Cover Crops: When To Grow Them And How

Cover crops are all the rage in regenerative farming, and for good reason. Plants are powerful. This world contains plants that can make nitrogen out of thin air, plants with roots that can break hardpan, plants that can prevent erosion, and plants that can clean contaminated soils. Cover crops were a step on my own path in transitioning the land from corn fields to pasture to native plant food forests. Overall, my cover crop project was successful, but I made some mistakes and learned some lessons along the way. I paid out of pocket for some projects that I might have received funding assistance for, bought some tools I didn’t need, and planted some cover crops that I shouldn’t have. These are some lessons I wish I had learned before I began.

Sprinkle The Seeds On Top

The cover crop project was my first ever project as a farmer. My experiences in horticulture up to that point had all been from the perspective of a gardener. So I thought I would have to rent fancy, expensive, fuel-intensive tools to till the ground and bury the seeds 1/4″ deep as one would in the garden, but bigger. Luckily I got some great advice from my local NRCS representative before I began: surface-sowing works fine. As it turns out, in spite of traditional gardeners wisdom, tilling often does more harm than good for the soil. And when you think about it, how do weed seeds get planted? They just land on the soil and grow. So even though my soil was all crusted over and I was certain that no seed could germinate in it, I took a leap of faith and sprinkled my seeds on top. And, they grew!

P.S. I tried several kinds of broadcast seeders, and abandoned them all in favor of scattering seeds with my hands out of a bucket. The broadcast seeders wasted a lot of seed. I had a lot more control with my hands, and it really wasn’t that hard or time consuming. I was able to sow about 3 acres per day this way. Also, scattering seeds to the four winds is really enjoyable.

Seek Help

There are some governmental assistance programs that can help you pay for your cover crops, if you’re eligible. I planted my first few rounds of cover crops on my own dime, but later I received some funding assistance through NRCS in the form of an EQIP (Environmental Quality Incentives Program) grant to help me finish. If you’re planning to do a soil conservation project in the United States, it might be worth contacting NRCS to see how they can assist you.

Fields of Clover

Learn Your Local Weeds

I wasted time hand-pulling weeds out of my cover crop my first year. This was a losing battle. But even if you’re determined to pull weeds, you only need to pull the perennial ones. Annual and biennial weeds can be easily controlled just by mowing them down before they set seed. Plant identification is a learning process though, and the weeds I see on my farm land are different from the weeds I was accustomed to seeing as a gardener. I suggest joining a local plant forum where you can share plant pictures and exchange IDs, or downloading a plant identification app to help bring you up to speed quickly. These days, I let most of the weeds do their thing and I only expend energy removing plants if they are poisonous, irritant, or extremely invasive (namely poison hemlock, poison ivy, and garlic mustard).

Scythes Work Best on an Acre or Less

I was determined to mow my sorghum-sudangrass cover crop with a scythe. This is a crop that is planted for its vigor. It has incredible roots that can break up hardpan layers in the soil, and it produces a massive amount of biomass up top, which when mowed, becomes a nice mulch for the soil. It does need to be mowed, though. I was drawn to the idea of mowing with a scythe in order to avoid the maintenance, cost, and fossil fuel use of a mower. And I had heard many rave reviews about scythes within the permaculture community. So I bought a scythe and I tried it. But not only was I unable to mow ten acres this way, I was unable to mow even two. My field had some volunteer tree saplings in it and some giant ragweed with thick rigid stalks that frequently caught the scythe blade mid-swing. And it was hard work. By the time I made it from one end of my smallest field to the other, my body was in ragged shape and it was time to start over at the beginning again. My husband saved the day by borrowing a pull-behind brush hog and finishing that mowing job himself, because a regular lawn mower can’t handle 8 foot tall vegetation, and I can’t start a pull cord engine to save my life. Luckily, none of my other cover crops were this huge, and the crimson clover that followed it needed no mowing at all. Even after all this, I still think the scythe has a place on the farm. It would be excellent at cutting smaller cover crop rotations from the garden or harvesting a small grain crop.

