Book Review: The Living Soil Handbook by Jesse Frost

Cover of The Living Soil Handbook by Jesse Frost

The Living Soil Handbook

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Composts come in four types (recipes included):compost

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

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

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

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

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

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

Jesse Frost

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Forget Miami peas; Forget industrial hemp; Optimize your Asian greens

Forget Miami peas

For years I have been mentioning “Miami Peas” in my presentations about cover crops. At the Carolina Farm Stewardship conference I was asked what they are, by Mark Schonbeck, who knows cover crops well. (This is one of the wonderful benefits of attending conferences – meeting peers and mentors, and learning new things.)
I said it is a frost tender cover crop pea of the field pea type (not a southern pea). I can’t remember where I first heard about this cover crop, and we haven’t been using it on our farm, so it was time for a reality check when I got home. I can’t find any reference to Miami peas apart from the ones I’ve made! I believe it’s a type of Canadian field pea, but maybe it no longer goes by the Miami name, or maybe it never did! It’s embarrassing to promote untruths.
Spring forage peas from Seven Springs Farm, Virginia

Pinetree Seeds says:

This short term green manure smothers weeds well and adds nitrogen and other nutrients to the soil. Peas are often mixed with vetch, oats, or rye as an effective cover crop. The sprouts are delicious and you can even harvest the peas themselves for soup. This annual prefers cool well drained soil and has no frost tolerance. Sow 3 to 4 lbs per 1000 sq. ft.

For clarity, here’s what I now believe:
  • “Forage pea” and “Field pea” are terms that include the  hardy Austrian winter peas, that we do use and are big fans of, as well as frost-tender spring peas, also known as Canadian field peas.
  • Canadian field peas are not frost tolerant and are sold by Pinetree Seeds. among others.
  • SARE lists Canadian field peas as Spring Peas. SARE is a very reliable source of information. They say

These annual “spring peas” can outgrow spring-planted winter peas. They often are seeded with triticale or another small grain. Spring peas have larger seeds, so there are fewer seeds per pound and seeding rates are higher, about 100 to 160 lb./A. However, spring pea seed is a bit less expensive than Austrian winter pea seed. TRAPPER is the most common Canadian field pea cultivar.

  • Other spring pea varieties are Dundale and Arvika
  • There’s also a tropical Pigeon Pea, Cajanus cajan, which can grow in the Southern US, but that looks pretty different, and I don’t think that’s what I meant.
Pigeon Pea flowers, Cajanus cajan
Photo Wikipedia

 

Forget industrial hemp

I have been alarmed at how many small-scale growers are trying industrial hemp. Partly I’m hoping it won’t cause a shortage in locally grown food! I also wonder how well an industrial field crop grows on a small scale, and how the growers would deal with the permits, the processing and the marketing.

Read this report from The Modern Farmer about how industrial hemp is unsuccessful for most growers and how the market is swamped with would-be suppliers:

Thousands Began Farming Hemp This Year. It Hasn’t Gone How They Hoped.

Optimize your Asian greens production

Here’s my updated slideshow on Asian greens, which I presented at the Carolina Farm Stewardship conference. 

Check their website for details about other workshop sessions too. I believe my handouts, and those of other speakers, will soon be available on their website.

Click the diagonal arrow symbol to view this full screen., and click the forward arrow to start viewing.

Senposai is our star of Asian greens. Here’s a bed of senposai outdoors in spring.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

Conferences and Cover Crops

Conferences

I have had a little flurry of arranging workshops, so if you have (educational) travel plans, check out my Events page. I’ve also got two interviews lined up, for podcasts, and I’ll tell you about those when they go online.

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This coming weekend (Thursday October 31 to Sunday November 3) I will be at the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association Sustainable Agriculture ConferenceSheraton Imperial Hotel and Convention Center, Durham, North Carolina.

In the full day 8.30 am- 4.30 pm Pre-Conference intensive Advanced Organic Management, on Friday Nov 1, from 8.45-9.45 am in the Empire ballroom D, I will be presenting a 60 min workshop:

A cover crop mix of winter rye, hairy vetch and crimson clover.
Credit Kathryn Simmons

Cover Crops for Vegetable Growers

Use cover crops to feed and improve the soil, smother weeds, and prevent soil erosion. Select cover crops to make use of opportunities year round: early spring, summer, fall and going into winter. Fit cover crops into the schedule of vegetable production while maintaining a healthy crop rotation.

