Experimental Homestead

Manure Mats

manure mat header

Preface-like paragraph:  I have, over many years and with a lot of intention, slowly come to see the world around me as a sort of resource-scape, that is, as a world of potential resources.  This can extend to people and ideas as well as physical objects and also phenomena of energy, like wind, or sun, or the action of an animal.  Having made a pretty intense study of primitive technology as well as of other subsistence paradigms, I’ve been impressed deeply by the fact that different groups of people, given similar environments, or even the exact same environment, will do completely different things there and live very different lives.  While we are guided by our environments, we are also very much guided by our cultural influences and what we know, or just as importantly what we think we know is and is not possible.

 So?  As a result of this perspective of resource consciousness, I tend to walk around constantly looking for unseen or undervalued potential that could be harnessed to make life better, more sustainable, or to make work more efficient and certainly a little just to keep myself entertained!  While this view has resulted in way more ideas than I have energy to experiment with or turn into functional realities, having that view does serve me decently well sometimes.  I’ve noticed in the garden that there are numerous resources that are underexploited and can be micromanaged into great usefulness.  One of my main influences in this area is Farmers of Forty Centuries.  It is a long, boring ass, pedantic book from the 40’s that is probably a good 100 pages longer than it needed to be (kind of like this post probably…yawn…).  It is worth reading though for a few specific items of farming practice and, more importantly, the broader message of what can be done with resources that we might not even stop to think are useful in our modern society where views of work and resources are extremely skewed away from traditional ones.  The picture painted by that book makes any western gardening I’ve ever seen seem sloppy and wasteful.  We are spoiled, and that’s great in it’s way, but it blinds us to the potential around us when compared with the asian cultures in that book who really had to figure out how to make use of every resource in the most efficient way they could figure out in order to survive their high populations.  Necessity is indeed the mother of invention.  I just wanted to drop those general ideas on you before I start this specific story, because it’s somewhat relevant.

This way to geekage —>  There is a long path to get to the actual subject.  But bear with me.  The sights along the path set the context and this post isn’t actually just about one idea.  There is an idea, but it could be summed up in a few paragraphs. But that idea evolved in a context which has specific real or perceived problems, and that context has other lessons and provides a framework for learning about the world we live in (or at least the one I live in!).  And, there is more to glean than the end point idea, which after all is not an end point at all, but just part of a long evolution.  It may be a good idea for me, while it may fail you utterly or be totally irrelevant to your life and work; but if we view it in a larger picture, we have more places to go from here and may find modifications, or other uses and ideas branching off of this one.  So hang with me if you want to, or just go read the last couple of paragraphs.

The Pee era.  I used urine as a fertilizer for over 10 years.  At first I used it cautiously, but as my unfounded fears about the idea dissolved, it became the staple fertilizer.  Suffice to say that it basically solved my fertilizing problems.  A while back, doing farmer’s markets finally started to become a feasible reality.  I can’t plan well enough to grow just how much I need, so there is always a lot of surplus, and it’s great to get something back for my work and prevent “waste”.  But in order to start going to market, I had to stop using pee as a fertilizer for both ethical and presumably legal reasons, and so began a transition period.


Peerigation is awesome, but it had to go… :(

Transition.  Pee really had solved almost all of my fertilizing needs.  The use of compost has always continued, but differently than I had used it up until moving to Turkeysong (more on that below).  The compost is very useful as a fertilizer, but I in no way produced enough from kitchen and garden scraps here to keep everything in a large garden growing really well.  Compost is an okay fertilizer, but rarely high enough in nitrogen to keep things really pushing vigorously through the season.  Thus the pee.  It was a semi-closed system and I learned a lot.  But, with the new no pee garden, I now had a fertilizer problem.  Chickens made a showing at a fortuitous time and there is now a thriving flock that is reproducing itself.  They eat the food waste from the kitchen of a local hot springs resort along with whatever they can scratch up around the place.  They poop a LOT!  Most of it ends up all over the yard, and many times a day right on the door step.  They are super poopers!  Most of it dries up in the yard somewhere, but the new chicken coop has a screened false floor with a solid floor below that.  So, the droppings, after falling through to the lower floor, which is well ventilated, dry out and can be accessed from both ends by scraping them out.  It’s a pretty good system.  No climbing into a crowded coop to awkwardly shovel out caked bedding from under the roost while breathing poo and feather dust.  Yeah, right?  Most people with chickens have been there and would rather not have been.  Lately I’ve been feeding them their buckets of food scraps in the evening, so that they digest and poop all night in the coop.  That’s the idea anyway.

