When bull dozers came in and cleared out the trees and grasses growing on county land by the canal behind my house, I planted trees and threw seeds.
Sun coming through a mighty slash pine tree.
Old Live Oaks with Resurrection Fern beards in Fort Pierce Burial Mound Park, Fort Pierce, Florida
Rain Lilies flower after rain. These are at my front walkway.
We have a great workshop coming up in July for gardeners or future gardeners interested in sustainable permaculture practices.
On Saturday July 21st 2012 from 9am to 3pm join us for a one-day introduction and interactive experience to learn about permaculture at Heathcote Botanical Gardens in Ft. Pierce with Tia Meer, permaculturalist and founder of Simple Living Institute from Orlando, FL. This workshop will focus on the project of transitioning the annual vegetable garden to a perennial food forest. We will cover permaculture ethics, principals, site survey, and site design and get our hands dirty and put permaculture into practice by designing and installing an edible perennial garden on site.
The cost of this class is $50. Participants are encouraged to bring a bag lunch.
To reserve your space in these classes register at Heathcote Botanical Gardens, 210 Savanna Rd. Fort Pierce Florida, 34982, or call 772-474-4672
Starting A Garden Suddenly: 9 am Saturday June 23, 2012
The No Dig Lasagna Layer Mound and The Layer Cake Mound. Learn how to make easy garden beds to grow delicious healthy vegetables in Florida. You will learn how to find the components for the layers, the dimensions for the mounds and how best to plant into new mounds. Attendees participate in the assembly of both mound types. $20 for Heathcote members, and $25 for non-members, Advance registration requested as class size is limited.
Heathcote Botanical Gardens 210 Savanna Road, Fort Pierce, Florida 34982
Register at the gardens or call 772-464-4672.
Here is the schedule for the classes I am teaching at Heathcote Botanical Gardens thru the spring of 2013. If you click on the link below you can see the pdf poster with dates and times. The composting class has already gone by, however, if there are enough who are interested I would be glad to repeat it. It is one of my own favorite presentations. You can call Heathcote Botanical Gardens to request it. The number is at the bottom of the poster. The poster in the link below.
These days in all sorts of areas, from agriculture to oil, to mortgages and banking the buzzword is sustainability. When I examine my life style for sustainability I not only look at how I am growing today, I consider how my methods will work for me 20 years down the road. I can see where some of my practices are unsustainable. This thinking leads me to more closely examine the Forest Garden.
For nearly 20 years I have been growing mostly annuals with just a few perennial fruits like cherries, mangos, pineapples and grapes. Annuals done the way I have done them are quite a bit of work, and pretty much the same work year after year whereas the fruit tree or perennial plant is put in, nurtured for a while and then I only have to do some mulching every few months (with the hay, pine flake and manure from the rabbit cages), and then my work is done except for harvesting and eating or putting by.
Suddenly I see the brilliance of perennial food plants (I am getting tired of working this hard for my dinner.) I have added an avocado tree, bananas, pigeon peas, fig trees, almond trees, papaya, black berries, sugar cane more sweet potatoes (perennials where I live), rose apple, white sapote, more pineapples, pomegranate, and Yuca (aka Cassava). It is my intention to begin sowing my annuals in the mulch around the trees at the drip line or slightly beyond instead of in special beds just for annuals. This means that the beds now assigned to annuals only will also begin to get some perennial crops. I hope in this way to reduce my time spent planting and increase my harvesting.
Annual crops that volunteer in my garden are a real bonus. They seem to come at the perfect time for their season, and they tend to do very well if I mostly ignore them. Some of the plants that volunteer in my garden year after year are Matts Wild Cherry Tomatoes, Bitter Melon, and Mustard Greens. I like to grow heirloom or open pollinated varieties of annuals for this reason. That way when a plant comes up on its own I know I can trust it to fruit as expected and with the good flavor I expect from my crops. Sweet Potatoes also come back every year though I count them as perennials. I have only had to plant them once in any one place. Once they are in an area they will come back there in the spring.
I have also begun to use the wild plants that are growing in my woods for food having for so many years ignored them. There are wonderful muscadine grapes that grow wild here, and a couple of years ago I began harvesting those little purple grapes in July and August and although they are greatly picked over by wildlife I can come away with buckets enough to make a batch of jam and share a bucket with a friend. I have also been harvesting smilax or greenbriar, aka wild asparagus from my wooded areas. For years I didn’t know there was food on that thorny vine and I tried without success to eradicate it from my property. I am lucky to have so thoroughly failed. In the spring the tips from those vines are numerous and delicious. They rarely make it into the kitchen, I eat them and share them on the fly.
Because of my more conventional hort. training early on I was concerned with crowding trees and plants and stunting them. Once I began to study about permaculture forest guilds, and I learned about mycorrhizae and the workings of root networks in the soil, I began to understand why forests work and how we can copy that in our own landscapes.
There is a lot of misinformation to overwrite when it comes to gardening and agriculture. There are these long held truths and biases that are entirely wrong, and they are so prevalent and so familiar that it is easy for them to creep into our practices unless we are diligent about regularly examining what we are doing with the garden and why. What this means to us in the urban or suburban setting is that we can grow much more food in much less space than we have been lead to believe in the past.
Now go outside and start the food forest. The best day to plant a tree was 10 years ago. The next best day is today.
I want to say thanks to the people who recently hit my donate button after receiving some useful advice. Whether you are one of the people who gave a few dollars, or the one who gave more, every bit counts and I am grateful.
I was reviewing my article In The Garden: Growing Sweet Potatoes, and I see it is time for an update. It has been a few years since my first crop of sweet potatoes. I have learned a bit more about them and I have distributed them to growers and gardens far and wide.. I love them more now than ever before, and in Revisiting Sweet Potatoes I think you will discover why you will too.
Sweet potatoes quickly grew out of the mounds in my garden, through the fence and into the hot dry sand outside of my garden where they made the hardest, largest, unblemished, super sweet, sweet potatoes I have grown. The plants inside the mounds of the garden were in dark moist fertile soil and there they often became fodder for the invertebrates of the soil. Sweet potatoes love to grow in hot dry sand.
I harvested as many sweet potatoes as I could find in the garden using just my hands (no tools), and I threw the vines down on the ground outside of the garden. I planted my winter crops there where the sweet potatoes had been. When the winter crops were winding down and beginning to succumb to the longer hotter days sweet potatoes began to send up sprouts. Obviously I missed some potatoes when I harvested them in the fall. This has happened every spring since I began growing sweet potatoes. Here in the south, or zone 9b sweet potatoes can be considered perennials, and while they will absolutely engulf a garden area in the summer, they are likely to be dormant or at least slow growing in the winter, yielding the garden to other crops.
