Winter Snow Day Reading List : 5 Favorite Books on Ecology, Botany, and Gardening

This winter started out so mild that I was able to continue my work outdoors with the land through the end of January. But cold weather finally arrived, and my work is now buried under about six inches of beautiful white powder. The garden soil is frozen solid, the mulch pile is buried, and aside from my daily nature walk and a few daily outdoor chores, I find myself spending most of my time inside. The forecast shows nothing but more cold and more snow, so now is a great time to curl up with a warm blanket and a big stack of library books. These are some of my favorite books about plants and gardening and more.

1. “Braiding Sweetgrass: Indigenous Wisdom, Scientific Knowledge and the Teachings of Plants” by Robin Wall Kimmerer. This book is one of the best things I’ve ever read from any genre. It combines great storytelling, fascinating botany and ecology, deep insight, and beautiful writing into a totally lovable package. The audio book is excellent, read by the author.

2. “The Resilient Gardener: Food Production and Self-Reliance in Uncertain Times” by Carol Deppe. There are a lot of books that discuss growing salad ingredients, but this book will tell you how to garden for real sustenance. People need calories, carbohydrates, and proteins to survive, and this book is phenomenal if you’re interested in venturing beyond the salad garden to begin growing more of your main course fare. It also includes fascinating history and science lessons. I’ve read this book three times, and am planning a fourth.

3. “Rosemary Gladstar’s Medicinal Herbs: A Beginner’s Guide: 33 Healing Herbs to Know, Grow, and Use” by Rosemary Gladstar. I’ve become very interested in herbal medicine over the last few years, and if you are looking to dip your toe into this expansive field of study, this book is an excellent place to start. Rosemary Gladstar is one of the most highly respected herbalists of our time, and many of the herbs mentioned in this book are familiar culinary herbs that are delicious, accessible, and easy to grow.

4. “The New Organic Grower, 3rd Edition: A Master’s Manual of Tools and Techniques for the Home and Market Gardener, 30th Anniversary Edition” by Eliot Coleman. Wow, this book blew me away! Eliot Coleman is a master organic vegetable farmer, an innovator, and an excellent teacher. I gleaned so many insights, ideas, and tips to improve my own success as a grower from this book. On his advice, I purchased a soil blocking set and I am currently growing all my vegetable and herb transplants using that method. So far, this is the healthiest and best set of transplants I have ever raised. I am eager to try out some of his other advice later in the season.

5. “The Unsettling of America: Culture & Agriculture” by Wendell Berry. This book was originally published in 1977. It gives a detailed account of the history of the industrialization of the American farm system over the past century, and the impacts of those changes on farmers, rural communities, and our country as a whole. I recommend reading the newest edition; additional commentary has been added to cover the four decades of agricultural changes that have occurred since the book was first published. The audio book is narrated by Nick Offerman. Need I say more?

Honorable Mention: “Native Plant Agriculture vol. 1” by Indigenous Landscapes. This is a short book with beautiful photos that shines a light on certain native food plants of the Eastern United States. If you live in this part of the world and are interested in growing more food while also supporting maximum biodiversity and ecosystem health, this book is worth seeking out. On a personal note, I am grateful to Indigenous Landscapes for teaching me the term Native Plant Agriculture. At the time when I first encountered their work, I was midway through planting my wetland restorative food forest, which is entirely composed of native plants, and I had fallen deeply in love with the native food plants of the region. Finally receiving a name to attach to the work I was engaged in doing made available new information, resources, and connections that I might not have found otherwise.

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The Food In The Forest

One of the iconic paradigms of permaculture is a food forest. The idea is as follows:

“By understanding how forests grow and sustain themselves without human intervention, we can learn from Nature, copy the systems and patterns to model our own forests — ones filled with trees and plants that produce food we can eat.”

Angelo Eliades, Permaculture News Magazine

Food forests are beautiful in concept and application, and many indigenous cultures throughout the centuries have practiced agroforestry techniques along these lines. If you’re starting with a lawn or a farm field, then planting a food forest is kind of like planting turbo-charged garden, and it’s likely to be a major ecological, environmental, and aesthetic improvement over what was there before. But what if your lot is already wooded? Should you cut down existing trees to replace them with food-bearing trees?

I encountered this very dilemma on the land I steward. Strawberry Moon Farm is about 10 acres in size; minuscule compared to all of the neighboring farms. Of this, we have 2.4 acres of frequently flooded wetland, 3.6 acres of woods, and 4.4 acres of former corn fields and lawn. By mainstream thinking, that equates to 4.4 acres of “good farm land”. At first, I believed this misconception about good and bad land, and I was not sure if the 4.4 classically-appreciable acres would allow enough room for all the plantings I had in mind for this farm. I briefly considered cutting down some trees in the woods to make space for more “food trees”. Ultimately, the idea of cutting down lots of trees made me feel a little sick. But don’t we need food? Aren’t there hungry and undernourished people in our community? Isn’t it important to reduce food miles? And, if I plant new trees, does that make up for cutting down existing trees? The old ones? The native ones? Is a food forest better than a wild forest?

