Sunday, September 27, 2009

Biomimicry: To "Sit At The Foot of Nature"


Henry, the Indian Valley Organic Farm Supervisor.  Those of us who enjoy the Farm owe a great deal of thanks to Henry and the conservation corps folks who work with him every day.

One of the benefits of my illustrious “compost waterer” job is that I visit the Indian Valley Organic Farm in the evening.   Hikers are out late, enjoying these last days of Indian Summer.  They stop and lean into the wire fence like children longing to join a playground game.   “How has it grown up so fast?” some wonder out loud.  Others murmur and nod to each other.  Some just stare.  If I am within earshot, they’ll ask me about how the farm has done so well, so quickly.  Which brings me back to our ongoing conversation about food production.

A very small percentage of people in this country
, somewhere between 2 and 5%, buy only organic food and approx 30% buy organic food occasionally .  Most of us who do eat organic food still rely on conventional farmers for about 90% of what we eat (btw:  there is a lot to discuss about the label "organic' which I will do in another blog).  The point is, we are a country that has set ourselves up to depend deeply on large scale conventional fertilizer and pesticide-fueled sustenance.  It is extremely difficult, nearly impossible really, for a small farm to prosper.  It is extremely difficult for a small farm to get organic certification.

Why then, would we be so starry-eyed and hopeful out at Indian Valley Organic Farm? Aren't we just a boutique garden?  Does the work we do even relate to the future of food production in this country?

Scientist and author Janine Benyus wrote a book called Biomimicry:  Innovation Inspired By Nature.  In an interview in the September issue of The Sun magazine she says this:   

"Ecologists often speak of different stages of ecosystems.  Say you take a field and plow it up completely.  The first species to come in – called “type one” – are weeds. Our economy is what you might call a “weed field.”  These small annual plants put all their energy into seeds and very little energy into roots, because next year those seeds are going to blow away and seed another field.  Type-one species are pioneers, and we humans have been a pioneer species, going from open field to open field instead of learning how to live in one place, recycle everything, and develop symbiotic relationships…What comes in after those pioneers are perennials such as berry bushes.  These Type-two plants put down roots and hook up with other plants.  A Type-three ecosystem is a mature forest that will last for hundreds of years, or until the next big fire…the strategies of an organism in a mature forest are very different from the strategies of pioneering Type-One organisms…Now things have changed.  We (humans) are a large population in a crowded world with limited resources.  Our strategies have to shift.  We have nowhere else to go.”
Benyus says it is time for us to “sit at the foot of nature” and “become students of a teacher who’s been here much longer than we have.  There’s no time for untested technologies that may not be a fit for the earth.  We’ve got to use technologies that have already been tested by nature herself.”  (Here she is,  a speaker for the TED series Janine Benyus Shares Nature's Designs )

Everyone in the class would have their own reasons for taking the Indian Valley Organic Farm class.  My answer is about quality of life.  Our efforts to dominate nature are failing us.  Our current systems, designed by a radical free market, have created too many environmental problems.  Decisions about eating, one of our most vital activities, rests in the hands of We-Don’t-Know-Who.  It has gotten to the point that when we purchase food from a grocery store and prepare a meal, we harbor doubt, wondering Will this produce harm us more than it will help us?  We are anxious and insecure about our food and how it is grown.  This is no way to live.   (It turns out that a couple of Nobel Prize winning economists are coming to the same conclusions....Gross Domestic Product is not necessarily the best way to measure the health and well-being of a nation  Emphasis on Growth Is Called Misguided -- NY Times.)

Indian Valley Organic Farm shows those disbelieving passers-by who lean, wide-eyed, into the fence that Yes, it is possible to “sit at the feet of nature” and use the essential energy of the earth carefully, to grow food that leaves us nourished, without fear and doubt. 

 Reaching skyward


Saturday, September 26, 2009

A Letter From Steve Quirt

Steve read our stories and our histories, our tales of our ancestors and our connection with the land, our reasons for wanting to farm and garden organically.  And he wrote back to us in the form of an inspired letter:

Partners in the New AgriDharma

Partners! Welcome to the New AgriDharma. At last we are becoming clearer as to our purpose and our work-in-progress. Why is this so much fun? What makes this on-the-fly, under-funded, thrown together-at-the-last minute class so charismatic, so invigorating, so important to all of us? Let’s check it out.

