Book Review Resilient Agriculture, second edition, Laura Lengnick


The front cover of Laura Lengnick’s Resilient Agriculture, second edition

Resilient Agriculture: Cultivating Food Systems for a Changing Climate, expanded and updated second edition, Laura Lengnick, New Society Publishers, May 2022. 352 pages, $34.99.

With climate change, we are facing horrible challenges and hard work with high stakes. We can feel hopeless at times, but Laura Lengnick helps us understand hope, and how it spurs us to search for solutions. Hope is an action word, meaning “to cherish a desire with anticipation.” Grounded hope includes the knowledge that to achieve the results you want you have to work with others. Grounded hope leads to feelings of personal agency, empowerment and acceptance of reality.

Laura Lengnick has rewritten her 2015 book, updating the science and adding new farmer interviews. Laura has been walking the talk, biking, carpooling, calculating her carbon footprint and helping craft an energy descent action plan for her local community. In her work writing a report with the US Department of Agriculture (USDA), exploring agricultural adaptation to climate change, the author became familiar with the language of resilience, including terms such as vulnerability, exposure, sensitivity, adaptive capacity, climate risk and climate equity.

Part 1 of this book explores specific examples of the unprecedented climate challenges across the US, how the weather has been changing, and what is likely to happen in the next 30 years, along with ideas of adaptation strategies to manage climate risk. We must come to grips with the fact that climate change adaptation is not about figuring how to adjust to a “new normal.” It’s about figuring out how to manage the risks created by more variable weather patterns that are likely to change at a faster pace and grow more intense through at least mid-century.

For ten years we have been warned that food production faces unique challenges due to climate disruption. But most people have failed to make any changes as a result of this information. Naturally it is hard to adjust to the reality that record-breaking weather is already becoming common. How do we design and implement systemic changes so that we can thrive as big changes hit us frequently? This is the field of resilience science.

Our hoophouse with shadecloth for growing summer crops. Photo Pam Dawling

Part 2 considers the principles and practices of resilience thinking in agriculture; the four kinds of resilience science and which is most useful when considering food supplies; resilient agriculture design principles; and some tools for cultivating resilience in food and farming systems. The concept of Vulnerability involves identifying damaging threats and choosing effective responses. Adaptive Strategy is aligning intentions and effects for increasing our resilience. Response, Recovery and Transformation Capacity is a concept to help us move forward, rather than expecting to return to a prior state.

Part 3 explores how resilience thinking can transform the global food system, and which actions we can take to contribute to resilient agriculture. The Rules of Resilience guide us to design, assess and manage resilient social-ecological systems. Rebuilding to previous standards (even “building back better”) could simply repeat the same mistakes we made before.

Part 4 provides the real-life stories from over 40 sustainable farmers and ranchers across the US, over about 100 pages. (I am one of the farmers interviewed for this book, just sayin’.) Some readers will go straight to this last third of the book, skipping the theoretical framework, learning from the specific towards the general. There are livestock farmers and ranchers, growers of perennial fruits and nuts, cut flowers, and vegetables on areas from 2 to 1000 acres, up to 3,200 acres when grain growers are added in. There are fourth-generation farmers, first generation farmers, those on farms they bought, those on rented land, those in intentional communities, urban, suburban and rural farmers. They farm across the continent.

Climate scientists observed a big change in the rate of climate change in 2000 and another in 2010. In 2021, we suffered historic winter storms in the northwest, central and eastern states, with temperatures as much as 40 F degrees below (what used to be) normal. With hindsight it turns out that the last 10,000 years (since our ancestors switched from being hunter-gatherers) was a period of very stable temperatures.

Garlic beds next to rowcovered broccoli beds, under a stormy sky.
Photo Wren Vile

In the past few years in the US we have had record-breaking numbers of very destructive hurricanes, wildfires, winter storms, deadly summer temperatures and water shortages. 40 million people in Arizona, California, Colorado, Nevada New Mexico, Utah and Wyoming have had mandatory reductions in water use because the Colorado River could not supply what everyone wanted.  In southern Wisconsin, Richard DeWilde suffered not one, but two, one-thousand-year floods in 2007 and 2008. Less dramatic events such as hotter nighttime temperatures quietly disrupt successful farming.

Growing and raising food is a tricky, skilled business. Farmers have never controlled all the variables. Managing weather-related risks (one of the highest risk factors), is now much harder. The author interviewed farmers who had been farming in the same location since at least 1990, who were most likely to have observed weather changes. All have noticed changes in the weather that they have never experienced previously, although opinions vary about the causes. Farmers everywhere tell of challenges with too much or too little water, temperatures too high and too low, at all times of year. Their descriptions fit into climate science, and offer insights into the consequences of our failure to act in time on climate change.

But the changing climate is not the only disruption. Social forces are a threat to sustainability. Industrialization and globalization of the food supply, sweeping health, safety, environmental and labor regulations that disregard other aspects of a good life. The farmers on these pages recognize the value of healthy soils, diverse operations and high-value marketing.

Resilience thinking involves major shifts in at least six design principles. Listing from least to most challenging they are:

  1. Abandoning myths of creating perfect conditions for production and consumption.
  2. Moving away from the idea of maximum industrial efficiency, which ignores societal costs (pollution, public subsidies of unsustainable practices, some work undervalued).
  3. Valuing local knowledge more than distant experts. Local conditions such as water supply and needs vary, and may vary more in future.
  4. Shifting to working with local ecological design with the capacity to produce and recycle needed energy and materials.
  5. Pivoting from imported to local resources, removing the need for large-scale networks which are vulnerable to collapse.
  6. Moving towards a regenerative economy and away from an extractive one; no longer ignoring the real costs of industrial systems on human rights, the environments, and society as a whole.
Spreading hay and newspaper as mulch over a new strawberry bed. Local resources provide more resilience than bought in manufactured ones. Photo Luke Stovall


Climate change vulnerability includes both the potential impact of a particular change and our adaptive capacity.

Impact depends on both our farm’s exposure to that impact and the farm’s sensitivity to that particular change. This is the part we are more used to dealing with. Assessing specific threats and reducing the worst of them as best we are able. This may include changes such as soil drainage or planting a shelterbelt, and also changes such as deciding to replace no-longer productive apricot trees (that break dormancy earlier and get frozen buds) with a different crop.

Adaptive Capacity covers not just our individual wits and wisdom, but also knowledge and what options are open to us; and the operating context: reducing damage by making changes. This moves us on from reducing risk to looking for better opportunities – this is cultivating resilience.

Using these approaches to think about climate change risks can help us find better solutions, nimbler responses. Learning more about expected changes helps us be prepared with plans for change. Here’s more about each of these aspects.

Exposure to Impact

A farm’s exposure to impact from a specific change can be obvious, or can be masked by, for instance, looking at averages. An average of 12” of rain from July-September could mean 4” per month, or a single storm dropping 12” in early July, followed by a drought until the end of September. Over the last 100 years, average temperatures in the US have increased, but not consistently across the country. Regional geographical and land use differences create regional patterns. The Southwest has severe droughts; the northeast has damaging floods. Global average temperatures have increased 2F degrees since 1900, due to human activities. This rise has led to a cascade of other changes, such as declines in polar sea ice and glaciers, and rising sea levels, and such changes will become worse, unless we reduce the level of greenhouse gases trapped in the atmosphere. We must adapt to a moving target.

Raised beds will drain and be ready to plant sooner after rain.
Photo Ezra Freeman

I live and farm in the southeast. Sea level rises and heavy downpours in our region are already obvious. Dangerously high temperatures, higher humidity, new pests and diseases, are on moving in. Hot nights have increased more than hot days; the growing season is ten days longer than it was in the 1960s. We can expect a rapid pace of increasing temperatures, day and night; another 20 days’ increase in the length of the frost-free growing season; more rain in the fall; and water and heat stress leading to decreased yields. There are details of both observed changes and expected changes of each of seven regions in the US.

Sensitivity to Impact

A farm’s sensitivity to a particular change is the magnitude of the effect of that change. To assess sensitivity, look at increasing resource costs to succeed with a given crop, and the frequency of failure. Does continuing with a certain crop force you to buy expensive new equipment such as wind machines to reduce frosts in orchards, or does it require you to spend relatively little switching to varieties or breeds better suited to the evolving conditions? If you supply other farmers with plants, a switch to hardier types, or heat-tolerant types, might set yourself on a better path. Heritage breeds, heirloom varieties and landraces hold lots of valuable genetics.

Adaptive Capacity

A farm’s adaptive capacity is its ability to cope with the challenging consequences of changing conditions and to take advantage of new opportunities that arise as a result. This requires thinking about the farm as a whole and the interactions of the components in order to increase the adaptive capacity and reduce the vulnerability and risk from climate change. If your farm has managed 10, 20, 30 years of good yields, this shows you have a good degree of resilience. Healthy soils are a key to buffering variable temperatures and rainfall, and thus, climate risk.

Three characteristics combine to determine your adaptive capacity. The operating context is the name for the sum of the ecological and social resources that shape your options. The individual capability to act describes your ability to manage the changing conditions. Existing knowledge and options limit or inform your ideas on how to manage change. There’s a diagram to illustrate this, with a farmer puzzling the options in the center.

As Jamie Ager in North Carolina points out, weather variability has always been a normal part of farming. “Part of being a successful farmer is probably just your head space. . .” Constant worry is taxing on the spirit, so look for things to act on, rather than things to worry about.” Ultimately the success of farming across the world will depend on the willingness and ability of farmers to take action to minimize climate risk.

 Adaptation Stories

All the farmers interviewed come from a perspective of sustaining the soil, the crops, the workforce. They are not primarily motivated by profit, or achieving the highest yield at any cost. This chapter introduces the farmers one region at a time. Fuller stories are in Part 4 of the book.

Unrolling irrigation drip tape from shuttles, using a garden cart as support.
Photo Luke Stovall

Some farmers have purchased different machinery to cope with different conditions. Some have purchased more, so two tractor operators can go out at once and get the crop tended to quicker. Some have shifted to higher-value direct markets, certified organic production (with its premiums), adding annual vegetable crops in the mix with their perennial fruits. Some have changed to different cover crops, mulches and irrigation systems. Some have shifted to shorter season crops to give themselves a second chance each year, if weather conditions prevent planting on their previously-usual date.

Several emphasize the importance of building up healthy soils. Some have made a specific change, such as introducing more frost protection; others have made many smaller changes, such as faster-maturing crops, or ones more adapted to heat, cold or dry weather. Some have found value in a Holistic Planning approach, and a willingness to make big changes quickly, such as selling 70% of the herd for that season. Some have even sold their farm and moved to a farm on higher ground. Some have switched their work to a different time of year. Some have installed solar power to reduce their dependence on fossil fuels. Some have installed contour swales to capture rainfall.

Some have found high tunnels, shade houses and other forms of protected growing to give them better results and more peace of mind. Some have planted more shade trees and hedgerows. The use of tarps to reduce weed infestations has helped several. Livestock farmers have improved their rotation systems and some have added a mix of annual forages into their permanent pastures. Making value-added products and adding some agritourism events have helped others.

The approach of sustainable farmers is quite different from the large “get big or get out” farms that rely on bank loans, government subsidies, imported soil amendments and fertilizers, more and bigger machines, and whatever it takes to continue “farming as usual” in the face of a completely new situation. The inventiveness of these farmers and their willingness to pioneer new approaches and consider abandoning long-held principles (such as no plastic), will cheer us all, and provide much inspiring food for thought.

Laura Lengnick, author of Resilient Agriculture

Book Review Our Wild Farming Life: Adventures on a Scottish Highland Croft, Lynn Cassells and Sandra Baer

Cover image of Our Wild Farming LIfe book.Chelsea Green Publishers

Book Review Our Wild Farming Life: Adventures on a Scottish Highland Croft, Lynn Cassells and Sandra Baer, Chelsea Green Publishers, February 2022. 212 pages plus 8 pages of color photos, $19.95.

This is the inspiring and uplifting tale of two determined, thoughtful women who took ownership and stewardship of a croft, a 150-acre parcel of Scottish land that most people would consider hopeless, and restored it to life as a small farm in harmony with nature. I loved this book partly for the details about their farming life, but even more, I appreciated their openness about the challenges and dilemmas they faced. Many of these will have been experienced by other farmers too. Their story has been featured on BBC2’s series This Farming Life. This is a passionate, honest, pragmatic account of careful decision-making combined with hard work and integration into the local community.

Lynn and Sandra met in 2012 while working as rangers for the National Trust. Soon the two realized how strongly they were drawn to each other. They shared a dream of growing their own food, heating their winters with firewood they gathered and cut, and learning from the land around them. Pragmatically, they acknowledged that bills would have to be paid, imagining operating a small campground. Full-time farming was not on their radar, despite their attention to planning.

Sandra and Lynn weren’t earning much money and didn’t have a lot of savings. Sandra was drawn to Scotland, and so they went camping in the Cairngorms National Park, three hours north of Edinburgh and Glasgow to look for land. The two “must-haves” on their list were: must be in Scotland; must have at least 5 acres of land. Even a house was not on that list: they were willing to live in a caravan (trailer) to start with. After a dinner of canned haggis, they found a spot with an incredible vista. Lynn said: “Imagine living here. Imagine if that was your view.” Neither knew that their future home was just two miles behind them!

Sandra got a ranger job in Scotland, to further their land search. Lynn found tree-planting work and lodging a few hours away, enabling them to spend weekends together. Every evening was spent working down lists of available property. Sandra found an enticing property – a small traditional farming homestead set in beautiful scenery. It was way over their budget, but they became obsessed with this impossible dream.

Several months later they had a weekend of land visits, and realized they would be driving “right past” their secret crush, Lynbreck Croft. They booked a viewing, and fell in love with the place. How could they ever raise the money? Moving there to live would involve leaving their jobs, nullifying any chance of a mortgage or bank loan. Lynn had some trepidation and fear about leaving friends, family, and career.

One close friend questioned them on how sure they were about what they were doing, and then offered to lend them the money to make up the shortfall. What good fortune! What a good friend! In March 2016, four years after they met each other, they were locating the key to their cabin under a rock and moving in.

