Category Archives: gardening

Organic Tomato Farm’s Soils Produce High Yields During Terrible Drought

Today’s post is reprinted by permission of Charles M. “Chuck” Benbrook, who is a research professor at the Center for Sustaining Agriculture and Natural Resources at Washington State University.

Long-time readers of this site know that healthy organic soils retain moisture far better during drought-stressed conditions. Today’s post offers a pretty profound example of that principle in action this past summer during California’s drought.

Charles Benbrook reports about an organic tomato farm in California and its amazing success even during last summer’s terrible drought. The numbers he includes in this article of tomato yields and rainfall are astounding in a positive good-news way for producers of every kind, everywhere. He attributes this tomato production “miracle” to the organic soil health of the long-standing farm. (Although, I suspect because it is “Northern California-coastal” it is also receiving some moisture in the way of fogs.) Then, he warns growers that if they wish to be resilient in future weather-stresses expected from climate change, they need to establish similar soils in their own growing fields.

It’s a win-win.

Better tasting tomatoes, lower input costs, and crop resiliency.

It is better to let Nature do the work for us, instead of destroying the natural systems and then repairing the damage to get the yields we’re after.
—Kay M.


Promoting Global Food Security One Crop of Tomatoes at a Time

By Chuck Benbrook

In early September I visited a remarkable organic farm on the coast of California. This farm has been in organic production for about 30 years, and its harvests of mostly organic tomatoes have been marketed through a variety of outlets in Northern California.

I arrived on the day picking had just begun on a sloping tomato field about 6 acres in size. The crop was exceptionally clean, with virtually no insect damage and few weeds. Minimal, organically approved control measures had been used, including applications of sulfur and releases of trichogramma (beneficial wasps), along with many hours of hand weeding.

One of every dozen-plus fruits had minor, cosmetic blemishing on the skin, typically where the tomatoes contacted the soil. Otherwise, the tomatoes were picture perfect. I can also vouch for their organoleptic quality, from a first-hand eating experience at a dinner during my stay. These tomatoes also, no doubt, contain markedly higher levels of health-promoting phenolic acids and Vitamin C, for reasons discussed in an earlier blog (“A Tale of Two Tomatoes,” February 23, 2013).

The grower has since reported that the field produced about 30,000 pounds of tomatoes per acre.

Farmers in other tomato-producing regions often produce substantially more per acre.  My friend and colleague Madeline Mellinger runs Glades Crop Care (GCC), South Florida’s major independent crop consulting firm.  She and the GCC staff scout and advise farmers on pest management across about 11,000 acres of tomatoes each year.  In their neck of the woods, conventionally grown tomato yields average 50,000 pounds per acre, and in all but unusual years, range from 35,000 to 65,000 pounds/acre. Yields of 60,000 pounds per acre are common.

So what’s the big deal about a 30,000 pound per acre organic tomato yield in sunny California, when Florida (and some other California) growers often produce twice that per acre?

This was a dryland field of organic tomatoes – no, none, zero supplemental irrigation had been applied.  The field was planted in April.  Detailed weather data is accessible from a nearby weather station, which I accessed upon return to my office.

On August 6th and 7th, the last measurable rainfall had fallen in the area (0.02 inches, or two one-hundredths of an inch, i.e. almost none).  July rainfall totaled 0.16 inch, and 0.04 inch fell in both May and June. A far-below average 0.45 inch fell in April, and only 1.12 inches came in March, usually one of the year’s wettest months.

Total precipitation for the 2014 production season was 1.83 inches.  On California’s irrigated fresh market tomato fields, around 30” of irrigation water is applied to bring a crop to market, and according to the USDA, average yields are about 35,000 pounds per acre.

Organic production + 1.83 inches of rainfall = 30,000 pounds of tomatoes.

Conventional production + 30 inches of irrigation water = 35,000 pounds of tomatoes.

If a drought-weary California is forced to look for new ways to conserve water, the performance of this organic farm is both impressive and hopeful, given that it produced over 16,000 pounds of tomatoes per inch of rainfall.  On a typical, irrigated, fresh market tomato field in California, experienced growers harvest about 1,200 pounds of tomatoes per inch of irrigation water, and somewhat less than 1,000 pounds per inch of rainfall-plus-irrigation water.

How could 30,000 pounds of tomatoes per acre be harvested on a field receiving so little rainfall?