Kat Marando, our partner in our class and my dear friend, said yesterday that what she misses in life is that mission impossible, that perhaps our forefathers felt as they built the farms and ranches moving west across America. (For a minute, lets lay aside the injustices and dark side of the mission, for which we will forever carry with us, and reawake to the mystical “purpose” of building a new life amidst the blessings and richness of the “dream” of a new land and a free life.) The challenge, the dangers, the heartache, the glory of being yourself and making your own life from the land, being sure of yourself and yours, amidst the power and apparent fickleness of Nature, becoming essentially one with your destiny.

Perhaps those years and circumstances are already written in the book of Time. But the now faint footprints of that energy and commitment still stir up dust in our memories. We all have it. Your heart stories of where you come from all echo this restlessness in our hearts. We all feel a silent but surrender-less (not really a word) pull to the land and her alluring possibilities of filling the gaps in our lives.

Partners! It could be that we are sitting on a fault line! With spades in hand and mountains of manure, with open land, open minds and open hearts, are we poised to actually do something?! Could our Indian Valley Farm be a rally cry to begin to reclaim America? Are we more than extra credit? Are we, AgriDharma?

AgriBusiness, is the art of making profit (more is better) from the earth. It involves skillful manipulation and short-term total control of nature, no matter what the long term horrific side-effects may be. Byzantine economic formulae underpin agribusiness, bleeding outward into all aspects of a material-valued belief system. Commodity futures, shareholder profits, strange, undecipherable networks of cloudy financing all drive food production for personal gain. But you guys know all this.

What about food for people? Our precious bodies are built with food. Our short lives are fueled with the fullness of the earth’s bounty. We forget so quickly, the cornerstones of physical life, taking too much for granted. We forget the true value of the food we eat in relation to us, our Earth and the “fullness thereof.” Is this really something that should be called a “commodity,” to fill peoples pockets with profits, to manipulate and control from remote boardrooms and faceless decision makers? Isn’t good food from the good Earth, essentially “holy?”

Let’s look at the new AgriDharma. Agri; farming or growing food. Dharma; the right way. Okay, these are loose literal translations. AgriDharma means the righteous, right way to grow food for all, in accordance with the values of the righteous human heart.

My spiritual teacher once told me that human souls work at their very best when they work from the heart, instead of the pocketbook, for a cause larger than ourselves, without harm to ourselves or the Earth, without selfish calculation or contracts. With joy and enthusiasm for the benefit of all. Sounds a little crazy, doesn’t it. Maybe if we tried it, all else would be given to us as a side effect?

Maybe this is the new frontier that my dear sister Kat is longing for. It certainly feels like a frontier here at Indian Valley Farm, when we look at the two acres to be planted with no tractor, only the tools donated from St. Anthony Farm, through the channeling of our partner Liza. We have few precious hours per week to come together in AgriDharma on the fault line of change. What we do, and learn here together, is the cornerstone of this organic farming program. I am convinced (don’t ask me how) that it is also the cornerstone of something quite outside ourselves and significantly bigger than we can see. Perhaps we are balancing on the fault line of a new frontier.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Good Stuff This Weekend 9/25 - 27

Reminder from Classmate Lisa Chipkin  

Hi Fellow Organic Farmers,  Just a reminder about the rainwater tours this week if you are interested. Space is still available for both. Email me (  if you want to join us, or just show up. Meeting places below. Bring suncreen and/or hats, water and snacks you might want. Tours run 10AM-1PM.   Cheers,   Lisa


Farmtrails Tour this weekend

Join farmers and artisan producers from Petaluma to Healdsburg for a weekend of tours, artisan foods, hands-on activities, cooking demonstrations, pick-your-own, harvest activities and more at Weekend Along the Farm Trails from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sept. 26 and 27. Some farms, such as Petaluma's McEvoy Ranch and Bounty Farm, are only open Sept. 26.
Admission is free to most farms; for tour information and maps, go to or call 707-837-8896.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Daughters and Flowers

Here's what happens if you take your twelve year old daughter into the Indian Valley Organic Farm in the evening.  She asks to borrow your camera and…


