Yes, really! On January 17, I sowed flats of cabbage, lettuce and mini-onions (cipollini), and the cabbage and lettuce are already up. Onions usually take 10 days, so I’m not surprised not to see them yet. It’s fun to see new seedlings, even though my energy isn’t ready for taking on another growing season yet. I’m still enjoying hibernation!
The cabbage varieties are Early Jersey Wakefield, a quick-growing small pointy-head open-pollinated variety, and Faroa, a quick-growing fairly small round hybrid that has been very reliable for us. These are for a bed of early cabbage, to eat after our stored winter cabbage is all gone. We’ll sow our main-crop cabbage on 2/7, in much bigger quantities.
I sowed two lettuces: reliable old Salad Bowl and the unusual Cracoviensis, a pink veined sturdy leaf lettuce, that we have found is only useful for us at this first sowing. It bolts too easily once it gets even faintly warm. It tends not to get bitter even when bolting, but our diners aren’t going to believe that!
We’re also still busy with various stages of our garden planning. yesterday I updated our harvest calendar, which tells our cooks which crops they can expect when, and also our food processing calendar to tell the food processing crew when to be ready to tackle large amounts of broccoli, beans or paste tomatoes, for example. I’m part way through revising the document we call our garden calendar, which is really a month-by-month task list. If you were following this blog in the fall, you’ll remember some of those monthly garden task lists. We’ve planned which crops are going in which of the 60 permanent raised beds and identified the ones we need to spread compost on and till first. And then we twiddle our thumbs – lots of rain last week (and a bit of snow) mean it will be a couple more weeks before the soil is dry enough to till.
Here’s our short Twin Oaks Garden Task List for January:
Planning: Prune the catalogs, do the filing, consolidate notes on varieties and quantities.
Week 1: Finalize seed orders, if not done in December. Revise Seedling Schedule using seed order.
: Revise Outdoor Planting Schedule. Plan labor needs for the year.
: Revise Raised Bed Planning Chart. Plan raised beds for Feb-June.
Week 4: Revise Garden Calendar, Lettuce List and lettuce Log.
Order Bt, spinosad and predatory beasties, coir. [sweet potato slips for shipping 5/12-5/17 if not growing our own] Repair greenhouse and coldframes and tidy. Check germinator-fridge and heat mat. Repair flats, and make new if needed. Make stakes. Clean labels.
Check equipment: rototiller, discs, and mower – repair or replace as needed. Repair and sharpen tools.
Freeze out greenhouse to kill pests, or spray with soap or cinnamon oil every five days. Import ladybugs. Check potatoes, sweet potatoes and squash in storage.
Mid-Jan: In greenhouse sow lettuce #1, early cabbage, mini-onions, early broccoli, onions.
Late Jan: In greenhouse sow lettuce #2, scallions #1, spinach, tomatoes, peppers for hoophouse Plantsmall potato onions, 4-5″ apart, ½-1” deep, in a mild spell. Remove mulch to plant, then replace it. Plant shallots & mulch.
Perennials (see November list). Weed blueberries, raspberries, asparagus (spread compost), grapes, rhubarb, strawberries. Add soil amendments, fertilize (not strawberries) and mulch. Prune blueberries, (take cuttings if wanted). Fall raspberries: cut all canes to the ground, remove canes from aisles. Summer raspberries: remove old fruiting canes & canes from aisles.
My presentation is on Saturday Feb 9, 10:30 am – 12:00 noon
Session 4. Crop Rotations for Vegetables and Cover Crops, Pam Dawling, Twin Oaks Community, Louisa, VA:
Pam Dawling writes for Growing for Market magazine. She has been growing vegetables at Twin Oaks Community in Central Virginia for over 20 years, where the gardens feed 100 people on 3.5 acres. Her book Sustainable Market Farming: Intensive Vegetable Production on a Few Acres, published by New Society Publishers on February 1, 2013, will be on sale at the conference. The workshop will discuss cover crops suitable at various times of year in our Virginia climate, particularly winter cover crops between vegetable crops in successive years. She will provide ideas to help you design a sequence of vegetable crops which maximizes the chance to grow good cover crops as well as reduce pest and disease likelihood. She will include examples of undersowing of cover crops in vegetable crops and of no-till options. She will discuss formal rotations as well as ad hoc systems for shoehorning minor crops into available spaces.
