Trading Non Renewable Petrochemicals for Topsoil

Out of the five acres of land that makes up the Farmlet, only about three square meters of it had friable topsoil that was clear of kikuyu grass. In other words, only about three square meters of our five acre property was immediately suitable for gardening. Even though we have only been on this property for less than a year, we’re now harvesting vegetables—and have lots more growing—in our large, organic garden.

How did we get up and running so quickly?

Gas powered machines and sheet mulching.

Becky and I are not only focussed on using organic methods, we are paying close attention to the off-site inputs that we are using. We are especially concerned with energy and the use of non-renewable fuels.

Organic gardening isn’t a big mystery to us. We’re both experienced gardeners, so we know that organic gardening works. But what about organic gardening without petrochemical pack animals and field workers?

If you have ever tried to improve soil structure by adding organic matter, you know that it’s hard, time consuming work. We knew, from the very start, that we needed to amend our clay soil with a lot of organic matter. And we needed to do that immediately.

We decided to invest some of the little money we had in machines that, while not at all viable in the longterm, buy us time.

We are using these machines to, quite literally, build topsoil in a timely manner.

Our pickup truck has allowed us to bring in several cubic meters of organic matter from other locations. Look at this beautiful load of chipped tree branches from Becky’s parents’ house, for example.

1990 Nissan Navara, our pack animal, with load of mulch

We drove that stuff about 15km from the coast out to our property. How were the branches cut from the trees? With a gas powered chainsaw. How were they transformed into the smaller chips you see? A frightening and deafening chipper, attached to the back of a large diesel powered tractor, ate the branches and spit out the mulch into a neat pile.

Will this mulch eventually make nice topsoil, after we compost it with animal manure and let it age? Yes, for sure.

Is this path to improving soil sustainable? No.

Let’s look at another technique that we’re using to improve our soil. We’re composting a massive amount of random biomass (weeds) that we’re ‘harvesting’ from the house paddock.

But how are we ‘harvesting’ all of that stuff?

This Echo SRM-250 brushcutter is about as sustainable as the pickup truck and tractor/chipper rig. The Echo goes through heavily weeded areas like a hot knife through butter. It turns the heaviest kikuyu grass into coleslaw. Privet saplings, no problem. Thick sedges, zip.

Full throttle with the Echo SRM-250, tri-blade brushcutter

Here’s a tool that can accomplish roughly the same task in a sustainable manner.

Niwashi Garden Shark, toothed sickle

I did try out the Niwashi. Yep. It works. And I can assure you that you wouldn’t want to clear a large patch of weeds for composting with this tool, unless you had too. We will use the Niwashi for small jobs, especially areas around trees, but the Echo does the ‘heavy lifting’ for the moment.

While we considered buying a full sized scythe, four factors dissuaded us:

  1. Using a scythe is extremely hard, physical work
  2. It takes years of practice to learn how to use a scythe properly
  3. A modern scythe is not an inexpensive tool, costing roughly half what that Echo brushcutter costs
  4. Grass/weed cutting in not part of our long term plans, but is required initially

It’s difficult to express how much work gas powered machines can do, compared with trying to do the same work by hand. It’s shocking, actually. The goal, therefore, is to build permaculture systems that greatly reduce the human labor required and eliminate off-site energy inputs.

Let’s look at a passage from Bill Mollison’s Introduction to Permaculture:

In a permaculture system, we use biological resources (plants and animals) wherever possible to save energy and do the work of the farm. Plants and animals are used to provide fuel, fertiliser, tillage, insect control, weed control, nutrient recycling, habitat enhancement, soil aeration, fire control, erosion control, and so on.

Building up biological resources on site is a long-term investment which needs thought and management in the planning stages as it is a key strategy for recycling energy and developing sustainable systems. We use green manures and leguminous trees instead of nitrogen fertiliser; weeder geese and short herbs rather than lawn mowers; biological insect control rather than pesticides; and animals such as chickens or pigs instead of rotary hoes, weedicides, and artificial fertilisers.

