Organic Gardening

Get dirty, have fun and grow more food with great gardening tips from real-life gardeners.

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4/28/2015

Chipper

Every year I have some wintertime yard chores to do, which includes pruning a few branches from the numerous trees on my half-acre property. Most of the time it consists of minor pruning of a few fruit trees and some butterfly bushes. After running these trimmings through my chipper/shredder, they make a great addition to my compost bins. Sometimes, like this year, I did some major pruning of not only the fruit trees and butterfly bushes, but also some olive, silk, and assorted pine trees – way too much for my compost bins. Luckily, I also have a need for mulch – especially for covering the pathways in in one of my raised-bed garden areas. Here are two of the ways I recycle my yard waste into useful items for my garden.

Chipping and Shredding

Mulch

When I was done pruning everything over the winter, I ended up with a very large pile of branches to chip/shred into usable mulch. I kept getting side-tracked with other things to do and finally got around to ridding my yard of this huge pile just a couple of weeks ago. My husband was getting concerned that the city’s code enforcement folks might come after us for a fire hazard. We pulled the Troy-Bilt chipper/shredder out of the shed, filled up the fuel tank, put on our safety goggles and gloves, and started it up – it only took a couple of pulls after being stored for over a year.

It took us a few hours over the course of two days to run all of the waste materials though the noisy machine. We had a few branches that were too big for the chipper/shredder’s 2-inch diameter maximum. Those branches we cut to length for use in the fireplace next winter. The end result was several bags of beautiful mulch for a 2-inch thick layer on my garden pathways – and it was free!

Composting

Compost

Adding organic material to the soil in the form of compost is great for healthier veggies, flowers, shrubs, and trees. You can buy compost at nurseries and garden centers, but why not make it yourself? For the most part, the ingredients can be found right in your own kitchen and yard – especially those pruned branches, fallen leaves, grass clippings, and chicken manure (if you happen to have chickens like I do).

Several years ago, I participated in a Master Composter training program held by the Mojave Desert & Mountain Recycling Authority/Master Composters. Upon completion of the program, I became a certified Master Composter. Included in the experience was a promise to pass along what I learned to other residents of Southern California’s High Desert region and beyond.

Composting is nature's way of recycling plant materials into a product that can be used to enrich the soil and nourish plants. By adding compost, sandy soils retain water better, heavy soils are loosened and drainage is improved, and plant health is improved. Composting reduces the amount of waste discarded into the trash, thus sending less waste to landfills.

Composting is partly art and partly science. Compost piles are actually microbial farms - bacteria are the most numerous decomposers and are the first to break down plant tissues. Later, fungi, protozoans, centipedes, millipedes, beetles, earthworms and others join in to do their part. Anything that grows is potential food for these decomposers. They use carbon from leaves and woody waste, and nitrogen from items like grass, weeds, manures, and fruit and vegetable waste from the kitchen.

Materials containing higher carbon content are considered "browns," while materials with higher nitrogen content are considered "greens." Recipes for the best compost can vary, but a good rule-of-thumb is a mix of 50-percent greens and 50-percent browns by volume.

Green materials include fresh weeds and plants, green prunings, grass clippings, horse, cow, chicken and rabbit manures, and fruit and vegetable trimmings.

Brown materials include fallen leaves, dry weeds and grass, chopped prunings and twigs (such as those I used for my garden mulch), wood chips, hay or straw, and cold wood ashes.

Other materials that can be composted include egg shells, old flower bouquets, coffee grounds and filters, tea bags, paper towels, napkins and newspaper – I only add paper products that are natural and not bleached, and newspapers that use soy-based ink.

Materials that should not be used in composting include oleander bushes, tamarisk/salt cedar, invasive weeds, meat, fish, dairy products, bones, fats, bread, large pieces of wood, pressure-treated wood, barbecue ashes, dog or cat wastes,  and materials with spines or thorns such as rose branches and cactus.

