I love thinking about land use and talking about gardening. It would be a laugh to say I’m taking these things more seriously, but I am getting paid to do them, now. The dire stresses on our society, health and environment from corporate food systems compel me to help start small organic farms and share my 40 years of ridiculously stupid gardening mistakes, and here is how I go about it.

After sniffing the air and glancing around a new farm, I sit down and interview the landowners. They are the most important part of land use. I save walking the farm for later, but first I need to get to know them and what they want.

I may ask “Why are you incarnated on earth now?” in an effort to draw out a mission statement. Before I can help them achieve their dream, they have to verbalize it. We will discuss the belief systems they rely on for their decision-making, so the base care values that will dictate land use surface.

Specific goals become apparent as we work our way to a vision of the land ten years from now. A list is formed of likes and dislikes, which will help us keep their quality of life in mind. Finally we picture the other people involved, their present and future resources, and what they want to produce from the land. Now lets walk.

The land has been used for many centuries. Native Americans ringed unproductive trees, so the Eastern Hardwood Forest contained mostly mast-producing species like oak, chestnut and beech. They also cleared land for crops. European settlers cut down the forests and made pastures for livestock and much more cropland. Thinking about land use has been going on for a long time.

Most forests are whatever is left after several removals of the best lumber. I observe the prevalent plant growth and not non-native invasives running amok. I usually explain how to rid the woods of poison ivy, which is by cutting the hairy vines off of the trees. Possible woodland crops are Shiitake Mushrooms, or herbs like ginseng, golden seal and black cohosh.

Most pastures are under grazed, an unusual concept for many new owners of land. Soils are formed from grass plants being grazed and then resting without grazing. Too much of either destroys the soils productive capacity. If the farm has cleared land, it needs cattle. Their proper management supplies the fertility necessary for the whole farm.

Most garden spots are compacted, and now we discuss soil tilthe. Again, it is the grass plants that create good tilthe, it cannot be done by tillage. We till in a way that destroys the tilthe as little as possible. A rototiller is the worst, and most common, implement. I much prefer plowing slowly for preserving soil structure.

As we study the plants, nutrient deficiencies become noticeable. Remineralization will likely be required, so we look for sources of lime, rock phosphate, granite meal and other rock dusts. I’m a fan of kelp and I love compost. Manure, leaf mold, rotten wood chips and old hay can be found and used to improve the biology on the farm through composting.

I often recommend utilizing the neighbors’ cattle, tractor and organic matter. Let them run their livestock on your land, and manage hay fields, in return for some old manure and plowing your garden. A few baskets of tomatoes later on will sweeten the deal.

We’ll have to fence out deer, and think about other varmints. Looking at slope, aspects and sunshine, we’ll pick spots for an orchard, berries, vegetables, flowers and cold frames. After considering bees, chickens and larger livestock, I’ll try to talk them out of horses. Markets, machinery, buildings, labor and management may not be as fun as gardening, but it would have behooved me to think about them long before I did. I want to shorten the long learning curve (and wrong turns) I’ve traveled on.

I follow up with more thoughts in a week or two, and continue to help when needed. Introducing them to books, people and organizations, I try to draw them into the circle of new age, old time farmers who are changing the way we look at food and land use.

Gardening is fun to teach, because people really want to learn about it. They ask a lot of questions as I discuss minerals, tillage and biology. Varieties, mulching, weeding, insects and many other topics and techniques get covered. By building up our soil humus, we’ve grown 5 to 8 acres of vegetables with no irrigation for decades, and I love sharing and learning with others.

Let’s fill up Middle Tennessee with organic and biodynamic farms and gardens for better health, meaningful work, and a clean environment. Although becoming a “local food” town, Nashvillians probably get less than 2% of their diet from local organic farms, we are on the right track and still have a long way to go.

Human nature has the interesting characteristic of an inevitable ability to overcomplicate simple issues.  For example, I could have just said “people make things too complex.” Working with mother nature is so easy that it baffles our minds. I see this often as I consult with other gardeners.

In an urban backyard, a lady has six raised beds, about two feet tall. The plants could be healthier, and I asked about the soil. “It is pure compost,” she said. It looked like undigested organic matter to me.

“Where did you get the ‘compost’?” I asked. “I bought bags of it at the store,” she replied. I felt it and could tell it did not have life. Further inquiry revealed no soil had been used at all.

At this point I dug a hole nearby. As I suspected from the abundant white clover, her soil was naturally rich bottomland, just compacted. I loosened it up, added a bit of sand and her “compost,” and had something plants would love to grow in. A hole dug further down from the house turned up gorgeous soil.

Composting is both a breaking down process and a building up process. The end result is a stable, humus-clay complex capable of holding nutrients and moisture that are slowly released as plants need them. Mother nature is an expert composter.

When left alone, an appropriate amount of fallen leaves, along with other organic materials, gets mixed with the waste products from animals and lays upon the soil. Carbonic acid forms when it rains and dissolves minerals from the rocks.  This results in a beautiful topsoil.

Much of what clients show me as compost has not broken completely down. Bits of wood chips and leaves will rob nitrogen from the soil to continue their decay. This will cause plants to be yellowish and unhealthy.

The building up process requires microbes. Good compost feels silky and soft, and smells like forest soil. Adding good compost to a new pile insures the presence of these microbes, which can then have families and colonize their new home. They need air, moisture, and a few months to build up a stable humus.

The lady spoken of earlier then showed me her composter. It was a plastic bin that can be turned with a handle, and inside it was her kitchen food scraps. Composting was not happening- no soil, air, water, or microbes. I would be much more simple to dig a trench in her beautiful soil and put the kitchen scraps in it every day and kick a little soil over them.

Mother nature teaches us to slowly decompose organic matter. Let life processes arise out of the death and decay processes. We do not need bags of “compost,” which can contain toxic poultry litter, un-rotted wood chips, and products of uncertain quality. We do not need two-foot tall beds, which will have to be watered a lot, or plastic compost digesters. Let’s enliven our soils with good compost, and not confound things. Keep it simple.

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