Kristi's Buttermilk Raspberry Muffin Recipe

I tasted the most amazing little berry muffins this weekend (a la KT’s Kitchen) during a MALT event this Sunday). Later than day a friend dropped off four tubs of stunningly beautiful, ripe organic raspberries. I searched on line for a recipe that might work and tweaked it just a tad and used our class as the first tasters. I think the muffins were pretty good, certainly moist but would love feedback and ideas to make them even better. Here is the recipe:

Kristi’s Raspberry Buttermilk Cupcakes
Preheat oven to 400 – makes 18

2 c all purpose flour
1 tsp baking powder
1 tsp baking soda
½ tsp salt

1 stick melted butter
1 c white sugar
1 tsp vanilla
1 pint buttermilk
1 ½ c fresh (not frozen) raspberries

blend all the ingredients gently (leave out the raspberries until the ingredients are fully integrated) combine the raspberries until they are blended.

Bake until just firm in the center 10-12 minutes

Wednesday, September 23, 2009

Compost Campfires

Last Wednesday, as we approached the fall equinox and the new moon, the air was as warm as a midsummer day, but carried the faintest promise of winter. (Maybe it the smell of oak and bay leaves, finished with their sun-collecting labor, resting dry on the hillside trees above?).  Busy with preparations, as we humans know we must be this time of year, we turned our attention back to the compost piles.

“Think of the compost pile as a campfire” Steve advised. "You want to keep it burning."  And burn it must!  Especially if you're hoping for Organic certification.  A pile must reach 140 degrees and be turned three times before it may be used in the garden.

Look at the decomposition.  The first shot is day one.  The second was taken after a week.

After two weeks, the compost piles had shrunken significantly, which was a good sign that our “campfires” were burning a slow and steady burn. Now it was time to turn them inside out. The goal is to take the dry materials that served as framing the first time around (and therefore did not benefit from the interior heat), and move it to the inside. We turned our five piles into three, and took a good look at what was going on inside as we rebuilt.

Suddenly, we smelled The Stink…and saw an orange-ish, brown-ish, slimy gob of former something. "We’re going anaerobic!!!" Steve shouted. (he's admiring a bit of the goo in the photo below). With the right oxygen-free interior environment, you get all kinds of bacterial action.  They're like microscopic oompa-loompas in there, working hard for the cause of Decomposition. They give off pretty nasty gases when they get going, so in this case, Bad Smells Are A Good Thing.

I've equated soil care to wildlife management in a previous blog.  The fauna of our compost piles seemed disgruntled by the rearranging of their homeland today.  So much so that one caterpillar tried to hitchhike out on a lizard ...then thought better of it (see below).

 We all got in a lot of trouble from Wendy and Steve for not being “edgy’ enough (I think I lost that when I moved from the city years ago). It’s difficult to take the partially decomposed wet inner material and use it to make a solid well-edged 5’ x 5’ (which is the ideal size) wide based, broad based, wide-shouldered square pile.

Here Wendy decided to give our rambling pile a makeover.

Meanwhile, some had the pleasure of using the finished compost , prepping rows for new crops.

As is true with almost EVERYTHING while farming and gardening, you must determine what amount of Organic Matter (OM) works best for your rows.  At the farm, we add 5 inches or so to our prepared rows.

Saturday, September 19, 2009

A Link from Classmate Laura Brainard

Hi Kirsten

I wanted to let the class know about this cool website: It features the work of Cleve Backster, who has done pioneering work in bio-communication with plants. His work was mentioned in the book The Secret Life of Plants. I've ordered his DVD and will be happy to share it with anyone who wants to borrow it.


Laura Brainard

Wednesday, September 16, 2009

A Post From Our Classmate Ladd

Dear Kirsten:

Please post this for our class.

Dr. Leonard Sharaskin, sharing his experiences re growing food in backyard gardens in Russia and also our personal biochemical/interactive relatioinship to plants,

