Succession Planting/Second-Season Farming


Broccoli seedlings in planters on the front deck. These babies will be moved to the greenhouse when the weather turns.
Gardeners in the north may not have the climate conditions of our neighbors down south that allow them to essentially harvest vegetables year-round, but we can adopt a method known as “succession planting” to maximize our yield.

Succession planting is the rotation of crops and recycling of space; it allows gardeners to pull out spent vegetables and replant new ones, and it can increase total yields and improve the quality of vegetables.


Hardiness zones, ranging from 1 to 10 (lowest to highest temperatures), designate which plants are capable of thriving in a particular location. According to the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map, upstate New York is zones 3 to 6, meaning that plants should be grown that can withstand temperatures of -40 °F to -5 °F. Crops that can grow well under these conditions include arugula, broccoli, cilantro, kale, lettuce, peas, and spinach. Plant them in July or early August and they will be ready for harvest from September to November.

Eliot Coleman, gardening guru and author of The Winter Harvest Handbook, states, “If farmed intensively, a small area of land can be very productive. The key to increased productivity is to make better year-round use of every square foot.”

4 tips for successful succession planting:
  • Once plants start to wilt, pull them out and replant them using all of the available space. (Then compost the old plants!)
  • It’s important to keep the soil moist. If it dries out, the seeds may die and you will have to start over. As a general rule, seeds planted in the late summer should be sown twice as deep as in the spring. Installing shade nets or using natural trellises and tall plants can shade new plants from the sun.
  • Choose plants that thrive in cool temperatures, such as arugula, beets, broccoli, carrots, kale, lettuce, spinach, and all kinds of Asian greens. Pick varieties that are disease-resistant and mature quickly.
  • Because cooler temperatures and shorter days slow plant growth, add an extra 14 days to the days-to-maturity figure on the seed packet to find your summer planting date. When cold weather arrives, cover plants with garden fabric or use a cold frame to protect them.
At Better Farm, we've replanted lettuce, spinach, wheat grass, peas, and broccoli; while continuing our indoor aquaponics and hydroponics setups with tomatoes and salad greens. Stay tuned for more photos of our progress!

For a great guide on what to plant and when for your hardiness zone, click here.


Solar Radiation Mapping at Better Farm

Solar radiation map of Better Farm by Elyna Grapstein.


Elyna Grapstein studied sustainability at Better Farm in September of 2012 before going on to study at SUNY-ESF's ranger school in Wanakena, N.Y. While there, her projects have included land-cover mapping (as we showcased in December on our blog), and more recently, solar radiation mapping of Better Farm's property. Below are her findings.


Elyna Grapstein's completed solar radiation map and guide.
Solar Radiation on Better Farm Property
by Elyna Grapstein
INTRODUCTION:
Better Farm, a sustainability education center and artist colony, exists as a place where visitors and residents have the opportunity to experiment in a way which will "[enhance] the local and regional community by offering each individual the opportunity to expand, grow, and flourish sustainably." I feel that one productive way in which Better Farm may choose to experiment is with renewable sources of energy—specifically solar power. These maps were made with the intention of displaying where solar radiation is strongest and weakest on Better Farm's property in the case of wanting to install solar panels in the future, and where those panels would be be placed based on solar radiation strength and current land conditions.
STUDY AREA:
Better Farm is located in the Indian River Lakes region of Jefferson County, New York, in the hamlet of Redwood. It is set in the center of several lakes: east of Butterfield Lake, west of Lake of the Woods, northeast of Millsite Lake, and southwest of Grass Lake. Set west of the Adirondack Region, Redwood's topography consists of hills and wetland.


METHODS:
First, I set up ArcMap 10 through ArcGIS so that I could use the basemap feature, World Imagery. I then navigated to the Jefferson County website and located the Better Farm property parcel number and boundaries through interpreting Jefferson County's tax parcel. Once the property was located, I took a screen shot and saved the image as a .jpeg. Doing so allowed me to crop and edit the screen shot so only the necessary image components were present. I added tax parcel data, adjusted its transparency so I could see the parcel's outline and base layer for georeferencing. Once that was done, I was able to heads-up digitize a polygon shapefile of Better Farm's property.