Crofts are small Scottish farmsteads, usually mixed arable and grazing, providing a subsistence level of food, water and heating, in cooperation with the local crofting community. The 1886 Crofters Holdings (Scotland) Act ensures security of tenure, provided crofters paid their rents and kept the land in working order. In 1976, the Act was reformed, allowing crofters to buy their land. Crofting law is complex, and usually banks will not provide mortgages or loans on crofts. It is a real challenge to make crofting profitable. It requires both traditional knowledge and a willingness to embrace modern technology.

The area had relatively recently become a National Park. (National Parks in the UK are individually run by government-funded bodies, but the land continues to be owned and farmed as before).

Two old buildings stood on the homestead when they moved in, and they opted to live in the 3-bedroom wooden cabin. The old croft house, dating from 1852, had been gutted for a renovation that never happened. Winters used to be more severe, with snow anytime from October to May, sometimes with drifts over 30 feet deep.

Sandra and Lynn developed a huge respect for the crofting community, and wondered how well they could carry the responsibility, and how welcome they would be in the local community, where residents are being squeezed out by vacationers. They never hid the fact that they are a couple, but never felt any discrimination or awkwardness. When their neighbors learned that they wanted to work the land, they welcomed them warmly.

In their early days they did feel a bit lost, as it dawned on them what a massive amount of work they had taken on. They started with the trees around the cabin, tending saplings, pulling competing grasses, installing tree guards. Their past work with trees gave them confidence and familiarity. Next they started their no-dig (no-till) permaculture kitchen garden, using the flat south-facing area in front of the cabin. They installed a rabbit-proof fence and made five raised beds, bringing in soil from many mole hills. A neighbor who saw their efforts donated a tractor bucket-load of manure.

They also made a start on felling and cutting firewood for the winter, and a daily rhythm developed. They needed outside jobs for money to live on. Lynn worked four days a week in Inverness, 50 minutes away. Sandra got a part-time job cutting riverside weeds to improve access for fishers. Most new farmers face similar issues: keeping a flow of money coming in, while building up the farm.

The authors chronicle their misfortunes candidly, such as the time they tried to sterilize their well and then spent several months using bottled water until the well recovered from their ministrations. They likewise do not pretend they can go it alone. Gratitude to neighbors lifts them up. They receive gifts of an old barrel, a tractor-bucket of peat fuel for their stove, and even a heifer.

The authors have the goal of working the land to provide food for themselves and the local community, while ensuring natural diversity thrives. They don’t seek to recreate past harsh conditions. They want a warm house, electricity, speedy internet, and a reliable car.

UK agriculture is heavily subsidized, and they decided to see what funding they were entitled to. For a coherent 5-year plan they could get a Young Farmer’s Start-Up Grant of €70,000, of which 90% would be paid upfront! They struggled with “Imposter Syndrome”: feelings of chronic self-doubt and a sense of intellectual fraudulence that persist despite proof of success. They struggled to define their plans precisely enough for this competitive grant. It became clear their margins would be very tight, and they would be working hard. They made the deadline, and then continued their day jobs and farming, not really expecting to get the grant. One year after they moved to Lynbreck, they received a letter saying the money was on its way!

Lynbreck is on the leeward edge of the Cairngorm Mountains, in mixed grassland, woodland, heather and bog. The three main fields are separated (or joined!) by a band of woodland. They hired an ecologist to make a baseline vegetation survey. She found 148 species of trees, shrubs, grasses, sedges, rushes, ferns, mosses and wildflowers, and provided some recommendations on maintaining and improving diversity. She also shared insight into previous uses of the land.

Lynbreck includes 38 acres of bog to the south of the homestead: tussocks of purple moor-grass, pillows of sphagnum moss and bog pools. The largest vegetation area is dry heath, mostly heather-clad hills on the north with small clusters of trees. There is a row of eight grouse butts, stone-lined excavations made for hunters to lurk to shoot grouse. They also discovered prehistoric piles of rocks from field clearance. The landscape was once a mosaic of young trees, older trees and open spaces, not continuous forest as some imagine.

By their first autumn the new farmers had a good understanding of the land. They had observed that for trees to flourish they would need to fence out the foragers. They contacted various bodies for advice and funds for tree planting. They claimed “carbon funding” to bridge the gap. This is a way of trading future carbon sequestration to companies seeking ways to offset their carbon emissions, and make them carbon neutral. In other words, get paid to plant trees.

Despite their worries about repaying the funds if they hit a disaster, they installed a large deer fence and planted of 17,400 trees. Yes, just the two of them. Yes, while working outside jobs to provide money to live on. They had to clear 17,400 spots to plant in, in two months, an average of 290 spots each day, so the trees would get a good start. In mid-February were ready to take delivery of their tiny trees. They planted dawn to dusk at a rate of almost 580 trees a day. In snow, wind, rain, icy blasts, and also sunshine they persevered, eating their lunch of oatcakes and tea out in the future woodland. This huge task took them over the brink of exhaustion, and also gave them enormous satisfaction.

This story delves into many of the issues new farmers face: uncertainties, confusions, dilemmas; accepting government financing along with regulations and inspections. “Farming subsidies don’t exist to prop up a farmer, they exist to subsidize the true cost of producing food to make it cheaper for all of us.” The pressure to make the land as agriculturally productive as possible leads to spending large amounts of money on inputs. Without farm subsidies, no-one could afford to pay the actual cost of the food. Really, farming is being done at a loss by many farmers, trapped in a dependency on subsidies.

They sought more like-minded farmers. Initially they felt kinship with the Rewilding movement, but over time that kinship dwindled. Some Rewilding practitioners see the needs of nature opposed to the needs of people. Some of the wild animals they would like to reintroduce pose a very real threat to the needs of farmers to keep their livestock safe, and their habitats in balance. It is easy for farmers and rewilders to become entrenched in polarized views.

The Regenerative Agriculture movement was taking off with a passion. Lynn and Sandra watched videos by Richard Perkins, listened to Allan Savory on holistic management, and Christine Jones on soil biology. Integrating animals into farming is vital as part of biodiversity. Regenerative agriculture was the closest fit to what they were doing: farming in a way where the impact of livestock benefits the health of the soil and increases biodiversity and abundance of species above and below the ground. They observed the effects of their methods and made changes when a better idea emerged. Their confidence grew over time, but so did their task lists, and the challenges of time and money!

They were working 16-hour days, earning income four days a week each, expanding their farming business and putting food on their own table. Lynn’s stress levels spiraled. They were paralyzed with fear about giving up their paid jobs in case their dream collapsed, but they were sacrificing the simple pleasures of life that were the reasons they chose this path. They reduced their paid work and accepted tighter finances, regaining some time.

One of the Lynbreck pigs.

After getting hens early on, they next bought three young Oxford Sandy and Black pigs, a rare breed well-suited to the crofting life. Lynn and Sandra planned for them to root up a strip of land in small sections for short lengths of time, so the soil would get suitably worked to plant 320 trees next winter. Additionally, of course, the pigs would provide meat to eat and to sell.

The soil-prep aspect went well, but like many new farmers they made the mistake of overfeeding their animals “to be nice to them”, causing their meat to have excess fat. When it came time for the trip to the abattoir, each pig got personally thanked for their past work and their nourishment. The authors did wrestle with guilt and re-examined their meat-selling plan. In spite of good intentions, there is no single food choice made by any living organism that does not impact some other form of life. Plants included.

One of the Lynbreck Highland cattle.

Next they got six hardy Highland cattle (the short ones with big horns and long shaggy coats), filling an ecological niche: recycling plant material, dunging the soil, creating new habitats. And providing exceptionally high quality beef. The electric fencing and careful planning let the cattle be rotated around their land on a daily basis. This became a short chore, and the farmers were able to learn by observing the condition of the land how to tweak the size of the paddocks. They need no housing, and their lighter weight limits damage to the ground. Sandra studied the work of Temple Grandin on efficient humane livestock handling systems, and built a custom design in their barn, which worked very well.

One of their first calves died out in the field, and this caused anguish, even though they knew “where you have livestock, you have deadstock” (meaning, some deaths you can’t prevent). Over time, the herd got back to its routine, and the farmers back to theirs, with added appreciation of the “magnificent, living, breathing creatures that are strong and resilient and live each moment.”

The value of trees and hedges became obvious in winter, as the cattle shelter among the trees. In the heat of summer, they realized their cattle were stressed in a paddock without shade. After that they planned their cattle moves to provide access to trees all year.

After noticing the cattle browsing on reachable tree leaves and lichen, they decided to make “tree hay” for winter. Willow leaves are used by cattle for self-medication against worms. Lynn and Sandra got grants to plant an edible hedgerow and a stretch of native willows, and planted 5000 trees in their lower field, with necessary fencing. Their plan was to cut some branches every year and dry them for winter forage to supplement bought-in pasture hay. They also dried nettles and docks in bundles, adding to the feed diversity to keep their animals healthy.

Another period of anguish was coming to terms with the need to shoot deer and other wild animals threatening their food supply. Lynn bought a rifle and took lessons, but had a moral tussle when she found three deer inside their (incomplete) fencing. Her brain was saying shoot, but her trigger finger would not comply. She felt sick. She worried about not making a clean kill. She knew she needed to do it, and finally she was able to take a good shot. The dead deer rolled down into the gully, and she set out to find it, wondering if she would be filled with remorse when she saw it. She was not. She talked aloud, thanking the deer and promising to do her best to use its body. This calmed and reassured her, shifting the focus away from her own emotions. She felt pride rather than guilt, that night, after the successful butchering, with nothing going to waste. Rabbit stews followed. Then pork from pigs they had raised – another significant step in their role as stewards of the croft.

Vegetable production was challenging in the limited growing season at their exposed landholding, where growth was three weeks behind the less-elevated town five miles away. They planted a shelterbelt, and made cold frames. Every harvested crop was precious to them. They enlarged the garden with an area of berries undersown with medicinal herbs, and a potato patch to the north of the old house. The yield was so high they sold some alongside their eggs on their roadside stand.

The following year the potato sales covered the cost of all the vegetable seeds, making all their produce feel free. They were now growing 70% of their vegetables. Alongside the eggs and potatoes, they sold their first lot of pork. They wanted a diverse, multi-enterprise business to pay their bills, and a bit for rainy days, but they were not motivated to accumulate extra money. Earning money to live on, not living to earn money.

They had the dilemma of wanting to be home more, but worrying about walking away from a monthly salary. Then Lynn quit her job while Sandra was away visiting her parents. Sandra accepted the news gracefully, without argument. In 30 months they had transformed Lynbreck from a semi-derelict croft to a fully-functional farming business, thanks to immense amounts of hard work, and being careful with their spending.

They started an Egg Club, a subscription egg delivery service, asking a higher price than the supermarkets and other roadside vendors. Some of those vendors were not making any money, just breaking even by selling their hobby surplus at cost price. Another farm dilemma – how to set prices. They decided to only sell locally, telling the story of their farming and the individual animals to every customer. They were only just breaking even and covering the cost of their portion of food. Their time was not covered at all. Nor was depreciation of equipment, or investment in new tools.

The first time they sold pork, they briefly fell into the trap of focusing on the money. They kept back only a few packs of chops and sausages for themselves, before they realized their folly. They decided to be more efficient, not just take on more work. They tried value-added foods, particularly charcuterie. They were able to get a loan. (If the book seems a list of loans and grants, this is because they started with almost no money and no land, and that’s what you have to do.)

Sandra took a course, but suffered the horrible experience of blanking on what to do when faced with a half pig. Lynn, as assistant, could be no help, and felt sick. Happily, Sandra’s automatic pilot kicked in and she did an excellent butchery job. They started a Meat Club, like their Egg Club, delivering a monthly added-value meat parcel. Not every creation was a success, but 94% of the subscribers signed up for a second year. The butchery paid for itself and a little more.

They bought sheep, then regretted it and sold them after a year. Not everything works out. It’s important to be willing to reconsider your decisions. That’s not always easy: “Have we failed? Did we give up too easily?” But you’ll know the feeling of relief when you make the right choice.

Then life got difficult again. Their well was running out of water! A hot dry summer led to a use rate of 300 liters per day, partly thirsty livestock, partly fencing contractors power-washing their equipment, partly garden irrigation. They had not thought of well water as a finite commodity. To add embarrassment and stress, a BBC film crew was filming over their shoulders. Lynn had responded to a search for farmers to be filmed for a slice of life series This Farming Life, and forgot to mention it to Sandra before they were being asked if they’d be willing to be filmed for a trial run, next week.

Their daily chores increased to include carrying buckets of water from the River Spey, buying bottled water to drink, buying a bowser (mobile water tank) and a pump to extract water from a spring to water the cattle, and bathing in the loch each evening. “Water, in both scarcity and abundance, can be the limiting factor of life.” For longer-term solutions, they installed a new well by the spring, and added water-butts to collect rainwater. Parallel with the drying down of their well, their bank account experienced something similar.

While this was going on, they had a night in Glasgow for a BBC Thank You “wrap party”. A fun evening was followed by anticipation of a sleep-in next morning and a sumptuous breakfast. But they woke to a text from the farmer who was taking care of their animals, saying the cows had nudged open the valve on the bowser and lost all the water. So they grabbed some toast and drove home fast.

Their swift rise into public awareness led to involvement in policymaking bodies and political organizations, often receiving awards and accolades. Lynn spent whole days answering emails, showing important people around Lyncroft, or away from home altogether, giving presentations on their farming and crofting.

Meanwhile Sandra was holding down all the farm chores, and both of them were feeling increased stress and exhaustion. They were not living a more relaxed life. Life was moving ever faster. Self-doubt came back. They were responsible for too many spinning plates, which could all come crashing down. Plus, their expertize was not really in policymaking and lobbying. It was in reconnecting people with production of their food. They realized they needed to invest more time in their everyday lives, themselves and each other. They had very little time to observe the vast skyscape, experience the birdlife or enjoy watching wildlife. Lynn reported that when family visited, she’d be rushing around working. Sandra and Lynn’s relationship had become strained as their energy was drained by running the croft and explaining to other people what they were doing.

They didn’t blame anyone but themselves. Now was time to focus on making life personally sustainable. Lynn stepped back from the committees and meetings. They decided to group visitors into either monthly public tours (for a small fee) or private tours for a larger fee.

