Jamaica Sustainable Farm Enterprise Program

 

I’m back from Jamaica, compiling my trip report. I went as a volunteer with a farmer-to-farmer training project for 9 days (plus two travel days). I was a volunteer with the FLORIDA ASSOCIATION FOR VOLUNTEER ACTION IN THE CARIBBEAN AND THE AMERICAS (FAVACA), funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) From the American People established by John F Kennedy in 1961. USAID is the lead U.S. Government agency that works to end extreme global poverty and enable resilient, democratic societies to realize their potential. One of the FAVACA programs is the Jamaica Sustainable Farm Enterprise Program.

For those who don’t know Jamaica at all, let’s start with a map of the island, which is south of Cuba.

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I was hosted by the Source Farm Ecovillage, Johns Town, St Thomas Parish, Jamaica. Here’s a more detailed map with St Thomas parish colored in pink. The Source Farm is east of Morant Bay, very near the coast.

The Source Farm Foundation and Learning Village is a multi-cultural, inter-generational eco-village, located in Johns Town, in the parish of St. Thomas, Jamaica.

“Our ecological mission and vision is to respect natural life, its systems and processes – preserving wildlife and botanical habitat, and creating a life-style that regenerates, rather than diminishes the integrity of the source farm environment.”

Here is a 2014 site map, showing roughly what buildings are there, and where the gardens are located. Actually the gardens have expanded quite a bit since this map was drawn.

I stayed in Earthbag 1, a house built of stacked bags of bauxitic soil with cement, rendered over with cement, giving an adobe effect. The structure stayed fairly cool. The windows had no glass, but insect screens and wood louvered shutters. I’ve never actually had a house to myself before, even a small one like this!

The newer houses in the eco-village are monolithic concrete domes, which hold up very well against hurricanes, earthquakes and termites. Jamaica is rich in marl (lime) and other minerals, and there is a cement works near Kingston. Because many other homes on the island are built from concrete block covered with cement rendering, there are many workers skilled in rendering, who can quickly adapt to dome houses.

I got to taste many kinds of mango, passion fruit, star fruit, star apple, ackee, bammy (cassava flatbread), yam, breadfruit, callalloo (amaranth leaves) and meringa seeds, as well as foods I was already familiar with. I had an especially lovely supper with Nicola and Julia, of snapper with bammy and festival (described by April Jackson on The Yummy Truth as a Jamaican savory beignet made with cornmeal), and Red Stripe beer at Fish Cove Restaurant by the ocean.

Festival, bammy and fish in Jamaica.
Photo https://theyummytruth.wordpress.com/tag/jamaican-fried-fish/

What is on the Farm?

Photo courtesy of
The Source Farm

My teaching work was organized by the people at Source Farm and included the whole group of farmers in JSFEP. The schedule included several farm visits, but unfortunately it rained very hard for four or five days (this was meant to be the dry season!) and many areas were flooded. One farmer told me that the biggest challenges to farming in Jamaica are climate change and theft. Both are serious. The heavy rains I experienced showed how much damage unusual weather can cause. At one farm, where a co-operative onion-growing project was underway, one farmer got trapped by rising waters and had to be helped by two other farmers to swim and wade through the wild waters. After that, the farmers in the group had to take turns to guard the place so that the drip irrigation equipment didn’t get stolen. Another farmer told me about losing an entire crop of sweet potatoes one night – someone dug up the whole lot. The thefts, of course, are related to poverty and desperation in some cases, and a culture where each person has to take what they need as there is little in the way of government support. And a history of colonialism with sugar cane and banana cash crops, followed by a crashing economy.

The roads are in poor shape and in rural areas people rely on calling taxis to get from one place to another. Everyone needs a phone to live this way, and I saw some very battered up phones and chargers carefully repaired and kept running. Arranging a meeting time requires a flexible attitude about timeliness.

The farmers were looking at increasing production, planning planting quantities, scheduling succession plantings, and considering new crops. I met one-on-one with a few farmers, and I did some research into the possibilities of growing asparagus and garlic in the tropics, for a couple of them. I had to get my head round the idea of planting a sequence of three crops each needing four months. No winter cover crop cycle. Cover crops are very different from ours. Some overlap – sorghum-sudangrass, sunn-hemp. But no place for winter cereals! The principle of feeding the soil stays the same, using legumes to add nitrogen, bulky cover crops to smother weeds and add biomass.

I was teaching vegetable crop planning, crop rotations, and scheduling co-operative harvests to help the farmers double their presence at the Ujima Natural Farmers Market  to every Saturday rather than very other Saturday, starting in June. The demand for sustainably grown fresh local produce exists, and farmers are interested in learning to boost production.

On the second Saturday I was there, I gave a workshop on crop planning, to 22 farmers, and we got some lively discussion going, as they offered each other tips, and diagnosed some diseased carrots (looked like nematodes to me).

I treasure the time I spent in Jamaica, even though it wasn’t all sunshine and mangoes. I met many wonderful farmers and enjoyed my stay in the Source ecovillage, which reminded me somewhat of Twin Oaks Community, where I live in Virginia.

 

 

 

 

Hoophouse winter greens, transplanting spinach, crocus flowering

Russian kale, yukina Savoy and lettuce from our winter hoophouse .
Photo Wren Vile

Our hoophouse is bursting with winter greens. We just decided to hold back on harvesting our outdoor Vates kale and focus on the greens  which are starting to bolt in the hoophouse. That includes the last turnips (Hakurei, Red Round and White Egg), Senposai, tatsoi, Yukina Savoy, mizuna, Ruby Streaks, Scarlet Frill and Golden Frills mustards. Big but happily not yet bolting are the spinach, Rainbow chard and Russian kales. A row of snap peas has emerged. Time to stake and string-weave them!

