The Druid's Garden

Spiritual Journeys in Tending the Land, Permaculture, Wildcrafting, and Regenerative Living

Lawn Regeneration: Return to Nature’s Harvest Permaculture Farm October 14, 2015

Front yard view, mid September

Front yard view, mid September 2015

As I’ve mentioned on this blog many times before–the spaces where we live and work each day are prime places to begin the regenerative work and rebuild our relationship sacred connection with nature. For many, the land nearest to us happens to be a lawn, one small part of the 40 million acres of lawn in the USA; currently the largest crop currently grown. And the lawn is a great place to start, for so many reasons.  Back in April, I wrote about Nature’s Harvest Permaculture Farm, a project of my dear friend Linda.  Linda is a woman with deep spiritual connections to the land, and she knew she had to make a radical change to turn the lawn of her newly purchased home into something more in line with her principles. In my initial post, I shared Linda’s work in taking the initial steps in converting her entire 50′ x 50′ front lawn into a vegetable garden and showed some early plantings.  In this post, I wanted to check in with Linda to provide some updates and see how the season has gone for her.  Did she get in trouble with her town?  Did her project work? What happened throughout the season this year?  How did the veggies grow?

In Permaculture Design, one of the basic principles is to “obtain a yield” but the concept of “yield” is much more broad than just the fruit or vegetables.  So in this post, we’ll be looking at the many “yields’ that converting a lawn can give us,  including the vegetables themselves, community building, mindset shifting, education, exercise, meditation, health, habitat, and more. What Linda and her community have found through this process is that the yield of this garden goes far beyond  just the vegetables.

Community Building and Education

Linda began the process of converting her lawn to vegetables on October 2014, so her farm is now officially a year old. When I asked her how the last year has been, she said, “Its the best medicine I could have ever asked for. I didn’t know what to expect if I did this, if I was going to be called out or reprimanded. But everything went beyond my expectations.”

 

I want to start with the community aspects with Nature’s Harvest Permaculture Farm, because for a project like this to be successful and embraced, the community is probably the most important factor. Building good relationships with local government and neighbors is part of how a project becomes successful rather than finding itself in legal trouble. Linda has not had any legal issues at all surrounding her farm–and its now been in place, very visibly, for over a year.

 

In talking to others who *have* gotten in trouble for lawn conversions, the problem seems to stem from a few places. First, not being aware of the laws or working within the laws (which may have ordinances about things like “weed” height, etc). Linda spoke with officials in her town government prior to converting her lawn last year, and they verbally gave her the “go ahead as long as there aren’t any weeds.”  Second, trouble happens when you are not engaging with the neighbors in a positive direction; Linda says that lavender-lemon shortbread cookies and fresh vegetables get you far!  Third, trouble happens when the garden looks unmanaged, wild, or unattractive to neighbors. If you can address these three aspects: laws, neighbors, and beauty, you will have success in converting your lawn.  So let’s take a look at a few ways that Linda was able to engage her community.

 

Child helps harvest lettuce greens!

Neighborhood child helps harvest lettuce greens!

Linda has been amazed by how much the community has embraced her front yard farm. She says “this is the happiest I’ve ever been, especially in getting affirmations from the children in the neighborhood wanted to come and help harvest. They would come help and then take home fresh food.” Linda describes several children who were regular visitors to the garden, learning from her, wanting to do the work in the garden. This kind of interaction can only happen when you are out in the open, in a community, in a neighborhood, where people can easily find you.  But more importantly, Linda is teaching neighborhood children a powerful lesson about nurturing our relationship with the living earth and learning about where food really comes from.

Kids packing up produce!

Neighborhood kids packing up produce!

Linda describes another story where a neighbor was walking with her grandson down the street, and they came to the garden.  The boy ran over to the garden and came inside and didn’t want to leave the garden because he was so happy to be there.  Gardens like these powerfully attract children, who haven’t yet lost the wonder of being in such a sacred space. Children, certainly, can sense the difference.

 

In a third story, Linda describes how an older man was walking down the street and came to the front of the garden and sat on one of the stumps Linda had placed there. He sat on the stump for a good 20 minutes, just observing the garden. Linda said, “It kind of reminded me of The Giving Tree. That’s why I put those stumps there, so people could come by and take it all in.” In each of these cases, we see people of all ages being attracted to the garden–attracted to this welcoming and sacred space that Linda has created.

A place to sit....

A place to sit….

In terms of what kind of an impact she’s having on surrounding lawns, Linda’s newest neighbors are planning on converting their lawn next spring, and other neighbors have likewise expressed interest in doing away with their lawns.  Linda expects that in a few years, more and more gardens will be appearing!

 

Now that Linda has experienced such a positive response from her community and has “tested the waters,” she plans to do more direct educational and outreach events this year and in the coming season. The first event she’s planning is a fall harvest festival, where she invites all of the neighbors to the garden to come harvest the last of the vegetables before the winter. At this event, she will share recipes and food cooked from the garden so that people get a sense of how to eat locally and sustainably. In the spring, she plans on offering more classes on lawn conversion and organic vegetable gardening.

Beans on the trellis near the house!

Asian long beans hanging from the trellis near the house.