Even though the sweet potatoes don’t make great yields in my rich garden soil I let them come up and fill those beds because they cover the soil all summer long, and because they become fodder for the invertebrates in the soil. Sweet potatoes make an excellent summer cover crop protecting soil from sun feeding soil organisms and making it difficult for wild plants to grow there. When I take them out in the fall the soil where they grew is ready for the next crop.
Sweet potato greens are good food. I can feed vines and leaves to my chickens and rabbits, and I can eat the leaves in my stir fry.
We grew sweet potatoes in mounds at Heathcote’s No Till Organic Garden, and we grew them along the outside of our gardens in the unimproved, unwatered soil using just some leaf mulch over them. Like in my garden at home the mounds did not produce good or numerous sweet potatoes whereas the hot dry sandy soil at the edges of the garden produced huge yields of large, unblemished sweet potatoes. Mostly they were in groups of three and we only had to push the leaf mulch aside to find them pushing out of the soil’s surface. Where we harvested the sweet potatoes the ground was soft and pliable but as soon as we moved past where they grew the soil was compacted and unyielding. Sweet potatoes naturally soften soil making it ready for the next crop.
Sweet potatoes store well once cured. It is easy to get large yields of sweet potatoes in unirrigated, unimproved sandy soil so you can have lots of them to store, to share, and to feed to pets and livestock. Sweet potatoes are a staple crop that is easy to grow.
To increase your sweet potato yields: when the vines begin to sprawl make cuttings and plant them several inches deep where there are bare spots. I have also found they very much appreciate a light leaf litter mulch.
Because it is easy to grow, because of it’s perennial nature, because it’s roots and leaves can be eaten, and because it makes a good ground cover crop the sweet potato is a permaculture crop.
While there are many different colors of sweet potatoes my favorite is still the orange flesh variety. For its sweet flavor and it’s appealing orange hue.
I am back in my own garden again with a vengeance after the permaculture workshop at Heathcote Botanical Gardens. Time is flying and I have begun to consider what I am planting this summer, and when.
At 1:00 PM on Sunday February 5 at Heathcote Botanical Gardens I will be presenting a class on what we can plant in our summer gardens here in South Florida and when as well as what to do if we plan to fallow the garden or grow green mulch crops instead. This class goes for approximately 2 hours and costs $15 for members and $20 for non-members. To register call Heathcote Botanical Gardens 772-464-4672.
Susana Lein has flown home to Salamander Springs Farm in Berea, KY and I am left with a moment to contemplate her visit and the permaculture workshop she presented at Heathcote Botanical Gardens.
I expected the Workshop to fill, and it did, and I expected the class to be interesting. It was fascinating and fun. I had hoped that we who attended the workshop would have time to meet one another and to form a new network of active permaculture links. We did get to spend some time learning about each other, and I think the potential for creating a new permaculture network is good. The dynamic nature of this group was really exciting for me. I saw some familiar faces, and I met some new friends, but the way we fit together as a group was so interesting. We are diverse in all of the ways that members of a community are, and yet there was a tangible sense of agreement among us too that made me feel that we shared a commonality.
When it was time for the practical portion of the workshop, we changed a 20’x 25′ grassy patch into a new sheet compost, or layer cake garden in less than an hour. I do this sort of work regularly. Sometimes I have made large gardens by my lone or with the help of my husband, and sometimes with the help of a few friends or volunteers. It always takes some time. The huge amount of work the permaculture workshoppers got done in an hour was exciting. It wasn’t that we were very well organized, we weren’t, but the work was there in front of us, the materials were there ahead of time (thanks to some gathering of manure and hay donations done in the weeks ahead of the workshop), and we all knew what we had to accomplish, and our many hands made a big job seem small. It was a powerful example of the collective force in banding together to share a chore.
There was another outcome from having shared work together that just sharing a classroom may not have produced. After the work was done and we all sat down on the grass in the shade together we were different than before. It seemed to me that in expending our energy together and completing a chore we had become more familiar. I have sensed this each week when several of us garden volunteers complete a harvest, having picked, packed, weighed and delivered the harvest together makes us more cohesive. This is a connection to community, a benefit, that I think we lost when we mechanized our work.
After the classroom portion of the workshop lunch was served. Many of the people attending the workshop opted to buy the prepared lunch from S&S Takeout in Fort Pierce. It was a really good vege sandwich made with thin sliced breaded and fried eggplant with roasted red peppers, provolone cheese and a balsamic drizzle on a ciabatta roll. There was also a whole wheat pasta salad and cookies, and we drank Roselle tea.
We couldn’t have completed the practical application of the workshop with out manure and hay donations. We were given 6 bales of moldy T&A Hay from Rosa at Thomas Feed and Farm Supply on Okeechobee Rd. in Fort Pierce, and we received an old round bale and all the loose coastal hay we could rake out of the trailer from Ronnie at Tri-County Feed on US I in South Fort Pierce. Our manure donations came from Thea Bullard at Midnight Cattle Company, Wyn Burns at Creature Safe Place, and Miss Pam from Granny Pam’s Pony Rides. We are also grateful to Heathcote Botanical Gardens for jumping at the opportunity to host this workshop, helping to publisize it, and for their help with setting up the Pioneer House with tables and chairs for us.
Finally I want to mention again that we had many hands working ahead of and during the workshop to make sure we were well prepared. James collected cardboard and filled his truck twice with manure as well as joining me to collect manure a third time. Renee and Mike worked on the cardboard, removing staples and tape from a mountain of giant boxes. Susana went out on pasture with me to collect our last load of manure, and then Nan, Renee, and James covered all of our various needs throughout the workshop. When we broke for lunch Renee and Nan made sure the food was there. Nan put tables and chairs out on the patio so that we could all sit together. She made the Roselle tea and other refreshments, and took care of all issues kitchen, and even managed to shoot some pretty good pics.
Of course without Susana Lein and her permaculture training program none of this would have been possible. She has had a profound effect on me, and I remain grateful for having met her and for each of her classes that I have been able to attend. She has greatly increased my understanding of permaculture principles and practices, and she has done this with great patience, and without judgement.
There is a very good opportunity for continued learning for Permaculture enthusiasts. Permaculture Instructor Susana Lein of Salamander Farms in Berea Kentucky is coming to Heathcote Botanical Gardens to present a day long permaculture workshop. I will be assisting her. There will be a classroom presentation and then participants will be able to learn while doing in Heathcote’s No Till Organic Garden where we will set up a new garden location for a corn and bean field for spring planting.
This being a full day workshop there will be a lunch break and an lunch box option provided by S&S Takeout. Here is the press release with all the details you crave to know:
Permaculture in Practice Workshop at Heathcote!
