Tuesday, November 28, 2006

21st Century Gardening

I am just recently recovering from my latest bout with agricultural ague. See periodically, I am all but overcome with the desire to unplug from The System and go reap the benefits of immense toil in the soil. This time I had the deck stacked against me. I was researching a series for my other blog, and was spending a lot of time reading about small scale pastured livestock farming-especially Joel Saladin's works, and then to top it off I finally got around to reading Eliot Coleman's The New Organic Grower. Coleman is the all but uncontested modern guru of the organic market garden, and I am fairly sure Salatin is persuasive enough that I think he could convince Cheney that petroleum was a losing venture. Both works were designed for those, like me, who are interested in getting into farming-despite that fact every sane person knows that farming is a losing venture. And it is, under the current industrial paradigm that focuses on quantity over quality. Both authors stress what readers of this blog already know-that educated consumers are literally hungry for local, incredibly high quality fresh foods. Both authors lay out their ideas in a well organized, can do fashion, but don't pull any punches. You will never get rich farming. You will not have more free time. And if you are wanting to farm based on a negative reaction to something (job, city life, stress, etc) you are doomed because idealism is clouding your judgement.

What pulled me out this time, as usual, was Mia and her gentle reminders, as well as our current fiscal reality. Now is not the time to take on additional tasks or expenses, and I still have 1/8 acre of under utilized garden space (read: lawn) in the backyard. Also important in this recovery was the sermon this week on gratitude. I find that counting your blessings has an immense grounding effect on me. I have so much, and wanting more is, well, greedy.

Coleman's system for market gardening is brilliant. With his plan-which took him 20 years to design- you can farm 2-3 acres of very intense vegetable production per worker and support 20-40 people with their annual vegetables. That doesn't sound like much land, but put it in perspective. Eliot builds his fields into beds 5' x 100'. That means all 5 of my 7 beds would equal one of his. Then he leaves a 10' path for his equipment, and starts another bed, so each acre is 2 beds wide. Here is the kicker-they are 40 beds deep-so he gets 80 beds per acre: Coleman farms almost 300x the space than I do. That's a lot of hoeing! Think of the thousands of transplants alone, or spreading 100,000 lbs of manure by hand. Every year. And that is just for one acre! Coleman has lots of gee whiz ways to improve your efficiency, but it is still immense.

But my concern with his system (and yes I realize that I am critiquing a master) is that he is still operating in what I am beginning to think is a dated, and potentially unsustainable system. He tills the land up to 6 times per year thereby destroying much of the soil life. In his book Coleman spends a very brief time on no till gardening which he began using in one of his greenhouses. He concedes that after 2 years his plants under the no till were outperforming his other beds, but he did not know how to accomplish it on the scale he was currently working under. That is my new mission.

To that end I am sourcing books on no till, or mulch intensive gardening. I am currently convinced that this is the future of gardening and perhaps agriculture. Read old time farming books and they are unanimous that the best time to plant corn (which needs high nutrient soil) is into a field that has been left to hay for 2 seasons. As Permaculture texts expound-no one has to fertilize a prairie and it will produce as much biomass as a forest. Classics such as Fukuoka's One Straw Revolution, and Ruth Stout's No Work Garden also stress that nature knows best. My own results this year when I redid my wood chip paths only to discover a 1" layer of humus underneath, after just 18 months, are also playing heavily into this. What could be accomplished if I actually intended to compost in place instead of just dumping a chunky carbon source on the ground? There are hundreds of permaculture gardeners out there running these experiments, and I plan on joining their ranks and adding to the literature on the topic here and on One straw.

2007 will see a significant rise in the amount of space I am dedicating to perennial food crops such as small fruit and orchards, deep mulched and under-sown with perennial legumes. In my 7 annual vegetable beds I will be applying the results of this winter's research to limit my tilling to only what is necessary to get the seeds and transplants into the earth.

Stay tuned!


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Logsdon's Invitation to Gardening has some decent coverage of mulched beds, among a hundred other things. I'd love to go down this path, if only I had a more reliable source of mulching materials. Gotta wait for those trees to grow. I've got a few of the other books you mentioned on my reading list also. Just from flower beds I know that mulching does amazing things to the soil...

11:01 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Hello Beo and all

Just discovered your blog yesterday.

I laud your plans. All I can say from my own experience is: just do it. If you go over the how's and why's for too long you will be stuck in the suburbs forever. So maybe you have to buy a rundown farmhouse. Or maybe you need to lease land.

I got chatting with a young couple who sell organic greens at a farmer's market near my mom's house. Guess what, they don't even have their own farm. They lease land on one relative's and one farmer's land, have put up hoop houses on both, and go nuts a la Coleman's Four Season Harvest. So there's an option, too, that might be a half-step.

We don't sell our stuff, though I have thought about it...it wouldn't take much more of a commitment on my part to just up our production. Maybe one day...

As far as no-dig, well...that works to a point. We have clay soil, and if I just let my mulch sit on top, it never becomes incorporated enough for the plants to develop long roots. So I need to fork things up every year in the fall. Mulch, though, is fabulous, and saves a ton of weeding and watering on my part.

There is no substitute, though, for just doing it, learning from your own soil. Books are great but soil toil is better.

Good luck to you.

8:24 AM  
Blogger Beo said...

Thanks all. E4, I have not seen that one from Logsdon yet. We'll if the library can get it.

el, as far as just doing it, I hear you. But we need to straighten up our finances (3 yrs)before we take the plunge. I have my eye on several rental plots near town, but our gardens need another year of very intense work, plus I hope to be installing gardens most weekends with our new gardening business which cuts into my farming time. Between Someday Gardens and my work on our Village's Green and Smart Growth committee's I have a very busy year!

5:54 PM  
Blogger Robbyn said...

Your post has really gotten me to thinking. We're trying to mull on many of the questions you're raising. I'll be really interested in seeing what you come up with, and what ends up working the best for you.

Great blog, and great ideas!

12:52 AM  

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