I’ll be at the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange booth when I’m not at a workshop, perched on the end of their table, with a big stack of books, signing and selling. Southern Exposure Seed Exchange will be selling the book at their booth at all the events they go to throughout the year, and through their catalog.
The Keynote speaker Karl Hammer of Vermont Compost Company will describe an Integrated System for Production of Poultry and Compost. The Friday plenary will feature Tradd Cotter of Mushroom Mountain who will discuss Using Mycorrhizae to Improve Soil Fertility and Plant Health. Other speakers include: Kristin Kimball, author of The Dirty Life, and her husband Mark Kimball, on crop and soil management at Essex Farm in New York, where they run a complete diet CSA, (I just reviewed her book!); Jeff Lowenfels, author of Teaming with Microbes, for a primer on the soil food web; Kit Pharo of Cheyenne Wells, CO, on minimum input beef cattle production, and me, on Crop Rotations for Vegetables and Cover Crops. I’m on at 10.30 am on Saturday February 9.
New this year: Conference meals will feature all major ingredients from Virginia’s sustainable farms! (Friday lunch and dinner, Saturday lunch). Friday dinner will feature our new “Fresh Chef Trifecta”: Three local chefs will face off to offer the best and most delicious demonstration of local, seasonal fare. (In February, no less!)
If you can’t make it to the entire conference, tickets are available for just the Friday night dinner, cooking demonstrations, and keynote speech by Karl Hammer.
Separate from the Conference itself, VABF is hosting two workshops and Farm Tours on Thursday, February 7th (Registration is separate but located on the same webpage.) There are two all-day workshops and two farm tour options. Workshops take place at and tours depart from the same hotel/conference center as the Conference.
Farm School for Beginners: 9:00 am – 5:00 pm – This One Day Farm School course utilizes the Whole Farm Planning curriculum developed as part of the Virginia Beginner Farmer and Rancher Coalition from Virginia Tech. The course is designed for those with 10 years or less farming experience, and includes presentations from successful farmers as well as extensive hand-outs and resources from the Whole Farm Planning curriculum. Complementary Farm Tour component on Friday morning. $75 – Lunch is included.
Farm School – Advanced Vegetable Production: 9:00 am – 5:00 pm – The owner of Victory Farms, Inc., Charlie Collins has grown for restaurants and farmer’s markets in Phoenix, Arizona and Richmond, Virginia for nearly 20 years, most recently running a 400+ member CSA. His methods yield significant production and very high quality. He has been Certified Naturally Grown for all 10 of CNG’s years as a farmer-run certification program. With specific focus on vegetables, greens, herbs, and vining fruits, Charlie will offer insight into medium to large-scale production, harvesting and storage techniques, transportation and distribution, and farm business management. He will also talk about how to establish workable roles on the farm to avoid burn out, delegating to employees, interns or volunteers, and the cycle of a farm and CSA over several years. Discussion is encouraged so bring your questions! Minimum enrollment required. $85 members, $95 non-members –Lunch is included.
Farm Tours: Will depart from the Holiday Inn-Koger Center at 9 am. $40 members, $45 non-members. Lunch and transportation provided.
Option 1: Commercial Compost, and Dairy/Poultry/Pork/Beef – Watkins Nurseries‘ commercial compost operation and Avery’s Branch Farms in Amelia, where the Alexander family tend a herd of dairy cows and raise grass-fed beef and poultry, in addition to pastured layers and pork. $40members, $45 non-members – Lunch is included.
Option 2: Hydroponics, and Vegetable Production (High Tunnel and Over-wintering) – Windmill Produce Farm’s two greenhouses growing hydroponic lettuces, herbs, and microgreens, followed by Twin Oaks Community‘s 3.5 acre vegetable operation, which provides most food for 100 people year round through the use of their two greenhouses. $40members, $45 non-members – Lunch is included.
I feel drawn to autobiographies of women farmers, and Kristin Kimball’s story of growing food for a hundred people particularly appealed to me. I grow vegetables and some fruit for a hundred people at Twin Oaks Community, and our farming as a whole provides meat and dairy products too – what would be the points of similarity and of difference?
Kristin is a freelance writer from New York City. She interviews an energetic young farmer, gets pulled into joining in his work, and then moves from the city to start a new life with him. After some time looking for suitable land for free, they find the deeply run down Essex Farm. This book is the story of their first tumultuous year at Essex Farm (2003), operating a Full Diet CSA.