Lynn gave a talk at a rewilding conference with 500 participants. Someone booed loudly when she said “We have to accept that it’s OK to eat meat.” Lynn carried on with her talk, but was understandably shaken, even though sure of her ground. A survey by the Farm Advisory Service found that Lynbreck, in one year, had sequestered 12 times more CO2 than emitted. At the break the boo-er apologized and said she’d learned a lot by listening to the talk.

The farmers were now making an income from farming and were no longer working outside jobs. They prepared to run a residential course on How to Farm. Then the Covid pandemic hit. Their projected income nose-dived. All events involving people coming to Lynbreck were cancelled, and much money was refunded. Some people left their money with Lynn and Sandra for “next year”. Sales of meat and eggs covered most of their overheads. Produce sales hit the roof. They got a government Covid business support grant to cover lost earnings.

One day a few weeks in, while they sat in the sun drinking tea, they noticed the peace and quiet and realized they had nothing to do except run their farm and live their lives. They could relax into a slower pace of life with no external commitments except weekly deliveries. A useful change of pace, and time to spend together.

One of the Polycrub models, made on Shetland, UK

They had taken delivery of a Polycrub kit, a super strong hoophouse structure designed on Shetland to withstand 120mph winds. Now they had time to construct it and learn to grow in it. They also had time to do things slowly and enjoyably. Their lives felt more in harmony and balance and they made exciting new plans: fruit trees, hazels for nuts or coppicing, future courses.

After deciding to sell the breeding cows and instead buy in young stock to raise for meat each year, they faced a big decision: what to do with their first cow Ronnie, who was not becoming pregnant. No-one would by an unproductive cow. After some anguish about selling her for meat, they decided to keep her, to lead the new herd each year, and help things run smoothly. Once the decision came to them, they never had a moment’s doubt that it was right. Redefining Ronnie’s role put things in a new light.

Clearly at some point during the Covid pandemic, they wrote this book, and I hope it brings them a steady, if small, income stream. Authors don’t usually get rich writing books, I know.

After five years at Lynbreck they became more settled and felt they were putting down personal, social and environmental roots. It has felt relentless. It took them to physical, mental and emotional exhaustion, but they couldn’t stop, because no one else was going to do it for them. The good times could be relentless too. The sunshine, the ripening produce, the satisfaction and contentment, being part of the web of life.


Lynbreck Croft on Youtube

Book Review: The Berry Grower, by Blake Cothron

The Berry Grower: Small Scale Organic Fruit Production in the 21st Century, Blake Cothron, New Society Publishers, paperback, 300 pages, May 2022, black and white and color photos, $39.99

Here you can read about growing berries and other small fruits on a backyard or small commercial scale, and see how they can work for you. You can learn up-to-the-minute information relevant to organic farming, urban farming and the local foods movement. You can learn which modern cultivars hold the most hope for your location.

This is not a glossy coffee-table book. Nor is it written for full-time fruit growers. Blake wrote this book to encourage a move to more localized and resilient organic food production on a global scale, garden by garden. He wants to spread practical, effective knowledge and training. Blake speaks from 20 years’ experience growing small fruit, including the past ten years operating a successful commercial organic plant nursery.

Blake quotes Bill Mollison, suggesting that if 10% of us switch from consumption to production, there will be enough food for everyone. Small fruits are a good place to start, because they bring faster returns (6-12 months) compared to tree fruits, and the demand is almost infinite. It’s easier to satisfy the demand for fresh vegetables, than for fresh fruit! Small fruits do not require a large area, and won’t shade out your vegetables. Once your fruit crops need most of your attention, you can cut back on vegetable crops for market. Fruit can provide more income for the time invested, if not for the space. Size your operation so you and your household can do 90-100% of the work yourselves, as paying others cuts into what could be your profits.

Small fruit crops deserve more attention than they’ve had from growers or writers in recent years. This book addresses the shortage of up-to-date information, and the reality of climate chaos. By growing a diversity of crops, your risks are spread and reduced. Note which crops do best and grow more of those! Blake reports that in his Kentucky garden, all the blackberries, red and black raspberries, strawberries, aronia, figs, gooseberries, juneberries, blueberries, passionfruit, and honeyberries survived a very difficult winter and late spring frosts.  Be prepared for winter low temperatures some years a full zone colder than previously, and also a full zone warmer other years. Or, if you are really unlucky, a yo-yo winter that can zap the blooms of early cultivars. Blake’s list of survivors above makes a good starting point of resilient fruit crops.

Berry Growing Basics

The first section covers the planning and preparation: finding the plants you want, getting good tools, prepping the beds, then planting and maintaining the areas.  Choose a site with full sun, good drainage of air and water, a low enough water table so that your crops will not get flooded, protection from strong winds, and ideally land with a gradual slope. Be alert to the micro-climates on your land.

Choose the species you’d most like to grow, of those that will thrive in your area. Be sure the fruit will ripen and you can prevent other creatures who might eat the fruit. Be sure there is an unsaturated demand for that particular fruit locally. Gooseberries have loyal fans, but not millions of them. Ask neighbors, grocery stores, commercial growers, your local Extension service and university ag department. At the same time, find out what publications, courses or funding are available. Don’t flood the market with more of the same, if you could focus on something else that many people want. Be realistic about likely yields. New growers and those growing heirlooms should expect half the published yield figures. Look at your costs.

Look at your climate, and pests and diseases you’ll likely contend with. Understand winter-hardiness zones for what they are, and look at all the factors other than coldest winter temperatures. Zone 6 in Washington State is like a highland desert; zone 6 in Kentucky is moist, humid and verdant. Notice your weather and signs of imminent change. Blake reports that he can hear distant train whistles not long before rain starts.

Blake Cothron, author of The Berry Grower

Get soil tests and add needed amendments. Prepare your beds ahead of time. Blake recommends using silage tarps for 60-90 days before planting (less in hot weather). Consider solarizing with clear plastic to cook any disease pathogens, nematodes and weed seeds in the top few inches. Just 6-7 days is enough when hot and sunny.

Choose cultivars that are productive, reliable, tolerant of the range of your weather, as well as well-flavored. If your plant only produces one superbly flavored fruit in good-enough condition to sell, that’s going to be so disappointing! There’s a useful summary at the end of the chapter, to make sure you cover all the bases before parting with your money.

This book guides you carefully through all the steps to get the plants established. Weed management and irrigation follow, and mulch. There are good tips on making beds (turning the soil and no-till, using tarps for 30-90 days, clear plastic for 7 days, and landscape fabric for long-term cover), and a thorough explanation of Integrated Pest Management. Learn about today’s bugs, and modern tools and methods. There is a one-page checklist of factors to consider when pests take over.

Next is an up-to-date chapter on buying plants. Or, sometimes, buying plant material (cuttings or divisions). There are warnings about accepting gifts from neighbors (pests, diseases, varieties that don’t grow that well). Just in case anyone is still unsure: hybrids are the result of breeding work that crosses open-pollinated varieties. You may have heard of hybrid vigor (the name we gave our first Prius!). Hybrids can bring good qualities from both sides of their family, providing productive, vigorous crops. They are not GMOs. There are no small fruit GMOs, except for a couple of research tomatoes and peppers, that are not sold on the open market. See the ISAAA’s GM Approval Database. Remember, if a nursery (such as Blake’s Peaceful Heritage Nursery) is Organic, it does not use or sell GMOs. Also, be realistic: you can buy a non-Organic plant and by growing it in Organic soil, with Organic amendments, you can develop that little twig into a healthy shrub.

Learn how to handle cuttings, how to heel-in plants temporarily, and then how to plant (add nothing to the hole). Consider some useful tools. I wonder why I never bought a tapener, or a berry rake? They do look helpful.

Floricane raspberry patch making new growth. Photo Kathryn Simmons

Berry Crops

The second section starts with in-depth profiles of blackberries, blueberries, raspberries (black and red), strawberries, juneberries, muscadine grapes, gooseberries, currants, figs and – surprise – tomatoes.

There are descriptions of recommended cultivars, and Blake’s very useful Urban Market Farming Rating and Rural Market Farming Rating, comparing different fruits. Blackberries only get 2/5 for the Urban Farming Rating, but 4/5 for a Rural Farming Rating (the difference here is the income you might need for the area). In a home garden, you can use large tomato cages to support the canes. Blueberries are widely popular, and productive once established. The one-page Blueberry Soil Prescription by Lee Reich sums up what is importantly needed to succeed. Raspberries are Blake’s top choice, 5/5, for both urban and rural fruit plantings. Easy, popular, productive only 6-12 months after planting. I favor the fall fruiting types, particularly Caroline, because the canes bear fruit the same year they grow, so after fruiting you can mow the beds, and weed and make a fresh start each year.

Strawberries can be cultivated under either the annual production system or the matted row system. The options include fall-planted annual production, used in the south (zone 7a and milder). Annual production from spring starts involves pinching off the flowers in the first year, maintaining the plants for over a year before getting any harvests. If you can establish plants in the fall in your climate, you can get production the following spring and then choose between renovating the beds for a second production year, or terminating them. 4/5 in every situation.

Rolling hay over newspaper for a new strawberry bed.
Photo Luke Stovall

Juneberries (shadbush, saskatoons, serviceberries), if you get a good cultivar, are like small blueberries with little almond-flavored seeds. Mediocre varieties are small, bland and watery, and prone to diseases. There are two main species of Juneberries: for Northern areas, Amelanchier alnifolia (Saskatoons), and the tree-form grown on the East coast (Amelanchier canadiensis) and a hybrid x grandiflora (serviceberry) with better disease resistance. The Alberta Government has published The Saskatoon Berry Production Manual.

Muscadine grapes (Vitis rotundifolia) are less well known north of Kentucky (zone 7). They are a native plant, considered by the author to be the best all-round organic market growing grape. (Also see the mention of the more cold-hardy Munson grapes in his Maybe section later). Muscadines are large, plump, sweet, aromatic and chewy. They have seeds and thick skins. They are extremely resistant to diseases and bugs, and they thrive in humidity! Fruiting starts in year 3, and increases to about 50-80 lbs (23-36kg) per plant. The large vines need a strong trellis, 12-20ft (3.7-6.1m) space each, and rigorous pruning. If planting female cultivars, you must include some self-fertile ones for pollination. The book suggests some good ones.

Mulberries have a big future. The trees are cold-hardy and late-blooming, so late frosts do not wipe out your harvest. Be sure to buy regionally-adapted species and cultivars. The more popular species include red mulberries (native in the Eastern US), white mulberries native to Asia and hardy to zones 4b-6, with berries that can be white, lavender, purple or black, and the black mulberry tree (native to Europe/Asia) which is hardy to zone 7. If you seek genuine Morus nigra, be careful to not get sold a black-fruiting Morus alba. Then there is the Himalayan Mulberry, Morus macroura, which seems hardy to zone 7, maybe 6. Mulberries are one of the easiest tree fruits to grow organically, but do note that trees are either male or female. Named cultivars are always female, but seedlings naturally can be either. Don’t plant the males unless you want to test your pollen allergies. Consider pruning your trees annually to a bush form, for easier harvesting, unless you want a large landscape tree. Illinois Everbearing is the deservedly most famous cultivar, suited to zones 4-9. Remember to prune, or the branches may break off. Mulberries have a low Urban Market Farming Rating, because the trees could shade other crops. and the roots could compete too much for nutrients. The Rural Market Farming rating is 5/5.

Gooseberries are only worthwhile in regions with a market for these northern European berries. Black, red and white currants can likewise do well in some locations and be wasted in others.

Fig with frosted leaves.
Photo Ezra Freeman

Figs do well when grown organically, although cold climates will limit their size and yield. Blake has them in a hoophouse. Consider an in-ground Walipini greenhouse. Be warned that fig latex is phytotoxic (can burn your skin, while also being an effective treatment for skin warts) — take care when harvesting. In humid regions, grow rust-resistant cultivars such as Celeste, Brown Turkey, Magnolia and the LSU cultivars. The book includes information about 17 cold-hardy figs (zones 5-7), 6 warm climate cultivars (zones 8-10) and 9 for hot, humid climates (zones 8-10). I learned a lot about figs from this book (I’ve never grown them). Ratings of 4/5 for Urban Market Farms, 5/5 for Rural ones.

Next are tomatoes, a crop I did not expect in a fruit book. Yes, of course they are a fruit. Here is solid information about growing tomatoes for market. Plant regionally-adapted cultivars, look for production, consistency, resiliency as well as flavor. Ignore heirlooms, go for the “heirloom-like” hybrids, which have greater vigor, reliability, disease-resistance, and yields, with attractive appearance. (Blake confesses to ignoring this advice early on, and regretting it later.) Marnero looks and tastes just like Cherokee Purple, but is very productive. Balance 10-25% of fancy types with plenty of hybrid red slicers. Here are tips on growing strong transplants, choosing a trellising system and keeping your eyes on yields and sales. Consider also selling plants, value-added products, and seeds. As a “casual” sideline, the author earned over $900 in sales of organic tomato seeds one year. 5/5 Ratings in urban and rural locations.

Riesentraube cherry tomatoes.
Photo Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Other Berries to Consider

These main profiles are followed by shorter profiles of other fruits that you could consider growing: aronia, autumn olive, goumi, bush and Nanking cherries, kiwiberry (hardy kiwis), cactus fruits, cornelian cherry, hardy passionfruit, elderberry, feijoa, goji, various hybrid cane berries, rosehips, seaberry (sea buckthorn), Munson grapes (free cuttings from Grayson College for growers and researchers), che, and honeyberry. A few of these I had never heard of. Honeyberries (haskeps) ripen about two weeks before strawberries.

Harvesting and Marketing Berries, Now and in the Future

Next follow chapters covering harvest, post-harvest and marketing, and the future of small fruit growing. Blake has noticed that if you harvest your blackberries early every morning, you will avoid the beetles and birds which arrive at midday. Get there first and get more fruit, and make the patch unattractive to the pests! Harvest with both hands, always! Use buckets that strap to your body, or crates on carts that you pull down the row. Identify ways to reduce or eliminate unnecessary movements, including not handling fruit more times than you must. Pick straight into marketable containers.

Berry Grower Interviews

The book includes two interviews with successful small fruit growers, focusing on education, outreach, direct marketing, diversity of crops, and a creative, resilient, ambitious, hardworking, patient, smart mindset. These are detailed interviews of 4-6 pages.

