Category Archives: Trisha

Class 7: Eat the Weeds at Your Feet

Class notes by Trisha C.

John Valenzuela visited our class this week, to talk with us about plants, trees and agroforestry. I have to admit, I’m a bit of a nerd when it comes to botany. I love learning about different plant families, how to identify them, common characteristics, and the wide and varied uses they serve. I can attribute this curiousity to two determining factors from my childhood: growing up in Michigan, where I would run around in communal backyards and plant marigolds each spring and watch as rabbits subsequently devoured them; and listening to my mother point endlessly to plants and be able to identify them by their common – albeit British – names. I was always slightly jealous of my mother’s knowledge, which she was miraculously able to retain from her primary school days, when British nuns considered nature-awareness a vital part of education.

Nevertheless, I have taken opportunities in my post-college life to fulfill my fantasies of becoming a “plant expert,” but if there’s one thing I’ve learned by living in the Bay Area, it’s that it is next-to-impossible to remember by sight the thousands of varieties that we are lucky enough to have the proper climate for. Plants act almost like markers; you can learn about a particular region by studying what is able to grow there; and the Bay Area’s temperate Mediterranean climate is apparently a favorite amongst plants.

John started by talking about trees, and their functions in an ecosystem. These are some of the hardest-working elements of a natural setting, providing shade, gas exchange, soil stability, the movement of minerals and nitrogen fixing. Nitrogen fixing refers to the presence of bacteria along a plants’ roots that intake other soil minerals and release, a highly volatile element that’s essential to the proper mix of carbon, nitrogen, potassium and phosphate in any good soil. Trees are covered with bacteria, epiphytes, oils, chemicals and other non-metabolic particles that perform several functions to increase the flow of minerals and energy in an ecosystem, providing the balance needed to weather systemic changes.

The benefits of trees have led botanists and horiculturalists to recognize the power of the forest edge, where plant species are more numerous, and encompass those that do well in forests as well as meadows. Here are generally stronger, hardier plants, because there are more variations in predators, pollinators and weather conditions. Agrofestry incorporated this idea, as well as recognizing that humans can mimic and add to natural processes by sustainably managing land, which has already been done by the earliest human inhabitants of any land area (and is also a permaculture principle). We now talk of food forests, where you take into account the wealth and bounty of trees, and learn what edibles can grow in that shade, feeding off those roots, benefit from that leaf matter or need particular elements that are found closest to trees. Particularly well-suited to food forests are certain plant nitrogen-fixers, including legumes, ceanothus shrubs, acacia and locust trees, and varieties of the broom family (which are unfortunately considered an “invasive” species by many – but that’s another discussion entirely).

By far, the most interesting plant characteristic we touched on was that of dynamic accumulators, plants that facilitate mineral release, and consequently, remediate soil. These plants include many “weeds,” such as dandelion, nettle, comfrey and sorrels – all of which are also edible. Next time you plan on digging up a particularly hardy plant, stop to think of its benefits – to both your garden and table.

Class 6: The Microshed Beneath Our Feet

Class 6 notes by Trisha C.

If you were to look at an acre of clear, fertile land, you may immediately think it empty and in need of plants, animals, LIFE. In reality, those things are already present underfoot: the soil. Just a teaspoon of the earth is shown to contain millions of microbes and bacterial life, when viewed with the aid of a high-powered microscope. These minute dwellers are the key to healthy – and productive – soil and plants. Ultimately, they contain the key for successful propagation of all species, including our own. After all, these micronutrients are the same ones to be found in the building blocks of life formed after the Big Bang.

These nutrients aid in maintaining a stable and nutritious mix of elements in the soil, providing fodder for the primary decomposers, such as nematodes and mites, that aid in the natural breakdown of dead organic matter that ultimately releases additional nutrients back into the soil. These nutrients complete and perpetuate a constant cycle of growth, harvest, breakdown and regeneration.

