Sowing Seeds in the Desert, reflections on Fukuoka

My mind is often bubbling with enterprising project ideas and I’m grateful to feel so stimulated in life. Ideas spark the most when reading a visionary non-fiction book. I recently read Sowing Seeds in the Desert by Masanobu Fukuoka. It’s one of those books where you feel compelled to write notes as you go along, afraid some of the profound and insightful passages will get lost or forgotten.

Masanobu Fukuoka on his farm
Masanobu Fukuoka on his farm

I try to feel content that the words will not be lost; they can always be savoured again and that somehow they’ve made an imprint. What strikes me as I read books by writers such as Fukuoka, Charles Einenstein and Bill Mollison, is how far detached so many people are from the colourful dynamics and depth of ecological connections in the natural world. It’s a subtle, impalpable detachment which I feel in myself to varying degrees. This detachment is arguably a form of human suffering and contributes to an underlying anxiety in us. Charles Einenstein paints this discourse persuasively in his writing, calling it the Age of Separation.

Fukuoka argued that never has there been a generation like the present where people’s hearts are so badly wounded. Penetrating every area of society, from education and culture, to politics and economics,

“…the material path humanity has chosen is reflected in the degradation of the environment. Now, we have the ugly sight of industry, government, and the military joining forces in the struggle for ultimate power“.

All the time, nature quietly stumbles on, transcending beauty and ugly edges, good and evil. Nature simply exists and evolves, yet through our activities we have heightened the rate of extinctions way beyond the natural background rate. Our mismanagement of planet Earth can sometimes make us look like a disease nibbling away down the spine of Gaia, sending ripples of pain to every corner of the Earth. Stark language reflects the pain and the loss that I feel. We could do so much better.

Upside Down by Kelly Holohan. Let's turn it around.
Upside Down by Kelly Holohan. Let’s turn it around.

Writing from his tradition, Fukuoka proposes that the Asian tendency to live quietly and view the world as transitory is disappearing: “The new trend is toward glorifying modern civilisation and the idea that the material is almighty“. This is where we have arrived in the face of millions of years of evolution. If we really respected the natural world and sought to embody ourselves into living in closer harmony with it, we need to understand that our “progress” and achievements is not only rather weak, but an illusion.

How did Fukuoka come to these understandings of our place and position in the natural order? How did he go from a scientist working in plant pathology to a philosopher and farmer? In his book, he recounted going through a crisis of meaning in his younger years and an experience that caused him to click into a way of understanding the world. He started viewing the world through a lens that grasps nature in its entirety, a single interconnected reality with no intrinsic characteristics. From this new perspective he developed his philosophy which he expressed through the act of farming, pioneering the philosophy of “natural farming”.

An Indian farmer cultivating a paddy using natural farming techniques
An Indian farmer cultivating a paddy with natural farming techniques

In Sowing Seeds in the Desert, Fukuoka also wrote about how scientists all to often view the parts but not the whole. As I read Fukuoka, I am reminded of James Lovelock’s Gaia theory that also stresses an understanding of the Earth as a giant, breathing, living ecosystem. Lovelock and Fukuoka both warn of the dangers of reductionism which gives way to narrow thinking, with scientists only viewing the planet through their discipline, whether they be geologists, biologists, chemists or geophysicists. We need these fields of studies to keep connecting with each other, constructing a grand picture of our relationship with the Earth as a living, dynamic system.

Fukuoka was a gentleman with a deep sense of connection with the natural world. People would travel from all over the world to visit his farm in Shikoku to learn from his natural farming techniques. His farm had impressive yields, beyond that of conventional farms in his region. From this he earned the respect and curiosity from the conventional farming establishment, that has generally moved the other way, deeper into industrialisation.

I hold hope in an awakening. A day when the steady march of progress and endless consumption shifts in direction and we turn towards the pursuit of a more harmonious relationship with the planet and a philosophies that rewild and connect us closely with the land. Some people think this hope is a naive pursuit and our ship has gone too far from its course. I prefer to hold optimism. The path is messy, difficult and frustrating – and it’s long. The awakening will be slow, one heart at a time, stifled and wounded by catastrophes along the way.

