There was an old Japanese rice farmer with a cone hat, that used to live in the mountains, he also grew citrus and grains, but was most well know for his “do nothing” approach. An approach to agriculture that mimics the natural way of tending and farming the land. What less can I do?, he said, and sought out a way to develop a new Japanese methodology for growing crops. He scythed, gardened amongst the weeds, did not dig, broadcasted seeds covered in clay, and did not flood his rice, or terrace the hills. Along with Geoff Lawton, Bill Mollison, and my friend Steven Martyn ‘The Sacred Gardener’, Masanobu has been one of my biggest inspirations, not for his extremism (or relative simplicity by ancient standards), but for his ease of approach. The zen of gardening. Now, of course, this kind of gardening may have a special place in Japan, but there has been good evidence and experimentation that is has been able to remediate other lands, in several other countries, so I thought I would give it a try.
So this year I decided to build a small garden plot, under 800 sq.feet with these principles as a research garden. On a fallow hay field, I scythed with an old Croatian blade, dropped the hay in situ, mulched with maple leaves, old hay and straw bales from the land, rotten wood punk (redrot), worms, and some light chicken tillage. I did not have to hurt my back, or scrape or weed anything. When the ground had baked sufficiently and started to smother the plants underneath, I planted into the thick mulch by opening a hole with my hand, and putting the plant in. I chose some miner plants to send deep stalks down through the clay; dinosaur kale, and a variety of cabbages and lettuce, other brassicas and nightshade or solanaceous plants like purple cauliflower, romanesco, heirloom tomatoes, tobacco, wonderberry, peppers.
In the beginning, during three separate seeding trials indoors, the flux of weather above and below frost, even until may caused two die offs, of nearly a third of my seed stock. Some things were hardened off too early, and others wilted in the cold, became sunburned, or became eaten by birds, or chickens or a hungry goat. Some species simply didn’t take to the raw field, which has remained uncultivated for over a decade, and only ever grown hay and pioneering plants. I imagine these would be similar issues my ancestors would have faced before fancy technological innovations for even the small scale producer. Dealing with cold shocks, overcooking in the greenhouse, vegetarian animals who nip a bite from every plant, seed viability, and the malnutrition of rocky, clayey fields. We don’t only learn from mistakes, but they are definitely a teaching towards how to do it right the next time.
So far, my garden is not ‘doing much’, but what I can report is that some of the weed composition has changed, and this feels like change. Many of the kale plants have endured severe pendulum affects in the weather, and have established themselves from 1in. starts to more robust leaves, the lettuce seems to be thriving on the periodic rain that falls which is more than last year at this time during a drought. A few rare tomatoes are fortifying themselves but not yet showing fruit, a few tobacco and zucchini starts escaped the hungry eyes of the ruminant goat, and still have a chance, and I have introduced some Shisito, Doehill, Chinese 5-color, and Banana peppers. My chicken flock have loyally tilled the ground on the north side of my garden and opened space for me to broadcast quinoa, amaranth and chia. Not much is sprouting yet, and I wonder if the ground is just too compacted, grass matted or is being eaten by the fliers. On the good side, a few sunflowers have sprouted from the seeds that did not get eaten by the chickens that I throw into the chicken tractor every day.
I expected action to be very slow, and there is change, at least to the soil composition, and biology. Many spiders have moved in, and over time the pH will shift when more organic matter is mixed in to the plot. I don’t know if I will see the fruits of this garden, and it is easy to see how the domestication of growing food means a lot more work, but usually a higher yield. The moral and spiritual question is how much to interfere?
Another lasagna style garden, growing adjacent to the masanobu fukuoka plot is thriving with a little more involvement. With triple layer sheet mulching of cardboard, hay and maple sugar leaves, a longer aging process, the ground underneath is more willing to accept to younger seedlings. Vermiculture, aged manure, mycelium and minerals have been amended to this garden. Though my involvement with this plot so far has been bare minimal, and is primarily the focalization of a friend who is more skilled in soil biology as her primary study, it is another research project, and showing better success rates in these circumstances. I am learning a lot from this garden as well, on how to amend soil with native earth minerals, how to passively bake the weed seed bank in the ground, and soften grass mat. I am also humbled by its easy approach, and simple science, on something that I may not have intuited in 100 years of gardening. There has been a serious effort in this garden to convert the soil microlife, with yield as a second priority. It is to prove that there does need to be a remediation and transition phase from old ground to productive market garden, and one can not miss steps, but we don’t have work violently with the earth either.
To supplement any harvest from the gardens, I have been invested in the foraging and gathering tradition, learning from a wealth of different sources, my main teachers right now being Samuel Thayer, Daniel Vitalis, Euell Gibbons, and the matriarch of this farm, Johanna Koeslag. This is primarily what I have been bringing to market and what has filled my tables. Initiating the season with will tree saps; maple, and birch, then with the first thaws, gathering fiddleheads, ramps, young horsetail, nettle, and trout lilies, giving way to pheasant back mushrooms, morels, and kentucky coffee beans from the forest, amaranth, dandelion root and lambs’ quarters from the compost zones, milkweed from the meadows, and cattail and marsh marigold or bullrush from the swamp. I was lucky to find a few abandoned eggs, of the robin and turkey, but only enough for my breakfast, and I’ve had my eyes on some maral root for medicinal tinctures.
When I gather, I do so in a respectable way that I feel my ancestors would do. Not often taking the first plant if there are few, or if they are ephemerals like mushrooms, practicing not lethal harvest of the wild leeks and cattails, and studying several sources of plant i.d. and conscience foraging practices of wild herbs and forest vegetables, learning to only take a small portion of the most edible parts. It is one tradition to offer pieces of oneself in return to the land, like hair or some genetic material, this also makes me feel more rooted and grounded to place, I collect my hair and leave it in trees for birds to gather for nests. Prior to a lot of my foraging experience, I planted one quarter of a million trees of varying species in four countries, and carried rare, medicinal and shamanic plant seeds to give to several more. I think it is important for there to be a reciprocating relationship with the planetary habitat, and everything is equal karma.
So that is where I am at now, and I am taking each day with a dose of sobriety of the evolution of this project, and what becomes of it. Most of permaculture is design and observation, and less about what you are actually doing, because by its very nature, permaculture is mimicking nature. This is my relationship to farming, as a steward and active participant in human ecology, in lessons on living not only lightly, but more capably with the land I inhabit.