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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Dandelion Blossom Veggie Burgers

I’ve been a small time forager for years, but last spring when I found myself newly unemployed and trying to navigate a pandemic and a recession at the same time, I doubled down on this relaxing, money-saving, health-building hobby. I taught myself how to forage for dandelions, and began gathering the flowers and greens to incorporate into my meals. I found, to my delight, that the humble dandelion is one of my favorite foods. The blossoms are especially delicious, reminding me somewhat of an artichoke drizzled with honey. The yellow fluff is traditionally separated from the green base and used to flavor wines, meads, and confections. Whole flower heads can also be individually battered and fried. I tried these preparations last spring, and found them delightful. But I really wanted a way to incorporate the dandelion blossom as a substantial part of a main dish. Enter the Dandelion Blossom Veggie Burger.

Basket of Dandelion Blossoms and Leaves

Important! If you intend to forage at all, it’s imperative that you put in your own research time and educate yourself thoroughly about safe foraging practices, poisonous plants, indicators of soil contamination, lookalike plants, food allergies, and more. Believe it or not, there are numerous other plants that resemble the common dandelion. Invest the time to learn how to collect and consume wild foods safely. There are lots of great foraging resources available through your local library, your county extension office, and local foraging clubs. Learn first, then gather.

Once you have learned how to gather the dandelions safely, you’ll need to collect about 2 cups (packed) of the fresh whole blossoms (yellow fluff and green base in tact). It’s ideal to pick them soon after they open fully, which seems to be around 11:00am. You may not be free at 11:00am, and the perfect is the enemy of the good. Pick them when you can get them. If you like, you can also gather some of the leaves at the same time. A delicious and slightly bitter pesto can be made from the leaves, which makes a wonderful sauce for the burgers. (Use a recipe for regular basil pesto, but substitute dandelion leaves for the basil).

After picking, the blossoms need to be processed as soon as possible, but at least within a few hours. They do not keep well when raw. I like to soak the flowers for 5-10 minutes in a large bowl of cold water to clean them, agitating them a few times with my hands. They can be dirty, and they can have little ants in them. Don’t bring them inside until you’re ready to wash them, or the little hitchhikers might escape into your kitchen. After soaking, I gently wring them out with my hands to remove most of the excess water. Now they are ready to use!

Washing Dandelion Flowers

To make the veggie burgers, you will need:

  • 2 packed cups freshly picked, rinsed, and wrung out dandelion blossoms.
  • 6 whole dandelion blossoms, reserved for decoration
  • 1 cup cooked & drained black beans (or any leftover cooked beans you might have on hand)
  • 1 cup cooked brown rice (or any other cooked whole grain you may have leftover in your fridge)
  • 1/2 cup organic cereal, such as fruit juice corn flakes
  • 1/4 cup nutritional yeast
  • 1/3 cup all purpose flour
  • 1/2 heaping teaspoon each of turmeric, thyme, sage, basil, garlic powder. Or, about the same amount of any flavoring herbs and spices you enjoy and have on hand.
  • 1/2 tsp each of sea salt and pepper
  • 2 tsp extra virgin olive oil, plus more for oiling the baking sheet
  • 1 large egg, or two smaller ones

Before You Begin: Oil a baking sheet with extra virgin olive oil, or the cooking oil of your choice. Set your oven to preheat to 350˚.

Step 1: Roughly chop the 2 cups of dandelion blossoms, or use your food processor to “pulse” them a few times.

Step 2: Add all the ingredients except for the six reserved decoration blossoms to a large mixing bowl. With clean hands, massage the ingredients together until they are well mixed, sticky, and cohesive. You could probably use a spoon for this part, but your hands are going to get dirty in the next step anyway. Why wash an extra spoon?

Step 3: When you feel the ingredients are well mixed, scoop up a handful of the mixture and try to form it into a ball. If it’s solid and sticky enough to hold its shape, then you are ready to form the patties. If it’s too dry to hold together, add more egg. If too wet to hold its shape or it will not stick together, add more flour.

Step 4: Shape the mixture into patties of the size and shape you prefer. I like to form a ball first, and then squish it down until it resembles a hockey puck. I usually get about five patties from this recipe, but you may find you have four or six based on how generously you pack your measuring cup, and how large you portion your patties. Place each patty onto the greased baking sheet when it’s complete.