What Fukuoka taught his students was not only natural farming, he taught a philosophy – one that inspired and sent thousands of hearts in a positive direction.

“at the core there must be a sound, realistic way of seeing the world. Once the philosophy is understood, the appropriate techniques will become clear as day.”

I’ll finish with one final excerpt from Fukuoka that captures his spirit in observation and sense of wonder:

The poet Basho composed the haiku, “Ah how sacred / the light of the sun / on young green leaves”. Indeed – I can clasp my hands in reverence and kneel before the daikon flower. Even if I cannot make a poem as beautiful as Basho’s, my heart is singing, “Oh, the whiteness of the daikon flower / the radiance, the splendor!”

Notes from Forest Gardening Course: Part II

4.30am. It’s too cold to sleep. I’m scrunched up in my sleeping bag, hood over my head, wrapped in a blanket, in my long johns. But it’s not enough and although I’m not shivering, I feel the cold sinking into my bones. I made an excellent decision to get up, have a hot shower and two cups of tea. Now I’m much better for it, and I’m able to enjoy the sunrise while typing up some notes from yesterday. Leftover soup for breakfast and cookies. They were a great buy.


Making a nutrient budget

The first topic this morning was soil fertility and we covered the roles and sources of nitrogen, potassium, phosphorus, calcium and soil pH. Something new to me was the concept of making budgets for nitrogen and potassium. This is a technique to estimate how much your shrubs and trees will need, and then make sure this balances against your sources. It’s a little rough but makes a lot of sense. Since the course, I’ve taken the data Martin Crawford supplied and turned it into a nifty nutrient budget calculator. It’s geeky and fun and you can grab it here.

A young forest garden

Later on we visited a 12 acre site that Martin has been working on for around three years. It was both helpful and comforting for us to see an unestablished forest garden, as we could get a sense for what things look like in the early years. This site has a north facing slope (not ideal) and has a fair amount of exposure to wind. The first priorities for Martin were establishing fencing to protect the young plants from rabbits and deer. The fencing also acts as a windbreak and there is sections where it’s installed just for this purpose. As a rough guide, 1km of fencing like this costs £4k.


fencing 2

Natural windbreaks included rows of Autumn Olive (Elaeagnus umbellata) and Sea Buckthorn (Hippophae rhamnoides). Both bushy, perennial, nitrogen fixing plants that produce lots of excellent edible berries. The Sea Buckthorn is quite thorny and Martin’s tip for harvesting was take off the whole branch bearing berries – put them in the freezer for a few hours, once frozen they will happily fall off the branch. The only sacrifice is that the plant will not bear fruits the following season. Not so much a problem if you have several plants and then you can rotate your harvesting.

Row of Sea Buckthorn

Broom was being used as nurse trees for pioneer species, helping aid the establishment of these species. Root Grow was recommended to help draw beneficial fungi into the soil in the early stages, rather than wait for it to find it’s way from hedgerow that was situated far away in this instance.


The furthest section of the forest garden, away from the nursery was a coppicing area that included a range of trees including walnut, chestnut, Californian Redwood and other redwoods. This will work on an 8 year rotation and trees were spaced at a distance of about 2-3 meters.


The irrigation system is worth noting. Rainwater is being collected from all the polytunnels into a storage pond and then pumped using an electric pump to the highest point of the field (about 40m head). From here it is filtered and can gravity feed the site as required.

When using water for irrigation it should be clean to prevent any problems of blockages. The solar powered filter system forced water upwards, opposite to what you might expect for a filter. This was very clever as it reduces significantly the need for cleaning over the years. To clean it, you just switch the pump off and any gunk just drops to the bottom with the big rocks. If it was the other way around, you would physically have to remove the layers in the filter to clean them.

