Category Archives: permaculture

Bioregional Agriculture in Colorado

“Our food system is broken. What kind of society do we live in that pays all of our farmers to grow the same five crops? —Adam Brock”

Adam Brock, who helped found Denver’s by-now-famous GrowHaus*, tells us that we need a bioregional cuisine here in Colorado not unlike the Cajun food found in the Gulf area. Because we live in a region with very little precipitation, we need to start listening to the land, because we can only get our crops that we do today by working against nature. By growing bioregional food here on the High Plains, we’d use less water and produce food with better nutrition. He suggests eating foods such as a salad made with Sorrel, Bison, and Nopali (Prickly Pear Cactus).

Brock explains that Colorado’s farmers have to play into the commodities markets to compete economically with a result that our state’s top crop is wheat, followed by corn, hay, millet, sorghum, and sunflowers. Showing us a pie chart of the state’s water allocations in 2011 (@3:35), 44 percent of Colorado’s water goes to irrigation for agriculture and 30 percent to power generation.

Here is his list of plants that he recommends we eat and plant in our gardens, because they are native and/or suited to our climate:

• Nopal cactus – prickly pear cactus
• Sunchoke (also known as earth apple or Jerusalem artichoke)
• Sorrel (lower right photo)
• Sea Buckthorn
• Currant
• Burdock
• Amaranth
• Goji berry
• Goumi
• Jujube
• Lovage
• Nanking cherry
• New Zealand Spinach
• Prairie turnip
• Western Sand Cherry
• Yellowhorn

Brock has a website (atriplex.org) which lists more plants he recommends for food that work with nature here in Colorado.

He is also instrumental in helping to plan Denver’s first public food forest.

You may listen to his great talk here:

*****

*The GrowHaus is a half-acre greenhouse in an under-served area of Denver which uses aquaponics to produce fresh greens and vegetables to its local community at prices “less than Walmart’s”.

Also recommended: Seattle creates a public food forest; Hardy Perennials for your small farm; and, Denver’s GrowHaus website.

Photos: Wikipedia and GrowHaus.

Hardy Perennial Plant Suggestions for your Acreage or Small Farm

There is a very remarkable nursery in Northeastern Nebraska, near the farm where I grew up, called HH Wild Plums Inc. It was founded by the famous (but not as famous as he should be) horticulturalist plant finder, Harlan Hamernik. He passed away tragically in 2012, and I wrote up a brief tribute to him here.

Though Hamernik introduced many new plants to the gardeners across the U.S. over his lifetime, he focused in his later years on neutraceuticals, or, healthy edibles and medicinals, some of which were used by Native Plains Indians. Especially, this interest was from those sources which were in the form of perennials, shrubs, and trees – something the Midwest is not known for in our current day and age, but were key to the health of the nomadic tribes which preceded us.

Today, I interviewed Tammy Melcher of “HH Wild Plums” to get an update on this nursery which was founded by Harlan Hamernik for the purpose of promoting sales and the popularity of these hardy edible plants which he studied and discovered. She and plant propagator-grower, Lori Pfeifer, are instrumental in their small operation.

My impression of Harlan from personal experience, was that he was an incredibly intuitive plantsman, so readers, pay attention.

First, I asked Tammy to list five plants and a couple of trees that she would recommend to farmers/landowners who would like to incorporate edible or medicinal perennials into their farm, either as a hobby, or as a value-added crop or food product. Note that this list works in Nebraska, but most of these plants are extremely hardy and would grow well in much of the U.S., especially the Midwest and Upper Midwest.

Here is her list:
1. Aronia (8-10′ shrub)
2. Crandall’s Clove Currant (6×6′ shrub)
3. Redleaf Rose (7×7′ shrub)
4. Elderberry (7×7′ shrub)
5. Serviceberry (10×10′ shrub)
6. Tree: American Hazelnut (18′ tall)
7. Tree: Dwarf Chinkapin Oak (10-15′ tall)

There was no doubt that Tammy was most enthused about the Aronia plant which produces the common named “chokeberry”. She’d just returned from an Aronia conference in Omaha, and the awareness of this plant is catching on a bit, but, she said, “ninety percent of the public doesn’t know about it.” In general, the dark blue, purple and black berries contain high levels of antioxidants, making them superberries, or superfoods. We all know that blueberries are a superfood, but, according to Tammy, the Aronia berry contains three times the amount of antioxidants that blueberries do. (Note there is a current question about the benefits of antioxidants in this past year’s news and studies.) Indians used these berries as an ingredient in Pemmican. High tannin levels make these berries tart, thus the name “chokeberry”. The bright side of this is that birds tend to leave them alone, as opposed to other berries which you need to cover with netting, or pick before the birds do.

