Living Fences: How-To, Advantages and Tips

Permaculture is for everyone.

Permaculture is for everyone.

Another great article from Mother Earth News. I want to start a living fence, and will implement many of these ideas.


Fences on your farm or homestead define property boundaries and separate production zones (garden, pasture, orchard). They provide privacy and security from animal (and perhaps human) intruders. They confine livestock and protect them from predators. They guard crop areas from wild raiders (such as deer) as well as animal allies (such as sheep and goats).

Your first choice for such a multifunctional homestead necessity may be manufactured fencing: woven or electric wire, welded livestock panels, boards on pressure-treated posts, or even virgin or recycled plastic. As the energy and environmental crises deepen, however, such options are becoming less appealing and more expensive. The chemical preservatives, paints, and galvanizing agents used in fence manufacturing and maintenance may have toxic spillover effects in the environment. Furthermore, most manufactured fencing is a “one for one” solution. A woven wire fence meant to contain livestock, for example, provides that service and nothing more. The key to a more self-sufficient homestead that imitates natural systems is finding solutions that simultaneously solve more than one problem, provide more than one service and support more than one project. Enter living fences.

The Many Benefits of Living Fences

A living fence is a permanent hedge tight enough and tough enough to serve almost any of the functions of a manufactured fence, but it offers agricultural and biological services a manufactured fence cannot. For instance, it provides “edge habitat” that supports ecological diversity. As more species (insects, spiders, toads, snakes, birds and mammals) find food and refuge in this habitat, natural balances emerge, yielding, for example, a reduction of rodents and crop-damaging insect populations.

Depending on the plant or tree species you choose, living fences can provide food and medicine or fodder for your livestock. Your animals will also enjoy the shade of a dense hedge. The foliage of some hedge plants, such as elder and Chinese chestnut, containsmore protein than the quintessential protein forage crop, alfalfa. Willow and honey locust also make good fodder. I’ve been experimenting with Siberian pea shrub recently, as the peas can be harvested to feed poultry.

Leguminous species included in the fence, such as black locust and pea shrub,fix nitrogen in the soil throughout the root zone, and you can harvest some of that nitrogen for garden mulches and compost in the form of leafy prunings. A living fence increases soil humus as its leaf litter and root hairs (which the plants shed to balance loss of top growth to pruning or browsing) break down.

Living fences are windbreaks, which reduce soil drying, wind erosion, and stress on livestock or crop plants, thus increasing yields. Hedges sited along contours can reduce rainfall erosion on slopes.

Living fences can last far longer than manufactured ones — for as long as the natural life span of the species used, which may be hundreds of years. Many species can be “coppiced,” meaning they will send up abundant new shoots after the main trunk has been cut. A living fence of a coppiced species readily renews itself following selective cutting for wood fuel and other uses.

Finally, a living fence, unlike a static manufactured fence, brings an ever-changing beauty to your landscape: flowers in spring, colorful fruit in summer, brilliant colors in fall and a complex, geometric structure in winter.

Living Fences in America

Though common in ornamental landscaping, living agricultural fences haven’t been used much in the United States, despite extensive use in countries that supplied Colonial America with most of its new settlers. George Washington tried to carry on the tradition at Mount Vernon because, like modern gardeners and orchardists, he was plagued by deer and other marauders. Washington, concerned by both the labor and the loss of forest involved in producing split-rail fencing, concluded that growing living fences was not only a good idea, but was a necessity.

According to Washington’s diary, the species he settled on as most suitable was “Honey locust; the seed of which not to be put more than Six Inches a part; that when they get to any size they may be so close, stubborn, and formidable, as to prevent an escalade [incursion by predators] … indeed I know of nothing that will so effectually, and at so small an expence, preserve what is within the Inclosure, as this plant.”

Osage Orange

Major living fence applications in the United States have utilized Osage orange trees (Maclura pomifera), also called hedge apple or horse apple. For an incredibly tough, enduring windbreak that’s a major player in a local ecology, probably nothing surpasses Osage orange. It was planted extensively in the central and eastern areas of the country in the 1800s (before the invention of barbed wire), especially to fence the rapidly colonized prairies. After the Dust Bowl in the 1930s, thousands of miles of Osage orange were grown as shelterbelts to prevent wind erosion.