Climate Change and Fruit Growing

Commercial fruit requires (mostly) perennial plants that bloom when triggered by the internal timer of the plant. You can’t delay fruit bloom the way you can delay broccoli heading by planting later. Growers may need to switch to different cultivars, or different fruits more suited to newer and potential-future conditions. The book suggests how growers can contribute to breeding efforts and selection of better cultivars: later blooming or lower chill hour requirements, hardier buds and blooms, more heat and drought tolerance, more resistance to diseases and pests, reduced days to maturity, better resistance to heavy or repeated rains, and last but not least, increased nutritional value. Blake spells out a 7-step process for growers selecting their own cultivars, to bring resiliency back to our farms and to future generations.

Get this book and apply Blake’s experience and wisdom to your fruit plantings, diet or market!

Click here to view the author’s page on the New Society Publishers‘ website, and watch his videos.

Book Review: Cold-Hardy Fruits and Nuts by Levy and Serrano

Cover of the book Cold-Hardy Fruits and Nuts

Book Review: Cold-Hardy Fruits and Nuts: 50 Easy-to-Grow Plants for the Organic Home Garden or Landscape, by Allyson Levy and Scott Serrano. Chelsea Green, March 2022, 384 pages, 7” x 10”, 250 color photos, extensive resources, $34.95.

ADDENDUM 7/27/22: Since writing this review I have heard that some of the plants that are not invasive in New York’s Hudson Valley are invasive elsewhere, so if you have any doubt at all, please check with your local Extension Service.

This book is a delight for the landscaper, plantsperson, and fruit connoisseur. Here are profiles of 50 fruits and nuts, almost certainly including at least one or two you haven’t heard of. Che, akebia, medlar, schisandra. . . they are all resilient, low-maintenance cold-hardy plants for growing in temperate zones. And growing trees is, as Eric Toensmeier points out “one of the world’s highest-carbon forms of gardening and farming.”

The authors are the founders of the Hortus Arboretum and Botanical Gardens in New York’s Hudson Valley, a garden they created to provide inspiration for their work in visual arts. As the garden grew to 11 acres, their main passion evolved into growing and selling ornamental and edible plant collections with a focus on underutilized species, and sharing their gardens with the public through classes and open days.

Cold-Hardy Fruits and Nuts does not include apples, peaches, and other popular fruits that are actually a challenge to grow sustainably (although pears are included). This book assumes you will find basic cultivation advice from some other source, and instead focuses on specific details about each plant that you might not have seen anywhere else. The authors’ goal is to increase diversity for reasons of climate resilience and support for insect species.

The plant profiles include taste ratings, recommended cultivars, propagation methods, requirements for soil, sun, shade and fertilization, and notes on harvesting and eating; also a Growth Difficulty Rating alerting readers to the level of attention (low, lower and lowest!) that the plants will require once established. The crops in this book are disease-resistant and pest-resistant. Many of the plants have a photo page with bark, blossom, leaves and fruit at various stages of development. The fascinating plant descriptions and natural histories will keep you entranced on rainy days. I found myself wishing for a calendar of fruiting dates, to plan year-round fruit. Although not presented in that format, the information is in each Taste Profile and Uses section.

The first fruit is akebia, also known as chocolate vine. It is an attractive ornamental, and if you want fruit, you need two genetically different plants. Akebia is easy to grow and thrives on neglect. It could be invasive, although the authors have not found it so. The 3-5” (7.5-13cm) fruit look like purple sausages with a waxy bloom. When ripe, the fruits split open showing white pulp enclosing tiny black seeds. The taste is like coconut-flavored tapioca pudding.

The second plant is the familiar almond. If you have disease problems with peaches, plums or cherries, think twice. If you have room for a few large trees, consider growing a few Dunstan blight-resistant chestnuts, and helping the restoration of the great American chestnut. Or plant pecans, choosing varieties suited to your location. Wait up to ten years for nuts.

Walnuts (black and English, as well as hybrids like heartnuts butternuts, buartnuts) need a long-term plan. All walnut trees produce the compound juglone in all parts of the tree. This compound is allelopathic – it inhibits the growth of nearby plants, both edible and ornamental – so give them a space of their own. Hazelnuts grow more shrub-like if American, more of a small tree if European. Eastern filbert blight can be a problem with European hazelnuts, but not American ones.

The Korean Stone Pine or Chinese Pine Nut thrives on steep slopes and thin soils. The trees do grow tall, looking from a distance like American White Pines. Although self-fertile, they provide higher yields if two trees are planted. The cones take two years to mature, and are covered with a very sticky resin. Store them in bags until the scales separate. The seeds in their shells look like small pistachios.

Asian pears are easy to grow and the usual pear disease and pest problems (fire blight and codling moth) affect them less. Shipova is a hybrid of the European pear with the whitebeam mountain ash, propagated by grafts. The fruits are 1.5-2” (4-5 cm) and stay green for a long time before ripening to a blushing yellow. It can take ten years before any fruit is available. Usually the flavor is sweet, delicate and fragrant.

Quinces are tree fruits closely related to pears, and were more popular in the past. The Pilgrims brought quince seeds from northern Europe, and it was the only source of fruit pectin until the end of the nineteenth century. Watch out for fire blight and cedar apple rust. The fruit is hard and downy, and cannot be eaten raw. The easiest way to cook them is to bake them whole, when they become fragrant and delicious. The authors didn’t have this information, and instruct on peeling and de-seeding before cooking, which is slow work. Cooking whole and making jelly is another option. Older varieties of flowering quince also produce fruit, but in modern varieties that feature has been bred out and double-flowering has been bred in! A few of the fruiting varieties include Crimson and Gold, Jet Trail, Tanechka, and Toyo-Nishiki which all grow as shrubs, not trees.

Medlars are another ancient old world fruit, with not much modern-day interest. The fruits are not edible until “bletted” by a hard frost or by waiting beyond normal ripeness, when they get very close to rotting. The small trees have beautiful spring blossoms, and if you don’t harvest the fruit, they remain on the twigs during the winter, giving added interest then. They can also be eaten frozen during winter walks through the orchard.

American Persimmons really must ripen on the tree to be good eating. They don’t need a frost, but they do need to be soft, with a golden-orange to red-orange skin. Harvest the fallen ones each morning from late September until the end of November.

Beach plums grow wild on the east coast from North Carolina upwards, and while they are easy to grow, the quality of the small stony fruits varies. Nanking cherry is a short shrub producing small bright red (or white) cherries that can be used for pies. They fall from the bush when ripe, and need to be gathered and used soon, as they do not have a shelf life. The flowering shrub is very attractive.

There are some (relatively) hardy citrus, such as the trifoliate orange, a very thorny tree with small sour fruits, useful for marmalade and fruit sauces. The trees are very good for hedges and Flying Dragon makes a spectacular winter sight with snow on the twisted branches.

Jujubes are also known as Chinese dates or red dates. They are easy-care trees once established, ripening in mid-late fall if in full sun. If left to dry, the fruit gains a date-like texture. Two trees are required for cross-pollination, choosing varieties that have flowers opening at the same time of day. They can survive cold winters, provided the summer is long and hot.

Pawpaws have earned themselves several books of their own in recent years. Although tropical flavored, this fruit is adapted to temperate zones, and needs 400 chilling hours below freezing in order to flower. They are slow to reach fruiting age, but then are easy to maintain. The large oblong fruit contain several large seeds and a soft custard-like flesh. They can be eaten out of the skin with a spoon, or they can be frozen to eat later, like ice cream. Don’t eat the skins, and don’t eat cooked pawpaws. Two different trees are needed together for cross-pollination. There are myths about which insects pollinate pawpaws, but the authors attest to seeing many species of flies and beetles at work in their pawpaw flowers.

Black raspberries are a delicious wild fruit you can cultivate, although they are susceptible to disease and can spread the plagues to red and gold raspberries. Blackberries can be managed by thinning the canes, providing a trellis, shortening the canes or settling for a semi-wild, semi-constrained patch. Boysenberries are the result of complex crossing of blackberries, raspberries, and loganberries. The trailing canes are hard to manage, and the thin-skinned berries are best used very soon after harvest, without any need to travel.

Mulberries grow on trees, not canes, ripening in late June or early July. Everbearing types produce a second flush of fruit, into August. If you have large harvests of these delicious fruits, spread a tarp or sheet under the tree and shake the ripe fruit loose. There are black mulberries for southern areas, as well as the cold-hardy white and red mulberries. The Illinois Everbearing cultivar produces plentiful large fruit on a shorter tree than the wild types. The structure of the tree is a bit fragile, so you may need props under the branches.

Che berries look like dogwood fruit, but are not related. They are a kind of mulberry, and they are also related to figs. Their flavor is like both. They are now classified as a type of Osage orange. Aronia berries (chokeberry), Cornelian cherries, and goumi berries are all small berries that grow on shrubs or small trees that can make an attractive addition to a landscape. Goumi is an Eleagnus, related to the invasive autumn olive. Because goumi is not invasive (and the berries are bigger), it makes a good alternative. Also, goumi roots capture nitrogen from the air in the soil, improving its nutritional profile, and making it possible to grow them in salty soils.

Juneberries are also known as Saskatoon, Serviceberry, Shadblow and Shadbush. There are 20-25 species in North America, one for almost every climate area. Poor soil is sufficient, but full sun is better than partial shade. There is no sourness to the flavor, and the authors suggest that the mild flavor is enhanced if you chew the seeds too. They do make good pies, but because birds are fond of them, you may need to snack as they do, or harvest under-ripe.

Blackcurrants were once widely prohibited in the US, blamed for killing pine trees by spreading white pine blister rust. In most places it is no longer illegal to grow blackcurrants, and there are some disease-resistant blackcurrant varieties. They don’t do well in hot places, but the flavor is worth pursuing. The authors report that over a 14-year period, their pine trees have not been affected by the neighboring blackcurrants. Gooseberries are another European fruit once under the same ban as blackcurrants. Not all the European varieties do well in the humid mid-Atlantic, although there are still a hundred that do! Invicta, Poorman and Jahn’s Prairie are recommended as successful sweet types.

Photo Marilyn Rayne Squier

Blueberries are native to North America, and do best in acid soils containing a specific beneficial mycorrhizal fungus around the roots to make soil nutrients absorbable. There are Northern Highbush, Southern Highbush, Rabbiteye and low bush types. See the book for recommended varieties. Huckleberries look like lowbush blueberries but have larger, crunchy seeds. Lingonberries, another blueberry relative, are Sweden’s national fruit and develop on low-growing spreading evergreen shrubs. They do best with acid soils, whether shady or sunny. In hot areas choose spots with afternoon shade. The plants make an attractive year-round ground cover, with the flowers and berries providing extra seasonal interest.

Seaberry (Sea buckthorn – but it’s not a buckthorn), produces shiny orange fruits in late summer, with high levels of several vitamins and many health benefits. The bushy plants have an aggressive growth pattern, and the thorns can be off-putting. But if you persist you can enjoy these tart berries cooked and sweetened.

Grapes are a well-known vine crop. Muscadines, the native American grapes, found in the Southeast and South central US, are not found in New York, and are therefore not in this book. Muscadines do better with high heat and humidity, being more resistant to fungal diseases. The fox grape, native in the northeastern US, lead to the development of the Concord variety. If growing grapes, cover each developing bunch soon after pollination with a paper bag stapled closed around the stem.

Arctic kiwis are related to the large fuzzy tropical ones, but are hardier, smaller – about 1” (2.5cm) long – and smooth. The large vines are easy to grow, but do need a strong trellis. Hardy kiwis or Chinese kiwis have vines that are much bigger – up to 100’ (30.5m) long, and can take years longer to start producing. Their fruits are a little bit bigger than Arctic kiwis, with a more complex flavor, and, again, no fuzz, so no need to peel. Unlike Arctic kiwis, they do not fall from the vine when ripe.

Here’s a rare one: Himalayan Chocolate Berry. This very ornamental member of the honeysuckle family naturalizes rapidly (invasive in warmer areas?). It feeds many birds, and provides small nibbles for passing humans. It will never be a commercial success, because the sporadic ripening reduces the size of any one harvest, and the berries tend to split once ripe. Honeyberry is another honeysuckle type that is edible (most honeysuckles are slightly poisonous.) Honeyberries are a very cold-hardy early-harvesting berry, a long-shaped, blue-purple fruit, ripe when no longer at all green inside. Aurora, Berry Blue and Borealis are recommended varieties. Birds love them.

Schisandra is another less-known vine, producing tangy red berries, hanging down in generous clusters. You will need to trellis this vigorous vine, and maybe search the foliage for the hidden fruit. Most people will want to sweeten the fruit or juice it with sweeter fruits. Schisandra is not invasive, and you will need to plant several to be sure of having at least one male and one female. Goji is a berry growing on a “vine disguised as a bush”.

Cranberries are well known, although not that many people construct a bog to grow their own. Instructions for creating a “bowl bog” are in this book. Elderberries are a relatively well-known fruit. Note that all green parts of the plant are toxic (I didn’t know). I am more familiar with European elderberries, which we happily eat raw, and juice. American elderberry is apparently slightly toxic, and to most tastes, not pleasant if eaten raw. This shrub is very tough and adaptable, and has many medicinal as well as culinary uses. York seems to be particularly sturdy. European varieties may grow for several years but then decline.

Spikenard is a native herbaceous perennial found in cool shaded woodlands, and growing to 5’ (1.5m) tall in a single season. The tiny berries are not poisonous as some sources claim, but if you are nervous, cook them. They look a little like elderberries.

Wintergreen is a distinctive flavor familiar from some American candy, toothpaste and chewing gum. The shade-loving vines hug the ground, thriving in acid soils. The scarlet berries ripen in fall, persist on the plants all winter, and actually become sweeter after some cold weather. They don’t taste good at the end of the winter, though, so harvest while they are good eating. There are some modern cultivars selected for larger berries, although this plant is mostly grown as a ground cover or used for winter wreaths. The leaves can be used as tea. Those allergic to aspirin should avoid wintergreen because all parts of the plant contain methyl salicylate, an aspirin-like compound.