Luckily, I was not forced to make that impossibly heart-wrenching choice. And if you are facing a similar tough decision, relax. There is really good news here. The forest is already made of food.

If you have a wood lot on your property, go to your library and borrow a nice field guide for tree identification in your locale. Take it with you as you walk through your woods. Identify as many trees as you can, and write down their names. Later, employ high technology to its highest purpose, and google those trees. Learn all you can learn about them. Search for them in the Plants For A Future database. Search for them in ethnobotanical databases, such as BRIT. Find out as much as you can about the ways indigenous people use them for food, medicine, tools, and fiber. Learn any modern uses. Learn which mushroom species can be cultivated on the fallen branches from each tree. Learn about its importance to wildlife and pollinators, about its lifecycle, and about its impact on soil, water, and air quality. Learn about its native range, and find out if it is endangered. Chances are, most of the trees in your woods have at least one wondrous purpose, and your only real task is to learn how to responsibly partake of their gifts.

In my case, the woods provide walnuts, hickory nuts, acorns, beech nuts, sweet syrups, cherries, grapes, mulberries, fresh greens of many types, edible flowers and seeds, blackberries, raspberries, herbs, and spices. And I am convinced that is not all, that there is much more value in my woods that I have not yet learned to see. We are not talking about a token yield of a few snacks here, but rather about buckets and buckets of harvest every year, for which we need do no work other than learn what it is and be present to gather it and give thanks. In the future, when I have the time available, there is ample opportunity for me to engage with these woods in a more meaningful way. If I remove some of the invasive undergrowth, I could cultivate many more food and medicine herbs, brambles, and shrubs under the shade of the old canopy. I could inoculate fallen logs with edible mushroom spawn, and harvest the fruiting bodies. I could plant young saplings to replace dead and dying trunks, and eventually harvest their bounty. I could reintroduce numerous species of endangered or threatened native plants. I am only beginning to scratch the surface of all that is possible in these woods.

The key skills in farming the woods are to observe with attention and intention, to learn to recognize gifts of great worth, and to learn how to harvest responsibly and sustainably. One cannot approach a woodland with arrogance and a closed mind and expect to leave with an abundant harvest. Unfortunately, that’s what the first colonists of my county did, and it resulted in most of our old growth forests being cleared, most of our wetlands being drained, and a labor-intensive, resource-intensive monoculture imposed over the ashes of a once great land.

“Tall trees covered the whole county with their wide-spreading branches, depending to the ground, and the shrubbery below arose and united with the branches of the trees…In the open space, in the valleys, grew either prickly ash or nettles, both equally armed with sharp, fiery prickles…Where spice-wood did not grow to thickly, male fern formed a solid mass three feet in depth, covering logs and pit falls so completely” …

“During a dry time, two or three men might, by merely sowing and deadening over with fire, burn up the whole superincumbent covering over eight or ten acres in a single day… till the whole county, in an incredibly short time, was brought into cultivation.”

-Judge Franklin Harden, “A Historical Sketch of Johnson County” (1881)

Had Judge Harden (one of the first colonists of my county) and his people made a priority to learn from the indigenous people who were already engaged in a longstanding fruitful and reciprocal relationship with this land, perhaps we would all be living a more abundant life today. If he had studied more deeply, he might have learned that prickly ash, nettles, spice-wood (spicebush), some species of ferns, and many species of tall trees already produce premium quality food, and some of those plants have useful medicinal applications as well. Furthermore, there were likely many other magnificent species that he overlooked in his haste to slash and burn.

“There were wild plums, strawberries, grapes, pawpaws, persimmons, crabapples, and many varieties of berries. The acorn of the bur oak, Indian potatoes, and tubers of the water chinkapin, arrowleaf, and Jerusalem artichoke supplied starch. Common milkweed, flowers of the mulberry, early shoots of skunk cabbage, sour dock, wild onion, and a number of other plants were prized as greens. Teas were made from spikenard, spicebush, sassafras, and several other plants.”

-Stewart Rafert, an account of the wild local bounty known and enjoyed by one of Indiana’s largest indigenous tribes, the Miami. From “The Miami Indians of Indiana, A Persistent People” (1999).