Chicken Pee.  So, I now have a fertilizer supply that I can use on my market garden.  The chickens collect and concentrate nutrients into a reasonably convenient form and I can collect a bunch of it from the coop.  Chickens are designed efficiently.  They use the same hole for sex, egg laying, pooping and peeing, everything except eating and breathing.  But of course they don’t actually pee at all.  We pee out the vast majority of our nutrients, but with chickens it all comes out in one package.  So, I really am still using pee, just dessicated chicken pee!  I don’t have an endless supply, but I hope with careful use, and augmentation from other resources I have access to, I won’t have to import much of anything to keep the garden going; which would make me happy since I like to keep imports low.  I’m also very hesitant to bring in manures from the outside as they almost inevitably have some seeds of weeds which I don’t yet have here in this somewhat remote location.

chicken poo.  A common sight at turkeysong.  Good stuff when it's not on your shoe.

Chicken pee.

No dig, dig?  Another part of this whole picture is that when I moved to Turkeysong, I also stopped regular digging of the garden beds.  I quit digging because I was terrified of a small, root eating organism known as symphylans which had devastated my last garden.  These little suckers are a true plague.  Word on the street was that the best way to encourage the tiny centipede-like bastards was having high soil organic matter to feed them, along with a loose soil structure so they can move around easily.  Well fuck me runnin’ backwards, those two things combined just happen to be the two holy grails of organic gardening dogma that I’d been trying to achieve for years!    Take home point, I didn’t want to dig in tons of undigested organic matter anymore.  I tried that in my last garden when I experimented with seriously adopting the bio-intensive method, which means lots of deep digging, and digging in lots of compost.  It didn’t work out so well.   The symphylans population exploded.  It was also (biointensive propaganda notwithstanding) a ridiculous amount of work.  Your mileage may vary.

The evils of soil crusting >:(  Now this bit is really important to my story.  Soil crusting has always been one of my major problems in gardening.  When the soil structure is damaged by watering and cultivation, it crusts over when watered or rained on, sealing off the surface and preventing the exchange of air.  Crusting also forms a barrier to water penetration making watering, inefficient and wasteful due to run off.  Sometimes it seems to make watering almost impossible, yet the more you water, the more crusting occurs, drats!  Furthermore, compacted soil is a pathway for water to travel up from below and be evaporated back into the atmosphere.  It’s basically like a wick for removing water from the soil.  These problems are really frustrating and have been an issue in virtually every soil I’ve worked with, from sandy loam to clay.  Honestly, I’m surprised soil crusting doesn’t get more play, as to me is seems like a key problem.

Organic matter my ass.  One commonly proffered solution to crusting is to increase soil organic matter content.  I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that’s bollocks.  It’s not that it doesn’t work at all (you’ll see that it actually works for me presently), but I’ve never seen it work well when digging compost in, except when the organic matter content is quite high, which really entails digging in an enormous amount of compost… enter symphylans.  That also usually means basically buying or composting a whole shit ton of something to build a soil that has a huge proportion of organic matter.  Otherwise, dig the bed once and you pull up subsoil to the top, and you’re back to crusting.  That’s my experience anyway.  Also, exposing organic matter to oxygen allegedly increases oxidation ultimately lowering organic matter, or it’s at least a losing battle.

Cultivation, is it really evil?  The other solution to soil crusting is good old cultivation.  That’s the typical solution and seems almost essential in large scale agriculture.  Cultivation loosens the soil to break capillary action, stopping evaporation.  It can also kill weeds and allow water to penetrate the surface.  Problem is, the more you cultivate the more you smash the soil into fine particles (dust) and the more easily it crusts again when watered.  So, you have to keep doing it.  You ideally want the top 4  to 6 inches or so of soil to be almost dust-like for the best moisture saving effect.  Negative press aside, it’s not always the evil system it’s sometimes made out to be and has a place.  I used regular cultivation the first year I was here and I was amazed at how far I could go between waterings if the soil was re-cultivated as soon a possible after watering and without fail.  It was one of the best gardens I ever grew, though not just because of thorough cultivation.  I’m not sure I’m done with cultivation gardening, and I just see it as a tool in the tool kit, though I have to admit, it seems somewhat less than friendly to the concept of soil building and probably a somewhat shoddy way to treat the land longterm.


The first year garden at Turkeysong was cultivated religiously after every watering to break up soil crusting and form a water conserving dirt mulch.  It worked great, but it was quite a bit of work and not a lot of room for procrastination.