Consider Seasonal Rainfall Patterns

Once, as a gardener, I planted a buckwheat cover crop in the summer. It grew beautifully, fitted in nicely after some of my other crops were done producing, provided great forage for the bees in a time of dearth, and improved my soil. I sought to recreate this on the farm. But, one key factor of my earlier success was that I had irrigation in that garden, and I do not have irrigation in all my farm fields. Turns out, there isn’t enough rainfall in summer for the crop to establish itself, and my summer buckwheat cover crop didn’t thrive. All my early spring plantings did well without irrigation though, as did my late-fall-planted crimson clover.

Grasses and Weeds Are Cover Crops Too

All the cover crops I have discussed up to this point are annuals, and they add the most value when they are grown as one rotation of many on an annual crop farm or garden. Since I was transitioning my farm from annuals to perennials, I now realize that I could have skipped a few steps. My final cover crop was a perennial blend of pasture grasses and clovers. The pasture grasses need no fertilizer or irrigation, and they do a great job of keeping the soil aerated and protected from erosion, preventing nutrient loss, and addding organic matter. The clovers add nitrogen to the soil and provide food for the bees. Looking back through the lens of experience, I suspect these perennial plants would have grown just fine if I had planted them straight away and skipped all the annual cover crops. Even certain weeds can function as free cover crops! I especially value the dandelions for their taproots, the clovers for their nitrogen-fixing abilities, and the wild grasses for their erosion prevention.

If you’re interested in learning more about cover crops, check out this comprehensive resource by SARE.

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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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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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Life in the Flood Plain

“When the last tree is cut, the last fish is caught, and the last river is polluted; when to breathe the air is sickening, you will realize, too late, that wealth is not in bank accounts and that you can’t eat money.” -Alanis Obomsawin

This is my home, and I love it. Mosquitoes are everywhere, flood waters often interrupt my schedule, and none of the popular crops grow well here. But it’s wonderful. Some of the most exciting, nutritious, delicious food crops are native to this kind of habitat. And if I plant the right things, the flood waters will actually help my crops grow better by providing free fertilizers and no-work irrigation. Some fascinating animals live here too! On many a summer night, I am serenaded to sleep by a world class symphony of frog singers. I’ve met snakes and lizards and herons and eagles and fish and butterflies. It’s a challenging, but very rewarding habitat.

Bucket of litter collected from a wetland

The wetland at Strawberry Moon Farm is awash in the river about four times per year. After each and every flood, the byproducts of modern convenience are left behind in that field. Gallons and gallons of trash float in on the wild currents. If I don’t clean it up, it will float downstream to one of my neighbors during the next storm. It will become someone else’s problem, but no less of one. Large items crash in and crush our small trees: a picnic table, a fire extinguisher, hunting gear, and mounds of agricultural waste. Small items float through and cause harm to our wild friends: plastic wrappers, straws, and bottle caps.

A picnic table in an open field
Plastic Straw Littered In A Wetland

An image of one specific plastic straw became infamous last year. That particular straw was lodged inside the nostril of a sea turtle. Encouragingly, humanity is rallying together to help reduce ocean pollution and protect sea creatures like that turtle.

The straw pictured above was found here, in our wetland, in Midwestern USA. Indiana is not near an ocean, but it is home to more than fifteen species of turtles. Our rivers, streams, and lakes host a myriad of fish, reptiles, and amphibians. Majestic Bald Eagles and stately Blue Herons dive into these fresh waters every day, in attempt to feed themselves and their offspring. The plastic epidemic is not confined to the oceans. Litter is not someone else’s problem.

Styrofoam and a Medicine Bottle Littered In A Wetland

Feeling outraged or depressed or disillusioned will not change our situation, so let’s not waste our energy. There are simple, specific things we can all do to spark positive change in the world. Start with your own community. Take care of your own trash. Pick up litter where you see it (if you can do so safely). Ask your friends to do the same. Pack out your trash when you go camping or hiking rather than leaving it in the woods. If you can avoid consuming single use plastics, do so. If you can’t, try to dispose of those plastics in a responsible way. Recycle what you can recycle and build ecobricks. Secure the lids on your trash cans so your discarded items don’t blow away. And plant trees. Did you know trees are one of the Earth’s natural filters? Not only do they help clean the water and protect the soil, but they also help us catch our mistakes as they float or fly by. They give us a chance to clean those things up before they float farther downstream.

