Book Review: The Lean Farm Guide to Growing Vegetables: More In-Depth Lean Techniques for Efficient Organic Production, Ben Hartman

Book Review: The Lean Farm Guide to Growing Vegetables: More In-Depth Lean Techniques for Efficient Organic Production, Ben Hartman, Chelsea Green, $29.95, publication November 2017

When I read Ben Hartman’s first book, The Lean Farm, and wrote my review in October 2015, I was on the path from curious and enthusiastic skeptic to enthusiastic-fan-with-reservations. I rejoiced in the ideas of reducing wasted effort, being more efficient, more successful at producing food, happier, less stressed. Ben Hartman, Jean-Martin Fortier and Curtis Stone are three successful commercial vegetable growers who clarified for me that a small-scale farm could be more efficient, more sustainable and certainly more pleasant if worked mostly with manual tools and a walk-behind tractor (rototiller) than with a ride-on cultivating tractor, which was the direction I had been looking in. We really didn’t want to be spending our time on a tractor, or under it, maintaining it. We didn’t want a class of tractor-driving gardeners divided from a class of hands-in-the-soil gardeners. Nor did we want to re-format our gardens and give up all the space to allow a tractor to turn around.

When I heard about Ben’s new book, which he describes as “a how-to manual, with a lean twist,” I sought it out. Here are the many helpful details to improve how we do our vegetable growing. His introduction reviews the five core Lean Principles, so if you haven’t read his first book first, you can still understand the thinking behind his systems. With Ben’s first book, I expected push-back from crew members who would judge his ideas and techniques as inflexible, too detailed, nit-picky. Was this just my projection? I found it very thought-provoking, and I was constantly assessing our farm as I read it. I had a rough triage of inner comments: “ah, we already do that (well)” “oh we really need to do that” “ooo I’m not happy with that idea.”

By and large I valued the actual techniques and strategies. I bristled against his classifying planning, organizing and other managerial tasks, as well as bed prep, hoeing, weeding, thinning seedlings as type 1waste (muda, in Japanese). That just didn’t sit right with me. Perhaps it’s a word that doesn’t translate well. A commenter on my blog clarified this for me. She likened type 1 waste to Stephen Covey’s Quadrant 2 (Important but Not Urgent) in the Seven Habits of Highly Effective People. Quadrant 2 includes maintenance, advance planning, being prepared. Preventing problems, or dealing with them to minimize their impact is important. I could never call it wasteful. In fact, I see attention to Quadrant 2 as a sign of good leadership, good farming. We need to make time for the important tasks that are not yet urgent. Scout for pests, don’t ignore them till they overwhelm your crops.

In this second book there is acknowledgement that while muda is usually translated as waste, not all muda should be completely eliminated. Simply minimize the time and energy given to non-value-adding activities. OK, I can go with that. In fact, the list of 10 forms of muda doesn’t say a word about managerial activities. Or about reading books, or writing reviews!

Ben takes a Lean look at crop planning, bed prep, compost-making, seed starting, transplanting, the Japanese paper pot transplanter, direct seeding, weed and pest control, sales, seven crop case studies, greenhouses, and finding good land and building a farm. There are valuable appendices with recommendations on tools, crop varieties, dollar-value-per-bed, a photo gallery of seven more crops, a Japanese glossary, and a book list.

I’m a fan of careful crop planning, and I acknowledge that doing it efficiently is important. There is definitely such a thing as “over-planning.” I think experience teaches us what we need planned and what we don’t. When the same people grow the same crops on the same farm year after year, lots can be taken as decided. When we have built fertile soil and there are no new plagues, we can get away with minimal crop rotation. At Clay Bottom Farm (in Indiana), Ben, Rachel and their crew are earning their living from less than one acre, growing and selling specialty produce to restaurants, farmers markets, and through their CSA. They grow a lot of salad greens and tomatoes, along with some root crops, peppers and eggplants, zucchini and cucumbers. Sweet corn, beans, peas, winter storage crops don’t feature much or at all. They have found the crop mix that works for their customers (that is one of the 5 Lean Principles). The situation in our gardens seems more complicated, but the point remains: streamline the planning, don’t over-work it.

The concept of load-levelling (heijunka) is valuable – look at the plan for the year and keep it manageable every month. And plan in a vacation for everyone. We try to stagger our vacations so that there are always a few people who can run things, taking turns. We tried reducing the August workload, moving one big task to September, and taking a few weeks off from lettuce production. Ending our watermelon harvests at the end of August and our winter squash at the end of September were helpful in keeping fall work manageable. We’ve got better at “doing-in” plantings of beans, cucumbers and summer squash if they are getting to be oppressive.

I was particularly excited to see instructions to build a seed germination cabinet à la Hartman. Like Ben, we use discarded refrigerators. Ours rely on incandescent light bulbs, which are a dwindling “resource”. Some would say “good riddance” but we are actually using the heat the bulbs generate, as well as the light. Ben’s clever design uses a pan of water heated by an electric element, on a thermostat. This could be our next germinator!

I’ve read about the Japanese paper pot transplanter before, and concluded it’s best for plants set out at 6″ spacing or less, and fairly large plantings of one thing. I’m intrigued – would love to try it, even though we do more direct sowing of close-planted crops than Ben does. I love the idea of a carefully-designed manual machine for transplanting, especially as my knees get older, and like squatting less. This chapter is worth the price of the book to anyone about to buy the transplanter. So many tips, including Ben’s Paper Pot Cheat Sheet. The direct-seeding chapter explains the Jang JP-1 seeder, and the same message applies about buying the book if you’re buying the seeder.

Weeds and pest control without muda – Yes, of course, focus on prevention, rather than managing. Ben gives 5 Steps to No Weeds. Yes, time saved there would pay for the price of the book too! Pests, Leaned Up is about Biological IPM: rowcovers, beneficial insects and biological sprays if needed.

The sales chapter looks at transportation logistics, sensible delivery vehicles. As Ben says, “Big vehicles, we learned, don’t by themselves lead to large sales”. Avoid over-production. Set up your market booth for smooth flow.