Incidentally, Tammy was not aware of sending Aronia plants to Colorado, and thought they would do very well here on the front range, so Colorado readers take note.

Three varieties of Aronia which Tammy recommends are Black Aronias: Aronia melanocarpa ‘Galicjanka’; Aronia melanocarpa ‘Viking’; and, Aronia melanocarpa ‘McKenzie’. ‘Galicjanka’ is a cultivar from Poland which tolerates drier soil conditions; ‘Viking’ is from Scandinavia and produces very large fruits; and, ‘McKenzie’ was produced at North Dakota State which has extra-large berries, and is drought and cold tolerant. These shrubs need chill hours so don’t grow in the South. They are drought tolerant once established, and they produce beautiful fall color.

Aronia berries are used in smoothies, salsas, jellies, breads and muffins, and for wine. A supplement form is available which uses a powder to create an extract. A company in Omaha, named “Superberries” owned by Kenny Sailors, uses Aronia berries to make products such as gummy chews, frozen berries, and concentrate. Also, according to Tammy, the Black Squirrel Winery in Council Bluffs, Iowa, makes a great wine using Aronia berries.

The next shrub on Tammy’s list is Crandall’s Clove Currant, or Ribes odoratum ‘Crandall’. This shrub also produces a black medicinal berry which is high in antioxidants and polyphenols. This grows in rich well-drained clay soil to plant hardiness zone 4.

The Redleaf rose is a beautiful hardy shrub rose producing a hip rich in Vitamin C. I have personally grown this in my yard and love the iridescent blue-green sheen to its leaves. If you grow it, as an added bonus you will occasionally have a volunteer pop up in your yard. Also, Rosa Pomifera, or the apple rose, is a good hardy choice which produces good fruit. One can make tea from the rose hips of either plant.

Elderberries, or Sambucus species, are another hardy shrub which produces a black berry that is high in Vitamin C and antioxidants. These grew wild when I was a child and I used to help my grandmother pick them to make jelly. I’ve personally picked them from road ditches to make a pretty darn good pie, if you don’t mind the seeds. Even better, you can make a combination berry pie such as elderberry-cherry. Elderberries grow across the U.S., but are less drought-tolerant.

The Serviceberry, or Amelanchier canadensis, produces large black berries that are loved by both humans and birds. They make delicious jams and pies. A good variety is alnifolia ‘Parkhill’ which is a dwarf.

Next, the two trees on Tammy’s list.

The American Hazlenut is formally named Corylus Americana. It is a small tree which produces an edible nut. It likes afternoon shade and requires two trees for nut production.

The Dwarf Chinkapin Oak is a great native shrub oak. By 3-4 years of age, it produces a nut which is valued by wildlife. These nut producers are about 15-18 feet tall, but can be trained shorter. Hamernik would collect this tree’s seeds from the wild, as is true of many of the plants which Wild Plums sells.

HH Wild Plums Inc. has a great catalogue online plus, they will be happy to send you a nice spiral bound hardcopy, such as the one I have lying next to my computer as I type this. There are many, many more varieties of trees and shrubs, along with unusual varieties of perennials, annuals, and vines available from their nursery.

If you have a favorite hardy native edible, please let us know about it in the comments.

Photo credit: Purple Aronia berries, by Konjica.

DIY Solar Powered Tractors

Solar tractors are around — if you pay attention. Supposedly, there is one here in my own Boulder County which I hope to seek out someday and make a post about, but until then this post offers a sampling of “what’s out there.”

Most solar tractors are do-it-yourself projects, happily taken on by the frustrated-would-be-engineer, and so each one is different and innovated by its unique designer.