The other piece of downloaded data was a Digital Elevation Model (DEM) of Redwood. This was necessary to map solar radiation. I was also able to access this data from the Jefferson County website.

After the polygon of the property was made, I began to cut the polygon using the "cut polygons" tool to distinguish different land uses. This was done through interpretation of orthoimages and my own knowledge of the property. Once this was done, I added the necessary features to make it a complete map (Fig. 1). Figure 2 is designed to portray the amount of solar radiation that comes in contact with the property. This map was created by turning on the spatial analyst extension property and then extracting the mask so only the DEM raster cells that are within the property parcel would be exercised. My downloaded DEM file was the "input raster" and the polygon of the Better Farm property that I had digitized was the feature mask data.

From here, deriving solar radiation was straight forward. After selecting "Area Solar Radiation" under "Spatial Analyst Tools", inputting the extracted Better Farm DEM and selecting the time configuration for the year 2013, I was able to create a map of solar radiation.

To create Figure 3, figures 1 and 2 were overlapped, the solar radiation map was made transparent use the "Effects" toolbar, and the spaces that had the highest solar radiation were marked using a "points" shapefile.

RESULTS:
Fig. 3
Based on these map overviews, it seems the spaces that experience the highest amounts of solar radiation are located on the forested portions of the property.  This is not unexpected, as approximately 73 percent of the property is forested (Fig. 1, Table 3). However, the areas experiencing the strongest amount of solar impact also happen to be located on edges; so if solar is ever to be installed at these locations, getting to these spots and clearing forested spaces would not be nearly as involved relative to other locations on the property.

The areas with the second-greatest amounts of solar radiation are generally located in more remote zones and are more difficult to access; however there is one location on the southern end of the property's lawn that would make a good location to set up solar panels. No land clearing would be necessary, as the space is vacant and there is little slope to interfere with the installation (Fig. 3).

Though solar power may not be in Better Farm's immediate future, these three maps may be used as references for numerous other projects involving property management and planning—be it for organizing crop locations for Better Farm's garden, building trails through the forest, or even as an educational tool for visiting students and guests.

Fig. 1.
Fig. 2.

Four-Year Reflection: What a Difference Mulching Makes

Better Farm's vegetable garden, August 2009.
Better Farm's vegetable garden, August 2013.
Mulch gardening is a great way to turn hard-to-love soil into rich black gold—and to prove the worthiness of this organic method, I'm going to walk you through my experiences with the clay-rich soil of the North Country—and how mulch gardening turned a hayed, nutritionally depleted field into a lush vegetable and fruit garden.


I moved to Better Farm in June of 2009; a period of time during which there were a few raised flower beds on the property, two acres of mowed lawn, dense forest all around, and roughly 8 acres of fields that were hayed twice yearly for consumption by a neighboring farm's cows.

In August of that year, I wandered out into the side yard of the farm and began staking out a 20' x 24' rectangle that would, I hoped, turn into a garden. Of course, I instantly broke a trowel and then a shovel trying to get into that clay-rich soil:
I'd spent that summer up here researching various organic gardening methods that utilized principles of permaculture and composting, and found that the style I was most intrigued by was Ruth Stout's mulch gardening technique. In her book, How to Have a Green Thumb Without an Aching Back, Stout exhalts a direct-compost and haying method that minimizes weeding, removes the need for artificial fertilizers and pesticides, promotes abundant growth, makes use of items many others would consider trash, and takes away the sometimes laborious task of keeping a compost pile or bin that needs to be turned, shoveled, and cared for.

I know, sounds too good to be true. But the thing is, that lady was right-on.

Once you've staked out your plot, it's time to start treating the soil. This can start instantly, and will continue even long after crops are planted. The idea here is to avoid the cost of buying fresh mulch, and the maintenance of a compost bin that needs regular attention, turning, and so on. What Stout recommends is essentially turning your plot of land into an ongoing compost/mulch pit. That means raked leaves, grass clippings, a little wood ash from a fire, and food scraps can all get dumped directly on the soil and left alone. So long as you don't throw stuff like meat scraps into this ongoing mulch situation, you can rest fairly assured that you won't have too many critters contending for these scraps. Starting with a barrier of cardboard will ensure you kill the weeds below.

