Category Archives: Reads and Re*views

I see a lot, I read a lot, I dig a lot. These are the books I recommend, the documentary films I think are worth a look-see, and the tools I prefer to accomplish what I want to do. Opinions opinions opinions.

Biodynamic Preps: why am I looking into these?

biodynamic preps 502-507 go into compost

Compost piles get hot from all the microbial activity. (image from Wikipedia)

Biodynamic agriculture is most tangibly distinguished from other beyond-organic farming methodologies by the use of the Preparations developed by Rudolph Steiner.  It didn’t used to be true that you had to use the preps in order to be certified biodynamic*, but that changed around 2012.  So the preps, which may or may not confer advantages to the farm, have become central in ways they weren’t before.

My personal favorite aspects of biodynamics are the consideration of the farm as a whole organism,  the attention to detail, and the attention given to fertility via making the best doggone compost possible.  There are 9 preps, 5 of which are to be added to the compost, 2 of which are to be applied in the field (one on the soil, on as a foliar spray) and a final one that can be used in either setting. Intriguingly, this last one is left out of most of the research trials I’ve seen.  No clue why.

The initial scan of research projects focused on biodynamic compost indicates increased microbial activity and a higher retained soil carbon level.  Good!  Good composting habits are crucial to creating ACTUAL fertility (applying plant soluble nitrogens to the soil is FAKE fertility).  The rub:  nobody quite knows why.  Yes, this is applying a mechanistic world view to a holistic farming practice, but hang with me here.

When you do an experiment, you have the thing you are trying to figure out (the variable) and the thing that is a known entity (the constant).  If the results of the plot with the variable differs from those of the plot with the constant, then there is something in there that is making a difference.  Scientists get all picayune with the details because they are trying to prove that the only thing that was consistent different across all the times they did it this way versus that way was in fact the variable being researched.

If all the shrubs with more leaves are also all the shrubs that are downhill and therefore have moister soil, then you can’t say that adding X to the soil around the shrubs is what’s making the difference because the moister soil is probably also a factor.  The research has to “isolate the variable”.

Which is what I’m still looking for in this research.  So pretend you are looking at a row of compost piles.  They are all horse poop and wood shavings from cleaning out the horse barn.  They are all on level ground, all get the same amount of sunlight, all the same size, all have the same wind exposure…  after a year of decay, they should all have all the same properties.  So we tested nothing.

Now pretend we starting over and this time we are going to add the biodynamic preparations to all but two of the piles.  Now we have variables (the preps) and two constants (the “plain” piles).  So any differences between the piles after a year ought to mean the preps did something, right?  But what if the difference is just the adding of ANYTHING at all?

We know that biodiversity matters.  It matters deeply, intricately, vibrantly.  Horse poop and woodshavings is not very biodiverse, so maybe only a few types of composting critters (microbes, fungi, earthworms, etc) are needed, but if you add anything at all (a loaf of bread), then the whatevers that breakdown bread suddenly have to show up, et voila, the pile with the bread has different results.

There are ways to control for this in an experiment.  The “we’re not adding anything” piles are known as “negative controls”, but we could have a “we’re adding something, just not the thing we are testing” pile and that would be a “positive control”.  So far, I haven’t found anybody testing with a positive control.

biodynamic preparation 500 cow horn with cow manure

Prep 500, pre fermentation. It’s not added to compost, but who can resist a proof-you’ve-been-playing-with-poop photo? (shot by Stefano Wines)

What would that look like anyway?  To really get it right and test for whether or not these biodynamic preparations positively impact the composting process, we’d have to make up a fake formula.  Luckily, they basically follow a pattern: animal bit + plant bit + fermentation process.  One of them has powdered quartz rock in place of the plant bit, and another is basically tea, and there are other variables, but if there’s a pattern, it’s that.

So a fake preparation (509, as it were, since the others are known as 500-508) would follow that pattern but not use the ingredients specified.  Horse hoof (the preps use no horse bits) and basil flowers (the preps use no other herbs from the Lamiaceae [mint] family), fermented underground for a season would be a “fake prep” or a “fake 509″.

Now if we add our official preps to all the piles except two, and add 509 to one, and nothing to the other, we’re closer to really finding out what those preps do, right?  Almost.  We’ve added increased biodiversity to our “positive control” pile, but the biodiversity of adding the 5 preps to the other piles is, obviously, higher than adding the one to the control pile.  And that’s where science becomes a pain in the ass.  To really do this right, you have to add one prep to each pile, plus a do-nothing control pile, plus a fake prep pile, plus a pile that is all the official preps together, and one with all the official preps plus the fake prep, and then maybe even some piles with various combinations of official and fake preps.

