September 16, 2021

Shocking Practices in Permaculture

When Dan and I first read Sepp Holzer's Permaculture, we were quite surprised at the heavy equipment Sepp used when he was setting up his farm. He totally rearranged the side of a mountain with a variety of earth moving equipment. At that time, we were meandering down the path of more natural farming and gardening and had come to see massive plowing and tilling as destructive. Because of that, his massive earthworks were shocking.

Thanks to my online permaculture design course, I'm learning that earthworks are the foundation of permaculture design. I'm starting to understand the when and why of earthworks, and how it differs from traditional uses of equipment and machinery. Plowing and tilling are seasonally repeated actions that destroy the soil ecosystem. Permaculture earthworks are carefully planned one-time projects with a specific purpose in mind. That purpose usually revolves around capturing and keeping as much water on the land as possible. Two common examples are ponds and swales. A less common one is ripping the soil.

Ripping is a soil conditioning technique. Have you ever dug a hole in the ground after a heavy rain? I have, and have been shocked to discover that after a good, long, soaking rain, the soil is only moist in the top few inches. The soil under that can be bone dry. This is common anywhere plant growth has been kept short, and/or the area sees a lot of traffic from either herds of animals or heavy equipment. Plants compensate for being mown or eaten by pruning their roots to match the top-growth. If that top-growth stays short, the roots stay shallow, so nothing penetrates the soil including water and oxygen.

In a natural system, deep-rooted trees and plants keep the subsoil from becoming compacted. They also pull up minerals from deep within the soil, for the benefit of the plants and everything that eats them. 

In Australia, a Wallace plow is used to recondition compacted soil. It is designed to specifically open a line in the soil at whatever depth it's set to. It doesn't necessarily tear up and turn the soil, but slices the soil to allow plant roots, air, and rain to penetrate. The soil ecosystem is preserved. The following are from an illustration in Bill Mollison's Permaculture: A Designer's Manual (PDM), page 218, figure 8.11.

Short grasses (from mowing, grazing, or heavy traffic) cause short roots.
The soil is dense and without the structure needed to hold water and air.

Forage growth from 3 rips with the Wallace plow at various 
depths: 2-4 in (5-10 cm), 5-8 in (12-20 cm), 9-12 in (23-30 cm).

I've dug into our soil in numerous places and know how dense and dry the soil is, even one shovel-depth deep. So, I tried to research Wallace plows in the US but came up with nothing. What we did find, was a subsoiler. It's only single shanked, but Dan says the depth can be adjusted somewhat, although not as much as the Wallace plow. Still, something is better than nothing.

Soil ripper aka subsoiler.

Action shot.

Parallel rows in the pasture, made on contour.

Being on contour, rain heading downhill will be caught in the rips and soak deeper into the ground. I sprinkled a fall forage seed mix into the rows, where the roots can now reach deeper depths in the soil. This will then cut or grazed, causing the plants to prune their roots back underground. The living roots push into compacted soil and the pruned roots decompose and add organic matter to deeper levels of the soil. This can be repeated several times.

In the spring, we'll add more rips at hopefully different depths. I'll seed with a summer forage mix. In the PDM, Bill says this technique creates deep humus soils over one or two growing seasons. If that's the case, we've found a great technique to kickstart soil building where it's badly needed.


Michelle said...

Interesting, as always! This morning I planted some old (2019) Chioggia beet seeds per your last post. If they germinate, I will at least get fresh greens!

Boud said...

I read this going from horror at the brutal approach to understanding a lot more and seeing you were not moving entire hills, but opening up the surface to give it breathing room.

The paintings of Thomas Hart Benson showing the breaking of the earth have been a bit misread by art historians who weren't farmers, as attacking the earth sexually. I understand this, and him, better now.

You didn't know you were shedding light on art as well as ag, I bet!

Charlotte Boord said...

I think I'm in love with your big fields! How deep did your soil ripper/subsoiler dig?

GiantsDanceFarm said...