To maintain the steady balance, there are several soil-building steps a concerned gardener can take: composting, sheet mulching (also known as composting in place) and cover-cropping. Each method serves a different purpose, contains varying levels of intensity and works better in different conditions. When brought to the BYA gardens to test our knowledge and develop hands-on skills, we began by building a compost pile, with the appropriate mix of carbon- and nitrogen-rich components. The most fruitful and stimulating mix for plants tends to be a 30:1 ratio of carbon (usually brown/dead plant matter) to nitrogenous, or greener, materials.

Although, come to think of it, we actually began with a look at particular animals and their necessity in a homestead environment. When choosing animals to raise at home, there are several considerations one has to take into account, primarily the land space available, the predators occurring naturally, the purpose one wants the animal(s) to serve and the time available to take care of and look after the animals. They really become a part of the household, and often require intense care and caution. Not evaluating your abilities and time commitment is akin to putting the animals in a feedlot in an industrial husbandry situation, where they are not cared for properly and endure severe physical pain and torture. Different animals also serve different purposes and are easier to acclimate to different environments. For example, there are certain types of egg-laying chickens that tend to roost up in the branches of nearby trees, thus a coop would hamper their natural tendencies. Ducks, while fun to have around, can be extremely finicky and often require supervision.

To make welcoming and comfortable surroundings for the animals, you must of course provide food. When raising animals, it’s best to grow the plants that will comprise their food, as it can get expensive to continuously buy feed or seed. Here we can stack functions by growing a cover crop that will simultaneously nurture and rebuild the soil while providing a constantly-replenishing supply of green leafy food for a grazing animal, such as a goat. Animals and plants have long had a symbiotic and beneficial relationship in gardens, and there’s no reason to think that can’t continue in the modern age. It just takes a little planning and commitment to letting nature work itself out.

Class 3: The SWOC (Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities, Challenges) of Things

Class 3 notes by Trisha C.

David Holmgren, a student of Bill Mollison’s, and still-active permaculture designer, has also tried his hand at defining the essential principles of permaculture. Holmgren’s principles are much more abstract and philosophical. Where Mollison’s are specific and tailored to the garden or design; Holmgren values diversity, integration, interaction and feedback. In his book, Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability, Holmgren draws schematic diagrams and cycles to illustrate his view. The take-home message is, of course, that all the principles advocate an awareness of our interconnectedness.

We were given the opportunity to practice this interconnectedness (and also realize our natural affinity to forget or not pay attention to it) while conducting some unplanned meandering. We ventured out into the rapidly-warming day to test our sense of self-reliance, and also our ability to notice naturally-occurring patterns. Armed with our skills of observation, we were able to practice first-hand our abilities to “observe and interact,” one of Holmgren’s permaculture principles.

Upon retruning to class, we were asked to identify the pattern types that we observed, and realized that as varied as they were, they all fit within 8 different pattern types: radial, wave, branching, decentralized branching, packing, spiral, lobed and scattered/random. This one was my favorite: A honeycomb-like packing or crating pattern, that is used in building or planting to reinforce and create strength or protection amongst things that, to me, seem unlikely to cooperate. Plus, it reminds me of flowers.

Speaking of flowers, we had the chance to visit an intentional community in southwest Berkeley that had been a cooperative living situation for the past 25 years. While hearing the story and history of the house, we had the opportunity to wander around in their permaculture garden, performing a site analysis – but really just marveling at the variety of flowers and trees and shrubs and food plants. All had been done with care and attention to the needs of the community (human and otherwise) as a whole. There was an herb spiral, raised beds of greens and radishes, pathways buttressed by rainwater-collecting barrels, and miniature forests created to attract and entice pollinators.

Learning and being able to experience urban permaculture in all its beauty was marvelous. Watching members of the community working on the garden and using group decision-making tools to modify or re-plant different areas of the yard was also sobering, and made me realize that achieving true stasis with nature doesn’t happen just because you think it will.

