Book Review: Building Your Permaculture Property

Building Your Permaculture Property book cover

Book Review: Building Your Permaculture Property, A Five Step Process to Design and Develop Land

Rob Avis, Michelle Avis and Takota Coen

New Society Publishers, 2021, 222 pages, $49.99, color photos and illustrations throughout

Thank goodness for this book! I had already admired some of the work of Michelle and Rob Avis in Adaptive Habitat (ecological design and sustainable technology), so I knew them to be committed and practical. I am one of those put off from permaculture by the worshipful jargon of some followers, and the peculiarly male-dominated field. This book restores my faith in being able to benefit from and use the good ideas in permaculture without abandoning independent thought or the all-important holistic approach.

This book is a valuable and realistic resource from authors who have “earned their share of cuts and bruises”; a guide to clarifying your goals, attitudes and approaches to holistic land management; a step-by-step guide to get from today to a future aligned with your dreams.

This is not an introduction to permaculture, or a quick-fix for your garden, woodlot, home energy source, flooded land, compacted soil, or back aching from rototilling! There is a common misperception that permaculture is about a set of trendy vegetable gardening techniques. Here is a careful Five Step Permaculture Process, with exercises, templates, workflow tools and thoughtful questions. It addresses real challenges.

The book is introduced by the quote from Bill Mollison (one of the cofounders of Permaculture), defining Permaculture: “Permaculture is the conscious design and maintenance of agriculturally productive ecosystems which have the diversity, stability and resilience of natural ecosystems. It is the harmonious integration of landscape and people providing their food, energy, shelter, and other material and non-material needs in a sustainable way.”

When Rob and Michelle were teaching, Rob was often ashamed to mention the word “permaculture”. Despite the elegant practical solutions for solving systemic problems with food, water, housing and energy systems offered by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren in Permaculture One, most people publicizing permaculture talk about zones, guilds, keyhole and spiral planting beds. “Putting a herb spiral in your backyard while you still source the majority of your basic needs from the degenerative food, water and energy systems is simply permaculture tourism.” Thank you! Straightening the deckchairs on the Titanic! Society’s big messes will not be helped by a herb spiral!

The authors believe that the root cause of people becoming disenchanted in permaculture is a lack of a clearly defined process. They ask the question “What is the biggest problem you are struggling with right now putting permaculture into practice?” and have found that answers fall into five categories.

  1. I don’t know what I should do. (Unclear goals.)
  2. I don’t know where to look. (Inadequate information.)
  3. I don’t know how it all fits. (Confusion.)
  4. I don’t know where to start or what’s next. (Being overwhelmed.)
  5. I don’t know when it will end. (Burnout)

All indicate a lack of something important. The authors decided that instead of teaching students what to do, they would teach them how to solve their problems. We benefit from focusing less on specific practices (those herb spirals!) and more on making a clear step-by-step process for how to design, develop, and manage a property to provide all the food, water, shelter and energy needs in harmony with the ecosystem.

The Five Step Permaculture Process logo

In the Five-Step Permaculture Process, each step addresses one of the five Biggest Struggles:

  • Clarify vision, values, resources
  • Assess strengths, weaknesses, opportunities, threats in your resources
  • Design your use of resources to meet vision and values
  • Implement the design that most improves your weakest resource
  • Monitor for well-being or suffering

Buy the book, check out their website, I’m not going to spell it all out here! It’s easy to forget that hours of learning and practicing a skill come before becoming an expert! Persistence and process are both needed.

The illustrations from Jarett Sitter throughout the book look like those from children’s picture books, although examination reveals symbols of the permaculture journey. Each chapter includes sidebars with enlightening segments from Takota Coen’s Story developing regenerative agriculture as a fourth generation farmer.

The heart of the book addresses the five steps and the initial foundation (Step 0) to guide you through design and management. Approach the steps in the order given, and be open to the possibility that you will need to tackle several aspects at once. Like learning to play guitar by learning to read music, keeping time, strumming a rhythm and making a chord, you will need to practice many skills and pull them all together as you go. Find an independent Accountability Partner, who is tackling a similar permaculture challenge, but is not invested in the same one as you. You will gain support and motivation.

The foundation chapter (Step 0) is about inspecting our conscious and unconscious beliefs about reality, which determine our vision, our actions and our responses to other people. We look for hindrances such as confirmation biases (remembering information that supports our existing preconceptions); endowment effects (demanding more to give up something than we would pay to acquire it); the IKEA effect (giving higher value to things we have assembled ourselves, regardless of actual quality!)

The authors define two predominant downward spiraling paradigms: ‘degenerative’ and ‘sustainable’, in contrast to the upward spiraling ‘regenerative’ paradigm. The degenerative paradigm cycles through arrogance, extraction, combat and suffering, creating an increasingly fragile system. The ‘sustainable’ paradigm seeks to maintain the status quo, cycling through guilt, conserving, controlling and surviving, creating a resilient system. The ‘regenerative’ system is anti-fragile, getting stronger, cycling up through reverence, co-creation, designing, thriving.

I dislike this definition of “sustainable” – people in survivalist mode, delaying on their own land the effects of societal collapse. As the author of a book with the S word in the title, I feel a bit defensive. I am not the guilt-ridden, masochistic, fearful, self-hating type portrayed. How does this stereotype help the authors make converts? I share with permaculturists feelings of reverence, awe, co-operation, justice, humility, compassion and being part of nature. But I am not a permaculturist. I use the definition of sustainable in the 1987 Brundtland Report: “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” I do agree with the authors that ableness to sustain or maintain is not a guarantee that sustaining will happen.

From the perspective of word meanings, regenerative suggests being able to or tending to regenerate, renew or restore, especially after injury, or damage. It includes the sense that something has gone wrong and we are going to ride in and fix it, returning things to a previous state. Yes, corporations and individuals do co-opt the word sustainable, for industrial agriculture, as happened previously with the words organic, biological, ecological. And will happen with the word regenerative. In a few years, this word too, will be seen as having shortcomings, meaning retro-farming, or something unfortunate like that.

Step 1 is to clarify vision, resources and values. The large number of options can be reduced to those that answer all three questions, What do you want? What resources do you have? and What matches your values? The overlap of the first two filters out the impossible. The permaculture movement has developed helpful tools: the Needs and Yields Analysis, when applied to ourselves, will help answer the first two questions, and the Three Permaculture Ethics of earth care, people care and future care gives guidance on clarifying values.

Make an inventory of your resources, starting with money and material resources, and moving into natural, social, spiritual, experiential, intellectual and cultural resources. Your personal resource inventory should include debts (negative resources) and resources you have access to without ownership. Step 1 also includes thought experiments on increasing wellbeing for all, and the creation of a Vision and Values One-pager. Because most of us want to share our lives with others, we need to resolve interpersonal conflicts, to build shared vision and value statements. The process of writing down your desires in broad daylight helps with inspection and reflection.

The most common design mistakes when clarifying visions and values are focusing on the what rather than the why; using language traps like the future tense which let you off the hook for actually doing anything today; identifying yourself as outside the ecosystem looking in, and being paralyzed by perfection. The authors sell a toolkit of the  templates for the exercises  and provide practice tips at the end of each chapter.

Jared Diamond, in Collapse, his study of collapsed societies, notes: “Two types of choices seem to me to have been crucial in tipping the outcomes towards success or failure: long-term planning and willingness to reconsider core values.”

Step 2: Diagnose Your Resources for Strengths, Weaknesses, Opportunities and Threats, opens with encouragement to search out any information that could make or break your plans.

Jarett Sitter’s illustration of 11 categories of resources

You can organize your property resources into 11 categories: geography, climate, water, access, structures, fencing, flora, fauna, business, technology and soil. There’s another helpful chart. Use a pattern found in nature to gather, store, organize and retrieve your info, based on these categories. This functions to help create an ordered workflow (order of operations) for design and implementation.

Diagnosis has two stages, firstly making observations about your resources using the four variables of patterns (form, timing, placement, scale). There’s a chart about this, with descriptors that fit each mode. Secondly SWOT analysis, where you make value-based judgements about each resource. Strengths and weaknesses are attributes within your project. Opportunities and threats are outside your project but close enough to have an impact. There is a big chart with examples for each of the 11 categories.

Takota Coen

Be warned that every property seems to have a hidden piece of information that, if discovered, can change everything for the better. Takota Coen describes discovering he had (at big expense) had a pond dug in the wrong place. He thought he knew the land so well he didn’t need to put his design on paper. After learning to use Google Earth Pro (it’s free!), he discovered a much better pond site. The website has tools to help you make effective use of GIS programs.

Step 3: Design Your Resources to Meet Your Vision and Values. When you draw out a design in detail on paper, you gain insights into how to create it in real life and reduce silly mistakes. There are three misconceptions about what design is. Designs are not fixed in stone – if you become aware of ways to improve your design, you do it! Design is not just aesthetics, but is structural, functional, and also beautiful. The best way to improve something is not always to add to it – many improvements come with removing something, or taking a very different approach.

Regularly ask yourself what you are aiming to achieve, and what other options would also provide the same outcome. Don’t decide you need a swale, or a solar greenhouse until you identify a goal and weigh up the options for reaching the goal, and come out with the answer that best satisfies the goal.

Two useful method of design that can be tweaked for this job are the needs and yields analysis and the sector analysis. Both are carefully explained. They examine if every need of every element is fully met within your system; if every yield is fully used; if every element serves multiple functions; if every function is served by multiple elements; and if all is functioning ethically.

Rob Avis

Consider each of the energy sources and sinks on your farm, whether you want that energy and how you will make best use of it if you do want it. There are suggestions of what sources and sinks to consider, as well as ways to reduce losses. There’s an engaging list of tips, including “When you are working, work; when you are chilling, chill. Make it a binary.” Also, reduce clutter, distractions (social media), and set up a ritual for starting deep work on your design. Use your accountability partner. Gather all your worksheets in one place.

Step 4: Implement the Right Design That Will Most Improve Your Weakest Resource, opens with a note that “the dirty little secret of permaculture is that design is the easy part, it is the implementation that kills you.” When one of your resources fails, it will no longer be helping you thrive, it will start to cannibalize the farm. This can happen if you made a poor decision earlier. This chapter helps you organize workflow, make weekly plans, make good decisions, and not rush to get to your goal in what looks like the fastest way.

Problems can arise if you tackle tasks in a poor order. Go back to the 11 categories of resources. Geography comes first, because once chosen, it cannot be changed easily or quickly. The categories that are listed higher impact all those below them. Don’t abandon the list because soil is last! Soil is very important, of course, but there is no value in getting into the detail of the best cover crops, if you have not dealt with water supply and drainage to prevent runoff, or dealt with wind erosion.

Look for weakest links (biggest gaps between vision and resources), turn this gap into a Wildly Important Goal (achievable and exciting), and focus with the formula “from X to Y by when?”. Each week commit to one or more actions that will lead in the right direction, schedule them weekly, and check them off when done. The book has an extensive chart of examples.

Michelle Avis

Revisit Step 3 (Design) with its description of good, bad and ugly designs, and transfer the descriptions to decisions. What is your process for making good decisions? Many people are not consciously aware of how they make decisions. Intuition alone is not enough. Use the Good Decision Worksheet.

After writing down your decision, check its alignment with your values; any possibly ruinous outcome; whether it actually addresses the problem; whether it’s your best use of your resources; the risk/reward ratio; then sleep on it and repeat the process; pass the idea by your accountability partner; flip a coin to check if your emotions align with your decision; write down what needs to be done, and early indications of whether you have made the best decision.

Step 5: Monitor Your Resources for Indicators of Well-being or Suffering. You can only manage what you measure (but you can measure more things than you can manage!) Precision is not the same as accuracy! Knowing exactly how many beetles are on your plants does not provide the whole answer on what to do.  Rather than focus entirely on numbers, monitor for suffering and well-being. “The one thing never found in a healthy ecosystem is excessive suffering.” There will always be some suffering – it is feedback on the situation and the design that led to it. Determine what actions you can take to improve things.

There are two categories of resources, personal resources and the 11 categories of property resources. Look at your Vision and Values Sheet and use your Indicators of early signs of success or failure to see if you are heading towards well-being or suffering. Takota tells the story of figuring out when and why his cows got mastitis, and making a small change he had resisted, increasing well-being, and preventing mastitis from then on.

Increase awareness of your own state of being: if you feel patient, grateful, relaxed and enthusiastic, you are in a state of well-being. If you are sleepy, angry, resentful, jealous and prone to procrastination, you are suffering. Do you hum as you work, or curse? Your coworkers will know your signs of distress, if you can’t tell for yourself.

Keeping a journal can help monitor your well-being. Write down the answers to 3 questions in the morning. What are you most excited about today? What are you most grateful for? What is one thing you could do to make today great? In the evening, ask: What is the most amazing thing that happened today? What could I have done better? What was my biggest insight today?

At the end of each month, review your weekly planner sheets, and your daily reflections. Answer questions on a range of 0-10, and compare your answers the previous month. How clear are you on what your weakest link is? How confident are you that what you are doing is addressing this weakest link and moving you towards your goal? Have you seen signs that you are increasing well-being (or suffering)? What has been this month’s most valuable insight?

Monitor your 11 property resources yearly, looking for signs of increased well-being. There is a template! Shockingly, cropland globally is often bare for 30-50% of the year, wasting the potential photosynthesis, and degrading the soil. Soil carbon can (on average) hold four times its weight in water. Another source of potential wastage or potential improvement. When the solar cycle, the water cycle and the soil nutrient cycle interact well, the flora and fauna spiral towards the climax ecosystem for that region.

Monitor, reflect, record, compare results with your vision and values statement, monitor your ecosystems. Make a paper planner and use it for a full year before reviewing. There are templates and suggestions for designing your own planner.

A lot of the ideas in this book make a great deal of sense even for those of us who don’t identify as permaculturists! Careful design and planning, checklists, worksheets – these can save all of us wasted effort or heartache. This thoughtful book can be useful to every farmer or landowner. As I’ve often noted, any gardener or farmer paying close attention and recording their results, has something valuable to teach us, whatever they call the style of their farming.

Book Review: Vicki Hird, Rebugging the Planet

Vicki Hird, Rebugging the Planet:

The Remarkable Things that Insects (and Other Invertebrates) Do – And Why We Need to Love Them More

Chelsea Green Publishing, September 2021, 224 pages, $17.95

Vicki Hird has a passion for insects, and this book brings home to us how much depends on the well-being of invertebrates in the world. Insects are a cornerstone in our ecosystem, and we must reverse the current dangerous decline in bug populations (40% of insect species are at risk of extinction and 33% more are endangered). We are heading towards “Insectageddon.” After reading this book, I found myself being much more careful about gathering up insects inside the house and taking them outside, where I imagine they will thrive better. Did you know that spiders rest calmly in your gently closed hand? They do not wriggle and tickle!

We need to overcome any aversion or indifference to creepy-crawlies, and change our attitudes to respect, appreciation, and some humility if possible. Insects pollinate plants, recycle waste into nutrients, control pest species, add air channels in the soil, and ultimately return themselves to the soil food web.

Fall spiderweb photo from Ezra Freeman

Vicki explains how to rebug our city green spaces, grow gardens without pesticides and weedkiller, teach children to appreciate small creatures, make choices that support insect-friendly (planet-friendly) production of food and fiber, and make wider choices that affirm human dignity and equal rights.

This book has charming insect drawings, and delightful anecdotes: “I was never going to get the pony I wanted, so I settled for an ant farm at an early age.” Studying biology at school led Vicki to a summer job observing bees at a research station. A later job investigating cockroaches led her to respect them and realize that it is humans that need better control, more than roaches do.

