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

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!