I wish I could have seen my state covered by that old and abundant forest made of food. Past harms cannot be undone, but we can choose to learn from the mistakes of our past and to make a better decision today. I’m grateful for the wild spaces that remain, and I will do what is in my power to do to preserve and restore them. The woods on my land are not old, but they are becoming old. A token few trees may have lived a century or longer, but most are 50 years or younger. It is likely that someone of my grandparents’ generation planted the majority of these trees. That planting was a great gift. I hope someday, when a future generation inherits the new native tree forest that I have planted, they can recognize the inherent worth of it, and steward it on into the future. And as I begin to plant the 4.4 “good” acres on this farm, I find my plans evolving towards more and more native food-bearing trees and plants over the more common (mostly Eurasian) orchard crops. The native plants offer a brilliant package of joy and nourishment for the entire ecosystem. Perhaps one day, the old forest of abundance will return to these ten little acres in Johnson County.

For further reading:

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Becoming A Garden Superhero: 6 Skills To Cultivate For A More Resilient Garden

Last year, the pandemic and its accompanying shutdown produced a record increase in home gardens. By April, we saw shortages of garden supplies, seeds, plants, and food preservation supplies. Although the supply shortages were inconvenient, most people I know were still able to grow an abundant garden. I believe gardening is a positive, empowering, healthy and healing activity, and I hope this trend of increased gardeners continues. So far, it looks like it is continuing, evidenced by signs of overwhelm brewing in garden supply businesses. Baker Creek has already needed to temporarily suspend web orders while they catch up on their backlog, Seed Savers Exchange is reporting a three week shipping delay, and several seed varieties I was hoping to try this year have already sold out. So if you need garden supplies, don’t delay. But you may need less than you think, and just a few basic skills can transform you from a consumer of garden supplies into an all-around garden superhero.

#1: The Power of Cooperation

Do you have at least one friend or neighbor who gardens? Most seed packets contain more seeds than one gardener can use. Offer to share your extra seeds, or ask about combining your orders and splitting the cost of any new seed packets that you both want. Established perennials need to be divided every few years to keep them healthy. Instead of buying all your plants new from a nursery, offer to trade cuttings and divisions of plants with friends. This can all be done through contact-free drops, and may also help us feel more connected during these (hopefully) last few months of distance.

#2: The Power of Regeneration

Learn how to collect and save seed for free. Many popular garden plants are very easy to harvest seed from, and if you learn that skill, seed packets become a once in a lifetime purchase. And in addition to those new seeds being free, they can actually be better. Each year you grow and save seeds, you have an opportunity to choose the seeds from the plants that performed best in your specific garden. Those seeds will be a little more adapted to your local growing conditions, and the seed children of those seeds can be better still!

#3: The Power of Transformation

Learn to see everyday waste products as garden supplies. Flattened cardboard boxes make great weed blocker. Plastic clamshells, yogurt cups, and tin cans can become planters. Soda cans can be cut into beautiful DIY plant labels. Some food scraps can be replanted to keep on growing. Other food scraps and yard waste can be composted to create free fertilizer.

#4: The Power of Preservation

Learn to take good care of the garden supplies you already have. Oil your wooden tool handles. Sharpen your digging tools and your cutting tools. Don’t leave stuff out in the rain and sun. Keep your seeds in a sealed jar or bag in the refrigerator to extend their life. Take good care of your plants so they will thrive and produce new seeds or divisions for your next garden expansion.

#5: The Power of Selection

Learn to choose wisely. There are many alluring garden gadgets that are really unnecessary. Don’t buy the hype. You really don’t need much to grow an abundant organic garden. When you do need to buy a tool, choose a tool that you won’t have to replace. Limit your seed packet orders to a quantity that is realistic for you.

#6: The Power of Abundance

Gardening is one way for we humans to increase abundance. When our needs are met with abundance, we gain the freedom to relax into a great peace. Our needs are met. The land provides. When we have plenty to share, we can share our plenty with joy, nourishing our bodies as we nourish our relationships to the land, to each other, to our truest and kindest selves.

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A Soil Test For The Chicken Run

When I first decided to adopt the Strawberry Moon Chicks and began building the first coop, I intended for it to be a “chicken tractor”. That is, I intended to move the coop periodically so the chickens would have a steady supply of fresh pasture. This proved to be a more difficult a job than I anticipated. That coop has been in the same spot for three years, sitting on cinder blocks because the wheels buckled under the weight of the too-big coop. I think I have finally remedied that problem and if so, that coop is moving on Saturday. As soon as the hen coop is secure in its next location, I plan to annex the old chicken run into my garden.

