It’s a term coined by Masanobu Fukuoka in The One-Straw Revolution, An Introduction to Natural Farming. “When you get right down to it”, he says, “there are few agricultural practices that are really necessary…no need to plow, no need to apply fertilizer, no need to make compost, no need to use insecticide.” Okay…I get the no insecticide thing, but don’t even till the ground? Really? Everyone knows you’re supposed to dig a hole, plant a seed, then cover it back up with dirt for it to grow, right? I mean, every book on gardening I’ve ever read starts with this basic fact. Now this man is trying to tell me to scrap everything I know and do…nothing? Okay. I’m still listening…
What Fukuoka is saying is that, when we humans interfere with the natural processes of nature, it’s like a scientist who “pores over books night and day, straining his eyes and becoming nearsighted, and if you wonder what on earth he has been working on all that time – it is to become the inventor of eyeglasses to correct nearsightedness.” Basically, he says, the reason why our modern approach of applying increasingly complex techniques to farming has become necessary is because the natural balance has been upset: “To the extent that trees deviate from their natural form, pruning and insect extermination become necessary…If a single new bud is snipped off a fruit tree with a pair of scissors, that may bring about disorder which cannot be undone.” Wow! Who knew I was bringing so much chaos into my garden with all of my snipping?
So, if everything I’ve been doing up until now has been in violation of nature, what do I do now to get things back on track? I asked myself. Well, to begin with, Fukuoka says that there are four principles of natural farming: no cultivation (no plowing or even tilling of the soil), no chemical fertilizer or prepared compost, no weeding by tillage or herbicides (weeds should be controlled, but not eliminated), and no dependence on chemicals (sturdy crops produce a healthy environment). Alright, but can’t I even scratch the surface of the soil…just a little? It just seems wrong to go against this very basic cultivating technique. Well, according to this permaculture guru, “When the soil is cultivated the natural environment is altered beyond recognition.” According to other permaculture books, he’s exactly right: when the ground is tilled, nitrogen bonds are broken, fungus webs are destroyed, countless beneficial worms, bugs, and insects are shredded, soil is compacted, and the fallow field becomes a haven for strong weeds. Hmmm, as much as I enjoy weeding (it’s my favorite time to converse with God), I’m kind of liking this idea of not having to do so much of it. Now, where to begin?
Mr. Fukuoka specializes in growing grains: rice, barley, and rye (although he’s used this same technique with fruits and vegetables), so I thought grains would be a good place for me to start, too. I ordered, from Bountiful Gardens, one packet each of hulless barley and oats to try out this year –the perfect crops for testing the technique, I think. Mr. Fukuoka’s method for planting is simple. First, he broadcasts the seeds onto the un-tilled (but prepared) ground, then, covers it with a layer of straw hay – that’s all there is to it! (The straw is fundamental to his method of growing –connected to fertility, germination, weeds, and water management. Unfortunately, it is also something that he says he “cannot seem to get people to understand”). Of course, his One- Straw Revolution has much more to it than I’m describing here, but stripped down to it’s bare bones, it really is supposed to be this simple. So I’ve decided to give it a try.
Unknowingly, I started with the no-work method this past fall, employing a technique called “sheet mulching” to build my vegetable beds. Instead of digging into the ground to remove the top layer of sod, I had added organic matter on top of it, in layers, and let it decompose. This “Do-Nothing” method was off to a great start! To make it even easier, I asked my youngest son if he’d like to help me with the planting. At first, he let out a little moan, but when I told him that we weren’t going to be digging, that he wasn’t going to be getting dirty, and that all he needed to do was sprinkle a little seed over the ground, then help me cover it with hay, he was quite intrigued. So, we put on our shoes and jackets, gathered up the seed packets and headed outside to “plant”.
First, we removed the black plastic layer (supressing the weeds and helping “cook” the organic matter below, speeding up the composting process) that was covering each of the plots. “You mean we’re just going to throw the seeds on top of that?” my son queried, with the same skepticism that I was also thinking. “Yes”, I replied, “It’s a new technique that I’m learning about from a man who lives in Japan.” “He doesn’t think it’s a good idea to disrupt this soil”, I continued. “Do you see this giant pillbug?” I asked him. “Yes”, he said, and added, “I saw an even bigger one over here!” I joined him to search for the larger specimen. When we found it I told him, “That bug is quite happy right now. He has all the food he needs right here. This is where he’s made his home. If we dig and rake the ground now, we’ll probably destroy his home, and interrupt all of the good work he’s been doing – decomposing, fertilizing, and tilling for us!” “Mmmm”, my son thoughtfully replied. Next, I grabbed a handful of grains and showed my son how to broadcast them over a small area. I placed a small handfull in his hand and let him give it a try. He worked on one end of the bed, I tarried at the other, and we met somewhere in the middle to finish off the packet of seeds. Feeling like seasoned veterans, we turned our efforts toward the second bed and were finished with the seeding portion of the job in a matter of a couple of minutes. Finally, I demonstrated how to spread the straw hay over the top of the seeds. We both worked on separate beds, and in about ten minutes, the task of planting out the beds was complete. It truly was the easiest and fastest method I’ve ever tried! I am eager to see, in the next few weeks, what kind of production we get from employing this “direct seed, no-cultivation” method out at our homestead.
Mr. Fukuoka has truly opened my eyes and mind, even more, to what “natural” farming is and, really,should be.