Mulch is god!  I knew I had to solve the problem of soil crusting, and if I didn’t want to cultivate extensively, that left mulch.  Mulch is GOD!  Right?  Just ask Ruth Stout, or a young and enthusiastic mulcher.  Get in with a real mulch enthusiast with limited experience, and you’d think all your problems will be solved forever and that we are all just a few bales of straw and some lawn clippings and leaves away from solving all the problems of horticulture and maybe beyond.  Combine mulching with gogi berries, biochar, blue green algae,  perennial vegetables, and ducks and there’s no stopping perfect plant and human health and “no work” food production!  Ok, I’m being a dick, but we deserve it.  It is so tempting to see something as having the real potential to just sort of “fix” everything.  I know well enough, because I’ve been that eager inexperienced mulch promoter.  Most of these fairytale happy ending stories we tell ourselves have at least a grain of truth, and often much to offer us if we can actually see, or more often after we inevitably see through experience, the limitations and pitfalls that are not visible in the theoretical realm, and which we don’t really want to see anyway.  Mulch is not god.  It changes the landscape in ways that are often very useful to us and to the health of the soil.  It’s effects are sometimes super awesome.  I’m a big fan and semi-regular practitioner, but some of those changes can conflict with our food producing and land care goals.  Creating habitat for voles and insects came to my mind as particular problems in considering deep mulching for my garden.  It’s bad enough in any garden where there is always some habitat for insects.  Deep coarse mulch can create a veritable pest metropolis from which an army of insects can march a whole few inches to chow down on your carrot seedlings, or in which voles can find the rodent equivalent of mcdonalds  playland to move into, complete with a food supply… weee!  I do use deep mulch, and what I might call semi-deep mulch, here and there, but experience had already taught me that if I used it in the entire garden, I would have considerable negative issues to deal with.  That may vary by environment, but enough said there.  I’d also be out collecting the stuff all the time, because it takes a ton of material to do deep mulches in a large garden.  That reason alone is enough to scrap the idea.  No thanks Ruth.

Works pretty good.  My eventual solution, partly influenced by some no dig gardener/writers, was to use finished compost as a mulch.  Since I would be composting food waste and garden stuff anyway, and didn’t want to dig it in, this seemed like a good solution.  I’ve used all my compost on the surface of the beds for something like 6 or 7 years now.  It works pretty good for me.  I don’t have as much as I want.  Each time I plant something new it gets a sprinkle of compost, usually almost enough to cover the bed surface visually, so under 1/2 inch thick.  Some washes away with runoff when I water, and I still get quite a bit of crusting.  But overall, for my system and my soil, gardening style, and so on… it’s been pretty good.  I do have to cultivate some when crusting gets bad enough in an area (usually due to running short on compost, loss during watering, rodents helping me do some digging, or having had to dig the area recently for harvesting roots and weeding).  I use a hula hoe (aka strap hoe, stirrup hoe, reciprocating hoe, scuffle hoe) for cultivating, generally trying to slice below the soil an inch or so leaving the top relatively undisturbed.  I wish I had more compost, but I get by.  I sift it through a half inch screen and throw all the big stuff back into the next batch.  That puts a lot of half digested material on the beds, and I prefer it that way, because larger bits of stuff cover the soil better.  I’m kind of bummed if the compost gets so finished that most of it is very fine and not recognizable as pieces of plants and stuff, because it doesn’t do the main job I need it to as well as it would if it was in bigger pieces, and it washes away more easily.  I also sometimes use coffee grounds picked up at a coffee shop in town, which adds to the effect and contributes quite a bit of nitrogen.

Soil layers.  The compost makes quite a difference in crusting.  One thing I’ve noticed, is that since I don’t dig regularly, the organic matter stays in the top layer of soil.  It doesn’t just stay on the surface.  Worms come up and grab pieces pulling them underground.  moles voles and gophers do plenty of digging for me and I have to plant, harvest and occasionally cultivate.  But a lot of it stays in the top inch or two of soil.  I’ve noticed that even when I do get crusting, it is not as bad as it could be, and is somehow still permeable to water and air relative to the crust that forms on a dug soil.  That’s because this top layer is quite high in organic matter, which builds up over the years.  This effect simulates a natural soil profile more closely than a cultivated soil does.

Artificial, but how artificial?  But, a garden is not a natural environment!  My symphylans problem in my previous garden highlighted that fact.  What I am after is an artificial environment that can pump up the plants to realize the potential bred into them through the ages to grow plump and juicy.  But, I want that effect, without upsetting the balance so much that I create some unintentional problem that is going to bite me in the ass (in a bad way ;).  Mulching with compost seemed like a good solution.  I really could use more of it.  I’d like to make more compost.  Materials are abundant.  I live on 40 acres of mostly forest, and organic materials supply is not an issue!  There is also plenty of seed free green grass to collect in season.  Any farmer out of that super boring book Farmers of Forty Centuries would be appalled at the lack of use of the resources available to me.  But alas, energy is in short supply and I do have other things I want to do, like compulsively writing blog posts for hours and hours.  Besides, like I said, it works pretty good the way I’ve been doing it.

Chicken pee tea.  So, were getting close to my simple, but really cool idea (close is relative).  Since I don’t dig the garden beds (see footnote *) my options are to use my chicken manure on top of the beds, or use it as a tea.  Both work well and have advantages, and I’m using both currently.  I’ve been sifting the dry chicken manure and applying the fine siftings to the beds.  That works nicely and contributes to the prevention of soil crusting.  As the bed is watered and bugs and worms and microbes do their work, the nutrients leach into the soil over time.  Direct application has it’s advantages, but manure tea also has advantages.  Being full of soluble nutrients, manure tea gives a quick boost when it’s wanted.  It can also be applied very evenly for efficient use.  Using soluble fertilizers in general provides the potential to keep plants growing strongly with regular applications through the growing season.  Soluble v.s. non soluble fertilizers is a whole can of worms, but I like to use both and it works for me.

