Saving the Soil in The Garden of Gaia – Part 1.
An Adventure into Regenerative Agriculture
In this post I report on a recent visit to an inspiring and pioneering place not far from Madrid that is proof that a more beautiful world is possible. From regenerative agriculture to the ins and outs of growing food naturally an organically, I discovered the importance of the soil and how much it really costs to create this kind of project in rural Spain.
Recently, we had the privilege of visiting a very special place, just 40 minutes from Madrid. Situated in the beautiful mountains of San Lorenzo, hidden within a forest of native oak trees and part of a national park, El Jardin de Gaia, (Gaia’s garden) lived up to its name.
As its name suggests, this heart of the philosophy of the space is a deep respect and connection with nature and her natural laws and rhythms.
Using regenerative agriculture as a way to working with nature rather than against her, the owner David, along with his partner Sonia and his brother, the co-founder, have created a educational place whereby people can take courses, and workshops and also rent their own allotment to experience first hand the joy of growing food in alignment with nature.
We were there on a visit organised by one of the Earth Buddy Volunteers from the global movement Save Soil, spearheaded by the yogi and mystic Sadhguru. Thirty of us met from various places in and around Madrid, all with the curiosity to find out first hand what regenerative agriculture is all about.
I was also keen to get some inspiration to nourish my own dream of setting up a project in the countryside. I hoped to gain some useful wisdom as to the practical side of setting up such a place in rural Spain. What advice could they offer someone like me with dreams of making the move from the city to the country? Luckily for me, I had come to the right place to find the answers to some of these questions.
El Jardin de Gaia
We arrived at a nearby campsite and organised cars as to not all drive up the narrow country lane. It was only 6 km to the finca but being a dirt track full of stones and potholes, it took us almost 15 minutes to arrive.
As we slowly approached, on the left we saw a big expanse of lush green vegetable plots, showcasing tomatoes, cucumbers, raspberry bushes and many more fruits of the earth. On the right were the dark mountain peaks, silently standing tall in the 35 degree heat against a bright blue backdrop of cloudless sky.
David welcomed us in and we walked down a narrow path circled by trees that led down to an open expanse where a large circle of white chairs had been set out for us all. We all took a seat, thankful to be in the shade and out of the heat.
Once we were all comfortable and relaxed, David introduced himself. He explained how he and his brother started the project ten years ago with the dream of creating a space which helps people to rediscover their connection to Nature and our role within this mutually beneficial relationship.
He explained that he believed that the next step for humanity is to acquire the “knowledge of life” and the “respect for all life on all levels”. For David, gaining this wisdom is a responsibility, hence why the key motive behind El Jardin de Gaia is to share this knowledge and offer people practical opportunities to put that knowledge into practice.
He spoke with the passion and authority of someone who walked his talk. Clearly an expert in his field with a lifetime of experience to back it up, he told us a little bit about his background and what led him to start this kind of project.
A mountain engineer by profession, he had worked for more than 20 years in environmental companies in Spain and South America. But over time, he began to feel that his knowledge was incomplete. There were things that didn’t add up to him.
“There were missing pieces to the puzzle”, he said. “So I started to explore different areas that had been missing from my previous studies and professional life.”
These new areas of knowledge spanned from yoga and meditation, to permaculture, organic agriculture, biodynamic farming, regenerative agriculture, to even less well known things such as teosofía, espagiria vegetal, Tibetan medicine and Ayurveda, as well as many more!
“Little by little, I began to create a clear map in my mind of all of these new pieces to the puzzle and how they linked together. Later, this exploration became the basis of a new purpose in life that led to the creation of El Jardin de Gaia- named in honour of James Lovelock, father of the Gaia Hypothesis.”
We were all taken with his story and eager to know more. Next he began to tell us more about regenerative agriculture.
“Regenerative agriculture goes one step further than organic agriculture, and of course, much further than traditional agriculture. Whereas in organic agriculture, the use of fertilisers and natural herbicides are still permitted, in regenerative agriculture no additional fertilisers or herbicides are used. We only work with nature following the natural ways of the Earth paying close attention to the quality of the soil”.
This was of much interest to this group of Earth Buddies who were well aware of the problems facing us today in regards to the ever decreasing amount of organic matter in our soils worldwide and the more than real threat of desertification across the globe.
Some of us asked questions about the percentage of organic matter that was in the soil in this part of Spain. David replied that the national average has been recorded to be 1.2%, but that this average is drastically increased by the fertile soils of the north of Spain where they have more rain, whose percentage of organic matter was around 6%. However, the general average of the rest of the country is more like 0.5 or less.
The reason why this is so important and relevant to all of our lives is that organic matter is the very thing that our soils are made from and the source of all life on the planet. It includes the kind of things that you would put in your compost pile or green bin at home: leaves, plant debris, waste matter (such as manure and food scraps.)
This later decomposes and creates hummus, the fertile layer of soil that is necessary for life to thrive. A soil with high organic matter will have worms and other wriggly crawlies that help make the soil more fertile and who all have a vital role to play in the eco-system. A fertile soil will be abundant in terms of crop cultivation and life.