Here’s a rough diagram of the irrigation system:




On the final part of our tour we learnt about the running of the tree nursery operations, which grows approximately 4,000 trees per year.


Mushrooms, Climbers, Grafting, Tools and Path Management

For the remainder of the day, we covered an assortment of topics. My favourite session was on mushroom cultivation which I am now keen to try at our farm. Martin mostly grows shiitake mushrooms on oak logs.

We also looked at some tools. One popular with the group was the fruit and nut harvester – no more bending over – this just rolls over your apples and nuts and picks them right up. Various different sizes are used depending on your fruit/nut size.


Notes from Forest Gardening Course: Part I

It was a cold night camping and my alarm didn’t sound, so I had to get up and leave straight away. No tea or shower but a beautiful walk to Dartington Church Hall, walking briskly.

We spent the first session discussing design techniques. The real value for the group is having the opportunity to learn directly from Martin Crawford’s garden. We took a tour of the trees, discussing their roles, varieties, products, placement and management. A few of the notable and interesting trees included lime, chestnut, szechwan pepper, mulberry, chinese dogwood, bamboo, nepalese pepper and bladdernut. I’m keeping good notes and taking in what I can. Seeing the forest garden first hand is helpful to get a feel for the dimensions and how everything is spaced. It’s unlike any garden I’ve ever seen before. Such incredible diversity.

Later that day, I think of my cousin Elizabeth and her husband Fred Banson, and the beautiful forest garden they are growing near Raleigh, North Carolina. When I visited last Summer, I remember Fred excitedly showing me Martin’s forest gardening book as well as other excellent books informing his homestead design, such as A Pattern Language. I mentioned this trip to Martin. It’s exciting that his experience and knowledge is reaching across continents.

Fred's forest garden in North Carolina
Fred’s forest garden in North Carolina

Our lunch included various products from the forest garden. A rice and quinoa salad, with a range of breads, jams and salad leafs from the garden, which included bamboo shoots. All very fresh and healthy.

Some of the leaves in the forest garden salad
Some of the leaves in the forest garden salad

The afternoon started with a design exercise. We were split into four groups and given a plan view of a site and range of trees. Our task was to come up with a design, putting into practice some of the design principles we have been learning about. Factors such as light, height profile, nitrogen fixation, plant soil preferences and spacing. It’s all very permaculture in process. Although we don’t discuss this explicitly (and Martin hasn’t mentioned the word), it feels most people in the room are experienced permaculture practitioners. It was interesting to see how each group presented very different designs. Martin was able to help us think about what would work well, and those that wouldn’t. I have a tendency towards designing on computers but from this exercise, I can really understand the value in a large scale map, and doing the initial canopy design over several months. There’s a lot to consider and it shouldn’t be rushed.

Designing the main tree layer of a forest garden
Designing the main tree layer of a forest garden

The ground layer

Back to the forest garden for another tour, this time focusing on the ground layer. In general, there are some plants that clump together (e.g. perennial leeks, sorrel) and others that like to move (e.g. mint, strawberry). The ideal situation is to have a good mix of both; covering all ground means that when a perennial dies out, something will move in to cover that space. The garden therefore self-corrects. With a forest garden you will spend the first few years planting things out, but eventually, it becomes a job of management and control, which will include some weeding and then planting out new plants as you desire.

Wild garlic / ramsons, ground ivy, fall strawberry
Wild garlic / ramsons, with ground ivy, fall strawberry and columbine (Aquilegia vulgaris)
Japanese butterbur (Petasites japonicus), Solomon’s seals (Polygonatum biflorum) and other plants

Perrenials are generally slower to germinate than annuals and it’s easy to end up with a weedy mess if you’re sowing directly. Oversowing with an annual will reduce this. For example, we saw sorrel and fennel over sown with trefoil, a very cheap nitrogen fixer which will die back after a year; and hosters planted with siberian purslane (Claytonia sibirica). This approach mimics nature, as you find after land has been disrupted, for example, due to a forest fire, annuals are the first to move in, followed by perennials.

