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Radical Botany: Skillshare #9; Digging in the Dirt

All this digging is old technology some say. Newer ideas have evolved through the Permaculture movement where "no digging", and "grow what you can on top of the hard pack" dominate the movement. But for me, gardening is more than creating food and providing habitat for creatures that live above the ground, I am tending to the needs of the amazing life that thrives in the soil deep beneath the first few feet of top soil. I am cutting open the hard crust of human civilization to help emancipate, beneficial fungi, earthworm colonies and beneficial microbes.
"As above, so below"

I dedicate this skillshare to my landlord who trusts me enough to let me dig up the lawn. Thank you farmer K2.

In my yard, the earth is smooth hard clay. I am digging in a new bed to be used for food and native plants. I am removing sod, or lawn. I am liberating the soil. The blade of the shovel cuts through the clay. Healthy plant life cannot be supported by this hard packed red clay. There are not enough nutrients or essential gases available. Certainly few wild plants grow here. Every year a forest of dandelions try to break through. And lawns only survive because they are fed huge amounts of chemicals and mowed throughout the season. Dandelions seem to thrive. The roots of the dandelion reach deep down below the clay searching for the mycelium and other life givers.

A lawn was planted here years ago - part of the American Dream- an illusion that we as wage slaves would have time for leisure. For some the lawn is a symbol of the illusion of safety through conformity. For others the yard is one last grasp for connection with the earth. There is a remembrance of family farms and before that a time when humans lived next to the earth.

I press down the shovel and it cuts through the layers. I find artifacts of a collapsing culture: marbles, coins from the 50's and sixties, buttons, little metal cars, doll parts, a small plastic headless pig, a tin toy sheriffs badge. Families lived here.
I dig deeper. I am trying to get below the clay to the see evidence of earthworm activity. If I can break up this clay and add humus and leaf mold to it, the earthworms will come to feed. With them they will bring the mycelium and leave behind worm droppings that will feed the plants I place here.

I dig the earth open in large clods and leave it for a week or two. The earth is soaked with water and I will come back when it is dryer and shake the sod away from the clay. It will be ready for the big "stir" once the weather has warmed. I will add nutrients: glacial rock, sea kelp, dolomite lime, rotting leaves, chicken manure along with the straw that the chickens bedded in, old compost from my household composter. I will break up the clay and leave the soil fluffy and ripe for the plants that will thrive here. In the next weeks after the stir, new life forms will move into this rich soil that will help to keep it forever liberated.

This earth that I have opened up is under an old Cherry Tree. The tree has been damaged by people long gone. We are trying to bring the tree back. It was covered with Ivy that was eating into the bard. We have removed dead branches. We have cleared away trash. I will plant Crimson clover and a native wildflower mix under the tree to encourage nutrients, earthworms and fungi and pollinators. The clover will help to "fix" the nitrogen. I apply fish and kelp to help bring the tree out of shock.

All this digging is old technology some say. Newer ideas have evolved through the Permaculture movement where "no digging", and "grow what you can on top of the hard pack" dominate the movement. But for me, gardening is more than creating food and providing habitat for creatures that live above the ground, I am tending to the needs of the amazing life that thrives in the soil and deep beneath the first few feet of top soil. I am cutting open the hard crust of human civilization to help emancipate, beneficial fungi, earthworm colonies and beneficial microbes.

Most plant tenders put all of their energy into trying to understand the first one foot of topsoil and the plants that grow in it. The truly great connections and understandings of plant health are found in the first FIVE feet of soil.

Most people do not understand that the reason humans are still alive on the earth is because we are supported through the soils. Geomorphologist David Montgomery reports that civilizations can shorten their life spans by mistreating their soil, and explains how the plow is one of the deadliest tools ever invented.

In recent decades, archaeological studies confirmed pronounced episodes of soil erosion associated with the rise and subsequent decline of civilizations in the Middle East, Greece, Rome, and Mesoamerica, as well as other regions around the globe, where soil has been lost, civilizations fall away.