Mayapples are found in the understorey of Eastern woodlands, pushing up through the leaf-litter in early spring and unfurling large palmate leaves. All parts of the plant except ripe fruits are poisonous, and too many fruits can have a laxative effect. The roots have been used to relieve indigestion, and cancer drugs are derived from them. The fruits are lemon-shaped, up to 2” (5cm) long. Wait for them to soften and start to wrinkle in the summer. Discard the skin and seeds (slightly toxic). The pulp of the ripe fruits has a tropical flavor.

Maypops grow on the very ornamental passionflower vine. The egg-size fruits don’t provide a lot of food, but have an interesting mildly sweet, mildly acid flavor, once the fruits start to wrinkle. The seed are surrounded by tasty edible arils (like pomegranates).

After all the profiles, there are two pages of further reading, two of plant nurseries, about 20 pages of extra notes about the crops, and 20 pages of index. A very well-researched book!

Author Allyson Levy
Author Scott Serrano

Book Review: Manage Weeds On Your Farm

Front cover of Manage Weeds on your Farm

Book Review: Manage Weeds On Your Farm: A Guide to Ecological Strategies, by Charles Mohler, John Teasdale and Antonio DiTommaso. SARE Handbook 16, 2021, 416 pages, color photos, drawings, charts, $24.00

This immense book is a game-changer! A resource enabling us to understand weeds better and deal with them smartly, exploiting their weaknesses, making best use of natural and created resources.

About 300 pages comprise a directory of major agricultural weeds of the United States and Canada: about 20 grasses and sedges; about 45 types of broadleaf weeds. Many of the weeds in North America came from Europe, so the book’s usefulness is not restricted to this continent. The focus is on weeds of arable farmland. Gardens fit in this category, although the physical tools will be smaller! This part of the book is not merely to help you identify weeds, but to develop a management plan for each one.

The first part of the book is 120 pages of agricultural gold – an exploration of concepts of ecological weed management. Understanding the biology of weeds is vital to successful ecological management. (Note that I’m avoiding the use of the word control, as the authors do.) The book is “intended to provide the information you need to grow crops without synthetic herbicides, great expense or back-breaking work.” Good information is an efficient tool. Understanding more about how the biological world works will enrich your life!

This is not a book many of us will read cover to cover. It’s a toolbox. Read the first section, then seek out the profiles of your most problematic weeds and make a plan for each one. In each profile there is an identification section with good photos, a management section, a concise summary, referring back to cultural and mechanical strategies, and an ecology section with specific information leading to the recommendations in the management section.

Chapter 2, How to Think About Weeds, starts with the reminder that weeds die from various causes (any of which we can use to advantage). Seeds may fail to germinate, or get eaten. Seedlings die from drying out, disease, competition from other plants, or lack of light, or being eaten, mowed or turned under.

“The goal of ecological weed management is to arrive at a balance between birth and death that keeps the density of weed populations low most of the time and reduces them quickly when density starts to increase.”

You need to increase the death rate and reduce the germination rate of the weed seed bank, or else the population continues to increase. This demonstrates the value of understanding which tools to use in which situation. Keeping on hammering with a wrench will not work well!

Seed size is one of the characteristics of weeds that affect their successful management. Smaller seeds are easier to kill, because the seed does not provide much food for the seedling. Large-seeded crops and transplants can out-compete small-seeded weeds, if the timing of cultivation is right. There is a good explanation for why tillage prompts seed germination, which can give weeds the upper hand. Environmental cues such as soil temperature, the difference between night and day temperatures, oxygen levels, even a brief flash of light, can indicate if the seed is near the surface and whether there are competing plants up there. The cues can be very specific. Velvetleaf and tall morning-glory germinate in response to a sudden absence of certain volatile compounds which are vented from the soil during tillage. Understanding this Secret Life of Plants can help us figure strategies for specific weeds.

Different weeds germinate in different seasons, and crop rotation between spring, summer and fall crops will disrupt weed lifecycles and prevent any one taking over. Another consideration is that the same percentage of the seeds still in the soil will die each year. This means that if no fresh weed seed is added, the seed bank declines rapidly in the first few years, leaving some seed persisting for years.

The main cause of seed death is probably that seeds germinate in unfavorable conditions and then die. Secondly, seeds are eaten. Lastly, some seeds rot and decompose. Small seeds deep in the soil are unlikely to germinate. It takes a big seed to provide the resources to grow a shoot that can reach a long way to the surface. Galinsoga seeds rarely emerge from deeper than ¼” (6mm). Few seeds can germinate from deeper than 2” (5cm).

June-planted potato emerged through hay mulch. Potatoes are a C3 crop
Photo Pam Dawling

Nowadays we are learning about two photosynthetic pathways, C3 and C4. C3 plants thrive in cool, moist conditions, not needing full daylight to maximize their photosynthesis. Most cool-season grasses and broadleaf weeds use the C3 pathway.  They can increase photosynthesis (grow more) as CO2 concentration in the atmosphere increases. C3 crops like potatoes, pumpkins and soybeans will probably do better against C4 weeds as CO2 concentration increases in the climate disaster. C4 plants perform best at high temperatures, with more sunlight enabling more photosynthesis. Bermuda grass, foxtails, pigweeds, and common purslane use the C4 pathway. But C4 crops such as corn will have a harder time with C3 weeds. If your climate becomes warmer and drier, C4 weeds and crops will be favored over C3 weeds and crops. This effect may be stronger than the effect of increased CO2.

Silver Queen sweet corn with wilting pulled pigweed amaranth. Corn is a C4 crop, amarnath (pigweed) a C4 weed. Photo Kathryn Simmons

Other factors influencing growth include frost tolerance, drought tolerance, and the presence or absence of mycorrhizal fungi. The majority of flowering plants do form mycorrhizal associations, but many weeds and some crops do not. Brassicas, chenopods (spinach, beets, lambsquarters, amaranths), smartweeds and sedges do not. Mycorrhizae assist the growth of host plants by providing nutrients and a good growing environment. When conditions favor mycorrhizae, those crops are more competitive against non-mycorrhizal weeds.

The diameter of the roots also has a role. Large-seeded crops tend to have large diameter roots, while small plants tend to have small diameter roots, which can grow longer faster. Pigweed (small seeds) after 28 days of growth has a root-length:weight ratio eight times higher than sunflower (large seeds). Pigweed roots are better at gathering nutrients, because they explore more of the soil, and can absorb more nutrients (because the ratio of surface-area:volume is greater).

Some weeds flower near the end of their lifecycle, after growing quite large, in a “big bang” (pigweed and lambsquarters). Removing these weeds early in life prevents the competition from these large plants that reduce the crop yield. If you miss that opportunity, killing the weed later in life (before it seeds) will help future crops.  Other weeds are “dribblers” – they start to set seed while still small. They can hide among the crop plants, making seed whenever conditions are favorable. Failing to remove these weeds early in life will potentially reduce yields for many years. This is how galinsoga can be such a nuisance in vegetable farms, surviving where the soil is frequently cultivated, and sometimes neglected long enough for seeds to mature. It’s always worth hand-pulling a large galinsoga as you walk by, as the largest plants produce the most seeds.

Galinsoga – a fast growing, fast-seeding weed of cultivated soil.
Photo Wren Vile

All plant species have natural enemies (diseases and pests that have co-evolved to live in balance), plus the occasional alien plant enemy that could devastate the population. Consequently, there are few natural enemies of weeds other than imported ones. Bio-herbicides are rare. But there are less obvious natural enemies of weeds. The authors measured the mortality of lambsquarters and redroot pigweed in the absence of human intervention. 80% or more of the lambsquarters emerging after tillage died before maturity. Fungi and insects were the likely predators. Results with pigweed were similar.

There is a chart of edible weeds for those inclined to engage in direct weed eradication, and the chart includes cautions about toxic parts of each plant.

The chapter summary lists ten important lessons. Dealing with roots and rhizomes of perennial weeds; rotating between spring, summer and fall-planted crops; influencing when weed seeds germinate and when they die; using transplants; using slow release nutrients to feed your crops rather than the weeds; avoiding over-fertilization; preventing weeds from seeding; reducing arrival of new weeds on your farm.

Wheelhoe, Courtesy of Valley Oak

Chapter 3 is about cultural weed management. Ecological weed management involves “many little hammers”, using multiple strategies together in a complementary way. Crop rotation is one that involves advance planning. Spring weeds can be destroyed while preparing the soil for summer planting, reducing future pressures in spring crops. Good stands of overwintering cover crops, especially mixtures, can inhibit winter and spring weed germination. The diversity of field operations associated with particular crops is as important as the diversity of the crops themselves.

Growing healthy competitive crops is a fundamental part of weed management, and involves many aspects, starting with using high vigor, fast-germinating seeds. Planting the crop at an appropriately dense spacing will reduce weed opportunities. Any crop that produces multiple harvests (kale, tomatoes, squash) can be planted closer than most recommendations without loss of yield, whereas those with a single harvest (cabbage, lettuce, corn, root crops) will get smaller if planted too close. Planting 50% closer is usually worth trying, for a higher total yield, when smaller individual units are acceptable. Thus may involve more time harvesting, and bigger seed purchases. The reduction of weeds may benefit many subsequent crops.

Other factors not yet mentioned include row spacing, row orientation (plants get more light in rows that run N-S), choice of fast-growing or large-leaved varieties (Danvers are better at shading than Nantes type carrots), planting date (avoid the period when the dominant weed species is likely to grow vigorously), intercropping (practice with caution, avoid having two crops in competition), nutrient and water supply.

No-till cover crops, where the residue remains on the soil surface, will inhibit many weeds, and provide many other ecological benefits. Organic no-till isn’t the answer for every situation. It keeps soil cool and somewhat compacted, and doesn’t release its nutrients quickly, so it isn’t good for early spring crops, or early warmth-loving crops. To sow the necessary good stand of cover crops, tilling is required. This means no-till can have a valuable place in your rotation, but continuous organic no-till is not likely to work.

Tarping is a method of covering the soil with large opaque tarps for several weeks, to germinate and then kill emerging weeds by depriving them of light. This provides a seedbed ready to plant. Tarping can also be used to kill mowed cover crops or crop residues. Tarping can be useful in the transition from tilled to no-till farming, while weeds are still a big challenge.

Solarizing with clear plastic. Photo Pam Dawling

Solarization is another soil-covering practice, this time with clear plastic and the goal of heating the soil to kill weed seeds, pests and disease organisms in the top layer of soil. This method works in hot weather in areas with a good amount of sunlight. It works best when the plastic is laid tightly over well-prepared beds, providing good soil contact. The edges are buried to hold in the hot air. It takes several weeks to kill weed seeds, even when conditions are right.

A flock of chickens can do a good job of weed management, if penned in the vegetable garden early enough to allow 90 days after their removal before the crop is harvested (above ground crops) and 120 days for in-ground crops. These are commonsense food safety precautions required for Organic certification.

There are two main approaches to weed management. The first is to remove enough weeds so that crop yields are not compromised in an economically significant way. The second is to minimize weed seed production, aiming for very low weed populations, meaning little weed management work in the future. This preventive weed management requires more precise attention in the early years, including removing weeds that are not, in themselves, causing measurably lower yields. Either approach can be successful, but the preventive strategy is a good one for people who are growing older (!) and want less work in the future, while maintaining an income and satisfying work.

Chapter Four covers mechanical and other physical weed management methods. “The effect of tillage or cultivation on a weed population depends on the interaction between the nature of the soil disturbance and the ecological characteristics of the weed.” In other words, to control a particular weed, we need to know the features of that weed and choose methods of cultivation and tillage that will exploit the weaknesses of that weed, and take account of the weather, the soil conditions and the crop stage. Timing determines success, and the greatest success comes from using a planned sequence incorporating several operations.

There is a very clear explanation of vegetative reproduction of perennial weeds and how to thwart that process. Tilling chops up roots, which grow into new plants. Partial damage to perennial roots stimulates sprouting of dormant buds. The best chance of success comes from exhausting the root or rhizome pieces. With most perennial weeds, carbohydrates flow from the storage organ into the leaves until they produce enough food to return some to the root. The ideal stage to kill such plants is when the pieces of the storage organs drop to their minimum weight after growing new leaves. Generally this is after three or four leaves have grown.

Tilled fallow is a time without crops, when the plot is tilled often enough to stop weeds proliferating. Most annuals take 5 weeks to set seed, and so once every three weeks is a good tilling frequency, for management of both perennial and annual weeds. This will inevitably damage the soil structure. Growing a fast cover crop (buckwheat or a mustard) between tillages will reduce the damage.

Buckwheat cover crop in flower.
Photo Pam Dawling

A discussion of ten Principles of Mechanical Weeding follows. A useful chart of two dozen weeding implements and tools provides information on when and how they are best used, which crops they are most suited to and what their limitations are. The chart is followed by pages of clear drawings of various cultivators, with explanations of when they are most useful.

Often one goal is the creation of a surface layer of small aggregates allowing good air circulation and decreasing germination of new weeds. This is widely called a “dust mulch”. Weeding early, shallowly and often, is widely shared advice. Shallow soil disturbance can eliminate a large percentage of annual weeds, without bringing new seed to the surface. Small weeds do not re-root easily, as they have only small reserves of energy. Weeds over 2” (5cm) tall are more likely to re-root.

After the profiles of five farms with great weed management strategies, explaining their overall approach to weeds, comes the directory of weeds, including information on resources, naming, ecological information, recommendations for management and the limitations of those recommendations (for example, whether or not they have been field-tested).

There are summary tables of summer annual weeds, winter annual weeds, and perennial weeds, each subdivided into broadleaf weeds and grasses, with information on characteristics. To help with visualizing seed sizes from the weights given, they helpfully tell us that a lettuce seed is likely to weigh 1mg. The tables are followed by 3-4 page profiles for each weed, including several clear photos of the weed at different stages of growth, management suggestions, ecology and a handful of references for further reading.

There are tips on developing management plans for weed species that are not in the book. Some weeds are a big problem in a small geographical area, and of not much consequence elsewhere. Record your own observations, using the questions provided to focus your attention and identify the weed. Each taxonomic level (family, genus, species) can provide actionable information. There are some great resources for weed identification, leading me to find one from Virginia Tech

There is hope for dealing with even the worst weeds! “Competitive cover crops are effective for suppressing bermudagrass.” Example: A dense fall sowing of winter rye, barley or oats, harvested for forage in spring, with the stubble plowed under to allow sowing of a very competitive summer cover crop like cowpeas. The dense shade following the late spring soil disturbance will suppress the grass.