The more surface area the microorganisms have to work on, the faster the materials will decompose, so it's a good idea to run large pieces of waste such as branches through a chipping or shredding process before adding them to the compost pile. The microbes also need moisture and air. The best moisture level for the microbes and for faster composting should be that of a wrung out sponge. It is usually necessary to occasionally add water to the compost pile. It should also be turned periodically to get more air into the center. About once a week, I add water to my compost bins. I turn it with a pitch fork whenever I add new materials, which is at least a couple times a week. Most of the contents I add are kitchen waste, chicken manure, wood shavings, straw, leaves and pine needles, and occasionally wood chips from pruning my trees.

Large compost piles will insulate themselves and hold the heat given off by the microbes. The pile's center is warmer than its edges. The ideal compost pile is about 3-feet by 3-feet by 3-feet. Smaller piles have trouble retaining heat, while larger piles don't allow enough air into the center. Of course these proportions are only important for making compost quickly. Slower composting requires no exact proportions.

There are a number of ways to compost - some take less time and effort, some take more. The main things to consider are how much time you have to spend managing the pile, how much green waste your yard or kitchen generates, and how quickly you want the finished product.  Two common methods include holding units and turning units. Each method has its own set of advantages and disadvantages.

Holding units are the "no fuss" method where you add as you go. You can build or purchase a bin approximately 3-feet square, or just start a pile. Fill it up as materials become available - when it's full, start another pile - water and turn occasionally. I use two vented black bins, called Earth Machines, which have a removable lid on the top, and a door at the bottom for removing the finished product at the bottom of the pile. I also use two "Compost Orbs," which I purchased because they were supposed to be easy to roll them to where ever I needed them. They roll nicely when empty, or full of dry leaves, but not when they are full of heavy moist compost. I like my Earth Machines better. There are many models of compost bins available, check them out and see what works best for you.

Turning units are the "active pile" method. These are usually a series of three or more units that allow garden wastes to be turned on a regular schedule. These are more appropriate for gardeners with a larger volume of waste, or for those who want to produce compost faster. Each bin should be about one cubic yard in size. Fill one bin by layering green materials with brown. Water the piles as you add layers. The pile will probably heat up - when it cools after a few days, turn the pile into an empty bin and water again, continue until the pile no longer heats up and materials are decomposed.


All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page. 


4/28/2015

We were excited to see that our articles Guide to Organic Pest Control (August/September 2008) and The Best Plants to Attract Beneficial Insects and Bees were included as sources for this fantastic pest control infographic by Mike Bonds. Mike’s easy-to-read gardening infographic starts with an ID guide to help you identify bad garden bugs, such as cabbage worms and squash beetles. He then neatly displays a number of organic pest control options, including how to introduce beneficial insects, plant companion plants, install row covers and use diatomaceous earth.

Mike has graciously allowed us to post his fantastic gardening infographic online, and we hope you’re able to use it throughout the gardening season as a convenient reference. Happy gardening!

Organic Pest Control Infographic



4/27/2015

I always view a garden as if it were a business.  Like a business, there is a lot of up-front investment and it is hard to make up your money the first year or even second year for that matter.  This is especially true for container gardens because they cost more to set up.  I easily spent more than a hundred dollars on things such as, G&B Organic Blue Ribbon blend potting soil, Baby Bu’s Biodynamic Blend potting soil, Jobe’s organic fertilizer spikes, and 12 inch pots, and really big square containers. There is also a certain amount of fruitless experimentation that needs to be accepted as the cost of doing business.  But this metaphor of a business reflects economic reality. Numerous sources from journal articles and the web show a significant return on investment assuming the value of your time spent in the garden is not counted. For example, the GRS garden project. showed a personal investment of $153.28 for the year 2011 and a return on investment of $657.32 in the value of the produce from one particular person’s garden. Academic research into the question shows an average return of about 3-fold as is reported in the Journal of Extension. This research also shows that some crops yield a higher return on investment for home gardeners. In particular, tomato, eggplant, peas, and salad greens offer some of the highest return on investment for home gardeners in terms of the value of the produce coming from the garden vs. the cost of supplies for the garden.

