Tuesday, December 21, 2010

Greenhouse Project Update

Sunday i finished the bed on the south side of the greenhouse and planted it with a variety of different vegetables which i will talk about in a little while. Today my friend and mentee Chesley came over and we prepped the north side bed and installed the paver stone path. It took a total of 10 person-hours to complete this little project. It cost no money because i had everything we needed.

I want to point out a couple of seemingly minor details that will have an effect on how things grow and on the management of the space.

Notice that the stones lining inside of the bed on the south side (right side in the photo) are taller that the stones lining the bed on the north side. On the south side i want the sun to hit the stones to warm them and the adjacent soil. If i used tall stones on the north side 8-12" of the soil would be shaded by them due to the low angle of the sun this time of year.

I sowed lettuce seeds along the stones in the south bed. Lettuce will benefit from the warmer microclimate adjacent to the stones.

In the corners and around the bench post there are spaces where pavers would not fit. I know from experience that unwanted plants will find their way into the greenhouse (like bermuda grass, ugh!). I plan to plant something tough, probably welsh onions, in those nooks and crannies to beat mother nature to the punch.

Practicing what i preach i have a plan in mind for the space. The intent here is to supplement what is growing outside during times when it is really cold and the plants are covered and at the end of the winter season while newly planted crops outdoors are beginning to grow. The goal is to grow food from many different plant families. Different families of plants accumulate nutrients in different concentrations. By having a wide variety we will maximize our nutrient intake when we eat the plants. i planted everything closely together. First we will eat the thinnings. Then we will eat the plants when they are still small, in the case of greens by harvesting the outer leaves. Everything from this space will be eaten raw.

Permaculturists, this space is in zone 1, just outside the back door, easily accessible from the house.

When will things be ready to harvest? I have no idea really. It will depend on the weather. The more sunny days we get the faster it will happen. If i had to guess i would say it will be 2 months before we get much of anything from the space.

Next fall i will plant the space in october, so things will have tine to grow before cold weather sets in. Of course with global climate change one cannot count on history to predict what the weather will be next month let alone next year.

I plan to start some tomatoes in the greenhouse in march. I hope to be able to have ripe tomatoes at least a month early. I will plant a determinate, early maturing variety called Taxi which i have grown before. It is a very tasty, sweet, yellow variety. Determinate means it grows to a certain height, 3-4', and stops unlike indeterminate varieties that act like vines and keep on growing all season. I will plant some heat loving peppers and eggplant too. Also i will probably try some pink-eyed purple hull crowder peas as a legume cover crop late in the summer. They love heat and are drought tolerant so should do well.

It has been very gratifying to do this project. This time of year it is good for me to do some physical work that moves us forward.It helps my psyche as well. We will see what happens.

I will report back when something comes up.

Chinese cutting celery - transplanted volunteer seedlings from the garden
Dinosaur kale - left over starter plants
Lettuce - Jericho, Outredgeous Red
Arugula - Astro,
Carrot - Purple Dragon, Scarlet Nantes, Red Core Chantenay
Asian Greens - Hon Tsai Tai, Red Komatsuna
Spinach - 7-green smooth leaf
Fennel - Zefa Fino
Welsh Onion - saved seed
Chard - Barese dwarf
Cilantro - Santo
Radish - d'Avignon
Radish Greens - Hong Vit
Mustard - Osaka Purple
Leek - King Richard

Tuesday, December 14, 2010

Going Forward - Permaculture Leads the Way

I woke up this morning to a record cold 15º. All of our growing beds are covered with frost cloth however I know some things will have suffered some damage. It will be a couple of days before i will uncover to determine the extent of the damage. I know from experience that we will still have plenty of stuff to eat and maybe some things will be in good enough condition to take to market on Saturday.

In the mean time I was diddling around on the internet (i mean doing research) this morning watching videos on permaculture. In several of them people were growing vegetables in the ground in the winter in unheated greenhouses. It dawned on me right then that I should be doing the same. When we first moved here we repurposed an old sales tent from our garden center, turning it into a small greenhouse which we have been using to protect potted plants, grow some microgreens and to grow out vegetable starts for planting in the garden.

A few years ago I designed a passive solar greenhouse to replace the one we currently have. It would be tricked out with all kinds of features. It would cost a good bit on money to build too. I planned on getting that done one day.

Palm to the forehead time :) Go out to the greenhouse where it is warm and get to work preparing some beds and start growing now! You have every thing you need. Geez, why didn't I think of that before.

So that is what i did today! Woohoo! That sure beat sitting inside all day putzing around on twitter and facebook. Okay, I did a little of that too!. ADDICT! Well, the idea did sort of originate from a tweet i read this morning :-p

I started by pulling up the landscape fabric. Next I added some worm castings and other soil amendments and tilled those in. Then I used the broadfork to loosen up the subsoil. I started lining the beds with paving stones we had left over from various landscape jobs. The stones serve 2 functions: they allow me to add more amendments to the beds to raise them up higher and make them more fertile and they provide thermal mass that will capture the heat from the sun during the day and reradiate it at night which will keep the soil just a little warmer. Every little bit helps.

Next I will prepare the bed on the other side of the greenhouse the same way. I will install a paving stone path down the middle which will provide more thermal mass to retain and release heat.
I will still have plenty shelf space to continue using the greenhouse as i have been. In addition I will be able to grow and harvest fresh vegetables even in the coldest times of the year. I have pea tendrils growing in there now in flats and they have not been damaged at all by last night's record cold.

In a few days the space will be ready for planting. I inventoried my seeds yesterday and i have lots of cold tolerant varieties i can plant. I plan to make a seed mix, scatter it on the beds rake them in, water them and see who fares best.

I never expected to be planting at this time of year. It feels great!

Monday, December 13, 2010

Getting the Most from Your Garden

Seed catalogs can be very seductive. After all the purpose of a seed catalog is to sell you seeds, right? I have been a victim of their allure. Two summers ago i had an image in mind of how my fall garden would look, beds full of leafy greens we could harvest all winter for sale at the market and for us to eat all winter. I started going through the catalogs, making a list of what i wanted to grow. I placed my order, excited about getting the fall garden started. Then the seeds arrived. Damn, look at all the purple vegetables i ordered. I had seeds for purple cauliflower, purple mustard, purple kohlrabi, red cabbage, purple broccoli, not what i had envisioned my fall garden to be at all.

It is very important to have a goal for your garden before you start placing those seed orders. And you need to check your order against your goal! We have 2 goals here at the Funny Farm. The first is to grow a variety of nutritious food for our own consumption all year round. The second is to grow crops we can profitably sell at our year round farmers markets. Each gardener will have her own goals based on what she wants to get out of her garden. You might be a tomato lover who wants to have fresh tomatoes as long as possible during the growing season. Your goal might be to grow favorite vegetables that are not readily available at your local markets. You might be a pickle connoissuer or a raw foodist.

Once you have established a goal for your garden you can begin to determine what to grow to meet your goal. Before you dig into the catalogs you need to ask yourself some questions.
What crops that meet my criteria will grow well in my area?
In what season do they grow best?
How long does it take to produce a crop?
How long will the crop produce?
How much of a particular crop do I want?
Will i consume them only fresh or preserve some for the winter?
How much space does the crop need?

Once you have answered the questions for each crop you can develop a plan for your garden.

Planning in Time and Space

We have 3 overlapping growing seasons here at The Funny Farm. A short spring season, a long hot summer, and usually a decent fall season. Planting for spring usually starts in late February/early March. Many of the crops we plant then are not harvested until May or June; potatoes and carrots are 2 examples. We plant our summer crops as early as we can to get the most out of them before the heat and drought take their toll. Our last frost date is around tax time, April 15th. To have a successful fall season we have to plant in August and September, still prime season for lots of our summer crops like tomatoes, peppers and eggplants. It takes careful planning to get the timing and space allocations coordinated properly. Having a clear goal for your garden helps when making decisions about when to plant and what to sacrifice during the transition from one season to the next.

If your goal is to grow nutritious fresh food all year you might have to pull up your declining tomatoes in early September to make room for fall greens that will last into the winter. If your goal is to have fresh tomatoes until Thanksgiving ( a possibility here many years) you might have to forgo a fall planting.