The directory is the main part of the book, and the part where you will want to search out your worst problems and form a plan. Keep this book in a place you can always find it when needed, for the rest of your farming life!

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Book Review: Grow More Food by Colin McCrate and Brad Halm

Cover of Grow More Food, by Colin McCrate and Brad Halm

Book Review: Grow More Food, a Vegetable Gardener’s Guide to Getting the Biggest Harvest Possible from a Space of Any Size, by Colin McCrate and Brad Halm. Storey Publishing, 2022, 300 pages, diagrams, $24.95

This book, Grow More Food, is an updated version of the authors’ 2015 book, High Yield Vegetable Gardening. I have been a big fan of that book since it was published. This book has much the same content but is a larger format with color photos and a larger print size.

Some of the content has been rearranged into a different, more logical, order, (athough a good index does make all topics findable). Some of the more technical or professional terms have been changed from the earlier book. “High yield” has become “productive”. The real or fictional example gardeners have almost disappeared, although drawings of their gardens live on.

If you have High Yield Vegetable Gardening and like it a lot, as I do, you probably don’t need to buy Grow More Food, unless as a gift for a friend, or if you are going to relegate the old version to the greenhouse or shed as a quick reference work. You may like to have the bigger print and the more informative and inspiring color photos in your house for periods of longer contemplation and planning. The new one, however, does not have the lay-flat spiral binding of the old one. The book is definitely a good one to keep on hand, in one version or the other.

The authors founded Seattle Urban Farm Company in 2007, and have been running it since, helping more people grow food. Their focus is to ‘find joy in the simple pleasure of doing a little better each season.” Here they are bringing proven professional techniques for bigger harvests to vegetable gardeners on any scale. The information is presented very clearly, without jargon, so that home gardeners will easily benefit. As I said in my review of High Yield Vegetable Gardening, this also provides newbie professional growers with solid information on techniques that work, without the need to understand everything at once.

These are gardeners after my own heart. Here are details you will benefit from knowing and putting into practice, which are not found in many gardening books: interpreting and using soil tests, choosing onion varieties that work at your latitude, succession planting for continuous harvests, flame-weeding, making soil block mix of the right consistency, dealing with salt build-up in greenhouse soils, minimizing nitrate accumulation in winter greens under cover. There are lots of useful charts.

This edition has more emphasis on building and maintaining good soil, and includes sidebars that dig deep into particular topics such as providing onion flavors all year, making space dedicated to perennial vegetables, converting farm-scale soil amendment rates to garden-scale ones, setting transplants at different depths, hand pollination of cucurbits, and the role of ethylene in crop storage.

Dibbling holes for planting leeks.
Photo Wren Vile

The sequence of topics starts with clarifying your garden priorities, planning and record keeping: “It’s no exaggeration to say that a detailed garden plan alone can double or triple the productivity of a garden.” There’s help in choosing the right size of garden for your needs, experience and available time. Next, create a map or drawing of the garden site, including buildings, paving and trees, and consider which crops to grow. The chart of annual crops includes days to harvest and whether to direct sow or transplant. This enables gardeners to compare short-season crops, long-season crops and those in between, to plan food for the whole season; and sequential follow-on crops to make best use of all your space.

Once you’ve figured which crops to grow, how much of each to plant, when (and how often) to plant them, you can create your planting calendar. There are options for format, and a real-life example with arugula. This is followed with a sample section of a planting calendar with harvest tracker and room for notes for next year.

The next big question is “Where?” Make a map of your garden and think about a crop rotation to help you get the best yields by avoiding planting the same crop in the same place each year. A two-year rotation simply has two groups of crops and two beds or plots that flip each year. A three-year rotation can consider which crops need heavy feeding and follow two years of heavy feeders with one of light feeders. Also, if you don’t have soil-borne diseases, consider the counter-intuitive idea of following brassicas with brassicas in the spring and fall of a year, and avoiding brassicas in that bed for the next two or three years. For gardeners like me who grow a lot of brassicas, this makes planning a rotation easier. As well as an overall map of the whole garden, make a planting schedule for each bed, with space to write things down.

A pest and disease management log is another useful piece of record-keeping. It will remind you when to be on the lookout for particular problems, and what strategies worked for you previously. A garden log or diary with entries each day you garden can end with a To-Do list, including things to buy, and watch for.

Colorado potato beetle on an eggplant leaf.
Photo Pam Dawling

And that’s just the first part of five. The second is about building healthy soil, providing a diverse ecosystem, high nutrient-level crops and big harvests. There’s information on making boxed beds, if you want to go in that direction, or lasagna beds, where organic materials are piled in layers, and tilled beds incorporating amendments. Tarping (covering soil with tarps to smother weeds) is also discussed. Mulches for pathways are compared. There is a very clear description of taking, submitting and understanding results from soil tests, accompanied by an annotated soil report.

There are clear instructions on making quality compost, buying compost, improving soil with cover crops, and mulching over winter. This chapter includes a manageable chart of “beginner” cover crops (buckwheat, four clovers, peas, vetch, mustard, oats and winter rye). Then comes the weed-reduction chapter. Strategies include dealing with weeds while they are small and seed-free, hoeing (photos of various types, with pros and cons), flaming (good safety tips here!), tarping and mulch.

Part 3 is Get to Know Your Plants – “Grow More Food by Planting the Right Varieties at the Right Time with the Best Care.” Smart gardening, with no wasted effort. Choose suitable varieties (open pollinated ones and hybrids) to match your climate and your goals. Order sensible quantities, store leftovers carefully (cool, dry, dark, airtight, mouse-proof) for use next year. There’s a two-page chart of Seed Lifespan, including parsnips and peanuts, something for every climate. Seed treatments to improve yields are covered, including soaking, scarification and inoculation.

The chapter on transplanting and direct seeding advises on which technique works for which crops. There’s information about supporting plants, from hilling up with soil, to making trellises. Supplemental fertilizers (during the growing season) are useful for some crops, not needed for others (the lists are in the book). The general theme is that heavy feeders and fast-growing crops will benefit. There’s an interesting section on pruning for production, including for good air circulation; for delaying bolting; for encouraging earlier harvests (by root pruning); and removing late flowers to focus energy on maturing fruits already formed.

The goal of managing pests and diseases is not to eliminate them all, but to control levels by cooperating with and stimulating natural processes that restore balance. This process starts with preventing problems, and ramps up if this does not succeed well enough. Develop good soil; attract beneficial insects; use rowcover or netting to keep expected insect pests from vulnerable crops; use deterrent sprays such a baking soda, hot pepper, garlic, kaolin clay for various problems; bring in beneficial organisms.

To nip any problems in the bud, it is important to monitor or scout your gardens at least once a week, looking for problems. Distinguish problems caused by extreme temperatures and water shortage from those caused by pests and diseases. Find good ID resources. You may be able to hand pick or trap enough pests to make the difference between a damaging outbreak and a trivial level. The authors explain why it is unwise to rush for the sprayer. Sprays are a last resort, even organic ones, because they may kill unintended insects, and they leave some of the pests alive to develop resistance, making that spray ineffective in the long run. There’s a two-page chart for pest and disease management strategies.

Part 4 is entitled Create Efficient Systems. It describes how to use your resources well, so time, money and space are not wasted, and you get the best from your efforts. Set up a home nursery to grow your own transplants, and plant the varieties you want in the quantities you want, to fit your schedule. Here are details on light intensity and where on the color spectrum the light should fall. You may be surprised just how much light plants need. For overall plant growth, general full-spectrum lights are just fine for a nursery, where the plants are headed outdoors to the natural source. Growing plants to maturity indoors is another (costly) matter.

The photos on making soil blocks are very helpful, and it’s a topic not covered in many places. Various types of plant container are covered. Making your own seed-starting schedule is explained. There’s info on propagating from cuttings, grafting with silicone clips, and watering or misting tiny plants. The next chapter covers irrigation of more kinds: drip systems (good description and photos for newbies) and sprinklers (including oscillating lawn-type sprinklers, wobblers, impact sprinklers and microsprinklers). This section will clear up a lot of confusion. Whichever you choose, make yourself an irrigation map, helping ensure you run pipelines and hoses along the best route, and set up sensible zones. Designs that minimize the need to move equipment around during the growing season will preserve your sanity and sense of well-being.

One of our im[act sprinkler tripods, in a broccoli patch.
Photo Pam Dawling
Part 5 is Extend and Expand the Harvest. This includes storage. Good techniques and timely harvesting let you get the most food from your crops, and eat them at peak quality and flavor. Extending the growing season includes starting as early as possible, finishing as late as possible, helping crops get through hot weather as well as cold, and planting successions to give you a seamless harvest through the growing season. Try crops you have not grown before.

The section on choosing protective structures will help you think about the pros and cons, costs and benefits of low tunnels (with rowcover or clear plastic), cold frames, greenhouses, high tunnels (also called hoophouses), and combinations of low tunnels inside high tunnels. If you are undecided on this topic, Grow More Food could save you from buying the wrong thing and wasting many times its cover price. And it could save you the big disappointment of not getting the harvests you hoped for. Consider not just cost but also ease of use (let’s enjoy our gardening!), suitability for your climate, and gained productivity. Glass greenhouses and greenhouse heating are often not cost-effective, and heating brings environmental costs too.

When weighing up design features, do the math for your own situation. I dislike the “comb” greenhouse bed design because it doesn’t work so well with drip tape. The authors say it maximizes usable space. But the difference is very small and the disadvantages are several. You lose the staging area of the lengthwise beds design. Many gardening books neglect methods of summer cooling, but the climate emergency is upon us. Here you will find good ideas about shade cloth and using overhead irrigation for cooling.

The next chapter is about timely harvesting and successful storage. Remember when planning your garden to think about how much food you can use, including not just how much your household can eat, but also how much time you have each week for harvesting and storage. There is a good discussion about becoming a skilled harvester. For each likely crop there is a short description of which part to harvest, and how to recognize maturity.

Next is a section on harvesting “hidden” crops – extra harvests form your garden: weeds, less usual parts of crop plants, such as flowers, garlic scapes, carrot leaves, pea shoots and tendrils, and sweet potato leaves. You can harvest more food from the same plants by choosing varieties that provide multiple harvests (loose leaf crops, broccoli side shoots, turnip and beet greens and roots).

How to harvest garlic scapes.
Photo Wren Vile

There’s a bit on washing crops, and food safety. Then harvesting for maximum freshness and quality, and storage, short and long term. Not everything should be refrigerated! Onions, garlic, winter squash, potatoes and sweet potatoes need to be cured before long-term storage. Be sure to get the details right, or you could have big losses. There is a 4-page chart of storage conditions for various crops. Although I agree with the authors on almost everything they write, I wouldn’t wipe down winter squash with bleach. I’ve never found it necessary.

At the end of the book are worksheets you can photocopy and use. Or you can download them from Seattle Urban Farm. They include a Crop Amount Worksheet, Planting Calendar Worksheet, Planting Dates Worksheet, and Garden Planning Chart. The website also has sample log pages for a specific bed, for the garden as a whole, a pest and disease management log, harvest log, and planting calendar with harvest tracking.

There is a resource section and I was particularly happy to find two resources for non-toxic wood preservatives for garden use. The index looks very thorough – 21 columns for 300 pages.

The Seattle Urban Farm Company has a blog and a podcast, and their Projects page will give you lots of ideas on garden layout and design. Their shop sells training sessions, webinars, and individual coaching.

Brad Halm
Colin McCrate

Okra Planting Time

Young okra plants.
Photo Wren Vile

We’ve reached mid-May, the time of year to transplant our okra. Okra is a tropical annual in the mallow family, and is widely adapted where the frost-free season is long enough. Okra is heat- and drought-tolerant and has few serious pests or diseases. Those in hot climates will need to deal with its exuberant growth in mid-summer. Those in cold climates should choose fast-maturing varieties and transplant into black plastic. In areas with cold nights, okra can only be grown in a hoophouse.

Okra Varieties

We like Cow Horn okra from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange, which gives good yields and sturdy plants in our zone 7a climate. It is one of a few varieties that can grow relatively large pods without their becoming tough. We are sometimes not good at finding all the pods when harvesting, so it is an advantage to us if they are still good to eat when bigger than normal. SESE has an Okra Growing Guide.

High-yielding varieties include Cow Horn (55 days), Jade (55 days), Cajun Jewel (50 days).

Spineless (easy to harvest) varieties include Clemson Spineless (56 days), and Evertender (50 days). Red-podded varieties include Burmese (58 days), a high-yielding dwarf heirloom, and Red Burgundy (49 days), reported to do well in “cooler” areas, although it will not do much until day time temperatures reach 80°F (27°C).

Close up of Cow Horn okra pods.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

Crop Requirements and Yield

Okra does best in well-drained, fertile, loamy soils with high organic matter. Wet clay soils can drown the plants. It grows best with a pH between 6.5 and 7.0, although as high as 7.6 is still OK.

5 gm sows 50’ (15 m) at 6” (15 cm) spacing. Average yields are about 50-100 lb/100’ (7.6-15 kg/10 m). We grow 90’ (27 m) for 100 people, which provides enough for some pickling too.      

Sowing okra

According to Rodale’s 600 Answers, germination speed can be improved by freezing the seed overnight, then soaking in hot water for ½-1 hour before sowing. It needs to be warm enough to get your seed germinated: you can soak the seed for 8 hours in water at 88°F (31°C).

When we direct sow, we “station-sow” – we put three seeds ½-1” (1-2.5 cm) deep at each spot where we want a plant to grow. We do this on May 1, with rowcover, as this is around our last frost date, and we want to avoid disasters! Direct sow once the soil temperature averages 65°F (20°C), 3-4 weeks after last frost.

When seedlings have 3-4 leaves, we thin to the strongest seedling. Okra is sturdier if direct sown, rather than transplanted, but you work with the climate you’ve got!

Transplanting okra

Okra seedlings in a Winstrip 50-cell tray.
Photo Pam Dawling

Usually we transplant, especially if we are intercropping. For transplants we sow April 15, using soil blocks or Winstrip 50-cell flats. I was amazed to learn that at 6″ (15 cm) tall, plants could have taproots three times as long! At full maturity, the tap root could be 4½ ft (1.4 m).  To avoid stunting the taproot, get the small plants in the ground as soon as you can, carefully.

