous gardening resources available). However, what I hope you’ll take away from this week’s installment is that in so many ways, the garden is more than “just a pretty face”. A garden designed to “stack functions” can simultaneously perform multiple tasks in the process of achieving the overall goal of growing things to eat or pretty things to look at.  Even as it utilizes resources, it can also regenerate and improve them. Eventually, it might even become more self-managing, thereby reducing some of the work and expense of maintaining it.

So, looked at another way, beyond a garden’s harvest, which can certainly be sold for profit, there is additional “money” literally growing on the trees and other plants within it, and as such it should be viewed as a tremendous asset.

Changing Your Intent


 What You Can Do Now!

Still on the fence about starting your own garden? Or, maybe you live in the city or an apartment building and don’t think you have access to enough space to do it. Well, think again!
  1. Consider becoming a member of a local community garden, before taking the plunge yourself (in NYC, visit Just Food or GrowNYC for more information about these options)
  2. Or, another option for the urban or apartment dweller is a window box or container garden.  You would be surprised how much you can actually grow in small spaces.  Start with something simple like herbs or spices to jazz up your meals, before attempting a more ambitious project. Your local botanical garden or similar organization is a good place to start learning more (in NYC: New York Botanical Garden, Brooklyn Botanical Garden or Queens Botanical Garden)
  3. Already gardening or supporting one in your community?  Drop me a comment here, or start a discussion on my With Intent Facebook page.
Urban Gardening

Next week, in the final installment of this series, I’ll explain what epidemics have to do with all of this, before tying everything up.

See you then!

Sunday, August 18, 2013

Farms, Gardens & Epidemics! - Part 1: What They Have in Common as Tools for Building Resilience

(Revised, 8/25/13)
rice fields
Yikes! You’re probably wondering what the connection can be? “Farms and gardens? Sure! That makes sense. . .but epidemics? Surely nothing good can come from that!” Not to worry! They each actually do share something in common, and it’s one of my favorite permaculture principles, “Integrate Rather Than Separate” (also known as “stacking functions”). What does that mean? That in effective, resilient systems
  1. all elements (large and small) each have a part to play (or primary function) that contributes to overall, effective performance
  2. each element should also be able to perform other functions, in addition to their primary ones
  3. at least some of the elements should be able to provide “back up” for “mission critical” functions in the event of the inevitable disruptions or failures that occur.
I believe this principle is beautifully illustrated in three of my favorite books on the topic:
  • One Straw Revolution by Masanobu Fukuoka 
  • Gaia's Garden, Second Edition: A Guide To Home-Scale Permaculture by Toby Hemenway
  • Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference by Malcolm Gladwell
Building resilience is a key component of living with intent and will be extremely important to successfully weathering the types of events we’ve already begun to experience due to modern human activity.

A detailed discussion of the techniques and strategies described in each of these books is well beyond the scope of this series, but you should still come away with a basic understanding of how they work. I encourage you to check out each of these titles yourself for more details on how you might incorporate the ideas they contain, to build both personal and community resilience.

We'll start off first by looking at Masanobu Fukuoka's "One Straw Revolution".

The Farm as Eco-system

The ability to produce and distribute food is critical to a society’s health and well-being and farms play a primary role in that effort. Masanobu Fokuoka was from a small village on the island of Shikoku in southern Japan, but before he took up farming, he had a career as an agricultural scientist, in the 1930s. He first worked at the Yokohama Customs Bureau in the Plant Inspection Division, and later as the Head Researcher of Disease and Insect Control at the Kochi Prefecture Testing Station, before finally returning to his home village in the early 1940s.

Fukuoka coined the term “do-nothing farming” to describe his theories and techniques developed through trial and error over the next 30 years, on his father’s farm lands. He discusses them in detail in his book “One Straw Revolution". Now let us be clear! Fukuoka did not mean for this phrase to be taken literally. Farming is hard work! But, in his opinion, it should not be unnecessarily so. As in permaculture, he believed we should work with nature rather than against it. In fact, his approach was very similar to those used by permaculture practitioners, although, he is said to have not actually met anyone in or had knowledge of this movement during this period of experimentation.

Fukuoka noted that traditional Japanese rice farming was water intensive, but that his method allowed for a significant reduction in deliberate irrigation or "flooding". He also noted that at best, traditional Japanese methods maintained soil health while chemically treated crops over time ultimately depleted or destroyed it. However, through the strategic use of elements within his farm’s eco-system, described in more detail below, he achieved difficult and seemingly competing goals comparable or better to either traditional Japanese methods or those using chemical treatments: 1) healthy, productive soil, 2) good yields, with 3) a simultaneous reduction in expense and overall effort. Such an accomplishment is tremendous! Think about it:
In the process of meeting a key human need—growing food— the need for a critical resource— water— was reduced and another critical resource soil was improved, rather than diminished or depleted after use!

Fukuoka’s Approach

Fukuoka’s "do-nothing" approach avoided
  • active soil cultivation
  • plowing or tilling
  • use of expensive petrochemical based fertilizers and insecticides
  • prepared compost
  • heavy machinery
each of which can contribute to increased costs, destruction of soil health and structure, or adverse effects on the environment as well as human health. Fukuoka instead opted for manual laborers, using only traditional Japanese hand tools, straw and cover crops (e.g. white clover) which serve to enrich and preserve soil health and structure. But, there was something else that he did. He also utilized the crops themselves (rice and winter grains such as barley and rye; vegetation used in this way, is also known as “green manure”) to assist in this process. By following a specific seeding and harvesting schedule, each crop functioned to prepare for and nurture the next one by controlling the proliferation of weeds, increasing disease resistance, and protecting against insects, birds and other plant predators.

Farming & Sustainability: New Perspectives

With that said that, I realize that most of us are probably not in a position to run out and start farming! But what we can learn from examining Fukuoka’s “do-nothing” approach is that by giving some thought to how a farm, as well as the work involved, is organized (that is “stacking functions” within the system), it is truly possible to move beyond a concept of mere sustainability, and instead towards outcomes that are regenerative.

Next week, we’ll look at gardening, which is probably a much more realistic option for many people, especially those living in apartments or urban settings, and see how we might achieve similar goals.

Changing Your Intent


 The Farm: What You Can Do Now!

  1. Feeling inspired? Go out and start a farm! (just kidding. . . well, maybe only a little!)
  2. Consider joining a CSA or checking out your local green market (in NYC, visit Just Food or GrowNYC for more information about these options)
  3. Have a favorite “do nothing” local or regional farm?  Drop me a comment here, or start a discussion on my With Intent Facebook page. 
Oryza sativa