Category Archives: Real Life Example

Process Learnings from Summer

2014 Spring final bed picOn the one hand, this year’s growing plan was in many ways a lot more intricate and ambitious than last year’s. On the other hand, because last year was my first year at the new location, there was absolutely a ton of infrastructure to build and soil to prepare for the first time. So I actually found this year to be a lot easier in various ways, although I still wouldn’t call it “effortless.” I’m working towards that.

Goals

Going into this growing season, as with every year, I chose several objectives regarding what I wanted to explore and work on. One of my bigger picture goals has to do with developing the process and know-how to make growing a lot of food–sustainably–a fairly routine and straightforward thing. Of course it’ll never be as easy as driving to a Farmer’s market and trading paper money for food (how easy we have it!). But growing food also doesn’t need to be arduous, mysterious, or otherwise unattainable.

 Process

I’m convinced that with careful focus and experimentation, I can refine the processes I use to grow food so that it takes a lot less time than it does now, without taking much more resource or equipment. I have a clear goal to reduce my “dependency chain” as much as possible when it comes to growing food, and so using anything that contains a computer processes or relies on precision machined parts is what I’m trying to get away from. So that leaves me with my hands and a desire to develop know-how.

Here are process goals I set:

  • Successful direct planting of grains, as opposed to transplanting to save time.
  • Layout to allow stirrup hoeing between plants to simplify weeding.

Planning

There was so much to do last year that I didn’t have much time to think ahead. I started the year behind because of when I received my new space, and spent the rest of the year catching up. Then I was taken by surprise when my Spring potatoes matured, and I didn’t have a plan for what to put in the ground next. The soil went unused and uncovered, which is bad, and so I decided to do a much better job this year.

  • Have a plan to keep the soil working w/ no more than a 2 week gap in between crops.
  • Plan ahead for fall, and even next spring, so I can optimize timing and placement.
  • Plan ahead for when to put fertilizer crops on much of the garden.
  • Move my paths around for simplicity. And also to take advantage of the fence as a trellis.

Crops

  • Lima beans
  • Sweet Potatoes
  • Strawberries
  • Dryland Rice

 

 

 

Sneak Peak: 2015 Spring and Summer Garden Plan

2015 garden plan sneak peak

Believe it or not, I’m trying to keep things simple this year. With the new job I don’t have nearly as much time as I used to, and so this year will be a test of how well I can keep the garden happy, while still showing up to work.

Here’s my thinking on this year’s plan:

Grains
First of all, in order to have a sustainable garden that builds soil, rather than just chews it up, I need to grow a lot of grains. In fact for the whole year, 60% of my garden needs to be growing grains. I do more in the winter than in the summer, but it’s still important for me to get a lot of grains going in the summer.

I have experimented with all of the grains you see on this year’s plan, in addition to others such as Pearl Millet, Oats, Amaranth, and Triticale. They all have their pluses and minuses. This year I’m going to back the “winners” from previous years:

  • Quinoa is an amazing crop to grow. After starting out very small, and seemingly not doing anything for a few weeks, it gets happy and grows vertical so quickly you can almost see it. I’ve gotten more than enough quinoa to eat each of the past two years, from relatively little space.
  • Sorghum is a hardy, easy to grow, low maintenance crop that can give you grain or syrup, depending on the variety. The stalks make fantastic compost, and the extensive roots put great organic matter in the soil.
  • Wheat, and in particular Ethiopian Blue Wheat, is a strong, satisfying crop that doesn’t get too tall. It actually does have a blue tinge when it’s close to maturity.
  • Japanese Millet is a fast growing grain that I’ll cut before it goes to seed. This one is specifically for compost material, and is one I’ll cut and let regrow several times this spring.
  • Cereal Rye is a holdover from winter, that I’ll let grow for part of spring, to nurture the soil for my second potato crop.

