Wren, one of the Twin Oaks Garden Managers, has started a blog about the Twin Oaks Garden. This is a great place to check what’s happening in our garden, especially if you also garden in Virginia or some other winter-hardiness zone 7 area.
The March issue of Growing for Market is out. Nothing from me this time, but plenty of good stuff from other farmer-writers. Diane Szukovathy writes about starting a 12-member flower producer’s co-op in Seattle. They started with a part-time employee and a simple leased space, working on an indoor farmer’s market model where each farm conducted its own business under a shared roof. They were able to get some USDA funding, and increased their income immediately. Their shared setting was attractive to customers, and a good way to mentor newer growers.
Jesse Frost has written on Understanding Early Blight, with a lot of solid information from Meg McGrath at Cornell (home of the Vegetable MD Online site). Carolina Lees writes about Healthcare beyond hospitals: farm-hospital connections. Ellen Polishuk of Potomac Vegetable Farms offers a Farmer to farmer profile of Richard Wiswall (author of The Organic Farmer’s Business Handbook and designer of many labor-saving devices.) Morgan Houk writes about only collecting useful information when record-keeping, not piles of data you’ll never use. John Hendrickson brings us the latest news on the paper pot transplanter (still not certifiable for USDA Organic farms).
The Spring 2018 Heirloom Gardener magazine has an article from me about Intercropping (planting two crops side by side in the space normally reserved for just one. In early spring we often sow snap peas down the center of a spinach bed (either an overwinterred spinach bed, or a spring-planted one). The same piece of rowcover warms both (until we whisk away the rowcover to a later crop. The peas grow upwards, not competing with the spinach. When the spinach bolts, the next crop is in place with no further work.
In the summer we have sown peanuts down the center of a bed of lettuce, and transplanted okra into a bed of early cabbage. It’s all about timing and about choosing compatible crops. Okra grows tall, while cabbages stay close to the ground. peanuts grow slowly while lettuce grows quickly.
Lastly I have more on hydroponics and Organic Certification.
Last weekI wrote about the November 2017 vote at the National Organic Standards Board (NOSB) on hydroponics. Since then I’ve read more information, and realized that the view I presented last time is not the whole picture. It is more complex. Audrey Alwell wrote in the Organic Broadcaster for Jan/Feb 2018, reminding us that the 8:7 vote at the NOSB is not a clear stamp of approval for “organic” hydroponics and aquaponics. The NOSB rules require a “decisive vote” (10:5) for a decision. They did not get a decisive vote to prohibit hydroponics from Organic Certification. This means the situation continues for now as it has been. That is, Organic certifiers can certify hydroponic operations of growers using only approved inputs for fertility and pest management, and if they are protecting natural resources and fostering biodiversity.
The Organic label does not cover all the important aspects of ethical and sustainable farming. Not all Organic practices are sustainable. (Think about removing and trashing plastic mulch!) Social justice and fair trade are not addressed. Some hydroponic growers use renewable energy, some see hydroponics as more sustainable than Organic. In California, during the 6 year drought, hydroponics helped some farmers survive and produce food. Adaptability is important.
One USDA-accredited certifier, CCOF, says all producers should be pushed towards using renewable energy, in order to reduce impact on natural resources. CCOF submitted a 12-page comment.
I enjoyed Carol Deppe’s other gardening books, Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties and The Resilient Gardener. I haven’t read her renditions of Taoist Stories or the Tao Te Ching, but this new book offers entwined wisdom from both aspects of Carol’s life. Something for beginners and experienced growers alike. A combination of Carol’s exquisite attention to detail, solid grounded-in-experience advice and application of Taoist philosophy can help make us better and happier gardeners. Better understanding, more inner harmony. Carol is an independent and iconoclastic gardener, and she introduces each chapter with a passage from her own translation of the 2500 year old Tao Te Ching and intersperses fables from her anthology Taoist Stories.
The Resilient Gardener focused on growing basic food staples – corn, potatoes, dry beans, winter squash and eggs. This new book moves us onward to groups of nutritionally- and economically-valuable vegetables we love to eat (and therefore to grow): tomatoes, summer squash, peas, green beans, greens. Each crop is used as an opportunity to explain a technique or concept. 13 chapters with titles like “Honoring Your Own Essential Nature”, “Non-Doing” and “Joy” lead us into the practicalities of crop requirements, plant genetics, lacto-fermentation and preserving land-races.