Anastasia and the Ringing Cedars Series

The story began in 1994 on the bank of the River Ob amidst the endless expanses of the Siberian taiga. The well-known Siberian entrepreneur Vladimir Megre met with two elderly gentlemen who told him about the amazing properties of the Siberian cedar (also known in the West as the Siberian pine). At first he didn't pay much attention to what they told him, but as he continued to reflect on it, Vladimir began to discover, in the historical and scientific literature he examined, more and more evidence supporting their words. Finally he decided to organize an expedition with a fleet of river steamers. The expedition was ostensibly for commercial purposes, but in actual fact his overriding motivation was to find the elders again and learn more about the secrets of the cedar.
This incredible series of books has already been a massive seller in Russia and we interviewed the publisher of the English translations, Leonid Sharashkin, at the Science and Consciousness Conference in Santa Fe, where everyone was spell bound by the information.
Many people ask if Anastasia is "real". Leonid answers simply, that it doesn't really matter whether there is a human being called Anastasia somewhere in the Siberian Taiga, as long as the information connects with the part of all of us that is all-knowing. Once you read the books, you will "know".
For more on The Ringing Cedars Series, go to
For more About the author, Vladimir Megre, go to

P.S     has many interviews with visionaries that are free to on members once they are over 30 days old.

Click on interviews and scroll down to Leonard Sharaskin..





Monday, September 14, 2009

Dancing With Weeds

The Beloved Dandelion

Why do we put up with some people, and others drive us crazy?  Why do we find some characteristics charming, while others drive us insane?  Why can't I take the advice I dole out so readily to my children...If someone is bothering youtry to have empathy for them...and do your best to find something you admire about them.

Disdained Bermuda Grass

Well, I've tried, and I just can't do.  I hate Bermuda Grass!!!  There.  I said it.  I just do.  I have been grappling with this weed for years in the Novato Charter School garden, and as much as I try to have empathy and find one good thing about it, I can't.  I guess I could admire the way it has both underground stems (rhizomes) and above-ground traveling stems (runners) to spread its seed... Well, that's a stretch for me.   If my life depended on finding one good thing about Bermuda grass, I would say that I have gotten to know a lot of wonderful people, working alongside them for hours, pulling up the long, stubborn, pernicious and relentless web of Bermuda Grass that thrives in our students' garden.

On the other hand, above are some of the beloved weeds that thrive in my home garden (plantain, blackberry, mint).  Weeds are simply plants - roots, stems, leaves, flowers, fruits and seeds - which can sometimes add lovely tastes, smells, sights and healing qualities to our lives.

In the Indian Valley Organic Farm class last Wednesday, Steve Quirt shared the story of his personal journey with weeds.  He described a year on his own farm when he was just plain angry, struggling against "the invader,"  Persian Speedwell (Veronica Persica), which appeared in his farm.  It sounds like his rows became a battleground, and he says "you could see it in the way the farm looked."

In great battles, often both parties are destroyed...but, sometimes, we find grace, and make peace.  Steve made peace with the Persian Speedwell, and says he has come to rely on it.  Weeds are "indicators and providers of fertility," he said.  Now he leaves beds open for this plant and its delicate purple flower.

Persian Speedwell

We all have experienced the intelligence and agility of weeds - their disguises and mimicry of parent plants.  We know that if left unattended, weeds will suffocate, and, in some cases, poison, intended crops.  But if we can manage our frustration and remain observant over time, weeds will tell us about our soil:  Purslane and Thistle indicate a fertile soil; Curly Doc does well in a wet soil; Shepherds Purse likes a saline soil; if a thistle is happy someplace, chances are, its artichoke cousin will be also.

Weeds are great ground-breakers, with hearty roots to navigate compacted soil that most crops cannot handle.   As Vivien Weise's book, Cooking Weeds, demonstrates beautifully, we can harvest many weeds and partake of their high nutrition.  In late spring my youngest grazes on the Miner's Lettuce that grows on the slope beneath our house.  "I already ate a lot of salad today," he tells me at dinnertime. A relative of Purslane, Miner's Lettuce is succulent and delicious.

Miner's Lettuce

If you learn to pull up weeds before they seed, they might guide you without creating an extraordinary amount of work.  Wendy told the story of Doug Gosling from Occidental Arts and Ecology Center, who baptized the newly broken ground in the Food For Thought AIDS Hospice Garden with a sprinkling of Good King Henry, Amaranth and other "weed" seeds.  "They will show us the way to go," Gosling said.  Before they planted the hospice garden they would learn what they could about the soil from the "mother weeds."  The weeds broke ground, increased fertility and indicated the nature of the soil, and he was careful to harvest before the grown plants could re-seed.

