The Druid's Garden

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

Building with Cob, Part II: Soil Tests and Mixing Cob September 8, 2019

Happy feet mixing cob!

In a meadow under the summer sun, a group of dancers laugh and fling mud.  Beneath their feet, clay, sand, and water become mixed together, creating a sticky earthen blend that sticks to their feet, their legs, and, after some play, faces and fingers! This is a cob mixing party, one of the best times you can have with good friends. After the cob is mixed, it is added by others to the bench and more soil is added and the dance continues.  In last week’s post we explored some reasons to consider exploring natural building as a potential way to build sustainable structures and be more attuned with the energies of earth.  In this week’s post, we will get into how to test your soil and how to make some cob!

 

One thing I want to share about cob–you don’t have to build big things, like houses or ovens, with cob.  You can also build really small things–candleholders, paperweights, primitive statuary, and so on.  You can do an earth plaster on a wall in your home, or build a small cob bench overlooking the woods. I think the underlying practice with cob is simply to work with the earth in this very earth-honoring and embodied practice.  This post explores how to test your soil and make cob, which you can then use to shape your world!

Preliminaries for Cob: Testing Your Soil and Quality of Cob

Soil Horizons and Your Subsoil

Soil horizonsMaking cob requires you to understand a bit about soil horizons and how soil lays on the earth.  If you dig a hole in the earth straight down, you’ll see that soil show up in layers (horizons).  The first layer, the O layer, is an organic layer–where dead and rotting organic matter can be found.  This is the layer that is created when leaves fall and rot, creating dark, rich, humus.  This is what we want to grow plants in, NOT what we want for natural building.

 

The second layer, the  A Horizon, is the surface layer.  It is usually less dark, but still contains nutrients and organic matter. It usually appears lighter in color. Again, this is for plants, not for cob.

 

The third layer, the B Horizon, represents the sub-soil.  It is here where we find clay, sand, and silt; our basic building blocks for cob construction.  You’ll notice another break in your soil as you go down–in my region, the soil gets quite orange, representing the high iron content that we have here.

 

The fourth layer is the C Horizon, or sub-stratum, where you get quite rocky before hitting the final layer: the R layer, bedrock.  We don’t really want that for cob either.  Depending on where you live, the bedrock may be very close to the surface or dozens of feet down, so you may never see it.  Here in Pennsylvania, however, you can get a good look at the C horizon less than a foot down!

 

The amount of O and A Horizons you have is based on your own soil ecology as well as the long-term land use and land history. Parts of the world were stripped to bedrock by glaciers.  Other parts have a 15 foot A Horizon due to long-term patterns of beneficial animal herd grazing.  The same is true of the B, C, and R layers–the depth of these layers is based on a lot of land history factors spanning back tens or hundreds of thousands of years.

 

The good news is that in many parts of the world, clay and sand are fairly abundant and easy to get to with only a shovel!  You can learn more about soil horizons in your area by looking at recently dug up areas–a fallen tree that has taken the roots with it as it fell offers one such opportunity; new construction into a hillside offers another.  Or, you can simply get out a shovel and start digging–the secrets of the soil horizons will be revealed to you with a bit of sweat equity.

 

The Soil Jar Test

To find out how much sand, clay, and silt you are working with in your subsoil, you can perform a simple soil jar test.  Dig down into the subsoil and get yourself a good cupful of subsoil.  Break it up well if it is compacted as much as you can (this might mean letting it dry out for a few days in the sun and then breaking it up that way). Place this in a quart mason jar and fill with water to the top, leaving about an inch or so to shake it.  If you have animal helpers, this is a good time to enlist their help. Shake it very well.

Soil jar after shaking well.

 

Goose inspection of the jar. All is well.

Now, let your jar sit somewhere undisturbed or 24 hours.

  • The sand (a large grain particle) will immediately sink to the bottom, within a few minutes.  Mark this with tape or a marker if you can, or mentally note where it is.
  • A layer of silt (a medium particle) will settle on top of the sand in about 30 min.  You should .again mentally note where that ends.
  • Over the next 24 hours or so, the clay (a vey fine-grained particle) will settle out of the water.
  • You will also see any organic matter floating at the top of the jar.

24 hour later, all has settled.

You can look at these ratios as a way to determine if you will need to source some off-site materials to make an effective cob blend (2 parts sand, 1 part silt/clay).  As you can see from above, I am blessed in that I have an excellent ration of sand to clay/silt, and the cob from my land is almost perfect without any additions.

Any organic matter will settle on top (or float) but if you are using subsoil and you dug below the A horizon, you shouldn’t have much of that. (As an aside, you can use this same test for garden soil on the surface and it will tell you how much organic matter is in your soil, which is a very good thing!)

 

Clay Ribbon Test

Another good thing to do to test your clay in your subsoil is to do a ribbon test.  This gives you a simple test that lets you know how pure your clay is and how it will hold up over time.  A good example of how to do this is here. You mix up your cob as usual and work to create one of those clay snakes (like you may have done as a kid). When you have it mixed, you see how well it can be worked (bending) without breaking.  The higher the clay content, the more bendy it is.

 

Making cob at my PDC in 2015!

Soft and Sharp Sand

Not all sand is created equal and it is very good to know what kind of sand you have in your subsoil. Some sand has very soft edges; you can think of beach sand here. The waves and water over a long period of time have softened the sand to the point where it is smooth. It is possible that the sand in your subsoil is like this–it is very soft because at one time, it was on a beach somewhere! Sharper sand contributes to a stronger cob. If you are doing major load-bearing building projects, you might consider adding some “builders sand” (which is a sharp, coarse sand) to your mix.

How to Make Cob!

Without further delay, let’s mix up some cob!

To make your own cob, you will need the following tools:

  • A shovel to dig out subsoil, wheelbarrow
  • Subsoil
  • Straw (chopped up), aged manure, or other grassy things (this adds strength)
  • A mixing tarp (any tarp will do, at least 6′ across  so you can move the cob around on it
  • A water source (hose, bucket, etc.)
  • Some happy feet for cob dancing (you know you want to!)
  • A large wooden screen sizes (use 1/2 or 1/4″ screen; see “tools” below)
  • A rock or small board to help sift subsoil

 

Tools

Probably the only tool you will need to make is your screen sifter. For general cob applications, you will want a 1/2″ screen for coarse/building cob. For finer cob applications (finish plasters, earthen candleholders or statuary, etc) you will want a 1/4″ screen. I made my screen by making a simple wooden frame out of scrap 2×4″ board. Then, I used a good amount of staples to staple my hardware cloth (1/2″) to the frame. The process took about 30 minutes, which mostly involved cutting and stapling the hardware cloth.

Screen with soil

It is necessary that you screen your cob in most locations–you don’t want those happy dancing feet to step on sharp rocks, sticks, or other stuff.  If you are taking your cob down to the 1/4″ level and have really rocky and uneven subsoil, I suggest starting to screen it at 1/2″ and then rescreen it down to 1/4″.

Making Cob

Dig your soil. The first thing to do is to dig out a good amount of subsoil.  I usually mix two medium wheelbarrows full at a time.  If you mix too much at once, it becomes unwieldy, particularly if you are mixing it yourself.  You can see how rocky our subsoil is!

Wheelbarrow full of subsoil

Screen your cob. Now, screen your cob. To do this, break up the hard chunks as much as you can with a shovel.  Wet soil will not screen.  Really dry soil (as in, you haven’t had rain for quite a while) may get hard to screen as well, so there really is a sweet spot for soil moisture (experiment, you will see what I mean). Put a few shovel fulls of cob in your screen and then start moving it around. After you break up the big stuff, you can use a rock or small piece of board to really push the soil through the screen. Once you’ve screened all of the cob, place the stones and other debris in a bucket, and continue with more subsoil.

Using a stone to work out the last bits of subsoil/clay chunks from stone

Make your cob. Once your subsoil is all screened, you can dump it into the mixing tarp. Make a well in the center of the subsoil, and just like you’d do making a dough, place water in the well in the center.  Don’t overdo it, just fill up that well.

The well with water

Now, start mixing the cob together with your feet. As you mix, grab an edge of the tarp and pull part of the soil over on itself. Add more water. Mix with your feet again, and continue the process–flipping over the cob, adding water, etc, until all the cob is firm yet pliable. How wet you want your cob depends on the application. If you are using cob as a mortar for a stone wall or brick rocket stove, you will want it much wetter. If you want to make bricks and build with it (like an earth oven), you will want it more firm.

Work it!  Mixing in the straw.  Sprinkle lightly to prevent clumps.

Optional: Add straw. At this stage, if you want your cob to have extra strength, you can mix in some straw or other grassy matter. This addition is excellent for building cob ovens, walls, and so on. The straw will suck up some of the moisture in your mix, so you may have to add a bit more water till you get a perfect consistency!  For fine applications, a lot of cobbers actually use dried out horse or cow manure–the cellulose stays in the plant matter as it moves through the animal, giving a really nice soft strengthener.

 

In my photo here, I am using this cob as a mortar for my greenhouse back wall, so I have added straw to help strengthen it.

A good mix!

Create anything with your cob! Now, you have a wonderful building material that you can do anything with!  If you don’t have anything to build yet, consider not adding the straw and instead, making some primitive statuary, cob candleholders, paperweights, and so on.  I love the way that some cob statuary and candleholders look on an altar!

Ready to use!

Cob and cobblestone wall ongoing in the greenhouse!