Vicki has been an environmental campaigner, lobbyist and researcher for about 30 years, and is the mother of two children. Vicki is also head of the Sustainable Farming Campaign for Sustain: The Alliance for Better Food and Farming, a UK alliance of organizations and communities advocating for healthy food, people and environment, and equity in society. She has a website for Rebugging.

Those over 50 (and maybe 40) will have noticed that long car drives no longer lead to cars covered in smashed bugs. There are fewer butterflies. More than twice as many insect species as vertebrate species are at risk of extinction. I noticed on a trip to England after an absence of a couple of years, that the number of sparrows has plummeted. We are more likely to get distressed about the charismatic mega-fauna, but less so about formerly ubiquitous sparrows, and even less about insects. There may be 4 million unidentified species of insects (as well as the million we know). In the UK 23 bee and wasp species have become extinct since 1850.

So, what is ‘rebugging’? It is a form of rewilding (the introduction of similar-to-natural ecosystems and missing species into an area and then waiting to see if the species can settle in). It is somewhat controversial, and alone is insufficient to cause all the changes we seek. We also need changes in policy, lifestyle, and civic involvement. This book provides information, encouragement and tools to act.

Sunflower bee and bug.
Photo by Bridget Aleshire

What would the world be like without bugs? “A great image that has been doing the rounds is a picture of a bee saying, “If we die, we’re taking you with us.” It’s not an empty threat, but a fact – we would not last long without insects. Our flowering plants would die off; all the species that dine on insects would be lost, followed by the next ones up the chain; dead animals would pile up undigested; trees would cease growing in the compacted airless soil.

But this is not our inevitable future. We can step back, as we have done when the dangers of DDT, CFCs, and nuclear weapons became blindingly clear. We can work to restore habitat, reduce damage and make political and economic structural changes at all levels in society. We can start by “rebugging our attitudes.”

How can we protect and nurture invertebrates? We can help research what’s out there. We can encourage others to be concerned and take action to protect invertebrates. We can teach others about the value of insects for human well-being. We can make havens for wildlife, convert every city street into a biocorridor, share designs for pollinator-friendly gardens, encourage conservation of water and other natural resources, make urban farms and community gardens.

The book is studded with sidebars on aspects of the value of insects, such as “How much is a bee worth?” (The answer is over $3,000 per hectare in pollination services, for wild bees) That’s more than 651 million GBP to the British economy.

Insects are food for many animals such as poultry, fish and pigs. And some insects could be food for humans. I ate a 17-year cicada last time they were in our area (2013). I was partly inspired by Jackson Landers’ book Eating Aliens. And really, if you can eat shrimp, you can eat meaty insects. But Rebugging isn’t mostly about eating insects, but rather preserving their lives, and benefiting from their contributions.

If you are still unsure what bugs do for us, the second chapter spells it out. We would be knee-deep in manure, leaf litter and dead animals within weeks, if there were no bugs eating it all, and enriching the soil. Tardigrades (water bears or moss piglets) are the most resilient animals known, able to survive extreme temperatures, pressures, dehydration, oxygen deprivation, starvation and radiation. They can remain in suspended animation for years until conditions improve. They have already survived all five mass extinction events, and some have been revived from a hundred-year-old sample of moss in a museum. Respect, please!

A ladybug on the leaf stem of a sunflower planted to attract beneficials.
Photo Pam Dawling

Avoid spraying wasps with pesticides-in-a-spray-can. They are as useful as bees and ladybugs, and are the best pest control we have for hauling away cabbage caterpillars. If you are more motivated to provide accommodation for ladybugs than wasps, keep moist dark places like old hollow stems, bark pieces and logs where the adults can overwinter. I could really use some early-spring-wakening ladybugs in our hoophouse to tackle the aphids!

Carefully introduced biological bug control can reduce the amount of pesticides used. A scientific risk assessment is an important first step, though. The 1930’s introduction of cane toads in Australia for pest control was a terrible mistake. The toad was a worse pest than the bugs had been. There are many more success stories than disasters!

Vicki Hird, Author of Rebugging the Planet

Rewilding can be complicated – looking at a huge overgrowth of creeping thistle is alarming. Happily, the biggest migration of painted lady butterflies came over and laid eggs on the thistles. The resulting spiny black caterpillars ate the thistles down to the ground. UK organizations have been creating maps of “insect superhighways” they are calling B-Lines, that will be filled with wildflowers so that insects and other wildlife have continuous corridors to travel from one area to another. There’s a two-page spread of possible actions to help the rebugging process, starting with publicity and education, and moving onto helping build bug-friendly habitat in public places and workplaces and private gardens.

Green public spaces can include a wide variety of invertebrate species. Look on derelict land, in cemeteries, along grass verges, and even on golf courses. Many companies and local authorities are now wanting to manage their land in ways that support more wildlife, and with encouragement might move another step in that direction. Tiny public orchards and forests are being planted in some places. There is a sidebar of actions to reduce deliberate, accidental, and thoughtless damage to insects.

After starting small and local, you might be ready to expand your ambitions and commitment. The overall total mass of insects is estimated to be falling by 2.5% every year. One big factor pushing species towards disaster is climate change. This is a big one to tackle, and yet we must. Overwintering numbers of monarch butterflies (the celebrities of the insect world) have dropped to less than 1% of their 1980’s population. Yes, compared with 40 years ago, the population is now just 1/100 of what it was. When food species arrive, peak, or leave earlier in the year due to changed temperatures, the predator species goes undernourished. Pesticide contamination gets a lot of blame too.

A bee pollinating squash. Photo Pam Dawling

Water pollution also harms diversity. Leached fertilizers in estuaries have created ocean dead zones. Combating climate change might not be what you expected to read about when picking up a book on rebugging the planet, but it is vitally connected. We can learn from bugs about climate management. Honeybees have learned how to mob an invading Asian giant hornet and cook it to death. In Brazil, scientists discovered an area of 200 million termite mounds each spaced 60 feet from its neighbors. This is all one colony, connected underground. Some of the mounds are over 4,000 years old. They have created a stable environment for millennia. The methods of ventilation and gas exchange could be copied for human habitation.

Are 5G phones heating insects 370% above normal levels and cooking them in the electromagnetic fields they generate? It could be true, based on research on models. The action list at the end of this chapter urges us to avoid 5G phones if we can, and not to use them outdoors if we must have one.

The chapter on why our farming, food and shopping all need bugs opens with a discussion on almond milk. The “dark reality” is that huge almond plantations need millions of bees brought in every year for pollination. Thousands of colonies are moved in to California’s Central Valley, for example. 30% of these bees die, because the environment is hostile, devoid of crops other than almond trees. Local wildlife cannot survive either.

It is a mistake to think that all vegan milk-substitutes are environmentally better than all dairy milk. It takes roughly 4 gallons of water for every gallon of milk a cow produces. Almond milk is much more intensive on water use: it can take up to 101 gallons of water to grow 1 cup of almonds, plus another 3 or 4 cups of water to manufacture almond milk. In fact, many commercial almond milks only have about 2% of almonds in them – the rest is water!

Bugs and other small animals can thrive in pastures if the livestock management is done well. The stock numbers and types are important.

Did you know that more than 70% of the world’s fish stocks are over-fished, depleted or collapsed?

We could also consider the impact of our decisions about textiles, timber and metals, on wildlife and ecology. The average person in the UK now buys over four clothing items a month! Less than 1% of clothing textiles is recycled. The waste mounts up. Forests are destroyed to make way for cotton plantations. Even if organically grown, cotton monocultures destroy habitat of thousands of species of butterflies, moths, termites, wasps, bees, and other bugs. Ironically, the cotton crop is then a sitting target for the bollworm moth. Genetically modified cotton was developed to overcome bollworm problems. A few countries resisted the siren call of GM cotton, and use integrated pest management (IPM) instead. They have lowered costs and increased yields.

While worrying about cotton, let us not forget synthetics and the huge problem of microplastics. In 2016, for example, 65 million tons of plastic textile fibers were produced. They do not decay. They are found everywhere on the planet, from the Arctic to the ocean depths. Ingestion of microplastics causes problems for marine life. The dyes cause disease, and can kill corals.

The action list for this chapter focuses on reducing waste. Think before you buy, think before you throw away. If you can, switch to consumption of locally sustainably produced goods.

Front and back covers of Rebugging the Planet

The action lists that close each chapter get longer, the connections get wider. Politics and the economy might not be the direction you expected from this book, but these topics are all part of the connected system, and all need consideration and action. Termites and corals co-operate within their colonies to create and maintain large healthy populations: we can do it too. (Corals are symbiotic associations of bugs (coral polyps, which form the exoskeleton) with several thousand species of animals and plants living within. Algae provide oxygen and carbohydrates.)

Big investors own shares in seed companies, just to make money. They have no interest or incentive to protect bugs or any aspect of the ecology. “It’s as if some beetles decided to take all the ants’ food supplies even though they cannot eat or use them. Money accumulation is hard to eat.”

Frustratingly, vested interests have too much power in decisions that affect large groups of people. We tend to avoid tackling entrenched societal problems. Vicki suggests three big areas to understand and deal with: poor governance and politics; inequality and poverty; runaway consumerism and waste. If you only wanted to read about saving beetles, you might be tempted to put the book down at this point. However, in order to save beetles, we need to look at the underlying causes of beetle die-offs.

Decisions on land use are often made by corporations and investors less focused on protecting biodiversity, and more on profits. We need to show them that enlightened self-interest can protect their financial success for the long haul. Some corporations are seeing this now that climate chaos is biting hard. Pushing humans to get three-quarters of their calories from just four crops (soy, wheat, rice and maize) may bring in fast bucks, but gives little resilience against climate change and extreme weather conditions, and is bad news for biodiversity.

Research has shown that as social inequality grows, so does harm to biodiversity, which leads to more inequality. Financial pressure from profit-seekers drives down wages, leading to a demand for ever cheaper food, spiraling to lower costs of production. They wring out higher short-term yields. Sustainability of food production goes to the wall. Desperate people take desperate measures to cover their basic survival needs. In 2020, the UN announced: “to bend the curve of biodiversity loss, we need to bend the curve of inequality.”

The action list for this chapter is over 5 pages, demonstrating the broadening of the goals. Campaigning, lobbying and voting; pushing governments and economists to balance social and environmental concerns and work for sustainable outcomes; requiring corporations to show much stronger accountability for all the results of their activity; supporting companies that are taking steps to lower their environmental damage and increase co-operation with others, strengthen international treaties and hold nations to their commitments on biodiversity and limiting climate change.

This probably sounds overwhelming, but “You don’t have to rebug alone”! You can join (or start) local organizations working on an issue you feel strongly about. The book contains a directory of some organizations (mostly in the UK). There is some help on starting lobbying, which most of us have not done before. The resources include guides on campaigning and influencing people. You can reduce your own carbon footprint and encourage others to do so. Big change is needed, but some days it’s restorative to “clean our own house” rather than go out lobbying.

 

Book Review: Josh Volk, Build Your Own Farm Tools

Josh Volk, Build Your Own Farm Tools: Equipment and Systems for the Small-Scale Farm and Market Garden

Storey Publishing, August 2021

I knew from the start that I would like this book! Who among us hasn’t wrestled with tools that aren’t quite right, that we spent good money on? Handle too short? Wrong angle? Made for very large hands? Who hasn’t wished for a tool that isn’t commercially available yet?

The book is clearly illustrated with accurate line drawings – better than photos because there’s no extraneous stuff. The first chapter, Setting Up a Basic Shop, covers safety, tools, benches, tool use and maintenance. Having safety notes at the beginning is wise. Yes, don’t wear gloves when working near rotating machinery. Clear space around your work area and have good lighting. When needed, use ear protection, goggles, mask, helmet. No farmer wants an injury. We rely on our bodies to get our work done. Josh writes good advice.

The lists of basic tools are helpful, as is the beginner’s guide to driving screws, a task which many of us were not taught at home or school. I encourage everyone to read the introductory chapter. Even if you know it all, you may pick up a good way to explain things to your helpers. Given the other safety precautions, I was surprised we are not warned against spreading linseed oil rags out to air-dry after oiling tool handles. They self-ignite – we burned a building down that way!

The common materials used include wood (SPF, or spruce, pine, fir) and CDX plywood (grades C and D); hot-rolled low-carbon steel, black steel pipe, and polyethylene, PVC and ABS plastic piping (with environmental concerns elucidated).

There are 19 projects, all made and used by the author and farmer friends. All can be built with commonly available tools and materials. There are clear instructions, a description of how the tool is used, and options for design modifications, including how you can apply the design features to other tools you might make. I instantly saw the wisdom of having a three-legged sawhorse for uneven ground – the milking stool principle applies!

The greenhouse projects start with a simple potting bench made from standard size lumber. Make the height to fit the users. The slatted top is 42” x 8’, and you can customize by installing irrigation sprinklers, or hot water spaghetti tubing between the slats for a bottom-heating system, and/or insulation under the slats to prevent drafts from below.

Three homemade hoes are next., followed by a germination chamber made from wire shelving (as used in restaurant kitchens), surrounded by ½” exterior grade insulation board. Josh’s example holds 27 10×20 flats, and fits under their seeding bench. The heating is provided by a metal pan of water with a submersible 500 watt thermostatically-controlled aquarium heater.

A legless cantilevered potting bench with compost mixing tub follows. The key is to first find a tub the right size for your operation and build around it. Make a sliding plywood lid to cover the tub.

The field tool projects start with benders for making hoops from metal EMT conduit or chain-link fencing top-rail. You’ll need a different bender for each pipe size, and for each hoop size, but as they are made from scrap wood fastened onto vertical posts, you can line up a whole set in your barn. Instructions are included for drawing circles on wood, and calculating the pipe length for a given hoop diameter.

Next is a rolling bed marker. I once made one from plastic piping, following poor instructions online. It never worked. I don’t think it had been field-tested by the designer. No danger of that here! This design uses wood throughout, and marks lines across the bed every 12”, for rectangular plantings of three rows. You could modify it for more rows, or closer spacings, although not to mark a hexagonal (offset) grid, where plants are equally spaced in all directions. Josh recommends making just one roller and using a 1-2-3 row choice with a 3-row roller or 1-2-4 row options with a 4-row roller. The 4-row roller can be used to plant 1-2-3-4-5-7 rows if you eyeball rows between the marked rows. Likewise, by planting between the lines across the bed, you can create plant spacings of 4-6-8-9-12-15-18”. Rolling bed markers work best when pulled over fairly flat bare soil, soon after raking or tilling. This project is more exacting than many in the book, although it’s just labeled “moderate”. The easy-looking drip tape winder is also “moderate”. Even the hand cart, which involves some welding, is graded “moderate”!

The hand cart has bicycle wheels (smooth rolling), and a higher bed than the commercially-available carts (less bending and lifting), can roll over planted beds (higher clearance), and has good balance so the load doesn’t shift in use. The frame is made from plain steel square tube. The handle is round tubing, and the fork legs for the wheels are flat steel. You can make a flat plywood bed to sit on top of the steel framework. It has no side walls, just a short rail at the back, making it easy to load, unload, or use as a workbench in the field.

The irrigation tools chapter includes a stand with mounted drum to reroll drip tape, and an easy-to-move sprinkler system. The drip system section includes the calculations for applying the amount of water needed. There are also explanations of hose threads and pipe threads and why they don’t fit together, and how to use various driptape fittings. It’s possible to unroll two lengths of driptape at once off a new roll by fastening the free end to the mainline pipe and walking out a loop of tape. You can actually leave the two lengths connected, saving yourself end caps. The drip tape tutorial is very user-friendly, leading you through their real-life example.