In this post, I’ve put together a few links, which if followed, will give you some ideas of what a few of these innovators have created for their own personal farm use.


The above is a solar tractor at the Ann Arbor Farmers Market in 2008, taken by Mouly Kumaraswamy (FlickrCC). It looks as if its owner-maker is plugging the battery pack into a solar array system for re-charging, instead of putting panels on the tractor’s roof, like many other models.

On the Homesteading Today forum, the builder of the solar tractor in the photo above describes how he made the tractor, and there are other photos of this labor and back saving creation at the link. He calls it his P-Machine: P for Planting/Picking/Pulling weeds and Putting around the garden.

This (above) tractor is featured on the Solar Car and Tractor website. It is a heavier duty tractor, weighing 3700 pounds (with batteries), on a Ford 8N tractor model. With 12 HP, a 1300 pound battery pack lasts for about two hours, capable of plowing or harrowing a half-acre in that amount of time.

The same website also features another solar tractor using a Farmall Cub.

Mother Earth News, this month, includes a small solar-powered tractor being used on a 30-acre farm in Arkansas. Its innovator used a 1950 Ford scrap tractor for the frame. With its roof top solar array, it uses eight batteries and runs for two hours following an 8 to 10 hour charge. Its power is similar to a gas or diesel tractor, according to the owner, who says it is perfect for the needs of their small farm. Go here to see the Mother Earth story which includes two nice photos of the tractor. To watch a video of the tractor working, go here.

If any readers here know of other solar tractors that they’ve seen or read about, please add links or descriptions, in the comments below this post.

ADDITIONAL LINKS:
Permaculture Electric Tractors
Youtube video of Steve Heckeroth’s Solar Tractor
Youtube video of 1954 Farmall Howe Converted Electric Tractor

An Interview with Cornell’s Dr. Erika Styger about the System of Crop Intensification (SRI-Rice)


Mechanical weeding in a rice field using SRI in Punjab, India. Photo credit: Cornell SRI-Rice.

K.M.: The following is a rare, up-to-date, and exceptional interview of the very busy Dr. Erika Styger, Director of the SRI International Network and Resources Center (SRI-Rice) of Cornell University, about the System of Rice (or Crop) Intensification.

Q: Let’s start out by explaining what SRI is, because many people still have never heard of it, even though the techniques have been known for many years.

The System of Rice Intensification, known as SRI is an agro-ecological methodology for increasing the productivity of irrigated rice by changing the management of plants, soil, water and nutrients. SRI originated in Madagascar in the 1980s and is based on the cropping principles of significantly reducing plant population, improving soil conditions and irrigation methods for root and plant development, and improving plant establishment methods.

The benefits of SRI have been demonstrated in over 50 countries and include: 20%-100% or more increased yields, up to a 90% reduction in required seed, and up to 50% water savings. SRI principles and practices have been adapted for rainfed rice as well as for other crops (such as wheat, sugarcane and teff, among others), with yield increases and associated economic benefits.

SRI, or the System of Rice Intensification has made a big difference in the lives of 4-5 million smallholder farmers world wide. It is a system which offers a good way to develop more productive agriculture while using ecological methods. SRI is an “open-source” method with no ownership and no patents.

There is no money to be made by large industry and companies, just the farmers. Farmers can tell you how well it has worked for them; they are the experts with this system. With a bottom-up solution like this, it is evident that it takes more time to be known. There is also still little funding going towards spreading the knowledge about SRI, supporting farmers and collecting and learning from the success stories from the field. It’s the best innovation you never heard about.

Q: The System of Rice Intensification (SRI), which is also called the System of Crop Intensification (SCI), or the System of Root Intensification (SRI), has had great success among small shareholder farmers in many countries around the world. Please describe the various directions being taken with the knowledge of SRI.

SRI was developed through a multi-year observation process and through tests by Father de Laulanie, a French Jesuit missionary in Madagascar in the early 1980s. He synthesized the combination of practices that he called, in French, “le Système de Riziculture Intensive” or SRI. Since the late 1990s, SRI has been validated outside of Madagascar and spread quickly to many countries in Asia, Africa, and Latin America. An essential result was that the applied SRI methodology resulted in improved yields with less inputs in all of the different climates where rice is grown. Since 2005, SRI farmers and technicians, intrigued by the concept of SRI, started to apply the SRI principles to other crops, and thus the System of Crop Intensification (or SCI) emerged through innovation processes directly from the field.