 

The photos in this blog post show two different locations–at my permaculture design certificate program, where the soil was more brown/gray and then here in PA, where we have beautiful yellow-orange iron-rich soil.  One of the other delightful things about cob is that it reflects the land where it comes from–we can truly see the colors of the land through this practice.

I hope this post was inspirational to you and you consider experimenting with this amazing building source!

 

Building with Cob, Part I: Project ideas and Honoring Earth September 1, 2019

Making some cob!

Connecting with the earth can mean a lot of things–and today, I want to talk through how to create a simple building material that can be used for a wide variety of purposes: cob.  Cob is an ancient building material that is a combination of sand, clay, and straw (or other strengthening materials) mixed with water. Cob, the synthesis of water and earth, becomes the passive forms through which we shape anything from a small earth oven to a whole living space.  In this post, I’ll introduce cob and offer some different kinds of projects that you can do with it. This post compliments last week’s post, where I shared how to make ecobricks from waste plastic materials.  Cob is certainly one of the more sustainable and local construction materials to use in conjunction with ecobricks, so I thought it would be a nice time to introduce this as well.  I’m also going to be doing a variety of cob projects on the homestead in the next few years that I will share about, and thus, it is useful to have this introduction first!

 

For many years, when I was studying natural building and various kinds of sustainable living at Strawbale Studio in Michigan, I offered a series of posts on natural building topics and rocket stoves. This post continues that series, and I am delighted to revisit some of these construction techniques. This post will serve as a basic introduction to natural building with cob–for more resources, there are books and classes (I’d highly suggest one of the internships at Strawbale Studio for a hands on experience!) Today’s post covers the preliminaries for cob building – what cob is, the kinds of projects you can make with cob, and the spiritual implications of learning to work with this amazing material. Next week’s post will show you how to test your soil and make cob.  Once I finish it in a month or so, I will also show the cob/cobblestone build a simple passive solar greenhouse heatsink wall.

 

Connecting to the Earth

Cob is the combination of sand, clay, and straw that has been used as a building material throughout the ages.  It is a most ancient building material, an ancestral building material.  It is always a local resource that reflects the different qualities of the earth in that location. It has been created by humans for thousands of years (if not longer), and is used in a number of building techniques, including adobe construction, waddle and daub construction, strawbale construction, and much more. In fact, nearly every temperate or tropical non-industrial culture has created their own version of cob in some capacity. This is a building material that is right from the land, created with our bodies in perfect harmony with the living earth.

 

In modern industrialized cultures, we often live in and build structures in opposition to the land. These structures almost always ignore basic things like sunlight, wind, or other weather patterns that would make heating and cooling them more effective and instead, rely on unsustainable fossil fuel burning to make them comfortable.  We live in houses full of toxic substances: the materials were toxic to the land and her peoples (human or otherwise) during extraction, toxic during their production, and they will be toxic when they are destroyed and put in a landfill. Our homes, structures, and building materials are thus in a constant state of disconnection from the living earth.  I think its hard to live that way, even subconsciously, and not experience some disconnection as well.

 

Cob offers us one path, of many, back to more nature connection.  Learning some cobbing and other natural building skills can help us connect with the earth, honor the earth, and learn some of the deeper mysteries of the land.  We can reconnect with the wisdom of our ancestors, who built shelters and homes right from the land aroudn them.  Learning to make cob, even through small things like making cob candleholders, allows for that deep, ancestral connection.  There is nothing as satisfying as communing with the earth, digging up some of her subsoil, sifting it, and stomping it with your bare feet to mix it into something that you can use to create virtually anything!   The mud between your toes, the weight of the earth, the shape of it in your hands–it is empowering, it is connective, and it is soul-filled.

 

Making cob and building with cob (also known as “cobbing”) also offers powerfully to the druid elements (which are explained here): particularly, the synthesis of gwyar and calas. You can also think of cob through the classical elements: the passive elements of water and earth are combined to build structures which heat, shelter, and allow us to cook meals, and so on.  It is an incredible and beautiful way to learn to live more in harmony with nature.

 

In the 21st century and the age of the Anthropocene, I think we need multiple pathways to find our way back to the cradle of the earth.  To a place of connection, or re-connection. Of learning that the earth, right under our feet, and the living things around us can truly provide all of our basic necessities for life.  This is a lesson that humanity has forgotten in the century+ past industrialization, but it is time that we begin to learn this lesson anew.  And for some of us, this lesson comes in the form of learning to build as our ancestors did–of using materials right from our land.

 

What are the benefits of working with Cob?

The Strawbale Studio - Cob/Strawbale with Thatched Roof

The Strawbale Studio – Cob/Strawbale with Thatched Roof

Local and sustainable sourcing, ethical building material. Because cob is locally sourced, it is an extremely sustainable building material. If you have the right kind of sub-soil, you can literally dig it out of your land and make it right there. Some sub-soil may require off-site amendments, depending on the nature of your soil (see soil tests, next week’s post). Cob comes right from the earth, and can return right to the earth, with minimal to no ecological impact. For example, in digging my hugelkultur beds, I replaced hard packed clay with large amounts of wood, plant matter, and compost–and the clay that was removed from those beds was piled up nearby, ready to be turned into cob.  Now I have a giant pile of subsoil that I am slowly using for new cob projects.

 

By comparison, modern construction materials are just awful from an environmental perspective. For example, the production of concrete is the *third largest* producer of C02 in the world! The link in the last sentence shows at how many different stages the production of concrete is linked to C02. Yes, concrete is more permanent than cob, but it comes with serious disadvantages.

 

Endless possibilities for construction. The possibilities of building with cob are endless! You can build earth ovens, chicken coops, candleholders, and even whole living structures. About 10 years ago, strawbale/cob construction was listed in the International Building Code, which makes it easier to secure the necessary permits in places that require them. Most of the “finished” photos in this post are from the Strawbale Studio, built by my natural building mentor, Deanne Bednar.  In addition, unlike many conventional building materials that require squares and rectangles, cob also allows for amazing amounts of versatility and creativity.  Unlike regular structures built with straight lines, cob allows for flowing curves, circles, spirals, and many unique features. Thus, many natural building projects are flowing, curvy, and fun.

 

Accessible to everyone. If you didn’t grow up “handy” or had someone to teach you, traditional construction may be inaccessible–both because it requires a lot of specialized knowledge and also because it requires multiple kinds of expensive tools and supplies. By comparison, cob construction can be taught to anyone, including children. In fact, cob allows us to build things right from the land, on the land, with minimal hand tools and no fossil fuel demands. It is perfect for group settings, schools, and other places where people want to join together to do something fun.

 

The inside of Strawbale studio with curves and beautiful features

The inside of Strawbale studio with curves and beautiful feature

Building with cob is “slow” and “meditative.”  Taking fossil fuels out of the equation requires a different kind of time commitment. Fossil fuels allow us to radically increase the speed at which things are done, but not the quality by which they are done.  Cobbing allows us to slow down, to re-attune with earth’s rhythms, and to have fun making something magical with our own hands and feet!  This is “earth time” and requires us to simply embrace the experience. Creating and working with cob is not done on “fast time” but represents a very slow and meditative process.  I list this as a benefit because I truly believe it to be so–by attuning with the earth and her building materials, we are forced to slow down, breathe, and be a participant in the process.

 

Can be combined with other sustainable practices. Cob is but one of many different techniques that can be used to build material. Timber framing, ecobricks, thatching, passive solar, rocket stoves/energy efficient heating, and shingle making from wood are just some of the strategies that align with these approaches. A rich universe of knowledge awaits you down this path!

 

Example Cob Projects: Rocket Stoves, Ovens, and Structures

One of the first considerations when thinking about a cob building project is matching the cob project to your climate. In arid climates where there is little rain, cob can be out in the sun and elements unprotected with minimal damage. In temperate climate with lots of rain, sleet, hail, and snow, special considerations are needed to protect the cob from the elements. In particular, cob designs need to have a “good hat” and “good feet.” That is cob projects are required to have some kind of protective structure that prevents the cob from getting wet–even with a finish plaster, it cannot stand up to the regular elements for extended periods.  A good footer,  usually made of stone, is what you rest cob on (so that it can’t wash away). This is one of the big differences between concrete and cob. Concrete is designed to stand up to the elements for years–but it also means that it will not return easily to the earth. Cob requires more TLC with regards to the elements, but is perfectly fine when designed correctly. As you see some of the examples of cob projects, you will see the use of the good hat/good foot design!  With this in mind, let’s explore some of the wonderful projects you can do with Cob!

 

Cob Ovens for Pizza and Baking. A staple in the cob world and a project that can be complete over several weekends is a cob baking oven for pizzas.  This is a good beginner project for cob, and there are lots of designs and resources online and in print.  I’ve built a few of these and have also had the pleasure in cooking in them!  The pizza that comes forth from them is amazing.

A cov oven at Sirius Ecovillage

This first photo is of the cob oven at Sirius Ecovillage (where I was blessed enough to do my permaculture design certificate in 2015!).  I love this oven because it has a well-designed structure that lets light in, it has beautiful artistry of the oven outside, and it produces quite tasty food!

 

Cob oven with fresh mushroom pizza

Earth Oven at Strawbale

This second oven is located at Strawbale studio.  While this oven was built before my time there, I was able to help repair cracks in this oven and bake in it on several occasions.  This oven did not have the optional stove pipe (like the first one did) but it still worked great.  In this case, the venting of the heat and smoke just come out the front. Notice the “hat” and ‘feet” of this design. The first photo shows some handmade pizzas with fresh foraged mushrooms we made and enjoyed as part of a workshop!