 In the Main Conference, on Sat Nov 2, 1.30 – 2.45 pm in the Empire Ballroom E, I have a 75 min workshop

Yukina Savoy
Photo Wren Vile

Optimize your Asian Greens Production

This workshop covers the production of Asian greens outdoors and in hoop houses in detail, for both market and home growers. Grow many varieties of tasty, nutritious greens easily and quickly, and bring fast returns. The workshop includes tips on variety selection of over twenty types of Asian greens; timing of plantings including succession planting when appropriate; crop rotation in the hoop house; pest and disease management; fertility; weed management and harvesting.

 I will be participating in the Booksigning on Saturday 5.45 – 6.45 pm during the reception

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Crimson clover is a beautiful and useful cover crop.
Photo Kathryn Simmons

Winter Cover Crops

 

Cover crops have been much on my mind. Partly it’s that time of year – too late for us to sow oats, not so late that the only option left is winter rye. Here’s my handy-dandy visual aid for central Virginia and other areas of cold-hardiness zone 7a with similar climates.

If you are considering growing winter rye as a no-till cover crop this winter, check out this video:

Rye Termination Timing: When to Successfully Crimp, by Mark Dempsey

“Interested in no-till production, but unsure of how to manage cover crops so they don’t become a problem for the crop that follows?

The most common management concern is when to crimp your cover crop to get a good kill but prevent it from setting seed. Getting the timing right on crimping small grain cover crops like rye isn’t difficult, but it does take a little attention to its growth stage. See this three-minute video for a quick run-down on which stages to look for in order to get that timing right.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=loKPRLdAUXw

 

Sustainable Market Farming on sale.
Photo Ken Bezilla

A good cover crop resource is my book Sustainable Market Farming, which has 9 pages of detailed charts and a nine page chapter of cover crop info.

 

 

Managing Cover Crops Profitably from  SARE is the book with the most information.

What can you do if spring is too wet?

Our kale beds after heavy rain. Photo Wren Vile

As growers, we do not have control over everything that happens. The main thing outside of our control is the weather, and it’s only going to get more chaotic as climate change bites. Heavy rain events can leave soil impossible to work, because the water can’t drain away fast enough. What can we do when it’s too wet?

Laura Lengnick in Resilient Agriculture views climate change as yet another production risk to assess and prepare for. The vulnerability of your farm has two components: exposure and adaptive capacity. As far as exposure, the most immediate key exposure is water issues (too much and too little). As for adaptive capacity, the main feature is our personal capacity to respond and plan. We need to pay greater attention to the climate as a critical factor in our decision-making.

Be Prepared

  • See Weatherspark.com for easy-to-understand graphics showing the average weather in your locality. Figure out which crops are most marginal already in your climate, and decide whether they are worth keeping in your crop portfolio, and whether they are important enough to be worth providing more protection for.
  • Using raised beds can help excess water to drain sooner.
  • Raised beds will drain and be ready to plant sooner after rain.
    Photo Ezra Freeman
  • Increasing the organic matter content of the soil helps it absorb more water in a manageable way, without compacting and going anaerobic. Compost improves the soil structure, organic matter and humus. The effects last longer than cover crops and crop residues, especially in humid conditions where the breakdown of plant material is very rapid.
  • Maximize the volume of living roots (food crops and cover crops) throughout the soil profile (use both deep-rooted and shallow-rooted crops).
  • Cover crops. The root channels improve the soil structure — fine roots make up 70% of the root biomass of crimson clover, vetches, and field peas, and when the cover crops are mowed, these roots support microbial growth, form active organic matter, and rapidly release N to the plants. Keeping roots in the soil all the time, or as much of the time as possible, will help prevent erosion.
  • Consider no-till cover crops which become mulch.

    A no-till cover crop mix of winter rye, hairy vetch, Austrian winter peas and crimson clover.
    Photo Bridget Aleshire
  • Avoid “bare fallow” at times of year when you could get a lot of rain. That might mean not just hurricane season, but year-round. Low-growing non-invasive cover crops can be planted in pathways.
  • Minimize tillage because tilling accelerates nutrient burn-up and hence the loss of organic matter. Avoid tilling or disking right before a forecast of heavy rain.
  • If water drainage is a big issue where you are, you may need to consider a “grassed waterway” Your NRCS office can help with the design. See their publication Grassed Waterway and Vegetated Filter System, Conservation Practice Job Sheet 412. This is really a very large gradual swale with a grassed surface, which you can mow (think home-grown mulch!).
  • Another option is a “drywell” or French drain, a big hole full of rock. We calculated that for our hoophouse, ours would need to be 11′ × 11′ (3.4 × 3.4 m) and 4′ (1.2 m) deep. It would have been a big area and a lot of rock (and money), and not inconsiderable maintenance to keep it free of sediment and leaves.
  • Field tile drainage
  • Keyline plowing (along contours).
  • Swales (also called “infiltration trenches”) allow water to gradually seep into the soil, while sending sudden large volumes downhill to an area which can absorb more water. A swale 18″ (45 cm) wide by 8″ (20 cm) deep in averagely draining soil can infiltrate approximately 1.6″ (4 cm) rain per hour per 20 ft2 (1.86 m2) of contributing area.