SCI has created very good results with other cereal crops such as finger millet, wheat, the Ethiopian teff, but also with sugar cane, legumes, and vegetable crops. We use ‘SCI’ as a generic term for all other crops besides rice. For a specific crop the term is adapted, for example for wheat, System of Wheat Intensification or SWI is used. The term System of Root Intensification was coined in India, indicating the importance of the root system growth in developing a healthy and productive agriculture. As SRI is a non-proprietary, open-source methodology, new terms are created especially in local languages that often reflect how people relate to the SRI method.

This is fine and we don’t like to comment or insist how people should use the terminology. At SRI-Rice, we decided to keep with the traditional term SRI (System of Rice Intensification) and apply SCI (System of Crop Intensification) as a collective term for all other crops. We also use the acronyms for specific crops, such as SWI for wheat.


Afghanistan rice field – marking planting grid. Photo credit: Cornell SRI-Rice.

Q: While use of the system increases production for farmers, it is still labor intensive. Please comment on the tools, small machinery advancements, and labor involved in using the System of Rice Intensification.

SRI was developed in smallholder farming conditions, which are based until today on manual labor. The optimal use of the recommended SRI practices involves changes in labor allocation and labor use for the different crop management steps, starting from soil preparation, to nursery establishment and management, transplanting, weeding, and fertilization, as well as water management. Being efficient in labor use is always of concern.

If SRI is more labor demanding or not depends on the type of rice cropping system we start out with. There is of course a learning curve for changing the cultivation practices, which takes time and can make SRI in the beginning more time consuming. Once farmers get used to the SRI system, labor requirements are often reduced, and even cited as one of the reasons why farmers adopt SRI – for instance in India. In areas with very small plot sizes and where rural labor is available, farmers have little problems to switch to SRI. Where labor is expensive and rural workers find better paying jobs outside of agriculture, the development and use of tools and machines becomes an important factor. Also, in areas with a lot of land, e.g. some places in Africa, farmers are restricted to the available family labor in how much land they cultivate.

With simple tools or machines, farmers would be able to plant larger areas. In areas that are already highly mechanized, such as Latin America, it is a question of developing the right machines, or SRI will not have a chance to be adopted. Another case is Northern Haiti, where rice farming is in the hands of old men. Labor is available but it is not economical to pay for it as the margins of rice production are very small. With higher benefits from the SRI system, rice production can suddenly interest the younger generation to reconsider agriculture. Thus each region and country has its specificity. Labor is part of the equation but more important is the economic return and what needs to happen (including mechanization and other innovations) so that the agricultural systems can benefit from the SRI principles “to produce more with less”.

There are a number of tools and equipment that can facilitate the tasks, such as transplanting or direct seeding, and importantly weeding with manually pushed or motorized weeders. Developing and making appropriate equipment accessible for different farm-sizes, mechanization levels, and climate and soil conditions remains a challenge in many countries. That is why SRI-Rice wants to support an SRI equipment innovators exchange network, which allows innovators to exchange on designing, testing and using new equipment. The goal is to recommend equipment that is appropriate for specific farming situations, and providing information where the equipment can be accessed or acquired.


In Afghanistan field. Photo credit: Cornell SRI-Rice.

Q: Please tell us about studies using this system on wheat. Does it hold promise for wheat production?

SRI principles were applied to wheat first in India in 2005, but then also in Ethiopia and Mali since 2008, and more recently in Nepal. The idea to apply SRI principles to wheat came from SRI-rice farmers and technicians. In these countries, wheat is usually broadcast. Farmers changed the practices by direct seeding one or two seeds per hill planted in line, with about 15-20 centimeter spacing between the hills. Applying organic matter to soil and using a simple hand pushed weeder were the other practices adapted from SRI. The results were and are remarkable, with most often doubling of yields. Where traditionally, farmers would harvest 1.5-2.5 tons per hectare of wheat, with SWI farmers can reach 4-5 tons per hectare.

