Weed of the Month for May: Galinsoga

People in early spring weeding spinach that has been hooped and covered overwinter.
Photo Wren Vile

This is the first of my new monthly series of posts. All about weeds.

Sustainable (or Ecological) Weed Management: A Holistic Approach to Organic Weed Management

In the early days of organic farming, maximum use was made of frequent cultivation to kill weeds. Now we know that too-frequent cultivation risks causing soil erosion, and that each tilling or deep hoeing stirs air into the soil and leads to a burning-up of organic matter. The practice of sustainable weed management is about effectiveness – including removing weeds at their most vulnerable stage, or at the last minute before the seed pods explode – and ignoring weeds while they are doing little damage. Work smarter, not harder!

Start with restoring and maintaining balance in the ecosystem. Develop strategies for preventing weeds and for controlling the ones that pop up anyway. An obvious point is to avoid adding new kinds of weeds to any part of your fields. Remove the hitch-hikers from your socks out on the driveway, not when you notice them as you squat to transplant onions! We use our driveway as a convenient place to “roadkill” particularly bad weeds by letting them die in the sun. Beware of Trojan plant swaps!

Weeding in early June. Photo Lori Katz

Weeds are not a monolithic enemy, but a diverse cast of characters. Applying biological principles is not an attitude of war, but more like ju-jitsu, using the weaknesses of the weeds to contribute to their downfall. Develop an understanding of weeds and the different types: annual/perennial; stationary perennials/invasive perennials; cool weather/warm weather; quick-maturing/slow-maturing; and what Chuck Mohler referred to as “Big Bang” versus “Dribblers”. In this monthly blogpost series, we’ll meet various types of weeds, and develop a broader understanding of how and when to tackle each kind.

One factor to consider is how vulnerable the crop is to damage from that weed at that time. Weeds that germinate at the same time as a vegetable crop usually do not really affect the crop’s growth until they become large enough to begin competing for moisture and nutrients. These early weeds have the greatest potential for reducing crop yields if allowed to grow unchecked. We need to cultivate or otherwise control weeds before this 2- to 3-week grace period is over.

Weedy sweet corn. ideally, we would have cultivated two weeks and four weeks after sowing. Photo Bridget Aleshire

The critical period for weed control for the crop is the interval from the end of the initial grace period until the end of the minimum weed-free period, which is approximately the first third to one half of the crop’s life. For vigorous crops like tomato, squash and transplanted brassicas this is four to six weeks; less vigorous crops like onion or carrot need weed-free conditions for eight weeks or more. During that period it is essential to control weeds to prevent loss of yield.

Weeds that emerge later have less effect, and ones that emerge quite late in the crop cycle no longer affect the yield of that crop, although there are long-term reasons for removing weeds to improve future crops.

Know Your Weeds

Lettuce with weeds, easily hoed. Photo Bridget Aleshire

Learn to identify the major weeds on your farm, and any minor ones that suggest trouble later. Observe and research. Start a Weed Log with a page for each weed. Add information about your quarry’s likes and dislikes, habits and possible weak spots. Find out how long the seeds can remain viable under various conditions, and whether there are any dormancy requirements. Note down when it emerges, how soon it forms viable seed (if an annual), when the roots are easiest and hardest to remove from the soil (if a perennial), what time of year it predominates, which plots and which crops have the worst trouble with this weed. Monitor regularly throughout the year, each year. Look back over your records and see if anything you did or didn’t do seems to have made the problem worse or better.

Next think about any vulnerable points in the weed’s growth habit, life cycle, or responses to crops or weather that could provide opportunities for prevention or control. List some promising management options. Try them, record your results, decide what to continue or what to try next.

Most weeds respond well to nutrients, especially nitrogen. If you give corn too much nitrogen, even as compost, the corn productivity will max out and the weeds will use the remaining nutrients. Some crops, like carrots and onions never cast much shade at any point of their growth, so that sun-loving weeds like purslane are more likely to thrive there, but not be a problem for crops which rapidly form canopies that shade the ground.

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

Galinsoga

This month’s Weed Character is galinsoga, a “Seed Dribbler”, that matures seed while still quite small plants, sheds some, makes some more, and can carry on for a long seed-shedding season.

Encouraging information is that a constant percentage of the seeds that are still left from one year’s shedding dies each year. This varies widely among species – for lambsquarters it’s 31% per year in cultivated soil (only 8% in uncultivated soil). The number of seeds declines rapidly at first, but a few seeds persist for a long time.

While seeds survive better deeper in the soil, they don’t germinate better down there. Larger seeds can germinate at deeper levels than small seeds. If you are trying to bury seeds deep, use inversion tillage, don’t rely on rotavating, as seeds somehow manage to stay near the surface with rotary tilling. Chuck Mohler, author of the excellent book Manage Weeds on Your Farm, has tested this out with colored plastic beads.

We have two kinds of galinsoga: narrow-leaved and hairy. Both behave the same way. They thrive in highly fertile, freshly tilled soil, just the same as you hope your vegetable seeds will. Mostly we think about how to get rid of galinsoga (prompt hoeing or other cultivation before it flowers), or stop it germinating in the first place (mulches). Its flowers attract beneficial insects such as hoverflies, and it can be eaten by humans and livestock. Young leaves can be used in a soup or in mixed dishes. It doesn’t have a strong flavor. The plants contain flavonoids and phenolic compounds, and it has been found to have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties. Extracts from hairy galinsoga can coagulate blood. It is an alternate host for certain nematodes and over twenty insect pests. Hairy galinsoga is thought to have originated in Central and South America, and has become naturalized in North America and other temperate and tropical regions.

Galinsoga is a summer annual that belongs to the sunflower family (Asteraceae) and can invade vegetable gardens with dense infestations that crowd out crop plants. The secrets of galinsoga’s success are that its seeds germinate immediately they reach the soil (no dormancy period), it grows very fast, shading out other plants, it sets seed in as few as 30–40 days after emergence, and continues shedding seed as long as it is growing. It also has the knack of re-rooting if pulled and laid on the surface of the bed, if there is any moisture in the soil. Large plants seem able to transfer the water in their cells to their roots, helping re-rooting happen. Seed that is shed early in the year is capable of growing a mature plant very quickly. There can be multiple generations in one warm season. Fortunately, the seeds are short-lived, and have to be in the top 0.25″ (6mm) of the soil to germinate.

Hoe weeds while they are small and you’ll be rid of those with short-lived seeds in a few years. Galinsoga and Outredgeous lettuce.
Photo Pam Dawling

Galinsoga Identification

Hairy galinsoga (Galinsoga quadriradiata), has profuse hairs on stems and leaves. Narrow-leaved galinsoga ( Galinsoga parvifolia), is very similar, except it is not hairy and it has narrower leaves. Leaves are oval with serrated margins and distinct petioles. They are arranged opposite each other on the stems. The flowers have densely packed yellow disc florets and five tiny white ray florets, each with three scalloped teeth at the end. Seeds of hairy galinsoga germinate between 54°F-86°F (12°C-30°C) with an optimum temperature requirement of 68°F-75°F (20°C-24°C). Most of the seed germination occurs from May to June, after the last frost. It flowers abundantly from about late-May until late fall here in central Virginia. Fallen seeds can germinate immediately due to the absence of dormancy requirement. Take advantage of this phenomenon to eradicate hairy galinsoga from an infested field in three to four years by careful management.

Controls for Galinsoga

Prevention of Weed Germination

Hoeing or mechanical cultivation is effective if carried out repeatedly during the early stages of growth (before flowering). Mulches, such as thick (6-mil) black plastic, or straw, hay, leaves, woodchips over cardboard or newspaper, are effective to control galinsoga in small gardens if applied immediately after planting the crop and before the galinsoga germinates.  Tarping is the equivalent solution for larger areas.

Reduction of Weed Seeding

Grazing, or the mechanical equivalent, mowing, will take care of galinsoga in places you are not currently growing a crop. This weed is not usually found in lawns. It has no resistance to frost. Livestock will happily graze it.

Reduction of Viability of Seeds

Most weed emergence happens within two years of the seeds being shed. Not all seeds that are produced will ever get to germinate (I was very pleased to learn that seeds have many ways of not succeeding!) You can help reduce their chances, by mowing crops immediately after harvest, (to prevent more weed seed formation); then wait before tilling to allow time for seed predators to eat weed seeds that already produced. Seeds lying on or near the soil surface are more likely to deteriorate or become food for seed predators than buried seeds, so delaying tillage generally reduces the number of seeds added to the long-term seed bank. (Short-term, they may germinate!)

If they do not get eaten, dry out or rot, seeds on top of the soil are more likely to germinate than are most buried seeds, and small, short-lived seeds of weeds which have no dormancy period, such as galinsoga, will almost all die within a year or two if they are buried a few inches.

Putting it Together

Strategies include

  1. Inversion tillage such as moldboard plowing (seeds will die off deep in the soil within a year or so.)
  2. Mulching – the seeds will not germinate or be able to grow through the mulch, and will be dead by next year. Be sure to rotate the mulched crops around the farm, so that the benefits are not confined to one section;
  3. Grazing with small livestock, or harvesting galinsoga for human consumption, or mowing: especially mow as soon as the food crops are finished, if you cannot till right away.
  4. Tarping (mow first);
  5. No-till cover crops, with summer crops transplanted into the dying mulch;
  6. Stale seed bed techniques, including flaming;
  7. Plant flowers that attract beneficial insects, particularly seed-eating insects, and birds.
Front cover of manage Weeds on your Farm

Resources on Weeds

Book Review The New Seed Starters Handbook, Nancy Bubel with Jean Nick 2018

 

The front cover of the New Seed Starters Handbook, by Nancy Bubel with Jean Nick

 

The New Seed Starters Handbook, Nancy Bubel with Jean Nick 2018, 452 pages, 6.5 x 9.1 inches approximately, with drawings and tables throughout. $19.99 Rodale Books.com. Distributed by Penguin Random House.

This 2018 edition is an updated version of the old favorite 1988 reference book by Nacy Bubel explaining how to start seeds and grow healthy seedlings of vegetables, fruits, herbs, flowers, trees and shrubs; how to tackle seed-starting problems, and where to find seeds and gardening supplies. It includes an encyclopedia section listing more than 200 plants, with details on how to start each kind from seed. The 1988 book has been a very trusted resource for me for over 30 years, particularly the tables, which have information I found nowhere else in the pre-internet days. The newer version is not much changed. It has a retro cover and is labelled as a Rodale Classic. Some post-1988 tools and resources are included, and the trend towards smaller households is taken into account. The delightful drawings by Frank Fetz remain. It has a few black-and-white photos, although the cold frame photo in my copy is rotated 90°! This is a book primarily for backyard gardeners, but there is valuable information for growers on much bigger scales, especially in the tables.

Jean NIck, who updated Nancy Bubel’s book

Jean Nick is a longtime organic gardener, sustainable farmer, environmentalist and freelance writer and editor. Jean keeps the voice of Nancy Bubel, so the updates blend in smoothly.

If you have the original (1978) Seed-Starter’s Handbook, you’ll have missed all the improvements Nancy Bubel made during the ten years before The New one came out. If you have the 1988 edition and have kept up a bit with gardening topics, I doubt you need to buy the 2018 edition. If you are a relatively new grower, and Nancy Bubel’s work is new to you, I recommend buying this book for its broad collection of information and clear tables, drawings and explanations. Some of the tables come from Knott’s Handbook for Vegetable Growers, now a $90 investment.

The table of temperatures needed to kill soilborne pests is the first example of the feature of the book that I have turned to most often over the years. There is now an expanded table of when to start various seedlings and when to plant them out, referenced to your average last spring frost. The sowing checklist has been tidied into a more logical order. This book includes gems of information such as how to break seed dormancy with cold or light. Germination of onions and chives appears to be retarded by exposure to light, but lettuce and celery germination is helped by light if the temperature is higher than that at which they normally germinate best.

The chapter on light has been brought forward to a better place in the book, before seeds are sown. The science of lighting has changed since 1988, with different types of lighting available and newer information on what plants need, and do best with. Incandescent lights have gone, LED lights and high-intensity discharge lamps have arrived. Here’s a chapter where revision is really valuable, not forgetting that dusting light tubes and bulbs still makes a difference, and plants short of light still do better if the temperatures are cool.

Here’s another aspect of Nancy Bubel’s writing that I appreciate: the scientific explanations of how biological changes happen. For example, in the process of germination, starches and proteins change into simpler forms before they can dissolve in water and become available to the germinating seed. The enzymes needed to split the complex molecules into simpler ones act in response to the increasing respiration of the seed as it breaks dormancy. Reality check: Even dead seeds can absorb water: plumped-up seeds are not proof of life.

Next come my three favorite tables (copies of which are posted on our germination cabinet): Ideal Temperatures for Germination of 27 crops; the Number of Days to Germinate at Various Temperatures from freezing point to 104°F (40°C); and The Percentage of Normal Vegetable Seedlings Produced at Different Temperatures. This is where I learned that you might get spinach to germinate at 68°F-86°F (20°C-30°C), but you’ll get decreasing levels of normal seedlings, down to one third. These three tables enable growers to aim for the ideal temperature, know when to resow if nothing has come up, and the unintended consequences of sowing crops too far outside their optimal range.

Start seeds warm and grow seedlings cool. Chill tomato plants as soon as the seed leaves open, to get earlier and heavier fruiting: keep them at 52°F-56°F (11°C-13°C) for 10-21 days. The construction of the first flower cluster is determined 4-6 weeks before flowering, when the seed leaves just opened. Similarly for peppers. Many of us have accidentally achieved these results when we started those crops extra early and they emerged into a chilly greenhouse.

Nancy Bubel collected moss from her woods, tore it up and lined the base of pots and flats. Those of us who know how slowly mosses grow will not follow that advice, and Jean Nick marks it as optional. Our increased awareness of the importance of sustainability, and of the carbon-sequestering role of peat moss left me surprised to see that although there is an unflinching discussion of the issues, sphagnum moss and peat moss are still recommended. Worm castings, composted bark, coir and rice hulls are listed as alternatives, without discussion of the ecological costs of removing agricultural “waste products” across half the globe to another country.

The Growing On chapter has information about watering and fertilizing (soaking eggshells in water as a fertilizer has been dropped). The importance of air movement has been added. Next are preparations for moving your plants outdoors. This starts with knowing suitable conditions for working up the soil, and how to make life easier by using permanent beds where the soil stays loose. Jean Nick has added information on soil structure and the mycorrhizal fungi that associate with many crops, improving the soil structure. Double-digging has been back-burnered. Tilling and digging break up the mycorrhizae, so doing less tillage is advantageous, as is growing a diversity of plants in close association, and keeping live roots in the soil. Options for ways to start a new garden are explained, including sheet mulching.

The chapter on the garden diary has been moved forward, so we learn about it before we start planting outdoors, and a short paragraph about calendar apps, photo records and blogs has been added. Garden Mapping comes next, with a two-plus page table of recommended inter-plant and inter-row spacings. A paragraph about modern weather-forecasting has been added, with advice to take the time to pay attention to local weather and microclimate. This chapter includes choosing suitable weather conditions, time of day and suitable sized plants, and developing good judgement, green thumbs and good planting techniques.

The 1988 version of this book was where I learned about phenology, studying the cycles of development of living things unfolding through the year, and linking various agricultural events with particular natural developments. There is much in the encyclopedia section. Spring peepers start really early, and rather than being a sign to plant something, they can be a sign to look for soil dry enough to till. I also found value in the list of conditions that mean a frosty night is likely.

The chapter on care of young transplants includes mulching, but no longer recommends old carpets (synthetic these days, not wool), and adds in paper roll mulch, biodegradable and other plastic sheet mulches. Protection for new transplants has changed from tall bushel baskets to floating row cover. Glass cloches have been replaced by water walls (double walled containers to set round the plants and fill with water for insulation) and plastic gallon jugs with the bottoms cut out. The chapter on cold frames and hotbeds has been moved later and been combined with info on greenhouses. Most of the rearranging of chapters makes sense timewise, but this one was counter-intuitive for me.

Kelp sprays help plants resist frosty temperatures: tomato plants survive 29°F (-2°C). Celery plants sprayed at 20 days after emergence with a 1:100 solution of seaweed extract grew larger stalks than untreated plants. Snap beans sprayed with seaweed one week before bloom gave a 10% yield increase on the first picking. Weekly spraying of cucumber plants while fruiting increased the harvest by almost 42% in a 3-year study. I’m leery of spraying anything on cucurbits, as I’ve had problems that way. This book has how to make your own kelp spray from scratch. For those near the sea. Compost tea and comfrey tea have been added as fertilizers. Here’s how to make them. True compost tea is aerated while brewing. With all these concoctions, be sure you start with healthy ingredients, to avoid brewing more bad germs, which could make you ill.

The chapter on fall gardening includes a useful table on determining your last planting date for many crops, taking account of cold-hardiness, days to maturity, days to transplanting, 14 days for the “short day factor” (because daylength is shortening), and 14 days to allow for the possibility of an early frost. The combination of these factors tells you how many days to count back from your average first frost date.