Easily propagated from seeds, cuttings, or sprouts from the roots, Osage orange is tolerant of a wide range of soils, resistant to drought, long-lived, and affected little by insects or disease. Planted at a spacing of 1 foot, in four years it makes a fence that is “horse-high, bull-strong, and hog-tight.”

The sharp, stout thorns on Osage orange growth deter deer and livestock. A couple of heavy prunings a year can keep an Osage hedge 4 feet high by 2 feet wide. Without hard pruning, however, it will rapidly grow much taller. Because Osage orange coppices vigorously, farmers can clear-cut sections of fence on a 10- to 16- year cycle for fence posts (about 4,000 per mile) that are immune to termites and are the most resistant to decay of any North American tree species. Osage fence posts have been known to stand in the soil for more than 50 years without rotting. The hard, strong wood was previously used to make hubs and rims of wagon wheels.

Establishing Living Fences

Homesteaders typically create living fences by planting appropriate shrub or tree species — started nursery plants, stem, or root cuttings or seeds — at close spacing. As they mature, the saplings are pruned tightly to force thick, bushy growth and form an impenetrable hedge.

Another fascinating option is to join the individual plants by “inosculation.” Inosculated trees or shrubs are planted 4 to 8 inches apart. As they grow, crossing branches are tied, and they then grow together into natural grafts. The result is a closely meshed barrier that becomes stronger and more resistant each year.

Multifunctional Options

A living fence that will be exposed to deer or goats needs to offer deterrence to keep the animals in or out, whichever the case may be. Hawthorns are small trees with stout thorns that make a good defense system. They produce berries that are edible (by wild birds and people) and that can be used medicinally. The wood makes good fuel and tool handles.

Other thorny species that could be used to make living fences are pyracanthas, jujube, hollies, black locust (also fixes nitrogen), honey locust (which has high-protein seeds and pods for livestock and people), prickly ash, and rugosa rose (which has vitamin C-rich fruits, or “hips”).

Of course, your choice of species depends on your climate and the purposes for which you want to use the fence. A couple of widely adaptable species illustrate the multifunctional possibilities.

Jujube (Ziziphus jujuba), hardy in Zones 6 to 9, fruits precociously, and grows quickly even in poor soil and drought. A young tree I planted two years ago (northern Virginia, Zone 6b) is now covered with sweet, pleasant-tasting fruit. The fruits, leaves, seeds, and roots have been used in various Asian medical traditions, and the leaves make excellent livestock fodder. The dense wood makes fairly good fuel, charcoal, and agricultural implements.

Hedges of tagasaste (Chamaecytisus palmensis), which remains in leaf year-round, have been used extensively as windbreaks and shelterbelts in drier regions, and in Australia, they’ve been used as green firebreaks (used to stop the spread of fire). A deep-rooted nitrogen-fixer, tagasaste grows rapidly even in poor soil and dry conditions. It makes a hedge that recovers quickly from frequent cutting and browsing. Many livestock species, including ruminants, pigs, and poultry, relish tagasaste’s foliage, which is 20 to 27 percent protein. An early bloomer, it’s excellent forage for honeybees. It coppices readily, and its wood makes good fuel.

If you want to try an inosculated fence, a wide range of tree, shrub, and vine species are good candidates: elm, a number of the oaks, olive, dogwood, beech, hornbeam, peach, almond, hazel (filbert), a number of the willows, sycamore, grape and wisteria. Trees with pliable branches are especially suitable, with apple, hawthorn, linden, and pear among the best.

You may certainly mix different species in your living fences. You could set larger trees — fruit or nut trees, for example — at greater spacing than a tightly planted hedge, and then fill the gaps with lowergrowing species such as rugosa rose or berry brambles, which would produce harvestable food and thorns for deterrence.