Step 5: Press one of the reserved dandelion blossoms sunny-side-up on top of each patty for decoration. After you’ve finished this, I suggest flipping the patty over so that the dandelion blossom is on the bottom. You’ll flip the patties again midway through the baking cycle, and I think the blossoms come out more beautifully if they finish their baking time sunny-side-up.

Step 6: When the oven is fully pre-heated, place the baking sheet in the oven. Set a timer for 20 minutes. After 20 minutes, take the baking sheet out of the oven and use a spatula to flip each patty over. Use a fork to smooth out any decorative blossoms that might have gotten folded or moved so that they lay beautifully atop each patty. Place the baking sheet back in the oven and bake for 20 additional minutes.

Dandelion Veggie Burgers Ready To Bake

Cool slightly and serve on a bun with your favorite toppings. Some of my favorites include pesto, hummus, and a fresh tomato slice. Or serve atop a bed of spring greens and drizzle with a good balsamic vinaigrette. Extras can be stored short-term in the fridge, or individually frozen for later enjoyment.

Dandelion Veggie Burgers Ready To Eat

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A Night In Tomato House

I still remember my first year as a gardener. I had been dreaming of that garden all winter. Literally, I had dreams of watching carrots grow. I could almost taste the tomatoes. You couldn’t buy a good one back then, and I desperately missed the taste of my grandpa’s garden. April seemed so warm, and the official “Last Frost Date” for my area is April 16. I had never really noticed that we frequently get frosts as late as Mother’s Day. I planted my tomatoes in April at the community garden, along with all the other newbies. The elder, more experienced gardeners patiently prepared their soil and waited for May. I had to re-plant.

One would think I’d learn my lesson that year, and I thought I had. I know full well that the frosts will keep coming. I still plant early, starting with hardy peas and radishes on St. Patrick’s Day, but I surround my plants with jugs of water for extra thermal mass, and I build low tunnels over all my raised beds so I can easily cover them with clear plastic sheeting at a moment’s notice. Still, I usually wait to plant most of my really tender seedlings like tomatoes and peppers until May. But this year, my improved seed starting setup produced hundreds of seedlings that grew to such enormous proportions that I simply couldn’t keep them in the house any longer. The spring had been consistently warm and the two week forecast was clear, so I planted. But then the winds changed, and last night’s forecast predicted snow, ice, and a low of 26 degrees.

Perhaps my plants would’ve survived with the coverings I had already provided them and no extra effort. But 26 degrees is extremely cold for a tender plant, and I felt I couldn’t rest with months of work, hundreds of dollars of investment, and most of the summer’s harvest on the line. So, I woke up at 4am, just before the coldest part of the night, and I boiled some water. I took two quart jars of hot water, and two jars each containing a lit tea light candle to place inside the coverings of each raised bed. Then I placed a candle, a watering can full of hot water, a mug of hot tea, a flask of homemade fire cider, and myself inside the big tomato tunnel, and stayed there to monitor the situation and to share some of my own warmth with the plants until the sun came up, the candles burned out, and the ambient temperatures began to rise.

Side Note: If I had enough Wall-O-Waters to place one on every single plant, I wouldn’t have worried. But my garden this year is market sized, and my collection of Wall-O-Waters is not. I felt reasonably confident that my low-budget combination of plastic-covered low tunnels with gallon jugs of water interspersed would work down to 28 or 29 degrees, but I was concerned that 26 might be just that tiniest bit too cold.

Camping Inside The Tomato Tunnel

By 7:30 I was exhausted and a little frosted, so I went inside and crawled back into bed with my own hot water bottle. Later, I returned to check on the plants. All look healthy! I don’t think I lost a single plant. Was all this effort necessary? I don’t know. Maybe someday I’ll do a controlled experiment on another 26 degree night and find out. But for now, I’m simply glad that the garden survived, and looking forward to sinking my teeth into the earliest of ripe tomatoes. And, if all goes as planned, some of these fruits will make it to my local farmers market this coming summer.

Tomato Plant Inside A Low Tunnel With Thermal Mass

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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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