The Plant Graveyard

I would like to express some unpopular ideas. If anyone else likes to poke the bear, step right up and grab a beer, you’re in for a treat.

First on the menu is the plant graveyard. Plants are viewed as bottom feeders, vultures — cannibals even.

Just as vultures have gut bacteria to help them digest rotting flesh, plants have microbes in their root zones.

The dirt in the garden, or native soil, is viewed as unworthy or lacking. It is the means to anchor the plant to the ground, pretty much.

We need to gather the dead bodies of plants around us, and move them to our plant graveyard. This enables the recyclers with green leafs to absorb the nutrients by means of their digestive system located at the gut/root zone.

Somehow, if a plant is a staple food producer, it is not capable of producing food of sufficient quantity/quality in the long run without human intervention. When we pluck a tomato off the vine, we are taking something from the soil. Every tomato we take is one less tomato the ground can bear. Eventually, the stuff the ground makes tomatoes with will eventually be used up — unless we intervene. So it is our job to keep the graveyard well stocked.

If you don’t have enough plants dying around you, it is recommended to get yourself a plant killing weapon such as a machete and start hacking off new material for your plant graveyard.

As we breed plants to expect and depend on a steady supply of carrion, we must keep our bloodthirst. Every year, the native weed species will shiver as we wave the machete and blow the horn.

Okay, I am done with the exaggerated explanation of reality. Anyways, has anyone else wondered if there is a better way?

I want to believe there is a way out of this graveyard business by way of genetics.


I think there is an similar dynamic with soil nutrients as with the water cycle.
Just as there is a big water cycle that we all learn in school (evaporation from the ocean falling as rain on the land which runs back via rivers) there is also a small water cycle as water evaporates (mostly through plants) to create rainfall and dew water cycles on smaller scales.
There are grand nutrient cycles that involve nutrients going all the way to the ocean, tectonic plates turning to lava and being spewed back onto the surface over millions of years, plus smaller more localised mineral cycles.
There is also a kind of buffering set point of every natural soil type. If you could chemically strip all the minerals out of clay surface soil then it would slowly reabsorb more of them from the subsoil (which often goes down for many meters). Below that there is vastly more of that mineral trapped in the bedrock, which is constantly being broken down by microbes (supercharged by symbioses with plants).
Building higher levels of fertility in one location is balanced with higher rates of loss through leaching. Increasing soil health (organic matter,biomass, texture etc) keeps this treasure in one place a little longer than otherwise, but enriched places always rely on deprived places in the surroundings. Moving nutrients across the landscape stimulates their replenishment in the outer zones, but that only works if sufficient functional biomass remains to extract it from the bedrock.
We have to accept that growing systems which rely on concentrating nutrients from the wider landscape can only ever be a small percentage of the landscape. We need complementary management systems and useful species to make the most of those much larger spaces.

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I’m not sure I agree with that statement. I’ve watched many hours of Dr. Elaine Ingham on YouTube explaining all about soil. From my understanding, its the biology in the soil (bacteria, fungi) that use enzymes to break down the raw minerals of the dirt and make nutrients. The roots are in a symbiotic relationship with the bacteria and fungi to get the nutrition they need. There is a whole ecosystem, a “soil food web” between the bacteria, fungi, protozoa, nematodes micro-arthropods and plant roots. So as long as there are plant roots and biology, they will forever be able to turn dirt (raw minerals) into nutrition, so an unlimited amount of tomatoes can grow because until the dirt runs out (the dirt goes down thousands and thousands of feet deep) the biology can convert it to nutrition.


I think there are a limited number of tomatoes that can be grown in a fixed time frame, but it is possible to hit limits for water, light, minerals or a bunch of other factors in practice. If you allow an unlimited amount of time and soil biology then that one fixed space can “borrow” the necessary ingredients from the wider landscape (including the unimaginable depths of the subsoil).

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Does this mean tomatoes do not need compost, urine, or other inputs to grow? I suppose after a few years of growing in one spot, the tomato building ingredients in the ground would get all used up. Is this not the reason crop rotation is advised? To give the weeds time to come in there and do what the weak tomato plant supposedly cannot do for itself in terms of gathering resources that are not in a super available form?

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Something smells off about the whole crop rotation for soil recovery thing. Now that I think of it, look at all the perennial fruit bearing plants in nature. The fruit gets picked off by birds and such. Occasionally a rodent takes a leak on the base of the plant, but who’s watching?

I wonder how many people have actually put these common theories to the test in multiple situations. The second half of this year is the first time I cut off all fertilizer. The only thing I do now is compost my kitchen scraps and mulch certain plants with grass clippings. Most of my kitchen compost gets taken away by the ants and fly maggots inside my spinning drum composter. I plan to put everything to the test.

I think the real truth is breeding practices have made garden staples weak to low input methods. I think we are so out of touch with reality it’s not even funny. I can’t imagine a cave man drawing an image of a salad on a cave wall. Just going out and picking lettuce leaves he didn’t even plant would cost more energy than it’s worth.