    A caterpillar tunnel and a plastic mulched bed at Potomac vegetable Farms in November.
    Photo Pam Dawling
  • Physically cover the soil: hoophouses and caterpillar tunnels can help keep crops from deluges. Large structures do have the issue of runoff, but you can plan ahead for that and make a drainage system. When we built our hoophouse, we made a ditch around three sides of it, to channel runoff downhill. Some people who have roll-up or drop-down sidewalls install plastic guttering on the “hipwall” lumber that these structures need, and collect the rainwater for irrigation. Bear in mind that the water catchment barrel will be low down and the water will need pumping or dipping and hauling to be useful. Read the NRCS Code 558 Roof Runoff Structure.
  • Before the storm moves in, cover the soil where you plan to plant: temporary caterpillar tunnels (field houses), low tunnels, plastic mulches and tarping (occultation) can keep some of the soil dry, at the expense of causing runoff that makes other areas wetter. This can help get crucial plantings done in a timely way, leaving the wider problem to resolve later.
Fast-growing Red Salad Bowl lettuce.
Photo Bridget Aleshire

First Aid if you can’t plant when you want to

  • Consider transplanting instead of direct seeding. We did this one year with our winter squash, when the plot was hopelessly too wet. We were able to transplant the squash fairly young, and did not have a big harvest delay.
  • Consider a different, faster, variety that you can sow later and catch up. Some leaf lettuces only need 46 days (Salad Bowl, Bronze Arrowhead, Tom Thumb), while Romaines can take a lot longer (Crisp Mint, Winter Wonderland 70 days, Webb’s Wonderful 72 days). Baby lettuce mix can be ready in as little as 21 days from mid-spring to mid-fall.
  • Consider a different, faster, crop that you can sow or transplant later. Keep your crop rotation in mind, as well as the next crop you intended to plant in that spot. Here are some fast-growing crops:
    • Ready in 30–35 days are some Brassicas such as kale, arugula, radishes (both the fast small ones and the larger winter ones); many Asian greens (Chinese Napa cabbage, Komatsuna, Maruba Santoh, mizuna, pak choy, Senposai (40 days) tatsoi, Tokyo Bekana and Yukina Savoy). See my Asian Greens of the Month category of posts
    • One summer we sowed Tokyo Bekana as a lettuce substitute. 20 days to baby size, 45 days to a (large) full size.
    • Also ready in 30–35 days are spinach, chard, salad greens (lettuce, endives, chicories) and winter purslane.
    • Ready in 35–45 days are corn salad, land cress, sorrel, parsley and chervil.
    • Ready in 60 days are beets, collards, kohlrabi, turnips and small fast cabbages (Farao or Early Jersey Wakefield).
  • The International Cooperators’ Guide Grafting Tomatoes for Production in the Hot-Wet Season recommends using eggplant rootstocks for tomatoes when flooding is expected.

First Aid if you can’t till

  • Could you mow? This will prevent weeds seeding, and prevent the cover crop or previous food crop from getting any bigger. It will be easier to till once that does become possible.
  • If you can’t get a mower across the beds, can you use a weed whip (string trimmer) or a manual weed whacker or a scythe? This will buy you some time.
  • Could you use a broadfork? This will open up the soil, allowing it to dry faster.
  • Could you lay tarps over the whole mess, and wait for the cover crop or weeds to die?
  • Could you use a flame weeder to kill the existing vegetation? Flamers are intended to kill small weeds, not big ones, but we successfully used our wand-type flamer to kill weeds in the potato patch one spring when it was too wet to hill the potatoes.
Flaming (pre-emergent)
Photo Brittany Lewis