As wheat is often irrigated in the dry season, it is also possible to reduce the number of irrigations to the crop, as the organic matter improved soils retain the water longer. I have been personally associated with the introduction of SWI to Mali in the Timbuktu region, where I worked for 3 years between 2007-2010. The most impressive difference between SWI and traditionally grown wheat was the elongation of the panicles under SWI, which was almost doubled in size, and by producing fuller and larger grains.

In Northern India, Mali, Ethiopia, and Nepal wheat is a staple crop, mostly planted on small plots. Farmers bake their own chapatti or bread. With doubling yields with SWI, women farmers in Bihar were able to produce a 7-8 month of flour supply for their family, compared to 3-4 months previously. It also seems that SWI is easier to manage than SRI, so for instance in Northern India, the adoption rate is very high.


SWI-grown wheat at harvesting. Lalbojhi, Kailali, Nepal. 2011. Photo credit: Cornell SRI-Rice.

Q: If there are trials going on here in the U.S., can you briefly describe them to us?

SRI trials in the US have only recently started. They are not undertaken by the commercial large-scale rice growers, but by small organic farmers who are looking for ecological and productive innovations. We are aware of a number of tests in South Carolina in this 2013 growing season. We also know of a few organic vegetable farmers in New Jersey and New York who are growing rice for the first time in their environment this year.

Interest in the SRI methodology lies in being able to grow rice in non-flooded and aerobic soil conditions, which is also expected to reduce arsenic uptake for rice. Of course good productivity and producing a healthy crop are other incentives for these farmers to work with the SRI method. It will be interesting to evaluate this year’s trials.

Q: As your research has shown, where do you think the most promising areas are in using this system of crop growing including futuristic applications? Should home gardeners be adding it to their methods?

The SRI system and methodology can be applied to any crop and any system. The combination and application of the principles strives to optimize the resources available to the plant, to minimize stress for the plants, and to give each individual plant its room and environment where it can thrive best in. We are used to such an approach for high value crops but not for grain crops and other field crops. We also are aware today, with climate change and water scarcity in many locations, that the conventional paradigm of intensification that is based on ‘putting more to produce more’ is just not working
for us anymore.

SRI systems teaches us that we can “produce more by using less”. We should learn anew how to work WITH the plants and the environment for allowing them to express their best inherent potential! This has allowed farmers to return to heirloom and old varieties, as they become more productive under SRI and thus can become economically interesting again. SRI is about observation and paying attention to your crop, and it is one of many agro-ecological approaches, concentrating on crop production.

Others, to name a few, are: the integration of livestock with agriculture, conservation agriculture, and agroforestry. SRI is a knowledge-based approach, and once farmers have learned about the new principles, they can become more independent in improving their agriculture. It is fascinating to see the transformation of farmers, for instance in Mali, who have started working with SRI, becoming so much more confident and entrepreneurial in developing their own innovations. We need new approaches and we will not find them in single-bullets, but by working with the agro-ecological system and by putting plants and animals in their best environment.

Q: How much time is involved in training farmers to use this system? Are there any efficient training programs going on which may become a standard?

Ideally farmers are trained practically. This can be done in 3-4 days, where demonstration plots are put in place by the trainees and important practices exercised and discussed directly in the field. Ideally, training of trainer approach is pursued, where the trained farmer teaches other farmers in his or her community, therefore multiplying the outreach. It is advantageous, if the farming community or village community gets organized around how to spread the knowledge best among their fellow farmers.

To obtain the best impact is when a technician can follow up periodically with farmers for 1-2 cropping seasons, in order to adapt the SRI practices to the local farming conditions. Thus, training on SRI practices is knowledge intensive at first to have the best impact. Nevertheless, there are a lot of self-starters out there – who read about SRI and get it implemented. We have a large collection of technical guidelines and manuals on our website for many countries and many languages.

At SRI-Rice we are in the development of an approach for training and data collection that can be widely shared and accessed by anybody who is interested.

Q: Tell us about the research program on SRI-Rice at Cornell. What are your goals? How large is your staff?

The SRI International Network and Resources Center (or SRI-Rice) was established three years ago with support from Jim Carrey’s Better U Foundation (BUF), in response to the increasing importance of SRI practices – an environment-friendly, yield-increasing methodology — around the world. To date, significant productivity improvements have been achieved in over 50 countries.

