Book Review: The New Farmer’s Almanac, Vol V

 

The New Farmer’s Almanac from the Greenhorns

The New Farmer’s Almanac, Vol V 2021, Grand Land Plan, by the Greenhorns, Feb 2021, 400 pages, softcover, $25, illustrated with B&W photos and drawings. Distributed by Chelsea Green.

This is a great winter treasure trove to dip into by the woodstove after darkness brings you in from the fields. Or to absorb you on snowy days. Or to leave by a frequently visited seat (!) for browsing. It’s a compilation of pictures and writings as an antidote to helplessness. Here you will find reports from the fields, shores, woods, beehives, kitchens, watersheds, and compost piles.

There are historic pieces, such as The Diggers’ Song by Gerrard Winstanley written in 1649, and very current writing on living in a time of racism, Covid, hate crimes, climate disaster and white nationalist surges. This Grand Land Plan is a vision of the future of food systems and land use, put together by farmers, gardeners, poets, activists, grocers, nature-lovers and agitators. Here are solutions to give us hope and ideas on what to do to recover from the challenges, dismantle inequity, restore our chances of a beautiful world. You can browse for what you need each day: poetry, maps, comics, portraits, lessons from honeybees, campaigns for local food, reports of successes, thoughtful prose on the principles and practice for fair and responsive land use for everyone, or a design for a seaweed commons.

The Greenhorns are a group working to promote, recruit and support the next generation of farmers, through publications and events. Covid has led them to use more digital productions, including EARTHLIFE, initially centered in Downeast Maine, along the Pennamaquan River, where the Greenhorns are based in the old Pembroke Iron Works. The group has several ventures in the town, including carpentry, a boat shop, mycological lab, agrarian library, art spaces and living spaces. They offer monthly naturalist trainings.

The contents are divided into monthly sections with a theme. January’s theme is Resistance and Recovery. Small-scale farmers producing healthy food for local eating, have become the envy of many of those in the big cities. The difficulties of 2020 (and 2021) have thrown home food production and working together into a better light, and shown the deep importance of friends and companions. Vegetable seeds sold out, as did CSA shares. Security is in the potato patch, in knowing how to feed your household with what you have on hand, fix things, organize, be a leader – things that truly matter. Not money in the bank, flashy clothes, having a large office.

People have become aware of the fragility of industrial supply chains and the value of local small businesses and the people who work in them. Mutual aid and support, community-based economies, revolving savings and loans, shared healthcare funding groups – all help people get through hard times and thrive. Doing small things that make a difference can empower us to persist and make more differences. As one pioneering farmer says “When we started, we wanted a revolution! . . . Then we realized, it’s the incremental changes that affect a revolution. And then you realize you have had a revolution. You just didn’t see it coming.” The Black communities have long used mutual aid strategies to survive and uplift each other. Black farmer cooperatives have a long history.

We can get hope from reading about reforestation. By the late 1900s, forest area in Denmark had almost rippled since 1800. Swiss forestation had increased from 19% in the 1860s to 32% in the 1980s. Japan, New Zealand, Cuba and Scotland have all undertaken large scale reforestation. An article describes New Zealand’s One Billion Trees Programme, part of a range of initiatives to build a sustainable economy for the people while also meeting their international climate change commitments.

The articles move from political to poetic to practical, and round again. Should farms set aside areas to encourage species diversity, while “sacrificing” the fields with edge-to-edge plowing and cultivation? Or would we do better to incorporate the diversity into the whole of the farm? Here we can probe this question by considering soil life; soil cover; water, nest and shelter functions; flowering plants (food for insects, birds and mammals); native plants; plant structure and composition (diversity); habitat patches and corridors. This leads to thinking about the effects on humans of time in nature. The Japanese have “forest-bathing” therapy. Perhaps it’s time to recognize the value of “farm-bathing” too.

There’s a Hawaiian glossary of terms related to land and water use. You may not need the actual words, but the concepts are such valuable food for thought! There are wise quotes from Kalaninuiliholiho Kamehameha, Ursula Le Guin and Janene Yazzie. There is material to read on pesticide spraying, fishing, pruning, shopping during Covid, cottonwood tree decline and propagation, trapping fish, spruce bark beetles, farming seaweed. Did you know it takes 11-16 years for a 4ft tall rockweed to recover from being cut back 16ins from the holdfast?