Low Water Crops
So we’re in the midst of a serious and potentially long-term drought. Being that I grow in a community garden on the edge of a park, I have access to city water. Nonetheless I am super interested in trying several varieties of crops known to grow well with limited water. I will be getting these seeds from the nonprofit Native Seeds/SEARCH which has many seeds from Arizona. There is an area at the back of my plot that is hard to water, and will be a good test ground for these crops.

Calorie Crops
As much as I love Kale, it won’t keep me alive and kicking. It takes calories to do that, and so in addition to being a “carbon farmer” (for the soil) I need to be a “calorie farmer” and be smart about what I grow.

The best known calorie crops, that give a lot of calories reliably, quickly, in a small area, are tubers. I’ll be doing traditional potatoes again this year, as my main calorie crop. I’ll also be continuing to grow two varieties of Andean tuber, Mashua and Yacon. I am not going to grow Oca again this year–it didn’t do well last year, and the tubers I did get were too small; Oca simply lost out.

One tip on growing several varieties of potatoes is that if you want to track yields, your life will be much easier if you plant very different looking varieties next to each other. Last year I did purple, white, and red potatoes and that worked really well. No more squinting at the difference between a Norkotah and a Burbank.

I will also not being growing sweet potatoes again this year. In 2013 I got the plants to grow, but planted them too late to get any useful yield. Last year I got the timing right, and added heat via a black plastic mulch, but the yields were still lackluster. We have enough to enjoy a few meals, but nowhere near the yields I’d hoped for. In future I may track down short season varieties that should do better around here, especially since we don’t get the heat that sweet potatoes crave.

Kitchen Crops
In my early growing seasons I tried growing everything and anything, to see what would happen. It was fun and suspenseful however we sometimes ended up with crops that weren’t much use in the kitchen. Bushy Salsify, anyone?

Thus now we grow things that we know we’re going to want in the kitchen. The big winner here is onions. The trick with onions is that they can be a pain to grow from seed. I have two strategies I’m using this year to deal with that:

1. Grow “walking onions.” There is a variety of onion that propagates itself, by growing the new crop off the top of the old crop. I’m not kidding. In nature the new ones separate and plant themselves (hopefully) next to the old crop. So as you can imagine, it’s very easy to help the new seedlings along by hand.

2. Buy seedlings. Yes, I said that out loud: buy seedlings. I will be sourcing organic seedlings this year, to save me the drama of growing onion seedlings. I get a bit better at it every year, but I still have a ways to go to get the hit rate that I want. Given my time constraints this year, I will throw in the towel and buy from my local garden shops. The good news is that you get a surprising number of seedlings in one container.

I’ll also be doing carrots, which are a pain to transplant (and yes, it CAN be done), and are challenging to germinate, to boot. I have a few tricks up my sleeve to try this year.

Root Crops
Parsnips are interesting because the deep root structure means that in properly tended and shield soil, they don’t need much water at all. Also they can stay in the soil for a long, long time and still be good eating. They give a lot of calories in a small space, too. Beware that they are slow germinators, but if you do it correctly, they’ll grow for you. The secret is consistent moisture.

I like to grow beets year round, in part because I can, in part because they are very tasty, and in part because of my Ukrainian heritage. I grow a variety of giant yellow beet that’s called a “Mangel” that has a subtle, sweet flavor. Beets are very strong growers, and are easy to germinate.

Beans
I have yet to have a stellar bean crop, but I will keep trying until I get it right. I’m doing big beans, Lima, and maybe some Soy beans specifically for making tofu.

Berries
When they are working, strawberries are a very happy crop to have in the garden. But they are a fickle lover: rain at the wrong time can ruin everything. Last year an oddly timed rain resulted in a disease the full die off of my Seascape strawberries. They were great while they lasted. The Sequoia are still kicking, though. It is important to cut off the runners, if you want lots of berries.

