An old tree in a forest plays many parts. It provides shade, oxygen, multiple habitats, food for fungi, browse and nectar for animals. Not to mention that a forest of trees together manages the local water and climate system by storing rainwater, evaporating water that falls as local rain, and moderating the temperature. At other end of the size spectrum, a tiny wasp also has multiple parts: she is a pollinator, a pest controller, and food for birds. Such is the way of nature – each part is multi-functional. In permaculture, we try to mimic that – each part of our garden or farm has multiple functions. Our chickens lay eggs, make compost, eat ticks when they are out in the pasture, and provide chicken companionship.
But what about tasks, our work? Can one task fulfill multiple functions? I never thought about it! But the other day, we stumbled upon a task that accomplished six things in one go. Wow, talk about efficiency!
It was a very humble labor – dethatching an acre with dethatching rakes. The tool rental shop did not have its dethatching machines out of storage yet – yes, I did want to do this with a machine! – so I purchased a dethatching rake and a metal rake and Drew and I set to work.
It was warm and sunny. Our project for the day was to frost-seed the pasture in between the berry rows. Frost-seeding is when you throw seeds on the soil in late winter and take advantage of the frequent freeze and thaw cycles. These cycles make the soil heave and crack pulling the seeds under where they can germinate. We were also over-seeding, meaning the seeds were going into existing pasture. Here, there are already plants, which cover the soil, so that when you throw seeds down, many end up on plant material where they can’t grow. Hence the dethatching. Dethatching jostles the plant material around, which makes the seeds jiggle downwards. It also rakes away a bunch of dead plant material, exposing more soil for the seeds to fall on.
The labor is, as I said, truly humble: rake back and forth, back and forth, across the row and back again, back and forth, back and forth. It is time consuming. But perhaps because there was so much time, it was possible to see that which was not immediately discernable: how much we were accomplishing.
One, we were doing what we set out to do – get our seeds in contact with the soil.
Two, we were improving the pasture’s health. In a pasture with lots of healthy soil life, thatch does not accumulate because worms and microbes break down the dead grass matter. But if, as in our starting out situation, your soil is very sandy and not full of organic life, thatch accumulates making it harder for the soil to breathe and for water to get down to it. This makes dethatching worthwhile it itself.
Three, we mulched our berries. At some point, we noticed that we were raking little piles of thatch to one side of each berry row – right where the berry plants were! By being just slightly more intentional about how we dropped our piles, we got a nice bed of mulch right where we wanted it.
Four, we did an experiment on which seed/dethatching method would give the best results in terms of pasture improvement. We were going slowly, so we had time to notice we were doing things slightly differently from row to row – using the metal rate vs the dethatcher; thatching lengthwise along the row vs crosswise; leaving the thatch on the pasture vs on the berry rows. We decided to make a note of this (another letter) and will check in May which places see the most growth. This will help us make even better use of our time next year!
Five, we were improving the health of our bodies by getting exercise.
Six, it was quiet except for the chirp of birds. This meant we were enjoying our time outdoors, healing our souls from the ravage of this crazy world. Perhaps this was even the most important task of all of them.