 

A Cob Rocket Stove or Rocket Mass Heater: Cob is excellent at transmitting heat (or cold) and because of that, it makes an excellent material for a rocket stove or rocket mass heater. There are lots of different designs for these; some years ago I detailed one rocket stove using a cob mortar here that I built with a group of others at Strawbale Studio. Other designs include indoor ones that are designed to heat larger spaces, like this other indoor heater at Strawbale.  This cob bench works on the principle of heating bodies, not spaces, so it radiates heat out.  It takes a long time to heat up (about 4 hours, as the cob is 4″ thick in most places) but even after the fire dies out, it will stay warm for many hours.

Indoor rocket mass heater

Indoor rocket mass heater at Strawbale Studio

Rocket stove with cob mortar

Rocket stove with cob mortar

Larger Structures: Buildings, Walls, and More: Cob projects can become any size you are willing to work on–up to full size houses, saunas, chicken coops, and more. Strawbale Studio has a lot of such examples of these kinds of structures. One of the keys to thinking about larger structures is that cob transmits heat or cold really well–this means that a stove will move heat outward. However, uninsulated cob walls will quickly turn into a freezer in winter–this is why cob is often combined wtih strawbale construction for strawbale’s insulation properties in temperate climates.  Cob on its own has no insulation and will move heat or cold through it.

Hobbit Sauna

Hobbit Sauna tree (this is a tree I designed and created for the sauna with help from my friends!  Here, the tree is drying after working on it for two days. This was done during my last visit to Strawbale Studio in 2017!)

 

In Greenhouses and as Heat Sinks.  My current in-progress cob project (which I should finish by the end of Fall 2019) is a cob/stone wall for the back of my greenhouse.  I am doing this project in my small repurposed carport greenhouse. All greenhouses have three sides that allow for light and heat to enter (east, south, and west).  The other side of the greenhouse, north, never has direct light or heat coming through it, and thus, it is better to insulate it than to treat it like the other three walls. Because cob is an excellent conductor of heat, I am using the wall as a heatsink. This will be useful for any sunny day in fall, winter, or spring where the sun heats the greenhouse up considerably but the temperature drops a lot in the night (in summer, sinking heat isn’t a problem!).  I’ll share this design in a future post.

 

Cob benches and smaller structures. Cob is also used for a variety of smaller structures, such as cob benches. These can be done indoors or out. I haven’t yet worked on one of these projects, but you can see nice examples here.

 

That’s it for today–in my next post, we’ll look how to test your soil for an appropriate mix of clay and sand, mixing cob, and doing some basic construction (in this case, my cob greenhouse wall). May your hands ever be in the earth, may your heart ever be full, and may your spirit ever be inspired!

 

The Druid’s Garden: Principles of Sacred Gardening March 10, 2019

Part of my own Druid's Garden!

Part of my own Druid’s Garden!

One of the greatest blessings of gardening and growing things is the deep energetic connections that you can develop with plants. When I grow a pepper in my garden, I have developed a relationship with that plant from the time I planted the seed in February, where I tend it and keep it sheltered from the winter weather, to the planting and mulching of that small pepper in late May. This relationship continues as I nurture it into maturity throughout the summer, where flowers and the actual peppers start to emerge. I monitor that pepper plant for insects and disease and do what I can to ensure its success. Finally, I watch the peppers grow large and fat in the heat of the summer. At that point, I have an eight-month relationship with that pepper plant. When I eat the pepper in late August, I know where it came from, and just as importantly, I’ve developed an energetic connection with it. When I save the seed from that pepper for next season, the relationship becomes even stronger. The pepper will not be casually wasted, given how much energy has been put into it. We are connected; that connection is sacred. The connection is rooted in the time, the hard work, and the co-dependence that I create with the plants. This isn’t a lesson that I would have ever understood had I not started growing and preserving some of my own food and in dedicating myself to gardening as a sacred practice. You wouldn’t know the difference between a factory farmed pepper or your home-grown pepper if the factory farmed pepper is all you’ve ever eaten. Someone growing up in a non-industrialized culture from birth would learn to recognize and nurture that sacred connection between the human and the soil, and the codependency that connection provides. However, for people growing up in western industrialized cultures, not only do we not have the connection—we don’t’ even realize one is missing.

 

Whether we are growing in pots on our porch or in a big garden, all gardens offer us opportunity for these connections. It is in these gardens that we can begin to cultivate and to understand the sacred: a sacred awareness of the plants and their cycles; a sacred awareness of the magic of the seed and the soil; and a sacred awareness of our relationship to the growing things, the mystery of life.

And yet, conventional ‘gardening wisdom’ is often full of things that aren’t that healthy for cultivating natural relationships.  I had hoped, a few years ago, to get a Master Gardener certification–once I saw the amount of pesticides and non-organic methods they taught, I went the permaculture design route instead.  I think a lot of the conventional wisdom about gardening, whether its importing non-natural additives, spraying, etc, taks us further from a sacred relationship with the living earth.  Given that, in this post, as I’m excited to start gardening again soon and have been starting many seeds, I wanted to share some ideas and ideas for a true “Druid’s Garden!”

Sacred Gardening: Wheel of Principles

In order to think about sacred gardening, druid gardening, I’ve developed a “wheel of principles” that help me make decisions about my garden. Some of these are rooted in permaculture design, others are more druidical in nature, still others are insights I’ve gained over the years of living and working with this approach.  Think of the wheel of principles like general ideas to think about or guidelines; ways of ensuring a sacred experience while you are starting to tend your plants for the coming year.

 

Working on the Inner and the Outer

Working with Spirit and Matter

Working with Spirit and Matter (an original painting I did a few years back!)

This basic magical principle, derived from hermetic magical practice, is perhaps best epitomized by the magical adage, “As above, so below, as within, so without.” The underling idea here is that what we do on the inner planes (that is, realms of experience beyond the physical), has a direct impact on the physical plane. Similarly, what occurs on the outer planes has an impact on the physical. This also applies to us as people—the inner work we do (reflection, meditation, journeying, ritual) impacts our outer living; and vice versa. In the disenchanted world we live in, the non-physical, spiritual aspects to various activities are simply not considered—gardening is no exception. We’ll be working with this principle in every chapter of this book—it is cornerstone to sacred gardening. 

 

Harmony with nature

Nature provides us an incredible amount of lessons and patterns to work with—by studying nature, we learn all we need to know about how to live regeneratively.  This was the basic practice that allowed permaculture design to develop, and its similarly the basic understanding that drives our actions.  A big part of the challenge with harmony with nature is that a lot of people don’t know how to live harmoniously any longer, and many of the other principles in this chapter and this book give clear guidance in how to do so.

 

The most basic principle to sacred gardening is to create a landscape that is in harmony with nature, rather opposed to it, and to create a landscape that produces yields beyond food for the human being. Yes, you read that might—sacred gardening is about much more than vegetables, and embraces the permaculture ethical principles of earth care, people care, and fair share. This requires us to question everything we know, or think we know about growing plants, to reject the urge to consume, and to throw out a good deal of the “conventional” wisdom that has been ported into our heads in the name of consumerism. This is because most conventional wisdom has a price tag attached, and rarely is anything you purchase to put in your garden from a big box store is healthy to you or to the land.

 

We think of a “yield” from a garden, the amount of vegetables, fruits, and herbs you can harvest is likely the first (and possibly only) thing that comes to mind. But if we are thinking about gardening as a regenerative practice for our lands, earth care also is critical. This means that our yield can also be habitat, nectar, improved soil fertility, improved biodiversity, better water retention, beauty, community, a place for meditation and prayer, and so many other things. In other words, if we extend our idea of what a yield from the garden looks like, then we can yield as much for the land as four ourselves.

 

Parts to the Whole

This principle is derived from permaculture design, and it can be easily illustrated in any forest. Our culture currently encourages metaphors that suggest that things are not related to the other, when in reality, what affects one thing affects many. So this principle asks us to consider how the parts are related to each other and to the whole. This principle suggests that parts work best when they are working together as a system, rather than in isolation.  In specific garden terms, this might be practicing integrated pest management, working to plant guilds and do companion planting, and understand how your garden ties to–and supports–other kinds of life.  Perhaps you grow sunflowers and amaranth and leave them out all winter to provide forage for hungry sparrows!  Gardens shouldn’t be in competition with nature, but rather, support

 

Layered Purposes

Layering garden beds in the fall to build soil

Layering garden beds in the fall to build soil

This principle is also derived from permaculture design.  It suggests that each element can serve multiple purposes. For example, meditation works for calming the mind, focused thought, relaxation, and spiritual development (that’s at least four functions).  My chickens produce eggs, create compost from household and garden waste, provide enjoyment and companionship, and reduce problematic insect populations.  When we engage in sacred action, we can use this principle to help us find activities that allow us to address more than one purpose.