I planted a white strawberry called a “Pineberry” last year, and got a few fruit. It’s true; it is like a cross between Pineapple and Strawberry. Rest assured that it isn’t *literally* a cross, though. This year I should get a real crop of Pineberries, which I’m very excited about. Strawberries typically don’t yield much in year 1, from what I understand, and besides, the Pineberries went in late last year.

I have several types of raspberries and blackberries along the back fence. Some of them are going to go nuts this year–let’s help the Ollalieberries are among them. I’d love to grow Tayberries but can’t find the canes.

Stuff everyone else grows
Yeah, I do grow some “normal” stuff. Tomatoes because they are tasty, and why not? I saved some seeds from farmers market tomatoes, but will probably buy Master Gardener seedlings this year.

There is a specific variety of Squash, Fordhook, that John Jeavons recommended and so I’m going to grow those.

We like eating cucumbers so hopefully we’ll get a decent crop this year. I haven’t had much luck in the back right of the plot, so we’ll try more upfront this year.

What now?
I hope this rundown has been useful for you. I haven’t yet finalized my plan, but it’s pretty close. I need to do some calculations (hello Excel) to make sure I have my 60/30/10 Grains/Calorie Crops/Everything else dialed in properly. And then I need to consult my notes from past years to finalize crop placement. And finally, I need to figure out how to make this as year’s garden as simple as possible!

If you have any questions, contact me.

On Cabbage, Community, and Growing What You Eat

One of the fun things I didn’t anticipate about being in a Community Garden is the extent of the community. It is fantastic to rub shoulders with other people who also care a lot about growing food. Along those lines, it’s been eye opening to see the high percentage of people at the garden who are from overseas. You can get a sampling of how the world grows backyard food by walking around. China, Russia, the Ukraine, Italy and more are all represented.

Cabbage headSo one day an elderly Ukrainian neighbor says to me, “Do you like cabbage?” And I thought he was going to hand me a cabbage, but instead he handed me a Cabbage seedling! Having crunched the numbers on cabbage, I knew that it took a lot of space, but in the spirit of being neighborly, and also of trying something new, I said “Yes!” and planted the cabbage. He coached me to water it well, in his words to put “too much water,” and sure enough the thing grew.

I’m so glad I planted the cabbage for a few reasons. For one, I was trying to grow an Asian Cabbage next to it, but they didn’t do so well. It seemed like the leaves got stale very quickly; I may have left too long. On the other hand the Ukrainian cabbage did absolutely beautifully.

Furthermore, one of the “things nobody will tell you” about growing food is that it’s one thing to grow it, and it’s another to eat it. I know it doesn’t make any sense, does it? But the produce we buy at the market has had a decent amount of work put into it to make it easy to prepare. And to add to that, if you don’t have the time or skill to cook, your homegrown produce may go to waste.

I harvested the Ukrainian Cabbage, brought it home, and my wife was delighted! She knew exactly what to do with it, and made several great dishes. This is in contrast to headscratchers like Salsify that we never did figure out.

So this year we’ll be growing a lot of cabbage, of 4 different types in fact. Although they take a lot of space, they are a great crop that I know we’ll eat. And once I harvest them, I can put a fertility legume of one kind or another in their place, and build in some fertility for next Spring’s crop.

Crop Learnings From Fall 2013

map-2013-fall

At a glance you can see that I grew a lot of different things last fall. Certainly I learned a lot about layout, in addition to gathering much learning on fall and winter gardening in these parts. We are very blessed to be able to grow year-round without greenhouses or fancy tools. (Of course there’s that pesky water issue, but I won’t get into that here.)

My goal last year was to do a lot of cover crops to build the soil. And to try some winter greens and root crops. There were enough successes to balance out the “less successful” crops. Lots of learnings.

Winter greens mature quickly. And are popular with snails.

sm_13W, Komatsuna, Kakina, Horenso-90q_19x12cI was taken by surprise at how quickly the Asian greens grew. Komatsuna, Kakina, and Japanese Spinach were delicious, but were easy to lose track of. Same thing for Bok Choy and Chinese Broccoli. Before I knew it they were old and withering. Part of it was knowing when to harvest. Honestly with greens you can’t be too early; they are just smaller than they might be.