Up next are pests, both insects and other animals. The newer edition has helpful damage-reducing advice using methods causing minimal collateral damage: using row cover, spraying fairly hard with water, homemade garlic and cayenne sprays, neem oil, insecticidal soap, and Bt for suitable insects. Those instructions are followed by specific info for particular pests.

The section on hoophouses says to build your own from metal conduit and builders’ plastic, although the following paragraph says that kind of plastic will disintegrate in 6 months (and be cloudy before that). If you’ve ever gathered up plastic shards from your garden, you won’t use builders’ plastic again! Solar greenhouses can be an attractive idea, but you can get the same space in a hoophouse (high tunnel) compared to a greenhouse, for a quarter of the cost. Because the structure of a high tunnel is less massive than a glass-covered greenhouse, more light reaches your crops in a high tunnel, and growth is faster.

The chapter on greenhouse growing covers temperature and humidity and when to start seedlings. Humidity of 45-60% works well, even 70%, but 90% is too damp, and may lead to fungal diseases and algal growth. The plant diseases section includes growing conditions less likely to promote diseases, choosing resistant cultivars, monitoring plants, practicing good sanitation, and providing airflow.

“Why seed saving and storing are important” has been moved forward in the 2018 edition, sending the wildflowers and trees back into the encyclopedia part of the book with other specific crops. Before starting to save seeds, understand how seeds form. A new sidebar explains how to avoid GMO cross-pollination. Understanding seed isolation is also useful since the arrival of Super-sweet corns, which need to be isolated from all other types of corn. Likewise, this will help in understanding squash pollination groups and brassica families.

Next is information on how to develop a crop strain suited to your locality. Here is an explanation of what a hybrid is, and why saving seeds from hybrids is challenging, produces seeds inferior to your starting material and doesn’t lead to quick improvements.

“You have more to lose than to gain from saving seeds of garden hybrids.” Nancy Bubel.

When harvesting a seed crop, it’s important they are mature. Here’s brief info on cleaning, sorting, drying and winnowing, salt-water treatment, hot water treatment and fermentation to kill seedborne diseases.

Seeds need to be very dry when put into storage and after that. No paper packets on shelves! Between 32°F and 112°F (0°C – 44°C), for every 9F (5C) that the storage temperature is lowered, the duration of viability of the seeds is doubled. Increasing the moisture content of lettuce seeds by 5-10% results in a faster loss of viability than increasing the storage temperature from 68°F (20°C) to 104°F (40°C)!  The sum of the humidity and the temperature in °F should be less than 100.

The chapter on viability of seeds includes how to test germination rates, and a money-and-time-saving table of how many years after production each kind of vegetable seeds will last. The table is from the 1980 Knott’s Handbook for Vegetable Growers and is unchanged. This is followed by seed-saving tips for specific plants, and tips for plant breeding, such as how to hand-pollinate, save pollen for later, and how to sell your seeds or plants.

Seed banks are valuable resources for preserving genetic diversity and distributing seed genetics widely. They provide resilience in the face of disasters such as new diseases or calamities at a particular seed warehouse. Their work is valuable in keeping genetic material available to all, not just in the hands of multinational corporations.

Most of the rest of the book is an encyclopedia of plants to grow from seed. The detailed information relates to temperature and phenology, not the calendar. This is a great source, that will help you try new crops that previously might have struggled in your bioregion, especially if you only had planting dates, not conditions.

Here are some examples: Sow parsnips when the daffodils bloom; sow peas up until 2-3 weeks before the last frost (after that there is not enough cool weather left to mature a good crop); sow chard when maples bloom; edamame when apple blossom starts to fall or when the oak leaves are the size of mouse ears; sow asparagus seed in spring at the same sign as edamame, or in the fall. Sow peanuts when maple leaves are the size of squirrels’ ears; adzuki beans when the soil temperature is above 60°F (16°C); Lima beans when the soil is at least 70°F (21°C), when peonies are in full bloom; sow winter squash and pre-sprouted cucumber seeds when the late irises bloom; plant out tomatoes when you’re fairly sure your last frost has passed, about the time the barn swallows return.

To my surprise, the book recommends growing potatoes from spuds left from last year’s crop. I wouldn’t do this because of the diseases that can spread.

After the vegetable and fruit section are chapters on growing herbs, garden flowers, wildflowers, trees and shrubs from seed. This is where I learned to nick redbud seeds, pour boiling water on them and let them soak for a day to break dormancy. The newer edition has a sidebar on invasive trees and shrubs, and advocates for responsibility in what we plant and what we let grow. The updated list of sources of seeds and supplies includes websites and phone numbers. There’s a 23-page index (considerably fuller than the earlier edition).

Nancy Bubel wrote a great book, including very accessible information not found in many gardening books. If you have not got the previous edition, do buy the 2018 one. If you still have the previous one, and access to other books and the web, I would not rush to buy this edition – not so much is new.

Book Review: The Barefoot Farmer, Volumes I and II, by Jeff Poppen

The Barefoot Farmer Volume I, 1993-2000

Book Review

The Barefoot Farmer, Volumes I and II. Jeff Poppen, 2001 and 2021, 233 and 221 pages, 6 x 9 inches approximately, with drawings throughout. $20 each or $35 for two, via https://barefootfarmer.com.

The Barefoot Farmer Volume II, 2000-2011

Jeff Poppen at Long Hungry Creek Farm, TN, is a lively and fascinating farmer and writer. Jeff’s style is folksy, lyrical, reverent, amusing, at times whimsical or iconoclastic, and always attentive to what works, what benefits the land, and how to farm better.  No doubt you will heartily agree on some points, and heartily disagree on others! These two small books are compilations of pieces he wrote weekly for his local paper from 1993-2000 and 2000-2011, revised and updated. Jeff is a flexible Biodynamic farmer, who writes for all growers and farmers who care about good food and the long-term future. Jeff’s farming joy spreads wide, with gatherings at his farm, music, TV shows, community events and mentoring young farmers. In addition to these two books, Jeff has written a digest of Agriculture, the teachings of Rudolf Steiner, the founder of Biodynamics.

The articles have been re-arranged by themes, with part of each book on specific aspects of his farming, particular seasons, individual crops, farming past, present and future. The first book starts with the importance of organic matter, compost, and learning from what is happening under our noses and eyes. By watching what a bug does, we may better understand why it’s there and how it relates to the whole local environment. We may learn to make changes in what we do, rather than focusing on eliminating the cause of the holes in the cabbage leaves. Understanding our soil structure will give us appreciation of how the growing and dying of roots improves soil.

Here is an example of Jeff’s humor, realism and humility: “Although I make many tons of compost during the winter feeding of our cattle, it is just not enough. So I’m admitting to an overabundance of idealism and a lack of poop.” He cleans out other people’s barns.

Cover crops increase the canopy of leaves collecting solar energy, transforming it into more plants and then more animals. Mother Nature sends in weeds to cover bare ground. Thomas Jefferson apparently wrote that an acre of buckwheat is worth ten loads of dung. Jeff observed how a field of buckwheat rescued a sweet corn patch. In a dry spring the corn seed did not emerge, so Jeff over-sowed with buckwheat to put some roots in the ground. The buckwheat sprouted with the dew (no rain or irrigation). When the buckwheat reached flowering (still no rain), Jeff noticed the corn had grown, presumably benefitting from the buckwheat roots moving the dew deeper into the soil.

Jeff’s description of broadcasting cover crop seeds is quite poetic, and starts with “I quiet myself.” Many people who have broadcast seeds will recognize the attentive state and loose limbs that are needed to do the job well.

Jeff Poppen Outstanding In His Field

Jeff’s farm became a Community Supported Agriculture farm in 1997, with 32 members paying a monthly fee to receive a box of seasonal produce and opportunities for community events at the farm.

The first book divides crops by season, starting with potatoes in spring, which Jeff chits (pre-sprouts) as we do. By setting the potatoes in flats indoors for a few weeks, the certainty of plant emergence and therefore the yield can be increased, and if the conditions aren’t right on the hoped-for planting date, planting can be postponed, while the potatoes continue to grow. Jeff tried many varieties of potatoes and found that the ones that did best were Kennebecs and Red Pontiac from the local feed store. Funnily enough, we’ve also come down to planting those two, here in central Virginia!

They grow Ebenezer onion sets, knowing they will not store. In the fall, Jeff replants remaining non-storing onions packed in a trench. These provide early green onion tops next year. Onions from seed are started in a coldframe in late September. He plants the bareroot starts out in mid-March. Walla Walla do well for big onions to eat soon, but Copra do best for storage.

With asparagus, Jeff learned the same lesson I did: do not follow instructions to plant new crowns 12″ deep! They will do better 5″ deep. Really!

A week after planting big seeds (potatoes, squash, beans, corn), before seedlings emerge, Jeff runs over the rows with a spike-tooth harrow (large-scale) or rake (small-scale), dispatching tiny weeds without damaging the seeds below the surface. There are many practices like this that we could gainfully employ to reduce our weeding work. When hoeing, observe your plants, and any problems. Squash any pest bugs as you go. Fill gaps in the row from a seed packet in your pocket.

Jeff grows rye and Austrian winter peas for the cover crop preceding winter squash, then in mid-April mows strips down in each place he wants a row, and adds manure. When the squash vines start to run, Jeff mows down more of the cover crop, now flowering, making a no-till mulch right where it’s needed.

Jeff explains the American system of growing some crops on hills, which has always mystified me, an immigrant. He says the root areas dry out more, mimicking the desert conditions they came from. Another reason is helping to locate a large amount of fertility right where these large plants will need it initially. 6-8 seeds are planted in a circle in the center of the 2′ diameter hill, with hills many feet apart.

Jeff describes a sweet potato planting stick made by his neighbor. A stick with a notch in it and an attached wire is used for both pushing the slip down into the soil, and measuring the distance to the next plant. These newspaper articles still contain original comments such as that Jeff has left his surplus sweet potato slips at the feed store for anyone who wants to take some. Later he’ll offer home-grown kale seed, and invite people to leave their bags of leaves at the feed store for him to collect.

The fall garden needs prompt planting. August 4 leaves them 70 days to frost, and is their last chance to sow beans. Cabbages follow their early beans, using the remains of the moisture and compost left by the beans. To ensure the seeds get enough moisture to germinate, he presses them firmly into the soil. He likes to do this by walking heel-to-toe along the row. Yes, he does farm barefoot. And attends conferences barefoot. He wears shoes for tractor work.

Next is a section on putting food by. This includes moving storage crops into more ideal long-term locations, as well as solar drying, canning, jellies, jams, pickles and soups canned in jars. Seed saving follows, including chickpeas (garbanzos) which their local organic gardening club trialed.

Celery is a valuable plant for attracting beneficials if it flowers. In the summer the center of the celery plant dies; we always cut ours out, enabling the side shoots to grow into big plants themselves. I was interested to see that Jeff does as we used to do, moving some large plants into the greenhouse (hoophouse in our case) to supply stalks all winter. Several berry crops are mentioned and I was amused to read that when Jeff asked an orchardist how to keep birds out of his cherry trees, the orchardist replied “Plant mulberries!”

Jeff has done a lot of work with apples, collecting and trying different kinds, and grafting. At the turn of the 20th century there were 6,000 apple varieties (in the US?). Before the turn of the 21st century, we were down to 2,000. Jeff writes about many of his favorites, Lodi, Yellow Transparent, Early Harvest, Little Strawberry, Golden Sweet, Pink Sweet, Grimes Golden (susceptible to cedar-apple rust), Mollie’s Delicious, Liberty (resistant to many diseases including fireblight), Winesaps, King David, Jonagold, Jonagrimes, Gala, Blushing Golden, Rusty Coat, Fuji, Yates, Arkansas Black – all good. Avoid Ben Davis.

Pruning is an important skill (“When do you prune fruit trees? When the pruning shears are sharp”). Jeff avoids winter pruning, apart from removing damaged wood and shaping the tree, and favors May-early June pruning for fruit bud formation. Winter pruning stimulates vegetative growth rather than the formation of fruit buds. When there is plenty of growth happening, fewer fruit buds grow for next year. Jeff has grafting tips too, including that masking tape works well for top grafting.

Volume II includes advice on pears, which are easier than apples to grow without pesticides, if you choose good varieties. Jeff favors Magness, Warren and Maxine, which are resistant to fireblight. Choose a site on a hill, to spill the frosts away, and late-blooming varieties to avoid losing fruit to late spring frosts.

The first book goes beyond the garden into the fields. Jeff is an advocate of integrating livestock into all vegetable production, to improve self-reliance and food quality. Jeff says the annual dropping of manure from one cow can fertilize 4 acres if carefully used, whereas the cow herself only needs two acres of pasture. Cows provide a valuable service, even if you don’t avail yourself of dairy products or meat. Hindus are vegetarians, but may keep cows. Jeff says that ancient wise people forbade the eating of meat, so that cattle, sheep and goats survived the years of famine, keeping the future of their agriculture safe. Rudolph Steiner said that farming is never sustainable without livestock. He proposed that with the proper number of animals, a healthy farm can produce all its own food, feeds and fertilizers.

Jeff gives a brief explanation of Biodynamics and the role of the field sprays, cow horns filled with manure or ground quartz paste, and buried. He makes it clear that fertilizing with horn manure and horn silica do not replace manuring in the usual way. It is vital to continue good farming practices. The six Biodynamic compost preparations, used in tiny amounts in compost and manure piles are thought to radiate living forces and make the compost or manure more effective. It is not necessary to believe this to try it and see what happens. Jeff is on record as saying that when he first learned about the horn manure, he thought it was a load of hogwash. He also noticed that the farms it was used on were wonderfully fertile. He has been using Biodynamic methods (mostly) ever since.

I believe that there are many ways of being a good farmer, and I respect all good farmers. The keys seem to be attentiveness, fantastic memory or good record-keeping, and modifying what you do based on what happened with what you last did.

Jeff writes about planting by the Stars/Zodiac Signs; the fire, earth, air and water elements; and fruit, root, flower and leaf plant parts that correspond in this system. He tries to work with the moon and the planets, but the weather is the determining factor in what they do each day. His approach is that nature is forgiving, and if you plant on the wrong sign, the seeds can sit in the soil until the right sign comes round again. It is probably unscientific to disregard anything, he says.

The second volume opens with the mission statement of their farm: “Our aim is to grow high quality food and help others do the same, and to educate ourselves on how this is most efficiently accomplished.” There are several sections with topics similar to those in volume I. Jeff believes in using a moldboard plow, slowly, in the fall, to open up new fields for gardens. He likes to let the winter weather convert the exposed soil to a friable state. He recognizes that plowing has gone “out of fashion” and that the soil life suffers and must be replenished. He knows when to stop cultivating soil to avoid destroying the structure. He recognizes when he needs to use a subsoiler or a chisel plow (rebreaker) to break up the hardpan that develops.

In volume II, Jeff often writes about his experiences farming without any irrigation, 2000-2011. Compost, mulch, good humus, can help a lot. Here’s a trick Jeff used in a dry summer to get the fall garden to sprout: right after bushhogging the old beans, summer squash and cucumber beds, he made new furrows and sowed seeds. He walked over the rows, pressing in the seeds. The moisture from the shredded plants and the shade of the old plants (now mulch) was enough to germinate the seeds. Before the use of chemical fertilizers, market gardeners added 50-75 tons of composted manure per acre each year, and had a quarter of the garden space in cover crops at any given time. How much compost to use has been much debated in recent years. Are you really seeing damage if you use more than some people recommend? Or are you seeing better growth, higher yields? Paying good attention is key.

Jeff says “I’ve two answers for most garden questions: Either “add more compost” or “I don’t know.”

In another section, Jeff explodes some garden myths, teasing out the threads of truth they contain. Are heirloom seeds always better than hybrids? For some crops, open-pollinated varieties do well. OP, not necessarily heirloom. For other crops, hybrids do better: broccoli, sweet corn, tomatoes, peppers. Let’s appreciate the skill and hard work of plant breeders who have brought us varieties with better disease-resistance, increased productivity, better weather-resistance, and yes, sometimes better flavor. Let’s see what actually grows best in our particular gardens, for our particular needs.

To qualify for Organic certification, compost must reach 150F, but Jeff prefers not to let his compost get hotter than120F, to preserve more of the original microbes. He also prefers not to turn compost as the certificate requires, but to let it sit undisturbed for a year to encourage fungal growth. Organic certification is not always the measure of good practice. It allows use of some fertilizers that can leach in the soil and harm good microbes. It allows some toxic pest control products extracted from plants. (Maybe not as many nowadays as when written in 2009.) Jeff has moved away from Organic certification, as some other farmers have done, because he considers he can do better than Organic.

Crop rotations optimize the use of soil nutrients, because different crop families use them in different proportions, and return them to the soil in different proportions. Jeff’s approach is to alternate not only crop families, but also plants with varied edible parts: roots, leaves, fruits, to prevent the soil becoming sapped of particular nutrients.

When writing about warm weather crops, Jeff claims that tomatoes like to grow in the same spot every year. This I have strong doubts about. Maybe it works in places with few soilborne diseases and pests. Jeff says they have been lucky (up to 1999).