Since container gardens cost more to set up, it makes sense to focus on the most valuable crops that will reduce your produce bill at the grocery store as much as possible.  I focus on salad greens in late winter and early spring as well as snap peas in my container gardens. This arrangement has other benefits besides the return on investment.  Growing salad greens on a second floor concrete balcony offers big advantages over the regular garden in a place such as Oregon where the slugs will literally grow several inches long. I have enjoyed salad greens completely untouched by slugs ever since I moved my salad greens to the balcony. Similarly, my carrot seedlings were completely wiped out by slugs in the regular garden but are flourishing in my container garden, and my pea seedlings were badly damaged by slugs in the regular garden but are quite happy in my container gardens.  

After trying many different varieties of snap pea, the best I have come across are the ‘Green Beauty Vine’ peas bred and sold by Peace Seedlings of Corvallis, Oregon. I think they beat out standard types, such as ‘Sugar Ann’.  They are a total package of flavor, tenderness, some sweetness, and visual appeal.  The pods are delicious raw or lightly cooked. It turns out that they do quite well in container gardens if they are given a pot at least 12” in diameter (5 gallons) with no more than 4 seeds planted in one pot.  They also need a large support such as 6 foot bamboo sticks.  They can be started in late winter here in Oregon and will continue producing food for your family at least until July.  (Seed germination can be an issue in late winter, so be sure to germinate your seeds indoors before planting them.) Considering the price of sugar snap peas at the store and the fact that you can’t buy anything as good as the ‘Green Beauty Vine’ at the store, it is an investment well worth making.

I have tried a number of varieties of spinach in my container gardens, including several open pollinated types and a couple hybrid types. I, of course, tried the old stand-by open pollinated type, ‘Bloomsdale Long Standing’ as well as ‘Monster of Viroflay’, ‘Tyee’ F1, ‘Giant Noble’, ‘Giant Winter’, ‘Bordeaux’ F1, and ‘Fiorana’ F1. The one that has performed best in the three years that I have been testing spinach greens in containers has been the ‘Olympia Hybrid’ F1. Its main advantage seems to be faster growth of tender, delicious leaves. But it generally seems better adapted and more vigorous than other types. That said, my trialing was not scientific. The best variety could be something else entirely. The variety was originally developed by Alf Christianson Seed Co of Washing state, and the name ‘Olympia’ may possibly refer to the Olympic peninsula of Washington State.

Salad greens container garden 

I also grow bok choy, mustard greens, and lettuce greens in my containers. A nice mustard green from High Mowing Seeds is ‘Ruby Streaks’, which adds some color, variety, and a bit of spice to a salad mix. ‘Mei Qing’ F1 Pac Choi from Johnny’s Seeds has done well in my container gardens but I haven’t tried enough varieties to make any comparison. Lately I have been growing ‘Marvielle of Four Seasons’ lettuce quite a bit but I can’t say it is really any better than other varieties. I once got free lettuce plants of a dark red lettuce that I subsequently saved the seed from. I suspect it is a Frank Morton developed variety from Wild Garden Seeds, but I never did get the variety name. This unnamed red variety is really exceptional for luscious leaves, dark color, and vigorous growth. It stands out as one of the best varieties of lettuce I have ever grown, and quite superior to store bought lettuce. 

As spring ends and summer starts, I switch over to tomatoes. I have done a lot of experimentation with tomato varieties for container gardening. Overall, I have made some basic observations about growing tomatoes in containers.  One, there is such a thing as a variety that is well adapted to containers as opposed to varieties that are better adapted to the garden proper. Another observation is that a big plant that has outgrown its container will constantly suffer from a lack of water. I once grew tomatoes in containers that were too small (1 to 2 gallons) and I was watering them, literally, 2 to 3 times per day.  There seems to be a simple relationship here:  bigger containers result in less drought stress and a reduced watering burden.  There also seems to be a relationship, regardless of watering, between smaller pots and smaller yields.  With enough water, a tomato will produce fruit in a really tiny pot of less than a gallon, but the yield will be one or two undersized tomatoes.  With a big enough container, any tomato variety can be grown in a pot, but some varieties will require the super-sized half barrel containers. For well adapted tomato varieties, a 5 gallon pot (12 inches diameter) should be sufficient. It should also be kept in mind that tomatoes are greedy for fertilizer. I give them Jobe’s organic fertilizer spikes mid-season or as necessary if growth is slowing and the leaves start to turn yellow from a lack of nitrogen. I also start them out with a good organic fertilizer when I transplant them into the containers.