A slat of fall starts wait to go into a bed at Novato Charter School.  We work religiously to keep beds free of Bermuda Grass

We can learn to dance with our weeds, a waltz of observance and timing.  At the Novato Charter School Garden our dance with Bermuda Grass is a little rough.  We lead, and keep our partner at arms length...And, we always hope he doesn't come back to the ball quite so eager next year.

Thursday, September 10, 2009

Good Stuff Coming Up

So many good things are going on in the Northbay this week and in the near future.  Here are a few good links:

 "We Are What We Eat" - Sustainable Film festival Film TONIGHT, Thusday 9/10 at Drake High School

Rainwater Harvesting Tour and Workshop: sponsored by SPAWN

Locavore, Locavolt, and Localand - offered by Marin Agricultural Land trust on Sunday 9/13

Wendy Johnson teaches farming at Green Gulch   Sunday, 9/13

Anyone have anything else to add?

Also, here is something very interesting:

Ecuador Approves New Constitution:  Voters Approve Rights of Nature   ... a talisman for the future?

Checking In on Mainstream Media

John James Audubon spent his life in humble observation of the natural world.  His ornithological work was revered by scientists such as Charles Darwin and his legacy is a book of drawings that reveal the exquisite complexities of evolution as evidenced in the physiology of birds.  I can't help but wonder what he would have thought of the full-page Monsanto ad (above) which appears smack in the middle of his namesake periodical.

Apparently the idea is to froth us up and fuel our ever-present anxieties about food shortages in the year 2050.   NOW WHAT? the ad screams, then reassures us that we're in good hands, that the corporation will be there with all sorts of miracle solutions:  "That's sustainable agriculture.  And that's what Monsanto is all about." 
The good news is that on the same newsstand this week's Time magazine ran a summary of why we have got to take things back into our own hands, why we cannot trust corporations with the future of our food production.  This piece clearly and concisely describes how we have allowed corporate agriculture to abuse our land and our bodies in pursuit of cheap food and big money.  This is a scathing review of Concentrated Animal Feeding Operations (CAFOs) and a call to support small farms.

Reporter Bryan Walsh outlines the "downside of cheap food":

- Unhealthy and fattening grain-based  foods are subsidized and therefore cheap compared to fruits and vegetables..."It costs too much to be thin," he writes.
- The use of chemical fertilizers that kill our soil and send toxicity down river and out into the oceans..."When runoff from the fields of the Midwest reaches the Gulf of Mexico, it contributes to what is known as a dead zone, a seasonal, approx. 6,000 sq. mile area that has almost no sea life."... meaning it destroys the fishing industry and "one of our leanest, healthiest  sources of protein,"
- Degradation and mistreatment of animals.  When you have to pre-cut pigs tails so they don't bite them off each other, you know something is not right.
- Contamination of the local environment by animal wastes
- Loss of farm jobs and demoralizing work for farmers and hands on industrialized farms
- Use of pharmaceuticals which creates resistant strains of bacteria..."70% of antimicrobial drugs used in America are given not to people but to animals, which means we're breeding more of those deadly organisms every day."

What comes through is that this isn't just nostalgia for the good old-fashioned farm days, folks.  We're in big trouble the way things are going.  Walsh talks about how, yes, we will definitely need more food in the future, and, maybe, in this time of high unemployment,  we could employ more actual live people to make that happen, rather than just pouring more damaging chemicals and reckless engineering on the problem.

He goes on to use the local Niman Ranch, where cattle are grass-fed and cared for, as an example of a small farm "getting it right," at least as far as meat production goes.  He finishes with this:   "The industrial food system fills us up but leaves us empty - it's based on selective forgetting.  But what we eat - how it's raised and how it gets to us - has consequences that can't be ignored any longer."

I like to see this type of fed-up coverage in an American staple like Time, but, in the end, the fundamental question Walsh raises can only be answered by individuals.  Can we change the way we think?  Are we capable of thinking small?  Are we capable of supporting those who are truly sustainable?  We've got the power - incredible consumer power - but we have to be willing forgo those big mouthfuls of cheap calories, and commit to support small local farmers.  Meaning, we must buy their slightly more expensive produce, every single chance we get.