As the weather gets ideal for greens, it also gets ideal for snails and slugs. At some points it really took going out there nightly with a flashlight–much easier to do in a backyard garden than one a 5 minute drive away. I considered Sluggo but would rather than have that in my soil, and so I stayed away from it.

Salsify didn’t give satisfaction.

Salsify flowers!By numbers, in terms of calories per square foot, Salsify should be wonderful. It’s a root vegetable somewhat carrot-like that gives a lot of calories per square foot. However in practice, I hit some problems:

  • Salsify is quite hard to clean. It’s very knobby, more so than other vegetables.
  • The per plant yield is small. Sure, it may be possibly to plant them on very tight centers, but who needs all that work? Frankly I’m moving towards larger carrots, too.
  • We got very big greens with beautiful flowers, and shockingly small roots. The latter may have been as a result of my soil balance not being ideal for Salsify. In any case, I’ll focus my efforts on the better yielders.

Winter potatoes yield poorly

sm_WP_004292-90q_19x12cFor an experiment, I put Irish Potatoes in late October, to see if I could grow them over winter. The good news is that I was able to keep the plants healthy, even through frosts, by covering them with a salvaged car cover when the temperatures got near zero. The bad news is that our weather was at its coldest at the point in time when the potato plants have the most potential to grow the tubers. As a result I got undersized tubers and a disappointing harvest. This year I got my potatoes in September 1, which I think my still be on the late side. We’ll see what happens.

Winter Kale and Spinach are not a slam dunk.

13W, Spinach, Monstrueux de ViroflayI was looking forward to getting wonderful greens. And although I got many, some just didn’t work out well at all. I grew a giant Spinach, Monstrueux de Viroflay, but it never really got established. I did seedlings and transplanted them, but they weren’t happy. I didn’t dig into what happened.

There was a similar story with my Russian Kale. I had grown some near that spot in summer, that did OK before keeling over from the heat. So I thought winter would be easy, since they are a cold weather crop. But the Russian Kale languished.

Fortunately my Dwarf Blue Curled Scottish Kale did much better. In fact going into summer I had three plants. They were all desperately trying to go to seed. I clipped those extensions out for a while, and almost gave up hope. I pulled one, and then another.

Luckily, for the sake of experimentation, I left the last plant in. And sure enough, as our traditional summer subsided, it stopped trying to go to seed and went back to being a leafy producing Kale plant. Now it’s a steady producer, and an ideal size. I’m glad I waited to pull it, and now I’ll be fascinated to see what it does this winter.

Timing and culture are critical for winter grains.

winter weeds WP_004568I waited too long to get many of winter grains into the ground. The more I waited, the more they struggled to outcompete the winter weeds. I think September is an ideal time to plant grains.

Furthermore the grains that I sewed and broadcast had really mixed performance. I didn’t pre-soak them–I just broadcast or laid in rows, and then chopped them in with a rake. It didn’t go well.

What I’ve experimented with and learned since then is that presoaking and proper seed depth is critical for grains, and makes a huge difference. In my latest experiment, I presoaked Cereal Rye for 24 hours and then planted it 3″ deep. This was based on research paper I pulled up. The results were stunningly better than “scatter and chop.”

Wooly Vetch is a wonderful winter cover crop.

Vetch flowers. Will be a sea of purple soon.In the right weather, Vetch gets established and can really spread. I was pleasantly surprised at how well it took hold and covered the soil. It was a good competitor to the weeds. In addition to fixing nitrogen, it puts out a beautiful purple flower. It did a bit of self seeding going into summer crops, but I liked the nitrogen fixing aspect and left it in with my sorghum. I think it helped.

A good piece of advice that I got about Vetch is to get your surrounding cover crop, for instance Cereal Rye, established first, before putting in the Vetch, so that it has a chance.

