Episode 217. Chaos Gardening

This is the World Organic News for the week ending 8th of June 2020.

Jon Moore reporting!

Decarbonise the air, recarbonise the soil!

The great philosophical battles over time were reduced to two teams in the seminal spy show of the 1960s: Get Smart. Control and Kaos were the two options. Much industrial farming and chemically based gardening can be thought of as part of the Control team. After all, we have several millennia of holy books declaring humanity’s need to bring order and structure to chaotic Nature. That these books arose in the cultural context of West Asia, known nowadays as the Middle East, it should not be a surprise that this approach should be at the bedrock of “Western” farming. Nature is considered corrupt in some way, less than perfect. 

If we look to other systems of belief, say that of hunter-gatherer-fishers we see a different viewpoint. Nature is considered perfect already. If you’d like to delve more deeply into this dichotomy I would recommend reading Joseph Campbell or at least view the Bill Moyers’ interviews with Campbell. (Link in the show notes.)

The point I’m getting to is… biomimicry. Because Nature has already solved most problems we face in food production. It doesn’t matter what your religious or lack of religious viewpoint is, our cultures carry the inertia of those foundation myths. For this reason, it can be difficult to get a handle on different ideas. So the point of chaos gardens is that they more closely resemble Nature and getting our heads around this can be a struggle. Hopefully what follows will make this system more obvious and, dare I say it, preferable. 

Away we go.

From the US a movement appears to have begun and is developing momentum. Related, surprisingly to the whole COVID thing and the long supply lines in the developed world’s food system.

From a Civil Eats article dated 12 May 2020 entitled: Most Farmers in the Great Plains Don’t Grow Fruits and Vegetables. The Pandemic is Changing That. 


Tom Cannon,(A corn/soybean grower) for one, is planting six acres of vegetables. He calls it a “chaos garden” and it’s essentially a cover crop, a crop that is planted in between cash crops. But while a standard cover crop may contain alfalfa, ryegrass, or sorghum that can be used for building soil organic matter or grazing, a chaos seed mixture might include peas, squash, radish, okra, melons, sweet corn, and other edible plants. In other words, it contains groceries.

End Quote

You will notice, I hope, the greater diversity in the chaos cover crop compared to the standard model. Now as far back as the mid 1970s John Seymour, in The Complete Book of Self Sufficiency was advocating complex cover crop rotations. His system relied upon the cover crops being a herbal ley or complex pasture system which he grazed between cash crops to grow fertility in his soil before turning it under to grow spuds, root crops, legumes and cereals but the idea was there. It’s been there since at the 1700s so it is nothing new, in one sense.

The difference now is the use of vegetable crops as the primary seeds in the cover crop. The bonuses of these cover crops are many and varied. They are creating new markets for the growers, they are feeding people outside the food system and they have remarkable soil carbon and photosynthetic effects. More on those last two later.

Another quote from the Civil Eats piece:


It’s the perfect way for a commodity farmer like Cannon to grow fruits and vegetables without changing farming practices. “I just load my drill [planter] with 50 plus species, and don’t ever go back until it is time to harvest. Cannon plans to let community members pick their own produce. “After the people get everything they want, you turn out cattle onto the field.” Whatever remains serves as “green manure” to fertilize the soil.

End Quote.

Sort of a variation on the medieval strip system where each household had a section of the rows in a paddock to grow what they wanted, or perhaps were allowed to grow within cultural norms. This chaos green crop makes economic sense. With fifty different cultivars, some will outgrow others, shading them, smothering them and others will thrive. Either way, more diversity is added to the soil. Whether or not these seeds will be a problem in the future, remains to be seen. The key, I suspect, is the succession of the six acres of the piece. Grow, people harvest, stock harvest, remains returned to the soil. We could leave out the people and still achieve the same effect but why not have the human element involved?

People picking their own food also reconnects individuals with the soil, the food and with Nature. Win/Win/Win.

Further from the Civil Eats article:


In addition to ease of planting, …. other benefits of a chaos approach [are]: The blanket of plants crowds out most unwanted species, including weeds; the cucumbers and squash and other flowering species attract beneficial insects that keep pests like “squash bugs” at bay; the dense foliage increases soil moisture retention and reduces the need to water; and the plants tend to mature at different rates, allowing for several months of a diverse bounty rather than a monocrop that gets harvested all at once.

End Quote.

This sounds very much like a semi-hunter-gatherer-fisher approach to food. Harvesting things as they ripen across time on the same piece of land. Hence the utility of the U-pick model. The entire system certainly appeals to me. For a more conventional sales system where produce is collected from the fields and sold elsewhere, even at the farm shop, I can see increased time issues but nothing is insurmountable. 

Now to the soil carbon and photosynthetic benefits.

Clearly with the chaos system described above, much organic matter will be returned to the soil whilst keeping the soil covered. Both carbon sequestration positive activities. But wait, there’s more.

From: Light Farming: Restoring carbon, organic nitrogen and biodiversity to agricultural soils by Christine Jones, PhD 


Imagine there was a process that could remove carbon dioxide (CO2) from the atmosphere, replace it with life-giving oxygen, support a robust soil microbiome, regenerate topsoil, enhance the nutrient density of food, restore water balance to the landscape and increase the profitability of agriculture? 