See?  That’s a lot of piles of horsepoop and woodshavings, and we’re still trying to keep them all the same, which gets trickier and trickier…  BUT!  I have good news.  They do not have these same European plants and animals in Brazil (at least, not natively) but they do have a Brazilian biodynamic association.  So the next question is, what do the Brazilian preps look like?  What does the research on the Brazilian biodynamic preparations reveal? ooooo.  I’m like a geek in a new library.

Mulch on the Mind: Responding to “The Holistic Orchard” by Michael Phillips

I’m reading Michael Phillips’ The Holistic Orchard: Tree Fruits and Berries the Biological Way
right now: great stuff!  He spoke at the MOSES conference a few years back and made it possible to dream again.  I love orchards, I love fruit trees and pruning, I love dappled shade, I love fruit.  I hate chemical sprays, and the abiding mantra out there is that organic apples can’t be done.

Yes they can!  Apparently the trick is to march right on past organic into the realm of holistic. Organic at this point (in the US, where it is a highly regulated word) means “no chemicals.”  It ought to mean respecting the overall system and healing the soil and what not, and for the majority of organic farmers it does, but we can’t seem to get there with the requirements.  Recently I read somebody trying to sell the idea that GMOs would mean fewer chemicals, but I’m not buying that noise, and I’m sure as heck not eating it.

Holistic, on the other hand, says ailments are symptoms and a healthy system can right itself.  It’s all about viewing the farm as an ecology (biodynamics does this nicely, too) and looking for the underlying weakness that needs support.

Favorite tidbit thus far: Ramial Mulch.

ramial mulch and ramial wood chips are the same thing

Didn’t know this was gold, eh?

Ray-whoo? Ray-mee-ell.  These are the skinny bits from the tips of deciduous hardwood trees.  “Skinny” = no more than about 2 ½ inches (6cm) across.

The crucial detail here is the ratio of lignin (the wood that is alive and actively Continue reading

Thinking Through A Knee Jerk Reaction: Thought-Full Permaculture


Dave Jacke permaculture

Dave Jacke, permaculturalist and author

Dave Jacke is teaching a permaculture workshop in Australia next week (as I write this.)  This strikes me as odd.  We talked about it (briefly) and I’ll share that at the end, but here’s my thought process: I like his books (Edible Forest Gardens), and he’s a friend of some friends, so I feel confident that he himself is both well-intentioned and wildly knowledgeable about quite a few topics but what I liked about his Edible Forest Gardens book was its focus on and regional applicability to the forests of the northeastern United States (and probably into Canada’s Maritime provinces.) 

It seemed important to finally be flipping through a resource that had no recommendations whatsoever for where to place your avocado tree.  (Don’t get me wrong there- I’m a huge avocado fan).

So to remove him so far from his context…what’s gained and what’s lost?


Gained is the clarity that there are core principles / ethics / protocols behind permaculture’s activities, and these are universal to the whole world.  Water, sunshine, and good soil.  That basic recipe remains the same everywhere I can get to without a spaceship.

Not gained is a fresh voice in the wilderness.  Australia is not short of permies.  This is where Bill Mollison and David Holmgren codified their observations into ethics that generated patterns of both spatial relations and behaviors, all of which they called permanent agriculture: “permaculture”.


permaculture guilds zone 1

Permaculture zone 1 from Innovation Diaries

Lost is the knowledge base that comes from really knowing a Continue reading

Responding to “Rain Forest for Sale” by Scott Wallace

Geoff Gallice rainforest photo

Yasuni National Park Trees by Geoff Gallice

The recent issue of National Geographic arrived at the house the other day, packed (as usual) with pictures and diagrams of places I’ll likely never be able to visit.  One story in particular caught my eye, or rather, one tidbit in one story.  The rainforest in Ecuador’s Yasuni National Park is described as possibly the most bio-diverse places on earth.

Think about that for a sec.  Of all the diversity on the planet, of all the amazing array of life packed into every little corner of the world, including a dozen other rainforests around the tropics and even a few in the temperate zones, this park is considered to possibly be the most diverse.  At lest 10 species of monkey (maybe 12).  At least 100,000 kinds of bugs in just one or two square miles.  An array of plant life that thrives in the branches of forests so diverse themselves that learning the species of the trees is nearly impossible, there are as many different genuses as I’m used to seeing species.

Follow me down this logic chain: when I mentioned millet a few weeks back, I talked about it coming from central Africa.  There is millet all over the world, I explained, but here is where there are the most different varieties (wild and domesticated) gather themselves.