The sprinkler system mimics the K-line system used in pastures. It has sprinklers on sled bases connected by ¾” flexible poly irrigation tubing. The sprinklers are either pop-up lawn sprinklers, Wobblers or Nelson Windfighter ag sprinklers. PVC pipe nipples attach the sprinklers to the sled bases.

Josh includes a heart-warming page on the importance of finding good mentors “with a crafter’s mind” as Washington State farmer Rohn Amegatcher calls it. Learning this approach from a person who puzzles through challenges and fixes things themselves is worth even more than learning a particular fix.

The wash and pack tools start with a hand truck mini-pallet. Stack your crates up on one of these pallets, then move them with your hand truck. You can make these from scrap wood as it becomes available and you have time, or you can have an off-season project to make a set of 20.

Next is an onion bag filling stand, that works equally well for potatoes or other root crops. Oh! This project is graded moderate to difficult! I don’t see why. A simple spray table is up next, a slatted table with a slanted metal diverter below it (to keep your feet dry!) and side racks. There’s a page of design notes including making the table height, width and depth fit the humans.  Important because the workers will be there for some time.

The barrel washer page by Josh Volk

The barrel washer is next. We’ve long wanted one of these, but prices of ready-made ones are high. These instructions could help us make our own. This project has a high level of complexity, so I should make something easier first! The compact design (4’ long) uses less water than the big ones, and suits small-scale farms. You can add a gate to keep the water in the barrel for longer, saving water. The frame uses aluminum bicycle wheels. The water supply runs from a garden hose into a length of PVC piping with three clip-on nozzles that can easily be removed for cleaning or replacement. There’s a flow-rate calculation page, and instructions on how to use the barrel washer manually or add a ¼ hp motor. There are tips for diverting and collecting the water that runs out, letting it settle and recirculating it as the first wash water. Design notes help you understand and optimize the washer.

A rolling packing table with a shelf for labels, tape, markers, order sheets is next. The table height adjusts for different workers, and the table surface is a store-bought plastic folding table, which can be removed and used as a regular table if your needs change. Most of the rest is plywood and standard lumber (plus casters). It’s straightforward to make but does require accuracy for smooth-operation.

If you want to move away from plastic crates, and have an upmarket look, the lightweight, lidded easy-to-carry CSA boxes are for you. Make them to fit efficiently in your vehicle and to hold a whole number of whatever size bags you pack into.

Next we move into the office. The main tools are computer, phone, pencil and paper. Josh explains, in 13 pages, how he uses spreadsheets, working back from his harvest goals to his planting schedule and field maps. If you are new to crop planning, this is a good primer.

You can quickly make your spreadsheet serve your needs. You can make a plan for a single CSA share, then multiply by the number of shares to get your harvest quantity. You can add in expected market sales, then proceed to make your Planting Plan.

Copy your Harvest Plan onto a new spreadsheet and parse it out into every single planting and the date to plant to meet your harvest date. You’ll need the days to maturity number, with a little wiggle room added. Include columns for the row length and the total space needed, in beds or in length x width areas. Make a greenhouse seedlings schedule for all the crops you transplant.

Sort your spreadsheets by date for your schedules, and in an alphabetical list of crops for seed ordering. You can even use spreadsheets to make your maps. If you record what actually happens, next year’s schedules and maps will be more fine-tuned to reality.

Will a tool pay for itself? It’s easy to get beguiled by shiny new tools. Sometimes this leads to buyer’s remorse. Josh lists out parts of the overall cost, including environmental costs. Benefits include saved time, increased yield, improved ergonomics and morale. The lifespan of the tool and its maintenance costs affect the cost per year of use, and the time it takes for the tool to pay for itself. As an example, Josh looks at the rolling bed marker. Cost of materials plus labor to build it, versus time saved each use, times number of times used per year x labor cost of that time. It pays for itself in just under two years. Additionally, the time used to build it is in the off-season and the time saved is in the busy season.

List the questions you need to answer and find an easy way to record the answers while you are using the tool. It’s easy to record packing data on record sheets in the packing shed.  But in the field? Clipboards and paper, or pocket notebooks are useful too. Investigate whether it is actually more efficient for your crew to write information on paper, and later have someone transfer it onto a spreadsheet or database, or if it’s easier to have each person input directly on their phone, or a barn tablet. Google Forms may be useful for time studies of tasks. Different answers suit different people.

It can be particularly helpful to have your weekly “to do” list on your phone. Phones are useful to set reminders to turn off irrigation, and photos can record water meter readings before and after. A video will tell you how long something takes. Or take a photo at the start and end of a task, and use the embedded times for your calculation. Having a step to complete in the shade is no bad thing!

Josh Volk

My review copy was a digital advance reader copy and I had to be patient and accept not being able to easily flip through the whole thing. I also had to deal with bits that still needed editing, that I assume will be. Why are there no metric equivalents throughout? Just conversion ratios for length, weight and temperature at the end of the book. Yes, we can convert, but it would have been easier if the book had included them.

The appendices include basic math for tool design, length, area and volume, practical triangles and trigonometry, circles, and calculating and converting rates such as water flow and slope rise. I’m fortunate to be math literate, but I’ve found not everyone can do seat-of-the-pants mental arithmetic to figure how many stakes are needed for a certain bed length. Sad but true.

The section explaining mechanical principles is useful for those of us lacking an engineering or physics background. Force, strength, stress and strain are all explained in terms of a bag of potting mix on a table, and bending forces are explained setting it on the edge of a cantilevered table. The explanation of torque examines the casters on a barrel washer, and a wrench on a nut. Flow rate and pressure are practical aspects of fluid dynamics. If your irrigation flow rate exceeds the maximum available, the pressure will drop. Pressure is generated by pumps, or by setting the water source higher up than the area to be watered. Pressure drops over the length of the piping, particularly at fittings. Use pipe runs that are as straight and short as possible, with the fewest fittings to restrict the flow. Small losses can add up.

The section on basic materials properties explains what you can expect from wood, steel, aluminum, PVC, and concrete. This book scores well on diversity of people-types in the drawings. – Who did those wonderful drawings? My copy didn’t include that info.

This very handy practical book deserves a place in your shop, barn or shed. You’ll refer to it often.

This review also appears in the August 2021 issue of Growing for Market magazine

Book Review: Sally Morgan, The Healthy Vegetable Garden

The Healthy Vegetable Garden
Photo Chelsea Green

Book Review: Sally Morgan, The Healthy Vegetable Garden: A natural, chemical-free approach to soil, biodiversity and managing pests and diseases.

Chelsea Green Publishing, September 2021

Sally Morgan is an expert organic gardener in the UK. She is the editor of Organic Farming Magazine for the Soil Association, the nation’s foremost non-profit organic gardening and farming membership organization. Her book The Healthy Vegetable Garden is clearly and concisely written. Sally promotes building healthy soil, boosting biodiversity, creating habitats to attract pollinators and predators, making good use of water, promoting the stability and resilience of natural ecosystems, and integrating the landscape with people.

A healthy garden maintains a balance where pest organisms are at a non-damaging level, (rather than eliminated entirely). Here you will find lots of solid information to identify pests and diseases and deal with them using regenerative principles, and when necessary, making traps and lures.

The book has some info particularly for US gardeners – you’ll be able to read about Mexican bean beetle and Colorado potato beetle! You might be mystified by some of the European details we don’t have to deal with, such as raspberry beetle or flatworms. As long as you have some prior gardening experience where you live now, you can only benefit from the information offered here. Brand new US gardeners might get confused.

The Healthy Vegetable Garden has good descriptions of soil and its components, structure, assessment, and testing. It is important to nurture healthy soils producing healthy plants, with the essential minerals and vitamins we need for health. Nutrient density has declined seriously over the last 70 years, particularly levels of calcium, iron and vitamins B and C. In 2014, the UN warned that we had only 60 years of harvests left, if we continued degrading our soils. In 2020 a new study estimated that 90% of soils had only 100 years of harvests left. Soils managed with conservation techniques have much longer projected lifespans.

The second chapter is about ways to regenerate soils, by minimizing tilling or digging, adding compost, mulches and cover crops. The living mulch section is where I am hesitant. My experience and that of Jesse Frost whose Living Soil Handbook I reviewed recently, is that living mulches can out-compete the crop if we are not skilled and careful. The author does point out the need to cut back the mulch to prevent this problem. Growers in the south might find planting zucchini (courgettes) into white clover impractical as zucchini is a fast-turnaround crop for us, whereas clover is a slow-growing cover crop. The author leaves the clover growing through the following winter, to make the combo work. In the chillier parts of the UK, only one crop of zucchini can be grown in a summer, so the system makes sense. In Virginia, we plant zucchini and summer squash 5 times outdoors. Likewise, the speed with which chickweed flowers and sets seed in Virginia would make it unwise to regard it as a cover crop! I did like the idea of undersowing tomatoes with coriander, if I wanted large volumes of coriander (cilantro).

Chickweed flowers.
http://ipm.ucanr.edu/PMG/S/W-CP-SMED-FL.006.html
Photo by Jack Kelly Clark.

The chapter on understanding pests and diseases is well-written, although we in the US have so many more than in the UK! Plant pests are listed in categories by their method of causing harm, rather than by individual names, which helps understanding. Plant pathogens likewise are described by type, as bacteria, viruses, fungi, water-molds. Fungal pathogens include biotrophs (parasitic pathogens such as downy mildews, rusts and smuts), semi-biotrophs that spend part of their lifecycle on the host, then part feeding saprophytically on the host’s dead remains (such as apple scab, Phytophthora blights, Botrytis-type molds and powdery mildews) and necrotrophs that kill their host and then feed as saprophytes. I appreciated the bigger understanding this classification of pathogenic fungi gave me.

Heed the warning that climate change is bringing new pests and diseases, and the chilling news that for every 1 Celsius degree rise in average temperature (about 2 F degrees), aphids become active two weeks earlier. Some warm climate diseases will move further towards the poles. The author recommends paying attention, encouraging good airflow around plants, sanitizing pruning tools, and planting rows of tall plants to break up the progress of air-borne fungal spores.  Growing potatoes downwind of a row of Jerusalem artichokes is a good example.

Sally is very practical on the subject of sterilizing pots and flats – your tools, boots, gloves and hands are as likely to spread spores, don’t worry about sterilizing pots! Some of the disinfectants suggested in other books can do more damage! Likewise, most spores don’t survive long on the ground, removed from their host plants, and so such diseased crops can be safely composted in a hot compost process. Practice crop rotation to deplete those that do survive in the soil, such as carrot rust flies.

Under normal conditions, predators can prevent pest outbreaks, but problems arise when conditions change quickly and disrupt the balance of prey and predator. If you see lots of pests, find a way to deal with them that won’t also kill their predators and parasites. Beware broad spectrum pesticides and fungicides, even if Organic. Encourage ladybugs and beetles by creating “ladybug hotels” and “beetle banks”. (There are some photos to inspire you.)

Plant for a continuous supply of insect-attracting blooms. Yarrow, ajuga, alyssum, dill, and fennel flower early in the year and attract predators like hoverflies, ladybugs, lacewings, tachinid flies, and parasitic wasps. Also grow early blooming flowers with pollen and nectar predators can use as alternative foods – borage is fast at producing nectar, as are dandelions. Phacelia is a very attractive to predators, especially aphid predators like hoverflies and parasitic wasps. Sow in the fall for early spring blooms. Angelica is a biennial that can flower in the spring of its second year. If you decide to trust to weeds to feed your beneficial insects, take care about how much seed they sow! This is a risk I do not recommend taking, especially in warm climates with rapid rates of growth.

Borage in an insectary circle.
Photo by Bridget Aleshire.

In the section on crop rotations, polyculture and continuous cropping, Sally reports that she has moved away from a rigid crop rotation for many crops, following Elaine Ingham’s observation that nature does not rotate. This may be a place where home gardeners and production gardeners diverge. Mixed beds with several crops work well for manual work, but less so for those with rototillers, or even those hoping to make fast progress with a scuffle hoe. Mixed plantings are attractive and fun for the solo gardener, but having others pull up your delightful medley suggests it doesn’t work so well for bigger operations.

This book is not dogmatic. Rotations help disrupt pest and disease cycles, and here you can read brief descriptions of three-crop, four-crop and eight-crop rotations. You can also devise ad-hoc rotations and grow beds of different crops next to each other, in order to benefit from diversity without slowing down your hoeing or putting a bed out of commission while you wait for the last item in that bed to finish its lifecycle.

Shumei Natural Agriculture Farm, Yatesbury, Calne, in SW England has been increasing yields year by year, with no rotation, no pesticides, and no fertilizers other than material from immediately around the beds that is incorporated into the soil. You can’t successfully switch instantly to this method of growing, because it takes time and lots of the right microbes for the soil to adapt. Charles Dowding is experimenting with this at Homeacres, his garden in Somerset. Continuous cropping is a challenging idea to those of us who came up when organics was the opposite of industrial monocropping. We championed rotations.

The author provides a list of perennial vegetables she is growing: Chinese artichokes, Jerusalem artichokes, globe artichokes, Good king henry, lovage, perennial kales, scorzonera, sea beet, sea kale, skirret, Babington leeks, potato onions, walking onions, and Welsh onions. No rotation is used for these no-dig crops, which grow with a layer of leaf litter on the soil.

Sally Morgan

Agroforestry is the practice of growing vegetables in wide alleys between trees. Sally has tried this by planting a row of cordon apples (trees trained to a single stem) along the edge of a vegetable bed. US readers should not follow her exact hedge design plan, as autumn olive, blackthorn and dog rose, for example, are invasive here.

Part 4 of the book is on boosting defenses, and how biocontrol works. This is the use of one organism to control a pest or disease. It is important to learn about the pests you have and their particular biocontrols. It’s not a case of opening the bag and throwing the stuff on!  Biocontrols have specific requirements, such as temperature or moisture. Timing is important.

Parasitic wasps, minute pirate bugs and predatory mites like Phystoseilus persimilis (which eats spider mites) can be introduced for their appropriate prey. Try to save biocontrols for when you really have a problem, and make sure you correctly identify the pest you want to control.

Predatory nematodes each have their own mutualistic bacteria living in their gut. When the predatory nematode works its way into its prey, it releases its bacteria, which kill and digest the prey. Reminds me of the Trojan Horse! The process happens below ground – nothing to see here! I found this fascinating! Nematodes need a film of water to live and move in, and temperatures above 41˚F (5˚C). Buy the right nematodes (and bacteria) for each job. This book has a two-page spread on which parasitic nematode to use for which pest. I have not seen this quality of information in any other book! Nematodes can be used to manage slugs, weevils, carrot rust fly, cutworms, onion fly, gooseberry sawfly, thrips, codling moth and more.

Plants have their own protective species. The introduction to the rhizosphere (microbiome around the roots) includes fascinating details on a type of morel mushroom that farms bacteria! Soil fungi are important for most crops, except brassicas and chenopods (beets, spinach and chard). We hear about the rhizosphere, but not the phyllosphere, the equivalent collection of micro-organisms on the leaves. This is mainly, but not only, composed of bacteria. About 10 billion on one leaf, and all different from the bacteria in the soil, and varying from one crop to another! Young leaves have mostly bacteria, mature leaves have more yeasts and senescent leaves mostly filamentous fungi. These microbes protect the plant’s health, supply biofertilizers, biostimulants and biopesticides. Some leaf bacteria suppress growth in caterpillars feeding on the leaf. Understanding this helps us appreciate the reasons for not spraying plants haphazardly with things that “might help”.