Establishing living fences can be labor-intensive — think of planting 450 seeds or cuttings per 100-yard stretch of fence. Before the fence becomes well-established, you’ll need to take care to protect it from weeds, deer and domesticated browsers. Regular pruning of the mature fence may be necessary. Of course, if you use the prunings for mulches or livestock fodder, the chore is hardly lost effort, and in some cases, the pruning can be left to grazing livestock.

The Future of Agricultural Fencing

Since the death of George Washington’s dream of farm-grown fences, Americans exploiting an incredibly rich continent and rapid technological innovation have usually preferred manufactured fences to living ones. As we enter a new age of ecological limitations and awareness, however, we will hopefully rediscover the benefits of growing our fences. We may even discover a new land ethic through utilizing a farm resource that serves as a major part of the landscape and spans generations.

How to Start an Osage Orange Living Fence

1. Collect “oranges” in fall and store them in buckets exposed to freeze-thaw cycles — and even rain and snow — all winter.

2. During the same fall, plow a furrow where you want the hedge. Leave it open and let the soil mellow over winter.

3. The following spring, at about corn planting time, add a bit of water to the buckets and mash the fermented oranges into a thick slurry.

4. Dribble the slurry along the furrow.

5. Partially backfill the furrow with some soil to cover the seeds.

6. If it seems prudent (i.e., the tree seedlings are consistently crowded), thin the seedlings to about 18 inches.

7. In fall, lay the seedlings over in the trench, weaving them together. Backfill the trench, but don’t cover the entire stem of any tree.

8. The second year, the trees will sprout a mess of lateral branches that will grow straight up.

9. In the second fall, weave the new vertical stems together so you get a horizontal stem barrier about 2 feet from the ground.

10. In the third year, prune the hedge’s shoots to the final height you desire (4 to 5 feet works well for most purposes). Pruning the rapidly growing verticals several times over the summer will stimulate the lower buds and branches to produce more (and more vigorous) growth.

Getting Excited About Spring

Permaculture is for everyone.

Permaculture is for everyone.

I’m getting excited about Spring. Hens are cranking out eggs, which I only had to buy one dozen this year. Spring is in the air. Trees are blooming. I planted two granny apple hard wood cuttings and four tart cherry cuttings. Hard wood cutting is cutting new growth in the winter when the tree is dormant, and planting it. It is a clone of the donor tree. So you can’t go over board with one tree or you limit genetic diversity. Find someone that will allow you to get cuttings from their trees, and bam free trees. From what I have read and seen hardwood cuttings propagation rates are low. But I have had a 100% rate so far.

Tart Cherry Hardwood cutting blooming.

Tart Cherry Hardwood cutting blooming.

Granny Smith Apple hardwood cutting blooming.

Granny Smith Apple hardwood cutting blooming.

We have had a very wet late winter and early spring. That probably helped with the success rate because they must be babied and kept hydrated.

Also Roma tomatoes are now sprouting. I planted bell pepper also but no luck so far with those.

Roma Tomatoes.

Roma Tomatoes.

Now time to get potatoes in the ground. I have Yukon Gold and Idaho to plant. I’ve had good success with these in the past. Let’s hope we have luck this year. Just a little update today.

Please comment or hit me up on Twitter @freedomfarmtv

To Rooster or Not to Rooster

To rooster or not to rooster that is the question.

To rooster or not to rooster that is the question.

Some of you out there want chickens, and some of you already have them. What about roosters? Want roosters well you can have mine. After having rooster for a few years now all I can say is don’t do it. Why not? Pros of roosters the protect the girls. Well every rooster I have may protect the hens from what ever predator that may come along, but they take a beating from him. All my roosters peck at their hens. The hens have bald spots either on their heads or back. I keep my chickens on mobile chicken tractors, and really don’t need roosters for protection. I’m thinking of just keeping them out of the tractors all together. They could just hover around the hens. Rooster crow is nice to hear but at 5 am not so much. I live in the country so neighbors aren’t really a problem. But my boys can wake a brother up early in the morning. Egg eating. One of my roosters is an egg eater. He sits near the nesting box waiting for the hen to finish laying. Then he cracks the egg. Then all chickens gobble it up. I must admit he has gotten better at that though. My roosters are also food hogs. They will push the girls out of the food and water till he has had his fill. I can’t stand that. I planned on hatching out chicks, so I needed a rooster. Until I can get a incubator I think the roosters will make good soup. When I do get an incubator maybe have a flock just for the creation of chicks. Keep them separated from the other flock. As of now rooster are more of a nuisance.