Dealing with Floods

  • If your soil floods, drain it promptly, or you may end up with drowned plants (insufficient air) and with a high salt level caused by evaporation. Dig shallow trenches to let the flood water flow away.
  • After the flood recedes, you could lose yield from loss of soluble nutrients. The soil may have become anaerobic, reducing available nitrogen. If you have a suitable source of nitrogen, apply some. You may also get a flush of weeds, competing with your slow-to-recover crop.
  • See How to Rehab Your Soil after a Flood on the Hobby Farms website for five steps to repairing the damage: Clean Up, Remove Water, Beware of Contamination, Level the Land, Rebuild the Soil with Cover Crops. See also the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association’s Expert Tip: How to Handle Flooded Fields for information about food safety.
  • Consult your local Extension service before selling any produce that has been in standing water, as the water may have become contaminated. See the US Food and Drug Administration Guidance for Industry: Evaluating the Safety of Flood-Affected Food Crops for Human Consumption
  • There is more about dealing with floods  and disasters in general, in The Year-Round Hoophouse.

Washing tomato seeds, Heritage Harvest Festival, Organic Broadcaster

Wet Roma tomato seeds set to dry with a fan.
Photo Pam Dawling

Last week I wrote about saving tomato seeds and eating the tomatoes too. We left the extracted tomato seed in a bucket to ferment for three days. On Friday I washed the seeds. They look quite unappetizing at first, with a thin layer of mold on the surface of the liquid.

Roma tomato seed ferment on day 3, ready for washing.
Photo Pam Dawling

The process of washing the seeds and pouring off the detritus is almost magical. The fermentation kills some disease spores, and also dissolves the gel that coats the seeds. If you dry tomato seeds without fermenting, they all stick together.

Tomato seed processing: adding water from a hose and stirring the mix.
Photo Pam Dawling

With each successive wash, more of the tomato flesh floats off, along with poor quality seeds. I add water using a hose and stir. Here I’m stirring with a short length of green plastic pipe that was conveniently nearby. When the bucket is about two-thirds full I turn off the hose and stop stirring. Good seed sinks to the bottom of the bucket. When I think it has settled, I pour the liquid along with lumps of tomato flesh into another bucket. This is a safety precaution to ensure I don’t throw away good seed. If I just poured it on the ground I could slip and dump the lot.

Roma tomato seed ferment after first pour.
Photo Pam Dawling

I repeat the wash and pour a few more times. Even after the second pour the seeds are plainly visible.

Roma tomato seed ferment after the second pour.
Photo Pam Dawling

The seeds which float and get poured away are very light and are either very thin or they show a black spot in the center. So it’s counter-productive to try to catch every single seed.Let the useless seeds float away!

Tomato seed extraction after the third pour.
Photo Pam Dawling

After four or five washes the water I pour off is clear, so then I add more water, stir and pour the swirling stuff through a sieve balanced on a bucket.

Tomato seed extraction, fourth wash water. almost clear.
Photo Pam Dawling

In my case I have a small sieve balanced in a bigger one, which sits more safely on the bucket, but has a mesh too big for tomato seeds. This sieve contains seed from 10 gallons of Roma tomatoes.

Roma tomato seeds strained in a sieve.
Photo Pam Dawling

From here, I take the seed sieve indoors and empty it on sturdy paper towels on a tray by a small fan. See the first photo. After a few hours I come by and crumble the clumps of seeds to help even out the drying. For two days I turn the seeds over a few times a day. Once they are dry I put them in a labelled paper bag, and ready the space for the next batch of seeds to dry. Watermelon in this case. I alternate tomato and watermelon seeds, processing one batch of each every week through late July to early September.


Heritage Harvest Festival

I mentioned the Heritage Harvest Festival a few weeks ago. I’m presenting one of the Premium Workshops on Friday, about growing sweet potatoes. See my Events Page for more about this. Pictures of sweet potatoes at this time of year are a monotonous swath of green leaves (now we have got a double electric fence to stop the deer eating the leaves off.) Last year we didn’t do a good job of keeping deer off our sweet potatoes and we got low yields. One of our gardening mantras is “Never make the same mistake two years running!” so you can be sure we are working hard to keep the pesky deer from eating our winter food.

On Saturday September 9, I’ll be out and about at the Festival, and hope to see many old friends and make some new ones.

If you live in North Carolina and can’t make it all the way to Virginia for the Heritage Harvest Festival at Monticello, you could go to the Organic Growers School Harvest Conference that same weekend September 8-9. I’ve been to their Spring Conference several times, but never the Harvest Conference because it’s always the same weekend as the Heritage Harvest Festival.