Some plants do better after particular others. Potatoes don’t do so well after carrots, beets or other crops requiring lots of tillage. Heavy nitrogen feeders such as corn, do well after nitrogen-fixing legumes. Big seeds can be sown in rougher soil than tiny seeds. Jeff rotates crops intuitively, considering the big picture. This is perhaps a method best used by experienced growers with knowledge of the big picture, and not so helpful for beginners, or team-run farms.

Similarly, prioritizing tasks for the day, is easier once you have more than a decade of experience under your belt! If it’s going to rain soon, do the tasks impossible after rain. If it ends up not raining, what will you regret not doing? Don’t just choose the job you most like doing. Keep your mission in mind.

Weeds are best controlled before visible! Prepare the bed, leave it a few days, rake shallowly and plant. A few days after planting, if it is dry enough, rake lightly again, right over the seeded bed. With potatoes, the hoeing between planting and emergence can be deeper, and is very worthwhile. With early-sown carrots, take advantage of the period before the carrots germinate to get rid of millions of fast-germinating weeds. Develop good hoeing posture, keeping your back straight, hinging at the hips, and switching sides back and forth. Don’t get very good at hoeing only to your best side! Jeff paces himself, dividing the length that needs hoeing by the time that seems reasonable. It’s more important to get to the end, doing an 80% perfect job, than to hoe only part of the row, leaving the rest to grow bigger weeds. He reckons on 10 feet per minute. The 80/20 Pareto Principle guides much of his work: “In my life, 20% of the weeds are ignored, 20% of the blueberries are left unpicked, 20% of the grass is unmown, and 20% of my life is a mess. But my cup is 80% full.”

It’s worth pulling up pigweeds that miss the hoeing. Millions of pigweed-loving microbes die and become food for the crops. But if the pigweed continues to grow, pigweed-loving microbes multiply and more pigweed seeds germinate.

The later chapters of volume II are about livestock, pasture and hay, and biodynamics. Not being a biodynamic or livestock farmer myself, I paid less attention to these chapters.

Barefoot Biodynamics by Jeff Poppen April 2024

Jeff has another book coming out in April: Barefoot Biodynamics.

He also has some YouTubes, see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=msKw7rrfHJo

 

Book Review: The Lean Micro Farm, Ben Hartman

 

The Lean Micro Farm cover

The Lean Micro Farm: How to Get Small, Embrace Local, Live Better, and Work Less. Ben Hartman, Chelsea Green Publishers, November 2023. 260 pages, 7 x 10 inches, with color photos, charts and diagrams throughout. $34.95.

 Jump in and learn how to make a good living growing vegetables on 1/3 of an acre. Support two adults and two children and provide good-paying jobs for a small farm crew. The ideas and methods here can also be used by home gardeners seeking efficient use of time and space. Or first read Ben Hartman’s previous books The Lean Farm and The Lean Farm Guide to Growing Vegetables, where Ben teaches how to cut out waste and maximize efficiency on a 1-acre farm, before this newest book. As in his farming, Ben’s books have minimal waste! Descriptions and explanations are concise, to the point, clear, thoughtful and inspiring.

Even after applying Lean principles (from manufacturing) to his previous two farms, Ben was working too much and not having enough time for family and friends. He and his partner Rachel embarked on a quest to make the same amount of income, and support their family on 1/3 of an acre instead of the one acre they had farmed for 11 years. They reduced their travel time by moving closer to schools and customers. All their produce is now sold within 1½ miles of their farm! All their crops grow within 60 paces of their barn-house.

This book is packed with ideas for maximizing efficiency on farms of all sizes, including finding hyper-local markets, using deep-mulch no-till beds with quick two-step bed flips, choosing ergonomic and efficient tools and focusing on five crops that maximize income. An appendix provides tips for seven more crops.

Rachel and Ben discovered, as other farmers have, that having children changes things. Even with a few years of careful planning, and streamlining all their farming systems before the children were born, they were overworked and stressed. More changes were called for.

Get-Small pairs well with Lean, especially with selling very locally. Applying the Lean system starts with decluttering and organizing, keeping only frequently-used items in the production areas. Next identify precisely what your customers value. Then cut out waste that doesn’t contribute to efficiently providing produce that meets those values. Overproduction, waiting, transportation, over-processing, holding excess inventory, wasted motion, defective products, overburdening, uneven production and sales, and unused talent are all forms of waste that Ben identifies. Lastly, practice kaizen, or continuous improvement.

Images from Clay Bottom Farm

Small farms can help combat climate change (less shipping), reduce food waste, reduce start-up costs (enabling new farmers of lesser means, including more cultural diversity), reduce food deserts, increase biodiversity, and stabilize food supply in times of disruption. Small farmers are providing 70% of the world’s food while using only 30% of the world’s resources. Macro-ag provides sugar, corn syrup, soybeans, corn, mostly used to make junk food for humans and livestock.

The Lean Micro Farm explains five principles of getting small, illustrated by six tiny-farm profiles from across the world, where farmers are choosing a resilient, ecological approach, with minimal waste, and less use of plastics, petroleum and fertilizer.

The five principles are:

  1. Leverage Constraint
  2. Build Just Enough
  3. Essentialize
  4. Simplify
  5. Localize

Leverage Constraint means to identify a few specific limits, based on your values, that you will use to steer your farm, and be more focused. By their seventh year, Clay Bottom Farm was very successful. They built their 4th greenhouse while working flat out 6 days a week, growing 60 crops and selling all they grew to 50 CSA customers, 10 restaurants and 2 grocery stores. The farm hosted interns, dinners, and parties. Then baby #1 arrived, and #2 followed 18 months later. Time to set limits on the farm work! Doing this pushed them to move location, starting with a land search in 2017.

Areas for limit setting can include income, work time, resource consumption, infrastructure, land, driving around. One boundary they agreed on is to complete their farm work in 35 hours a week, max. To achieve this, they hired people. Another is to grow on 1/3 acre or less, which they achieved by giving up low-value crops, reducing crop failures, and filling unplanted space within 2 weeks. Their third boundary is to sell only in Goshen, their home city. This greatly reduces driving time, gasoline use and their carbon footprint.

Unsurprisingly, introducing constraints also introduced some anxiety and emotional reluctance. The worries did not pan out. They discovered that clear limits help you do better, and having a written summary of goals and limits, and another person to check-in with, help prevent “limit creep”.

The principle of Building Just Enough saves resources. When designing farm buildings from scratch, study traditional farm buildings in different cultures. Let the design follow from the flow of activities in the building. Build to last and be environmentally friendly. Making maximum use of the infrastructure you have helps spread fixed costs over a bigger base. The Barn-house is divided by a cement-floored workroom; a propagation greenhouse is attached to the south house wall.

The principle of Essentializing (Do less, but better) makes use of the Pareto Principle: about 20% of the products generate 80% of the income, 20% of the customers provide 80% of the cash. To apply this principle, first determine which crops are vital. There are three essential factors: the crop has to be one you can produce in high volume, with low costs, that sells at a good fair-market price. As well as cash crops for their income, Clay Bottom grows a home garden. I think the time spent on the homesteading crops doesn’t count as work within the 35-hour limit.

Also consider your customers and which are essential. You can’t include everyone! Keep customers that provide consistent high-volume orders, pay fair prices and are closest to your farm. You may also choose to sell at a discount to a worthy cause. Be sure the essential customers get what they need, and you get enough income. Be sure you understand what the customers really value. Don’t waste effort fulfilling imagined values.

The book includes bubble charts where crops, or customers, are represented by circles with areas showing their relative sales revenue. This is a visual way to learn that equal efforts don’t produce equal outcomes. If you want to work less, ruthlessly focus on the overlap between the 20% of vital products and the 20% of vital customers. Rachel and Ben are now able to make more than $85,000 in sales annually.

At Clay Bottom Farm, their five vital crops include tomatoes, salad mix, cilantro, spinach and kale. The four secondary crops are cucumbers, carrots, basil and sugar snap peas. As far as their vital few customers, they stopped delivery to 3 of their 7 restaurants, the winter farmers market, and paused their CSA.

Ben was transplanting tomatoes in the greenhouse on the day the restaurants closed with the Covid pandemic. They brainstormed and made a plan to deliver vegetables they’d planted for the restaurants, along with some fast-growing ones they hastily sowed, to CSA customers. The vegetables were delivered (without packaging) into coolers set out on their porches. Their quick pivot saved the business.

The Simplify principle applies particularly to fieldwork. Which tasks are truly essential? How can tasks be simplified? They introduced a no-till deep mulch system, which halved their bed prep time. They keep every tool visible under an overhang, and return them by the end of the workday.

Review completed tasks, and if needed, determine what to change to prevent failure next time. Don’t overplant because you expect failure! Divide possible solutions to a given challenge into four quadrants: complex and productive, simple and productive, complex and inefficient, simple and inefficient. Look for the solutions that are simple and productive.

The Swadeshi principle of weaving into the village includes opening your farm to other local people. Host meals, workshops, events for children. Provide good jobs for local people, host volunteers and interns. Don’t overstep your limits, of course. Localize fertility, by replacing inputs from far away, making your own good compost, inviting delivery of local street leaves, food production byproducts.

Part Two goes into designing and implementing efficient systems for high flow production. It starts with instructions for their deep mulch no-till system. You will need to get the book, as here I am only offering a broad glimpse of what is involved.

To set up a deep mulch system, clear your garden area and lay 4″ of good compost on the surface. Rake it smooth and plant into it. Every two years or so, add another inch of compost on the surface. Methods of clearing your plot include mowing, then tilling or tarping. Tilling is best if you have perennial weeds, or lots of grasses. Don’t be tempted to spread compost on ground with bits of grass growing! 4″ of compost will smother new weeds, but not established grasses. Lumpy compost is OK for this job, but it must be weed-free.

Clay Bottom Farm does not use cover crops. They leave as much of their crop material in or on the bed as is practical, and make lots of compost. Steve Wisbaum’s low-input compost method is recommended, with turning three times at critical stages, but no fancy equipment or strange amendments. There is a home-gardener version, adding materials bit-by-bit. It only needs turning once a year and should be ready in 9-12 months. I believe our very high phosphorus levels at Twin Oaks are partly due to using lots of compost, and we have beefed up our cover crop practices. I suggest you test your soil every two or three years and see the results of whatever you have been doing.

Ben Hartman using a paperpot transplanter.
https://www.claybottomfarm.com/

Free Paperpot Webinar with Ben Hartman, March 7, 2024

Join Ben at 4pm EST on Thursday, March 7 to learn how to use the paperpot transplanting system, a Japanese method of planting with paper chains, to give your farm or garden a boost. 

If you plan to use a paperpot transplanter, or think you might, design your layout with 75′ beds, as this is length planted by a half-chain of paperpots. Otherwise, choose somewhere in the 50′ to 100′ range for ease of access. Keep paths clear (no mulch) for ease of working with a wheel hoe.

The Two-Step Bed Flip process follows, saving huge amounts of time. For bed prep only two things are necessary: clearing the old crop (or weeds) and smoothing the ground ready for the next crop. Tarping saves a lot of effort, and enables you to plant more than one crop in a season. Cover the old crops with a silage tarp and let the plants decay. In sunny weather this will take just a few weeks. Clay Bottom Farm uses a 14′ x 75′ tarp that covers two beds (and three paths) at a time. Sandbags are set along the tarp edges every two paces. Remove the tarp and rake the surface, pulling any remaining debris into the path. Then replant the bed.

This system leaves the decaying roots in the ground, providing air channels and food for microbes. The decaying matter on the surface feeds the soil. In summer, small greens decompose in a few days. Two weeks is long enough for most crop breakdown in May-September in Indiana. Full size finished fall greens may take until spring to break down. Tall plants need to be cut down before tarping, so the tarp can lie flat and taut. You can plant the new crop between the rows of old crop remains, without disturbing the soil.

The Two-Step Bed Flip keeps the soil biota alive. Use a soil testing lab for nutrient levels and organic matter to assess biological life in the soil, and the Haney soil test to measure CO2 and soil aggregation. Ben has found that on both types of test their soil is improving each year.

If you need the bed sooner than tarping can provide, use a wheel hoe to undercut the old crop, rake it up into a pile at the end of the bed, and replant. Ben recommends the battery-powered Tilmor E-Ox electric wheel hoe for tough jobs.

Learn lean farming online with the Lean Market Growing Masterclass

They drastically reduced their tools to just 7 vital cultivation tools, removing rarely used ones to storage. For bed prep, they use the 30″ rake sold by Johnny’s and Earth Tools. PEX plumbing piping can be fit on tines to mark planting rows. A good wheel hoe with Hoss fixed blade (no oscillation) open sweeps is used to clear paths and loosen compacted soil. An aluminum scoop shovel is used to spread compost and grade paths. Buy one the same width as your paths. An adjustable width wire tine rack is used to tidy paths and between rows. A 6½” De Wit half-moon hoe (swan-neck hoe) performs many tasks around crop plants and a narrow collinear hoe cultivates between close rows of crops. Lastly, a Clarington Forge digging fork is used for removing root crops and tap-rooted perennial weeds. For harvesting, they use curved grape shears and 6″ stainless steel restaurant produce knives.

Learn how to convert a broken upright freezer or fridge into a germination chamber heated with a water-filled slow cooker controlled by an Inkbird thermostat. A working freezer is used in summer to germinate lettuce seeds, using the same thermostat. When the seedlings pop, move the trays to a grow-light table, using power-saving LED lights.

Field tools include the Jang seeder and the paperpot transplanter. Lithium-ion battery tools such as a brush cutter/string trimmer/edger, a leaf blower and a Jacto PJB backpack sprayer all make life easier for the aging farmer, meaning all of us, as Ben has found with the E-Ox, and the Tilther (good for lighter soils). The Quick-cut greens harvester from Farmers Friend is used several times a week for baby greens. Ben has added handle extensions (made from wiggle-wire channel) for improved ergonomics. Both the tilther and the greens harvester get power from a cordless drill.

Three types of cart haul the bounty: a Vermont garden cart, an electric golf cart and a 24″ wide flatbed cart for moving harvested greenhouse tomatoes between the rows.

Following the tool discussion comes a chapter on designing and building the infrastructure, including dealing with city permits and officials. Rachel and Ben sought a studio lifestyle, like that of other artisans working from home. They got their engineer-drafted site plan approved by the planning department. After that were several building inspections, including farming, mechanical and environmental inspections. Don’t underestimate the costs of all the permits and inspections. From his hard-won experience, Ben offers useful tips, starting with holding an interdepartmental meeting including the fire marshal, engineer, building inspector, planning department and anyone else who might have a stake in the project. Before the meeting date, prepare a good description of your project, with drawings and photos. Hand this out and ask the meeting if the project fits in with the city’s vision, and whether they are willing to work with you in addressing concerns. If possible, include at the beginning any changes you might want in a few years.

For this review I will skip over the sections on electric and solar energy systems, building design, passive heating, wells and more. Those who need that info, especially anyone making a new wash-pack space, will find the book helpful. (I am intrigued by learning of constant pressure well pumps, that adjust the amount of pressure according to the water in use, giving better performance and saving electricity.) Instead of a walk-in cooler, they use a three-door refrigerator cooled with an air-conditioner and a CoolBot, saving a lot on electricity. Produce is delivered within four hours of harvest.

The two plastic greenhouses use rack-and-pinion peak vents and sensors that activate them. In summer they pull shadecloth over the peak of the roof. Peak vent systems are becoming affordable – theirs came from CVS supply, an Amish manufacturer in Ohio (1-877-790-8269) – and can be retrofitted. Installation takes time, but is no more difficult than constructing the greenhouse.

Clay Bottom Farm has several automated greenhouse systems that have proved very worthwhile. One system opens and closes the peak vent and the sidewalls and can act as a thermostat for the heating (VCU2-24 from Advancing Alternatives). A Wi-Fi-enabled system from Orisha Automation sends phone alerts if temperatures get out of range. All of the farm’s automated systems can be controlled remotely.

Greenhouse and beds at Clay Bottom Farm

They built their greenhouses with walls 2′ higher than normal, to maximize useful space; concrete sidewalks across each end wall inside and out, with a lumber and foam sheet thermal barrier directly under the wall; bifold doors that slide up, creating a small overhang when open; steel hat-profile baseboards; a “Swedish skirt” of 1″ foam insulation along the sides of the greenhouse, covered with landscape fabric fastened to the baseboards and edged with steel landscape edging to keep out the weeds;

The book includes a new invention, the ultra-low tunnel, a boxed bed covered with rowcover supported on crosswise cables and held down by bungees. This is used to get an early start on spring crops.

There is a Five-Step Quick-Start Guide for those just starting up in farming, using a 5,000 sq ft plot in your backyard to grow $20,000 worth of produce. The 50′ x 100′ plot is divided into 12 beds. Allow 6 months to set up the infrastructure, starting the fall before your first growing season. Expect to spend $7,700 on seeds, compost, tools and a starter hoophouse, and to spend two or three days a week tending your crops in the peak season. This plan would work for a half-time grower. Buy the book – you know it will be worth it!

