Lasagna Method / Ruth Stout Method

Deep Mulch

Soil should never be exposed to the sunlight. Keeping a large amount of biomass (ideally 6-8 inches) on the soil retains moisture, suppresses weeds and slowly breaks down building soil with lots of organic material.

Ruth Stout

Ruth Stout in her 1979 book The Ruth Stout No-Work Garden Book: Secrets of the year-round mulch method. outlines her simple method to reduce unwanted weeds, reduce watering needs and make a beautiful soil with lots of tilth. It’s very simple. Just apply 8 inches or more of straw mulch on top of your garden bed.

Since Ruth Stout many others have promoted gardening with lots of mulch. The Back to Eden method uses wood chips as mulch to increase the fungal component in the soil. Food forests use copious amounts of mulch to jumpstart the ecological succession, and in their mature years they provide their own mulch in the form of dropped leaf and plant matter. Regenerative ranchers such as Gabe Brown speak often about keeping the soil protected by using mulch (although for large areas it’s better to use cover crops as a living mulch).

All the soil pictured was created in one season simply by laying straw down on top of our hugelkultur beds. The white hyphae is from the edible wine cap mushrooms that proliferate.

Why Mulch?

Look at any natural landscape. You will never see bare soil, unless there has been some kind of disturbance. Nature abhors a vacuum. Pioneer weed species immediately begin to conquer bare soil. In conventional agriculture we till the ground thinking this will help, but all we do is make a perfect landscape for opportunistic weeds. If we leave the soil bare, we will be constantly fighting weeds. Mulch is the answer.

Soil should never be exposed to sunlight. Worms, bacteria, fungi and other decomposers in the soil food web all dislike and harmed by sunlight. They prefer dark, moist conditions–exactly the opposite of a dry sunny patch of dirt. It’s very important to keep what Gabe Brown calls, ‘a layer of armor’ on your soil.

The Problem With Deep Mulch

We understand now why it’s important to keep soil covered, and we understand the benefits to applying large amounts of organic material to our soils. But where do we get this organic material? Straw and hay are relatively cheap, so we could just buy them (as we’ve done in the past). There’s two problems:

  1. Pesticides. Is your straw grown without the use of biocides? Are you 100% sure? Some farmers use persistent herbicides (specifically plant growth regulators) that can harm your plants. If you can be absolutely certain your straw has no persistent herbicides then you should be okay.
  2. But even if you have no-spray straw, this still needs to be grown somewhere. Our goal is produce all our own fertility onsite. Buying straw uses acres somewhere else (as well as fossil fuels to cut and deliver).

The solution is to generate our own biomass onsite to use as mulch. We do this by growing cover crops and by cutting existing vegetation. We also chop and drop plants that we grow once they’ve been harvested. For example, once we harvest a broccoli flower we cut the stem (leaving the roots in the ground to decompose) and drop it in place. It will become food for our soil life, and eventually become soil that will grow the next round of broccoli.

How to Plant into Deep Mulch

There are two ways to plant into deep mulch, both of which are very simple.

  1. Use your hands to make a hole in the mulch until you reach the soil. Plant your transplant into the created hole, then squish the mulch back around the plant so its leaves poke out and get sun. This will keep its roots moist, but still allow it to get sunlight.
  2. Overseed many seeds by sprinkling directly onto the top of the mulch. Keep watered for a few days until they sprout and then you’re done. We do this with kale to grow mini kale for salads. It’s very easy, and doesn’t need to be weeded or even watered once its established.
Transplants planted into holes in the mulch. These plants thrived this season.
Young brassicas establishing themselves after being sprinkled on top of a layer of straw mulch. Don’t overthink it; plants want to live.

Other Stuff We’re Doing

Check out some other stuff we’ve been working on.

    We generate a lot of woody biomass from branches which we burn in pits to make charcoal. We then inoculate this charcoal to make a soil amendment that can last for over 1000 years in our soil.

    Read More

Mimicking Nature

Food Forest

Nature grows forests with no inputs. Nobody is fertilizing or spending hours weeding a forest. So why do we do this for our gardens?

Why a Food Forest

Who fertilizes a forest? Who keeps it watered? Who painstakingly removes weeds?