Class 2: We are Nature Working

Class 2 notes by Trisha C.

“We are nature working,” spoke Masanobu Fukuoka, a Japanese farmer. So began a discussion and exploration into the nature of permaculture – essentially a way of reestablishing and strengthening relationships between people and the world around us. Some would say it is having a sense of community ecology, or a way of applying living systems design in the least input-intensive way possible. Whatever one’s preferred definition, there is no arguing that it a lens through which to view lifestyles and choices.

Permaculture is based on three primary ethical concerns – care of the earth, care of people and care of the returns or surplus or losses of each action. Each decision should be evaluated accordingly, and each choice made with full knowledge of its effects in each of the three realms. Furthermore, permaculture incorporates eight overarching themes:

  • Land and nature stewardship
  • Built environments
  • Tools and technology
  • Culture and education
  • Health and spiritual well-being
  • Ethics and principles
  • Finance and economics
  • Land tenure and community governance

These themes help ground the lens of permaculture in a more accessible way, to really help one focus their understanding – and their dedication – to living a life that is harmonious and real.

When taking the principles of permaculture to practice, there is none more active than Bill Mollison. The founder and propagator of modern-day permaculture gardening techniques, he has been responsible for the spread of natural gardening that uses what inputs are already present to build upon and improve the natural environment in a way that is beneficial to all creatures that come in contact with this habitat. Traveling around the world and spreading the word of beneficial relationships, both large and small, Mollison has helped thousands of farmers and gardeners realize the latent potential of the land around them. Permaculture gardening is a way of utilizing symbiotic biological relationships to harness the full potential of plants. For example, rotating food crops and spacing them appropriately to take full advantage of natural cycles and to also train plants to grow with minimal inputs and human intervention.

In India, Mollison and his students set up a land tract dedicated to permaculture farming, and helped destitute farmers regain their livelihoods by teaching them how to go back to low-input, organic farming that utilizes traditional knowledge bases to support a thriving food system that valued food for its nourishing properties. While other systems place a monetary value on food, thereby making it a dehumanized and tradable commodity, permaculture refocuses attention on creating fair and just systems that allow everyone the opportunity to empower themselves and take charge of the health of their own communities as a whole. Using principles of nonviolence and basic respect for the contribution each living thing can make to society, permaculture seeks to reinforce the notion that we are all in it together.

Class 1: Milling

Milling around person-to-person is all well and good but the answers don’t really come until you’re forced to sit and take that person’s hands in your own and recognize the power in that person. There is an infinite amount of wisdom and experience in each person, behind the facade of socially-constructed solitude and closedness. When it’s a matter of finding kindred spirits who are just as motivated and energized to change things in the current system.

The current system is, of course, one of a broken feedback mechanism. Living systems theory is based on the assumption that each and every interaction and relationship occurs within a self-regulating system of inputs and their associated outputs. In a normally-performing living system, there are two individual feedback mechanisms which serve to regulate and stabilize the system. These two feedback cycles are either “balancing” or “reinforcing.”

A balancing feedback loop is one that will recognize when some aspect is above and beyond its productive level. Some outside factor will intervene and insert itself to lower the level of the outperforming variable, to re-stabilize the levels of system inputs. The second feedback is a reinforcing one, that utilizes certain inputs that best benefit the system when continuously above their normal levels. In this case, some input will be introduced to stimulate the beneficial one.

After learning the difference between these two feedback mechanisms, it’s easy to understand why the significant absence in today’s culture and profit-driving society is that of the balancing feedback regulation. There is solely a reinforcing one, that keeps the incessant need for consumption and overconsumption alive and well.

The hope is that there are enough concerned people in the world who are dismayed about the current state of things to change and inform those around them. The best thing is to work cooperatively, realizing the inherent strength and power within each individual – sometimes by stopping the milling around to hold someone’s hands in your own…

– Trisha C.