Very interesting!

We have a spring fed pond and stream at the bottom of our “backyard” at our new farm. It’s pretty densely treed the closer you get to the stream, with really large older maple, beech, pines and conifers. As you come up the hill toward the house there are many older apple trees (I threw a variety into the crockpot yesterday while over there and made the most yummy applesauce! I’m going to be busy doing that as my first task on every visit for several weeks for sure!)

Anyway, we’re in the process of fencing the yard, partially for the dogs, partially because my kitchen garden will be somewhat protected from the deer and bears. We will be adding a supplemental fishing line 3 ft outside the permanent fence to discourage the deer, and hope the evidence of dogs presence encourages the to bears stick to the other groves of fruit trees which are away from the house.

We drilled the post holes 2 1/2-3 ft deep. It was fun and really satisfying to see the really lovely soil that came up while drilling.

We were only able to set about a 1/3 of the posts the day we drilled, and kind of expected to find water in the post holes closest to the stream, but it turned out to be just really glorious moist but not wet soil all the way to the bottom. Other holes at the top of the hill closest to the house mostly had 2-3 layers - beautiful dark soil for the first 1 1/2 ft, then in most a sandy layer (we are less than 4 miles from Lake Huron in northern lower Michigan - if you look at the back of your left hand, we’re right at the tip of your middle finger) then in just a few, a slightly clay layer.

I’m thinking our cedar posts should last many decades in this combination!

We dropped the posts into the holes we didn’t get to that first day in case we got the forecast thunderstorms, and were happy to only have to straighten the posts vs having to dig out and dirt washed back into the holes.

It was really neat to observe the soil I’ll be working with.

I’m very much looking forward to seeing the soil we bring up in the area beyond the stream we’ll be fencing for our horses. The former owner said there were cattle on that property about 20 years ago, but since it’s only been used to grow clover and some flowers for the many, many beehives he kept. They had a thriving honey operation going there. In fact, as we encounter and introduce ourselves to folks in town, all we have to say is our road name and “The Honey House” and everyone knows where we are.

Toirdhealbheach Beucail said...

Leigh, I will have to read Holzer's book again (he is rather opinionated about a lot of things, which was a bit of a hoot). You remind me of having the same interpretation - he did a massive amount of work on the mountain.

But then again, I wonder if the concept of moving earth (and other things) to create a long term agricultural solution has received something of a somewhat deserved but not always appropriate bad reputation.

In point of fact, we have been using "earth moving" for thousands of years for agricultural - terracing rice paddies for example, or the creation of the Chinampas in Central America. True, these were not the soil crushing destruction of hydraulic mining or strip mining or the clearing of vast tracts of forest for monocropping (our current impressions), but they were changing the landscape in meaningful ways by rearranging earth and water for the benefit of agriculture.

That said, the concept makes sense.

One point of curiosity: In the Soil Owner's Manual, the author is pretty much against anything that disturbs the soil. To be fair, I think his application is more in the regular practice of modern day plowing and agriculture practices. That said, do you see a conflict in the two philosophies or are they something that can be stacked (e.g., earthworks first, ripping occasionally, regular disturbance not at all)?

Leigh said...

Michelle, good for you! I hope your experiment surprises you pleasantly. What growing zone are you in? I'm in 7b, so a fall and winter garden is always worth a try, even when we have cold winters.

Leigh said...

Boud, that's the modern boat we're all in; totally misunderstanding the past. And it seems that the more "educated" folks are, the less they understand it. I was in the same boat when we first moved here, so I can't criticize or condemn. I can only say that because of our goals to live closer to the earth and cultivate a self-sustaining relationship with it, my understanding and viewpoints have done a 180. It's been the most interesting and exciting experience of my life!

Leigh said...

Charlotte, good to hear from you! The photos make our fields look big, but they're only about half an acre each. Big enough for goats. :)

Our subsoiler digs approximately 8 to 10 inches. The other day, I noticed that the exposed pasture topsoil had dried out since the last rain, but in the rip, the soil was still moist. And the seeds are sprouting! Really made my day. :)

Leigh said...