Nobody. And yet forests can support life, and have a variety of harvests we can take from them. So what if made a garden that mimicked how a forest grew? Turns out indigenous peoples of every continent have been practicing this successfully, but it’s finally making a resurgence as a viable way to grow food at scale while drastically reducing the negative impacts of industrial farming.

What is a Food Forest?

A food forest is a diverse planting of edible plants that grow in layers, much like a natural forest. Rooted in permaculture principles, food forests aim to create a self-sustaining environment where plants, trees, and animals thrive together, providing an abundance of food with minimal human intervention.

The layers of a food forest typically include:

  1. Canopy Layer: Tall fruit and nut trees that provide shade and habitat.
  2. Understory Layer: Smaller trees and large shrubs, such as dwarf fruit trees and berry bushes.
  3. Shrub Layer: Medium-sized shrubs, including various berry bushes.
  4. Herbaceous Layer: Perennial herbs, vegetables, and flowers.
  5. Ground Cover Layer: Low-growing plants that spread across the ground.
  6. Rhizosphere Layer: Root crops and tubers that grow underground.
  7. Vertical Layer: Climbers and vines that grow up trees and structures.

Each layer plays a crucial role in creating a balanced ecosystem, ensuring nutrient cycling, water retention, and habitat for beneficial insects and animals.

The Plan

We cleared some existing forest and then we planted a variety of pioneer species to build up our soil and support our main canopy layer which will be a variety of nut trees. Underneath these huge nut trees will be lots of herbaceous plants (mint, lemon balm, anise hyssop, red, crimson and white clovers, comfrey, dandelion, oregano, thyme, beans, rhubarb, alfalfa, rhye, oats, daikon radish etc), with mixed berry bushes (currant, blackberry, raspberry, blueberry, haskap, goji berry etc), and fruit trees like apples and pears.

No Disturbance

No Till

Traditionally farmers till the ground each year to prepare the soil for planting. This practise kills soil life, exposes the soil the the sun and over time will drain your soil of nutrients and increase compaction. Nature doesn’t till, so we don’t either.

Tilling breaks up soil aggregates and causes opportunistic microbes to burn through existing carbon. It increases compaction, breaks fungal hyphae, exposes microbial life to the sun and air and will make your soils worse over time, and make them require tilling to function properly. Tilling once to establish a new bed is sometimes useful, but it should absolutely not be a part of your longterm fertility strategy.

Breaking Soil Aggregates

Tilling breaks up soil aggregates, the clumps of soil particles held together by organic matter and microbial activity. These aggregates are crucial for maintaining soil structure, water infiltration, and root growth. When soil aggregates are broken, the soil becomes more prone to erosion and compaction, reducing its ability to support healthy plant growth.

Disruption of Microbial Communities

Soil is home to a diverse array of microbes, including bacteria, fungi, and other microorganisms that play essential roles in nutrient cycling and plant health. Tilling disrupts these microbial communities by breaking fungal hyphae, the thread-like structures of fungi that help plants absorb nutrients. This disruption not only reduces the beneficial relationships between plants and microbes but also exposes microbial life to harmful sunlight and air, leading to a decline in microbial diversity and activity.

Loss of Soil Carbon

When soil is tilled, opportunistic microbes rapidly consume existing soil organic matter, releasing carbon dioxide into the atmosphere. This process, known as carbon mineralization, depletes soil carbon reserves, which are essential for maintaining soil fertility and structure. The loss of soil carbon contributes to the decline in soil health and increases greenhouse gas emissions.

Increased Soil Compaction

Contrary to the belief that tilling loosens soil, it actually increases soil compaction over time. The repeated mechanical action of tilling compresses soil particles, reducing pore space and limiting root growth. Compacted soil has poor water infiltration and drainage, leading to waterlogging and reduced oxygen availability for plant roots.

Other Stuff We’re Doing

Check out some other stuff we’ve been working on.

    Keeping a large amount of biomass (straw, grass, wood chips, etc) on top of the soil retains moisture, suppresses weeds and slowly breaks down building soil with lots of organic material. We also grow edible mushrooms in the mulch of all our garden beds.

    Read More

    We generate a lot of woody biomass from branches which we burn in pits to make charcoal. We then inoculate this charcoal to make a soil amendment that can last for over 1000 years in our soil.