Weeding takes place April to July and Martin says he spends around 8 days weeding per year. When he says weeding, it’s not getting down on hands and knees and pulling up individual weeds, it’s more of a walk through the 2 acres with shears, chopping and dropping. The idea is to give the plants you want a competitive advantage. Weeds may be providing useful benefits so there’s no need to clear them unless they are crowding out the plants you want.

So what else did we see on the ground layer? Some plants include: Turkish rhubarb, day lillies (edible flowers, fresh or dried), valerian (popular in Chinese medicine), lovage, solomon’s seal and swiss mint. We also saw various species of raspberry: Groundcover (Rubus pentalobus – very vigorous – you need to define boundaries) and Nepalese raspberry which is less vigorous.


Passion #2: Permaculture

I wanted to start my revived blog by writing about 5 passions in my life. This one is about permaculture:

Permaculture has given me a new lens to look at land and design – a lens that has renewed my hope for our future. I was introduced to permaculture in December 2011 while I was living in Kenya. I completed a two week course to obtain a Permaculture Design Certificate (PDC). This course was facilitated by Warren Brush, a teacher from Quail Springs in California. I’m now working towards my permaculture diploma which consists of 10 projects where I  demonstrate  integration of the permaculture principles.

Permaculture is…

Permaculture is a conscious design science that integrates ecology, landscape, organic gardening, architecture and agro-forestry in creating a rich and sustainable way of living. Following a permaculture design process can help us understand our connections to each other and the world around us. It also enables us understand patterns found in nature – learning from them and working with them, rather than against.

Permaculture was borne out of the common themes and practices that enabled certain societies to successfully sustain themselves and their surrounding environments for thousands of years. These case studies demonstrate methods of how we can design out pollution, avoid deforestation and prevent soil loss – three problems that threaten our survival.

Permaculture derives from the words ‘PERMAnent agriCULTURE’. Since its foundations in the 1970s by two Australians, David Holmgren and Bill Mollison, permaculture has developed beyond its roots of creating sustainable food growing methods to become a worldwide movement encompassing all aspects of how we as human beings can live harmoniously in relation to our Earth and it’s finite resources – a ‘PERMAnent CULTURE’.

Bill Mollison & Masanobu Fukuoka
Bill Mollison & Masanobu Fukuoka. (Credit: Permaculture Planet, shared under Creative Commons BY-NC-SA 2.0 license).

At the heart of permaculture are three core values: 1) Care for the planet 2) Care for people and 3) Fairshare. When designing a space or project, permaculture offers a set of principles that can help us intelligently approach design to create highly productive, closed loop systems, inspired by the natural patterns found in nature. Practitioners of permaculture benefit from sharing a common language to systems design. 

Some resources

There’s many places to learn about permaculture. A Permaculture Design Course is a good place to start. In the UK, most of these will be listed on the Permaculture Association’s website.

Books: there’s some great publications out there. For general permaculture The most famous is Bill Mollison’s Permaculture Design Manual. Unfortunately, it’s not so cheap. Gaia’s Garden is a useful for home-scale permaculture and the author Toby Hemenway has a long list of recommended reading on his website.

There’s also lots of videos online. Here’s one from Warren Brush, explaining more about permaculture:

An unlikely permaculture garden

Wells Fargo is a big security company in Kenya and their headquarters sits in an industrial part of Nairobi, where business parks are dotted between wide, busy roads. Beside the pavements are stagnant, effluent filled streams. It is an unlikely place for a tourist to go.

With my buddy Petra, we were visiting Catherine Kinoti, a charming lady who has an unusual job at Wells Fargo, dividing her time between administrative work and promoting permaculture. After getting through security, she led us across various courtyards with busy car mechanics and a guard dog training centre to find a small kitchen garden. It is the last thing you would expect here. In this small garden, not more than 15x15ft, we found at least 40 species of herbs, vegetables and fruits. It was also equipped with rainwater harvesting, composting and vermiculture, as well as rabbits, quails and chickens.