Rachel and Ben “Leaned” their farm to have a more satisfying life, less rush and more peace, with more time for their family. I loved seeing the photos of their two young boys at work. They are clearly applying themselves to their tasks, and show a lot of confidence and skill, and enjoyment.

While I fully support farmers figuring out which are the best, most profitable crops to grow, and specializing in those, I’m left with a concern about the bigger picture: when all the growers focus on greens, who will supply the local, sustainably grown potatoes, sweet corn, and squash? We have a two-part food system, with some lovely local organic crops and some jet-lagged pesticide-laced crops. I hope we come up with a more cooperative unified scheme before too long.

Author Ben Hartman

Book Review The Winter Market Gardener, Jean-Martin Fortier and Catherine Sylvestre

 

Cover of The Winter Market Gardener

The Winter Market Gardener: A Successful Grower’s Handbook for Year-Round Harvests, Jean-Martin Fortier and Catherine Sylvestre, New Society Publishers, October 2023. 256 pages, 7.5 x 9 inches, with color photos and drawings throughout. $39.99.

 Jean-Martin Fortier’s first book, The Market Gardener, is a well-loved international best-seller. In this new book, he has worked with Catherine Sylvestre, to focus on cold-weather growing. Catherine is the director of vegetable production and leader of the market garden team at la Ferme des Quatres-Temps, in Hemmingford, Southern Quebec, Canada. The farm includes mixed livestock, an orchard and an 8-acre market garden designed and established by Jean-Martin Fortier. FQT was initiated by a local multi-millionaire who wanted to set up an experimental farm to demonstrate what was possible and to resolve some of the challenges in developing a diversified farm using efficient regenerative methods. The farm now has a second site, in Port-au-Persil, five hours away in the northern Charlevoix region.

At FQT, the authors train cohorts of employees and try out ideas that were not possible on the more limited budget of les Jardins de la Grelinette where Jean-Martin and his wife Maude-Hélène Desroches grew food for 200 families on two and a half acres. Since 2015, Maude-Hélène has been the solo operator of la Grelinette (an hour away from FQT).

With good techniques, equipment, and varieties, and enough personal energy, year-round production can provide premium local vegetables and make a profit. This book will inspire and help. It is packed with detailed vegetable profiles, tips for winter crop planning, and successful growing and storage of fall/winter crops. There is precise information on tool selection and best use, and on selecting shelters, from rowcover to high tunnels. The book was written in the authors’ native French and ably translated by Laurie Bennett. I love the word “shelters” to include all kinds of protected growing, and I hope it comes into common use in English!

The Winter Market Gardener builds on years of research, experimentation, and collaboration, as all who have read The Market Gardener will appreciate. It is a practical guide to winter vegetable production for small farmers in northern climates, and elsewhere. Initially I thought this would be a delight to read, but not of much practical use to me in central Virginia, a very different climate. I soon found I was wrong. Questions of the value and profitability of types of greenhouse and tunnel heating are thoroughly considered, in terms of heat sources, financial and planetary costs, and benefits. There is info on some crops I have never grown, not here nor in England. The crop planning calendars have solid info in a nice accessible intuitive format. There are charts, graphs, illustrations to help you get started or smooth your path in winter growing.

Don’t think for a minute that running a farm owned by a multi-millionaire means efficiency and results are unimportant! It does permit some enviable pricey equipment, but careful trials, record-keeping, and profitable products are essential to the purpose of the project.

The concept behind Ferme des Quatre-Temps is to find the sweet spot between intensive organic production, and a biodiverse landscape. Jean-Martin and a team of permaculturists came up with the design for the farm, including the livestock. The theories and practices are taught to a group of apprentices each year, and via the online Market Gardener Institute, and its Masterclass.

Whatever your level of experience or scale of production, The Winter Market Gardener will encourage and inspire you to value high-quality local vegetables all year, and give you tools to produce them in winter. There is an appendix for people wanting to use these methods on a backyard scale. 645 ft2 (60 m2) can grow enough vegetables for 3-5 people for the whole (Québécois!) winter. And, of course, you can grow summer vegetables there when winter is over.

Don’t think growing vegetables all-year means no time off – you just need to plan to include breaks, or rotate workdays around the crew. And remember that winter has shorter days and a slower pace than summer. For those growers pursuing an honest life of hard work on stuff that matters and makes a difference, here is a guidebook.

As the number of winter growers increases, the demand for fresh food increases, and we have job security! To be sustainable, winter harvesting must be profitable, so invest in this book. It may happen that small-scale winter food production becomes not just the tastiest option and least-damaging to the planet, but our only option. During the Covid pandemic, it became plain that in the Northeast of North America, 70% of vegetables come from California, Mexico, or even further afield. It took only three days to deplete the supply of fresh vegetables in the stores.

Some countries responded to this realization by providing grants for local food growing, including high tunnels and greenhouses. Catherine and Jean-Martin propose that giving the money to fifty or 200 small-scale farms would be a better investment than giving it to a twenty-hectare tomato greenhouse, (as happened in Quebec). Production of cold-hardy vegetables in winter uses much less energy than growing tomatoes! Additionally, growing summer vegetables in winter requires artificial lighting, causing light pollution, disrupting the circadian rhythms of humans and other animals. No one yet knows how artificial lighting affects the nutritional quality of food grown that way.

Catherine Sylvestre.
Photo New Society Publishers

Jean-Martin and Catherine identify five key principles of winter growing:

  1. Lack of sunlight in winter is more limiting than lack of heat.
  2. Many vegetables can withstand freezing temperatures.
  3. Cold-hardiness in crops can sometimes be bred for.
  4. Layered shelters (rowcover, tunnels) can allow more vegetable production in winter.
  5. Installing minimal heating can make winter growing more successful, and can be profitable.

A useful chart suggests how many layers of rowcover to use at various night temperatures and daylengths. This guideline that could work wherever you grow.

There are good descriptions of making low tunnels and caterpillar tunnels. High tunnels (hoophouses, polytunnels, passive solar greenhouses) are permanently located and usable year-round, although unheated. Greenhouses are permanent structures, heated, somewhat insulated, made of glass or two layers of plastic. There is a small chart showing the outdoor killing temperatures of four crops, unprotected outdoors, in a high tunnel and in a high tunnel with P19 rowcover. For example, lettuce will die at 21°F (-6°C) outdoors with no protection, at 7°F (-14°C) outdoors if protected by a high tunnel, and at 0°F (-18°C) outdoors, if under rowcover in a high tunnel. This is followed by a comparison of the various shelters in terms of cost, thermal gain and features and uses.

Don’t consider adding heating unless you have at least a double layer of plastic and in-ground perimeter insulation. At la Ferme des Quatre-Temps they have perforated polyethylene tubing that distributes hot air along the beds. The increased revenue from faster growing crops must be covered by the increased costs of heating or adding more layers of rowcover. They present a table and a bar chart comparing cost of heating, cost of labor to manage row covers, and revenue. For their situation, heating to 37°F-41°F (3-5°C) trounces no heating, and beats heating to 54°F (12°C). It also matters how much workers are willing to move rowcovers, or enjoy doing that as part of winter growing.

To reduce heating costs, check your insulation. Regularly monitor and repair broken parts of your structure. If you are buying new, remember that bigger structures hold more warmth from the daytime. Ensure your heater is an efficient one, and you have blowers to push the heated air around.

Here’s a counterintuitive bit that makes complete sense once you’ve thought it through: On short cloudy days, there’s little point in adding heat, because the plants won’t be able to photosynthesize more. On warm sunny days, if the temperature is still low, your plants could gain photosynthesis with a higher temperature to balance the good light.

Avoid letting the humidity remain over 90% for more than a few days at a time. Ventilate, and if necessary, heat for an hour while doing that! Be sure to ventilate if the sun is shining. One of my hoophouse mantras this winter is “More air, less water!” – good airflow is vital to keep plants healthy.

As for heating, what fuel to use? Ecology is important, environmental awareness is a guiding value. Profitability has to be in there. Fossil fuels are not sustainable. Electricity produced by coal or nuclear power has no appeal. In Quebec, growers are fortunate to have hydroelectricity, from a publicly owned utility. Even with such a benign fuel source, there is still a decision to be made about the delivery system: a furnace with an electric coil or a heat pump? A short physics primer on electric heating follows. This gem of info can save you from a permanent expensive mistake! For example, surface geothermal might cost $10,000, but regular geothermal could cost $125,000! There’s a thorough table comparing pros and cons of various types of heating, and a full-page color photo of hot air distribution tubes.

The next section is on winter crop planning. To grow healthy winter crops, first grow strong seedlings with good roots, then harden them off carefully to withstand winter. Use a larger cell size than you would in simmer. Seven days before transplanting into the ground, move the seedlings into colder conditions with more outside air. Gradually increase their cold tolerance over the week.

Lack of light is more limiting than low temperatures. Careful timing is needed to get plants to the right size before daylength reduces to ten hours and growing slows right down. The key is to get plants to 70% of their final size before this happens. Further south, the dark period is shorter, the soil holds temperature until later in the year, and you have more wiggle room. In northern climates, greenhouses and tunnels become outdoor storage rooms.

There is a chart of winter days to maturity of tatsoi, spinach and turnips, and days to reach 70% full maturity. Days to maturity increase as daylength decreases. Keep records of winter days to maturity of the crops you grow, calculate 70% of that time and work back from your last day of ten hours of daylight, and find the target date to sow that crop. Keep records of sowing dates and results.

For a continuous supply of cut-and-come-again leaf crops, calculations are more complicated. Keep good notes of when you sow, cut, and can come-again. You might get three cuts, or six, depending on your location. Figure a good sowing date, and don’t delay! You could do some trials with short rows sown on different dates.

The authors provide a table of winter sowing dates for twenty-five crops sown outdoors with P19 rowcover; in a caterpillar tunnel; high tunnel; and minimally-heated greenhouse. Plants can sometimes endure an hour or two at a temperature considerably colder than they can tolerate for several days.

Crop density may need to be decreased to ensure plants get enough light and airflow. Growing plants closer in the row, but with rows further apart (growing about 70% the number of summer plants), provides better light. There’s an appendix on crop spacing.

It is helpful to know when each crop is likely to bolt after the solstice. Some bolt earlier than others. Keep records and harvest accordingly.

The crop profile section follows. There are icons indicating semi-hardy crops (32°F to 25°F/0°C to –4°C), cold-hardy ones (23°F to 14°F/–5°C to –10°C); very cold-hardy crops (14°F to 22°F/ −10°C to –30°C); minimal heating, no heating, overwintering; transplanted, and direct-sown crops. The sidebar also includes recommended varieties, spacing and seeding and transplant dates in Quebec. Each profile has a beautiful full-page watercolor image. The text includes info on first harvest, succession sowing, intercropping strategies, pest and disease challenges, and good harvest practices.

Jean-Martin Fortier with his broadfork.

Next comes the section on recommended tools: broadfork, bed prep rake, (tilther perhaps), wheel hoe, two-wheel tractor (BCS), power harrow, rotary plow, (six-row seeder perhaps), Jang seeder, Earthway seeder, four-row pinpoint seeder (I could become a convert to this handy little tool!), stirrup hoe, collinear hoe, wire weeder, Terrateck wheel hoe with bio-discs, flex-tine weeder (looks good!), harvest knives, quick-cut greens harvester. 2023 prices are in an Appendix. I liked the home-made greens bubbler, a water tank with air bubbled into it, to agitate and clean the leaves.

Next is a section on tending your winter crops. How to have an unfrozen water supply (they don’t need any irrigation in unheated shelters in December or January). Why to avoid over-fertilizing (increased salt buildup, soil diseases, thrips and aphids). How to warm the soil, increase soil microbial activity, and rate of crop growth with landscape fabric, black plastic or rowcover. How to trap mice, and deal with pest insects when it is too cold for beneficial insects.

That section is followed by one about planning fall harvests of storage crops, which combines well with winter harvest of leafy greens, for more sales. Think not only of carrots, turnips and potatoes, but also of beets, cabbages, winter squash, parsnips, rutabagas, kohlrabi, onions, leeks, celeriac. There is. as always, encouragement to keep good records.

I really like their planting charts, where each crop is shown in its special color, occupying a physical amount of space (a column for each bed), and a time (rows for the weeks). With this plan in place, quick late summer crops can be squeezed into some beds, or cover crops. Each outgoing crop is flail-mowed, and covered with a silage tarp for two or three weeks.  The soil micro-organisms break down the plant matter under the tarp, leaving the bed ready to replant without tilling. Tarping takes longer than tilling, but the method treats the soil and micro-organisms more holistically.

The general material about fall growing is followed by crop profile pages for suitable storage crops. Their method of transplanting beets gets better germination rates and uniformly filled beds. It gives me the idea of transplanting beets from thickly-emerged areas to gaps in our direct-sown beds, as we do with fall kale. There are helpful tips about carrots following garlic (we do this) because the soil will be relatively weed-free after months of garlic mulch; growing celeriac on landscape fabric, because it is in the bed for so long; storing Napa Chinese cabbage for 3 months in closed bins at high humidity; making sure not to create cracks in kohlrabi for storage; transplanting rutabagas. I’m a big fan of transplanting, but I’m learning about more crops that transplant well.

The authors advocate the same system we use for harvesting crops in the fall: determine the winter-kill temperature for each crop, list them in descending order, and work down the list, monitoring the weather forecast.

There is encouragement to build a well-insulated room with a household air-conditioner reconfigured using the CoolBot device to run at lower temperatures. If possible, make two storage rooms, one at 50°F-59°F (10°C-15°C) and one at 32°F-39°F (0°C-4°C). This is the first time I’ve seen advice to also install a heater, for occasions when outdoor temperatures are just too cold. I think we don’t need that in Virginia, but I believe Northerners do!

There are instructions about humidity, about managing ethylene and CO2, and managing inventory. There is a two-page table of storage conditions, containers, and length of storage for thirteen crops.

The last section of the book is Growing and Selling Vegetables Year-Round. Plan not to stand in the freezing cold all day at market! Options include a CSA; an online store with once-a-week deliveries to a select few locations; restaurant sales with a weekly Fresh List. Being reliable and communicating clearly is key, as is coordinating the orders and making a harvest list for the crew.

The world needs more small-scale year-round growers, supplying local markets. In Quebec in 2020, there were more start-up farms than farms closing down – the first time in fifty years! We do not need vertical farms of hydroponic vegetables, using large amounts of energy, priding themselves, curiously enough, on not using soil to produce food. Or food-like products. The diversity and flavor of four-season vegetables grown in soil can’t be beat.

Farmers at la Ferme des Quatre-Temps

Book Review Many Hands Make a Farm, by Jack Kittredge and Julie Rawson

Front cover of Many Hands Make a Farm, by Julie Rawson and Jack Kittredge, Chelsea Green Publishers

Book Review

Many Hands Make a Farm: 47 Years of Questioning Authority, Feeding a Community and Building an Organic Movement, Jack Kittredge and Julie Rawson, Chelsea Green Publishers, November 2023. 208 pages, 6 x 9 inches, with an 8-page color photo insert. $24.95.

This little book is not a how-to-farm book, but a very readable memoir-plus-life-philosophy of two activists who also raised a family and farmed organically, built their local community and served in founder and leadership roles in the Northeast Organic Farming Association. They favor minimized external energy use, natural healthcare and debt-free living. If you have some of the same goals, this book could be inspiration and encouragement. As well as the Many Hands Organic Farm CSA, their paid jobs on the board of NOFA and Jack’s job as a board game designer kept them afloat financially. Somehow they also found time to engage in music and theatrical arts and social justice work. They wrote their book in their separate voices, as interwoven sections. It’s usually easy to tell who is speaking.

The foreword is by Leah Penniman (co-founder of Soul Fire Farm and author of Farming While Black), who became a farm intern at Many Hands in her late teens, and was praised as “no question the best worker on the farm”.

Julie and Jack met in Boston in 1976. They shared values of trusting in nature, surrounding themselves with life, using their talents, respecting details, and staying skeptical but open. Each of the authors had many years of organizing and political activity under their belt before they met and moved in together in Boston, where they made a small garden, complete with compost bin and rabbit hutch. They ate well, sold 10,000 copies of one of Jack’s board games, saved money, had their first child, and after five years, planned to move to the country. They bought a 55-acre parcel of a 400-acre ex-dairy farm near Barre, Massachusetts.

They camped there, read, planned, and planted fruit trees, and had their next child. They needed to build a house, which would require saving for a year. They wanted to use the sun and earth for heating and cooling, wood for cooking and hot water, greenhouses and root cellars. They designed matching their dream, foregoing a furnace in favor of woodstoves; earth-berming the basement; running all their plumbing in a central column far from the external walls to avoid freezing; and building a basement root cellar with fan-assisted air circulation.

Their house has three floors plus an attic, providing maximum living space for minimal foundation structure. Despite such careful planning, they do see some flaws. If starting over, they would include barns and sheds attached to the house, under the same roof. When the electricity is out, the well-pump doesn’t work. They had not planned a secondary water source. Condensation of warm moist air on cold pipes and walls came as an unpleasant surprise.