    Read More

Green Manure

Cover Crops

Cover cropping is the most important strategy for generating fertility onsite without any external inputs.

Cover crops are plants that are grown specifically to cover and protect the soil, rather than for their edible or ornamental value. Using a diverse blend of cover crops we increase soil fertility by building biomass, but more important by having living roots that produce root exudates we feed microizal fungi and microbes which combine minerals and carbon to create soil aggregates

Perhaps the most important part of building soil is understanding how plant roots interact with soil biology. Plants produce root exudates which feed specific fungi and bacteria. These fungi and bacteria like the tasty exudates (sugars) and offer up minerals or important nutrients such as nitrogen in exchange. This extends the reach of plant roots and allows them to radically improve their health. It also creates soil aggregates which is vital for the structure of soil.

One of the main roles of cover crops is to build fertility onsite. Cover crops can add nutrients to the soil through their roots and aboveground biomass, which can then be incorporated into the soil when the cover crops are turned under. This can help to improve soil structure, increase water retention, and promote the growth of healthy plants.

Using cover crops can also help to build fertility without using any “ghost acres,” or land that is dedicated to producing a single crop. Cover crops can be grown in between regular crops, or in areas that would otherwise be left fallow. This allows farmers to maximize the use of their land and build fertility without dedicating additional resources or land to the process.

There are many different types of cover crops to choose from, each with its own unique benefits. Some common cover crops include legumes (such as clover and beans), grasses (such as oats and rye), and brassicas (such as mustard and kale).

Overall, cover crops play a vital role in sustainable agriculture by helping to build fertility onsite and improve soil health. They are a valuable tool for farmers and gardeners looking to create a healthy and productive ecosystem.

Other Stuff We’re Doing

Check out some other stuff we’ve been working on.

    Swales are ditches dug on contour that collect water, spread it out and let it slowly infiltrate into the soil where it can help rejuvenate aquifers and moisten soils.

    Read More

Water Retention

Swales

Swales are essentially just drainage ditches, except that they’re dug on contour so they collect and hold water instead of diverting it.

Swales are an innovative landscaping solution, designed not just to manage water runoff but to harness it beneficially. Unlike traditional drainage ditches that divert water away from a property, swales are strategically dug along the natural contours of the land. This design allows them to capture, hold, and infiltrate runoff water into the ground, thereby recharging groundwater and irrigating the surrounding vegetation. Particularly effective in areas prone to drought or those seeking sustainable water management practices, swales can be applied in a variety of settings – from large-scale agricultural lands to suburban backyards.

While swales are a cornerstone of many permaculture designs, they are not universally applicable. In cases like ours, where the slope is particularly steep—around 16%—traditional swale implementation can be impractical. The gradient not only challenges the swale’s structural integrity but also its ability to effectively retain water without causing erosion. However, this limitation does not deter our commitment to sustainable water management. We’ve adapted by deeply considering the natural flow of water on our property, devising alternative strategies to capture, slow, and utilize runoff in a manner that complements our landscape’s unique contours and conditions.

Capturing and storing water is a pivotal strategy for achieving long-term sustainability and success in permaculture designs. This approach is especially crucial when integrated with perennial plantings, such as the food forest we are developing. By establishing a system that efficiently collects and conserves water, we ensure a consistent supply of moisture to support the growth of trees, shrubs, and other perennials throughout the seasons. This synergy between water management and perennial agriculture not only enhances the resilience and productivity of our food forest but also contributes to the creation of a self-sustaining ecosystem that thrives with minimal external input.

Other Stuff We’re Doing

Check out some other stuff we’ve been working on.

    Traditionally farmers till the ground each year to prepare the soil for planting. This practise kills soil life, exposes the soil the the sun and over time will drain your soil of nutrients and increase compaction.

    Read More

    Cover cropping is the practise of growing a variety of plants and cutting them (or grazing animals on them) and letting them decompose to build soil. This is the #1 most important strategy for generating fertility without external inputs.

    Read More

Worm Poops

Vermicompost

Our worms turn food waste into valuable worm castings, a fantastic soil amendment.