Chickens have a long history as garden helpers. Their presence ads a great deal of fertility to land, and prominent growers such as Eliot Coleman include them as a successful part of organic crop rotation. However, three years is too long a rotation for optimal soil enhancement, and it occurred to me that their extended stay might have done some damage. A little googling revealed the following possibilities: the soil might be too salty, the soil might contain too much phosphorus (the ‘P’ in ‘NPK’), and the soil might be too low in organic matter. My chickens do have a large run, and I do add straw and pine chips to it sometimes, so I hoped the land would be fit to garden next summer. I ordered a soil test to find out.

A brief note about soil testing, because people ask me about this a lot. It’s common advice to “do a soil test” before starting a new garden. When people say this, they mean a standard fertility test, which might be free if your extension service offers it, or might cost about $10-$15. Either way, you find out where you can have this done by calling your county extension office.

In my case, free tests aren’t available, and so I took my soil sample to a local agricultural supply business. They called earlier this week to tell me everything is A-OK, and my garden expansion may proceed as planned. Yay! Upon my request, they also sent me the specific lab results. I went through each result individually to learn about the implications and optimal range for each test. This research process was very tedious, so I’m sharing all my notes here for your benefit. The hard work was worth doing though, because in the process, I learned that my celebration might have been premature. There are some soil imbalances, but it remains unclear whether or not they’ll have an impact on plant health next season.

These are the results I received from my standard $15 soil test.

Test NameMy ResultExplanation
CEC13.7CEC stands for “Cation Exchange Capacity”. This metric indicates the capacity of the soil to absorb and retain nutrients, and is related to the components of the soil (sand, clay, loam). Our 13.7 is a fine number. This article by Spectrum Analytic provides a detailed explanation of CEC.
OM %2.7OM stands for Organic Matter. According to Cornel University, most agriculturally productive soils have between 3-6% Organic Matter. So it looks like we’re a little low, but not by much.
pH6.8pH is a measurement that almost everyone will recognize. It stands for “potential of hydrogen”, and it’s the scale we all use to measure how acidic or alkaline something is. Lemon juice is acidic, and has a pH of 2. Household bleach is alkaline with a pH of 11. Neutral pH is 7. Most common garden plants prefer soil with a pH between 6-7, so we are right on the money.
Lime Index69.15This measurement tells us how difficult it would be to raise the pH of our soil. Since our soil does not need to be any more alkaline, this particular measurement isn’t very useful in our case. However, you can read more about this indicator in this great article from Michigan State University
P(Bray) lbs/ac222This test measures the amount of phosphorus in the soil. According to Penn State, the optimal range is 30-50 lbs/acre. Our 222 is a very high phosphorus number.
K lbs/ac209K stands for Potassium (it’s the K in NPK). According to Purdue University, this number is in the optimal range.
Ca lbs/ac3782This test is for calcium. According to Ohio State University, the desirable amount of calcium in pounds per acre is 800–16,000. Our test result is within this desirable range.
Mg lbs/ac3782This test is for magnesium. According to the same article by Ohio State University, the desirable amount of magnesium in pounds per acre is 150–2,000. Our result is above the desirable range.
K sat’n %2.0This test measures potassium saturation in the soil. The desirable range is dependent upon the CEC value (ours is 13.7) so according to the above mentioned Spectrum Analytic article about CEC, our desirable range for potassium saturation would be between 3-4%. Looks like ours is a little low.
Ca sat’n %69%This test measures calcium saturation in the soil. The ideal range is 50-70, so it looks like we passed this test! See the above mentioned Spectrum Analytic article about CEC for more info about calcium saturation.
Mg sat’n %22This test measures magnesium saturation. Based on our CEC, our ideal range would be 8-20. Looks like we are a little high. More info can be found in the above mentioned Spectrum Analytic article about CEC.
Base sat’n %93Base saturation. This appears to be the sum of the previous three numbers.
H sat’n %7.4Hydrogen saturation. Ideal value is less than 10%. This result looks fine. More info on Hydrogen saturation is available here
Ca/Mg3.2Calcium to Magnesium ratio. According to Michigan State University, values between 2-8 are fine, as long as the soil has enough calcium and enough magnesium.
Mg/K11.1This is the magnesium to potassium ratio. I tried, but I haven’t been able to find out the desirable range for the number. I’m told it’s not very important, anyway.

In summary, our chicken run soil has elevated levels of phosphorus and magnesium, and low organic matter. The low organic matter may indicate that some erosion has occurred (due to the chickens scratching). This is the easiest problem to remedy, and I will do so by spreading a thick layer of mulch on top of the soil. I’ll prevent this from occurring in the future by keeping a thick layer of mulch on the new chicken run. Sodium and nitrogen tests were unfortunately not included in our basic soil test package. I spoke with the specialist at the local agricultural supply company, and he feels confident that a sodium test isn’t necessary, since our local soils all contain very low levels to start. He also said that since nitrogen leaves the soil so quickly, even if the soil has elevated nitrogen levels now, they should normalize by spring. He does not believe our elevated phosphorus and magnesium levels will cause any problems in the garden. I also discussed these results with my county extension agent. She agrees that the elevated phosphorus and magnesium aren’t likely to cause problems in the garden by themselves, but suggested that we might need to add higher than usual amounts of nitrogen, potassium, and calcium to bring the nutrients into balance with each other. She is unsure whether the garden will grow well or not, but reminded me that all gardening is really an experiment.

