Category Archives: books

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

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

Book Review: Straight Ahead Organic
by Shepherd Ogden

Straight Ahead Organic Vegetable Garden Book ReviewIf my library were on fire and I could only save a handful of books…  Straight Ahead Organic is totally on the short list.  I already told you about Tanya Deckla’s A to Z Organics, and this is another major one.  Shepherd Ogden’s clear mind has organized a complex task (growing an organic vegetable garden) into a series of highly readable chunks of information: tools & equipment, seeds & seedlings, garden soil TLC, planting & cultivation, etc.

He does one odd (to me) thing of separating “Designing the Garden” and “Planning the Garden” into two distinct but not adjacent chapters.  His distinction is spot on:  Ogden has garden design take on all the big picture stuff, the stuff that will remain the same from year to year, and planning a vegetable garden gets all the nitty gritty of crop rotation and vegetable families.  Your garden design should (eventually) become the stable body while the crop rotations simply vary the clothing. It’s just the separating of the two so completely that struck me as odd.

One of my very favorite things about the book is his tables and charts. I love his tables and charts.  This is the guy who first got me thinking of my garden crops by family, and first introduced me to the idea of sowing radishes and carrots in the same row (radishes are ready in 30 days, pull them up, et voila! your carrots are thinned.  I’ll be applying this concept quite liberally next year in my biodiversity-or-bust garden.)

In addition to the ‘vegetables grouped by families’ chart, he has a chart that clusters by season of growth, and another sorts by days to maturity.  There is valuable information in the compost and green manure charts, and his diagrams Continue reading

Book Review: The Gardener’s A-Z Guide to Growing Organic Food by Tanya L.K. Denckla

If my house were on fire and I could only grab two gardening books, one of them would be Tanya Denckla’s The Gardener’s A-Z Guide to Growing Organic Food.  (I say this even though she skipped okra*!)

A-Z Organic Food is part of the “Potting Bench Reference Book” series, and its reference book qualities are the ones I use most.

Plants: Vegetables, Herbs, Fruits

More than 200 pages are devoted to specific herbs, fruits, and vegetables.  Each one gets a basic write up and a delineation of the site conditions it needs: soil pH, cold sensitivity, light, wind, and water requirements, best propagation methods, row spacing norms, and seed germinating temperatures.  Those are the expected details, what you’d want to find in any book. This one just starts there.

Ms. Denckla offers a list of pests and diseases each crop is most susceptible to, which other crops it adores or despises being grown near, how to harvest it, how to store it post harvest, and how far in advance to germinate seeds before Continue reading

Occupied Pantry: the intersection of agribusiness, finance, and regulatory practices.

This post is in response to last Friday’s Mother Jones article “Foodies, Get Thee to Occupy Wall Street” 

Tom Philpott’s article on the consolidation of wealth and political clout in the food/ agribusiness sector has incredibly valuable information in it, but I’d like to make clearer his somewhat buried premise: the banking/finance and food/agribusiness industries have a comparable grip on public policy.  Further, while Mr. Philpott spends time arguing (not without reason) that the agribusiness situation is worse than the banking sector situation, I focus my vision slightly differently: rather fussing about the hierarchy of horror, the parallels between these industries points out that food and finance are two enormous symptoms of the same larger problem.

If we in the Occupy Movement focus solely on the banking industry without attending to how it impacts (and self perpetuates through this impact) public policy, then we will not uncover the mechanisms that allow industry in general to create imbalanced access to and influence over the executive, legislative, and judicial branches.  Looking at agribusiness is one way to keep our vision sufficiently broad.

Some background: How consolidated is agribusiness?

Start with the inputs (seeds, fertilizers, biocides [the combination of herbicides and pesticides]) (I’m using 2007 numbers)

Seeds:  Four companies own half the world’s seeds. Continue reading