Escaped Plastic Flower Arrangement
I can almost always find a synthetic flower arrangement or two in this drainage ditch near my home, across the street from a cemetery. Well-meaning people often adorn the graves of their loved ones with arrangements like this one, but the wind blows them away into natural areas where they may end up causing significant harm. Please consider honoring your loved ones with biodegradable arrangements instead.

We Earthlings are dealing with a lot right now, and much of it is beyond our control. Taking responsibility for my own consumption and waste is something I can control. Taking responsibility for yours is within your control. It’s a positive step we can take to make the world a better place. Things that once mattered, still matter. And maybe they matter even more now. Let’s care for each other in this way.

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Farming the Woodland

When we look at garden catalogues, almost every plant description mentions “Full Sun”.  Almost every common food plant seems to require it, but there are many exciting, delicious, and beneficial crops that prefer shade.  That’s important information, because the mature trees and woodlands that are most often responsible for creating that shade are tremendously valuable.  If we view our trees as a hindrance to our gardening and farming efforts, then we become more likely to remove them, or to avoid planting them in the first place.  When we truly understand the ecosystems trees create, we can enter into a mutually beneficial partnership with them.  Furthermore, many of these shade-loving food crops are native to Midwestern USA.  When we grow native food plants, we nurture not only ourselves but also the beautiful community of wildlife, birds, butterflies, and other insects that depend on those plants.

A Smattering of Deep Shade Crops:

  • Ramps (native)
  • Ostrich Ferns aka Fiddleheads (native)
  • American Ginseng (native high-value medicinal crop)
  • Edible & Medicinal Mushrooms (native and non-native varieties)
  • Nuts or fruits from the large trees creating the deep shade (native and non-native)
  • Maple Syrup (the best syrup trees (sugar maple & red maple) are both native!)

A Sampler of Woodland Edge Crops (part shade):

  • Blackberries (native)
  • Black Raspberries (native)
  • Red Raspberries (not native)
  • Violets (Native violet leaves & flowers are great in salads. Non-native sweet violet flowers are used in perfumes, candies, and flavor syrups.)
  • Red Mulberries (Morus Rubra – native. Not to be confused with the more commonly found invasive white mulberry Morus Alba.)
  • Grapes (several species are native)
  • American Elder (Flowers and berries are used for food and medicine. Native.)
  • Spicebush (Bay Laurel relative. Leaves are used for tea, and berries are used like allspice. Native!)
  • Sassafras (Bay Laurel relative. Leaves are an important ingredient in gumbo (file).)
  • Honeyberry (non-native but non-invasive fruit crop)
  • Wild Strawberry (Fragaria virginiana, native)
  • Stinging Nettles (The stinging mechanism deactivates when cooked properly, and then they are a delicious and highly nutritious vegetable. Some nettles are not native, but Urtica dioica subsp. gracilis is native!)

Woodland cultivation poses different advantages and different challenges than full sun gardening. Some special considerations include:

  • Cleaning up downed trees and limbs after storms
  • Maintaining access paths to the planting areas
  • Removing invasive species
  • Removing poison ivy
  • Reducing Mosquitoes

It’s a fascinating topic and we’re just getting started. I look forward to learning more and more about woodland gardening as I gain experience, and sharing that new knowledge with you here. I hope you’ll try a shade crop or two if you have a woodsy spot on your property! And more importantly, I hope you’ll look at trees as garden friends rather than foes.

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The Foundation of Our Future

Gardening has enjoyed increased popularity in recent months. Perhaps because we’re all spending more time in our homes and our yards due to shelter in place rules. Perhaps because many of us have lost our incomes due to economic shutdowns and are trying to reduce our food costs. Perhaps because it’s great therapy during stressful times. Whatever your reason for beginning a garden, welcome to the pastime. I’m glad you’re here. And I want you to succeed, which is why I’m about to share the #1 most important garden success tip I know: grow compost. Compost is the absolute lifeblood, and the foundation of a healthy organic garden. If you have some food scraps and a few spare minutes per day, you can do this. And if you do, you’ll be rewarded with beautiful rich soil that will help your garden succeed. It’s one of nature’s great miracles.