For farmers, this book will not be a cozy read – you’ll be on the edge of your chair! I probably got over half way through the book before I had any hope that they could succeed. Kristin and Mark’s success defies the quantity of hard work, the number of disasters and arguments, and their opposing strongly held opinions. And yet I know they succeeded, because several years have elapsed since the book was written and they are speaking at the Virginia Biological Farming Conference in February 2013. But my goodness, in the early days, they seemed doomed to fail.
Their Whole Diet CSA model is revolutionary not only in the range of food provided, but also in the radical distribution method, which is simplicity itself: “Take what you need.” They provide vegetables, fruit, herbs, maple syrup, flours, dried beans, eggs, milk, beef, chicken and pork, for $2900 (in 2010), on a sliding scale. The members can show up every Friday afternoon to collect what they need from what’s available. Some members live pretty much on the food from Essex Farm, and others also buy elsewhere. There were about 100 members in 2010.
Kristin starts from being a very soft-handed non-farming townie in tight jeans and heeled boots. She has a lot to learn! How will it ever work? Especially as Mark is experienced at farming and seemingly obsessed with working long hard hours in top gear. We don’t hear so much from Mark’s perspective, but Kristin does tell us that he avoids the word “work”, preferring to say “I farmed for 14 hours today.” I like that approach. Mark is an excellent cook as well as a very good farmer. Early in their relationship he kills a deer and cooks dinner. Kristin says “I fell in love with him over a deer’s liver.”
Mark has all the farming knowledge and plenty of opinions besides. He believes he has a magic circle around him, and that good things (such as a free farm) will manifest. Naturally enough, this is exasperating for Kristin, who is accused of draining the magic with her negativity. The clash of the earnest woo-woo hippie and the middle-class lover of manicures and foreign travel doesn’t look promising. Mark tells Kristin to give away her beautiful bed rather than bring it with her to the farm, as he will build a more beautiful bed. They sleep on a mattress on the floor for a very long time. How is this all going to lead to a thriving farm and two thriving farmers?
They (led by Mark) decide to farm in ways they enjoy even if they are less efficient: working horses, hand-milking, no fussing over picayune pricing of individual products. They move to Essex farm in early winter. There are tenants in the farmhouse, so they rent a place in town and commute to milk their cow, feed their chickens and restore the outbuildings. Meanwhile they make plans. Their plans are way beyond reasonable. In one week in February they intend to plan and build a greenhouse. The next week they will cut and split the whole year’s supply of firewood. They planned to hold their wedding in October, coinciding with 50 chicks arriving. Their honeymoon week they would also be extracting honey!
Kristin gets library books about construction and plumbing. She realizes how wrong her prejudice was, that manual workers are stupid and lazy. She gets herself through this big change in lifestyle by pretending she’s visiting a foreign land and will one day go home. She enjoys the present, the everyday, but doesn’t consider the hard work in the dirt and cold as a long-term lifestyle. She doesn’t want the emergencies – runaway cattle, freezing pipes, work at all hours, endlessly.
Despite the ill omens, they survive the winter (and we’re talking a long Northern winter here). “March was a tense and slightly dangerous time, like a border crossing between two conflicting countries. It’s not the deprivations of winter that get you, or the damp of spring, but the no-man’s land between.” The unpredictable weather, the dull and depressed fields. This resonated for me. When I lived and gardened on the Yorkshire Moors, I felt like this in March. Winter seemed endless, but it didn’t help to expect spring in March, because it just was too early. Now I’m in Virginia and we have weeks of work behind us by the end of March – winter is so much shorter.
During the maple syrup run, Kristin finds her feet, a job she excels at: evaporating the sap. She begins to love the work, seeing the connection between her actions and their consequences, believing in what she’s doing. She and Mark still argue a lot, with their different styles (passive-aggressive grudge-nurturer versus dog-like shaking of the issue.) Kristin sees that their arguments come from their two different basic fears: hers of poverty, debt and being enslaved to repayments; his of ruining themselves with overwork: “the farm gaining mass and speed until it ran over the farmer and squashed him.” He worried they’d be overwhelmed and life would not be fun anymore. Both problems are certainly deserving of fear. Organic farms fail most often from burnout or divorce. Kristin comments that they were fighting so much they could reach divorce before even reaching marriage.
