Anyone embarking on the process of environmental recovery will face several challenges. The bad news is that some land has been degraded for half a century or more and it may take a decade or longer to restore it to health. In our instant culture, these sobering facts scare many away from the process of establishing permaculture on their land. A friend of mine has had the same piece of denuded land for well over a decade. He was on the right track, but just sat there, planting a handful of trees in that whole time. His management process was pretty much hands off and nature alone was trying to recover itself. This process might have taken a century or more, but he seemed willing to wait. Ten years ago, we were relatively good friends and his inaction led to an eventual falling out. I started wondering how wonderful his place could be if he only spent ten percent of his beer budget on perennial plants or trees. Even though he knew of my role in ECO-Tours of Wisconsin and our service to the Earth, he would not consider any positive action. He wanted us to come out to his denuded land and plant hundreds of climax species trees at no cost to him. When I would talk to him about the process of recovery, and how to establish forest cover there, he would resist, wanting only hardwoods. This is virtually impossible to accomplish without devastating losses, because open fields are inhospitable to most plants that we identify as desirable in a forest.
Most developed land has been what I call bombed out. When soil is subjected to the triple whammy, recovery of native forest, or ecological diversity becomes difficult and somewhat time consuming. The first strike that is often taken against nature is to remove native cover, the second is breaking the soil, often accomplished with large mechanical devices and the third is addition of toxic compounds such as fungicides, herbicides and other industrial chemicals. This series of assaults creates a level of change in the soil that is difficult to fathom. Luckily, there are things we can do, little things that have powerful effects.
The dappled shade created by forest cover allows moisture levels to remain stable. The arching branches slow the wind and this combination creates perfect conditions for a variety of life forms that are the living blanket of life that naturally exists on our planet. Even in winter, the forest moderates wind and cold, moderating climate at both extremes. We can find ways of mimicking these processes if we think creatively and plan our actions carefully. Long term, the best thing will be waiting until trees grow, naturally providing shade and the windbreak that we desire. In the short run, perhaps a brush pile, or fence, or shade cloth could provide some stability in our fledgling recovery zone. I personally like planting pioneer species that will grow quickly, provide some shade and stabilize the extremes so that we can plant climax species sooner.
Some of the plants that mimic a forest, just on a smaller scale are Jerusalem artichokes (sunchokes), grapes, berries of most types and hops. One warning, some of these plants will spread quickly, so use them sparingly. A few is way better than a dozen, and a dozen plants are way better than 100. Although there may be an urge to do more, remember that it is better to make a small change and watch what happens for a while than to change things too drastically all at once.
Although there is little that can be done to offset the damage caused by chemically “treating” soil, time is on our side if we take steps to recover the soil itself. Air, sunlight and water can help to break down, transform and dilute their influence. Friends who run an organic lawn care service have found that after seven years in a compost pile, they reach a no detect level for yard “care” chemicals. The process might be sped up a bit, because they don’t water their compost, instead they rely on only natural rainfall, about 30″ per year in our area.
When we get our hands on land that has been subjected to the “modern” system of agriculture, it is almost always compacted and nutrient deficient. One of the first things that needs to happen is to aereate it. This can be done in several ways. I like my old potato fork. It allows me to break the soil to a depth of about eight inches. There are instruments with larger tines for breaking larger areas, but the majority of biological activity happens near the surface and going deeper just means working harder and running the risk of inserting material so deeply in the soil, that it won’t break down. Once the soils are broken, air and water can permeate the surface more easily and bring the potential for life back to uppermost horizon of the soil. Encouraging this process with compost is a sure way to get things going, especially if you can protect the soil surface with mulch.
This is where a longer term plan for your site is helpful. If there is going to be a path, trail or road, don’t break that soil! It makes little sense to try to recover square feet that will only be trampled down again. Most soils can handle being stepped on once in a while, but when they are repeatedly trod upon, they compact and revert to less than optimal for growing things because of lack of oxygen within the soils, impermeability and susceptibility to runoff.
Do a little, sit back and observe what happens, then do a little more. Making elaborate plans, then forging ahead without respect for the process of recovery is the surest way to create other problems down the road. I like to spread compost or a little healthy soil before breaking the surface, so the micro flora can penetrated into the voids created by breaking the soil, then spreading mulch to keep the surface from drying out. Try this in an area that you want to be the “navel” of your restoration project. Then, once you see the results of your efforts, radiate out from that spot in phases. Trying to do it all at once will have you tired out and unable to take the time to really appreciate the many changes that occur from your small effort. Take it slow, you won’t be disappointed!