Friday, August 28, 2009

The Art of Planting and Watering Fall Starts

Do not be deceived by the sturdy nature of Brassica .  As babies, they are as needy and deserving of attention as any other plant.  Today at the Indian Valley Organic Farm, we harvested, cleared, pruned, seed-saved, winnowed, and learned exactly how to plant lettuce and Brassica starts.

Above is a photo of a properly planted cauliflower start.  The reason it is a properly planted cauliflower start is this: 

- First, we pinched off all of the leaves along the stem except the top two.

- Then, we held up the baby plant to gauge its length from the bottom of the roots to the small crown (where the plant stem meets the roots) at the base of the leaves.  

- Next, we dug a hole plenty deep to lay out the root system gently, all the way to the bottom of the hole, making sure that the roots are not bunched up.  "You don't want them to have to do all that work to reconfigure themselves," Steve said.  

- Finally, (and this is the step that is "super, super, super," important, according to Steve) we filled in the hole and look to see that "the crown is on the ground".

As we planted we kept in mind the harrowing sight of a poor young broccoli Steve pointed out to us.  It had been planted just a few days earlier with too much stem exposed,  and it was weak and wilted.  We were careful to tuck that soil way up around the collar of the small plants.

Now we can move on to watering in the starts.  In the photo above a classmate demonstrates the best water technique on a row of lettuce she has planted:

- Use a twist in the hose to control water pressure, and make sure that water pressure is not too strong to displace soil or harm the start.

- Water in a small circle around each start until the ground is well-soaked.

Those of us who grew up in the Bay Area know that fall comes with a breath of hot air, just when its time to go back to in now.  When the days are still extremely warm, it is best to plant Brassica in the evening.  If you cannot plant in the evening, you must make sure to water immediately after putting the starts in the ground.

Babies are babies are babies, and they are tender and delicate and deserving of our most refined attention, no matter the species.  If you care for the young with heartfelt attention in the early days, they will grow sturdy and live bountiful evidenced by the produce stand at IVOF.

Bethallyn Black, Indian Valley Organic Farm Site Manager 

More action shots from the day...

Today we're collecting "Indian Valley Red" Lettuce seeds

Using the wind to winnow


And sifting

And looking forward to this.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Gardening in The Spirit of My Father

My father, Arden Jones, taught me to love the land.  Above is a photo of him, not long before he died in 2001.  He is with my two oldest daughters in the garden he helped us to build and cultivate here in Novato.  Although my father was not well when this photo was taken, I  love it, because that was him, to the very end, crouching down in a garden to investigate, smell, taste, cherish and honor everything about the living world.  While most obituaries list professional achievement, the main paragraph of my father's read:  "He was especially fond of spiders, ticks, bats and other tiny beings who he felt might be misunderstood or under-appreciated," ... and, "His ability to find magic under every stone made him a friend, in particular, to young children." We all loved to be with him in nature.  You can see in my younger daughter's face what he was able to inspire ...pure wonder.

One of the reasons I am so enjoying the Indian Valley Organic Farm is because Steve Quirt and Wendy Johnson are bringing me home to a lot of what my father understood and tried to share with me about gardening.  As an adult child working beside him I remained semi-rebellious, and would often purposefully focus on something like arrow-straight rows, wanting to know that we were following the plan.  I was fastidious when he was open-hearted and experimental.  I was sometimes impatient with the way he loved to tuck things in here and there, encouraging me to watch and see which plants liked each other, and how they would do in a particular soil.  I couldn't understand why he insisted on hand-watering so many plants when the entire modern world was using irrigation tubing..   I often doubted his relaxed, trusting approach to the wildness of growing environments. 

My father was patient with gardens, so they  thrived and grew magnificent and productive in his care.  His gardens drew insects, and, of course, all sorts of critters.  He created spaces that brought children looking for mystery or adventure or solace.  His gardens also brought adults,  looking for peace, or the comfort of a sweet tomato.  Or, sometimes, just looking for their children.

When my siblings and I were young, my father drove our family across country in the summer so we could spend time in the woods of Nova Scotia, Canada.  These were the same woods where he and his mother spent time, where she had shared with him all she had learned from her father.  My father came from a line of people who believed nature carried all of the wisdom we humans might need.  The danger for this type is a tendency toward misanthropy or isolation in the modern world, some of which we boast in our family lineage.  My father was not particularly adept at managing in the modern world, but he seemed to truly enjoy being with others in a garden or in the wilderness.  He was a guide and a fellow explorer. He was a large man, but he always crouched down, as if to make himself smaller in the face of nature.

One of my earliest memories of solitude was lying down within one of my father's gardens, the one that grew beneath my childhood home.  When things felt too complex in the house, there was just enough space for me to settle in between his towering rows of corn, beans, and squash.   From that perspective, the yellow squash blossoms looked like delicate fans, and seemed to carry the whole sun in their translucence.  Scarlett Runners tangled around the corn stalks, their beans dangling like fanciful earrings.  A wayward Morning Glory vine, jeweled with blue blossoms, reached across the divide between the rows to create a shade canopy.  Resting there I felt small and unknown to the world, like a snail, or a beetle.  And I felt safe.

My children often wander down to what we call "Grandpa's Garden" here at our home.  It is overgrown and wild, depending on the extent to which I tame it.  They disappear there on summer evenings, and I know they are munching on grapes or blackberries, maybe trying to keep a straight face when they taste sour sorrel leaves, a game he taught them.  One evening a few years after my father died, when one of my daughters was seven, she stayed in the garden for hours.  Finally I called her for dinner and when I asked what she had been up to all that time she said matter-of-factly, "Oh, I was just down there talking to Grandpa."