 

Growth and Harvest

Linda is an organic farmer with over 30 years experience, and it shows in her work and yields. Linda focused her farm this year on specialty greens: spinach, kale, minzua, arugula, tatsoi, salad mixes and lettuce as well as beans, herbs, potatoes, and cut flowers. Her farm has produced beyond her wildest expectations. When I asked her how her season went, she said “It was the best season I had ever had. Even better than my 10 acre farm.” In her front yard farm, she’s farming approximately 1000 square feet; her previous farm had about 6000 square feet in cultivation. We talked for a bit to try to understand what the difference was, how this small front yard garden was outperforming her previous farm, and she has no way to explain it. Others, too are trying to solve the mystery–she’s had visitors from the MSU State Extension office and other local farmers come to try to figure out how her small farm is producing so much, to test her soil, and so on.

 

Of course, I have an explanation that one can’t measure with scientific equipment: Linda poured her love into this land in a way she never was able to with her former land. Yes, she’s a fabulous farmer and knows how to grow good food–but in this case, she was growing more than food, she was growing community.  She was regenerating soil, she was regenerating her community’s relationship with its food and the land–and I think it was this interconnectedness that makes the difference.  This is a sacred space, a space that has grown care in the community in the same way it has grown vegetables.

The flower garden...

The flower garden

Linda is still calculating her exact harvest numbers for the season, but said she harvested between 1500-2000 lbs of food this season, mostly in greens. She said she was pulling out 30 bags (3oz each) of spinach and salad greens, 15-20 bunches of kale per week, even getting other farmers and friends to harvest as well. And still, the food keeps on coming! I want to note that greens are not a heavy crop, and the idea that anyone could pull almost 2000 lbs of greens out of one 50′ x 50′ space in one season is just incredible.  Its doubly incredible considering that Linda is also doing very low carbon farming–she uses no power tools of any kind–everything is

 

Linda used various pest methods and did not have difficulty with rabbits or deer.  She lined the garden in various alliums (shallots, onions, garlic, chives) and also used herbs (lavender and rosemary). She tucked in bits of dog fur, procured for free from a local dog groomer, around the edges. She said she saw a few rabbits come in, but they went back out quickly and wouldn’t stay around to eat. The deer didn’t enter the garden.

Sunflowers!

Linda reaching up to the sunflowers!

And yet, birds and beneficial insects flock to the garden. The sunflowers are now providing good seed for the birds, the plants, even this far into October, are still producing nectar and pollen for the bees. She described seeing numerous beneficial insects such as honeybees, bumblebees, butterflies, and even dragonflies–all in this space that was once almost entirely devoid of life.

Insect life on the marigolds

Insect life on the marigolds

Although we had a wet summer, Linda did use drip irrigation as an additional aid for the garden soil.  In her drip irrigation lines she added fish emulsion and kelp meal for regular nutrition to the plants.  These are ways of getting more direct nutrition right to the roots of the soil.

One of the benefits of a front-yard garden compared to a traditional farm (which Linda was on prior to this) is proximity, or what permaculture designers call a zone. In Linda’s previous farm, all of her vegetables that she was tending were fairly far from the house, some beds quite far from the house (Zones 2 – 4). In her front yard, they are there right where she lives, where she parks her car, when she gets her mail, as soon as she steps outside (Zone 1). This, and this alone, makes the urban farm quite distinct from its rural counterpart–its not “away”, rather its “right here.”

 

Healing and Regeneration

As I mentioned in my first post on Nature’s Harvest Permaculture Farm, Linda had left a very bad personal situation, and she came to this new land hurt and in need of healing. Her land, likewise, was hurt and in need of healing in the way that so many modern lawns need healing: it had soil compaction, it was chemically ridden, and it was devoid of any habitat or life beyond the grass. Linda and her land came together for their mutual healing, and through that healing, have grown together to create the most sacred of spaces.

 

Linda describes her activity in the garden not as work but as meditation.  Certainly within druidry, we recognize different kinds of meditation, including movement meditation.  This movement meditation is one that brings Linda to the garden each day, and allows her to see her interaction with the garden not as “work” but as peaceful and engaged living.  I too, have experienced this movement meditation through the practice of gardening–sowing seeds, moving compost, raking leaves, weeding–all of these quiet, repetitive movements allow for deeper thoughts and introspection.

 

Linda also talks about the garden as her place of healing: it allows her to be outdoors, it provides her with exercise, it gives her interaction with her community, it provides her with vitamin D, it gives her nutritious food (food is medicine) and of course, continues her healing work.

A beautiful shot of the farm

A beautiful shot of the farm

 

Next Steps

In addition to the community education plans, I spoke to Linda about her fall preparation in the garden.  She explained that she’s going to add in more perennial crops this upcoming season (like blueberries, if she can get the soil PH low enough–its quite high in South-East Michigan) and start planning her crops for next year.  She plans on adding layers of leaves, pine needles (to help the soil PH) and another 5 yards of finished compost to her beds in preparation to the spring.

Nature's Harvest Permaculture Farm

Nature’s Harvest Permaculture Farm

 

Converting Your Lawn?