Inspired by my county extension agent, I think I’ll grow an experiment garden on the old chicken run. I’ll plant a wide variety of species and see which ones grow well post-chicken, and which ones struggle. I will not plant any precious seeds (ones that need to be saved and preserved for future growing seasons) or any expensive transplants in the experiment garden. As always, I’ll report my findings here. Meanwhile I hope you’re all warm, cozy, and well.

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Tiny Root Cellars

I keep a detailed garden journal, and I’ve used the same notebook for years. In the back of the notebook, I maintain space for a list of ideas that I think I might try someday. One such note caught my eye this year. The note reads: “Makeshift root cellar- bury a 5 gallon bucket up to its rim. Fill with carrots, top with plastic, cover with hay.” Unfortunately, past me did not leave a citation, so I can’t trace the lineage of this idea and provide proper attribution. But, I think it’s going to work. I have previously enjoyed great success storing carrots packed in buckets of damp sand in an unheated attached garage. I no longer have that garage and I didn’t grow carrots this year, but I did grow a great abundance of sunchokes. I decided to test this idea on them.

I considered a number of factors when deciding where to locate these buckets, as I hope to use them for many years. Digging the hole is not a massive effort, but it is a non-trivial amount of work, and I prefer not to re-do it every year. I wanted a location that would be easy to access, protected from most animal predators, and one that would not reduce my available gardening space during the growing season. I eventually decided to bury them right in the garden, with one bucket between each pair of raised beds. I don’t think the buried bucket will impede passage between beds as long as the lid is on.

A note about buckets. There’s a restaurant chain called Firehouse Subs. If you live near one of these places, you can get a wonderful recycled bucket complete with lid from them. They use 5 gallon plastic buckets to store their pickles, and when the pickles are all eaten, they sell the bucket and the lid for a low price, and you get to rescue a discarded item from the waste stream. Win-win.

All-in-all, I burried four buckets and layered them all full of sunchokes and damp sand. That’s three buckets of sunchokes for eating, and one bucket of sunchokes for replanting in the spring. I look forward to enjoying this healthy, delicious, native plant root vegetable all winter long. As always, I’ll keep detailed notes and let you know how this goes!

One fun perk of this project is that I finally had an excuse to dig below my topsoil and into the subsoil. The subsoil feels just like modeling clay! While I was already digging it to make holes for the buckets, I filled a couple of bags with the clay for use in other projects. Clay subsoil is ideal for mixing the building material known as cob, and I have a few projects in the works that will need plenty of it!

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A Micro-Farm for Microgreens

After a whole summer of planning, testing, number-crunching, and preparing, I’m finally ready to begin offering my first farm crop for sale. It’s November now, our growing season is almost over, and I have no greenhouse. But that’s just fine, because I’m going to be growing this farm crop right inside my kitchen!

Microgreens are one of my all time favorite crops, and I’ve been growing them for years. They take up very little space, require a low-tech setup, and they are ready to harvest within weeks. They’re also very delicious, exceptionally nutritious, and I have never seen them for sale at the grocery store. I usually grow a few trays on my window sills, but I need much more growing space if I want to grow enough to sell. So today I built these shelves to increase my window growing area. This new system will hold 30 trays of microgreens (a tray, for me, is a loaf pan).

How To:

To build these shelves, I used two 1x8x10 boards, and fourteen 15/8 length screws.

I measured the inner width of my windows (16.25″) and cut ten pieces of that length. Your cut length and number of pieces will vary based on the size of your window. These pieces will be the shelves.

I then cut fourteen 1.25″ pieces from the remnant board to serve as supports for the shelves. The number of support pieces you will need is equal to the number of shelves you intend to build that are positioned above the window sill.

The bottom shelf lies flat on the window sill, so it does not need any supports. I chose to do this instead of placing my trays directly on the window sill as protection from any water or stains that may dribble downward.

The higher shelves each rest on top of two support pieces. First, measure from the shelf below to reach a height above the tallest plants you want to grow. I give 13″ of vertical space to taller greens like peas and sunflowers, and 8″ of vertical space to shorter greens like broccoli and cabbage.