What is vermicompost

Vermicomposting is a method of composting that utilizes worms to break down organic matter and produce nutrient-rich castings (worm poops). Worm castings are a valuable soil amendment that can improve the structure, fertility, and water-holding capacity of soil. They are rich in nutrients and beneficial microbes, which can help plants grow healthier and more resistant to pests and diseases.

Why making your own worm castings is better

Besides the obvious cost benefits, the castings we make are of far higher quality. The castings you can buy are likely fed inorganic food, and they may go heavy on things like cardboard that lack nutrients. We also particularly like the worm castings we make because of the beneficial microbes they harbour. When you buy worm castings from the store they are devoid of life because they must be packaged and sold according to certain regulations. This time spent sitting in warehouses kills all the soil life present in the castings.

How to make castings

The process of vermicomposting involves setting up a worm bin and providing the worms with a balanced diet of organic matter such as fruit and vegetable scraps, coffee grounds, and paper products. The worms consume the organic matter and produce nutrient-rich castings, also known as vermicompost.

Vermicompost is an excellent soil amendment that can improve the structure, fertility, and water-holding capacity of soil. It is rich in nutrients and beneficial microbes, which can help plants grow healthier and more resistant to pests and diseases.

View More Projects

Check out some other stuff we’ve been working on.

    Swales are ditches dug on contour that collect water, spread it out and let it slowly infiltrate into the soil where it can help rejuvenate aquifers and moisten soils.

    Learn More

    It may sound contradictory, but we actively work to keep pests (slugs, aphids, hornworms, etc) alive! Why? By killing pests you’re removing beneficial insects’ food source. Less food = less beneficial insects. Less beneficial insects = more work you’ve given yourself spraying pesticides or manually removing them. Nature tends towards harmonious balance.

    Learn More

Helping Pests Survive?

Pest Management

Although it may seem contradictory, we actively work to make habitats for garden pests.

Integrated Pest Management

The first year we grew kale we had horrible aphid problems. People suggest spraying soap or blending cayenne peppers and spraying this liquid on the leaves, or using commercial insecticides. We took a different route. We did nothing. By doing nothing at all, we provided a valuable source of food to aphid’s natural predators. The next year, we had no aphid problems and we haven’t had any since!

This is called integrated pest management. It works better on small scales and when the pressure to produce perfect looking vegetables isn’t imposed on you. If you tried to “do nothing” on a commercial farm, you’d go out of business. But on small home scales the best pest defence is plant diverse integrated polycultures (a lot of different plants in close proximity) and provide lots of habitat for predators. If you mostly leave this system alone, the pests and predators will find a natural equilibrium. You may lose some of your vegetables to pests, but you likely won’t lose all of your vegetables.

We much prefer to build natural ecosystems and work with nature instead of creating more work for ourselves.

View More Projects

Check out some other stuff we’ve been working on.

    May 23, 2022

    We generate a lot of woody biomass from branches which we burn in pits to make charcoal. We then inoculate this charcoal to make a soil amendment that can last for over 1000 years in our soil.

    December 12, 2022

    We farm red wriggler worms to harvest their castings as a soil amendment.

    Hugelkultur is essentially a large amount of logs, branches and other woody debris covered in compost, soil. The wood inside acts like a sponge, holding a tremendous amount of water and also providing copious food for fungi.

    Traditionally farmers till the ground each year to prepare the soil for planting. This practise kills soil life, exposes the soil the the sun and over time will drain your soil of nutrients and increase compaction.

Hugelkultur

Logs, sticks and woody debris piled up and covered with soil to make a garden bed that barely requires watering and is constantly breaking down and building soil.

Hugelkultur, also known as “hill culture” or “mound culture,” is a sustainable gardening technique that involves building raised beds using woody debris such as logs, branches, and twigs. This method of gardening has a number of benefits, including increased water retention, improved soil structure, and the ability to use materials that would otherwise be discarded.

One of the main benefits of hugelkultur is its ability to improve soil structure and fertility. As the woody debris decomposes, it releases nutrients and creates a network of air pockets that improve drainage and water retention. This can be particularly beneficial in areas with poor soil or dry climates.

Another advantage of hugelkultur is that it allows us to use logs and woody debris that would otherwise be useless to us. Rather than discarding these materials, we can repurpose them to create raised beds that will support healthy plant growth. This not only helps to reduce waste, but also provides an opportunity to recycle these materials and give them a new purpose.