Learn to grow cheap garlic before spending the money on fancy garlic.

sm_WP_004496-90q_19x12cI spent good money buying fancy seed garlic, and then screwed it up by planting aggressive greens (Shungiku) too close to them. You can see the poor garlic desperately trying to reach out for sun!

When it became clear in early Spring that my garlic was going to yield poorly, I went to Trader Joe’s, picked up a package of organic garlic bulbs, and separated and planted those–away from aggressive greens. They grew fantastically well, at a fraction of the price. So I think it’s good advice to not drop dollars on the fancy stuff until you’ve had at least a season growing the cheap stuff.

Beets and Turnips grew very well.

sm_WP_004999-90q_19x12cI grew a German variety of beet called a Mangel, which I learned of from John Jeavons. I meet almost nobody who’s even heard of a Mangel, or those who have dismissively call it animal fodder! Mangels can grow huge and delicious, so call me an animal. Seriously, this is one of the best crops nobody has ever heard of. Bountiful Gardens sells the seeds.

sm_13W, Beets, Bulls Blood-90q_19x12c (NXPowerLite)I also had the good fortune to grow Bulls Blood Beets. The leaves of these are a deep red. If you enjoy eating the leaves of Beets, which tastes like their cousin Chard, then these are a great option for winter. Why? It seems that the slugs and snails don’t bother the leaves as much, related to whatever it is that makes the leaves so red.

 

sm_WP_004677-90q_19x12c

And then I had an unexpectedly good crop of Turnips. They got big, they were tasty, and they didn’t suffer insect damage. The trick for us was deciding what to do with them, but I figure that will come with time.

Growing map for 2014 Spring and Summer

When I was first starting with Grow Biointensive, I really wanted to see how other people were laying out their garden beds, so I could have some idea of how to do mine. So if you’re interested, here’s where I landed for this year’s garden layout for my vegetables + grains garden.

2014 Spring final bed pic

When I compare this to last year, I see that it’s much more complicated. I think of the book The Collapse of Complex Societies and I don’t know if that’s a good thing! In any case, what I tell myself is that I’m “testing a lot of different crops,” and in fact that is true.

Here’s blow by blow commentary on how I ended up with this crop selection and design.