Plants have an arsenal of defenses. Thorns and hairs are just the most obvious. Some plants stockpile toxins to provide fast response to insect attack, others manufacture them as needed. When attacked, many plants respond by toughening up their cell walls in the area being attacked. Plants release various volatile compounds communicating with other plants and with insects (both the pests and predators of those pests). The example given is that when corn roots are attacked by a certain larva, the roots release a compound that attracts a nematode that is a predator of that larva. Sometimes, though, the attacker wins, as when certain beetles release their own volatile compounds in response to a plant’s compounds, signaling to other beetles to join the attack. Colorado potato beetles do this. This complexity calls our interventions into question: is it helpful to handpick the pests? Not if the pests call on comrades to join the fight.

Young sweet corn plants in July. When corn roots are attacked by a certain larva, the roots release a compound that attracts a nematode that is a predator of that larva. Photo Bridget Aleshire

If your soil is already healthy and rich in microbes, Sally thinks additions are not needed, including biostimulants, compost teas and foliar sprays to boost the numbers of beneficial bacteria and fungi. Biofungicides can prevent particular soil-borne diseases, but can’t cure them after the fact. Biofumigation is the process of growing a particular cover crop, chopping it finely and incorporating it into the oil, taking advantage of the allelopathic compounds released, to kill pests, diseases or weed seeds. Mustards, radishes and forage sorghum all have bio-fumigant properties.

The chapter on barriers, lures, traps and sprays includes recipes, and the caution that many homemade sprays kill beneficials as well as pests, as do some of the Organic commercial sprays like neem, Spinosad, quassia. Use these only as a last resort, and pay attention to dilution rates, time of day to spray and frequency of use.

Here you can find instructions for carefully treating seeds with a disease-fighting hot water treatment before planting. You can also find cautions, such as not heat-treating peas, beans, corn, cucumbers, lettuce or beets. Or old seed, as the germination rate might deteriorate too far.

Part 5 of the book is an A-Z of Pests and Disease. First are aphids – there are so many kinds of aphids! The lifecycle of aphids starts in spring with eggs hatching into wingless females that give birth via parthenogenesis to more females. Within a week, one female can produce 100 clones, which can repeat the process at the age of one week.  This continues until adverse weather or predators trigger production of a generation of winged female aphids that moves to new plants. Later in summer male aphids are born and females lay fertilized eggs that overwinter on host plants, to hatch the following spring.

Pepper plant with aphids. Photo Pam Dawling

Handpicking aphids is likely impossible, so start by blasting them off the plants with a water jet from a hose. This may decrease the population enough for natural predators to begin control. Failing this, a soap spray can be effective, although aphid predators will also be harmed. If you plant before any aphids arrive, you can use a fine mesh netting to keep them off, but monitor to make sure no aphids have got inside the net. You could try trap crops of nasturtiums to draw aphids away from your crop, but how much of your space do you want to devote to nasturtiums, and how do you deal with aphids then? The same choices of water and soap.

The list of pests continues through the alphabet. For some, nasturtiums can act as a repellent rather than a trap crop. Cucumber beetles are a good example. Nasturtiums are a brassica, and will attract cabbage caterpillars if there are no other brassicas around. There are two pages on making the garden inhospitable to slugs and snails and three pages of control options including beneficial nematodes, ducks, coffee grounds (acidic and non-specific) and iron phosphate pellets.  Finally, there are whitefly and wireworms.

The disease chapter starts with various blights, including two pages on potato blight (both types). Cankers, club root, damping off fungi, mildews, molds, rots, rusts, spots, scabs, viruses, and on with the sad list to end with wilts. It makes sense in an organizational way to end with the problems, but it makes for a sorry place to leave off.

This book is good on detailed info on soil micro-organisms and the general theme works globally. I recommend checking against local Extension Service or eOrganic before following any of the specific techniques, to ensure it’s likely to succeed where you live.

Book Review: Pawpaws, The Complete Growing and Marketing Guide by Blake Cothron

Pawpaws: The Complete Growing and Marketing Guide by Blake Cothron, New Society Publishers, 2021, $29.99

“Blake Cothron is an authority on pawpaws, and provides a clear, detailed guide for commercial success in growing this “oddly appealing species” (his own words). The supply of this exotic, trending, easy-to-grow fruit has not yet met the demand. Blake shares the wealth of his knowledge, including challenges, and when he doesn’t know, he says so (and it’s probable that others don’t know either.)”

This is the advance praise I wrote for Pawpaws, now inside the front cover. Last fall I reviewed Michael Judd’s For the Love of Pawpaws, a permaculturist’s take on growing pawpaws among diversified crops. Blake’s book, while mainly intended for small-scale organic commercial growers, is equally useful for the backyard enthusiast. Blake ensures you have the information you need to choose what to grow, where to buy it, how to plant it, keep it thriving, prune and harvest. Depending on your scale, you can try the nine exquisite recipes here, or sell gourmet pawpaws online, or make value-added products such as craft brews, jams, and baked goods.

Blake and his wife Rachel Cothron, own Peaceful Heritage Nursery, a 4-acre USDA Certified Organic research farm, orchard, and edible plant nursery, near Louisville, Kentucky, the perfect climate for pawpaws.

America’s almost forgotten native fruit looks tropical and has an exotic appeal, but is an easy to grow temperate climate tree, and very cold hardy (US Winter hardiness zone 5, -20˚F/-29˚C). It is ripe for 4-6 weeks in late August-September. Although mostly grown in the South-east and Mid-Atlantic, pawpaws will grow in portions of 26 US states. Avoid confusion with the tropical papaya, which is sometimes also called pawpaw. The North American pawpaw is Asimina triloba.

The book is studded with cultural gems such as that you can sometimes locate the site of an old native American village by the clusters of pawpaws still growing there.

Blake Cothron

There are some false myths about pawpaws, including the idea that they are secretly tropical and related to bananas, papaya and mango, They are not. The second myth is that they grow best in shade. Also not true! They can grow in shade, but will not produce good fruit unless in full sun. A third myth is that they are ripe when blackened by frost. Oh no! They are usually ripe weeks before frost. Frost is not a benefit, but a cause of damage! (This myth is not true of persimmons either.) Another myth is that the flowers smell really bad. It’s just not true. Lastly, a myth that would be nice if true: pawpaws are not immune to all diseases and pests. Certainly they don’t suffer from as many health challenges as apples or peaches, but there are pawpaw troubles as Blake explains. All these stories show how important it is to have a trustworthy guidebook.

Wild pawpaws are found as thickets of suckers growing up from the enmeshed roots of older trees, or as clusters of seedlings around a mother tree. They may feed wild animals, but will not grow the large tasty fruits humans want. Suckers are clones of the mother tree, and as pawpaws are rarely self-fertile, these thickets do not produce fruit. For human food, pawpaw trees need full sun, well-draining soil and plenty of space. Not what you might have assumed. Read this book!

Wild pawpaws are most often found in moist lowland areas near water, but in well-draining areas, not swampland. They are often on sunny slopes (not northerly sides). They can be found along edges of clearings, trails and old roadways. In Kentucky, Blake reports about 25% of the wild pawpaws are tasty, 50% are edible and 25% are “spitters”. If you’ve experienced anything other than the top 25%, this book can be your encouragement to try some cultivated types.

When you buy pawpaw trees, go for potted 1-4ft grafted trees at $30-$50 each. These will survive for 15-20 years and provide harvests for 10-15 of those. During that time you can plan where and when to plant your next pawpaw grove. Cheap bare-root seedling trees will save you money, but they won’t earn you money or appreciative friends. Premium fruit comes from premium trees, well cared-for.

Pawpaw trees can mature at 20ft tall, or you can keep them pruned to be 7-15ft and avoid high ladder work. The diameter of a mature tree can be 20ft in full sun, with an attractive pyramid shape.

Peaceful Heritage Nursery,

When planning your orchard site, remember “the more sun, the more fruit”. 12-14 hours is best, but 7-8 hours of direct, strong, undiluted sunlight will be enough for a decent fruit set. Pawpaws are not too exacting about soil, apart from the need for good drainage. Soil can be improved, but heavy wet soils need improving years before planting!

If you plan to mow with a tractor, you’ll need to plant rows 18-20ft apart. Otherwise 15-18ft between rows and 8-12ft between trees in the row will be enough. You do need genetically different trees close enough to cross-pollinate.

There are three colors of fruit: yellow, orange and white, with the orange ones having the strongest flavors (“banana/honey/persimmon/pumpkin”). Yellow-fleshed cultivars have more of a “banana/cocoa butter/Mexican flan/nutty/marshmallow/caramel flavor”, very sweet, with an aroma of citrus, pineapple, cantaloupe and strawberry. The white-fleshed ones are the mildest, with a “vanilla/light banana/cantaloupe/coconut/tropical fruit” flavor and a high sugar content.

Pawpaw fruit should be creamy, not watery or hard. There should not be any bitter or unpleasant after-taste! Another feature to consider when choosing varieties is the seed-to-pulp ratio. Ideally the seeds will comprise less than 10% of the total weight. Wild pawpaws can be 50% to 75% seeds.

Page from Pawpaws by Blake Cothron, showing fruits and seeds. Photo New Society Publishers and Blake Cothron

Blake includes 57 pages of good, bad and interesting facets of all 50 cultivars he could find in 2020. Some are widely available, others need to be tracked down through the North American Pawpaw Growers Association (NAPGA) or the North American Fruit Explorers (NAFEX). Don’t rely on nursery descriptions, but use Blake’s notes, where he has worked hard to be fair and objective. This book costs less than one tree, and can save many mistakes!

Blake distinguishes between Early Ripening (Aug 20-Sept 5), Mid-Season (Sept 5-30) and Late Season (after Oct 1). The dates are for zones 5b-6b, and outside that area they offer a relative idea. There is a grading scale (incorporating different professional opinions) based on size, flavor, texture, reliability and yield. Choose As and Bs unless you have a good reason to do otherwise. Size grades are Jumbo (16oz+), Large (12-16oz), Medium (7-12oz) and Small (3-6oz). Commercial growers don’t mess with the little ones.

A matter to face with pawpaws is that eating under-ripe ones can cause nausea. Some people cannot tolerate cooked pawpaw, Some speculate that it is the combination of cooked pawpaw with grains (as in baked goods) that give them trouble. Be ready for these possibilities but do not let them discourage you (or potential customers!) There are also people who sometimes experience mild euphoria after eating pawpaws, without harm. The one thing to never make or consume, is pawpaw fruit leather! It can cause 24 hours of serious intestinal distress. This is the “warts and all” part of the book. Avoid these problems and enjoy everything else about pawpaws.

Thinking how to incorporate pawpaws into your diverse farming? You do need to keep the grass and weeds down somehow. Grazing, mowing or mulching are the usual methods. In damp eastern regions, mowing will need to be done once a month from April to October. Mulch needs to follow the 3:3:3 rule: 3ins deep, 3ft wide around each tree, keeping 3ins away from the trunk. Cardboard topped with organic mulch is one option. Landscape fabric is another. Wood or bark chips can work well.

Blake tells cautionary tales about planting a new pawpaw orchard and not providing irrigation. Climate change is making rainfall more erratic and we get both extremes of quantity.  There is no substitute for water in a drought, so install an irrigation system before you plant, or immediately afterwards. Once the orchard is established, you might not need to water much.  Blake recommends orchard tubing with two emitters per tree, providing a gallon of water per tree per day.

Pawpaws go dormant in winter, unlike some other fruits that can be planted in the fall in milder climates. Plant in spring or early summer, digging large holes, breaking up the edges of the hole, supplying amendments, and having mulch on hand. This book gives clear step-by-step instructions. Staked tree protectors are essential for trees shorter than 30ins (seedlings) or 18ins (grafted trees). One main purpose is to protect the young trees from UV radiation. Tubex and Blue-X tree shelters are suggested.

While the trees are young, you can use the aisles for something else, such as grazing, or growing hay or another crop. Whichever weed control method you use, you will need to hand weed the small inner circles around each tree, including clipping suckers coming up from the rootstock. This gives you an opportunity to study each tree up close and see how it’s doing.

The pests and diseases chapter is complemented by color photos. With pawpaws, there is still much that is not known (or was known and then lost). Insects that attack pawpaws do not usually do much damage, although the list is long and includes borers, stinging caterpillars, a webworm, a leaf roller, the ubiquitous Japanese beetle, slugs, snails aphids, mites, thrips, scale insects and the Zebra Swallowtail Butterfly.  Jeremy Lowe at VSU has a very good PowerPoint presentation with superb photos.

I have been fascinated by the ZSB since reading about it in Michael Judd’s book, where I learned that the butterflies arrive at the time the pawpaws flower. Since then, I’m on the lookout each spring. The pawpaw is the ZSB’s only host, so do not kill all their caterpillars in your pawpaw trees – they have nowhere else to live! The eggs are laid between June and August. The caterpillars, which grow to 2ins long, eat the leaves and the damage to young trees is a real concern. Blake recommends hand-picking the caterpillars and carrying them to a wild pawpaw patch, or to some mature cultivated pawpaws, where they do little damage. Also, avoid destroying nearby wasp nests as the Ichneumon wasp Trogus pennator is a predator of the caterpillars, and nature may balance out.

For many pests and diseases, the key to healthy trees is good sanitation, keeping a clean orchard floor (mulched or mowed, I don’t mean bare soil!), and removing diseased wood or leaves.

Deer bite off buds and young shoots, and rub their antlers on the trunks. Goats do not eat pawpaw trees, although they can do damage rubbing their horns against the trunks. Other large pests include raccoons, possums, small rodents, and sapsuckers (small woodpeckers).

Diseases include Phyllosticta leaf spot, a fungal pathogen., and a few others, including Black Spot (Diplocarpon spp) which strikes in rainy seasons.

The condition of the leaves will show you if your fertility program is adequate. Healthy leaves are a deep vibrant green and bigger than human hands. Young trees should make 16-24ins of growth each year after the first one, until they are mature. Fertilize heavily from March-June in zone 6.

Pawpaw fruit cluster.
New Society Publishers and Blake Cothron

The chapter on flowering stages and cold tolerance of each (information that is hard to find elsewhere) will save you from disappointment. See the helpful photos showing blossom stages. Unlike some tree fruits (apples, pears), pawpaws bloom over a period of time, resulting in flowers at different stages, giving insurance against all being killed by one frost. In zone 6 the very cold-hardy Velvet Bud stage, when fruit buds start to develop, is in mid-February and full bloom starts in early April.

Pollination is conducted by various flies, beetles including lady bugs and ants, and spiders. Not by bees. So for good pollination, plant insect-attracting flowers in your orchard. Fruit takes 4-7 months to mature.

Pawpaw trees begin to fruit in year 3-5, with 5-10lbs/tree and double that the next year. A mature tree will yield a bushel (30-40lbs). Harvesting needs to be done gently (no vigorous tree-shaking!). Use sharp bypass pruners and set the fruit in a single layer in cushioned boxes. Ship immediately or use refrigerated storage for a couple of days. If picked ripe but firm, pawpaws can be stored for 3-4 weeks under refrigeration. They won’t be as delicious as tree-ripened fruits.

You can sell pawpaws at 2-3 times the price of apples, maybe $5-10/lb. Because the demand is not widespread, do not rely on farmers’ markets. The marketing chapter suggests 8 channels for selling pawpaw fruit. You will need to provide information and an attractive display or stunning photos if selling online. Avoid the question “What do we do now with a hundred or even thousands of pounds of soft, dripping ripe pawpaw fruit?” by planning months or years ahead.