Once you find the height of your shelf, make a mark using a grease pencil or chalk. Use a box level or a ruler to make an identical mark on the other side at the same height. Secure one support piece to each side of the window frame along the mark you made with two screws each. Place your board to rest on top, then check to make sure that the shelf is level enough for your purposes.

I chose not to attach my shelf boards to the support pieces. They feel pretty sturdy resting on top, and I think the whole system will be easier to clean and maintain if the shelves are removable. However, if I find that they need to be more securely attached, I can always use an extra screw or two to attach them to the support pieces, or attach extra support pieces above the shelf boards.

Repeat adding additional shelves in this manner until your window is full or you have as much shelf space as your growing needs require.

Growing The Microgreens

I may write my own tutorial on growing microgreens someday, since I’ve been growing them for years now and I have developed my own style over time. But meanwhile, if you’re interested in learning how to grow your own, check your library for Peter Burke’s book “Year-Round Indoor Salad Gardening”. That’s the book I used to get started.

And here are photos of some of the delicious microgreens I’ve already grown in my kitchen!

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Celebrating A Job Well Done

In 2017, I received an EQIP (Environmental Quality Incentives Program) grant from the USDA Natural Resources Conservation Service. This grant pays part of my costs for the tree seedlings and seeds I needed to purchase to transition this land from corn/soy fields into tree crops and other perennial crops. It came with some restrictions, but the only restriction that concerned me was time. It was a huge project, and the grant required it be completed in only two years. Well, luckily for me I was awarded a one year deadline extension last year, because I fell a little short of that deadline. But today I planted the last tree and I can finally say it is complete!

These are the projects I’ve completed in the past three years, under guidance of my encouraging and knowledgeable NRCS representative and with help from my wonderful husband.

  • Grown a buckwheat cover crop in my three non-flooding fields, to help shade out weeds and provide good summertime forage for pollinators (but for one summer only).
  • Planted a permanent pasture grass blend in the same three fields, consisting of mixed grasses and legumes. This planting will reduce erosion on that land, keep the soil aerated so it can absorb maximum water, add biomass to the soil (mulch), and someday provide food for sheep, when we are ready for them. The clover included in the planting mix will also provide food for pollinators for years to come, and nitrogen to naturally fertilize the grasses.
  • Planted a native plant food forest on our two acre riparian flood plain. This project doubles as both an orchard and a wetland restoration. The soil is no longer bare, but now contains a tree every 10-12 feet, mown grasses down the tree rows, and strips of native herbs and wildflowers blossoming between rows. Not only does this planting help to clean and filter flood waters, reduce erosion, and create food and habitat for pollinators and wildlife, but when fully established, we expect these two acres of diverse native plant species will generate thousands of pounds of food per year with minimal human intervention.

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The Kitchen Clothesline

We really can’t get away from plastic waste, and it hasn’t gotten any easier in the COVID-19 era. When ordering groceries for curbside pickup, there’s no option to skip the plastic shopping bags. And while frozen veggies can help to simplify our increased meal planning and prep work, they all come wrapped in plastic. It’s so important to steward the plastic that enters our lives in a responsible way, which is why I continue to try to limit my plastic consumption when possible, and recycle all the plastic I can’t avoid. A big part of this effort includes ecobricking, because most plastics aren’t recyclable. It also includes washing and reusing things like ziptop bags until they wear out. Rinsing out used plastics is easy, but drying plastic bags for storage or ecobricks is awkward and takes up valuable counter space. Well friends, I finally have the solution! Hang a mini clothesline over the kitchen sink. This is one of the easiest DIY projects. All you need is a couple of eye hooks, maybe a pair of drywall anchors, and a length of string. Add a few clothespins, and you’ve got yourself a state of the art dryer! I love the look of mine, and I think it’s going to be quite the conversation topic whenever I start inviting people into my home again.

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Growing In Place : How To Spot Bad Garden Advice Before It Spoils Your Harvest

I’ve been thinking a lot lately about all the bad advice I have received on my gardening and farming journey. Some of it mislead me for a season, and some has set me back for multiple years. Most of it has cost me money, and all has cost me time. Some advice has wasted precious resources. This is why I often write about my mistakes, and about the things that have proved more difficult than I expected. I want you to be inspired to try. But more than that, I want you to be empowered to succeed. Mistakes are the very best opportunities for learning and growth, and I hope that by sharing mine, we both can learn.

Most of the bad advice I have received could have been good advice when applied to someone else. But successful growing is not so much about following a set list of rules as it is about developing an intimate knowledge of your land, your place, your needs, and your ecosystem. I try to always use language like “this is what worked for me”, and “this is what didn’t work for me”, and “this is why I think this thing did or did not work for me”. When I encounter phrases like “so easy”, it makes me wonder… do they understand why they experienced success? Will that success be repeatable for me? What conditions might cause that “so easy” effort to fail? Let’s take an opportunity to dive into some classic bits of advice that did not work for me, and think about why they may or may not work for you!