The lettuce situation is changing as we are eating up more of the overwintered leaf lettuce in the hoophouse. The lettuces in the greenhouse have all gone, to make way for the flats of seedlings. Plus, we needed the compost they were growing in, to fill the flats. More about lettuce in February next week.

We have also cleared the overwintered spinach in one of our coldframes, so we can deal with the voles and get them to relocate before we put flats of vulnerable seedlings out there. The voles eat the spinach plants from below, starting with the roots. We had one terrible spring when they moved on to eat the baby seedlings when we put those out there. After trial and error a couple of years ago, we now clear all the spinach from one frame, then line the cold frame with landscape fabric (going up the walls a way too), wait two weeks, then put the seedlings out on top of the landscape fabric. The voles by then have decided nothing tasty is going to appear there, so they move on.

Spinach over-wintered in our cold frame
Photo Wren Vile

Outdoors, we have just started transplanting new spinach. We have four beds to plant, a total of  3600 plants, so we have to keep moving on that! We are trialing several varieties again, as we did in the fall. We have the last Tyee, alongside Reflect and Avon this spring. Inevitably things are not going perfectly according to plan. Yesterday I forgot to follow the plan, and we started with Avon and Tyee at opposite ends of a bed we had planned to grow Reflect in! Anyway, we are labeling everything and hoping to learn which have best bolt resistance. Watch this space.

We have grown our spinach transplants (as well as kale and collards) in the soil in our hoophouse, sowing them in late January. I wrote about bare root transplants in early January this year. You can find more links and info in that post. Growing bare root transplants saves a lot of work and a lot of greenhouse space.

For those relatively new to this blog but living in a similar climate zone, I want to point you to The Complete Twin Oaks Garden Task List Month-by-Month. It includes a link for each month’s task list. I notice from the site stats that some of you are finding your way there, but now there are so many years’ worth of posts it’s perhaps harder to find. Happy browsing!

Following on from last week’s mention of harbinger weeds of spring: chickweed, hen-bit and dead-nettle, I can now report that I’ve seen a flowering crocus (2/17), another marker on our phenology list. The average date for first crocuses here is February 8, so they are later than usual. I did notice however, that the foot traffic over the patch of grass has been heavier than usual.

Anne Morrow Donley sent me a link to WunderBlog®, the blog from Wunderground, my favorite weather forecast station, to an article by Bob Henson: This is February? 80°F in Denver, 99° in Oklahoma, 66° in Iceland, 116° in Australia. It includes a map of the Daily Spring Index Leaf Anomaly, Figure 1.

Image credit: USA National Phenology Network via @TheresaCrimmins.

Figure 1. An index of the seasonal progress of leafy plants shows conditions 20 days or more ahead of schedule over large parts of the South and Southwest as of Sunday, February 12. Image credit: USA National Phenology Network via @TheresaCrimmins.

The post has lots of other interesting weather info too. Thanks Anne!


I remembered another of the items lost in the hacked post a few weeks ago: My Mother Earth News Organic Gardening Blogpost on Heat Tolerant Eggplant Varieties made it into their 30 Most Viewed blogposts for 2016. I’ll be writing up more about those varieties, linking the 2016 results to the weather each week (especially the temperatures) and adding what I learn in 2017.

Climate change and pest control

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I recently learned some more about online weather tools for farmers from Eric and Joanna Reuter in Growing for Market. The National Weather Center Climate Prediction Center (CPC) has a wealth of useful info. From the “WPC 7-day QPF” map above (Weather Prediction Center 7 day quantitative precipitation forecast) I see we could get up to an inch of rain over the coming week in central Virginia. Other maps on the site show we can expect above normal temperatures and rainfall for the first week of January. (I’m saying rain, because with above normal temperatures, the precipitation won’t be snow.)

There are maps with forecast conditions for the next month, the next three months and even the whole of 2018, although of course the more intervening time means more chance of things changing before we get there.There is a detailed discussion explaining “La Niña conditions are present, with a transition to ENSO-neutral favored during January-March 2017.” The report was written in November, predicting weak La Nina conditions continuing through March 2017.

Winter offers a good opportunity to explore these tools and get familiar with them (the abbreviations and technical language do take a bit of getting used to). If I were to open this site in mid-summer when already very busy, I think I would struggle to sit still long enough to absorb the information. By figuring it out at the slow time of year, I’ll be more ready to dip in and take advantage of timely info in the main growing season.

If the embedding has worked out right, here is a “Climograph” for Louisa County, Virginia:

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And if it didn’t embed, here’s the link: http://www.usclimatedata.com/climate/louisa/virginia/united-states/usva0445/2015/2

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Outdoors in December – rowcover everywhere! Photo by Wren Vile

Hoophouse beds in December. This is why we have a hoophouse! Photo Wren Vile

Hoophouse beds in December. This is why we have a hoophouse!
Photo Wren Vile


This week I also read an interesting article by Rebekah L Fraser in Growing magazine on the Push-Pull Method of pest control, which was developed in Kenya. In Kenya this method is used to protect crops from both invasive weeds and insect pests. Some plants can suppress others by selective allelopathy. Tick-trefoil not only suppresses some weeds but also repels pests, while conserving the soil in the process, and providing stock feed or green manure when cut. Plus, as a legume, the tick-trefoil fixes atmospheric nitrogen (which feeds the next crop) and reduces greenhouse gases (which helps save us all). This is the “push” half of the combination. Tick-trefoil interplanted with corn repels weeds and pests.

Push-pull pest control

Push-pull pest control

The “pull” half involves Napier grass as an attractive trap crop for corn borers. This trap crop is planted as a border around the corn patch. The female stem-borers are repelled by the tick-trefoil out of the corn to the border where they lay eggs on the Napier grass. It’s sticky exudates and sharp silica hairs kill the stem borer larvae when they hatch. Read more on www.push-pull.net .

It’s so heartening to read about organic sustainable ways farmers in sub-Saharan Africa are working to end hunger and poverty. And these principles can surely be applied to other crops in other regions.