  • Originally I was only going to do one kind of bean–soy beans–but then I realized that I can only grow beans during the summer, and so I might as well take advantage of that. Furthermore in crunching the numbers on pole Lima beans, I saw how strong they are in terms of yield per square foot. To sweeten the deal, I’m told that you pretty much can’t buy pole Lima beans because they are not economical to harvest and sell commercially. Thus there could be a niche there one day. Thus I’m trying 3 kinds of Lima beans this year. (And it’s a struggle, but that’s another story.)
  • I was going to grow a few different kinds of beets, but since I can grow those very well during the San Mateo winter, I decided to only grow Cylindra beets this summer. They are a very high yielding variety, and a great crop, and so I wanted to see how they do in this location during the summer. So far they are looking great.
  • I’m doing Parsnips again this year. Last year’s parsnips were of note because they grew so aggressively (after I finally figured out how to germinate them) and they stayed green and nice until I harvested them well into late fall. This year I plan to do two crops of them, with the second crop being harvested after the weather turns “cold” (well, cold for around here.
  • I didn’t intend to do so many tomatoes, but I got carried away at the Master Gardener tomato sale and bought…lots. The thing is that as someone who generally starts everything from seed, it was just so exciting to have the chance to try 5 new varieties, from hardy seedlings! I didn’t measure my garden bed properly and ended up planting into an adjacent area. “With the ideal comes the actual.” <breathe.> The tomatoes are doing fantastic, in any case.
  • There’s a funny story behind the Japanese Burdock (aka gobo or ごぼう ). I planted it last year, a bit late in spring, in a marginal part of my plot, and didn’t really do anything all last year. Come this spring I was getting ready to write it off to experience and move on when the plants suddenly “blew up” and got huge. My best guess is that perhaps they finally got deep enough to find the nutrition they needed. Or maybe they are psychic. Whatever the case, we’ll have some decent gobo this year.
  • Japanese millet is supposed to have a 45 day growing cycle, and so gives the possibility of yielding a lot of compost crop in a small area. For now I’m figuring out how to get it to reliably germinate when broadcast. BTW I was able to buy a half pound of this from an eBay seller for about $7 delivered.
  • I stumbled on the blue tinged Ethiopian wheat while looking for something interesting to add to the cart when I bought my Pineberries. I subsequently found it for half price on eBay. So far it is an aggressive grower.
  • I found the Pineberries on the excellent strawberryplants.org website. They are a white strawberry that apparently tastes a bit like pineapple. Again, too small to harvest commercially, and thus in interesting niche crop.
  • I decided to make better use of the top fence this year as a trellis. My French Pole beans germinated so well that I put the extras up top. And then I put bare root Raspberries of various types along the fence as well. It is interesting to note that many of the bare roots arrive at the nurseries around Thanksgiving! I really wanted to grow Tayberries (hello $10 jar of jam!) but I missed my window. There’s always next year. I did get an Ollalieberrie cutting that seems to be catching on.
  • Onions are a core cooking crop, and so I’m giving a go to several different kinds. After experiencing poor survival of seedlings, I finally made the connection and got a hand mister to water them when they are tiny. I was knocking them over, even with a Haws watering can. (say it ain’t so!) I got a great misting hose attachment as well, but the water pressure is so high that even with a regulator, I still brings a lot of force to the droplets. The hand mister is perfect–just be sure to get one with a locking trigger to save on thumb fatigue.
  • Quinoa and Sorghum were my star grains last year, and so I’m trying 3 new varieties of each this year. For the sorghum, the Mennonite was a very strong germinator and grower, whereas the White African had poor germination. For the quinoa, the Shelly (black) and Campesino germinated and is growing strongly, but the Kaslala has been struggling, possibly because of soil texture at that location.
  • Because tubers are important to my diet planning, I decided to diversify and try several different kinds this year. I was very fortunate to be gifted Andean tubers, namely Yacon, Oca, and Mashua, and so I have those growing. I also received Sunchoke to grow, along with a stern warning to grow it in a pot, lest it take over! All are growing well, although I had to rescue the Yacon from an early snail attack.
  • And last but not least, I am trying to grow dryland rice this year. I am told that there are varieties of rice that can be grown just like wheat–in a normal, non-flooded garden bed. So I am trying Duborskian, Blue Bonnet, and Koshihikari, and using exactly the same amount of water as I am for my wheat. Thus far they are just looking at me and going slightly yellow, although the Koshihikari looks the best of the bunch.

When I tell people I have a food garden, I often hear “that’s a lot of work.” Well if you do what I’m doing this year, and testing out 50+ varieties of “this and that” then it *is* a lot of work. However it doesn’t have to be–I could have easily kept it to 5 varieties, and had this be not a heck of a lot of work. But that’d mean less learning and less adventure. For now, since I have the chance to try (literally) 50 different things, I’ll do it.

Notes from the Ecofarm 2014 Farm Tour

For the past several years, the good folks at Ecofarm have organized a day of farm tours right before the annual conference in Pacific Grove, California. I joined the tour last year and this year, and thought I’d share some thoughts on what I saw that impressed me.

Prevedelli Farms

WP_004500Our first stop, the family-owned Prevedelli Farms, does mostly apples, as well as some cane berries. They kindly let us sample their Fuji Apples, and they were uncommonly delcious. Amigo Bob Cantisano, who is organizing force behind both the conference and the bus tour, drew everyone’s attention to the taste of these apples. So I couldn’t help but ask him to help me understand what Prevedelli does differently.

