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Mountain Steep Permaculture - Permacultura em Declive de Montanha
Mountain Steep Permaculture - Permacultura em Declive de Montanha
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Chão Sobral, Aldeia das Dez - OHP - Coimbra, PT
Climate zone:
Warm Temperate

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Back to Mountain Steep Permaculture - Permacultura em Declive de Montanha

To create soil - biomass harvest, animal bedding, underground composting

Project: Mountain Steep Permaculture - Permacultura em Declive de Montanha

Posted by João Gonçalves over 10 years ago

In these rocky slopes facing south and west top soil is thin over the bedrock and carbon cycles fast. Intensive soil generation strategy was developed.

Elements and functions of soil generation in warm temperate mountain rocky slopes. (post under construction)

NOTE - This proccess was developed more than 100 years ago by people that used very little money, almost no money at all, and did not use modern age fossil fuels. It was intended to yield staple foods (mostly corn, potatoe, beans) with a surplus needed to create a age old means of exchange - grain. Probably it was worth the time they had available and given their ecosystem conditions.

In is only better understood by understanding and researching its ecological, historical and cultural context. Population growth also plays a role in this cause-consequence loop.

This soil generation strategy involves the following elements-functions to be managed.


- Soil micro-organisms

Bacteria and fungae, and the many others!

Functions - yields - outputs:

- eat - decompose - organic material - biomass of dead micro-organisms, plants and animals

- the soil food web trophic cycling - breeding, growing and dying - creates a diversity of biologically available minerals that plants feed on, out of chemically availabe materials

- store minerals and water in their bodies-biomass

(Search youtube for Dr. Elaine Ingham...)


- water (cold/wet season rain and dry/warm season flood irrigation)

- are fed by and grow their numbers thanks to the carbon rich Animal deep litter bedding / manure buryied in the Soil by Humans.


- Plants

Both mountain wild plants and plants grown as crops by humans, annuals and perennials, etc. (a list soon)

Functions - yields - outputs:

- are solar pannels turning solar energy into plant biomass, photosynthesis, the basis of the living organisms food chain

- capture CO2 and release of Oxigen

- feeding soil micro-organisms as dead bodies or through their root exudates

- animal (goats, sheep, rabbits, chickens, ducks, humans) foods as leaves, fruits, stalks, branches, seeds, bark.

- Animal bedding. Mountain wild perennial plants are coppiced or pruned only once a year and added to the animal bedding.

- green manure, added fresh directly when burying the animal bedding or as a substitute for this.

- mulch, is always used to slow and spread water when doing sheet flood irrigation


- sun light

- water

- air

- biologically available minerals around their root systems

- disturbance - pruning, coppice, by animals or humans

- management according to season - seeding, harvesting, irrigation



Pic. 1 - 2004 - Chao Sobral street - Function: Harvesting and transporting wild mountain plants to the animal bedding.

Plants that were harvested by coppice or pruning (Erica, Cytisus, Cistus and Genista spp.) and bundled using a sisal rope are carried on the back by humans to be used as animal bedding and fodder, or has green manure and mulch. Today gas trimmers are also used to cut these plants and tractors are used to move several bundles in one trip.


- Farm animals

Goats, sheep, rabbits, chickens, ducks.

Functions - yields - outputs:

- Chewing the plants outputs, they are precious bio-digestors in this rather brittle ecology (altered by millenia of human actions) - the uneven distribution of humidity throughout the year. 6 months cool/cold/wet winter generates a peak of green biomass in late Spring/early Summer that is not decomposed during the following dry warm season and becomes a potencial fuel for flames - fire hazard ... animals help turn this fire fuel biomass into rich biologically activated dead plant material.

- Trample the dead plant bedding inside the pen (thin branches and leaves of shrubs, straw, stalks, etc). In this, as they are penned in stacked dry stone wall houses (pic. below), they add their dung and urine to the vegetable bedding, developing about 1 to 1,5 mts deep litter.

- Meat, milk, eggs, wool, dead body parts for dogs, cats and wild animals/foxes

Inputs for goats and sheep:

- Managed by humans:

+ Everyday, fresh plants for new bedding

+ Everyday, outside the pen for 2-3 hours, managed rotational grazing on grass or mountain forage

+ Everyday, in the pen, straw or hay

+ At least once a year, breeding season,

- Al year around - shelter, warmth in the cold season, cool in the warm season - the traditional pens, shelters ground floor are carved in the bed rock and built against the slope, have thermal mass about 50 cm thick stacked dry stone walls around. The deep bedding being trampled generates some heat warms up the air is stored in the stone thermal mass around.