Back by popular demand, permaculture teacher and farmer Susana Lein of Salamander Springs Farm, Berea, KY will return to teach a full day permaculture workshop Saturday, January 21, 9 am-5 pm. at Heathcote Botanical Gardens in Ft. Pierce.
St. Lucie County Master Gardener Adina Lehrman, Vegetable Garden Coordinator at Heathcote, will co-facilitate this workshop, which will include hands-on practicums at Heathcote’s organic vegetable gardens.
Learn to provide your own food and shelter using few outside resources. Susana Lein will teach practical applications of permaculture principles and methods using examples from building her productive organic farm, market business and homestead from scratch – starting with very few financial resources and no existing infrastructure. Learn how to build rich, healthy soil from infertile land without tilling, to recycle local nutrients, energy & resources, to intensively utilize space, to incorporate perennials, season extension, self-sufficient poultry, marketing and processing farm products. The workshop will also include an overview of rainwater catchment, ponds, a gravity-fed spring water system, utilizing solar energy, and natural building with local and salvaged materials.
Adina will offer South Florida specific advice for perennial food crops, local resources for soil building, keeping laying hens clean and healthy in extreme summers, and steps for moving an overly consumptive household toward sustainability.
Registrants will receive educational materials to review before the workshop to facilitate the learning process and question & answer sessions. Participants can use this course as a springboard to create a permaculture network on the Treasure Coast to continue learning by doing and sharing.
A permaculture teacher for many years, Susana Lein began homesteading in the Kentucky Appalachians in 2001 after living 8 years among the Pokomchi people of Guatemala and working in several Latin American countries. Salamander Springs Farm, near Berea, KY, produces a wide range of fresh market crops, grains & dry beans, as well as value-added products (see: www.LocalHarvest.org/farms/M5606; online store:). Starting at the New Alchemy Institute in the mid-1980’s, Lein has studied and taught permaculture in many countries and received her design certificate from Max Lindegger, creator of the Crystal Waters Permaculture Ecovillage in Queensland Australia. See educational slides of Salamander Springs Farm (2001-2011): http://www.flickr.com/photos/28998021@N02/sets/.
Adina Lehrman, St. Lucie County Master Gardener, natural no-till gardener, founding member of The Compost Gardener, an organic garden consulting business; author of the ManureDepot.com blog; Volunteer Coordinator for Heathcote’s no-till organic gardens, creator & presenter of Heathcote’s 9 class series: A Year In The Organic Garden.
Registration is $45 for Heathcote members and $50 for non-members. Class size is limited and pre-registration is required. An optional vegetarian lunch, delivered to Heathcote by S&S Takeout, a local and sustainable Fort Pierce restaurant, for $9, must be reserved with pre-registration. To register call 772-464-4672, email email@example.com, or visit Heathcote Botanical Gardens 210 Savannah Road Fort Pierce, Florida 34950.
In my In The Garden articles about the Lasagna Layer Mounds the garden amendments straw, manure, and alfalfa hay are frequently mentioned. They are the ingredients for the garden mounds, but they are something else as well. Of course we know manure is a waste product from livestock farming or ranching, and we know straw, the part left over from grain production, was once a common livestock bedding and building material. When I began asking around at feed stores for straw for my gardens it was no where to be found. I had to wait weeks for special orders. Now both my local feed stores carry straw because local gardeners have created a demand for it.
Alfalfa is different. Alfalfa is still one of the most common high nitrogen/protein feed hays for livestock. It has not been hard to find at the feed stores because it is still in demand by ranchers.
Because of this summer’s drought in the southern plains states there is a higher demand for alfalfa hay. Ranchers in Texas and Oklahoma not only don’t have the locally grown hay on which they usually rely, their pastures don’t have live grass. Life begins and ends with water, and the weather conditions in another region affect us all. Right now we are seeing that in alfalfa prices. One of our feed stores is not going to be able to get alfalfa, and the other has it for $21.75 a small bale, and there are worries that the price of alfalfa hay will continue to rise.
When I talk to people about starting a garden suddenly with a lasagna layer mound they often ask me how long the mound will last, and if they can assemble the same mound year after year. I don’t like the idea of building these mounds every season. It is ideal once we start growing to consider the next growing season as we are tending to the current one. It is easy to prepare for the next garden by setting up garden mounds of brown leaves and manure, grass clippings and kitchen wastes, or fence corner composts, or planting green manure crops well ahead of the growing season so that we don’t have to rely on precious livestock feed for our gardens. I feel like this feed hay shortage due to a serious drought is a perfect example of one of the many reasons why we should have less reliance on expensive out of area resources, and learn how to make or find locally, the organic materials we need for our garden soils. This frees up feed hay for livestock and takes some of the pressure off of the system.
I recommend that we Floridians buy peanut hay rather than alfalfa for assembling the No Dig Lasagna Layer Mound. Last I checked it was under $15 for a 2 string bale, and it is plenty nitrogen rich for the purpose of growing.
For the purpose of pursuing sustainable practices I am preparing to grow some green mulch crops. Lots of great grass crops grow well here in the winter including wheat, oats, and rye. Once grown and cut down the grassy leaves cover the soil, and the creatures and organisms of the soil have lots of organic matter to chew. Most grasses after being cut once re-grow afterward to make another crop, and if left uncut they will go to flower and set seeds. Several different kinds of cow peas including black eye peas and iron clay peas grow very well here in the summer and can provide cover and leaf mulch for our soil in addition to the nitrogen legumes fix and store in little fertile balls attached to their roots.
This year we build Lasagna Layer Mounds, but we can prepare for next year by collecting leaves and manure or grass clippings, or growing green crops to cover and feed the garden soil.
Fall is the beginning of our cold crop planting season in South and Central Florida. Tomatoes, Peppers, Eggplant, Basil and Beans that were started in August may be getting ready to fruit, and may ripen fruit before our first frost. If you are starting those plants now you will have to protect them from the coldest part of our season in order to harvest fruit from them in the early spring (February, March). I have never eaten a tomato from a vine I planted in October before January. As the days grow shorter, no matter how lovely the weather, growth slows down in the garden.
Now is the time to plant lettuce, arugula, cole crops like cabbage, kohlrabi, broccoli, mustard greens, chard, and asian greens like pak choi, and tatsoi, peas, carrots, onions, radishes, nasturtiums, all herbs, cucumbers, and squash. I have also recently started bush beans. It is later then I should have started them, but I am hoping to have beans before the first frost.