Sweet potato slideshow, phenology article, Ira Wallace awarded

I’ve just got back from the Carolina Farm Stewardship Sustainable Agriculture Conference in Durham, NC. There were about 1200 people, five workshop slots, 12 tracks, lots of good, locally grown food, a whole pre-conference day of bus tours and intensive workshops, a courageous and inspiring keynote address from Clara Coleman on the joys and challenges of family and farm life. She and her two young sons are now living and working alongside Eliot Coleman (her dad) and Barbara Damrosch at Four Seasons Farm in Maine.

My sweet potato slideshow from my first workshop at CFSA is viewable above. Just click on the forward arrow. To see it full screen, click on the link below the image and then click the diagonal arrows when the new page opens. About 70 very engaged people attended that workshop. My other workshop was Sustainable Farming Practices for Vegetable Growers, which I’ll include next week.

I have also recently written a blog post for Mother Earth News Organic Gardening blog  called Saving Sweet Potato Roots for Growing Your Own Slips.

I enjoyed meeting old friends, making new friends, learning some good tips about different drip irrigation parts, how to sharpen and use a scythe, how many years half the henbit seeds are viable for (23 years!!), and picking up literature from the trade booths to digest later.

sac-16-banner-960x330Save the date: 2017’s CFSA SAC will be November 3-5 (Fri-Sun)


nov-dec-2016-gfm-cover-300The November/December issue of Growing for Market is out, including my article about phenology. Phenology is the study of recurring animal and plant life cycle changes in relation to the weather. Some changes are temperature-dependent, rather than (daylength-) calendar-dependent. The opening of some buds and the emergence of some
insects from the ground are related to the accumulated warmth of that season. Observations of certain changes can be used to help growers decide when to expect outbreaks of certain insect pests and when to plant certain crops. For instance, we look to the leaves of the white oaks to decide when it is warm enough to plant sweet corn. The oak leaves should be as big as squirrel’s ears. We have plenty of squirrels! Phenology is especially useful when the weather is extremely variable, which we can expect more of as climate change gets us further in its grip.

Also in this bumper edition of Growing for Market are articles on growing heading chicories (Josh Volk), milling your own logs on your farm (Mark Lieberth), online weather tools for farmers (Eric and Joanna Reuter), image-front-cover_coverbookpagea review of The Farmers Market Cookbook by Julia Shanks and Brett Grohsgal (Andrew Mefferd), and favorite perennials for flower growers (Jane Tanner). There are also two pages of cameos of books available from GfM. A seasonal tip about gift giving, I think.

I am working on a review of Soil Sisters by Lisa Kivirist, which I will tidy up and post soon.


Ira Wallace receives SFA award

Ira Wallace receives SFA award. Photo by Sara Wood

Ira Wallace, my long time friend and one of the members of Southern Exposure Seed Exchange has recently been awarded the 2016 Craig Claiborne Lifetime Achievement Award by the Southern Foodways Alliance. Sara Wood took photos at SESE and at Twin Oaks while preparing the SFA oral history interview with Ira Wallace. You can watch the video clip, read the transcript and ass the photos at the link. Well done Ira!

Book Review: Weeds by Richard Mabey

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Book Review: Weeds: In Defense of Nature’s Most Unloved Plants, by Richard Mabey. 2012 Ecco Paperbacks.

Richard Mabey has just had a new book published (The Cabaret of Plants) but I am behind the times, and another of his books, Weeds, has been my delightful summer reading. Weeds was published in the US in 2012, after a 2010 publication in the UK with a different subtitle. I remember enjoying his book Food for Free in the early 70s, when I was a student about to embark on my adult life. He is probably Britain’s foremost nature writer.

This is a lively book, full of strange tales, literary references, fascinating rich details, reflections on civilization, and musings on what might have been, given a different wrinkle of history. It is about weeds in relation to people: cultural history and botany, global travel and trade, pharmaceutical research and the avid gardening of exotics. There is a good 9-page glossary of common and Latin weed names, 7 pages of notes and references and a very well-crafted, thorough 15 page index.

Each of the twelve chapters has the title of a weed (real or fictional), and a beautiful line drawing. Confusingly, this is sometimes a different weed, or the one of the title is lurking in the background of the drawing. Richard Mabey says “Weeds are our most successful cultivated crop.” He disagrees with Michael Pollan who said that “as weeds may be, they cannot survive without us any more than a garden plant can.” Mabey is confidant they’d survive without us!

imagesRichard Mabey’s story starts in the mid-60s in outer London, near Heathrow Airport, where he had an editing job in a derelict area of gravel pits, Victorian rubbish dumps, scrap yards and a dirty canal. In summer, he walked there in his lunch breaks. The area became a green jungle including “immigrant plants from three continents,” as a result of seeds brought there deliberately or accidentally. Weeds green over the dereliction we create. One role of this book is as a defense of weeds, an appeal to regard them more dispassionately, perhaps helped by the tales of how they got here, or why, or when.

In 1855 Richard Deakin wrote the Flora of the Colosseum of Rome, and listed 429 species of wild plants on the 2000 year old ruin, including 41 members of the pea family. Some of these plants were rare in Western Europe and may have arrived in the fur of the North African animals brought there for torturous combat with gladiators. Fifteen years after this book, Garibaldi’s government ordered a big clean up and almost all the plants were removed.

In 1877 a well was sunk 1,146 feet in London, down to 500 million year old rocks. In those Old Stone Age layers were fossils of some weeds we still have today.

At the beginning of the twentieth century, Edward Salisbury found a new weed growing on a heap of flints: ragweed imported with the flint ballast from a US ship. He also found blue pimpernels in his newly-claimed-from-turf garden in Radlett, Hertfordshire, plants which had not been seen in England for a hundred years. In 1945 he listed 126 bomb site plants.