Friday, September 4, 2009

Soil: An Incredible Journey

Today in the Indian valley farm class Wendy Johnson told us the story of an emigrant farmer who arrived at Ellis Island with nothing but a handful of soil from his Sicilian homeland in his pocket.  We are made of the earth on which we dwell.  We are nothing without the ground that sustains us, and, like the Sicilian farmer, we feel that somewhere deep in our hearts.  The soil offers us hope.

Yet, so often, we trudge across the ground and think nothing of it.  We take earth for granted, assuming it has always and will always provide for us.  We manipulate the land as if nothing we do matters.  We might call attention to the oil shortage, or polluted water, but we do not look out for the soil upon which everything depends.  There is an expression to  "treat someone like dirt."  Imagine if that idiom someday became a compliment.

Out the Indian Valley Organic Farm we gave our soil some of the attention it deserves.  First, we stood back and considered our dirt in geologic time.  Steve Quirt reminded us of the incredible journey - at one time all dirt was rock at the top of a mountain,.  Soil is ancient, millions and millions of years old, by the time it reaches our feet.  Eventually, through a long process of compression, it will make  its way back to the form of rock again.

We were blessed by balmy cloud cover and an unusual September sprinkling of rain as we got down to the "nitty-gritty," studying soil samples close up.  Most of us in the Bay Area find clay in our backyards.  Those near the ocean find sand.  The ideal garden soil is "loam," which is 40% sand, 40% silt and 20% clay.  Clay is wonderful, powerful stuff, of course.  That's because of it's fine block-like structure and surface area or "large reactive surface area" which allows the most nutrients to adhere and become part of the soil composition...but, as we who garden or farm in the area know, it can become very hard and compacted, allowing in little water or air.  So, the trick is to mix in enough of the sand, which has the opposite texture, and silt, to get a balanced composition.  Then you amend with organic matter to keep that microbial action up and running, and you begin to have a very healthy growing environment.  Wendy advised us to aim for soil that can be made into a ball, but "pings" apart easily.

Here, she set up a simple soil test in the Farm "lab" (see above). She wanted to compare the permeability of  lovely soil from Green Gulch Farm, to the Indian Valley "parent" soil, to the new Indian Valley Organic Farm soil, which has been heartily amended over the past year.  The results were not surprising, but were fun to watch.  The Green Gulch soil held the most water, of course, but the IVOF soil did pretty darn well for a beginner.  One key concept we discussed was the difference between soil Texture, which is what soil is (this you cannot change) and soil Structure, which is the way soil behaves

Don't forget to listen to your soil.  Rub a little sample between your fingers and "listen for the gritch, gritch, gritch, of Mr. McGregor's hoe," Wendy advises.  That sound means things are going pretty well.

She also poured Hydrogen Peroxide on the various soil samples to test the bacterial activity level.  See the fizzy, bubbly areas?  That's  Hydrogen Peroxide reacting with the microbes.  Fizz is good.

Next it was time to make some cakes for our soil.  Great big beautiful Rudbekia and Sunflower-decorated towering compost cakes.  We started with some corn stalk at the bottom, providing a foundational structure and aeration.  Then add layers of freshly harvested green material (you'll see we pulled up a whole melon field), then manure, dry leaf mulch, more green material, more manure, some straw...and more of the same several times over.  The goal is to maintain a nice "broad-backed" prism shape (in one photo below you can see that we used stalks and stems and vines to make a "frame" for the growing shape) .  Keep the piles damp, and there you have it.   In two hours we were able to build five fancy multi-tiered compost cakes which will eventually be fed to our cherished farmland soil.

One of my favorite things about this "Compost Party" was working alongside fellow gardeners and hearing about where they came from, where they first formed an attachment to the land.  New Mexico, Brazil, New England...I have a feeling this farm will overhear many stories from our homelands. 

A lot of harvesting and clearing organic material.
A lovely sunflower "frame"
Keep the piles damp.
Will the pile have shrunk by next Wednesday?

There are always party favors at a garden party

Wildlife Management

Taking Care of Your Soil Inhabitants

Last week Wendy Johnson asked the Indian Valley Organic Farm class to read Chapter 8 of Pam Pierce's Bay Area gardening bible, Golden Gate Gardening .  The chapter is entitled Down To Earth, and in it Pam Pierce writes "Soil care is basically a kind of wildlife management."  How fun.  I'm going to tighten my hat under my chin think of myself as a small game warden now each time I go out to check the status of the wildlife in my garden soil.