Other Considerations
It is a foregone conclusion that all of us want to improve our gardens every year. This current year we set out to double our output. We are well on our way to achieving that. Through better planning we chose more productive crops and varieties, we scheduled succession plantings better and we worked on building our soil. We used a soil test to determine what nutrients we needed to add to the soil to get the best growth from our plants while improving their nutritional value. We used mulches and cover crops to add organic matter to the soil to strengthen the soil food web. We used interplantings (companion planting) to help reduce pest problems. We increased biodiversity on the farm by planting more varieties that attract beneficial insects and by letting more "weeds" do their thing and by letting more areas go "wild".

We also added to our future food security by planting more blueberries, apple trees and pear trees. We multiplied our perennial food sources such sunchokes, leeks, herbs and welsh onions by dividing them and planting them into more marginal spaces developing our food forest.

Thoughtful planning is key to making best use of the increasingly limited resources available to us in these troubled times. We teach a class on gardening planning scheduled for Sunday January 9th 1-4 p.m. Click the link below to get more info and register.

Register for Winter Organic Garden Workshop Series in Stone Mountain, GA  on Eventbrite

Thursday, December 2, 2010

5 Week Intensive Organic Workshop

We are again offering our 5 Week Intensive Gardening Workshop Starting the first Sunday February 6th and running every other Sunday through Sunday April 3rd. We will be exploring the latest methods for growing nutrient dense food using all natural techniques.
5 Week Intensive Organic Gardening Workshop
W/ Duane Marcus
Taking Control of Your Food!
This is a hands-on workshop. Whether you are a beginner or an experienced gardener wanting to convert from conventional to organic methods, whether you have a sunny townhouse patio or a 3 acre lot, this class will put you on the path to taking control of your food future.
  • Week 1 - Organic Gardening Foundations - Soil Food Web, composting, nutrient dense food and nutrient cycling
  • Week 2 - Garden planning- what to plant, when to plant it and how to plant it
  • Week 3 - Seed starting, soil preparation, cover crops, transplanting
  • Week 4- Pest control strategies - putting Mother Nature to work to control insects, diseases and weeds. Insect i.d., biological controls
  • Week 5 -Permaculture Strategies in your garden- Food forests, growing edible mushrooms, edible landscapes, rainwater harvesting, perennial foods
The classes will be on Sundays from 1 - 4 and run every other Sunday through Sunday April 3rd.
Each class will be divided between classroom work and work in the garden
The cost for the workshop is $300.00. Class is limited to 10 students

Register for 5 Week Intensive Organic Gardening Workshop in Stone Mountain, GA  on Eventbrite

Winter Organic Gardening Workshop Series

Our Winter Organic Gardening workshop series is now available for registration. Join us to learn how to take control of your food needs for yourself and your family by growing some of you own.

  • Organic Gardening 101 - Sunday Jan. 9th. Learn how to start your own organic garden. Topics covered will be soil preparation, the soil food web, growing nutrient dense food, garden planning, and crop selection
  • Starting Plants from Seed - Sunday Jan 16th. Get over your fear of starting plants from seeds. Topics covered will be choosing the right soil for seed starting, which crops are best started from seed, timing of seed starting.
  • All Natural Pest Control Strategies - Sunday Jan 23rd. Now is the time to start your pest control planning. Topics covered will be learning the good bugs from the bad, crop planning for pest resistance, attracting beneficial insects, organic pest control options.
Register for Winter Organic Garden Workshop Series in Stone Mountain, GA  on Eventbrite

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Legumes fix nitrogen from the air right? Nope!

When we first moved to the Funny Farm 3 years ago I transplanted some Baptisia australis, a native perennial legume with beautiful flowers, into a couple of the vegetable beds. I got the idea after having visited Carl Jordan's Spring Valley Ecofarms where they were doing research on restoring a worn out farm using an allycropping system. In this system, perennial legumes (mimosa) were planted in widely spaced rows and vegetable crops were planted between the rows. The perennial legumes were cut to the ground several times during the growing season. The prunings were used as mulch around the vegetables where they would decay and slowly release nitrogen and other nutrients that would be used by the vegetables. Also, after pruning, the mimosa would slough off roots which would allow nitrogen stored in root nodules formed by nitrogen-fixing bacteria to be released into the soil which would then be available to the vegetables as well. The bacteria are the organisms that fix nitrogen from the air not the plants. If the bacteria are not present to colonize the roots no nitrogen is fixed.

When leguminous crops, (beans, peas, clover, alfalfa, vetch) have been colonized by nitrogen-fixing bacteria, yields are greatly improved. Once the crop has been harvested or, in the case of a cover crop, plowed into the soil, the crops planted next will benefit from the nitrogen as well. We gardeners and farmers also benefit by not having to apply additional costly nitrogen fertilizer.

We can be sure that our crops are being colonized by nitrogen-fixing bacteria by inoculating our seeds. I purchase inoculant from Johnnys Seed Co. and treat my seeds before planting or during planting. Different species of legumes are colonized by different species of bacteria. Soybeans are colonized by Bradyrhizobium japonicum; clovers and alfalfa by Sinorhizobium meliloti, beans by
Rhizobium leguminosarum biovar phaseoli. It is important that you choose the right inoculant for the crop you are growing. Johnnys sells an inoculant that has a mix of different species that will inoculate snap beans, field type peas (black eyed or southern peas), english and sugarsnap peas.

The bacteria may persist in the soil for several years. however, I inoculate my seeds every year to be sure I am getting the benefits of nitrogen fixation. A bag of inoculant is enough to treat 8 lbs. of seeds and costs about $6.00; well worth the investment in my opinion. There are native species of these bacteria but they may or may not be present and they may not be efficient nitrogen fixers. The plants can sense whether or not the bacteria can help them and will select those the best to come colonize their roots. There is much communication between the plants and the bacteria in this symbiotic, mutualistic relationship between species.

It takes about a week for root nodules to be visible and about 3 weeks for nitrogen fixation to start taking place. You can determine whether or not your crops have been colonized by carefully digging up some of the roots with a trowel and looking for nodules. If you slice a nodule open and the inside looks pink or red, nitrogen fixation is taking place. The plants and bacteria together produce a molecule that is similar to the hemoglobin in our blood which carries oxygen from the plant to the bacteria. The red color comes from the presence of iron in the molecule which also makes our blood red. Adequate supplies of iron in the soil are necessary to make this process happen.

Permaculturists often plant leguminous plants in the same hole with fruit or nut trees so that the young food producing trees can benefit from the nitrogen fixation within the roots of the legume. After several years the legume is removed or cut down allowing the food tree to grow on.

This fall I dug the Baptisia out the the beds and moved them to our orchard where they will help feed our apple trees. They were nicely colonized with large nodules of bacteria which you can see in the picture below.

Wednesday, November 3, 2010

Choosing Varieties that Work in our System

Each year we trial new varieties of crops in the never-ending search for those that produce well for us. We are looking for ones that can withstand the extremes of high temperature, humidity and often low rainfall (drought) that we experience in the summer here in Georgia. Our climatic conditions can put great stress on our crops making them more susceptible to insect and disease pressures. Additionally, night temperatures in the 70's and daytime temperatures in the 90's for days on end cause plants to go into survival mode. They stop producing flowers and fruit.

We grow some hybrid varieties and some open-pollinated varieties. Many hybrids have been bred to withstand disease or insect infestations. Many open-pollinated and heirloom varieties do not have these traits although some do. We take this into consideration when making our choices. We look for varieties that have been grown successfully in our area for a long time. We want varieties that taste good and produce a good yield for a long period of time.