Fortunately, there is. 

It’s called photosynthesis. 

End Quote

Wow, photosynthesis?

Further quote:

In the miracle of photosynthesis, a process that takes place in the chloroplasts of green leaves, carbon dioxide (CO2) from the air and water (H2O) from the soil, are combined to capture light energy and transform it to biochemical energy in the form of simple sugars. 

These simple sugars – commonly referred to as ‘photosynthate’ – are the building blocks for life in and on the earth. Plants transform sugar to a great diversity of other carbon compounds, including starches, proteins, organic acids, cellulose, lignin, waxes and oils. 

End Quote

So far, so early secondary school biology class but wait, etc.

The point is, photosynthesis is related to not just sugar production. Each plant creates its own needs as it creates its sugars. The great balancing effect required is underneath the surface of the soil. The interconnection between plants is based upon their variety and their symbiotic relationships with soil microbiota. 

As a general rule of thumb, there will be exceptions to this rule but, the more an ecosystem’s soil produces annuals, the greater the need for bacterial soil organisms. The woodier the above ground ecosystem is the greater the number of mycelia required with the same number of bacteria as annuals require. By denuding soils of their carbon content we have effectively killed off the soil’s microbiome. And this has consequences.


Soil dysfunction also impacts on human and animal health. It is sobering to reflect that over the last seventy years, the level of every nutrient in almost every kind of food has fallen between 10 and 100%. An individual today would need to consume twice as much meat, three times as much fruit and four to five times as many vegetables to obtain the same amount of minerals and trace elements as available in those same foods in 1940. 

And from further through this article:

It is commonly believed that the significant reduction in the nutrient density of today’s chemically produced food is due to the ‘dilution effect’. That is, as yield increases, mineral content falls. However, compromised nutrient levels are not observed in high-yielding vegetables, crops and pastures grown in healthy, biologically active soils. Indeed, the opposite applies. 

End Quote

What’s to be done?

Clearly we need to get more carbon back in the soil. Decarbonise the air, recarbonise the soil, for instance.

Dr Jones recommends using the photosynthetic processes of plants as our aid. But to do that we need to understand the carbon cycle:


Soil can function as a carbon ‘source’ – adding carbon to the atmosphere – or a carbon ‘sink’ – removing CO2 from the atmosphere. The dynamics of the source-sink equation are largely determined by land management. Over millennia a highly effective carbon cycle has evolved, in which the capture, storage, transfer, release and recapture of biochemical energy in the form of carbon compounds repeats over and over. The health of the soil – and the vitality of plants, animals and people – depends on the effective functioning of this cycle. 

End Quote

The best way, it appears, to achieve a healthy functioning carbon cycle is to have as wide a variety of plants in a given area as possible. Thus the practice of ploughing between perennials, grape vines, apple trees and so to avoid “competition” is a no no. Instead we should be planting as wide a variety of plants as possible, flowers included. I am inclined towards edible flowers in the mix simply because poisoning people is not a good business model, especially if they are going to be harvesting themselves. And I’m looking to follow the people with pigs and poultry before I replant. 

Chaos gardens may, in reality, be just what’s needed for fixing the soil, the soil microbiome, animal and human health and reversing the accumulation of CO2 in the atmosphere. The harvesting for human consumption does not lend itself to tractor based methods but to human scale, hands on approaches. 

Imagine every Nature Strip in suburbia sown to chaos gardens. Imagine a trip to the greengrocers as a walk to the footpath, verge, sidewalk or whatever word you use where you are. Imagine parts of the public greenspace in urban areas turned over to these gardens, where unit dwellers could forage for food. Just imagine the changes we could effect with these gardens. It makes this cynical old bastard smile with wonder.

The good Doctor has some principles for restarting the carbon cycle as she was designed. I’ll cover these next week in what I’m creatively calling Part 2.

As I’ve mentioned in the past episodes, there’s a link to a Udemy course in the show notes entitled “Growing a No-Dig Garden” if you’d like some more formal assistance in your gardening. You can also go to or send people to Episode 207 where I discuss growing a quick response garden to get yours happening swiftly.

Remember in this unusual time, if we put in the ground work now, we can all change the world, even if its only a little bit to start with and we will begin the process of: 

Decarbonising the air, recarbonising the soil!

Thank you all for listening and I’ll be back next week.



Growing a No-Dig Garden on Udemy

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World Organic News

email: podcast@worldorganicnews.com

Transcript: https://worldorganicnews.com/episode217/


Ep. 1: Joseph Campbell and the Power of Myth — ‘The Hero’s Adventure’


John Seymour, in The Complete Book of Self Sufficiency

Most Farmers in the Great Plains Don’t Grow Fruits and Vegetables. The Pandemic is Changing That. https://civileats.com/2020/05/12/most-farmers-in-the-great-plains-dont-grow-fruits-and-vegetables-the-pandemic-is-changing-that/

Light Farming: Restoring carbon, organic nitrogen and biodiversity to agricultural soils Christine Jones, PhD Founder, Amazing Carbon http://amazingcarbon.com/JONES-LightFarmingFINAL(2018).pdf

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