Pam Pierce is talking about the need to make your soil a hospitable environment for creatures of all sizes - everything from microscopic bacteria to big fat worms.  If you provide a nice home for these creatures, they will work to break down your organic matter until the chemical nutrients are released.  They will also produce antibiotics and prey on pests that will damage your roots.  I'd say we gardeners get a pretty good deal, but we do need to be good landlords.

Basics of "Wildlife Management" in Your Soil as outlined by Pam Pierce in Golden Gate Gardening are:

-  Provide moisture.   That means, keep your soil damp, even before you start planting in the Spring.

-  Not too much moisture.  Water-logged soil allows for disease organisms to thrive.

-  The helpful creatures thrive in warm soil...and will die if the soil dries completely or freezes.

-  Provide air.  The creatures that survive without oxygen happen to also be the ones that get your roots. 

How do you do all of the above? It's pretty straightforward, according to Pierce:

- Dig and turn your soil.  This is most important if you have clay soil.  You want to let in air so the soil creatures will prosper.

- Add organic matter.  Dig organic matter into the top 6-10 inches of your soil, ideally twice a year.

-  Avoid toxic chemicals - they kill the helpful wildlife.  (Pam Pierce has a section on pg.135 of her book that describes how to use pesticides in the least harmful way in the case that you have to use them.)

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

"Old Time"


My life, like most everybody's, has become very busy.  I live by the wall calendar and the digital clock, respond, all day long, to alarm beeps and ring tones.  This type of organization has never come easily, but as a mother of three young children, I've been a good modern-day soldier and learned to salute the minute clock.

At the Indian Valley Organic Farm, I leave my phone/clock off, tucked in my bag, and lose track of time.  I know that the fog lifts as the sun rises into the blue sheet sky above.  I know that I am growing warm as I work, and that the ground is dry in most places.  I know that tomatoes weigh down their vines, hundreds of them, nearing crimson and looking as if they will burst with their own flavor.

What a treat this is to become responsive to the environment, to sense the season based on the clues - what smells does the wind carry, who is flying overhead, what ripens on the vine.

Today in class Wendy Johnson spoke to us of "time told through the plants."  This is the way a farmer begins to think, developing a sense of "old time", told through the seasons.  This means that, at least for periods of our daily life, we must "give in" and drop our highly refined ring-tone, twenty-four hour clock-based sense of time.  

Today, before rushing home, I stopped on the hill above the farm to sit in the dry grasses and take in the wide lens perspective, to feel the larger sense of time.  This land, the whole area, has been inhabited for 4000 years.  (The IVOF is one year old and I've been working on it for only two weeks!)  As I sat I could almost see women and their daughters carrying their baskets across the meadow below, looking for a cool place to sit and collect wild seeds.  I thought of the passage Wendy read from The Ohlone Way (a beautiful and important book for anyone living in California).  It described the packs of wolves, the cougar, the grizzly bear, coyote and fox and rabbit, and the flocks of birds so dense they sounded "like a hurricane" when they were startled and rose from the fields.. and I lost myself in the landscape.

Soon enough, I realized I was late!!  I needed to rush home, hop in my car and get down the freeway to pick up my children and their friends.  How then, do we carry both notions of time with us as we live, earn, respond to our way through modern life? 

Today, as Wendy Johnson spoke, I jotted down "You will carry that awareness and sense of Old Time with you wherever you go."  Make space in time, develop a relationship with the biological world, and that sense becomes part of who you are, wherever you are.

The other thing Wendy said today was this:   "Be alive to what is happening in the present moment."  (this, to my mind, is truly wonderful and critical).  Allow ourselves to "step into the richness" of all that this land we now farm has been, cherish and respect the 4000 years of culture and millions of years of biologic complexity that came before us, and also, be here, now, alive and working, in the present moment.  We are not nostalgic, simply longing for the the olden days, but farming and learning in a way that honors the ancient body of knowledge.

Notes:   Wendy mentioned an interview on NPR with Gary Paul Nabhan, who speaks about native seed saving, and the earth as the best seed bank of all (Gary Paul Nebhan - Intvw. on Marketplace).

Also, The Regenerative Design Institute will present a Carbon Farming Series - Building Resiliency:  Managing Land to Conserve Soil, Water and Energy starting Sept. 23, 2009.