Exposing Environmental Big Lies
This is chapter 11 of my book, A Natural Language, which exposes the environmental narrative as propaganda and puts bottom-up solutions in front of the actual problem.
Keeping soil covered feeds the biology and prevents evaporation. The simplest way to get this benefit is to leave dead plant matter lying on the ground as mulch instead of tilling it into the ground every year. At the same time, it is not always practical or desirable for a farming operation to mulch and stop tilling entirely, so some tilling is here to stay. A complementary strategy is to grow cover crops outside of the growing season. Cover cropping wherever possible would help soak up the carbon hockey stick and improve soil health as a bonus. Let’s unpack these concepts a bit for readers who aren’t familiar with agroecology.
There is a myth that no-till means no-tilling whatsoever that we need to address head-on. One problem is that farming tools rarely play well with raw dead plant matter. No-till market-farmers tend to use compost as mulch for this reason, in spite of the heavy input requirements (and the nutrient runoffs). Soil compaction is another issue. Farm vehicles and machinery create downward and sideway compaction. Animals like pigs, and fallowing so natural tillers with thick taproots (dandelions) can solve that problem, but cereal farmers don’t all want to run a menagerie. The next issue is temperature: bare soil means more heat in the spring, which helps with germination. (It also means more exposure to cold winds that can create frost damage in the spring.) Yet another issue is moisture. Some seeds germinate fine when soil is very moist. Others become moldy. The moon can amplify that effect in either direction, by raising or lowering the water table like a tide when it is rising or receding. Tilling allows to aerate soil and help evaporate the excess moisture. Tilling can also allow to create trenches where water will concentrate. This allows to keep seeds planted in the trenches nice and moist, and those planted in the mounds well drained.
Perhaps the most important function of tilling relates to ecosystem succession. Water, (lack of) grazers, and time allowing, an ecosystem will turn a burnt wasteland into a lush forest. This succession happens above and below ground. Essentially, grasslands grow on burnt grasslands, forests grow on dead forests, and forest edges grow on both. Plants each occupy a niche in that succession that reflects their soil preferences. Cereals and vegetables in our diet are mostly grassland annuals that grow early in the succession, and don’t do so well in forest soil. This is why a back to eden veggie patch needs an occasional till. What tilling basically does is act like a fire. It sets back the soil structure by suppressing the fungi and resetting the electrochemical properties. Tilling actually has benefits when compared to actual fires: tilling doesn’t kill as much wildlife, vaporize nutrients, or create downwind smog (like in Delhi). With this being said, some seeds actually need fire to germinate (sequoia trees, most famously). Another benefit of a wildfire is that the water content of undried wood results in water vapor that creates some activated charcoal, which increases soil water retention and provides habitat for soil biology. That benefit was lost with the industrial revolution but it is simple enough to restore by spreading biochar or activated charcoal directly. You can add biology to boot by mixing it with compost or spraying it with compost tea.
Compost, in passing, has more of the same succession issues. If you put the wrong type of compost in a field or in a bed, you’ll get all sorts of weeds that are adapted to the succession stage the compost is in. Plants like brassicas will prefer worm castings, fast compost, and other bacterial dominant composts. Plants that like to grow around early stage trees or live at a forest’s edge will prefer more fungi, reflecting more browns and more time. Trees will prefer more fungi still. You can season compost as needed by layering it with browns in a setup that keeps the pile aerated and moist, like a Johnson-Su bioreactor. Layer in soil samples and dead wood from rich ecosystems in your area (roadsides, forests) to help establish desired fungi. Add activated charcoal or biochar for extra water retention, and yeast for faster decomposition. Spray compost tea and other desirable biology as you build the pile to help the biology establish faster.
With these many caveats behind us, keeping soil untilled and covered with mulch has many benefits. One issue is well understood to anyone who has observed black birds that follow tractors in the spring. Tilling makes fake meat and tofu look like genocidal affairs compared to meat. Tilling also harms soil fungi. The associated changes to soil structure affect its electrochemical properties. This matters because soil acidity (pH) and redox potential (eH) both influence what form soil ions take in soil, and thus what nutrients plants and soil microbiology are able to access and how easily. Some are easy to access. Others become unavailable for all practical intents. Others are more or less hard to access in between. Biology will amend soil electrochemical properties to extract nutrients. They also introduce structural changes, like natural tilling from thick taproots or burrowers. As a result of these amendments, biology changes what plants will readily grow, and fuel the ecological succession. An associated benefit of not tilling is that mulch adds habitat variety for soil microbiology. Mulch is more aerated and usually exhibits a more alkaline environment than soil beneath it. That means a different pH/eH profile that makes different nutrients available. Too much mulch in a garden will also attract slugs. If hedgehogs are not patrolling your garden well enough, you can set up traps with wooden planks laid on the ground and feed the slugs to your ducks.
A complementary step to no-till farming is to grow cover crops outside of the growing season. This gives the benefit of mulching during the season and that of keeping a living root in the ground outside of it. A further benefit of cover cropping is that plants bioaccumulate nutrients. In contrast with what happens when you salt a field or a bed with fertilizer, decomposers make these nutrients slowly available when you terminate the cover crop, in a way that the nutrients will not easily wash away. One caveat about cover cropping is that water availability can make it unrealistic, or at least not without earthworks. Another issue is crop termination. Timing is basically everything here. It can’t be too late, because you don’t want to let the cover crop go to seed. Nor can it be too early, because mowing a cover crop that still has plenty of life in it will result in it shooting back up and shading seedlings. You can crimp the crop to work around the latter issue to a large degree: this will suppress the cover crop for long enough that seedlings will shade it instead. You can also terminate the cover crop with a tarp.