The case studies explore how Clay Bottom farmers decide which varieties to grow, where and when, and of course, how much. The case study crops are tomatoes, baby greens, kale, head lettuce and romaine, carrots, other bunched roots, and peppers. Here’s good information from someone who has paid exquisitely good attention to what works and what doesn’t.

The chapters on finding good land and setting up your farm in a well-organized, Lean, way will save new farmers some costly (livelihood-threatening) mistakes, and help the rest of us think twice about why we store our tools where we do, and so on. The greenhouse chapter is brief, and yet full of gems about design.

Holiday Season approaches, I’m just sayin’. Or invest in your farm, with this worthwhile business expense. In other words, buy this book!

Book Review, The Greenhouse and Hoophouse Grower’s Handbook, by Andrew Mefferd

The Greenhouse and Hoophouse Grower’s Handbook,  Organic Vegetable Production Using Protected Culture. by Andrew Mefferd. Chelsea Green.March 2017, $34.95. ISBN 978-1-60358-637-5

I was lucky enough to be asked to write an endorsement for this book, and was sent an uncorrected proof to read. Now I have the full color, published version, and I’m poring through it once again. Andrew Mefferd is the editor and publisher of Growing for Market magazine that I sometimes write for. Prior to that job, he worked at Johnny’s Selected Seeds, in the research department for seven years. Born in Virginia, he apprenticed on farms in six states on the west and east coasts, then farmed in Pennsylvania. He now farms in Maine, and has a good appreciation for the difference a different climate can make.

This is not an “Everything you always wanted to know to get started with a hoophouse” book, nor a compendium of greenhouse crops, pests and diseases. On the contrary, this book focusses down on the precise details of successful practices to grow what Andrew has determined to be the eight most profitable crops using protected culture: tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, eggplant, lettuce, greens, microgreens and herbs.

This is a book to come back to each time we want to know more about one of his topics. If I were about to launch into microgreens, I would follow Andrew’s methods. I tend to read quite widely on vegetable growing topics and I’ve read some very fussy time-consuming microgreens-growing instructions for home gardeners. I haven’t seen another book be so down-to-earth with an efficient and professional growing method that uses only simple tools and supplies. Those wanting to grow microgreens in quantity, and make a living from it will find plenty of information to get started or to fine-tune their operation.

The part of the book I’m most excited about right now is the information on what plants need at different stages of growth, in terms of balance between temperature, humidity as it affects transpiration, daylength, light intensity, carbon dioxide, oxygen, water and nutrients; and how to use this information for “crop steering” – adjusting conditions to select for leaf growth or fruit development. Here are the details to get it right. I once got a light meter to compare the light transmission through clouded old glass and new glass (I wanted to know if it was worthwhile to replace the glass in our greenhouse). But then I didn’t know how to use the information. Now I know that 1% less light will lead to about a 1% lower yield. Specific information like this can be hard to dig up bit by bit on the web. Here the gold nuggets have been screened for us, and the mud left behind.

The book starts off with a sixty page section on the basics of protected culture: the why, what and how of the various options of structures and utilities you might be choosing among, with a chapter on economics and efficiencies. The main part of the book then dives into the specific practices that help the eight crops do best. Chapters on propagation, pruning and trellising; temperature control and crop steering; and grafting are applicable to many of the recommended crops. Next follow chapters on each of the crop groups, and appendices on hydroponics, pests and disease and tools and supplies.

Andrew is obviously a very attentive farmer, and one who keeps good records. And here we can all benefit, whether experienced growers looking to improve our game, or beginners wanting to grasp success from day one. Serious backyard gardeners could use this book too, not only commercial growers. Facts are facts, results are results. Not everyone will want to follow all of the recommendations immediately or perhaps ever. In our hoophouse in Virginia, we grow two beds of early tomatoes in our hoophouse with just enough trellising to keep them upright, and minimal pruning. As soon as our outdoor tomatoes are producing well, we pull out the hooophouse rows. Our climate doesn’t warrant keeping them in the hoophouse, and in fact, it may get too hot in there for them. Our climate is full of fungal diseases, so crop rotation is very important to us, and the sooner we don’t need tomatoes in the hoophouse, the sooner we can remove them and their fungal spores!

But I do remember growing tomatoes in a glass greenhouse in northern England, and how we cherished those plants! I had started to experiment with side-grafting 25 years ago, in hopes of having sturdier tomatoes. We pruned and twined, and every ripe tomato was precious to us. It was late September when I moved to Virginia, and I helped the garden crew harvest Roma paste tomatoes, which were grown sprawled on the ground. That in itself was a shock – gosh these people don’t hold their tomatoes in very high regard, they let them rot on the ground! The crew member working next to me shocked me further: “Stomp on the green ones” she muttered under her breath. Apparently so great had been the harvest of these paste tomatoes that the crew was exhausted from harvesting and wanted to be done!

So, select the sections of Andrew’s book that speak to your needs and your climate. There’s something for everyone. You don’t need to abide by it all to want the book. It will easily pay for itself if you find only one new practice to adopt this season. But read the whole book anyway, and you can develop a fuller understanding of the big picture, a new management strategy and a set of skills to deal with the challenges that arrive unbidden. Andrew has tested all these practices as a small-scale grower himself, and he does this because he’s a passionate supporter of local food, sustainably grown, and sees protected cropping as a way to increase local food production by increasing on-the-ground crop insurance in the face of the unpredictable.

Young tomato plant in our hoophouse in April.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

Book Review: Soil Sisters: A Toolkit for Women Farmers, by Lisa Kivirist

image-front-cover_coverbookpageBook Review: Soil Sisters: A Toolkit for Women Farmers, by Lisa Kivirist

New Society Publishers, 2016, ISBN 978-0-86571-805-0. $24.95

Although women are not a minority, we are among the “traditionally under-served” as farmers by the colleges, universities and government agencies supporting farmers. Lisa Kivirist is a national advocate for women farmers and the co-author of several books on earning a living from rural enterprises. In this book, Lisa combines years of her own experience with gems from other women farmers she knows. Full disclosure – I am one of the women farmers she interviewed. She farms in Wisconsin and I farm in Virginia. We meet up from time to time at Mother Earth News Fairs, where we are sometimes speakers.