Our mission is to advance and share knowledge about the System of Rice Intensification and to support networking among interested organizations and individuals around the globe. We would like to see any farmer worldwide being able to access information and obtain knowledge about the SRI system, allowing them to apply the gained knowledge to improve their cropping systems. We focus on improving food security and reducing poverty, therefore concentrate to work with smallholder farmers in Asia, Africa and Latin America.

We built and maintain the largest website on the System of Rice Intensification, which is updated daily. We report on the progress of 50 different countries, we maintain the most complete research database on SRI, we link to extension manuals in many languages, and we publish reports for partners who don’t have a web presence. We also have a large photo and video library.

Additionally, we contribute to analysis, identify trends and write about innovations that emerge from the field. We also support the networking at the global level by linking people and institutions with each other on a daily basis. Beyond that, we are currently developing larger initiatives that respond to identified priorities. These include developing a training and data monitoring approach that can easily be shared with and accessed by interested parties; and, developing and supporting regional initiatives in Latin America, West Africa and Asia.

We like to create regional communities of practice where people can exchange with each other, train and learn from each other, and work on location specific innovations with each other. We are currently in the launching process of the West Africa SRI Initiative, where SRI-Rice will provide technical support to 13 countries. For Latin America, we are currently building up communication in the Spanish language and identifying a community of interested partners. For Asia, it is a matter of linking the already strong national networks with each other for an improved multi-country exchange.

Two other priorities are the development of an international research network and the development of an international mechanization exchange network. We are currently two staff members with part-time support by a senior advisor. We work with students and leverage a lot of work through partners around the world. Our collaborations rely on demand-driven relationships with dedicated people. People, as well as students find us and we identify ways to collaborate, so that they can pursue their projects, research, or other activities.

Nevertheless, we are not enough staff given the high demand and considering what needs to be done. Also, we are not strictly a research program, but rather an outreach and extension program with research components, as indicated in our mission and activities.

Q: Anything you would like to add?

If anybody likes to start or has started working with the SRI methodology for rice or other crops anywhere in the world, or if anybody is interested in supporting SRI-Rice or other SRI activities, we would be happy to hear from you and be connected.

Contact me at eds8@ cornell.edu.

Thanks for the opportunity to share our work.

Kay McDonald: Thankyou very, very much for your time, Dr. Styger.

……………………………………………………………………………………………………….

Erika Styger is the Director of Programs for SRI-Rice at Cornell. She has a PhD in Crop and Soil Sciences from Cornell University and has over 20 years experience in designing, executing and evaluating research and development programs in Africa. She introduced SRI into four regions of Mali, adapting SRI principals to rainfed and lowland rice and wheat.

This video shows Dr. Styger speaking about SRI-Rice and also about how heirloom and indigenous varieties become more productive when planted with SRI methods.

Here is the home page at Cornell where you may learn more about SRI.

Also, there are many SRI-rice method informational videos available here.

Additional reading: “India’s Rice Revolution”.

Garden Interview with Barbara, Part 3.

In today’s Part 3. Interview with Barbara about gardening, we cover soil and her low tech greenhouse. Note that Barbara was an exemplary gardener here in Boulder, but has relocated to Washington State along the Columbia River. This series of interviews mostly covers her garden here in Boulder but draws upon her lifetime experience of gardening in different places. If you missed the first two interviews, they are here:


This is Barbara in her backyard. You can see her free ranging chickens, her vegetable garden, greenhouse, and coop, all in the background.

Q: Please explain your soil practices. What was your annual routine and did you you see your productivity change as time went on and your soil improved?

A: My soil practice was never to till, just to feed the soil life and that meant tons and tons (literally) of rottable material over the years. I began with cardboard over the grass and weeds, vast quantities of grass clippings from landscape maintenance folks and manure from local horses. All was piled up into large sheet compost blankets to rot down. The goat manure and chicken manure went on selected areas – it was perfect for the lawn and some heavy feeders in the garden plus the potted plants. I do miss the animals and their manure now!

