Welcome to Episode 001 of the Permaculture for the Future podcast. On today’s show, we’re gonna talk about what you can expect in upcoming episodes, and we’re also going to get into the details about how you can make an ecological difference even in these challenging times. The world’s ecosystems are crashing, species are going extinct, and just about every living system on this planet is in decline, and that is incredibly sad. It’s disappointing and it’s frustrating, but what is even more frustrating is that the stories and the messages that we’re told often make it feel that there is absolutely nothing that we can do. As individuals were told that the problems are so complex that they’re best left to the so called “experts” or the “government” to solve.
While I agree that we do need some sort of policy change, I don’t think that solutions start there. They start with us with us as an individual and us working together in our local communities, because when we start to look at the world’s problems, we realize that they aren’t something that just happened overnight. No, the problems that we’re facing are the results of many cumulative and small scale choices that each one of us make. Those small scale choices then add up to small scale problems, and those small scale problems add up to larger problems. With enough of us, we’re getting to the large scale environmental issues that we have now. If we just flip that script and realize lying within that problem is the solution. The solution is us.
When we begin to make individual choices that repair ecosystems that enhanced life giving systems, we are on the road to actually making things better. We’re putting humans back as a species on this planet, much like a tree or a different animal. It’s a species on this planet. Geoff Lawton once said something along the lines of “All of the problems of the world can be solved in the garden”, and it took me quite a while to understand the complexity of that statement and to realize the full truth of what was being proposed. I think there is much to unpack here.
The small scale backyard garden actually has an enormous potential to reverse many of the problems that we are actually facing because when we realize what can actually be accomplished in our local communities, in our own backyards, or working with our neighbors, we realized that there is an enormous potential. We can look at things like food system stability. We can look at repairing the hydrologic cycle. We can even talk about reversing climate change through a garden in terms of food system stability.
We know that roughly a billion people on this planet do not have access to healthy food. They’re hungry, they’re starving. And then we look at the other side of it. You know, in places like the US, we throw away huge amounts of food. Our agricultural systems and our food systems and our distribution systems all promote waste and excess. That excess food often ends up in landfills and creates a whole host of problems there. On the other end of it, people are going hungry and people aren’t having enough good food. When we start to look at what can be done in your garden though, you realize that there is so much power in actually planting a seed or planting a start or putting in a small tomato. These basic activities of starting, maintaining, and creating a garden have such potential to transform the food system as we know it.
All of a sudden, when we take personal responsibility for our food and where it comes from when we plant those seeds in the garden, that’s meaning that we’re taking that effort off of the industrial food system, the same food system that is contributing to things like nutrient pollution in the Gulf of Mexico and just about every agricultural area around the world. It’s eliminating that potential of desertification as we’re essentially pillaging and mining. The resource is of our agricultural soils. It eliminates the problems associated with the water and the taking of water, the deep wells. All of these problems that we might associate with industrial agriculture disappear. Or, I should say, many of them disappear when we start to take that upon ourselves and plant the seeds when we garden in an organic and integrated fashion. Even if we produce excess food, it just gets cycled back into the soil. It gets cycled back into new life forms. What we don’t eat in the kitchen or the waste that we’re producing all around us, all of that organic material that often times, at least in our current industrial civilization ends up in the landfill. But at home in our local communities, we can literally cycle that back into creating more fertile soil and that fertility that we’re gaining from essentially cycling, our food scraps and lawn clippings and any waste that’s generated from organic carbon based materials back into our gardens. That means that the food grown in there is able to pull all of those minerals that it needs to thrive, not just the traditional nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus that we’ve been taught over the last 100 years is what plants need to thrive. That N P K. Those are only three plant nutrients, but plants actually need many different minerals to thrive, just like we as humans need. We need a variety of vitamins and minerals in order to be able to express our healthiest conditions.
The plants that are grown in healthy soil resist all sorts of pest. They resist all sorts of diseases. But from a straight nutritional perspective, that also means that the food that we’re growing and pulling from our gardens is more nutritionally dense. That means that we’re getting more vitamins and minerals and health from the food that we grow in our gardens than the food that we get from the grocery store. And that means a lot.
