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LEAVE THE LEAVES: Urban Soils, Urban Consciousness

UPDATE: A version of this post was published in the 2021 version of New Farmers’ Almanac: Volume 5: Grand Land Plan. See The Greenhorns website for details. Essays, poems, photos, drawings.

Author/activist Naomi Klein made an interesting observation recently, during one of her many “stay at home” teach-ins and interviews during this 2020 coronavirus pandemic. Passover having just ended, she likened the last 40 years — 1980-2020 — to the Jews’ 40 years of wandering in the desert. A similar observation is posted on the homepage of this website — that the years 1986-2016, the 8th generation of the United States — has been “zombieland”, for want of a better term.

In the context of this blogpost — Leave the Leaves — I’m finding Klein’s descriptor not only more culturally accurate, but ecologically accurate. Having spent the last 43 years of my life watching my hometown and metropolitan area discard 90% of its organic matter every year, I think it’s fair to describe us not only wandering in but creating a desert.

This is a streamlined version of articles I’ve written over the years as a professional gardener (1982-2007) and as a food & farm strategist (since 2005). All have had the same title, Leave the Leaves

The point is: Leave the leaves. Leave the grass clippings. Keep as much organic matter as you can, in your yard, in Evanston (my hometown), in every city and suburb. Feed the soil like an organic farmer—as if you were going to grow food to feed yourself, your family, your neighbors—including non-humans, your local web of life.

Hopefully a version of this will be published in the 2021 New Farmers Almanac. But I think the information is too important to delay. 

U.S. CITIES AND SUBURBS: Urban soils, urban consciousness
DRAFT proposal to New Farmers Almanac (2021 edition)

An urban habitat will never grow all of its own food, by definition. It can never have local control over its entire food supply because it will always have more people, buildings, and hardscape than farmland or arable soil to feed its population. Even Havana, Cuba, a model of urban agriculture for 40 years, grows only about 50% of its food.

But people living in cities and suburbs—currently 70% of the U.S. population—can achieve 100% soil consciousness, which can lead to food sovereignty for everyone—rural and urban, farmers and eaters, worldwide. The purpose of having soil consciousness is that soil is the medium that grows the Earth’s green skin—plants–the primary source of our food, oxygen, and fresh water.

The best way to achieve 100% soil consciousness in a given urban location is to think like an organic farmer. Or, to use the latest terminology, like an agroecologist.

In May 2019, Dr. Jonathan Lundgren, an agroecologist based in Estelline, South Dakota, gave a talk at his alma mater about his work to protect and restore the vitality of agriculture production systems by modeling nature. Thanks to Mallory Krieger of The Land Connection for sharing her notes from the University of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign) event over the Regeneration Midwest listserv.

Here are Dr. Lundgren’s principles followed by his “call to action” for farmers. 

Principles to farm by
—Stop tilling (or reduce it)
—Never leave bare soil
—Some plant diversity is better than none, more is better than less
—Integrate crops and livestock

Call to action
“The decisions you make on your farms transcend the boundaries of your farms. The question you should ask yourself every day is, ‘Why are you doing what you are doing?’”

These principles and call to action can be applied in urban and suburban areas by property-owners, home-owners, lawn service companies, landscape designers, business associations, religious and educational institutions, voters, officials, etc.—by anyone concerned about biodiversity, topsoil, food sovereignty, and meaningful living. Let me translate:

The decisions we and our neighbors make on our own property, the land in our neighborhood, and all the land of our towns transcend all of those boundaries. The question we should ask ourselves every day, as we walk over the land of our typical urban community is, 

1. ‘Why do we throw out our leaves every fall? Why do we rake our beds bare in the spring? Why do we bag up our grass clippings? Why do we chase every leaf particle and twig down the sidewalk with noisy, gasoline-powered leafblowers? Why do we spend time and/or money to destroy our soils, every season, every year?’

Or, on the rare occasion we come across the opposite behavior, we might ask ourselves or our neighbor

2. “Why do we leave our leaves, our grass clippings, our dried flower stems, seed stalks, grasses, etc.?”

So far as I can tell (after 25 years as a professional gardener and 43 years in one very urban suburb), there is only one answer to Question #1:

There are a myriad of answers to Question #2: 
Because leaving the leaves will….
a.  Create new soil, adding structure and nutrients, improving growing conditions — for free.  
b.  Protect existing soil from wind erosion. 
c.  Hold moisture in the soil; plants will need less water, less frequently.
d.  Protect plants against extreme weather (cold or heat).  
e.  Give you and your neighbors peace and quiet by decreased use of leaf blowers.
f.  Keep our air cleaner — less fumes, less stirred-up dust.
g.  Decrease fossil fuel use by less frequent use of leafblowers, gasoline-powered lawn mowers and trucking of materials back and forth.
h.  Eliminate much of the time/cost of bagging up leaves.
i.  Protect the habitat of the small creatures — worms, insects, micro-organisms.
j.   Show us the beauty of natural processes.
k.  Produce abundant, nutritious food. 

For the last 40+ years, my hometown (like most other U.S. cities and suburbs) has thrown out 90% of our land’s production, regularly ripping apart the web of life—week by week, year by year. It is no accident that during that time our human social fabric has also been shredded.

Time for us all to start thinking like an agroecologist.

No-till on the Plains Jonathan Lindgren’s website

“Feed the Soil, Feed the Planet” — slogan for Real Organic Project