By Dr. Mercola
The featured documentary, Back to Eden, reveals a simple organic gardening method that can not only transform your personal garden, but may even be part of the food solution needed on a global scale as well.
Far from being life sustaining, our modern, large-scale, chemical-dependent farming methods strip soil of nutrients, destroy critical soil microbes, contribute to the creation of deserts where nothing will grow, and saturate farmlands with toxic pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers that then migrate into ground water, rivers, lakes, and oceans.
This video really inspired me and after watching it I called my local tree cutting service and was able to get three truckloads of wood-chips dropped on my driveway for free and wheel barreled them on my landscape. The great thing about the wood chips is that they are waste and most companies will give you all you want. I plan on adding more every few months.
One important aspect I learned though is that the wood chip pile will tend to decompose rather rapidly if you don't spread it on your landscape right away. So it is best to spread the chips over a few days and not leave it in a pile. Otherwise you will wind up needing to wear a mask when you use a pitchfork to move the chips into your wheel barrel to avoid inhaling the dust..
I am convinced that Paul makes load of sense and that this is a crucial part of the equation for creating healthy soil to produce healthy plants. Wood chips seem to eliminate the need for any fertilizer or mineral supplements, reduce watering and make weeding a snap.
I hope you will overlook the religious overtones of this film if that doesn't appeal to you, because regardless of your religious beliefs (or lack thereof), the information shared still has tremendous value, and is sure to be of interest to anyone concerned with sustainable agriculture. As presented by Documentary Storm:1
"Dana & Sarah Films, a nomadic grassroots film production company, travel to Washington where Paul Gautschi has developed a revolutionary gardening technique that is estimated to cut back on the need for irrigation by up to 95 percent.
Paul is known locally as a master arborist and is now inspiring people across the nation to experiment with his gardening methods by starting their own 'Back to Eden' gardens."
Back to Eden—Nature Is Self-Sustaining
What many fail to realize is that your health ultimately depends on the health of the soil—this is what allows your food, the vegetables and fruits, to grow nutrient-dense. When soils are depleted of nutrients, the foods grown in it will be deficient in critical minerals and phytonutrients as well.
Unfortunately, that's the state of a large portion of the Earth's soils today. Clearly, the answer to correcting soils depleted of nutrients is NOT to add even more chemical fertilizers. The "magical" ingredient that maintains and maximizes soil health is actually the microorganisms living in the soil. This includes bacteria, fungi, protozoa, and microscopic roundworms called nematodes.
Far from being scourges to be avoided, microorganisms are an essential necessity for optimized plant growth. We now understand that it is the cooperation between these microorganisms, the soil's biome, and the plants' roots, called rhizosphere that is ultimately responsible for allowing the plant to absorb nutrients from the soil in which it's grown.
As discussed in the featured film, nature is self-sustaining. When left alone, the ground becomes covered with leaves and organic materials that then turn into lush compost and adds nutrients back to the soil. This top layer of organic material also shields the soil and helps retain moisture.
By imitating nature and simply covering his garden with wood chips, Paul Gautschi doesn't need to water any of his plants, even in the summer. And his garden yields plenty of large, well-formed, juicy fruits, berries, and vegetables.
While you certainly can purchase wood chips, Paul suggests contacting your local tree service to get large amounts. These are basically tree branches that have gone through a wood chipper.
They usually have to get rid of all these wood chips anyway, so you may be able to get it for next to nothing, opposed to buying bags of mulch from a gardening center. As stated by Documentary Storm:
"In these days of genetically modified organisms, leafy greens replete with pesticides, drought, fruits and vegetables that are deficient of nutrients, soil that is depleted of minerals, and a myriad of problems and side effects that have risen because of the aforementioned, Paul Gautschi seems to have an answer that almost seems too simple to believe."
Others have duplicated his efforts, reaping the same fantastic results. For example, the film also features Ronald and Sylvia Richardson, who were inspired to follow in Paul's footsteps after a visit to his garden in 2010, and the McOmber family, who have also successfully implemented his methods in their garden.
A Nearly Magical Soil Amendment, the Results of Which Will Shock You
One of the keys to a truly successful garden is to improve the microbiology of the soil. Many people don't appreciate that it's NOT the Miracle Grow you put in your garden that give you disease-resistant and nutrient-dense food, but the diverse collection of bacteria, fungi, and parasites that actually transfer the nutrients from the soil into the plant.
