Micro-Earthworks Boost Soil-Life

Gentle and Easy

Without water, the soil beneath our feet is vulnerable rock with trapped nutrients. Sometimes a few weeds will volunteer to try to help build soil and stop the soil from eroding away.  Throughout the world there is a strong correlation between lifeless soil and a lifeless climate. This is because the forests seed rain and build life. In the tropics the nutrients live in the mulch from fallen from trees. Whereas, in temperate zones the soils are deep and rich.

But most of us live in urban zones where the soil is nearly lifeless. And most people can’t afford machinery to redesign our patch. Frankly, even if we had the money, the machines can’t get in and the job is too small.

Earthworks for Earthusers

Given that more women than men grow food around the planet – here are some ideas for simple and effective earthworks without digging and without machinery.Swales-Microearthworks

Earthworks by machinery can be expensive so most of us try to manage without.  But when water management is neglected, the site struggles to reach full potential.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

The principles of permaculture earthworks are valuable for the preservation of soil and creation of abundance.  These basic permaculture earthworks principles help build mirco-organisms, enable plants to access the nutrients, save water and reduce erosion. We can apply the principles for earthworks on any scale: on farms or on a little veggie patch.

Permaculture Earthworks Principles

Water management is taught in detail In permaculture design training. When someone comes to do a permaculture design after years of managing a site, there are many regrets. It is easier to design before you start. However, here are a number principles that can be learnt on the fly:

  1. Catch, store and use every drop that comes to your site. Waste not any water that passes by.
  2. Recognise the 3 sources of water: Condensation, Rain and Underground springs
  3. Slow potentially erosive water. This is the core value of Natural Sequence Farming.

    Paths are great harvesting water. Redirect this water to reduce erosion.
    Paths are great harvesting water. Redirect this water to reduce erosion.
  4. Take water out from the gulleys and send it to the ridges (this is a  powerful tool from keyline water design)
  5. Set up filters. Take responsibility for the quality of the water that leaves your site. The water that leaves you can be cleaner than when it entered.
  6. Use natural energies and filters to support your food forests. Filter, store  and transport water naturally through the permaculture system with biological resources (rather than plastics hoses and pumps).

Design with Pattern thinking

Designs with patterns such as streamlining and using lobes (small diversions) create opportunities to maintain the direction and speed of water flow.  The water will follow the design intention. It will pool and settle-out fine minerals and keep the channels productive and flowing. The water can even help maintain these flow-paths. In truth, you can’t argue with water. Water knows what it likes. What you need to do is sit and listen and coax the water to slow down and spread out.

Design for Wollongong West Primary School where the children can build mounds to capture and direct water, have fun with the maze-like pathways that rise and fall
Design for Wollongong West Primary School where the children can build mounds to capture and direct water, have fun with the maze-like pathways that rise and fall on the bends

Shake It Up

Use a variety of storage devices. Commonly, people want ponds or tanks to give them potable water. These are valuable but they are static and unable to evolve. On the other hand, bogs and forest are more effective to release the water safely.  Once a pond is full, it can do nothing to manage the next drop. Whereas, a forest is a continually working water-filter. It grows with the build-up. It can even respond to a deluge. The forest drops branches and traps more silt. The forest fungi burst into reproduction. Under-storey plants cup and store water, tree branches and leaves fall to protect the soil, seeds germinate. The forest is constantly adapting.

You can learn with us about how to make small, slow yet effective ways to build soil. You can also enjoy learning about earthworks and have a play in some mud.

Schumaker College has raised garden beds
Schumacher College has productive raised garden beds with trenches to direct water flow and duck traffic

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

World First Online

We are the pioneers of online permaculture training and mentorship. Serving continuously over 20 years, we have tutored participants from more than 67 countries. Thank you for working to make a better future for everyone.

10 Amazing Tree Powers

Specialist Trees

Dartmoor-Tree

A ‘Super-tree’ produces flammable nuts, has leaves that can burn wet, produces abundant fruit, supports a web of life, grows large enough to live in, provides timber that never rots, survives thousands of years, supports a wild-life of fungi underground, and holds steep slopes on mighty mountains. Many can regulate the temperature around them by moving liquids up and down the trunk, dropping leaves and expiring vapours to cool the air. Remarkably, some trees can communicate through their root systems for miles underground. Mature trees can even send warnings and protective chemicals out to younger trees.