Which farmer will not relate to this, my favorite quote from the book: “A farm is a manipulative creature. There is no such thing as finished. Work comes in a stream and has no end. There are only things that must be done now, and things that can be done later. The threat the farm has got on you, the one that keeps you running from can until can’t, is this: do it now, or some living thing will wilt or suffer or die. It’s blackmail, really.”
They somehow continue to build up the farm and by the time the ground has thawed [I wonder when that is in the Lake Champlain area?], they have seven paid up members for their CSA, and tensions recede. They have direction, purpose and a weekly goal. Neighbors and friends rally to help. The first week of their CSA they offer milk, meat, eggs, maple syrup and lard.
Once they reach June, the peak of the farming year, they are starting work at 3.45am and not finishing till 7pm (and even then they still have to lock up the chickens). Kristin even falls asleep on the seat of the cultivator. Mark seems to have “diabolical energy” and exuberance. Kristin is happy, working alongside Mark and walking the fields in the evenings, making more plans.
Kristin realizes “the things I admired most about him [Mark] in the abstract were what drove me nuts in the specific.” His beliefs were informed by his experiences and his research. He was uncomfortable with anything where he was unable to know and measure the impact – he wanted no part of it. He tried hard to live by his beliefs of low consumption, handmade items, responsible decisions. Kristin, for her part, was a hedonist with no particular ethic. Mark’s unbending strength carries him and the farm through very hard times. Unbending strength = rigidity = inflexibility = stubbornness. Kristin accommodates to Mark’s beliefs (perhaps another example of Mark’s good luck – without a partner like Kristin, flexible, hardworking, accepting, he would not have made it)
The CSA membership reaches 30 by late summer. They realize the house will not be all fixed up in time for the wedding. Their “To Do” list includes “Find tables and chairs. Slaughter bull for ox roast. Butcher chickens for rehearsal dinner. Write vows.” Kristin is still unsure she wants to marry Mark: “Poverty, unmitigated hard work, and a man whom, for all his good points, no reasonable person would describe as easy to be with.” She is very candid, very open about her doubts, to a level I feel uncomfortable with – it feeds my near-certainty that they’ll never make it. She is also very perceptive: “Marriage asks you to let go of a big chunk of who you were before, and that loss must be grieved. A choice for something and someone is a choice against absolutely everything else, and that’s one big fat goodbye.”
In October the wedding does happen (in case you too, were wondering), despite Kristin having flu and the baker having gone AWOL. It was a reflection of their farming: “exquisite, untidy, sublime and untamed”. I don’t know if the chicks arrived the same week, as originally planned. One month later, Kristin is on a two month writing assignment in Hawai’i. She feels a need to anchor herself by doing some farming, so she visits a vegetable grower. She is taken aback by the leisurely pace of harvesting, and records that that was the moment she made the emotional commitment to her marriage. She realizes the difficulties in her chosen life are hers by choice, and she can’t wait to get home.
When she gets home, Mark has settled into his own rhythm, and they work together looking for harmony, not for conflict. But this isn’t the sugar-coated happy-ever-after ending. Their marriage remains fiery. They engage a few interns each year, and employ some of the local people. CSA membership grows to a hundred. In year 4 their daughter is born and they buy part of the farm.
Kristin leaves us with these words of wisdom: “in my experience, tranquil and simple are two things farming is not. Nor is it lucrative, stable safe or easy. Sometimes the work is enough to make you weep.” And yet “A bowl of beans, rest for tired bones. . . . these things. . . have comforted our species for all time, and for happiness’ sake they should not slip beneath our notice. Cook things, eat them with other people. If you can tire your own bones while growing the beans, so much the better for you.”
Phew! It worked out! Who needs suspense novels for winter reading when there are farming tales as gripping as this one? to read more, go to her website.
The best bit is that I will probably have copies of my book to sell (and sign, if you want!)
I’m contributing to three workshops (I’ve been busy preparing the slide shows and presentations – maybe that’s why I forgot to mention it! Right in front of my nose every day.
At 1.30pm on Friday 25, I’m presenting this one: “Producing Asian Greens For Market — There are many varieties of tasty, nutritious greens that grow quickly and bring fast returns. Led by long-time producer and author of the new book, Sustainable Market Farming, this session will cover production of Asian Greens outdoors and in the hoophouse, including tips on variety selection, timing of plantings, pest and disease management, fertility and weed management, and harvesting. Over twenty types of Asian Greens will be discussed.”