What is compost? It’s a nutrient rich soil amendment that you can make from your unwanted food scraps. Soil loves it, worms love it, and plants love it. To start, you’ll need materials from two categories: “greens” and “browns”. Greens are fresh, moist plant products that could include food scraps, grass clippings, certain manures, and weeds. Browns are dried, dead things like fallen autumn leaves, wood chips, or paper. People have done research on creating the ideal balanced compost pile and there is plenty of literature available on that topic. I don’t measure my compost very carefully though. I just shoot for roughly twice as much brown material as green. If you have too much brown material, the compost process will be very slow. If you have too much green material, the compost will smell and might get very hot. If that happens, just adjust as necessary and keep composting. It will all work out.

Once you have some materials, you’ll need a place to put them. This can be as simple as an open pile in the back yard with no structure whatsoever, or as fancy as a compost tumbler. I’ve tried a number of different composting systems, and they all produce the same compost. The difference is mainly in how tidy they look, and how much effort is required to produce the compost.

Mantis ComposTumbler Compost Tumbler

The compost tumbler pictured to the right of this paragraph (made by Mantis) is the pièce de résistance of my compost system. I watched Craigslist for years, waiting for it to be listed there at an affordable price. The hand crank design makes it very easy to turn the compost every day. By turning the compost every day, and keeping it moist, compost is finished in just a few weeks.

Wire Bins for Compost Overflow
Wire Bins holding compostable materials that don’t fit in my tumbler. They look messy, but they do the job!

Between actively managed batches of compost in the tumbler, I store compostable materials in these wire bins as overflow. If I was constantly adding new materials to the tumbler, then the materials added later in the cycle wouldn’t be finished composting at the same time as the materials added in the beginning, meaning that there would always be some whole banana peels in my compost. So I use these wire bins to store the materials in waiting. You can see from the photo that I have quite a backlog of compostables, but I plan to completely catch up now that I’m a full time farmer (aka unemployed…)! Even if I didn’t have the tumbler, I could finish these compostables just as quickly by turning them every day with a pitch fork. But, that would take more free time than I have. Or, I could turn them less often, and they would turn into compost over a longer period of time (maybe several months). Or, I could not turn them at all, and they would still become compost after a few years! Moisture is necessary to the composting process though, so try to water your compost pile during periods of drought. Once per week is enough. It should be moist like your garden soil, but not soggy.

You’ll know your compost is finished with it reduces to at least half its original size, no longer feels hot to the touch, and looks like rich black soil. It should not contain any large recognizable chunks of banana. It should smell neutral and earthy.

Ideas for “Greens” To Use In Your Compost:

  • Vegetable peels
  • Used Coffee Grounds
  • Apple cores
  • Banana Peels
  • Leftovers nobody wants to eat
  • That parsley you bought with good intentions but it got all wilty and gross in the back of your crisper
  • Moldy bread
  • Livestock manure, or manure from certain herbivorous pets (do your own research on this, not all manures are safe to add)
  • Weeds you pulled from your garden (but be sure not to include their seeds)
  • Grass clippings

Browns:

  • Unbleached Napkins
  • Unbleached Coffee Filters
  • Unbleached Paper
  • Fallen autumn leaves (preferably shredded)
  • Straw
  • Wood Chips (these will take a long time to break down, delaying your compost, but they do work)

Items Generally Recommended Not To Compost:

  • Plastic-looking items that say “compostable” on them. These are only compostable if they’re heated first. Industrial composting facilities can handle these types of items, but it’s difficult to manage at home.
  • Items that are bleached or dyed. Though I add these to my compost anyway, as long as they make up a tiny percentage of total compost.
  • Meat or dairy products. These products can make your compost smell, and possibly attract animals to your compost pile. However, I add them anyway, because I don’t care about those consequences.
  • Foods that are very salty or oily. Again, I do this anyway as long as those items constitute a tiny percentage of my total compost. If there’s too much salt in the compost it can harm plants, and oil takes a long time to fully break down. In tiny amounts, I don’t notice any problems.