Annually, I put down the same materials whenever I could get them but the biggest annual push was the leaf bags in autumn. I trundled over 1000 bags from the front drop off zone to the back garden most years. Sometimes a bit less and occasionally a bit more. They all disappeared into the soil thanks to my faithful worm workers. The productivity did improve but it was a great gardening area to start with since it’s in the alluvial floodplain of South Boulder Creek. However, I found over time that digging and planting became much easier in the resulting enriched layer. It became several feet deep in the oldest garden areas.

Q: Did you ever use compost tea, and if so, describe how you made it.

A: Yes, I tried it in the greenhouse but found it was such a bother. The only benefit is to foliar feed with it and it seemed much easier to mix up liquid fish fertilizer or kelp fertilizer with a bucket of water for that. I tried it with manure + water and then again with alfalfa pellets + water before abandoning the idea. As to the aerated tea – way too much fuss for me although I know others swear by it.

Q: Have you gardened with soil Mycorrhiza in mind? If so, explain techniques that you think enhance soil Mycorrhiza and how much does that stimulate garden growth?

A: Mycorrhiza will save the world – yes I believe that indeed. I read Paul Stamets’ Mycelium Running years ago and believed it completely. So in Boulder, with all my leaves and hay, the mycorrhiza and other fauna had a smorgasbord to eat and I found fungal strands all through the soil. Here in Washington it was pretty barren and I bought a mycorrhiza starter last spring which I used to inoculate the entire vegetable garden and was overjoyed when small mushrooms sprouted up everywhere. I think the biggest problem with keeping them happy after feeding them is not letting the soil dry out. Mulch helps a lot. By the way, I’m growing Blue Oysters from Fungi Perfecta on several logs here – they are small still but we anticipate some good eating.

Q: You always advertised to people driving by your property in the fall to leave their leaves with you. How many bags of leaves did you add to your garden each year and please explain how harvesting large quantities of leaves played a role in your garden?

Well, it varied from year to year but it was between 500 and 1000 big black plastic garbage bags of leaves. In the zone 5 garden, they were invaluable. I used them everywhere as normal mulch to keep the ground from drying in the winter winds and summer sun. I used crunchy dry ones as goat or chicken coop bedding (which made its way to the garden eventually), used them to protect my tender perennials like the dahlias which often lived through zone 5 winters in the ground under huge piles of leaves. I plopped the plastic bags full of leaves over the carrots, beets or parsnips and covered the patch so well that the ground didn’t freeze and we could harvest in the coldest months just by picking up a bag and digging.

The worms and other tiny critters absolutely thrive with lots and lots of leaves. I used leaves often covered by hay to demarcate paths through the garden and it was easy to change those pathways from year to year. A huge wall of leaves went up against the two long walls of the greenhouse every fall and stayed there through the winter as insulation against the cold. I always throw a few inches of leaves in the bottom of any decorative pot I plant – food for the worms that I make sure are included as well. Now I live in such a mild climate the leaves are not quite as critical. However I still am making my gardens with many sheets of overlapping cardboard (to kill the lawn without rototilling) and with a thick layer of leaves on top.

Q: In your experience, did the way in which you enhanced and mulched your soil greatly reduce your irrigation requirements here in Boulder where we, on average, get only 18 inches of rainfall per year? If so, could you please give us pointers on how to reduce water needs through good gardening practices?

Oh, improving and then maintaining the tilth is critical. A healthy soil with lots of humus keeps moisture down at the roots and of course the mulch minimizes evaporation. You want your soil to be a sponge, to encourage the millions of critters that live in a healthy garden. They will aerate and enrich the soil as they move through it, eating each other and rotting material (like your leaf mulch). They fertilize with their manure, they open channels for rain to permeate, they create tilth – they are essential to soil life. So the best gardening practice I know is to let them live their lives as undisturbed as possible — and mulch to keep them happy.

Q: You had a lovely and simple low-tech greenhouse on your property here in Boulder where you started plants from seed. Please explain whether you think a greenhouse project is worthwhile and what did you use yours for?

A: I think a greenhouse is great for long season gardening – no frost from perhaps April through October and it’s possible to extend that if you are faithful in covering up on cold nights and days. Of course some crops don’t die off in freezing weather, so they are fairly easy. I loved being able to enter another growing zone by opening the door to the place and breathe in green growing smells.