Here are a few examples of how we make those decisions. We will start with zucchini and squash. We stopped growing yellow squash for 2 reasons. The first is that most of the other growers at our markets grow it so we do not need to compete with them. Additionally we have not found a variety that produces well for us. Insects and diseases always take them out early. This year we decided to focus on zucchini. We planted 2 heirloom varieties from Europe. One was ronde de nice, a French variety, and the other was costata romanesco, an Italian variety. Both varieties showed good resistance to disease and insect pests. We only lost a couple of plants to the dreaded squash vine borer. The ronde de nice plants grew well, the fruit was tasty and looked good but produced very little fruit. The costata romanesco grew well and produced great tasting fruit over a long period of time. That variety also produced plentiful male blossoms which we were able to harvest and sell to a restaurant. Guess which variety we will be growing next year. The previous year we had success with an old open pollinated variety called simple long grey. We will be adding it back to the mix next year as well. Delicata is an open pollinated variety that does well for us too.
Next are tomatoes. Our main tomato variety is Big Beef, a hybrid. It consistently produces tasty, good sized fruit and is pretty resistant to the ubiquitous early blight we get every year. We also do well with Tomatoberry, another hybrid introduced by Johnnys Seed a couple of years ago. It produces strawberry sized and shaped fruit that are very tasty. It excels late in the summer when other varieties have given up. We still have one plant that is cranking out lots of fruit in November. Amana Orange is an heirloom variety that is my favorite tomato for flavor. It does not produce a lot of fruit but it is a market favorite so we can get a premium price for it all summer. This year we tried San Marzano. The plants grew strongly at first but were the first to succumb to the blight. We will be looking for another paste type variety next year, probably we will go back to Roma. We also tried Sungold II. It did terribly. Another one we like a lot is Eva Purple Ball, another heirloom variety that does well. Flavorful and crack resistant, it produces well too.
The final example is butterbean. We love them but had not devoted space for them in the past. This year we planted a short row of Violet's Multicolored. Here is the description from Southern Exposure Seed Exchange:
80-90 days [Banks County, GA, saved by 4 generations of Violet Brady Westbrook’s family.] A rainbow of colors – cream, beige, red-brown, and violet-purple, with speckles and swirls. Small seeds have great flavor, good both fresh or dried. 3-5” pods. Semi-bush plants have good disease- and drought-resistance.

They lived up to the description in every way except 1. They were not even close to being semi-bush. The vines grew to be 12' long. It was fortuitous that i did not read the description on the package again before planting so i built a tall trellis for them to grow on.
We saved the beautiful seeds for planting next year.

We grew several other crops too. Marketmore cucumbers did great for us. Provider bush green beans have done well in the past but struggled this year with the heat and drought. We have a difficult time with peppers. This season we will continue to hunt for pepper varieties that will do well for us. We will be trying new techniques to protect the eggplants from flea beetles and potato beetles.

I read a research study yesterday about the declining nutritional quality of fruits and vegetables over the last 50 years. The conclusion of the study was that hybrid varieties that were bred to produce a large yield at the expense of nutritional value was a big factor in this trend. We will be taking that into consideration when we are salivating over seed catalogs in the next month or two.

After all we are what we eat!

Sunday, October 31, 2010

Gardening in 3-D: Delight in Disorder

One of the most important strategies we employ is to encourage biodiversity. By doing so we can partner with a wide variety of organisms who will help us with pest control. Our farm looks like a mess to most people (including some of our neighbors). We have lots of wild looking "overgrown" areas. What appears to be chaos has an invisible order to it. These areas are home to birds, snakes, possums, toads, tree frogs, squirrels, rabbits, rats and chipmunks ( i believe my totem animal is a chipmunk). Yes, we have to share some of our bounty with them but we feel that overall we gain much more than we lose from their presence. In the past few years I have observed that birds in particular play an important role in keeping pest insects at bay. I see eastern towhees cruising close to the ground, scratching in the litter and mulch hunting for insects. I watched goldfinches eat the sunflower petals and then perch on the long beans and eat the aphids feeding on the beans. I have seen mockingbirds snatch tomato worms right out of the fruit.
We purposefully plant a wide variety of flowering plants that attract beneficial organisms including both pollinators and predators of pest insects. One of the first things we did when we got to the Funny Farm was to establish our bugscaping (aka farmscaping) beds. This spring we were able to divide the plants from that bed and spread them into other parts of the garden. Each year we have found more and different species of predatory insects working side by side with us. We help them by providing food and habitat and they help us by controlling pests on our crops.
This year I made a concerted effort to move away from the typical agricultural model of planting crops in rows. I wanted to mix things up to maximize diversity within my garden beds. Mother nature does not plant in rows. The goal was to make it harder for insect and disease pest to find their targets increasing the chances of our obtaining a yield. Here in the south squashes and zucchinis are difficult to grow organically. There is a large variety of insect and diseases that prey on them, the most devastating of which is the squash vine borer. When I planted my squash in a row the momma moth would cruise down the row happily laying her eggs on each plant. Soon one by one the plants would wilt and die leaving me squashless. We decided to try and outsmart her by confusing her. We planted our squash plants all over the place, between the tomatoes, among the zinnias, beside the pole beans, among the basil. This strategy worked pretty well. She found a few plants but through constant diligence I was able to find and destroy the larvae before they did serious damage and we had a decent yield of squash.
We also also made better use of 3 dimensional space in the garden by utilizing stakes, teepees and trellisses. We plant our tomatoes 4' apart and tie 2 vines to metal tee post that has a 8-10' tall bamboo pole attached to it. Our tomatoes grow up to the top of the poles and then cascade back down. The wide spacing allows us to plant lower growing plants between them. We mixed a lot of different things between them besides the squash; bush beans which fix nitrogen, basil, zinnias, sunflowers which attract pollinators and predatory insects. We wanted to emulate a natural system as much as possible. All the different plants give off different chemical signals making it harder for pest insects to find their favorite foods. We created a similar 3-d space to a forest edge with a canopy, understory and dense layer near the ground. I saw the towhees moving from the wild woodsy spaces into the garden spaces scratching in the mulch and eating insects.
We made teepees out of bamboo poles our friend Henry brought us and grew our cucumbers and melons on them (don't be fooled by Baker Creek Seed's description of a Tigger melon. They may smell good but the taste like crap) . Between the widely spaced teepees we planted okra to fill the void. the teepees were shaped like this ^ and the okra grows like this \/. Someone said the bamboo structures reminded her of Gilligan's Island. Seem like a good model of sustainability to me.
This summer was hot and dry. We had our share of insects and diseases. Some crops failed but most did quite well. All in all we are very satisfied with our new 3 dimensional strategy and will be refining it next summer.

Over 1800 lbs. harvested from June until now on 1/8th acre ain't too shabby.

Monday, October 18, 2010

Get a Soil Test Dammit!

We knew we had nutrient deficiencies. We could see the symptoms in the plants. Our production was good in some beds but not in others. I had read many articles that spoke of the need for large scale re-mineralization of soils. We knew we could increase our production with the addition of needed nutrients in the correct amounts. A friend told me he used International Ag Labs to test his soil. He liked that they emphasized biological farming and growing nutrient dense food. We sent them a soil sample from our back field.
We were correct in our assumption that we had deficiencies. We followed their recommendations and had a custom blend of soil amendments prepared for us and applied it at the recommended rate. This was last spring. The results were quite obvious as the crops started to grow. Throughout the summer season we began to notice we had less pressure from disease and insects than in the previous year. The plants looked super healthy; dark green leaves and thick strong stems.

When we first started the garden we prepared the front field differently than we did the back field and we got better production. We used more compost initially. After we determined we had a deficiency of magnesium we applied dolomitic limestone to add both calcium and magnesium. We saw some improvement but we felt were not getting maximum production in that field either. We sent in a soil sample from the front field about a month ago. As you can see the results are quite different than those we got in the back field.

Notice in particular that test shows excessive levels of phosphorus and potassium. The folks at International Ag labs have found that excessive use of manure based compost can cause this. We believe that is why we our levels are excessive. We applied a whole lot of compost that year. Note that they recommend not applying compost or manure of grass clipping or wood chips until the excess has been used up by the plants.

Notice all the notes i wrote on the pages of the test results. They are answers to the many questions i had about the test and recommendations. I love that I can call Jon Franks and he will patiently explain what the meaning of the test results are and why they made the recommendations they did. If you look at the test for the back field, it shows that the levels of copper and manganese are very high yet they recommend adding both to the soil. I asked Jon why that was. He said that the desired level for plants is lower that that required by the human body for maximum health so they recommend higher amounts in the soil to boost the nutrient density of the plants. Our goal is to grow the best food we can for ourselves and for our customers so we followed their recommendations.

People regularly ask me in my workshops and lectures what brand organic fertilizer i recommend. My answer now is always that i don't recommend any particular brand. I explain to them that without a soil test you cannot know what nutrients your soil needs. Plants need different nutrients in the proper ratios. The calcium to magnesium ratio should be 7 to 1. The phosphorus to potassium ratio should be 1 to 1. If you are continually applying a balanced fertilizer without knowing what the ratios are in your soil you can throw the balance out of whack. The result is that the uptake of other nutrients is blocked. You might be creating excesses of certain nutrients with the same results. That is the situation we see in our front field.

"But it is expensive" is the comeback i often hear. A soil test can actually save you money. Once you get the results, you only need to purchase and apply the nutrients your soil needs. And I can testify that, assuming your soil food web is healthy, your production will go up markedly. In 4 months we have produced as much food as we did all last year. I a couple of weeks we will have harvested a ton, yes 2000 lbs. of food since the beginning of June. On 1/8th of an acre.