Pic. 2 - Stacked dry stone wall two floors goat shed (fig tree that "yields dried figs" standing on the left of this building). Function 1 - Ground floor is the shelter - animal pen, function 2 - deep litter bedding storage,  function 2 - upstairs roofed by chestnut poles and slate or clay tiles - Pic. 3 - is the year around animal fodder storage, and hay, corn stalks, dry bean pods, winter dry fodder storage.


Pic. 3 - Function - Storage - Annualy grown and dried sheep and goat winter fodder (corn, straw, hay).



Pic. 4 - Goat being milked. Goats and rabbits are kept in the same shed. Fresh biomass is added everyday to their deep litter bedding.


- Humans

Humans (used to ) work as whole families, grand parents, parents and children have different functions and one purpose: keep and improve their existing self-and hamlet - reliant system.

Functions - yields - outputs:

- People function as their life and daily cycle managers, designers

- Gardeners and forest managers

- Builders of animal shelters

- Almost daily, to harvest with hand sharp blade cutting tools plants for animal bedding and as "tractors" to transport this material on their back walking down narrow rocky mountain trails

- To handle and move animals - daily rotational grazing

- To move biomass, bundles on their backs to the crop field

- By the end of the cold/wet season, teams of 3 to 8 people (usally men and 3 generations) open trenches and bury the animal bedding to prepare the soil to be planted with warm season crops.



Pic. 5 - Sheeps and goats together, grazing rye that was planted in the beginning of the wet and cold season. Corn was harvested from this field in the end of the dry and warm season - corn stalks stem base still visible in between the grass.

This grazing takes place mostly in the morning time and lasts for 2 to 3 hours only, after that the animals are moved back to their pen, and keep on enriching or biodynamically activating the deep litter bedding.

As soon as 6 to 7 year old, farm or hamlet children were able to do the goat or sheep shepperd function  that takes 2 to 3 hours per day. I got used to ... At the same time, out in the field or mountain i used to play with other shepperds and build a fantasy world mimicking the life structures around in the village.


- Animal bedding

The function of this organic material, composed of animal urine and faeces plus dead plants bodies that were coppiced or pruned, trees, vines, shrubs, grasses, legumes, herbs, is two feed the soil.

It is likely that there is more than 30 different species of plants in this material (most of them wild and "weeds"). One layer of freshly cut plant biomass is added everyday and covers completely the layer added the day before plus recent animal waste.

Once the deep litter animal bedding reaches about 1 to 1,5 metre deep, humans use manual tools to take it out from the animal pen and move it to the growing area (a Zone 1, 2 or 3), using their back, or some mechanic tractor system.


Pic. 6 - People as tractors and trailers, moving sheep deep litter bedding from the pen - animal shed, to the growing area - Zone 2, where irrigated corn field will be planted.


Pic. 7 - Zone 2-3 - Summer grows corn - Winter grows pasture - Thick heap of animal carbon rich deep litter sits and rests in the open field, under the summer sun and the winter rain. There it waits, in the growing area that is now pasture, for weeks or months, until the edge period between the wet/cold season and the dry/warm season. By then it will be buried and thus feed the soil food web and re-activate the sponge effect.

- Soil

Is the bed or medium where "underground composting" takes place. This takes place in 1 year cycle, while on the surface 2 annual crop growth cycles take place, one through the dry/warm season and another through the wet/cold season.

Agriculture soil area is contained and is supported by terraces. These were built through the last 5-7 centuries.

Properties areas are very small, they have been divided by the family members, and given the population growth of the last 700 years ... Plot sizes varies from a dozen of square meters to some hundreds of square meters. Depth of fertile soil varies inside the same plot: near the retaining wall is deeper and near the next upper retainning wall is shallower, 10 to 20 cms, below which lies xist bed rock used to make build terrace walls.

Hand tools or small tractors are used to revolve the fertile soil and bury the animal bedding and green manures.


Pic. 8 - The team of humans (relatives and friends) uses manual tools to open trenches and bury the litter from the animal bedding, the brown scattered stuff of the floo.

The tilling done by hand is a specific "handmade-slow-passive" strategy to (1) compost/process big amounts of biomass - animal bedding, and at the same time (2) get the soil aerated, (3) through "disturbance", aeration and nitrogen rich animal and green manures, selecting for bacteria dominance, trigger burst of soilfoodweb microbial activity during late Wet but warmer season, (4) to compost on site/get rid of weeds and previous crop litter residue, (5) getting the soild ready for planting or seeding the nitrogen and water thirsty anual basic crops-foods like maize, potatoes, palm-cabbage, legumes. And also tomatoes, peppers, pumpkins, spinach, ...