 

Think about what you are planting and its relationship to everything else. Permaculture design asks us to de-compartmentalize our thinking and realize that everything is connected.  Many plants do well with certain companion plants (as epitomized in the book title Carrots Love Tomatoes) but not necessarily with others. Certain herbs and plants, like chives, lavender, nasturtium, and garlic, can ward away pests and critters, eliminating the need for chemical deterrents. A garden hedge of wildflowers that bloom different times can provide beneficial insects homes and food—these insects help keep the pests down in your garden. Even within a home, thinking about these principles can be used to create systems that require little inputs—home aquaponics is a fantastic way to grow tons of fresh vegetables—just feed the fish! Composting not only reduces food waste and what goes into a landfill, it provides incredible finished compost for use in the soil. We see here the idea of both embracing diversity and building an ecosystem and making sure each plant in that ecosystem is chosen carefully to have multiple functions when possible.

 

Embrace Renewables

Stemming from the idea of earth care, one of the major issues we have in industrialized culture is an over-dependence on fossil fuels and other non-renewable sources of energy and goods. The truth is, we have finite resources on this planet; things that are renewable or free (like the sun or wind for energy) are better than those that are not (like coal for energy). This principle is derived from permaculture design, but it also can be found in many other places.

 

Support diversity

This principle asks us to consider diversity in our designs. We might think about this in terms of polycultures rather than monocultures.  A perennial garden is more diverse and resilient—it can handle pests, disease, and drought much better than a monoculture cornfield.

 

Monocultures refer to a single plant (like a field of soybeans) while polycultures refer to many plants sharing the same space. Polycultures are found all throughout nature; monocultures generally are not. Polycultures can work together, where different plants accumulate nutrients (dynamic accumulators), fix nitrogen, provide forage and nectar for insects, provide food for the gardener, and so on. Monocultures do not regenerate the soil, they do not provide a healthy or balanced ecosystem, and they encourage explosions of certain kinds of pest populations due to the concentration of many of the same plant in an area. The largest monocrop grown in the USA is the lawn; but many other monocrops are also present (wheat, corn, soy, etc). Mimicking nature and using nature as our guide, we can shift from cultivating monocrops to polycultures.

 

Perennials always come back!

Perennials always come back!

Along with this, we might carefully consider what that we plant and those plants’ relationship with the land. Annual agriculture (that is, your typical plants like tomatoes, corn, zucchini, beans, and so on) require the yearly work of bed prep, weeding, sowing, seed starting, and harvesting—this disrupts soil ecology and causes extra work. Shifting to use at least some perennials in your growing means that the plant is planted once—and only once—and then the soil is not disrupted again and the plant can grow and be abundant. Most of our most balanced ecosystems occurring in nature have more perennials or self-sowing annuals than the tender annuals we typically use as food crops. Entire books are written on this subject (see resources, Appendix A), so I won’t go into too much depth here. But if we are thinking about building an ecosystem, we should consider the role of our perennial crops—herbs, nuts, fruits, berries—in that garden.

 

Reflect and Revise

Reflective activity, when we simply stop what we are doing and carefully think and meditate on our actions, is a cornerstone of sacred action and its used in nature-based spiritual practices as well as permaculture. Quite contemplation (through discursive meditation, discussed in Exercise 1 below, or simply sitting quietly and pondering), is critical for this kind of work. Revise, here, suggests that if we spend time periodically really thinking through and reflecting upon what we are doing, new insights may arise that we will be able to employ in our sacred action.  Revise here also implies that not being too committed to any particular approach is good—revision is a process where we shape and hone earlier ideas into something better. Sometimes, it takes us working through a project or meaningful change partway before we see a better way we can do something.

 

A sacred, sustainable garden is not a fast process. The soil takes years to establish, the seeds take time to grow, perennials, trees and shrubs take time to bear fruit, compost takes time to make, all these stress time and patience. Just as importantly, we have to grow our knowledge to really achieve the kind of relationship with the land that we want to have. The idea that we’ll have a perfect garden in one season is simply not realistic. Like the tree that takes years to bear fruit, we must also realize that gardening, like other forms of growth, takes patience and time. Even growing sprouts on your counter, which is about the easiest way of growing anything, requires patience and time (in days, rather than weeks, months, or years). Understand that sacred gardening is a learning process and the best way to learn is to constantly educate yourself.  Take classes, help friends, visit farms, read books, watch videos—anything that will give you new perspectives on growing food. You can see a complete list of books to get you started in the appendix.

 

Reclaim Waste

Excellent compost bins! Bins in various stages

Excellent compost bins!

This is another principle derived from permaculture design. Waste is a resource that has not been given a proper place—we can think about “waste” in new ways. Human waste and urine, for example, can safely be used as a fertilizer under certain conditions.  Producing no waste goes far beyond recycling!

 

When it comes to growing things, we want to make sure that everything that we grow does not go to waste and whatever nutrients are in the soil go back if at all possible. I am always saddened when I go out for bags of leaves in the fall and find whole bags of plants ripped up from someone’s garden in the brown “compost” bags they place on the curb. After spending a whole season with the plants, my neighbors would rather send them “away” than make a compost pile and add those nutrients back into the soil. These same people then go to the store and buy bags of compost and fertilizer (again, demonstrating the consumer mindset of consumeà throw awayàconsumeà throw away). I think this practice demonstrates how little modern people really understand about growing our food from a permaculture-informed and ethical perspective.

 

Consider any waste streams that can be integrated into a gardening system, like composting. Even for those growing food inside their homes, a worm composting system combined with container gardens can make use and re-use of many nutrients. For those on the more radical side, humanure (that is, composting your own waste) is always an option! Even when I’m growing sprouts on my counter, I save the water from rinsing to water my other house plants—again, turning “waste” water into something needed.

 

 

Spiraling Changes

Strawberry Spiral - Freshly Planted

Strawberry Spiral – Freshly Planted

Rather than starting big and going all out, we create small, slow solutions that allow us to build upon success slowly from within. You might think about your own path as that of spiraling slowly up a mountain. You don’t climb a mountain all at once and you certainly don’t do it without preparation, ongoing evaluation, and occasional breaks. Unexpected issues—and opportunities—can arise as part of the climb.  With each step you get further along and deeper into the practice. The other way of climbing is kind of moving along, bit by bit, and then suddenly looking out and realizing you are way higher than you thought! Shifting to regenerative practices are really no different: when we begin the ascent, we have a lot of energy and enthusiasm, but we also have to take our time and make sure what we are enacting is permanent and self-sustaining or our efforts are in vain. Or, we might find that in our many daily meanderings, we are doing more than we realize. Both are valuable insights!

 

One of the biggest mistakes that new and enthusiastic gardeners and sacred activists do is to go crazy, convert a huge portion of their land to various gardens in one or two seasons, and then be overwhelmed with the maintenance of those gardens. This is exactly what happened to me on my homestead—within three years, I had all but eliminated an acre of lawn and replaced it with perennials, an annual vegetable garden, herb gardens, fruit trees, and more. And while it was incredible and diverse and all of the things I’m writing about in this section—it was also way too much for me to manage. This example nicely illustrates the concept of spiraling changes: start small, work slow, and allow things to naturally unfold. See how it is managing a small garden (maybe 2 4×10’ beds) and build accordingly. Consider perennials for less intensive management over time as well.

 

Living in Gratitude

Gratitude is something missing from our everyday lives in industrialized culture, and bringing gratitude back into our actions is useful in all cases, and certainly, in a garden.  Gratitude practices for me include developing shrines to honor nature and her spirits, making regular offerings, respecting the plants and life itself with respectful planting, harvesting, and so on.

 

These are some–of many principles–that I try to live and grow by with my own relationship to the living earth.  I hope you find something in here worth taking with you–and gardening with this year!  I’d love to hear from you on other principles for sacred gardening that you use!

 

A Seed Starting Ritual for Nourishment, Connection, and Relationship February 10, 2019

All of the potential and possibility of the world is present in a single seed.  That seed has the ability to grow, to flourish, to produce fruit and flowers, to offer nutrition, magic, and strength.  Seed starting offers us a chance to connect deeply with the seeds we plant, and to , from the very beginning, establish and maintain sacred relationships with our plant allies. Seed starting is a truely magical druidic practice, and in today’s post, I want to talk a bit about the magic of seed staring and share a simple ritual that you can do to bless your seeds as you plant them. Some of my earlier posts on seed starting can be found here (a general philosophy of seeds from a druidic perspective) and here (recycled materials for seed starting).

 

Seeds coming up!

Seeds coming up!

One of the most important parts of a druid practice, in my opinion, is integrating sacred activities into everyday life. I think working to live our regular lives in a sacred manner is one of the ways we can stay balanced, happy, and connected in an otherwise unbalanced world.  But I also think that this is part of what living druidry is all about–finding sacred moments, sharing them, understanding that each moment can have its own kind of sacredness. This is important in each aspect of our lives, but certainly, in activities that tie us directly to other kinds of life and allow us to interact with other cycles of life.  To me, there is nothing more sacred than starting seeds. And while this may be considered a “mundane” activity to some, to me, it is an incredibly sacred one. Because the seeds we will start are such a blessing to so many, and are part of the sacred cycle of nature, I think its critical to honor them and support them on the journey that they will take from seed to harvest.

 

Connection, Nourishment, and Relationships: What Seeds Offer

This is the time of year for starting seeds. Right now, we are just over 14 weeks out from our last frost date, and the first of our seeds are being started this upcoming week on the full moon, these include our greenhouse seeds (kale, lettuce, spinach, arugula), our alliums, and some slow-growing herbs (rosemary, lavender, white sage). These seeds will feed us, nourish us, and in the case of the white sage, rosemary, and lavender, also be used for sacred offering blends, smudge stick making, rituals here on our land, and other sacred activities surrounding our druid practices.