Better apples Through Less

Here’s what I learned:

  • Less water: they don’t get as big, but they are sweet.
  • Less fertilizer.
  • Less heat: because it’s cool, they take longer to mature.
  • Less transit: Sell right away, so can harvest at just the right time.

Yes it was the best Fuji apple I’ve ever had. Amigo also pointed out that there used to be fantastic varieties of “Red Delicious” apples commonly sold. I think it is a crying shame that so many kids are eating “cardboard-like” Red Delicious apples in their lunches, and thinking that this is what apples are supposed to taste like.

Taking care of the land is doing the right thing

971966_10152569207736562_1918815197_n[1]One of the farm owners, Silvia Prevedelli—from Italy—threw down “the word” on why they grow organically. In fact they have been growing organically for a long time, but held off on certification for some time because—as she put it—“the government should be paying US to take care of the land!” I was inspired by her passion for doing the right thing and taking care of the land, and also for great tasting fruit.

Cinch traps for gophers

So apparently they have tons of gophers here—they have one person half time who does nothing but tend the gopher traps. And it’s been that way for a long time. They tried everything, and what they’ve found is that cinch traps are the only thing that work reliably. There are lots of animals around, so once a gopher is trapped then if they don’t remove it from the trap promptly, it’ll be eaten by some animal or other.

On a side note, it was amusing to hear the “cool ideas” that non-growers shared, which I’m guessing they read about in magazines and books, that the Prevedelli folks had already tried and found to be ineffective. There’s nothing like the real world.

No rain means no cover crops

While they did plant a cover crop between apples trees, the lack of rain means that it basically hasn’t grown. What would normally be a knee-high cover crop was a vague collection of green.

Dwarf Trees

WP_004505It was interesting to see the move to trees that can be pruned and picked without a ladder. All of the new trees that they have going in are dwarf trees.

Packing on premise

WP_004499One of the owners used to work as a welder, and understands machines. So he can fix the machinery as needed, which is a critical consideration.

Live Earth Farm

This farm has a heavy CSA-component, as well as education, and works hard to grow food in a healthy way.

The magic of hedgerows

WP_004510I had heard of hedgerows before, but today we were lucky enough to have Sam Earnshaw on hand to tell us more. The general idea is that hedgerows can be a powerful complement to supporting the beneficial insects in the area, as well as beneficial wildlife.

The hedgerows he designed have a variety of strategically chosen plants in them to keep down weeds and nurture beneficial insects. I was surprised at the diversity of plants chosen for the hedgerow.

A cool phenomenon that stayed with me is that when you take out a crop, there are beneficial insects that have been living around that crop. When you have a hedgerow next to the field, it gives those insects a place to move to.

Apparently hedgerows have an image problem, though. Some buyers have said that they won’t buy crops from fields that are next to hedgerows and so that has scared some farmers into ripping out their hedgerows.

DIY compost

WP_004507They use a lot of compost, and it just isn’t economical to buy that much of it. So they pay for trucking and get free materials—used mushroom spawn and used animal bedding—and make their own compost. The process lasts at least four months, although typically longer.

The perils of food safety laws

The proposed food safety laws could create big problems for sustainable, small-scale farmers. For example the laws could say “in order to prevent a wild animal from shitting in a field, farmers must fence off their fields.” For small farmers it’s just not economical to do so.

It seems to me that government regulation is moving the industry more and more towards a sterile, “manufacturing” type model for food production. Such a move ignores the contemporary science of the soil-food web and moves the industry towards being even more dependent on non-renewable fossil fuel. Just think about how much energy it takes to fence off 100 acres of land from deer.

Your tax dollars at (good) work

WP_004515On our bus we had Eric Brennan, who is the only full time organic researcher in the FDA. His job was created by an earmark—isn’t it fascinating that a position like that has to get “slipped into the budget” through a back door?! Anyhow we’re glad to have him.

Anyhow Eric has been doing very good, long-term work on cover crops, often partnering with commercial farmers to find out what works best for maintaining fertility and cutting down on weeds.

