Have I Seen My Farm?

Fictional universes often feature parallel dimensions, places where people normally cannot go but that exist alongside us. The underwater world is a real life example of this, a realm of the imagination until the development of scuba and submarine technology. However an even more significant parallel dimension exists closer to home, hidden beneath our feet. The topside world we live in is one of DNA destroying ultraviolet light, corrosive oxygen and extreme fluctuations in temperature and moisture that the majority of species on the planet refuse to tolerate. Instead they prefer to live underground. Even plants, the quintessential worshippers of the sun, have about half of their biomass hidden away from our inquisitive eyes. Humans are primarily visual creatures and yet the better half of the landscape is invisible to us, a plain fact that should be kept in mind since it impacts many aspects of managing a farm.

The first major consideration is that the soil beneath our feet is an even more complex and varied landscape than the one above. The mineral composition of the soil also varies dramatically at different depths and locations even in apparently uniform flat places, rendering lab tests of surface soil at best incomplete, at worst misleading. . This can result in one species of plant simply refusing to grow in a particular spot, a reflection of a geological iceberg floating just under the surface. I often see this when I plant long rows of a species across the landscape, where they start out growing vigorously, then a bit further along grow poorly, then a little further refuse to grow even with repeated plantings.

While we can assess surface topography to manage surface water flow with structures like swales and dams the underground is comprised of many varying layers, each with their own topography and permeability that influences how ground water flows through it. This leads to inescapable variations in soil moisture patterns over time, creating spots that are more consistently dry or wet, sometimes in complete opposition to what is predicted based on surface features. In a functional ecosystem the majority of the water should move through the landscape as ground water, provided soil porosity is sufficient to absorb the majority of rainfall without run off. The use of heavy machinery is astonishingly effective at destroying this essential sponginess of living soil, often at surprising depths even after only a couple of passes. This can sometimes be observed as persistent lack of growth or species composition change around places where vehicles once moved. I once read an account of how the first wagons to travel inland in Australia left deep ruts in the spongy soil as they travelled, which were still visible decades later despite no subsequent carts using the route.

Another place this blind spot shows up is in assessing the progress of plants as they grow. Often I plant a tree and it will sit there looking slightly miserable for years. If I simply relied on my vision I would conclude the plant is not growing since it has barely increased in height. Often though these plants surprise me by suddenly putting on a huge amount of top growth after years of superficial stagnation. The whole time the plant was expanding its root system, unseen by me. Only once the plant had a secure foundation did it feel confident in allowing its above ground parts to expand. This balance of leaves and roots is a critical calculation a plant must make. Too much top growth means the roots cannot supply sufficient water during dry spells, leading to wilting or even death. Too much root growth and the plant risks another competitor growing first and claiming access to the sunlight.

This inability to assess a root system without destroying the plant also shows up in the consequences of growing plants in pots. The above ground parts of a plant have a carefully optimised growing structure that balances the requirements of mechanical strength and efficiency of light capture among other factors. If a half grown tree is severely pruned it will usually grow back, but the structure is permanently compromised, leading to a legacy of weakness. The same is true for the unseen underground parts of a plant. When a tree is grown in a pot its root system is usually distorted. The longer the tree is in a pot the more severe this becomes. Even growing in the new “root pruning” pots doesn’t completely fix this problem. As a result the root system of a mature tree that was transplanted from a pot at an advanced size never achieves the structural strength and water harvesting efficiency of a direct seeded tree. As a result such trees are more likely to die in droughts or be blown over by storms than those which express the full potential of their root system. Those planted out at a small size seem to have lesser problems, much like a very young tree that is pruned harshly can recover its core structural elements.

One approach to this reality would be to invest in even more complex technology that can scan underground structures with remote sensing, and soil tests that analyse samples all across the landscape at multiple different depths. Gathering an ever increasing pile of data (at ever mounting expense) allows ever more sophisticated three dimensional plan to be drawn up to be imposed upon the landscape. Maybe rather than just shifting soil on the surface to make swales we could peel the Earth down to its bedrock and reconstruct everything to our designs. That way you could make sure each plant was put in the precise perfect location.