Weather Worries

The weather in my area cycles back and forth in March, April, and May (even June) between warm spells in which tomatoes are happy to grow and cold, rainy spells which tomatoes can only tolerate as long as it is not below freezing. One thing I have found is that container gardening of tomatoes has a few inherent advantages for early season production. If there is a sudden cold spell, it is easy to bring in the containers into the kitchen for the night. The statistical last frost in my area is May 11, but I regularly risk planting tomatoes before this day as long as the extended forecast shows good weather in April and my plants are in containers. In addition, most early varieties tend to be smaller, determinate plants that are naturally well suited to containers. I think there is also one or two degrees of warmth that naturally radiates from the cement and metal of the building all night long. I have noticed, for instance, my balcony thermometer will show a temperature above freezing, yet the cars below me will have frost.  I am trying out several early varieties this year in containers, including ‘Glacier’, ‘Siberian’, ‘Gundula’, ‘Uralskiy’, and ‘Jagodka’.  The latter three are varieties from Adaptive Seeds.  But the variety that is proven and tested for me is ‘Cherry Punch’ F1 from Burpee Seed Co.  It is a relatively early, medium sized indeterminate plant. It is very well adapted to containers and performs as well or better in containers as opposed to garden soil. It has 30 percent more vitamin C and 40 percent more lycopene than an average tomato according to the Burpee website. It is tough, vigorous, and unstoppable.  I have grown this variety for several years and I find it to be one of the essential varieties in my garden every single year. I only have minor criticisms of the variety.  In 2012, my ‘Cherry Punch’ plants suffered more from a severe wind storm than other tomato varieties with more branch breakage.  Another minor criticism is that it is hard to pick the tomatoes without causing small tears to the fruit.  This never bothered me since we usually eat them immediately or within a day or two.

There is something else about container gardens that should be mentioned. It is great to have healthy finger food right outside the door.  Snap peas and cherry tomatoes are best straight from the garden and the lettuce never has a chance to wilt when it is so close by.

You can read my bio and other posts here.


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4/22/2015

Grow Where You Are

Effects of Drought on Agriculture

A drought can achieve results that years of protest could never achieve. As California’s water dries up, our whole nation can seize this opportunity to build a new local food system that is equitable and productive. Many committed folks have been organizing against corporate agribusiness and genetically modified organisms for years.

At this time, it seems the global climate forces have aligned with us to initiate a change to a more ecologically sustainable system of food production. As a native of Southern California, it is stunning to witness the environmental devastation that is the result of the expansion of metro Los Angeles and the surrounding counties. The highways, buildings, homes, lawns, swimming pools and golf courses have contributed to insane amounts of waste, toxicity and imbalance.

Still, this massive drainage of water use is only 20 percent of the human usage in California, 80% of the water is wasted in the corporate monocropping of a desert and factory farming to feed folks across the nation. Thirty percent of our country’s produce comes from this one state. Is that wise? The drought and irresponsible water management are putting a stop to this unsustainable corporate lust.

On a national scale, this is our opportunity to develop strategic systems for supporting local and urban growers. Small-scale farmers are struggling in poverty. At the same time, we see a steady increase in local food advocacy nonprofits in various states with some of their executive directors earning $80,000 and more.

Naturally, young people are directing their efforts to working as advocates rather than learning the skills of agroecology or veganic agriculture. Would this trend change if more local growers were becoming landowners and viewed as valuable community entrepreneurs?

Generational wealth in this country has been built on free labor and land ownership. These practices were both foreign and unlawful to the Indigenous stewards of this land. Still, it persists and is accompanied by a storm cloud of racism and financial servitude.  The epidemics of homelessness, vacant properties and lack of fresh food access in underinvested urban communities are connected to issues of land ownership. With access to land comes access to food and wealth. That is the history and the present.