The opposite of this is a desert, which contains no organic matter and supports very little life. Could you imagine planting a tomato plant in a pot of sand? Of course not. Hence, this illustrates the situation that we are in as the world slowly becomes more and more of a desert through loss of organic material from the soil.
One of the main reasons for this desertification is industrial agriculture. It has greatly diminished the amount of organic matter in the soil all over the world by compacting and plowing the soil, both of which are ways of killing the microbial life that gives the soil what it needs to support life.
This has meant that the fertility of our agricultural soils has greatly reduced, not just one country but all over the world. In simple terms this means one thing and one thing only: soils that are less and less about to grow food.
To combat this problem, the industrial agricultural model, as well as the organic agricultural model, use chemical fertilisers of which later end up polluting our rivers, streams and oceans (and our bodies). This is nothing but a quick fix and does nothing to really address the problem of lack of soil fertility. Hence, the problem is only exacerbated, as every harvest depletes the soil even more.
Regenerative agriculture, on the other hand, uses many techniques borrowed from many different disciplines to restore the soil and replenish it with organic matter, giving life back to the soil. Consequently, the crops are healthier and better able to fend off plagues and diseases.
And at the Garden of Gaia, we were in the right place to see this in action.
Whilst giving us a tour of the allotments, David showed us some of the methods he employs as a regenerative agriculturist. Firstly he spoke to us about the importance of mulching the soil, as demonstrated by the layers of straw that covered the soil around all the vegetables.
This is a very simple technique that most growers and gardeners have heard of nowadays. Yet many believe that the main benefit is that it stops other spontaneous or unwanted plants from growing. But David shared that in actual fact, the main benefit is to keep the soil cool so as to not let any of the humidity escape. He said that a few inches of hay is enough but he has known some people to use up to 30 centimeters.
He also shared how in the beginning when the plants are small, it may be beneficial to keep any spontaneous plants at bay. But later on when your crops are bigger and stronger, these unwanted plants are less of a problem and could even be desirable to have them growing alongside your veggies.
Other tips included to never water your crops from above using a hose or watering can, because this can create mold that weakens the plant, making them more susceptible to unwanted bugs and diseases that cause damage. Instead, he said that it was better to have watering tubes buried within the soil itself so that the water goes directly to the roots.
He also shared that it was better to water once a day for one hour, rather than twice a day for 30 minutes. Watering for a long duration allows the water to go deeper in the soil so that all of the roots get watered, not just the ones a few inches deep.
Another way that David grows his food is by planting in vegetable families. That is to say, crops that are all loosely similar grow well together. For example, within the brassica family we have broccoli, brussel sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower, collards, kale, mustard, radish and many more. David planted some of these together because they require similar conditions.
Somebody asked whether he used trees in his vegetable garden to give more shade to the soil, a technique common in regenerative agriculture. He responded that in the soil that he has, the trees would end up taking up most of the nutrients in the soil and so for that reason he only plants trees around the edges.
But considering the increase in temperatures we have seen in Spain in recent years, he has taken to creating shade for his vegetables using a net that he hangs over head. Without this, the plants would scorch just like we would under the hot Spanish summer sun.
To add fertility to the soil, David creates special fermented teas that he later uses on the soil, just a few times a year. The teas add to the microbial life of the soil, which is the key to healthy and abundant plants.
Interestingly, whilst we were all standing under the shade of the veg garden net, he shared that many traditional farmers had come to visit his project over the years and all of them said the same thing: “but none of your plants are infected by plagues. How is that possible?”.
David explained to them his techniques, and eventually, they understood. But it was clearly apparent that none of them had any knowledge about how the soil works or any idea about the importance that it plays in the success or failure of their harvest.
It seems strange, doesn’t it, that a conventional vegetable farmer doesn’t actually know how the soil really works? It seems logical that in order to grow things, especially when your livelihood depends on it, you would know the ins and outs of all the components of your job and the ways that the result could be affected.
But the conventional methods that are passed down to farmers today do not include the knowledge of the soil. It is taken as a given that fertilisers and pesticides are needed and that the field must be plowed. It is the status quo of industrial farming, not questioned and taken as truth. In other words, just the way things are and always will be and therefore not to be questioned.
Indeed, David told us that the council and government bodies show very little interest in these regenerative techniques. They talk about a ‘green transition’ but don’t actually support the techniques that are really making a difference to heal the soil and the planet.
We could be magnanimous and say that perhaps they aren’t aware of them. We could also be critical and say that they have little interest in these techniques because they can be applied readily and freely by farmers and thus, the big corporations benefiting from the sale of pesticides, herbicides and chemical fertilisers would lose out.
Either way, the proof is in the pudding. This guy is doing something right. If the traditional farmers notice the lack of plague straight away then that says something about the efficiency of his methods. And I can attest to the veggies looking very green, healthy and alive!
But how does one go about setting up this kind of project in the first place? What are the first steps? How much does it cost? These were some of the questions that I had in mind as we were walking around the site.
Fortunately I was about to get the answers to some of my questions.
Stay tuned for part 2!
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