Soil Sisters is specifically about the experience of women in farming. Whenever Patricia Schroeder, Colorado’s first Congresswoman (1973-1996) was asked why she was “running as a woman”, she replied “What choice do I have?” Similarly, women farmers deal with all the issues of farming (hard physical and mental work, the weather, the need to earn a living) the same as male farmers do, along with the challenges of attitudes from some people about women doing what some see as “men’s work” and the cultural challenges of perhaps being raised with too many clean frilly dresses and not enough toy wheelbarrows and construction kits.

This book has four main sections: the history and reality of women in farming; how and where to gain farming information; running a farm, sustaining the soil and the bank balance; and cultivating balance for mind, soul and body. Because Soil Sisters gathers together a wide range of information relevant to women, I think all women farmers will find something uniquely valuable here, whether it’s information about ergonomic tools, insight into a different approach to a challenge or a pervading sense of support and encouragement.

This book is good to read cover-to-cover, and also to dip into when you have a spare five minutes. Throughout the book are four series of sidebars. The “How she sows it” icon highlights a series of real-life stories from successful women farmers. The “Tool Shed” sequence provides practical tips and links to resources. The “Idea Seeds” are inspirational quotes, and the “Tip Jar” series has the gems of advice. I typed out the Tip Jar contents to pin to my wall. In the Tool Shed I found www.farmtransitions.org a collaborative venture providing free tools and templates for farmers passing their farms from one generation to another, to construct management plans to fit their goals and needs. In the Idea Seeds rack I found quotes from Catherine Friend, author of 41dsduwconl-_sx322_bo1204203200_

51uel1m3jsl-_ac_ul160_Sheepish: Two Women, Fifty Sheep, and Enough Wool to Save the Planet and  Hit by a Farm: How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Barn. I’m adding those books to me Winter Reading List!

The gender inequity in farming arises from the long story of women being legally barred from owning property or voting. From the history section I learned that married women could not own the income they earned from farming in one third of the states as late as 1887. Legally, this changed for the better in the 1900’s, but custom prevented wide acceptance of the law. As often the case, situations were even worse for women of color.

"Pitch in and help" Women's Land Army Poster, USDA National Agricultural Library

“Pitch in and help”
Women’s Land Army Poster, USDA National Agricultural Library

During the First World War, 20,000 women joined the Women’s Land Army of America and, as Lisa puts it, “blend[ed] patriotism with planting parsnips.” The vote came for women in 1920. The WLAA revived during the Second World War with the Victory Garden program. The Census of Agriculture only started counting women farmers in 1978. Women farmers were outliers. One pioneer, Denise O’Brien, founded the Women, Food and Agriculture Network, to promote the voice of women in farming.

Lisa has grouped women farmers into four broad categories: those choosing agriculture as a second career, those going it alone, new young farmers, and those returning to farm the family land. Having farmed in intentional communities for over 40 years, I check “none of the above”, and yet I found writing that spoke to me. In the solo operator section, Katie College put it succinctly that while we influence our own relationship to our farm and our own relationship to those we live with, we have no influence over the relationship between those we live with and the farm. It’s impossible and unethical to manipulate your life partners’ enthusiasm for the farm. That relationship is entirely outside of our circle of influence. We can only improve the aspects we do have influence over. “We pretend that the problem . . .is the lack of support from our partner, when in fact it might be that we ourselves aren’t managing the farm well.”

In the chapter about complementary on-farm enterprises, you can read all about unusual crops and livestock, selling crafts and home-made foods (whether in a commercial kitchen or under the Cottage Food Laws), running a B&B, farm events for the public. To balance wild dreams, here is information about the cottage food laws, when you need a food service license, what you need to know to serve food on your farm. The Tool Shed icon brings info about affordable legal help from Nolo and Legalzoom as well as finding tax, financial and marketing info. Lisa recommends Building a Sustainable Business: A Guide to Developing a Business Plan for Farms and Rural Businesses, free online  or from SARE.

Lisa takes us through the seven Ps of marketing: Product, Price, Place, Promotion, People, Partnerships and Purpose. She discusses the current options for online marketing, and stresses  the importance of being open to new technological developments with “continuing to grow that encyclopedia in your mind”.

The next section of the book was especially useful to me, a seasoned farmer

Green Heron Tools founders Ann Adams and Liz Brensinger

Green Heron Tools founders Ann Adams and Liz Brensinger

beginning to suffer the challenges of an aging body. Train year-round, balance physical activities on the farm with other sorts of workouts, yoga, stretches and strength-building routines. Buy tools designed for women’s bodies from Green Heron, use correct lifting techniques every time (see the Green Heron website).

The last section of the book includes four topics that need addressing but didn’t fit in earlier: Improve communication with men (at the feed store, government agency etc), Fit in, Find your tribe, Integrate your family into your lifestyle. On the topic of improving communication with men in the traditional male farmer domain, Lisa encourages us to use the Power Posing advocated by Amy Cuddy in her TED talk “Your Body Language Shapes who You Are”. In private, just before you’ll need to stand your ground, stand tall like Wonder Woman for two minutes, hands on hips. Weird as this may feel at first, over time, you notice it helping. Physiologically, doing this increases testosterone 20% and decreases cortisol  by 10%, leaving us more assertive and also calmer.

Fitting in is not caving in!  Lindsey Morris Carpenter advises doing these 11 things:

  1. find common ground with rural neighbors by giving everyone the same chance you would like them to give you,
  2. look out for your neighbors (tell them when their livestock escapes),
  3. know the lingo (don’t call hay straw!),
  4. start conversations on easy topics (the weather, wildlife sightings, country hobbies),
  5. practice tolerance and patience (choose your battles)
  6. join in local events
  7. engage in local trading
  8. give country music a chance (yes, really)
  9. be a good networker (pass on info on good local sources and opportunities)
  10. be proud of who you are (lead by example)
  11. make your own community (gather your tribe, don’t wait for them to seek you out!)

logoIntegrating family and kids into the farm is not one of my areas of expertise, but I recognize it’s of vital importance to many women farmers. I remember in the 70’s, as a WWOOFer in England, being asked wistfully by the woman of the farm whether housework and childcare were more equally shared in intentional communities and the women got more time to farm. Yes, indeedy!