However, careful and appropriate use of non-biological resources (fossil-fuel-based machinery, artificial fertilizers, technical equipment) in the beginning phases of permaculture is OK if they are used to create long-term, sustainable biological systems and an enduring physical infrastructure.

By all means carefully use what is available, use it for the best possible reasons, and develop alternatives as fast as possible.

We find that it always helps to keep the above passage in mind with everything we do on the Farmlet.

There is definitely an inertia factor in play at the beginning, as Mollison mentions. Getting up to speed is hard. If using gas powered tools will allow you to get initial control over small areas, so that you can establish your garden, animal and composting systems, use them.

If you can’t afford the machines, or refuse to use them, the goals are attainable, but with much more effort and on a much longer time scale. This principal should be kept in mind by those who think permaculture will spring up, like a rabbit out of a magician’s hat, as we move into collapse. Sorry. It’s not going to happen that way. But enough about that.

The importance of sheet mulching can’t be understated. Please learn this simple technique and be ready to teach it to others. We used this technique in solid kikuyu, one of the most invasive grasses on the planet, and we are growing beautiful vegetables in those areas now. We used no herbicides (or synthetic chemicals) of any kind. Animal manure and composed plant matter and woodchips (like in the picture above) were added to our soil. That’s it. (We are going to put chickens to work on the next phase of the garden.)

The combination of sheet mulching with limited use of gas powered machinery has served us well. These tools have allowed us to start a sizable, thriving garden, full of tasty vegetables, in less than a year. And it’s just going to get better with time!

14 Responses to “Trading Non Renewable Petrochemicals for Topsoil”

  1. Frank Black says:

    I heartily agree with your point. A few days ago I was typing up a response to a particular point made about solar energy on a particular board which is particularly short-sighted about such things. While I will agree that there is no single replacement for petroleum, I think the combination of alternative fuels, improved efficiency and (most importantly) scaled-back use and lifestyle can get us to a place where we can tread water or even float. My particular point was to admit that EROEI regarding solar wasn’t stellar, but improving quickly. And, I envisioned a solar panel/equipment manufacturing plant that was somehow run on solar energy. But that meant we’d have to first use petroleum to build the thing. I called it “priming the pump”. You’ve got to get the thing started. But, once you do, you can use those panels for consumer use and even use them for building yet another plant. So, even if my concept of pump priming is impossible or foolish, your use of petroleum is quite reasonable and wise given your goals.

  2. […] I’ve written a post on Farmlet about how Becky and I were able to establish our garden so quickly: […]

  3. Matt Savinar says:


    I think you’re referring to the LATOC board. Most on the latoc board would say that what Kevin and Becky are doing is a primae example of the type of scale at which solar and other renewables have their use. They are fantastic for the type of situation Kevin and Becky have. But thinking we’re going to run anything even remotely resembling the greater society on a combination of renewables plus conservation is just ludicrous.

    Maybe kevin can chime in on that. Do you think much of America is going to be able to do as you guys are doing? My guess is his answer is no, if it were otherwise he wouldn’t have hightailed it out of here in the first place!

  4. TimBuck2 says:

    Matt – I couldn’t agree more with the analogy of ‘priming the pump’!
    For what it is worth, I don’t think that much (or even little) of America could do this. But, as with everything else, if some people would do some of what Kevin and Becky are doing, anywhere in the world, things could be looking a lot brighter…
    Kevin – Another way of improving soil is saw dust and shavings (obviously only from untreated solid timber). Although you will still have to cart it in, quite frequently you will be able to pick it up for free from a local sawmill/joiner etc. And while you are bringing it in, make the most of the old Navara ‘pick-up truck’ (which by now mate, I would have thought you’d call what it really is down here – a ute.
    Sawdust is especially useful if you have to deal with clay (loads of it in the northern areas of Auckland for example – not sure about your part of the world).

  5. Kevin says:

    Guys, there is not going to be a voluntary mass transition. It’s simply not going to happen. Powerdown in a calm, rational way??? People are shooting each other over Playstation game consoles.