Charles Darwin dug a 3 foot by 2 foot patch and observed the germination of 357 weed seedlings (boo!). 295 were destroyed by slugs and insects (yay!). And while we’re counting species, it has been reported that the stomach of Graubelle Man, one of the Iron Age Bog People, contained seeds 63 weed species, along with barley and linseed, possibly a ritual last meal before being sacrificed.589141

During World War II, unusual weeds erupted on London’s bomb sites. “A weed storm, a reminder . . . of how thinly the venue of civilization lay over the wilderness,” says Mabey. Poppies germinated on Europe’s battle fields wherever the soil was disturbed (by digging trenches, or by dropping bombs.) In 1964-71 the US sprayed 12 million tons of Agent Orange over Vietnam. It killed entire rainforests and laid low very many Vietnamese people. 80 years later, the forests have still not regrown. The vacuum has been filled by Cogon Grass, which used to grow along forest edges. Relatively recently, Cogon grass reached the southern US in the packaging of imported Asian house-plants. Is this some botanic poetic justice? Cogon is number 7 among the world’s worst weeds. It even overwhelms bamboo.

In the 1980s, Graham Atkins found a barnful of topsoil that had been intended to restore a quarry when it was worked out and returned to agriculture. A test patch grew weeds that had not been seen for decades. Dock seeds germinate after 60 years, lambsquarters (fat hen) after 1700 years, weld (dyer’s rocket) after 2000 years burial. The seeds can go dormant deep in the soil profile.

The UK spent £70 million to clear Japanese knotweed from the 2012 London Olympics site. All plants in the UK are female, and clones of earlier arriving pieces.  This weed can spread 6 feet down and 20 feet sideways in a single year. Ground Elder roots can go down 30 feet, and it can grow 3 feet sideways in a single season. In what I take to be a “know thy enemy” move, this weed has been charmingly named Grelda by Richard Mabey’s partner Polly, with whom he lives in Norfolk, England.

Richard Mabey has a lot of life experience, which shows in his broad-ranging literary, historical and cultural references (including Virgil’s account in the Georgics of Jove’s creation of weeds, weeds in Shakespeare, in John Clare’s poems, and Elizabeth Kent’s essays). Enough stories of weeds for now – on to weed management, a topic of great concern to gardeners everywhere. In Europe in the Medieval Period, weeds were not hoed, but individually hand pulled with the aid of two sticks, one forked, one hooked.

This is not a book prescribing weeds as medicine, although the topic receives some attention as history. Sympathetic Magic – plantain leaves to heal crushing and tearing injuries, because plantain leaves bounce back after being crushed. The 17th century Doctrine of Signatures, a very human-centered approach to weeds (they exist for our benefit) suggested that dandelions have yellow petals not because yellow attracts insects, but to tell us it is useful for urinary disorders. Most herbal medicine these days  is based on observed effectiveness, although it may be surprising to learn that some of the Doctrine of Signatures beliefs still hold sway.

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Galinsoga (but may not be parviflora) Photo by Wren Vile

The chapters meander weedily from one topic to another. There are many fascinating tales of how plants came to be imported to the UK. Kew Gardens received a gift of Galinsoga parviflora (named after a Spanish botanist) in 1793. It escaped in the 1860s. “Oxford ragwort” (possibly brought from Mount Etna in the mid-18th century) escaped after about a hundred years in the Oxford University Botanical Garden, and after another 50 years, was found in much of the south of England. It then spread across bomb sites in the 1940s, presumably bomb craters offered similar conditions to volcano craters.

Britain was landfall for huge numbers of foreign plants, and the Kew Gardens collection of drawings and dried specimens has been analyzed by mineralogists for mineral content to determine where best to mine certain minerals. Other industrial “spin offs” from weeds include the inspiration for Velcro found in burdock seed heads. For reasons lost to us, burdock was a popular plant in landscape painting in the 17th and 18th centuries.

In 1638 and 1663 in the US, John Josselyn published lists “Of Such Plants as Have Sprung Up since the English Planted and Kept Cattle in New England“. There were 22 species.

And in the US today, lawns apparently occupy an area the size of Iowa, and lawn grasses are the most highly sprayed crop, (including both herbicides and fertilizers). Such is the price of Fear and Loathing of Weeds.

Weeds sometimes get moved accidentally, and grow in their new homes after calamities. Sometimes they are imported as exotic garden plants. Sometimes a rare woodland plant like Rosebay Willowherb (Fireweed) takes off when new opportunities arrive, such as stony track-beds of railway lines, fire sites and bomb sites. The plant adapts over time.

Such flourishing adaptations feed into real and imagined worries about herbicide-resistant SuperWeeds, sci-fi weeds like triffids, cross-over genetically engineered weeds and escaped GM crops like canola. Every now and then an especially troublesome weed rises to the top of the worry list. In 1970 in the UK, children were erupting in facial blisters and welts. It was a fad that summer to use the hollow stems of Giant Hogweed as telescopes, whistles and blowpipes. Giant Hogweed, like its relative Wild Parsnip, contains furocoumarins, which are activated in sunlight and then cause skin damage. Giant Hogweed had been around since the early 19th century, but no-one had thought to play in the sunshine and touch the stems to their eyes or lips. As a result, the UK Wildlife and Countryside Act of 1981 made it an offence to tolerate the growth of this impressive 12 foot tall plant with cart-wheel sized flowerheads.

A Weed Extermination Industry followed in the wake of government legal attacks on weeds. The UK Environmental Protection Act of 1990 classified Japanese Knotweed as “controlled waste” and made public money available to help with extermination. Businesses flourished, spending the funds on lavish websites, conferences and manuals. There were strict protocols (rituals, exorcism rites), a step-by-step process, a correct time of year for action. The UK Finance Bill of 2009 allowed tax relief of 15% on costs of removing knotweed from “contaminated land”. Extermination companies took advantage by raising their price for clearance to more than £50/square meter. Then a tiny sap-sucking insect was found which shows promise as a biological control.