The section on creating balance advises being efficient with your time by looking to other small-scale farmers for answers in solving challenges. Claire Hintz suggests an idea that hadn’t occurred to me; farmers in Eastern European countries or Mexico or Central America are particularly inventive as they have less cash and fewer purchase options and have to create many items themselves. Type your challenging situation into Google Translate and try Spanish, Ukrainian or Slovakian. Copy the key word in that language into YouTube, and watch carefully. Now then, when you read the phrase “farmers in Eastern European countries or Mexico or Central America” did you picture women or men?

There’s a good booklist of farm memoirs written by women. I’ve only read 5 of the 11 listed – more to add to my Winter Reading List! There’s an inspiring Working Manifesto that Maisie Ganz wrote for Soil Sisters Farm, that she and Willow Hein live by. There are tips from Kriss Marion, a “forty-something farmer” on staying fit and eating healthily. Don’t snack on lunchmeat sandwiches between tasks! Track your food input on WebMD – “You first, then the farm.” Kriss runs a “farm girl boot camp” Facebook page where she shares fitness and health tips.

Kriss Marion on her tractor. Photo Soil Sisters book

Kriss Marion on her tractor.
Photo Soil Sisters book

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

Video Review: The Market Gardener’s Toolkit by Jean-Martin Fortier

Les Jardins de la Grelinete (Broadfork Farm)

Les Jardins de la Grelinete (Broadfork Farm)

Photo from Les Jardins de la Grelinette in Saint-Armand, Quebec, Canada.

Photo from Les Jardins de la Grelinette in Saint-Armand, Quebec, Canada.

The Market Gardener’s Toolkit by Jean-Martin Fortier is now hqdefaultavailable for sale online on DVD or Digital Download. $25.49 and $15.49 respectively. Worth every penny! It’s 80 minutes of very inspiring and immediately useful information on small scale sustainable vegetable growing.

The Market Gardener’s Toolkit is an educational documentary featuring Jean-Martin Fortier, small-scale vegetable grower and author of the bestselling book The Market Gardener. In the film, he shares his tools and techniques for successful, profitable, human-scale vegetable growing. From soil preparation to strategies on dealing with insect pests, discover how this micro-farm manages to generate $150,000 in sales annually – without the use of a tractor or any heavy machinery.

hqdefaultThere is also a teaser or two on YouTube here and here.

I participated in the crowd-funding effort to help get this video made, and so I am now the happy owner of a digital download. I’ve watched it once, and am now organizing a group showing for our crew and neighboring gardeners.

I loved every precious minute of this video. It made me proud to be a vegetable grower, using sustainable techniques, contributing to a healthy local food supply. It made me inspired to try harder to use more effective and efficient methods. The aerial views and plan of their plots and crop rotation are inspiring and beautiful.

outbp-derpaillisIt was valuable to see tools in action, such as the broadfork, the five row flamer, the Terrateck manual mulch layer and the home-made precision vacuum seeder.

It was helpful (and fun!) to see the speeded-up version of the farmers moving the large sheets of “occultation plastic” (poly silage covers) used for weed control. It was encouraging to be reminded (after too many years of battling weedy gardens) that clean productive gardens are possible and, indeed, wise. They are more productive, more satisfying, more profitable, with less wasted time. I get it that hand-pulling weeds is more like first aid for a garden gone sadly wrong. I know it’s better to hoe when weeds are tiny, to flame and to prevent weeds from coming up in the first place. We’ve been doing better this year on preparing “stale seed beds” by tilling and prepping the bed at least week before we need it, then scuffle-hoeing on the day before planting. This one change is really making a noticeable difference in our gardens.

Last winter I had been thinking we needed to get a cultivating tractor, and to re-arrange our garden plots for tractor access and accept the turnaround space lost to crops that tractors require. And accept the increased use of fossil fuels, and time spent fixing machines. Watching The Market Gardener’s Toolkit instead reaffirmed the high value of intensive use of garden soils and smart manual work. This fits with the series of books I’ve been reading recently: Ben Hartman’s The Lean Farm, Curtis Stone’s Urban Farmer, Colin McCrate and Brad Halm’s High-Yield Vegetable Gardening, and of course Jean-Martin Fortier’s Market Gardener and Eliot Coleman’s work.

These books emphasize the importance of thinking clearly about what crops you grow and why. In the case of purely commercial growers, it is plain to see that some crops are much more financially worthwhile than others. Some find more ready sales than others. Some grow much quicker than others, enabling the space to be used for another crop in the same season, meaning more income (or simply more food, if you aren’t selling your crops). Our situation at Twin Oaks Community is a bit different. We are growing food to feed the community of a hundred people, year round, as best we can manage it. Commercial growers can specialize in baby salad mix and sell it at a good price at market or to restaurants. They can put a large amount of land and time into such crops. They can ignore winter root crops, or space-hogging sweet corn or time-hogging green beans. We, instead, need to figure out how to efficiently grow as many different vegetable crops as possible. That is why my book, Sustainable Market Farming focuses on production techniques and organization and planning. Although we are not tied to growing according to the relative financial profitability of different crops, we do need to plan our use of space and time, and not get distracted growing demanding crops that are difficult in our climate and don’t provide a decent-sized chunk of our diet. This is why we have stopped growing bulb fennel and parsnips, for instance. And why we do grow sweet potatoes

Beauregard sweet potatoes on biodegradable plastic mulch. Photo Bridget Aleshire

Beauregard sweet potatoes on biodegradable plastic mulch.
Photo Bridget Aleshire


Jean-Martin Fortier also has a series of 13 YouTubes.  The Market Gardener, Six Figure Farming, Living Web Farms: Part 1, Introduction and Part 2, Getting Started and more: Bio-Intensive Farming, Cropping Systems, Compost Strategies, Soil Management, Cover Crops, Seeders, Weed Prevention, Seedlings & Transplants, Crop Planning, Insect Control, Market & CSA .