10 Special Powers

Trees provide Fuel, Food, Oils, Forage, Structural, Conservation, Carbon sequestration, Soil managers, animal barriers, and Fungal & Microbial habitats.

1. Energy

Fuel trees provide a range of fuel options including solid fuel, flammable leaves, bark, oil or flammable ‘candle or diesel’ nuts.

You don’t always have chop a tree to get fuel. Solid fuel from trees sometimes falls naturally. The windfalls include flammable leaves, cones, nuts, fallen branches, harvested sap, and resin.

David Holmgren writes that solid fuels are the most useful energy resource globally. We can plan for their harvest, they are easy to cut, require little training to use, convert easily to energy, are hard to steal or vandalise, and renew themselves.

a Chinese kang uses small twigs to cook food and heat the bed
Chinese Kang uses small windfall twigs to cook food and heat the bed in the next room.
Rocket stoves and gasifiers also use windfalls rather than lumbar.

Eucalyptus leaves have the power to burn whilst wet. Even more amazing, diesel and petroleum trees have nuts that burn like candles. Meet the Brazilian tropical rainforest tree Copaifera langsdorffii commonly known as Capaiba (Tupi Indian word cupa-yba). It is several powers. This ‘diesel tree’ is also a soil-enhancing legume. The resin is tapped sustainably like maple trees. Another, Pittosporum resiniferum, provides a form of n-Heptane.

Overall, most trees produce woody material suitable for the generation of BioGas fuel. This means alternative wood-based fuel is available without killing trees. Simply coppice or pollard instead.

2. Food

Malay apple - giant lillypilly
Giant Lillypilly – Malay Apples

More than 80% of the world’s food species came from the rainforest. Fruits, nuts, tea, coffee, chocolate and alcohols such as cider come from the bounty of trees.

The permaculture food forest usually intercrops fruit and layers of nut trees. We use strong food trees to support vine crops and short-lived trees act as nurse trees to maturing species. Tall evergreen trees are positioned in the shaded corner of the orchard and often used as wind-breaks.

3. Oils

Herbal, medicinal, culinary and cosmetic oils come from trees. These include Eucalyptus, Pine, Olive, Avocado, Walnut, Pecan, Almond, Cashew, Macadamia, Frankincense and Myrrh and Neem. Teatree is a hard-working fungicide (ok, it’s a shrub but worthy of mention.) Coconuts are not really trees either but they are tall, fragrant, yummy and an excellent make-up remover.

Other tree oils such as Tungoil (Vernicia fordii) when mixed with the natural cleaner and thinner Limonene (oil of citrus fruit peels) is a beautiful floor polish and useful for coating and preserving woodwork.


4. Forage

Fodder is an excellent food for grazing animals. The art of fodder planting almost forgotten conventional farming. Many trees provide excellent, nutritious fodder for animals. Fodder from trees is available during dry years. Fodder trees can be grown as living fences,(applied at Avonstour) hedges or as shade trees in the corners of paddocks. The tree roots can extend deep into subsoil, mining minerals that grasses may not reach.

Cattle browse and shelter beside fodder trees. Their manure is happily filtered by the abundant layers of forest shrubbery and leaf litter beneath. Forage Examples include: Oak, Poplar, Acacia aneura (Mulga), Albizia Julibrissa (Leguminous, deciduous, fast growing, regenerates) Dodnaea viscosa (Hop bush).

Above all, fodder trees provide food, shade, windbreak, pollution filter and living fences. Forage Examples include Oak, Poplar, Acacia aneura (Mulga), Albizia Julibrissa (Leguminous, deciduousfast growing, regenerates) and Dodnaea viscosa (Hop bush). Better still, plant a guild of native trees to support wildlife and local fungi.

This Boab tree has a front door. Australia has few deciduous native trees. The Boab has multiple uses. It is long-lived, deciduous and stores water through dry seasons. It is also medicinal and most parts are edible including the powder in the seedpods and the yummy fruit.

5. Structural Trees and Timber

Hay fork made from tree branch

Many trees grew large enough to shelter a traveller. Plato wrote about trees in his homeland, Greece, that were too big to put his arms around. Few large trees remain there. Shipbuilding claimed most of the great trees of Plato’s era. But still today, trees war and poverty continue to destroy trees.