As the summer of 2009 turned to autumn, I composted all I could and began saving cardboard for my new mulch garden. And when spring came in 2010, I worked with some friends to get wooden posts (donated by a neighbor in Plessis) into the ground for fencing.

With the garden (a much larger than originally planned, 85' x 100') staked out, I worked with the people at Better Farm to make some rows in accordance with Ruth Stout's directives. And lo and behold, it worked!
Now, in the first year of mulch gardening, chances are you're not going to have all that much compost, cardboard, and decomposing hay to work with. The truth is, it isn't until your third or fourth year that you'll really see how you're transforming the dirt you're working on top of. So let's fast-forward to see the transformation:

2009
2010

2011

2012

2013
All of these images were taken at roughly the same time of the season, and you can really see the improvement as far as weed control, lushness, size of the produce, and the organization of our crops. Of course, a huge amount of this is due to the diligence of our Sustainability Education Students, our volunteers, and staff; in addition, having a solid, healthy template of fertile soil makes everybody's life a whole lot easier.

But really, about that dirt. Look at what hard, clay soil turns into with a little mulching:

To learn more about mulch gardening, click here. To schedule a one-on-one or group workshop on the subject, call (315) 482-2536 or email info@betterfarm.org.
Comment

Nicole Caldwell

Nicole Caldwell is a self-taught environmentalist, green-living savant and sustainability educator with more than a decade of professional writing experience. She is also the co-founder of Better Farm and president of betterArts. Nicole’s work has been featured in Mother Earth News, Reader’s Digest, Time Out New York, and many other publications. Her first book, Better: The Everyday Art of Sustainable Living, is due out this July through New Society Publishers.

Inspiration: Keyhole Garden

Image from www.phoenixpermaculture.org
Image from Texas Co-op Magazine.

A keyhole garden is a raised, circular garden with a compost basket in the center, which gives it a keyhole shape when viewed from above. Keyhole gardens are often used in dry climates where the topsoil is very thin and rainfall is infrequent because it can survive with very little watering due to the compost basket.


The keyhole garden was initially developed in Africa by humanitarian organizations in order to create a sustainable food source that would be relatively unaffected by climate. According to the BBC, “three keyhole gardens can feed a family of 10”for an entire year. The placement of the compost basket makes the garden easily accessible and allows the layers of the garden to retain moisture and nutrients that run off from the compost basket. Keyhole gardens can be constructed with recycled materials, making them ideal for people looking for sustainable alternatives to traditional gardens. The soil of keyhole gardens can be constructed of mostly compost or the traditional layering method can be used.

To build a keyhole garden, you need to first mark the outline of the garden and place four corner posts in the center; the corner posts will be used to construct the compost basket. The outline of the garden will dip into the center on one side so the compost basket will be easily accessible. The basket is encircled with rope and can also be thatched to allow water poured into the basket to seep out into the rest of the garden. For the first layer of the garden, you can use iron scraps such as empty food or soda cans, dry animal bones, or fist-sized stones. These materials provide drainage in the rain and minerals to the soil. The first layer can be covered with soil or compost, thatching grass to retain moisture, and wood ash to provide potassium. This layer can be covered with another layer of soil or compost. Each layer should slope downward from the basket so water can flow into the soil. A thick layer of mixed soil and dry manure can be added on top and stones should be added to the outer wall as the layers grow taller.


Although keyhole gardens can produce all-year round depending on climate and what types of plants are planted in the garden, in the winter, plants should be protected by using either thatching grass or an old carpet that can be removed during the day to allow them to receive sunlight.

Better Farm Plays Role in 'Possible' Documentary

Olivier Asselin is a freelance photographer working on a documentary film about transitioning into a more sustainable way of life. For this project, he's been seeking out people throughout New England and Eastern Canada with inspiring and interesting stories of making this transition: people who are "doing it"—and this afternoon he'll be paying a visit to Better Farm.