Read about capitalism, cooperation, Medieval European land enclosure, colonization, and other forms of land tenure. Elinor Ostrom, who won a Nobel Prize in economics, researched global commons-based resource management systems. She found that each represents a unique set of ways in which people work together to ensure the longevity and health of the resources they depend on. It isn’t the land or the resources that causes commons to succeed, but the process by which people relying on those resources engage with them and with their fellow commoners. Ostrom lists 8 general principles used.

Garrett Hardin’s 1968 infamous essay The Tragedy of the Commons suggests that individuals will destroy the commons by prioritizing their own needs until the system collapses. The assumption is that financial gain is always more important than social networks, or sense of fairness, integrity, or desire to be well-thought-of. Hardin’s theory was not based on research of actual commons-based management systems. Sadly, he is better-known than Ostrom, and the myth that personal ownership is the most effective and logical way to divide resources, is often spoken of as fact.

Sixty miles east of Alaska, the Gwich’in community of Old Crow had to deal during the pandemic with two uninvited visitors from the city of Quebec, seeking refuge, but bringing no gloves, no tools and a risk that they had the virus with them. The community had limited access to healthcare, many vulnerable elders and a bad history of white people bringing in diseases. Members of the Tribal government met them at the airport, isolated them and sent them back.

Many writers thread their politics through their observations. Sheltering in place, working from home, learning to bake sourdough bread and grow kale are not too hard for the privileged, with spacious comfortable housing, outdoor space, computers, desk jobs, and garden space. “By actively and consciously cashing in on my privilege, I have placed myself in an environment in which feeling relief is possible.” (Quinn Riesenman). Others ponder how to shelter in place when unable to earn money to pay for shelter.

I discovered the work of George Washington Carver maybe 10 years ago, when gathering information about growing sweet potatoes. In the Almanac you can read his instructions for growing peanuts, and how to build up worn out soils. Makshya Tolbert has written a eulogy to her late grandmother, who came from Cameroon, in the form of an ode to peanuts. There are photos of recipe cards from Black women in domestic service. A way of establishing an identity.

The Indigenous Corn Keepers Conference of Uchben Kah in January 2020 brought together indigenous farmers to share experience and cultural attitudes about corn. Did you know corn is one of the few plants that can coexist with black walnut?

I loved Ang Roeli’s essay Radicalize the Hive, on what honeybees can teach us about social change. There is proof in Spanish cave paintings that people gathered honey from bee colonies 8,000 years ago. There is evidence of honey-gathering 15,000 years ago, long before farming. The author followed the ritual of “telling the bees” when the Covid pandemic started. “If we come together now, we could get sick, and many of us could die.” Their response was “If we were apart, and could not hold each other, even for a short while, we would most certainly die.” You can read this metaphorically if you prefer. I was taken aback to see the chapter illustrated with a photo of paper wasps, but then, many people are afraid of stinging insects, and don’t look long enough to distinguish one from the other.

Learn about the history of land tenure in Puerto Rico. It is indeed tragic that the lands of the sugar lords were, in many cases, sold to the multi-national seed magnates. 122 years after sugar plantations, the land is still not in the hands of the local people.

Read the September 19, 1942 front page of the Poston Chronicle, published in the Poston, Arizona concentration camp for Japanese-Americans, which was located on the lands of the Colorado River Indian Reservation, against the objections of the Tribal Council. The editorial proposes changes to the co-operative farm management system, with five year leases on a sharecropping basis. Clearly the prisoners didn’t expect to return to their homes in California any time soon.

History is interwoven with memoirs. A Farm Hand’s Perspective explores the challenges and benefits of working on an organic vegetable farm in the Sierra Nevada foothills. “I have no idea how to quantify right livelihood, proximity to nature’s beauty, and the slow pace of seasonal, rural living. The downsides are much easier to count – long hours, low wages, no healthcare – and due to our socialization in a capitalist society, these are easy to fixate upon.”

For a different slant on life, read about developing native plant materials for roadside dust mitigation in southern New Mexico. Yes, people are researching this, and have promising plants that are drought-tolerant, perennial, quick to establish and able to deal with high salt levels.

