Episode 236. The Chaos Garden Experiment

This is The ChangeUnderground for the week ending 2nd of November 2020.

I’m Jon Moore

Decarbonise the Air, Recarbonise the Soil!

As we do we can learn. Over the past fortnight I’ve been preparing the fields for planting. I’m converting pastures to crops. I’m not inclined to spend my time growing lettuce and microgreens, despite the obvious profit levels apparently available. I trace my way of doing things back to John Seymour and his Complete Book of Self Sufficiency. He talks about growing grain crops. Barley, wheat, maize, peas and beans. To that end I’ve set up a five year rotation with all of the above leading to soil bursting with life for our garlic crop.microgreens


In addition to Seymour, I was and still am influenced by Masanobu Fukuoka of The One Straw Revolution fame. There’s links to Seymour and Fukuoka in the show notes. For me, the key takeaway from Fukuoka is the principle of planting before harvest. Clearly this is how seeds work but in his case he meant planting the next crop before the last one was harvested. He did this for decades with rice as his summer grain and barley, wheat, millet and so on as his winter crop. So no microgreens there. I’m not denigrating growers of microgreens, the practice just doesn’t appeal to me.

Recently, as listeners will attest, I’ve been diving down the regenerative pathway. The key points I’ve taken from this methodology are: 

  1. Keep the soil covered.
  2. Living plants are better than mulch but mulch will do until things start growing.
  3. Diversity above ground leads to synergies Underground between bacteria, fungi and a variety of roots.

To that end, I mowed the area to be planted to maize, in this case Sweet Corn and a variety called “Golden Bantam”. It produces golden kernels, two or more 15-17cm cobs per plant, excellent flavoured, early cropping, plants usually 1.5m. 73-80 days. 

The mowing was achieved with a sickle bar mower. Two sets of triangular teeth that oscillate back and forth. This brings down the growth without shredding it the way a rotary mower does. It takes longer to decompose so it protects the soil for longer, smothering any regrowth, or most regrowth. The idea is to no-till plant directly into this and allow the Golden Bantams to rise from the mulch. A quick word on the variety. It is shorter than the traditional sweet corn on purpose because we live in the roaring forties. 41 degrees south and when the wind blows it blows hard. A smaller variety should be less prone to lodging but, hey, who’s to know? Equally it is a short season variety. 11 to 12 weeks. As an early frost is not unheard of in these parts, we should have the crop off before that happens.

The problem with the more slowly decomposing longer mulch is the extra length of the mulch clogged the planter. So I swept the mulch into a couple of windrows leaving alleys for the corn. Adapt, improvise, overcome as they say in the classics. 

What to do with this collected organic matter?

It could’ve been swept back over the planted seeds, maybe even should have but I looked at and thought there had to be something else I could do with it.

Having sorted my seed for the season, I realised I had a reasonably large supply of half used, never used and meant to be planted one day seeds. A quick rundown by vegetable type rather than each cultivar, as there are from one to seven or eight cultivars of each vegetable, will give you an idea of this resource.

I have:

Amaranth, cape gooseberry, cucumber, zucchini, thyme, peas, beans, squash, watermelon, tomatoes, broccoli, lettuce, snow pea, radish, pumpkin, basil and sunflowers.

This seemed to be a useful collection for trying out the chaos gardens of episodes 217 and 218 and is supported by the writings of Dr Christine Jones on the power of photosynthesis. But where to plant these exactly I hadn’t settled in my mind. You can see where this is headed. The windrows, of which there are two, are 50 meters long and about a metre wide, say 55 yards by one yard. We are entering a dry spell here in the North West of Tasmania. Not a drop forecast for the next ten days. I understand this is nothing remarkable in most climates but it is odd here before the height of summer. So I’m holding off planting this cornucopia of seed until I can set up a watering system for the windrows or we receive the forecast rain in about ten days. There’s a feeling of heading into a prolonged dry spell in my bones as the forecast rainfall for October arrived but at much lower levels than predicted. Maybe I tend towards being pessimistic when it comes to rain but it feels safer to work on the minimum rather than assuming the rain will always come. We lived in Ireland in 2018 and they had their first drought since 1975 so maybe it’s just me, hope not, smiley face.

What am I expecting from these two windrows of annuals? A massive habitat for beneficial predatory insects, a possible better choice for parrots than the corn and a soil teeming with life as the different root communities hit different parts of the soil profile and allow the interaction of bacteria and fungi. I also expect quite a body of organic matter to be slashed down in autumn for a fava bean cover crop to grow in. Mostly, though, I’m looking forward to seeing what seeds germinate, which outcompetes its neighbours and do some species make a late season come back as the early achievers go to seed and drop out of the photosynthesis race. Equally, as the corn strips are about four metres wide will proximity to this riotous growth have a positive or negative effect across those four metres? So many questions and I’m sure, if I just sit, watch and listen, lots more will come to me. 

I’m not sure if I’ll make these alleys a permanent or even semi permanent thing but I might. There appears to be some advantage, especially for the fungal portion  of the soil microbiota, in a permanent structure. As permanent as anything can be on this ever evolving little blue rock we call our home planet.

A quick update on the “wonder” substance made from worm castings and applied to the garlic patch. I left a few beds untouched as a control and sprayed the others as directed for the last four months. At this stage, I can’t see any statistically significant differences between the control and the test group but I haven’t lifted any of the garlic bulbs either. The proof may be in the size and/or flavour of the harvested garlic. I can say though, I’m somewhat surprised at the lack of obvious differences at this stage.

And with that let’s always remember and underpin our work with the catch phrase: Decarbonise the air, recarbonise 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: jon@worldorganicnews.com


Masanobu Fukuoka


Dr Christine Jones ~ Amazing Carbon



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Diploma in Sustainable Living at the University of Tasmania


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