Then at 10.30am on Saturday 26, I’m part of a panel doing:” Integrating Organic Seed Production into Your Diversified Farm: Is It Right For You? — On-farm seed production can ensure that you have access to the seed you need, diversify farm income, and provide the environmental benefits of new crop rotations and enhanced beneficial insect habitat. But managing seed crops along with a demanding, diverse production system can be daunting. Hear the success stories of other farmers who have taken the leap into seed production and learn how and why you may want to do the same. Micaela Colley, Organic Seed Alliance (WA); Ira Wallace, Southern Exposure Seed Exchange (VA); Richard Moyer, Moyer Family Farm (VA); Jim Gerritsen, Wood Prairie Farm (ME); and Pam Dawling, Twin Oaks (VA).”
And lunch is followed at 1.30pm by: “Intensive Crop Production on a Small Scale — Many farmers raise large amounts of food on small acreages. Learn about methods for close spacing, wide beds, using season extension techniques, soil-building, disease and pest management, and dealing with humidity and heat issues in crowded plantings. Presenters will also discuss developing a marketing plan to inform a planting guide and maximize profits. For both rural and urban farmers who want to maximize production on limited space. Pam Dawling, Twin Oaks Community (VA) and Edwin Marty, Hampstead Institute (AL).”
This week I’ve been marveling at Ruby Streaks, a beautiful ferny dark red leafy salad vegetable growing in our hoophouse. It brings a smile to winter salad mixes, a refreshing change from all the earnest shades of green. It’s beautiful, fast-growing, productive, easy to grow, cold tolerant, sweet-tasting,slightly pungent, and the seed is not expensive, what more need I say?
Ruby Streaks is so much more colorful and interesting than actual purple mizuna. For the botanists of Asian Greens among us, Ruby Streaks is a Brassica juncea, not B. rapa var japonica, like actual mizuna.
It can be grown and used as a microgreen (cut at small seedling stage), or a baby green after 21 days, and full size after 40 days. You could lightly braise it if you wanted it cooked. The leaves are finely serrated at the baby size and very similar to mizuna at full size. The stems are green and the leaf color ranges from dark green with red veins in warmer weather, to dark maroon in winter. Right now the color is incredible.
We harvest full size leaves by “crew-cutting” one side of each plant with scissors, then chopping them into short lengths. The plants regrow quickly.
It germinates quickly. Fedco warns that it bolts more readily than mizuna. We only grow it in the winter, when nothing is inclined to bolt, so this hasn’t been an issue for us. If you want to sow for spring, I’d recommend starting early in flats or pots indoors, and then transplanting at 4-5 weeks of age, about a month before the last frost date. Use rowcover for a few weeks.
To start in summer for a fall outdoor crops, you could again use flats, or you can make an outdoor nursery seed bed, protected with hoops and rowcover or ProtekNet insect netting from Fedco or from Purple Mountain Organics in Maryland. In hot weather it’s easier to keep outdoor beds damp compared to flats with a small amount of soil in them. We start ours 6/26 – the same dates we use for sowing fall broccoli and cabbage. The last sowing date is about 3 months before the first frost date. Transplant at 3-4 weeks of age, preferably not older. We haven’t tested out the cold-hardiness of Ruby Streaks, but I would expect it to survive at least down to 25F (-4C), the temperature mizuna is good to.
But the hoophouse in winter is where Ruby Streaks really shines! Double layers of inflated plastic provide enough protection in our climate for Ruby Streaks to grow all winter. And I do mean make actual growth, not just rest up waiting for spring! For winter salad mixes, we sow on 9/24 in an outdoor nursery bed, then plant into the hoophouse 10/24 (4 weeks old). We harvest that 11/1-1/25, by only cutting down one side of the plant at a time. After we clear that crop, we sow radishes in the space. We sow a second round of Ruby Streaks and mizuna inside the hoophouse 11/9, thin it into the salad, and then harvest from it 1/27-3/6.
