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The Permaculture of Soil, Part 1.

Written by Caroline Aitken on . Posted in Uncategorized

What is it and why does it matter?

A couple of months ago I was teaching the students on Shift Bristol’s Practical Permaculture course about how to preserve garden produce. Apart from the usual jams, chutneys and syrups I also taught some basic traditional fermentation methods. Fermentation at home is not just about wine and beer but also about food. Sauer kraut, kimchi, kefir and kombuca are becoming more popular in Britain due to their interesting flavours and apparent health benefits. It was while explaining those benefits that I referred to our digestive system as:

“an ecosystem containing hundreds of different microorganisms which help us to digest nutrients from our food – just as the microorganisms in the soil ecosystem make nutrients available to plants.”

This comment triggered a wave of invisible light-bulbs above the students’ heads as they made the connection between soil and our digestive systems, the connection being microorganisms. Last time I was teaching the ‘soil food web’ on our Design Course I explained that the roots of plants are covered in a coating of bacteria which feed off the roots and are the basis of the soil food chain. I went on to say that the leaves are also coated with bacteria which form a healthy protective barrier against disease. A hand went up and one of the students rightly pointed out that “pretty much everything is coated with bacteria”. It’s true; these bacteria are an important part of our world, and we need to understand that.

teaming 34,99We are beginning to understand the complexity and importance of our intestinal flora, but still many people are unaware of the complexity of soil life. In recent years scientists such as Dr Elaine Ingham have made great leaps in our understanding of the soil, but you could say we have only scratched the surface. There are some fantastic books available to the layperson who wants to dive in to the subject, and if you’re interested I would highly recommend Teaming With Microbes by Wayne Lewis and Jeff Lowenfells and The Soul of Soil by Joe Smillie and Grace Gershuny, but we don’t need to know all of the science in order to know how to care for the soil. We just need to understand that we must care for it and that in doing so we’re caring for our own future.

There is a still a common misunderstanding about the importance of organic food production. It is not for nothing that the UK governing body is called ‘The SOIL Association’ and yet many consumers are unaware of the reasons for this. I have overheard many a conversation about whether organic food “really does tastes better”, and whether farming chemicals “really do cause cancer” and such like. My primary reason for growing food ‘organically’ (without chemicals and working with nature) is because I want to protect the environment so that I can provide for my family now and we can all do so in the future. You could say that soil is our most precious resource – certainly Mr Whitefield said so in his Earth Care Manual:

“It is the mother of all plants, and through them the animals, ourselves and civilisation.”

So what is this incredible substance upon which we are so dependent?Soil pie chartIt may come as a surprise to see that less than half of soil is made up of mineral – that is particles of the bed rock upon which it is formed. It may also come as a surprise to see that only a maximum of 10% is made up of organic matter. On a conventional arable farm that could be as low as 1%, so all of these proportions are variable, but the chart represents an average fertile soil. In Patrick’s words a fertile soil is one which has the ability to support healthy and abundant growth of plants, and to achieve this it needs all of the above components.

Mineral particles and organic matter form into ‘crumbs’ in the top soil and the size and nature of these in different soils is known as the crumb structure. It is the space between these crumbs, known as pore space through which air and water can penetrate and be available to plant roots. A plant ‘breathes’ from every part of its body and therefore needs access to air around its roots. It also needs a constant supply of water both as a nutrient and as an essential part of its body: plant bodies can be 90% water and it enables their vascular system to function.

The proportion of air and water contained in the pore space will vary according to the weather – after rainfall it will be largely water, after drought it will be mostly air. Plants can cope with these temporary fluctuations to varying degrees, so long as they are temporary. When soil compaction occurs (compression of the topsoil due to footfall, cattle grazing or machinery) the crumb structure is destroyed and all of the air space pushed out. Waterlogging leaves no space for air in the soil, depriving the roots of carbon dioxide. So that 50% portion of space is vital for plant survival, and that is why you’ll hear growers talking about ‘improving structure’. This can mean relieving compaction, improving drainage or increasing the depth of the top soil. Most plant roots will only grow where they have access to both air and water. The deeper the roots grow, the more potential there is for abundant growth.

Soil Compaction TheOrangeGardener.Org

Non-compacted soil (left) and compacted soil (right)

Structure can sometimes be confused with texture, another term used to describe different soil types. While the structure is about how particles are joined together, the texture is about the particles themselves. This is very simple in theory. There are three types of particle – sand, silt and clay. A soil which is dominated by one of these particles is known as that type of soil, for example if it’s predominantly made of sand it’s known as a sandy soil. However, soil is generally a combination of all three in varying proportions (unless you’re on the beach or in a clay quarry!). A fairly even mix is known as a loam, and a mix with a bit more of one type is called a ‘sandy loam’ for example. Different particle types have different characteristics, so it can be helpful to know what type of soil you have so you can care for it appropriately and grow what is suited to it.