Plants, like all organisms, need to expend energy to gather the resources necessary to build their bodies. Intensive gardening is about outsourcing this requirement to maximise yields. Plenty of wild plants fall into symbiotic relationships with all sorts of species to help them meet their needs. You can definitely grow a lot of food without inputs on ordinary ground, but you can grow a lot more with unlimited inputs. Landrace grain yields per acre were about 1/10th amount under intensive industrial conditions (though legumes have proven less responsive to fertiliser than grasses). You can breed crops for fertiliser response (which tends to shift plant resources away from the ability to extract the minerals from the soil).
Phosphorus is a great example (every element has its own unique and messy dynamics). When you take soluble phosphorus and apply it to most soils it turns insoluble pretty much overnight (often locking up trace elements in the process). Plants rely on microbes to put it back into motion, but they have to offer the microbes energy from photosynthesis in return. This sets up a trade off- photosynthesis is always limited, so the amount of phosphorus the plant can buy is limited. A locally adapted plant can optimise this trade off (for phosphorus and the couple dozen other elements that need to be negotiated for with soil microbes). Soluble fertiliser breaks down this whole relationship and lets the plant keep all its photosynthetic output.
I suspect fallow works well because it allows the space to grow whatever species grow the best (either from a multispecies cover crop or better a diverse weed population). The species that put the most limiting nutrients into motion the best are the ones that grow the most, so the system tends to rebalance itself.
My suspicion is that “exhausted” land is actually nutritionally unbalanced land from too much added fertility. When you add fertility to a spot, then selectively remove a subset of it, eventually the imbalances become too extreme for plants to cope with. Most essential minerals exist in equilibrium with each other. A good example is calcium and magnesium. They are both needed but get in each other’s way (so if your calcium is really high then magnesium becomes hard to absorb- kind of like it taking forever to pick a dozen blue M&Ms out of a truck load of brown ones). This is a bigger factor than the absolute level of some nutrients.

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If you pick a tomato and fire it out of the solar system, it represents an irreplaceable loss of nutrients. If you eat it and compost your feces and fertilize with your urine, then all that matter goes back to the garden. Selling the tomato at a farm-stand is somewhere in between those two.

Entropy is going to win this game in the long run, but on the time scale that we care about, some changes in our priorities and practices can make growing food essentially free of depletion.


Austin I agree with you about the crops we grow being to different degrees dependant on human intervention. One of my goals for my garden is to breed my species of choice to require minimal intervention. Going along with this I take advantage of the leaves from the trees at north end of my garden. Whatever doesn’t fall into the fenced area of the garden gets raked up and put there. I also don’t do the conventional fall “clean up” of the garden. Everything stays for the winter. It also seems like an area where rabbits congregate in the winter, so they leave me fertilizer. I’m still thinking of other things I can do. I’ve added composted chicken poop a couple of times but I want to get to where I don’t need it anymore. Next year I want to start growing cowpeas among my other plants

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This is only functionally true if there isnt a huge store of minerals in the subsoil that is in equilibrium with the topsoil where the majority of crop species gather their nutrients.
My understanding is that above ground ecosystem invests a certain amount of energy in the soil ecosystem to bring the nutrients it needs to the surface. These are constantly leeching back down or being lost to horizontal movement in the landscape, so the plants have to continually invest energy in putting the minerals back into motion. Some plant species are better at summoning different minerals from the subsoil than others. Crop species tend to be at the weaker end of the spectrum.
If you shoot a tomato into space it just means the system has to divert some energy that could have been used to grow another tomato relatively easily from minerals recycled in a shorter cycle, and use that energy to summon more minerals from the subsoil instead. So there is an energetic cost to the ecosystem, but it is a temporary one. Of course in theory you could fire enough tomatoes into space over thousands of years to have an impact. Every time the system loses minerals it has to work a little harder next time to replace them. Far more likely to impoverish your soil is removing all the weedy species that are capable of summoning subsoil minerals from your particular patch of land.
Importing fertiliser can often throw out the balance of nutrients, which is worse than absolute deficiency. I’d rather have a slow growing tomato than a chronically diseased one any day. Organic fertiliser can do this as well, but it is easier to push soil to extreme imbalances with chemical fertilisers.

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One thing to consider is that nature doesn’t do monocultures.

Plants in a polyculture trade off nutrients, trade them around, feed the soil food web which in turn feeds them with nutrients they can’t harvest for themselves.

Legumes die and put stored nitrogen into the soil. Garlic (and onion, to a lesser extent) puts out sulfur through its roots. An almond tree has high levels of phosphorus in its bark and nuts. When it drops its fruit, that phosphorus becomes a slow release fertilizer.

When we till the garden, put in 30 tomato plants, and pull out anything in that area that isn’t a tomato, we kill the soil and prevent the plants from getting nutrients from the various other plants, bacteria, fungi and other soil life they would otherwise have access to. Then in the fall we pull out everything, clean up the garden of all plant detritus (which would otherwise feed next year’s plants) and bring compost or equivalent into our plant graveyard.

Or we complain that our soil is bad and bring in artificial fertilizers.

Admittedly there are circumstances where this system breaks down, such as where the soil is consistently bone dry.

Just something to consider, and another piece of the puzzle.


The last time I buried fish heads, a random dog dug it up and disturbed other areas of my garden.