Please comment or hit me up on twitter @freedomfarmtv

Troubleshooting Your Compost Pile

Permaculture is for everyone.

Permaculture is for everyone.

Having problems with your compost pile? Here are some common issues and tips for getting ‘em fixed and back on the road to beautiful black gold for the organic garden. What can be better than recycling all the nutrients from kitchen scraps right back into the garden to feed your next crops?

My Compost Pile Never Heats Up

Is it dry? Sprinkle some water over it.
Is it really wet and smelly? See bad smells below.
Is it really cold outside? For the tumbler types, put a hot water bottle or two in the heap to get it jump started. Next time you take out some compost, make sure to leave some behind.  Your finished compost has all the good microbes in it to keep the compost a comin’. In winter, it is good to have your composter out of the wind and where it can get good sun.

I Have Maggots!

Is it really wet? Add some “browns” like wood pellets, dried leaves, or sawdust and mix well to get your pile at the right moisture level. If it is cold outside, you can add a hot water bottle to get the heap cooking again.
Is the pile chilly? See above.

I Am Growing Mushrooms. Is This Okay?

Mushrooms are a natural occurrence. No need to worry.

I Have Big Lumps

Your scraps are too wet. Add “browns,” break up the clumps, and mix well.

My Compost Pile Smells Like Ammonia. Phew!

The pH of your heap is too high. Add browns and mix well.

Compost pile

It Smells Like Something Is Dead In There

Scraps are too wet or there is too little “browns”. Add more “browns” and mix well.

It Smells Like Cheese or Acidy

Not enough air getting in to let the microbes do their thing. Can be caused by stuffing too much in your composter. Remove some material, add “browns” and mix well. If you are using the heap method, add browns and mix well.
Scraps are too wet. Add “browns” and mix well.
If a new batch of scraps, add some finished compost or compost starter and mix well.

How Can I Tell If My Compost Has the Right Moisture In It?

If you squeeze a handful together and it doesn’t stick, it is too dry.
If you squeeze it and nasty liquid runs between your fingers, it is too dry.
If you squeeze it and you can only wring out a few drops of liquid out, it is just right.

Electric, indoor composter

Browns are dried leaves, hay, straw, wood shavings, grains, crackers, corn chips, bread, wood pellets, sawdust or coir. Greens are the rest – manure, food scraps, fresh grass clippings, fresh plant trimmings, coffee grinds, meat, fish bones, cheese, eggs. For good nitrogen, if you don’t have manure, meats or coffee grinds, add another organic nitrogen source like blood meal.

If you are using wood pellets, you should have about 1 cup of pellets to 10 cups of food scraps. Sawdust or coir should be used in a ratio of 1 cup of coir to 3 cups of food scraps or other green materials.

For more on composters, see my earlier blog: Composting is possible in small spaces or even indoors.

Oh No Not a Set Back.

Success starts now.

Success starts now.

I’m putting the finishing touches on an out building that I am building. I had a four day window where the weather will not be raining. It’s now raining out side and will be for the next few days. There my building not finished, cabbage and potatoes not planted, and chicken haven’t been moved in several days. Why? Kidney stone had me down for several days. I’m feeling better now, but now I have to get all this work done. Dealing with set back is a common when dealing with nature. Plants not planted to animals death. How to deal with it. It’s hard but plow right through it. Look at the good that’s happen. For me tree cutting are starting to bloom. Free money ;). Tomatoes and pepper plants that I started last week are coming up. Look at the good that is also going on. My seven laying hens are giving me about six eggs a day.

