Sunday, August 19, 2012

Soil Blocks and Eliot Coleman's "Fertile Dozen" Reading List

A couple videos by Eliot Coleman:

  • Crumbly, decomposed hardwood (Maple, Birch) from the forest floor may be able to suffice for peat.
The Reading List

These books provide background on the ideas of organic pioneers – what influenced their thinking about agriculture as a natural process, and what taught them to relate agriculture to nutrition and human well-being.

These books are listed in the order in which they might be best read. Someone wanting a short course might choose just those marked with an asterisk (*). If you read just one, read Wickenden.” 
  • Make Friends With Your Land - (*) by Leonard Wickenden (1948). When Leonard Wickenden retired from his career as a chemist he became enthusiastically involved with organic gardening. He investigates organic practices from a scientific perspective and comes out 100% in their favour. This is an amazingly perceptive and well-researched organic farming book to have been written as long ago as 1948. It is delightful reading in the bargain.
  • Soil and Sense - (*) by Michael Graham (1941). A small early volume which relates the history of the close relationship between grasses, pastures, livestock and soil fertility.
  • The Stuff Man’s Made Of – (*) by Jorian Jenks (1959). The origin, the philosophy and the scientific evidence behind organic gardening make for interesting reading. Jenks was the editor of the Journal of the Soil Association in England for many years and has an encyclopaedic grasp of the subject.
  • Farmers of Forty Centuries – (*) by F.H King (1911). One of the all time classics, this book tells the story of King’s journey through China, Korea and Japan. He details the age-old use of organic matter to maintain fertlity of the soils. Profusely illustrated with photos. A fascinating read.
  • The Soil and Health – by Sir Albert Howard (1947). This volume followed Howard’s seminal work, An Agricultural Testament. It is easier reading. He contends that the problems of agriculture need to be solved with biology rather than chemistry.
  • Agriculture – A New Approach – (*) by P.H. Hainsworth (1954). When I was first getting started as an organic vegetable grower, i considered this the most competent and practical of all the books I read. Hainsworth was a successful market gardener and he knew his stuff.
  • Plowman’s Folly – by Edward H. Faulkner (1945). This small volume, condemning the moldboard plow caught the general public’s attention in the late 40′s and 50′s in the same way ‘Silent Spring’ by Rachel Carson did in the 60′s and sold millions of copies.
  • The Farming Ladder – by George Henderson (1944). Henderson is one of the most competent farmers to have ever written a book and he writes in an informal story telling style. He covers everything from how to start, how to focus on quality work and quality products, and, most importantly, how to make a living doing it.
  • Compost – by Alwin Siefert (1962). An outstanding book on the hows and whys of producing and using first-class compost.
  • Nutrition and the Soil – (*) by Dr Lionel Picton (1949). This is one of the first works on the subject of soil quality and human nutrition. Originally published in England as “Thoughts on Feeding”.
  • The Soil and the Microbe – by Selan Waksman and Robert Starkey. A scientific book about what makes soil work. Micro-organisms are the key to soil fertility and Waksman was the early defender and pioneer.
  • A Mirror of England – by H.J. Massingham (1988). Edited by Edward Abelson. John Massingham (1888-1952) was a vigorous champion of rural living, small farming and quality workmanship. I have over 20 of his books and every one is a gem. This anthology is a broad scale introduction to his thinking and his delightful writing style.

Saturday, August 18, 2012

Late Summer, and no gardening for a month

My Cascade Ruby-Gold corn is 8 feet tall, and full of ears. It was thigh high by the fourth of July, and has had a wonderful year. I think the rye, clover, vetch and fava incorporated in spring really paid off, as did the compost and all-purpose organic fertilizer. And I've stayed on top of both weeding and watering. There is some other corn in the neighborhood, probably sweet corn, so we will see if that effects my ears. The blue morning glories have started opening, but only a week ago. Note to self: no need to wait as long to plant them next year. They are twining happily up the corn but not overwhelming it. I had to liberate one bound-up small ear a few weeks ago, but that's it.

The Sweet Meat 'Oregon Homestead' winter squash at my vegetable garden in Seattle has four large fruits on three vines. The larger two are larger than a basketball, and must be 12-15 lbs. already. The other two are catching up. On the other hand, the same squash at my dad's house has not even really started fruiting. Maybe it will? I planted them 2-3 weeks later, direct sown vs. transplanted, and the bed is a bit shady. I put some compost and chicken poo-straw on top of the soil around the plants a month ago or so.

The two rows of Gaucho beans at my dad's house have beans on them, but they seem awefully short. The beans are yellow. I thinned one of them to four inches apart in the rows, and left the other at 2", the rate of planting. I think they had a 100% germination rate. Very satisfying.

Tomatoes at the veg garden are far too squished together. Shading each other out. Ripening very slow. They are at less the 24" on center, and that's the minimum suggested. They are hardly pruned. Eliot Coleman recommends tomatoes 30" apart in the rows, in rows 60" apart. That's a lot of space. Of course, he undersows them thickly with green manure. The tomatoes in the high tunnel at the farm, which have been aggressively pruned, trained up tethers tied to the ceiling, and spaced at about what Eliot recommends, are absolutely LADEN with fruit. Not ripening much quicker, but dripping with big, fat tomatoes dripping in heavy clusters.

