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!”
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.”
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.