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Our Plastic Legacy

I try really hard to avoid plastic waste. I recycle, I carry reusable utensils in my pockets to avoid consuming single-use flatware, I bring my own reusable bags to the grocery store, and I try to avoid the infamous plastic drinking straws at restaurants. But try as I may, plastic is everywhere. It’s unavoidable for most of us. And much of it is not even recyclable. So what is an eco-loving citizen to do with all those unavoidable plastic wrappers, bubble mailers, old toothbrushes, zip ties, and other small miscellaneous non-recyclable plastics? We could throw them in the trash, but these small, lightweight articles are very likely to blow away and cause harm to water, wetlands, wildlife, and ultimately to ourselves. Since these deadly convenience items persist in our environment for many lifetimes, their cycle of harm repeats on a loop.

The ultimate solution to this problem is too big for any one person to solve completely. We need corporations to refuse to make this stuff. We need scientists to develop better building materials for products. And since so far, the money is on the other side of this argument, we’ll probably need politicians as well. But I do not fit into any of those categories, and likely, neither do you. Nevertheless, we don’t have to participate in this harmful cycle. We can choose a more responsible, constructive second life for the unavoidable plastics that cross our paths. And in the process, we can also build cool, useful stuff that just might make the world a better place.

Enter: the Ecobrick. An Ecobrick is a plastic bottle, packed tightly with wrappers and small plastic items, then sealed with a screw top lid. If you pack the bottle tightly enough, it can become a weight bearing building material, similar to a brick. Even better, the tiny wrappers and other small items stored inside the bottle are effectively imprisoned, thereby prevented from wreaking havoc on the greater ecosystem.

Completed Ecobricks
My Collection of Completed Ecobricks

I’ve been packing my own plastic (and some plastics from friends and coworkers) into empty drink bottles for the past 10 months. It takes some time, but I find it meditative and stress-relieving. It’s surprising how many items fit inside one bottle. It can take me multiple weeks to fill one bottle, even when combining my home plastics with those from my office. Someday, eventually, I hope to collect enough of these “bricks” to build a new potting shed in the garden using Ecobricks and cob as the primary building materials. It will probably take a long time to collect enough bricks for this goal, but that’s okay. I view it as a lifelong practice. Or at least, for as long as disposable plastic items remain ubiquitous on our planet.

Let’s Get Started!

There are already really good instructions on how to make an ecobrick from the Global Ecobrick Alliance, so I won’t repeat that here. To start, all you need is a clean and dry drink bottle, and a sturdy, smooth stick that is longer than your bottle and less than half as wide as your bottle opening. You can pack the bottle with plastic items as you encounter them, or store up all your packing plastics throughout the week until you have a free evening to stuff them. I do a mix of both depending on my schedule. Everything that goes into the brick must be mostly clean and totally dry. For example, if I have an empty bag of chips, I might turn it upside down and shake out the crumbs before stuffing it into the bag. If it’s oily inside, I’ll wipe it out with a towel before packing it inside my bottle. If I have an item soiled with significant food residue, I wash that with water and dish soap and then dry it alongside my clean dishes before packing it inside the bottle.

What Can Go Inside The Bottle:

Examples of plastics that can be packed inside of bottles to make ecobricks
  • Empty bags of chips
  • Candy bar wrappers
  • Drinking straws
  • Empty bags of frozen fruits and vegetables
  • Cellophane wrap
  • Sandwich bags
  • Shopping bags
  • Twist ties
  • Zip ties
  • Bubble Mailers
  • Styrofoam
  • Discarded toothbrushes
  • Crushed up plastic utensils
  • Empty bags of coffee
  • Tea bag wrappers
  • Wine capsules (the colorful plastic seals that cover the cork and bottle neck)
  • Lots of other items. If it’s plastic and it’s soft or tiny, it can go inside your brick!

What To Do With Completed Ecobricks:

The Global Ecobrick Alliance has another great article called Building with Ecobricks that is definitely worth reading. The section called Earth Bottle Building describes the cob technique I plan to use for the potting shed. If you decide you don’t have any use for ecobricks but you’re still interested in making some, you could donate them to someone who can use them. We do accept ecobrick donations here at Strawberry Moon Farm, as do some other organizations and individuals. If you know you want to donate your ecobricks, find out in advance what kind of bottle your recipient builds with. It’s important that all the bottles be the same size for effective and aesthetic building, so your bottles will need to match those of the project you’re donating towards. You can look for someone accepting ecobrick donations near you on the GoBrik website. This site also encourages you to log your ecobricks, assign unique serial numbers to them, and share validations within the ecobrick community. Feel free to join the Strawberry Moon Farm community on GoBrik!