We transplant 3-4 week old starts – a plant with 3 or 4 leaves is ideal – at 18” (45 cm) spacing in a single row down the middle of a bed. We transplant May 11, 10 days later than the direct-sowing date. In the past we used wider in-row spacing, but found we could get a higher yield with the “hedge-like” closer spacing.

Some growers plant as close as 6” (15 cm) in the row, with 5’ (1.5m) between rows, or plant double rows with 12” (30 cm) between plants, and wider spacing between the beds. Thick planting requires very fertile soil, and risks diseases from poor air circulation. Wide spacing can lead to heavily branched plants, and more pods per plant, but not necessarily more pods for a given area. It may lead to a later start to the harvest, as flowering is delayed while the plant grows bigger.

Burmese okra flower.
Photo by Raddysh Acorn

Intercropping Okra

Okra is slow-growing until hot weather arrives. We sometimes take advantage of this and its upright growth habit to transplant okra into a bed of early cabbage. We transplant cabbage in two rows along a 4’ (1.2 m) bed on March 10 and the okra in a single row down the middle on May 11. We mulch the cabbage, which has the disadvantage for the okra, of cooling the soil, so don’t try this if direct sowing! At first the cabbages are relatively small, and the okra uses the open space in the middle of the bed. As the plants grow, we remove outer leaves of the cabbage that might overshadow the okra. Finally, we harvest the cabbage and leave the okra to grow to full size. This method saves space, and efficiently uses our time to help two crops with one weeding.

Okra plants can be huge by September!
Photo Pam Dawling

This post is part of what I have written about okra in my book Sustainable Market Farming. Buy the book to read the rest, including crop rotations, pests and diseases, harvesting and post-harvest care of okra.

Pickled okra, garlic scapes and beets.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

The Whole Okra

See my review of Chris Smith’s book The Whole Okra. Chris has grown 125 varieties of okra, and still counting, and cooked it in many different recipes. His book includes using the oil from the seeds, eating the leaves; making okra-stem drinking straws, okra seed tempeh, okra marshmallow delights; okra history and geography, medical and industrial uses and so much more. Here are instructions for freezing the sudden glut of okra that often arrives at some point in the summer, pickling (both by fermenting and with vinegar), drying (best when strung on dental floss). Best of all are the okra chips. Chris has a video of taste testing on YouTube,

Unlearn, Rewild: Earth Skills, ideas and inspiration for the future primitive, by Miles Olson

Unlearn, Rewild: Earth Skills, ideas and inspiration for the future primitive, by Miles Olson. New Society Publishers, 2012, 200 pages, diagrams, $19.99

This is not a new book, but I was drawn by the title, as rewilding is a word I’ve been hearing lately. I thought I would learn about growing diversified hedgerows, and including areas of native wild plants to attract beneficial insects and predators. Instead, this book combines philosophy, politics, and ethics with some survival skills. If you seek answers to questions around what “sustainability” really means, and what it is you want to sustain, then this book can provide some pointers. Skills such as foraging, trapping, and using what you have are included.

The author, Miles Olson, was part of a small community of feral homesteaders for ten years, ten years ago on Vancouver Island. While I enjoyed some of the essays in this book, I was disappointed to find so little about growing food, which is my own passion in life. The author sees all agriculture as intrinsically problematic. The food part of the book is very meat-focused. I believe a mostly vegetarian diet supplemented with meat is the more sustainable way to go.

I agree with the author that skills are pointless if not grounded in a cohesive context. Why tan hides? It’s not helpful to the planet to tan hides on Saturdays and water-ski all week. We cannot relax into philosophizing without making practical contributions.

Olson questions the word “sustainable”, which is the first word in the title of my book, Sustainable Market Farming. Currently the favored word for planet-inclusive agriculture is regenerative. I’m sure this word will also get greenwashed, as organic and ecological have already. We need to consider what we actually mean by the words we use. What is it we want to sustain? Destroying the rainforest to grow soybeans for animal and vegetarian food is not sustainable. Monocultures of any sort destroy diversity. Destroying peat bogs to plant trees (as carbon offsets for other unsustainable practices) is not sustainable. Destroying good agricultural land to make conifer plantations so that jet-setters can continue jetting about is not sustainable. The global population needs to be fed. And so will the people of the next century.

“To “rewild” is to return to a more natural or wild state; the process of undoing domestication. Synonyms: undomesticated, uncivilized.” This is where Miles Olson starts to set out his anti-farming table. Farm animals are dominated and controlled by farmers, with their wild spirits extinguished. Humans are also domesticated animals. Hence the need for us to unlearn some domestication. Cast off assumptions that you need to earn your keep, for instance. I found his analysis unsatisfactory. He throws all aspects of the modern world that he does not agree with,  into the barrel of “civilization”, while keeping back ones he likes such as practical skills, intelligence, books, science.

While I found some of his thinking valuable, I did not like his gloominess, or the certainty that he professes. “Every day the world is ending. . . Our lifetimes, if we are not sedated, are going to be filled with loss and struggle. . .” He does continue with “. . . when we embrace that, we can move through it with more strength and determination.” But let’s also remember joy, humor, kindness.

In reading other reviews, I found that others say some of his facts are untrue. So, reader beware. Do not throw your critical thinking to the winds. “The back-to-the-land communities. . . a movement that was solid and strong in urban centers scattered into the countryside and gently faded away into dysfunctional utopian communities.” Now, that I know is not true! I live in a large community started in 1967. I’ve lived there 30 years. We’re not dysfunctional! We’re running our own businesses, producing quite a bit of our own food, raising around a dozen children at a time. Yes, I feel defensive!

He claims to be descended from nomadic reindeer hunter-herders in Scandinavia and acorn-gathering fisher people in the British Isles. I had not heard of Ancient Brits eating acorns. British acorns are considerably smaller than American acorns, and hazelnuts are tastier. This site: Old European Culture, says the writer has found no archa­eological data on acorn consumption in the British Isles.

When he was 17, Miles benefited from spending several summer months, living alone in a cabin in the woods on a small island in British Columbia. He was fortunate that it was not winter, or somewhere with a less benign climate, or the streets of Chicago. He was fortunate to be a physically healthy young white man. He grew a garden, foraged, trapped, and hunted. The solitude was life-changing for him. As he says “Everyone has different wounds to heal from, everyone has different ways of healing.”

In order to stop killing the planet, we need to realize that our own survival depends on the health of our land, with an understanding of our place on that land. Are tools neutral? “Guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” A part of the truth. People with guns kill more people than people without guns. We have to reduce the risk of gun deaths by making more gradual changes, and working on a plan towards our goal. Which technologies are ethical, appropriate, and which ones are inherently destructive? Good questions from the author.

I agree that technology can provide power and efficiency, while it can also take away understanding and connection. The internet allows us unprecedented ways to connect with others. But these are inferior to real-life connections, as we have become acutely aware during the Covid pandemic. It gives us access to massive troves of information, while seemingly destroying our ability to remember what we’ve read and sometimes even think for ourselves.

Is it “common knowledge” that hunter-gatherer societies do not destroy their land bases? Many societies have collapsed. Possibly some groups out-hunted or out-gathered what their environment could continue providing? Several pages bemoan the terrible things that white people did when arriving in North America. I doubt his claim that the immigrants did not appreciate that they had found something beautiful, a better way of life. Or that they (all?) “worked as fast as possible to degrade what was here.” As Jared Diamond says in Collapse, no one decides to cut down the last tree, but rather people cut smaller and smaller trees until the weather takes what saplings remain and no more seedlings can appear.

I appreciate that Miles includes an essay “On Being White”. How does the blond, blue-eyed white male reconcile himself to his lineage of colonizers? He doesn’t accept that his destiny is to be an oppressor. The Earth didn’t produce the white male oppressor, the white male oppressor did. “When our goals, views and perception fall in line with the plans of those in power, we have been fully colonized.” We cannot ignore the privileges that come with our ancestry. Olson says that we should use these privileges to navigate our way towards a society that is completely intolerant of racism, empire and genocide.

Author Miles Olson

The next hot topic is about diet – is veganism or radical sustainability best? Olson is an ex-vegan. He no longer believes veganism is good for humans or the planet. We have no evidence of a traditional society that sustained itself by being vegan. The very valid concerns and passions that drive vegans also drive the author. But their conclusions are different. Olson’s concept of radical sustainability includes nourishing and maintaining the planet. Traditional sustainable cultures are mostly omnivorous and they don’t farm. They hunt, fish, trap and forage. They don’t eat burgers from factory-farmed animals.

Veganism does not address domestication, over-population and the reduction of wild land. On the contrary it seems more urban, more detached from the roots of finding our own food. Veganism is efficient (cut out the cattle and eat the grain ourselves!). But hunter-gatherers worked fewer hours than farmers. Nowadays we cannot all become hunter-gatherers. Population density is too high where most of us live. Biologically, we are omnivores. Herbivorous animals have multi-chambered stomachs, regurgitate and chew the cud, and lack incisors. We are not like that. Cultures that eat mostly raw foods eat mostly meat. Those that eat mainly plants, mostly cook them (or ferment them). 92% of long-term vegans, 67% of vegetarians and 5% of meat-eaters suffer from B12 deficiency (WebMD).  A place-based (locavore) diet involves us in noticing and supporting what foods can be produced on the land we live on. It can teach us humility and respect.

The next essay is about the succession of plant types that colonize bare soil. Invasive plants are not a cause of destruction but a first response of the environment. Scotch broom may be followed by Himalayan blackberries, then red alder and finally the climax species of hemlock and cedar. There is no point in pulling the Scotch broom, it’s only there temporarily anyway.

Following the essays is the section on endangered practical skills. It’s a motley collection, including how to truly determine if dead animals are safe to eat. (Lots of myth-busting.) Roadkill can be a source of meat, and here you can learn how to tell how fresh the meat is. Look at the eyes, pull the hair, bend the joints, look at the size of the maggots. I’m confidant not everyone will want to use this information. I’m not squeamish about food expiry dates. I like to have facts, rather than myths. I do hope he checked his facts. . . Once again we see that the focus of this book really is on meat.

Olson says that in 2012 Africa, at least one group of Pygmy people will kill an elephant and camp around it, feasting and drying some meat for later, until it was all used. No freezers or refrigerators in sight. It is easier to imagine Inuit caribou hunters keeping meat cached for a year or more, because of the cold.

Next comes a chapter on feral food preservation. Traditionally, before refrigeration, there were three main methods of food preservation: drying, cellaring and fermentation. Secondary methods include salting, smoking and packing in various liquids or finely divided solids like ashes and sand. At last! Vegetables and fruit! Anything that can be dried in a dehydrator can be dried by sun and air, indoors or out. I was especially intrigued by the recipe for Gundru, or Gundruk, one of the national foods of Nepal. Pickled greens, without any salt. Crush the leaves, preserving the juices, and pack tightly in a jar, tamping down the layers. Don’t let any juice escape. Put a lid on. Leave the jar on a tray or plate in a warm place for 1-3 weeks. When ready it will smell tangy and tasty. If not, don’t eat it (yet). It can be eaten fresh, or can be dried, but should be used within a few weeks of opening.

There are interesting ideas such as storing apples in water (perhaps the origin of bobbing for apples), then it’s back to the meat. Olson explains the butterfly cut, a way to slice meat into long thin strips for drying, and discusses the hazards of smoking (carcinogenic creosote). He explains how to eat various less-likely parts of animals, and also the difference between the fat of herbivores and that of omnivores and carnivores, and explains how to render fat and store it. Next he gives directions for making pemmican, a staple food of Plains Native Americans. It is a mixture of powdered dried red meat with rendered fat, rolled into balls. The author has personally lived off pemmican as a staple for several months. If dried berries, seaweed or other dried plants are included, it is a complete food.

The next chapter brings in some plants as medicine. The author wisely encourages us to learn a few basic useful plants first, and really understand those, rather than overwhelm ourselves with hundreds of local medicinal plants. His list includes comfrey and yarrow for wounds; yarrow for influenza; Queen Anne’s Lace seed (beware of poisonous look-alikes) as a natural morning-after contraception; plantain for coughs, small injuries, stings and bites; high tannin plants for burns; goldenseal, Oregon grape and barberry against bacteria, viruses, fungi and other infections. I’m not advocating any of these, read up and make your own decisions.

Feral food cultivation is next, managing wild food plant sources to encourage more of what we want – pruning berry patches, weeding and tending camas plots. What appeared to incomers to be completely wild forests were sometimes forest gardens carefully tended by the native people. Clearing land to grow or raise culturally approved foods (domestication) puts us at war with what the land is naturally producing. Do you have a deer problem or a venison abundance? Miles favors learning how to support the land to feed us in sustainable, elegant and effective ways. This can include weeding, pruning and controlled burns.

The author advocates for trapping rather than hunting, as a means of efficiently and effectively obtaining meat (and skins), leaving lots of time in the day for other activities. (I almost wrote “other pursuits”, then realized that sounds like hunting!) This does require understanding the habits of our prey, and might require changing our outlook from being brave, sporty, manly, to being most effective. So “Hunter-Gatherer” might become “Trapper-Gatherer”. And with the considerations about managing the forests, “Trapper-Gardener” or “Gardener-Trapper” when you consider the relative proportions of each type of food.

The book includes details on traps for various animals, and tips on becoming a successful trapper. Coppicing of trees (cutting them down to a stump that can resprout) is a sustainable forestry method that provides poles. There is information on catching mice and how to eat them (cooked!) without contracting hantavirus. I hope never to need to eat mice, but I guess in a survival situation, I could do it. I just hope to be better prepared and not need that information!

The trapping chapter is naturally followed by information on skinning and gutting animals of various sizes, and later comes tanning. Sandwiched curiously in between those chapters is one on birth control in the boonies, for those that need it.

There is a chapter on gathering and curing nuts. Beat the squirrels to the harvest of still-green hazelnuts, and ripen them in a warm, dry rodent-proof place. (Black?) walnuts, apparently, are best soaked to remove the anti-nutrients. Acorns take a lot of attention: drying, shelling, toasting, removing the skins, grinding, leaching and then drying or immediate cooking as mush.  I hope I never get that desperate. It’s a lot of work for the food they provide. Chestnuts we hope will make a comeback, thanks to hybridization. Horse-chestnuts (buckeyes) are toxic unless roasted, peeled, ground and leached for several weeks in a stream. Like acorns but bigger. What’s left is almost pure starch. Harvesting the squirrels first might be the way to harvest nuts.