To create a hugelkultur bed, you will need to gather a variety of woody debris and arrange it in a mound shape. The logs should be placed at the bottom, with branches and twigs on top. Once the bed is built, it can be covered with soil and plants can be added.

Other Stuff We’re Doing

Check out some other stuff we’ve been working on.

    May 23, 2022

    We generate a lot of woody biomass from branches which we burn in pits to make charcoal. We then inoculate this charcoal to make a soil amendment that can last for over 1000 years in our soil.

    December 12, 2022

    Cover cropping is the practise of growing a variety of plants and cutting them (or grazing animals on them) and letting them decompose to build soil. This is the #1 most important strategy for generating fertility without external inputs.

Pure Carbon

Biochar

Using charcoal as a soil amendment has numerous benefits.

What is biochar?

Biochar is simply charcoal used a soil amendment. Although it sounds high tech, it has actually been used by humans for over 2000 years. Amazonian tribes used it to make their famous terra pretta (“black soil” in Portugese).

How does it work?

Very simply, charcoal is extremely porous. This porosity creates lots of nooks and crevices which have two major benefits. Firstly, this porous structure creates a lot of habitat for microbes to live, keeping them from leeching out of the soil when it rains. This is invaluable for creating a healthy soil food web, which is important for proper nutrient cycling and a host other benefits.

The other big benefit also refers to the porosity. Charcoal has immense water holding capacity because it can act like a sponge. The scientific principle behind charcoal’s ability to hold water so effectively is primarily based on capillarity, also known as capillary action. Capillary action is the ability of a liquid to flow in narrow spaces without the assistance of, and in opposition to, external forces like gravity. This phenomenon occurs due to the adhesion of water molecules to the charcoal surface being stronger than the cohesion forces among the water molecules themselves. The extremely porous structure of charcoal, with its myriad of tiny pores and channels, amplifies this effect by providing an extensive network for capillary action to take place.

Additionally, the porous structure increases the surface area within charcoal, which enhances its adsorption capacity—the process by which a solid holds molecules of a gas or liquid on its surface by physical or chemical means. Adsorption contributes to charcoal’s ability to retain nutrients and water, making them available for plant uptake over time. These combined properties—capillary action and adsorption—explain why charcoal, and biochar by extension, are so effective at holding water and improving soil moisture retention.

Consequently, the use of charcoal in soil amendments significantly contributes to improved soil structure, increased moisture retention, and a richer, more active microbial community, leading to healthier and more productive soil ecosystems.

Biochar benefits

  • Helps nutrient and microbe retention in the soil.
  • Biochar can sequester up to 50% of the carbon that would otherwise be released.
  • Helps water retention in the soil.
  • Also helps hold nutrients that may otherwise be washed away.

How we make biochar

We use the simplest method possible. It creates an acceptable quality, although more sophisticated methods would surely produce a higher quality product with less wood oils and organic matter residues* and could reduce carbon dioxide output into the atmosphere.

We create a trench about two feet deep, 3-4 feet wide and 8-12 feet long.

We then get a fire going with branches of up to 2-inch diameter. Get the fire burning hot to start the pyrolysis process. You ideally shouldn’t see any smoke. Smoke is a byproduct of incomplete combustion, indicating that the organic material is not being fully converted into biochar. To achieve a clean burn, maintain a high temperature that facilitates the thermal decomposition of wood material in the absence of oxygen. Watch the fire continually and keep adding material to keep it burning effectively.

Once you’ve exhausted your material or you start to see signs of ash beginning to form quickly quench the fire with lots of water. You will need to continue to apply water longer than you may think. If the fire looks put out, it may reignite and you come back to a pile of ash, not charcol. This process transforms the biomass into biochar, a stable form of carbon that not only enriches soil fertility but also acts as a significant carbon sink, reducing the amount of carbon dioxide released into the atmosphere.

View More Projects

Check out some other stuff we’ve been working on.

    Cover cropping is the practise of growing a variety of plants and cutting them (or grazing animals on them) and letting them decompose to build soil. This is the #1 most important strategy for generating fertility without external inputs.

    Swales are ditches dug on contour that collect water, spread it out and let it slowly infiltrate into the soil where it can help rejuvenate aquifers and moisten soils.