    Look around, wherever you are, anyone who even talks about this stuff is considered nuts. Imagine you went into work tomorrow and told people you wanted them to:

    Shit in a bucket
    Kill animals and eat them
    Milk a cow
    Use their cars only once per week
    Build gardens where only weeds exist
    Take fewer showers

    Noooooooo f*!&^@% way. They’d call the cops on you.

    What we’re doing isn’t a solution. What we’re doing is like trying to build a life raft on a sinking ship. The ship IS going to sink, and no amount of positive thinking is going to change that. But maybe we can find a few cushions that will float, some planks, a bucket or two, a blanket for a sail. If we manage to build the life raft, will it stop the ship from sinking? Hell no.

    This would never happen, but say a few million people in urban areas just woke up one day and said, “Yep. I’m going to live like Kevin and Becky.” They go off and do it. Their energy use drops way off. What would happen to energy consumption?

    We already know what would happen!

    The people with Hummers would smile as they fill up because their gas will be a few cents cheaper for some period of time. Maybe they’ll buy another Hummer to celebrate the lower gas prices. GM would make a Double Hummer with cheese… Or a tractor trailer Hummer. 3.7 miles per gallon. Special parking spots will have to be created at WalMart.

    While those few million people who went off to live like Kevin and Becky might find that they like their new low energy lifestyles (or, more likely, not), what did it do to change net consumption?

    Nadda. Zilcho. Nothing.

    If, on the other hand, gas prices start spiking upward and the really serious shit starts to happen, again, there isn’t going to be a calm, rational transition. No way. Why? Because it’s unthinkable. It’s so unthinkable that it doesn’t even enter into their nightmares. There aren’t any Starbucks out here. Way too scary.

    Re: ute vs pickup… I know it’s ute here, but this site is mostly read my Americans. Becky writes in proper Kiwiease, though.

    Re: Sawdust: We got a couple of wool sacks full of sawdust. We’ve been using it in the composting toilet. Great stuff.

  6. Peter says:

    I’ve been building a greenhouse recently, which required moving some large amounts of earth & stone around. I did some by hand with wheelbarrow & shovel–very slow going. But then my father lent a hand with the tractor. *Days* of work compressed into mere hours.

    For my part, I am 1) acquiring skills, practices, and habits of mind suitable for the future, while 2) making the most of what’s currently on offer, by way of fuel and tools, etc. ie, if I have a lot of earth to move, better to move it now, while fuel is cheap, than as some point down the road when I might need to move it by hand.

    In that way, I can transfer today’s cheap fuel prices into the future, “storing” it so to speak.

  7. Eileen says:


    I really love reading about your farmlet and how yourself and Becky are doing things.

    I don’t know if you have things shipped to you from the U.S., but I thought you might be interested in the equipment at the Free Power Systems site.

    I bought the Sun Pony tiller this past spring and I am awestruck every time I use it. No noise, no fumes, nada. Makes gardening with hard packed clay dirt (which I’ve been digging leaves and compost into it by hand for several years)so well, FUN!

    As for sheeting, Sun Belt fabric from Peaceful Valley Farm really does the job well. I buy it in the squares versus the long rolls, and use earth staples to hold it down. It smothers everything but lets the water through. You pick up the square after a few months and there is nothing there but bare dirt. I’ve had several pieces that I’ve used for about 6 years.

    Happy Gardening.

  8. Frank Black says:


    I’m stuck in this amorphous place where I *know* in my heart that we certainly could scale back enough with the various components I mentioned above and still maintain a good standard of living. I think where the LATOC folks are right isn’t in the nuts and bolts of making this change, but in their assessment of the psyche of the average American. Those like Kevin who put things into play have the correct mindset. They know we need to scale back our consumption, stop waste, decrease the size of everything we have (homes, automobiles, etc.) and to use alternatives where necessary. If we had strong and inspiring leadership on this issue, we could certainly do it. But, I will say that the LATOC gang does generally see the facts when it comes to the mindset of the average family in America. The average citizen doesn’t want to know or think about this stuff. It is easier to send young people to their deaths in some allah-forsaken spot on the earth so we can dominate the oil trade. I guess that is more than I like to acknowledge or think about about.