In the last few years we have had some rather severe cold weather in December, and January with temperatures dipping below freezing. For that reason I put very little effort into frost tender plants until February or March. I focus my planting on the crops that love the cold and even become sweeter or more tender in a frost or freeze. Brassicas or cole crops really like the cold and become more tender after a frost, and don’t seem to mind a few hours of freezing temperatures. Radishes growing in cool weather are mild sweet and juicy. The same crop grown in hot temperatures becomes hot, bitter, and dry. Very cold weather makes the most crisp, sweet, attractive, nearly translucent carrots. This is because carrots will transfer sugars from the leaves to the roots as a survival response to cold. Chard manages cold quite well, though like mustard and lettuce the leaves can be ruined by a freeze, but the plants usually resurge easily afterward, so they are cold season crops in my garden. Nasturtiums don’t make it through a freeze in my garden, but I don’t bother to protect them because they are so vigorous that once established a freeze is just a needed pruning.
Because I can’t be entirely certain that we will have lots of cold weather I try to hedge my bets with a few crops that will enjoy a warmer winter. I therefore keep bush and pole beans in my winter plan, and then if I have to replace them with more in a few weeks I do that. I also keep tomatoes going throughout the winter so that I have an early tomato as well as the spring tomatoes that always come as volunteers.
This week we have been having some tremendous rains and wind. My seedlings are unfazed by the ferocity of the rain. They were planted into soil that was disturbed only enough to bury the seeds. In spite of the torrential downpours we have been experiencing for the last 4 days my soil has not run off. This is just another advantage of the no till method of growing.
Some people here don’t know it is time to plant. Many have only recently arrived from the North where winter is the fallow time for their gardens. If you have been caught unaware and are still hoping to plant some crops for this winter and spring season it is not too late. What we call our native soil here (the fill that was brought in when your house was built, and the soil that has been ravaged for years with synthetic fertilizers and pesticide of all sorts) is severely depleted and is rather sandy. Were you to plant into it as is, you would not be satisfied with your crops. To start an optimum soil garden right away see my article Revisiting the Lasagna Garden Mound. That article has a printable diagram (white background) that will instruct you in how, and with what to stack the lasagna garden mound. With that mound built you can plant into it right away, and you will have a healthy and bountiful garden for your first season gardening here in Florida without digging a single shovel full of soil, and without spreading a single trowel of fertilizer.
Now get out there and plant your best garden ever!
I met John Rogers at Susana Lein’s Permaculture class at Heathcote Botanical Gardens in February 2011. He was already acquainted with Susana from having attended permaculture conferences with her. We were invited to visit his garden in Melbourne Florida and several other small farms and gardens nearby. John was in the process of transforming his land from a bamboo forest into a sustainable food forest.
I had heard of John in the past. Though his place is more than an hour north of my town he was well known by gardeners for his bamboo collection.
When Susana and I visited his place he was well into the process of changing his once bamboo forest to a food forest, and he was using some permaculture practices to do it. Not all of the bamboo was gone. I saw several specimens still in the landscape, but throughout there were mounds, many of which were planted with fruit trees. Mounds that did not have trees planted in them had ponds sunken into them. The ponds were fed by the rain run off from the roof of his house. Two inch pipes connected to the down spouts just below the gutters, and ran down the side of the house, and into the ground until they surfaced at the ponds they fed. There were also several circles of Sabal Palms (Sabal palmetto) planted around the property. One of the palm circles supports a tree house structure. John said he plans to use the other palm circles the same way and will eventually connect them by elevated walkways. He had the Palm circles planted there.
John wrote to me about the development of his bamboo collection turned forest garden. He said, “Years ago I needed to landscape my newly purchased house in Melbourne and decided that an edible / useful theme was the way to go. Soon I had become active in the Brevard Rare Fruit Council and started to learn about tropical and sub tropical trees and shrubs.
But later, bamboo came along and caused a ten year distraction from my earlier plans. And during my bamboo affair, I moved a block away to my current two acre property and eventually had most of it covered by forty varieties of clumping bamboos. I am in the process of replanting a forest garden where much of the bamboo used to be. I am of course, keeping my favorite species of bamboo.
I am concentrating on perennials to get the structure of the garden planted. Annuals can be added between these trees and shrubs. Besides food, most of the plants provide privacy, wind breaks or cold protection for more tender neighboring plants. Seedling avocados are being planted throughout in an effort to find strains that do not succumb to laurel wilt. And pretty much any subtropical fruit tree is part of the collection–mango, carambola, lychee, longan, canistel, atemoya, sugar apple, custard apple, white sapote, black sapote, tamarind, jujube, jackfruit, moringa, rose apple, monstera deliciosa, cassava, miracle fruit, papaya, banana, low chill peach, pecan, and mulberry.”
John connected with land clearing companies, and tree pruning companies to get their waste products. Though he uses a great deal of the shredded wood he gets from the tree pruning company to mulch his mounds, he also uses it to create bio char, which he puts beneath the mulch on the mounds. His bio-char operation is very interesting. John uses home made kilns or gasifiers he made out of metal drums. The burn drum itself is a 55 gallon drum with no top, and pinky finger sized holes (about 1/2″) punched into the bottom. He makes a chimney that fits atop the 55 gallon drum, and then a smaller afterburner chimney that tops the first chimney. All of this sits on a paving stone patio. The grooved or beveled spaces between the paving stones permit the right amount of air to get beneath the burn drum. Once the chimneys are added the fire takes about an hour to char the wood chips inside. When ready the volume of the once full drum has diminished by nearly two thirds. Here is a youtube link to a video of John firing up his kilns to make bio char.
Bio Char or Terra Preta de Indio, is soil made from carbonized wood. Carbonized wood is partially burnt, not yet ash, it is brittle, porous and capable of absorbing moisture and soil organisms. It is also an effective long term carbon trap. It is believed that the Terra Preta de Indio soil in South America and Brazil is a result of slash and char rather than slash and burn land clearing. It is not clear whether this was done purposely to support agriculture, but it is believed that the pre-columbian people who lived there farmed in that soil. The Terra Preta soil is still extremely and deeply fertile hundreds of years after it was abandoned. You can find an article about Bio Char on Cornell University’s web site.
I found my visit to John Roger’s young forest garden very informative, inspiring, and interesting. His property is not just becoming useful and fruitful it is also quite beautiful.
I made a new friend who is not yet gardening and was rather intimidated by it and quite sure it would take him a long time to learn how to grow food. He mentioned to me that he thought he should take a Gardening for Dummies Class, and that what I had to offer was probably too advanced to help him.. Hey! Not true!
I might have felt frustrated because he came to me with a set of concrete beliefs about gardening and the difficulties he might encounter and the likelihood that he would fail. This is faith y’all: I am excited to help because I know he will not fail, and not only would I be teaching him to garden (which is the easy part) I would also be smashing concrete beliefs! Now that’s powerful!