Grow Where You Are

Grow Where You Are is a social enterprise focusing on assisting communities in creating local food abundance systems. After creating and studying small-scale urban food systems nationally and internationally for over 15 years, we see that even the most effective systems can be easily dismantled without land security. For this reason, we propose supporting local growers in a transition to home ownership with a dynamic web of community partnership.

In many urban areas, police and school teachers are offered homes with no down payment if they commit to serve the community for an agreed number of years. We see this model as a great place to begin for evolving our local food movement forward from the growers up. We have tried years of organizing, policy making and consumer lead advocacy to get systemic change in our food system. These tactics have limited success and time is quickening. At this critical moment, we can have maximum impact by directing resources and support to the small-scale growers and elevating them to a status of respected, valued civil servants. Do you value healthy food in the same way you value education for our children and public safety?

Creating a Generation of Urban Food Producers

By identifying committed local growers and placing them in refurbished “green homes” in underserved communities, we demonstrate real value and solution-based action. In Atlanta, where we have been involved in urban agriculture for nearly 10 years, we have fairly established urban ag training programs through organizations like HABESHA Inc. and Truly Living Well Center Natural Urban Agriculture. These programs have graduated hundreds of certified growers and still the number of committed urban food producers has increased very little in comparison.

A few of the graduates enter the nonprofit school garden arena, some look for another ‘training internship’ program and more simply continue their ‘job hunt’ in another more stable field of employment. These attitudes will dramatically shift as we witness urban farmers become landowners and continue to feed our communities at precisely the moment in our nation's growth when illness, poverty, homelessness, racial reparations and the inevitable collapse of corporate agribusiness are converging in the collective consciousness.

How effective can school gardening programs be if there is no real investment in creating infrastructure for vibrant local production? How much more voice do homeowners have in the political decision making throughout our major cities when compared to the voice of renters in neighborhoods threatened by gentrification?

This is possible. This can happen. With this proactive step toward lifting up farming as an occupation of respect and value, we can encourage a flood of growers in our urban and peri-urban communities where it is most needed. As these small-scale, intensive practices become fully operational, we will be fearless in creating food sovereignty as the wasteful system of monocrops and factory farming of animals collapses in the west coast desert farmland. We will witness health and generational wealth in the communities where millions of foundation dollars have been evaporated by nonprofits implanting social programs and service projects that do very little to make these areas productive.


All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.



4/22/2015

 principe borghese tomatoes

Once seeds are on your radar to save for the coming year it would do you well to plan ahead to ensure you are doing the best you can. More specifically, that means to make sure the varieties you want to save from don’t cross pollinate with other varieties of the same crop. There are many books and Internet sources available that will help you with that and you will find some of the things to keep in mind at Homeplace Earth.

Saving seeds can be as broad and as limiting an activity as you make it to be. I know people who are really exact in their methods with the notion to keep the line of seeds they are saving pure. Others plant out their crops with a more relaxed attitude, paying some attention to isolation distances to keep things from crossing; but it isn’t the end of the world for them if it does. Actually, you can develop your own varieties that way—unique to you and to your place. If you are saving seeds only for yourself, whatever works for you is okay. If you are saving seeds to share with others, you need to make your methods clear so there are no surprises. Some people receiving your seeds may be up for an adventure and some may not.

Seed savers have the power to change a crop just by the criteria they use to choose which plants to save from. You could choose to save from certain plants because of earliness or lateness of harvest, size, color, shape, taste, etc. I was familiar with all of those things, but not so familiar with someone choosing to save from a plant because of the number of seeds produced.

If you grow paste tomatoes you probably know that they often have fewer seeds than other tomatoes. That is an advantage if you don’t want to deal with seeds in your tomato sauce. When I can tomato sauce the seeds get strained out in the process with a Foley Food Mill or a Victoria Strainer. When I dry tomatoes, however, the seeds are still there when I put the dried pieces in the jars in the pantry. Tomatoes that are easy for me to put in my solar dryers are Principe Borghese. Although the seed catalog states 78 days to maturity for this variety, it is my experience that the harvest starts in about 60 days from transplanting and continues at a fast pace for a month. By that time my other tomato varieties are producing well and I dry those, but am comforted by the amount I was able to put up already with Principe Borghese. As you can see in the top photo, this variety has a lot of seeds.

