Monthly Archives: December 2013

Sowing Seeds in the Desert: Natural Farming, Global Restoration, and Ultimate Food Security

By Masanobu Fukuoka

Introduction by Larry Korn

Rating:  9 out of 10


When I first came across this book, I immediately wanted to read it because I live in a desert (Sonoran) and am always on the lookout for new books that address the growing problem of desertification in our world.  What I expected from this touted inventor of Natural Farming was essentially a recipe book for HOW to go about returning vegetation to the deserts.  What I got was much different.

The first three chapters of this book are dedicated to explaining Fukuoka’s philosophy which in turn sets up the later chapters on Natural Farming.  I found this section hard to get through because, quite honestly, it challenged many of my belief systems and ways of being – even as a dedicated permaculturist.  I found myself wanting to challenge Fukuoka at every turn as he systematically tore down much of Western philosophy with well-reasoned arguments based upon observation and Eastern philosophy.  I’ll admit to gritting my teeth and often snorting in arrogance as I read some passages.

Then a funny thing happened.  I realized that I had come to many of the same conclusions he had (although not so deeply nor so succinctly) through other paths.  That’s where the old brain cells kicked into high gear and I became very fascinated with this book.  Would I go so far as to denounce Western philosophers and scientists from Descartes onward?  Probably not as these thinkers are part of a whole just like Fukuoka.  However, I can see Fukuoka’s point about how many Western philosophies lead to a world view where humans are cast as superior to nature and therefore presume dominion over it as a right.  This is in opposition to Fukuoka’s world view of humans as an integral part of nature and therefore a partner with equal footing to every other part of the natural world.  Much use is made of Western scientific methods that allow for all sorts of experiments, many of which have had dire consequences over time.  Do I believe the Western scientific approach is always bad?  No.  Good scientific research is based on the same things that Fukuoka based his Natural Farming methods on – observation and experimentation.

Chapters 4-6 are what I originally expected from this book and are about Fukuoka’s travels to some of the deserts of the world and his vision for regreening them, mostly by spreading a multitude of seeds encased in clay across the broad landscape.  I’ve filled this part of the book with little green sticky tabs drawing my attention to various methods he tried and their success.

I was heartened by his travels and the interesting people and attitudes he met along the way.  He explains his techniques of welcoming rain back into a landscape through the revegetation of those landscapes.  He describes the creation of food forests, the importance of sowing a multitude of seed types along with supporting microorganisms, and it really difficult climates, he explains his method of using trees along waterways to act as natural pumps over time to rehydrate and refertilize ever greater portions of the landscape.  And one can see how his methods of observation and natural farming really do make a difference.

In conclusion, I was left with the thought that the title of this book “Sowing Seeds in the Desert” doesn’t only apply to the physical practice of seeding deserts.  In fact, this book is in equal parts practical, hands-on advice and an analogy of the human experience at this point in history. It strongly advocates that the true seeds we need to sow are in our own ways of thinking and acting.  We, as humans, have become the desert – we’ve been stripped of much of our nature and we have only a few seeds left to cling to.  Because of this, we have become internally and externally damaged by our own heedless behaviors towards the extension of ourselves – nature.  If we can take the time to observe this situation, we have a chance to repair ourselves and our landscapes and bring back the abundance that truly is our heritage.

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This past November (2013), Watershed Management Group's Green Living Co-op installed a "Laundry to Landscape" system at my house.

The Green Living Co-op runs on a barn raising principle - basically you earn "hours" by participating in other members' projects.  After you've earned a set amount of hours, you qualify to host a workshop at your house.  A co-op project manager works with you to design the system and oversees the project work.  They also provide educational information along the way.

The end result is that the homeowner gets a well-designed project installed with free labor and the participants get hands-on practice building out these projects.  Having an experienced designer lead you through the steps to build out one of these projects really builds confidence that you can do this!

Here's a short video showing the progression through pre-planning, the day of the installation, and the subsequent test run of my new "Laundry to Landscape" system.  I love it!

Benefits of reusing greywater

Here’s how this project fits into the overall plan for my front yard, which faces west, here in Phoenix, Arizona:

  • It provides water for tree canopy coverage on this western exposure – the hottest side of my house.
  • It provides water for vines growing up a trellis in front of my patio and my big, west-facing windows.  These vines will act as solar baffles for the low western setting sun that sneaks in under the tree canopy in the evening and which currently heats up the mass of my brick house and transfers that heat inside.  When you’re dealing with 100 days of 100° + temps (30 of those days between 110° - 120°), the very last thing you want is the setting sun taking one final opportunity to add more heat to your living space!
  • With only 7.5” of annual rainfall in Phoenix, we need to use water wisely.  Reusing greywater is a great way to grow desert-adapted trees, shrubs, vines and more – essentially slowing down and capturing more “energy” from this element instead of letting it flow into the municipal sewer system.  These native and xeric plants function to attract native pollinators, cover the ground to hold moisture, provide shade, provide food and act as a living air conditioner making the whole property cooler and more pleasant to be in.  It is regularly 10-20° F cooler on my property when compared with properties that have predominantly grass or rock landscaping.
  • The reclaimed water and the woody mulch in the infiltration basins, help build more fertile, biologically-active soils that will, over time, alter the texture of our highly compacted clay soil, allowing an ever greater range of plants to fill in various niches.
  • There is also a very important community aspect to this project.  Because I live in the urban core of the largest dryland city in the USA (and the 6th largest metro area overall), showcasing working projects that are viewable to passersby is a big goal of mine.  People like to see how something works – what it looks like, feels like.  A well maintained project with an informational sign or two, an invitation to tour the site and maybe a related “Introduction to Permaculture” class, will greatly increase the acceptance and implementation of similar projects throughout the neighborhood and beyond.

So basically, we desert dwellers need to get over the prevailing “squick factor” Western culture tends to have around greywater and embrace this valuable resource as one of the major forces in re-greening our deserts.