    But, regardless of that stuff, you guys are doing a great job and are an inspiration to many. Again, in this case you are saving petroleum and hastening your own self-sufficiency.

    Keep up the good work, Kevin and Rebecca.

  9. Kevin says:

    Peter, the earth movers are some of the best uses of fuel that I have seen, relative to what it would take to do the same job by hand. We’re considering building a swale/dam/pond thing at the base of a steep part of one of our pastures. It’s just a muddy bog at the moment. It’s a couple of hours work with one of those machines; practically unthinkable otherwise. Doing this would create an extremely beneficial microclimate that the birds would love, as well as providing another layer of water security for us.

    Use this stuff while you can. Use it for the right reasons, without hesitation.

  10. Kevin says:

    Thanks, Frank!

  11. Mike says:

    >Using a scythe is extremely hard, physical work

    When using an appropriate scythe this is not the case. In fact it is quite relaxing – especially when you consider the noise and vibration. But, a grass scythe won’t take out a thick woody weed, and thick woody weeds are harder work.

    >It takes years of practice to learn how to use a scythe properly

    I have only used one for a few hours. There is no way I compare with those old timers, but it really isn’t that bad.

    >A modern scythe is not an inexpensive tool, costing roughly half what that Echo brushcutter costs

    Granted. But it is still half. Ongoing cost of ownership is a gimmee.

    And, as the energy decline becomes faster, you are going to have to buy it one day……..

    >Grass/weed cutting in not part of our long term plans, but is required initially

    ….unless it is not in your long term plans -:)

  12. rich says:

    Kevin & Becky

    Depending on the power of the pickup, you can get even more leverage out of your fossil fuel use by using a trailer. I’m able to get more haulage out of every trip, and when I need to buy material, I often get the ‘bulk’ rate rather than the ‘homeowner’ / retail rate. Mine’s paid for itself several times over, and I can haul it with my toyota easily.

  13. Doug Mitchell says:


    What a hoot your Year One experiences continue to provide to this fellow ex-pat, as you wander through so many of the dilemmas of principle we’ve also encountered here in the Ardennes/Eifel, pursuing our very similar set of goals.

    I jokingly use the term “Benzinsklaven” (literally, “gasoline slaves”) when discussing the topic via my newly won understanding of the German language. A century ago, this house held an extended family of uncles, aunts, cousins and others. Work was performed collectively. Such an arrangment was understood as part and parcel of the roof over your head and a seat at the dining table.

    We’re not yet in possession of such benefits, as the wife’s siblings are all off making handfuls of money holding up German institutions of capital and empire. I don’t see any of them making urgent plans to head back to their ancestral home in the hills to learn the rural arts we’re taking to so enthusiastically. In fact, they all think we’re a bit unhinged, with our chickens and compost and traditional, non-industrialized approach to food, medicine and life in general.

    And yet, there I am a couple weeks ago, a snarling Stihl 260 in hand, ten meters up in a hydraulic basket lift (borrowed from a cousin, it’s a start) pruning the big horse chestnut and “Ebereiche” (mountain ash/rowan) trees in the western corner of the house property. Or using the air chisel to strip away 250-year-old lime and mortar in the old house stable I’m renovating by way of learning masonry, et al.

    Then there’s the trimmer, the big table saw for cutting large timber, our own ute (with trailer) and a thirty-year-old John Deere diesel tractor — a relic of the dairy farm, with as many as 80 head between 1958 and 1997. Without the “bulldog”, as it is known in the local low German dialect, there is NO WAY I would have been able to skid and haul the logs for our timbers from forest to the little local sawmill. And I could go on.