The “Possible” documentary film project is about telling the stories of individuals and communities who are actively engaged in creating a better, more sustainable future. It’s about showing that normal people are doing real things, things that are within the reach of all of us. The aim of this project is to debunk all of the false barriers people create for themselves when they start thinking about transitioning to a more sustainable way of life: I don’t have the money… not enough space… not enough time… I don’t know how… it will never work…

By showing real life examples, people of all ages, of different economic backgrounds, in rural or urban settings, living in all kinds of climates or settings, it will become obvious that no matter who you are, no matter where you live, you can do something.

"I'm not looking at anything specific," he says, "just a variety of ideas, solutions, initiatives—big or small—that have the ability to inspire."

While staying at Better Farm, Olivier will document how we're living our winter in a more sustainable way. Olivier will return when the weather changes to document our summer programming and see the outdoor gardens in full swing.

Olivier grew up in Canada, but spent the last seven years living and working in Africa, mainly for humanitarian and development organizations. He recently discovered permaculture, but also an impressive network of people worldwide who are already doing amazing things. "For the first time in a very long time," he says, "I’m starting to see real solutions, real alternatives. I don’t believe there’s a miracle cure to the imminent crises the world is facing, but there are things each of us can do to start adapting to tomorrow’s realities."

Learn more about Olivier's project here: www.possible.org
Comment

Nicole Caldwell

Nicole Caldwell is a self-taught environmentalist, green-living savant and sustainability educator with more than a decade of professional writing experience. She is also the co-founder of Better Farm and president of betterArts. Nicole’s work has been featured in Mother Earth News, Reader’s Digest, Time Out New York, and many other publications. Her first book, Better: The Everyday Art of Sustainable Living, is due out this July through New Society Publishers.

Mandala Garden Part III: Outline complete

We started work on a mandala garden back in October. Researching basic components of this permaculture design, we set about overlaying one of our own in Better Farm's main garden on the property.

Linear gardens have their origin in division and ownership of land (easier to mark and measure), and in use of mechanical soil cultivation (easier to drive a horse or a tractor down a straight row). Since neither one of these elements applies to a vast majority of home gardens, there is absolutely no need to make them straight! Any shape that respects the landform, works with the flow of water and with the way humans move make more sense.


A mandala garden is a raised garden bed using keyhole pattern. It is meant to be a domestic garden able to feed a family all year. It can also be scaled up in order to feed more people. It is usually a circle shape on a flat area. We talk about mandala as it presents a circle centered pattern drawing. Originaly this word refers to Hindu and Buddhist vocabulary. It is a figuration with mystical and ritual value representing, under the form of a varied aspects geometrical diagram, the cosmos and the different relationships that are established between the material and the spiritual.

Since updating you the first week in December on the progress former intern Jackson Pittman made, he—along with our new intern Zoya Kaufmann—completed the circular garden's basic layout. Using cardboard as a weed barrier, direct compost and hay as mulching materials for planting next spring, and gravel and stones for barriers and walkways, our design is complete.


Nature will do the work this winter, as snowfall and our chickens do their part to break down the hay, decompose the compost, and add natural fertilizers to the layout. While that's going on, we'll be mapping out the garden for springtime and allocating certain segments to specific plants.

After the snow melts, we'll be able to get into that thick, rich soil and help to raise up nourishing plants that will sustain the people and animals at Better Farm as well as in the community.
Comment

Nicole Caldwell

Nicole Caldwell is a self-taught environmentalist, green-living savant and sustainability educator with more than a decade of professional writing experience. She is also the co-founder of Better Farm and president of betterArts. Nicole’s work has been featured in Mother Earth News, Reader’s Digest, Time Out New York, and many other publications. Her first book, Better: The Everyday Art of Sustainable Living, is due out this July through New Society Publishers.