 

Last year, the white sage and lavender we grew from seed ended up being shared with members of the grove and other friends, mostly in the form of incenses and smudges.  It continues to be offered in our rituals, both individual and grove.  Last year, the vegetables we grew ended up with over 10 families, as well as in our bellies and the bellies of our animals here on the land. So part of the magic of starting these particular seeds is the magic of community, togetherness, and sharing.  I think that happens a lot when we grow things–we end up sharing the abundance.  The plants give and give to us, and it is only right that we give back to them.  One of the ways we can give back is do rituals that offer them the same thing they offer us: physical nourishment and metaphysical energy.

 

Alium going to seed, Summer 2013

Allium going to seed, Summer 2013

 

But there’s another piece of this too–seed starting is about relationships: establishing relationship with new lines of seeds, or, maintaining relationships with saved seed over a period of time.  Some of these seeds we are starting this week are brand new to me and have entered my life for the first time.  That is, we purchased them from organic seed companies or small sellers. These seeds should be welcomed and honored as friends.  But some of these seeds have been with me for a long time.  One of the alliums I am planing, a Long Red Florence onion, has been with me quite a while.  In fact, if you are a long-term reader of this blog, this isn’t the first time I’ve shown the photo to the right.  I began planting this seed in 2012, and I am planting the seeds of this particular onion’s offspring today.  A seed planting ritual, then, should also connect you deeply with the plants–both those who are brand new, and those who you have cultivated relationships with over time.  And so, a good seed starting ritual should be about establishing and maintaining relationships.

 

Relationships with perennials and annuals are a bit different, and I want to talk about that difference briefly here, as it has very direct relevance on the rituals I’ll share today.  Annuals, in a lot of cases, particularly in cultivated varieties that are not native or naturalized to your region, depend on you for continuing to grow.  It is rare for a lot of plants to come back (or they will come back at the wrong time, like a rotted tomato that dropped to the ground and then starts sending up babies from the sprouts 2 weeks before frost!)  These plants, due to their long cultivation by humans, need us.  Perennials need us too, but in that case, its more to visit, to honor them, to continue to make sure they have what they need to grow.  In either case though, we are talking about interdependency.

 

So from the above, we have four key pieces to a good seed starting ritual: physical nourishment, energy, relationship, and interdependency.  Let’s now take a look at some options for how you can build this into an existing seed starting practice.

 

Seed Starting Rituals

With most rituals, particularly in the druid context (where we don’t have hardly any ancient traditions to go back to), the intentions are what matter most.  You can do a lot of different things to get at the four points above, and you can do different things that go from very simple to fairly elaborate in terms of ritual.  I’m going to offer a few options, but these are by no means the only options you have before you!  But I think the key thing is to think about the principles above:  nourishment, relationship, energy, and interdependency.  Here’s what I like to do:

 

Soil....the beginning of life and abundance

Soil….the beginning of life and abundance

Assemble all of your supplies. Before you start, assemble your supplies: potting soil, pots, seeds, a work area, and so on. Put your potting soil or any other nutrients (like coffee grounds, great for seed starting) in your work area.  Have a bucket or potting tray ready to mix.  Also have labels available and anything else you will need, like a small hand shovel, etc.

 

The Elemental Seed Starting Ritual.  

For this ritual, you’ll need something to offer the seeds from each of the five core elements: earth, fire, water, air, and spirit.

  • For earth, you can offer a good potting mix rich with nutrients, the most obvious thing for planting seeds.  If you can, grab a little bit of the soil that last year’s plants were grown in. As part of the ritual, you will mix the soil with nutrients and your own energy, so don’t fill up your pots in advance.
  • For Air, you have your own breath, which is better than anything else.  You can have incense, feathers, or other air-focused elements to supplement, of course.
  • For water, you can offer standard pure water, or, if you are particularly ambitious and want to build tremendous relationship and interdependency, offer a 90% water and 10% of your own urine in a mix.  I know this sounds crazy, but read my blog post here.  Its pretty simple–your urine is very high in nitrogen, which is one of the core building blocks for all plant life. Your waste product is their life–just as their waste product, oxygen, is yours.  Using your own urine puts you in a direct interdependent relationship that frankly, few other things, can do.  I usually have a pot of pure water for mixing and then the urine/water dilution for watering afterward.
  • For fire, you may use any representation of fire; if the sun is shining, I like to bring the seeds into the sun. If not, I like to have candles available.
  • For spirit, I prefer to use an herbal offering that I grew or some other spiritual offering. Anything you’d typically use as an offering will do.

 

A few notes before I describe the ritual:  You can start your seeds all at once, or you can start each different seed type one at a time, using the appropriate elements as needed.  What I’ve offered is just a suggestion of what you can do for the seeds; please feel free to adjust and add your own creativity into this ritual!

 

Establish a Sacred Grove or Sacred Space.   Many druid traditions, including OBOD and AODA, offer clear instructions for how to establish a sacred grove.  (I described one version of a sacred grove in a recent post on herbalism).  I like to start my seeds in a sacred grove, as a sacred grove in my tradition sets intentions for sacred work.  This helps with both energy and relationship. And so, before beginning to plant, I will establish a sacred grove.  While you don’t have to do this, I recommend it.

 

The Work of Earth: Mix your potting soil.  Begin by putting your potting soil, nutrients, coffee grounds, peat moss, whatever you are using as your typical seed starting mix in a potting tray or bucket.  Even if you are using a completely store bought mix, go ahead and put it in the bucket.  Begin mixing the materials together, and as you do, envision some of your own energy going into the soil.

 

As you mix, you might want to chant or sing.  I prefer to chant the ogham for Oak (strength, stability): Duir (doo-er).  So I will mix and chant.  It is  much easier to seed start with wet soil, so after I chant, I will add some pure water to my mix and mix it all well before putting my soil in the trays.

 

Put your soil in the trays.  As you do so, continue to chant.

 

Establishing and Maintaining Relationship through Planting Your Seeds. Hold your seeds in your hand for a moment, and connect with the spirit of the seed.  Welcome any new seeds.  For those who you already have a relationship with, tell them you are glad to see them.  Pause for a moment to see if the seeds have anything to share with you.  Then, plant each one.  As you plant, sing or chant.  I like to chant the Ogham for birch here (Beith) for new beginnings.  Once you are finished, say “My energy supports you, as you will support me. May the great soil web of life bring you strength.”

 

The Work of Air.  Label your seeds.  As you label, continue to chant Beith or offer other air blessings.  When you are done labeling, blow softly over each of the pots of seeds.  Say, “My outbreath is your inbreath, your breath is my life. May the blessings of the air sustain you.”

 

The Work of Water.  Take your pure water or urine dilution, and sing or chant as you water each plant.  I like to chant the ogham Willow here (Sallie) while I am watering.  After watering say, “My nutrients feed you, as you will feed me.  May the power of the water nourish you.”

 

The Work of Fire.  Sing or chant the ogham for Fir/Pine (Alim) (Aye-lim) and hold up the pots to the sunlight.  Alternatively, move a candle around the pots.  Say, “May the fire of the sun let you grow.”

 

The Work of Spirit.  Sing or chant the ogham for Apple (Quert) (or another ogham as you choose).  As you do this, sprinkle an offering lightly over the pots.  When you are finished say, “My offering today, for your offering tomorrow. May the Nwyfre flow through you.”

 

Additions: Singing and Drumming.  At this point, feel free to do anything else you like.  I like to drum or play my panflute a little for the seeds in a welcome and to raise good energy for them.

 

Close the space. When you are finished, thank the spirits and close out your sacred grove.

 

Trays of small plants from seed!

Trays of small plants from seed!

Final Thoughts

While it seems like a lot above, the ritual is actually quite simple.  I’ve used the energy of the Ogham, of sacred trees, and of sacred chanting to do the work of connecting to each of the elements.  But you could connect with them in any way you want, or replace what I’ve done with other sources of power that you work with (such as deity, etc).

 

If you have any other ideas for sacred seed starting, or if you have things you’ve done in the past, I’d love to hear about them in the comments!  Thank you for reading and blessings of the seeds!

 

Building Soil Fertility with Fall Gardening at the Equinox September 23, 2018

Leaves - nutrients AND enjoyment!

Leaves – nutrients AND enjoyment!

In the druid wheel of the year, we have three “harvest” festivals.  Lughnasadh, the first harvest.  So much of the garden produce starts to be ready at this time–and also at this time, the garden is still at its peak, but quickly waning. In the weeks after , our pumpkin patch died back with beautiful orange pumpkins and said “ok, I’m done for the year!” Then we have the Fall Equinox, where things are continuing to be harvesting, but many of the plants are in serious decline. By Samhain, everything is dead, the hard frosts have come and the land goes to sleep. It seems then, on the surface, that what we should be doing in the fall is primarily harvesting and sitting on our laurels and watching fall and winter come.

 

However, as a gardener and homesteader, my busiest time, by far, is the fall! Part of this is that bringing in the harvest takes some work, and takes many hours near the canner preparing food for the winter.  I find that as someone practicing regenerative gardening techniques, the bulk of my own gardening work takes place in the time between the Fall Equinox and when the ground freezes, usually December. This is because I want to work with nature and use nature’s proceses as much as possible in my gardening practice.  With this idea of soil fertility, working with nature’s systems, and land regeneration in mind,   I’m going to walk through some of my fall gardening tasks, and how they prepare me for the full year to come.