I do feel sometimes, when I am digging my hands in, turning the soil, that my father is speaking to me.  I hear him, asking me if I don't see how wonderful it is, all the life that dwells there in that one handful of soil?  He encourages me to stop, to take a moment, to relish those fine thread-like tendrils, to see what it is, after all this time, finally, miraculously, sprouting from seed.

Monday, August 24, 2009

Organic Matter Matters

The word ecology is tossed around a lot these days, so I went back to the dictionary and found this: The branch of biology dealing with the relations and interactions between organisms and their environment, including other organisms. It's just a great word, ecology. It represents living things interacting, truly being together to create an environment... something that isn’t always easy to come by in this Age of High Technology.


Ecology, and a whole lot of it, that is what is going on at the Indian Valley Organic Farm (IVOF), a new teaching farm on the Novato campus of the College of Marin.  The idea for the farm, a collaboration between the College of Marin, The North Bay Conservation Corps and the U.C. Cooperative Extension, became a reality about a year ago and has grown almost magically over the past six months.

Imagine a broad swath of wild land, a visionary college dean (Nanda Schorske, College of Marin Dean of Workforce Development), two teachers whose life’s work is cultivation and inspiration (Wendy Johnson and Steve Quirt), then add some ordinary people looking to work hard, connect and grow. Cue the insects, the bacteria, and the fungi… now the fog, the sun and the rain. And, finally, toss in an economy that’s got people ready to take food production into their own hands and a pinch of Obama’s stimulus package. Now we’re talking Ecology.

Today was the first day of the fall class at Indian Valley Organic Farm. Instructor Steve Quirt calls the Farm a “bubble of fertility” and I was lucky enough to be one of the big-hatted, dirty finger nailed humans wandering through the rows and rows of crops, ogling the soil, sniffing the compost and sampling from the fruits in their various stages of growth. The farm looks like it has been around a good long while, but I can guarantee, it hasn’t. I have walked the path above the area for years, have let my eyes graze the rugged slope, a tangle of brush and grasses. It was not until last January that the symphony of cultivation began.

 Sewing Hybrid Lettuce Seeds

For years I have taught Gardening at an elementary and middle school called the Novato Charter School. We have a wonderful program at our little school, and so far my main role has been to share my love of the natural world with young people. But this year, I will work with middle school students, and I wanted to take my understanding of how things grow to the next level. I knew enough about Steve Quirt and Wendy Johnson to know I’d learn a lot in this class, but it wasn’t until I followed them though the garden today that I understood how powerful it is to be live with great teachers, smelling and touching and pondering. They both share their wisdom as they work, and my only problem was that I couldn't be with both of them at once; I didn’t want to miss a word.
Wendy Johnson demonstrates the perfect hand-watering arc.  
Water until the soil "shines," she says.

I have already begun a list of topics to explore this semester:  
- “second spring” planting  - the art of timing crops so they are ready for the winter “freezer” 
- drip tape - who will figure out how to recycle this stuff?
- hand watering  - “Don’t clog the little stomata mouths on their leaves!” says Wendy as she shows us the art of the perfect water arc 
- carbon farming v. nitrogen farming
- precycling - now there's a great notion 
- hybrid vigor; 
- gardening vs. farming  - for instance, those potatoes in the photo below were planted shallow,for a quick harvest.

Those are just a few that came up during the first class. I can tell this is going to be a good long list.
A fellow gardener harvests potatoes

For now, I’ll just focus on the ground. If there was one lesson I took away from this first class, it was to consider the earth. Yes, our beloved planet Earth, but also, on a microcosmic level, the earth that is beneath our feet, the matter into which we put our seeds and starts, the soil that nourishes us. We must put our patient attention toward caring for our soil, and if we can do that, then anything and everything will grow. Rob, a graduate of last semester’s class, said, “There are a lot of things growing out here that shouldn’t be out here.”

 “It’s all about cover crops and compost.” That was Steve’s mantra today. “Organic matter matters!
A close-up look at the compost heaps (make that mountains).

Good Dirt!
There are no short cuts, but if you amend and amend, land will be transformed, as the Indian Valley land has been transformed, amazingly quickly. Today I overheard a fellow students. She was gathering lettuce seeds, shaking them into a small bucket, when she stopped to take in the number of visitors stopping by and the rows of people raking, planting and reaping. “Everyone comes here because so much is growing,” she said. “ And because it’s SO beautiful.”

Beneficials have arrived

Happy Red Lettuce
Thank you, buckwheat, a  favorite cover crop that also does a tremendous job attracting bees and other beloved insects.

Later that same day....
The seeds from the IVOF are  floating out across the California landscape, spreading far and wide.   In the evening I rode my bike by the farm just as Steve Quirt and Bethallyn Black, the Farm Manager, were finishing up their work for the day.  The sun had settled low in the sky, blanketing the land and the crops in a warm light.   I mentioned to Steve that I would be planting with students at Novato Charter School the next day, and he bestowed great gifts from the garden.
All sorts of hybrid seeds and some winter starts.  

Perfect timing! We hope to be cooking in the Novato Charter School garden by October.  Steve also helped me to harvest some Calendula to dry and we spoke about making Calendula Salve.  He mentioned that the sun and the moon work even better than the stovetop method, which  I will say can be kind of crazy in a 40 minute class with 25 kids..  After drying the harvested blooms for a few weeks, pour olive oil over the petals in a jar.   Leave the mixture outside to soak up the sun’s rays and cool down with the moon over the course of three or four days.  Puree the mixture and there you have it:   Moon and Sun Salve.