Remodeling the Garden: Mandala update

The Rapunzels help to turn the soil over in Better Farm's future mandala garden site.
By Jackson Pittman
As we prepare for the snow, we are renovating our garden and reinventing it by adding a mandala design around the tree near the back

A four-quadrant circle is being constructed at a 200-inch radius around the tree. The former gravel pit around the tree has been dug up so the gravel can be redistributed to form a circular pathway within the mandala design and to create the quadrants. 
Here are a few shots of that process:

Before the paths of the garden will be formed the circle will get completely leveled and covered with cardboard, and then quarters in between the gravel will be mulched for fertile soil for planting. We are all really excited about it over here at Better Farm and will continue to update it as it goes on.

Meanwhile, in the rest of the garden...
I've been using spent hay from the chicken coops to direct-mulch on existing and new garden rows (the garden will be roughly doubled in size next spring); and using newer hay plus compost to create a healthy mulch for plants next season.
To learn more about our mulch-gardening methods, click here.
Comment

Nicole Caldwell

Nicole Caldwell is a self-taught environmentalist, green-living savant and sustainability educator with more than a decade of professional writing experience. She is also the co-founder of Better Farm and president of betterArts. Nicole’s work has been featured in Mother Earth News, Reader’s Digest, Time Out New York, and many other publications. Her first book, Better: The Everyday Art of Sustainable Living, is due out this July through New Society Publishers.

Mandala Garden Design

In permaculture, garden design emphasizes patterns of landscape, function, and species assemblies. With an eye on where elements can go to maximize a system's benefits, the central concept of permaculture is not on each separate element, but on the relationships created among elements by the way they are placed together. This method capitalizes on useful connections between components and synergy of the final design. The whole becomes greater than the sum of its parts. Permaculture design minimizes waste, human labor, and energy input by building systems with maximal benefits between design elements.

To that end, permaculture gardens utilize a non-linear approach to achieve greater productivity due to the fact that there is simply more gardening space when using non-linear geometry. Linear gardens have their origin in division and ownership of land (easier to mark and measure), and in use of mechanical soil cultivation (easier to drive a horse or a tractor down a straight row). Since neither one of these elements applies to a vast majority of home gardens, there is absolutely no need to make them straight! Any shape that respects the landform, works with the flow of water and with the way humans move make more sense.

The Mandala Garden is a popular permaculture design approach. Mandala is a Sanskrit word meaning "circle", and the geometric garden design was first proposed by Linda Woodrow in her book The Permaculture Home Garden. The art of Buddhism and Hinduism often takes the mandala form. True to permaculture fashion, the actual mandala shape in a garden application is malleable in accordance with conditions in your own backyard (slope, water runoff, orientation toward the sun).

Building a mandala garden is a great way to break up your garden beds into a riot of living colour, allowing easy accessibility and visual interest. It’s circular in shape and has a number of keyhole paths or spokes that invite you to look closer at the assortment of plants on display.

By applying mulch and compost, you never need to dig and disturb the soil biota. The bacteria and micro-organisms are best left undisturbed. This way you gain a rich array of soil life which creates an abundant thriving vegetable garden. It’s the microbes and billions of bacteria that do all the heavy work in fostering soil fertility. The only effort needed is to apply some regular soil mulch and good compost and then allow time to have nature break it all down for you.

The advantage of keyhole paths is that you can easily kneel down and touch any part of the garden bed with your outstretched arms. It’s all very accessible and allows for easy maintenance.

Design Plan

An easy way to design a Mandala Garden is to lay out the keyhole paths first using a length of garden hose to define the boundaries. A perfect circle can also be defined by inscribing an arc with a string or hose attached to a central hub post to mark out the boundaries.

Bricks or stones (or any other barrier) are placed roughly in position to mark out the design. This one had the main boundaries defined in a snaking brick path of three key hole “spokes” that where flipped over to create the final circular wheel pattern.

In the center, you can have an herb spiral, a tree, or a small pond. Surrounding the center can be a keyhole shaped path. On the outer edge of the circular bed , many people like to plant fruit trees. Between those trees, you could have five vegetable circles. If you have a few chickens, you can occupy one of your vegetable circles with a chicken tractor. After you harvest vegetables from one circle, put a chicken tractor there. Let the chickens work for 2 weeks or so and plant some other vegetable there afterwards.