You may remember I reviewed Jean-Martin’s Book The Market Gardener. His book has sold over 80,000 copies, and is the winner of the American Horticultural Society 2015 Book Award and the  Living Now 2015 Book Award.

You can buy the book on his website.

Book Review – The Urban Farmer

Screen-Shot-2015-12-18-at-1.01.04-PMBook Review – The Urban Farmer: Growing Food for Profit on Leased and Borrowed Land. Curtis Stone, New Society Publishers, $29.95. January 2016

Curtis Stone wrote this valuable book after only about 6 years as owner/operator of Green City Acres, a small commercial vegetable farm in Kelowna, British Columbia, Canada. He supplies fairly high-end restaurants with leafy greens and a few other carefully chosen crops which bring a fast return. He also sells at a farmers market once a week. Curtis has figured out how to make the best farming use of small plots of urban land, and in the same way, he has figured out how to make best use of his time, so that he can earn a good 5-figure income from his one-third acre farm. He pays exquisite attention to what works and what doesn’t. Oh, and most of his transportation is by (electrically assisted) bicycle.

This book is part of the recent movement to make a good living as a farmer on a small area of land, without big machinery, as exemplified by Eliot Coleman, Jean-Martin Fortier and Ben Hartman (and as Colin McCrate and Brad Halm do for home gardeners). Curtis writes as an independently-minded entrepreneur engaged in sustainable agriculture, in being part of a better future, supplying very fresh produce to city-dwellers. He shows how would-be farmers with no capital, no land and no truck can get a start. This book will quickly earn its keep. If Curtis Stone is speaking at an event near you, be sure to go to it!

This is a very well-organized and well-written book. The language is clear and straight-forward. The short sentences are made for high-lighting! No skirting of sub-clauses is required. The 41 chapters divide into ten sections. Some chapters are very short. Curtis is not going to waste time filling blank space when he can explain the important stuff in a paragraph. He covers the why and where, and the business aspects, then finding and developing various plots of land into a cohesive small farm. He advises on infrastructure, equipment, production, harvest and post-harvest systems. He also covers basic crop planning.

This isn’t a book about growing a complete diet, or supplying a full range of vegetables for a CSA. Nor is it about how to grow carrots. There are 25 pages devoted to cameos of twenty recommended crops, but if you are a new grower, you’ll need more production info than you find here. Production is one of the main focuses (along with planning and organization) of my book Sustainable Market Farming.  Instead, this book can inspire and educate on how to make decisions likely to lead to successful sales, while focusing your hard work on the tasks that will get you there.

If you want to do multi-site urban farming to grow selected crops for restaurants in the Pacific North West or British Columbia in zone 7a, this book has most of what you need. But its usefulness isn’t at all confined to people in those regions, or to urban farmers, or to super-fit cyclists. So if your town already has a restaurant supplier of bio-intensively-grown salad crops and greens, do not despair. All vegetable growers can find something of value in this book, whether it is in his analysis of different crop types, growing microgreens, becoming more efficient, choosing good tools or keeping good records.

Curtis is a believer in farming smarter, not harder (but hard enough to make it all work). He puts the work in, in a timely way, is very observant, keeps good records, analyses his results and makes changes based on what his records show. He’s not one to grow red peppers “because everyone wants them.” If we follow our hearts only and ignore our sales figures and production costs, we won’t last long earning a living as farmers. Likewise, it’s good to have ethics and ideology, but if you go broke, you’ll be out of a job. If ten crops bring in 80% of the income, why not focus on those? After his first four years, Curtis reduced his farm from 2½ acres to 1/3 acre (5 plots close to each other). He cut his crop portfolio down to the most lucrative fifteen vegetable crops; he parted ways with his fellow worker, his CSA and most of his employees. His hours went down from 100 per week to 40 (and fewer of those were spent managing other people, more in planting and harvesting). His clients were mostly restaurant chefs and his weekly farmers market. He had his best season that far, making a much higher dollar per hour.

Curtis is willing to change plans for a better idea, or to transform a crop failure or over-abundance into a baby beet greens opportunity. He sees the coming end of suburbia as a great opportunity to reclaim all those lawns for food growing: modern-day self-reliant farming communities. Being an urban farmer means interacting with lots of people every day, which leads to opportunities to educate about food, to be part of the local community, and to benefit from what local people will offer in terms of land, help and free advertising.

One aspect of the book I found particularly useful is the way Curtis divides crops and land into categories:

  1. Quick Crops (maturing in 60 days or less) mostly grown in Hi-Rotation plots: mostly salad greens and radishes. The Hi-Rotation beds might grow 4 crops in a single year, with no pre-planned crop rotation. Sometimes a Steady Crop like carrots is grown in a Hi-Rotation plot.
  2. Steady Crops (slower maturing, perhaps harvested continuously over a period of time): kale. tomatoes, carrots. These beds will be in a Bi-Rotation plot, which often will grow one Steady Crop as the Primary Crop, followed or preceded by a Quick Crop, especially one that can be cropped out at a single site visit, rather than requiring daily harvests.

It works best to have the Hi-Rotation plots nearest to the home base as they need the most frequent attention. Bi-Rotation plots can usually be further afield, except for indeterminate tomatoes which Curtis grows on a close spacing and prunes hard to improve airflow and encourage early ripening. Slow long season crops aren’t included, nor are ones that take a lot of space, like sweet corn.

The Crop Value Rating (CVR) is a useful way of comparing the advantages of various vegetable crops when choosing which to grow. Clearly this is important if space is limited. Less clear is the value of assessing crops this way when some other factor is limited. We do this when labor is limited. It clarifies stressful indecisive confusions. Here are the 5 factors Curtis assesses:

  1. Shorter days to maturity (fast crops = more chances to plant more)
  2. High yield per foot of row (best value from the space)
  3. High price per pound (other factors being equal, higher price = more income)
  4. Long harvest period (= more sales)
  5. Popularity (matched with low market saturation).