Compost heapI haven’t mentioned nutrients yet, and you may be wondering why it wasn’t the first thing on the list. The idea that mineral nutrients such as nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium (N, P & K) are the single most important factor in plant growth has, as Patrick put it “the full force of the advertising industry behind it!” Companies who sell chemical fertilisers would have us believe that’s the case, and by bypassing several millennia of evolution by throwing fossil fuels at it they have succeeded in growing food that way. But in a natural fertile soil there are many parts of the jigsaw, and the thread that connects them is the soil life – those micro-organisms mentioned at the start. In my next post I’ll explain more about soil life and how it works. How chemical fertilisers work is by liberally dowsing the soil with synthesised nutrients (made using fossil fuels), a small percentage of which will make contact with plant roots and be absorbed while the rest is leached away by the rain, ending up in the water system where it becomes a pollutant. Apart from all of the many complaints we might have about this, it’s a highly inefficient way to produce food, requiring huge amounts of energy and water while also causing pollution, loss of biodiversity and food of a questionable quality.

Organic matter is the final piece of the pie, and although it’s the smallest it is possibly the most important. Patrick muses that it is the closest thing you can get to a panacea! The many reasons for this will be explained in my next post –The Permaculture of Soil. Part 2: The Soil Food Web.

Do we have the wisdom to survive?

Written by Caroline Aitken on . Posted in Uncategorized

Last night I attended a film showing of a recent Old Dog Documentaries film called ‘The Wisdom to Survive’. The showing was organised by a local group called DANCE (Dharma Action Network for Climate Engagement) who arrange awareness-raising events about environmental issues and how we deal with them both personally and as a community.


The film is a 50 minute documentary with the tag line ‘Climate change, capitalism and community’ which explores the current situation, and the thoughts of various people whose work relates to it. Amongst those featured are Joanna Macy, Roger Payne, Richard Heinberg, and Ben Falk who between them offer the usual sobering truths and calls to action. What interested me most about the film and makes it different from others on the subject, was how it looked at the different ways that individual people respond to and cope with the situation. Throughout the film speakers offer their personal views on what needs to be done, and we see and hear from several community groups and movements who are taking action in their different ways – from guerrilla food growing on urban wasteland, to seed-saving in the developing world. Fostering community and connecting over a common cause can be the most powerful way of affecting social change, but when we are facing such daunting odds how do we deal with it as individuals?


Comminity allotments like this one in Bristol offer a chance for people in urban areas to connect with each other and nature while providing for their own food needs.

It was facinating to hear that Richard Heinburg, author of Peak Everything and The Party’s Over plays the violin to help “keep my sanity” while writing terrifying books about the real state of planet earth. Listening to other contributors it seems that art can play a very strong role in enabling people to feel connected to the planet and themselves. Joanna Macy , author of Active Hope leads the deep ecology movement ‘The Work That Reconnects‘ which in the last 30 years has helped individuals to realise their shared connectedness with the life-force that permeates everything. If more of us can realise this connection, surely it will help motivate humankind to cease the current wonton destruction of our planet and ourselves. But reconnecting is not solely about averting disaster, when we begin that journey of discovery we realise that connectedness is what makes us feel alive, happy and well. Therefore questions of whether we’ll ‘make it’ as a species or as a planet become obtuse – why do we want to survive? This film, like many others in the genre shows a stunning stream of images of mother nature at her most breath-taking, colourful and awe-inspiring. The film begins with footage of a mother sperm whale and her calf gliding through the aquamarine landscape of the ocean like they are living in a slow-motion dream world. These images created a tangible sense of wonder and joy in the room, which then turned to intense sadness as we saw the whale-hunting boats close in and fire their harpoons – shattering the perfect picture.

Oak TreeMany of the people in the DANCE group are friends of mine because we have all had some connection with a meditation retreat centre near Newton Abbot. Gaia House holds retreats where teachers offer a blend of buddhist philosophy and western psychology. I, like many others have found this approach incredibly helpful when facing the reality of climate change, species exstinction and the consequential human suffering. After watching the film we had a sharing circle where any of the 50 or so people who attended could share their response to the film. Although at first I was reluctant to stay and hear people’s emotional out-pourings, I am very glad that I did. These are incredibly difficult subjects and over the past 20 years since I began to engage with my own response to them, I have shared in many other people’s as well. I decided some time ago that rather than spending all of my energy fighting the Goliath of the capitalism and feeling hopeless, desperate and grief-stricken, I would simply endeavour to do the right thing myself, and hope to encourage others to do the same. There were a variety of responses last night, some sad, some angry, some optimistic, some full of love and appreciation, but the shared quality they all had was a vivid consciousness. By looking at the situation with eyes and heart wide open and sharing that with others we do feel the pain, but are not crippled by it. We don’t need to turn away, feeling that there’s no hope and no point. The pain we’re feeling only shows us the depth of love we feel for this planet, and it is that love we need to tap in to to keep us going.