Get a soil test dammit!

p.s. if you want to study these results more closely you can find them here on scribd.com

Monday, October 11, 2010

A Recap of what has been going on at The Funny Farm these past few months

Our goal for this year is to double our production compared to last year. We produced 1600 lbs. of fruits and vegetables last year. We record our production from June to June since that was the month we started going to our first farmers market in 2009. When we harvest for market and for Vegetable Husband this Wednesday we will surpass our total for all of last year, 4 1/2 months into our 2010 harvest year. We have much more growing now than we did at this time last year. We will be using row covers much more extensively this winter so we can keep production going all winter with a little luck. I am encouraged that we are on track to meet our goal.

We have employed several strategies to reach this rather lofty goal. I will give an overview here of what they are and I will explain in greater detail how we implemented them in future posts. I promise...really I will!
  • First on the list was getting a soil test. We knew from observation of our crops that we were deficient in magnesium. We were not getting the production we thought we could get. The results of the test confirmed our suspicions. This will be the subject of our next post
  • Increasing biodiversity was next. We worked on improving habitat for beneficial organisms both above ground and in the soil food web. This helped us by reducing insect and disease pressure. We did much more intercropping to take advantage of 3 dimensional space and to try to confuse potential insect pests minimize the spread of disease organisms.
  • We refined our choices of crops and varieties we would grow to find better matches for our particular growing system.
  • We utilized some more marginal spaces to increase our productive area utilizing methods gleaned from permaculture.
As expected the sum of all these efforts is greater than the parts if they were applied individually. We have a systems approach driven by the permaculture paradigm. Much of what we are doing now is going to provide yields in the future for us and for whomever comes along behind us. While I am fond of saying that I do not believe the future exists and that tomorrow never comes, I will not stop my efforts to prepare for a future anyway.

I could be wrong!

Thursday, September 23, 2010

Cabbagegate Update

Many of you have no doubt heard about Georgia farmer Steve Miller being hit with a $5000 fine for growing too many vegetables. If not, you can read Deborah Geering's report on the situation. Deborah and I have been following this case for a year now. Steve is, or was, one of the vendors at the Decatur Farmers Market where I am the manager and also a vendor.

I spoke with Steve a few minutes ago. He went to court this morning. He said that he is going to be punished for his "crime" one way or another. He and his attorneys are trying to negotiate a deal so he can perform public service rather than pay a fine. Steve has offered to give free vegetables to the needy. That proposal was rejected. Now he has offered to teach organic gardening and sustainable landscaping to satisfy his public service. This is all still being worked out between the judge and his attorneys.

I will report back when I know more.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Fall Organic Gardening Workshop

Our fall intensive organic gardening workshop will start on Sunday September 12th and go for 4 weeks, ending on Sunday October 3rd. It meets from 1-4 p.m. here is what we will cover:

Week 1 - Organic Gardening Foundations - Soil Food Web, composting, worm composting and nutrient cycling
Week 2 - Garden planning- What to plant, When to plant it and How to plant it
Week 3 - Pest control strategies - putting Mother Nature to work to control insects, diseases and weeds.
Week 4 - Incorporating Permaculture Strategies in your garden- Food forests, growing edible mushrooms, edible landscapes, rainwater harvesting

You can register by going here: http://fallorganicgardeningworkshop.eventbrite.com

Space is limited to 10 so don;t delay.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Planting Taters - Funny Farm Style

What do you do when you need to plant potatoes and the bed you need to plant them in is covered in weeds and sopping wet from the rain we've had every 5 days for the last 5 months? Why you resort to the Ruth Stout, lasagna, cardboard mulch, straw cage with a Funny Farm twist mashup method of course.
Here's what we did. First we made some cages out of some 2' tall chicken wire we had lying around. I wanted them to be 18" in diameter so using my math skills and what's left of my memory I dredged up the formula for the circumference of a circle and determined that we needed to cut 5' long pieces of wire. C=π d where C is the circumference and d is the diameter. See you school garden critics, you can learn math in the garden. Then we laced string that used to hold pinestraw bales together through the holes to make a tube of wire.

Next we spread horse manure lightly over the bed and covered it with cardboard to smother the weeds.Then we placed the wire cages on the cardboard in 2 staggered rows. We staked down every 4th one and tied all the tops together so they will remain in place. We didn't have enough cages to cover the whole area so I decided to plant a potato between each cage as well as inside each one. I reasoned that the cages will help hold the mulch even on the outside.

Next we cut a cross into the cardboard everywhere we wanted to plant a potato so the roots can go down into the soil below. We pushed a potato into the cardboard. Then we covered the potatoes with a shovel full of compost.

Finally we covered everything with 3-4 inches of leaves and pine needles my neighbors so kindly bagged up for me and put on the street. As the potato plants grow up 6" above the much I will add more mulch, leaving the top 3" of foliage exposed. This will stimulate the plants to produce tubers along the covered stems just as hilling with soil does. Being in the cages, it will possible to cover more of the stems as they grow producing more potatoes. Since we didn't have enough cages we planted half of the bed directly into the cardboard. We will be able to compare yields between the 2 methods.

We got our tubers from Your Dekalb Farmers Market a huge market nearby that stocks pretty much every kind of food available from all over the world. They had 6 varieties of organic potatoes. I got red, purple, Russian Banana fingerlings, French Red fingerlings and Buttercream. We left them on the shelf in the pantry for 5 days before planting and they were starting to sprout or chit. They were obviously eager to get on with the growing.
We shall see.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

I Had a Heart Attack last Wednesday and I'm Glad I Did?

Yep, that's right I am glad I had a heart attack. You see, heart disease runs deep in our family. My mom had one. My grandfather had one. My uncle died from one when he was 45. My father died from one when he was 47. They call it a genetic predisposition. (They all smoked, drank, ate crap and never exercised however).
Starting when I was about 40 I began to live in fear of the inevitability of my dying of a heart attack in my mid 40's. Every time I had a touch of indigestion I would panic, feel my pulse expecting to fall over dead any second. I drove Robin crazy with this behavior. I went to a doctor and got a physical to see where I stood. I had high blood pressure and high colesterol. I also spent a lot of time in bars, and ate crappy food. I didn't smoke though (not yet anyway). I went on the standard regimen of drugs to lower my blood pressure and colesterol. I went to an alternative doctor who was a purported expert in nutrition to get some help. He took a lot of blood tests and sold me a bunch of expensive vitamins and other "nutritious" pills. After a few months I decided that the vitamins and stuff were not worth the expense so I stopped taking them but I continued on with the medicines.

And I continued to live in fear!

In the year 2000 I had my 47th birthday. Wow, that was a cause for celebration. As the years went by and I was still kicking the fear began to subside. But I have always thought that one day I would have a heart attack. (keep in mind that in 2000 the internet was just beginning to grow and access was primitive so getting good information was not easy at all). I continued getting yearly physicals and taking the prescribed drugs. I would start an exercise program for a while and promise myself to eat better but I was never committed to it.

I think it was in 2005 Robin and I started frequenting a new bar after work. This was a late night place so we were usually the only people there early so we got to know the hot young women who were the bartenders. Robin liked to smoke when she drank (I was always a vocal opponent). The bartenders were given Zippo lighters and when you bought a pack of cigarettes from them they put on an elaborate show of packing them, opening them, handing you one and lighting it for you. Great customer service! Who could resist that? So I would smoke a couple when we went there.. Long story short, I eventually became a smoker... with a pack a day habit.

So add smoking to my risk factors to complete the list!

About this time we started the community garden so my eating habits improved some and I was getting some exercise working in the garden. Then we moved to the Funny Farm and improved our eating habits even more. I was working hard in the gardens. I convinced myself, (got that? convinced myself...) that I could control my blood pressure and colesterol without the drugs. The drugs we causing muscle aches and fatigue. By 3 o'clock in the afternoon I needed a nap. It really sucked feeling like that every day so I decided that I would rather feel good and die early that feel like crap for 20 more years. So 2 years ago I stopped taking them and pretty soon I was feeling great. I decided that since I wasn't going to take the drugs there was no point in getting a physical any more. Shortly after that our business closed, we got different insurance through Robin's work so I had to find a new doctor which would be a pain in the ass so I didn't do it. This was a year ago.

Life was good!

