Vegetable Growing Tips from Conferences, Winter 2023-2024. Part 1 CFSA

 

A Spacemaster cucumber plant in our hoophouse on April 23.
Photo Pam Dawling

I love learning new things and getting tips for improving our vegetable production. My events page tells you about recent and upcoming conferences. After I get home from conferences, I usually need to dive back into work, and am in danger of ignoring things I learned. Hence this blogpost. I’ll pass tips on, and extract the gems from my hand-written notes, making it more likely I’ll do something useful with them!

CFSA SAC 2023 banner

In November 2023 I took part in the Carolina Farm Stewardship Conference. I went to an engaging workshop called On-Farm Cover Crops Research in the Carolinas by Justin Duncan from NCAT/ATTRA, Jason Lindsay from the Southeastern African American Farmers’ Organic Network, and Steve McAllan, a last-minute substitute. I’ve got a blogpost brewing about native cover crops in vegetable production, so I’ll save the content for that post. Patrick Johnson also gave a presentation on native cover crops, which I’ll include more about in the promised post.

https://www.youtube.com/c/clem’sorganicgardens

I also participated in a workshop on Advanced Organic Weed Management for Vegetable Growers, given by Clem Swift of Clem’s Organic Gardens, from Pisgah Forest, NC, where they have 8 acres in field production of vegetables. I hadn’t realized the workshop was mostly machinery-focused, but I learned actionable tips anyway! I watched his video on potato planting, cultivation and harvest, which is similar to the way we grow potatoes. I learned a way of covering the edges of plastic mulch by walking backwards with one foot on the plastic to tension it, hoeing soil up onto the plastic. That sounds easier than our method using shovels, but sounds like it does require looser soil than we sometimes have where we use plastic. Clem has a well-organized system of first removing perennial weeds, then cultivating early and often to deal with annual weeds, including using a double-wheeled wheelhoe with a scuffle on either side of the row. Perhaps like one of these:

Double-wheeled double-scuffle wheelhoe. Hoss Tools
Double-wheel double-sweeps wheelhoe. Sweeps available as a conversion kit from Earth Tools.

Johnny’s Selected Seeds has a Wheelhoe Selection Guide in their Tool Library

Next I attended Precise Nutrient Management for Small-Scale Farms by Kyle Montgomery of Advancing Eco Agriculture. Kyle’s goal was to help us answer the question: How could marketable yields be significantly increased with minor changes to a fertility program? Plants have different nutrient requirements at different stages of growth. Sap analysis can show what the plant is taking out of the soil. In each 24 hour period, we want all soluble nitrogen to be converted to stable forms. This was something new for me to think about. I didn’t bring away anything specific to work on.

South Wind slicing cucumber.
Photo Common Wealth Seed Growers

High Tunnel Cucumber Production by Joe Rowland, CFSA’s Organic Initiatives Coordinator, covered preliminary findings from year one of CFSA’s SARE-funded organic high tunnel cucumber project. They trialed 6 varieties of cucumbers grown on 2 different trellis types (drop lines vs Hortanova netting) to compare disease occurrence and severity and marketable yield. Three participating farms replicated the trial to see what works best throughout the region.

Excelsior pickling cucumber. Photo Johnny’s Seeds

Their standout varieties were Itachi, an Asian white slicer (low yield but good disease resistance), and Excelsior pickler (highest yield).

Itachi white Asian slicing cucumber. Johnny’s Seeds

Poniente (a parthenocarpic European slicer) had the most disease of the 6 in the trial; Shintokiwa had the least disease, but was a slow producer, with low yields. The dropline system uses a single leader, more clips, more pruning and twirling than the Hortanova, where two “rows” could be made per bed, training two leaders from each plant in a V. This gave good airflow, slowed down the height-increase compared to single leader plants, and enabled herbs to be intercropped. We grow a succession of five or six plantings of cucumber, mostly outdoors, sprawled on the ground. Only for the early crop does it seem worthwhile to us to grow them in the hoophouse. But I’ve no idea how our yield compares with trained high    tunnel cukes, and perhaps measuring it would lead me to a different plan!

 Poniente cucumber. Territorial Seeds. Note trellis.
Shintokiwa cucumber High Mowing Seeds

Stale seedbeds, triage farming, vertical farming

This week I have for you several sources of information related to small-scale sustainable farming.

Hoe the small weeds in this bed of young lettuce soon, and the closing canopy of the lettuce will shade out most weeds after that. Photo Bridget Aleshire

Triage Farming

Growing for Market has posted Triage Farming by Matt S. as a free article on their website

Matt tells of becoming farm manager on a new piece of land, with terrible drainage problems and lots of grass weeds.