The tomato chapter covers how to grow and plant transplants, how to choose the best-tasting varieties, then how to breed late blight resistant tomatoes. The chapters on peas and green beans explain how to direct sow big seeds. That on greens tells how to sow small seeds, and introduces the Eat-All Greens Garden, a new way of growing direct-sown greens, producing high yields from small amounts of work. The final chapter explains why and how to grow your own seeds and prepare them for long-term storage
Carol clearly thinks for herself. I enjoy reading her take on the recent “accepted wisdom” of “imitating nature,” by prioritizing perennials, growing in polycultures (the carrots-love-tomatoes school), increasing diversity – “Ant agriculture violates all these principles.” I have long felt irritated and frustrated by the carrots-love-tomatoes belief, so I got special pleasure from reading Carol’s amusing story of actually trying to make interplanting carrots and tomatoes work, despite different needs for temperature, soil texture, soil fertility, watering, plant spacing, mulch, fencing, and length of time occupying a garden bed. And the competition for sunlight. I am a practitioner of some interplanting (spinach and peas, lettuce and peanuts, cabbage and okra), saving space, work, and in some cases, mulch or rowcover. But the almost religious belief that certain crops “like” each other, despite lack of data and lots of practical impediments, drives me potty. Carol takes the time to explain which pairs of crops stand a chance of complementing each other, and to point us towards a study by R Fred Denison (sorry I can’t find the link) that showed that yields of the best intercrop combos were somewhat better than the lower-yielding of the pair as solo occupant of the space, but less than the higher-yielding of the pair was capable of. So don’t plant crops together hoping for increased yields.
Carol encourages us to look at what actually happens in nature, and in the garden. Is this particular USDA-Organic-approved pesticide actually less damaging to non-target organisms and the general environment than the synthetic alternative? Will planting extra to “share” with pests like gophers still provide enough of a harvest? (“Lots of luck with that,” says Carol.) In the Balance chapter, Carol cautions against unrealistic beliefs about what to always or never do. “Prudence trumps completion when it comes to your health or safety.” “Ultimate Knowing does not create emergencies.”
Carol gives examples of intercropping that work for her. She sometimes plants her Eat-All Greens between alternate rows of corn (not sweet corn, which is quickly over), after the corn is up and has been cultivated twice. I’d guess that’s about 4 weeks after planting, the same age corn would be if sowing pole beans to grow up the corn stalks. The greens can grow fast enough in the shade of the corn to need no weeding, and the corn can be harvested from the alternate aisles without trampling the greens.
Carol names her “Perfect Polyculture” as Russian Hunger Gap kale (a tall, hardy Brassica napus, unlike the Hungry Gap kale I grew in England, which is an oleracea type), and vining winter squash. Initially an accident, the self-sown kale came up after she planted her squash. It grew rapidly, and timely harvesting of the kale nearest the squash was important to maintain enough space for the squash to thrive. Carol recommends her Candystick Dessert DelicataC.pepo fall squash; Sweet meat – Oregon HomesteadC. maxima and fast-maturing Lofthouse Landrace MoschataC. moschata winter squashes. The Lofthouse squash is not sweet, so works well for soups and other savory dishes.
Although the USDA doesn’t regard tomatoes as an essential food group, most gardeners act as if tomatoes are fundamental. Indeterminate varieties for full season crops give the highest yields and the best flavors. Determinates provide the earliest harvests and come to an early end. Plenty of large leaves will be more likely to produce lots of sugar and flavor for the fruit, compared to what is possible with less well-endowed plants. (But keep an eye on Craig LeHoullier’s new Dwarf Tomatoes.)
I was fascinated to learn that the green shoulders of some heirloom varieties are a cause of good flavor. The extra chlorophyll develops more sugars and flavors. Modern breeders decided to eliminate the undesired green shoulders and got uniform ripening at the expense of good flavor! My respect for Glacier and Stupice grew! Carol’s favorites for her shady Oregon garden include Amish paste – Kapuler, Pruden’s Purple (flavor, size, earliness), Black Krim, Legend (not for flavor, but for earliness, size, dependability, and especially for late blight resistance), Geranium Kiss (late blight resistance, lots of 1 ounce fruit).
Carol explains (Late Blight 101, page 96) why we need to be more careful about Late Blight now. Previously there were several strains of Late Blight, but they were all in the same mating group and could only reproduce asexually (requiring live plant material) – unless we left cull piles of potatoes in our fields, we only got the disease if we were unlucky enough to have spores blow in or be imported on diseased plants. This has now changed and newer strains of Late Blight, from both mating groups, have moved into the US. The disease will be able to evolve more rapidly, and the oogonia (sexually propagated ‘spores’) can persist in the soil. We will need to develop tomatoes and potatoes with stronger resistance. We will need to be more careful and not put any store-bought tomatoes in our compost piles. We will need to get better at recognizing late blight symptoms and acting swiftly. See http://usablight.org/.