A couple of weeks ago I was thinking about how I might actually live to be an old man. My best friend just had a baby and I was looking forward to experiencing her grow up. Some of you read my post a few weeks ago about the lessons I supposedly learned from Ma Nature as result of the closure of The Urban Gardener. Well, I obviously did not learn that lesson very well so Ma Nature decided she needed to resort to stronger measures to get it into my thick head. "Tomorrow never comes and the future does not exist".

So last Wednesday I had a heart attack. Why am I happy about that? I did not die! As I said, I always expected to have one and I always figured it would be horrible, mostly likely resulting in my death. I had a total blockage in a very small artery and partial blockage in a major artery going into my heart. They performed 2 angioplasties to open them up. In the large one they put a metal tube called a stent so now I have bionic parts. At night I'm pretty sure I can hear the voices of the others in the hive. "Resistance is futile" they are saying. No one discussed any options with me. They told me what they were going to do and then they did it. I did have a conversation with my sister who is a nurse and who had to deal with our mother's heart attack. I had told her of my decision to stop taking the drugs the year before. This time she told me to let them do whatever they thought was best so that's what I did.

Oddly I was never afraid during the whole ordeal. I felt I was in good hands at Emory Hospital and that I would most likely survive but if not there was nothing I could do about it. Right before the first angioplasty I did have a moment when I thought 2 things, one was that I might not get to experience Annabel growing up after all, and the other was that Robin hasn't completed my 6 week organic gardening workshop yet so she might not know how to grow her own vegetables.

After the procedures I was talking to my sister about it and she said I was like turning the clock back 2o years. What she meant was that it took a long time for those arteries to clog up so now that they are open it will take a long time to clog them back up again.Everybody in my family has always worried about the possibility of my dying of a heart attack so I guess this is kind of a relief for them in some ways too and hopefully a wake up call for my brother who is 11 years younger that me, fast approaching the magic number 47. And no Ma Nature I got the message now and I will changing my ways. And I know I could die from any number of causes at any time so I promise to live in the moment as much as possible.

It has been a week since this mess started. Physically I feel perfectly fine except for a fog in my head. I am back on those damn drugs again. I will take them for a while at least. I will consult with my doctor to figure out how to get off of them ASAP. I have a plan to develop new habits that will make it possible. Some parts will be easy, some harder.

Thank you family, blood kin and not blood kin, for putting up with me for all these years. I will try to do better.
And thanks to everyone else in the physical and virtual worlds for all the love and support you have given me through this.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Spring Organic Gardening Workshops

We are pleased to announce our spring organic gardening workshops is now open for registration.

6 sessions starting Sunday April 17 runs every Sunday ending Sunday May 23. This is a hands-on workshop. Whether you are a beginner or an experienced gardener wanting to convert from conventional to organic methods, whether you have a sunny townhouse patio or a 3 acre lot, this class will put you on the path to taking control of your food future.

  • Make compost and manage your soil using free, local organic inputs
  • Grow vegetables from seed
  • Put biodiversity to work to reduce or eliminate pests
  • Use perennial vegetables and fruits as part of a permaculture garden
  • Manage pests without chemicals
  • Harness the power of worms to turn your kitchen scraps into nutrient rich worm castings
  • Plan your garden to get maximum output of nutritious food
Classes meet at The Funny Farm 4459 Allgood Springs Dr. Stone Mountain,
Ga 30083 30 minutes from downtown Atlanta
• The classes will be on Sundays from 1 - 4 .
• Each class will be divided between classroom work and work in the garden
• The cost for the workshop is $300(we can negotiate the cost on a sliding scale
- contact Duane @ 770-527-0395)
• Class is limited to 10 students
• Online registration http://spring6weekworkshop.eventbrite.com/
or mail a check payable to Robin Marcus to 4459 Allgood Springs Dr. Stone
Mountain, Ga 30083
• A workshop syllabus is available here http://tinyurl.com/yzps8ko
• For further information- email duanemarcus@mac.com

Starting Plants from Seed - Saturday Mar. 6th. Learn how to start
your own plants for your garden.
Growing Edible Mushrooms - Saturday Mar. 27th. Learn how to grow
mushrooms on logs that will produce for several years.
All Natural Pest Control - Saturday Apr. 10th. Techniques and
strategies for beating pests without chemicals.
Edible Landscapes - Saturday Apr. 24th. Grow vegetables and fruits
without freaking out the neighbors.
Making Gourmet Compost - Saturday May 8th. We will build a hot
compost pile and explore how to use worms to turn food scraps and garden
debris into nutrient rich plant food

• These are hands-on workshops so bring gloves and wear appropriate shoes
• Classes meet from 1-3 p.m.
• The cost for the workshops are $30
• Classes are limited to 10 students
• Classes meet at The Funny Farm 4459 Allgood Springs Dr. Stone Mountain,
Ga 30083 30 minutes from downtown Atlanta
• Online registration http://springwkshpseries.eventbrite.com/
• For further information- email duanemarcus@mac.com or call

Sunday, January 31, 2010

Notes on the SSAWG Conference

I love the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group Conference! I did not expect to be able to go this year because, frankly I'm broke. I got an email from my friend Judith Winfrey, the hardest working person in Atlanta local food, a month before the conference asking me if I wanted to be a facilitator at the conference in return for free attendance. Of course I said yes. As facilitator I got to pick the sessions I most wanted to attend and then my job was to introduce the speaker, hand out evaluations, count attendees, manage the lights, etc. How awesome is that?

SSAWG is about 2 things; educating farmers and building local food systems. They do a great job at both. The best farmers and food systems builders in the Southeast come to the conference as both speakers and attendees. Everyone is eager to share knowledge and information. In the sessions you learn from both the speakers and the audience. At lunch you learn from the people sitting with you. At the bar in the evening you learn from your drinking buddies. Non-stop learning.

Here is a synopsis of the sessions I attended and/or facilitated:
Cliff Slade: Drip Irrigation 101- He was an extension agent for many years in Virginia. He grows for market on a few acres using drip irrigation under plastic. I am not a fan of the plasticulture but it works for some people. He showed us how to easily set up a low-cost simple drip irrigation that maximizes water use. He also had great insight into strategies for making money in market gardening without working too hard. This guy made drip irrigation interesting and entertaining. What more needs to be said?

Richard McDonald: Stump Dr. Mcbug: I heard Richard speak about farmscaping at the first SSAWG conference I attended 6 years ago in New Orleans. I was blown away by the concept of planting beds of flowering pants for the specific purpose of attracting beneficial insects. When I introduced myself before the session he said he remembered meeting me back then. I must have asked a lot of question. I told him how the first thing I did when we started the Funny Farm was to plant our bugscaping beds. He loved it and told the audience how that was a good strategy to get the good bugs working before you plan you crops. The intent in this session was for attendees to bring bugs, diseased leaves, etc. for Richard to identify and suggest ways to control them if they were pests. That did not happen but it did not matter. He set up his computer and started talking about his specialty which is attracting beneficial insects to the farm. People would ask questions about specific pests and he would search on the internet or go to his crazy web site, drmcbug.com and find out the information. This approach was great because it demonstrated his thinking process for finding solutions to pest problems. One of the attendees was Alison Weidiger. SSAWG made an instructional video about growing in high tunnels a few years ago on her farm. She shared their strategy for controlling striped cucumber beetles. They use pheromone lures (think Axe Body Spray for bugs) and yellow sticky traps to catch the buggers. We learned that there is a pheromone for attracting squash vine borer. She buys them from Johnnys Seeds. We learned that there are nematodes that attack flea beetles and squash vine borer larvae. Richard pulled up the web sites that are sources for purchasing them. This was a great interactive session in which everyone participated. I took home several techniques that I will be implementing on the Funny Farm this season.

Linda Chapman- Growing and Marketing Cut Flowers- Linda has developed some great strategies that streamline the process of growing and selling flower bouquets. She breaks down by variety her flowers for specific uses in a bouquet. She uses dramatic center flowers, secondary flowers, filler flowers. As she described this you can visualize the construction of a bouquet in her hand. She has developed color schemes to create specific moods or to reflect the seasons She grows over 100 varieties of flowers for specific uses in her bouquets. She says with her techniques she commands the highest price at the markets she attends.
Rose Koenig- Weed Control and Soil Fertility Management - The first thing Rose said in the weed control session was if you are here to find out what pieces of equipment to buy you are in the wrong session. She taught us how to think critically about weed management in an organic system. She said you must learn the life cycle of your weeds; how they reproduce themselves, when they show up, what type of soil they grow in. By doing so you can devise strategies for controlling them; when to intervene, how to intervene. Her other session about soil fertility was not very focused unfortunately so I did not get much from it. Again, however she taught a strategy for critically thinking through the processes of soil fertility management so one can develop a plan to meet one's own unique situation.

