16 Jan 2010, 8:50pm

permaculture notes: water, trees, soil

i am very very far behind on my initial plan to type up all my permaculture notes. so i’m revising my plan and just typing up some of the particularly interesting or important bits. these are pretty much straight from my notes, with no further research done (and i am interested in researching some of these things further, eventually). any inaccuracies are probably my fault, and i’m not too concerned about them right now. probably don’t quote me (or any of the people i’m quoting) on this stuff, though, without doing your own research!

anyway, here’s weekends 2 & 3 of the course i’m taking. today was day 1 of weekend 5!

WEEKEND #2: water and trees (october) (guest teacher: tom ward)

zones are an important concept in permaculture design. they’re used to help guide placement of design elements and as a way of conceptualizing space. from a handout toby gave us: “Consider the house (or other focal point such as a village center) to be Zone 0. The area closest to the house is Zone 1, and outside of this lies Zones 2 through 5. The more times you need to visit an element, or the more it needs to be visited, the closer to Zone 0 it should go.” of course, the way these zones are defined varies a lot depending on what kind of design you’re doing. in a big farm-type setting, zone 5 is often reserved for wilderness habitat and is unmanaged. in an urban lot, zone 5 might be the blackberry patch in the corner of your yard, or the neighbor’s backyard or, i dunno, a state park, depending on how you’re thinking about it. toby reminds us to think in three dimensions, i.e. the roof of your house might be in your zone 3. there’s no hard and fast rules because what will go in each zone depends on you or the person you’re designing for and their particular needs and desires.

bart anderson (of energybulletin.net) came up with this idea for urban transportation zones:
1. where you can walk to
2. where you can bike to
3. where you can ride public transit to
4. where you can drive to
5. where you can fly to

or you can consider zones when thinking about your social networks:
1. spouse and (immediate?) family
2. best friends (and extended family?)
3. colleagues and wider circle of friends
…and so on.

sectors are another major design tool. toby defines them as “forces, energies, and influences that come from outside the site.” the obvious ones are things like sun, wind, precipitation, wildlife, etc. but they also include things like municipal codes and laws, noise, neighbors, and stuff like that. toby shared a couple great examples, both from l.a. ecovillage:

1. the billboard sector–a huge billboard cast a shadow over their growing space, which made their tomatoes unhappy. so they moved them to the front yard along the sidewalk, without considering:

2. the schoolkid sector–the ecovillage was near a school, and kids walking past would pick the tomatoes as soon as they were even vaguely red and ripe, leaving none for the residents! they eventually solved this problem by planting heirloom varieties that don’t turn red when they ripen so the kids didn’t know to pick them.

when talking to clients and considering design elements, remember to start with needs and yields (i.e. what problems do you need to solve and what products do you want to have?) instead of with specific elements. instead of “do you want a composting toilet?” go with “are you interested in processing human waste on-site?” or something like that. you might get a different answer.

also consider that the product of a system is the system itself. what we’re harvesting are the byproducts. the product of a tree is (probably) not the tree; it’s shade, fruit, leaves for mulch and compost, etc.

in my master gardener class this has come up as well: don’t feed the plants, feed the soil! and the soil will feed the plants. your veggies are byproducts of healthy soil.

by harvesting byproducts of the system, you avoid depleting the system. sustainability!

tom ward–what a guy!

he asked us to figure out which of ours eyes is dominant and told us about cross-dominance–some people are right-handed but left-eyed, or vice versa. i am right-handed and right-eyed, as are most people. schoolteachers (and others) tend to automatically talk to your right eye, so if you’re using your left eye, they think you’re not paying attention. according to tom, most people in prison are cross-dominant. he went on a great rant about the educational system, saying that “the human mind is evolving under stress” and that many so-called learning disabilities are about 3d visualization, i.e. kids with these “problems” are “multi-dimensional kids” and we’re squashing them and shutting them down with our inflexible educational system. factually true or not, that feels right to me (as a kid who learned to read late due to an undiagnosed eye problem) and i can dig it.

anyway, tom encouraged us to explore “multidimensional thinking.” then he presented a 3d model of the ways he planned to teach us and answer our questions. he called it the “answer game;” everything he told us would fall somewhere in this model–

on one axis, the source of his answer: invented (made it up), guess (educated), experience (reporting results corroborated by others), research (read it in a book), or gossip (heard it somewhere).

on the second axis, a continuum between true and false.

on the third axis, a continuum between resonant and dissonant (to us as audience/students).