The Miracle Grow will supply some nutrients, but these salts actually kill the soil microbes. Although the film does not discuss this, I believe that one of the primary reasons why Paul's experiment is so successful is due to the beneficial effect on microorganism growth.
Last year, I experimented in my own garden by spreading 15 gallons of vortexed compost tea (basically compost tea that has been stirred, creating a vortex in the bucket) nearly every day for six months. Each ounce of the tea had hundreds of trillions of beneficial microbes. Since I was applying 2,000 ounces to my garden, that's a lot of microbes! While that provided some benefit, I was still disappointed with the results.
What I learned from that experience is that these microbes need a home to hang out in, live, and multiply. Without a proper home they simply die, soon after being applied... As it turns out, Biochar fits the bill perfectly. I applied about eight tons on my property and am noticing major improvements. One does not have to apply this much, but I am involved in doing a Biochar experiment. Fifty or a few hundred pounds may be more than sufficient for many small gardens.
Biochar is created by slowly burning biomass like wood chips, corn stalks, coconut shells, or any similar organic material, in a low-oxygen environment, such as a kiln. When burned this way, the carbon in the organic material is not released into the atmosphere as CO2; rather it traps the carbon and forms a type of charcoal that has a reef-like structure, which serves as a magnificent microbial home. Besides providing excellent living quarters for soil microorganisms, Biochar also has a number of other benefits, including:
- Returning much of the depleted carbon to the soil (carbon sequestration), where it can remain for hundreds or even thousands of years
- Improving overall soil quality and fertility
- Raising the soil's water retention ability
- Potentially helping to "filter" toxic chemicals in the soil, much like carbon-based water filtration systems can filter toxins out of your water
Biochar Strongly Supports Plant Growth
The introduction of Biochar into soil is not like applying fertilizer; rather it's the beginning of a process—most of the benefit is achieved through the activity of the microbes and fungi that take up residence in the treated soil. They colonize its massive surface area and integrate into the char and the surrounding soil, dramatically increasing the soil's ability to nurture plant growth.
One of the major benefits of Biochar is that it is highly stable and typically lasts for many centuries, if not longer. So it is one soil amendment that does not need to be regularly applied. In this respect, it is far superior to wood chips. As explained in a recent Ecologist2 article, research shows Biochar can more than double a plant's yield! The researchers also discovered the "how" behind this remarkable result. As reported in the article:
"They also tracked for the first time the changes in genetic expression that followed from applying biochar. The response of more than 10,000 genes was followed simultaneously, and two growth promoting plant hormones - brassinosteroids and auxins, together with their signalling molecules - were stimulated by the biochar. Professor Taylor said: 'Our findings provide the very first insight into how biochar stimulates plant growth - we now know that cell expansion is stimulated in roots and leaves alike and this appears to be the consequence of a complex signalling network that is focused around two plant growth hormones.'"
Urban Gardening Is the Answer to Many of Our Problems
There's no doubt that urban gardening and farming is an important step toward building a more sustainable food system. In fact, I've been encouraging everyone to plant a "Victory Garden" as a proactive step toward fixing our broken food system and improving your health. They are named Victory Gardens because 40 percent of the produce grown in the US during the War was in people's backyards. I really think it is possible to catalyze a similar movement for a different purpose. The new reality is that for most people, it is very difficult to obtain high-quality nutrient-dense foods unless you grow them yourself.
Food grown in your own garden is overall fresher, more nutritious, and tastes better than store-bought food—and you can't beat the price! Urban gardens are also key to saving energy, protecting water quality and topsoil, and promoting biodiversity and beautifying densely populated communities. It may even be the U-turn we need in order to rein in out-of-control rates of depression, much of which may be rooted in the feeling of being disconnected from nature, and hence disconnected from our own selves...
According to a survey by Gardeners' World Magazine, 80 percent of gardeners reported being "happy" and satisfied with their lives, compared to 67 percent of non-gardeners. Monty Don, a TV presenter and garden writer, attributes the wellbeing of gardeners to the "recharging" you get from sticking your hands in the soil and spending time outdoors in nature. This seems more than reasonable when you consider the health benefits associated with grounding, also known as Earthing. As detailed in the documentary film Grounded, the surface of the Earth holds subtle health-boosting energy, and all you have to do is touch it.
