Monday, November 9, 2009

Nothing New Under the Sun

Have you ever had an idea for something, maybe a useful device, or, as with me, an idea for a book, then later found that someone else already came up with the same idea? It seems to happen with great regularity; individuals in different parts of the country, or different parts of the world, or even at different points in history, come up with similar ideas and innovations.

It was through Ruth Stout that I first learned about no-till gardening and building up the soil through heavy mulching with organic material. She was an original among her contemporaries, and promoted methods contrary to the mainstream agricultural extension recommendations of her day.

During the 1970s, when Ruth Stout was writing articles and books on her “no-work” method of gardening in the United States, over in Japan, microbiologist and farmer Masanobu Fukuoka, was teaching and writing about his similar method of “do-nothing” farming.

Techniques for what is sometimes called sheet composting or German mounds have been around for centuries, but proponents of new variations of the method continually emerge. The most recent incarnation of the method that I’m aware of is Patricia Lanza’s notion of Lasagna Gardening.

All of these methods involve composting organic materials directly on the site you intend to plant and not tilling the soil. As I wrote in an earlier post about Stout, she advised applying a year-round thick mulch of organic material – primarily hay. Why go to all the trouble of building and turning a compost pile, she reasoned, when one could just throw kitchen vegetable scraps directly into the garden, cover them with a layer of leaves, pine needles, straw, hay – whatever combination of these you had on hand – and allow them to decompose where they lay?

Similarly, Fukuoka advocated on site composting by leaving organic material in the fields following harvest. He wrote:

There is no need to prepare compost. I will not say that you do not need compost – only that there is no need to work hard in making it. If straw is left lying on the surface of the field in the spring or fall and is covered with a thin layer of chicken manure or duck droppings, in six months it will completely decompose . . .

To make compost by the usual methods, the farmer works like crazy in the hot sun, chopping up the straw, adding water
and lime, turning the pile, and hauling it out to the field. He puts himself through all this grief because he thinks it is a “better way.” I would rather see people just scattering straw or hulls or woodchips over their fields (p49).*

Both Stout and Fukuoka were working with previously tilled land. But what if you want to plant garden beds where you currently have turf grass? Lanza recommends beginning with a layer of wet newspaper or cardboard:

You don't have to remove existing sod and weeds. You don't have to double dig. In fact, you don't have to work the soil at all. The first layer of your lasagna garden consists of either brown corrugated cardboard or three layers of newspaper laid directly on top of the grass or weeds in the area you've selected for your garden. Wet this layer down to keep everything in place and start the decomposition process. The grass or weeds will break down fairly quickly because they will be smothered by the newspaper or cardboard, as well as by the materials you're going to layer on top of them. This layer also provides a dark, moist area to attract earthworms that will loosen up the soil as they tunnel through it.

The next step in Lanza's process is layering your organic materials as you would for a typical compost pile:

You'll want to alternate layers of “browns” such as fall leaves, shredded newspaper, peat, and pine needles with layers of “greens” such as vegetable scraps, garden trimmings, and grass clippings. In general, you want your "brown” layers to be about twice as deep as your “green” layers, but there's no need to get finicky about this. Just layer browns and greens, and a lasagna garden will result. What you want at the end of your layering process is a two-foot tall layered bed. You'll be amazed at how much this will shrink down in a few short weeks.

My only criticism of Lanza’s system is that she generally advises using peat moss between the layers of the “lasagna” garden. Peat takes centuries to form and is currently harvested at non-sustainable rates. Coir, made from short fibers of coconut shells, is a viable, sustainable alternative to peat. It does have to be shipped from outside the U.S., however, so there is that “carbon footprint” to consider. Neither are necessary to build a good compost pile.

What I do appreciate about Lanza is her “just get started” approach. In the past, whenever I wanted to start a new garden bed, I’d have to wait until Rick had time to help, and we both had the energy to tackle the job. Then he’d hitch up the trailer to the car, we’d drive to Home Depot, rent a tiller, till the turf, break up the remaining chunks, and laboriously remove all the remaining grass. It’s so freeing to just mark out your new plot, lay down wet newspaper or cardboard, and start building your compost pile.