he also applied zones to his answers. a zone 1 answer would be a “recipe” presented with lots of care and detail. a zone 4 answer would be more diffuse, sort of a “scattering of seeds” of possible answers or solutions.

he also reminded us that there are no final answers and that all that planning is is a scenario exercise. we can’t be attached to “getting somewhere” or we might be going in the wrong direction. “everything to do, nothing to get done.” we’ll get somewhere ’cause we’ll be dragged there by events. in the meantime, we have to stay in the process. for all we know, everything we’re doing in permaculture could be a huge mistake. in china, for 7000 years, humanure was deposited directly on fields. now there’s too many nitrates in the soil, but for 7000 years it seemed totally sustainable. who knows? we just have to keep trying things that feel right, and not doing things that we know are stupid.

biomagnification: songbirds eat bugs that eat leaves, and so forth. so what happens to the smallest happens also to the biggest. tom’s example: there was a rainstorm on the west coast following the explosion at chernobyl. there was no measurable radiation or anything in the rain, but there was a 100% failure of the second nesting of songbirds on the west coast that year.

tom also talked about sympathetic magic–imitation in order to encourage. we all did a rain dance in which we pretended to be rain. this in the midst of a discussion about how we need regular floods to recharge deep water tables. water sinks into the ground much deeper in flood plains than in riverbeds, where it’s sort of sealed in by clay and gravel. when there’s no floods, the water never gets below the topsoil before being used or evaporating. so plants grow, but the water table is being slowly depleted. snow melt helps, but of course snow pack is disappearing because of climate change…

tom is big on rain. he says that sometimes plumbed city water will fail to initiate germination in seeds (because of who-knows-what in pipes and such?) and then it’ll rain and voilà. and also that if l.a. was equipped with proper roofwater catchment systems and cisterns, they’d have no water problems at all.

anyway my point was sympathetic magic: from my notes:
“art as sympathetic magic! setting up a pattern than self-propogates ’cause everyone’s dreaming it…”
been thinking about that ever since. i wanna be that kind of artist. oh gosh, other things to write about: talking with taiga about ethical community based theatre vs. catharsis…

greywater systems and personal responsibility:

the simplest greywater system is a dishpan or basin. put it in your sink and wash and rinse your dishes into it, then go pour it on your garden. this requires: labor, motivation, biodegradable soap, a basin, and careful food preparation/consumption so that as few nutrients as possible end up in the water. as tom points out, we should be licking our plates! you get good, immediate feedback as to what your greywater is doing to your garden/the environment.

we produce greywater for our convenience, so we can have clean dishes and so on. greywater systems (with pipes and wetlands etc) are fancy things we install in order to avoid personal responsibility while being as green as possible. i.e., if our wastewater is being treated and all of that, it doesn’t matter that we’re producing it in the first place, right? really, step #1 in designing a greywater system should be: produce less greywater.

also, the truth (but don’t tell the lawmakers) is that all greywater is blackwater. handwashing puts fecal coliform bacteria into the water. with this knowledge, shouldn’t you hesitate to dump this greywater on or near food plants? tom says that fecal coliform bacteria is present in soil everywhere already, along with bubonic plague. it’s not a soil problem, it’s a health problem–a “lack of vigor in the human animal.” and overuse of things like antibiotics, which have made us more vulnerable to all kinds of things that once weren’t a problem, like wild (untreated) water. but, yeah, keep in mind the health of your friends and family, and their abilities to resist disease, when you’re designing a system–and design for blackwater, ’cause that’s almost certainly what you’ve got.

mostly, remember that there is no “away.” even when you send your wastewater off-site, it always ends up somewhere and affects things.

some stats about water:

if all the water on the earth was 1 gallon, usable fresh water near the surface would be 1 teaspoon.

97% of earth’s water is salty; 3% is fresh. of that 3%, ~75% is locked up in ice, ~12% is more than 1200 feet below ground, ~12% is less than 1200 feet below ground (we can get at some of it, but if it’s more than 500 feet down it’s pretty impractical), 0.35% is in lakes and rivers, 0.03% is in the atmosphere, and 0.06% is in soils.

agriculture uses 85% of the water we consume. the rest is split between industry and residential use.

the yearly flow of freshwater on the planet is 9000 cubic km; we divert 5000 cubic km of it.

it takes 1500 lbs of water to grow a pound of wheat and 15000 to grow a pound of rice!

