Edible Ecosystems

February 7, 2014

NOTE: Images in this archived article have been removed.

Here are condensed versions of two profiles in my upcoming book Grass, Soil, Hope that feature the regenerative practices at the nexus between food and nature. Both build soil carbon while growing healthy food in abundant amounts, demonstrating that we can have our organic, pesticide-free, mineral-rich cake and eat it too. For more on the book see: www.chelseagreen.com/bookstore/item/grass_soil_hope

Edible Backyard Forests

This is a story about two plant geeks, an urban sweet spot and edible forests.

The two self-described plant geeks are Eric Toensmeier and Jonathan Bates and the edible forest garden they planted in 2004 resides on one-tenth of an acre behind a duplex home they bought in the Rust Belt city of Holyoke, Massachusetts. Although tiny, the property had big problems: the backyard was lifeless, the soil full of brick and concrete bits, the narrow alleyways in deep shade, the steep, short front yard covered in asphalt and the legal terrain hostile to composting, water harvesting and livestock, chickens especially.

It was perfect, in other words.

That’s because Toensmeier and Bates wanted to see if they could bring a tiny spot of badly damaged land back to health by creating an edible ecosystem on it. That meant a forest garden, which is defined as an ecologically-designed community of mutually beneficial perennial plants intended for human food production. Think fruits, nuts, berries and certain veggies. Could they bring lifeless land back to life by gardening every square inch, they asked, creating a diverse and edible landscape? Could they grow banana plants in wintry western Massachusetts? If so, what else could they grow, and how could it serve as a role model for ecological restoration in cities using native perennial plants? Could their one-tenth acre sweet spot, in other words, yield big results?

The plant geeks set out to find out.

The two friends knew from experience that one advantage to perennial plants, besides providing tasty food, was their ability to build soil, control erosion, improve rainfall capture and sequester carbon. These could be very useful qualities in a blighted urban context, they thought. There was another advantage to perennials – minimal maintenance, which Toensmeier calls the “holy grail” of permaculture design.

“Having worked on annual vegetable operations and experienced the hard labor of planting and caring for annuals,” he writes in his book Paradise Lot, “I considered low-maintenance edible perennial vegetables an appealing alternative.”

The key to creating an edible ecosystem is a design that is as multifunctional as possible. To do this, Toensmeier and Bates spent an entire year observing and analyzing their one-tenth acre after they moved into the duplex in January, 2004, contemplating their design. What part of the property received the most sunlight year-round (for the greenhouse)? Where was the best place for the pond, what guilds of plants would work best together in which part of the backyard?

Looking around the neighborhood for an ecological role model, they were delighted to discover a “feral landscape” behind a twenty-year old Kmart shopping center. It was ten acres of shrubs and wildflower meadows – perfect for their purposes. That’s because nature was well on its way to healing the two decades-old scar created by the development and by studying the plants, they gained valuable clues to what nature likes to grow in a disturbed urban ecosystem.

“Most gardeners would not be excited about the species that were growing in the abandoned area behind the shopping center,” Toensmeier wrote, “But to me, any plant community that can grow in such terrible conditions is a welcome one.”

In 2005, after sheet mulching the bare ground behind the duplex (layers of straw, compost, organic fertilizers and cardboard) they planted native persimmon, pawpaw, beach plum, clove currant, blueberries, juneberries, chinquapins (bush chestnuts), hog peanuts, grapes, pears, and the nonnative kiwifruit (but so are carrots and apples, Toensmeier notes). In the front yard they planted banana trees.

By 2007, the garden was coming to life, a consequence of improving soils and the attractive habitat they had created for beneficial insects. The shrubs, perennials and young trees were doing well, Toensmeier wrote, and the front yard already looked like a mini-tropical paradise. The banana trees, sheltered from westerly winds, collecting heat from the asphalt driveway, their roots protected from winter snows, became show stoppers in the area. Drivers stopped in the middle of the street to gawk. Neighbors asked permission to harvest leaves for tamales.