Tree mats.  I make manure tea by soaking the poo in water and then straining it out.  The tea is diluted and then applied straight to the beds/plants and usually watered in immediately.  Applications of course stop some time before food is harvested.  I usually leach the manure 2 or 3 times over the course of some weeks before it is pretty spent.  When I’m done I have this wad of left over half digested manure.  I used to throw it in the compost.  I had an idea a while back.  I’m not sure if it’s at all practical for home production, but I have no doubt that the actual product would be pretty awesome once made.  The idea was to make a sort of paper mat out of manure and pulped up cardboard and other fiber stuff like that.  It would be a large, thick, probably circular mat for mulching trees. You could incorporate all kinds of fertilizers and nutrients and nutrient containing stuff in there like seaweed, bone meal, etc, which would leach out and feed the tree over the years.  It would also provide a moisture conserving mulch and eliminate competition for a few years if it was thick and durable enough.  It could be a good use for all that cardboard and paper filling dumpsters everywhere.  Practical to make or not, I’m convinced that it would be completely awesome, solving a bunch of problems in one item and allowing the quick establishment of trees with very little work and in many cases without watering, even in our dry summers.

We made it!  It occurred to me at some point that I could make tree matts with my manure left over from making tea, but of course it’s probably too involved to actually do here practically speaking.  I would need an outboard motor or the like to mix it all up.  Besides, there isn’t enough manure.  So, I just mixed the chicken poo sludge with water to form a sort of slurry and dumped it out onto a bed.  With a little watering, the half digested slurry spread out pretty evenly, forming a solid mat of slow release fertilizing mulch!  It’s true that much of the nutriment has been leached out, but some remains too and much of it locked into the undissolved organic matter.  This method covers the soil almost completely if applied generously enough.  It drastically slows evaporation compared to a compost mulch only bed, but won’t wash off at all.  It provides food for worms and other bug dudes who work near the soil surface, opening the soil texture to allow penetration of air and water.  It feeds the plants slowly, and also initially through a dilute, but still very substantial manure tea effect.  It of course protects the soil from watering and rain.  And, it provides organic matter as it breaks down into fine bits and is slowly incorporated into the top layer of the soil.  It uses the product of a process that is already underway, so there is no “extra” preparation work except stirring.  It is easy to apply.  The effect is durable; it’s thick enough to provide a substantial effect, but not so thick as to make deep multilayered habitat for an army of insects; so, it seems a good compromise between creating bug habitat and thoroughly covering the soil.  It just seems pretty awesome!  It doesn’t work for everything.  I don’t use it on small seedlings.  I couldn’t use it on carrots because it would just bury them.  But it works great for larger plants such as squash, tomatoes, peppers, cole crops etc… and it seems ideal for onions and leeks.  Burning plants is a non issue since it is already pretty well leached by the time I’m using it.  I’ve been playing with this a bit for a few years, but now that I have to use a lot of manure tea, and have a lot of manure, I have more of the slurry to use and have applied much more this year.  I’m pretty sold on the idea, though still have an eye open to the possibility of unforeseen issues cropping up.  I’ve also used horse manure, which worked great, maybe even better because of all the pieces of stringy fiber in it.


adding a little water to the sludge


A paint stirrer on a cordless drill is pretty handy to mix the stuff up, but a stick works pretty good too.


Newly planted potato onions bedded in a cozy blanket of manure sludge.


a couple weeks later.  Looks happy.


A dried area of matt.  not only does it prevent rain and irrigation water from pounding the soil surface into a crust, but the soil underneath becomes extra loose and friable.

The beginning of the end.  Like I said, this doesn’t have to be an end to the evolution of ideas.  Our accumulating knowledge, our input from other people, our observations of all kinds of things, an ever deepening understanding of the habitat we live in and modify, an ever increasing awareness of the resources available to us and the idea that there are more that we haven’t yet recognized, and maybe most of all, an awareness of the utility and beauty of the potential that exists to combine all these things into functional systems, can all come together to form a foundation for success in adapting to the places we’ve landed in and come to call home.  These ideas are very much at odds to most of what passes for modern life.  Creatives, entrepreneurs, and many others do use this kind of thinking in the habitat of modern civilization, but many have no need in the paint by numbers lifestyles made available to us by industrial life.  That doesn’t fly so well when you are trying to bring forth some kind of living on the land from available resources.  Our lands and ecologies are unique and changing entities.  They have their own characters which change with the seasons, over time, and with our inputs and the consequences of our habitation, intended or otherwise.  This post has been largely an excuse to talk about those ideas and the specific ideas and things that I do surrounding, and leading up to this one simple expedient, which solves some problems that I face.  Should you run out and find some manure and start using manure tea so you can have some slushy poop to dump on your garden beds so that you don’t have to dig and will have awesome soil that brings forth giant leeks flushed with the color of life giving nutrients?  I don’t know.  Maybe.  Okay, probably, but that’s not really the point.  The point is more that we can benefit from being aware that there are almost limitless possibilities, and be open to the evolution of integrated ideas that can lead to systems that work for our goals, lifestyles and resources.