Or you could solve the way nature does it. When a single tree produces tens of thousands of seeds in its lifetime it typically only sees a tiny handful even get past seedling stage. The majority die because they land in places that could never support them, for a large number of reasons. It might seem wasteful for a tree to sacrifice almost all of its offspring (maybe trees think the time we spend drawing up fanciful plans is wasteful as well). But this is the best strategy in a world bristling with constantly changing variables. Instead of basing success on understanding and controlling everything plants simply buy a million lottery tickets and don’t even try to guess the “correct” numbers. A farmer can replicate this by putting as many propagating units (seeds, cuttings or small transplants) in as many different locations as possible, of as many different species as possible. You can reduce wasted energy by planting three of something in an area, then observing if they respond well, before deciding if you should plant more. If they don’t make it then you don’t need to know why they died, or try to change the space to suit that first species. Try ten other species instead. That way you could allow plants to select themselves, regardless of whether a particular spot was rocky or soggy, high in calcium or low in boron. You will know success when you see it and that is all you need to know.

Soil profile from our neighbor’s bore hole on the creek flats. Everything from light orange silty clay (upper left), through to pure white kaolin clay (lower left) then transitioning to what looks like grey crusher dust road base (bottom right). All the minerals you could ever want, provided you can get them to the surface.
A great example of a compromised root system. This is a native sweet potato from the deep sandy soils far inland from here, with roots that go straight down many meters. Even in the biggest pot I could find they went down and made a sharp left. Even carefully transplanted into an ideal habitat this plant could never cope with a crippled root system.
Misty mornings make the whole world look mysterious, cloaked and just out of view. What lies forever hidden, deep beneath in the beating heart of the earth?

4 thoughts on “Have I Seen My Farm?

  1. A very rigorous and thorough way to go about it, but it seems to contrast with your philosophy, no?
    May i suggest a more rounded approach? Observe your lands performance through various conditions and use available information to inform selection for optimal results. In reality plants have a symbiotic relationship with us, they provide food and materials, we plant their seeds with care, far and wide. For instance, you mentioned your too far north for apples, but if you watched for the coldest pockets of your land, went for low chill cultivars and planted a bunch of varieties like you suggest…

    Experimentation is always a great idea though, just costly for time, especially with trees, not to mention money/effort. Further each new addition will change the microclimate (wind break heat sinks etc).

    If your less encumbered by such things id love to see your results though!


  2. One big problem with apples in Australia is the lack of deep genetic diversity. Even people in good apple growing areas have relatively limited access to “heritage” varieties, which are only a few hundred years old at best. Real vigor come from much further back in the family tree from the species apples, which are very rare in this part of the world and almost impossible to import from overseas due to quarantine restrictions.

    And abandoning apples as a crop here is very much in line with my philosophy. People who grow sad bananas in Tasmania and stunted apples in Cairns don’t impress me. Rather than forcing a species to grow where it doesnt want to using all sorts of tricks I would rather just grow the species so well adapted already that I barely need to do anything more than harvest. Even the coldest parts of my farm couldnt grow a decent low chill apple, and with climate warming even marginal species will soon be completely non-viable. Each plant has a role in the farm ecosystem, and apples can be replaced by any number of species in climates that don’t suit them. For me persimmons, jaboticaba and muscadine grape are all very vigorous and trouble free species with enough sugar content for fermentation.


  3. Im not personally planning to go commercial so i wont mind a lack of vigor or slow return. Climate change means years of extremes, for me that means planting a diversity so that whether its a cold or hot, dry or wet year i will get some success and a diverse and resilient diet.

    Apples just being an example, albeit a good one as it has more uses then dessert apples – versatile in cooking, storing and preserving, the wood can be used for smoking or woodchips for mushrooms, they can offer shade and shelter, fodder from apples, leaves and insects, their roots prevent erosion, their leaves build soil and hold moisture.

    While i dont much like permaculture, i do like the idea of using things for more then one main purpose. Even if you dont go apples, i will personally be looking at mass diversity as a buffer for uncertain weather, and also for diet and nutrient diversity.

    While stunted bananas in tasmania may not be praiseworthy, those who can grow them well without undue effort are rewarded with a regional rarity.


  4. I can really relate to this post. I’m not as methodical as you, and have not done the studying you have, but the same idea occurs as I walk the fields and wonder why plants vary so much in what appears from my perspective to be identical conditions. Every square foot of the land has a long history, and porosity, water retention ability, soil type horizons, depth of topsoil, all are invisible from up top, but the plants are telling me something, just not sure how to read and react, or if there is even anything I can do. As you go on to describe, mimic nature with variety and countless trials seems best.

    Anyway, here was my take on a similar aspect of the limits of our senses.



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