Then we get to bugs, typically eaten whole, or with just the tickly legs and wings removed. Apparently there are over 1,700 known edible species in the world. Mind you, the earth is running out of bugs, and it takes a lot to make a meal, so I do question the sustainability of entomophagy (consuming arthropods as food). We need to hold back on killing everything that eats what we want to eat.

To close out the book there’s information on making fat lamps in the wild, using oils or fats from animal and plant sources. And finally there’s ideas on using human excretions safely and productively. The author’s conclusion is that we need to deal with our problems as they arise, to stop things becoming so miserable we cannot cope. We need to honestly evaluate ways of living sustainably, whether those ideas come form the past or the future. The “future primitive”

There is a 2014 Utne Reader interview here.


Book Review: The Ecological Gardener by Matt Rees-Warren

Book Review: The Ecological Gardener: How to create Beauty and Biodiversity from the Soil Up, by Matt Rees-Warren, published by Chelsea Green. 200 pages, paperback, $24.95

This is a lovely book for those wanting to make their backyard or homestead into an area more aligned with nature. It includes fruit trees and vegetables but these are minor themes in the book. It’s a guidebook to understanding your land, and working with the features of the space – slope, water, soil, light and shade. It includes constructing rainwater catchments, making compost, encouraging wildlife, and including more native plants. The author, Matt Rees-Warren, lives in southwest England, a country noted for artfully gardening every corner of tiny spaces.

The fact that almost all vegetables grown in the UK are non-native (changing the way wildlife and ecosystems interact with food production) can make a dividing line between those focused on encouraging biodiversity and those prioritizing food production. The author seeks to rebalance these approaches, to preserve wildlife, restore clean water and soil health.

The opening chapter, on design, suggests observing and studying our land, letting go of previously-formed plans and following nature. Observe your garden within the framework of the four elements Earth, Air, Fire and Water, using a page of questions about the prevailing conditions. There are tips on testing the structure of the soil and its ability to drain (or hold) water. If you notice an area prone to flooding, think about making a pond, a rain garden, or a bog garden. Or think about planting short trees to suck up some of the water without overshadowing other ideas for nearby. Give forethought to plants that colonize and grow rapidly. Imagine making the garden interesting and attractive (and perhaps productive) in winter as well as summer.

You can draw up your garden plans, but expect to be flexible about what happens. Work with the contours of the land, rather than plan for lots of earth-moving (unless you want a really big pond!) Note which elements of your dream will need the best light, and look at where to put those. Observe the microclimates as well as the prevailing elements of the weather.

As far as possible, design a garden that takes care of itself, providing for its needs from its natural resources. Make a cyclical design with no waste. Consider adding chickens or ducks. Make each area as rich in species as you can, for resilience and abundance of resources. The fittest will survive, even if they are not the species you expected to thrive there!

The second section, on the soil, encourages us to take care of the mycorrhizae, which extend the “reach” of plants’ roots, getting them more water and nutrients in exchange for carbohydrates for the fungi. Aeration of the soil can be a useful project for very compacted soils, but it will destroy the mycorrhizae. Reducing tillage will conserve the fungi. I like the author’s description of soil as “the basket that holds the roots of the mightiest organisms” (trees) as well as the roots of tiny seedlings.

The soil has an important role in holding carbon, and reducing tillage is one way of conserving the carbon already in the soil. When bare, soil emits much more carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, and supports fewer life-forms that might capture and store more carbon. In the natural world, the top 3 cm (1.2”) of the soil can take up to a thousand years to grow. Let’s not degrade that treasure! Building a successful compost system is a way to work in harmony with nature. Aerobic composting is what happens on the forest floor, open to air and water, heat from the sun, and animal activity. Cold aerobic composting happens if you never turn the pile: hot compost requires introduction of new air. Anaerobic composting corresponds to bog conditions, where the organic materials are deprived of air, and may have an overabundance of water. All composting is valuable. Hot aerobic composting adds the advantage of cooking weed seeds and pathogens. Anaerobic composting, where the ingredients are sealed underground, underwater or in a container, ensures that vermin have no access. There are tips on building compost bins, making leafmould and loam, bokashi compost, bokashi bins, compost teas and biochar. Vermicomposting (a good, cold-aerobic method for those with only a small space), animal manures and compost toilets (followed by hot-composting the product) are also given space. The issue for the ecological gardener, of how organic the animal manures are, including the humanure, is discussed. Medications, non-organic foods, are not the best ingredients. We work with what we have.

The third section is about plants. The native plants mentioned are, like the author, British. These plants are the European non-natives in the USA. Sometimes they are a problem. In helping you choose what to grow, consider plants that grow best in the open, in shade, in deep shade, in dry areas, in grassland, in marshes and bogs. You can substitute plants native to your region. There are tips on turning a lawn into a wildflower meadow. You need to start in the fall, cutting the grass very short and scarifying it to pull out 80% of the roots. The flower seed needs bare soil to germinate in, so roll or in some other way, press the seed firmly into the soil. Native plants generally shed seed in the fall, and some need a period of cold to break dormancy.

There are tips on scything, on planting a mixed species hedgerow (and for turning a hedge into a hedgerow of mixed species); on laying (pleaching or plashing) a hedge to keep livestock on one side of it, and on collecting seeds from wild plants. There is a table of which species need seed stratification, and which need scarification, and details on how to do each of those, and on taking and rooting cuttings.

Chapter 4 is about water, starting with rainwater “harvesting” or catchment. How we source, use and reuse water is of vital importance. Some past civilizations showed great mastery in water management: Minoans, Romans, Turks, and more. I’ve seen impressive English Victorian stonework reservoir management systems in Yorkshire and Derbyshire. One plastic rain barrel holding 150 l (40 US gallons) doesn’t go far enough to address a garden’s needs.  Your garden might need 5000 liters/1250 US gallons. Assuming barrels would refill 8 times during the year, one barrel only provides half enough.

The author avoids plastics whenever possible, and advocates for finding old wood whisky barrels. Most of the construction projects in this book use recycled lumber, typically from dismantled pallets. For rainwater collection, used metal drums and tanks are next best to wood. Aesthetics is important too. There are tips for creating a vista. There are tips on creating “Tranquil Effects” with rain chains for roof runoff, and channels, rills and gullies to move water through your landscape. Remember to make swales and ditches to catch overflow water from all the water features, to avoid erosion, slow the water down and let it soak usefully into the soil.

Matt Rees-Warren in his element

Rain gardens are easier to make than ponds. These are areas of dedicated plantings that can absorb larger amounts of water. There is a page on how to make one. There are instructions for constructing a bathtub reed bed in your garden. Grey-water use is another way to reduce the amount of fresh water you need for your garden. Water from showers, laundry, and sinks can add up to quite a lot of potentially useful water. One way to make use of grey-water is a keyhole bed with a central funnel or basket into which grey-water is poured onto compost full of micro-organisms, with a lower level of rocks and gravel.

The next chapter covers wildlife, everything from microbes to mammals. The author says: “By adding organic matter into the soil on a regular basis in the form of compost, you will do infinitely more to aid the food web than anything else.” The decomposition of organic matter sparks many life forms. Ideally, your garden will not be closed off from the rest of the world, but will have permeable boundaries. Opening your land to wild mammals will also mean the neighbor’s cat can come and go, which can cause problems for birds and small mammals. Ponds with a natural continuous water source can become part of a water-flow through your garden. Some ponds may sometimes need the addition of fresh water to prevent complete drying out. See the section on Creating a Natural Clay-Lined Pond. Find a good site, and a source of clay (try construction sites, where there is a pile of excavated clay). After digging the hole, spread a layer of cleaned, puddled clay over the inside, smoothing it with a plastering float. Sit back and wait for the pond to fill. Once plants start to grow, wildlife will soon follow. Seed the berm around the pond with fast-growing annuals to hold the soil in place, and add perennial plants later. Water-loving plants are not happy up on the relatively dry berms. Avoid plants with big roots that will destroy the integrity of the clay liner.

Pollination is important for most plants, so be sure to encourage pollinators: chiefly butterflies, moths and bees.

The chapter on materials includes growing your own plant stakes by coppicing and pollarding, as well as repurposing found and sought-out materials. Avoid new materials if possible, and when shopping, choose biodegradable materials and sustainable sources. Matt makes suggestions for repurposing many discarded items in creative ways. Plant your own coppice with a mix of whips of native trees such as willow, hazel, alder, ash and lime. After five to ten years, start harvesting rods by cutting the stems right down at the base. This kind of pruning can extend the life of the tree, which is perhaps counter-intuitive, but history and tradition bears it out. You can plan for a rotation of pruning each of the trees, some each winter. There are pictures and tips on coppicing a hazel.

We know it’s a poor worker who blames their tools. Here is information on maintaining and sharpening tools. I learned that waterstones should be soaked in water before use until no more bubbles come from the stone. I’d been in the habit of just dotting some water on the surface of the stone! Now I know better.

Mud mortars are explained as an alternative to cement. Matt also addresses the issue of agricultural plastics. He advocates for committing to a closed system, whereby you never send plastics to the landfill. Hard to do, but it does wonderfully focus the mind. And we can all do better at conserving and reusing plastic items.

The Ecological Gardener is a handbook for all who seek to be more ecological while working and playing outdoors on our land. It’s an earnest attempt to move the needle on the environmental impacts of our actions towards living more lightly. It’s not a soapbox, but a toolkit.

More on Insectary Flowers; Vegetable Crop Resources, Especially Weeds


Borage flowers attract many beneficial insects. Spot the honeybee! Photo Raddysh Acorn

More on Insectary Flowers (to attract beneficial insects)

A reader responded to my post Growing flowers to attract aphid predators in early spring

“Isn’t too cold for the predators to be around, Pam? unless they hibernated in the greenhouse. but even so, it’s still cold in there at night. We have some aphids too in the tatsoi and some of the lettuce, so thank you for all the tips, and the life cycle. I had not quite realized that the cycle was so short. I grow borage in the hoophouse but in the ground – the plants get large and gorgeous with clouds of blue flowers in March and April – much bigger and healthier than anything I try to grow outside. The honeybees absolutely love it and they attract are a lot of other insects too.”

Yes, it has been still too cold for predatory insects to be around, until this week, when ladybugs greet us around every corner. Our idea with the flowering plants was that by starting the plants in the fall, we’d have actual flowers earlier than if we started in “spring”, and that perhaps the extra stresses would even cause the plants to flower earlier. Apart from the borage, none of the others have flowered yet (Feb 23). We likely need to fine tune our sowing dates. We sowed at the very beginning of September and the very end of October. That two-month gap probably has better sowing dates! We noticed that some of our plants were not very cold-hardy. Some died and some had to be pruned of dead bits. Since then, we started more flowers in our greenhouse on February 1. Another thing we’re noticing since early February is that the plants in pots dry out very fast. It’s probably better to get the flowers in the ground in the hoophouse and greenhouse as soon as they are big enough, as suggested by the results of my reader quoted above, with borage.We had thought that having them in pots would enable us to move them into trouble spots.

Vegetable Crop Resources, Especially Weeds

Spiny amaranth – a weed to exterminate by careful pulling.
Photo Pam Dawling

A newly released handbook from Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education (SARE), Manage Weeds On Your Farm: A Guide to Ecological Strategies by Charles L. Mohler, John R. Teasdale and Antonio DiTommaso, is set to help us all. I haven’t read it yet (although I am looking forward to that!), so this is not a review, But these are three big names in weed science, and SARE is well-known for providing solid information on sustainable farming.

Silver Queen sweet corn with a wilting pulled amaranth plant in the center
Photo Kathryn Simmons

I had the great good fortune to attend a workshop by Chuck Mohler years ago, and got some realizations that forever changed my approach to weeds. Top of the list is that some weeds, such as pigweed (amaranth species), don’t distribute any seeds until they have grown very big. Until that point they are not threatening next year’s farming efforts. We used to get huge pigweed plants in our sweet corn, and fatalistically did nothing once we were in there harvesting, somehow believing it was “too late”. No, it’s not! They hadn’t seeded. We started to make a practice of pulling the huge pigweed every two days while harvesting corn. Often it was necessary to stand on the base of the corn plant to hold it in place, while pulling the weed. Then all we had to do was drop the pigweed between the rows. Sweet corn ripens in hot weather and the weeds soon died, rather than re-rooting. All those big leaves sucked the moisture right out of the plants. Be extra careful if you have spiny amaranth. We have twice eliminated this weed form our gardens, by diligent hand-pulling, only to have it reappear a few years later!

Galinsoga – a fast growing, fast-seeding weed of cultivated soil.
Photo Wren Vile

Conversely, galinsoga forms seeds very soon after germinating, while still small. This weed is one to strike early and repeatedly. It readily re-roots in damp soil. Our strategy when we are too late to hoe and have to hand-pull them, is to shake off as much soil as possible, then to either twist and break the stem (if there are not many), or “shingle” the weeds, laying them down with the roots of one on top of the leaves of the previously pulled plant, providing a surface of roots all exposed to the air, and none touching the soil. This works quite well. Timely hoeing is much better, of course!

Manage Weeds has chapters on How to Think About Weeds, Cultural Weed Management, Mechanical and Other Physical Weed Management Methods, Profiles of successful managers,  and then the alphabetical rogues gallery of grass weeds and broadleaf weeds.

This book and all the online information from SARE is free of charge. You can buy print copies if that suits you better. Other good resources from SARE, while you’re at their website, include several other books:

Building Soils for Better Crops

Managing Cover Crops Profitably For many of us, this is the “Cover Crops Bible”

Systems Research for Agriculture

Crop Rotation on Organic Farms 

There are also podcasts, bulletins, videos, Topic Rooms and interactive pages to explore.

Winter Vegetable Production Methods

For those who missed the Pasa Sustainable Agriculture conference, here is my slideshow Winter Vegetable Production Methods, From the Field to the Hoophouse

Winter Vegetable Production Methods, From the Field to the Hoophouse Dawling 60 mins 2022 2.11 9am