To use this assessment, give each potential crop a point for each factor where it deserves one. Then look for the crops with the highest number of points. Spinach gets all 5 points; cherry tomatoes only 3. The smaller your farm, the higher the crops need to score to get chosen.

Winter crops can be grown in hoophouses (polytunnels). Summer crops can help level the weekly sales out over the market season.

Various start-up models are spelled out, along with the caution to start small, say with ¼ acre, and low overhead expenses. Various market options are compared. The section on software and organization lists the ten spreadsheets Curtis prepares: Plantings, Yields, Crop Profiles, Weekly Orders, Weekly Sales Totals, Land Allocation Data, Budget and Expenses, Seed Order and Inventory, Plot Progress, and Spoilage.

There is a section on scouting for land and how to choose the best of your offers, and which to decline (heavy metal soil contamination, neighbors spraying herbicides, Field Bindweed, too much shade, too many rocks, owners needing too much care-taking. On the other hand, don’t be over nervous about invasive grasses, they can be conquered. There is information you won’t find in many other farming or gardening books, such as how to remove sod.

There is a thorough section on irrigation, set up for low management with timers and many sprinklers covering an area, or many lines of drip tape. I learned for the first time about flow through drip systems, where both ends of each drip tape are connected into the mains tubing, so that water can flow in both direction, and blockages will not be a problem. The costs are all spelled out (so get the book and buy the gear before prices go up!). Every section contains a gem that will save you time, money, mental strain or wasted crops. It hadn’t occurred to me that box fans could be laid flat above vegetable drying racks to dry washed greens and preserve the quality.

All of the equipment Curtis puts together is inexpensive and relatively easy to move to a new site. Two medium size coolers instead of one big one! Standard lengths of rowcover! Little decisions can have big benefits. Microgreens production indoors (in shallow flats) and outdoors (much less usual, but oh, the returns!) Curtis explains his special board technique for getting fast even germination.

The crops section focuses on providing the basic information through the perspective of factors already mentioned: Quick Crop or Steady Crop, months of harvest, Crop value rating, Days to maturity of recommended varieties, Yield per bed, Gross profit per bed, and also Planting Specs.

Here is a great book for those who want to make their farming time count and be as productive as possible, with best value for time and the land available. Also go to the  book website to buy digital tools, and sign up for Instagram, Twitter and link to YouTube videos. At the Green City Acres website you can sign up for their newsletter.

Book Review: High-Yield Vegetable Gardening by McCrate and Halm

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Book Review: High-Yield Vegetable Gardening: Grow More of What You Want in the Space You Have by Colin McCrate and Brad Halm, Storey Publishing, December 2015

This book is intended for home gardeners who value efficiency and productivity. The authors, founders of the Seattle Urban Farm Company, explain techniques used by biointensive farmers and how to adapt these techniques for any size of garden. This professional help will assist gardeners to extend the season, increase yields, maintain healthy soils and deal with pests and other problems. This is not a beginner book telling you how to grow carrots (or any other crop). It will give you the information to choose the variety of carrot best suited to your goals, figure out how much land to put into carrots for the harvest you want, when to plant them, how to get maximum yields and how to have a continuous supply. It is not a book on marketing either. I want to set that out clearly, so no-one buys the book wanting something that it’s not. It’s a very good book if you want to “up your game” and get full potential from the land you have and the time you have available to spend working it.

This 7″ x 9″ spiral bound lay-flat book has 320 pages, including the index and resources section. The cover price is $18.95. It is illustrated with black and white drawings rather than photos, and has green spot color for headings and special sections. This gives an old-fashioned air to the book, until you come upon a drawing of a smart phone. There is nothing old-fashioned about the planning charts and spreadsheets.

After a poor start, on page 222 the gender ratio of the gardeners pictured starts to even up, and ends up close to the national average of 30% of farmers being female.

The book opens with three examples of high-yield gardens: A typical city lot of 5000 sq ft (including the space occupied by the house); a quarter-acre in the suburbs; and a rural one-acre plot. The authors discuss how to make a garden map and determine which factors influence how you use the site (shade for instance), and what your priorities are. They advocate for standard size raised beds in order to simplify planning and to reuse materials like row cover, netting or drip tape.

There are tables of crop spacing and scheduling for 60 annual vegetables and herbs, about 20 perennial vegetables and fruits and 20 perennial herbs. There is a worksheet to help you calculate how much of each crop to aim for, based on the average serving size, depending on your tastes, whether that’s non-stop arugula, tomatoes for canning or a large amount of carrots for a farmer wedding. Some of the charts can be downloaded from the Seattle Urban Farm Company’s website. There is a table of yields and one of planting dates, working from your own frost dates. There is a Planting Calendar Worksheet blank you can copy and use for each crop you plan to grow.

There are clear instructions on designing a crop rotation, including a chart of crop height, life span and fertility needs. They discuss practical limitations that might lead you towards either two rotations within your garden, or a separate rotation for the greenhouse. They urge you to keep good clear records. (Oh so important! Who has time to make the same mistake twice in farming?).

There is a Seed Order Worksheet, and a clear description of the word “hybrid” which has sometimes become a bad word among some gardeners who misunderstand the plant breeding work of the past century or so, and how it has brought us high-yielding, disease-resistant varieties, which are a boon to gardeners wanting high yields. Sure, you can’t save your own seed from hybrids and have it grow true, but who realistically grows all their own seed? So many crops cross with each other; sometimes seed-saving conflicts with getting food from that planting; seed-growing and selecting is a skilled job. Seed companies can do that work for us. I do grow a few seed crops, so I know what is involved. But I also grow many hybrids, and am grateful for them.

In a couple of places the drawing isn’t as good as a photo would be. The Jericho and Winter Density lettuces don’t look so different, and you couldn’t tell the size difference. The high tunnel (hoophouse) inflation blower tubing drawing on p 263 looks very strange to me, like maybe the artist has never seen a real one, and worked from a description.