Bad Tip #1: Zucchini grows abundantly, and without pests. I’ve read this from many sources, but for me, the dream of growing way too much zucchini continues to be a mirage in a desert of squash bugs and sorrow. I still believe in the dream of the abundant organic zucchini, and I have even achieved it in years of extreme hand-picking persistence, but the squash bug has been a formidable foe in all my gardens to date. I do meet people even in my own city who claim not to have any squash bugs in their gardens, so this issue may be extremely site-specific. Ask your near neighbors who garden which pests are most problematic for them.

Bad Tip #2: Everybody should add lime to their garden soil. Of course, the lime in this common suggestion is the mineral lime, not the bright green fruit you find in your margarita. Whether or not you need lime in your garden depends entirely on the results of your soil test. You can run a soil test easily for about $10, and your county extension agent can give you instructions for gathering the sample and a list of all the labs in your area capable of providing that service. If your soil is too acidic for the plants you want to grow, then you can add lime to the soil to raise the pH. It is common to have acidic soil in many locales. However, all of my gardens in central Indiana have had soil that is neutral to alkaline. If I added lime to my soil, I would ruin it.

Bad Tip #3: Tomato hornworms are the most devastating garden pest. This may be true in many places, because I read it often. But I find zero to three hornworms in my whole garden, per year, total. When I see them I hand pick them and move them to the chicken yard. The chickens act like they just won the lottery. I think they wish I had more tomato hornworms.

Bad Tip #4: Tomatoes are totally over by September. There are two growth types of tomatoes: “determinate”, and “indeterminate”. Every tomato variety falls into one of those two categories. If your seed packet or seedling label doesn’t say whether it’s a determinate or indeterminate type, a quick google search should provide that info. Determinate tomato plants produce all their ripe fruit during a shorter time window, and the plants reach a smaller total size. This type of behavior is preferable for gardeners who want to can their tomatoes. It’s easier to have a few big canning days where the canner is packed full than to process many half-full batches throughout the season. Although I’ve read several sources that claim that determinate plants ripen all their fruit within a two week window, that has never been my experience with the Rutgers determinate variety that I like to grow. I find that I get fruit from my Rutgers determinate tomatoes for most of the summer. However, by this point in the season, my Rutgers determinate plants are focusing on ripening their last few green tomatoes while my indeterminate Brandywine plants are still growing new vines and flowering new flowers. The Brandywine plants will usually continue growing and flowering until the frost kills them in October, so planting both varieties of tomatoes allows me to can my tomatoes and eat them too.

Bad Tip #5: Potatoes are done flowering in July. If you didn’t see them flower, you probably just missed it because the flowers are inconspicuous. Dig them up anyway. This tip was shoved at me repeatedly on the garden forums back in the early days, and caused me as a young gardener to cut down many a fine potato plant in its prime. This year I grew my first really successful potato crop. It’s nearly October now, and I still haven’t dug them. They continued flowering for well over a month, and the flowers were more conspicuous than tomato flowers. I would never have missed them. The right time to dig up your potato plant depends on your location, your soil, which potato variety you grew, and maybe even the mood of your particular seed potato. Trust yourself to notice the white flowers of similar size and shape to tomato blossoms. This is the advice I’m following for my Carola potato crop this year, with great success:
1. Wait until the plant is totally done flowering.
2. Wait two weeks after that. If it flowers again, go back to step 1.
3. If you want small “new potatoes”, you can dig some two weeks after the vines have stopped flowering.
4. If you want large potatoes, wait until the vines start to die back, then dig up all the plants. It’s nearly October now and I’m still waiting.

Bad Tip #6: Scythes are easier than weed whackers. This might actually be true, but it’s misleading. Even weed whackers couldn’t handle my weeds. If you are mowing a section that consists of nice flowing grasses or maybe some grain crops, the scythe might be a good tool for you. And it is enjoyable to use under those circumstances, for short periods of time. I tried to use a scythe to mow my wild and crazy fields though, and it was a disaster. The reason for the backache was mostly to do with a plant called giant ragweed, whose stem is too tough for even my hybrid brush blade to cut down. Instead, when striking one of these powerful stems, the scythe blade gets stuck midway through. By the time you remove it, the blade is dented. A similar outcome was produced by mulberry saplings, which I also have a plenty. The other obstacle I encountered during the great scythe experiment of 2016 is that I was trying to mow too large an area (about 8 acres was the goal). By the third acre, all my project deadlines were late, and I had sprained most of my fingers. By the way, I later learned that cork bicycle handlebar tape is a great addition to the scythe hand holds, and helps to prevent those finger sprains. I still have my scythe and I hope one day my fields will be tame enough to use it.