Please comment or hit me up on twitter @freedomfarmtv

Benefits of Perennial Vegetables


Currently, approximately 80% of the food crops grown in the world are annual plants, and it’s been this way for quite some time. Perennial plant food crops are pretty much in the minority in terms of how the human race derives its nutrition.

Permaculture strongly emphasises the importance of using perennial plants in our food production systems. When we consider the permanent agriculture aspect of permaculture, it should be apparent that we would need to utilise perennial plants to construct a permanent system,  rather than using  annual crops to create temporary systems, which are there one season, and return to bare earth the next.

The preference for perennial plants is stated explicitly in the seventh permaculture design principle — Small Scale Intensive Systems. It describes the use of perennial plants instead of annual plants as one of the features that differentiates permaculture small scale intensive systems from either conventional commercial or peasant farming systems.

To many people, the reason we use perennial plants is simply because they don’t need to be replanted each year, and don’t die down each year, saving us a lot of effort digging, sowing seeds, and cleaning up at the end of the season — and then they simply leave their understanding at that.

There are in fact far more profound ecological and environmental reasons for using perennials rather than annuals in our food production systems, which we will explore in this article.

Before we can understand the larger scale impacts of using these two broad categories of plants, it is important that we first understand their biology, so that we can comprehend precisely how they function in a living ecosystem.

Annual vs. Perennial Plants

All living organisms evolve a unique strategy for survival and reproduction, and they adapt themselves to best function in their specific environments. When we examine the biology of annual and perennial plants, we observe that they have evolved two very distinct survival strategies, and as a result, they occupy very different ecological niches.

Annual plants are short lived plants, living only for a year. They flower, produce seed at the end of this cycle, and then die down. This group includes ‘weeds’, vegetables and many flowers — both wild and cultivated.

Their survival/reproduction strategy can best be described as “live fast and die young”. Annuals reproduce from seed, and grow very quickly compared to perennials. To do this, they require very large amounts of available soil nutrients to support their rapid growth rates.

The reason they are in such a hurry is because they need to mature as fast as possible and produce large quantities of seed within the same year, before they die down. Producing large quantities of seed is a specific survival strategy, it increases the chances of seeds germinating and producing new plants. This very fast growth pattern does not allow the plant much time to establish itself. It is an all out effort to get to the seeding stage before their growing season ends.

In fitting with this growth strategy, annual plants have very shallow roots. Annual vegetables usually have the majority of their root mass in the first 6” (15cm) of soil. A few longer unbranched roots will extend deeper, up to 3-4 feet (90-120cm) but these only form a tiny percentage of the overall root mass. This is why you can grow almost any annual vegetables in fairly shallow garden beds and containers around 40-50cm deep.

The important points to note with annuals are as follows:

  • When these shallow rooted annuals are watered, as the water seeps deeper into the soil, they are unable to access it.
  • Any nutrients that lie deeper in the soil are inaccessible to them because their roots do not reach deep enough.
  • Annuals do not form permanent ecosystems because they are temporary plants, once they reach the end of their growing season, they produce seed, and then die down leaving bare soil.
  • Since they are short lived, their root networks can only temporarily stabilise the soil to prevent soil erosion.

If you look at a backyard vegetable garden or a commercial farm covering hundreds of acres of land, annual food production works exactly the same way. Seeds or seedlings are planted, they grow very fast after being given huge amounts of fertiliser, they are harvested, the soil becomes bare again, then next year they are replanted once again, and the cycle runs indefinitely. To prevent localised nutrient deficiencies and plant-specific diseases, the practice of crop rotation is used, where a specific type of plant, say carrots, are planted in a different garden bed each year, and a different vegetable is planted where the carrots once were, for example.

Perennial plants on the other hand have a very different survival and reproduction strategy. They are long-lived plants, and can live from many years to many centuries, depending on the species. This group includes herbaceous plants (which have green stems with no wood in them, such as many herbs) and woody plants (such as woody shrubs, vines and trees). These plants can reproduce from various types of offshoots from a parent plant, or they can reproduce from seed just like annuals, or in both ways, once again depending on the species.

