One of my favorite gardening books is “How to Grow More Vegetables (and fruits, nuts, berries, grains, and other crops) Than You Thought Possible On Less Land Than You Can Imagine,” By John Jeavons with a forward by Alice Waters. It’s an authoritative guide on a single sustainable method, the double-dig raised bed. By focusing on the roots, you can build soil, and build plants, that feeds a family of four with 100-square-foot beds. Pretty cool. Today’s selection is from that:
The Need for up to “99%” Sustainability
At Ecology Action, we are looking for the quickest, most effective, most resource-conserving, and most ecologically sound ways to replenish and balance soil nutrients. Once the soil’s nutrient base has been properly built and balanced, we need to learn how best to maintain those nutrients in our gardens and mini-farms. One promising approach is to grow all of our own compost materials in sufficient quantities so that the cured compost we add to the soil contains as many of the nutrients the crops from the soil as possible, as well as enough humus to feed the soil microbes and prevent nutrient leaching. In this way, our food-raising area becomes a source — rather than a sink of carbon, nutrients, and fertility. [edit: doesn’t he mean a carbon sink? he adds..] (The net loss of carbon dioxide from our soils– and plants in the form of harvested trees and their use for fuel– is a situation causing increasing problems.)
With about 42 to 84 years’ worth of topsoil remaining in the world, learning how to enrich, improve, and maintain soil– in a way that is sustainable– is of vital importance if we, as a species, are to survive. If they can only provide food for about a century before they deplete the soil, the agricultural systems that have brought us to where we are now are clearly not sustainable. Ancient civilizations sustained their soils to feed large populations for lengthy periods of time. China’s soils, for example, remained productive for 4,000 years or more until the adoption of mechanized chemical agricultural techniques that have been responsible, in part, for the destruction of 15% to 33% of China’s agricultural soil since the late 1950s. Many of the world’s greatest civilizations have disappeared when their soil’s fertility was not maintained. Northern Africa, for example, used to be the granary of Rome until overfarming converted it into a desert, and much of the Sahara Desert was forested until it was overcut.
What really brought soils together for me was hearing from “The First Millimeter: Healing the Earth” (available at the Oberlin Library) that soil degredation has been responsible for the downfall of more civilizations than armies. What is the United States doing differently? We rush heedlessly down a path of similar desires, similar mistakes until history repeats itself. Mass starvation and a die-off may be tolerable to “us” if it’s some native Mayan race in the past, but the soil systems that we are reliant on will not manifest in Public awareness until they are pushed over the edge. The chemically propped-up agriculture is sooo unstable. Since no one knows all the trace elements in soil, we treat the top three or five. This reductionism is not only robbing nutrients from our diets and replacing it with fatty oils, but robbing the soil to make a biological desert.
“Keeping nutrients within the garden or- mini-farm or- community, and learning how to minimize the amount of nutrients we need to bring in from the outside, are important tasks if we are to grow all our food, clothing, and building materials,” Jeavons continues, “on the 9,000 square feet (or about 1/5 of an acre) that may soon be all that is available to [can provide for] each man, woman, and child in developing nations. Soon we simply will not have the luxury of taking nutrients from one soil to feed another.”
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For anyone interested IN the double dig method, ask me.