Was the Japanese knotweed panic justified? No, says Mabey. The method of tallying noxious weeds used 10km by 10km squares. The incidence was 83% of squares infested in the worst areas. But looking instead at 2km x 2km squares reduced the incidence of infestation from 83% to 29% of squares.

Some panic about invasive aliens is misplaced. Or rather, the affection felt for natives is misplaced. In the UK, many plants considered valuable natives are not so: horse chestnut, snowdrop, many modern cultivars of daffodil, Alexanders. Beware not only of unrealistic ways of measuring, but also of false sympathies and snobbery. In 2005, Ted Green wrote a provocative paper arguing that climate change ought to make us “rethink the relevance of taking a dogmatic position on native and non-native trees.” Evolutionary survival strategies of non-natives may counter the unpredictable demise of other species.

The remaining Plotland bungalow

The remaining Plotland bungalow

I was particularly interested in one of the examples of plants reclaiming urbanized spaces. The New York High Line, Detroit and Chernobyl are other examples, but because I live in an intentional community I was intrigued by Plotland, a community near Basildon, Essex, which was established at the end of the 19th century, during the agricultural depression in the UK. It consisted of self-built chalets and shacks, and at the height of it’s success, there were 8,500 homes, each with a vegetable plot.

Remains of a home in Plotland

Remains of a home in Plotland

Sadly, the water and sewage systems were found inadequate, and in 1949 the Plotlanders were rehoused in Basildon New Town. Most of the buildings were cleared by the mid-1980s, under a plan to reinstate the area as farmland. But the steep site and the poor soil meant there were no buyers. In 1989 the Development Corporation declared the ghost town to be  Langdon nature reserve.

A natural succession followed. At first lawn grasses, weeds and garden perennials grew. Plums, apples and garden shrubs grew bigger. Oak, ash, hawthorn and hornbeam followed. These native hardwoods shaded out the more delicate domesticated cultivars.

And now the UK has a Biodiversity Plan – there is government support for increasing the population of 20 arable weeds, some of which were regarded as pestilential nuisances 300 years ago. We have come to understand the need to accept the existence of weeds. Herbicides have made some of them resistant, some of them rare. We need to balance practical control with cultural acceptance. We get the weeds we deserve.

As I was gathering materials for this post I discovered another Central Virginia Organic Gardener who had reviewed WeedsJudy Thomas

Adapting to a wet spring, using cold frames

Our greenhouse full of seedlings in spring. Photo by Ira Wallace

Our greenhouse full of seedlings in spring.
Photo by Ira Wallace

Our greenhouse is full of flats of seedlings. Today is warm and sunny. At last! The soil is still too wet to till, but we are feeling more optimistic. The forecast still has possibilities of rain Tuesday night (only about 0.1″) and snow Friday night (less than an inch). Soon we will start moving flats from the greenhouse to our cold frames so the plants can harden off in preparation for transplanting in the raised beds. Usually we would have done this earlier, but it has been cold.

Our greenhouse construction is a masonry north wall and double-paned glass windows and insulated walls. Until last winter we didn’t use any additional heating, just the sun. But we now use an electric heater with the thermostat set so heat comes on if the temperature drops below 45F. We decided our seedlings are too precious to risk freezing them, and the weather is more extreme. We also put row cover over the seedling flats if the night temperature could fall below 18F outdoors. Once we have frost tender plants outside the plastic tent (which has a heat mat), we put row cover over those if the outdoor low temperature could be below 28F.

Our cold frames are built from loose set cinder blocks, higher on the north than the south. Following advice from Eliot Coleman in one of his older books, I think Four Season Harvest, we slope the soil in our cold frames. It’s higher at the north, by about 7 degrees, so the plants get better sun exposure.

In late summer, we dig compost into the soil in the frames, rake it up to the angle we want, and sow the spinach in mid-September.

Digging compost into our cold frames in early September. Photo by Wren Vile

Digging compost into our cold frames in early September.
Photo by Wren Vile

The spinach grows in the ground in the cold frame all winter.When it gets cold enough, we cover with row cover. During cold spells we add lids which are wood frames with fiberglass glazing. For very cold nights we cover the cold frames with quilts which are made from reject scraps of the quilted hammocks Twin Oaks sells. Because they are made for outdoor use, the fabrics are very durable.

Here’s how we look after our cold frames in spring:

  • If there is only spinach in the frames (no flats), use rowcover for temps >10F, rowcover and lids for <10F. No need to open and close every day, just remove or add lids if the weather is changing. See below about windy nights.
  • When there are flats in the frames, at night, use the rowcover for temperatures 32-40F, rowcover+lids for 15-40F, rowcover+lids+quilts for temps below 15F. If winds are forecast to be more than 20mph, weight down the lids with wood. If you’re using the quilts, weight them down for winds more than 5mph.
  • In the morning, if the temperature is over 20F, roll up the frame quilts if used.
  • If the air temperature is over 50F, or over 45F and rapidly warming, open the cold frame lids if used, and remove any rowcover over flats, until it cools down again. Seedlings need to harden off, to prepare them to survive outdoors.
  • Keep cabbage and broccoli over 40F, tomatoes, eggplant, celeriac over 45F, peppers over 50F.
  • Flats of seedlings which have been up for a couple of weeks usually need to go to the cold frames for the last two weeks before their transplant date. Good to check about this though, and don’t do it if the weather is about to turn colder. Don’t put celery, eggplant, cucumbers, squash or hoophouse starts in the coldframe at all.
  • If the soil surface is dry, run the drip irrigation for the spinach, or use the hose and sprayer for the flats. If frost is possible, disconnect the hose from the faucet and the sprayer head from the hose when finished, so that they do not freeze and burst at night. Please store the sprayer head in the blocks, don’t get sawdust or dirt in it, it’s a pain to clean. If the outdoor faucet is drained, carry water in cans from the greenhouse. Keep soil surfaces damp, not wet.
Our greenhouse and cold frames in spring with flats of seedlings. Photo by Kathryn Simmons

Our greenhouse and cold frames in spring with flats of seedlings.
Photo by Kathryn Simmons

For a few years we have had trouble with voles eating the roots of the spinach. We found that if we replaced the spinach with flats of seedlings, they ate all the seedlings! So now, we leave the frames empty for a few days after clearing the spinach (any day now). Then we cover the soil with landscape fabric and put the flats on that. it saves our seedlings.