Gerald Larson- Extension Agent at Fort Valley State University here in Georgia- Gerry was not a presenter but had a booth in the exhibitors hall. He is at all the conferences I go to. He has been doing trials on organic fruit production for over 12 years. He is a quiet, almost shy fellow. I have talked with him 3 or 4 times in the past without really succeeding in making a connection. I always pick up his papers and pamphlets whenever I see him. When we started the Funny Farm I used his techniques and variety recommendations for our budding fruit production. This year I sat with him at lunch both days. I told him what I was growing and asked him lots of questions and finally broke through. The second day after lunch he took me to his booth and gave me some information on strawberry production. He said he wanted to do a workshop on strawberries but the farmer he had set it up with had dropped out so I suggested we do it at the Funny Farm! So this October he is going to come out and start a strawberry trial here.

Pat Richardson- Rainbow Soil. Managing for the Ultimate in Soil Quality- She described herself as an urbanite and biochemist who married and cattle rancher and and became a shit-kicking dung beetle lover. She is a dynamic, enthusiastic, engaging and entertaining speaker. She showed us lots of cool pictures of dung beetles. She has now developed a keen interest in meso-soil fauna the bugs that are a little too small to be seen with the naked eye. She showed a video she made through a dissecting microscope of ants licking mites, tiny spiders and all kinds of interesting and colorful creatures that no one really knows much about yet. I have to get a dissecting microscope now so I can study these creatures too. At the end of the session I walked up to her and told her I had something to show her. I pulled up the sleeve of my shirt and showed her my dung beetle rolling a flaming ball of shit tattoo. She freaked out and said it made her day and would I please email her a photo of it. Of course I said I would. She is a big fan of citizen science. Many of the dung beetle photos were sent to her by a retired guy who became interested in them and started going out into the fields, kicking over piles of coyote shit, photographing the dung beetles he found and sending them to her. He has found 7 species of dung beetles that no one knew existed in the area where he lives because no one has taken the time to look.

In closing I want to give a shout out the the city of Chattanooga Tennessee where the conference was held. They are doing great things to make their city more sustainable and have been for many years. The conference center captures rainwater from its roof that is used to irrigate the plantings in the downtown area. They have a free electric shuttle bus that runs up and down the downtown district. They have curbside recycling twice a week for businesses in the downtown area. I imagine they do other things as well but these were the obvious things I saw during my 2 days there.

Thank you JUDITH WINFREY!!!! You are AWESOME!!!!

Tuesday, January 19, 2010

The Barley Project- Using Premaculture Principles to make decisions about growing food

I have been observing and analyzing the space beside the barn for several years now to determine what will be the best use of it to produce a good yield. Underlying the space is the drain field for our septic system. The previous owner used mowing as their maintenance strategy for the space. The lower edge is the property line. Beyond that on the neighbor's property are fairly mature canopy trees. Along the edge are some understory trees and shrubs which are good habitat for birds, small mammals, snakes and insects. Some of the chickens hid there to escape the marauding dogs that killed one of them a couple of weeks ago.
The soil is a clay loam. It is near the bottom of a slope. It is shady in winter but sunny enough for crops in the summer. The soil stays wet in the winter and is moist in the summer even in periods of little rain. The first summer we prepared beds and grew sunflowers, zinnias and other annual flowers. They did well. The following fall we planted a cover crop of annual rye and red clover with the intention of experimenting with growing organic no-till sweet corn. This worked fairly but I do not think it is the best approach for this area. Around the edges we are planting bramble fruits and small fruiting understory trees but we can't grow woody plants in the middle because their roots could clog up the drain field. Eventually we will be building a grey water system and a composting toilet which will eliminate that constraint.
I re-read Masanobu Fukuoka's book The One Straw Revolution this fall. In it he described growing barley as a winter crop followed by another summer crop. He said this was easy. Easy is good I thought so I decided to try it on a small portion of the space to test it out. I got organic barley seed from Howe Seeds, Inc. Yesterday raked away the weed stubble and scattered the barley seed. I spread a light covering of leaves we got from our neighbor's roadside leaf bagging service to hide them from the birds and provide a little shade and moisture retention while they germinate. It is going to rain in a couple of days so the seeds should get cranking soon. The literature says they should germinate in 2 days.
Why barley?
1. We like to eat barley.
2. chickens like to eat barley
3. Barley straw makes a good mulch
4. Barley straw is used in ponds to control the growth of algae. This could become a source of income for us selling mini-barley straw bales to local garden centers.
One technique used in permaculture is to divide a property into zones that radiate out from the house which in zone zero. Zone 1 is adjacent to the house where the most intensively managed activities occur such as a kitchen garden. Zone 2 would be perennial crops. Zone 3 orchard. We have all the space we need in zone 1 activities so Whatever we do in this space will be zone 2 and 3 uses. This growing season I plan to grow an interplanting of corn, winter squash, sweet potatoes and black eyed peas. The black eyed peas, being legumes, will provide nitrogen to the other crops. We will let them grow to maturity and harvest the dry beans. The squash and sweet potatoes will be harvested at the end of their respective seasons for storage. The corn will be harvested as roasting ears and the stalks chopped at the end of the season for mulch. This combination will provide a heavy canopy over the ground to shade out weeds and retain moisture reducing the meed for intensive maintenance.
If the barley experiment works we will plant the whole space with barley next winter and follow it with the interplanting described above. I am confident it will!

What permaculture principles came into plan in arriving at this plan of action for this space?
These are defined and defined by David Holmgren, co-originator with Bill Mollison of the permaculture concept, in his book Permaculture: Principles and Pathways Beyond Sustainability

1. Observe and Interact
2. Catch and store energy - sunlight, water, sustenance, human activity
3. Obtain a yield - food, mulch, straw, income
4. Apply self-regulation and accept feedback - experiment, observe results, try again
5. Use and value renewable resources
6. Produce no waste- everything in this micro-system is used to support it
7. Design from patterns to details- We used the patterns of plant succession to design the uses of the space. Forest to understory to edge to open field
8. Integrate rather than segregate- multiple species grown together to produce a whole that is greater than the sum of the parts
9. Use small and slow solutions - small experiments will lead to a productive use for the space
10. Value diversity - we mixed different plants that will attract a diversity of other organisms and produce diverse yields
11. Use edges and value the marginal
12. Creatively use and respond to change

Saturday, January 9, 2010


On New Years Day I planted a row of blueberries along the left side of the drive at the edge of the canopy of the large oak trees in my neighbor's yard. I started preparing the soil for them 2 years ago by spreading a thick layer of horse manure and sawdust bedding along the drive and planting a cover crop of annual rye grass and red clover. The following summer the cover crop was cut down and allowed to decay adding additional organic matter to the soil. A mulch of oak leaves covered the soil until I was ready to plant the blueberries. When I dug the holes for the blueberries i found a very soft, fluffy, humus-rich soil full of earthworms. They will love it here. On the right side of the drive you can just see the 2 pomegranates and the nanking cherry that I moved from the community garden late the previous fall. In a month or so I will be adding a couple of plum trees to this forest garden on either side of the drive near the top where it meets the street.

What is a forest garden? A forest garden is a garden (a deliberate arrangement of plants grown to meet a human need) that utilizes the layers of vegetation found in the forest and along the forest edge to produce food, fiber, fuel and building materials. A forest garden can have up to 7 layers as described by Robert Hart who developed the concept for temperate climates. The uppermost layer is occupied by the canopy trees, my neighbor's oaks in this example. The understory trees comprise the next layer. The plums, cherry and pomegranates fill this niche in my garden. The newly planted blueberries will make up the woody shrub layer. Later this spring we will be taking divisions of herbaceous perennials from our bugscaping planting to occupy the space between the trees and shrubs. A groundcover layer of wild strawberries is already thriving. We will add some clover to that to help build up nitrogen. I transplanted some salsify roots from the old community garden this fall . They will produce a beautiful orange flower in the spring followed by a seed head similar to a dandelion's. The seeds will be blown all over the garden adding a layer of deep rooted plants making up the 6th layer. This garden will not have a 7th layer which would consist of vines climbing up the trees and over the shrubs.