Blue Lake pole beans are bearing heavily in the veg garden, all the peas have been pulled. The fall brassicas are coming along after having spent too long in their pots. The basil has been harvestable for 3-4 weeks, and I harvested enough for a pint of pesto 2 days ago. We have left for the wedding. I am in Milwaukee, not to see my gardens again for two weeks, and then not for another three weeks. I spent the morning harvesting buckthorn saplings for the poles for our chuppah, finishing Nathaniel's carved spoon (wedding present from two year's ago), reading Eliot Coleman's 'The New Organic Grower' and planning a CSA, making black beans and putting them on nachos, working on vows, and talking with my father-in-law to be. Goodbye gardens! I will miss you.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Carol Deppe on Water & Soil Fertility (audio interview with Jim Phillips)

Listen to internet radio with Preparedness Radio on Blog Talk Radio
Water basics (7m30); Traditional pioneer strategies for dealing with water (8m15); If plants not spaced to tightly, can get almost to August without watering in Willamette area - this the reason for rows 3' apart and plants spaced more widely (10m); Also, you can get by with less fertility in widely-spaced beds vs. Jeavon's double-dug beds, and if you need to be able to ignore your garden for a couple weeks, the wide spacing is more resilient, raised beds are better for wet spring soil but dry out much quicker so Carol does not raise the bed above the rest of the ground (11m30); Mulching - powerful in a small garden, difficult in a large one because of how much you'd need, advantages of a "couple inch mulch" include: protects soil from wind and moisture loss, keeps the surface roots from dying while drying; if rototilling, soft soil depth is only 8" so if top 4" dries between waterings, you've only got 4" of soft soil (18m45); on deep mulches: "mulch like that protects the ground very well from your ever watering it" and keeps it very cool if you start off in spring with a heavy mulch, Carol starts off completely unmulched then puts down a couple inches of leaves or straw once the watering season starts (23m); Plastic mulches - never done it, "they idea just kind of turns me off, frankly" - you have to buy it, doesn't contribute to soil fertility, and you have to pick up and dispose of the plastic (28m); Wood chips - stick to deciduous, not pine and certainly not Cedar because inhibits plant growth; as long as on top of the soil, you won't have a problem with binding nitrogen (30m); If you start out with pasture or heavy grass cover crop, all the Nitrogen will be tied up for several weeks (31m); Drip irrigation and why she hates it - best for perennial plantings like an orchard but with veggies, it really gets in the way, rodents bite into the line (33m); Corn varieties that are early - she can grow without irrigation if she has too, but won't get as good a crop and needs to space further apart, or can irrigate just twice and stop by August (37m); Growing potatoes in the summer without irrigation - they are actually much better than irrigated potatoes!(39m); Different varieties of the same crop can be very different in how effective they are at scrounging their own water - vining squash can reach much deeper than a bushy bushing type squash, but if you're irrigating regularly, the bushy roots might work better (41m30); Fertility (50m); Get a soil test by someone that specializes in organics - e.g., Peaceful Valley (52m); Prepping soil in the event of disaster; adding and hording amendments - will last in the ground at least 5 years (59m); Two-tiered fertility - long-term fertility involves adding minerals that are usually available for 5 years or more, seasonal fertility is all about Nitrogen; the traditional way is to use legume cover crops or manure, can import in the form of poultry chow (shat out) and straw (63m30); If you can't import anything for a while...experimenting to understand your lands fertility, leaving parts unfertilized & recording the results (66m); if you're short on fertility, put it exactly where you need it - band in rows with seeds (if seed meal) or till manure in where seeds are going to be - plants make more use of fertility placed in row than between rows (70m); explanation of squash hills (71m); Soil leached of all soluble Nitrogen by early Spring, and too cold for microbial action to release what's there - can use first urination of the morning and sprinkle it all over the patch to turn from yellow to green in 2-3 days, or use grass clippings (73m); saving your urine, peeing on leaves to make the compost (78m); More on manure (79m); Blood meal is as soluble as chemical fertilizers (81m); Organic with a small 'o' (82m)

Tuesday, May 29, 2012

The squash and beans patch, + corn update

Squash and Beans

Last time I was at dad's, I finished digging an 8x30 foot bed, and at the end of the day at wine:thirty we pulled a couple of chairs over and sat drinking our wine and looking proudly over our bare patch of dirt like we do at every day's good work.

I planted it this weekend. The organic matter content in the soil is abysmal, or so it looks. I'm going with it. It is an experiment in minimalism. I'm calling it "farming" rather than "gardening" because farming - generally a much more extensive activity, while gardening is intensive - often doesn't allow for the luxury of trucking in a half ton of compost per 100 sq. feet, as I tend to do when starting a new garden.