The remaining space on the bed should be covered by a living mulch.

Living mulch are special kind of plants that serve the same purposes as mulch and more: they prevent soil erosion, attract beneficial insects. You can also plant herbs around your perimeter. If you’re not a vegetable fan, transform the vegetable circles into soft fruit areas. Plant raspberries, blackberries, currants,… Instead of living mulch, put the remaining space to use with strawberries.

If you don’t have (or don’t want to use) chickens, replace the chicken tractor with green manure crops (like legumes). You plant green manure crops after you harvested the vegetables.

You’re free do whatever you like. Just make sure to utilize as many layers as possible.

We're going to make a mandala garden within the boundaries of our main garden on the property. Here's the spot proposed in Better Farm's garden for a small mandala garden:

We'll be back with schematics, photos of of us implementing the design, and lists of what we'll be planting next spring!

5 Comments

Nicole Caldwell

Nicole Caldwell is a self-taught environmentalist, green-living savant and sustainability educator with more than a decade of professional writing experience. She is also the co-founder of Better Farm and president of betterArts. Nicole’s work has been featured in Mother Earth News, Reader’s Digest, Time Out New York, and many other publications. Her first book, Better: The Everyday Art of Sustainable Living, is due out this July through New Society Publishers.

Your Guide to Fall Planting!

Forget the years of single harvests! Many vegetables are well-adapted to planting in the summer for fall harvest. As you pick your carrots, beets, and salad greens, you can be replacing those veggies with fresh seeds that will extend your gardening season so you can continue to harvest fresh produce after earlier crops have finished. The fall harvest can be extended even further by providing protection from early frosts or by planting in cold frames or hotbeds. Fall and winter gardening, although an old practice, is an excellent solution for keeping the fertility of your garden's soil at its peak levels. At the same time, it yields crops of delicious vegetables throughout the fall and winter that cost a fraction of produce purchased in the supermarket.

Many cool-season vegetable produce their best flavor and quality when they mature during cool weather. Vegetables such as lettuce and spinach tend to bolt or develop bitter flavor when they mature during hot summer weather. Here's a quick reference guide:

 
Late-maturing crops Approximate maturity 90 days. Plant by mid July for fall harvest, later for spring harvest.

ROOTCROPS

  • Beets
  • Carrots
  • Parsnip
  • Rutabaga
  • Globe Onions

LEAFCROPS

  • Brussells Sprouts
  • Cabbages
  • Cauliflower
  • Fava Bean 
Mid-season crops - Approximate maturity 60 days. Plant by mid August. Use any of the dates from above as well as the Best Dates below.

ROOTCROPS

  • Early Carrots
  • Leek
  • Turnip
  • Kohlrabi

LEAFCROPS

  • Early Cabbages
  • Winter Cauliflower
  • Collards
  • Perennial Flowers
  • Perennial Herbs
  • Swiss Chard 
Early maturing crops - Approximate maturity 30 days. Plant by mid September. Use the dates from the previous page as well as the Best Dates below. The latest dates are for warmer climates, later frosts, or protected plantings.

ROOTCROPS

  • Chives
  • Bunching Onions
  • Radishes

LEAFCROPS

  • Broccoli
  • Cover Crops
  • Leaf Lettuces
  • Mustard
  • Spinach
  • Lawn seed
Growing a productive fall vegetable garden requires thoughtful planning and good cultural practices. July and August are the main planting times for the fall garden. Count backwards from the average first-frost date in your area to determine the best time to plant.

Preparing the Site
Before preparing the soil for a fall garden, you must decide what to do with the remains of the spring garden. In most cases, the decision is not difficult because the cool-season crops have already matured and the warm-season vegetables are beginning to look ragged. Remove the previous crop residue and any weed growth. 

Planting the Fall Garden
Direct seeding (planting seeds rather than using transplants) for crops such as broccoli, cabbage, and collards is often used in the fall. However, the success of this planting method depends on having adequate moisture available to keep the young seedlings actively growing after germination. Seeds should be planted deeper in the fall because the moisture level is lower in the soil and the surface temperature is higher. In many cases, the planting depth may be 1 1/2 to 2 times as deep as for spring planting of the same crop.