It’s all about the soil. Over the last 30-plus years, this field has been in a complex rotation, with ample amounts of added organic material and routine cover cropping. The organic matter content of the soil has been increased about two-fold – from around 1.5% to about 3% — promoting rapid water infiltration (when it rains), as well as enhancing the soil’s water holding capacity.

So what does this un-irrigated, organic tomato field have to do with feeding the world?

Governments around the world are urging people to increase consumption of fruits and vegetables to at least four servings per day (the USDA recommendation is 5-8 servings/day). The population of California is currently 38 million, so each and everyday, the good citizens of the State should be consuming at least 152,000,000 servings of fruits and vegetables.  Surely, mankind does not live by tomatoes alone, but for the sake of making an important point, bear with me.

According to the USDA, one serving of fresh tomatoes weighs 90 grams, or 0.19842 pound (i.e., there are about five servings in one pound of tomatoes).  Accordingly, 1,005 acres of similarly managed, organic tomatoes yielding, on average, 30,000 pounds per acre, would produce enough tomatoes to feed 38 million Californians four servings of this vegetable for one day.  Year-round, at the same yield level, only 366,943 acres would be needed to assure 38 million Californians get their four servings of fruits and vegetables a day.

The surface area of California is about 101 million acres, of which about 30 million acres are classified as farmland.  About 6 million acres in California are regarded as “prime” farmland. Over 500,000 acres of California land are planted to cotton most years, and another 1.5 million produce hay.  Clearly, finding 366,943 acres to produce enough fruits and vegetables (F+Vs) for all Californians should not be a major problem, at least not for a very long time.

For 314 million Americans, and the 7 billion on Planet Earth, less than 3% of available, high quality agricultural land would be required to assure production of at least four servings of F+Vs a day, per capita, year round.

Doing so, and getting the tomatoes, citrus, berries, and potatoes to the people who need them, including the poor, remains an enormous challenge, but not because of land shortages, lower yields on organic farms, or even persistent drought. In years when drought, or too much rain and flooding, or an untimely freeze, reduces fruit and vegetable production in one region, other areas can pick up at least some of the slack.  And through new methods to preserve and store F+Vs, the nation could (and probably will someday) create a strategic F+V reserve.

As climate change and severe drought become more commonplace, the importance of building soil quality as a hedge against catastrophic crop failure will grow.  Experience and insights gained on long-term, well-managed organic farms will provide a benchmark of what can be accomplished and how healthier, richer soil can serve as a buffer against climate extremes. And this will promote global food security, one field at a time.


Photo via FlickrCC Mr.TinDC.

White Vegetables in My White Garden

It’s been six years since we moved to Boulder from Lincoln, Nebraska. I had a white garden there, and had begun to miss it.

Because some dirt work needed to be done around a basement window this spring which had been the source of some leaking during heavy rains and the flood last fall, my husband added to the project by removing a rectangle of grass around that window well so that I could again have a white garden. The spot is very harsh here in this climate, receiving only afternoon sun.

For the new garden, I started white zinnias, shasta daisies, and phlox from seed. I also ordered some white blooming prairie plants from High Country Gardens. And, because I expected that in its first year, the garden would be sparse, I thought I’d put white vegetables on the one end. For this, I started some chives, white pumpkins, and white eggplants from seed. Needless to say, the pumpkins took over more than their share of the garden by early August but when I harvested them a couple weeks ago, I was not sorry.

Here, I must put in a plug for the source of my seeds, John Sheepers Kitchen Garden Seeds, because all of the seeds from them which I used to start this garden were true. They were white and they all turned out to be what they were supposed to be. I can’t say that for other seed starting experiences I’ve had in the past and it’s a lot of work to start seedlings and nurture them into garden plants. You don’t want to waste your time with poor seeds and who can you trust?

We’ve only had a light frost here so far, and my white garden is blooming very nicely on this mid-October date. It was well worth the effort. Yesterday, I planted white bulbs into it: crocus, daffodils, and tulips. I can hardly wait for next year and it hasn’t even frosted yet.

Here are a few photos for you.


Bee on a white coneflower.


Blanca eggplant started from seed.


Boer Ford flat pumpkins started from seed. Note black cat in background.

As you can see, we’re more than ready for Halloween at our house!

Leaf Illustrations and Charts to Help Diagnose Plant Nutrient Deficiencies

For the farmer or gardener, it is important to be able to read your plant. The seasoned grower develops an intuitive sense over time in response to plant signals of stress. The key is observing and being able to notice unhealthy leaves, and developing the ability to understand what the plant’s leaf is telling you. Something to note is that a young leaf’s message differs from an old leaf’s message. In this post, I have assembled a number of good graphics to help you do just that. While there is some overlap between the illustrations, they should be helpful as a whole in helping you figure out your specific problem.