 

So in this post, in honor of the Fall Equinox, I will share a number of fall gardening techniques that will certainly help you improve soil fertilitiy in existing beds or start new garden beds.  These are all part of “no till” gardening and are rooted in permaculture design.

 

 

General Gardening Philosophy: Using Nature’s Systems and Regenerating Depleted Soil

As I’ve discussed before in relationship to lawns, most of the soil we are growing in is very depleted.  It is depleted from years and years of poor farming practices, from poor soil management strategies, and it is certainly depleted from the traditional lawn “care” techniques that regularly remove all nutrients (fall leaves, grass clippings, any other life that isn’t grass).Further, most new “developments’ (I can’t stand that word used that way!) actually strip the topsoil and sell it for commercial use.  So if you buy a house in a suburban development that was purcahsed in about the last 25 years, chances are, your topsoil was stripped and sold before you got there. Part of the reason I believe that raised beds are so popular is because people have difficulty dealing with the existing soil on their properties–it is usually compacted and depleted.  It is difficult to break into with simple hand tools, and difficult to start. One good solution then, is to avoid the problem: don’t use your existing soil at all. The soil building techniques I am sharing in this blog also work with raised beds–so build the soil wherever you can! 🙂

 

Fall forest at Samhain, nutrients stay in the soil

Fall forest at Samhain, nutrients stay in the soil

In order to build soil effectively, we can look to what happens in the forest in the fall.  The leaves fall down, the plants die back, and in the spring, new plants emerge from that every-regenerating bed. Humans don’t intervene in this process–and from year to year, fertility is maintained.  I try to create my garden beds in the image of nature, using nature’s processes and tools and creating layers with no tilling. The soil building techniques I will share, many of which are perfect for the fall months, help prepare the soil for spring planting by encouraging and feeding the soil web of life (rather than destroying it), by sinking carbon, and by building nutrients.  These amazing ways to regenerate soil and produce garden beds that, in the spring, are ready for planting!  And that don’t require you to create raised beds where you import too much topsoil.

 

Fall Soil Building Techniques: Clearing, Composting, Cover Cropping, and Sheet Mulching

Here are the techniques you can use to build soil in the fall:

Harvest and clearing beds: leave the roots!  Looking to nature as our guide, when you are harvesting the last of the produce and getting ready to clear plants from beds, rather than rip out the whole plant by the roots, instead, cutting the plants at the root and leaving the roots in the soil.  This does two things.  First, it helps hold the soil in place during the winter months (part of why we lose soil fertility has to do with runoff!)  But second, as those roots break down over the winter, new roots of next year’s crops already have places to grow–the roots have created spaces for them.  This mimics what happens in a natural environment–the plants fall, the soil is never tilled, and new plants grow from the same spot.

 

Bed with roots cleared and a new layer of finished compost. The straw is where we just planted fall crops; the bare area is where we will plant cover crops.

Bed with roots cleared and a new layer of finished compost. The straw is where we just planted fall crops; the bare area is where we will plant cover crops.

Composting.  Nothing in the garden in the fall should be wasted–I am always saddened every year when I drive around looking for bags of leaves and find half rotted vegetables and tomato plants and such in garden bags on the street corner!  They are literally throwing away fertility, which they will then purchase back again in the spring.  So, with that in mind, the plant matter itself above ground that you are clearing from your garden should go back into your compost pile or else be used in your new sheet mulch for a new bed.  I’ve written on a few kinds of composting you can do.  I use my chickens for all of my composting, so it goes into the chicken coop for them to work and break down, but you can also do this with regular piles.  Composting doesn’t have to be very complex–basically, if you pile it up, it will break down in time and create soil.  You can ammend it, you can turn it, you can make sure it heats up–and all those things will make it compost down faster, but in the end, it will break down regardless of whether or not you intervene.  So yes, everything from the garden that’s not harvest or root can be composted for next year. If any plants have bad disease (tomatoes, in particular, get a blight that can perpetuate from year to year) I will burn them when I have a fire outside and not have them in the compost (as I don’t want to spread the disease).  The ashes from the fire also go back in the sheet mulch (I have acidic soil, so this is a great ammendment; it would be less good for someone with alkali soil).

 

Sheet Mulching Strategy.  For new beds or to help existing beds, you can use a layered approach that mimics the forest called sheet mulching.  I’ve offered several posts on this subject over the years, and is an extremely effective way to deal with plant matter, weeds, new or existing garden beds, soil fertility, and fall leaves.  Read about it here and here.  You can create new beds in the fall (much better than creating them in the spring) or add to existing beds.  This is a simple strategy where you create layers of plant matter, compost, straw, etc, and it will break down over the winter, creating a great bed to plant in in the spring.

 

Late fall sheet mulch

Late fall sheet mulch, nearly complete.

Dealing with Weeds in your existing beds. In my clearing of beds for the winter, I do make sure I address weeds (unwanted plants). Depending on the volume of the weeds, what they are, and their roots, I either pull them or add them to the compost pile, or, if there are a lot of weeds, I will sheet mulch right on top of the weeds–this new sheet mulch will simply add fertility to the bed underneath as it breaks down over the winter.  For this, I will just use a thick layer of newspaper over the weeds, and then a layer of fall leaves.  I top this with compost and either straw or a cover crop.  I do not let weed roots stay in place–or they would just create more weeds.

 

Taking advantage of free biomass (fall leaves).  The biggest reason that fall is the best time to establish new beds (using sheet mulching / lasagna gardening techniques) is that fall leaves are available. These are the single best free resource that many gardeners have access to, and within 6 months to a year, they make incredibly wonderful soil.  How long they take to break down depends on the leaf type–maples and cherries take a lot less time than oaks!  Pine needles break down pretty fast and add a little bit of acidity (but not in noticable amounts a few times; over 50 years, they would do so!)  And because most people don’t want their fall leaves, meaning you can go around where people bag them and pick up as many as you want for free if you don’t have enough on your own property to suffice. In an earlier post, I shared information on nutrition and long-term sustainable practices with regards to fall leaves.  If you don’t want to sheet mulch with them, throw them in a pile to break down (this takes about a year) or let your chickens do that for you in 3 months.

 

What I like to do is this–I like to cut back plants in my garden (leaving the roots) as described above. I compost the plants that are above ground.  Then I will spread 2-3 inches of leaves on the garden bed, right on top. If you mulch the leaves first, they will break down faster, but I don’t want to expend the extra fossil fuel to do this, so I don’t do so.  I still see them in the garden in the spring of next year, but by the end of the summer, all those leaves are soil. I will top dress my bed with horse manure (fresh or composted, if I can get it), finished compost, chicken dung–whatever I have available, and hopefully from my own land). Then I will cover crop it and/or put a thick layer of straw on it for the winter.  And the bed is now “in bed” for the winter.

 

Winter rye bed

Winter rye bed

Cover cropping for soil health.  Another good soil building strategy is cover cropping.  I like cover cropping for a few reasons–one, cover crops help hold in soil fertility (locking a lot of fertility up in the plants themselves).  Second, cover crops also hold the soil in place (which matters a lot, particularly if you are on a hill like I am!). Third, in January, my winter rye is a wonderful cover crop that provides some of the only green forage available to my chickens.  They love it, eat it, and poop, building more soil!   There are several cover crop blends you can consider for the winter: my favorite is winter rye.  If you want to let a bed rest for a year, you might consider red clover (which then gets turned under the following year).  Or, you can do a mix of daikon, turnip, clover, and vetch, which is something fellow permaculture practicing friends taught me last year. This is a another good forage crop and also, the daikon and turnip help break up compacted soil really well–and you can eat them!  If anything survives the winter of this crop, it provides great nectar sources early in the season.  They also throw this mix anywhere they want to start building soil and also behind their chicken tractor as they move it around their yard.

 

Cover crop in the spring--this is the only green thing growing!

Chicken in the cover crop in the late winter–this is the only green thing growing!

Fall plantings (Garlic, perennials). There are also select annual crops and many perennials that prefer to be planted in the fall.  Garlic goes in where I live sometime in early October–and then comes up strong in the spring, for harvest in late July/early August.  If you wanted a winter wheat crop, it would also go in during this time.  Of course, any trees, shrubs, vines, etc, that you want to plant can be done in the fall–the fall lets them establish deep roots over the winter and come out of dormancy strong and vigorous.  So you might do some planting to take advantage of the winter.

 

Putting my garden beds to sleep. In the end, I feel like I’m “tucking in” my garden beds for the winter.  Then, in the spring, I can run the chickens through the garden to deal with the cover crops and/or turn the crops over by hand (which doesn’t take long) and then plant right in that incredibly rich soil.  My plants are stronger, my garden is healthier, and I’ve worked to conserve and retain nutrients.  As part of this, I sing to my beds, I sing to the life in the soil, and I wish them good slumber till spring.

 

Conclusion

I hope this has been a helpful introduction to some of the “fall bed” work we can do to help build soil fertility.  To me, soil fertility is an incredibly important part of the work we can do to regenerate the land.  With common practices like tilling and barecropping and stripping the soil physically off of sites of new homes, our soil is in poor condition.  Part of healing the land means healing our soil, and these techniques can help us do that.  Blessings of the fall equinox upon you!