We live in a very goal-orientated society which encourages us to believe that if there’s no hope of success there is no point in taking part. I do have hope but not in a fixed outcome. My hope is that we can all find a connection to ourselves, nature and one another which enables us to live in the way we know to be right. Not to live by rules and punish ourselves for faltering, but just to always do our best according what we feel is true. I was drawn to permaculture because it’s about positive solutions. It is about individuals and community taking responsibility for themselves and each other – a ground-up movement that bypasses the Goliath altogether. It is about preparation and resilience, but it’s not about building a bunker in the back garden. It’s sensible, rational and practical, but there is a heart to it. Anyone who is drawn to permaculture is drawn by the wish to do the right thing and improve their world.

permaculture festivals

Festivals like The Green Gathering (pictured) and Sunrise Off Grid are great ways to connect with like-minded people and positive projects.


I am reminded of one of Joanna Macy’s gems of wisdom at the end of the film

Don’t put all of your energy into defeating something which is already defeating itself.’

It’s exhausting. Instead put your energy into creating something good to replace it. If we all do that, there will be nothing to replace.

A Permaculture Legacy

Written by Caroline Aitken on . Posted in Uncategorized

The winter solstice is upon us and we are approaching the shortest day – a natural time of introspection and reflection. Many of us are too busy in the run up to Christmas to be doing much quiet contemplation, but it’s important to acknowledge the nature of the different seasons and how they affect us, even if our modern lifestyles and culture can make that difficult. For those of us who work outdoors and grow things, spring and summer are such busy times that we barely have time to absorb the valuable lessons we are learning from our successes and failures. This is what winter is about for me, a time to let it all sink in, learn those lessons and look to the season ahead with new knowledge, ideas and confidence. Planning the plot is one of my favourite parts of being a food grower – the anticipation of the envisioned bounty! But while the seasons are cyclical, we are not – we never travel the same circle twice. Every cycle teaches us something for the cycle to come, making us slowly expanding spirals, like the growing shell of a snail.


Patrick teaching at Ragmans Lane Farm on our Design Course.

This winter is a particularly poignant one for Patrick Whitefield Associates, as our founder has now retired, leaving us to continue with The Land Course Online, residential courses, and design consultancy that he established. Patrick’s contribution to permaculture over the past 25 years is huge and since announcing his retirement due a terminal illness, tributes have been flooding in from all over the world. Cards, emails, letters, gifts and messages pour in from just a fraction of the people he has inspired and influenced during his career. He has left a legacy of books, films, courses, designs and most importantly self-empowered individuals who are out there making permaculture work for them.

As I now take the helm of Patrick Whitefield Associates I am not only humbled by the honour of carrying on such great work, but I am driven to continue with as much passion, focus and joy as Patrick has done. I want to do my friend and mentor proud of course, but more importantly I want his incredible spirit to live on and be communicated through us as we naturally continue to evolve and move forward. Patrick is coming to the end of his work journey (although he is still working on his next book from his sick bed which is no surprise to anyone who knows him well) and I am starting a new cycle of my own. Having worked with and taught alongside Patrick for the past few years I have learned so much from him, and this is the time for me to fully absorb all of that wisdom, take stock and look to the seasons ahead.

cari teaching6a

Me teaching a group to use the bunyip on one of our Design Courses

One of Patrick’s real passions in life has been observing nature; being in the natural environment and understanding it. The result of this passion is a wonderful book called How To Read The Landscape which is now available to buy (this is a revised and abridged version of his previous book ‘The Living Landscape’). I am so glad that his treasure trove of knowledge on the subject is available now for all to enjoy. His landscape reading courses were life-changing; a country walk is never the same, it becomes a detective story pieced together by clues you find along the way – the shape of a hillside, the plants growing by the path and in the landscape. Equally his book infects the reader with the same sense of wonder and curiosity that he has.


Patrick’s latest book about reading the landscape

There is still more to come from Patrick’s treasure trove, as the book he is currently working on becomes more complete, and so the legacy grows. His final offering is the culmination of his career in teaching permaculture and running his own courses. This book will outline everything you need to know about how to run a really good permaculture course, from the design of individual sessions, to finances and marketing. Another gem for the permaculture library!

2015 is promising to be a bountiful year for PWA. We have a new Introduction to Permaculture course planned at Ragmans Lane Farm in March, followed by a full Design Course in June and again in September. I will be lending our flavour to other courses too, as I will be co-teaching the Design Course at High Heathercombe with Aranya in April and running a new course about practical sustainable gardening at The Sustainability Centre in July. I’ll be leading workshops in the permaculture space at The Green Gathering festival again with a host of inspiring teachers and do-ers, and later in the year I’ll be teaching alongside Sarah Pugh on the Shift Bristol Practical Sustainability course. For more information on all of our events see our course diary on the website, and if you’d like to keep track of what else I get up to throughout the year have a look at my personal blog Think. Grow. Eat.

Whatever awaits you in 2015, may you find time this winter to let the lessons of this year, and all of the years before it, truly sink in. Like the earth in your garden from which everything grows, take care of what’s hidden within and you will surely flourish!


Patrick, Cathy and Rico in the wildflower meadow that Patrick donated to Somerset Wildlife Trust

Your well-wishes and thoughts for Patrick and Cathy continue to be greatly appreciated.

Yuletide blessings, Merry Christmas and a very fruitful 2015!

Caroline Aitken

Permaculture Design Course on Dartmoor