If you are considering converting your lawn or part of the lawn, a good place to begin is to examine the laws in your town.  Some people choose to defy the law to plant their vegetables, just be aware of the laws prior to beginning your journey so you understand the ramifications of your choices.  Second, have a plan going in of what you want it to look like and what you want to grow.  Third, start doing some sheet mulching! This is how Linda, and many others, convert lawns easily: layering organic matter with a weed suppression barrier.  Fall is a perfect time to do this as organic matter (in the form of leaves) is easily accessible and in large amounts.  Fourth, I’d suggest starting small.  Linda is a very experienced farmer–for someone who hasn’t grown much, consider converting a portion of the lawn and building up to a full lawn conversion over a period of years.  I, too, learned the lesson that bigger isn’t always better and smaller is more manageable as you are learning.  Above all–have fun in the work of regeneration!

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The Silence of the Hive October 1, 2015

A full hive with bees working

A full hive with bees working

What you quickly learn as a beekeeper is that the sound of the hive matters.  When you first get into a hive, if the hive is in good health and has all of its needs met, the hive is generally pretty quiet (I talk about the hive as a single organism, because that’s really what bees are: a single super organism.)  Sometimes, a hive is louder when you arrive–the bees are fanning the hive with their wings to keep it cool, or they are beating their wings to generate heat in the winter to keep it warm (you don’t open the hive under 50 degrees). But in the absence of extreme hot or cold, a happy and healthy hive emits only a very soft sound, discernible only up close when you open it. Beehives always have some buzzing in them–the bees move around, beat their wings, and go about tending their young and storing away pollen and honey. You can sense the happiness and contentment of the bees in a quiet hive a going about their work. As you begin doing whatever it is you need to do and disrupt the bees, like pulling out frames or moving around hive boxes, they escalate to a louder buzzing sound, where the hive is on alert. The louder the buzzing, generally, the less happy of a hive you have on your hands. They get extremely loud and start flying at you and trying to sting when they think their hive is in danger–this is usually after you do something stupid, like kill bees, bang on the hive box, drop something, etc.. I used to think that this loud buzzing was the worst sound you could hear. Now, I realize there is a much worse sound you can hear–and that is the sound of silence.

 

This past weekend was supposed to be an exciting time for me as a beekeeper–my two hives each had 30 or so pounds of excess honey in the honey supers from the last big nectar flow of the season, and it was time to go harvest. The honey this time of year is the stuff of legends, the nectar of the gods, the honey that can drive away seasonal allergies and warm the soul for the many long months of winter. Its made of plants that heal–goldenrod and aster.  Its dark and rich, extremely flavorful, and highly medicinal. I had been looking forward to this weekend for many months, excited that we had such a good harvest in the second year of beekeeping. It was especially gratifying after getting through the regulatory red tape of moving my hives from Michigan to Pennsylvania this summer and finding a new home for the hives.

 

This is what you expect to see....

This is what you expect to see….

My father joined me to help harvest the honey, and we laughed and smiled as we put on our suits, prepared our tools, and got ready to do the harvest. When we opened the first hive, I noted that the bees weren’t on the honey super–this isn’t necessarily abnormal; the colony is quickly shrinking in size as the weather cools and you don’t always find a lot of bees up in the honey super. But something felt just wrong. We were able to pull off the frames one by one, not even needing the escape board I had planned on using.  Then it struck me–there was no buzzing; the hive was silent. As I leaned into the hive and looked down through all the frames and into the brood box where the bees should still be, I could see straight to the bottom. No bees. I realized that the absence of sound was one of the worst kinds of sounds a beekeeper can hear–the silence of a dead or abandoned hive.

 

Six months ago on this blog, I wrote about the sound of silence and the music of the world–how one researcher found that as species died off and dwindled, as less and less habitats remained, a silence was coming over the world in ways not previously recorded or experienced. This, of course, is decades after Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, who documented the effects of pesticide use on bird populations–and who created a national conversation on conservation. And, as I stood there looking at my empty, dead hive, pulling frame after frame, the full weight of the silence was upon me.

 

There are lots of ways that hives can die these days, but the name for what I found in my hive this past weekend is one you’ll probably recognize: colony collapse disorder (CCD). This is when the workers in a healthy hive up and abandon it leaving their young, their queen, and all of their food behind. Its not that the whole hive moves on, but rather, just the workforce of the hive disappears. Its kind of like if every healthy adult who keeps your town functioning were to walk out of town permanently and head who knows where without any food, water, even a change of clothes, leaving their children, elders, and pets behind, and just disappear, never to be seen again. The worker bees have no chance of survival without the honey (especially as it gets colder and colder), the safety of their hive, and the queen for reproduction–especially this late in a season. Even if they somehow made it to spring, without a queen, the bees cannot reproduce and the colony would die. In a careful inspection of the dead hive, I found bees that had just hatched, half out their cells, dead. Many others never had a chance to hatch and died before they were even born. We’ve had some very cold nights, and I’m guessing they froze to death. Without any adult worker bees tending them or keeping them warm, they had no chance. It was awful.