The end of the end.  I hope someone made it all the way through, and that this rather long discussion has been of some use in promoting, or reinforcing, some useful general concepts as well as offering some more directly practical information that might be of use to you and your situation.  Tips and tricks are great, but I’m more and more convinced that our broader philosophies and beliefs can be the real impetus for our “success”.  They form a foundation for our goals and inspiration, the choices that spring forth from the values we decide that we want to embody, and ultimately the specific things we manifest.  They even largely define what we think success even IS.  Specific systems can be shared out among us, but life on the homestead is not paint by numbers and a particular idea or method might serve as much or more as a stepping off place or stimulant of new ideas than something to be directly adopted.

(* footnote re: not digging beds: I rarely dig beds, but I’m not religious about it or anything.  If a bed gets compacted I dig it, and I am trying a little digging prep for carrot beds to see if I can get the uniform roots the farmer’s market customers want (edit: It didn’t help.  No real difference between carrots in dug and undug soil here).  I do really try to avoid actually turning the soil over, unless I’m trying to work in some permanent amendment very deep, like when digging in biochar.  I know people who are terrified of digging or turning the soil at all though, which just seems silly.)

March 2, 2014 - Posted by | Garden Stuff, Uncategorized | , , ,


  1. This reminds me of something I read in a permaculture something or other spot about traditional Mexican farmers grabbing the waste left behind by the floodwaters when there were heavy rains. You’d get a mat of fairly fertile stuff and you either planted an off-season crop in the floodplains where the stuff collected or you picked it up and moved it to your farming spot.

    I’m sure you get the gist.

    Comment by c. | March 2, 2014 | Reply

  2. Hey, Steven.

    I made it through, and I’m glad that I did. I like learning more about how your head and your garden work. I will try some manure mats in my garden.

    This post puts me in mind of Wendell Berry’s exhortation that those of us who are trying to find solutions to complex problems having to do with natural systems need to cultivate “an ignorance-based world view.” In other words, we need to realize that what we don’t know about the world is much greater than what we do know. Les Jackson at the Land Institute put together a conference based on that presumption ten years ago, and wrote a great essay about it, which is available here: http://www.landinstitute.org/vnews/display.v/ART/2004/10/03/42c0db19e37f4.html. Check it out. And keep it up!

    Comment by Michael G. Smith | March 2, 2014 | Reply

    • Thanks Michael, that article is cool. Pretty intellectual, I’ll have a read it a few more times, but it dovetails with some ideas I’ve been having. I’ve noticed that decisions are often made by scientists and those that rely on them, such as doctors and policy makers, to go more on the assumption that we know a lot, but results often indicate that knowledge based decisions are not always the best way to go. In medicine they call it evidence based medicine. it’s not a bad idea except that it assumes way to many things that are probably not true, and in fact have been shown not to be true. For one, it assumes that the social mechanism that produces the “evidence” has actually produced accurate information. And that includes of course assuming that self policing (peer review) is effective. Then it arrogantly assumes that it can take that piece of information and apply it to a complex human in a dynamic complex environment and “fix” them. Worst probably, is that it’s a mindset which rejects other types of information as irrelevant. My personal experience, and the experience of many others, is that you can feel utterly awful and look terrible and doctors will often just rely on test results and what was fed to them in JAMA clinging desperately to the standard of practice, while ignoring the patient. Good medicine has to be many parts, if not mostly, art and intuition. I just went to a doctor and she wanted to know if I was eating a healthy low fat diet, assuring me that if I ate cholesterol, my cholesterol levels would rise and clog my arteries. There are mountains of information that have been produced on this subject. There are people that say that almost none of that evidence validates the dietary cholesterol theory of heart disease. Of course others, including almost all doctors still, will cling to it and make it the standard of practice. Information is interesting, but where did we even get lost into thinking that any of that is more relevant than the fact that massive cholesterol consumption pre-dates the epidemic of modern cardiovascular disease?! Seriously, WTF? Recognition of that piece of information alone should have saved jillions of dollars in research and time wasted and probably untold lives. The big question to me is why are we so stupid. Why have I ever given any credibility to, lets say that particular idea, at all. I’ve never really bought it, but I’ve certainly though better of living largely on cheese before because of it’s prevalence. If we can answer the question of why this kind of thing happens then maybe we can figure out how to fuck shit up less and come up with systems and approaches which place functionality and the most basic relevant observations first, and relegate most information to what it is, which is at best a weak and possibly erroneous, generally out of context symbol of reality that we may or may not be able to parse with all of the other information we have populating our minds. Information and even “knowledge” are not reality. If we build forests of information so dense that we can’t see out, that becomes the world we work in and few of us are equipped to navigate so much information effectively and critically.