All of these different plants taken together form a whole that is greater than the sum of its parts. In permaculture this is called a guild. All of the plants in a guild contribute something to the community or guild that benefits the whole. The trees and shrubs provide homes and food for birds, insects and mammals. Their leaves shade the lower plants and when they fall they protect the soil from erosion and through the action of the other organisms in the soil food web they recycle nutrients. When we select the plants for the herbaceous perennial layer we will include plants that fix nitrogen to be shared among the neighbors and plants that provide food and habitat for beneficial insects. The groundcovers shade the soil and help prevent erosion. The deep tap root of the salsify will extract nutrients from the subsoil and make them available to the more shallow-rooted plants.

By including plants that fill all of the niches in the community, weed species will be excluded. Having all of the surface area covered by vegetation and mulch from the leaves keeps the soil cool and allows it to absorb and retain lots of water. Providing habitat for birds, mammals, lizards, snakes, spiders and insects creates an army of defenders working to ward off pests. This system will become mostly self-sustaining after a few years.

We like that because we are getting too old to work so hard.

Working on Meeting our Goals

We have 2 goals here at the Funny Farm; grow as much of our food as possible and earn our living from our activities here on the farm. This year we grew, ate and preserved all of our vegetables for the year. We added hens in the fall so we are getting eggs (not many during the winter). We will add more hens in the spring so we can have more eggs next winter and have some eggs to sell later on. We will also be adding ducks and geese on the pond this spring. These additions will provide more eggs and eventually meat. We plan to develop an aquaculture system in combination with our waterfowl production. I am currently researching how to put that together. I planted 11 blueberry bushes and have 3 plums and another cherry on order for planting in February. We added 2 more apples in the fall to our orchard. A friend gave us some dewberry vines that we will plant out when the ground thaws out. Of course it will be several years before we see any yields from the fruit plants. They are an investment in the future.

In early summer we realized that we were producing enough excess vegetables that it would be worthwhile for us to sell at a local farmer market. Robin has much experience making jams, jellies and pickles so we added those to our offerings at the market. From the beginning of June until the end of the year we harvested over 1300 lbs. of vegetables. We sold about $3000 in vegetables and value added products this year.

Last winter we started offering workshops on organic gardening and preserving. They were very well received and provided us with significant income. I continue to do design and garden construction work although, given the current economic climate those opportunities have dwindled. Already this year, however, I have gotten 2 design projects that will be centered on food production using permaculture principles. I market myself by being visible. I attend many meetings, make presentations at workshops and conferences. I write articles for local publications. I use all the social media: facebook, twitter, blogging. I connect with other bloggers and other "green" websites commenting on the posts. I learn a lot and the exposure makes it possible to find me in web searches.

Over the past year our income has been significantly less that it was in the past but our outgo in much less as well. We spend less on food and gasoline. We very rarely eat out or frequent bars. We like the quiet of the farm and I am a pretty good cook. We were never big consumers of stuff. We have spent a lot of energy divesting ourselves of a lot of accumulated stuff that we have no need for. If it doesn't help us meet our goals out it goes.

So how do we plan to further our efforts to reach our goals? Through better planning and better execution. Here are a few examples. Now that we know there is a market for our value added products we have added more plants that will produce crops that we can turn into jam and jelly. Last year we didn't grow bulb onions because we had plenty of welsh bunching onions. Robin's recipes for bread and butter pickles, relishes and chow chow use lots of onions. The welsh onions require a lot of labor to clean and prepare so we ended up buying bulb onions to speed up the process. This year we are growing bulb onions to use for pickle making. We observed at the market that all the other farmers sell squash. Squash is not easy to grow organically here because vine borers attack them and there is no effective organic method for controlling them. We decided that we will grow enough squash for us to eat and that is all. We don't eat much squash anyway so there is no point in our devoting a lot of space to growing it. We also observed that few farmers sell green beans at the market. We did well selling green beans. Being nitrogen accumulating legumes beans are important for increasing soil fertility. We interplanted them with our tomatoes last year with good success. We will be expanding our green bean production by interplanting them with other crops such as okra and corn.

I am finally ready to let go of the farm model of long straight rows of a single species. When we had plots in the community garden we grew lots of different crops mixed together. When we moved here we had the luxury of lots of space so I thought it would be more efficient to go back to rows for ease of harvesting and weeding. Well it was, but it was also an invitation for the insects to come and easily find and devour the fruits of our labor. This season i am going back to mixing in lots of different crops together, including beneficial insect attracting flowers, to confuse the pests. Our population of beneficials has become more plentiful and diverse as the land heals from the abuse of the former owners. I want to help them thrive. Our gardens will look very different this season.

Through the addition of compost, rock dust, kelp meal and cover crops our production has increased from the first year to last year. We want to increase our production by another 50% this year. I have seen signs by observing the plants that we have some nutrient imbalances that need to be corrected. As soon as the ground thaws I am getting the soil tested so i can get that taken care of. I should have done that when we first got here. I know that we will earn back the cost of the test and the amendments many times over through increased production.

By careful observation, accepting feedback and being open to new ideas we can move forward towards meeting our goals.

Saturday, January 2, 2010

Odds and Ends... I mean, Important Things Happening

1. I wrote another guest post for the Frugal Hostess about my preparing coq au vin for a dinner we hosted a couple of weeks ago. You can find it here. http://frugalhostess.blogspot.com/2009/12/lefix-concoqs-multinational-incident.html

2. We lost one of the hens today to one of our neighbor's marauding dogs. Rest in Peace Big Momma.

3. I am giving a workshop on small scale composting at the Georgia Organics Conference on Friday February 19th. Gonna be a great conference!

That is all.

A Brief History of how The Funny Farm Came into Being

When Robin and I first got married 36 years ago we had no real intentions for our life together. We loved each other and that was enough. Some how or other we stumbled onto Organic Gardening Magazine and Mother Earth News. We rented a house in Scottsville, Va and started our first organic garden in 1974. We read Frances Moore Lappe's book Diet for a Small Planet and became vegetarians. We joined a food coop. This was near the end of the hippie era when the mantra was turn on, tune in and drop out. That sounded pretty cool to us.
I got a job at a nursery. I liked the work and I quickly figured out that I could do a better job than the people I was working for so I went back to school to study ornamental horticulture at Va. Tech. I had always been interested in science so it was really fun for me to study all the different disciplines that are involved in growing plants. Entymology, soil science, organic chemistry; all were fascinating to me. One of my professors was a landscape architect. I had dealings with some landscape architects when I was working at the nursery. They spoke a language of design that was intriguing to me. I had dabbled in art all my life. I thought landscape architecture would be a good path to follow so I went to graduate school at the U. of Massachusetts. I was very shy back then and did not have a whole lot of self esteem. I was intimidated at first by being among a group of really smart people in what seemed almost like a foreign country to this naive southern boy. What if I couldn't measure up? I held my own and found my place. My professor Joe Volpe became my first mentor. He taught us a process of thinking through problems that can be applied to all of life's situation. Formulate goals and objectives. Analyze, synthesize, develop solutions. This process has become second nature and has served me well.

During my years in school we always had a garden and maintained our vegetarianism. After graduate school we had to figure out what to do next. We knew we did not want to move back to Virginia. We had some friends living in Atlanta so we decided to move there. We rented an apartment, got jobs and got caught up in city life. It was during that time that we lost our way for a while. We had no place for a garden. We were both working long hours. so fast food for lunch and bar food for dinner quickly became the norm for us. We had great fun going to see bands and drinking with friends at the bars. We bought a little fixer upper house in the city. We worked on fixing up the house. I designed and built a nice garden over a number of years. Once the garden was finished I wanted to move so I could build another garden so we bought a bigger house a mile away. That house had recently been remodeled so I concentrated all my efforts on the garden. After a while, we began to sense that something was amiss. I hated my job working for a landscape contracting company. I was the production manager. My job consisted of managing people, materials and frequently broken down equipment. I was becoming depressed. I finally quit. I felt the the best thing I had learned during that time was how not to run a landscape company. Again, I was sure I could do the same thing only better.