Heathcote Botanical Garden’s No Till Organic Garden grows food for a local food bank in Fort Pierce. In addition to organizing the efforts of the other volunteers at Heathcote Botanical Garden’s No Till Organic Garden, I present classes there that take participants through a year in the organic garden, starting with composting, and going on to making a plan (always a good idea), building a lasagna layer mound for gardeners starting suddenly without preparation, and continuing on with minicourses about watering and trellising, moving into harvesting, natural backyard ecosystems, and planning for summer crops or fallow gardens, and now Nan Billings, the Children’s Education Coordinator at Heathcote and I are, for the first time presenting cooking in the garden courses for people who want new ideas on how to prepare their home grown and often exotic subtropical food.
My point in telling all of this is that these classes taken in sequence set a gardener up for easy success in the garden no matter whether they are just starting out in the garden or have plenty of experience. Furthermore, volunteering at the No Till Organic Garden at Heathcote is an excellent way to learn without taking classes. Most of the volunteers who are working with me are now growing in their home gardens in the same no till way as we grow at Heathcote’s No Till Organic Garden. Several never grew food before and are succeeding beautifully at home, and several others grew food at home in another fashion and are adopting some no till methods to their home gardens. This is because no till growing is easy. It is easy because it uses natural systems to grow plants, systems that already exist in nature. We are not manipulating or bending nature to our needs we are simply rediscovering the way that plants and soil have interacted successfully since the dawn of green on earth, and allowing those systems to grow our food for us. It is not the end of work, but it is the end of unnecessary back breaking work, and it is very successful, and environmentally friendly. We use no fertilizer and no pest sprays at all, ever. So there is no chance of run off, polluting, or poisoning ourselves. We don’t till, or turn the soil so there is no burst of fertility and no chance of soil erosion or nutrient run off from plowing.
There is an important mind set that goes along with this more natural no till method of growing and the mindset is also an important component of this method in that it saves us from making missteps that come out of frustration or fear of failure. We agree to accept some failures, but we don’t think of them as failures we consider them part of the system, or part of our learning experience. We accept that insects will share our food, and we agree not to do battle. We plant redundancies so that we can afford to share. We plant long beans, lima beans, and black eye peas in the summer. We may lose some beans to insects, but we will still get a bountiful harvest. We plant pigeon peas, bitter melon, loofah, watermelon, winter melon, seminole pumpkin, collards, mustards, broccoli, radishes, and kohlrabi, arugula, lettuce, carrots, onions, nasturtiums, borage, eggplant, peppers, tomatoes, potatoes, okra, basil, amaranth, dill, and pineapples. All of this attracts insects and the insects that eat insects. There are very few plant casualties this way, and we are all prepared for the losses we may incur. Plants we lose to insects we call food for soil. Nothing that happens in our garden is really considered a failure. As a thank you for this method we often get to observe insect predators at work. If you have never watched a wasp extract a caterpillar from its hole in a plant stem and fly off with it you don’t know excitement! We have seen this happen over and over again, and it always causes a ruckus in the garden as if it were the first time.
I passed my card to my new friend, I am hoping his desire to grow food at home will overpower his concerns that he might fail. If you have similar concerns and these worries keep you from trying a garden at your place, or if you have tried your hand at gardening before and felt you were unsuccessful I urge you try again. Really you have nothing to lose. Your life does not depend on this activity, and should you succeed (yes you will!) the reward is indescribable. Fresh food from your yard and by your efforts is a far finer dish then any you can pick up at the store. If you need some help, I am just a phone call away.
I become a believer around rain. We Floridians have been in a long and exceptional drought since winter (ours is not the only state in an exceptional drought). All anyone here talks about is rain. No conversation ends that someone doesn’t speak of needing rain, with agreement all around.
It’s raining and I am grateful. I hear myself praying for rain, and I am thankful for rain. I become religious in a drought. I can water from the well all day (until the well runs dry), but my crops don’t thrive without rain. Everyone is still talking about rain. My rain caches are full now and still it rains. We are celebrating.
It is June 2011, and each day I listen to reports about devastating floods in N. Dakota, and a month ago all along the Mississippi. Wild fires are burning in Texas and New Mexico and unusually large and devastating tornadoes have trashed cities in Oklahoma, Kansas, Arkansas, and Missouri, and, just a few days ago, before the rains started, Florida had over 400 separate wild fires burning. Between June and November we cautiously watch the storms that spin off of the coast of West Africa as they are our potential hurricanes. I am not even mentioning the weather and envronmental catastrophes taking place elsewhere in the world. Weather is a grower’s achilles heel. We can’t predict it and we can’t control it, and often we can not protect our crops (or our homes) from it.
We are in a time of weather extremes and this more than anything is a cause for worry. No amount of managment or praying will help us to produce food if our crops flood, freeze, or burn down. These are some of the reasons why earlier societies learned so much about preserving food and seed. I don’t think a person needs to be a conspiracy theorist, paranoid or otherwise nutty to see the value in learning to save back, can, dehydrate, ferment, freeze, or otherwise preserve some of today’s food for… a rainy (or snowy) day!
Ahhh Rain, Amen!
I wrote that article almost exactly two years ago. I better understand now that not only do soil organisms improve soil, but plants as well do a great deal to improve soil. In their relationship with soil organisms plants leak exudates mostly in the form of carbohydrates to attract organisms to their roots. Plants accumulate these carbohydrates through photosynthesis, and can afford to leak out as much as 25 percent of the nutrients they manufacture through photosynthesis as root exudates. In leaking exudates and attracting organisms to their root zone or rhizosphere plants are initiating a relationship with organisms like fungal mycorrhizae. Mycorrhizae in exchange for plant exudates attach themselves to plants roots and make hollow strands or tubes called fungal hyphae (hi fee). These mycorrhizael hyphae can grow 20 meters, or 60 feet a day. They serve to increase the reach of the plant carrying moisture and minerals and other organisms like phosphorus solubilizing bacteria to the plant’s roots. Phosphorus is often bound up in soil and unavailable to plants in its bound up form. In our calcareous soil phosphorus binds with calcium. Certain types of bacteria and some fungi are capable of solubilizing that phosphorus, making it available to plants. Mycorrhizae bring these organisms into the rhizosphere where they then make locally bound up phosphorus soluble for the plants.