On last year’s bus tour we visited a field of strawberries being grown for a major brand. And on this year’s tour we heard that one of the fields he was doing cover crop testing with ended up being the top yielding field amongst all of that huge brand’s contracted fields! So he’s onto something.

You can find Eric’s research papers here:

http://www.ars.usda.gov/pandp/people/people.htm?personid=21904

and he was a couple of chapters in this book about Cover Crop Management. Several growers said it was a great book.

Happy Girl Kitchen Co.

WP_004521It turns out that on Cannery Row in Monterey, there are no certified canneries! But if you go a bit up the hill to the Happy Girl Kitchen, you’ll find the only certified cannery in Monterey County.

These folks are passionate about food and community, and savvy about business and marketing. Their products look good and sell at premium price points. Everything I tried was tasty.

There’s really something to be said for folks who not only have a passion for making great food, but who have the savvy to do it professionally, get it right, and build a business that works.

White label canning services

It’s so interesting, as well, what can come of simply passion for food. They have a lively line of business doing canning for farmers who have extra seasonal crop and want a turnkey solution for value-add products they can sell throughout the year.

So let’s say a farmer has 10 cases of cherry tomatoes that have no home. That farmer can bring them to Happy Girl, and for a reasonable price have them processed, pickled, and canned.

The benefits of this go deeper than you might think. In addition to the extra income for the farmer and the reduction in food waste, the farmer has also avoided needing to find a commercial kitchen—which is required for pickling—and has also avoided the need to have their pickling recipe approved by the state. Furthermore they’re going to get a product which is a known hit with customers. Happy Girl has all of this worked out and can make it easy for the farmer. Smart.

Yes on the bus tour

Amigo Bob did a fantastic job of leading the tour, asking key questions of our farm hosts, and leaving room for just enough—but not too many—audience questions. He arranged the visits, and kept the tour on track and upbeat. Last year the farm tour was one of my favorite parts of the conference, and again this year I loved it.

Growing in a new space? Look at your soil VERY carefully.

WP_002974It’s funny because earlier this year I took a full class on soil, and did lab tests, and field tests, and the whole bit. But I was still taken by surprise when it came to the soil in my community garden plot.

What I observed was that the soil held together quite nicely when squeezed. Not too much, as in an overly clay soil, but with some internal cohesion. However I also noted that it was strange how when I was transplanting, even if the soil hadn’t been watered in a day, I’d get a build-up of soil on the transplanting trowel that I’d have to wipe off every 5 minutes.

I also got a strange result back from the soil test lab. They said the soil had 9% organic matter, which is off the charts. 5% sustainable organic matter would be considered really good, and 2% might be common for land that’d been depleted. I’ve never heard of 9% before. It didn’t raise a flag immediately, although it probably should have.

And then the gentleman who had taken care of that land before me for many years said that he had been digging his waste greens into the soil and letting them decompose that way. That sounded great to me; not as good as a cold compost pile, but definitely beneficial if timed well vis a vis transplanting.

Ah, but he also mentioned off hand that he’d put composted manure into the space. A lot of it. And it didn’t really register to me what that meant. Until now.

So to a fair extent, I am growing in composted animal manure. If there were cows and sheep grazing in the park right next to me then there’d be an interesting sustainability case to be made. But this manure was trucked in from 20 minutes away, which means that it’s an imported resource. Local, close by, but not sustainable, and certainly not in line with what I’m trying to do.

It’s of note that on hot days there is a faint manure smell, so that tells me it wasn’t 100% cured. I’ll also be more careful going forward about gloves and hand washing.

Thus at this point I am a bit concerned about what the trajectory will look like for my soil to go from where it is now to something sustainable. The “soil system” I’m working with isn’t used to sustainability. I’m thinking I’ll want to add organic matter so as to build more humus in the soil. And I’m also thinking I may get more insects than I’d have otherwise.

So the lesson here for me is “learn all you can about your new soil.”