If selling remotely, make it really clear that pawpaws are only available to ship in August and September (or whatever is true in your region). Ship out only perfect unblemished fruit picked that same day, and ship only Monday-Thursday. Weekend shipping can go very wrong! Pack the fruit with enough lightweight packing material so that when you shake the box, nothing moves. (I learned this tip packing garlic for shipping.) Shipping fruit across the country is a strange business with a large carbon footprint. Consider if you have better options selling locally, including specialty groceries.

Sales to restaurants can work well, as long as you have clear agreements, including price ($1-$3 per pound). Be perfectly reliable, make the chef’s life as easy as possible. Deliver early rather than late if you can’t be on time.

One feature of modern pawpaw marketing is that currently most Americans prefer crunchy fruit (even crunchy peaches) and the pawpaw is far from crunchy. Describing the texture as similar to creamy avocados, but sweet, seems a promising approach.

You could sell fruit as frozen pulp (deseeded!) to restaurants, bakeries or breweries. You could make value-added products from the less-than-perfect fruit yourself. As well as the items mentioned earlier, don’t overlook the possibilities of ice cream, chutney, food supplement pills and jewelry made form pawpaw seeds. Find out about the Cottage Food Laws in your state. Blake recommends the Ohio Pawpaw Growers Association with 29 handouts about NA Pawpaws.

Aside from selling fruit, you could sell seeds, seedlings or grafted potted trees. Seedling trees can be unpredictable, but if you start with good parents, you improve the chance of getting good seedlings. You can use seedlings as rootstock for grafting, or sell them to people growing food forests where productivity is not the main concern.

Seeds removed from ripe fruits need to be washed, cleaned, sterilized, labeled, stratified at 35-45˚F for 90-120 days, ensuring they don’t freeze. Seeds are sown on their sides, and can take 6-12 weeks to emerge above the soil. 2-3 year-old seedlings are used for grafting rootstock. Grafting is fairly easy, and KSU has some very good free videos.

The book includes a pawpaw calendar, cost analysis and some troubleshooting. Tips include not to worry if your new trees only grow a few inches the first year. This is probably because growth is happening underground, establishing strong roots. It could be a sign of root damage during transplanting, so if you are about to plant more, improve your technique! Damage caused by sunburn, dehydration, nutritional shortages, attacks by beetles, sapsuckers, string-trimmers, Phyllosticta disease, borers, deer, and winter sun, are all covered.

The cost analysis deals with start-up costs (not minor when trees cost $30 each). For an acre containing 295 trees that’s $8,850. Tree protection fencing can add $1,376. Landscape fabric and irrigation together can equal the fencing cost.  Other smaller costs add in to a total close to $10, 700 for the acre. Try for a wholesale tree price between $15 and $25, and your total is more like $6,260.

Production costs are estimated by KSU at $1,650/acre; harvest and market costs at $6,200/acre, including labor for pruning and harvesting at $12.50/hr. Total variable costs come out at $8,400/acre. Gross returns could be $9,600/acre, if you sell wholesale at $1.75/pound. Don’t quit your day job yet, but pawpaws can be a good addition to an existing operation with compatible markets.

The two-page Pawpaw Orchard Calendar is a quick reference guide for annual maintenance, and the dates where you live may need to be as much as one month later in spring and one month earlier in fall. The resources section includes books, supplies, and groups, including Peaceful Heritage Nursery.

Blake has created a highly readable, enjoyable and very intensive exploration into the cultivation of North American pawpaw.” This book is practical, useful and fascinating.

Here’s a one-hour webinar from New Society Publishers:

Book Review: The Living Soil Handbook by Jesse Frost

Cover of The Living Soil Handbook by Jesse Frost

The Living Soil Handbook

The No-Till Grower’s Guide to Ecological Market Gardening, by Jesse Frost, Chelsea Green Publishers, July 2021. 304 pages, $29.95

Jesse Frost, the host of Farmer Jesse’s No-Till Market Garden Podcast, has now made a lovely how-to and why-to book for us. No longer do we need to imagine the pictures while listening to the podcasts! The book is generously illustrated with color photos, charts, and diagrams and also hand drawings by Jesse’s wife Hannah Crabtree. The text and photos make plain the experience behind the suggestions. A glance at the bibliography shows how deeply Jesse educated himself on soil biology, chemistry and physics – it’s a list of detailed articles, not a list of books. I was interviewed by Jesse’s collaborator Josh Sattin for Farmer Jesse’s podcast, in November 2019.

Jesse and Hannah farm at Rough Draft Farmstead in central Kentucky, winter hardiness zone 6b with 55” (140 cm) of annual rain on average. While writing the book, Hannah and Jesse moved farms, gaining road frontage for on-farm sales!

The book revolves on three basic principles of professional no-till market gardening: disturbing the soil as little as possible, keeping soil covered as much as possible, and keeping it planted as much as possible. The phrase “as possible” in each of the three principles remind us to be reasonable, and aware of the context. No-dogma is as important as no-soil-disturbance. Sometimes a short-term soil disturbance will ultimately create a healthier soil: you might need to incorporate compost or amendments, or break up compaction. We are not feeding the plants. Nor the soil. We are farming the micro-livestock.

Appendices include notes on cover crops (when to sow, what to pair each cover crop with and how to terminate it); valuable material on critical periods of competition (for weeds or interplanting); resources and chapter notes from world-wide sources.

The topics have been carefully teased apart and the chapters are digestible by busy farmers during the growing season. No need to wait until winter! There are things you can do in midseason to head in the direction of less tilling and more soil-nurturing.

The first section, “Disturb as Little as Possible” includes a fine primer on the science of living soil. (Now you can explain photosynthesis to an inquisitive child.) Don’t skip over this basic soil science. Understanding is the key to good stewardship. The carbon cycle includes plants absorbing carbon dioxide, making root exudates that stream out into the soil, where they feed microbes, which respire most of it back into the air. The plants are not sequestering carbon, as we might wistfully hope in these days of an overheating planet. They are cycling it. It is true that some of the carbon that plants pass into the soil does remain there, in the tissue and exoskeletons of dead organisms, especially when there is no tillage. Some carbon converts to a stable form holding soil particles together.

Most growers probably know that frequent rototilling damages the soil (especially at the same depth every time, or when the soil is too wet or too dry). Soil care can include disturbance of various human kinds. Silage tarps can cause compaction when they gather rain, snow or ice, and stay in place a long time. Microplastic particles can crumble off old tarps into the soil, where they can be eaten up by the microfauna. Polyethylene can prevent beneficial gas exchange between the soil and the air. The soil life also “disturbs” the soil, churning it. Be guided by your observations of your soil, not by a particular belief in a certain method.

The chapter on breaking new ground describes several ways to make a no-till garden from a lawn, pasture or old garden. Deal with any soil compaction up front, either mechanically, or with an extra growing season and big-rooted plants.

Start with the no-till methods Jesse and Hannah use most often. “Shallow compost mulching” involves keeping a 4” (10 cm) layer (not deeper) on bed surfaces year-round, topping up as needed. With a 4” layer, the roots can reach the soil quite soon. Their second preferred method is grown-in-place mulch. Terminate a thick stand of cover crop and plant into the mulch as soon as it has wilted down.

If you don’t need to till before starting your vegetables, you can mow at soil level, and cover with a tarp for two summer months or 3-5 winter months. If you are mowing in the fall, you could spread cardboard and compost to form the beds, then tarp everything until spring.

Silage tarps and plastic mulches can be particularly helpful during transition, to salvage beds when things go wrong, or as emergency tools when a mulch supply line collapses.

The second section, “Keep it Covered as Much as Possible”, discusses compost, mulch, cover crops, flipping beds (transitioning from one crop to the next) and path management.

Composts come in four types (recipes included):compost

  1. Inoculating composts are expensive, fine textured and biologically active. Vermicast (worm manure) is one example. Good for compost tea.
  2. Fertilizing composts such as composted poultry manure are fine textured nitrogen sources to use before planting.
  3. Nutritional composts supply organic matter, microbiology, nutrients, minerals, and ample amounts of carbonaceous material. They can be used in larger amounts.
  4. Mulching composts are high in carbon, maybe 20 C:1 N, and relatively low in nutrients.

Mulching retains moisture, prevents compaction, reduces weeds, provides habitat, provides foods for some creatures, and reduces the impact of heavy rain or heavy feet. Straw can be expensive. Hay gives better weed suppression, but may itself be a source of weed seed. Spoiled hay has fewer live seeds, comes at a better price, and is messier to spread. Hay is more nutritious for the soil than straw. You could solarize your hay bales for 3-8 weeks before spreading, to kill seeds.

Paper and cardboard give excellent occultation compared to loose straw and hay, and provide an effective mulch with less depth (easier for transplanting into).

Wood chips, sawdust and bark mulch can sometimes be free, from workers clearing under power lines. Tree leaves and leaf mold are nutritious materials for mulch or in compost. Cover crops may be mowed or crimped to kill them, usually leaving them in place as a newly-dead mulch.

Peat moss is controversial. Peat bogs are very effective carbon sequestering habitats, and based on this, we should not use peat without restoring the bogs. Coconut coir is sometimes used as an alternative to peat moss, but we are mining the thin tropical soils when we import it.

Plastic mulches stop weeds, warm the soil, and conserve moisture. Landscape fabric is durable, and some growers burn holes for transplanting certain crops, and reuse it many times. Organic regulations require plastic mulch to be taken up at the end of the growing season, and they do not accept biodegradable plastic mulches.

Jesse Frost

Chapter Five is about flipping beds (replacing one crop with the next). Chopping plants off at the surface and/or tarping are two main no-till methods.

Jesse provides a valuable table of no-till crop termination methods for 48 vegetables and herbs. Whenever possible, leave the crop roots in the soil. Some can be cut at the surface (lettuce, baby greens, cucurbits and nightshades), some need to be cut slightly below the surface (brassicas, beans, corn, spinach and chard) and most others are harvested as root crops. Roots are a valuable source of carbon and root exudates, and help air and water pass through the soil.

Flail mowers, weed whackers (with a bush blade rather than a nylon line), scythes, hoes and knives can all be used to cut down old crops, depending on the particulars. When a crop is terrminated, deal with soil compaction if needed, amend the soil, keep it damp, get mulch in place, and replant the same day if you can, to help preserve microbes. If the previous crop was a cover crop, your fertility is supplied by that, and no more amendments are likely needed.

Tarping (introduced into English by Jean-Martin Fortier as “occultation”) is an effective no-till method. Silage tarps can kill crop residues, warm the soil and germinate weed seeds, which then die in the dark. Prepare an area by mowing it close – it is important that the tarp is in close contact with the soil, to break the plant matter down quickly. Tarps need to be well battened down. Jesse tells us that 2600 square feet (242 m2) is about as big a piece as any one person will want to move.  Say, a 25 x 100ft (8 x 30 m) piece.

Leave tarps in place for two summer weeks, 3-4 weeks in spring and fall, and two months or more in winter. Avoid PVC tarps (contain endocrine-disrupting phthalates), be wary of polyethylene (may contain phthalates), but woven landscape fabrics are made from polypropylene, which does not contain phthalates.

Solarizing is a similar technique using clear plastic to heat the soil, kill weed seeds, disease organisms and crop residues. Bryan O’Hara in No-Till Intensive Vegetable Culture has popularized using old hoophouse plastic. Solarizing can produce temperatures of 125˚F (50˚C) compared with 110˚F (43˚C) under tarps. You may need only 1-3 sunny days to kill crop residues with solarization. Cover crops take about 7 days. The heat will not go deep in that time: more of the soil life will survive than with tarping. Good edge securing is vital for success.

The necessary (but less profitable) task of path management is next. The goal is to make pathways do work, retaining moisture, housing microbes, and generally contributing to a healthy environment. The first priority is to get rid of weeds.

Wood chips and sawdust can perform well as path mulches. Sawdust mats down into an effective weed-preventing layer, and 2” (5 cm) is often enough. Get sawdust in place ahead of leafy greens, so that it doesn’t blow into the crop.

Living pathways sound wonderful, but can be very challenging, and it’s best to start with a small trial. Choose a non-spreading grass or a mix of clovers, grasses and herbs. Mow every week until the path plants stop growing.

Another option is to grow cover crops in the paths, mow-kill or winter-kill them and leave the mulch in place. Timing is critical. The crop needs to be planted and harvested either before the cover cop grows very tall or after it is dead.

Section three, “Keep it Planted as Much as Possible” has three chapters: fertility management, transplanting and interplanting, and a gallery of no-till crops, pulling together various materials and methods.

Test soil organic matter each year. Jesse points out that although organic matter is largely dead organic materials, a truly living soil must contain a fair amount of it! 5-10% OM is a healthy percentage; more is not better. OM above 12% can cause water retention problems and poor aggregation. Seedlings can struggle to germinate and establish.

You can improve soil performance with compost, mulches, cover crops, gypsum for clay soils, and cultivated indigenous microorganisms (as in Korean Natural Farming). Use good inoculating compost or compost tea in the root zone. Microbes aggregate the soil into various sizes of crumbs, improving the soil structure.

Be careful using perennial cover crops as living mulch around cash crops – the yield is almost always reduced, and sometimes the quality is compromised too.

If you are running a compact commercial market garden, growing cover crops may be out of the question, and you will rely on outside inputs. With a slightly bigger plot you can grow cover crops before long-season food crops, and use outside inputs for intensive short-term crops. Larger farms may find cover cropping more efficient than large-scale mulching. Winter-kill, classically with oats and spring peas sown in late summer, will provide a light mulch for early spring crops.

Cover crops can be terminated by crimping at the milk stage and tarping. Jesse shows a crimping tool made from a bed-width board with a foot-sized metal hoop at each end and a string or rod as a handle. This is a variation on the T-post tool advocated by Daniel Mays in The No-Till Organic Vegetable Farm.

Crimping and tarping gives more flexibility on timing than does crimping alone. Crimping and solarizing can be even quicker. Crimping or mowing, then topping with cardboard and mulch compost is another method, if you have sufficient supplies. Plant a shallow-rooted crop in the compost layer, don’t bust through the cardboard unless you have let the cover crop die for a few days before covering.

For side-dressing long-season crops, Jesse uses the EarthWay seeder with the pea plate. This never occurred to me! Another surprise suggestion was to use silage tarps white side up, to germinate carrots in the summer! Check daily, and remove the tarp late in the day to save the tender seedlings from frying in the mid-day sun.

Interplanting is best approached cautiously, with small trials and good notetaking. Interplanting can cause lower yields and poorer plant health when combinations and timing are wrong. Measure yields and weigh the costs and benefits. Popping lettuces into random lettuce-sized gaps rarely goes wrong, and you might keep a tray of lettuce transplants handy at all times.

Peppers take 60-70 days before bringing in any money. If you plant an understory of lettuce, you can generate income much sooner, and the lettuce will be gone before the peppers need the space. Growing two crops together reduces the impact of a crop failure, and makes unprofitable crops more worthwhile.

Read about the critical period of weed control, when crops are most affected by competition from weeds, sister seedlings or an intercrop. Like other good mentors, Jesse is quite open about his mistakes. Don’t confuse tall plants with healthy high-yielding plants! They may be striving for better light. Seedlings suffer more than transplants from being out-shaded. Transplants are past perhaps half of their critical weed-free period before you even set them out.