Pic. 9



Pic. 9 and 10 - West facing slope - Spring 1990 - Team of humans with different functions - leading the ox, controlling the plow, using a manual tool to move animal bedding and green manure with yellow flowers (Cytisus spp.) into the trench. Preparing the soil for sowing corn and beans.


Pic. 11 - Soil sponge is ready. The surface soil, resulting from last year tillage, is aerated and weed free to receice seeds and seedlings. The soil underneath is composed of new foods for the soil food web and is like a sponge ready to receive flood irrigation and hold water. Potatoes are being densely sowed in these trenches. After a few weeks this plot will be mulched with maritime pine needles and receive the careful first flood irrigation. A spine and rib, or dendritic pattern is used to design the water channels in this potatoe sloped field, standing over a "creek tunnel" - see post http://www.permacultureglobal.org/posts/3379.

After the frost free dry season potatoe crop, turnips and brassicas will follow in wet cold season with raking depth - surface tillage only.


- Mulching 

Strategy and techniques ...


- Summer Flood Irrigation and "Spine and Ribs" Water Path Pattern

Functions to irrigate, once every week or more, deeply and fast, the sun and warmth loving fast growing crops rooting fast through the spongy soil (corn, beans, pumkin, potatoe).

To minimise water evaporation from the soil 2 strategies are used:

- very dense planting (specially potatoes), no walking paths, even water ways become shaded

- mulch (deep litter animal bedding is used for corn, maritime pine needles are used for potatoes)

The dry/warm season irrigation cycle functions from June until September. The water comes by gravity down the plastic pipe from mountain community owned and shared springs way up at 800 to 900 mts high to concrete tanks at about 700 mts high. In this location, Commons Land, privately owned tanks were built by each family. And 2 community owned tanks were also built.

In these tanks, filled once every week or every 8 days or 9 days ... , each family or owner stores water and uses it when it is most needed by the crops.

This spring water sharing is rotational, cyclical (each spring has its rythm and set of owners) and the amount of water / time each family has depends on the amount of irrigated surface area he or she owns.

Each minute or hour of water/time is linked to a specific crop field. This was a pattern started by our ancestors and kept from generation to generation.


Permaculture principles at work:

- Everything has advantages and disadvantages

> minus / this proccess requires a "lot" of time-labor-energy in moving around plant biomass and animals

> plus / it becomes a social help-eachother-party proccess, people build muscle and aerate their lungs and blood - have daily exercise while doing it.

- Use of biological resources - it is 100% local and organic.

- Relative location - All elements of the proccess have outputs and inputs that fit to the other elements needs, yields and functions.

- Energy efficiency planning - in general it takes advantage of slope and gravity, animal pens are near the source of the biomass and near the growing field that receives the deep litter.

- Close loop energy cycling - there is no waste, everything becomes soil and enriches the system.

- Optimal use of edge - biomass is sourced from edge areas in between the crop field and the forest. In the terraces solar exposure is maximised to favour annual staple crops.

- Increase biodiversity - different animals and plant species have a crucial role.

- Ecological succession and use of patchy disturbance regimes - animal rotational grazing is used in the crop area during the wet/cold season, severe prunning and coppice of wild plants, annual soil socializing tilling disturbance is a aerobic massage.

- Each element has multiple functions - Even terrace retaining walls - thermal mass warmed by the sun - function to create a warmer microclimate for growing wild herbs and grape vines on top of them.

- For each important function we have many elements - for biomass sources we have multiple plants, and for biological activators we have different animals. For the manual labor people help each other, many hands make light work ...

- Work where it counts - each stage of the proccess happens when the moment is right in the wet to dry season spectrum. Careful attention to the moon cycles, seeding timing before and after the Dry season, moisture in the soil, animal management and rotational grazing. Each crops fits to the wet to dry season conditions spectrum.

- Small scale intensive - this is all about it. It takes daily small inputs, everyday, slow and steady forward. It works best with small groups 3 to 5 people that can share and rotate tasks - biomass harvest, animal management, moving and burying animal bedding..

Comments (2)

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Ute Bohnsack
Ute Bohnsack : A great analysis of the fascinating practices in your home region. Very interesting systems. Thank you for your write-ups, João! They are most enjoyable, especially with the photographs.
Posted over 10 years ago

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João Gonçalves
João Gonçalves : Thanks Ute! Glad to know you are enjoying! It is a personal exercise to think and write (while is raining outside) about what i have been taking for granted since my first memories in this place (for more than 30 years now). Definitely "permaculture" has inspired to a new way of looking at what has always been here. În some hamlets, nearly ghost-villages, nearby these systems are almost gone but, i believe, are slowly coming back. I will be adding more content to each of these post as details come to mind.
Posted over 10 years ago

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