Shelley, your new place sounds absolutely fantastic! What a treasure that beautiful soil is. Are you blogging about this? I'd love to see and follow along!

Leigh said...

TB, yeah, Sepp's book probably isn't a good introduction to permaculture, unless one lives in the higher mountain elevations. I thought it was interesting, but because we live in an opposite climate, there wasn't much I felt we could apply.

Of earthworks, I agree there is a huge difference between abusing the earth and forming it to benefit a partnership amongst plant, animal, and human life. My PDC at has been a huge eyeopener on this subject. Both Bill Mollison and Geoff Lawton do a fantastic job of explaining the importance and proper application of earthworks. Bill has examples of what he calls drought-proofing a property, including recharging springs and ground water. All because of properly placed ponds and swales in the initial earthworks phase of design. That's pretty amazing considering he lived in Australia.

In The Soil Owner's Manual, Jon's first key to restoring soil health is "less soil disturbance." So, I agree with you that he isn't referring to the practices of modern industrial agriculture, but rather occasional minor disturbances. Even in nature, there is soil disturbance: chickens, birds, and skunks scratch, pigs root, and there are many burrowing animals. I think the difference is that minor isolated disturbance stimulates, whereas major plowing and cultivating destroys. It's taken me awhile to see the difference, but I think I'm finally getting it.

Ed said...

Everything is a system that needs to be balanced. I remember in my youth with no-till farming was getting really big for all the reasons mentioned above. But then everyone eventually discovered what you did that things get compacted and subsoil moisture declines. Now everyone is back to more conventional techniques though many are reducing their trips through the fields to minimize harmful impacts... and save money in fuel costs and time.

The first part of your post reminds me of the famous rice terraces of Banaue, Philippines. They underwent huge earthworks to make the steep mountain slopes in the area extremely productive and in a big way, essentially catching water with terraces. I think anyone who farms, must achieve their own balance through choice of tools and techniques. They don't all have to be the same.

Michelle said...

We're supposedly 8b, but I think that's changing: less rain, more heat. :-(

LindaG said...

So inadvertently the tornadoes and hurricanes last year did a natural permaculture for us as we have weeds some 12 feet tall we haven't gotten to yet.

The burn pit is full of water again.

But before all the rain a tree planting hole of three or four feet gave us water.

Interesting post and comments.
You all be safe and God bless, Leigh.

Goatldi said...

Very interesting indeed. I’ve been lamenting over digging in the dirt for the last two years and I finally decided this year I was going to override my guilt when everybody else was saying don’t disturb the soil and disturb it. Doing it because the person who had this land before me for almost 13 years didn’t do any kind of gardening at all didn’t do any anything at all except for mowing down the native grasses. And there were two other owners prior to him including the original owners. I have heard rumblings that maybe the second owner someone in the family was a gardener because the front property has definitely been terraced.

So I decided that Lord knows what shape this round is in under me but I don’t think I can make it worse. Now with reading this I’m feeling much better about my thoughts and if nothing else I will have the back pasture done about an acre of land and perhaps some of the front and then I will do a ground cover crop this winter and we’ll see what happens.

Nothing ventured nothing gained because if I make it broken then I can fix it.

Leigh said...

Ed, it's too bad we humans have so much trouble with the concept of balance! It's usually too far one way or too far the other. I agree about achieving our own balance. For Dan and me, it took a lot of trial and error (emphasis on the error!). Whether or not we're making progress remains to be seen!

Leigh said...

Linda, I'm guessing you have quite the soil-loosening root systems to go along with those weeds!

I'm trying hard to learn to look at my weeds differently. Permaculture talks about pioneer species, which are working to repair the soil in preparation for a more stable ecosystem. It's been a challenge to find positive thoughts to think about my weeds!

Leigh said...