Michael McMillan writes about a serendipitous meeting on the road with a mycologist and botanist, who taught him to identify wildflowers, cactuses, shrubs and trees, by first identifying the plant family and noting what types grow where. This practice of reading the landscape informed Michael’s career as an ecological landscape designer.

Colleen Perria writes about restoring oak savanna in the southern Great Lakes bioregion. Oaks are fire-resistant and the Native peoples used fire, producing the savanna, with oaks, grasses, flowers and shrubs. But later the land was cleared by settlers to grow field crops. When abandoned, dense young forests grew up. Concrete came later. We falsely “remember” that deep primeval forests occupied the land before the white settlers, when in fact, that land had been a savanna for ages.

Catherine Bennett writes about composting those glossy political candidate flyers, along with dead lambs and reed canary grass. Will the microbes be able to break down the inks and other chemicals, some probably toxic? Journalist Bill Moyer got tested and found he was home to 84 health hazards. Why do we produce so much waste that isn’t safe to be around?

Back to land reform – this time in Scotland. The public has the Right to Roam across private land, provided they do no damage. Between 2003 and 2016, a set of land reform acts established a diversity of alternative land tenure arrangements, intending to reach 100,000,000 acres of community land ownership by 2020. They only managed just over half a million. Parliament reported that 432 individuals in 2013 owned 50% of the private land. But there has been good progress. The entire 5,000-acre island of Ulva was bought by the residents. The Scottish government has supported these transfers, with the message that if you hold title to land, you also have the responsibility to ensure that its use balances your private profit with public good.

How about this for a $64,000 question: “Is fixing trophobiosis the key to beating everything from Coronavirus to locust swarms to climate change?” Trophobiosis is a symbiotic association between organisms where food is obtained or provided. Locust swarms are one symptom of land degradation and poor land management, where trophobiosis has gone awry. Land degradation leads to chronic drought and flooding, followed by soil erosion and loss of organic matter and nutrients, then pest invasions and increased disease levels in crops, livestock and humans. Covid-19 crossed over to humans from wildlife, where the contact was closer than was wise. Synthetic pesticides, herbicides and fertilizers cause imbalances that lead to pest and disease outbreaks. Francis Chaboussou writes about this theory in Healthy Crops: A New Agricultural Revolution. It leads to a unified theory of earth repair.

A traditional Hopi dryland farmer in Arizona describes his heritage crops including corn, beans, melons, squash and gourds. He is in a line of 250 generations of farmers, and knows how to grow food when nature provides 6-10 inches of rain each year. As a youth he worked with his grandfather and studied agriculture at Cornell University. He often wondered at the recommendations in his course. He could not see a need for a 14-row planter. An agricultural economics class explained that American farmers are locked into a cycle that demands high yields (because food prices are low). They are trapped by the financial costs, and the devastating psychological dependence, to need extreme efficiency. Hopi farming is not to make money but to survive and continue their culture. Agriculture and spirituality are closely linked.  Despite more than 2,000 years of these methods of crop production, these methods are often called primitive! Hopi plant corn anywhere from 6-18ins deep, depending on the soil moisture availability. Rows are 6ft apart, with 10-20 kernels in each hole.

I have picked out some articles and left others unmentioned. I’ve no idea how to review poetry, for instance. You, too, can pick and choose what to read in this book. Different subjects speak to us at different times. I have named some people and left many unnamed. A review can only say so much – you need to see the whole book to get the whole benefit. The Greenhorns have done an outstanding job compiling this almanac. You will eventually reach the back cover, and appreciate what you have learned, been uplifted by, and been spurred to act on. (Of course, you might start at the back of the book, nothing to stop you.)

There are four pages of careful image credits and five pages of the 99 contributors’ names, locations and occupations. Sadly, no index.

To submit something for the February 2023 edition of the New Farmer’s Almanac, Volume VI Adjustments and Accommodations, send  to [email protected] by March 2022. Perhaps you have something on building, planting, community land ownership, transformative finance, citizen science, rotational strategies, wildcrafting, rooftop gardens, seed migration, or the art of the possible.

Greenhorns logo

Book Review: Sandor Katz’s Fermentation Journeys

Book Review: Sandor Katz’s Fermentation Journeys: Recipes, techniques and traditions from around the world, by Sandor Ellix Katz.

Chelsea Green, 2021, 252 pages, hardcover, $35, color photos throughout.