Throughout the eras, material from trees has provided us with complete houses (roof shingles, frames, and plastered wattle walls), canoes, ships, furniture, garden tools, the first cars, musical instruments, cricket bats, rainboots, clothing (silk, rayon, viscose) and much more.

6. Wildlife Habitat – Humanities Bank of Genetic Capital

The conservation of wildlife habitats makes good economic sense as well as ethical sense. Healthy forests as a bank of diverse genetic material. Most of the plants, insects have not yet named. Their potential lies undiscovered. Surviving forests require nothing from mankind except respect. They are a self-supporting bank of unknown resources.

Humanity may be able to create clean air, water, soil, and mine more nutrients. But we can’t recreate genetic material. If we did discover how to recreate genetic material, a lot of creativity, science and energy would need to be invested. It is cheaper to safe-guard the genetic material existing today.

Flowers grow on the slender tall trunk of Davidson's Plum  a recently discovered bush tucker superfood
Davidson Plum – a recently discovered superfood

7. Carbon Sequestration

Trees are the cheap. They work day and night as long-term storage units soaking up excess carbon. They help mitigate or defer global warming and slow climate change. But recent research is showing that some trees are hitting their limit of absorption. This startling situation demonstrates we need more trees to combat the growing climate crisis.

Long-living trees are excellent guardians of carbon. Many trees live thousands of years (including olives) however, clonal colonies of trees have the potential to be immortal.

The oldest known clonal tree is Pando, an 80,000-year-old colony of Quaking Aspen. Unfortunately, the tree releases sequestered carbon when it dies. So, we need long-living self-replicating plants.

8. Soil Management

Trees hold the banks of steep slopes, trap centuries of silt, create their own rain and micro-climate. Trees have been shown to seed the clouds to help make rain. The process of soil enrichment can be accelerated with Huglekultur, Synergistic gardening, and Biochar.

Garden Mounds with Wood

Austrian, Sepp Holzer, pioneered Huglekultur for raised beds. The wood in the base of Huglekultur mounds holds moisture, builds fertility, adds height. This provides more surface area for intensive gardens growing vegetables and herbs. Similarly, Synergistic garden mounds, developed first by Emilia Hazslip, can also incorporate wood. Position mounds to harvest rainwater, deflect frost, create various microclimates, and slowly move the water through the system.

Schumaker College has raised garden mounds as pioneered by Emilia Hazelip

Soil Enrichment with Wood By-products

Biochar, formerly known as Terra preta, is low temperature-carbonized biomass commonly made trees. For thousands of years, it has been the lifeblood of native south-American intensive agriculture. They convert lumbar into a habitat for the accelerated growth of soil micro-organisms. Activated charcoal also sequesters carbon.

Biochar can be made as a by-product of heating the home. We make biochar in our fuel stove using a loose lidded container inside the firebox or by covering the flames with ash before going to bed. Ash from the fire is separated from the charcoal. We turn the charcoal into biochar by crushing it in a bag when cool then adding it to the compost toilet mass.

Ash is an excellent source of insulation material. Or it can provide valuable nutrients and pH modification to garden beds and poultry house floors.

9. Animal Barrier Systems

Hedging is natural fencing and
habitat for natural pest controllers

Hedges can be stronger, longer-lasting, and more durable than fences.

Nature is free and choatic. But not all hedges have to look messy. In fact, when the edges are neat, most people think the garden looks today. In truth, nature can work happily within tidy boundaries.

Some hedges can be trimmed to sit up off the ground to allow small creatures to pass underneath but block out larger animals, people, and cars.

Hedging in England is an art form, with quirky regional variations. In Dartmoor, the trunks of young trees are half-cut and pushed horizontally. Similarly, each sapling gets half-cut and tipped onto the previous sapling. In time, the side branches start to grow upright. This method makes a thick and durable fence providing habitat for wildlife such as insect-hungry birds.

10. Fungi and Microbes

Incubation converts tree sugars into energy. Paul Stamets shows how mushrooms can save the world by providing a usable energy source for domestic and commercial systems.

Lichen and Moss on a chainsawed tree in the exquisite Tarkine forest NW Tasmania