By 2009, their backyard ecosystem was showing “emergent properties,” as they described it, meaning things were happening that were more than the sum of their parts. For example, they discovered a blue salamander under a twenty-foot persimmon tree in the garden, which meant their edible ecosystem was attracting forest animals to patrol its understory – a creature that would never have survived in the yard in 2004.

In 2010, Bates kept a log of the amount and types of food coming into the kitchen from the garden. He estimated that over six months, they harvested 400 pounds of fruits and vegetables from the one-tenth acre, a total that was bound rise in subsequent years as the edible ecosystem reached its full capacity. Best of all, the incredible yields were being produced with virtually no labor. It was a testament not only to success of their design, but to the regenerative power of nature to produce life.

“The abundance in our garden comes to us in a self-renewing way,” Bates wrote in Paradise Lot. “Our fruit trees are surrounded not by grass and asphalt, but by other useful and edible easy to care for plants. After eight years, with very little care from us, all the plants are providing food, medicine, mulch, fodder, beauty, habitat, knowledge, seeds, and baby plants.”

“How is it that the abundance that I am now seeing in the garden,” he exclaimed, “and in life, was hidden from me all this time?”

For Toensmeier, their little sweet spot demonstrated that cold-climate forest gardening can work. They created a multistoried forest garden in Massachusetts that can produce food from trees, shrubs, herbs and fungi, even in the shade. They showed that ponds can grow food, asphalt can be a boon to tropical plants, and a good time can be had by all. There were challenges and setbacks (detailed in the Paradise Lot) of course, but after eight years they had accomplished everything on their original To Do list, and more.

“While sustainability is focused on maintaining things as they are, regenerative land use actively improves and heals a site and its ecosystems,” Toensmeier wrote in Paradise Lot. “Regenerative agriculture…achieves these goals while also meeting human needs. It’s kind of an important topic for humanity this century.”

Buy their book: www.chelseagreen.com/bookstore/item/paradise_lot

Before and After images of their lot:

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Cover Crops

Sometimes the most effective and regenerative practices are ones that don’t earn splashy headlines. For example, one quiet way to build up soil carbon on farms damaged by industrial agriculture is with cover crops – plants that cover the land with something green and growing for as much of the year as possible.

It’s not sexy, but it works wonders.

I learned the details at a workshop in Kansas led by Dr. Jill Clapperton, a soil scientist, who told the audience that the key to rebuilding soil health is to start a “conversation among plants.” Cool-season grasses, such as barley, wheat and oats and cool-season broadleaf plants, such as canola, pea, turnip, lentils and mustard, she said, need to dialogue constructively with warm-season grasses, including millet, corn, and sorghum, and warm broadleafs, such as buckwheat, sunflower and sugar beets. Who gets along with whom?

If you can get these plants engaged in a robust conversation in one field, she said, you’ll be creating “a feast for the soil.” That’s because increased plant diversity as well as year-round biological activity absorbs more CO2, which in turn increases the amount of carbon available to roots, which feeds the microbes, which builds soil, round and round.

This is exactly what happened on Gail Fuller’s farm, which we visited. When Fuller took over the operation from his father they were growing just three cash crops: corn, wheat and soybeans. Now, Fuller plants as many fifty-three different kinds of plants on the farm, mostly as cover crops, creating what Dr. Clapperton called a “cocktail” of legumes, grasses and broadleaf plants. Fuller doesn’t apply any herbicides, pesticides, or fertilizers either, despite the recommendations of his no-till neighbors and the chemical manufacturers who advise them. That’s because Fuller considers weeds to be a part of the dynamic conversation as well.

As a result of this robust conversation, Dr. Clapperton said, the carbon content of the soil on the Fuller Farm has doubled from 2 percent in 1993 (when they switched to no-till) to 4 percent today. That’s huge.

There’s more: the mineral content of Fuller’s crops has risen dramatically as well, she said. This is important because all living creatures, humans included, need vitamins and minerals to stay strong and healthy. Iron, for example, is required for a host of processes vital to human health, including the production of red blood cells, the transportation of oxygen through our bodies, and the efficient functioning of our muscles. Copper is essential for the maintenance of our organs, for a healthy immune system, and to neutralize damaging “free radicals” in our blood. Calcium is essential for bone health. And every cell in our body requires magnesium to function properly. Vitamins are organic compounds composed of various chemicals and minerals, including carbon.