This brand new book will make an amazing gift for your friend who is very enthused about all kinds of fermented foods and drinks. Sandor Katz is the world’s most well-known and respected advocate of all things fermented, and the author of four previous books on the subject. This book includes directions and recipes for over 60 fermented foods from across the world. Sandor traveled the globe learning, teaching and tasting every day. And this time, Sandor had a camera, and the pictures are fascinating. This is his first book in almost ten years, so you can be sure there are many foods you haven’t met before.

To his credit, Sandor shows deep respect for the cultures (human, fungal and bacterial) that he encounters, and invites us to do so too. He describes the traditional techniques as well as the customs and ceremonies attached to the ferments. Here are some well-known fermented foods, such as sauerkraut (in a chocolate cake), tempeh, cheeses, and breads, and also much less well-known ones like pickled tea leaves, Dan Chang egg sausages, Alaskan stinkheads (salmon), and Peruvian Chicha de jora. Sandor reminds us how much work sustenance takes, and what a wide range of skills and knowledge are involved.

After youthful discoveries of palm wine and millet beer in Niger, Sandor found books for home brewers technical and off-putting, with their emphasis on chemistry and sanitation. Global alcohol makers had other traditions, as had the fermenters of other foods, to preserve the food and add flavor and safety by preventing pathogens. Some ferments, consumed raw, may provide beneficial bacteria.

Fermentation varies across the world, depending on climate, which foods are abundant, and what storage facilities are available. Ideas and techniques have spread from people to people, although sadly, sometimes extinguished by colonization.

The book is organized by fermentation substrate (sugars, vegetables, grains, starchy tubers, mold cultures, beans, seeds, milk, meat, and fish). Due to his fame and fermentation friends, Sandor was able to visit many small villages. Fortunately for us, when Sandor had to hurry home from Tasmania (wearing a gift of a home-made mask) after Covid-19 struck, he realized he suddenly had time to write a book!

The simplest ferments are sugary fruits and plant saps, including the recent excitements: “drinking enzymes” (young fruit wine) and “cleaning enzymes” made from vegetable and fruit scraps for killing mold and general wet cleaning. Fermenting vegetables is recommended as a gateway into fermentation, because it is simple and safe, and yields results fairly quickly. Also, fermented vegetables are delicious, nutritious and rich in probiotic bacteria. It seems likely that China is where fermenting vegetables with salt started. Sandor has eight short videos of his travels in China, each highlighting one realm of fermentation. You can find them on YouTube by searching for “People’s Republic of Fermentation.”

Pao Cai is a Chinese fermentation method using a perpetual brine. New batches of vegetables can be pickled in sequence, adding salt, sugar and spices as needed to restore the flavor of the brine, which can live for years. Sometimes the vegetables are sundried for a day before immersion in the brine, to keep the pickles crunchy. There are recipes for both methods.

I mentioned the sauerkraut chocolate cake earlier. This recipe intrigued me, because I usually am not a fan of vegan cakes, finding them flat-tasting and dull (or over-sugared). But I know a good vegan chocolate cake that includes a little cider vinegar. I’m not usually a fan of vinegar either. This cake is moist and tasty, so I expect the sauerkraut chocolate cake to also be tasty. Sandor explains that the sourness of the kraut is mostly neutralized by the alkaline baking soda, and the reaction between them causes the cake to rise. Inspiring!

Pickle soup is a thing. Previously my standby for making soup when there seems to be nothing in the house, and the garden is covered in snow, was garlic soup. The recipe started: “Gird up your loins, take your courage in both hands and peel 6 whole bulbs of garlic”. It’s delicious, the flavor mellows in the cooking. The source of the pickle soup recipe, Coppa Restaurant in Juneau, Alaska, uses curried kelp pickles.

Grains and starchy tubers are dietary staples, and fermenting them can unlock nutrients, pep up their mild flavors, and even convert them into alcohol. Salt-rising bread is a traditional Appalachian food with a unique fermentation process. The simple recipe is in the book. The raising agent is not yeast, but the bacterium Clostridium perfringens. The name may give you pause, but microbiologists have studied salt-rising bread and found no dangerous bacteria present. A fresh starter is made for each batch, from a little baking soda, fermented with milk, cornmeal and flour, for about 12 hours. The hot liquids kill most of the yeast and unwanted bacteria.

