Four levels of learning: reading, sharing, doing, practicing.

Learning from David – showing us how to prune elderberry trees and then making us do it.


The other day, David Homa came to work with Ruby and me for a day and walk us through a couple of aspects of building a permaculture food forest: amending the soil based on our soil tests, sheet mulch over an existing lawn, and building a hugelkultur. As I was doing these things, I could literally feel my brain taking it in, learning making new synapses – it’s a bit of a buzz, a happy feeling.  Humans like learning; we have a positive emotional response to it (research has found).

Doing the actual thing with someone is what I might call my “third level of learning”.  On the first level of learning, I read – lots and lots of books and many hours of scouring the internet for this or that specific topic.   At the end of this, I have a ton of information in my head.  In conversations I can bring up no end of interesting tidbits, but there are often little gaps in the stories.  On the second level, I take classes — like the Permaculture Design Course at Orchard Hill.  Sitting in a class — with other people and getting the information from real people — the same or similar information (as from the books) gets connected to different parts of my brain, the ones linked to “shared with people”, as well as “place”, and “experiences”.    I can sense that this solidifies the information, makes it more accessible, integrated, and organized in my brain.  On the third level, I do things with an expert.  I am (outside) on a site, and actually move my body and stuff, in the real world.  Now, the part of my brain that deals with tactile memories is activated as is the “do it this way” prioritization.

With just the first level of knowledge, I do go out and try things – in fact, I’ve gardened in this way for years — but I’m hesitant, waffle between doing it this way or that way, and do lots of all over the place internet searches.  By the time I get to the third level, I am focused, intentional, and efficient (not to mention confident).   If I keep doing it a couple of times, eventually I will actually remember it long-term – that is a fourth level.

You don’t have to do all four levels to learn something.  For example, I am learning play the violin, only on the third and fourth levels – taking lessons with Esther, doing the playing, and then practicing.  In schools, we do things mostly only on levels one and two.  Hm… is that the right way to teach all the world’s children?  But that’s another topic.

Struggle, patience, peace

More snow fall on March 22 in Needham, second day of Spring

Early in March, Land of Plenty came and cleared the Norway Maples to make room for the food forest shrubs and trees.  Charlotte, Ruby and I spent a couple of days making permaculture piles of branches and duff.  The stickies on the scrum board were moving from the “Planned”, to the “Ongoing”, to the “DONE” column.   Things were happening!  It was so exciting!

Then, we had a big snowstorm.  A week later, another one.  And a week after that, one more (small one).  Everything is buried in snow.  There is nothing we can do outside (aside from shovel – with the appropriate technology, of course).   Today, nearly three weeks later, we have made no progress at all.  It has been absolutely maddening.  I have stomped my feet.    I have sworn never to spend another March in Boston ever again.  I have spent days obsessively checking the weather app on my phone, wanting to make the snow forecast disappear through over-exposure.   One day, I was so desperate, I took the wheelbarrow and tried to wheel it around in the snow, thinking this might work, we could put down wood chips.  But it doesn’t work.  The only thing that could be done was: practice patience.

It’s true that at the beginning of the month, I was feeling completely overwhelmed.   It seemed like the TODO list with all the things I am doing — Big Foot being just one of them — was getting longer and longer, and even daily routines like making the bed and playing some violin were getting lost in the fray.     With all the snow, I figured I had better just start going down that list.   Ruby helped, one day putting up shelves that I’d been meaning to get to for months.  I finalized the Big Foot business plan.  Got our taxes prepared.  Played the violin daily and got a little better at the Kreisler and Beethoven pieces I’m working on.   Spent some time with Josephine in a relaxed way.   Did some work for the Education Commission (my still-client from the career I am ending to go into food production).   Finished some Neighbor Spotlights for Green Needham;  made a cashflow sheet for Simply Circus to fulfill my treasurer duties. Until, quite by surprise, the other day, I realized I was no longer stressed.  The TODO list had been whittled down to a few items.  The weeks of not working outside had given me enough time to catch up.   Instead of struggling, I felt peace.  It was pretty nice.

Root magic

Root magic is when you take a little stick, or a little seed, and you coax it into making roots – the foundation of plant life.   No roots, no plant life.   At the second session of Applied Permaculture we learned about making and caring for roots.   Interestingly, this is not just about putting a seed in some good soil, or sticking a little stick into some clean water and seeing if roots will sprout.   There are rather a lot of little, practical bits and pieces that make your endeavor much more likely to succeed (or fail).   I collected some of the things we went over below to help myself to remember them, but also to give an idea of the specificity of it all.   Eventually, many such little micro-skills collect to become a body of expertise, similar to say, learning to play violin – which is also lots of little micro-skills that accumulate into music making.

David Homa has encyclopedic knowledge of plants, their varieties, their specific needs, and specific uses.   Me, for now, I can remember a few specifics, but more general principles.  I can then use the principles to look up specific knowledge in books or the internet.    As a general insight, I learned there are different ways of making roots happen: for example, you can use seeds, you can use cuttings, or you can mound plants (lean new branch to ground and cover with soil).  But even within each of these avenues, there are specifics – like what size cuttings to take, where to put them, and what to put them in (see below).  If you want to make new plants and roots, you need to know or look up these avenues and specifics.

It’s a lot of information, but I can see how it can build up (different from pruning, which is still a mystery).  It was fun to be back up in Maine, and to see my classmates again – Richard, Erin (2), Marion, Stephanie, Soon Yuk, Nicole, David – and David’s cosy dining room with the permaculture books on it, and organized stacks of paper for this session.

Nicole evaluating where to cut an elderberry branch.

Bits of specific root magic info:

For seed starting, you don’t need nutrients, you need something pretty sterile and that absorbs water well – vermiculite, perlite, spagnum moss, possibly a small bit of compost mixed in.   You also want to make sure you get out any larger bits and use only fine material.  Seeds have their own nutrient packet to start growing roots with, and later, when a few leaves have appeared, you can provide  more nutrients with compost tea.   For making compost tea, collect compost, or fresh leaves into a large fabric “tea bag” (say a gallon large) and put it into a large bucket of water, which you aerate with a simple pump, but only for up to 8 hours or so, otherwise it starts to stink like a dead body and is no good.   For taking cuttings for rooting, it really depends on the plant whether you can take cuttings, but also, how to take the cuttings.  Elderberries: a cutting pencil thick, less than 12″ long, and with 2 or 3 leaf bud pairs, put in water or water with a willow-tea dilution, and leave in a dark place for a week before bringing out to light.  Chokeberries: a thinner cutting and leaving some shoots off the end, less than 12″, and, put these in full strength willow-tea, and in light but out of sunlight.  Willow: very thin branch with shoots, can be longer, put in light but not sun, and they have so much root-power you can use plain old water.  You can use a handful of willow branch pieces to make willow-tea rooting medium for cuttings that need more coaxing like chokeberries (or, if you are in a very un-zen un-permaculture hurry, skip making tea and throw the branch pieces in the chokeberries’ cold water to steep).