We had been talking about the idea of starting a business of some kind near where we lived. We were both tired of driving out to the suburbs every day to work. One day I drove by an empty lot a mile from our house when the proverbial light bulb came on in my head. That would be a good place to start a garden center, I thought. I spent 6 months working on a business plan. I visited all the local garden centers to get ideas for what not to do. We searched fo funding, found none. We scraped together what money we had and jumped in. That was the beginning of the Urban Gardener in 1998. Robin continued to work at her job selling advertising for a local newspaper while I built the business. After a couple of years we felt that the business could support us so Robin came on board to run the retail arm and I started the design build arm. When I was planning the business I wrote a mission statement as everyone did back then. Part of that statement was that we would be stewards of the planet. That was key to our decision-making. In the beginning organics was not really on people's radar yet. I searched for products like fertilizers, pest control and other things we could sell but there was not much available that would work for retail. We sold lots of a soil mix called Complete Landscape Mix which I had been using in landscape work for a while. It includes compost, worm castings, and granite sand. We carried Espoma fertilizers that were mostly organic. That was about it.

We were still spending a lot of time at the Earl, our favorite local watering hole. One night we were sitting at the bar when a loud, boisterous young woman yelled across the bar to us, "who the f**k are you people? ". So we went over to talk to her. During our drunken conversation we discovered that she had lived in the same small town in Virginia that we had lived in only 20 years later. She had a big organic garden there too. We immediately bonded. We said we were the same person. I guess that makes me the only person in the world who has been reincarnated while still living. Her name is Jennifer. This was in the fall of 2002. The following spring was when the second light bulb came on in my head as I was walking up the alley next the the vacant lot that was adjacent to the garden center. This time the thought was, "we should start a community garden on the vacant lot". I have no idea where that thought came from since I had never even seen a community garden. I called Jennifer ( who wasn't doing anything much at the time while she waited to start graduate school in the fall) and asked her if she wanted to help me start one. She said sure. So I started work on the physical plan while she did the research on how to manage it and reach out to the community to get the neighborhood involved. So she and I got to work starting a garden. We got lots of volunteer help through Fred Conrad at the Atlanta Community Food Bank. We recruited other gardeners, got a load of Complete Landscape Mix donated and the Urban Gardener Oasis Community Garden was born. It sure was great to be growing food again.

Interest in organics was picking up steam that year. Products were being produced in retail packaging. At our annual employee meeting at the beginning of the following year I proposed to everyone that we should go completely organic. No more pesticides, chemical fertilizers, only organic seeds. Everyone was totally enthusiastic about the idea so we became the first all natural garden center in the Atlanta area. We started carrying more vegetables, herbs, fruit plants and lots of native plants. Our customers totally embraced the idea as well and business was booming.

It was during this time that a young woman named Holly started working at the garden center. She had been a farmer at several organic farms in Georgia and Tennessee. She was really good at scouting for insect pests so pest management became her job in the nursery. She took a plot in the community garden too. She and I started traveling the country to increase our knowledge about organic production methods. We went to Oregon and took Elaine Ingham's soil food web and and compost tea workshop. We went to Milwaukee and took Will Allen's workshop at Growing Power. We went to Washington state to study mushroom production with Paul Stamets at Fungi Perfecti. We applied what we learned in the business and shared it with the community through classes at the community garden.

All these new and exciting goings on rekindled the dreams Robin and I had when we were first starting our life together. We starting thinking about getting some land outside the city on which to grow vegetables. Robin had mentioned this to our friend Charlie who lived in the suburbs east of the city. She would call us from time to time about some property she had seen, but nothing met our needs. One day in late June of 2007 she called Robin and said her angel had told her to turn right instead of left that morning and she passed by a property for sale that she thought we might be interested in. We made an appointment to visit the property the next day. We drove up to a rather plain looking ranch style house with an immaculate bermuda lawn in front. We were not particularly impressed. We rang the door bell, walked in side and we both gasped as we walked into this huge space with a 20' cathedral ceiling with giant south facing windows that looked out to a big barn and a 1/2 acre pond. A barn! and a Pond! We could barely contain our excitement as we dutifully went on the tour of the house with the agent. We wanted to go outside! We walked around the property by ourselves and talked about all the possibilities it offered. Gardens, fruit trees, mushrooms, aquaculture, animals! Woohoo! Just what we had been dreaming about. We put on our poker faces and told the agent we would get back with her soon. The next day we put an offer on the property. It was accepted. So all we had to do was sell our house in the city and we could move to our dream home. Well, the real estate market in the city had slowed down a lot recently so we were a little concerned. We called our real estate agent friend Brian and put our house in the market. Within a week we had a good offer on the house from a developer who was also buying the house next door to us. We were excited. However he was not able to get financing so the deal fell through. Oops! But Brian, being the super agent that he is found us another buyer within a week. So in less than a month we sold our house, packed up all our stuff and moved to Stone Mountain.

Georgia had been in a severe drought for a couple of years by this time. The powers that be decided they needed to do something to protect the drinking water supply. Their solution was to ban outside water use by the citizens. As you can imagine this decision was devastating to both our retail business and landscape business. We wanted to keep our crew intact, hoping for some improvement in the fall so we brought them out to our new place and started to reshape the property to meet our needs. We chopped and graded and tilled. We killed off the front lawn and planted a cover crop. We built a bunch of worm bins in the barn based on Will Allen's methods at Growing Power. We converted a former goat pen in the back of the barn into a chicken coop. We started our first small vegetable garden. It was the summer of 2007 when Holly and I took Paul Stamets' mushroom production workshop. That fall we held our first workshop one shittake mushroom production. It was a big success with about 25 people attending. The Funny Farm was starting to take shape.
The drought and water ban continued into the fall. We were forced to make the hard decision to close down our business. We stripped down the garden center, moving everything we thought we could use to our new place. Robin and I were at a loss as to what to do next. She had seen a vacant store front in East Atlanta village that she thought might be a good location for a small garden shop. We looked at it and decided to reopen the Urban Gardener on a much smaller scale there. Again we scraped together some money, built out the space and opened up early in the spring of 2008. We were fortunate to pick up a couple of good landscape jobs to help us limp through the continuing drought. Out in Stone Mountain I got to work that spring planting vegetables.
After we shut down our garden center the fate of the community garden was up in the air. We were living far away and had our own garden at our new place. The community garden no longer had access to water which had been supplied from the garden center. It ended up being abandoned. I dug up all of the fruiting perennials and insect attracting perennials and moved them to Stone Mountain. We had some fruit trees left when we closed down the garden center so we planted them in our new garden too.
Then in September the bottom dropped out of the economy. That, combined with the ongoing drought spelled the end of the Urban Gardener. We shut the business down, moved more stuff to the Funny Farm and pondered the future. Our friend Charlie, whose angel found our new place and who is a bonsai expert, was going to work with the monks at the Monastery of the Holy Spirit it reinvigorate their bonsai nursery. She recruited Robin to work with her at the monastery.
We had built a reputation as experts in sustainable and organic gardening techniques through our work at the garden center and the community garden. We were connected into an expanding network through our work with the local Bioneers group and with Georgia Organics. Once we decided to close the Urban Gardener for good I decided to capitalize on that and I offered a 6 week comprehensive workshop on organic gardening starting in February of 2009. It quickly sold out. We offered it again in the Spring and it sold out again! Some of our neighbors found out we were growing vegetables and asked if we could purchase the excess. Of course we said yes so a little market garden business sprouted. We were growing lots of vegetables so we started selling them at the Decatur Farmers Market. Robin was making jams, jellies and pickles that we sold there too. I was still getting some calls to do design and garden construction work from clients and friends of clients. We kept the Urban Gardener website going to help attract business. We were beginning to feel like we were going to be able to keep the Funny Farm going after all. Whew!
I was reminded of a couple of things during this ordeal. One is that tomorrow never comes and the other is that the future we imagine may never come. That is not to say that we should throw up our hands and do nothing, We need to plan for both, be adaptable and make contingency plans as well. When we moved to the Funny Farm we had 3 goals: Grow as much of our own food as possible; Earn all of the income we need from the farm; Develop a model of suburban permaculture that we can use to teach others how to grow their own food and to live their lives in a more sustainable manner. We have made good progress in reaching those goals. We produce all of our own vegetables now. We earn an ever-increasing portion of our income from the farm. We plan to have Robin working full time on the farm in the next couple of years. Our workshops are successful and our network is building. We will be hosting an introduction to permaculture workshop in March put own by our friends Isabel Crabtree and Bob Burns with the Central Georgia Permaculture Institute. I am doing a workshop composting at the Georgia Organics Conference in February. I am also a mentor in the Georgia Organics urban agriculture mentorship program.
We will continue to advance these goals as best we can. We will continue to focus our efforts on expanding our circle of influence and not concern ourselves about the things over which we have no control.
Life on the Funny Farm is good!