“There are five spheres in which a farm can be challenged. Most farms deal with serious disadvantages in one or two of these. We were handicapped in four.” The five are location challenges, site challenges, infrastructure and equipment challenges, institutional challenges (dealing with the bureaucracies), human challenges. They didn’t have human challenges!

As a response to kicking around dried mud-balls full of grass bristles, Matt invented Triage Farming. Triage (from the French trier ‘separate out’) was a concept that came into wider use during WW1 as medics had to sort injured soldiers into three groups: those that would be OK without treatment really soon, those that were going to die whether they had treatment or not, and those who would get the most value from immediate treatment. In farming it means prioritizing using your limited resources to their maximum effect when it’s impossible to accomplish all you hoped to do.

This is not a sustainable way to farm (or live). It’s a way to preserve sanity and be most effective when things have got out-of-control. It doesn’t leave a feeling of satisfaction. But nor a feeling of despair. It can be ruthless, sloppy and minimalist.

Maybe you have never had such moments, but I have. If you have, then I recommend this article. Keep a copy handy, especially in the heat of the summer. You’ll likely not agree with every decision Matt made, but the article will help you raise your head and look around, rather than keep pushing on the task at the top of the schedule you made back in January.

Matt helps with deciding which crops to grow, and how much, if you know it’s likely to be a difficult year (new site, brand new crew, etc). He works through each of the five challenge spheres he identified and explains his response to that aspect: suitable crops for different location challenges, suitable equipment, approaches to weeding (timely, untimely, and “carnage weeding”), tools and equipment for different situations, dealing with various bureaucracies, and how to delegate to other workers.

Matt has an uplifting style, which also helps when the going gets tough.

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False and Stale Seedbeds

Future Farming Center Banner

I just read a very clear 25-page publication about using false seedbeds and stale seedbeds, including flaming. False and Stale Seedbeds: The most effective non-chemical weed management tools for cropping and pasture establishment. Dr Charles N Merfield, 2013. Lincoln, New Zealand: The BHU Future Farming Centre www.bhu.org.nz/future-farming-centre

Screenshot 2023-07-31 at 13-45-27 False-and-stale-seedbeds–the-most-effective-non-chemical-weed-management-tools-for-cropping-and-pasture-establishment-2015-ffc-merfield.pdf

“False and stale seedbeds are based on three rules:

  1. most weed seeds are dormant,
  2. tillage is the most effective means of germinating weed seeds, and
  3. most weeds only emerge from the top 5 cm / 2” of soil.
  • Both false and stale seedbeds work by the very simple process of germinating the weeds then killing them and then growing the crop.
  • False seedbeds use tillage/cultivation to kill the weeds.
  • Stale seedbeds use thermal weeders or herbicides to kill the weeds.”

Both false and stale seedbeds are made by preparing the bed 7-10 days before you plan to sow your crop, watering if the conditions are dry, then killing the carpet of emerged weeds, by very shallow tilling, hoeing or flaming. Getting the tillage correct is critical, including having a good weather-eye. Flaming will kill broad-leaved weeds, but only set grasses back by about a week. Alternatively, cover the prepared bed with a tarp to germinate and kill the weeds.

The 5-15% of weed seeds that are non-dormant are mostly in the top 5 cm/2” of the soil, and germinate very quickly. These can be very effective techniques, and this publication explains them well, and has good photos of crops, and machines such as the milling bedformer and the roller undercutter, and some fancy flamers and steam weeders, which might be equipment to aspire to, while working with spring tine weeders and shallow tillage. The explanations help with getting a better understanding of weeds seed germination, and so how to succeed with pre-plant tillage and post-crop-emergence cultivation. Timing is important, as is having the right tools for the job.

There’s also a good relevant article in Growing for Market:

Tools and strategies to reduce time spent weeding by Sam Hitchcock Tilton

Definitely read this if you are spending a lot of time weeding, or your crops are over-run by weeds. Work towards reducing your weed population each year, by preventing weeds from seeding. “Realize that one lamb’s-quarters or kochia or bindweed or galinsoga plant going to seed can be a much bigger problem next year than 10 or even 100 non-reproducing plants are now. So marshal your precious weeding resources smartly.”

Timely hoeing, while weeds are tiny and quick to die, can prevent the need for pulling weeds by hand, if you are working on a quite small scale. If your scale needs other tools, here you can learn about equipment to physically control weeds as part of your cropping system. If you are using a 4-wheel tractor, consider hillers, mini-ridgers, finger-weeders, Spyders, beet knives (L-blades), tine weeders, basket weeders.

A Thiessen walk-behind tractor cultivator, with Spyders up front, with the front of the Spyder angled towards the crop row (to pull soil away from the row), and torsion weeders at the back to weed in the crop row.

The article includes some equipment for 2-wheel walk-behind tractors, such as the Thiesson cultivator, Buddingh and Tilmor basket weeders, Even wheel hoes have weeding attachments.