      Science has a place, and so do large amounts of information, but I feel that we should be increasingly critical of science both as a practice (which can often be very unscientific) and even as a theory. Look, I had to say “even” just to qualify a little, because the theory of science has become so vaulted and hallowed that we dareth not question it unless we’re some kind of religious lunatics or woo woo hippies! But no practice/philosophy should welcome critisism MORE than science! As an idea and philosophy, science is nifty, but it seems to assume that we are actually capable of the kind of objectivity and foresight to practice it effectively, and that the system of of peer review which is supposed to provide checks and balances is effective. I’m sure we are objective enough in many cases to produce viable results, but in other cases clearly not. I think part of the problem is that since science as a practice has to accept only certain types of information to proceed upon, if fosters a mindset of placing exaggerated value on that type of information and rejecting other types of information. I think that mindset is invading the popular mind and often overriding common sense, and once the social culture of science accepts an erroneous fact as a fact, and not as an assumption, the high priests have led us astray. But we don’t have to follow in the first place. An ignorance based world view could help humble us and curtail that trend, and could very much benefit the world of science. In fact it seems that should be the cornerstone of science, as well as management, in a best practice scenario- humility v.s. arrogance. Maybe we need to mostly allow complex systems to mostly run themselves and not assume that we can micromanage them with the little information we have. I’ve had various small pieces of information that could lead me to (and have at times lead to) fear using urine as a fertilizer, or coffee grounds, or oak leaves, or black walnut sawdust on my garden. But I’ve used them all and the systems, by all outward appearances took care of themselves just fine.

      These ideas are nebulous for sure, and I’m very open for input, but I’ve noticed a disturbing trend toward a sort of cult of science in the popular mind, fueled by gigantic amounts of information and access to scientifically produced data that intuition tells me is dangerous and careening out of control. So, it’s on my mind a lot lately, so I’m inclined to bitch about it :)

      Comment by Stevene | March 3, 2014 | Reply

  3. Always a pleasure when when your Turkeysong notification arrives. Nice job recounting your experience along the way for we more timorous souls without chicken-shit on hand. My soil expert Jill concurs with most of what you report, and as we intent to beg some horse-shit somewhere someday soon (Ha: it’s like zero degrees out and there’s two feet of snow in the woods), the slurry-pad notion is topical.
    To fill our first four raised beds our first year here, we bought a dump truck full of Antigo Silt Loam, our state soil, from a local potato farm, which has disappointed ever since: crap yield; crusting up badly, as you say. In the course of spot raking leaf in the woods each fall, our go-to material to top dress the beds, we found that raking up here and there wheel barrows of the now exposed soil of the forest floor, and layering them together over gathered rotting branches in modified “hugelkultur” style is the way we expanded to 8 beds, and now 16. In addition to bringing in earthworms, you couldn’t buy a better planting medium, if you remove a fair amount of root material to compost, as they continue to live and choke off your vegetables. We’ve got two compost piles for kitchen waste and still are short compost: we’re thinking a wood chipper might be a better idea than we thought. Biggest problem with “hugels”: it leaves air spaces for the voles underground in the beds, where the dogs now go nuts and can’t at get them. We ended up with like twenty potatoes.

    Keep pitching

    Comment by wilfredjr | March 2, 2014 | Reply

    • I haven’t done much with hugelculture. I’m more inclined to char that stuff right now and experiment with char. One cool thing about doing manure teas and the mats is that you can probably kill most of the weed seeds if you soak long enough. Since animals tend to concentrate in small areas and cause a lot of disturbance, manure often has a lot of noxious weed seeds. I don’t know how long it takes to kill which weed seeds, but I think it does kill a lot of them to rot out for a month or more. Every time I get manure in from the outside, I get some new weed. I’ve managed to kill most of them, but I prefer to import as little as possible. Something to think about. If you use pee, you probably won’t need to import manure. I sometimes used sifted forest duff as a mulch/compost. Looks like you have lots of woods. if you can spread the impact out enough, the duff can be really good stuff. You don’t want to strip mine the forest regularly though.

      Comment by Stevene | March 2, 2014 | Reply

  4. Yo Stevene-

    Nice journey you took us on there! Fun! I’m a little north of you in Southern Humboldt and have been homesteading this magical piece of land for the past 17 years. We’re also market gardeners. I think we have a similar climate, plants, animals, and soils in many ways. I got turned onto your blog a few months back and wished I had been hip to it when you first started, since I can hardly stand to go backwards and read old posts (screen-time sucks!), but way to put that obsessive-observation-of-place to worK!