Relay cropping is a method of adding in another crop after the first is established but before it is harvested. A sure-fire way of keeping living roots in the ground! With careful planning you can sometimes run a multi-crop relay sequence.

To implant these ideas firmly in our minds, Jesse discusses seven example crops, including varieties, seed quantities, bed prep, weed control, seeder, spacing, pest control, harvest, yield, intercrops, marketing, tips, and notable failures (no need to make the same mistakes!). The examples (carrots, arugula, garlic, lettuce, sweet potatoes, beets, and cherry tomatoes) can be extrapolated for almost anything else. I took notes: there’s always good tips to be learned from other growers. Buy the book, you’ll quickly save the price! And more of your growing can succeed!

I originally wrote this review for the upcoming June/July 2021 issue of Growing for Market magazine.

Book Review: Greenhorns: The Next Generation of American Farmers

Greenhorns

Book Review: Greenhorns: The Next Generation of American Farmers

Edited by Zoë Ida Bradbury, Severine von Tscharner Fleming and Paula Manalo, Storey Publishers, 2012. 250 pages, $14.95.

This book isn’t new but deserves much more attention. It’s a collection of short pieces by farmers about things they learned as new farmers that they want to pass on, to save newbies (greenhorns) making those mistakes. Because it is personal anecdotes, this is easy to read, despite the seriousness. Greenhorns presents thought-provoking material, so you can usefully read one piece in a spare minute, and then think about it while you do a routine task. It’s a good companion volume to the more technical books on starting to farm.

There are fifty different short pieces, clustered into topics such as Money, Land, Body/Heart/Soul, Purpose, Beasts, Nuts & Bolts, Ninja Tactics, Old Neighbors, New Community. The resource section is a tad old, but still contains good stuff.

This book is written for the people who are willing to “jump high hurdles and work long hours to build a solid business” around the love of farming. Severine quotes Thomas Edison “Opportunity is missed by many because it is dressed in overalls and looks like work.”

Some of the messages are encouraging: you will get stronger with practice using a hoe and working outdoors all day, and you can learn diligence, courage and resilience. Don’t expect to be perfect from day one! Especially if you are making the big transition from an urban, less physically-active lifestyle. On small budgets of money and time, it is important to take care of your health, including sanity.

You do not need to struggle alone! Look for opportunities such as incubator farms, where experienced farmers are nearby as mentors, and you rent land, greenhouse space and some equipment. “I laugh every time I stop with a hoe in my hand to text the other farmers to see if a tractor is free”, says Meg Runyan. Beginner farmer programs are another source of support.

Some of the stories act as reality checks, including this from Jeff Fisher: “Cut, cracked, and bleeding fingers are just the start of the physical hardships of farming.” “At the end of each day I was left with aches, pains, cuts, cracks, blisters, infections, stings and sprains.” Not all of those, every day, I want to add! Farming is a very physical lifestyle, so invest in maintaining and strengthening your body for a long career.

“I feel so alone sometimes. It’s overwhelming to have every decision weigh on me. . . Why did I choose to farm alone? I just wish I had some company. Frustrated and full of self-pity, I finish the lettuce in a huff. . . As I work, my tantrum begins to subside.”

You need a sturdy sense of your own worth. How will you deal with a potential customer complaining about your prices (and by implication down-valuing your work? Will you get defensive? Crumple into tears? Go on at length about your own self-doubts? Admit you are new and slower than an experienced farmer? Such issues can lead to Imposter Syndrome (chronic self-doubt despite external proof of your competence).

It can be helpful to learn how to reframe a situation and celebrate the half-full glass. Learn to appreciate rural life. Learn to make friends with neighboring farmers, for what you share in common, setting aside the differences. Listen to their advice, accept offers of help when you can. Build community, a wealth of human connections. How important is it to you to look different? As Vince Booth points out, “This project of finding common ground with people who voice conservative ideals would be a lot more daunting if our agrarianism wasn’t an honest attempt to embody the most fundamental of conservative tenets: There are limits to everything. Given that, I believe local farming can be a rallying point for those on the left and those on the right . . .”

Josh Morgenthau shares his realization that reality can crowd out the ideals (which are the root of the disdain some farmers have for the organic movement). He grew fruit without chemical sprays, but was he prepared to lose his whole crop and go out of business rather than spray? How great a benefit to humanity would that be? “Even from an environmental point of view, running tractors, fertilizing with organic fertilizer, and putting untold other resources, human and otherwise, into growing an organic crop, only to lose it on principle. . . well, that just didn’t seem reasonable.” “Getting today’s customers to accept apples that bear more physical resemblance to potatoes than to fruit turns out to be even more challenging than is growing them organically in the first place.”

Those with romantic notions about working with horses will find Alyssa Jumars’ story sobering. Ignorant bliss, obstinacy, passion and ambition are not the way to go. She learned that they had unwittingly taught their draft horses to throw a fit or act terrified, so the people would take away the work, talk soothingly and stroke their necks. This big problem split apart the farm partnership.

Editor Paula Manalo

Some of the tales are cautionary. Teresa Retzlaff and her partner leased farm land from very nice people they knew. “Be sure to put everything you are agreeing to in writing. Be explicit. Then have both a lawyer and a therapist listen as everyone involved explains exactly what is being agreed to. And still have a backup plan in case it all goes to hell.” She doesn’t cast blame or say anything nasty, but clearly she speaks from experience.

Be realistic about your finances, consider loans and debts carefully. Have a backup plan, and regularly compare your daily realities with where you need to be financially. Don’t dig deeper into a hole. You’ll be putting your hearts, souls, energy, time, family and livelihood on the line when you take out a loan. Don’t rush to own and lose sight of your actual goal of farming. Bare land with no infrastructure is going to be hard to wrest a living from if you have no money left over for building the farm!

Luke Deikis advises walking the land before sitting down to discuss details with sellers (saves time drinking unnecessary cups of tea!) Even better, get a map and do a drive by before scheduling a meeting!

Ben Swimm writes about losing tools as part of a chaotic spiral that’s especially dangerous for new farmers. It’s connected with being over-ambitious, spreading yourself too thin, getting flustered and disorganized. This can lead downwards to a state of demoralization. Adding to the challenge is the seasonal nature of farming. It gets too late to fix a problem this year – you need to move on from this year’s mess and do something different next year. Triage is as valuable in farming as in hospitals.

Sarah Smith writes about farming while raising two young children. As a farmer-mama, “there are no vacations, Saturday gymnastics classes, or afternoons at the playground.” Sure, the kids thrive in the outdoor air, learn math making change at market, and develop good social skills by being around so many different people, but “on many days, all this comes at a cost to our family.” Being a farmer and a mama are both full-time jobs and among the most difficult in the world.

Evan Driscoll combined an unpaid 20 hour-a-week farming internship, 40 hours a week earning money, and childcare. He thought that was reasonable, on his way to becoming a farm owner. He hadn’t realized that having his partner in law school meant he’d be the primary caretaker for their child. That’s definitely something to clarify before you get too far down the road.

Maud Powell was shocked to find herself in the conventional women’s role on her farm, after her children were born, while her husband did the fieldwork. The couple apprenticed on a farm together, doing all the types of work interchangeably. She imagined continuing this way on their own farm after her first child was born: farming with the baby strapped to her back. Like many pre-parents, she underestimated the amount of energy and time breastfeeding and childcare would take. She also underestimated the love and devotion she would feel for her child, and how her focus would move from farming to mothering, and taking care of the household.

After her second child was born, her struggle continued. For efficiency in their time-strapped lives, they let their gender roles become more entrenched. This changed when they started growing seed crops. Preserving the fruits that contained the seeds increased the value of the kitchen work. Maud later branched out into community organizing around shared seed cleaning equipment, farm internships, and a multi-farm CSA. She became the one “going out to work” while her husband stayed home on the farm.

Farming includes many aspects we cannot control, including the sometimes devastating weather. Unexpected frosts, floods, hurricanes. As farm-workers, we learn to work outdoors, where the weather is a matter of personal comfort. But it is only as farm-owners that the weather affects our livelihood. We learn to do our best to prepare where we can, surrender when we must, and pick and up and rebuild afterwards.

Editor Severine von Tscharner Fleming

Kristen Johansen says, after Hurricane Ike destroyed their chicken housing in the night, “It was our first year farming, and the learning curve was steeper than you can imagine. It was demanding, stressful, frustrating, exhausting, dirty and beautiful at the same time. When we took the leap into farming, overnight we became responsible for several hundred tiny little lives, and the weight of that responsibility was heavy.”

Climate change is undeniable; we must develop resilience. Ginger Salkowski says, “A successful new farmer in today’s (and tomorrow’s) climate has to have a serious package of skills. You have to be able to live with less. . . get very creative with very little money and time in order to make your season happen. You have to thrive on uncertainty. . . You need to be strong in body. . . You must be strong in mind . . . You must be strong in spirit: In times of high stress, there is grace to be found in pausing to observe the first sweet-pea blossom . . .”

Farming is mostly an exercise in managing chaos, as Courtney Lowery Cowgill points out. She shares her twin defeat of seeds that would not germinate and a hoped-for pregnancy that wasn’t happening. Proactive people make good farmers, and yet we must remember we can’t make everything turn out the way we want. We must learn not to blame ourselves for things we could not control or predict. While also getting better at predicting. “Farming in an ecologically responsible way involves good timing, and when we need to get something done, we git ‘er done!” (Paula Manalo)

Some of the stories describe unconventional (risky) ideas that helped the farmers get through a tough patch, like using a credit card with a year of zero percent interest rate to finance the first year of farming! Or getting a farm loan that didn’t allow for earning any off-farm money (very hard while starting up), followed (when that didn’t work out and they had to get off-farm jobs) by a home loan that didn’t allow any farming! “The irony of having to quit farming so we could finally get a loan to buy the land . . . was made even harder to swallow when we had to provide written assurance to the lenders . . . that although we had indeed spent five years running a ‘hobby farm’ we . . . now had nice safe real jobs, and only wanted to buy eighteen acres of land zoned agriculture-forestry so we could continue to live a ‘rural lifestyle’” “I can’t say I recommend lying to your bank as a road to farm ownership.”

Don’t feel a failure if you need some off-farm income to make the good life good enough. It doesn’t make your farming any less “real”! Casey O’Leary surveyed neighboring farmers and found she was not alone in needing some off-farm income. There is no shame in doing paid landscaping work two days a week to fill the financial gap. By embracing the part-time nature of your farm, you may be able to increase your dollar per hour, as Casey discovered. Focus on the best-paying farming and walk away at the end of the day. “My relationships with my lover, friends, and family have improved because of my ability to keep my farm in a part-time box.”

Editor Zoe Ida Bradbury

Some passages are about why we farm. If your goal is to grow nourishing food with and for those with limited access, while also meeting your own needs to farm full-time, then don’t focus on making money from farming. Find other sources to support your financial needs. Douglass Decandia had a dream of this sort, and found paid work with a Food Bank. “Most of us don’t need to search for meaning in our lives, because we see it every day. Thankfully, the work itself propels us on to the next task.” (Tanya Tolchin)

Jenna Woginrich is an office worker by day and “a farmer by passion”. She attributes her happiness and success to two things: “I always believed I would (not could, not might, but would. 2. And because I wrote it all down.” Only 2% of people with goals write them down, but of that 2%, 90% achieved their dream.

Emily Oakley and Mike Appel write about their decision to run their 100 member CSA of 50 crops on five acres, with just the two of them. It’s their full time job, and they designed their farm to fit this preference. Their goal is to be as small as possible while still making a living. What a refreshing perspective! Bigger means more responsibilities, more worries, and not necessarily more money. Their farm can be smaller because they are not paying anyone’s wages. Why pay for more land just so you can grow more food, so you can pay employees? Staying small also meant they can have an off-season break. The limitations are that there are no sick days; it can get lonely; it can put strains on the relationship.

Farming may not be easy, but it sure isn’t boring. Sustainable farming includes some pioneer spirit and also giving back/paying forward. Respecting other farmers, customers, neighbors. Mentoring newer farmers, sharing tools.

Some stories share the magic and the sense of connection with past farmers. Sarajane Snyder says: “Farmers, understand what you’re doing in the context of inter-connectedness, of caring for multitudes of beings. Take refuge in the care you are generating and the sustenance you are providing, for humans and bees and microorganisms, for gophers and spiders. Our dirty work is good work.”

Ben James describes the day he realized the rusty spots on the right fender of the John Deere he’d recently bought were caused by the palm and fingertips of the previous owner twisting in the seat to see the row behind the tractor. He shares his realization that “Time on the farm is not static, it’s not a given. It’s not like a ladder with all the rungs evenly spaced. Rather it’s a substance, a material we try to manipulate just as much as we do the tilth and fertility of the soil. How many tomatoes can we harvest before the lightning storm arrives?”

Jen Griffith writes about watching the sunset towards the end of her year as an apprentice living in a tent, watching a great blue heron twenty feet away, swallow a gopher whole.

Don’t miss the bonus flip-book in the bottom right page corners. Watch the seed germinate and grow. Use it to distract that young child while you do your accounting! Or for yourself to wind down and cheer up after a hard day.

Watch a YouTube book trailer here:

https://www.storey.com/books/greenhorns/

Book Review: The Comic Book Guide to Growing Food

Book Review: The Comic Book Guide to Growing Food: Step-by-Step Vegetable Gardening for Everyone

Joseph Tychonievich and Liz Anna Kozik, Ten Speed Press, 2021. 90 pages, color throughout, $19.99 paperback, $12.99 Kindle.

This is the first time I’ve reviewed a comic book, and it makes a refreshing change from my usual (less comic) gardening and farming reading. This small book, with text by Joseph Tychonievich and drawings by Liz Anna Kozik, is a delight. The art is wonderfully clear and realistic, even though they are not botanical drawings. The page of seven herbs makes them all distinguishable. The characters have character, keeping the reader engaged with the plot (oh, not a deliberate pun!)

This will be a great book for new gardeners (of whom there are acres, as a result of Covid-19). It will also particularly help recovering failed gardeners get a fresh, more successful start. It is perfect for visual learners, gardeners with English not their first language, and young gardeners. I have a gardening friend who says her teenager reads only graphic novels and she hopes this book will lead him to do more gardening, more enthusiastically!

It is easy to read/look at, entertaining and accurate (therefore helpful). The breezy, friendly conversations between the fictional characters, young novice gardener Mia (who writes code as a day job) and retired neighbor George, show a great example of food-growing (and computer help) as mutual aid. Gardening as a step to a more peaceful and productive future.

The book covers location, choosing crops, timing, soil testing, bed prep, buying plants, starting seeds, planting in the garden or in containers, and maintenance. This is followed by troubleshooting, harvesting, celebrating, and a “Cheat sheet of cheat sheets” and further reading. The cheat sheets throughout step us aside from the story to dive into some aspect more deeply. Come back to those when you need them.

Mia is savvy about technology, finding a compass app or a last frost date when she needs it. George has the gardening experience to share, including his ever-changing Rule #1! (Grow what you like to eat. Grow what’s easy to grow. Always grow herbs. Grow flowers. Get a soil test.)

Important points are included, such as even though organic fertilizer is best, using too much is a bad thing. Check for lead in city soils and if you find it, garden elsewhere (community garden?), grow vegetables in containers of bought-in soil, or grow flowers, not food. Why is Swiss chard easier to grow than spinach? Do you actually like radishes?

Packed in this little book, you will find how to build raised beds, how to mulch, how to choose healthy plants to buy, which crops do better from seed, the most important bugs to watch out for and more. Joseph the writer has been gardening most of his life, and Liz Anna the artist clearly knows her vegetables too.