The January issue of Growing for Market is out, and in it is my article More strategies for dealing with a changing climate. A photo of our fava beans is on the cover. This is the third in a series of four. (You can see earlier blog posts about the first two, in the Articles category.) This article covers the use of soil temperature as a deciding factor on when to sow or plant, and includes a table of minimum (spring) and maximum (summer/fall) temperatures for about 50 crops. As the climate becomes harder to predict, using a calendar (“Plant potatoes on St Patrick’s Day!”) will need to be replaced by using information like soil temperatures, which reflect what the plants will actually experience this particular year.
The article also discusses scouting, which is the practice of making a regular tour of your crops to monitor growth and health. If you see a pest or a disease, you can determine if the level of infestation is enough to call for action, or if watchful waiting is in order. Keeping in touch with how your crops are doing will help you know when you need to take action to avert disaster or to make good use of an opportunity like an early-finishing crop opening up the possibility of using a longer-term cover crop.
I also talk a bit about being prepared for more extreme temperatures – trialing varieties that are more cold- or heat-tolerant than your old favorites, and using shadecloth and organic mulches to reduce heat stress. ATTRA’s Drought Resistant Soiladdresses ways to increase the organic matter content of the soil, and keep the soil covered at all times, helping you farms’ resilience.
In addition I added in a few more resources I’ve found to help with predicting climate change. DailyClimate.org – a daily email newsletter; NOAA Climate Prediction Center, and Weatherspark.com, a fun weather site is where you can see, for instance, what your average winter low has been, and plan plantings accordingly.
Why the fava bean photo? Wait till the soil temperature reaches 36F (2C) before sowing.
As well as my article, there are many other gems – Identify your biggest money-making crops by Chris Blanchard; A Tool Review of The Quick Cut Greens Harvester by Jean-Martin Fortier; 8,000 miles and 18 farmers markets, a travelogue by Gwynn Hamilton and Bert Webster about their cross-country road trip visiting farmers markets all the way; Understanding one of the few insecticides for organic growers by Raymond A. Cloyd, about spinosad formulated as Entrust, and Growers create their own wholesale market for local flowers in Seattle by Debra Prinzing, co-author ofThe 50-Mile Bouquet about the movement toward locally grown, sustainable flowers.
The WordPress.com stats helper monkeys prepared a 2012 annual report for this blog.
Here’s an excerpt:
600 people reached the top of Mt. Everest in 2012. This blog got about 5,000 views in 2012. If every person who reached the top of Mt. Everest viewed this blog, it would have taken 8 years to get that many views.
I’ve been a fan of Amy Stewart since I read her clear explanation of photoperiod in Flower Confidential, about the cut flower industry. Photoperiod is the name for the effect of daylight length on the development of some plants, for example onion plants starting to bulb rather than grow more leaves. In fact, it’s the length of the night, rather than the daylight that is critical. Until I read Amy’s explanation I was puzzled how anyone could distinguish between the length of the daylight and the length of the night. They seem inextricably connected. I was forgetting it is possible to create artificial “days” that are not 24 hours long. Now I get it.
The Earth Moved is an easy read, fascinating, amusing and informative by turn. Its cover looks like an aged Victorian pamphlet, and leads right into a brief history of Charles Darwin’s studies with earthworms, including presenting the worms with hundreds of cut paper triangles to see which end they preferred, when grasping the fake leaves to pull underground. Yes, earthworms make decisions! 80% of the triangles were pulled in by their narrowest tips.
This book distinguishes the different types of worms. Darwin studied earthworms, which eat their way through the soil, produce calcium, distribute soil nutrients, and bury Roman ruins. Red wigglers (Eisenia fetida) are found in compost, in worm-bins and on fish-hooks. New species of earthworms are still being discovered. Parts of Oregon, the Palouse and Australia are homes for giant worms. The global distribution of various worm species provides evidence that continents were physically connected long ago. (Unlike birds or seeds, worms do not survive air passage). All native worms in the soil improve the organic matter and decrease erosion.
Amy explains worm anatomy, including sex and reproduction, and the truth about regeneration of heads and tails – no, you never get two worms from one cut one. I learned that earthworm cocoons usually only contain one egg, while red wiggler cocoons may contain up to six. This surprised me, because I regularly find balls of small red worms in my home-made seed compost in spring, and I thought each cocoon was hatching a whole ball of worms (more than six).