    Simply put, there’s no way a guy like Kevin (or yours truly) can accomplish what we’re each attempting in our own locale without one of two key additional energy inputs: human power, in the form of extra hands and shoulders, or hydrocarbon power, the 20th century industrial ersatz. Down the road, if we’ve done well in terms of planning and acquisition, we’ll have the place humming along with the help of animals to graze down the orchard and house paddock, a well-maintained stock of human-powered tools and old-fashioned devices — and when economic hardship comes down hard on the western cities of industrial Germany, those extra hands.

    Managing that transition is what it’s really all about right now, and you do what you can with what you have. We’re fortunate enough, through foresight and just plain luck, to be in a situation where we can still utilize some of the last rays of abundant petroleum sunshine that make our work possible at its present scale. Four hands, large property, big garden, several hectares of forest, etc. The renovation of the building is proclaimed as having a tourism basis when speaking with family. Between us, we’re also thinking in terms of boarders a few years out, and the return of something resembling and extended family. For what it’s worth, we are not yet consciously pursuing the eco-village concept, though it has organically entered into our thinking as we’ve contemplated our course.

    I also have the mixed fortune of having a 79-year-old father-in-law around who went from 16-year-old conscript and Bulge survivor (we are on the Siegfried Line) to POW in England to coal miner in Essen to country farmer on the family lands back in the Eifel in thte late fifties.

    He brings certain key experience into focus at times, though he is not a teacher by any stretch. Trial by fire is an accurate description of his primary (only) methodology. I learned to drive the bulldog on steep, wet and muddy hillside tracks. Alone. A little scary at first, but mostly a lot of fun, and I’m pretty good at this point.

    As such, my initial scythe experience was informed by watching him at a distance one summer afternoon dropping long grass out back for drying, as a winter hay supply for the chicken stalls. I picked up the blade when he took a break, applying what I’d read and what appeared to be the basic mechanics of a truncated golf swing. In less than five minutes of what probably looked like retarded Tai-Chi, I’d found a comfortable rhythm that brought the blade edge through the grass at an optimal cutting angle and afforded “vertical adjustment” to accomodate terrain features.

    Yes, it’s a far different experience than running a loud two-stroke anything to trim hedges/prune big trees/etc. A colorful petroleum-era analogy, having done both, would be to compare it to the difference between being airborne in a glider and lifting off in a military jet. I find the scythe is actually a contemplative instrument, and though the work is relatively strenuous, such work seems to get ever-easier as we continue to maintain and pursue our Weston A. Price-based traditional nutritional approach.

    Looking back to my first thirty years in-and-around the Pacific Northwest — I’m a Seattle-area native — and my last few in Tijuana Norte (San Pedro), I chuckle louder than ever these days at the conventions of “civilized” life stateside and in a smaller but no less noticeable way here in urbanized Europa. I’m physically stronger than I’ve ever been, and I’ve always been an athletic type, and I haven’t set foot in a gym in several years.

    Despite this excellent side-effect of the new lifestyle, the Benzinsklaven are a pragmatic solution for the present. I got over my guilt quickly, when the range of alternatives was considered. We are building toward local sustainability, and making good progress. I’m herding gasoline to make the place into something that can be maintained by hand, which was definitely NOT the agenda in redeveloping Germany back in the fifties, sixties and seventies when Schwegervater Josef added dairy stables and two silos.

    Like everything else in life, it’s a process. Step number one was shifting the surroundings, the largest and most intimidating by far, and yes it is a doozy. The multitude of mincing steps that follow are often enlightening, occasionally humorous and often downright evolutionary. Or is that revolutionary?

    # # #

  14. Svdharma says:

    I have experiance in this area as well. I recently installed a greywater system that required shoveling about 16 yards of dirt twice, which I did with a shovel only. Luckily I have a sandy loam where I live, but it was still a months worth of work or so. The point that I have to make is that doing the labor by hand can really be worth while in the results you get. Working out a substantial amount every day will make your mind much sharper on top of all the obvious physical changes that hard work can produce. I would say those that are able should embrace doing work like this the hard way, if possible. Thats not to say that I oppose using power tools, but good old fashioned work can be worth while.