So I limed it, put a little bit of compost at the bottom of the trenches and some hot chicken poop/wood chips compost a little deeper under a couple of the trenches. I made these trenches a bit less than 5 feet apart down the length of the center of the bed, and planted three squash seeds about 6"apart in each. I will thin to one plant, so each plant will have a 5x8 foot patch of its own. This is less than Carol Deppe's 7x8 feet, but not by much. I planted in trenches about 4" deep so the seeds will stay moist, walking barefoot in the trench to restore soil capillarity (its ability to wick moisture up from below) before putting in the seed, then put 1-3 inches of looser soil on top of it, which I just firmed a bit by prodding with the back of the hoe.

The beans I planted about 2" apart in long trenches of their own down the middle of the bed, with squash "hills" on both sides. This means that there are two 8 foot rows about 20" apart dividing the length of the bed in half. A "hill" by the way, is just a way of saying "some seeds planted together." In this case, my hills are actually the trenches described above. I figured this out only after I planted my other squash plants in Wojtek and Davi's garden in actual hills. So far, they're fine - the seedlings there have their first couple of true leaves.


My corn has come up! Some are just peeking above, most are an inch or two high, and some are 3 or 4 inches. I have left the remay on so the birds don't pull them up, but I don't like doing it. As lightweight as it is, the plants are bending as they push against it anyway. I'd like to free them up. I will take it off when I get back in a few days and hopefully the plants will be big enough to be left alone. I'll be able to check on them regularly throughout the day at that point to catch evil birds in the act.


I started Basil seeds indoors early last week, and they went leggy on me just after sprouting because the light was not turned on the day most of them decided to sprout. I have put them in the intensive care unit for the next four days: indoors, an inch under the lights which will stay on 24 hours a day to pump them up.

Monday, May 21, 2012

Corn and other late spring news

I planted my corn patch, 125 seeds in a 10'x10' block, about half of which will be thinned out. I didn't add more compost, but I did add a good bit of Steve Solomon's All-Purpose Fertilizer mix. I planted in rows 20" apart, seeds about 8" apart, which I'm thinking I will thin to 16" apart. This results in each plant getting 320 square inches. Carol Deppe plants her corn 42" apart (including the path between them), and about 8-12" in the row. That is between 336-504 square inches per plant. I'm a little below the low end, but I know part of her row spacing is for ease of access, and I'm hoping between that, my deep working of the soil, and occasional organic fertilization, my plants will feel like they have enough space to pop a couple good ears out. Hybrid varieties grown commercially are planted 8" apart in rows 18" apart, after all. I planted the seeds in furrows which I'd walked down barefoot (to restore soil capillarity), then covered them with ~1-3" of loose soil, which I pressed lightly on with the back of the hoe. I covered the whole bed with remay to make sure crows don't pull up the seedlings.

If each plant bears two ears, I'll have 120 cobs to grind flour from. How many pounds is that? For me, probably a year's supply of corn flour, which I'm going to have to learn to use.

I also planted four Sweet Meat - Oregon Homestead squash seedlings. Their taproots were knocking against the bottom of their 4" pots after less than a week, so it was time to get them in the ground, because, as Carol says: "they have a big old taproot that heads right for the center of the earth, which inevitably gets broken off in transplanting." Bush-type summer squash, on the other hand, can be more easily transplanted. That said, my transplanting job was a bit rough - the soil did not hold together well. Next time, for winter squash I would use soil blocks or a potting soil that coheres better. I planted two to each hill, each made with half a 5-gal bucket of compost and all-purpose organic fertilizer mixed in. The hills are about 7 feet apart, and I will leave only one plant per hill once the more vigorous of each pair declares itself. I covered the hills with remay.

Four tomato plants are now in the ground, too: a Stupice, an Amish Paste, a Sweet 100, and one of the 'Shelf Yellow' variety which I saved seed from last year. I started the seeds about 4-7 weeks ago. Really shoulda kept track of that. They're not as big as they were this time last year, but I think they're big enough. They've been hardened off for two weeks. For the last week, they've been brought in only on cold nights.

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The Three Sisters

I am excited to plant corn, beans, and squash in quite a few places this year. At my 12x12 foot p-patch, I'm planning to plant Carol Deppe's Cascade Ruby-Gold flint corn with Kentucky Wonder pole beans climbing up around the edges, although I'm starting to think that would be a better candidate for the three sisters bed described below.

At my dad's house, I've prepared an 8x30 foot patch to plant beans - Black Coco or Gaucho, I forgot which I ordered, and Carol Deppe's Sweet Meat Oregon Homestead winter squash.

At the farm, Henning's offered an area of around 15x25 feet for planting a three sisters garden, which will be more of the same corn, squash, and a Withner White Cornfield bean, which grows better in the shade then most. A good tutorial for planting a three sisters garden can be found at the Renee's Garden website. The diagram below is from that tutorial.

I also have Dakota Black popcorn seeds, though I think the plants are too small to grow beans up, so I'm still trying to figure out where to put them. In addition, we have Blue Lake pole beans growing at Davi and Wojtek's garden.

More information can be found on the traditional Indian way of growing it and traditional varieties here, including links to audio of a Native American gardener describing various parts of the process. There's some nice corn braiding here, too.