Photo courtesy of Organic Broadcaster and MOSES

The July/August issue of Organic Broadcaster has been on my desk for a few weeks waiting for time to read it. This newspaper is free online, with a new issue every two months. It covers more aspects of Organic Farming than simply vegetable production. There are good articles about cover crops, including roller-crimping no-till rye. Also an article on weed control for market farmers by Bailey Webster, who interviewed farmers and researchers. Harriet Behar, the senior organic specialist at MOSES, write about the thorny issues of falsely labeled Organic foods: imported livestock feedstuffs, milk from cows with no pasture access and algal oil in Organic milk. Now that 68% of Americans bought organic foods of some kind (Pew), more Organic suppliers are needed to meet the demand (or else the unscrupulous rush in with false labels.) There are further articles about cash flow for farmers, winter bale grazing for cattle, the 2018 Farm Bill, and transferring the farm to new owners.

Now we are getting some rain from Cyclone 10, which might have become Tropical Storm Irma, but now looks less likely to qualify for a name. But, enough rain to want to stay indoors, so maybe I can read for a while.

 

Jamaica Sustainable Farm Enterprise Program

 

I’m back from Jamaica, compiling my trip report. I went as a volunteer with a farmer-to-farmer training project for 9 days (plus two travel days). I was a volunteer with the FLORIDA ASSOCIATION FOR VOLUNTEER ACTION IN THE CARIBBEAN AND THE AMERICAS (FAVACA), funded by the United States Agency for International Development (USAID) From the American People established by John F Kennedy in 1961. USAID is the lead U.S. Government agency that works to end extreme global poverty and enable resilient, democratic societies to realize their potential. One of the FAVACA programs is the Jamaica Sustainable Farm Enterprise Program.

For those who don’t know Jamaica at all, let’s start with a map of the island, which is south of Cuba.

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I was hosted by the Source Farm Ecovillage, Johns Town, St Thomas Parish, Jamaica. Here’s a more detailed map with St Thomas parish colored in pink. The Source Farm is east of Morant Bay, very near the coast.

The Source Farm Foundation and Learning Village is a multi-cultural, inter-generational eco-village, located in Johns Town, in the parish of St. Thomas, Jamaica.

“Our ecological mission and vision is to respect natural life, its systems and processes – preserving wildlife and botanical habitat, and creating a life-style that regenerates, rather than diminishes the integrity of the source farm environment.”

Here is a 2014 site map, showing roughly what buildings are there, and where the gardens are located. Actually the gardens have expanded quite a bit since this map was drawn.

I stayed in Earthbag 1, a house built of stacked bags of bauxitic soil with cement, rendered over with cement, giving an adobe effect. The structure stayed fairly cool. The windows had no glass, but insect screens and wood louvered shutters. I’ve never actually had a house to myself before, even a small one like this!

The newer houses in the eco-village are monolithic concrete domes, which hold up very well against hurricanes, earthquakes and termites. Jamaica is rich in marl (lime) and other minerals, and there is a cement works near Kingston. Because many other homes on the island are built from concrete block covered with cement rendering, there are many workers skilled in rendering, who can quickly adapt to dome houses.

I got to taste many kinds of mango, passion fruit, star fruit, star apple, ackee, bammy (cassava flatbread), yam, breadfruit, callalloo (amaranth leaves) and meringa seeds, as well as foods I was already familiar with. I had an especially lovely supper with Nicola and Julia, of snapper with bammy and festival (described by April Jackson on The Yummy Truth as a Jamaican savory beignet made with cornmeal), and Red Stripe beer at Fish Cove Restaurant by the ocean.

Festival, bammy and fish in Jamaica.
Photo https://theyummytruth.wordpress.com/tag/jamaican-fried-fish/

http://thesourcefarm.com/the-farm/what-is-on-the-farm/

Photo courtesy of
The Source Farm

My teaching work was organized by the people at Source Farm and included the whole group of farmers in JSFEP. The schedule included several farm visits, but unfortunately it rained very hard for four or five days (this was meant to be the dry season!) and many areas were flooded. One farmer told me that the biggest challenges to farming in Jamaica are climate change and theft. Both are serious. The heavy rains I experienced showed how much damage unusual weather can cause. At one farm, where a co-operative onion-growing project was underway, one farmer got trapped by rising waters and had to be helped by two other farmers to swim and wade through the wild waters. After that, the farmers in the group had to take turns to guard the place so that the drip irrigation equipment didn’t get stolen. Another farmer told me about losing an entire crop of sweet potatoes one night – someone dug up the whole lot. The thefts, of course, are related to poverty and desperation in some cases, and a culture where each person has to take what they need as there is little in the way of government support. And a history of colonialism with sugar cane and banana cash crops, followed by a crashing economy.