Sam also describes stale seed-bedding, and advises rolling the prepared bed before tarping or watering, to provide the weed seeds good contact with the soil.

Sam’s article includes excellent photos, a tailored-for-beginners’ explanation of which tool does what and many links to other website and videos.

As Ben Hartman points out in The Lean Farm, hand-weeding is in a sign of failure to act sooner, that has led to a time-wasting scramble to correct the situation. read my review of The Lean Farm.

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Here’s an article from USDA on Killing the Crop Killers—Organically

As an alternative to bromide fumigation to kill pest nematodes, and other pests, try anaerobic soil disinfestation (ASD), an organic treatment that temporarily removes oxygen from the soil, is inexpensive and easy to apply. This method involves using a source of carbon, such as orchard grass, or mustard seed meal, tilled into the soil


Lean Times Hit the Vertical Farming Business.

Vertical farming is a code for a type of high tech hydroponics. See this article on the BBC website. Yes, hydroponics uses a large amount of energy to grow the plants. Yes, growing plants takes skill and attention. Yes, growing only a few crops is risky: people will only eat so much lettuce. Aerofarms has filed for bankruptcy, and several other “vertical farming operations” have hit financial troubles too.

Balance that with this post by Lee Rinehart from ATTRA:

Real Organic: Reflections on “The Deep Roots of Organic in Soil” by Paul Muller.

Soil is complex, with a universe of microorganisms, and cycles of carbon, nitrogen, hydrogen and many other elements. Farmers are part of the cycle. Organic farmers are seeking to make continuous improvement to the life in the soil, by observing patterns and lifeways, mimicking the native systems. We are not the center of the universe. Wendell Berry says “We don’t know what we are doing because we don’t know what we are undoing.”

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Plastic in the Organic Supply Chain Conference Report

From Modern Farmer

In early May, the Organic Center and the Organic Trade Association held the Organic Confluences conference about Reducing Plastic Across the Entire Organic Supply Chain. “While plastics serve many practical purposes on organic farms as well as for packaging and distribution, plastic production, use, and disposal cause massive amounts of pollution, which disproportionately affects low-income people and communities of color in the United States and around the world. At the conference, farmers, researchers, policymakers, wholesalers and retailers, nonprofit organizations, government agency staff and many others gathered to define the challenges in reducing plastic use, identify research needs, highlight success stories, and discuss what needs to be done to solve this growing problem.” Read a report about the conference on the eOrganic website here, with links to the conference program and slide presentations.

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Young spinach seedlings.
Photo Pam Dawling

Spinach Trial Underway to Inform Organic Seed Production

The Organic Seed Alliance is evaluating 272 spinach accessions from the USDA-ARS Germplasm Resources Information Network (GRIN) seed collection at their research farm in Washington State to assess timing of bolting and seed yield potential as part of a NIFA OREI funded project. This fall, they will share the trial results as well as their knowledge on spinach seed production and seed cleaning techniques through a webinar hosted on eOrganic, but meanwhile, read more about the project on their blog post here!

The seed production trial information is a part of an effort to aid in developing better varieties for organic farmers. “Research on the role of soil microbes on nutritional content, nitrogen use efficiency, and abiotic stress such as extreme temperatures is also underway by the project lead researcher Vijay Joshi at Texas A&M, and Ainong Shi and Gehendra Bhattarai at University of Arkansas. Together with the results of the seed production trials this project will help inform organic spinach breeders and farmers, and anyone working with seed from the USDA-ARS Germplasm Resources Information Network (GRIN) seed bank.” Results will be posted on the eOrganic project website.

eOrganic logo

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Tomato Breeding Project Fueled By Over 1,000 Backyard Gardeners

 

Some of the Dwarf Tomato Project’s diverse harvest. Courtesy of Craig LeHoullier

This 12-minute segment from Science Friday is an interview with Craig LeHouiller, who is a gardener/garden writer / tomato breeder in North Carolina. He is the author of Epic Tomatoes. In this segment he talks about the open source Dwarf Tomato Project. He and collaborator Patrina Nuske-Small aimed to preserve the flavor and beauty of heirloom tomatoes, without taking up too much space. They started crossbreeding heirloom tomatoes with smaller dwarf tomato plants. They signed up over 1000 volunteers across the world. They now have over 150 varieties of dwarf tomatoes, everything from cherries to beefsteaks, in every color. You can buy seeds from Victory Seeds, who have dedicated themselves to offering every dwarf variety produced.

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Dibbling holes for planting leeks.
Photo Wren Vile

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

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

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

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

Colorado potato beetle on an eggplant leaf.
Photo Pam Dawling

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How to harvest garlic scapes.
Photo Wren Vile

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

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

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

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

Brad Halm
Colin McCrate