 

Culpeper Library event

 

Culpeper Library poster Publication1For those in central Virginia, I have an event at the end of the month at Culpeper Library

Location 271 Southgate Shopping Center Culpeper, VA 22701

Phone: 540-825-8691.

As well as talking about my book, Sustainable Market Farming, I’ll be signing and selling copies, and answering questions. There will be CSA farmers there, and we will be marking CSA Sign-up Day which is on February 26. This year, CSA Day is about more than getting lots of CSA signups; it’s a whole day dedicated to the celebration of community-supported agriculture. You can read the report of the 2015 CSA Sign Up day here.

CSA stands for Community Supported Agriculture, which is a way of farming (usually vegetables, but other farm products too). In the original CSA model, people join the CSA and pay for a whole season’s worth of produce, sometimes split into smaller regular payments. The CSA member then receives a box or bag of vegetables and sometimes fruits, herbs, flowers, bread, eggs etc, every week throughout the harvesting season. This is a way to support farmers because they get the cash at the beginning of the season when they most need it to buy seeds and repair equipment.

These days there are many different types of CSA. CSA shares (the weekly deliveries) come in different sizes and different frequencies (weekly or biweekly) to accommodate different households. In some models, the members can choose what they want in the bag each time. Some CSAs are like buying clubs, where the members pay every month and can cancel when they like

CSA bags blog Seven Springs, Floyd

CSA Bags at Seven Springs Farm, Floyd, Virginia

 

Ate more Eat-All Greens; Changed vegetable crop rotation

Eat-All Greens radishes on October 19. Photo Bridget Aleshire

Eat-All Greens radishes on October 19.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

Our Eat-All Greens are still alive, if not exactly thriving. The peas have been harvested to death; the kohlrabi, beets and chards are never going to amount to anything; some of the more tender Asian mustard greens are showing some frost damage.

On 12/10 we made one last crew foray to harvest – not greens, but roots! I’d noticed in the wet mild weather of late November the radishes and turnips had fattened up. We can always use a few more turnips, I thought. Plus, I was inspired by the quick-pickle radishes we’d had recently. See sustainexistence sustainable sustenance for our existence, the local foodie blog written by one of my fellow Twin Oakers. 

As we were harvesting the two and a half buckets of radishes, someone came by who said he was planning to pickle radishes, so I told him we’d keep him busy! (Actually, ten days later, there are many left to deal within the walk-in cooler.) The daikons predictably did well, as they are a fall crop. Other good varieties included Crimson Giant, which I picked up at a seed swap, and White Icicle. Sparkler (a small radish was unsurprisingly tough and woody at this overgrown stage.

We also pulled a 5-gallon bucket of delectable small turnips, including some rather pretty Mezza Lunga Bianca Colletto Viola from Seeds from Italy.

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Meanwhile we have been working on our garden planning for next year. Back in 1996 we devised a 10-plot crop rotation, which has generally served us very well for 19 years. The first few years we tweaked it a bit, but we haven’t needed major changes. You can see our pinwheel rotation plan in my book Sustainable Market Farming and in my slideshow Crop Rotations for Vegetables and Cover Crops  on SlideShare.net.

Here you can see the original card version, complete with modifications. The central card disk is fastened with one of those brass-legged paperclips and can be turned one notch each year.

Original Twin Oaks Garden Crop Rotation Pinwheel

Original Twin Oaks Garden Crop Rotation Pinwheel

The bit we want to change is the fast-turnaround where the spring potatoes are followed by the fall broccoli and cabbage. This has worked well in terms of getting high usage from our land, and freeing up one plot in ten to be Green Fallow (all-year cover crops). We did that by undersowing the fall brassicas with clover about a month after transplanting, and then letting the clovers grow for a year and a half before disking in. The difficulties with such a fast turnaround in July are

  1. If we have a wet spring, and we plant the potatoes late, we have to terminate them early (by mowing the tops) and the yield isn’t as good as it might have been. Climate change suggests we might be in for more wet springs, and with El Nino upon us, this is a good time to switch.
  2. If the weather doesn’t co-operate in July, the soil might be too wet to harvest the potatoes when we want to, and too wet to disk in preparation for the transplanting. We need to build more climate resilience into our rotation!
  3. July is stressful enough – it’s hot and humid, people are taking their turn at having a vacation.
  4. If we are late transplanting the broccoli and cabbage, the plants are oversize and don’t do well, so we get reduced yields of broccoli and cabbage that year.
  5. We prefer transplanting in the evenings in the summer (cooler for us and for the plants), and if we get late into August, the daylight is getting too short to get much done.

And so, we are seizing the opportunity to make the switch. The opportunity comes because for the last several years we have not needed to grow winter squash in the vegetable garden because it is grown elsewhere on the farm by the Twin Oaks Seeds.

Fall broccoli undersown with clover. Photo Nina Gentle

Fall broccoli undersown with clover.
Photo Nina Gentle

Our crop rotation contains several sequences of crops that we want to keep. For example, Fall brassicas/Green Fallow/early spring crop (Could be corn or potatoes, but not the spring broccoli and cabbage). Another sequence that works well for us is the Early corn/Garlic next to spring brassicas/fall carrots in one half, rye vetch and peas for no-till cover crop in the other half/paste tomatoes on the no-till the next year.