Globally since 1940 we have cleared and capped an area the size of North America. 70% of our soils have been destroyed. 40% of our water has been destroyed by petrochemicals and pesticides. I have taken upon myself to take out lawns, uncap the earth, and liberate the microbes wherever I go.

Without microbes crops would not grow. People and animals would starve. The earth itself would die.

Many of the western valleys of Cascadia are made up of combination soils. There are great stretches of dark brown soil with residues of minerals and river loam are found along rivers and streams. Head up in the hills around the rivers and you are likely to find red clay. I know fellow earth tenders who took one look at that clay and decided to build bed on top of the soil. I like the challenge of recreating top soil in native clay. I like the idea of uncapping the earth and liberating the earth worms and microbes.
Most garden soil is made up of sub-soils not naturally made top soils. The top soils in most yards was moved away and buried during excavation of the foundation for a building. Much more top soil is buried under streets and parking lots and resource extraction. The world of beneficial microbes has been capped.

Those of us trying to take out lawns and plant food and medicine struggle with fertility and plant immune response for the first few years until the earthworms colonize and bring in the microbes. Most of us don't understand that with top soils buried deeply and sub soils capping and hard panned, the soil fertility is at risk. What we prepared on top of the hardpan is at risk of blowing away or being sucked into the clay below.

That is why I always start my project of removing lawn and sod next to old trees. These trees have roots that dip into the underworld. The wonderful underworld that sustains us and feeds the top growing plants can travel up the roots of large trees.

If we could travel down we would first come upon the burrows of earthworms, small animals and shredder insects, then the millions of miles of mycelium and other fungi. Earthworms shred plant litter as they feed and improve soil structure.



When I was a child my father taught me to love the earthworms. Every year at the end of gardening season my father placed great heaps of leaves on top of the garden. These piles of mixed leaves stayed put for the winter. My father told me that he was keeping the earthworms warm and providing a place for them to escape. In the spring he moved the leaf piles to the side of the garden and left it for a few days before he tiled the earth. Then he moved the leaf piles back and dug them into the garden soil. My father said he was giving the earthworms a chance to escape before he tilled the soil.

I learned from my father that earthworms bring nutrients and fertility to the soil. I learned later that earthworms also inoculate the soil to protect against plant disease and help to bring food to the layers of fungi, animals and microbes who colonize the under soils.

There is a web of soil fertility down there: millions of microbes. Scientists say ninety-nine percent of soil microbes cannot be cultured in labs or artificial environments because their relationship with the web of life is symbiotic. Healthy Earthworm colonies are essential to healthy microbe colonies.

An earthworm colony is intact for approximately three years. The linings of the earthworm borrows are covered in high level nutrients. Roots of plants dip into this nutrient pool and bring them into the plant world.

There are three types of earth worms: leaf/litter compost dwelling, topsoil dwelling and worms that construct permanent deep burrows through which they visit the surface to obtain plant material for food. Earthworms form the base of many food chains. Earthworm colonies are made up of red worms, brown worms, and golden worms.

Charles Darwin wrote in 1881 "It may be doubted whether there are many other animals which have played so important a part in the history of the world as have these lovely organized creatures". 1

Earthworm physiology

I won't go into detail here as I have given a link to the wiki page for earthworms. The part that I found fascinating was that earthworms have five hearts. That's right five hearts and sometimes more. The basic body plan of an earthworm is a tube, the digestive system, within a tube, the muscular outer body. Earthworms eat in a unique way: their mouth cavity connects directly into the digestive tract without any intermediate processes. Most earthworms are decomposers feeding on undecayed leaf and other plant matter, others are more geophagous. Geophagy is the practice of eating earthy or soil-like substances such as clay, and chalk, in order to obtain essential nutrients such as sulfur and phosphorus from the soil. Earthworms are hermaphrodites. Earthworms have the facility to regenerate lost segments, but this ability varies between species and depends on the extent of the damage.