 

Its not just the loss of the hive, a dear friend and companion on my journey, that is so painful. Its the representation of what this loss means. Its seeing the headlines about bee declines and deaths and thinking that you can somehow do better, that your organic beekeeping and the love you pour into your hives will make your bees immune to what’s going on. That CCD will never happen to your hives. That your practices, and faith, and love, can create a protective bubble to keep the harsh reality of what we are doing to this planet out.  I am again reminded of what declines in bee, bird, and other wildlife populations mean for the health of our lands. I’ve been speaking so much of regeneration on this blog in recent months, and the loss of my hive really has weighed on me the importance of this ongoing conversation.

 

In the last 10 years, there’s been a lot of press coverage about Colony Collapse Disorder–what it is, why it happens, what causes it. The truth is, scientists are still figuring it out, but it seems to focus on three areas: pesticides, disease/mites, and the loss of of foraging areas. But it doesn’t take a scientist to recognize the massive changes happening in our lands: all ones needs to do is open his or her eyes and see through the bee’s perspective. Bees need the same things the rest of us do: healthy living spaces free of poison, health and disease free living, no toxins, and adequate food supplies. Those are increasingly under threat, and unfortunately, the situation is not improving at present time.

 

Less than 1/2 mile from the hives, I noted someone in the yard with his small pack sprayer of chemicals, hitting the dandelions and other plants he didn’t want growing there.  After leaving the hives very saddened, I noted on the same road a “lawn care professional” whom I might more aptly name a “poisoner” spraying an entire lawn down with his toxic brew. Some countries in Europe have outright banned the offending pesticides to help bee populations recover, but in the great US of A, the opposite seems to happen. Instead, we get the “Best Recommendations for the Public” from the USDA in the form of the following:

“The best action the public can take to improve honey bee survival is not to use pesticides indiscriminately. In particular, the public should avoid applying pesticides during mid-day hours, when honey bees are most likely to be out foraging for nectar and pollen on flowering plants.”

Indiscriminate use of pesticides? Being mindful of pesticides? Are you serious? The first step to addressing a problem is recognizing that we have one, and clearly, as a culture we still aren’t at that point. We have extensive amounts of greenwashing on the part of actual chemical companies and a government entity that panders to them. I think, personally, its time we really start getting louder about these chemicals and frame them for what they are and do: the systematic poisoning of our lands. Seeing that guy spraying the lawn as I was leaving my dead hive was just too much for me.

 

Lawn: be gone!

Lawn: be gone!

Of course, the other big issue with CCD is that the lawn itself is a food desert to bees and many other beneficial insects and wildlife, food desert. We have many, many kinds of food deserts in the USA today: places where people can’t get access to fresh food, and places where wildlife or insects also lack access. Part of the decline in bee populations is due to the lack of food availability for the bees: those chemically-ridden, manicured lawns provide no food or forage for wildlife, and they poison all who are near them. Less food means less abundance and a harder life for the bees and for everything else–the loss of food and habitat, of course, is driving the growing silence in the world. I’m not sure if this was an issue for my hive as they definitely seemed well fed this summer, but its a contributing factor in bee health more generally.

 

When I got into beekeeping, I did so because I wanted to help understand the bees, help tend them and bring them to the landscape; I wanted to help the land heal. And this weekend, I learned a very important lesson about beekeeping–it doesn’t matter how organic and clean your practices are in the hive.  If the people around you are spraying, even out to two miles, it will make it into your hive. And it will make it into your body, and into your children, and your pets, and your trees, your organic vegetable garden, and everything else. I’m not the first person I know to lose a colony of bees to this stuff, and I certainly won’t be the last. The bees are like our canary in the coalmine–the land isn’t safe and the bees die. My question is: how long are we going to turn our heads and close our doors when our neighbors, governments, friends, family, or farmers are literally poisoning the land we hold sacred? When the canary is clearly suffering or already dead?  That’s the question I think that we all have before us.

 

Regenerative and sustainable living isn’t all whimsical and happy. We don’t homestead, harvest herbs, and tend the land just because it allows us to sit with fluffy bunnies, milk happy goats chewing on burdock, and drink oodles of lemon balm tea sweetened with raw organic honey. Maybe there’s that image out there–that of idyllic farm life, perfect and content. That if we can simply build enough of an oasis for ourselves and our families, for our gardens and our animals, that everything that is out there won’t get in. The reality is far from it. We do this because the alternative, for us, and for the life on this planet is, death. Its silence. The emptiness of a beehive, the quiet of the birds that once lived and are no more, the shrinking patches of forest–this is why we do this work. We do this because we have to do something, and doing something, however small, is better than sitting around with our faces in our phones pretending nothing is happening. There are days when, as joyful as this path may be, the reality of the challenges we face in the world come right in our faces in a way that we can’t ignore.  This past Saturday, for me, was one of those days.

 

Soil Regeneration & Lawn Reclamation: Creating a Sheet Mulch Bed from Seedy Garden Weeds September 16, 2015

As I’ve discussed recently on this blog, one way of rebuilding and deepening our relationship with the land is through the intentional act of regeneration. This regeneration work, in many cases, starts with the soil. The soil is the web of all life, and without soil, we cannot traditionally grow anything (I say “traditionally” because aquaponics and other systems do have soil-less approaches, but those aren’t really useful to say, converting your front yard into vegetables). Our soils globally are degraded, and most estimates suggest that if things keep going the way they are going, we have only 60 years of topsoil left.  Topsoil takes an extremely long time to recover naturally–about 2″ every 1000 years.  What is happening in the case of industrial farming, growing of lawns, and so on is that material that should be cycled back into the soil them now ends up blown away, in rivers or in landfills. Ninety percent of our food depends on soil (even animals we eat depend on soil, as they eat grains). Healthy ecosystems cannot thrive without soil.  And so, from my perspective, if we want to begin the work of regeneration, we begin that work with soil.