The author clearly enjoys meeting community millers and fermenters, who provide a service for their neighbors. Oat “milk” is gaining fans in the global north. Here’s how to make your own, soaking and then fermenting oats in water for up to 5 days.

Starchy tubers have mostly come a long way from their toxic predecessors. Read the history of the potato, if you are in any doubt! The original cassava varieties were similarly bitter and toxic. South America has many other starchy tubers, consumed both fermented and unfermented locally, but little known outside their bioregion. Included is a recipe for Chicha de Yuca y Camote, using yucca (cassava) and sweet potato. You can make it just with sweet potato if you lack cassava.

In many places, Indigenous practices have been lost because of suppression and worse. This book includes a short section on North American Indigenous fermentation, such as Cherokee cornbread with a small amount of wood ash mixed into the dough. Ancestral practices can be revived and celebrated. Chef Sean Sherman of the Oglala Lakota Sioux has started an organization called the Indigenous Food Lab, working together with others to restore their food cultures.

Mold Cultures is the title of the next chapter. These cultures also use starches, but rather than spontaneous fermentation (as in the previous chapter), here we are looking at cultivated filamentous fungi (such as koji, Aspergillus oryzae) on grains and legumes. These molds do have more precise growing requirements than the spontaneous fermentations do. Start with small batches and take notes and photos! Find ways to keep the right temperature (oven with the pilot on? insulated boxes with incandescent lightbulbs? heating pads?) There are detailed instructions on growing koji on rice, barley and other grains, seeds, beans and starchy tubers. Koji is used in brewing sake, making miso and other foods. From Switzerland comes garum, a fermented fish sauce. Vegetable garums, usually made from food scraps (which can include coffee grounds), are also explained.

Because of my familiarity with tofu and tempeh making, I was especially interested to read those sections. Tempeh is a fermentation of filamentous fungi on cooked soybeans, creating a delicious protein food. I enjoyed seeing the photos of the small-scale commercial production in Indonesia. A surprise for me were the tempeh bowls served at a café in Amsterdam. Edible soup bowls, which are briefly baked before serving. To get bowls of the right size to eat as well as hold a serving of soup, they use Puy lentils and crushed lupine seeds as substrate, and plastic bowls as forms for the shape.

Tempeh can also be grown on whole or chunked boiled potatoes. I read that fried potato tempeh is especially delicious, nutty like chestnuts. That’s a recipe I want to try!

Mao Dofu is moldy tofu, which might not sound appetizing, but has a creamy texture, and is widely enjoyed in China. You can use tempeh starter to make mao dofu, if you can’t find the real mao dofu starter.

There is also fermented tofu, called furu or dofuru. Until refrigeration, there was no way to keep tofu fresh, except by using a fermentation method, after making mao dofu. The initial fungal ferment keeps the product safe from harmful bacteria. Do not shortcut by fermenting tofu in plastic wrap, or you risk cultivating the very harmful Clostridium botulinum.

Some fermented foods have been sensationalized with offensive words like weird and bizarre. You may not like all fermented foods, but there is no call for rudeness towards the people who enjoy a food you don’t like. Sensationalizing foods from other cultures to get laughs, shudders, fame or to make money is unkind and chauvinistic. Rather, we can celebrate the diversity of foods and the ingenuity of the people who create them.

Fermentation used to be considered a mistake in coffee production. Clean and sweet flavors were preferred. Fermentation, which facilitates removing the pulp from the coffee seed, had been a useful tradition. As yeast and bacteria consume the mucilage, they create flavored by-products, which add “mouth-feel” or viscosity to the beverage. This natural process works best at 50-60% humidity. At higher humidity, molds can grow. Below 50%, the beans dry without much fermentation happening. A product we think we know well has a fermentation back story too.

The part about fermentation removing the slime coating from the coffee seeds reminds me that we use the same process when wet-processing saved tomato, cucumber and melon seeds. After a few days, the clean seeds emerge from their slimy coating and it is easy to wash and dry the seeds.

Sadly, in the global north, fermented foods have moved from traditional village food preservation skills to become niche foods for well-off, mostly white, people. “The fermentation industry, like any other, has a whiteness problem” as Miin Chan wrote on the Eater website. The people making money from copying indigenous cultures are almost all white. Sandor Katz acknowledges his privilege in the world, leading to this wonderful book, and seeks to understand the perspectives of the food creators who do not have the same privileges.