In addition to feeding soil organisms with their exudates, plants send their roots into the spaces between soil aggregates, choosing the path of least resistance they further open spaces in the soil allowing air and water to flow along the roots’ paths more deeply into the soil while helping to hold the soil from erosion. The farther air and water go into the soil the farther soil organisms and invertebrates can go, and with them organic matter, making nutrient rich lively soil deeper and deeper. This is the answer to my question about how organic matter piled onto the surface of soil helps fix the soil below. This is the basis for my newest practice of laying a double hand full of compost on the surface of unimproved soil, placing seeds into the compost, covering with straw or fine leaf mulch and watering. It is a way of using new plants and organism rich compost to spread soil health. The seedlings thrive in the compost and then drive their roots down into the unimproved soil bringing the compost organisms with them. The mulch above gives protection from direct sun, and a food source for the organisms in the compost until the plant is ready to begin the nutrient exchanges.
As for the roots of my tree; the tree is a Weeping Yaupon Tree. I have not dug roots out for 2 years now. I have no idea what is going on below the surface, but on the surface I am always adding layers of mulch, and just below the mulch I have lumpy black worm castings, and the plants I grow there do just fine, so I quit worrying about what the tree is doing below the surface.
My garden grows beautifully. All I do is feed the soil with lots of organic wastes. I don’t dig, I don’t worry, I don’t fertilize plants and I don’t spray plants. All in all I would say that growing the No Till No Dig Way is an easier, more successful way to nurture a food garden.
At Manure Depot I write about Embracing Our Interdependence With Nature, but I also write with self sufficiency in mind. In contemplating self sufficiency you may as I do come to the conclusion that it is an ideal concept, but a very difficult practical achievement. I personally know just one farmer I would call self sufficient. She is definitely off the grid. But I am not sure she is exactly self sufficient. She counts on the efforts of a volunteer force of farm workers as well as some interns who come each season to exchange their efforts for the education they gain in working with her. She barters with neighbors and others in the town nearby for things she needs but doesn’t produce, and she brings her food to several markets during the growing season to sell to the townies, and she sells her corn, bean, and herbal salve products online at Local Harvest. I think what she has actually achieved is not complete independence, but rather interdependence.
If we are dependent, we are like children, dependent upon others to assure our survival. If we are independent we are counting only on ourselves. If we are interdependent we have formed a community in which we are active and contributing members. It broadens our resources as well as our own value to others. If we consider interdependence as a goal rather than self sufficiency or independence we can more easily imagine achieving that goal.
When I hear my farmer friends speaking of the farming communities from which they came I learn that it was common place for the neighbors of a farmer taken ill to join together to harvest his crop for him at the proper time. These people may not have used words like interdependent, but in describing the way that they could depend on one another this is the word that comes to my mind.
No man is an island unto himself. We are very much of the world in which we live. We are best served by becoming productive and interdependent members of our communities. All around us in nature we can observe examples of interdependence. Plants and soil organisms do best living together. Plants feed, hydrate, house, shade and protect insects and animals. Insects and animals fertilize, pollinate, propagate, prune and provide pest control for plants (say that fast three times in a row). There are many interdependent relationships formed between different species of animals too, like between insect eating birds and grazing animals. People develop interdependent relationships with horses, donkeys, dogs and cats. Even between predator and prey there exists an important interdependence as the prey animals are culled, keeping them from over using their food source, and over populating their environment, and fostering health and stealth in the herd and in the gene pool, while the predator feeds itself and its offspring.
We can observe interdependence in nature and we can strive for it in our human communities, and in doing so I think we will find more satisfying and sustainable ways of living.
For many years I let my gardens fallow over the summer all the while feeling quite sure that there were crops that we could grow here in South Florida in the summer time, but I couldn’t figure out what they were, and I didn’t know who to ask. In order to save you the same trouble here is a list of some summer crops we can grow in the garden in South Florida. I suspect there are more…
First, don’t be in a hurry to take out all of the crops you had going from fall, winter and spring. My collard greens always sail right through the summer. They get tall, and the leaves get heavier, but they are still great eating, and they are a staple in my cooking. Leave the Eggplant in the ground. They do very well through the summer, as will some peppers. Our wild cherry tomatoes will also go quite a ways through the summer before giving up.
Crops you can be putting in now for the summer include:
Asian Winged Beans
Black Eye Peas and other Cow Peas
Callaloo (taro Xanthosoma)
Bitter Melon Gourd
Malabar Spinach (won’t do well in full sun, plant in mixed shade/sun)
Aphids can become a real problem in the summer garden. Add some rain and you will get caterpillars too. On beans and peas you can get aphids and bean beetles. It’s not a sure thing, but it is best to expect some insect pests.
I urge you to plant your crops (summer or winter) with some loss in mind. If spraying the aphids off with water won’t work, you will probably lose the crop to the aphids. If a plant gets hairy with aphids it will not likely recover. Cut the plant down and let it lay there on the garden aphids and all. If you have time to observe you will see how many lizards and bugs come to eat the aphids from the fallen plants. Plant your next crop there, something from a different family. Some of the cut down crop will resurge. If it doesn’t fit well with your next crop cut it down again. The re-surging plants will not likely have aphids, and all of that fallen crop will mulch the soil for the next. Be careful with watering practices. Over watering can over stimulate new growth which is an aphid attractor.
I find I have about ten percent more insect pest problems in the summer than I do in the winter. It could be because I grow far fewer types and varieties of plants in the summer. It is harder to avoid mono-cropping. If you decide to grow in the summer try to plant diversely. It will help your garden resist insect infestations.
The best time to have planted pineapples was two years ago. The second best time is now. If you get pineapple tops, or the shoots from the pineapple stem it will take those two years of growth before they will fruit. Plants with roots should take just until the next fruiting season (summer time of course!) to fruit. A pineapple plant fruits just once then dies back and leaves several new pups to begin again.
There are many tropical fruits that bear in the summer. For a complete and well organized reference book for fruits we can grow here check out Florida’s Best Fruiting Plants by Charles R. Boning.
If you decide not to grow edible crops, consider growing some green cover crops. Broadcast a lot of seed so that it comes up thick. Cow peas are a good nitrogen building cover crop. Pearl Millet will also work for a cover crop in the summer, and sweet potato plants cover the soil very well though to harvest them you will end up tilling the soil, and exposing new weed seeds.
For other tropical vegetable crops that may grow well in our summer weather see Echo’s tropical vegetables page at:
Working outdoors in the summer can be a challenge, especially if we don’t get our summer rains. If you decide not to grow any vegetable or green mulch crops, cover your beds heavily in organic wastes like leaves, old hay, and manure, wetting the wastes as you put them down. Cover it all over in straw to build great composted soil for the next growing season. We call this sheet composting, and it is the easiest way to assure that you will have enough compost for growing in the following season. If it is not raining at all water your fallow beds once every few weeks. If we should have a hurricane you won’t need to worry about those fallow beds. The straw on top will knit tight, and everything below will stay put. Piling on in this way also discourages weed growth, and those weeds that put themselves into those piles you will find are very easy to remove.