 

Soil....the beginning of life and abundance

Soil….the beginning of life and abundance

Even if you grow nothing in your soil, sinking carbon and nutrients into the soil is a practice worth engaging in. One soil building technique favored by permaculturists is sheet mulching.

 

Sheet mulching allows us to recycle otherwise “waste” products (cardboard, newspaper, yard waste, grass clippings, wood chippings from tree work in the neighborhood, etc). It allows us to quickly build soil fertility (speeding up that 1000 year process to maybe 5 or 10 years!). Sheet mulching mimics the natural process of continual layering of organic matter on the top of the soil, and not doing much to disturb the lower soil horizons. And of course, sheet mulching rebuilds our soil, adding vital nutrients and organic matter.

 

Therefore, sheet mulching has a few benefits over other kinds of garden bed prep:

  1. It allows you to mimic nature and use a variety of plant matter and other “waste” ingredients
  2. It allows you to suppress weedy material or grass to have relatively weed-free beds
  3. It allows you to quickly build soil mass
  4. It does not disrupt the existing soil web of life, but adds to it
  5. It allows us to quickly sequester carbon

 

Fall is the perfect time to begin planning your garden beds for next year and for doing any large-scale lawn conversions–and for those of us in the Northern Hemisphere, fall is just about here.  Fall is the best time to work because  its much more enjoyable to work in the cool autumn air compared to the hot July air; for existing gardens, this is when things die off; and when the fall leaves drop, a lot of free and available nutrients for gardening activities!

 

When I was doing my PDC this summer, we visited Ryan Harb’s front-yard garden in Amherst, MA and did a permablitz including a sheet mulch (I will also do a post on Ryan’s front-yard garden sometime this winter after my “harvest” posts are concluded for the year!) I’m going to share his sheet mulching technique, which was a little different from the sheet mulching I used on my Michigan Homestead that I used this in conjunction with other composting techniques. The method I presented on this blog several years ago requires that you have a lot of weed free organic matter (like fall leaves) which may not always be the case.

 

Ryan’s sheet mulch technique presented in this post is really good when you have weedy/seedy material (like say, from weeds in a garden bed) and you want to use that plant material but not have weed seeds popping up.  This technique is also good if you have some woody material, like say some small vines or something.  When I began all of my garden beds in my Michigan homestead, I used a very as my primary technique which involved loosening the soil, adding a suppression layer of cardboard, then layering organic matter (mostly weed free) several feet high in the fall and planting in it in the spring.

 

Materials needed for this technique needed are:

 

  1. A huge pile of weedy or non-weedy material (woody material ok), so material you pulled from your existing garden; even things like manures often contain weedy material (I learned this hard way the year after my first sheet mulching); fall leaves (preferably shredded) or other organic matter. You’ll need a good deal of this to build soil.
  2. Access to a hose/water source
  3. A lot of cardboard or newspaper or both; enough to cover the pile fully with overlaps.
  4. Access to finished compost; enough to cover the pile to a depth of 3-4″.
  5. Some friends to help. Sheet mulching can be a lot of fun with a bunch of people, and not as much fun without them!

Sheet Mulching

There is nothing quite like the thrill of sheet mulching to cover up lawn–it feels very subversive (to the status quo) and empowering (hey, let’s get some veg in here!).  So let’s get started!

 

After a good 2 hour harvesting and weeding session, the PDC group had a large pile of weeds.

Some of the weedy material!

Some of the weedy material!

And so, to make use of this material, we converted another 4′ x 20′ part of Ryan’s lawn to a productive growing space. We began by laying down the layer of weedy material–the layer was probably about 1.5 feet thick when we started.

Laying down the material in a pile

Laying down the material in a pile

After each step you water the pile. The water helps the material break down faster. After reading the Liquid Gold book, I would probably, at this step, also encourage everyone to pee on the pile to add additional nitrogen or add some saved urine for the pile….but we unfortunately skipped that step during the permablitz :). After wetting the pile, we began adding compost. We added 3-4″ of compost the whole way over the pile.

Shoveling compost with friends (note shady location of compost pile - wise placement!)

Shoveling compost with friends (note shady location of compost pile – wise placement!)

Adding compost to the pile

Adding compost to the pile

As we added compost, we used the back of the rake to evenly distribute the compost.

Ryan smooths the pile

Ryan smooths the pile

After that, we worked to flatten the pile by dancing on it. The dancing is critical–I’m not sure this method will work without dancing at some point.  Get in there in your bare feet and go to it!

Dancing and stomping on the pile!

Dancing and stomping on the pile!

After this step, we add the cardboard and newspaper.  This functions as a weed suppression layer–we need to suppress any weeds that may want to poke up through that rich compost!  So while some of us prepped cardboard, others laid it down.

Preparing the cardboard by removing all plastic tape, labels, etc

Preparing the cardboard by removing all plastic tape, labels, etc

Larger pieces of cardboard were added first....