Legend and other of the more resistant open-pollinated and hybrid varieties are very useful in breeding work to produce more varieties resistant to late blight in future. Carol lists the resistance level of 10 promising hybrids (including Mountain Magic which we grow on our farm, Jasper, Golden Sweet, Juliet, Defiant PhR, Plum Regal, Iron Lady, Mountain Merit, Ferline and Fantasio) and 19 OPs (in order of earliness: Red Pearl, Stupice, Slava, Matt’s Wild Cherry, Yellow Currant, Geranium Kiss, Legend, Pruden’s Purple, Quadro, Black Plum, Red Currant, Tigerella, Old Brooks, Black Krim, Brandywine, West Virginia 63, Aunt Ruby’s German Green,Aunt Ginny’s Purple and Big Rainbow. At the end of the book, Carol tells us how to do this. It’s not that difficult.
The chapter about the Eat-All Greens garden also has the title “Effortless Effort.” The idea is to broadcast seeds densely enough that no weeding is needed. Harvest when 10-16” tall by cutting the top 7-12” with a serrated knife, leaving the lower 3-4” of tougher stuff. Align the stems in the harvest tote or trug, to make chopping in the kitchen easier. Yields can be as high as 4.5 pounds per square yard (2.45 kg/sq m) in 8 weeks. The patch can be resown as many as three more times in the Willamette Valley climate. This is like a grown-up-tall version of growing baby salads, in that the entire tops of all the plants are harvested together. But salad mixes are cut small and may provide more than one cutting from the same plants. Eat-All Greens are usually harvested just once, then cleared., although it can work to harvest out the biggest plants, leaving others to grow bigger later in the increased space available.
Generally it’s best to grow just one type of Eat-All greens in one patch – mixes don’t do as well, because they grow at different rates to different heights. You can sow different patches right next to each other, and harvest whichever is ready. The Eat-All Greens system is a technique to perfect by practice. Spacing, timing, varieties – all can make or break your success. Timing will depend on your climate. Carol can sow in mid-March, harvest in mid-May and follow with a crop of tomatoes or squash.
After years of work, Carol identified about a dozen good Eat-All crops. You can read the qualities of a good Eat-All crop in her book and test others, but I recommend taking advantage of her experience rather than re-inventing the wheel. Suitable greens include Green Wave mustard, Groninger kale, Tokyo Bekana, Spring Raab, several leaf radishes (Shunkyo Semi-Long, Saisai, Four Seasons, Hittorikun and Pearl Leaf) , several Chinese kales/gai lohns (Crispy Blue, South Sea, China Legend, Hybrid Blue Wonder, Hybrid Southern Blue, Green Lance Hybrid), three amaranths (All Red, although a bit slow-growing, Green Calaloo and Burgundy), Indian Spinach – Red Aztec Huauzontle, quinoa (choose a variety expected to grow well locally), pea shoots (Oregon Giant Sugar edible pod peas or Austrian Winter field peas) and shungiku (oh no! Chrysanthemum greens, I just haven’t managed to learn to like those!)
Another garden myth is exploded when Carol points out that we don’t necessarily get maximum nutrition out of greens when we eat them raw. Tables of vitamin C lost when greens are boiled and the water poured away are plain irrelevant if you steam your greens and use the liquid. Assays of nutrients present before and after cooking a food tell us nothing about what we actually absorb. All animals absorb nutrients better from starchy roots and tubers, meat and grains when they are cooked. That has been studied, but there is no information on cooked greens. Clearly raw greens are neither essential nor harmful in themselves. Unclear is whether the claim that raw greens are more nutritious than cooked ones has any basis in fact, or is just plain wrong. Interesting.
Carol wrote about dried beans in The Resilient Gardner. Here she writes about varieties suited for eating fresh. This chapter includes instructions for direct sowing of any large-seeded crop, and explains when trellises or plant supports are needed and what types there are. Edible-podded peas provide much more food from the same space and the same amount of garden labor (and less kitchen labor) than shelling peas do. You need no longer confuse snow peas (flat pods, not sweet, harvested before peas develop much at all), sugar peas (flat pods but sweeter), and snap peas (round cross-section pods harvested after the peas develop full size). Oregon Giant Sugar is a flat sugar type, although it has fleshy succulent pods that can be harvested with fully developed peas. Carol calls this a “flat-snap” type. In England we grew “mangetout” peas, which according to Wikipedia can be either snow or snap peas, but according to the BBC must have flat pods and can be either snow or sugar peas. Thompson & Morgan classifies Oregon Sugar Pod as a mange-tout. Mange-tout is French for “Eat-All”, so they fit right in with Eat-All Greens.