Gatorade and Pepsi Bottle Ecobricks
28oz Gatorade (left) 20 oz Pepsi (right)

I use two types of bottles. The first is the 28 ounce Gatorade bottle. It’s the middle size gatorade that is often sold at gas stations. This one is nice because it is a very sturdy bottle, and it has a wide opening so you can include larger items. The other bottle is the 20 ounce Pepsi bottle (or any other 20 ounce Pepsi product such as Mountain Dew, Dr Pepper, 7-Up, Bubly sparkling water, Aquafina bottled water). This is a flimsier bottle with a narrower opening, and I find it a little harder to stuff than the Gatorade. However, they’re much more common, so if you have trouble finding a 28 ounce Gatorade bottle, this might be a great option for you. Whichever bottle you choose, happy bricking!

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How To Choose A Garden Tool That Will Last A Lifetime: The Top 5 Questions to Ask Before Buying

Spring is here, and so are the 1,000 trees I purchased to plant here at Strawberry Moon. Of course, my favorite digging tool broke after planting the first 50 trees. It shouldn’t have been a surprise.  I bought that spading fork before I knew what made a good, durable tool.

Broken Spading Fork
Death By Clay

It’s not the first tool that has perished at the hands of my Indiana clay soil. I broke my first garden tool in my second year of growing.  It was a hoe.  The metal hoe flew off the wooden handle, and that was that.  Nothing I tried could reattach the handle securely enough for it to function as a hoe again*.  Since then, there have been many other casualties of the trade: leaky cheap hoses, cracked plastic watering cans, bent cultivator tines and splintered wooden handles.  Poorly made tools waste your time and your money, waste our precious natural resources, and could even cause injury.  I understood this then as well as now.  Some of these broken tools came with lengthy warranties, none of them were the cheapest tool at the box store, and they all looked and felt sturdy at the time.  So if you are willing to shell out the extra cash for a top of the line tool, how do you find the right one?  How can you tell if a tool is really built to last a lifetime, or just overpriced to give the illusion of quality?  Here are some criteria I’ve found to be important in choosing my tools.

1. The #1 most common problem I have experienced with long handled tools is that the handle separates from the metal tool head. When choosing a new tool, look at the attachment between the handle and the metal implement. If you see that the metal is crimped around a handle and expected to stay on by tension alone, don’t buy the tool!  Buy one that is attached with removable screws, or all one piece. Not only is this type of connection more secure, but it is user serviceable. If that handle detaches or breaks, you can replace the handle without having to buy a whole new tool.

Garden tool with improperly attached head
This tool head is not sufficiently attached to the handle. The handle will separate from the head.  Even if you manage to reattach it, the same problem will likely reoccur repeatedly.
Garen Tool With Rivet Attached Head
This tool head is securely attached to the handle with a rivet fastener, but if the handle rots or breaks, it may be more difficult to remove the rivet than a simple screw or bolt.  However, I am told it can be done.
Garen Tool With Screw Attached Head
This tool head is securely attached to the handle with a removable screw. It should stay securely attached, and if the handle does break, another can be easily installed.

2. Look for good quality metal. Research the type of metal used in the tool you are considering to find out if it’s strong enough to resist bending and denting, reasonably easy to sharpen, and able to hold a sharp edge well.  Hoes, knives, spades, and scythes all require periodic sharpening to perform their best.  Hand cultivators and spading forks should be thick and very strong.  All metal tools should be reasonably rust resistant.  Care for your metal tools by keeping them clean and dry.  If light rust does occur, you can scrub it away and apply oil to prevent it from returning.

A rubber mallet with a broken handle
I bet this never happened to Thor’s hammer.

3. The handle must be strong. I once bought a rubber mallet with a cheap wooden handle. Eventually, the handle broke in half, rendering the entire tool useless. If you are buying a tool with a wooden handle, Ash is the ideal wood. It’s what baseball bats are made of.  When buying knives, look for a full tang (the blade runs through the entire length of the handle as one solid piece of metal).  Care for your wooden handles by rubbing them with walnut oil or mineral oil annually or more frequently as needed.