    On the symphylan tip: I have also found that no-till practices and mulching with compost instead of mixing in compost helps a lot with keeping their numbers in check. My guess is that by creating too much unnatural surface space in the beds between over-tillage and excessive organic matter, they have new territory to colonize and their numbers increase. I have read that they are not strong enough to create their own tunnels and follow the passages of other soils organisms. That leads me to another assumption: that subterranean predators (centipedes, beetles, etc.) have less strategic hiding places to intercept prey if the soil is excessively disturbed. It seems that it would be much more effective for a soil predator to lie in wait in the established subterranean tunnels of undisturbed soils. (Kinda like a thug lying in wait in a dark alley alongside a city street.) Perhaps excessive tillage creates far too many places for the symphylans to hide and feed and the predators just can’t keep up?? We have one area we garden that we have done no-till for six years and there are really high numbers of soil predators in there (especially these little bad-ass light tan mini-millipedes). We have zero issues with symphylans in that plot as compared to our tilled plots.
    Another nugget of info that helped with the symphylan mystery is that Elaine Ingham told me that their main food source was fungal hyphae, and not plant roots. She claims that’s why they prefer fungal forest soils over bacterially dominated meadow soils. Perhaps too much tilling destroys their favorite snack (fungi) and they turn on our roots instead?? The last tidbit is that they seem to not like potatoes. We have been able to grow potatoes in beds that symphylans kill or weaken everything else. There also seems to be a lag in their return to plots where we have grown potatoes. Has anyone else noticed this??

    On the manure-mat tip: We have been using pond-weed-mats for the past seven summers to deal with similar soil crusting issues. We have a pond right next to our main market garden and started harvesting this beautiful green weed (unknown sp. that is like a fibrous elodea) that lives the bottom of the pond. It is covered in little aquatic pond critters, snails, fish poo, etc. We lay mats of it on the soil under a carbon mulch. (I know you’re probably cringing at the thought of slugs, sowbugs, etc.) but this pond weed experiment changed our game seriously! Bonuses all around from soil tilth, lush, green plants, water conservation, etc., etc…. The earthworms love this stuff. A 100% renewable, locally sourced resource. We also harvest cattails and chop them up with a machete and use as a mulch for annual crops and our fruit trees. I now feel that pond biomass fertility production is where its at! There’s no terrestrial system that can keep up with producing nutrient-rich biomass like that, that I know of.

    Thanks for pouring out your experimental soul into these blog posts. It has helped to make this rainy day more fun!


    Comment by Kyle Keegan | March 3, 2014 | Reply

    • Hi Kyle! I’ve not had any noticeable symphylans here yet. I’ve heard a lot of people say they often start being a problem at around 7 to 10 years into a new garden. That was about how long it took in the last garden I had. How long till you started having problems? I heard a rumor that Ecology Action got theirs under control by using less compost. not sure what they did for fertilization instead. Unfortunately, they didn’t mention that, or symphylans at all, when I did a tour there the year before my problem exploded, also concurrent with double digging in tons of compost. I just happened to get kicked out of that place the same year, so I never had to deal with trying to control them. You have some interesting ideas on them. I figured that I should do something very different, so I just stopped digging and have hoped that I’m not encouraging them in any way. I’ve heard the idea that soil fungus is their natural food. Seems plausible. I have a loam soil here, but I know most people around here have clay soils, often very heavy. I’ve often wondered how no dig works in our heavier soils out here. What is your soil like in your no dig beds? I feel like my no dig only works well with the use of soluble fertilizer, but I haven’t really tested that. Regardless, I don’t have enough compost to put on large amounts anyway I’m not totally against heavier carbon mulching in the garden and do it sometimes for some plants, but I don’t feel like it’s a very good general practice for the majority of my garden. It does have some advantages though. I use other wierd stuff, like dried crushed lettuce leaves, bay nut hulls, green grass, forest duff, onion skins and just whatever presents itself at any given time. I like my soil to be completely covered, but it rarely is. The manure mats are cool, but I don’t produce enough of that sludge to cover the whole garden or anything, so I just use it where it seems like it will do the most good.

      I unfortunately don’t have any water features here yet. It’s harder to build ponds now with so many regulations. I still hope someday to put something in though. My neighbors have pond weeds they want taken out though… hmmm…

      It can be hard to sit in front of a computer when there is so much fun stuff to do outside. I’m trying to cut down screen time, but at the same time need to be doing more of it than ever.

      Comment by Stevene | March 3, 2014 | Reply

      • Hey Stevene-

        We have two main garden plots: one near our house in the forest, and one away from the house in an open meadow area. The forest plot had symphylans immediately, (yet it took me some years to figure that out.) We ended up having to grow food in either pots placed on pallets, pots placed on used plastic bags, or “smart pots” to keep out the critters. Nonetheless, we were able to obtain a yield this way. The big-ass smart pots have worked well for some years now. Pretty saddening though to grow food in a big, petroleum-based cloth bag! Adaptation isn’t always pretty. Growing in pots isn’t nearly as fun as ground beds.

