When we create a garden and are mindful of the plants growing in it, we ourselves grow from being in closer contact with the same natural cycles affecting the plants. The budding flower unfurls its spring banner before us, the heavy fruit heralds the end of a growing season and the withered stalk whispers of seasons past and yet to come. The synchronicity between seasons and plants is a vibrant illustration of the natural patterns which affect all life. Recognizing that we too are an expression of these patterns is the very heart and soul of farming naturally.
Natural farming is a simple notion really, it embraces the philosophy of,"do as little as possible." It is a realm where Nature is the master gardener and human decision making plays a minor role. It acknowledges Nature to be the whole from which we were created and the whole which has sustained us since that creation. Instead of asking what extra activities we can do to "improve" upon Nature, to grow better food, we should be asking what don't we need to do. It is as simple as that and as profound as a new understanding of self and Nature.
If someone proved to us that digging, weeding, fertilizing, pest control and pruning were not necessary to grow food would we continue to do so? AJapanese farmer, Masanobu Fukuoka, has indeed demonstrated to agronomists around the world that these activities are not necessary. For over fifty years he has achieved surplus yields of rice, barley, plums, citrus fruit sand vegetables by means of natural farming. Fukuoka is the author of The One Straw Revolution, The Natural Way of Farming, and The Road Back to Nature. During the 1970's and 1980's he taught his methods of natural farming across the United States, Europe and Africa and is living today on his farm in Japan. Throughout his travels and in his writings he cautions that the true and persisting cause of desertification and blights is man's perceived separation from Nature. This perception has most strongly manifested itself in the form of agriculture resulting in the steady erosion of biological diversity and soils. The remedy to what ails us will not be found through scientific discovery nor a return to traditional agriculture, but lies waiting to be discovered within ourselves and in our relationship with Nature.
Fukuoka cannot praise home gardeners enough, which is music any permaculturalist's ears. To begin gardening naturally, however, we must take a step back and ask what Nature has in mind for the site instead of focusing only on what we have in mind. One way to ask what belongs in your garden is to cast as many different types of seeds as possible during all of the planting windows with no particular aim in sight. Be careful to find seeds which can still open pollinate themselves, otherwise you may be buying a seed that will not produce viable off-spring. Now find an area in your garden to experiment with that you may be willing to subject to some "disorder," any size will do and no special bed preparation is necessary.
Mid spring and summer are as good a time as any to begin natural gardening by manually broadcasting seeds just before a thunderstorm. We should choose seeds which germinate easily such as cucumbers, melons, and squashes, but it is truly a free for all and there are no constraints. It is also most helpful to broadcast an equal amount of green manure crops -beans and peas in the spring and summer, and clovers, vetches and medicagos in the fall. These green manure crops will ensure the fertility of your garden and eliminate the need for fertilizers. All of the seeds should be mixed up and scattered completely at random. Other seeds to begin with are fast growing radishes and turnips which may grow well anytime of the year. The Japanese daikon radish is well known for being extremely deep rooted and serving as a biological aerator and source of carbon. During the fall, kale, collard greens, carrots, dill, parsley and cilantro may also do well when seeded directly into the garden by hand.What we are doing by broadcasting so many seeds is providing materials forNature to pick and choose from, and though it may seem wasteful initially, when you find a plant that is well suited for your garden you have returned that part of your garden and a part of yourself to Nature.
I recently noticed in our two and a half acre field kale coming back from its roots where we had cast its seed two years ago. It is pleasing to see such a nutritious food plant doing well without any attention from us. It is also amusing because only a few days before we had spent much time and effort germinating and transplanting cabbages from our greenhouse into our garden. Two days after the transplanting we had our last hard freeze and maybe half of the transplanted cabbages survived. We certainly could have prevented the mistake if we had been more patient, but the lesson here is, if we can direct seed kale and have it do well completely on its own, then why not rely more on kale instead of cabbage for a cool season green? I find kale just as delicious as cabbage and have been told that it is extremely rich in nutrients as well. This is a good start for a natural gardener.
Another example of natural farming is one of Fukuoka's methods of growing rice and barley on his farm in Japan. This method begins in the fall with the manual broadcasting of barley, clover and rice sometime betweenOctober and the New Year. On his two or three acres of rice paddy he does not till in preparation for sowing seed as tillage greatly disrupts the soil's rich ecosystem. Since the barley and clover are cool season crops they will have a chance to germinate and grow as many of the warm season plants are dying back. The rice grain is mixed into a clay slurry and mashed through a screen to create impregnated clay pellets - preferably one grain of rice per pellet. These pellets serve as a capsule which will protect the rice grain from rodent and insect predation until the spring.By the time the clay has worn off, it is spring and the rice is in the field at exactly the time it ought to be.
As spring waxes and the clover grows thick and dark green, the barley begins to mature on the stalk. When the barley is ripe, sometime in lateMay, it is harvested by hand with a sickle. Quite likely the rice has already germinated and is trodden-on underfoot somewhat by the harvesters but this does not damage it at such a young pliable stage. The residual straw from the barley will be haphazardly strewn back over the paddies.There has been much concern about insect pests thriving in the straw mulch, but without the use of any pesticides at all, Fukuoka's fields are heavily populated with spiders which generously help themselves to the leaf-hoppers and other insect pests. Most importantly, the straw mulch rejuvenates the soil's organic horizon and the clover fixes enough nitrogen so that no synthetic fertilizers are needed. Though all human, plant and animal wastes are composted, the application of composts and manure is not relied upon in natural farming.
Wetland rice, such as that grown in Fukuoka's municipality in Japan, is grown in flooded paddies in order to reduce the competition of other plants. This, however, weakens even the rice plant's stalk and exposes it to many water loving fungi and viruses. Consequently, wetland rice varieties are selected to tolerate these conditions rather than selected for their nutritious properties. To avoid the artificially wet and stressful conditions of paddies which stay flooded throughout the growing season, Fukuoka floods his paddies for only a short duration (after barley harvest) while the clover is still very thick and the rice is just getting started. This weakens the clover and other weeds but does not slow the rice down. When asked what else he does for the weeds, he laughed and simply replied, "I don't do anything for the weeds, they do just fine by themselves." The rice is harvested after the summer and its straw too is returned whole to the land. Thus the cycle is completed and begins anew in the fall.
Fukuoka reveals to us how food plants and all other plants will grow naturally and vigorously with little or no human effort. It does not matter if we grow rice or vegetables, if we are at home or in Japan, nor if we nurture a small garden or an expansive farm. Natural farming goes beyond simply casting seeds or picking fruits to acknowledge our union with Nature and the very abundance which created us. Fortunately, home gardeners are among those most likely to discover the virtue of natural farming. This is because they are motivated by the desire to create food, not profit, and because they sincerely enjoy toiling in the garden. When we no longer distinguish our selves from the garden, our toils and discoveries become like light-hearted steps along the road back to Nature.
Written by Kirby Fry, Program Coordinator, Cross Timbers Permaculture Institute
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