Fermented milk products include naturally occurring clabbered milk, and deliberately cultured yogurt, kefir and others. Ah! Now I know what SCOBYs (such as kefir grains) are: Symbiotic Communities of Bacteria and Yeast!

Yogurt starters have been made from inner tree bark, unripe fruits, St John’s wort, sorrel, white stonecrop, ants, clarified butter, buttermilk and rain-water. Most yogurt-makers save back a portion of each batch to be the starter for the next. This practice, known as “back-slopping”, is common in fermented foods. A technique for immigrants was (is?) to saturate a cloth with the culture, dry it and pack it among clothes. Sandor has done this successfully, keeping the resulting culture alive and productive for years.

My most appetizing chapter was the one on cheeses! I, too, love blue cheeses and very ripe soft cheeses, and strong-flavored mature hard cheeses. Dr Johnny Drain is quoted saying “The perception of rancidity and oxidation in foods and fats are culturally elastic and context-dependent.” Mild rancidity adds richness and complexity.

Only in the far North are meat and fish fermented without combining with other preservation methods –  the cold temperatures provide some preservation. Meanwhile, in Australia, Bruce Kemp is making salamis of possum, wallaby, horse, hare, goat and boar, on a mission to increase consumption of these animals which damage agricultural crops and the environment.

One way to ferment meat and fish is to add a carbohydrate source to feed the lactic acid fermentation. Traditionally in Japan, sushi consumed beyond the coastal areas where the fish is caught and can be consumed immediately, the fish is fermented in rice. Nowadays we see refrigerated raw fish served with vinegar on rice, in imitation of the traditional flavor. This fermented fish is known as narezushi.

The book’s epilogue “A Whole World in a Jar,” reminds us that across the whole world, fermentation is practiced in some form. Fermentation traditions vary, but the basis is that people ferment what id abundant, to save it for later. This reduces food waste, and keeps people fed and healthy. May your next year include more fermented local abundance!

For more information, go to Sandor’s website www.wildfermentation.com. For an inscribed, signed copy of Fermentation Journeys, order from Sandor’s friends at Short Mountain Cultures at.

The Chelsea Green Publishers website includes a video about the Fermentation Journeys book.

Book Review: Building Your Permaculture Property

Building Your Permaculture Property book cover

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

Rob Avis, Michelle Avis and Takota Coen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Five Step Permaculture Process logo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jarett Sitter’s illustration of 11 categories of resources

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

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

Takota Coen

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

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

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

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

Rob Avis

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

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

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

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

Michelle Avis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: Vicki Hird, Rebugging the Planet

Vicki Hird, Rebugging the Planet:

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

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

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

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

Fall spiderweb photo from Ezra Freeman

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

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

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

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

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

Sunflower bee and bug.
Photo by Bridget Aleshire

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Vicki Hird, Author of Rebugging the Planet

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

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

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

A bee pollinating squash. Photo Pam Dawling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Front and back covers of Rebugging the Planet

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

Book Review: Josh Volk, Build Your Own Farm Tools

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

Storey Publishing, August 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The barrel washer page by Josh Volk

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Josh Volk

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: Sally Morgan, The Healthy Vegetable Garden

The Healthy Vegetable Garden
Photo Chelsea Green

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

Chelsea Green Publishing, September 2021

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Borage in an insectary circle.
Photo by Bridget Aleshire.

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

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

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

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

Sally Morgan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pepper plant with aphids. Photo Pam Dawling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Blake Cothron

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

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

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

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

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

Peaceful Heritage Nursery,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Pawpaw fruit cluster.
New Society Publishers and Blake Cothron

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: The Living Soil Handbook by Jesse Frost

Cover of The Living Soil Handbook by Jesse Frost

The Living Soil Handbook

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Composts come in four types (recipes included):compost

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesse Frost

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Book Review: Greenhorns: The Next Generation of American Farmers

Greenhorns

Book Review: Greenhorns: The Next Generation of American Farmers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Editor Paula Manalo

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Editor Severine von Tscharner Fleming

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

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

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

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

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

Editor Zoe Ida Bradbury

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Watch a YouTube book trailer here:

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

Book Review: The Comic Book Guide to Growing Food

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Joseph Tychonievich
Liz Anna Kozic