        Our other plot in the meadow has symphylans present in low numbers, but they are not a problem at all. There are just so many predators in that no-till soil. This will be our sixth year farming out there so…….maybe we shouldn’t be so cocky! Its hard for me to think they would win out there with all those little mini-centipedes and beetle larvae lurking in that healthy underworld. That meadow soil is what I would call a heavy clay loam. We fertilize those no-dig plots by growing cover crops in the fall/winter and then slash the greens in spring with a machete, and then lay the greens on the soil surface (gently massage into the top layer…fun!) and then cover with a carbon mulch: usually cattails, perennial bunch grass thatch, slashed juncus, slashed horsetails, etc, etc… For extra fertilizer we also use the pond weeds in the summer as needed, diluted urine, and used duck-poo water. The pond-weed-mats kick-ass for boosting the plant growth and correcting any sort of weird deficiency. Luckily the pond was built here in the 70′s before the more strict regulations set in. Plenty of folks still putting in ponds though.

        One last word of caution is Hugelkultur and possible symphylan outbreaks. We’ve never gone big on Hugelkultur projects but smaller ones have made for some nice symphylan habitat. I’m still open to experimenting with hugelkultur though since I like the idea.

        Off to the garden…..

        Oh yeah, I was hoping to meet you at the Boonville scion exchange but wasn’t able to make it down this year. Hope to cross paths with you at some point.


        Comment by Kyle Keegan | March 4, 2014

      • Heavy loam sounds better than the heavy clay a lot of people have to work with in this area. I’ve definitely thought better of doing hugelkulture in my garden. I occasionally will use woody debris to build up areas when terracing and such, and for filling in gullies and old skid trails, but not anywhere that I’d be doing annual gardening. Otherwise, like I said, at this point, I’m way more interested in charring a ton of stuff and experimenting with that. I have some very small centipedes that I see quite a bit in the soil, probably 1/4 inch long or so. Bigger than a symphylans though! I’ll certainly be using more mulching this year, just for moisture retention. I’ve encouraged my neighbors with a pond to view their weeds as a resource rather than just a nuisance, but I think they’d be stoked if I dredged them out of there. if I remember right, I think what they have mostly is a long one that grows kind of like feather boa kelp.

        The garden area I want to expand into is up against woods, but it is better in many other ways than my lower garden that is in a river of cold air, and pretty sloped. I’m at about 7 years in my lower garden and no sign of symphylan in terms of plant performance. I’ve never seen a symphylan in the soil either, but I haven’t been looking. I’m glad to hear that you seem to be coexisting. That’s very useful input. If you’re ever in the area, drop me a line. I’m sure we could kill a few hours talking shop! The Boonville exchange is a great event.

        Comment by Stevene | March 4, 2014

  5. I’ve tried deep mulch, double-digging, square foot gardening, tilling, broadforking, green manuring… etc. etc. etc.

    You’re totally right about how people get stuck on one system and decide THIS IS IT!!!! Really, I’ve learned from all of them and incorporate the knowledge into my various gardens. I still use deep mulch in some places, double-digging in others, etc. And I use a wheel hoe on my big field crop beds (hula hoe + bicycle wheel = awesome). Nice to find someone else who isn’t a total stickler for one method.

    Comment by Survival Gardener/David The Good | March 13, 2014 | Reply

  6. And – BTW – I’m totally going to try a manure mat.

    Comment by Survival Gardener/David The Good | March 13, 2014 | Reply

  7. dude, your rant on science warms my heart. My thoughts exactly, more eloquently put than I could’ve. My argument of “scientists are stupid! they think they know stuff!” doesn’t ever engage anyone.? But you know what I’m talking about. Not for the first time I will refer to your clever writings to fuel me. Keep up good work!

    Comment by mel | March 30, 2014 | Reply

    • Yeah, Mel, lot’s of blank stares right!? I actually think science can be very useful. We just need to keep it in it’s place and not place undue faith in it, because it’s still put into practice by fallible humans with reptilian sections to their brains, who are subject to things like bias, and mental blocks, and gigantic egos, and selective thinking, and denial, and all that kind of good stuff. I’m just afraid we’re moving closer and closer to science as religion, which could result in a world where the gold standard for setting behavior and policy is stacks of scientific studies to the exclusion of other types of information and personal experience, regardless of the results.

      Comment by Stevene | March 31, 2014 | Reply

      • You’re darn right on “science.” I love biology, botany and experimentation… but the peer-review system is a joke and the foxes run the hen house… which, incidentally, is owned by BigBizGovCorp Unlimited.

        If you listen to all the shrieking from our culture, you’d think that religion was going to destroy the world and that science will save us. Yet science run amok is much more dangerous than anything religion has ever done. Nuclear warheads… self-replicating nanotech… Agent Orange… I don’t see things like that coming out of St. Mark’s down the street.

        Humility indeed. Right there with you. “Science” contains some Pharisaical arrogance mixed with the ability to end life on the planet.

        Comment by Survival Gardener/David The Good | March 31, 2014

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