Walking barefoot on the Earth transfers free electrons from the Earth's surface into your body that spread throughout your tissues. Grounding has been shown to relieve pain, reduce inflammation, improve sleep, and enhance your well-being. Many a gardener will attest to the sense of wellbeing obtained from sticking your hands in the dirt as well, and this is separate from the pleasure of accomplishment that comes from eating your own home-grown food.
Basic Biochar Guidelines
If you're planning on starting a garden, I heartily endorse Biochar. You just need to make sure it is activated by either combining it with compost, rock dust powder, or my favorite, human urine. The urine is a phenomenal source of nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorus and will bind strongly to the carbon in the Biochar rather than draining away. The nitrogen balances the carbon in the Biochar and serves as food for the microbes, which in turn feed the plant for the long term. A friend of mine did this last year in his garden and his plants produced so many vegetables they almost seemed like mutants.
Wetting the Biochar is also important in order to promote beneficial earthworms. One 2011 study3 found that earthworms tend to avoid dry Biochar, but that wetting the char resulted in "statistically undetectable avoidance." According to the authors: "[I]nsufficient moisture could be a key factor affecting earthworm behavior in soil amended with dry biochar. To avoid desiccation of invertebrates and enable their beneficial ecosystem services, we recommend wetting biochar either before or immediately after soil application."
You can certainly add Biochar to existing plants, shrubs, and trees, but ideally it's best if it's in the soil prior to planting, so the plants have an ideal form of nutrition early on. If you have a small garden, you might only need a few hundred pounds. Larger landscapes will require more.
Gardeners Beware: Pesticides Also Kill Off Beneficial Earthworms
Getting back to earthworms for a brief moment, these creepy-crawlers also play an important role in maintaining the health of the soil. Pesticides, which are commonly sprayed on crops to protect them against being ravaged by pests, also have a devastating effect on earthworms living beneath the soil, which is yet another reason to avoid chemical gardening. Research shows that earthworms exposed to pesticides grow to only half their normal weight. Pesticide exposure also has a detrimental impact on their ability to reproduce, and untreated soils can contain as much as two to three times as many earthworms as treated soils. As reported by the Cornucopia Institute:4
"Pesticides have a direct impact on the physiology and behavior of earthworms, a Danish/French research team reports after having studied earthworms that were exposed to pesticides over generations.'We see that the worms have developed methods to detoxify themselves, so that they can live in soil sprayed with fungicide.
They spend a lot of energy on detoxifying, and that comes with a cost: The worms do not reach the same size as other worms, and we see that there are fewer of them in sprayed soil. An explanation could be that they are less successful at reproducing, because they spend their energy on ridding themselves of the pesticide,' the researchers, Ph. D. student Nicolas Givaudan and associate professor, Claudia Wiegand, say."
Working WITH Nature Rather Than Against It, That's the Future of Farming
Researchers are increasingly starting to recognize gut microbiota as one of your most unappreciated "organs."5 It may even be more appropriate to view your body as a "super organism" composed of symbiotic microorganisms. Probiotics are even becoming widely accepted and adopted in the conventional medical community to support health. In soil, we have a very similar process. The health of the plants, and those who eat those plants, all stand to benefit from the optimization of soil microbiology. Optimizing soil biology also strengthens plants against pest infestations without having to resort to chemical warfare that kills far more than the insects they're designed to destroy.
Research shows that there's constant communication going on between plants via the rhizosphere (root ball). Plants "talk" to one another through aerial emissions—the volatile gasses they emit—and also through the mycelial networks in the soil. This is a major insight that deepens our understanding of the importance of nurturing and maintaining healthy soil microbiome.
It also explains why you don't really need synthetic chemicals to grow large amounts of food. On the contrary, the chemicals used in modern agriculture are killing the very foundation of health—the microbiome in the soil. In short, if you support and nurture the microbiome in soil, it in turn will provide you with good nutrition and optimal health through the food grown in it. As noted by Documentary Storm:
"A sustainable permaculture revolution is at hand as a solution to earth's mistreatment and the unwillingness of the US government to protect its citizens from agribusiness giants... When the burden of proof is in the hands of the affected to prove the food-like products are negatively affecting their health, the safest thing to do is grow the most nutritious food we can at the smallest expense in order to push these food-like products out of market. Paul's garden is an example of sustainable permaculture at its best."