Larger pieces of cardboard were added first….

Smaller cardboard pieces and newspapers fill in the gaps.

Smaller cardboard pieces and newspapers fill in the gaps.

You can get cardboard and newspaper readily–most big stores will have so much cardboard every day that they are generating from materials coming in. Furniture stores or Appliance/TV stores have really large boxes that work well for this. Last week’s newspapers, also, can be readily available. Or if your neighborhood has paper recycling, just go pick boxes up on the curb.  Regardless of how you procure your newspaper and cardboard, lay down a good amount. We laid down a full layer of newspaper, paying close attention to the edges.

Newspaper on edges

Newspaper on edges

Then we watered the whole pile quite well, again.

Wetting down the pile

Wetting down the pile

The next step is to add the wood chips–this will provide the plants to be planted in this pile next year some mulch, which retains water.  Bare soil is not typically found in nature and so we want to mimic nature by using mulching materials.  The wood in the chips will eventually break down as well, further adding humus and nutrients to the soil.

Adding wood chips as mulch

Adding wood chips as mulch

Wetting down the pile – we’ve finished!

Completed sheet mulch!

Completed sheet mulch!

This sheet mulch area won’t be planted in right away–we made this pile in July, and Ryan planned on planting in it in the spring.  That’s usually how it works: prepare the piles prior to planting.  The reason for this is that the sheet mulch pile can get pretty hot as the green plant material is breaking down and that can be too hot for plant roots to survive.  By letting the pile sit, the pile will break down naturally and create an awesome growing medium.

 

In my own garden at my homestead, in early spring, some of the material from my fresh sheet mulch piles still hadn’t broken down when I went to plant the spring. I added additional compost for around the plant, and the plants did just fine.  By the end of that first summer, there was no more cardboard or material–all was beautiful, rich, black soil.  Nature does try to slowly reclaim your soil and piles–if you find yourself in a thicket of plants you no longer want, sometimes its easier just sheet mulch over them again. So you sheet mulch, grow a few years, get a bunch of creeping weeds, and then just sheet mulch over it again; this doesn’t harm the soil, and continues to add organic material.  Yay for soil regeneration!
PS: If any Druid Garden blog readers are planning on attending the Mother Earth News Fair in Seven Springs, PA this weekend, do comment and let me know so we can meet up! 🙂

 

Healing Hands: Replanting and Regenerating the Land as a Spiritual and Sacred Practice August 14, 2015

Acorns

Acorns

A lone man walks through a field of brambles as the sun rises, a small pouch at his side.  This field was old-growth forest before being clear cut a century or more ago; it was then farmland for 50 years before becoming unfarmable wasteland; over the last 15 years, enough soil fertility has returned enough to support the brambles. As the man walks, every so often, he leans down, takes out a small trowel, and pops a nut in the ground–hickory and oak nuts, primarily, but others like butternut, chestnut, and walnut are also sometimes planted. He is a man on a very quiet and very personal mission–and his goal is simple: to return hardwoods to the cleared lands of Western Pennsylvania. Sometimes, he carries roots instead: the roots of goldenseal and ginseng, plants once common here and are now about impossible to find. This man plants trees that he will not likely ever harvest from, he walks lands that others have abandoned, and he donates his time to this simple, meditative practice. Who is this man? This man is my father, and his work is for generations–human and otherwise–beyond himself.

 

The question our role as humans is in the ecosystem and how spiritual practices and permaculture design allows us to better enact that role is an important one.  In this post, I’ll explore the idea of an earth care ethic through active regeneration of the land.

 

Pick up the Garbage and Get Out

I’ve heard many in the druid community say that the best thing you can do for any piece of land is to “pick up the garbage and get the hell out.” And there are certainly times and places where I think this approach is the wisest–the ecosystem is fragile and nature is doing her own healing. Or, this is a good approach if there are people already dedicated to the cause of healing particular parts of land, like state forests or conservation areas, and you haven’t been asked to help in that existing work. But what about everywhere else? What about the lands that aren’t under protected or conservation status? What about lands that lay fallow and are struggling to come back from a lot of abuse? I’m starting to disagree that this “pick up the garbage and get out” is the right approach in every case and in fact, in many cases.

 

"A Pennsylvania Desert" of the late 19th century

“A Pennsylvania Desert” of the late 19th century

I’ll use Western Pennsylvania as an example, and I’m sure readers in other places can think of their own local examples. At one point in Pennsylvania’s history, about 100 years ago, the forests were almost entirely gone (see photo, right). Today’s logging looks harmless by comparison (and is ecologically much more sound, but still extremely disruptive). Trees that were 15 and 20 feet across were cut down during this time, and other resources the land held were also sought, such as coal. Since that time, regrowth (ecological succession) has been successful in some places and the forests that have returned are now mostly protected by being a state forest, wild area, or game lands (although game lands still allow fracking and logging, so I’m skeptical about this “protection”). Other forests never returned, and instead went to farmland, subdivisions, cities, airports, or something else. Even for the forests that managed to return to forest, the logging and clearcutting significantly and permanently alters the what is growing there long-term. Hardwoods like hickory, walnut, chestnut, or oak, especially have had difficulty regrowing because they grow much slower than other trees like black cherry, beech, or birch. Forest herbs on the floor also have difficulty recovering or spreading quickly, especially those who spread slowly by root or rhizome. Much of the land no longer holds the fertility or nutrients needed to support a forest. Other land still hasn’t grown back, and was farmland till the fertility in the soil was removed to the point where little is growing there–only pioneer species working to bring nutrients back into the soil.