What we’ve planned for next year (a transition to our new plan) is to use the former winter squash plot for the fall brassicas/clover bit. This involves snipping that plot out of the pie and moving it after the corn #6/sweet potato and the spring potato/cantaloupe (which had morphed into 100% potatoes over the years), so that the newly housed fall brassicas can be followed by the clover year.

But that leaves potatoes only two years after other potatoes, and the late corn only two years after the middle corn, so we don’t want to do that more than once! So for 2017 onwards, we plan to insert the late corn & sweet potato/spring potato sequence after the clover, and move the early corn after the spring potatoes (when we have time to plant a winter-killed cover crop and make cultivation for the early corn easy). And switch the watermelon piece of the pie with the 3rd, 4th and 5th sweet corn successions to even out the years between corn patches.

June planted potatoes with hay mulch. Photo Twin Oaks Community

June planted potatoes with hay mulch.
Photo Twin Oaks Community

This will give potatoes, tomatoes, potatoes 3 or 4 years before the plot is nightshades again. With the corn  we get 3 years, 5 years and 2 years. Not ideal. But we don’t get much in the way of corn diseases (compared to tomato diseases) so it seems the best place to compromise.

If you get bored with holiday jigsaw puzzles and TV offerings, you could draw up your own version of our rotation, chop it up and rearrange it, and send us you suggestions. Remember to plan the winter cover crops too! Have fun!

Local foodie blog, Organic Broadcaster, Climate Hub winter forecast

Radish Quick Pickles Photo by Bridget Aleshire

Radish Quick Pickles
Photo by Bridget Aleshire

For foodies who want recipes and a food blog centered in our part of the country, using seasonal produce, see sustainexistence sustainable sustenance for our existence. This blog is written by one of my fellow Twin Oakers, so you can be sure that you’ll find dishes you can make if you are growing in our bio-region. The latest post is a Pretty Salads gallery and includes Apple Rhubarb Flower Salad; Cucumber, Apple, & Pear salad; the famous Massaged Kale; Mixed Greens & Purples with Feta; Wild-Harvested Salads and more. Other posts include recipes for the under-appreciated rutabagas and turnips, what to do with eggplant, and a series on delicious soups. I can especially vouch for the soups!

This blog makes a nice companion to my blog, as you’ll never find recipes on mine! (Joys of community living #305: I never have to cook!). While I was looking for the link to Sustainexistence, I found another interesting blog with a post from Louisa, A Ride Across America | An Unlikely Hotbed of Food Activism in Small-Town Virginia. Over the course of eight weeks, Ben Towill, the co-owner of the Fat Radish, and the photographer Patrick Dougherty are biking 4,500 miles across the U.S. to talk to strangers about food. Each week, they’ll file a post about their discoveries. While in our area, they visited the Louisa County Community Cupboard, which is worth knowing about if you grow food nearby and have extra. You can take it there and help those less well-off.


Pulling plastic over the hoophouse frame. Photo Bridget Aleshire

Pulling plastic over the hoophouse frame.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

My latest post on the Mother Earth News Organic Gardening blog is

How to Put New Plastic on a Hoophouse (High Tunnel): A Step-by-Step Guide.  This is based on our recent experience of replacing just the outer layer, as well as our previous replacements of both layers on the same day.


broadcaster-picture-e1443112899347For more winter reading see the Organic Broadcaster November/December issue. There are articles on silvopasture, the benefits of organic, how to do cost assessments of various crops and markets, collective marketing, organic no-till, a review of Laura Lengnick’s Resilient Agriculture, the MOSES Conference, and the controversial practice of aquaponics. Well, it’s not the practice of aquaponics that’s controversial, but rather whether a system without soil can ever be truly organic.

Take Back Organic by Dave Chapman, is a report from the National Organic Coalition (NOC) meeting. Many hydroponic operations are gaining organic certification, even though most organic farmers disagree with the USDA decision to allow hydroponics.”Keep the Soil in Organic” has become a rallying cry. Others include “Take Back Organic,” “Soil Matters,” “Keep Organic Real For Me,” “Dirt Matters,” and “Soil Grown.”.

“On the first day of the meeting, a group of Vermont farmers gathered outside at lunchtime for a protest against the weakened organic standards. It started with a procession of marchers and tractors (and one beautiful delivery truck!). . . . As the standards get watered down to become “Certified Sort Of Organic,” we see something  precious that we have worked at for a long time being diluted.”

Eliot Coleman, one of the mentors of organic farming, addressed the meeting and read the following parts of the 1980 USDA report called “Report  and Recommendations on Organic Farming”. That report listed some of the “basic tenets” of organic agriculture:
“Feed the Soil, Not the Plant — Healthy plants, animals, and humans result from balanced, biologically active soil.”  “Soil is the Source of Life — Soil quality and balance (that is, soil with proper levels of organic matter, bacterial and biological activity, trace elements, and other nutrients) are essential to the long-term future of agriculture. Human and animal health are directly related to the health of the soil.”

There is now a USDA Task Force on Hydroponics and Aquaponics in Organic. Unfairly, two thirds of the task force members were selected for their support of including hydroponics and aquaponics in organic certification.

Barbara Damrosch wrote about the farmers demonstration in the Washington Post
www.keepthesoilinorganic.org is a blog on the topic of keeping aquaculture and hydroponics separate from organic certification.


And lastly, for today, here’s a link to the Southeast Regional Climate Hub (SERCH).  SERCH connects the public, academic, and private sector organizations, researchers, and outreach specialists and provides technical support, tools and strategies for responding to climate change. Their goal is to help producers cope with challenges associated with drought, heat stress, excessive moisture, longer growing seasons, and changes in pest pressures.