Perennials grow quite slowly in comparison to annuals, as they take their time to establish themselves, putting out extensive root systems very deep into the soil, which allows them to access water and nutrients that cannot be reached by annual plants. They create a permanent network of roots that help stabilise the soil and prevent erosion.

Perennial plants have very deep roots. Perennial vegetables such as artichokes and asparagus have roots that extend much deeper than 4 feet (120cm), far deeper than annual vegetables, and tree roots can run as deep as the height of the tree itself. The deepest recorded depth that tree roots can run is 60m. The advantage that perennials have with such deep running roots is that they can access water and nutrients that are beyond the range and reach of annual plants, making them far better adapted to extreme conditions. The very long perennial root systems are also excellent at stabilising steep slopes and river banks, which shallow rooted plants are unable to do.

Growing relatively slowly, perennials do not need large quantities of nutrients like annuals do to grow. They use a small amount of nutrients from the soil over a longer period of time, and as such are much better adapted than annuals to grow in low nutrient environments. In warmer climates, perennials can grow continually, while in colder climates they become dormant in winter and stop growing, then resume growth when the winter passes. So, they are able to commence growth earlier than annuals can, because they are an already fully established plant, whereas an annual has to start from scratch as a tiny seedling.

The important points to note with perennials are as follows:

  • In Nature, most of the plants on the planet are perennials! The majority of all terrestrial (land based) and freshwater aquatic plants are perennial plants.
  • Being long lived plants, perennial plants create stable ecosystems such as forests, which can provide a food source and a home for a diverse range of flora and fauna. Forests are home to approximately 50-90% of all the world’s terrestrial biodiversity. Tropical forests alone are estimated to contain between 10-50 million species — over 50% of species on the planet. Annual farmlands are only a temporary home to pest insects, nothing else.
  • Perennial plants don’t need to be replanted every year, so the arduous, energy intensive and equally energy inefficient seasonal task of ploughing, digging and sowing seed that is carried out for annual crops is no longer a concern.
  • Deep roots and a slow growth habit means that less fertiliser and water are required to grow perennial plants, and they are on the whole a lot more productive than annuals.
  • Growing perennial food plants is a far more sustainable and energy efficient, and requires much less work overall.

Now that we have looked at the unique attributes of annual and perennial plants, we can now examine the larger scale impacts of using each of these as our predominant plant group in our food production systems.

The Problem with Annual Food Production Systems

As mentioned in the introduction, in agriculture on a world-scale, over 80% of all crops farmed are annuals, whereas in Nature, over 90% of plants are perennials. From this simple fact it is clearly evident that our conventional farming systems are very far removed from how Nature prefers to grow plants. Most people are unaware that annual food production systems are very unnatural and unsustainable systems — annual monocultures even more so! They are human concepts, and yet we wonder why they don’t really work properly…..

One of the big problems with annual crop agriculture is that the annual plants are heavy feeders, and need large amounts of fertiliser, often during the growing season. Being shallow rooted, they need frequent irrigation too, to stop them drying out. Shortly after they are irrigated, the water naturally seeps downwards into the soil, out of range of their shallow roots, so they can no longer access it. This water gradually percolates deeper into the soil, carrying all the dissolved nutrients with it, permanently out of reach of the annual plants.

Without any deep roots of perennial plants to intercept this excess water and take it up, it will end up in waterways or the water table.

Contamination of Waterways

Water always flows to the lowest point, and if this nutrient-rich water eventually reaches waterways such as lakes, creeks or rivers, the massive dose of nutrients (usually mixed with synthetic chemical pesticides and herbicides, but that’s another story) causes destruction of these ecosystems by eutrophication — the excessive nutrients create a massive increase in the growth of algae in the water, which consumes all the oxygen and suffocates all the aerobic life in the ecosystem. On top of this we have the pesticide and herbicide washed off in surface runoff from farms which compounds the problem, causing both acute and cumulative poisoning of the whole aquatic ecosystem and surrounding environment.