PLANT LEAF CHART OF NUTRIENT DEFICIENCIES


Credit: Twitter @FarmerRaviVKV “Plants speak to us through their leaves what they want. Farmers must keenly understand the language of his plants.”


DIAGNOSING NUTRIENT DEFICIENCIES CHART


Credit: Twitter @trouttroller Day 2 of #canoLAB14. John Mayko with a great slide depicting location of nutrient deficiency symptoms.


SIMPLE PLANT DEFICIENCY GUIDE


Credit: Twitter @JSKProperty. Plant deficiency guide – Some possible problems because of nutrient deficiency or even too much of any one nutrient.


CORN LEAF NUTRIENT DEFICIENCY ILLUSTRATION


Credit: farmwifediary.blogspot


CHART OF NUTRIENT DEFICIENCY SYMPTOMS IN PLANTS



Credit: Atlantis Hydroponics.
For more charts showing the inter-relationships between nutrients (excess-induced deficiencies) see this PDF, also from Atlantis Hydroponics.


LEAF DEFICIENCY GUIDE (MAPLE LEAVES)





Credit: CANNA.


NUTRIENT DEFICIENCY FLOWCHART – OLD AND NEW LEAVES – CHLOROSIS AND NECROSIS


Credit: UNKNOWN


NUTRIENT ANTAGONISMS CHART


Credit: UNKNOWN


NUTRIENT DISORDERS MARIJUANA LEAVES



Credit: mjforum


DEFICIENCIES AND ABUNDANCE OF FERTILIZATION ELEMENTS (MARIJUANA LEAVES)



Credit: OCK.PEACE.ORG


NUTRIENT DEFICIENCY SYMPTOMS – Citrus


Credit: Twitter @247Garden. Nutrient deficiency symptoms at a glance! #growing #gardening #hydroponics #green Courtesy of NATESC and IPCC.


AQUATIC PLANTS – LEAF NUTRIENT DEFICIENCY


Credit: Zapins at Aquatic Plant Central. Plant Deficiency Picture Diagram for aquatic plants.


CHART EXPLAINING LEAF NUTRIENT DEFICIENCY


Credit: Hawaii.edu. Plant Nutritional Deficiencies Symptoms chart.


If you have any links to other great graphics on this subject, please leave them in the comments.

What is a Keyhole Garden?


Global Service Corps photo of Tanzanian keyhole garden.

A keyhole garden is a type of raised bed that contains compost and it is higher in the middle so that water flows into the growing bed area. These gardens are being taught to African farmers and they are becoming more popular in drier regions such as parts of Texas. They are popular among permaculturists, too. The following video explains how to make one.

20 Organic Recipes and Products to Control Bugs, Pests and Weeds


Photo by Andy Potter.

It is that season when those of us who garden or farm try to protect our produce and crops from a very long list of pests. Below, I’ve compiled a list of 20 products, hints, and household recipes which may be useful to you in combatting the pests and weeds in your garden.

1. Orchard/Apple tree pest recipe: You need an old cleaned plastic gallon milk jug. Cut a 3 inch diameter hole on the side-top, leaving the jug’s handle intact. Add to the jug a banana peel, 1 cup of sugar, and 1 cup of apple cider vinegar. Add a few cups of hot water and mix until the sugar dissolves. Hang 1-3 of these prepared jugs near the trunk of your apple tree. Replace the solution as needed throughout the summer, starting early. (My sister-in-law swears by this and has used this recipe for 20 years in our farm’s wonderful old McIntosh Apple tree.) Try on any other fruit tree, too, especially pear and cherry.

2. To kill weeds use a 10% vinegar spray (is about twice as strong as household vinegar). You may add a little soap, too.

3. Clove oil works to kill weeds and bugs. It is best for wide-leafed weeds. To make clove oil weed spray, pour 10-20 drops of clove essential oil into an empty spray bottle. Fill the remainder of the spray bottle with tap water, close tightly and shake well. Use as needed. Clove oil has fungicidal, herbicidal and insecticidal properties in addition to being a weed killer.

4. Herbicidal and/or insecticidal soap based products such as “Safer” are available commercially. Non-toxic herbicide sprays are more effective if you spray the weeds when they are young and during full sun. Get the tops and the undersides of the leaves.