The current El Niño is on track to be one of the largest on record (since 1950, and. has the potential to surpass the 1997/1998 event, which has been the strongest El Niño so far. Most climate models are in agreement that this episode will peak during the winter and subside to neutral conditions in the spring or summer of 2016. Above average precipitation is expected across the Southeast (see the map below).

off01_prcp

off01_tempTemperature is harder to predict. Sometimes an El Niño can cause above average temperature, sometimes below normal. Currently, December looks like being above average for both temperature and precipitation. In winter, the Arctic Oscillation (AO) plays a strong role in our temperatures. The past two winters have demonstrated this. The AO switches phases fairly unpredictably over weeks or sometimes just days. If it weakens, we can expect nasty cold temperatures again, as Arctic air zooms south to greet us.

El Niño can also cause storms to track along the southern states, if the right temperatures are in place. The SERCH Winter Season Outlook concludes: “However, I do not expect this winter to receive above normal snowfall. For most of the winter, I believe it will be above normal for temperature and precipitation.”

VABF Richmond Area Farm Tours, Buckwheat Trials, Methane and Climate Change

2015rvafarmtour8x11The Virginia Association for Biological Farming has organized this event, and Twin Oaks Community Garden will be tourable at 1pm, 3pm and 5pm on Saturday and Sunday (ONLY!). Tickets (per vehicle) are $25 in advance, $30 on the day, for as many farms as you care to tour.

BUY TICKETS

Download Farm Tour Guide

Read all about it: 2015 Richmond Virginia Area Farm Tour #RVAFarmTour

Shake the Hands that Feed You!  October 3 & 4, 2015 1 PM to 6 PM
Spend the weekend of October 3 & 4 touring Richmond area organic farms!
Buy your ticket now. Load up your car with friends and family (one ticket covers everyone!) and head out for a day — or two — of meeting area biological farmers and seeing where and how your food is grown. Go at your own pace. This farm tour weekend is self-paced with farms located throughout the area.

Interested in volunteering? Help us support the local organic food movement in Richmond. Volunteer on one day of the tour and receive a free pass to take the tour on the other day of the tour with a carload of people. Please contact Sue Ellen Johnson at SueEllen@VABF.org.

More info on the tour and the farms

FARMS:
Amy’s Garden, Avery’s Branch Farms, Broadfork Farm, Byrd Farm, ChiknEGG Cook ‘N Nook,  delli Carpini Farm, Elim Springs Farm, Forrest Green Farm, Reynolds Community College Gardens, Keenbell Farm, Lickinghole Creek Craft Brewery, Renew Richmond Community Farm,  Shalom Farms, Tricycle Gardens, Twin Oaks Community Garden, Victory Farms, Virginia Vegetable Company, Waverly Farm

Read More About the Farms Here


Welcome to Twin Oaks Photo Wren Vile

Welcome to Twin Oaks
Photo Wren Vile

And if you can’t make it then, maybe you have enough interest in buckwheat and other technical gardening details to join the VABF-VSU Buckwheat Trials Field Tour at Twin Oaks:

Twin Oaks Garden Tour: Oct 7, 2015, 4pm – 6pm

Buckwheat trials are now underway on four Virginia farms. A field tour at Old Crowe Farm in Red Oak happened on August 22. Now it’s the turn of Twin Oaks. The buckwheat trial plots are unlikely to still have buckwheat. Instead you can see the next stage of our experiment – a version of Carol Deppe’s Eat-All Greens. I reviewed her lovely book, The Tao of Vegetable Gardening here. Carol lives in the Pacific Northwest, where she broadcasts small patches of various carefull;y selected crops to cut at an adolescent stage and use for salads or cooking greens. Here in the mid-Atlantic, we are experimenting with fall sowing of rows of various crops that she recommends, and a few others to see what happens.

We can also talk about about cover crops, year-round vegetable production and fall season crops.

http://www.twinoaks.org/

Twin Oaks Community, 138 Twin Oaks Road, Louisa, VA 23093


Methane and Climate Change.

I received a comment on my review of Laura Lengnick’s book Resilient Agriculture. I’ve given Randall Snyder’s comment more thought and replied to him. Here is some information I found while reading Ben Hartman’s Lean Farm (review coming soon, I promise!)

a0701e00Is animal farming the chief cause of climate change? Not according to what I’ve read. A UN report (FAO Livestock’s Long Shadow, 2006) says that cattle-rearing generates 18% of greenhouse gas emissions measured as the CO2 equivalent. 37% of all human-induced methane  (which is 23 x as warming as CO2) is largely produced by the digestive systems of ruminants. So, clearly livestock farming makes a big contribution to climate change. But the high level of pollution from cattle is because of intensive agriculture. Specifically, feeding grain to cattle rather than grazing them. In order to produce lots of meat cheaply, industrial farmers feed grain, which is not a natural part of the ruminants’ diet.The UN says we need to improve animal diets in order to reduce enteric fermentation and methane emissions. Cost-cutting by industrial farming has simply passed even larger costs to all of humanity.

We need to eat. Some people like to eat meat. There are parts of the world where farming with grazing animals makes best use of the land. For example, slopes and highly erodeable soils are best kept under sod, rather than plowed up for crop farming. On many farms some combination of vegetable, grain, tree crop and meat farming makes sense, and indeed the diversity can be a strategy for dealing with a changeable and unpredictable climate, as Laura Lengnick points out in Resilient Agriculture. Ducks, chickens and pigs can eat food scraps and vegetable crop residues, and contribute manure.

Reducing food waste is an important step to reducing our greenhouse gas emissions. Organic matter (including food) in landfills accounts for 16% of US methane emissions (Dana Gunders, “Wasted: How America is Losing up to 40% of its Food from Farm to Fork to Landfill.” Natural Resources Defense Council, August 2012.)


And I’ll leave you with this fun, surprising, interactive website from the LA Times on the Food-Water-Footprint, where you can see how much water is used to produce the plate of food you choose. Inevitably the choices are limited, and the foods are all “Commercial US Average” (let’s hope we’re doing better!), but the information from the relative values is useful.

Chickpeas Photo LA Times

Chickpeas
Photo LA Times