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Podcast 044 - Review of Gaia's Garden, Chapter 4

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Paul Wheaton, Jocelyn Campbell and Dave Bennett sit down to review chapter four of Toby Hemenway's Gaia's Garden, which Paul proclaims is the best chapter so far in the book. Jocelyn points out that Paul probably loved the opening quote which led them into discussing “soil” versus “dirt” and Paul points out the difference and how Toby recognizes this as well.

Paul has a lot to say about this chapter, and starts off discussing the comparative pyramid diagram that shows how if you have less soil life you have less of everything else. Paul is esctatic about the image and what it represents, and wishes he could use it as his own and put it everywhere.

Paul brings up a permies thread with two videos that could be what he considers the “video of the year”, an hour long lecture by Alan Savory describing work he's done fighting desertification. Paul summarizes the video, saying Alan compares some charts presented by Al Gore, in the Inconvenient Truth, and points out how global warming and desertification are linked – and how desertification can be reversed with elephants and other large grazing animals. Paul brings up how Alan's work has made the point that over grazing of animals hasn't created problems – that it's a myth. The second video, Greg Judy's Healed Riparian Area, goes into more detail about optimizing the systems to reverse desertification.

Paul then turns to a quote in Toby's book, and shares how Toby points out that animals play a key role in the garden despite the argument that some vegetarians and vegans share which implies using animals in the garden is using the animal inappropriately. Paul feels Toby's point is more valid and comments that regardless of whether you choose animals that can help you in the garden or not, you will have animals and wildlife present in your garden, and if you do choose to have animals in the garden there's nothing to stop you from treating those animals well, and getting the benefit of their help.

Jocelyn wants clarification on how what Paul has brought up really relates to the soil. So Paul goes into more details on how large herbivores can benefit soil and they discuss the great level of detail that Toby provides about the interactions and their roles in soil. Jocelyn is really impressed by the level of detail and how it all works, as well as the examples of the chemistry of the interactions in the soil, and how you can increase this soil life naturally, without the use of chemicals, by building mature ecosystems.

The group discuss at great length the different ways Toby describes of methods to build soil, They go over composting lasagna gardens, sheet mulching, cover crops and the pros and cons of each of them. Paul reads a quote from Toby about humus, and they continue the discussion on Toby's comments on the benefit of no-till gardens, and how there are better and more natural ways to build the soil.

The group goes deeper into the subject of composting, and whether it's worth it, in what scenarios it's useful and points out more of the downsides, and how there are better ways to build soil, which then leads the discussion (and a big sigh of relief from Paul) to the subject of hugelkultur. They discuss the power of Hugelkultur, and how Toby was ahead of his time with hugelkultur and many other topics, and why this book remains on the most popular in permaculture still today. They move on to the power of sheet mulch, discuss hay vs straw and the benefit of weeds and volunteer plants and what they are telling you.

Paul brings up the point that you need to gain firsthand experience with permaculture aspects and using studies and research when you feel like you can, but not being stuck to them if you find your firsthand experience is different.

The group finishes up discussing a few last quotes from Toby on the nitrogen/carbon relationship, where he disagrees with the notion that supportive nitrogen fixing plants only are of benefit when the plant dies. Toby gives many examples and research supporting this. The group discusses how Toby promotes diversity by planting what people consider weeds to build the soil. As a final note they briefly go over how valuable Toby's tables and diagrams are in the book.

Relevant Threads

Alan Savory on Desertification

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Was their any proof that desertification and not overgrazing is the problem? In the podcast it's just asserted. The book presumably cites scientific studies.

This runs counter to what I've read practitioners of holistic ranching say. They have many paddocks and rotate the cows even on a daily basis, noting the health of the cows and the fields using this approach.

The bison example doesn't seem a good one. The bison had literally hundreds of miles to roam so they weren't damaging one area at all. They were moving on, the equivalent of using paddocks.

If anyone knows more on this I would appreciate it.
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"Desertification" is somewhat controversial and more difficult to prove. Overgrazing and the resulting degradation is easy to observe. At some point, the damage from overgrazing is going to cause streams to run dry more often, expose soil to erosive forces, reduce evapotranspiration, lead to increased temperatures. It might even lead to reduced rainfall, depending on weather patterns in an area.

Good grazing practices (stocking levels, rotation, etc) can make a difference between ranching that is destructive and ranching that is regenerative.
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On desertification vs overgrazing: my understanding is that overgrazing is *one* of the practices that can lead
to desertification. Others practices that contribute to desertification include conventional crop farming under
intensive irrigation is a particularly damaging practice, especially in semi-arid and arid lands.; and clear-cutting
trees from forests or savanahs, again particularly in drier climates.

(Overgrazing may not be the best term to use, as so many misunderstand it, thinking that it means too many
animals are on a given piece of land; most on this forum understand that overgrazing means allowing the
animals to graze plants before they have recovered from the last time those plants were grazed.)

On making hay, I'm loathe to disagree even slightly with Paul, but in the humid east, 3 good drying days is
the more typical period we have used or seen when baling hay. IDEALLY hay is cut before it seeds, but
so few farmers do it that way in this region. UNLESS they are dairy farmers baling it for their own use.
Most who sell hay (in more decades of experience than I care to claim) seem to prefer to let the hayfields
grow longer, and get a higher yeild- of lower quality hay. Sadly, Paul, we've seen too much of that
overly mature 'virtually staw' hay. Sometimes it's because the weather has not provided a good drying
period, but too often it's because the hay is sold by the bale (tiny little bales, sometimes not much more
than 35 or 40 lbs).

Yeah. What he said. Totally. Wait. What? Sorry, I was looking at this tiny ad:
Green University by Thomas Elpel
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