The roads are in poor shape and in rural areas people rely on calling taxis to get from one place to another. Everyone needs a phone to live this way, and I saw some very battered up phones and chargers carefully repaired and kept running. Arranging a meeting time requires a flexible attitude about timeliness.

The farmers were looking at increasing production, planning planting quantities, scheduling succession plantings, and considering new crops. I met one-on-one with a few farmers, and I did some research into the possibilities of growing asparagus and garlic in the tropics, for a couple of them. I had to get my head round the idea of planting a sequence of three crops each needing four months. No winter cover crop cycle. Cover crops are very different from ours. Some overlap – sorghum-sudangrass, sunn-hemp. But no place for winter cereals! The principle of feeding the soil stays the same, using legumes to add nitrogen, bulky cover crops to smother weeds and add biomass.

I was teaching vegetable crop planning, crop rotations, and scheduling co-operative harvests to help the farmers double their presence at the Ujima Natural Farmers Market  to every Saturday rather than very other Saturday, starting in June. The demand for sustainably grown fresh local produce exists, and farmers are interested in learning to boost production.

On the second Saturday I was there, I gave a workshop on crop planning, to 22 farmers, and we got some lively discussion going, as they offered each other tips, and diagnosed some diseased carrots (looked like nematodes to me).

I treasure the time I spent in Jamaica, even though it wasn’t all sunshine and mangoes. I met many wonderful farmers and enjoyed my stay in the Source ecovillage, which reminded me somewhat of Twin Oaks Community, where I live in Virginia.

 

 

 

 

March Events

I have two events in March, where I am making presentations. The first is an online conference (no travel costs!)

 

CSA Expert Exchange:
An Online Conference
Presented in partnership with Small Farm Central
March 6 – Want to Start a CSA?
Beginning Farmers Session
7:00pm-9:30pm EST
March 7 – CSA Expert Exchange Main Event
11:00am-3:30pm EST

Register for one or both days. Sessions will be recorded.
I am speaking on Crop Planning on Friday at 1.40pm.
Then on Sunday March 16, is the rescheduled day at Lynchburg College (postponed from February 15 because of all the snow). I am speaking on Feeding the Soil.
Ira, Cindy and Pam working on our presentations
Ira, Cindy and Pam working on our presentations. Photo Betsy Trice

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Book Report: Cindy Conner’s Grow a Sustainable Diet

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Cindy Conner: Grow a Sustainable Diet: Planning and Growing to Feed Ourselves and the Earth. New Society Publishers 2014.

 

“This book will help you learn how to calculate how much food you need and how much space you need to grow it, ” proclaims Cindy Conner. It  is written for the backyarder or homesteader who takes food self-sufficiency and ecology seriously. To grow food crops without depleting the soil or bringing in outside inputs, for instance, you will need to dedicate 60% of your land to growing compost crops or cover crops. This challenge is not for the faint-hearted. But here you have the leader-in-a-book, you are not going it alone.

Cindy explains what she means by a sustainable diet and includes a fascinating exercise “What if the Trucks Stopped Coming?” – where would you go to get all your food within 100 miles from home? Within 50? 25? What foods would you be eating and what would disappear from your life? Would the existing farmers be able to supply everyone’s needs locally, or would you need to provide more for yourself and your household? What would your priorities need to be? Your first thought might be that you’d need to make secret stashes of food, and get guns to keep away your hungry neighbors. Cindy says she doesn’t believe guns will keep hungry people away and the better answer is to act from compassion, and work with your neighbors to meet whatever the future brings. None of us can survive without community, so let’s make sure our community is strong enough to meet the challenges.

In the Garden Maps chapter, Cindy explains how to divide the available garden space up into smaller plots or sets of beds, increasing your ease of access without losing a high percentage of potential growing space to paths. Beds curved along the contours will reduce rainwater runoff and erosion. On the other hand, straight lines are easier to hoe quickly. Design your garden to suit the ways you use the space – how you get to the chicken pen, or the compost pile. Permaculture design principles have influenced Cindy’s choices.