I’ve been fishing at a local riverbank here lately. I noticed the ground around the river is very flakely but rich looking. We are currently in a drought so I figure the water level is down. I thought about sneaking in some water melon seeds all around that place and see if I can spot watermelons in the trees next season.


I like how you are thinking about this. I know people who collect trash bins of fish waste from the fish stores around here and compost them with an endless supply of woodchips from the powerline trimmers. They grow on the bones of thousands of fish and trees. I find it is a lot of work though, a lot of tractor work and moving materials. I think you can endlessly cycle growing legumes with other crops. This is why I prefer plants with big skeletons, like peas that grow into massive bushes, and grains that grow 4 ft tall with heavy straw. These plants capture enough energy to feed me and still leave a tone of food for the microbes to feed future plants. Isn’t the best soil full of carbon?


I like that you mentioned certain types of plants have certain talents for mining or building certain nutrients. And that these surpluses resulting from talent are traded and balanced in the surrounding area.

I want to breed plants that have well rounded talents. I want a “fill in the blank crop” that has the ability to get what it needs in regular dirt without being in a plant graveyard. So I mean very low organic matter.

Maybe someone with a good video recorder can post a time lapse video of a plant pulled out of the ground, root and stem, and dropped there on top of the soil surface. Let’s say it’s a cucumber vine. What will happen is the vine will rapidly lose water and shrink. Then it will get really dry and crispy sitting there on the ground. I imagine after a week or so, most of the nitrogen has evaporated back into the atmosphere. What is left after a few weeks is still sitting there on the surface. I don’t see it nourishing my dirt. I don’t know if I have the patience for that.

Also, I tried the long white radishes for no-till loosing and enriching of the soil over last winter. What I found was I had to dedicate half of a year to grow the radish and watch it slowly turn back into soil. All that time I could have been growing something useful there. The soil goes back to its normal crappy state unless the graveyard is consistently supplied.

This graveyard business seems like driving with the brakes on.

I really want to believe there is a better way. Even though it’s unpopular, growing plants in regular dirt without fertilizer or compost, in the same spot over many years seems like driving with the pedal smashed to the floorboard.

I want to subject my breeding plants to concentrated torture. If more than half of them survive, then I take it I was not hard enough on them. It’s like training for a 5 mile marathon by regularly doing 20 miles before breakfast.

Depends on the plant you are trying to grow. Some soils are pretty much 100% carbon if you go to a peat bog, but not many plants enjoy growing under those peculiar conditions. I think our language lets us down here. There is no simple axis from low fertility to high fertilty. There are no ingredients where more is always better. Every species has a range of conditions it can tolerant and a narrow range under which it can thrive. Dream up some weird set of conditions that no organism has ever adapted to and leave the space empty and you will usually find something will turn up and start growing sooner or later.

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Doesnt this describe how the majority of plants grew on this planet for the last tens of millions of years?


We only need the biology in the soil, we apply good aerobic compost, not as an input to the soil, but as an inoculant that contains the beneficial microbiology. No other inputs are needed, the only thing needed to have is the biology (ecosystem in the soil) to make the abundant nutrients available for our plants to use. Dr. Elaine Ingham addresses the very question that you posed at about the 32 minute mark in this video. If we are able to maintain living roots in the soil then we only need to apply compost once as an inoculant and no other inputs are ever needed.

It sounds like you’re describing pioneer species. Look into what edible weeds in your area are pioneer species! If I’m recalling correctly, wild ecosystems usually grow in waves of succession, starting with a lot of pioneer species, then other plants gradually move in alongside them. Eventually, the pioneer species get rare in the center because they’re being outcompeted by plants that need high fertility, and they spread out to the edges of barrenness, which is where they thrive.

It seems to me that if you mimic that, you could probably accomplish a lot for very little effort. When you work with what nature wants to do in your climate, you’re turning your climate into a powerful ally.

Speaking for myself, my hope is to keep gathering organic material from everything that would otherwise be thrown away in my neighborhood, and keep building the soil that way. I need as much organic material as possible in order to hold water in my (pure sand desert) soil.

Eventually, I’d like to get to the point where I don’t need outside inputs at all. I figure I can probably do this by having mature fruit trees that are drought tolerant, with deep roots, that drop tons of autumn leaves in the fall. I think deep-rooted perennials that drop fall leaves are the biggest answer to this conundrum. They’re getting their nutrition from a place rich in it that would otherwise be unavailable. That’s kind of like getting something for nothing!

I also think it will be essential to compost all humanure, because you really can’t have a closed loop system unless you actually close the loop.

Creating islands of fertility can be a really good idea, because it allows you to have different growing conditions close to each other, which means you can have a wider variety of species, thereby creating more diverse polycultures. Permaculture calls this the “edge effect,” and it’s truly valuable.

Those islands of fertility, or oases, can be cared for so that they get a little larger every year without outside inputs. By concentrating fertility into a few spaces, you can sometimes get way more organic matter out than you put in. And that allows you to keep pushing those edges out, until you eventually make all the land fertile.

It requires patience, but it works. It’s sustainable. But it’s only sustainable if you truly are closing that loop.