Another way to add soil cover is to grow more than one plant in crop alleys. Too many intercropping experiments exist to discuss here, but three ideas deserve a mention. The first revolves around growing companion plants together. A classic example is the Native American guild with corn, bean climbing on it for nitrogen, squash for ground cover, and pepper as a sacrifice plant. Another classic is do-nothing farmer Masanobu Fukuoka experimenting with growing several varieties of rice together to get several harvests from a single sowing. Countless combinations of cash and cover crops await documentation and widespread sharing. Another idea is to layer crops on top of one another. Regenerative farmer Helen Atthowe and others, for instance, have been trying out growing crops in a living mulch of white clover, which is a nitrogen fixer. (In passing, clovers and dandelions were beneficials in lawns until broadleaf herbicides turned them into weeds. You can let them in your garden beds and pots, and chop and drop them for mulch and nutrients.) Yet another idea is to grow plants closer together. Doing so pushes the plants to compete harder and grow faster. Then thin them out as needed for more mulch, more nutrients, and more harvest.
Syntropic farming uses all of the above ideas and principles on steroids. Essentially, it has you plant the entire plant succession in one pass, and pack the plants together to maximize plant growth. It requires a bit of forethought. Some earthworks might be in order to harvest more water. You will also want to ask yourself what you want to be harvesting for the next several years. Your job after planting is to water, harvest, chop and drop, and add biology as needed. Essentially, suppress weeds and branches that stunt what is below them or get in your way. Thin out plants that have served their purpose. Spread biochar, compost, compost teas, yeast, and extracts as the situation calls for. It creates very fertile soil and very abundant yield.
You can apply similar principles with seed pellets to quickly establish a landscape, too. Pick the seeds that go into the guild. Put them in a bit of compost for fertility. Then use clay to form a pellet. Dip it in strong tea so that birds and deers don’t go after it. Let it dry in the sun. You’ll get a hard, stone-like pellet that will dissolve when it rains. Drop the pellets where you want to grow a forest. If you’re upgrading a natural grassland, do earthworks to harvest extra water before planting. If animals like deers are a problem, temporarily fence them out so they don’t eat the saplings. You can scale this across landscapes using bulldozers, drones, and helicopters. You can also do this as part of guerrilla gardening operations, like activists sometimes do in empty city lots.
An abundance of plants allows land to carry an abundance of animals. You can let them in and hunt them. Nurture them by respecting watering holes, nesting sites, and young females if you do that. You can also companion with the animals instead to create even more abundance. You can design around having the animals work with you as they harvest their own food. Chickens will spread a compost pile onto a garden bed, as they scratch to find bugs and worms. Ducks will patrol a garden for snails and slugs. Pigs will harvest your excess nuts, berries, tubers, and so forth. This will take less effort and less energy. The animals will be happier, healthier, and tastier. There is nothing wrong with harvesting an animal that has lived a happy life. Undomesticated animals mostly die violently as they become each others’ meals anyway. There is also nothing wrong with losing animals to predators, either. Do shepherd and protect your animals, mind you, but let nature have its share (wolves need to eat too) by letting go of what does not depend on you. The alternative is the vain idolatry of the modern food system, or indeed modern society. It leads to locking up animals in AI-monitored prison facilities, and a blood bath when nature comes to claim its toll.
It is possible to design landscapes that deliver an abundance of water, too. Hill slopes stop being erosive at the midpoint of S-curves. It is therefore sensible to let trees grow above that to prevent erosion. A forest is one option. A regenerative silvopasture with sparse tree cover is another. Plant on contour elsewhere, with swales or subsoiling as the context calls for. You can improve the watershed further by strategically adding ponds. In particular above orchards, cropping alleys, and garden beds. Use Bunyip pumps, ram pumps, and siphons to fill them if needed. If you need to pump water up from a well or a river, you can use a ram pump to create a vacuum in a sealed tank filled with water. When streams begin to appear, slow them down with large boulders and ponds, or introduce beavers for the same effect. This will help soak in more water still. Streams and ponds create an abundance of food, beneficials, and energy. Large dams need too much sand and disrupt ecosystems, but run-on-the-river systems, hydraulic trompes, and trompe-rams have a bright future.
This aquatic abundance can extend into the sea, too. Fish aggregating devices attract the ire of environmental groups because of unscrupulous fishermen. Aquaculture gets negative press because of the growing conditions and the localized pollution. Kelp farming in monoculture plantations on our shores is attracting headlines for becoming too big too fast. These problems are all related to doing a single thing with a focus on output. We could instead be restoring coastal marshlands, mangroves, kelp forests, and other coastal ecosystems. We could also create habitat further at sea by growing plants and shellfish under permanent fish aggregating devices. This would provide us with abundant seafood and biofuel. Perhaps turbines below them could even harvest ocean currents for electricity.
Summary | Next: Abundant Gardens.