The underlined sound is the phoneme being called out by the Secret Code of Linguistic Nerds

When Perreault and Mathew study the evolution of language around the world, they track the phonemes (sounds. S is a letter, ssss is a phoneme, sshhhh is a different phoneme).  The number of phonemes in a language tracks pretty well with the archaeological evidence of the migration pattern (and speeds!) of ancient humans leaving Africa to spread throughout the world.  The idea of tracking migration this way has some naysayers and some doubters, but the gist of the idea that I’m interested in here is Continue reading

A 2nd Dust Bowl? The Southern Ogallala is about tapped out.


I like a good read that gets me thinking for a good while, and the recent Christian Science Monitor article – “Southern Great Plains Could Run Out of Water in 30 Years, Study Finds” – definitely fit that bill.  The article fits into a long thread of intrigue for me about how aquifers work, different types of aquifers, and the past and future implications of the different rates of infiltration.  It also slips into the murmur of voices getting nervous about another Dust Bowl like that of the Great Depression in the 1930s.  Mechanics first, history second, then the dust bowl.

How Aquifers Work

Aquifers are large underground bodies of water.  In the diagram to the right, there are three blue bands.  Why the middle one is blue, I have no idea.  The upper blue band is free-flowing groundwater.

When folks talk about pesticides or lead or natural gas or what-have-you getting into the groundwater supply, they are generally talking this groundwater, actively water cruising through the spaces in the soil.  It is this upper limit of this water Continue reading

Berms, Bunkers, Blueberries, and Bazookas: courses I thought I’d take in grad school

At the time that I applied for grad school in Landscape Architecture, I was working as a freelance graphic artist in the DC news bureau scene, where – no surprise – no one had heard of “landscape architecture”.  It was the early 2000s.

I’d had the miraculous and magical foresight to land in the news graphics world in December of 2000.  Though I missed the full furor of Ariel Sharon’s waltz through the Temple Mount, my first year included the attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon (the later of which I was driving by on a fairly regular basis), the Lockerbie Scotland plane hijacking trial (Pan Am 103), and the anthrax attacks. It wasn’t long before

Continue reading

Live models: learning by doing

trilux by nataly gattegno and jason kelly johnsonI went to a lecture Friday night by Nataly Gattegno of Future Cities Lab. This is a very forward thinking firm, developing analytic, responsive structures (“live models”) that trod the line between performance art by an object and art installation as feedback loop.  You didn’t even know that line existed, did you?

FCL began working with robotic elements in their architectural models at least a decade ago, looking to move their models beyond just visual depictions of project proposals.  In a live model, the miniature building is not a model (‘fake’) building, it is a miniature model (‘ideal’) object.  For a live model, the shade Continue reading

Link to Action Bioscience

I’m still working on technical issues (one computer dead, a different computer being revived) here, and thus have little access to online time, but here is another link that  you might enjoy:  Designing a Landscape for Sustainability.

This was my first peer reviewed article.  It appeared a little over a year ago in Action Bioscience, the online journal of the American Institute of Biological Sciences.  Their print journal, Bioscience, has been a revered source in the scientific community for quite a while.  ActionBioscience takes these ideas online, for everybody but especially for science teachers and science students.

Food Forest for Thought: Seattle moves permaculture public

Something to entertain you while I’m checking into the MOSES conference and circling all 38 workshops I want to squeeze in the next two days (zut alors!  What’s an eco-nerd to do?)

permaculture edible park edible garden seattle food forest

Food forest design by Margaret Harrison (et al)

An idea whose time has clearly come: Not only does FB friend Bob L. say that Tampa, Florida is getting ready to break ground on a food forest (in partnership with Hillsborough Community College’s Sustainability Department), but Seattle, too, is ready to do the same.

7 acres in the Beacon Hill neighborhood are about to undergo a transformation from generic public park to public food forest, a concept rooted in permaculture but now being taken into the public sphere. Hundreds of perennial edibles will be available for anyone and everyone in Seattle to browse.

While a sizeable chunk of the public discussion around the project (and there was lots of public discussion, in multiple languages) centered around access and who gets the food, ultimately the needy and the speedy were Continue reading

Book review of The Tree: A Natural History of What Trees Are, How They Live, & Why They Matter
by Colin Tudge

The best non-fiction books, to me, have a story line, a focus from which they deviate on a regular basis.  Roger Fouts’ Next of Kin fits that bill, and so does  Colin Tudge’s remarkable book, The Tree.

This is, with out a doubt, the coolest narrative on trees ever produced.  It’s a naturalists delight, covering the form, function, and evolution of trees in general, and then focusing in specific tree families in roughly evolutionary order.

On occasion,  I skipped around in it in my own private “choose your own adventure” game, but the book reads well as Mr. Tudge presented it.  In talking about trees, he manages to detour into, amongst other things, horticulture, genetics, phylogeny (the study of how things are organized in science), and the break up of Pangaea:

“The continents are still drifting. Perhaps in a few million years, Australia Continue reading