Learning that half the total cost of a house was for labor, they decided to provide that themselves. Also learning that half the total cost (these can’t both be true, can they?) was for interior finishing (flooring, walls, insulation, cabinets, and trim) they decided to do that too. Wisely, they brought a mobile home to the site to live in until the house had electricity, hot water and a septic system. They organized construction weekends for their friends. They wrote a weekly newsletter to boost morale and keep the workforce up-to-date. Julie and Jack worked as hard as they could (Jack leading the construction, Julie leading the cooking and childcare, not so revolutionary, but efficient for the short term).

In December, after 5 months of amateur construction work with a bit of professional help, the shell was closed in and they moved into the house (having spent one-quarter of the total cost). By then they had four young children. Moving into a shell of a house turned out to be a good decision for them, partly because they could change plans as needs became apparent. For example, adding a window in the north wall so they could see from indoors just what was happening outside. It was to take them ten years to finish the interior work, and it was better to live with daily improvements than to wait a long time for the perfect home.

Jack learned computer programming, took contract roofing work and did odd jobs locally, to repay the emergency family loans for closing in the house. Julie, meanwhile, together with neighbors, started the Barre Farmers Market, where she sold her crops.

Julie had left college early to save the world, and married young. When she met Jack she knew she had to leave that marriage in order to start a family with Jack. This was morally difficult for her, even while emotionally imperative. Children came along quickly (four in five years), born at home. They were raised to do chores, go to bed when told, do their best at school, tell the truth, treat others with respect, and suffer the consequences of inappropriate behavior.

Julie Rawson, author of Many Hands Make a Farm. Credit Clare Caldwell

All the children went to public school, as much to learn socialization as to get an education. Conversations round the dinner table expanded the scope of their education, as did talking in Spanish, encyclopedia quizzes and maps as wall décor. The NOFA community provided models of farm family life, including expectations of children doing chores. This gave them a good work ethic, leading to chances of paid jobs on other farms as they grew older.

Other children and young teens were drawn to the household as frequent visitors or as temporary residents. Julie calls them “children of the heart” and was happy to offer them a sanctuary from which to navigate their first rough transitions in life.

On the farm, Julie and Jack built up their soil at every opportunity, gathering organic matter wherever they went. Initially they fed themselves from a quarter-acre. After a few years, they expanded to sell at the farmers’ market. Later, Julie started a CSA (Community Supported Agriculture system) with 25 members, growing on an acre and a half, with hired workers, and a work-share option of four hours per week for a full share. They bought a Troybilt rototiller and wore out a complete set of tines every year in their rocky soil. This method worked for 30 years, upgrading to a wider tiller that could be pulled behind the four-wheel tractor they had bought, and a bed shaper. Julie calls herself a tillaholic, enjoying the results while becoming aware of the longer term damage happening.

In 2014 she became convinced by an impassioned talk by Graeme Sait, to focus on maximizing carbon in the soil as part of addressing climate change. Avoiding the oxidation of soil that comes with fluffing it up with a rototiller helps sequester carbon and reduce erosion. Julie became a convert to no-till, despite opposition from some of the workforce, and sold the tiller. Using mulches and more perennial crops are key parts of this strategy. They bought lots of rock dusts and added them to their fields, following the teachings of agronomist William Albrecht. By-then-grown son Dan was a big part of making this change happen.

The operating principles at MHOF are:

  • Cooperate with nature, focusing on building good soil, not on eliminating pests.
  • Healthy soil microbes are the highest goal, and the foundation of a strong farm.
  • A healthy plant is resistant to insects and disease. [Yes, healthy plants are those that are not diseased. That’s a tautology. It is agreed that a plant requires all three features of the disease triangle: a susceptible host, the presence of a disease-causing organism (the pathogen) and a favorable environment for the disease. But, is it your fault if your plant does not resist the disease? This statement seems to blame the victim for problems that occur.]
  • Exceptional health leads to exceptional results, another example of a statement proving itself.
  • Biodiversity is key, providing resilience and strengthening the farm as a whole.
  • Help the land grow nutritious food, by attending to soil fertility: test soils and amend as needed.
  • Mulch matters, adding organic matter, feeding the soil micro-organisms, keeping the nutrients cycling round.
  • Healthy natural landscapes include both plants and animals, and farm landscapes also benefit from animals.
  • Cover crops have many soil benefits and many uses.
  • Green growth is essential for feeding the soil micro-organisms year-round, as well as adding to the carbon in the soil.
  • Silage tarps are valuable to suppress vegetative growth. Yes, the plastic is not a sustainable material. But many growers have concluded that on balance silage tarps can do more good than harm. The time on the soil is short (March to May at MHOF) and the impact is less than tilling, or leaving the soil bare. The worm casts seen on the soil surface when the tarps are removed seem to prove no long-term harm.

About eight years after the kids had grown and left home, in 2007 MHOF started working with Almost Home, a program for former prisoners of the county jail, who had addiction problems. They raised money to pay these people. Two or three at a time stayed for some years, and became friends. Julie was happy when the physical work, fresh air and hearty healthy food brought about positive change in the lives of some of these struggling people. After eleven years of this challenging work, they decided to retire from the stressful work with the ex-prison men, some of whom relapsed into addiction, including two who died of overdoses.

MHOF also hired Clare Caldwell as Julie’s farming partner, and some more full and part-time staff. Clare brought breakfast sandwiches to the ex-con workers, and is got along with all kinds of people. She has been at MHOF since 2008, including birthing and raising three children in that time. She and Julie work together very well while competing in the nicest possible way to do the hardest work.

Jack Kittredge, author of Many Hands Make a Farm. Credit Clare Caldwell

The farm has an implicit guide for farm managers:

  • If you can’t say anything nice about someone present, don’t say anything at all. It’s OK to rag on those absent, with the understanding that “what’s said on the farm stays on the farm.”
  • Never ask someone else to do something that you wouldn’t do yourself (within your physical limitations).
  • Do exercises and affirmations before the crew arrives. Put a smile on your face. You’ll feel more alert, calmer and more open to what happens.
  • Be sure each day is well organized in advance. Have a written task list posted for those who forget.
  • Good morale follows from being occupied in something you enjoy or are good at. Know each person’s skills. Be ready to switch people around if your first estimate doesn’t work out.
  • Change things up. An hour is long enough for most people on any one task. Have contingency plans for different kinds of weather.
  • Give people as much authority as they want and can manage. Silently “interview’ workers for their next potential role on the farm.
  • Organize yourself out of a job. Hand over and move on. Line up the next task. Jack and Julie are now shedding overall responsibility for major parts of the farm management.
  • Hold a high standard for all your workers. Be clear about job descriptions and remuneration.
  • Distinguish between long-term workers, working shareholders and volunteers, making expectations clear.
  • Make it fun. Some like to sing, play word games or discuss thorny topics. Others do not.
  • Celebrate birthdays and important events. A cake, some music, a mention in the newsletter.
  • Eat together. Offer breakfast, have someone make lunch for the crew. Expect all to help with cleanup.
  • Offer incessant honest praise and appreciation.
  • Don’t be afraid to apologize and own your mistakes. This builds trust.
  • Resolve conflict by immediately addressing it in a non-judgmental way. Make agreements about future interactions.
  • Take all comers, at least once. Give everybody a fair chance. Half a day, or a day.

My reviewing came unraveled when I read that Julie and Jack did not support Covid distancing, masking or vaccinations. They believed their immunity levels (and existing intake of supplements) were strong enough to protect them from this newly emerged virus, as it does for flu. I’m happy for them that when they got Covid they both got mild cases. And may have avoided spreading it to people more vulnerable than them. Not everyone has been so lucky. Some of us have lost family members, or got Long Covid. My sympathies go out to the bereaved and those with chronic illness. I don’t get why anyone would choose to ignore the scientific evidence (once it started to emerge). Clearly the authors do believe much medical science and do take treatment for other conditions, and add preventative supplements to their fantastic diet. As they say, the politicization of the disease didn’t help us. Nor does demonizing people with different opinions, who may be living in a different situation.

After selling to a hotel chef, then a small health food store, then the Barre Insight Meditation Center every time they held a retreat, they finally had a lucky break as CSAs became more widespread and well-known.

In 1990, the federal government appropriated the word “Organic”, setting up a national inspection, certification and labeling organization. The individual statewide organic organizations joined in the National Organic Program. Soon Organic standards were allowing fudges to organic food production, such as outdoor “porches” for laying hens in densely packed poultry sheds.

Both Jack and Julie were working for NOFA, Jack on the financial and campaigning sides, Julie on coordinating the bulk organic supplies order and gathering volunteers. The NOFA Summer Conference included people from seven northeastern states, and had been run by the Vermont chapter. Sadly, it owed lots of money to two Vermont colleges, and some other chapters refused to share the debt. Julie and Jack saved the conference by finding a good location in Massachusetts, and persuading the MA chapter to host the event from 1987. They were able to get the conference back as a money-earning event and repay the Vermont loans.

They also revived publication of a NOFA newsletter, gearing up from one issue per year to six. Controversial issues were fearlessly aired (mosquito-eradication pesticides, sewage sludge as fertilizer, the industrialization of farming, big farm subsidies from taxes, the national expectation of cheap food, GMOs, and animal ID chips (dropped by the government after huge resistance from farmers).

The newsletter editors also ran seminars from 2008-2018, in conjunction with the Bionutrient Food Association, where Dan Kittredge worked. Interest in nutrient density of food lead into thinking about carbon sequestration, and no-till farming as a way to reduce carbon burn-up (carbon dioxide build-up).

Around 2015, Jack (in his mid-seventies) started to retire from NOFA/Mass involvement, and in 2020 Julie retired from her role as director. Their graceful exits were marred by a major disagreement with the NOFA Interstate Council at the end of 2020. Jack focused an issue of the newsletter, The Natural Farmer, on whether or not hydroponics should be allowed within Organics. Jack’s openness to airing dissent brought forth a blistering criticism from those who thought this idea unworthy of the newsletter.

For the conference, Julie proposed a debate about Covid vaccination and the New York state law closing religious exemptions. This idea was seen by many farmers as pointless and divisive. Instead, the topic went to an issue of The Natural Farmer, edited by Jack as his final issue. Some readers wanted to pull the issue, but it was too late. Is it censorship to exclude controversial topics, or is it avoidance of unhelpful conflict in order to focus on moving forward on agreed topics?

After 36 years working for NOFA, Julie (now 70) was happy to return to full-time farming, and continue educational work through a weekly farm newsletter and the Many Hands Sustainability Center, with weekly hosting of boys from a school providing for those recovering from sexual abuse; and seven workshops per year for members of the public. Jack is preparing to pass on their legacy, the farm, to a land trust. This means that their 55 acres cannot be further built on, and remains available to future buyers at a lower, non-development price.

Here are two people who were clear in their goals, applied themselves with gusto, achieved all their important aspirations, wrote it up, and roundly deserve to rest on their laurels.

Book Review: Microbe Science for Gardeners by Robert Pavlis

Front cover of Microbe Science for Gardeners by Robert Pavlis. Photo, New Society publishers

Book Review: Microbe Science for Gardeners: Secrets to Better Plant Health, Robert Pavlis, New Society Publishers, September 2023. 192 pages, 6 x 9 inches, charts, diagrams and photos. $22.99.

Robert Pavlis is an engaging and reliable science writer, who owns Aspen Grove Gardens, a six-acre botanical garden with 3,000 plant varieties in southern Ontario. I have previously reviewed Soil Science for Gardeners, Plant Science for Gardeners, and Compost Science for Gardeners. Robert explains science in concise, minimally technological English, with researched and trialed information. In this, his newest book, Robert describes the all-important symbiotic relationships between plants and microorganisms below and above ground. A gram of fresh leaf may be home to a hundred million bacteria.

Aspen Grove Gardens. Photo from the Garden Myths website

In Microbe Science for Gardeners, we learn how we can encourage beneficial microbes and discourage those that damage our crops. We can increase our knowledge of strategies that prevent fungal, bacterial and viral diseases, and cure them. Robert Pavlis is well-known for myth-busting. No farmer likes to find their time or money has been wasted on wishful thinking with a slim hope of good results. With information from this book, we can better understand how various gardening and farming practices affect the microbes living with our plants. Is it good, bad or interesting, to till, use mulches, rotate crops or grow perennials?

This is a good point at which to say Pavlis is not a committed organic gardener. He sees compounds and ions from the plant and microbe point of view, as independent from their source. Pros and cons relate to the ingredients, not their manufacturer. There is plenty of good info and advice for organic growers. The book is studded with sidebars of Microbe Myths. Many of us will find one of our microbe beliefs shattered!

Microbes under consideration include bacteria, fungi, yeasts, nematodes, protozoa, viruses and more, such as archaea, actinomycetes, cyanobacteria and algae. And the microbe communities and microbiomes where different species support each other, such as lichens. Readers are almost certain to find some lesser-known and newly investigated gems of soil biology here, as well as be enthralled by the microscopy photos of tiny creatures we don’t see while thinning carrots.

Plants actively farm the microbes nearby, modifying the space to become more habitable. The microbes make nutrients available for the plants. The role of certain fungi covering roots and effectively increasing the surface area of those roots, increasing the nutrient-seeking range, is fairly well-known. Gardeners adding too much nitrogen fertilizer will cause the microbe system to slow down, creating a dependency on added fertilizer.

Most soils contain adequate phosphorus, although it may be in a form that requires certain microbes to make it available. Beware of adding phosphorus – do a soil test first. Fungi gather and distribute phosphorus to plants, but as with other nutrients, if too much is applied by the gardener, this inhibits growth. Remember, brassicas do not colonize fungi.

Good finished compost can still provide nitrogen 5 years later, as it finishes breaking down. Part of its contribution is via the microbes that feed on the compost, die and break down. There is much we don’t yet know about microbes, and many kinds we have not even identified yet. Recent estimates are that microbes compose 70%-90% of life on our planet.

Microbes are essential to plant growth. Some promote plant growth in ways such as bringing in nutrients and organic matter, fixing nitrogen, producing plant hormones, vitamins and antibiotics, furnishing dissolved minerals and breaking down toxins. There are 558 yeast strains found under chestnut trees. Seventy-seven of them produce a growth-regulating hormone important to roots (15 at a high level).

All carbon energy originates with plants and algae that make food using the energy of the sun. The rest of us get energy by eating those foods. Respiration releases some carbon (as CO2) back into the atmosphere, to be recaptured and used by plants. As microbes digest dead organic matter in compost piles, the process releases CO2. Nutrients are cycled around the life forms that can use them. Nitrogen is another very important nutrient, with its own energy food web.

Those who make compost are familiar with working with the carbon to nitrogen ratio. The bacteria and fungi doing the actual composting need a particular C:N ratio to live. By starting a compost pile at a 30:1 ratio, we allow for the initial release of CO2. Bacteria have a low C:N ratio (5:1 on average). When protozoa and nematodes eat bacteria, the excess nitrogen is released in forms that can be used by plants.

We gardeners also influence microbes. Soil compaction reduces oxygen levels and increases CO2. Aerobic microbes cannot thrive. Tilling does not much affect bacteria, but does rip up fungal hyphae. Tilling introduces more oxygen into the soil. Microbes in the topsoil decrease. Some pesticides harm microbes, others do not. Some microbes use glyphosate (Roundup) as food, leaving benign compounds. This is why glyphosate has a short half-life in the soil. Maintaining a steady moisture level in the soil is important for microbes.

The presence of bacteria on and inside plants is likely essential to the life of the plants. All bacteria are single-celled organisms, most are aerobic and get their energy directly from carbon sources. Most can only move themselves a distance of 5 micrometers in their whole lifetime. Only a few cause diseases.

Bacteria can only ingest small molecules, so to obtain food from plant material consisting of large molecules, they excrete enzymes that can break large molecules down to small molecules such as sugars, and then into ions. If any of the ions hit the cell wall of the bacterium, it can ingest them. Despite this inefficient-sounding mechanism, bacteria thrive everywhere! Bacteria cannot digest lignin, found in wood, but fungi can.

There are fascinating details of bacterial lifecycles, types of bacteria and fungi. Fungi cannot make their own food from carbon as plants do. They rely on other organisms in the soil or on the surface as their food. Soil is home for about 70,000 species of fungi. As bacteria do, fungi excrete enzymes that break down large organic molecules. The smaller molecules can then be absorbed and transferred several feet along the hyphae.

Oyster mushrooms
Photo Ezra Freeman

Fungi can reproduce asexually (by fragmenting) and sexually (via spores, when conditions are not right for fragmentation). Mycorrhizal fungi are symbiotic with their host plants. They can increase tolerance for diseases, drought and chilling in their associated plants, as well as increase yields.  The plant supplies the fungi with sugars from photosynthesis and the fungi supply other nutrients to the plant. If the soils are nutrient-rich, the plant needs less from the fungi, and transfers less sugars to them.