4. Ergonomic design is also extremely important for any tool you will use regularly. Is the tool comfortable to hold? Does it utilize your biggest muscle groups (arms rather than wrists, legs rather than back)? Can it be used in multiple positions to prevent overuse injuries?  Can it be used while your back is straight?  Protect your body. It’s the best tool you have, and it’s irreplaceable.

5. Company reputation and warranty sometimes indicate long lasting products. If a company has been in business a long time, has a good reputation, and stands by their products with a 10 year or longer warranty, then they probably made a good tool.  That said, the broken spading fork that inspired this article came with a 25 year warranty, and only lasted a few seasons.  It appears to have been attached by setting the metal “stem” in some sort of resin or concrete-like substance.  The molded base cracked, setting the fork free from the handle.  Yet another decapitation victim!  So while a long warranty period is definitely a good sign, it’s not necessarily a guarantee that the tool will last.

You probably won’t find any top quality tools at your local box store, and I haven’t had much luck at my local garden centers either.  If you’re lucky enough to live near a hand tool specialty store like Earth Tools**, then you’ll be able to try out various high quality tools in the store, and ask the experts your questions.  Farm and garden conventions also often offer a nice selection of hand tools in the vendor hall, and of course pretty much everything is available online.  There are a lot of great brands out there, but I’ve become somewhat smitten with the DeWit** line.  They have some really inventive designs, and the quality seems to be top notch.  I’ve only been using their tools for a year, but I haven’t managed to break one yet.  Regarding the aforementioned plastic watering can, I replaced it with a nice metal one by Haws**.  I’m so far extremely pleased with the build quality and ergonomic aspects, but time will tell if it was actually worth the exorbitant price tag.  I don’t consider myself an expert on hoses yet, but in general, the really heavy, thick ones last a lot longer than the lightweight flimsy ones.

*I threw that broken hoe into the trash can at the community garden space, and a fellow gardener rescued it and reattached the head by welding. So if you have welding equipment, a detached tool head might not be the end of the day for you! I still recommend the screw attachment heads, because a projectile hoe head can be dangerous and decidedly inconvenient.

**Suggestions, NOT affiliate links.  I was hesitant to include any links because I’m not here to sell you stuff, but I thought they might really be useful to you.  Live your life according to your own purpose, think for yourself, own your own choices, and shop wherever you want.

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Growing Great Soil With Cover Crops

My first garden at the Greenwood Community Garden

My first garden was far from perfect.  It was a rented space in a community garden, with hard, rocky, clay fill dirt that caused most of my neighbors to abandon their own plots by June.  I stayed and gave my heart, soul, and sweat to that soil for three years before I ever reaped a decent harvest.  Each year, I spread several truckloads of mulch, pulled thousands of weeds, and cried over the deaths of drowned plants, frozen plants, sick plants, trampled plants and nibbled plants.  But eventually, the garden became healthy and fertile.  I wouldn’t change a thing about my first garden, because the lessons it taught me have served me well.  The most important thing I learned was that good soil is absolutely essential to a successful organic garden.

If you are gardening on a small scale, you might be able to bypass your soil all together, by growing food in containers or raised beds filled with store-bought perfect soil.  Or, you might be able to make enough compost to sufficiently enrich the soil you have.  But what if you need to fix acres of hardpan clay soil?  It would take decades for one person to make that much compost, and many thousands of dollars to build acres of raised beds.  An excellent solution can be found in cover crops.

Sorghum-Sudangrass Cover CropA cover crop is a plant that is grown specifically for the benefit of the soil.  There are many kinds of cover crops, each with its own magical power.  There are crops that create nitrogen from nothing but air and bacteria, crops that mine minerals from deep within the ground, crops that smother weeds, and crops that control pests.  These crops are chosen for their ability to grow vigorously even in poor soil, and for their ability to leave the soil better than they found it.  The specific problem at Strawberry Moon Farm was compacted clay soil.  The soil was hard, and rainwater stagnated in puddles for days rather than soaking peacefully into the ground.  So I selected sorghum-sudangrass, a crop with five-foot-deep roots to break up the soil.  As a bonus, it also has ten-foot-tall foliage, which will provide plenty of mulch at the end of the season.  The sorghum-sudangrass has performed extremely well so far, even with no fertilizer, pesticides, or irrigation.  You can learn more about the types of cover crops and how they work from SARE (Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education).  I plan to invest in a few more cover crops to reap still more benefits for the soil at Strawberry Moon, to give our organic orchards, vineyards, and vegetable gardens the best possible chance to thrive.