 

Ecological Succession is the process of nature regrowing from a damaged state. What it regrows into is largely a matter of the ecosystem and region–around here in Western Pennsylvania, the final state of succession is a forest. In the Great Plains states, it is, as you may suspect, grass plains and savanna. The damaged state could have been caused by a fire, flood or other natural occurrence, but in our era, its predominantly caused by human destruction, as in the case of the forests of Pennsylvania, or more recently, mountaintop removal in West Virginia, or boney dumps in Pennsylvania. Sometimes, ecological succession fails to happen almost entirely, even over a period of decades or centuries, because the land has been too damaged by human activity to begin that healing process (of which I’ll be speaking more about next week).

 

As an example of this can be seen through the chestnut tree. Prior to the chestnut blight of the early 20th century, chestnuts made up anywhere from 5-15% of most forests in Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania decided to cut down *all* of the chestnuts (even non-blighted ones) to try to stop the spread of disease, essentially preventing evolution from happening–the chestnut trees could not evolve blight resistance if they weren’t given a chance to do so. The result is that very, very few chestnuts remain–hence why my father works to plant them.

 

Ecological succession well underway!

Ecological succession well underway!

Approaches to Human Intervention in Ecological Succession

The idea of human intervention on the landscape, in a positive direction, is not one well known in present culture. The conservationist approach, developed as a response to things like the clear-cutting that took place in Pennsylvania a 100 years ago, has done much to help re-introduce and protect forests and wildlife–and for the places that are protected, the protection generally works. I visited the Pennsylvania Wilds (a protected area spanning 1.5 million acres of forests in North-Central PA) two weeks ago and I was amazed to read of the story of conservation there on that land.

 

But I do think that the conservation mindset creates some challenges. The conservation mindset  is rooted in the idea that when white settlers arrived here, they found a pristine landscape, untouched by human hands. The goal of conservation, then, is to get the land back to that state and to not let anyone touch it again (because human touch is seen as problematic, and in most cases today, it is). Every day, I’m thankful that early conservations decided to set aside millions of acres of forests in my home state.  Some conservationist efforts do work towards restoring native ecosystems or at least creating balanced ones. And that’s all good work.

 

But at the same time, the situation is radically different now than in 1492–more species are here and are naturalized, animal species patterns are different (which is critical–see this video of the wolf changing rivers at Yellowstone), and I’m not sure that simple restoration to the way things were and then leaving it alone is always the best approach. I’m also not sure that leaving this regenerative work only in the hands of the “experts” is the best either because it disallows collective responsibility and action. But it certainly is an understandable response, given what has been going on for the last 150 or so years.

 

Another approach, one I have heard expressed in druid retreats and by various practitioners earth-based spiritual traditions is “letting the land alone to heal.” But I don’t think this approach is entirely ethical either. For one, leaving a forest to regrow on its own will never re-introduce species that have been largely lost to our forests, like chestnut, because there aren’t enough of them left to spread. It will never re-introduce ginseng, goldenseal, or ramps, all of which have been over-harvested to critically endangered stats–and all of which are slow-spreading root crops. It won’t address the damage caused by erosion or soil loss–eventually, given a long time, the earth can heal from these things. However, even while ecological succession is slowly occurring on nature’s own timeline, other damages and pressures may be happening, like acid rain, mine runoff, poaching, and more. The two real issues with the idea of “letting the land alone to heal” and that, first and foremost, is that it removes our personal and collective responsibility for the damage that was done. And second, just as humans caused quick destruction, we can also help jump start and guide the healing process more quickly. This kind of work tremendously deepens our spiritual and physical connection with those lands.

 

The Power of Human Touch: Positive Human Intervention, Spiritual Interaction, and Regeneration

White mythology suggests that when settlers came to what was to become the United States and Canada, they found pristine wilderness untouched by human hands. The truth is, the lands such as those that would later make up the USA were never “untouched by human hands” as is commonly thought.  Yet, the nature of the touch was much, much different. In fact, M. Kat Anderson, in a book called Tending the Wild provides a rich body of evidence that Native Americans tended the land extensively to maintain balance and abundance. Anderson learned from the Native elders she was interviewing in California that some native plants have literally evolved with human intervention and they need humans to survive and thrive—this puts an entirely new perspective on the idea of earth care and stewardship.

 

If you think this idea that the land evolved with human touch is a bit radical, consider domesticated vegetables or animals. This idea is really no different than farm animals or even annual vegetables you plant in your garden, who also have evolved with humans and depend on them for protection and nurturing. Anderson’s work breaks down the distinction between what is cultivated and what is wilderness–all lands were tended in some way.