Yeasts also play an important role in the biosphere, including decomposition of organic matter, cycling of nutrients, and supplying plants with growth-stimulating compounds. Yeasts are a type of fungus, with complex single cells. Most convert carbohydrates into alcohol and CO2. This is the process of fermentation. Yeast lifecycle includes asexual reproduction (budding) as well as sporulation, a form of sexual reproduction, which happens when the environment becomes inhospitable. Spores can become dormant and survive until conditions improve.

Powdery mildew is a yeast fungus that grows on leaves. Research is being done into antagonistic yeast species to combat powdery mildew, which requires particular yeast for particular plants. Simply using bakers’ yeast does not work. Adding compost can sometimes help plants outgrow infections.

South Anna Butternut winter squash, a Moschata bred by Edmund Frost to resist Downy mildew
Photo Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Some fungi can attack living prey using sticky goo, poison filaments or entangling snare strands. Some yeasts contain pieces of viral RNA that produce toxins and bad beer. The interactions between bacteria, nematodes and protozoa in the soil are responsible for making many plant nutrients available. The soil environments, including the soil type and pore size, influence the amount and type of protozoa and nematodes found there, which in turn affects the number and type of bacteria. The result affects the type of plants that thrive.

Nematodes are tiny worms, up to 2 mm long, living in the top 6″ (15 cm) of the soil and moving in films of water, eating bacteria, fungi, protozoa and smaller nematodes. They are multicellular, but have only simple bodies without circulatory or respiratory systems. Some species are beneficial to plants, some parasitic, some carry viruses.

Protozoa are single-celled organisms (remember the amoeba from biology classes?), that eat mostly bacteria, and also algae, fungi, some pathogenic nematodes, and smaller protozoa. Grazing of root growth by some protozoa, and production of plant hormones by amoebae lead to an increase of root exudates, and then to an increase of bacterial populations, to the benefit of the protozoa who eat them.

Some protozoa can photosynthesize. Some live inside other organisms, large and small. Some cause human diseases, such as malaria and giardia. Nematodes, arthropods and larger protozoa eat protozoa and keep their numbers in balance. In inhospitable conditions they enter a durable cyst stage. The weight of protozoa produced each year in healthy soil is about the same as that produced by earthworms. Let’s value their contribution to nutrient cycling as much as we value that of earthworms!

Viruses are extremely small and are not composed of cells, but usually small pieces of DNA wrapped in a layer of protein. Most scientists do not consider them living or dead. They don’t grow or reproduce or move on their own, and they cannot make proteins or produce energy. They use their hosts to provide these functions. Some are beneficial, many cause diseases, some have not been studied enough for us to know. Most are short-lived, although tobacco mosaic virus can survive for decades. There are no cures for viral diseases. Prevention and limitation of spread by control of the vector is required. Bleach does not kill viruses. Vinegar is of limited effectiveness. Rubbing alcohol is the best choice for disinfecting pruners.

Most viruses infect bacteria, not plants or people. These viruses are called microphages, or just phages. Bacteria defend themselves against viruses by chopping up their genetic material. This is the process humans learned from when developing CRISPR technology. There are also bacteriophages that control plant-pathogenic bacteria. Their action is specific to particular bacteria. This is an area of active research.

Robert Pavlis, author of the “Science for Gardeners” series. Photo from his website

After covering these major types of microbe, the author takes us on an exploration of other types, including archaea, actinomycetes, cyanobacteria, and algae.

It is a mistake to think of various types of microbes living in isolation. Most live in diverse microbial communities, and also in combination with plants. “Microbiome” is the word used to describe a microbe community in a specific location, such as on a leaf, or among a tree’s roots. Microbes from neighboring communities may be in competition, or may be complementary. Microbes hoard carbon and nitrogen by deterring others with toxins and repellents.

Microbes signal to each other not as communication, but in the sense of exuding compounds that cause particular actions by other microbes, such as moving closer or further away. Potential foods exude compounds that cause microbes to produce digestive enzymes. When the sign (scent, flavor) of a predator is received by a microbe, it produces an enzyme that makes a toxic substance and secretes it into the adjacent water. The toxin makes the microbe dangerous to its predators, repelling them. The author is attentive to avoiding giving the impression that microbes are conscious and “choosing” to send “messages”, when in fact the situation is one of chance and chemical reactions.

Lichens are symbiotic relationships between three microorganisms: a fungus, a green alga or a cyanobacterium, and a yeast. The participation of the yeast is a relatively new discovery. The fungus can survive without its lichen partners, but benefits from the community. It absorbs water from the air and provides shade, benefiting the light-sensitive alga. The alga or cyanobacterium photosynthesizes, supplying sugars. The yeast helps deter predator microbes. Lichens do not harm the plants they grow on. Their presence indicates clean air.

The above-ground parts of plants are also home to a multitude of microbes, but so far they have been less studied than those in the soil. Microbes grow and reproduce on and in the plant, are washed and blown from one plant to another. Microbes can exit and enter leaves via the stomata. Immunity receptors on the leaves can detect arrival of pathogens and trigger the closure of individual stomata.

Hydroponic plants carry very few microbes, perhaps to the detriment of the health of diners. We are mistaken if we think pesticides (natural or synthetic) can kill only “bad bugs”. All bugs are interconnected and usually interdependent. Avoid sprays, as everything that kills something visible is also killing microbes we can’t see.

The rhizosphere, a thin layer of water, soil and air coating the roots, is crucial to plant health. There is a great photo showing the roots of a plant removed from the ground, coated with a layer of soil and microbes, called a rhizosheath. Look for this sign of a healthy soil as you work with your plants. There is good information about roots, root tips, the rhizosphere, the mycorhizosphere, rhiozophagy and more rhizowords.

We know that tillage reduces soil aggregation and water-holding capacity, cuts roots and fungal hyphae, and causes some microbe populations to die back, making it easier for pathogens to take hold. Crop rotation and inclusion of cover crops usually increase microbial diversity, benefiting the next crop, sometimes a little, sometimes a lot. Long cycles allow pathogens to decrease, although some soil-borne pathogens can persist for a long time. If you only have a small backyard garden, the distance you can move your crops is small, as are the benefits.

Most plant diseases are preventable with the right microbes present and active. Early-stage diseases are dealt with by the plant and its support team of beneficial and neutral microbes. Most plants fight off bacterial pathogens thanks to microbial competition, although some plants have some immunity. Often we don’t see the disease a plant has, unless it takes over. Disease spores are all around us. It’s fine to compost most diseased plants! Not those with virus diseases, or very contagious diseases like verticillium wilt.

Diseased squash, mid-June.
Photo Pam Dawling

Pavlis includes information on what to do when you suspect a plant disease: Identify the problem, research reliable sources, decide if action is required, and find a solution that really works. Most often that won’t be one recommended on social media by people using kitchen products. There is a four-page descriptive list of 20 plant diseases and possible controls and management strategies, followed by discussion of household remedies such as milk or baking soda for powdery mildew (yes, if . . .), chamomile tea or cinnamon against damping off disease (yes, not sure why), neem oil against some fungal diseases but not others, and insect vectors of viral diseases (yes, if you get the agricultural kind with active azadirachtin).

The next chapter is about using microbes to grow better plants. Soils from different plant communities have different Fungal:Bacterial ratios. This ratio can be modified by adding organic matter with a high C:N ratio to improve conditions for fungi. It is hard to accurately measure F:B ratios and different methods give different answers. It is a mistake to think higher F:B ratios are always better, or that certain plants require a fixed ratio throughout their growth. There is little if any scientific research. We don’t know if trees need to grow in a high F:B ratio soil, only that forest soils do have a high F:B ratio. Possibly plants modify their own soil environment and don’t usually benefit from us making changes.

Adding the appropriate rhizobium bacterial inoculants to legumes has long been proven to work, increasing nitrogen-fixation 30%-70%. The bacteria remain in the soil for 4-40 years, and the inoculant does not need to be replied annually. Avoid adding too much nitrogen fertilizer, or the inoculated bacteria will give up. Before flowering, 60% of a legume’s fixed nitrogen is in the leaves and stems, with 40% in the roots. After mature seed forms, 80% is in the seed, 11% in the roots, and 9% in the leaves and stems.

The author cautions us to beware terms like “beneficial microbes”, which is just a marketing ploy selling non-pathogenic microbes said to increase the population in the soil. These usually include molasses or another form of sugar, which causes an initial microbe population explosion. When the nutrient is all gone, microbes die and feed each other, and population returns to its previous level.

“Effective microorganisms” is a label for a combination of up to 80 different microbes the seller thinks will improve the decomposition of organic matter. Microbes populate soils quickly by themselves, until the many species are in balance and the soil is carrying its maximum capacity. Adding more is just a waste of money and time. Slower-decomposing organic matter provides a better, longer-term benefit, increasing your soil’s capacity to host more microbes.

Bottled bioinoculants, biostimulants, biofertilizers and probiotics are usually selected microbes, mostly fungi and bacteria. Many do not contain live microbes. The Oregon Dept of Agriculture tested 51 products for bacteria and found only 9 functional. Of 14 products tested for Trichoderma fungus, none were worthwhile. Of 17 containing mycorrhizal fungi, only 3 met the label description. DNA testing showed that some products had never contained the beneficial organism. There’s lots of snake oil out there!

Compost teas are DIY inoculants, popular either as a hopefully concentrated form of nutrients or a more populous source of (hopefully good, not pathogenic) microbes. Making tea cannot increase the amount of nutrients beyond that available in the original compost. It can reduce some soil-borne diseases, if the soil, climate and microbes are exactly what is needed. Rather hit-and-miss, for gardeners and farmers. Compost tea can contain more microbes than the original compost, but they can be good, bad or even deadly, including E.coli and Salmonella. Incidentally, the deadly ones are more likely if you add molasses to your brew, Pavlis claims.

Pickled garlic scapes, okra and beets.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

If all this talk of microbes on and in your food is creeping you out, relax! Wash your hands, wash your vegetables, enjoy your food. Forget soap, bleach and baking soda. A 1:1 mix of household vinegar and water can be used for a 10-minute vegetable soak, if you get sick easily. Otherwise, plain water is adequate. Remember you too are full of microbes, and your well-being depends on some of them.

You can read more of Robert Pavlis’s work on his Facebook page, website and YouTube channel:

https://www.facebook.com/groups/GardenFundamentals

https://www.gardenmyths.com

https://www.youtube.com/Gardenfundamentals1

Book Review The Ecological Farm by Helen Atthowe

Front cover of The Ecological Farm

 The Ecological Farm: A Minimalist No-Till, No-Spray, Selective Weeding, Grow-Your-Own-Fertilizer System of Organic Agriculture, Helen Atthowe, Chelsea Green Publishing, 2023. 368 pages, $44.95.

 In this inspiring book, Helen Atthowe explains her 35 years of experience farming fruit and vegetables in Montana, California and Oregon. This book will appeal to all those (especially orchardists) who are fine-tuning their land management. I think beginners could find it over-whelming, unless they take it in rich small doses! This is definitely a book to dip into and come back to as needed. It provides a Big Picture of ecological farming, not a step-by-step How To.

Helen clearly pays exquisite attention to her farming, conducts research and share her knowledge with others. She operated an Organic orchard in California, together with her husband Carl Rosato, who very sadly died in a farm accident in 2019. Helen and Carl together pioneered ways to raise tree fruit with no pesticides at all. Helen has expertise in ecological weed, disease and pest management, minimal soil disturbance, and managing living mulches, providing soil fertility without manure-based compost, and cultivating habitat for beneficial species. There is lots to learn from this book.

The endorsements for The Ecological Farm are staggering: fifteen well-known ecological farmers (fourteen men and one woman, what’s with that?). Clearly, this work is held in high regard by many experts in the field. The love of farming goes beyond achieving high crop yields, embracing connection with the land and all its forms of life. Helen says “The process of creating farms and gardens opens my eyes to awe, attunes my ears to listening, and offers the gifts of curiosity, discovery and deep connection.”

The ecological approach in this book goes beyond organic, which in the wrong hands simply substitutes a different set of substances for the banned ones, and doesn’t look any deeper. Helen has measured the effects that her actions have had on her land and crops, and shares her results so that we too can grow nutrient-dense foods and leave the environment in a richer, more balanced state than we found it.

The book contains dozens of Helen’s own beautiful full-color photos of plants, pests, birds, fruit trees and vegetables in various combinations. There are prepared forms for monitoring problems and planning interventions. There is a Vegetable Crop Growing and Troubleshooting Guide, a section on Vegetable Crop Insect Pests and Interventions, one on vegetable crop diseases, and similar sections for tree fruit crops.

The first half of the book sets out ten empirical and practical Principles for Managing Ecological Relationships. As the name emphasizes, it’s about managing relationships, not managing crops for highest yields, regardless of what else happens. The connections that form healthy farming ecosystems require us to pay attention, and avoid outside inputs in favor of balancing what is happening on our own farm. There are some excellent charts of applying the ecological principles.

The Principles include creating above- and below-ground diversity; minimizing soil disturbance; maintaining growing roots year-round (living plants secrete 30-60% of the carbon they capture from the air during photosynthesis down into the soil); growing your own carbon; adding organic residues all season; focusing on carbon fertilizers; recycling rather than importing nutrients; fertilizing selectively; weeding selectively; and creating beneficial habitat as close to the crops as possible.

There are many ways to build soil organic matter without removing large quantities of inputs from someone else’s land (not sustainable or fair, as Helen remarks); many ways to build habitat for beneficial organisms; many actions that can steer plants, animals and fungi towards better balance, so that the soil microbial community will thrive and cycle nutrients continuously.

Helen tells that when she started farming, she behaved like a “nitrogen hoarder”, focused on maximizing the amount of nitrogen the soil had available, and topping it up with compost and cover crops if the soil held less than the requirement for the next crop. Her soil management went through a three-stage evolution: She started to view the abundance and diversity of active microbes as the important bit, and the nitrogen level as merely a sign of that activity. Next, she moved to consider the whole soil organic matter system, rather than the parts as separate features to measure. Thirdly, she researched soil carbon and realized that microbially-active carbon was essential fuel for the soil microbes, and deserved more attention.

Actual measurements showed that, contrary to careful calculations, her soil levels of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium were becoming too high. Helen had been generously adding sheep manure and clover compost at 7-10 tons/acre (18-25 tons/ha). She changed to using mown clover as her main fertilizer, and learned to manage the carbon:nitrogen ratio, with the goal of achieving steady decomposition of organic residues and increased microbe populations and diversity. Simply adding more high-nitrogen material will not provide good crops! We need to build carbon in our soils, and optimize organic matter decomposition and nutrient cycling.

Helen discovered that the C:N ratio of mowed clover living mulch residue varied according to the time of year, being highest (least nitrogen, nodules not yet formed) in July and lowest (most nitrogen, clover flowering) in August and September. This affects nutrient availability and decomposition rate. Vegetable crops do best in Helen’s system if she tills once a year and regularly applies both high-C and low-C residues on the surface. The continuous organic surface residue supply is much better than an annual large dose. Timing when and how we apply organic residues influences their C:N ratio, and hence how we build up carbon in the soil.

Minimizing tillage is another way to build soil organic matter. Incorporated clover releases nitrate-nitrogen into the soil much more quickly than surface-applied cut clover. If your soil has an active and diverse microbial community, incorporating legume cover crops in spring can give a quick burst of nitrogen (for a few weeks), then a sustained regular release of more as it slowly decomposes. With no tillage there is a lag time. No-till does keep the fungal food webs unbroken, which has advantages. It is important to focus on the carbon fertilizers rather than fast-release nitrogen fertilizers. Since 2016, Helen has used only mowed living mulch as fertilizer for most crops, paying close attention to the timing of mowing. The vegetable plots also benefitted from the living mulch in the row middles growing over the bed after the food crop was finished.

I had to look up “row middles” to understand the methods better. With rows of fruit trees, row middles are the aisles between rows of trees. They can be planted in cover crops, which can be mowed and the cut material blown into the tree rows to act as mulch. The photos of vegetable production (other than her home garden) seem to show aisles wider than the beds, so that less than half of the land is in vegetables and more than half is in cover crops. This fits with the method of growing lots of cover crops as the main source of soil fertility. And with Helen’s method of always leaving half of the living mulch row middles unmowed to provide good habitat for beneficial insects. Over here on the East Coast, I am more used to intensive vegetable farms with narrow aisles between beds, perhaps because land is more expensive, perhaps because Bermuda grass is so invasive as to scare off anyone who might consider permanent paths. Jennie Love, a flower farmer in Philadelphia, uses Living Walkways. Hers are 21″ wide, mostly grass and weeds, and require mowing every single week. Helen’s are more focused on legumes, especially clovers.

To focus on a soil organic matter system driven by microbial activity, attention goes to C:N ratios, optimal decomposition speed and nutrient cycling of the cover crops, mulches and composts. As Helen admits, this can be overwhelming, so don’t change everything at once! As you gain experience growing your own fertilizers, you can cut back on imported fertilizers. Do provide a diversity of organic materials throughout the growing season. Having just one kind, all at once is, for the soil, like us eating a whole giant cheese pizza! Soil “indigestion” takes the form of an over-population of just a limited specific microbial community.