Already this fall I’ve built two “lasagna” beds where we plan to build our potato towers next spring. I’m planning two more – one where we planned to build a sixth raised bed last summer, but never got around to it, and another in the front yard where I want to move my herb garden. I’ve been coveting the backyard herb bed to use for more veggies, and thought an herb garden could be an attractive feature in a front yard. I’ll have all winter to plan exactly how I want to lay it out, but meanwhile, I’ll be making compost on the area I intend to plant.

To build my “lasagna” layers, as always, I sought to minimize purchased inputs. For my first “brown” layer, I used pine shavings (bedding) from the chicken pen. Next, I laid down a “green” layer of roughly chopped, discarded vegetables I got for free from the produce section of the grocery store. I topped that with a thick layer of shredded fallen leaves. Then I laid down a somewhat thinner layer of partially finished compost. This consists of chicken manure, kitchen vegetable scraps, coffee grounds, eggshells, and some shredded leaves. Finally, I capped the whole thing with an 8” layer of loose hay.

It was so easy! Which, of course, is the point – to reduce and eliminate unnecessary work. Stout and Lanza focus particularly on enabling people to garden, even into old age. For Fukuoka, less work also means more time to be a full human being. He marvels that, in centuries past, farmers in Japan had time to write haikus as offerings in the village shrine. Like Juliet Schor, in The Overworked American, Fukuoka notes that industrialization has left us with less free time than low-tech cultures enjoyed in the past. He writes:

The more the farmer increases the scale of his operation, the more his body and spirit are dissipated and the further he falls away from a spiritually satisfying life. A life of small-scale farming may appear to be primitive, but in living such a life, it becomes possible to contemplate the Great Way . . .

At the end of the year, the one-acre farmer of long ago spent January, February, and March hunting rabbits in the hills. Though he was called a poor peasant, he still had this kind of freedom. The New Year’s holiday lasted about three months. Gradually this vacation came to be shortened to two months, one month, and now the New Year’s has come to be
a three-day holiday . . . There is no time in modern agriculture for a farmer to write a poem or compose a song (p110-1).*

All that free time sounds good to me. Why, then, does this particular wheel have to be re-invented again and again? One reason is that there is little to no profit to be made from these low-work, low tech methods. As Stout pointed out, “Merchants who sell fertilizers and plows and so on aren’t in sympathy with my ideas of gardening (p59).”** Fukuoka noted similarly that, “If crops were to be grown without agricultural chemicals, fertilizer, or machinery, the giant chemical companies would become unnecessary and the [Japanese] government’s Agricultural Co-op Agency would collapse (p81)."*

There seems to be a macho element as well. I don’t believe it’s an accident that non-Westerners and women predominate among proponents of these easier methods. The posting community over at, where they discuss fossil fuel depletion and the implications for society, is mostly white males (a fact they lament from time to time). When they discuss the problems of food production after “peak oil”, when fossil fuel depletion increases the cost of chemical inputs and makes it prohibitively expensive to operate heavy machinery, the conversation inevitably turns to the difficulty of producing food without the technology or brute strength necessary to enable mastery of the work.

This way of thinking is, of course, a cultural product, not a physical trait – and therefore not limited to white men, nor descriptive of every white man. But it is an organizing feature of Western civilization. It extends to the notion of controlling and subduing nature.

By contrast, Fukuoka speaks of co-existence and cooperation with nature. His notion of “do nothing” farming is not just about eliminating unnecessary work, but about interfering with natural processes as little as possible, because humans cannot fully understand or control them. Like Stout, he relied on observation of natural processes to determine his techniques for helping them along.

It’s intriguing to me that by giving up the notion that we can understand nature and thereby control it, we are more truly empowered to produce our own food, healthfully, and with a degree of self-sufficiency, right into old age. Imagine that! We do not have to be strapping young men, use heavy machinery, or rely on big corporations for seeds, fertilizer, pesticides. We can do it ourselves.

*The One-Straw Revolution, by Masanobu Fukuoka, 1978.

**The Ruth Stout No-Work Garden Book, by Ruth Stout and Richard Clemence, Rodale Press, 1971.

Article describing lasagna gardening by Patricia Lanza: Lasagna Gardening 101.

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