Next you can chose your crops. If all your nutrients are to come from your garden, you will need to pay attention to growing enough calories. otherwise you’ll lack the energy to get to the end of the season! Cindy reports that potatoes, Jerusalem artichokes, sweet potatoes, parsnips, salsify, leeks and garlic are on the list of calories/area. Personally I can’t imagine getting a lot of calories from garlic. Besides the overwhelming flavor there is the issue of the work involved – garlic is labor intensive at certain times of year. Leeks similarly don’t seem a good source of calories per pound, even if they are good per square foot. And winter squash are easy to grow and surely full of calories. They do take space to grow, but I wouldn’t rule them out for that reason alone.

If you grow a lot of the calorie crops already mentioned, you will also be growing a lot of protein. Legumes produce more protein, at the cost of needing more space than the high calorie crops above. Beans, peanuts, peas can be interplanted with other crops to get that protein in the most space-saving way possible. Grains provide amino acids that are complementary to those in legumes, and the straw of grain crops is valuable for mulch or compost-making. Calcium is vital for bone health and there is plenty to be found in leafy cooking greens. A little oil or butter on the greens will help assimilate vitamin D, which is as important as calcium.

Oils and sweeteners are the two space-hogging challenges when it comes to food self-reliance. Sunflower and pumpkin seeds and peanuts, whether eaten whole or pressed, supply oil, as can some tree nuts. The home-grown vegan diet would be short on oils. Those who drink milk and eat eggs get some fats that way, easier by far. Some fruits store for out of season use. Honey, maple syrup and sorghum syrup can be home-produced, although you’ll be shocked the first time you see how much land and how much work goes into the vegan options. (Honey is made by small furry animals, it isn’t vegan.)

The question of  How Much to Grow is important, if time, effort and land are not to be wasted. Locally-adapted varieties and your personal culinary preferences, as well as potential yields per area will influence your planning. After your first year, your record-keeping will be your guide to making improvements.

To keep your garden productive year after year, you will need to feed the soil. You can do this by bringing in organic materials as mulch or to contribute to your compost. If you worry about the reliability of the supply from outside, or whether it is contaminated with herbicides or car exhaust, or whether its production is truly sustainable, you’ll want to be as self-relaint in that department as in the rest of your enterprise. You could grow mulch crops (straw or hay) as part of a bigger farm, in rotation with grazing animals. Or you could grow all your compost and mulch crops within the boundaries of your garden.

Compost is a priceless soil amendment, adding not just organic matter and the basic nutrients but also a fine collection of microbes. There are almost as many ways of making compost as there are compost-makers. Cindy prefers the cool, slow method (using a relatively high proportion of carbon materials to nitrogen materials), in order to “farm” the particular mix of microbes that result that way. The annual pile is part of her garden rotation, built on top of one of the beds, starting in the fall. The next fall, after that compost is spread on the garden, winter rye is sown.Next spring this is cut and left as mulch. The rye has scavanged any compost left from the pile and returns the nutrients to the soil as it decomposes around the corn seed (sown into the mulch).

Earlier, I said you need to plant 60% of your garden in compost crops or mulch, to have a sustainable system. Two thirds of that space would be in carbon crops and one third in nitrogen crops. Happily, some of the compost materials will be grown as a by-product of a food crop (corn stalks are a good example). The book leads you through the process of identifying suitable crops, and best of all, provides a worksheet to help you determine Bed Crop Months. For each bed, from your plan you determine how many months that bed has food crops and how many months compost crops (remember that one crop can be both!) Winter cover crops really help achieve the goal! After considering each bed, you tally up and see if you need to find more niches for compost crops.

All the work in Cindy’s garden is done by hand, including cutting down cover crops, and this is carefully explained. The space is used very intensively, often planting several crops in the same bed to get best use of the space, and so that one can take over from another later.

Scheduling so your crops mature when you want them is the next big task, followed by planning a good crop rotation,and fitting everything into the space you’ve got. “Lay out your intentions, stay flexible and keep learning.” More worksheets are provided to help you.

Sections on looking after your seeds, on including animals, on food storage and preservation and on sheds, fences and other support systems follow. About animals: “You can plan a diet of only plants, but you would be hard pressed to fill all your nutritional needs without taking supplements, which are not part of a sustainable diet.” Hear, hear!

Cindy’s book will set you on the path to providing healthy food for your household without depleting the Earth in the process. Her conversational style will give you confidence as she breaks complex ideas into manageable steps. Beginners are talked through the process step by step. Cindy’s years of teaching college shine through. One reframing exercise I liked was this “if you have thought of weeding as drudgery, something you have to endure [b]egin to think of weeding as a harvest of materials for the compost pile.”