Like winter time for northern gardeners is planning time, we can do the same in the summer. If it is just too much for you to be in the garden during the summer spend your summer months cruising seed catalogs, making your fall/winter/spring garden plan and tending and feeding compost piles. Time spent planning will pay off nicely later. Also like northern gardeners in the winter, during the summer we can keep a few jars of seeds sprouting on the counter top in the kitchen to keep ourselves in fresh greens. Some favorite sprouts are wheat, alfalfa, broccoli and mung bean sprouts. Be sure to buy untreated seed meant for sprouting.
Have a great summer, and try to stay cool.
I was at the SSAWG (Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group) Conference in Chatanooga in 2009. I was fortunate to acquire a scholarship from SARE to cover the costs of the conference as well as the cost of travel and lodging.
Some of my friends went the following year, but I didn’t go. I enjoyed the 2009 conference very much, but most of the classes I took and thoroughly enjoyed were geared for farmers on 10 acres or more. I am a Homestead Farmer, living and working on an acre of land. Though I don’t really have the space for real pasture land I find pasture management fascinating, so I really enjoyed listening to how a dairy man at the Happy Cow Creamery saved his family dairy in South Carolina by learning how to manage pastures and rotate cattle. He says he became a grass farmer and the rest fell into place. He increased his yields, and decreased his inputs, and was finally able to leave the farm for a vacation from time to time. I also enjoyed a mushroom growing presentation by Tradd Cotter of Mushroom Mountain in South Carolina.
My friend Linda from Crazy Hart Ranch was going to attend the SSAWG Conference this year (2011) and she was offering to share her hotel room with me. I checked out the schedule of classes and found that SSAWG had begun to recognize the need to reach out to much smaller urban and suburban farmers. I saw that there was a Permaculture class offered, and a focus group for urban farmers.
They had me at Permaculture. I signed up for the SSAWG Conference. Linda, and our friend Renee and I shared the cost of a rental car, and a room. We had a great time. We met up with our friend and Indian River Cooperative Extension Agent Christine Kelly-Begazo and shared some meals and some spare minutes together.
On Friday and Saturday the schedule is full of 90 minute courses, mostly presented by farmers, some co-presented by extension agents and farmers. and some USDA scientists as well as people who specialize in knowing or influencing government policy for family farms, and then inform farmers on how to take advantage of various farm bill programs. I took another Tradd Cotter mushroom growing class. It was as ever, fun and informational and always packed. I filled all of my time with various other classes and meetings and a few quick spins around the exhibition floor. My favorite class by far was the Permaculture course offered Thursday. That was a 4 hour course about permaculture presented by (entirely) sustainable, off the grid farmer Susana Lein.
Later that weekend I approached Susana about visiting her farm. She said we were welcome to visit, but warned that she wasn’t sure she would have all of her customary crops going in favor of freeing up some time for infrastructure building, specifically, structure building.
I got home from the SSAWG Conference Sunday night. The next morning was a glorious crisp and sunny January morning here in South Florida, and while watering the garden I was mulling over the weekend’s activities, and my mind rested on Susana Lein, and how cold it had been in Chattanoga, and how cold it must be where she was on her farm 4 hours north of Chattanooga, and I wondered if she might really like a Florida vacation. I asked my husband how he felt about inviting Susana to spend some time here, he shrugged his indifference, and I called her up.
Susana came to visit!
It was an awesome visit. She was able to stay 2 weeks, and in that time we shared lots of fresh food from the garden, as well as food she brought from her farm including pinto and black beans, popcorn, cornmeal, garlic, herbs, and an acorn squash, all of which she fit into her luggage for the plane trip down to Florida. When I said I wanted to build a cart for my chickens she set about drawing a design that night, and the next day we began to build the chicken cart, or Chick Mahal as my friend JoEllen calls it. With the exception of the solid wheel barrow wheels and the hardware cloth we built the chick Mahal from all found and discarded lumber I had been saving, and some of our extra hurricane panels (we used for the roof). Susana booked two Permaculture classes at Heathcote Botanical Gardens for while she was in town, and filled them both. Meanwhile, we made yogurt, sprouted seeds and beans for my chickens, and she guided me on with which foods I had in the house and in the garden that I could use to supplement their foraging. With her help I got my chickens off of bagged feed altogether. We visited several farms close by including Crazy Hart Ranch, Gibbon’s Organic Farm, Funky Chicken Farm, and Susana connected with some permaculture friends in East Central Florida (Brevard County) including John Rogers who recently began changing his amazing bamboo forest into an equally amazing food forest. Susana also visited our no till organic garden at Heathcote Botanical Gardens, and lent a hand helping us to complete our work for the day.
My husband and I got an excellent friend in Susana. We thoroughly enjoyed having her with us, and I learned a tremendous amount of new things including simple ways to save energy, like for instance piling simmering pots one atop another to diminish the number of burners that need to be lit for cooking. We learned that chickweed in Kentucky is a succulent addition to a salad while chickweed in Florida is an edible leaf with a not so pleasant fuzzy coating. We ate lots to make certain. Fortunately my chickens are not as sensitive. They enjoy eating the chick weed that grows here in Florida!
After two whirlwind weeks in Florida Susana flew back to Kentucky in time to present her class in Bowling Grreen, and once back on the farm put 5,000 onion plants into the ground. She is gone for now, but in our everyday lives we notice the differences Susana made. I am wondering how to get myself up to her farm this summer, and hoping she finds her way south once again when it is too cold for farming in Berea.
With most practices once you know why you do something you will intuitively know how. It is that way with no till gardening.
When I first started to employ no till methods in my gardens I suspected it was the right thing to do, I had begun to believe it would increase yields, and further improve the culture of my gardens, but honestly I didn’t really know the why of it. I couldn’t have told you exactly why no till growing is better, and I had, therefore, some unanswered questions about how I should proceed. For instance I couldn’t figure out for myself whether or not I should uproot finished crops. I suspected that I should not, but I also worried that if the roots were left rotting in the ground the new crops I put in would succumb to some sort of rot themselves, or if I left the nematode infested roots of my tomato plants in the ground wouldn’t I be setting myself up for even more nematodes the following year? No! but why?
For a while I practiced what I thought was no till growing, I was still uprooting finished plants and wild plants. I just wasn’t turning the soil with my shovel.