Mycelium (plural mycelia) is the vegetative part of a fungus, consisting of a mass of branching, thread-like hyphae. The mass of hyphae is sometimes called shiro, especially within the fairy ring fungi. Fungal colonies composed of mycelia are found in soil and on or in many other substrates. It is through the mycelium that a fungus absorbs nutrients from its environment. The mycelium of mycorrhizal fungi increases the efficiency of water and nutrient absorption of most plants and confers resistance to some plant pathogens. Mycelium is an important food source for many soil invertebrates.

"The Mycelium infuses all landscapes and holds soils together, is extremely tenacious, and holds up to 30,000 times its mass. Mycelium is the soil magician. They generate the humus soils across the earth. There is a multi-directional transfer of nutrients between plants. The mycelium is the mother of all plants. In a cubic square inch of earth under your foot there can be more than eight miles of mycelium "
-Paul Staments-

Mycelium is an excellent base for starting the commodity ecology, because literally it was the basis for all land base life: the first land dwellers that prepared everything chemically for soil formation that other creatures utilized later.

See video on mycelium at this link: 6 ways mushrooms can save the world with Paul Staments
 link to www.ted.com

Is this the largest organism in the world?

"This 2,400-acre (9.7 km2) site in eastern Oregon had a contiguous growth of mycelium before logging roads cut through it. Estimated at 1,665 football fields in size and 2,200 years old, this one fungus has killed the forest above it several times over, and in so doing has built deeper soil layers that allow the growth of ever-larger stands of trees. Mushroom-forming forest fungi are unique in that their mycelial mats can achieve such massive proportions." —Paul Stamets, Mycelium Running

Other helpful microbes

Bacteria and fungi form symbiotic relationships with roots and supply nutrients to them. Nematodes feed on fungi, bacteria and other nematodes, or plant root. Protozoa stimulate and control activity of bacteria populations.

We have capped this web of life with asphalt, concrete, lawns, artificial turf, dead soil and ignorance. It is time to open it up and let the web of life reach us once more. We are part of the web of life and cannot survive without it.


1) Charles Darwin, The formation of vegetable mould through the action of worms, with observations on their habits. Project Gutenberg E text - Formation of vegetable mould by Darwin. Found on the internet - 01-23-2009 at www.gutenberg.org/ebooks/2355
2)  http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Earthworm
3) Mycelium fundamentals -  http://www.anbg.gov.au/fungi/mycelium.html
4) Cascadia Food Now Lawns website:  http://www.foodnotlawns.com/
5) Contemporary Ethnobotany:  http://groups.yahoo.com/group/contemporaryethnobotany/


Online Free videos

1) The Grave Danger of falling food - hour long- video. Excellent

In This introductory video to Permaculture, Bill Mollison, the movements co-founder, takes the viewer through the history and developments of the movement. With startlingly laconic humor and insight he deconstructs the modern agribusiness and the 'modern plague': manicured ornamental lawns. In this video he offers an antidote, which is an anti-dote, which is an antidote to both our currently unsustainable practices AND our unsustainable culture. Both of these have to change, to adapt.

Paul Staments -Video - Six ways Mushrooms can save the world.  link to www.ted.com

homepage: homepage: http://tech.groups.yahoo.com/group/radicalbotany/

Mycelium, dirt and resistance 28.Feb.2009 17:06


The video with Staments is amazing! Why don't we know this stuff? Do they teach about mycelium in schools? We need to know everything we can about plants and fungi so we can survive. Keep it up zcascadia. keep writing about this radical botany.

19 more videos from BioregionalStateTV, click 'more from user' 01.Mar.2009 09:21


Click on any video like

Bill_Mollison_-_Global_Gardener_3_-_Cool_climates.avi (28 min)
 link to video.google.com

and then click 'more from user'

and you have 19 films that have been uploaded about sustainability, permaculture, and other techniques.