Bad Tip #7: Nothing grows in flood plains. There are great plants native to almost every ecosystem type. As it turns out, flood plains can be one of the most productive of all ecosystems, and they can grow some pretty awesome food. If you have a site with flair, like a flood plain or a sand dune or a rocky hillside, try to learn about it. Find out what the unique advantages are. Learn about the role that type of ecosystem plays in the wild. Seek out the history of what your site used to be part of before land was industrialized and grid divided and cleared. Your extension agent or NRCS representative may be able to help you get started. It’s a real shame to tear down the unique habitats of the world in favor of homogeneity.

For context on my findings: I do all my in-ground gardening in central Indiana, USA, in USDA Hardiness Zone 6a. I’ve gardened on three sites. The first site was a community garden built on pretty awful fill dirt (over an old landfill, if I recall correctly). The major problem there was the terrible soil, which I spent three years overcoming by infusing 6 inches of compost and mulches each year, and finally eventually achieved a thriving garden. The second site was another community garden on average lawn soil in a church yard in a city. That garden grew decently well, but my harvests were reduced by hungry neighbors who thought that the garden produce was free for the picking (truly, an honest mistake given the location and some confusing signage). Currently I garden in my own back yard in a rural area, surrounded by corn fields on two sides, established woods on one side, and a baby woods on the other. I use a mixture of raised beds and in-ground garden space. I have also grown a patio container garden in two different micro-climates of the San Francisco Bay Area.

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The American Persimmon

It’s persimmon season! Diospyros virginiana, the American persimmon, is one of my personal favorite fruits. The American persimmon tree is native to a large part of the United States, including south and central Indiana. It is related to the commercially available Asian Persimmons (Diospyros kaki), and to several other trees commercially grown for fruit and timber. This is a low-maintenance tree that is easy to grow organically, and the fruit is an important food source for local wildlife (and for local fruit-loving people). I have planted a few dozen American persimmon trees here at the farm, but while I wait for them to mature and become fruitful, I forage fallen ripe persimmons every September from an established tree in town. I leave all the smooshed ones for wildlife to enjoy, and only take the whole fruits with their skins in tact. Share and share alike.

I grew up enjoying American persimmons in pureed form, usually baked into a regional delicacy called persimmon pudding (though the texture of this dish is more like a brownie than pudding). I have also enjoyed this fruit made into persimmon ice cream and persimmon cake, and both are delicious. Recipes usually call for added sugar in these desserts, but personally I don’t think they need any sugar at all. The fruit is sweet enough all by itself! I can imagine countless other uses for this fruit, if only I could ever get enough of them to try out all the ideas. When fully ripe, American persimmon is very sweet with a soft grainy texture similar to fresh dates. But instead of a date flavor, it has a delicious persimmon flavor. The fruits are round, sized between one and two inches diameter, with one or more seeds in the middle. The seeds are large, and resemble pumpkin seeds. The unripe fruits are very astringent, so you definitely want to make sure you only harvest fully ripe persimmon fruit. It is commonly said that you must wait until after a frost to harvest these fruits, but that is only a myth. The easiest way to harvest is to wait for the ripe fruits to fall naturally to the ground, and simply pick them up. If you own the land the tree is on, you can spread sheets of fabric underneath the tree to speed harvesting and keep the fruits clean.

Although I have grown up enjoying this fruit for as long as I can remember, the only fresh, whole American persimmons I have ever encountered are those I have gathered myself. This is a fruit meant to be eaten soon after harvest, and does not store well. American persimmons are usually processed and sold as frozen pulp, or as baked goods. I do enjoy eating them fresh, when I can get them. This year, I decided to dry some of the persimmons I gathered so that I can enjoy them all winter. I washed them, split them in half with my fingers to remove the seeds, then laid out all the pieces of persimmon flesh onto dehydrator trays in a single layer. I dried them at 130 degrees for about 12 hours. Dehydrator time and temperatures need not be very precise, and if you typically dry tomatoes and other fruits in your oven or in the sun, I think a similar method would work as well for persimmons. The dried persimmons turned out chewy and sweet and wonderful. I have read that the seeds can be roasted and added to coffee, and that the leaves can be dried and used as tea. I have not tried these uses yet myself, but I did dry the seeds for future recipe experiments.

American Persimmon Fruit Prepared for Drying
American Persimmons de-seeded and ready for the dehydrator! A nice tray of lemon balm from the herb spiral awaits the dehydrator in the background. And that knife on the cutting board turned out to be totally unnecessary!
Dried American Persimmons
Finished dried persimmons and persimmon seeds.

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