Episode 249. Layers in the Garden

This is The ChangeUnderground for the ides of March 2021.

I’m your host, Jon Moore

Decarbonise the Air, Recarbonise the Soil!

This episode follows on, in some ways from last week’s on roots and mycorrhizal fungi. Those things are, obviously, located underground. What we’re looking at this week is both underground and above.

There are a few systems out in the wilds of the interwebs that we’ll get to later in this episode.

Coming from the first principles of regenerative/no-dig theory there are three things we have free access to. These are available to anyone growing food or pastures or even cottage gardens. They are: Sunlight, CO2 and rainfall. Yes, those three can and do vary across the year and the years but they are free.  

One will be the limiting resource. And from this point our planning begins. Let’s assume we have enough CO2 and rainfall, how then do we make use of the available sunlight?

If we look at usual farming, gardening practices, we see growth in basically one plain: the horizontal. This makes a certain sense when we see the application of tractors and the space they use. Even they can be integrated into a three dimensional, above ground anyway, system. 

Given a variety of vegetables, then we already have some differences in root zone exploitation. Carrots versus sweet corn and so on. We can do better. We can add fruit trees, fodder trees, timber and reach much more deeply into the soils as well as up into the available sunlight. If we stick with deciduous trees then the less volumes of sunlight in the darker half of the year can be more fully exploited.

In temperate climates these can be arranged in alleys, in multiples of two tractor passes wide. These can follow contour lines and be mixed species planting much like hedgerows. Indeed if you have hedgerows already, you have improved use of sunlight over land denuded of these biological powerhouses.

Much thought and practical experimentation has been applied to the idea of three dimensional growing. Permaculture is the most obvious example of this. Yet much work has been done elsewhere, for example, in India.

I first came across this as Zero Budget Natural Farming, a system developed by Subhash Palekar, and I apologise if I butchered the pronunciation. It’s now known simply as Natural Farming as is, confusingly, Fukuoka’s system or to be fair, non-system.  And the two seem to overlap in places. There’s a link to a video from Solitude Farm showing a locally adapted version of the sowing before you harvest system developed by Fukuoka.

The Indian system developed as a reaction against the Green Revolution. The Green Revolution was a system developed with hybrid seeds, chemical fertilizers and insecticides as a response to a growing food shortage around the world. When supported by tractors, infrastructure and government subsidies in places like Europe and the US it grew more food than before. It also accelerated the death of soils and soil biota but the output was all that mattered when people were starving, or so the thinking went at the time. To be far many lives were saved. The system became even more problematic when it was applied without cultural sensitivity across the developing world. Locally adapted seed sources were scrapped and replaced by the “improved” varieties which did not do quite as well as advertised without the industrial infrastructure to support them. Farmers became entrapped in debt cycles as they needed to borrow to afford the seeds, the fertilizers and the insecticides. The cost of these rose steadily over time whilst agricultural returns varied over that same time period. A good year and the debts were cleared, a drought, a flood or locusts and the debt doubled as new seeds were needed for the next season. This is because the seeds were hybridized and could not be saved from year to year even when a good crop was the outcome of the season. This led to the tragic case of increasing suicides amongst India farmers. [Link in the show notes.]

The Zero Budget part of the Zero Budget Natural Farming  was developed to alleviate this growing debt and death spiral. It depended upon using locally available resources to restart soil biota. Things like cow dung, cow urine and locally produced sugars combined to make soil amendments and seed coatings. This system has developed further over the last twenty odd years to include a grid pattern of permanent and semi-permanent fruit trees, interplanted with annual and biennial species.

I’ve included links to a couple of sites explaining what is known as five layer Natural farming based upon these practices. The key point for all the Zero Budget sites I’ve read from India is that they are profitable. Returning to soil health and biomimicry creates systems that actually support and fund both the farm and the farmer’s family. The differences are stark. Whilst we continue to pour ag chemicals, hybridized/GMO seeds and tillage into our soils we too are heading down the same path as those Indian farmers who faced the worst of choices. There’s a link to an article on higher suicide rates than the average in rural Australia in the show notes if you’re interested in reading more on this. 

Maybe the whole world needs a Zero Budget approach to food production which relies upon soil, people and attention rather than automation, oil based inputs and factory farming of meat? 

As ever we can all do a little bit in this. Taking the five layers of the Indian system and applying it at the garden level makes some sense. Fruit trees, soft fruits, biennials, like garlic and annuals filling spaces across both the land and into the air. The North American three sisters garden springs to mind in this regard. Corn, beans and squash are arranged and planted such that the corn provides a trellis for the beans and the squash acts as a living mulch, cooling the soil and smothering weeds. Surround these with a row of raspberry canes and backed by an espaliered apple orchard and suddenly the backyard garden in a five layer production engine.

We can find ways to implement these ideas. Each solution will be as different as each gardener/smallholder/farmer and their soils and climates but we can do this. Nay, we must do this to regain control of food, our diet and our health.

And the bonus is we decarbonise the air and recarbonise the soil.

If you’re still listening to the very end, thank you! I do appreciate your effort. If you’ve this episode of value I have a new thing in the show notes and on the website at worldorganicnews.com where you can “buy me a coffee” which is a thing that fuels this podcast. If that’s a thing that might interest you, it’s the top link in the show notes. Thanks in advance.

And thank you all for listening and I’ll be back next week with episode 250 and a major announcement.




The ChangeUnderground Academy No-Dig Gardening Course:



email: jon@worldorganicnews.com


Subhash Palekar



Green Revolution


How to do Masanobu Fukuoka’s natural farming.



Indian Farmer Suicides



5-Layer Mini Forest in 5 Acre Land Boosts Karnataka Farmer’s Annual Income to 25 Lakh!



Subash Palekar five layer model



Why are suicide rates higher in rural communities?



Three Sisters Garden


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