Long Tom tomatoes

I was moved to try Long Tom tomatoes because it is a meaty tomato, good for drying, and the catalog named the grower—it was my friend Barbara. Long Tom takes much longer to start producing (85-90 days), but has very few seeds, which is an advantage when using dried tomatoes for sauce. Of course, if seeds are your harvest to sell to a catalog, it would take a lot more Long Tom tomatoes to make your quota of seeds than it would a tomato like Principe Borghese. I’m glad I only need to save a small amount of Long Tom seeds to plant back each year. I ran into Barbara at a farm field day and took the opportunity to tell her that I was growing Long Tom for drying and liked the fact that it had few seeds. She responded that, since she has to have enough to sell, she had been selecting for more seeds per tomato. I had a good laugh about that. I can see her point as a seed grower, but was happy that I could control the criteria used to save the seeds at my place.

The first week in May I’ll be meeting up with serious seed savers and sharers at the First International Seed Library Forum in Tucson, Arizona. No doubt, there will be a lot of seed stories to share. Seed saving and sharing has become quite popular and seed libraries are opening all over the U.S. and beyond. If you haven’t been saving seeds, I invite you to begin this adventure in your garden this year.

Cindy Conner is the author of Seed Libraries and Grow a Sustainable Diet and has produced DVDs about garden planning and managing cover crops with hand tools. Learn more about what she is up to at Homeplace Earth.


All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.


4/21/2015

Planting A Future: Profiles from Oregon’s New Farm Movement spotlights 18 Oregon farms and farm supporters who are committed to a return to ecologically sound agricultural practices. This group reflects the diversity of people, both young and old, who are reshaping our state’s food system and reclaiming our right to eat well. In their stories you will hear how they came to be where they are, learn something about the challenges they face, and share their happiness at the successes they’ve enjoyed thus far. The following profile has been excerpted from Planting A Future.

Mary and Vince Alionis

Mary and Vince Alionis have been working together at digging in the dirt since the day they first met, which happened when they were working on a community garden project for the Green Party down in Dallas, Texas. I don’t know what happened with that community garden, but the relationship Vince and Mary shared blossomed, and they began to look for a place to begin putting down roots.

After Dallas, they moved to California to help intensive gardening guru John Jeavons with a building project. Unfortunately, the funding for that project fell apart, so they began to look around for other opportunities. According to Vince, they met a lot of interesting people in California, but it just didn’t feel like the right place for them, so they looked north and liked what they found in Oregon. More specifically, they liked the remote and rugged feel of southern Oregon along the Rogue River. So in 1991 they made the move to a nine acre plot in Shady Cove, Oregon, a doorway to Crater Lake country.

“We landed on nine acres of an old walnut orchard with a farm house and two wells, and that’s where we got started,” said Vince. “We immediately got a rototiller and worked up a little three-quarter acre spot and started doing any growers markets we could find. We gave ourselves two years to figure out what we were going to do longer term.”

Two years later they were living and farming on forty acres farther up into the mountains on Elk Creek. “Cold country” is what Mary called it. They loved the ten years they spent there building their farm business. “That was a beautiful place,” continued Vince, “a creek, a spring… a lions and bears kind of place, you know. Not necessarily a good production space, but an awesome homestead space.”

There were challenges, though, like the shorter growing season found at higher altitudes. And the distance and difficulty of getting to markets. But it was the combination of a forest fire and the birth of their daughter that prompted these hardy farmers to seek a safer and more productive location somewhere in the valley. Which brought them to their current location on twenty-two acres of prime farmland beside Highway 238 in the Applegate Valley, where they’ve lived, farmed, and raised their daughter, Zosha, and son, Kazi.

Farming on highly productive soil in the valley was quite different from farming on marginal soil on the upper Rogue. So when Mary and Vince continued to apply the same methodologies they had developed to accommodate previous challenges, they were faced with more produce than they knew what to do with because everything grew so well. The abundance enabled them to quickly expand their markets, as well as helping to pioneer better farming techniques in their part of the state.