 

One of the things I recently learned from Walker Kirby, a man teaching us at my Permaulculture Design Certificate who was coming out of the work of John Young’s Wilderness Awareness School, was the fact that “wilderness” as a term was quite negative in the native cultures of the northeast USA. Wilderness was it was land that had been abandoned or left untended by its people–and that was a tragic thing. This is such a different view that most humans have in industrialized nations–we have seen so much damage, we just want to leave nature alone and protect the wilderness.  But in creating “wilderness” we are, essentially, abandoning our responsibility to tend that land; its not really different than abandoning elderly relatives, children, or animals in our care.

Planting Hope

Planting Hope

 

The other piece to all of this is, of course, that this damage we currently have is largely human caused. Humans have some substantial Karmic debt that we can work to help payoff by directly taking action. Some humans are still causing active destruction; many more are complicit and passively supporting that destruction passively through their choices, purchases, and inaction. They turn their head and shut their eyes because they do not want to see.  But for those who walk an earth-based spiritual path focused on rebuilding a relationship with nature and those who are awake and alive–we are seeing. We can help make right what was damaged, and by doing so, we rekindle the ancient bond between humanity and the land. Many of our ancestors further participated in this destruction (as their livelihoods, but still, they were participating in it), and we carry the that karmic debt as well.  My grandfathers and great grandfathers worked in the coal mines and the steel mills because those were the jobs available here–and the environmental costs of those mines and mills are still very much present on the landscape of Western Pennsylvania today. Who better than their granddaughter or great granddaughter to go out and help regenerate the lands after the mills and mines closed down but their scars remain? All of us, in some way or another, are directly energetically connected to that damage which we see on the landscape–and all of us can do something, even something small, to work to heal.

 

Anderson’s Tending the Wild gives us a radically different model for what humanity’s relationship with nature can look like. It shows that humans have been active tenders of our landscapes, engaging in regeneration and healing, and co-evolving with nature. I believe it is this same mindset that my father has for bringing in more hardwoods–it is a desire to heal the land. Imagine if there millions and millions of us, all across the lands of this great planet, actively healing the land as part of our spiritual practice. What a difference we could make–in both inner and outer worlds.

 

Overcoming Fear

Many alternative communities, whether they are druids or other healers use some form of energy healing. In the druid traditions that I practice, our seasonal celebrations raise positive energy through ritual and song and send it into the land for a blessing. Energetically, we are doing the work of regeneration–but this invisible line exists that we don’t cross; we often don’t physically do much beyond that. Because we are afraid to do harm. Because we don’t feel we have the knowledge of how to do anything else. What exactly can we do? What exactly should we do?  How do we know we can do it better?  How do we know we won’t cause harm? Where should this work be done?  How should it be done?

 

Part of the fear of interacting with nature, especially in a physically regenerative capacity, I think stems from the fact that we want to do no more harm.  But I would argue that not doing anything is worse than the potential of doing harm in many cases. Anderson writes in her introduction to Tending the Wild, “The elders challenged the notion I had grown up with—that one should respect nature by leaving it alone—by showing me that we learn respect through the demands put on us by the great responsibility of using a plant or animal” (xvi).  The work of physical land healing can bring us the power to heal the land and the responsibility of doing so.

 

The Way Forward toward Land Healing as a Spiritual Practice

As my last few posts on the blog describe, this kind of work directly aligns with the tools and practices of  permauclture design.  Through permaculture, we have many examples of aiding in ecological succession faster and helping nature in this healing process. With careful observation, planning, and knowledge, we can actively help ecological succession along, actively help our lands heal.  This work takes a lot of knowledge, dedication, and commitment–but it is so worth doing and worth doing well.  Through many years of study and practice you’ll have more effective strategies to address larger problems, you can begin now, in this very moment.

 

Regenerate soil!

Regenerate soil!

For those interested in starting the work, perhaps start by enacting the principle of “observe and interact” from permaculture design. Go into the places that are in most need of healing that we can reach. The damaged lands, the degraded soils, those places abandoned by others. Lawns are a good place to start, as are abandoned fields, abandoned lots on your city streets, logged areas. Learn about that land, learn about the soil, look at what is already growing and learn about why it is growing there, don’t be immediately angry if you find out its “invasive” (many “invasive” plants are healers, in their own way) and think about how you might help ecological succession along. And more than anything else, listen and observe, with your inner and outer senses, and see what the land has to tell you.

 

I realize I’ve been doing this work for a very long time (as is evidenced by this early post), but the regenerative work I was doing was almost entirely focused on my homestead.  I knew I was regenerating the land there, doing good healing work. Selling my homestead and being “landless” during this transition to a new state has shifted my eyes to the broader landscape.  I realized that its not just about what I do on a small site, but what I do in many different places and spaces. I think that’s the work this post is trying to do–explore the broader call to heal the land beyond what we generally “own.” Its trying to cast a wide net, seeing the land differently, realizing that all of the land is ours to tend, if not legally so, than certainly, ethically so.

 

I’ll be spending more time in upcoming posts on different ways of approaching how physical land regeneration as a spiritual practice may happen. For now, I wanted to share my thoughts about why–as druids, as people who care, as whoever you are as you are reading this–we could consider this as part of our spiritual and ethical work in the world. Perhaps sit with the idea, like a hot cup of tea made from pioneer plants in a field in need of regeneration, and consider whether you are called to walk this particular path.