the hydrologic/water cycle as we learned it in school goes roughly like this: water evaporates from bodies of water and forms clouds, which rain on the land. the water ends up back in the bodies of water, and so forth. what this is missing is biological storage of water and water processing by plants–i.e. evapotranspiration. the further inland you go, the more of the water there has been processed by plants. 100 miles inland, 50% of the rain is from forests and vegetation. when you cut down a forest, rainfall downwind decreases significantly.

trees are awesome! amazing tree fact #1: redwood trees are really tall! they pump water 600 feet into the air! that is incredible! i am enjoying rereading these notes (which are from back in october) ’cause of what i have learned since about botany (from my master gardener class and from reading i’ve done). from my master gardener notes:

how does water get to the top of a tree?
as soon as the plant germinates, there’s a continuous stream of water going up the plant. water molecules pull other water molecules up with them… which is the only way this could be possible! something like that, anyway.

not to mention the miracle of photosynthesis and all of that. wood is xylem is a polymer of sugar is pure sunshine…

from later in my permaculture notes–the 3 ways trees pump water:
1. transpiration: evaporation from leaves creates a vaccuum which pulls more water up.
2. barometric pressure: the tubes in tree trunks are long, interconnected, overlapping vessels so small that surface tension/capillary action actually wicks water out of the roots. (i think this is what my m.g. notes are talking about.)
3. osmosis. my notes are pretty confused about this one. something about tree blood and differential membranes?

amazing tree fact #2: 95% of a tree’s roots are within 6-9 inches of the surface. one exception: nut trees, which put down big taproots. according to tom, walnut trees have a 60 foot tap root before you even see them above ground! this seems questionable to me (there would have to be a lot of energy stored in the seed for that much root growth before the tree started photosynthesizing), so maybe this is more on the “invented” end of that axis of tom’s answer game, but i suppose it can still resonate!

tom also told us that when he was in forestry school, he and his classmates carefully excavated a root on an 8-inch-thick (5-6 years old) maple tree and found it to be about a half mile long!

i went to a halloween party shortly after class that weekend and got a little tipsy and was telling someone about how some trees may have roots that are “like a MILE LONG!” and some horticulturalist who happened to be there (what are the chances?) told me i was full of shit and made me feel very embarrassed, even after i corrected my recollection to a half mile. i tried to do some research on it afterwards but didn’t really find anything conclusive. general wisdom (or something) says that trees’ roots go to the dripline, but i’ve heard plenty of times since then (in my master gardener class for example) that they go further than that. well, regardless, that half-mile root thing definitely resonated.

trees communicate with each other. tom’s example: when a tree is attacked by gypsy moths, it releases an anxiety pheromone that causes trees downwind to become more bitter-tasting to the caterpillars!

i am also reading a book right now, the lost language of plants by stephen harrod buhner, that has an entire chapter full of examples of amazing plant communication and adaptation. this excerpt from the book is not so much about inter-plant communication but is pretty amazing nonetheless:

“In Central America and Africa certain species of Acacia, a large shrub or small tree, is covered with thorns, some of which are hollow and house ants. Much like coevolutionary bacteria, Pseudomyrmex ants recognize new shrubs as coevolutionary partners and colonize them. The trees produce special nectar along the stems for the ants to eat. Like the compounds released from plant roots, this nectar contains a rich mix of fats (lipids), proteins, sugars, and other compounds necessary for the ant to remain healthy. The ants remove vegetation from around the base of the plant, remove leaves of other plants that shade the tree, kill any vines that try to grow up the tree, and attack any herbivore that tries to eat the plant.

“South American leafcutter ants collect plants, chop them up, and feed them to a fungus that they grow for their food. When forming new colonies the ants transfer starters to the new colony–somewhat like a sourdough starter handed down for generations. The fungus the ants grow can sometimes become infected by an Escovopsis microfungus. This fungus is kept in check by a Streptomyces bacteria that is symbiotic with the ants and grows on their bodies. The Streptomyces also produces growth compounds that significantly increase the biomass of the fungus; the ants apply the substances made by the bacteria to the fungal colony to maintain its health. Ants have been living in close mutualistic relationships with acacia, their fungus gardens, and their symbiotic bacteria for at least 50 million years.”

social forestry:

we need to come into social relationships with our forests… create a cultural relationship to the trees to reinforce their practical uses in our lives, and recognize them as related to us and worthy of love and protection.

plastic has distanced us from our forests. we could (and should) eliminate all plastic–it could be substituted for in everything we make out of it by wood, stone, fibers, clay, glass and metal. of course, because we’re in an economic downturn, existing industries and jobs are untouchable, and there’s no room for discussion of the problems of plastic production.