There is a chart of seed longevity, a subject not always covered in gardening books. There is an excellent chapter on soil tests and interpreting them, which is very down-to-earth. (“We determined this to be about 75 and 50 pounds per 1000 sq ft.”) Nice and user-friendly, it won’t blind you with science. There is another good chapter on irrigation systems, a subject often ignored in backyard gardening books. “Because we strongly believe that hand watering a large, diversified garden site is an inefficient use of time and resources, we won’t even include it as a viable option for garden irrigation.” “Spending valuable hours trailing a hose through the garden is, at best, a poor use of your time.” Absolutely!

Setting up spaces to start seedlings and keeping them well-lit and watered is clearly explained. So is the subject of small greenhouses. The drawing includes the 1970’s craze of lining the back wall with black barrels of water, although the authors do point out that such devices can help, but will not be enough to warm the air to seed germination temperatures. In my opinion, the space given over to big barrels of water would be better given to more plants and the need for heat addressed in other ways!

There is a chapter on starting seedlings and planning for that on a large scale. It includes tips not found everywhere, such as when to sow rootstock and scion varieties for grafting tomatoes, starting cuttings, growing microgreens and hand pollinating. Planting depth is covered, including laying tall tomato plants in a small trench and planting brassicas up to the lowest leaves, rather than the same height as in the seed flat. There are recipes for mixing your own organic fertilizers, and which plants will respond most to extra nutrients. There are tables of organic management strategies for pests and diseases.

Compost-making is discussed, along with a table of Carbon:Nitrogen ratios of various compost ingredients. There is a table of cold-hardy salad crops and information about building low tunnels, caterpillar tunnels and basic types of small hoophouses for cold-weather growing. If you are planning a big hoophouse, I’d recommend getting more information than in this book. There is a chapter on harvesting, washing and storage.

As you’ve probably gathered by now, this is a book full of valuable gardening charts. If you are a grower who doesn’t want to work with spreadsheets, you can easily print off the Seattle Urban Farm Company’s worksheets and use those. Or take the spreadsheets and run. Either way, this is a valuable book for serious backyard growers.

Book Review: Mycelial Mayhem

Image-front-cover_coverbookpageBook Review: Mycelial Mayhem: Growing Mushrooms for Fun, Profit and Companion Planting by David Sewak & Kristin Sewak

Paperback – 288 pages, 7.25 Inches × 9 Inches (w × h),
Weight: 579 Grams ISBN: 9780865718142
Publisher: New Society Publishers. Publication Date: 2016-03-14

I was lucky enough to get an advance copy of this book, and wrote an endorsement for it. Now it is hot off the press, and a very attractive book it is too. The dedication includes the exhortation: “Keep spreading the spores”, by which the authors mean becoming a proponent of mushrooms, as well as growing them yourself.

Initially, from just the title, I thought this book would be about mycoremediation or mycorestoration, improving polluted or depleted soils by inoculating them with fungi. But the subtitle and the photos on the cover make it plain that this is a handbook for people wanting too grow diverse mushrooms for food and medicinal uses.

This is not a dull textbook – it is written by a couple inspired by and knowledgeable about mushrooms, and eager to bring along beginners, or those whose efforts have so far been limited to shiitakes. It’s accessible, friendly and lively. It demystifies this less known life-form with clear explanations, step-by-step instructions and some stunning photos. The sections of the book are labeled Mycelia, The Stem, The Fruit of Your Labor and Spreading the Spores, mimicking the development of the mushroom to lead us through what we need to know to become a successful mushroom grower.

The first section covers mushroom basics,life cycle, requirements for growth and place in the ecosystem. Along with infectious enthusiasm for including fungi as part of a small-scale sustainable farming venture, or simply as a backyard hobby.

Another thing this book is not is a field guide to identify wild-growing mushrooms. There are tips on wild-crafting along with cautions against misidentifying, or harvesting from herbicide- or pesticide-treated areas, or from naturally poisonous trees. There is a checklist of 15 tenets of safe collecting and 9 tenets for purveying (did you know you might need to get a permit to collect wild mushrooms for sale?)

A nice Oyster mushroom Photo Ezra Freeman

A nice Oyster mushroom
Photo Ezra Freeman

The second section covers growing mushrooms both outdoors and indoors, descriptions of various kinds, wild-collecting, and sustainable growing methods, including alongside vegetables. The different types of mushrooms are classified by ease of growing, so we can start with an easy one. Many different methods, using media such as wood, sawdust, straw, hemp rope, logs and tree stumps are discussed. How to set up an indoor mushroom grow room is explained, along with how to avoid disasters.The book explains the pros and cons and best choices for the various types of fungi. It also considers economics versus ecology, sustainability versus resilience, taking nature as a model, permaculture principles, and how you might pull this all together to design a system for your particular circumstances. I appreciated the thoughtfulness and the checklists – a refreshing change from some ardent scripts I have seen. I put this down to the balance of the two authors and their combined skills. It makes for an impressively grounded and practical book.

Oyster mushrooms Photo Ezra Freeman

Oyster mushrooms
Photo Ezra Freeman

The third section explains umami, nutrition, medicinal mushrooms, and the business side of growing for market, selling and evaluating your marketing efforts.

The last section (Spreading the Spores) includes resource info, references and photographed examples of marketing materials from Berglorbeer Farma, the authors’ previous home and business in Windber, PA. Their new ventures are in Montana, where Kristin Sewak runs Natural Biodiversity, a non-profit dedicated to restoring biodiversity in landscapes, and David Sewak is a fly fishing guide as well as a mushroom grower.

To sum up, a very good book for anyone wanting to grow edible or medicinal mushrooms!

Crop Planning Slideshow and Book Review

I gave my presentation on Crop Planning to a small group at For the Love of the Local, in my home town of Louisa, Virginia last Thursday (3/10). This weekend I have been in Asheville, North Carolina, at the Organic Growers School. My presentation on Intensive Vegetable Production on a Small Scale is available to view on SlideShare.net.

My next task this week is to upload my presentation Growing Great Garlic to SlideShare, and make it available here on my blog. Currently there is an older version of the presentation, from 2013, up there. By next week I should have the new version posted.