Cindy Conner’s Grow a Sustainable Diet, and results from the poll about my blog 2 weeks ago

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Endorsement for Grow a Sustainable Diet: Planning and growing to feed ourselves and the Earth, by Cindy Conner, which is being published by New Society Publishers early next year. Fun cover!

Cindy’s book will set you on the path to providing healthy food for your household without depleting the Earth in the process. Her conversational style will give you confidence as she breaks complex ideas into manageable steps. You can learn from the outset how to replenish what you take from the soil, by cropping intensively, growing cover crops (to till in) and crops to cut and compost. She advocates growing compost materials on 60% of your land, and she explains her Bed Month concept to help you do this easily. You can also read what Cindy has to say about it on her blog 

When I put out a short poll two weeks ago I wondered what the response would be. Here’s the answers so far

Mini-articles on a particular crop 5 45%
This week in the garden 3 27%
Other: 3 27%
Book reviews 0 0%
Other Answer Votes
small farm equipment reviews and suggestions 1
All of the above. 1
All of the above – love your VA gardening info 🙂 1

Well, no one spoke up for book reviews. Too bad, I’ve got some good ones!

But I’ll definitely try to focus on the things you do want!

Growing for Market articles

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The November/December issue of Growing for Market is out, and

Roma Virginia Select, grown at Twin Oaks. Credit Southern Exposure Seed Exchange
Roma Virginia Select, grown at Twin Oaks.
Credit Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

with it my article on No-Till Cover Crops. We use an organic no-till winter cover crop mix of winter rye, Austrian winter peas and hairy vetch before our paste tomatoes (our home-grown Roma Virginia Select available from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange). We sow the cover crops in mid-September (zone 7 here, average first frost Oct 14). In early May the vetch is starting to flower and the rye shedding pollen, and we are itching to transplant our paste tomatoes. We mow down the cover crops with our hay cutting machine, which cuts closer than a bush-hog and leaves the straw in long strands. Then we set out stakes and ropes and transplant, pushing aside the cover crop as needed. The vetch provides all the extra nutrients the tomatoes need, and the resulting mulch keeps the weeds away for 8-10 weeks. By then we have installed T-posts and started string weaving.

String weaving tomatoes (these aren't Romas). Credit Kathryn Simmons
String weaving tomatoes (these aren’t Romas).
Credit Kathryn Simmons

We mow between the rows if there is much regrowth from the cover crop, or weeds getting big, then we roll out spoiled hay to deter weeds for the rest of the season, add some more organic matter and keep the cooler temperatures and the moisture in the soil over the high summer. We plan for this and make our rows 5.5ft apart, so we can unroll the big round bales to carpet the aisles.

In my article I talk about the pros and cons of no-till, and give examples of other suitable food crops and other suitable cover crops for no-till.

Also in this issue is an article about the honeybee crisis and what we can do, such as growing pollinator habitat and encouraging or importing other pollinators. A follow-up article discusses the big problem of neonicotinoid insecticides, which are very long-lasting and may even cause more insect deaths the year following spraying. This is a major problem for organic farmers and for everyone who eats vegetables and fruits. Yes, all of us.

There is also a timely article on preparing hoophouses to deal with snow-loading,and one on growing lisianthus for splendid cut flower sales.

Chris Blanchard tackles flaws in the proposed produce safety rules, which seem in places to be based on a nonsensical idea of growing food in a sterile environment. The comment period for the Proposed Produce Rule and the Preventive Controls Rule closes on November 15. If you read this before that date, click here for information and instructions on how to comment on the rules. Chris (who has written a series of very practical recent GfM articles on food safety) also writes in this issue about water (for irrigation and for washing produce) from a food safety point of view. Those who use any surface water (ponds, creeks) have a particular responsibility to check their water supplies frequently and work to keep them sanitary.

I have been writing an article for the January issue of Growing for Market, so that I can take a break at the end of the year. I am writing about Planning Your Harvest Schedule, and I’m including links here to our Twin Oaks Harvest Calendar, which lists which vegetables we expect to have when (if all goes well!). We have the list sorted alphabetically by crop, and also by starting date.

Twin Oaks Harvest Calendar by Crop

Twin Oaks Harvest Calendar by Date

You can see what you could be eating if you lived at Twin Oaks and helped us grow it all. Actually, of course, you wouldn’t have to work in the garden yourself, to get this good food. We share all our work, and you could instead be doing some tasks I’d hate to do, like repairing cars, making tofu or tackling accounting.

November sunset Credit Ezra Freeman
November sunset
Credit Ezra Freeman