It all started a few years back when Gai Cullan, Director of Operations at Well’s Fargo went on a permaculture course. She left inspired and is now integrating it into her business in interesting ways. As well as having the kitchen garden, all security guards at the company are offered an introduction to permaculture course which they do with their security training. Catherine says that the security guards take to it well and love the training. Being in Kenya, it’s likely that many of the guards will have a access to a small shamba, allowing them to use their knowledge in their garden designs.

Some of the useful species spotted: pyrethrum, nightshade, amaranth, lucerne, red chilli, passion fruit, bananas, parsley, aloe vera, comfrey, moringa, arrow root, maize, pigeon peas, rabbits, quail, bantam chicken.

The compost pile
The compost pile

Finding water

Last night I watched a documentary from the incredible series Human Planet. It focused on the ingenious and astonishing lengths people go to in order to have access to water. From community traditions found in the Sahara including Algerian tunnellers that tap into ancient water networks, to fog harvesting in the Atacama desert in Chile, one of the driest places on Earth.


It reminded me of the inspiring Greening the Desert documentary by Geoff Lawton. This is based in Jordan, a country where 92% of the land is desert, with the remaining land in arid highlands (Amman) and the arid Jordan valley. It has one of the lowest levels of water availability per capita in the world and is in water overshoot – drawing much of its water from non-renewable deep aquifer reserves. The concept of drinking historic water which hasn’t been touched for thousands of years is compelling. But longevity is exactly what water excels in. It just keeps enduring, evaporating, precipitating, flowing through all living things. Ancient, yet fresh, able to revitalise our body, giving us life for another day. It must be one of the most recycled items us humans consume. Polluting to the extent of rendering water useless, or even harmful, may be considered a crime against humanity.

Gratefully, I’ve never had to experience the effects of drought. But I’m getting a little closer. This year, I’m living in Kenya. It’s now the dry season and our rainwater harvesting tanks are empty. I’m managing to have the odd shower and I’m getting used to a new mode of grubbiness. Fortunately, we have a car and there’s a spring about a mile or so away, where we can collect drinking water, passing it through a .1 micron filter to keep the more eager bugs out. Water feels scarce, but we are lucky. Priviledged. This experience is certainly helping me appreciate the preciousness of water.


Drought isn’t just affecting the usual culprits. My friend was telling me last night that the South East of England is having a drought. “In February???” I gasped. A quick search confirmed it. Southern England is one of Europe’s most water stressed areas. It’s undoubtably a problem but I don’t feel it should be that difficult to deal with, technically speaking. In the built environment, examples like BedZED demonstrate how you can significantly reduce water consumption without affecting lifestyle quality. And in our streets and on our roofs, there is so much opportunity for better surface water management, which can be twinned with improving natural habitats and increasing local food growing. We can do it, if we really want to.


The greatest challenge is for desert-like countries such as Jordan where there is population growth, diminishing resources, heavy industrial agriculture polluting water courses, and climate change to exacerbate the problem. We need pioneers to show that the answers are within easy reach of us all. That’s why I love Geoff Laughton’s “Greening the Desert”, Permaculture Farms and One Planet Communities. And of course, documentaries such as Human Planet for providing us with a beautiful perspective on water around the world.

Low-tech drip irrigation

We’ve been planting trees in the field around the access:energy workshop. Four moringa (moringa arborea) and a mango tree. To save us having to water the plants each day, my colleague Caleb suggested we use glass bottles to do it for us.

After digging a small hole next to the plant, you fill it with water. Ensure the glass bottle, is fully filled with water, then tip it upside down and press it into the hole, pointing towards the plant. Water will be absorbed from the bottle as the soil and roots need it, so you only have to visit your plants every few days. It’s basically a low-tech drip irrigation. We are hoping the moringa trees will shoot up fast now. Apparently they can reach a height of 3 meters in a year.