My friend Pat found the book Teaming With Microbes and showed it to me. I got a copy for myself, and ate that book up! I wasn’t even halfway through Teaming With Microbes when I began to understand the why of everything I was doing in the garden. Once I learned about the soil food web I knew why I did the things I did, and it became clear to me how to further proceed.
I am impatient, and like to be able to implement practices in my gardens intuitively. I couldn’t do that without first understanding the soil food web. Once I understood that the soil contained a universe teeming with living creatures and organisms, and that plants would initiate relationships to team up with those organisms in order to feed themselves I began to better understand that my role as gardener was to feed the soil with lots of organic matter, and to protect its integrity as much as possible by not turning, tilling, compressing or polluting it. My job got a whole lot easier.
It is a tough job to have to nurture plants through their entire life cycles, constantly guessing at what their nutritional needs might be and then providing all of those nutrients and minerals regularly. It is a losing proposition doing battle with insects protecting helpless plants from hoards of unchecked leaf chewers and suckers, root boring nematodes, and countless fungal, and bacterial infections and weeds. I don’t know how a farmer could make a dime off of a farm that is dependent on the many constant and costly inputs necessary to wage a chemical war against nature.
It is sort of amusing and at the same time frustrating to see how hard people will work to reorder and reorganize nature and natural systems in order to grow plants a particular way when all along plants are glad to grow themselves, and nature is entirely capable of organizing and balancing itself so that plants can grow and produce successfully. Plants have managed to survive for millions of years without us, producing leaf, and root, fruit and seed even modifying their own traits along the way to better succeed in their environment, all without the addition of a single insecticide, herbicide, or bagged fertilizer.
Here’s a real basic description of what goes on with the soil food web: Organisms in the soil break down organic wastes and store them in their cells, or cell. Those broken down organic wastes in the bodies of soil organisms become nutrient. Nutrient stored in the body of a soil food web organism will not leach out of the soil in rain like added bagged nutrients, and is available to plants pretty much on demand. Organisms are constantly eating and being eaten and dying in the soil to be consumed by other organisms and invertebrates (like earth worms). This giant cafeteria action is why plant parasitic nematodes do not create a problem in the no till garden. They are consumed like everything else. Plants attract organisms to their root zone by leaking out almost twenty five percent of the nutrients they acquire by photosynthesis. These leaked (mostly) carbohydrates are called exudates. Exudates attract organisms to the root zone, some that keep root tips clean of dead cellular material, some which attach to the roots to store nitrogen (rhizobia bacteria in the case of legumes) or siphon in minerals and water from afar. Fungi called Mycorrhizae using plant exudates for fuel build long hollow tubes (called hyphae) attached to plants’ roots. Capable of building twenty meters of hyphae a day (Yeah, that’s 60 feet a day!) these fungi extend the reach of a plant siphoning in nutrients in the form of minerals, and water. They are also capable of bringing in specific helper organisms like phosphorus solubilizing bacteria to help consume nutrients locked up in nearby soil making them available to the plant. Ha ha, we couldn’t do it any better though we try!
Think of our own bodies for a moment. When we eat food it doesn’t just become energy for our cellular functions. After we chew it up, and drop it into a stomach full of acid it will then travel through 20 to 30 feet of intestines where enzymes and bacteria living there will continue to break it down into smaller simpler parts that can be absorbed through the walls of our intestines. Without these bacteria in our intestines digestion becomes painful and ineffective. When we become too ill to eat food we are put on an I.V. or intravenous feeding. An I.V. is used to save our lives, but it is not an ideal or most healthy way for us to obtain our nutrients. Forcing plants to use synthetically formulated nutrients that we drop onto lifeless soil is quite like putting us on an I.V. It is not ideal. The most practical, healthy, and effective way for a plant to feed is to use the soil food web. Plants that obtain their nutrition in this very natural manner grow very strong, are less likely to attract diseases or pests and are a better source of food for us.
If you would like to acquire Teaming With Microbes click on this link.
Now Go On Out And Feed That Soil!
If you have been reading this blog you know that my gardens have been thriving in the no till fashion of growing which means, for those of you who are new to this blog, that I grow without turning, tilling, compressing or in any other ways disturbing the soil in my gardens. This allows the myriad life forms in the soil to exist successfully which in turn means that my plants can take advantage of the natural Soil Food Web to feed themselves. I am free from buying and applying any fertilizer for plants, and they grow strong that way. I simply make sure to provide food for the soil organisms in the form of mulch (leaves, straw, hay, manure bits) and I add some compost once in the beginning of the growing season.
No till growing is relatively new to me. Just a few years ago I used to turn in the organic matter on top of my gardens before planting every fall, disturbing the soil organisms that had begun to colonize my soil throughout the long summer months.
So I quit all of that garden turning, and the result is fabulous. Now we are up to speed.
A few months ago while tending my booth at the Downtown Fort Pierce Farmers Market I met a man who told me that he doesn’t bother to turn his compost. He simply makes a pile, and adds to it until it is large enough, and then moves on to the next pile. He said that by the time he has finished piling up his third compost pile the first one is ready to harvest. You can just imagine how hearing this has begun to work on my mind! Since then I have begun reading the book Slug Bread & Beheaded Thistles by Ellen Sandbeck.
In that book she writes a few paragraphs about compost, in one, referencing studies done on large-scale compost piles in Quebec and Pennsylvania that showed unturned compost contained up to 13 percent more nitrogen than piles turned twice a week. “More nitrogen escapes as ammonia gas when compost piles are turned frequently. If the pile is left unturned microbes can convert the ammonia into a more stable form of nitrogen.” she writes.
I teach people how to compost. I have always turned compost, and I have instructed others to do the same as do publications on composting from most cooperative extensions. I learned that turning compost brings oxygen into the pile, and helps to chop and mix the components of the compost, but my compost piles are full of earthworms, other invertebrates and all sorts of fungi and bacteria. If those organisms are capable of thoroughly aerating and structuring my garden soil why would I imagine that they are not doing the same for my compost. Furthermore, I notice that when I turn my compost piles it is clear that I am disturbing the worms in there just like turning garden soil disturbs the earthworms there.
The conventional approach to composting is that we should turn our compost piles. I have already discarded the conventional approach to gardening: I won’t turn the soil. It occurs to me that it is past time to re-examine my approach to composting.
I have already begun to take a less aggressive approach to making compost. I have decided that once it is well mixed, and well on the way to curing I will no longer bother my compost except to harvest it. At the Community Garden at Heathcote Botanical Gardens where we have a 5 section compost bin we are no longer turning the last 2 sections. I expect as we observe our compost piles both at my home garden and at Heathcote we will probably further amend our approach to composting to better reflect our no till practices.
Is this exciting or what? I am going to have to turn my fork tines up, and use it more for photos, and less for work!