For those hoping to follow the Native American practice of growing pole beans on corn, Carol gives detailed instructions – there are so many ways to go wrong! I don’t grow field corn, so I didn’t take notes, but as always, I was very impressed with the helpful precision of Carol’s instructions. She can save so many of us from making wasteful mistakes.
Carol recommends we all try some seed-saving, in case of hard times, or for the benefits of selecting traits best suited to our climate and soil. She warns against buying a “Survival Kit” of seeds, as these won’t keep forever, and are unlikely to be varieties suited to your farm or garden. We need to pay attention and develop food crops that reliably feed us, not expect a miracle-in-a-can. Carol helps by leading us through a calculation of how much seed of a staple crop we will need, and how much land we will need to grow that amount of seed. She recommends a rotating stockpile of seed: grow and replace some of your seed every year.
At $24.95 this book will pay for itself many times over, and provide enjoyable reading, encouragement and inspiration on the way.
Here we have a second day of cold grey drizzle. The day length is as short as it gets. I have little enthusiasm for working outdoors. But this is a good time of year to remind myself why I value growing good food in a sustainable way. I want people to live healthy happy lives, and I want us to leave a planet worth inheriting.
I’ve just been reading Can organic crops compete with industrial agriculture? by Sarah Yang from Media Relations at UC Berkeley. There is a common belief that while organic farming is better in terms of doing less damage to the environment than chemical agriculture, it cannot ever feed the world. Sarah Yang says “A systematic overview of more than 100 studies comparing organic and conventional farming finds that the crop yields of organic agriculture are higher than previously thought.” And the productivity gap could be shrunk from 19.2% to an 8-9% difference in direct yield by sustainable organic farmers adopting or improving on certain practices.
The full study, entitled Diversification practices reduce organic to conventional yield gap, by Lauren C.Ponisio, Claire Kremen and others from UC Berkeley,was published on 12/10/14 in the Proceedings of the Royal Society. Global food needs will likely increase enormously in the next 50 years, and even if we were prepared to accept hugely increased environmental degradation from chemical farming, the fact remains that chemical fertilizers cannot increase yields by much above current levels.
The researchers did a meta-analysis of 115 studies (three times more than any previously published study) comparing organic and currently-conventional agriculture in 38 countries and 52 crops over a period of 35 years. Yields from organic farms are on average 19.2% lower, although this may be an over-estimate. The various studies incorporated here show a very wide range. In some developing countries with few resources, adopting good sustainability practices increased yields 180% over the previous systems in place.
I doubt the recorded yields take into account the land lost by erosion, or that used for mining minerals for fertilizers or growing corn for bio-diesel for the extensive farm machinery used in currently-conventional farming.
Shifting away from environmentally damaging agriculture would be a good step. Increasing the land farmed organically from the current 0.9% and “Broad adoption of sustainable agricultural methods is unlikely, however, unless such methods are similarly productive and/or cost-effective, such that they improve livelihoods.”
How can organic farmers increase yields? The report suggests big yield improvements can come from giving more attention to crop rotations and multi-cropping (growing several crops together on the same field), two basic tenets of organic farming. (We can always aim to do these things better!) Other suggestions include increasing ecological diversity and harnessing ecological interactions by intercropping or cover-cropping with legumes to gain their nitrogen-fixing benefits.
More investment in research into organic management systems and breeding varieties (especially of cereals) suited to organic growing could (can!) reduce or in some cases eliminate the gap. Organic farming has been historically underfunded compared to agriculture which uses lots of products from Agribusiness, and crop varieties designed to work well with those synthetic inputs.
The senior author of the study, Claire Kremen, makes these important points: “It’s important to remember that our current agricultural system produces far more food than is needed to provide for everyone on the planet. Eradicating world hunger requires increasing the access to food, not simply the production. Also, increasing the proportion of agriculture that uses sustainable, organic methods of farming is not a choice, it’s a necessity. We simply can’t continue to produce food far into the future without taking care of our soils, water and biodiversity.”
Another interesting piece of recent farming news is the 12/2/14 report by Ken Olson from ACES Cover crops can sequester soil organic carbon. This 12 year study at the University of Illinois showed that cover crops do not increase crop yields, but do increase the amount of sequestered carbon in the soil. This benefit accrues in no-till, chisel-plowed and moldboard plow methods. the no-till system including cover crops, sequestered the most carbon. Ken Olson said that soil organic carbon losses caused by tillage, water erosion, soil disturbance, aeration, nitrogen injection and mineralization were less than soil organic carbon gained from cover-crops.
The complete study Long-Term Effects of Cover Crops on Crop Yields, Soil Organic Carbon Stocks and Sequestration can be read here.