also, wood takes care and feeding, as do items made of wood (compared to plastic)–another personal responsibility thing (plastic is a way of avoiding it).

when you buy trees, always buy them from a nursery that’s north of where you live. trees raised south of you will be too advanced for the season when you plant them. trees from the north will be suppressed, which is better for planting.

nectar flow:

we need to have something in bloom all the time to keep pollinators around. we should start charting everywhere and all the time what pollinators are where and what’s blooming. climate change will change this, though, so we need to do it all and overdo it, take risks. “plant everything and let the goddess sort it out.” we can kill plants if it doesn’t work out. yes, we can kill plants.


coppicing: google it, ’cause it’s pretty cool! basically, you can cut a tree down to a stump in early winter after all the leaves have fallen, and it will heal itself over the winter and sprout in the spring. if you thin out the sprouts, they will grow 20 feet in a year! and you can harvest them. long, flexible wood. willow works best, but almost anything except conifers works.

in our pnw forests, douglas fir is not actually old growth–it’s second growth. the old growth trees we want to restore like to grow under the shade of the doug firs, which act as “nurse trees.” they can be taken out when the old growth trees get big.

tom’s guidelines for sustainable forestry:
* reduce the fire hazard by taking out the understory regularly
* keep trees’ nutrition on-site: leave the leaves, bark, needles, etc, and take only the wood
* use small, portable mills on-site

urban forestry!:

urban “forests” are incredibly diverse because people bring/plant their favorite trees in order to feel at home. that means there’s an incredible opportunity to take cuttings and grafts, collect seeds, choose and try varieties, etc. but unmanaged fruit trees are messy. tom suggests that every neighborhood support an urban forester who is knowledgeable about and maintains the neighborhood trees, as well as collecting and distributing the yield and cooperating with utility crews (who are often unkind to trees in an effort to keep power lines clear).

he also suggests block “cohousing associations” in which neighbors tear down the fences between their houses and make use of the increased space for farming.

since the most probable permaculture is urban permaculture (huge urbanization trend in the world), we should learn how to do it well. make a conceptual shift from living in a city to living in a forest. oh, i remember from the portland plan meetings, some amazing percentage of portland is under tree canopy…

anyway, tom thinks that such a shift would be accompanied by a shift from an individualistic ethic to a cooperative, culturally-vibrant “palette of color and activity.” and in an ideal world, we remove the streets (currently underutilized space) to reveal the soil underneath… sounds good to me!

WEEKEND #3: soil (november) (guest teacher: jude hobbs)

what is soil?
the edge between the atmosphere and the rocks of the planet.
the edge between the living and the dead.

soil is also the base of the pyramid of life. humans on top (well, we’re just another mammal), them mammals, birds, insects, plants, then SOIL LIFE! and organic matter.

the flow of nutrients in the soil is more important than how many nutrients there are, and you need life to make the nutrients flow. if you have less soil life, you have less of everything (available to your plants), regardless of what you’ve amended your soil with.

there are more animals below the soil level than there are above the soil. an acre of good soil can support a cow and a calf, or approximately 1500 lbs of animal. below the surface of that soil there are 5000 lbs of animals!

the SOIL FOOD WEB–the “microherds” under the soil. tending your soil is raising a different kind of livestock.

so, again: feed the soil to feed the plants!

fun fact! aphids are born pregnant! (they are viviparous.)

invasives/exotics have a hard time invading intact ecosystems; they need disturbance/pollution to create a new resource (a yield not needed by something else) so they can get a foothold.


darwin wrote a book about ‘em! after he wrote about evolution.

worms turn over (the equivalent of?) the entire top 3-4 inches of the planet every 3-4 years.

vermicomposting is super cool and i’m trying to figure out how i could fit a womrm bin in our kitchen.


a single teaspoon or gram of good garden soil can contain billions of individual bacteria and 5000 different species!

they can change 20-25% of their dna per day! which is how they develop antibiotic resistance so quickly.

nitrogen-fixing bacteria (rhizobia) take nitrogen from the atmosphere and make it into a form useful to plants. specifically, they take N2 and O2 and make it into NO3–nitrate. nitrogen-fixing plants (legumes) are actually plants in a symbiotic relationship with rhizobia . the bacteria form colonies on the roots and feed nitrates to the plant. in return, they get sugar!

if you pull out the roots of a nitrogen-fixing plant, you pull out most of the nitrates, too. to get the most nitrogen in your soil, you want to let the roots die where they are so the nitrates will be released into the soil. similarly, if you let the plant flower and go to seed, all the nitrogen will be in the seed. however, roots are constantly growing and dying even while a plant is alive.