5. Dried or liquid molasses can be used to kill weeds and insect pests including fire ants. It also enriches the soil. Apple cider vinegar and molasses have been used together to fight fungal diseases.

6. Fill a milk jug half-full with water and add 1/2 cup of milk. Use in a spray bottle to control powdery mildew.

7. Home Recipe for Bug Spray #1: 1 teaspoon vegetable oil + 1 teaspoon dish soap + 1 teaspoon baking soda. Add to a quart of water in spray bottle and shake before using for aphids and other bugs.

8. Home Recipe for Bug Spray #2: Mix several cloves of crushed garlic, ¼ cup canola oil, 3 tablespoons hot pepper sauce and ½ teaspoon liquid soap in 1 gallon of water, mix well. Put into spray bottle, shake well before using.

9. Home Recipe for Bug Spray #3: Blenderize or finely chop one garlic bulb and one small onion. Add 1 teaspoon of powdered cayenne pepper and mix with 1 quart of water. Steep 1 hour, strain through cheesecloth, then add 1 tablespoon of liquid dish soap to the strained liquid. Mix well. Spray plants, including leaf undersides. Store the mixture for up to 1 week in a labeled, covered container in the refrigerator.

10. Use boiling water to kill weeds in sidewalk cracks.

11. 4-Legged Pests: 1) Keep out deer, rabbits, raccoons, and cats by placing rags soaked in white vinegar on stakes around your vegetables. Re-soak the rags every 7-10 days. 2) For deer, blend 2 eggs and a cup or two of cold water at high speed. Add this mixture to a gallon of water and let it stand for 24 hours. After 24 hours, spray on foliage. The egg mixture does not wash off easily, but re-application 2-3 times a season may be needed. 3) For deer, mix together 1 tablespoon of baking powder + 1 egg yolk + 1 litre of water. Spray plants every 2-3 weeks. 4) Use the ScareCrow motion sensor water sprinkler. 5) Use Nite Guard Solar lights which are motion sensored to scare away your night time visitors.

12. Tobacco as pest repellent for caterpillars, aphids, other insects, rabbits, and slugs: Soak 1/2 cup chewing tobacco in 1 cup Listerine mouth wash plus 2 cups water for 1-3 days. Strain, and spray affected plants.

13. Marigolds and nasturtiums help control bugs by attracting them, so intersperse these flowers through out the vegetable and squash garden. For the squash bug, try to plant resistant varieties such as the butternut, acorn, zucchini, and cheese squashes, or set traps, such as cardboard or flat rocks under the plants. They will hide under the cardboard or rock, and then you can destroy them.

14. Use salt or salt water to kill slugs.

15. BT spray works well for worm prevention for the cruciferous vegetables like broccoli, Brussels sprouts and cabbage. If you see those little white butterflies in your garden, get the BT spray out. (See top photo) Bioinsecticide BTSD spray works for very young potato beetles, too.

16. Mulches: To kill or prevent weeds, use corn meal, or, corn gluten meal mulch which also provides nitrogen fertilizer while smothering out the weed seeds. Chipped wood mulch 2-6 inches thick helps control weeds. Gravel mulch works well for xeriscape plantings. Hay or straw mulch is good in the garden, but remember it may contain seeds. Shredded leaf mulch (cold mulch) in the fall improves soil microbiota and fungi. Or, organic farmers commonly use black plastic (mulch) around row crops to prevent weeds.

17. Flame weed propane torches can be used to kill weeds.

18. For mechanical weed removal, experiment to find your favorite hoe or tool. There are many kinds on the market, with both long and short handles. I love the short handled Japanese Nejiri Weeder hoe. A great gardener friend prefers the winged weeder; another, the stirrup, or scuffle hoe.

19. Row crop cover fabric helps control insect pests. It may be used on potatoes or squash or any crop being plagued by insects.

20. For a bug repellent for yourself as you work in the garden, try mixing lavender with vinegar. Put dried lavender into a bottle and add 2 cups of vinegar. Let set for a week to infuse. Strain to remove lavender. Dab on skin when working outdoors. For a natural fly repellent for cattle, try pyrethrin (an extract of chrysanthemums) sprays. Or, make your own natural fly sprays by combining one cup vegetable oil, two cups vinegar, one cup water and one tablespoon essential oil (clove, eucalyptus, mint, citrus or citronella).

YOUR TURN… If you have any favorite weed and pest remedies, please leave in the comments below to share with other organic growers. Let us know what does or doesn’t work best for you.