Decreasing nutrient inputs and increasing application of organic residues leads to an increase of mycorrhizal fungi. Including chipped woody compost increases the soil carbon. Adding cover crops increases not just the soil nitrogen but also the carbon as more microbial bodies are born, feed and die. Raw organic matter is to be avoided as it acts like an unmanageable surge that can burn plants (by releasing high levels of salts and toxic byproducts) and leach nutrients. In hot humid climates, it is best to aim for slow decomposition to balance the climate’s effect causing fast decomposition. Aim for ten weeks’ worth of nutrients, not more, and watch for foliar signals of nitrogen or phosphorus deficiency that last for more than 3 weeks – a sign that things are out of balance.

In early spring (if early harvest is a priority) you will need to provide easily available nutrients. The first couple of years after switching your focus to carbon, you may be frustrated by the slow rate of decomposition and the lower yields. It takes weeks longer for surface-applied plant matter to release its nutrients than it does for tilled-in plant matter. This requires patience, planning and also has financial implications. Wait 2-4 weeks after incorporating organic residues, or 4-6 weeks after spreading them on the surface, before planting. Animal manure is not essential for soil fertility. After all, animal manure is simply plant matter that has been partially digested. By applying the plant materials to the soil surface, the digestion is done by small soil animals. It’s not so different!

Letting living mulch grow tall in very wet or very hot weather will help dry or cool the soil, but don’t let the cover crop out-compete the food crops for water! Adding cut covers is also a way of adding to soil moisture. Helen is a fan of minimizing tillage, not of banning it.  Tillage decreases organic matter, microbial diversity and abundance, and disrupts the fungal chains. Strip tillage tills out narrow strips to plant into, from an existing sward of cover crops. Tillage incorporates organic residues, adds air, and stirs up a burst of biological activity, helps warm up spring soils, reduces weeds and breaks up compaction. These benefits can be put to use rather than scorned. “Practice tillage with intention” as Helen advises.

Likewise, compost can be useful when starting on poor land, or needing to address some other kind of imbalance. Don’t rule it out completely! There is plenty of information about making good compost here. Did you know the critical temperature for killing most weed seeds is 145˚F (63˚C)? This book also offers a recipe for a liquid fertilizer for “emergency use” on crops showing a nutrient deficiency.

Author Helen Atthowe.
Credit Cindy Haugen

I appreciate reading work by growers such as Helen, who have done the research and experimentation and responded to the science. An average of one page of footnotes per chapter backs up her claims. I’m not a fan of myths and “woo-woo” gardening. This book includes many useful charts and graphs, so you can see the facts. A four-year experiment started with a 50-year old grass, clover, alfalfa and weed pasture, was divided into two fertility treatments. The first was strip-tilled, with the mowed living mulch blown onto the 4′ (1.2 m) wide crop plots each spring. The second was similar, with the addition of 4″ (10 cm) of clover/grass/weed hay mulch in the late summer before the spring strip-tilling. The hay was cut from another field on the farm. Crop yields were economically sustainable in both plots all four years, and there were almost no insect or disease problems. Yields improved in the second and third years. Yields of some crops were higher with the hay addition – peppers and onions significantly; dry beans and cabbage slightly.

The information on choosing cover crops advises using mixes of crops with different C:N ratios, and including legumes whenever possible. This chapter includes recommendations on inoculants, cover crops for various soil types, and “biographies” of four perennials, 15 annuals and the biennial yellow sweet clover.

The book reminds (or informs) us that being able to stop using pest control sprays starts with building the soil, making it comfortable for soil microbes and creating habitat for natural enemies of the pests. The next step is growing healthy plants, by providing optimal conditions of light, temperature and water, and managing plant competition from weeds or over-thick sowing. After that, focus on the balance of nutrients in the soil, especially carbon.

Suppress pests, rather than focusing on killing them. Spraying insecticides, even organic ones, can disrupt balance and leave you inheriting the task of the creatures you killed. Killing all the prey starves the predators who were keeping the prey in check. Learn to intervene with the least possible impact. Tolerate non-threatening amounts of pest damage. Approach in this order: prevention, pest diagnosis, research, monitoring and ecological decision-making. Minimal-impact interventions include trapping and pest-specific microbial insecticides like Bt (which could require ten sprayings to achieve 98% damage-free Brussels sprouts); moderate-impact interventions include broader-spectrum microbials and materials like soap, horticultural oils and minerals; heaviest-impact interventions (those likely to injure non-targets) include using neem oil, pyrethrin, pyrethrum powder and spinosad.

Designing and maintaining a disease-suppressive ecosystem is the title of the section that focuses on preventing diseases. Crop rotations and diversity of crops and other plants are at the top of the list.

Plant competition is the description of the effect of weeds and over-thick planting. We are encouraged to focus on the weeds most likely to cause problems leaving those that can peacefully co-exist with the crop. Knowing and understanding weed ecology is important: when and where does this weed do best? How can you make your vegetable gardens less comfortable for the weed?

Perennial weeds that spread underground need good attention. Helen deals with quack grass, which takes about four years to become a serious invasion problem, when three passes with the tiller 7-10 days apart in spring are needed. I’ve lived with quack grass (couch grass), a cool-weather invasive. It’s a challenge, but I do think the warm-weather Bermuda grass (wire grass) is worse. Tilling also deals with that.

Crop rotations, especially of crops that grow in different seasons, underground crops that need soil disturbance to harvest them, and crops that rapidly cover the soil, are a big help. Helen recommends growing a full-season perennial cover crop on 25-50% of your garden beds or farm area in production each year to break annual weed cycles.

Some cover crops, including cereal rye, hairy vetch, red clover, sunflowers and mustards all exude allellopathic compounds that inhibit germination of nearby seeds (weeds and crops). Often incorporating the cover crop in the soil works better than chop-and-drop, as buried plants decompose without much air, giving a stronger effect. Also tilling reduces the immediate competition from weeds. Tillage can increase yields even if you believe no-till is best! It’s a trade-off. Tillage reduces soil health. Perhaps the sweet spot is minimal tillage, such as strip tillage. Landscape fabric (reused for ten years) offers another method of weed management.

Part Two of the book (approximately half of the pages) covers an ecological approach to crop management and troubleshooting. I didn’t take as many notes of that. After the introduction to some techniques like interplanting, succession planting, making your own microbially-amended seed growing mix, and using season extension tools, the book focuses on thirty popular crops, with tips on crop management, pests and problems.

A tidbit I learned with spinach is that fall-sown plants that reach the two-true-leaf stage before winter will resume growth in late winter. I also learned that the western striped cucumber beetle has a reddish thorax, making it look more like our striped pigweed flea beetle without such sturdy leg muscles.

The crop management sections include soil and fertility needs and special ecological preferences. The problems sections describe symptoms first, then causes, then resistant cultivars and other strategies for avoiding that problem in future. A valuable reference, and good winter browsing when reviewing the season past and preparing for the coming year. The index covers a substantial 18 pages, in three columns, promising to be comprehensive!

Helen Atthowe still acts as advisor to her previous farm, Woodleaf Farm in eastern Oregon, and is a farm consultant in the US and internationally. I notice that Helen is a speaker at the November 2023 Carolina Farm Stewardships Sustainable Farming Conference.

Helen Atthowe, November 2017.
Photo from Veganic World

Book Review, The Seed Detective by Adam Alexander

 

The Seed Detective: Uncovering the Secret Histories of Remarkable Vegetables, Adam Alexander, Chelsea Green Publishing, 2022. 306 pages, $22.00.

Adam Alexander is a seed collector, seed conserver, seed distributor, gardener, and a fascinating writer. He set out to find the origin of many vegetables, dividing the book into crops arriving from east of his home in Wales, and crops arriving from the west. He is a researcher and traveler, gourmet foodie, and one-time market gardener who couldn’t sell red Brussels sprouts.

He has joyfully searched out and found many rare, sometimes endangered (and in at least one case, the last known) seeds. He grows out the seeds he is given, and returns some seed to the person who lent them to him. He is very respectful of people’s cultures, and won’t grow for financial gain any crop that has been entrusted to him. He has enchanting stories of his efforts to seek out the seeds he’d heard about, in vegetable markets and dusty cupboard corners.

He has a website, podcast, videos and seed list at https://theseeddetective.co.uk/ He has 499 varieties of vegetable seeds, and grows out around 70 of them each year, in his garden, which includes a polytunnel (hoophouse). For some of the crops, he works with the Heritage Seed Library in the UK. If you live in the UK, he will send you a packet of seeds for a donation of £1 plus £1.50 for postage. As I write this, in August, many varieties are out of stock. Seeds are maturing, be patient.

Adam explains why garlic was fed every day to Egyptian pyramid builders; how chilies from 6000 BCE were found in a Mexican cave; why there is so much confusion between squash, pumpkins, zucchini/courgettes and marrows; and why giant Christmas lima beans are popular in northern Myanmar.

Christmas Lima Beans from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Agricultural history and archeology contain intriguing stories, and Adam tells these tales with humor, passion, insight. Maritime history is included, so we understand why and how certain beans were valued as storable foods for the crew on long journeys, incidentally spreading the leftover beans in the land of their arrival.

From the east, Britain received various peas, fava (broad) beans, carrots before they were orange, leeks (no, they really are not native to Britain!), asparagus, lettuce, garlic and many brassicas with unfamiliar names. From the west came tomatoes, green (“French”) beans and their dried offspring, maize in its many types, lima beans, runner beans, chili peppers and the whole squash-pumpkin hyphenated extended family (except Lagenaria siceraria gourds).

This book includes global histories and geography, and starts from a British perspective in the demarcation of East and West. There is a mistaken reference to Thomas Jefferson’s New York State home of Monticello. Elsewhere, the author correctly locates Monticello in Virginia. Jefferson did rent a house in New York City while Secretary of State. “The only person who never makes a mistake is the person who never does anything!” (Theodore Roosevelt)

Adam truly wants us all to enjoy healthy food – this is far from dry research. Vegetables have been industrialized to maximize profit for some at the expense of those who toil in the fields. Crops have, in some cases, been patented. Their flavors and nutrients have been ignored. We can change this. We can rebuild biodiversity, bring back flavor and the enjoyment of eating vegetables! We can put plants “at the heart of good cuisines and health” as Tim Lang says in his Foreword.

In his previous life, Adam was a film and television producer, used to traveling widely. In his introduction, Adam tells of an evening when his film crew took over the kitchen of their hotel in Donetsk, because they were hungry and the kitchen staff were on strike in protest at the foreign film crew staying there. Adam was able to shop well, with a very favorable currency exchange rate. He found some tennis-ball sized sweet red peppers with a fiery heart. They enjoyed their dinner and Adam was able to take some seeds home. This started his seed detective journey. From then on, he used every opportunity to seek out farmers’ markets and ask the stall-holders about local varieties. He started to build a seed library, because he realized some of the seeds were in danger of going extinct.

His began to wonder about how those crops had arrived in that country, and what was their place of origin. There were eight Centres of Diversity identified by Nikolai Vavilov, who created the world’s biggest seed bank, the All-Russian Research Institute. Since then, additional Centres of Diversity have been recognized, such as in Australasia and Africa. In this book, we meet plants from just three of those Centres: the Fertile Crescent in the Middle east, Mesoamerica, and the northern parts of Peru, Ecuador and Bolivia. These hilly or mountainous, tropical or sub-tropical regions are now associated with drought, but at the time of domestication 12,000 years ago, were rich in natural resources including rainfall. Our current day vegetables are the result of Neolithic farmers selecting plants to save for seed.

According to the historian Mary Beard, the Romans were the first society to export their food culture as part of their brand, Cabbages, kale, cauliflower, broccoli, asparagus, lettuce and leeks all traveled with the legions, as familiar comfort food to fuel them for the invasions. Sophisticated Arabic irrigation systems enabled Moors invading Spain in the eighth century CE, to plant saffron, apricots, artichokes, carob, eggplants, grapefruits, carrots, coriander and rice, which all became basic ingredients of Spanish cuisine. Vegetables have been traveling the globe for a long time! Here I cannot include much of the particular seed tales, so read the book!

Adam Alexander shopping for seeds. https://theseeddetective.co.uk/my-book/

Adam’s first tale is of a local pea variety in Laos. Through an interpreter, he asked a market stall-holder about some pea seeds she had for sale. To his every question, her unvarying reply was “Of course”. They were peas, they grew tall, she saved the seed herself, and had been doing so for a long time, and of course, the whole pod was edible. When he got them back to Wales and planted them in late spring, they grew, and grew, topping his extended trellis. They produced abundantly and were delicious. His short row of peas also produced over a kilo of seeds!

Peas were domesticated in the Fertile Crescent over 8,500 years ago, from a twining winter annual in Syria. Peas we eat today come from two species, the round (mostly grown for drying) and the wrinkly (most fresh-eating peas). 2,000 years ago, the Syrian pea crossed with a wild climbing pea from the eastern Mediterranean area. This “modern” pea spread across the much of Asia and Europe. A third species of pea was independently domesticated in Ethiopia. In Europe up until the seventeenth century, most peas were grown to be dried and stored for winter. Later, farmers developed peas for fresh eating. At the end of the nineteenth century, the USDA had recorded 408 varieties of peas grown commercially, but by 1983, 90% had been lost, and only 25 appear in the records. This threat to human survival is mirrored with all edible crops.

Mysteries and scandals abound. One tall pea tale involves seed reputedly grown from one live among three seeds taken from an Egyptian tomb. It was shown to be identical to a common Dwarf Branching Marrowfat pea. And yet the charlatan continued in business, selling to gullible gardeners. In 1861 the Royal Horticultural Society in London tested 235 varieties of peas, and found only 11 worthy of merit (but what were their criteria?)

One of the peas in Adam’s collection is named Avi Joan, and came from Catalonia. Over ten feet tall, covered with pods of sweet tasty peas, still good when mature. A truly local variety, with only one known grower, it could have died out, but now has many growers in the UK.

The other tales of seeds from the east cover fava beans from Syria, carrots from Afghanistan, becoming orange in Holland, leeks domesticated in Egypt and Mesopotamia at least 4,500 years ago, Greek krambé (leafy greens) 2,600 years ago, asparagus depicted in Egyptian hieroglyphs in the third millennium BCE and growing wild (feral?) in Britain 2,000 years ago, lettuce domesticated eight thousand years ago perhaps in Kurdistan and Mesopotamia, and garlic originally from Kyrgyzstan and Kazakhstan. The oldest garlic remains, dated to the fourth millennium BCE, were found in an Israeli cave near the Dead Sea.

Popping garlic for replanting at Twin Oaks.
Photo Bell Oaks

After this Adam considers arrivals from the west. Excavations in Mexico have given us a timeline of South American ancestors transitioning from being hunter-gatherers to farming 12,000- 9,000 years ago, after the supply of game decreased, and pressure on gathered crops reduced availability. Many crops were introduced from outside the immediate area, including amaranth, maize, squash and chilies. About 3,000 years ago, almost all the diet was farmed. About 500 years ago, these foods reached the Europe, the Middle East and Asia.

At this point we must acknowledge that European colonizers violently displaced and killed most of the native people in North America and the Caribbean and brought in abducted and enslaved Africans. In the history of Europe, we mentioned invaders from one country to another, in much earlier days, in some cases thousands of years earlier. The past history of the human race was not all peaceful. Current events are not all peaceful. The flow of foods from one culture to another is generally a better aspect of ourselves.

Columbus, when returning to Spain from the Bahamas in 1493, brought maize, tobacco, sweet potatoes, chilies and two species of beans. Twenty years later, Cortés brought from Mexico avocadoes, pineapples, cocoa, squash, more bean species, tomatoes, cassava and potatoes. These crops from a small corner of southern Mexico have become embedded in European food culture.

Tomatoes are all descended from the wild tomato Solanum pimpinellifolium, indigenous to coastal Peru. “Common” beans, Phaseolus vulgaris originated in an area from Northern Mexico to Argentina, and were grown in Britain by 1597.

Pinar del Rio Bean Seed Bank at Finca Hoyo Bonito, Cuba. Display of black bean seeds. Photo Pam Dawling

Identifying the wild ancestor of corn took scientists until the 1930’s, because the changes from teosinte to modern day maize are profound. Teosinte is a short weedy grass without any cob-like ears. It has a head consisting of about 12 kernels in two rows along a hard stem. It is now accepted that a single domestication event brought maize into the world. Domestication was a feat of impressive crop selection from genetically diverse teosinte enabling rapid mutations. The common idea that evolution takes centuries of gradual changes is not true. As if by magic, maize suddenly appeared at archeological sites. It didn’t take many generations of Neolithic plant breeding 10,000 or more years ago in the Balsas Valley in SW Mexico to open the way for breeding the 20,000 landraces of teosinte and maize that exist today.

The oldest evidence of lima beans is from 8,500 years ago, in Guitarrero Cave in Peru.