Book Review: Crop Planning for Organic Vegetable Growers, by Frederic Theriault and Daniel Brisebois

Crop_planning_cove_compressed_largeThis compact and practical workbook is for small-scale vegetable or flower growers wanting to increase the success of their enterprise by better planning, or for new farmers wanting reliable help to get started. Clearly written, it follows a fictional couple (Hanna and Bruce) working through the eleven step planning process. This is a concise focused workbook with lots of charts, not a chatty bedtime read. But for small-scale farmers, this won’t be a dry book. As well as the excitement and relief of “Aha!” moments, readers can enjoy the chance to cement the practical tips of each chapter with a real-life example – a description of a farm tackling that chapter’s planning stage.

The approach of this book is very similar to the one I spell out in my book Sustainable Market Farming and in my slideshow posted above, although I have not yet met the authors , and we constructed our plans independently. This book leads the reader with every necessary detail and worksheet. The planning sheets are available to download as Excel spreadsheets from the Canadian Organic Growers website. You can then customize them for your own use. Or you can print them out and use as worksheets as they are, if you are not at ease with spreadsheets and would rather just have a ring binder of worksheets. One very important aspect of planning is to choose a method that works for you. If you find your record-keeping or planning method easy and comfortable to use, you are much more likely to use it and hence it will give you more useful results.

The eleven steps are:

  1. Decide your financial goals
  2. Decide on your markets
  3. Make a preliminary planting schedule
  4. Map your fields
  5. Choose varieties and finalize your planting schedule
  6. Make a greenhouse schedule for seedlings
  7. Compile your seed order
  8. Make a field operations calendar
  9. Carry out your plan
  10. Analyze your success
  11. Plan next year

Crop Planning is written by two farmers from Quebec, so growers in other climate zones will need to keep this in mind. Hanna and Bruce’s harvest season starts at the beginning of July and runs to late October. Planting season runs from May 1 to mid-October. You will need to extrapolate at both ends if your winter hardiness zone is higher than theirs. You will also need to look at summer plantings – perhaps you won’t be planting lettuce, kohlrabi or arugula in July. You’ll need to apply your experience to the methods and decide on planting dates to fit your own harvest date goals.

Also, you won’t find info on growing Southern staples like okra, sweet potatoes and lima beans in this book. But you can feed information from elsewhere (including your own experience as a grower) into the format provided.

The fictional Hanna and Bruce in this book run a CSA as well as a farmers market booth, so that planning for both are conveniently included. Measurements are included in both the metric system and the feet and pounds of the old imperial system (more common in the US). Appendices provide reference charts; tips on designing a modular field layout to facilitate crop rotations and ease the transfer of standardized lengths of row cover and drip tape; a detailed money budget; some recommendations for further reading. Sadly, no index, but the contents list is clear and straightforward.

Crop Planning will quickly repay the $25 cover price. It’s all too easy to make a mistake costing $25 or more if you are under-informed, or under-prepared in some other way. Pay now and save!

The Market Gardener’s Toolkit, Organic Growers’ School, and bad weather

Jean-Martin Fortier and Maude-Hélène Desroches, the farmers at Les Jardins de la Grelinette, an internationally renowned micro-farm in Quebec, Canada

Jean-Martin Fortier and Maude-Hélène Desroches, the farmers at Les Jardins de la Grelinette, an internationally renowned micro-farm in Quebec, Canada

The Market Gardener’s Toolkit is an upcoming 90 minute film by Jean-Martin Fortier of The Market Gardener fame. Read my review of his book. He is making this film (actually two films, one in English, one in French) using crowd-sourced funds through Ulule. Here’s the website for the project:The Market Gardener’s Toolkit. It was launched Monday 15 February, so you still have a chance to be one of the Early Bird donors and win a discount on the digital download or the DVD of the film. This project will provide us with an educational film about tools and techniques for a profitable, human-scale agriculture. As Jean-Martin says 34920215316f6552f299ae05386d7cYou can see a short trailer (preview) of the film and read how your money will be used, on the Ulule page. If you have only just heard about Jean-Martin Fortier for the first time, here’s a photo of their beautiful 1.5 acre mini-farm. Clearly, he knows what he’s talking about!

Les Jardins de la Grelinete (Broadfork Farm)

Les Jardins de la Grelinete (Broadfork Farm)

Jean-Martin leaning on his broadfork

Jean-Martin Fortier


OGS SpringConf_FBPromoI will be presenting two workshops (of the 140 offered) at the Organic Growers School on March 12 and 13 in Asheville, North Carolina. On Saturday, 2-3.30pm I’ll be presenting Intensive Vegetable Production on a Small Scale, which was a big hit at the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group Conference at the end of January. On Sunday , 4-5.30pm, I’ll be presenting a fully revised and updated version of my Growing Great Garlic slideshow. I’ve been busy working on that (while the weather is so awful).

Organic Growers School farmer

Organic Growers School farmer


November 2013 beds BlogMeanwhile, the weather here is atrocious, and not much vegetable production is happening outdoors. Our hoophouse is still providing salads, cooking greens, turnips, radishes and scallions. Outdoors, we have managed to prune some of the blueberry bushes, and spread compost on some of the beds we hope to grow spring crops in. I say hope, because we’ll be getting a very late start, and the soil is saturated from the past two days of snow and freezing rain, on top of previously saturated soil. We were luckier than some places. We didn’t get a large quantity of snow or ice, we didn’t lose electricity, and we didn’t suffer by having to stay off the (very icy) roads. We had what we earnestly hope will be the coldest night of the year, clocking 2F (-17C).

I’m planning to spend a bit of time “perking up” my website a bit, after realizing that people couldn’t find out how to subscribe or follow my blog. Currently what you need to do is go to the bottom of the “Posted in” Tags and Categories listed at the end of the post, click  “Leave A Reply”; fill out your contact info, go to the bottom of the Leave A Reply space and click “Notify me of new posts by email” Surely I can make it easier than that? I thought I had installed a button, but it isn’t visible. I plan a survey too, when I’ve figured out how to do that.