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, 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.

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!