“Coming from the colder climate, we had been forced to develop techniques that simply weren’t being applied down here in the valley,” explained Mary. “There was no one doing greenhouse culture or intensive succession plantings. And only a couple of farms were beginning to stretch the season. These were all well established methodologies, but it was just that people weren’t doing it here because they didn’t have to. Plus I suppose it’s like anything else… people don’t do it until they see it happen, and being on the highway, we’re very visible. So we feel like we were able to bring some positive influences to growers down here.”

Vince laughed as he continued the story… “Of course we flipped out all the locals when we showed up because we immediately started putting up greenhouses and preparing the soil and selling product. When we landed here, there was no house. We were living in a yurt up in Williams. But we got here in December and had a crop out of the ground by April.”

farm store exterior

“But we understand that the real pioneers were the people up in the Willamette Valley doing things like this in the mid to late 80s,” Mary acknowledged. “We actually gleaned some of our information from them, and of course anyplace else we could find it. It wasn’t easy to get information back then. There wasn’t any internet.”

Both Vince and Mary believe that successful farming requires compulsive entrepreneurship. The way they developed Whistling Duck shows that. They also believe that nobody survives as an entrepreneur unless they’re willing to do whatever it takes to get the job done, and that you can tell pretty quickly who’s going to make it and who’s not based on their willingness to do that. But as I listen to them tell their story, it sounds like information and flexibility might be just as important as hard work. The ability to get the information, figure out how to apply it to your own operation, and adapt your plans and processes based on what you learn and what you encounter.

They both like to use the term “game changer” when they talk about new discoveries or new ideas. Like how their discovery of the Allis Chalmers G cultivating tractor was a game changer that enabled them to farm more efficiently on larger acreage. Their refrigerated truck was a game changer because it served as a walk-in cooler when nobody around them had walk-in coolers. “That truck gave us a real qualitative edge,” said Vince. “We were always keen about getting product out early, getting it in water to get the field heat out, and then getting it cold. That extends shelf life, which means our customers were getting a better quality product.”

And though they didn’t use the term, Vince being diagnosed with cancer several years after their move to the valley also was a game changer. It meant that he would be doing less, Mary would be doing more, and their need for good quality, reliable workers would increase. It also meant that their long-term plans for the farm would need to be adjusted to remove some of the stress.

They’ve been lucky with their crew. “We have about ten people right now, and three or four are year-round employees,” said Mary. “That doesn’t mean they’re full-time during the winter months… more like twenty to thirty hours on average, but they are year-round and they’ve been here for quite a few years now. If we lost our key people, I’m not sure what we’d do. But for now, we’re good.”

To help expand their year-round workload and keep workers busy, Whistling Duck added seed garlic to its product list. They grow approximately twenty varieties of garlic, which requires monitoring and care throughout the winter. Vince commented that seed garlic is their export crop, meaning that the majority of it leaves their valley and new money comes into their valley, which is critically important to the local economy. In fact, organic seed production is becoming a key economic driver in the Applegate and Rogue Valleys, especially since both Josephine and Jackson counties voted to ban GMO crops, which can destroy organic seed operations.

To be continued…

Order your copy of Planting A Future: Profiles from Oregon's New Farm Movement.

(Top) Photo by Lisa D. Holmes: Mary and Vince Alionis have built Whistling Duck Farm into a successful organic farming business.

(Bottom) Photo Courtesy of Whistling Duck Farm: The new on-farm store is a key part of Mary and Vince's long-term business strategy.


All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.



4/10/2015

Tall Winter Rye In Garden

Planting cover crops to build soil fertility will benefit any garden, big or small. Each season seeds are sowed and the plants are watered and taken care of with the eventual goal to harvest and eat. The soil is what gives the plants the necessary nutrients to grow strong, fight off pests and disease, and produce the best flavored, most nutrient-dense food possible and it requires those nutrients to be given back. Cover crops will give back to the soil.