fungi can break down really complex stuff! oyster mushrooms can even break down petroleum! fungi are the “super alchemists of the soil,” breaking down everything that nothing else can.

mushrooms are the fruiting body of fungi. the main body is the mycelium, underneath the soil (or the wood or whatever the mushrooms are growing on). not all fungi make mushrooms.

the largest organism on the planet is a mushroom! it’s a 2500 acre fungus in eastern oregon. (there’s also a 1500 acre one in idaho.) it sort of looks like it’s killing everything there, but in fact it’s part of the life cycle of the forest. after a long time (500-1000 years), most of the minerals in a forest’s soil have been extracted, and trees can no longer get nutrients, so the forest weakens and the fungus moves in. it “infects” everything and everything drops and the nutrients return to the soil so the cycle can begin again.

mycelium expands radially. the “action” is on the edge where the fungus is getting new nutrients, so mushrooms sprout up in a circle–hence, fairy rings!

mycorrhizae are super cool. they’re fungi that hang out with plant roots sort of like rhizobia. they grow super fast and are excellent at transporting nutrients. plants can only use nutrients that are right up against their roots, so without mycorrhizae, if they need something they don’t have, they’re out of luck even if it’s really close by. mycorrhizae feed plants nutrients and water, and mycelia can be miles and miles long in a small area, making lots of surface area to be in contact with nutrients. so a plant that has a good relationship with mycorrhizae is super healthy and drought-resistant. awesome.

it’s that white stringy stuff you see when you pull up roots. scientists only recently figured out that it’s really important.

why chemical fertilization works well initially and then stops working:

humus (super-decomposed organic matter) is really good at holding nutrients. it’s studded with O- ions that bond with plant nutrients, which are generally positively-charged. this keeps nutrients from washing away in the water. when plants need a nutrient, they secrete a mild acid that’s just enough to break the bonds between the humus and the nutrients. when they’ve gotten what they need, they stop secreting it so the rest of the nutrients remain.

when you add water-soluble nutrients to the soil, 50-90% of them are just washed into the water table, where they contaminate wells with nitrates and nitrites. no good.

when you add potassium to soil, the nutrients attached to the humus are replaced with K+ ions. so the plants gets lots of K+ as well as all the trace minerals that were popped off and replaced. that’s great for the plants… until next season, when you’ll need to get fertilizer that has all those elements, too.

maintain a good balance of carbon and nitrogen in your compost/fertilizer–approximately 12:1. when in doubt, just add carbon (i.e. organic matter)! if it stinks, add carbon!

rudolf steiner said, “the health of a nation is reflected in the health of its soil.”

guerilla composting:

carry kitchen scraps in a yogurt container and go for a walk with a trowel. bury the scraps with a few seeds wherever there’s space!

do it! experiment with what works for you. toby says that the best learning he’s done was in trying to fix major problems and mistakes he made. avoid the paralysis that comes from looking for perfection–”the paralysis of analysis.”

when working with clients (or contemplating your own garden!), you have to read between the lines and figure out not what they say they want but what they really want… and what they will take care of.

edible landscaping:

if farmland is becoming houses, let’s at least teach the people in the houses to grow food on what used to be farmland… if that’s the best we can do, so be it.

there were a record number of food plants sold this past year!

“eat the view.”

I think perhaps your notes on the root system were a little confused… Tree roots can add up to a ano enormous amount of total length, but not a single root. (Note, for example, that the human circulatory system has about 100,000 km of capillaries.)

I note that mesquite roots are the longest known at about 200 feet (http://www.desertusa.com/mag06/may/mesquite.html). However, another source says several kinds of desert trees reach this length. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Root

The University of Florida extension says that tree roots extend far past the drip line: http://edis.ifas.ufl.edu/wo017

no, i’m pretty sure i understood correctly what was said. total length of root systems (especially including root hairs) would be way, way longer than 1/2 mile. he was definitely measuring just one root. i dunno! mysteries! maybe someday i will get a chance to ask him for clarification.

I’m in a year-long permaculture class in Bolinas, CA, and in the midst of preparing for a final group project. I landed on your site because of your mention of Redwood trees, but became mesmerized with your notes from Toby Heminway’s class (Gaia’s Garden is our text).

I just wanted you to know how much I appreciate your notes, perspective, and energy. I don’t know if you still keep this up, but it sure hit me when I needed it. You’re so blessed to have studied with the people you did, and I am inspired for it. Thanks!



web site

leave a comment