Goatldi, I think it's easy to label something good or bad, without understanding what's good or bad about it. It often seems to be more of an emotional attachment to the concept of good or bad without a rational basis. So, some aspects of no-till didn't actually make sense to me, because no one could give me an intelligent reason that made sense.

It finally made sense when I began to understand that it isn't the dirt that needs preserving, it's the soil biology that needs to be preserved. The microorganisms form vast networks that transport nutrients and build soil. They can handle occasional disturbances, but when the soil is repeatedly torn up, pulverized, and sprayed with chemicals, the soil ecosystem is destroyed.

Thanks to my PDC, I'm understanding that earthworks are the first step in setting up a permaculture property. After that, the focus is on soil building. I think your cover crop will help tremendously with that.

Goatldi said...

Well said and thought out. I think that’s the defining factor that pushed me over to doing what I’m going do in the manner in which this tractor is going to do it. As far as I can tell in any of the paperwork with the county or anything that I can see physically there has been no major invasion to rearranging the soil in this area of mine with the exception of where the shop was built and where a metal carport on the spider legs was put in.
I probably have done more to disturb the soil with the amount of fencing I had put in for the critters than anybody has done in a great while.
The shop is on a cement slab it’s not having a basement so it wasn’t dug down. Pity would’ve made a lovely root cellar but I digress. So I’m thinking anything I can do probably won’t make it any worse than it is and if it does I’ll fix it as I said before. I think it’ll be beneficial. Thank you for an excellent response to my statement.

Cederq said...

Leigh, Do you have a picture of that Wallace Plow? I think at one time I came across a small book on Permaculture years ago and for the life of me do not remember the title or author. in it I do remember of talking about an Australian Plow that scored the earth similarly. It was three forked, depth adjustable and was pulled by a small tractor. I wonder if that was in fact a Wallace Plow. I owned with my ex wife nine acres east of Troy, Alabama and it was contoured back in the '30s for larger scaled crops and it retained water and then allowed it to soak in. Digging in that red clay was much easier when that happened. When it was time to fence in the whole nine acres I used a skid steer with an auger attachment and was able to auger all my fence holes in one afternoon and I noticed was how moist the soil/clay was three to four feet deep. I did have an artesian (sp) spring flowing at the lower part of my property which was nestled on a sloping ridge line.

Leigh said...

Whew, I'm glad I wasn't being too wordy! When I'm in the processing phase of learning, I'm often trying to explain things in ways that I can understand. :p

I think the main goal of earthworks is working to improve the land's ability to trap and retain water on a property. Anybody who has lived with drought understands that! So the focus is on a massive one-time project of well constructed swales and ponds. Buildings and other infrastructure are one time projects that just are.

One interesting concept I've run across from the sustainable ag dept of the USDA is conservation tillage. It's mostly seems to be done by farmers who are trying to get away from plowing entire acreages of land. They cultivate strips of land, leaving strips in between unplowed. So the soil biology can rebuild itself relatively quickly.

Leigh said...

Well, you sent me on a hunt, and I did indeed find a picture, albeit not a very good one.

7-tyne Wallace subsoiling aerator

It's similar to our subsoilers, except it has coulters and a multi-holed shank to adjust the depth. The shoes seem larger than our subsoilers, and I understand they are removable.

Here's an article that explains it somewhat. Wallace Plow Reconditioning Unit.

In my search, I also discovered a different brand, the Colbern sub-soil aerator. It also has coulters. If our subsoiler had a coulter, we would have gotten a much cleaner cut in the soil.

Your Alabama property sounds like it was very well designed. I believe agricultural swale building and contouring was part of FDR's work program in the 1930s. People mostly remember the bridges, but they did a lot of good work on farmland as well.

Goatldi said...

Wow that last tidbit excellent. Sometimes we keep looking for the obvious when it’s sitting in front of us don’t we?

And I’m imagining even better for that process when you’re on a slope.

Debby Riddle said...

Wonderful information, Thank you.

Leigh said...