Some cover crops are capable of adding nitrogen to the soil while others are intended to add a great deal of biomass to the soil; some do both and all of them will help prevent well-built and well-earned soil from eroding. Here we’ll go over the benefits some cover crops provide and give a brief explanation on how and when to plant them.

Green Manure

Cover crops are also referred to as ‘green manure’. At Mad Love Organix we do not have access to manure. We do compost but compost only goes so far. So we stretch out the compost and plant cover crops. The main goal in planting cover crops is to get massive growth in a minimal timeframe when or wherever land is not being used. Rather than having nutrients leach out, nutrients will be stored and preserved and healthy, strong soil will be built.

According to How to Grow Vegetables and Fruits by the Organic Method written by J.I. Rodale, both the plant being grown to harvest and the cover crop should be grown in one season. The cover crops can be grown either before or after the harvest crop. This goes back to taking from the soil then giving back. Or as Rodale points out, giving to the soil then taking the harvest. Either way, the cycle will continue.

Nitrogen-Fixing Cover Crops

Legumes, alfalfa, and clover are known for their nitrogen-fixing capabilities. They’re also some of the cover crops I’m most familiar with seeing in Pennsylvania. They possess this magical ability to take nitrogen out of the air with their leaves and transfer it back into the soil with their roots. They also add organic matter to the soil.

According to the Encyclopedia of Gardening by the American Horticultural Society, the amount of organic matter these plants can add may add as much nitrogen as a regular feeding schedule. Due to its low carbon-to-nitrogen ratios, the organic matter breaks down fast making the nitrogen quickly available.

Planting Winter Rye to Add Biomass

Winter rye is a great cover crop to plant in order to add a lot of biomass to the soil the following season. It’s especially great here in the northeast because it protects the soil from eroding over the winter. To get the full benefit of rye it must be planted before September 15th, according to Rodale in his book. If planted after that it will result in too limited of growth to be of benefit.

Last winter our winter rye was less than 12-inches in height. After a few warm days in March and April it sprouted to more than double that. I used a hoe to chop the majority of the plant off the base of the stem, listening to and enjoying the sounds similar to popcorn popping on a stove top. There was so much biomass I had to carry most of it to the compost heap before turning the remaining – and much shorter – winter rye into the soil.

Buckwheat

One other cover crop I enjoy growing is buckwheat. Last year a plot of blossoming buckwheat saved some potted golden berries from Colorado potato beetles. But that was just an added benefit. The main benefit of planting buckwheat as a cover crop is its good for “re-building poor soils or restoring acidic soils,” according to Rodale in his book. It also attracts a lot of bees.

Blossoming Buckwheat Plot

How and When to Plant Cover Crops

Cover crops are thrown over the soil, lightly raked in, and watered, but the art of planting cover crops lies in the timing. Other than wanting cover crops to grow massively tall in a short amount of time, cover crops also need to be turned into the soil at the right time. This will maximize the nutrients availability to the plants being grown next.

According to Monty Don in his book The Complete Gardener, three to four weeks should be waited between turning the cover crops into the soil and planting the crops meant to harvest. This is how long the soil will be busy breaking down the cover crop into available nitrogen and other nutrients for the next crop. He also warns to not wait too long because after about a month “most of the benefits will no longer be available.”

They can also be planted during the growing season by planting them in-between the rows right before harvesting time. Or planted in early summer and allowed to grow then be turned into the soil just in time for a fall planting. Or if the garden is real big, half of it can have cover crops growing for a full season to build soil fertility while the other half is used for heavy vegetable production, and vice versa the following year.

At Our Home

Here at Mad Love Organix, we limit our consumption of outside resources to grow food in a self-sustaining manner the best we can. Even though we buy the seeds we make sure to support small businesses and they’re relatively inexpensive in comparison to many other certified-organic fertilizers available on the market.

My favorite benefit of growing cover crops is the simple ability of watching something else grow. After watching a season’s worth of green growth, blossoming flowers, and buzzing bees it can feel lonely looking out to a garden mostly empty, bare, and seemingly life-less. Cover crops keep the action going while the gardener can take a break.


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