Aside from the nutritional superiority of food that we’re producing in our local gardens and communities. There’s a whole other aspect that we haven’t addressed yet when it comes to backyard and local food systems, and that is the issue of transportation. It’s been said that when you look at your dinner plate and analyze where all that food has come from between the packing houses and the farms and transporting here and there to the grocery store that our food travels in excess of 1400 miles before it ends up on our dinner plate. Now that is an incredible amount of fossil fuels that go into transporting that. That’s a lot of carbon emitted up into the atmosphere just to move food around. That is a huge amount of resource waste and inefficiency that goes into moving food around. Lots of energy in the packing, lots of extra materials, but when we shift that into our backyards or local communities, all of those problems begin to disappear. And rather than measuring our food and miles traveled, we begin to measure those in footsteps. Or perhaps we actually need a new metric or metrics.
Perhaps we should begin to measure this in. “Are we actually increasing the biodiversity of the living systems that surround us” or “Are our ecosystems increasing in diversity, productivity and just general function?” Is the water the hydrologic cycle when it rains? Does that water soak into the soil? Or does it run off carrying soil pollutants and creating problems elsewhere? This is where a garden can also have a benefit.
Now let’s get into a little bit of water in the garden. Water is one of the most important elements for life on this planet. Without water, there is no life. We need water, and all living organisms need water to thrive. It is such an important element that we’re going to devote many shows in the future to water. We’ll have discussions around rainwater harvesting gray water all around how we can maximize an increase water capacity. But today, in today’s show, we’re talking about the garden and its potential for water or, more specifically, how the garden can repair the hydrologic cycle.
We, as humans, have a terrible track record when it comes to managing water. When you look around at the built environment, we realize that just about all of our infrastructure is a little odd. It’s all designed to get rid of water. So when it rains, the water moves off of our house and out into our landscapes and off of our landscapes and into roads, and those roads move out into storm drains. They might connect up into creeks and rivers and eventually end up in the ocean or other bodies of water. So that process, that drop of water falling from sky to wherever it ends up, is sped up. And that means that we have a more pronounced drought situation in many parts of the world, where when it does rain, the water flashes through because it’s not allowed a chance to soak in. And this is really one of the beautiful and amazing things about creating our own gardens, because as we increase the fertility of our soils and when I say increase the fertility, what I’m really talking about is increasing that carbon content, that cycling of organic matter in there that’s feeding the microbes. And as those microbes begin to do their work and begin to stabilize soil, create soil aggregates and create pore spaces within that soil, that soil is actually able to infiltrate much more water.
This increase of water infiltration into the soil not only solves flooding issues, but it mitigates drought issues too because what we’re doing is we’re getting water into the soil, and once it’s underground, less of it evaporates and it’s still begins to move downhill. Slowly it might emerge in springs or creeks that begin to stabilize, and this increases the water availability for all of our local organisms for us and the rest of the living planet, so that we can generalize that as we increase the water holding capacity of our soil were actually reversing desertification. And we’re becoming part of the solution now.
One thing that I find very intriguing is that when we start to partner with living systems, living ecosystems, and organisms and all those processes that are enabling life on Earth here to flourish, when we actually work within that system, we often have benefits or begin to address problems that we didn’t even realize. So as we’re talking about repairing watersheds and repairing the hydrologic cycle, we are addressing other problems as well. What we’re actually doing is that we are increasing the capacity of life in that soil to flourish and what is life. Well, when you look at it, life is really just different forms of carbon.
So when we talk about carbon and really the big picture of where we are at on this planet with climate change, climate change is essentially just an excess amount of carbon in the form of carbon dioxide up in the atmosphere. But when you look at this planet as a whole, it’s not like we have more carbon on the planet than we ever have before. It’s just in a different form. Most of the carbon that we now have up in the atmosphere used to be in the soil, but through very poor management practices, whether it’s agriculture or industry or just the way that we’re raising livestock. For the most part, all of those have contributed to an excess of carbon that’s moved from the soil and up into the atmosphere. And this means that as we increase the water capacity and increase the amount of life availability in the soil, we can reverse that problem. It means that we can pull carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere through plants, not just trees. Trees often get highlighted as this really beneficial way. But we’re talking all plants because plants have the power.