I used it in winter for parsley, arugula, mustard, kale, lettuce (some like Winter Density, Winter Marvel and Sea of Red are pretty hardy) although the plants don’t actively grow through the low sunlight time of year and when you are snipping greens, you can’t take too much. Greens grown out of the stress of wind and extreme cold are really tender and sweet. There was a row of 9 (I think) 55 gallon drums filled with water on the north side that served as thermal mass, along with the damp ground. I also used that environment to overwinter my tender perennials like fuchsia, geranium, taro, etc. as buried in heaps of leaves, they never froze. They died back of course, but grew from the roots in spring. I loved being able to keep them alive year after year and that would never have been possible in our small house.

In spring, the greenhouse was my seed starting haven. The sun there was usually so bright that the tomatoes, peppers, etc. could be uncovered by day and then snugged under blankets of bubble wrap or floating row covers for cold nights or days. I loved growing plants “indoors” during that iffy spring season. The greens kept going strong.

In summer, the eggplant and peppers were planted in the ground to flourish in the quite hot environment under the greenhouse plastic. However the double doors at the east and west ends were opened plus the entire long south side plastic wall was rolled up 4’ from the ground so there was a good flow of air circulating. I had a big fan but never used it unless I needed to direct it at me to cool down. It NEVER got too hot for the plants there who love warmth. One summer I also grew melons and they liked it as well but they took up a lot of space.

In autumn, I continued to harvest peppers, and eggplant long after frost outside. I moved the tender perennials in for their vacation and sowed the winter greens. The greenhouse was in use 12 months a year.

[End Part 3. of interview. Come back next Friday for Part 4. Thank-you Barbara!]

Are You Dreaming of This Year’s Kitchen Garden?


Photo credit: Landis Valley Village and Farm Museum, Lancaster, PA

It’s that time of year. We can easily imagine how perfect our garden will be this time around. And we see so much hope in the seeds we’ve already selected.

I’ve put together some photos to show creative kitchen gardens that may help inspire you to try something new or design a whole new garden for this year. The idea of the kitchen garden is that it is right out the back door of the kitchen so that the cook can gather herbs or tomatoes or other vegetables as he or she needs them. It should be pretty too, and by incorporating a few flowers that are edible or offer pest control it is a win-win for the plants, the bees and butterflies, and the gardener.

I’ve always loved the idea of the 4-square kitchen garden. Of German origins, the plan is simply four square garden beds of any size off the kitchen with paths between. Each bed is intensively planted and it can be designed to look good by adding flowers, trellises, or a central focal point like a conifer, fruit tree, sundial, pot, or pond. The photo above, and some of the gardens below fall into that category.

Now, let’s begin our photo tour from a few spots around the globe.

These sensible raised earth beds are frameless, like this “victory garden in Tacoma”.


Photo credit: Flickr CC via Nostepinne

From the same yard….


Photo credit: Flickr CC via Nostepinne

(I see quite a bit of front yard gardening similar to the above going on here in Boulder and Denver these days.)

Here is a fairly high raised bed plan, easier to work in for those who aren’t as agile as they used to be.


Photo credit: Flickr CC via PermaCultured

Picture this out your kitchen window!


Photo credit: Flickr CC via Adrian F

If you like b-i-g gardens, you’ll like this one.


Photo credit: Flickr CC via I {heart} Rhody

The good hardscape bones are long lasting in this formal 4-square garden.


Photo credit: Flickr CC via Muffet

Next up is an herb garden on Martha’s Vineyard. The circular design would work well for vegetables, too.


Photo credit: Flickr CC via JoePhoto

I like how this kitchen garden utilizes the slope of the yard, always a challenge.


Photo credit: Flickr CC via TheodoreWLee

Cute, out of England, where else?


Photo credit: Flickr CC via Karen Roe

A serious garden, and a serious gardener, busy in Brazil.


Photo credit: Flickr CC via Dirlei Dionísio

Finally, you might add a couple of beehives. They need our help and we need their’s. They will appreciate the biodiversity that you have to offer them.


Photo credit: Flickr CC via ell brown


Photo credit: Flickr CC via Dave Catchpole

Good Luck this year!!!