Pages from the Comic Book Guide to Growing Food. Art by Liz Anna Kozic. Text by Joseph Tychonievich

What is missing that I would have included? Making compost (can be an issue in city gardens, I know); more about choosing seed varieties in stores, catalogs or online; sowing seeds (like carrots) in rows rather than individual holes.

What is included that I would not have thought of? Root-pruning bought plants to encourage good outward growth. A flow chart of whether or not to water that day. Ideas for garden party snacks! The value of a smartphone as a gardening tool!

This is a real book – it has an index! (Some of my readers may know I live with people who index books, and the index is a better way to judge a book than the cover!)

Yes, this book works as a guide for new vegetable gardeners, and right now when you can’t garden with your neighbor physically at your side, this could be the next best thing. It packs a lot in a small space, which is probably what most of the readers are also hoping to do in their gardens!

For sure, the topics are simplified, but the most important bits are all there, including plenty of cautions to help prevent common mistakes, and make it more likely that readers will continue to garden and learn in the future. There are a few resources listed at the end, useful pointers of where to turn when this book can’t get into enough details, or you’ve found a bug that the authors don’t include. This book and a smartphone will help you start growing your own food successfully.


I wrote an earlier version of this review for the Comics Journal.

Joseph Tychonievich
Liz Anna Kozic

Book Review: The Chinese Greenhouse, Dan Chiras

Book Review: The Chinese Greenhouse: Design and Build a Low-Cost, Passive Solar Greenhouse, Dan Chiras

New Society Publishers, 2021. 230 pages, color photos and diagrams throughout, $34.99.

I have been eagerly awaiting this book, after attending several of Dan Chiras’ workshops where he talked about the evolution of Chinese Greenhouses. This is a next step for those of us thrilled with what we can grow in a passive solar hoophouse. As we harvest our abundant winter greens, we might ponder “What if it were possible to grow warm weather crops in winter without fossil fuels, given a careful greenhouse design with attention to insulation and so on?” The Chinese Greenhouse provides the answers, design and construction tips for pioneers in this new kind of greenhouse. Don’t reinvent the wheel – get this book and learn from those who have gone before.

Chinese Greenhouses are not readily available off the shelf, and are best designed to suit the particular site. This book tells you, step-by-step, how to build your own. Naturally, building one of these high-performing structures is more work than putting up a standard hoophouse (high tunnel), but once you have put up one of those, you might be ready for more challenge (and rewards).

Chinese greenhouses are solar-heated, earth-sheltered, well-insulated, plastic-glazed structures, using heat-banking, and shaded and curtained when appropriate. They are always oriented with a long side facing the sun. In the winter, this allows maximum (low-angle) sun exposure. In the summer, the high arc of the midday sun goes over the roof, and crops don’t get baked. The energy-intelligent design reduces your carbon footprint and saves you from future fuel bills, or imported vegetables.

Dan identifies six design problems with standard greenhouses that are solved with Chinese greenhouses. If you have a standard greenhouse, you can modify it to reduce the impact of the short-comings, by adding water for heat storage, using compost as a heat source, or storing pumped hot air in pipes in the soil. Dan Chiras has tried some of those. Also see The Bio-Integrated Farm by Shawn Jadrnicek. Or you can keep your existing hoophouse for growing winter greens, and put up a Chinese greenhouse for winter tomatoes and citrus trees.

Enclosing the north (south in southern hemisphere) side in the ground (which is 50-55°F (10-13°C) below the frost line year-round) is an important feature of these Chinese greenhouses, helping stabilize the temperature. To grow warm weather crops you need to maintain a greenhouse minimum temperature of 40-50°F (4-10°C). These crops may survive lower temperatures, but they will not thrive or be productive.

A Chinese greenhouse with metal roof trusses and a heat-banking back wall. A path by the wall gives access for harvesting and tending to plants. Photo by Dr. Sanjun Gu, courtesy of Dan Chiras

Dan Chiras met Dr Sanjun Gu, a world authority on Chinese Greenhouses, in Iowa in 2014, and gathered the available information (it wasn’t much, most was in Dr Gu’s slides!). Chinese greenhouses emerged in the mid-1980s, as a way to feed the expanding population. There have been three generations of such greenhouses, and traditional materials such as bamboo posts and external straw mat night curtains have now been replaced by easier-to-use modern materials. The first generation Chinese greenhouses had a bowed roof framing of bamboo poles in a mesh of tensioned steel wires. This framing was supported by many posts, and plastic sheeting was stretched over the top. At night, straw matting was unrolled on top of the roof (effective but labor-intensive). The second generation design reduced the number of posts supporting the roof, allowing the use of small machinery to till the soil. Third generation Chinese greenhouses don’t need posts at all, but have curved steel roof trusses (bows).

Newer models have replaced the straw matting on the outside with synthetic insulated blankets, or with reflective curtains on the inside of the roof, and replaced the hours of manual adjustments with mechanization. There are now billions of acres of these greenhouses in China. About one-third of Beijing’s winter vegetables are grown in greenhouses (I’m unclear if that’s one third of all their vegetables, or one third of warm weather crops.)

Dan has logged winter indoor and outdoor temperatures at his home-built modified Chinese greenhouse in Missouri, and found an indoor minimum of 48°F (9°C) with outdoor temperatures of -10°F (-23°C) for the first two winters. One feature of this book that especially appeals to me is that Dan describes the pros and cons of multiple options for achieving various goals – thermal mass, insulation, glazing, trusses – no need for expensive mistakes!

To build your Chinese greenhouse, you first need to choose a site, excavate it and take steps to prevent water leaking into your greenhouse. Yes, you really do need to earth-shelter your Chinese greenhouse, unless you are in the southern tier of the United States. While you are planning your excavation, consider the options of geo-thermal heating/cooling tubes, or tubing to take excess hot air from the greenhouse and store it in the earth berm until winter.

Check the slope of your land and draw a scale plan to make sure it will work. The perfect slope is 20° south, but anywhere between 10° and 30° will work. It partly depends on the height you want inside. You can also import soil if you need more than your excavation will provide. Stake out the site, using a compass to get the best orientation, correcting for magnetic declination (it’s all in the book). Ensure you are not excavating in a natural drainage path – observe the path of heavy rainfall or snowmelt. Look for subsurface springs or seeps. Look for wet areas in spring. You don’t want to have to incorporate a “water feature” in your new greenhouse! Perhaps consult a water engineer or locally experienced excavator. If necessary, construct swales uphill from your site, to divert water away from your greenhouse. Details of these and various drainage possibilities are in the book.

Dan recommends renting a skid steer loader with tracks rather than tires, or a small excavator. Keep the topsoil and subsoil separate, and covered if it might rain before you finish. Get seed on hand to sow on the berm as soon as possible after creating it, and/or transplant native ground cover plants.

If you really can’t do earth-sheltering, you can compensate to some extent in an above-ground greenhouse by adding lots of thermal mass in the floors and walls. I have some mixed feelings about the use of interior thermal mass. In the 1970’s there were greenhouse books advocating so many barrels of water to store heat, that there was little space left to grow plants!

After completing the excavation you can start incorporating heat-absorbing dark colored thermal mass in the floor and back wall, up to the optimal 4” (10 cm) thick, to store heat gained during sunny days. Dan discusses several possible materials: poured concrete, bricks, flagstones, soil-cement, cement blocks, bin blocks, adobe, cob and rammed earth. How’s that for a thorough review of options? Beware earthen materials that can disintegrate in a damp environment (you can’t use them underground). An adobe, stone or blockwork north wall works. Be aware of all the ecological pluses and minuses of concrete. Bin blocks are large concrete blocks made by concrete contractors when emptying out returning concrete mixers. The price is good! Paying for transportation is expensive! The smallest ones weigh half a ton, so you’ll need at least a tractor with a bucket, if not a crane, to stack them.

If this sounds like a lot of work and you start thinking about installing a wood stove instead, Dan invites you to think again: wood heat is “the black sheep of the renewable energy field.” Burning wood produces carbon dioxide, contributing to global warming. It also produces toxins such as sulfur and nitrogen oxide gases, which form acid rain. And particulates that irritate lungs.

Author Dan Chiras.
Photo Dan Chiras and New Society Publishers

The next group of decisions is about wall framing and glazing. Will your framework be curved or in flat planes? Only some kinds of glazing curve, so figure these two items out together. Soil is not a good insulator, as many people wrongly assume. The water in the soil conducts heat, so it is important to insulate the north wall, north roof, and the east and west ends.  You’ll need deep walls with space for R-40 to R-50 insulation. Dan discusses options: loose-fill cellulose and fiberglass; batts of fiberglass, rock wool and cotton; rigid foam sheets of polystyrene, polyisocyanurate, and mineral wool board; liquid foams like Icynene and Air Krete. He recommends loose-fill cellulose, which is made from old newspapers.

Framework options include traditional lumber, home-made or purchased laminated wood rafters (straight or arched), steel tubing (round or square), or metal trusses. There are photos and tips for each of these. Be sure to consult a structural engineer or architect to ensure your roof will support the snow and wind loading that you might experience in your location. While tubing is adequate for smaller greenhouses, steel trusses are stronger and advised for wider greenhouses.

If you are using standard lumber and vertical walls, you will need to carefully determine the roof angle giving the best light transmission without too much summer heat gain. Light hitting the glazing at small angles will reflect rather than pass through. The rule of thumb is to add 20° to your latitude to get the ideal roof angle for maximum winter sun transmission. I found this particular sidebar confusing, but happily, I don’t need to know right now. Dan recommends a lower sloped roof than the calculation suggests, perhaps 30°.

Options for glazing include glass, ETFE, rigid polycarbonate, poly reinforced polyethylene sheeting, and polyethylene film. Light transmission ranges from 75-95%, but light transmission is not all we care about. Plants can do better with light diffused through translucent materials, bouncing around at all angles rather than beaming straight in. Glass is fragile and expensive.

The price of the plastics starts with a high for ETFE (ethylene tetrafluoroethylene), For most of us, this is outside the budget: $9,000 for a 20 ft (6 m) greenhouse. Sell 7,000 bags of lettuce to pay for it! Double-wall acrylic is another very pricey option, with very pricey shipping costs. Solawrap looks like bubble-wrap on steroids, provides some insulation (R-1.7) It is sold in rolls the width of the gap between bows (or rafters). A roll 4’ x 328’ (1.2 x 100 m) costs about $2,200 plus shipping. Polycarbonate has channels of air providing some insulation. The price is lower than Solawrap, but the special hardware adds to the cost. Poly reinforced polyethylene (PRP) resembles rip-stop fabric used for outdoor gear, with a reinforcing mesh embedded in it. It comes with a ten-year UV warranty. Avoid wearing holes in your PRP by fitting it snugly after duct-taping any hardware that will contact the sheeting. The price is one-tenth that of Solawrap (but it provides no insulation). Standard 6 mil greenhouse poly is much cheaper, and using two layers with an inflated air space provides some insulation. You’ll need to replace the plastic every 5-7 years.

Watch this YouTube of Dan Chiras talking about the Chinese Greenhouse

To reduce heat losses through the glazing at night, install a blanket. White shadecloth resting on plastic-coated cables or laundry line works well. Aluminet and Tempa Interior Climate Screen work even better as heat reflectors, keeping heat out in summer, in during the winter. Radiant heat barriers can be used on the inside surfaces of roofs and walls to reflect heat back. One kind is a shiny aluminized sheet with a scrim backing, another kind is reflective bubble wrap.

The next part of the book explains ways to improve on the performance of Chinese greenhouses, to consider before you start. Use the excess heat on sunny winter days to mitigate the cold night temperature. Hot air from the top of the greenhouse can be pumped into porous pipes running through an in-floor storage medium such as a bed of gravel. You can wire thermostatically-controlled low-wattage DC fans directly to 50-watt photovoltaic modules, without batteries. When the sun shines, the fans operate. Having air movement in a greenhouse is helpful in managing fungal diseases and bugs, even when it isn’t banking heat. And bringing hot damp air through a gravel bed allows condensation to form in the gravel bed, effectively reducing the humidity of the air above.

Seasonal heat banking is designed to store excess heat from the summer to use in the winter. The usual method is to construct a large heat exchanger, composed of lots of plastic pipe deep underneath the greenhouse. Underground heat at 7 m (23 ft) deep moves through the soil by conduction at a rate of 1 m (3.3 feet) per month. Another method (without pipework) is to install a skirt of rigid board insulation just underground, all around the building to 20 feet (6 m) out. This catches the heat escaping from the building as well as that coming up from deeper in the earth.

I’m going to slide right over the details of designing and building heat bank systems. They involve pumps capable of providing five air changes per hour, thermostats, fans, piping sufficient to allow an airflow rate of 5 feet (1.5 m) per second – that’s 3 mph! Before installing any expensive heat banking and recovery systems, talk with people already using such a system. Once you have literally sunk a lot of money underground, it is very expensive to change. “If you get it right, you should be able to create a structure whose internal temperature in the winter is a heart-warming 35-40 F higher than ambient temperatures.” And pleasant summers too.

Next we have a chapter on minimizing summertime heat gain. One aspect is the roof angle, which we already looked at. A design that works at one latitude won’t be as good at a location with different sun angles. You can shade, vent and (if not in a humid climate) mist, in order to cool the space. That should provide for an extended period of summer use, if not the whole of the summer. Your cooling efforts might need to be moderated by your bug-excluding efforts. You could build a pond (10-15 feet (3-5 m) deep) with cooling loops of pipe. That’s one improvement you can add after construction, adding a fan to spread the cooled air inside.

Next there is info about supplementing the lighting with LEDs, for cloudy areas, or if you are growing commercially. There are explanations about different wavelengths of light, which ones plants use, and in what proportions (65% red, 15% blue, 20% green), and about total PAR, photosynthetically active radiation, the proportion reaching your plants, and the varying PAR requirement at different stages of plant growth. Another consideration is the total amount of light the plants receive each day (the daily light integral).

The final chapter of the book is Dan’s illustrated description of building his Chinese greenhouse in Missouri. His goals are to be cost-effective and environmentally friendly. For simplicity, Dan chose a lumber vertical south wall and sloped (not arched) roof, a departure from the usual curved Chinese greenhouse look. It appears to be about 21 ft long and 30 ft wide/deep. He used 3ft x 16ft (1 m x 5 m) polycarbonate roofing sheets, with plastic H-profile connector strips.

Dan does not gloss over the problems he and his band of helpers met during the 2-3 years spent building his greenhouse. His site was only slightly sloped, so he needed to dig down till he hit bedrock at 6 ft (2 m), then build up and import topsoil to complete the berm. His greenhouse uses rammed earth-filled tires (two summers of work). This is a labor-intensive method, physically draining. Think twice. You’ll need sturdy friends to help you. Even Dan says he would make a different choice if he had it to do over.

There are photos of the gravel footings, the underground pipework, the thermal mass north side and end walls and their insulation, concrete foundations, the Herculean rammed earth tire walls, earth cooling tubes, L-bolts to anchor the tire walls to the sill plate for the glazing, waterproof membranes for the walls that will be in the ground, framing, roofing, and glazing. Keep the chickens from pecking your cob infill, the new berm, suitable groundcover plants, and foam insulation board! Finally a photo of the first plateful of spinach!

Dan ends the book with two of his newest ideas – wind scoops and a methane digester. Of course, all these engineering tweaks won’t help if you’re not a good plantsperson to start with, so you might brush up those skills too, with a different book.

