There’s a lot of talk lately (on podcasts, on social media, at conferences, on the labels of food…) about different kinds of agriculture. All-natural. Permaculture. Regenerative. It seems like every few years, there’s a new word, or a new meaning to an old one. Whatever you call your method, taking a long view of your soil health will result in better yields and a happier garden over time.
My current garden is about 1/6 acre in the city. I’ve crammed fruit trees, berries, livestock, perennial herb beds, and many feet of annual beds into it, and I have my eye on a pond and a greenhouse—small ones. When I moved in, about six years ago now, it was just clay and gravel and monoculture grass, and the soil was unhappy. Of course I started -planting- right away, but I didn’t get a good crop of anything (except peas, which did great from day one!) until the last few years. Meanwhile, I was putting down burlap and cardboard to kill the grass, hauling tub after tub of mulch and compost and topsoil, putting down sawdust for garden paths, raising chickens and rabbits, growing nitrogen-fixers and taprooters, planting fruit trees and vines.
More than likely, I would have gotten better crops the first year or two if I had turned the grass under with a tiller each spring and pumped the soil full of mined fertilizers and petrochemicals. But I wouldn’t have possums and bluejays and Cooper’s hawks in my yard, I wouldn’t look out my kitchen window to the sight of fireflies all summer, I wouldn’t have a garden brimming with wild medicinal herbs whose seeds just blew in. I wouldn’t be enjoying the bumper crop that happy soil offers now, if I had dried out and burnt my soil then.
Anecdotal evidence and some scientific study backs up the idea that an organically* maintained garden responds more readily to lunar planting methods. At the same time, the industrialization of farming, and the mining and oil-drilling that support it, are all degrading our Earth in a way that harms all of our gardens. Even in the short time I’ve been here, summers have gotten hotter and windier, winters have gotten drier, rainstorms have gotten heavier, and we’ve had two new invasive bugs announced to be on alert for.
So for all of these reasons, Maxx and I made the decision to remove advice to spray with petroleum products and replace them with more organic, Earth-centered techniques (for example, spraying peach trees with horsetail tea rather than dormant oil to treat leaf curl). Where we have left in advice to use plastic (such as using plastic sheeting to warm soil in spring) we’ve supplemented it with other suggestions (like old windowframes or a thin layer of dark rocks). We know that plastic products can make farming much more financially accessible for people (like installing a hoop house instead of a real glass greenhouse) and in some situations—like the plastic tubing of drip irrigation in arid places—we know that the benefits of reusable plastic tools are immense.
To me, the particular labels or methods are not as important as taking an individual approach to your microclimate and your soil. No matter how trendy a technique is, the same farming method is not going to work everywhere. We don’t want to be judgmental or make the mistake of thinking that what works in our 1000′ elevation Eastern Woodlands garden would work as well on a 7000′ elevation High Desert ranch. But we want to encourage all growers and custodians of the soil to choose gardening methods that will encourage long-term soil fertility and ecological health.
* I’ve worked at a farm that couldn’t be certified organic because they used spring water. It would have damaged some pretty fragile bedrock to drill a well, the water would have tasted weird, and they couldn’t afford it besides, so they continued to use completely organic, Earth-friendly gardening methods and continued to be ineligible to market their produce as “organic”. So when I talk about organic gardening, I don’t necessarily mean USDA Organic.