 

A Druid’s Meditation Primer February 11, 2018

In this time as the light is coming back into the world, the time surrounding Imbolc, I find myself often going deeply inward for healing and strength and turning towards meditation as a guide for spiritual balance.  This deep winter period is, of course, coming on the heels of the frenzied holiday season where many of us get burned out by the amount of hustle and bustle.  Further, many of the demands of modern living, particularly for those working wage-earning jobs, require us to move faster, be always “connected” and present with new technology, and have an increasingly fast stream of information pouring in and out of our heads. This can lead to long-term drain on the spirit. In this quiet time of the year, amidst the snows and frozen earth, various meditation techniques allow for rest, centering, and rejuvenation.

 

The quiet that nature provides...

The quiet that nature provides…

Meditation offers us a quiet moment away from the hustle and bustle of normal life—a sacred moment, a moment that gives us peace and allows us to be only within our own minds. And yet,  I think that “meditation” for a lot of people raises up images of sitting cross legged ohm-ing or doing deep breathwork (the kind of meditation you might see on TV or find in a Yoga class). These forms of meditation are certainly effective, but represent only a small number of possibilities, and may not be as useful or practical to those who are on a druid path and seeking to connect deeply with nature. Particularly for those walking a nature-based spiritual path, other meditative forms might be more effective and connecting.  I would like to explore some of those today.

 

Three Outcomes of Meditation

Its always interesting to talk with a spiritual practitioner of another path. I have several good friends who have deep Yoga, Zen, and mindfulness practices, and when we talk about daily spiritual life, we find a lot of similarity–but also a lot of difference. In conversations with these friends, I have realized how important it is not to assume the word “meditation’ carries the same meaning, and to talk instead about the specific practices that we do. I have come to understand that  meditation is not a single technique but a wide range of techniques that work on the relationship between mind, body, and spirit and that offer spiritual benefit. These goals of meditation can manifest in at least three ways:

 

Clearing Meditation: Some forms of meditation encourage us to disconnect from the troubles and everyday grit of living–to facilitate peace, calm, tranquility. In eastern meditation, we might have “empty mind” kinds of meditation, where the goal is simply to clear one’s mind for a period of time or practice 30 or 45 minutes of quietude a few times a day. In druid and western meditation techniques, this might be when we practice a “fourfold breath” technique at the beginning of a meditation session to simply clear out what was there. Other forms may connect us to universal energies or our higher self. These goals are very “up and out” kinds of goals, and can certainly be useful and spiritually enriching. I also think these kinds of goals are really useful for distressing and finding ourselves again after busy life circumstances–the kinds of meditation that offer us real health benefits and stability.

 

Connection Meditation. Other kinds of meditation practices ask us to work to be fully present with the moment. I see mindfulness practices from Eastern tradition as a great example of this as well as the practices of nature observation, walking meditation, and other goals that connect us deeply with nature. In this broader goal then, the point of the meditation seems opposite of the first–it isn’t to help us clear and get us out of a present reality, but rather, put is in touch with one.

 

Focus Meditation. A final goal for some types of meditation is the goal of focus. I see this goal really clearly in the use of discursive meditation, where the goal of discursive meditation is to help direct thoughts and lead to deep insight. A second meditation where this happens is shamanic trance and journey work, where inner journeys are facilitated by a particular receptive–and yet focused–state of mind.

 

Reconnecting with the land

Reconnecting with the land

Breaking meditation into these three categories has helped me with my own meditation practice, and it has certainly also helped me teach these techniques to others and explain the benefits.  If you simply want to “meditate every day” as many druid and esoteric traditions suggest, you have to figure out what you’d like to get out of the meditation so that you can use appropriate techniques. If you use only one form of meditation always, you are getting a particular benefit but may not be getting the full range of benefits that different styles of meditation provides. You can also combine meditation styles (starting with a clearing meditation and moving into a focus meditation, for example) for maximum benefit.  So now that we have some sense of the goals of meditation, I’m going to share some meditative techniques that can be helpful for us to achieve them, specifically from a druid-based framework.

 

Preliminaries: Posture and Breathwork

Before you begin any kind of meditation, priming the body and mind for the meditation is necessary. This priming includes posture and breathwork.

Posture: Many meditation techniques suggest a particular posture (sitting in a straight-backed chair with the spine upright, sitting cross legged on the ground on a small pillow to elevate the spine, standing comfortably, laying flat on a hardwood floor with a yoga mat underneath, and so on). I have two thoughts on this subject.  First, because different meditation techniques have different outcomes, the position of the body may need to be different for these.  For deep journey work, for example, my preferred posture is laying on the ground on a yoga mat.  For a simple 10 minute clearing meditation, I’d prefer to sit cross legged outside on a stump or on the ground in front of a candle. So as you think about the roles and goals of your meditation, different postures may be helpful.

 

Another consideration is that some bodies do not do well with certain postures.  For example, some people are very comfortable sitting in straight-backed chairs or standing for long periods of time, while other bodies may hurt after only a few minutes of this practice.  While there is a body element to meditation, in that you can train your body, just as you train your mind, you can also be aware of what your body’s limits are.  Early on, for me, trying to maintain a rigid pose when my body doesn’t want to do that led me to frustration and shorter meditations.  When is tarted laying down and using a yoga mat, I was able to gain tremendous benefits without body sensitivity.

 

Breathwork is used in nearly all meditation styles, and styles of meditation connected with druidry is no exception.

  • Three Deep Breaths: Three deep breaths is a technique taught by OBOD and used at the start of many OBOD ceremonies.  It is a very simple clearing meditation technique where you take three deep breaths, typically tied to the elements of earth, sea, and sky.  So you can simply stand and take a deep breath with the sky above you, with the sea around you, and with the earth beneath you.  And those three deep breaths can be a very simple meditation technique in their own right or as a gateway to deeper work.
  • Four-fold breath. The four-fold breath is a breathing technique that helps you settle into a meditation and is used in many esoteric practices and traditions. I see it as being used for both focus and clearing purposes.  I was taught it through the work of John Michael Greer (Druidry Handbook and other works).  In this technique, you focus on counting to regulate your breath in four equal ways.  The way I do it is this: breathing in for the count of three, hold your breath (lightly) for a count of three, breath out for a count of three, and pause (again lightly) for a count of three.  JMG warns that if you close off your throat at either the inbreath or outbreath to severely, it can lead to long term health complications.   I like to see the fourfold breath almost like a pendulum or swing (breathing in to the moment of apex, where there is that pause and then outbreath, with another pause on the other end, except the time intervals are all equal).
  • Quiet Breath. JMG also describes “quiet breath” as another meditation technique–after doing a four-fold breath, for example, you might transition into quiet breath for the remainder of the meditation (this is the technique with discursive meditation, taught in the AODA’s tradition).  Quiet breath is a normal breathing pattern, where you are lightly breathing in and out in your normal rhythm.  The idea is transitioning away from breath being a central focus of your meditation and into other work.

 

Three Nature Meditations for Druids

Now that we have some of the preliminaries covered, I thought I’d share three meditation techniques that can work well for those practicing a druid path, framed within the three paths or perspectives of druidry: druid arts, ovate arts, and bardic arts.  I also want to indicate that I’m sharing new forms of meditation here–ones that are very connected to druid-based and nature spiritual purposes.

 

The flowing of awen and the river

The flowing of awen and the river

A Druid-Focused Meditation: The druid path asks us to connect deeply with spirit, thus, a simple “clearing” meditation is helpful for the druid path. To do this meditation, you should find a source of running water or falling water (so a rainstorm, stream, flowing spring, or seashore would be highly appropriate). Find a comfortable position near the body of water. Begin with three deep breaths followed by the fourfold breath where you work to simply be present and let go of anything you might be mentally carrying with you. You can switch at this point to quiet breath for the remainder of the meditation. As you enter quiet breath, close your eyes and allow the sound of the water to flow through you, within you, and over you. Simply be with the water, taking the sound into you, feeling the flow of it through you. Do this for a time until you find peace, tranquility, and presence.

 

Water is a very good element to start with for this meditation, but you can actually do it with any of the four elements for different effects. A windy day makes a nice air meditation, as does sitting by the fire, or digging one’s feet in sand or earth. This is a very sense-oriented meditation, but the overall goal is to work with that element to help clear and ground you.

 

I will also note that while I developed this meditation for the purposes of clearing, it also offers benefits for connecting and focus–in other words, it helps us meet all three goals of meditation.

 

An Ovate Mediation: The ovate path asks us to connect deeply with nature, so a walking meditation with a primary goal of “connecting” is a useful for this regard.  For this meditation, go to any natural area and be ready to walk.  Ideally, this should be a place where you are not going to run into a lot of other people, certainly, a place where you don’t have to interact or converse if possible. For this, I like to find a quiet and out of the way path at a state park (but you could go into any natural area that fits your . I begin by standing on the path and doing a simple earth-sea-sky breath and a quiet prayer to ask the spirits of nature to inspire me on this journey.

 

The idea of this meditation is a walking-based meditation, where you get into a state of focus on the world around you, and allow the spirits of nature to simply flow through you and be with you.  For this, the goal is to be in the present moment, experiencing whatever there is to experience, on whatever level there is to experience it.  Observing, interacting, and simply taking it all in and being part of the journey.  This practice leads to deep spiritual awakenings and insights–and each walk, even in the same natural area, can be completely different.

 

A Bardic Meditation: A bardic meditation is often a focus meditation, with the goal of the meditation to bring forth something into the world as part of a nature-enriched creative practice.  For this, it is best to find a place that you find inspiring–a place that sings to your soul.