Many species of earthworm were imported to the US incidentally from Europe. Here’s the bit that is challenging for me: imported earthworm species can damage traditional farming and forests. Earthworms are not entirely angelic! Philippine rice terraces, Minnesota forest understories have been destroyed by worms in the wrong place. Worms digest the duff that understory plants need to germinate and grow. Young tree seedlings can’t get established while ferns and wildflowers are disappearing due to worm activity, and hungry deer are chewing off what remains. Preserving forests means more than sustainably managing the logging – it means encouraging new saplings to grow by keeping the deer out – as removing the earthworms is impossible. Worms can also displace frogs, toads, voles, shrews, springtails, and erosion can get worse if there are few understory plants to hold the soil. No heroes are perfect!
What should farmers do? Emptying out worm-bins or buying earthworms doesn’t sound smart any longer. Don’t add red wigglers to woodland. Some even suggest that people with worm bins should freeze worm castings before adding them to soil.
The next section of the book dives into the use of worms to digest garbage, animal waste, human waste and to break down toxins and clean up pollution. There are large-scale “continuous flow reactors” with machinery to move everything along and maximize the efficiency of the worm workforce. But a town distributing 4000 household size worm-bins can do as good a job of turning garbage into gold. For animal waste, pre-composted waste is presented to the worms and the resulting castings can be sold to gardeners. All this raises questions about the evolution of red wigglers to be the fittest for dealing with human garbage. On the other hand, we have been domesticating worms for centuries, although less intentionally.
Worms can be used for bioremediation, helping distribute beneficial bacteria deep into compacted polluted soil. For some sites it is necessary to first improve the soil, for instance by growing cover crops, adjusting the acidity, adding some compost to make the soil more hospitable to worms. Not a quick fix, but maybe our best bet for reclaiming strip mine sites and similar. Not good for regenerating forests, as already noted, but perhaps we can increase pasture this way, eventually.
Since 1997, there has been research in Florida into using worms to help process human sewage, using red wigglers to reduce the harmful pathogens in a purely biological process. Instead of paying dumping fees for the sterile Class A solid waste from the sewage treatment plant, the solids are vermi-composted along with some grass clippings or other fresh vegetation, leaving a product that can restore well-being to the soil, rather than being a waste-disposal problem. Meanwhile the now-clean water from the original waste can flow through a regenerated wetland area. Naturally to make this system work, toxic materials need to be kept out of this waste stream, so education and access to free disposal for toxic materials is also needed.
This book may well lead you to consider keeping a worm-bin yourself, and you’ll find enough information and inspiration in this book to get started, including a handy resource section. Here’s help choosing a bin, worms, a location for your bin, starter material, food (no onions or citrus), and then information about adding shredded newspaper, removing castings and making use of them. For small-scale worm-bins, Amy suggests the widely available Can-O-Worms, Wriggly Wranch and Worm Factory, unless you plan to make your own bin. Mid-scale worm farmers might go for the Worm Wigwam or the Eliminator, (Australian, no longer available in the USA).
All gardeners and farmers will benefit from knowing and understanding worms, and this book is an engaging little foray into better acquaintance with these allies. If you want to read more Amy Stewart, go to the blog she writes for, the Garden Rant.
The Earth Moved: On the Remarkable Achievements of Earthworms, by Amy Stewart, Algonquin Books. 2004, and re-released in a new cover 2012. Book Review by Pam Dawling
I’ve been busy putting our seed orders together. As we grow so many different crops, it’s quite a time-consuming process. And I hate to buy too little and be out in the field on planting day, looking at an almost empty packet. Equally, I hate to buy too much, which either wastes money (if we throw the extra away), or else causes us to risk sowing seed that really is too old, and won’t do well. I keep a chart of how long different types of seed last:
(From Sustainable Market Farming, (c) Pam Dawling, New Society Publishers, 2013)
“Opinions vary a bit about how many years seeds of different vegetables are good for. The fuller story is that storage conditions make a big difference. You can make your own decisions, weighing up the information supplied, your knowledge of how carefully you stored the seeds, the information on each packet about percentage germination when you bought it, and the economic importance to you of that particular crop. If you always transplant lettuce, as I do, you can risk one of your four varieties in that sowing coming up poorly, and just plant out more of the other three if it fails. Many seed catalogs include information about seed longevity, and so does Nancy Bubel in The Seed Starters Handbook.
Rather than deteriorating with age, some very fresh seed has a dormancy that needs to be overcome by chilling (lettuce). Other seed contains compounds that inhibit germination. These can be flushed out by soaking in water for about an hour (beets).
