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The Whole Systems Approach

Peachy Foxglove hitting their stride!_Th

The theoretical model for our little farm is a living organism. This model includes the subsystems that make up the whole organism, as well as the supersystems into which the organism belongs. We could not exist with out the subsystems of our bodies like our immune systems and digestive systems. We also could not exist without the greater systems that we are included in, like communities and ecosystems. The same is true for plants in the garden, they need healthy microbial systems as well as the support of the greater ecosystems and weather systems. We look to nature and observe the orderly universe and apply what we see to our farm. When we walk into a forest, we see that a tree does not exist independently from the rest of forest life, but rather inter-dependently. The tree needs the tiny micro organisms in the soil as well as the greater community of the forest and even the solar system to support it.


Many of the best principles of systems are counter-intuitive and indirect. Causes will often be widely separated from effects in time and space. The impulsive way to deal with pests is to poison them. The results are immediate but there will always be unforeseen disharmony. When pests die, so do the predators that depend on them for food; when pests return they multiply unchecked creating infestations even more severe. This is why, at the first sign of a problem, we do nothing, and the members of the living system will return the garden to a state of harmony.

The health and stability of the garden system is directly related to the biodiversity of the system. The greater the number of species that exist in the vegetation, the soil and ecosystem, the more stable it is. All of the different organisms help each other and keep each other in check. This is why, when walking through our garden, you’ll find that all different kinds of trees, shrubs, annuals, and perennials, flowers, vegetables, and herbs are all planted intermixed with one another. So plants like more or less of certain conditions and variety in the garden provides that. When we look to nature we see that to be true.

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Learning Form Nature

No Tillage

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Since tillage is one of the more threatening agricultural practices to sustainability, it is a puzzle to me how production systems that include tillage can also claim to be sustainable. An historical review of civilizations that have flourished and crashed since the dawn of agriculture more than 6000 years ago, will reveal that virtually all of them either depleted their own soil or were defeated in resource wars focusing on food; which is to say, soil. In 200 years of European style agriculture, the United States has lost a third of its topsoil to erosion by wind and water--a direct consequence of tillage.

Less known is the depleting effect tillage has on soil organic matter because of oxidation resulting from the admission of air by tillage. This oxidation, that is the burning up of organic matter, releases lots of soluble nutrients so farmers get good immediate results at the expense of the soil’s long-term, stored-up fertility. We also need to note that the carbon lost from the soil after plowing, in the form of carbon dioxide, is lost to the atmosphere.

 “Structure” refers to the pore space and openness of soil to penetration by air, water and roots. Indeed, tillage opens soil initially, but once there is a subsequent downpour or irrigation, the pore space closes much tighter than pre- tillage and makes a much less favorable environment for soil organisms and roots.

Before we leave the subject of tillage I want to consider again the relationship between the whole systems gardener to her garden and hence to the world. One needs no Ph.D in literary symbolism to pick up on the phallic association that plowshares have with the great mother of us all, that is, the Earth. Tillage is very much associated with the patriarchal impulse to dominate and control. Thoughtful people have suggested a matriarchal way of relating to the world as not only desirable, but essential for our survival. No-tillage is an important way this move towards matriarchy can come about. The whole systems gardener relates to her garden by asking how she can support the ancient wisdom of nature rather than how she can dominate and control it. Worth noting is that one’s actual gender may have little to do with one’s personal style of relating to the world.

For the Love of Mulch

Again, if we look to nature, we see that plants live, die and their bodies fall to the ground and are reintegrated over time back into the soil. From grasses, to massive trees, the rule is the same. This organic matter is vital to every ecosystem, including the garden system, and here’s why:

1. To a large degree mulch substitutes for tillage in that weeds are controlled, particularly annual weeds. Hand pulling weeds that grow in the very open soil under mulch is relatively easy and all weeds can be controlled by hand with sufficient diligence.

2. Mulch also does the job people think they do when they till, namely, opening up the soil for water, root growth and a limited amount of air. Earthworms and other soil macro-life feed on it and open passages deep into the soil. These passages, along with the passages created by the decaying roots of previous crops, leave soil open and friable to a degree that is quite amazing.

3. Mulching sequesters carbon out of the atmosphere, where it is stored in a stable form in the soil. The potential of soil for absorbing carbon may be humankind’s best opportunity to mitigate global warming. As long as tillage agriculture remains the preferred way of producing crops, this potential will never be realized. In the terminology of systems, soil is a carbon sink.

4. The permanent mulch cover also serves to shade the soil from water loss by evaporation. It is incumbent on any gardener or farmer interested in sustainability to produce crops with the most prudent use of water. Mulch is one of the very best tools for doing this.

5. To a large degree mulch substitutes for applications of industrial fertilizers and, unlike most of these fertilizers, mulch contains all the elements plants get from the soil that they need for good growth. Composting is much more popular than mulching yet yields not half the advantages. I for one would rather let the soil organisms and time do this for me. Just as William Blake saw the world in a grain of sand, the whole systems gardener sees the universe in her garden. She’d no more make compost than labor on a riverbank with a paddle to make water run downhill.

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