In northern Mexico and Puerto Rico the limas are the smaller more drought-resistant and heat-tolerant Sieva type. Ships returned to Europe and to Portuguese and Spanish colonies in Columbus’s time with lima beans to feed the crew. Portuguese ships from the fifteenth century on sailed round the Cape of Good Hope to southern India. The pallar types of Lima beans from northern Chile and Peru, probably crossed the Pacific to the colony in the Philippines, from the sixteenth century onwards. By the end of the eighteenth century, both types of lima beans were commonly found in China and India.

Lima beans do not grow outdoors in the British climate, but their close relative, runner beans, native to high elevations of Mexico and Central America, do very well. There is some evidence that they were domesticated by 4,000 BCE. They reached England around the beginning of the seventeenth century.

Chili peppers to grow from The Seed Detective collection

The next tale is of chili peppers (spelled chilli in the UK). What is the fascination with eating the hottest possible peppers? The earliest find of domesticated chilies is in a cave in the Tehuacán Valley in south-central Mexico, and dates from 5,000-6,000 BCE.  Five species have been domesticated, starting 7,000 years ago in Mesoamerica. The species with the hottest peppers, C. chinense, is native to the Caribbean, the Yucatan and Central America, and includes the habanero, (there is no tilde over the n, no ny pronunciation – that is just English speakers trying too hard to sound foreign!), the Dragon’s Breath, the Trinidad Moruga Scorpion and Scotch Bonnet, popular in Jamaica.

The Arawak people in the Bahamas were eating chilies when Columbus arrived in 1492 and they had arrived in Europe by 1542. Chilies traveled so fast that a Dutch botanist named the C. chinense species believing they came originally from China! People in India might not realize chili peppers came from Mexico! Chilies became such a big part of cuisine on the Indian subcontinent that every region now has its own special variety. Surprisingly, chilies did not reach North America until the Spanish brought them at the end of the sixteenth century.

Lastly we turn to the pumpkin and squash family (Cucurbita). Domestication of squash started 10,000 years ago in the Americas. Before Columbus brought back squashes from the Americas, white-flowered bottle gourds (Lagenaria siceraria) were widely grown in the so-called “Old World” for the edible seeds and as containers, and sometimes the flesh was eaten (some was toxic). This led to confusion in names between the two incompatible genera.

Today we divide squash into 4 species. C. pepo is native to North America, where it has been cultivated for thousands of years. Acorn squash and maxima squashes, such as those cultivated by the Algonquin, were valuable to the early colonizers who did not have ovens, but were able to bake hard-skinned squashes (emptied of seeds and refilled with milk and spices) in the fire ashes.

There are two types of C. moschata (native to Mesoamerica, probably northern Peru), the ones we know as Butternut squash, and the giant crooknecks, such as Tahitian Butternut, not to be confused with C. mixta Cushaw squashes (native to Florida). Many names were used for different subgroups of squashes, pumpkins, melons, gourds, cucumbers. Immature squash of many kinds have been consumed, and often called zucchini. Most canned pumpkin and commercial pumpkin pies are made from butternut squash.

Green Striped Cushaw Winter Squash, a Mixta variety, also known as Striped Crookneck. Photo Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

C. maxima is probably a descendent of wild C. andreana, native to parts of Argentina and Uruguay, where it became one of the key crops of the Native Guarani people. 1,500-year-old whole squashes have been found in Salta, in the mountains of northwest Argentina. The Spanish brought C.maxima north, where it became a widespread part of the cuisine of Native Americans, and by the end of the sixteenth century, it was found across the European colonies there. C. maxima squashes reached Japan in the eighteenth century, where they were bred to make distinctive varieties and types like Kabocha and Kuri.

A fascination with growing giant pumpkins (or squash) has developed in the last 500 years. This is not about the food supply any more than the quest for the hottest chili is.

Today, desires for nutritional value, flavor and quality are moving public opinion away from the drive to more, bigger, better at any cost. That path led us to poor quality food without much flavor, that relied on pesticides rather than pest resistance or tolerance, fungicides rather than disease-resistance, and heavy inputs of chemical fertilizers to achieve the touted high yields.

Research and development on how to feed the planet with the climate in chaos, population growing and available land shrinking, is turning more towards cultivating biodiversity and valuing sustainable and traditional farming methods. It is important for the well-being of us all that we do not divide the people who are scraping together to buy the cheapest, mostly ultra-processed, unhealthy food, from the people who can afford to feed themselves organic, sustainably produced food. Small-scale diverse vegetable farming is capable of generating more income per acre than large-scale monocropping. Our task is to ensure food justice.

Diverse farming will give us resilience in the face of climate change. Collaboration between farmers in distributing their produce is a success for us all. Home gardeners providing food for their households are part of the bigger picture of feeding the world. I learned from Adam’s book that there are more than a million acres of gardens in the UK, which represents more than 8% of all land growing crops. Maintaining local varieties can produce high yields, and, again, give us resilience. Restoring and maintaining seed libraries of local varieties around the world will bring us more strength than being in thrall to agrochemical mega-businesses. The website has a Save-and-Sow section with growing tips.

Author Adam Alexander

Book Review The Home-Scale Forest Garden by Dani Baker

The cover of Dani Baker’s book The Home-Scale Forest Garden

The Home-Scale Forest Garden: How to Plan, Plant and Tend a Resilient Edible Landscape, Dani Baker, Chelsea Green Publishing, May 2022. 325 pages, 8″ x 10″, full color photos, $34.95.

 The Home-Scale Forest Garden provides plenty of detailed information to help others succeed in creating small-scale resilient low maintenance edible havens. Dani Baker started creating her forest gardens over ten years ago on Wellesley Island in the St Lawrence River, between New York and Canada (zone 4). She and her partner raise certified organic produce, grass-fed beef and goats. She tells of her successes and failures, and the strategies she developed to overcome the challenges of very wet soil, deer attacks, climate chaos and more.

The first third of this book covers planning and planting a small forest garden.  The main part of the book is a directory of plants, to help you choose plants for every level, (or “story” as the permaculturists call them). Everything from canopy trees to vines and fungi and the full range in between. The last part of the book helps with creating compatible plant groupings. Appendices give a table of nutrient accumulator plants and which nutrients each accumulates; a chart of blooming and harvest times, and a calendar of monthly maintenance tasks.

Forest gardens are modeled after nature, rather than farms: low maintenance, mixed plantings, permanent soil coverage, continuously increasing carbon sequestration. This kind of garden is regenerative: the ecological state improves each year as humus builds up. Yes, some of the plants take a long time to reach maturity and provide harvest. But herbs, berries and perennial vegetables can be harvested from your first year.

Dani and her partner David Belding bought 102 acres in the northern US, close to the Canadian border, when they retired from full-time careers, thinking to dabble in landscaping and keep a couple of horses, not to farm. The land was formerly a dairy farm, more recently hay ground with a small vegetable market farm. In their first spring, they planted a small vegetable garden, as Dani had done as a teenager. They sold all they grew, so the next year they doubled the size of the garden and bought two pigs. Retirement wasn’t boring! The garden increased to ¾ ac (0.3 ha) and the farm gained chickens, ducks, goats, beef cows and more pigs. Dani focused on the gardens, David on the livestock.

In their seventh year, Dani attended a permaculture workshop, inspiring her to create her own forest garden, fenced to keep the livestock and wild predators out. They did not want to reduce the pasture, so they chose a scrubby 100 x 200’ (30 x 61 m) area near the road. Your forest garden might be as small as 25 ft2 (2.3 m2).

They cleared the brush and designed a garden including an events space, a pond with a bridge, a patio and various plantings. Quite a bit of hardscaping (paths) was involved, meaning that long-term planning was important – no tilling everything up in November anymore! Three years later they doubled the size of their forest garden, and also expanded into the adjacent woodland, to plant under existing trees. This wooded area had standing water a lot of the year, so Dani created hügelkultur mounds, which are fully explained in chapter 4. Basically they are piles of wood trimmings that become raised beds.

For those already thinking they would miss tomatoes too much to do this, be reassured that both are possible for people with enough land. Dani has an area of market garden beds near the house. It’s also possible to integrate some annual crops within a forest garden in the early years when trees are small and plenty of light can reach the lower levels of plants. Ultimately the two kinds of gardens do better apart, as their needs and cultivation methods are different.

This is a book applying various methods, including some found in permaculture books, but it’s not a permaculture theory book, and Dani does not consider herself a permaculturist. There are none of those diagrams of the concepts of guilds, swales and redundancy in functions. You don’t have to be a believer to find value in these practices.

The six principles the author values and uses are:

  • “maximizing diversity,
  • maximizing solar absorption,
  • maximizing water conservation
  • designing for sustainability,
  • building-in redundancy and
  • minimizing human labor into the future.”

Her hedges and ground cover areas all have diverse species, and you can read which ones. By including wide paths and a patio area, Dani has created lots of edges allowing sunlight in.

Using all the vertical space increases the plants absorbing the sunlight. The seven plant levels include

  1. the overstory of trees to 30′ (9 m) or more
  2. the understory of fruit, nut and other short trees, 10-30′ (3-9 m) tall
  3. the shrub layer of berry bushes and other plants, 3-12′ (1-3.5 m) tall
  4. the herbaceous layer of perennials that die back and regrow annually, 2-10′ (60 cm-3 m) tall
  5. the ground cover layer close to the soil, including strawberries and leguminous cover crops
  6. the root layer of plants with edible roots, such as sunchokes
  7. the vining layer, with height depending on the available supports

A fungus layer can be added, but fungi aren’t plants, so you might consider them off-list.

Those creating very small forest gardens, even in a container, will have to select some layers and not others.

To maximize water conservation, create a lot of leaf canopy, keep the soil covered, choose appropriate plants, collect rainwater and runoff and increase water-absorbing mulches. At the beginning, you can cover the soil with wood chips, improving conditions both immediately and longer-term. Notice where water collects on your land and match water-loving plants with damp locations. Ponds can collect and store water, to be used as needed for watering plants, as well as increasing the habitat for more species of small and larger creatures.

Design so that you do not usually have to actively water plants–the goal is a self-sustaining garden. Be sure to include nitrogen-fixing plants, some deep-rooting plants that accumulate nutrients, some that attract beneficial insects and some “aromatic pest confusers” to make pests unwelcome.

The concept of redundancy is to provide multiple ways a need can be met, (and multiple needs met by any one function). This increases sustainability and reduces the chance of the garden failing. Water can be provided by rain, ponds and a hose. Ponds provide other functions too, increasing the network of support.

All of the above contribute to reducing future human labor, which is a fine goal for anyone, but especially those creating gardens during their retirement years. Setting up a forest garden and getting it firmly established can be quite a lot of work, depending on the scale. After that, it will provide for you, and the rest of the ecosystem.

Dani Baker, author of The Home-Scale Forest Garden

It is very important to plan your forest garden before planting anything, or making any changes to the space. You are creating long-term changes, not an annual garden that will be tilled up for a fresh start every year. Not all your plans will work out as expected, but not to worry: those who have a plan are best-placed to understand when and even how to make a change. Dani has examples, including how the dog changed the access through the hügelkultur area.

Part of your plan might be to try out plants that haven’t previously thrived in your climate. You can do this by finding the best microclimate in your garden for these crops, and improving those microclimates to suit the crops better. You can experiment on a small scale somewhere else on your land that has a suitable microclimate, to see if it will work. Assuming you don’t have huge financial resources, you’ll want to mostly grow plants you know will do well. Nut trees take a long time to provide a harvest, and who knows what the climate will be like by then? You might rather stick with berry bushes.

The first practical step, after dreaming, is to closely observe the land you plan to use, throughout every season and every type of weather. Pay attention to soil types, drainage, slopes, shade, microclimates, shelter or not from prevailing winds. Make a sketch of the various areas within your site and indicate the flows of water and wind, the sun and shade. Check the USDA winter-hardiness zone and soil types (ask your Extension agent). Dig holes after rain to assess how quickly the soil drains, and note where the rivulets run. Decide if you need to install culverts or drains. Decide if you want to include a pond, and if so, where would be the best spot.

Next, make a scale map, with accurate measurements of lengths in all directions. Mark existing trees, stumps, shrubs, slopes, rock outcroppings, flow of surface water and any human-built structures. The book explains how to triangulate distances from two known points. Add contour lines. Check the map against the territory, ensuring its accuracy.

With an accurate map you can start to pencil in your ideas, balancing all the factors already discussed. Site the big trees, ensuring you give them adequate space. Fill in with the next tallest plants, and work down by height. Make sure your taller plants won’t shade smaller ones that need good light, or ponds that benefit from solar warming. Site windbreaks where you need them, and plants that tolerate wet soil in the dampest spots.

Dani offers planning tips, like cutting discs of paper for the large trees, and moving them around your map to get the best configuration. She quotes from Martin Crawford, who wrote Creating a Forest Garden. He suggests:

  • Choose fast-growing species that will serve their ultimate purpose
  • Plant trees and shrubs close enough to create a continuous dense mass when mature
  • For windbreaks, plant a line of trees perpendicular to the direction of the wind, then plant smaller bushier plants downwind
  • Don’t expect other plants to thrive close to a windbreak, because roots compete
  • Reduce weed competition to speed forest development

Dani chose hügelkultur beds for the places that often had standing water. It was a good solution for making raised beds that would keep the plants’ roots out of the water. You will need to accumulate lots of resource materials, (unless you are making a tiny forest garden). Where possible, get the heavy piles of organic matter delivered to the high point of the land, so you only ever move it downhill!

If you need heavy equipment on the land to construct walkways, ponds, bridges, gathering areas, or install culverts, do all this before any planting. Next, do any slow-change techniques like sheet mulching to kill weeds, or grazing, or rooting with pigs (who love quack grass). Land prep before planting is explained: build raised beds, make hügelkultur mounds on a base of dead logs and branches, build swales and give them an initial planting of annual vegetables to provide roots to stabilize the mound until time for a permanent planting, and how to frost seed. Implement your deer and livestock exclusion plan, before planting a single perennial. Later, consider adding bird and bat boxes and insect hotels.

Planting large perennials is different from dealing with annual vegetables, so be guided by this experienced author. Make yourself a nursery in a separate, shady area, where you can heel-in trees and shrubs that arrive before you are ready to plant them, store “extras” and where you can propagate from plants you already have.

Here in the book you’ll find step-by-step instructions for planting bare-root trees and shrubs in the dormant season. For perspective, there is a photo of a large number of metal nametags from perennial plants that failed in Dani’s forest garden! Some failures stem from poor decisions by the gardener, others from mislabeling by the seller, or a poor or damaged specimen, or injury in transit, or bad luck (sometimes known as insufficient or faulty information). There are also instructions for planting containerized trees, transplanting, pruning, fruit-thinning, weeding and watering. And dealing with pests. Wire trunk guards can protect young woody plants from girdling by rodents, which can kill the plant.

Once you have a certain woody plant in your garden, you can propagate from that to provide more. For berry bushes, this might only add one or two years before the new plant fruits too, getting good value from your initial purchase. The book explains layering, hardwood cuttings, division and seed.

In Part 2 you can browse and select plants that seem a good fit for your forest garden. The section on nut and fruit trees explains grafted trees, “southwest injury” where bark splits in spring due to expansion and contraction of the trunk on sunny south-facing afternoons, only to get very cold at night. This is why tree trunks are sometimes painted white. Chilling periods are explained: a minimum period of cold temperatures required during dormancy for successful fruiting. Allow for global heating when you decide which fruit trees to buy!

In the plant directory, each of the descriptions includes a summary of the plant’s native range, mature height, width of canopy, soil conditions, sunlight needs, and hardiness range. A system of icons indicates some of the key functions or benefits that plant provides. Dani adds some notes in her personal observations. These sidebars include things that went wrong; extra benefits and how to take advantage of them (wild groundcovers); extra needs (such as cross-pollination, stratification and scarification) and how to provide for them; or when to forego them (blueberries, because they require acid soil); practices that can work even if you expect them to fail (transplanting shrubs in the fall in zone 4, planting shrubs with fine fibrous roots in dry locations); particular pests (raspberry vine borer, plum curculio);

There are 13 tall trees, 21 shorter trees, 27 shrubs, 38 herbaceous plants, 16 ground covers, each with a beautiful photo. Each section has some species you will likely be familiar with and some unusual ones, such as Korean nut pine, hazelbert, shipova, buffaloberry, New Jersey tea, Good King Henry, saffron crocus, water celery and cinnamon vine (air potato).

The chapter on successful groupings of varied plants will give you plenty of ideas, and tips for calculating how to include enough nitrogen-fixing plants to supply all the other plants in your garden. With plants for pollinators, rather than calculating, just go for diversity and spanning the growing season so you have something in flower all the time. Plant elderberries on the edge nearest your potato plants and they will attract beneficial wasps that parasitize Colorado potato beetles. Plant groupings are suggested for sites in full sun or partial shade. There are tips for planting orchard rows and hedge-lines with shrubs and smaller plants in between the biggest trees. You can even save time and plant a (carefully chosen!) group of nine plants in one hole!

If you become enchanted by the ideas and the photos in this book, you can start to make a plan, and maps, and a plant list, and turn your dream into reality. Even if you only have a large planter on a patio.