Another of the challenges with seed ordering is converting between grams, ounces and seed counts. Here’s a helpful table of 1000 Seed Weight for 13 crops.
Our main seed suppliers are Fedco, Johnny’s and Southern Exposure. Fedco has great prices, especially on bulk sizes, great social and political commentary in the catalog, and no glossy pages. Johnnys has some good varieties that Fedco doesn’t, and a ton of useful information tucked away on their website. Southern Exposure is best on southern crops and heat tolerant varieties which we can’t expect seed companies in Maine to specialize in. Plus, SESE are my friends and neighbors.
This year we are trying some new varieties. Generally we like to have some reliable workhorses that we know well, and trial a few new things, especially if we hear our favorite varieties are no longer available. Last year our Nadia eggplant couldn’t cope with the heat. For a while in early summer they didn’t grow at all – no new flowers, never mind new fruit. So next year, alongside Nadia I’m trying 3 that should deal better with heat. Florida Highbush is open-pollinated, from the Seed Savers Exchange. Epic and Traviata are hybrids from Osborne Seeds.
I also bought some Sugar Flash snap peas from Osborne. We have been big fans of Sugar Ann, but I’ve heard Sugar Flash is even better on flavor, yield and harvest period. We’re going to find out!
For a couple of years we really liked Frontier bulb onions as a storage variety for this climate and latitude (38N). Frontier disappeared from the catalogs of our usual suppliers and we tried Gunnison and Patterson. This year – no Gunnison! And we didn’t get a good test of Patterson last year, as we failed to weed our onions enough, after an initial enthusiastic good go at it. We were looking again at Copra, one we grew some years ago (before we found Frontier). I lucked out when I decided to see if Osborne had Gunnison, while I was shopping there. they didn’t, but they had Frontier! And then when I was shopping at Johnny’s, I found they did have some Gunnison for online sales only. So I ordered those too!
We’re also trying Sparkler bicolor sweet corn from Fedco and a drying bean I won’t name, as the seed is in short supply. And this year we’re hoping Red Express cabbage will prove to be a reliable little worker. We used to like Super Red 80, but had several years of poor results. Since then, none of the other red cabbages we tried have satisfied us in terms of size, earliness, productivity and flavor.
After a few years of poor pickling cucumbers, we’re going outside the box and trying West Indian Gherkins from Monticello, where they were grown by Thomas Jefferson (and some of the enslaved people, no doubt). These are not closely related to actual cucumbers, but are used similarly. I saw them growing in the Monticello garden when I was there for the Heritage Harvest Festival in September, and they are certainly robust and productive in hot humid weather. We’ll see how the pickles turn out!
My only other “impulse buy” was the Salanova Lettuce new at Johnny’s. They are 6 varieties of head lettuce designed to be used for salad mix at a single cutting. Quicker than snipping rows of baby lettuce with scissors. More fun than plain lettuce heads. They are loose heads of small leaves in various shades of green and red, and two “hairstyles”: frizzy and wavy.
Since my last update on December 4, we all had a last minute flurry of activity before I left for a few days in the Shenandoah mountains. A very nice break. I got back last night and now have official confirmation from New Society Publishers that the book has gone off to press!
I spent last weekend (before my trip) trawling through the whole thing as a pdf, looking for anything that needed fixing. Kathryn managed to shrink down the index to make up for the extra-long text. The designer managed to squeeze in some more photos. And I found a replacement for one photo that just wasn’t high enough resolution for the color section.
I really wanted a header drawing for each crop chapter, but I didn’t have quite enough of Jessie Doyle’s. You can see her work at jessiedoylesstuff.blogspot.com. I got a few more from other artists, and had to make sure they were credited correctly. Somehow the list and the late drawings got lost when I deposited them in the elctronic drop box, Box.com. I remember it took me ages to do and I was very late for dinner. I imagine I forgot to press one important last button. Anyway, we got all that sorted out.
There was one complicated crop rotation chart that needed last minute changes and the person working on it wasn’t there last Friday when NSP sent me the pdf, so I was unsure it was happening. It was all taken care of!
There were a couple of other charts that had oddities to fix. And sure enough, I found a typo that no-one had noticed before! (Oasts rather than oats.)
And now it’s passed the point of recall, and I’m not making any more changes. Now I can relax a bit!