When we look at and ask the question of, well, how did Earth as a planet keep its carbon cycle in balance? It did so by a strategic relationship between plants and soil organisms. So let’s talk about that for a second. So a tree or a shrub or a grass when it is growing. What it is doing is pulling in carbon dioxide and breaking apart that molecule to extract the carbon portion for itself and the oxygen is released back into the atmosphere. This is the miracle of photosynthesis. The carbon that a plant absorbs goes to build it structure. So in a tree, the carbon might make leaves or bark or a trunk or produce wood and lignin, but that is also not the whole story. What we have found over the last 20 years or so is that actually a lot of that carbon that that tree is drawing in is the being kept for itself. It’s actually making different types of sugars and starches and releasing them through its root system.
There are estimates that about 90% of the carbon that a mature tree is pulling out of that atmosphere is actually being put out into its root system and exuding that into the soil. The tree is feeding the microorganisms. It is feeding the fungi, the bacteria, the protozoa, the nematodes, the worms, and all of those are essentially carbon based materials. If that were not enough, the byproducts of many of those microorganisms turn out to be very long term carbon storing devices.
When we look at growing healthy soil, what we are actually talking about is sequestering carbon and this is huge. This is the future of where we’re going to go. No longer can we look at gardening or farming as just a means of producing food. We have to look at it in the whole picture, the big picture. We have to understand that there are cumulative efforts that we can gained by working and partnering with living systems. In fact, the very health of this planet relies on humans as a species being better managers of the land that we’re on and more specifically, being able to manage for the water which can manage for the carbon and manages then for the diversity.
From this point of view, we are setting up a cascading revolving door of solutions that begin to emerge just by working and partnering with nature. This is something that I find so gratifying and so important because it’s something that each one of us has the possibility to do and that each one of us can be a solution in this global problem! And as we begin to work together at the local communities and strengthen our own soils and strengthen our own hydrologic cycles and begin to sequester carbon at the local level, we begin to have global ramifications. And that is why I believe that we all need to start doing this and becoming better gardeners.
Albert Einstein once said that “You can’t solve a problem with the same level of thinking that went into creating it.” What I think he means is that we can’t follow those same patterns of the way that we’ve been working with ecosystems and expect different results. We can’t look at the problems that we have in this world and say, “Well, we’re just going to change this thing or that thing “and expect that we’re going to get big results.
We also cannot just wait for governments to do this work. The time is now we all have the ability to do something. So what I encourage you to do today, if you’re not already, is think about that impact that you can make in the world. What are your gifts? What is your skill set that you can bring to the table? How can you be of service? How can you, you as an individual, make a difference? Maybe that solution for you is starting a garden. Maybe that solution is starting to harvest rainwater or recycle gray water. Whatever it is, start because as we start locally, we build the capacity to make those changes globally. But if we don’t start, the problem’s just continue and just begin to compound.
In each future episode of this show, we are going to get into talking about solutions. Solutions to the many environmental problems that we’re facing. We’re going to talk about how each of us an individual can take action because we can’t just sit around. The beauty of action is that as we begin to move, we build momentum and move that planetary compass needle in a direction that’s more harmonious to the planet.
I hope that you’ve enjoyed listening to the first episode of the “Permaculture for the Future” podcast. If you can please subscribe to us on iTunes or wherever you get your podcasts and if you’re really feeling it, give us a review as that helps get this show out to more people and helps us reach larger audiences so that we can begin to reverse the environmental problems that are around us. The problems that we created.
Your Show Host
Josh Robinson is a father, gardener, farmer, teacher, and ecological instigator. He has over 19 years of experience in the field designing, installing, and teaching about creating ecological abundant gardens, home, farms, and businesses. Josh has been teaching permaculture to hundreds of people since 2005. He holds a Master’s Degree in Ecological Landscape Design from Prescott College.
His work has received multiple awards as well as being featured in Toby Hemenway’s Gaia’s Garden and Art Ludwig’s Create an Oasis with Greywater. Josh has started 2 permaculture based landscaping businesses including his current business, Ecology Artisans, where he designs and leads crews in installing beautiful, functional, and abundant landscapes throughout San Diego. In addition, Josh is the Director of the permaculture educational organization, The San Diego Sustainable Living Institute.
Currently Josh is working with his family and friends in developing the 17 acre permaculture designed farm and education center at Terra Corazón in Valley Center, California