 

For this meditation, you will want to go to that inspiring place and bring with you the tools of a bardic art you’d like to practice or already do practice. So you might bring an instrument, pen and paper, paints, and so on (I think it is ALWAYS a good idea to bring some kind of recording device as well).

 

Begin by opening up a sacred grove and using the fourfold breath and quiet breath to bring you to a receptive state. Transition into a series of Awen chants, and then simply take the place within you. Be like a sponge, pulling in the energy of that place, hearing that sacred place’s song, story, poem, painting–connecting deeply with spirit. The goal here is to be in a meditative and receptive state so if this place has something it would like you to bring forth, you are able to be ready to have a quiet and receptive mind to do so (the meditation part). The first few times you do this, you might not end up creating anything at all.  But with enough visits and practice, these techniques will put you into a receptive state where awen will flow when it is ready to do so.  

 

This technique, for me, has produced amazing paintings, songs, and words…many of which have ended up here on the Druid’s Garden blog!

 

Concluding Thoughts

There are so many other kinds of meditations that you can do that connect you with nature, your own spirit, and the bardic arts.  I think the important thing, with any of these, is making enough time for these connections to take place.  Not all spiritual work has to be planned–sometimes, the best experiences come from the unplanned things, the things that simply happen, or things for which we make space.

 

The Druid’s Garden Refugia Project – Site Preparation & Garden Map January 15, 2016

In my last two posts, I shared the philosophy of wildtending–the idea that we can nurture and regenerate the lands around us as a spiritual practice. In this post, I wanted to share the start of a new garden–a refugia garden–that I’ve been working on since the early summer when I moved to PA. It will show some basic strategies for taking a damaged piece of land, full of garbage, debris, and common plants, to a garden focused on biodiversity, rare and medicinal plants, and the developing of a “seed arc” for spreading these plants back into our native ecosystem. I’ll be updating you a few times on this garden as it progresses into its first season.

 

As I am currently landless in my transition from Michigan to Pennsylvania, I’m using a small chunk of land on my parents’ property for this garden. I thought it was an appropriate site, given that my father is very committed to replanting our lands with trees (which I shared in an earlier post), and that my father has been cultivating extremely rare woodland medicinal species (ginseng and goldenseal).  In fact, he was one of the people who inspired this whole series of posts and line of thinking!

 

The first step to designing any new space is what permaculture designers call “site analysis and assessment.” That is, we take a look at the site as it currently exists and examine what challenges and potential the site has.

 

The Site and its Potential: Like any good permaculture designer, I found the most damaged piece of land (the spot that nobody cared about) on my parents’ property.  Here’s a shot of the site in early June, before we got to work on it.  This is primarily in full sun at the bottom of a hill (that keeps on going down past the site), so that’s important to l keep that in mind when deciding what to plant (full sun, access to nutrients).  I’ll have a shady back area, behind the trellis I have planned, for some shady plants.  The house is about 40 feet away and on an uphill slope, so I also plan on digging an off-contour swale and a trench to help move the water under the driveway and directly from the house downspout into the garden itself. Finally, given the abundant water as a resource, I also am planning a small wetter area using the downspout off of my parents’ house for a few water-based rare plants (calamus and horsetail).

The future site of the refugia

The future site of the refugia garden

Challenges with the Site: The site was literally a garbage heap, where my father had been throwing in various brush and debris for at least 15 years. A very long time ago, this was where we once kept chickens and rabbits when I was growing up–now, it is nothing but an eyesore.  There was old rusty wire throughout the area, old animal cages, a huge buried pile of bricks, stones, and much more. One of the key challenges of the site was  the piles and piles of black locust bark that my father peeled there from the logs in his woodpile–the black locust bark resists rot and inhibits the growth of many other plants.  A second challenge was the soil, which was pretty much straight clay with little to no organic matter (this was once a potato field, and an airport before that, and clear cut before that).

 

Initial Site Cleanup: The site had some common medicinal plant allies growing (which I harvested as we were preparing the site: lots of yellow dock and poke, some black raspberry, blackberry root, and some goldenrod). Once we started clearing out the space,we also found a boatload of bricks and more bark…and more bark…and more bark. The locust bark took a long time to remove! We raked it out piece by piece!

A lot more stuff in there than we realized

A lot more stuff in there than we realized

In this photo, we are removing a small black cherry tree–the bark of which we use as medicine. In permaculture design, we work to produce no waste and see waste as a resource. As we were clearing, none of what we found in this space will go to waste.  The locust bark we can’t use was relegated to a small compost pile on the edge of the forest where there are black raspberries that can grow in the locust bark successfully. We’ll use the bricks either for edging the garden or for a small outdoor kitchen/pizza oven. Most of the other material we pulled out from the garden ended up back on the garden site to keep the cycle of nutrients flowing, in the compost pile for next season, or as medicine. Literally everything that could be used or saved, was used or saved.

Medicinal plant roots

Medicinal plant roots

After about 4 hours of work in mid May–and the site was starting to take shape.

Site starting to take shape!

Site mostly clear!

At the end of the day, we piled all of the non-seeded organic matter back onto the site to start to a sheet mulch. The last thing we wanted to do is remove any nutrients from the soil–and that’s what we would do if we simply removed it all (especially on poor soils like this one, most nutrients are in the plants themselves).

 

I’ll note that this initial prep work was done before I did my PDC, now I’ve learned a new sheet mulch technique and would have used all of the seeded material as well as the non-seeded material instead and kept everything except the locust bark.  Even so, we did pretty good. We also raked up the grass clippings in the area around the bed and added them as well.  Mom and dad started throwing in their fresh compost for added nutrients.

Adding organic matter

Adding organic matter

On another work day in June, my father procured a great pile of manure locally, and we added all of that on top of the site to help build the soil fertility. My parents’ land used to be a potato farm, and the soil is mostly clay, rocky, with little to no organic matter. A simple soil jar test confirmed this (as did just looking at the light brown color of the soil).

Adding compost

Adding organic matter is always the solution!

The site was starting to shape up by July. Dad said he’d be moving his woodpile, and sure enough, he did when I came back later in the summer to continue to work on the garden after my PDC. He also decided to cut down two of the locust trees for firewood bordering the site, which he had been planning to do even before my garden went in. At this point, I started shaping the pathways and added some free woodchips we got from the township (they give them away for free).

 

I had learned a lot about pathway management in my homestead in Michigan–namely, square gardens aren’t fun to maintain, because nature doesn’t work in square forms. Also, 4′ garden beds may be standard for many gardens, but they are way too big for me to comfortably work in (I think that someone who was 6′ tall with long arms came up with that as a standard garden bed measurement!)  In terms of the paths themselves, I wanted a more natural shape that embraced the sun and encouraged it in, and also was reminiscent of ancient mounds upon the earth–so I used an arc and a line. This gave me easy access to all of the beds without uncomfortable reaching and made a few paths to sit and to walk (I also considered a spiral here).  But really, this pathway choice was all about maximizing growing space using “keyhole” designs.

Establishing pathways

Establishing pathways

You’ll notice a few small patches of green in the garden.  There was a really lovely black raspberry that I decided to keep in the garden–its a bit rare in this particular area, and one of my favorites. I have also not found any stinging nettles in the wild, at all, in this area, so I put a few of those in after getting them at the Mother Earth News fair from a local grower.  You’ll also see my father’s giant brush “burn” pile behind the garden–I convinced him that burning it and releasing that carbon into the air is not a good idea and so, we are going to let it rot down for another year or two, let the blackberries stay on the north side of it and then turn it into a hugelkultur bed with a sheet mulch.  Hooray!

 

As fall approached and the leaves began to drop, I used a basic sheet mulching technique to extend the garden outward. It was the technique I described in this post years ago and involved beginning by garden forking the ground to address soil compaction (this spot has been run over with the mower for years and is super compacted).  Then I added a layer of cardboard and newspaper to suppress grass, wet it down, and then added thin layers of compost and maple leaves.  Maple leaves break down really quickly (as compared to say, oak) and they don’t mat as badly.  Worms will quickly make their way into these piles and by spring, they will be ready to plant in.  Even a month later, the piles had sunk by 2/3 in volume.

Sheet mulching with fall leaves

Sheet mulching with fall leaves

That takes me up to where I’m at today with the preparation work–the ground is now frozen (finally, after our delayed start to winter) and I am now looking at the seeds and planning for the next phase of the refugia garden.

 

Refugia Garden Seeds & Garden Design

So the other piece of this is the plants themselves–at this point in early January, I have my seeds ordered and am setting about a planting schedule.  I’ve also done a design of the garden, considering primarily the height of the plant and its role in the ecosystem.  There’s a lot I wanted to fit into this small garden–here’s my first rudimentary design!  Note that the south of the map is south-facing, and this garden is in full sun (except for the back part, which will be trellised and provide some shade.

Refugia Garden Design

Refugia Garden Design

Next up comes some seed starting–most of the seeds I will start in March or April for an early June planting.  Some of the seeds I already started – the ones that require cold stratification I put in big pots outside for the winter months.  In March and April, depending on how long the seeds need to germinate and get started, I’ll plant them by the moon (a technique taught to me by my dear friend Linda); where you start seeds on the new or full moon. I’ll also use some of the seed starting magical work I described in this post.

 

So there you have it–the first start to my small, yet diverse, refugia garden!