Algal bloom in village river, Sichuan, China – Felix Andrews

Increased Water Table Levels

The other path for this nutrient laced irrigation water is straight down, into the water table beneath the ground, where it causes the level of the water table to rise. As the water table levels rise up into the soil, they bring up dissolved salts, causing salinity in the soil. When salt rises in the soil, the ground is destroyed, laid barren, and nothing can grow there. When perennials with their deep roots are present, especially trees, they can draw water from deep below the surface, and transpire it into the air, keeping the water table down. When the trees are all felled and cleared, to create afield — which is where the word comes from — there are no plants in an annual farmland that are capable of reversing the rising of the water table and remediating the situation, so all is lost.

Salt-affected soils in Colorado – public domain image.

Once the soil succumbs to salinity, all plant life is killed off, and then the soil is subject to erosion. The top soil is blown away by wind and washed away by rain, leaving a barren, sterile, salty wasteland. One of the solutions employed in restoring this damaged land is to plant salt-tolerant trees to reduce the water table levels. Other solutions are centred around costly engineering solutions to ensure that rural water catchments such as dams and irrigation channels don’t ‘leak’ water in ways which mobilises salt.

Even without irrigation, the removal of native vegetation alone to clear space for annual crops is enough to cause another form of soil salinity, dryland salinity.

Dryland Salinity

In non-irrigated land, where there is only rainfall supplying water, dryland salinity is caused by by clearing deep rooted perennial vegetation and replacing it with shallow rooted annual plants. This causes the water table to rise, because rainfall not used by plants either simply runs off the soil surface, or infiltrates beyond the root zone of the shallow rooted annuals, and accumulates as groundwater to create the problem.

There are no secrets about the cause here either, to cite the Australian Government’s Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities web site on the topic of “Salinity”:

Increasing salinity is one of the most significant environmental problems facing Australia. While salt is naturally present in many of our landscapes, European farming practices which replaced native vegetation with shallow-rooted crops and pastures have caused a marked increase in the expression of salinity in our land and water resources.

Rising groundwater levels, caused by these farming practices, are bringing with them dissolved salts which were stored in the ground for millennia. Salt is being transported to the root-zones of remnant vegetation, crops, pastures, and directly into our wetlands, streams and river systems. The rising water tables are also affecting our rural infrastructure including buildings, roads, pipes and underground cables. Salinity and rising water tables incur significant and costly impacts. —Australian Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities

So, how big a problem is this?

  • According to a 2000 report by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, the total global area of salt-affected soils was 8.31 million square kilometres, affecting  every continent except Antarctica.
  • It is estimated that about 15% of the total land area of the world has been degraded by soil erosion and physical and chemical degradation, including soil salinization (Wild A. 2003. Soils, land and food: managing the land during the twenty-first century. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge University Press).

Decreasing productive land and an increasing population is a sure recipe for food shortages.

In a continent such as Australia, where salinity is a major threat, some scientists are trying to deflect the blame on traditional agricultural practices by insisting that removal of trees is a secondarycause, not a primary one, and that the primary cause was a 100 year cycle of increased rainfall — which ended in 2000, that caused salinity issues in the 70s and 80s. This in my opinion is a nonsensical argument as Nature is self-regulating and the landscape will support more plants and trees during long term cycles of increased rainfall, which would naturally reduce the water table level, and prevent any salinity problems. If it were not the case, we would have a recorded history of salinity in virgin bushland every one hundred years, which is not the case. The removal of perennials to create annual crop food production systems is the cause of salinity, it is a man-made problem, as confirmed in the quote by the Australian government itself.

In Summary

Through the extensive use of annual crop-based agriculture, we are systematically destroying living ecosystems which support many living organisms, flora and fauna, and replacing them with artificial systems composed solely of annuals, which cannot exist naturally in this state without excessive inputs of energy. The end result is that we are also destroying the soil as a consequence, losing it to salinity and erosion, at a time when the planet’s demand for arable soil for food production is increasing due to population growth. By decreasing the usable land and increasing food production, we are exponentially increasing the demands on the planet, pushing it to breaking point at an ever increasing rate.

And all because we want to farm annuals exclusively….

That, in a nutshell, is why we prefer to use perennial plants in permaculture systems rather than annuals.