Remember, these are the pioneering days for Chinese greenhouse builders and growers. Not everything has been figured out, especially for locations very different from China or Missouri. You can’t buy exactly what you need “off the shelf”. You have to figure out some things for yourself. Some ideas in this book are untested. Don’t take anyone else’s ideas as the perfect solution, This book would have benefited from a bit tighter editing to remove a few slip-ups. Growing warm weather crops in winter, without fossil fuels, in countries outside sub-tropical zones is a goal worth working for.

Book Review: The No-Till Organic Vegetable Farm, Daniel Mays

Book Review: The No-Till Organic Vegetable Farm: How to Start and Run a Profitable Market Garden That Builds Health in Soil, Crops, and Communities 

Daniel Mays, Storey Publishers, 2020. 230 pages, color photos throughout, $24.95.

The No-Till Organic Vegetable Farm is a great help to those moving towards more No-Till. This book is full of practical details, and efficient and effective no-till practices, such as how to manage large tarps. This is also a beautiful book. The photos are crisp and inspiring, the drawings clear and informative, the charts well organized and easy to use. The aerial photo shows a poster-farm! Frith Farm is a small-acreage vegetable farm using raised beds, in the style of Jean-Martin Fortier, Ben Hartman, Curtis Stone and others. “No-till human-scale farming is about so much more than avoiding tillage.” Here we can learn about healthy soil, high productivity, fewer weeds, lower costs and a more natural way of growing food.

We have had several new books on no-till in the past year or so. I have reviewed Bryan O’Hara’s No-Till Intensive Vegetable Culture, and Andrew Mefferd’s Organic No-Till Farming Revolution: High-Production Methods for Small-Scale Farmers. Any reduction in tillage is a good step: you don’t have to commit to permanent no-till everywhere. I’m glad we’ve moved on from the early no-till days when it was considered that all tilling was always bad, but practical advice was lacking.

The book includes some hard-to-find topics, such as acquiring capital, designing and setting out drainage and irrigation systems for both drip and sprinklers, and integrating livestock in a vegetable farm. Minor grumble: the index seems a little light. Fortunately, the book, like Frith Farm, is well-organized, and topics are easy to find.

Daniel started Frith Farm in Scarborough, Maine, in 2010, in his mid-twenties, borrowing $180,000 at 3.8% interest and buying a property with five open acres and a crumbling house and barn.  He had “eighteen years of expensive education and an embarrassing lack of hard skills.” His first year, he provided for a 40-member CSA from less than one acre. The farm now supplies a 150-member CSA, four natural food stores, a farmers’ market and a farm stand. They sell about $300,000 worth of food, using 2.5 acres in cultivation and 2.5 acres of pasture. Almost all of the work is done by hand, by a crew working  a 45-hour-week for 8 months, then having four months off.

Daniel recommends consistent bed dimensions, even if compromising the land geometry. He has 16 plots of 12 beds, each 100ft long, on 5ft centers. This bed-width increases the amount of growing space compared to 30ins beds. He’s over 6ft tall, so jumping over a bed is no problem. I don’t know about the rest of the crew. There are driveable surfaces between the plots and wood chip paths between beds. Without tilling, you minimize erosion, and the conventional wisdom of keeping rows across the slope, not up and down it, isn’t so vital.

Daniel recommends soil testing and an initial supply of inputs to jump start your soil health and enable you to earn a living. You’ll probably be buying compost your first year: 54 cubic yards ($25-$50/cubic yard) will provide 3ins cover on 6,000 sq ft (one Frith Farm plot). Once biological soil health is established, few imported soil amendments will be needed. You will need lots of mulch every year, such as leaves, straw, woodchips. Frith Farm uses 130 cubic yards of leaves per acre each year.

To go from a grass field to a set of ready-to-plant beds, some no-till growers do one initial tilling and maybe subsoiling to establish beds (rent or borrow the equipment). Daniel says “Don’t let purism keep you from actually breaking ground – it is better to start farming imperfectly than never to start at all!” Frith Farm tills with a Berta rotary plow on their BCS walking tractor, one 10ins strip at a time. We use a Berta plow to remake paths in our raised beds – it is a wonderful tool for that.

A second method of killing grasses and weeds is to mow closely and smother the plants with tarps. This takes 3-52 weeks, depending on the weather and plant species. This works for beds you plan to bring into production next year. Use a 5-6 mil thick black and white silage trap, black side up. Weight and wait! Daniel’s ingenious “tarp kit” consists of a pallet with enough cinder blocks to hold down a 24×100 ft tarp, which is folded and set up on top of the blocks, safely out of the way of tractor forks. The kit is moved to the next site, then returned to the pallet when its work is done. I’ve been interested in trying tarping, but muscling huge sheets of silage tarp and enough weights to hold it down was quite off-putting. Here’s an answer!

When you and the dead plants are ready, remove the tarp, spread compost thickly and plant. If the soil is compacted, use a broadfork before spreading compost. Tarping is also a valuable method for flipping beds between one crop and the next.

A third method of establishing new beds is to mow, amend the soil, cover the whole area with thick mulch, topped with compost and plant into that. To succeed, use an initial layer that lets no light through.  This method involves lots of work and mulch.

Seedling production is major at Frith Farm, as transplanting fits well with no-till. They recommend 500 sq ft of greenhouse space per acre of field production. They have some very practical “benches” which are sawhorses topped by custom pallets holding 12 standard 1020 flats. Two people can carry a full pallet, saving lots of time transferring one flat at a time.

Frith Farm uses soil blocks, mixing in a cement mixer. Winstrip trays are much quicker than making blocks, but they prefer the smaller cost and space saving of soil blocks. They use four sizes of standup blockers, but not the ¾” miniblocks, because those dry out too fast. They have tried the paperpot planter and found it unsuccessful when planting into stubble, worth considering before spending $3000.

One key to successful transplanting is appreciating the sublime experience of setting a plant in the ground with your own hands. Another is to have enough hands to get the job done! A third is watering soon after planting. They use a rolling Infinite Dibbler, a homemade oil-drum dibbler and a special 6-plant garlic dibbler For direct seeding, Daniel likes the humble Earthway seeder, even using it for cover crop seeds (the beet plate for the grasses). The Earthway is rugged, affordable, and works well in no-till beds.

Irrigation is another aspect of vegetable production that Daniel has well figured out. Here is a good clear explanation about well depth, flow, recharge rates, costs, water quality and all the facts you never needed to know if you use city water. The book includes a very clear pipe layout superimposed on the bed plan.

Daniel will help you decide between drip irrigation and sprinklers (or some of each). He recommends Senninger Xcel Wobblers with a 1gpm flow each, covering 6 beds with a line of 4 sprinklers. They run 12 sprinklers at once. This kind of detailed step-by-step calculation can be hard to find. Here’s another instance where the book pays for itself with just one piece of information! Daniel uses driptape only for long-season crops that are prone to foliar diseases, otherwise, he likes the simplicity of sprinklers. Follow Daniel’s advice and bury all main and lateral pipelines deep enough not to hit them when digging. A hose reel cart is a helpful thing to have to make hand-watering less of a tangled mess.

Daniel avoids rowcover unless a crop has two reasons simultaneously. Pests and diseases indicate imbalance, underlying issues with soil health, crop rotation, biodiversity. Work to rebalance and make improvements. Work towards being a No-Spray farm as well as No-Till.

The chapter on weeds opens with the saying “We till because we have weeds because we till . . .!” Weeds are an ecological mechanism for keeping the soil covered and full of roots. The “simple” solution of never letting weeds seed is less work in the long run, more work at first. It relies on working only the amount of land you have enough skilled hands to deal with. Two skilled fulltime workers per acre.

When is thick mulch not helpful? In early spring when you want to warm the soil. At Frith Farm, the soil is frozen from November to late March. Beds that finish too late to plant an overwinter cover crop get composted and covered in leaf mulch. They rake this leaf mulch off the beds into the paths in early spring, and spread a layer of compost on the beds, allowing some warm-up time. The dark compost absorbs the heat from the sun.

“Flipping the bed” after a crop may be simple if it was a root crop with few weeds. If the crop leaves a lot of bulky residues, mowing and tarping can restore the soil to a usable state in 5-10 days in warm weather. You may need to dig out perennial weeds, or add soil amendments, and another 7 barrows of compost per 100ft bed (2.5 cu yards/1000 sq ft), but soon you are good to go. They have a smooth compost spreading operation. A tractor driver delivers buckets of compost directly into wheelbarrows lined up at the head of the beds. People push the barrows down the paths, dumping out several shots of compost, raking the compost out to cover the whole bed surface.

Solarization with clear plastic during warm sunny weather is another way to kill weeds. If the edges of the plastic are buried, weed seeds and pathogenic fungal spores are also killed. If you want to kill weeds or crop residues without all the other life forms in the top layers of soil, using black plastic tarps is a safer way to go. The soil temperature does not get as high, but the removal of light does help kill plants. The book has a graph of days of tarping versus temperature. More than 25 days at an ambient temperature of 50F, about 9 at 65F, and only one day above 85F.

They have an ingenious foot-powered crimping tool for killing tall cover crops instead of mowing. Called the “T-post stomper”, this is a partner dance with one person at each end of a T-post lying across the bed. The T-post is tied with twine to the “inner” foot of each partner and includes a long twine loop that is hand-held.

No-till cover crop planning takes care. Plants die in three ways: they finish their lifecycle, they winterkill or they are starved of light or water. In no-till farming, the tools are the mower, winter, and tarping, or some combination of these. A sequence of photos shows beds from seeding the cover crop in September to healthy summer brassicas with no weeds in sight. A spring cover crop sequence shows peas and oats sown in April, tarped in June, direct seeded in storage radish in summer. Shorter sections on summer and fall cover crops follow.

Daniel has a chapter on integrating livestock with vegetable farming to increase diversity and net productivity of the farm. The symbiosis between soil, plants, animals can lead to creation of more soil, and increased fertility. Chickens are easy to keep, although if you want poultry that don’t scratch up the soil, get turkeys. (Daniel has a punny photo of turkey on rye.) Sheep are easier to fence than goats, and are smaller than cattle. Be wary of pigs. They can act like obsessed tillers and do lots of damage.

Harvested crops remove nutrients from the farm soil, and these nutrients can be replaced by farming for a very healthy soil biology. Healthy soil draws carbon and nitrogen from the air, and makes previously “inaccessible” stores of nutrients available to the following crops. Use compost, leaves and other organic mulches until you max out the recommended level of some nutrient. If your soil is then unbalanced, you will need to bring in missing nutrients.

The chapter on harvest sets out efficient user-friendly methods at Frith Farm. For a pleasant wash-pack space, you need a roof, a floor with good drainage (could be wood chips), mesh or slatted tables; hoses and sprayers; tanks to hold water; a salad spinner, a barrel root washer; good scales; flip-lid storage totes; walk-in coolers using CoolBot technology; and customized shelving. Think before buying a delivery truck – $1,500 worth of produce will fit in the back of a Prius! Almost no fuel costs! Daniel also recommends buying an insulated truck body to convert into a cooler. It can double as a screen for crew outdoor movie nights! Don’t forget to have fun!

We have a captive market at Twin Oaks (more politely called direct supply), so I‘m not the best reviewer of information about selling. But the section on their hiring process really grabbed me. “We are not just hiring a pair of hands to meet our labor needs; we are inviting someone into our community, our family, and our home.” Spell out and keep to high standards, provide a social experience, show care and camaraderie, train adequately, and compensate fairly. Interview well, check references, have a working interview (paid) if you can; write out your job offer. Provide guidelines with goals for pace and efficiency. Each person should be able to harvest, wash and pack about $80 worth of produce per hour. Share the joyful observations of life around you.

Daniel describes his recordkeeping, where the plan becomes the record. He recommends Holistic Management by Allan Savory with Jody Butterfield. Define your farms’ purpose, plan the season, plan the week. A plan is just a plan, sometimes plans change. Look for opportunities to record aggregate data, such as recording what you take to market and what you bring back, rather than each individual sale. At the end of the season, add up sales for each crop and divide by the number of beds to calculate the revenue per bed, and the yield of that crop. Having standard sized beds makes this simple. Add into pre-existing records and eliminate multiple versions of the same data. Make one spreadsheet of notes for next year. You can sort it by crop or by month, or by plot number.

Their Plan for the Week is an online spreadsheet accessible to all via a laptop in the barn. (Obviously they have better internet than we do!) Each week has a tab, each day has a column, and each plot has a row with tasks, times and sometimes a name. Once a week, the crew walks the farm and makes the list for each day, including any tasks carried over. Nothing is erased (it becomes a record!) When someone completes a task, they use a strike-through font and add notes. At the end of each day, remaining tasks are reprioritized for the rest of the week. This spreadsheet becomes the farm journal, and is easily searchable.

Frith Farm has a four-year rotation starting with smothering followed by transplanted cucurbits or nightshades and a winter-killed cover crop. The second year involves brassicas followed by root crops, with mulch over-winter. The third year is devoted to repetitions of salad crops, and a winterkilled cover crop. The fourth year is for alliums and an over-wintering cover crop. Consider the crop spacing you need for the new crop, and the spacing of the stubble from the previous crop. You often don’t need a clear bed, just clear rows where you intend to plant.

During the winter they create their attractive crop rotation plan where each plot has 12 rows (for the beds), with “under-rows” (for under-sowing) and 12 columns (for the months). It’s color coded for quick reference. From that rotation plan, they create a Greenhouse Plan and a Seed Order.

Next is a Harvest Plan for each harvest day, starting with walking the fields to take notes, balancing what is mature with what is needed. The evening before, the harvest manager makes a list of crops, quantities, and picking order. Each harvest day has a tab on the online spreadsheet, with a row for each crop. The sheet for that day is posted by the time the crew arrives. In this case, pickers use a pen to indicate who is picking what, when it’s done. People work down the list in order, taking the crops to the wash-pack station. That crew cleans the produce and stores it in a cooler, labeled with its destination.

There is a table of revenue data for 16 top-earning vegetables. (The other 45 crops are not shown.) In terms of revenue per bed, ginger wins at $2442, but it is in place all year (and I think it is in high tunnels). Taking bed-months into account, ginger still wins, but arugula is chasing it. Radishes don’t so well in revenue per bed-season, nor do onions and beets. Frith Farm does not record labor per crop. CSA growers need to provide variety, not just the “most profitable” crops.

Success includes sustainability, considering the people and the planet as well as the profit. Profit can be understood as ability to reinvest. Exactly where the profits end up is important, and to his credit, Daniel includes his 2018 farm revenue and where it went. Of the total $314,000, $120,000 went to the farm crew (an investment in the local community that makes the farm productive); $11,000 to family loan payments. $92,000 went back to the land (infrastructure, seeds and local biomass). $91,000 left the area, for taxes, insurance, fees, tools and equipment, and non-local inputs including the energy bill.

Purchases like plastic mulch, fossil fuels and manufactured equipment are part of a linear process that essentially convert resources to pollution. Strong words, and why not? We need to each face the full effect of our production.

Frith Farm works to increase food access to people in the community who cannot afford the usual prices of healthy food. They accept SNAP and WIC, donations, and offer gleaning groups the chance to help food pantries. They have sliding scale pricing, barter, work trades, and ride shares, all of which they advertise widely.

On the ecological front, their no-till practices are working daily to increase carbon sequestration by increasing organic matter (less than 4% in 2011, over 10% in 2019). A one per cent increase in OM in the top 10” of an acre of soil removes about 8.5 tons of carbon from the atmosphere.

Daniel Mays
Photo Storey Publishers