Cover crops are extremely useful for building great soil on a large scale, and they are just as useful for small gardens.  Consider growing a quick midsummer crop of buckwheat between your spring peas and your autumn radishes, or maybe a spring crop of alfalfa before you plant your tomatoes next year. It’s an affordable, easy, and effective strategy to boost production in your vegetable garden and on our farm.

 

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Farming The Wetland

Strawberry Moon Farm in Lunar Eclipse
Strawberry Moon Farm in Lunar Eclipse

My husband and I looked for our farm for 18 months.  He only wanted a beautiful house, but I only cared about great land.  When we finally found something we could both love, we were both willing to make a few compromises.  I had been looking for a flat, sunny, well-drained, rectangular field; a blank canvas I could transform into my vision of the perfect fruit-filled paradise.  But this land had woods.  It had hills.  It had a flood plain.  It had its own plans.

We ended up with 10 acres of incredibly diverse land.  About 3 acres were wooded, and about 1.5 acres were in a flood plain.  The low land was classified as a once in 100 year flood plain for the adjacent creek, but after we moved in, we realized that a more accurate classification would have been three floods every single year.  Later, we learned that this part of our farm was a natural wetland, a former creek bottom.  I’m not easily discouraged, but this news was disappointing at best.  I didn’t think any useful or edible plants could be grown in this type of environment.  Luckily, I was wrong.

A creek overflows, creating flooded corn fields and road floods
Our natural wetland, flooded by an overflowing creek

As it turns out, wetlands can be beautiful, productive ecosystems capable of producing food, filtering flood waters, and sheltering wildlife.  If you’re trying to turn land like this into a corn field (which the previous owners were), you’re going to be sorely disappointed.  But if you protect the soil and encourage permanent, water-loving trees and shrubs, you and the land will be very happy together.  Pecans, maples, willows, and elderberries are just a few of the species that can thrive and produce in this type of environment.  By working with the water instead of against it, you can build a lush food forest that nourishes you at the same time as it drains and cleans the flood waters.

The reason why it’s a bad idea to till up a flood plain field and plant it to row crops like corn has to do with erosion.  Erosion occurs when water or other forces remove topsoil from the land and move it elsewhere.  Usually, this topsoil ends up someplace it isn’t wanted, like in a waterway.  The nutrients (like nitrogen and phosphorus) and sediments from the displaced soil disrupt the balance in the water.  This can kill fish, and generally damage the ecosystem.  Meanwhile, your land grows poorer and poorer as all its nutrients and topsoil are stripped away.  When you till, or when you leave bare soil exposed, the soil is vulnerable and easy to wash away.  But when it is densely covered with plants, myriad roots hold that soil in place.  The plants shelter and protect the topsoil, and when floods come, the water is absorbed into the root system or filtered through aerated soil into the groundwater table.

There’s a thing called a Riparian Buffer.  According to Wikipedia:
“A riparian buffer is a vegetated area (a “buffer strip”) near a stream, usually forested, which helps shade and partially protect a stream from the impact of adjacent land uses. It plays a key role in increasing water quality in associated streams, rivers, and lakes, thus providing environmental benefits. With the decline of many aquatic ecosystems due to agricultural production, riparian buffers have become a very common conservation practice aimed at increasing water quality and reducing pollution.”

My plan is to create an edible Riparian Forest Buffer.  The goal is to have all the benefits of soil and water conservation, but to also harvest and use something from each of the plants and trees in the buffer.  Strawberry Moon is not the first farm to try this, but it is not yet a ubiquitous practice.  I hope that this riparian buffer project will encourage more people to try this ecologically sound farming style.  If farmers can increase yields while at the same time protecting the environment, why not do this?  There is even financial aid available from some government organizations to make the transition from conventional farming to riparian buffers easier.  I’ll post more about that later, when I have all the facts.  Meanwhile, spring is coming.  Be ready!

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