A deficiency or imbalance of these “trace” minerals (so-called because they are only needed in tiny amounts) can cause serious damage to our health, as most people understand. That’s why taking vitamin pills has become such a big deal today – and big business – especially where young children are concerned. But few people stop to think about why we need vitamin pills in the first place. It’s not simply because we don’t eat our veggies or because we drink too much soda, but because the veggies themselves don’t have the amount of essential nutrients that they once did. In some cases, the drop has been dramatic.

How did this happen? Well, industrial agriculture happened. The hybridization of crops over the decades for production values – yield, appearance, taste, and ease of transport – has drained fruits and vegetables of nutrients. But the main culprit is what we’ve done to the soil. As a consequence of repeated plowing, fertilizing, and spraying, the top few feet of farmland soil has been (1) leached of their original minerals; and (2) stripped of the biological life that facilitates nutrient uptake in plants. Some farms, especially organic ones, resupply their soils with mineral additives, but many farms do not, preferring to rely on the Big Three – Nitrogen, Potassium, and Phosphorus (NPK) – to keep the plants growing. According to the industrial mindset, as long as crops are harvestable, presentable, digestible, and profitable, it doesn’t matter if their nutrition is up to par. If there’s a deficiency, well, that’s what the vitamin pills are for!

Gail Fuller reversed this trend in two ways: first, his employment of no-pesticide no-till practices means the microbial universe in his farm’s soil remains intact and alive, and if the soil dwellers have enough carbon (as an energy source) they will facilitate the cycling of minerals in the soil, especially earthworms, who are nature’s great composters. Second, a vigorous and diverse cover of crops will put down deeper roots, enabling plants to access fresh minerals, which then become available to everything up the food chain, including us.

Furthermore, by covering the soil surface with green plants, or litter from the dead parts, Clapperton said, a farmer like Gail Fuller traps moisture underground where it becomes available for plants and animals (of the micro variety), enabling roots to tap resources, growing abundant life.

“Above-ground diversity is reflected in below-ground diversity,” she said. “However, soil organisms are competitive with plants roots for carbon, so there must be enough for everybody.”

So exactly how do minerals get into plants? There are two principal paths: First, minerals can dissolve in water and when the water is pulled into the plant through its roots, the minerals are absorbed into the cells of plant tissue. Whichever minerals the plant doesn’t need (or doesn’t want) will remain stored in the cells.

Second, mineral nutrients can enter a plant directly by being absorbed through the cell walls of root hairs. Some minerals, such as phosphorus, can also “hitch a ride” with mycorrhizal fungi, which then “barter” them for carbon molecules from the plant roots. Of course, if there aren’t any minerals in the vicinity, no uptake into plants is possible.

It all begins with a dynamic conversation at a cocktail party for plants – where everyone is gossiping about carbon!

They may not be headline-makers, but cover crops can quietly make a huge difference.

Images of cover crops in action:

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Dr. Clapperton speaking about cover crops at a Quivira Coalition conference: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=o6daE2sYegg

Courtney White

A former archaeologist and Sierra Club activist, Courtney dropped out of the 'conflict industry' in 1997 to co-found The Quivira Coalition, a nonprofit dedicated to building bridges between ranchers, conservationists, public land managers, scientists and others around the idea of land health. Today, his work concentrates on building economic and ecological resilience on working landscapes, with a special emphasis on carbon ranching and the new agrarian movement. His writing has appeared in numerous publications, including Farming, Acres Magazine, Rangelands, and the Natural Resources Journal. His essay The Working Wilderness: a Call for a Land Health Movement" was published by Wendell Berry in 2005 in his collection of essays titled The Way of Ignorance. In 2008, Island Press published Courtney's book Revolution on the Range: the Rise of a New Ranch in the American West. He co-edited, with Dr. Rick Knight, Conservation for a New Generation, also published by Island Press in 2008. He lives in Santa Fe, New Mexico, with his family and a backyard full of chickens.

Tags: carbon sequestration, cover crops, Grass Soil Hope, regenerative agriculture