Watering/Fertilizing Most vegetables require 1 inch of water per week. It's best to make a single watering that penetrates deeply rather than frequent shallow applications. Young seedlings and germinating seeds may need more frequent, light waterings. Do not allow seedlings to dry out excessively. New transplants may also benefit from frequent light waterings until they develop new roots.
Many fall-maturing vegetables benefit from sidedressing with nitrogen just as do spring maturing vegetables. Most leafy vegetables will benefit from an application of nitrogen three and six weeks after planting.

Insects and Diseases
It is not uncommon for insects and diseases to be more abundant in the fall. Most problems from insects and diseases result from a buildup in their populations during the spring and summer. There is hope of keeping these pests at tolerable levels, however, if a few strategies are followed. Strive to keep fall vegetables healthy and actively growing; healthy plants are less susceptible to insects and diseases. Check the plants frequently for insect and disease damage. When sufficient damage is detected, use an approved pesticide. You may decide not to grow vegetables, such as squash, corn, and cucumbers, that are specially insect and disease prone during late summer and fall.

Frost Protection
You can extend the season of tender vegetables by protecting them through the first early frost. Cover growing beds or rows with burlap or a floating row cover supported by stakes or wire to keep the material from directly touching the plants. Individual plants can be protected by using milk jugs, paper caps, or water-holding walls.

Most of the semi-hardy and hardy vegetables will require little or no frost protection. Semi-hardy vegetables should be harvested before a heavy freeze. Root crops such as carrots and radishes should be harvested or mulched heavily before a hard freeze. The harvest of mulched root crops can often be extended will into the winter. During mild winters, harvest may continue till spring.
Comment

Nicole Caldwell

Nicole Caldwell is a self-taught environmentalist, green-living savant and sustainability educator with more than a decade of professional writing experience. She is also the co-founder of Better Farm and president of betterArts. Nicole’s work has been featured in Mother Earth News, Reader’s Digest, Time Out New York, and many other publications. Her first book, Better: The Everyday Art of Sustainable Living, is due out this July through New Society Publishers.

The Organic Life

Illustration from Nourish Water.

By Noah Bogdonoff
What does it mean to be organic? To shoppers, the word guarantees the freshness and safety of their food. To the USDA, it is a strict set of rules by which the organization can direct consumers to the most healthily raised food products. To farmers, its meaning is much more complex. Better Farm's interns on Thursday came face-to-face with some of the most inspiring and complex issues surrounding the world of organics at Cross IslandFarms on Wellesley Island.


Dani Baker and David Belding own Cross Island Farms. Though the land has been in use since the mid-1800s, the Bakers bought it seven seasons ago with no inclination to become full-time farmers. Since then, their “farming habit” has turned into a CSA, dozens of animals including goats, cows, pigs, ducks, and chickens, and a burgeoning foray into eco-tourism through guided tours of the land and “primitive” campsites.

Of course, these efforts feed into one another. As David explains, every animal has a job on the farm that extends beyond producing eggs, milk, or meat. The Bakers practice rotational grazing, meaning that they constantly shift their animals’ pastures in an order that promotes fertile land and high levels of biodiversity. In addition to creating prime land for vegetable gardening, this type of farming shelters the Bakers’ livelihood from typical blights such as the previously blogged-about armyworm. By breeding a diverse and hearty selection of plants and animals, they’ve eliminated the risk of one disaster ruining an entire crop or killing an entire herd.

Beyond the practical, however, Dani and David’s farming methods exemplify an extremely important attitude towards life. Their 100+ acres, which include many areas of Class 2 protected wetlands, grow more fertile and more diverse with each new season. The Bakers are not just living off of the land—the land is living off of them. The goal? To not just maintain the integrity of the earth they live on, but to improve it.

At Better Farm, that is what organic means—not just a certification, but rather a philosophy and methodology that ensures our presence as a boon to the land, the wildlife, and the people that surround it. 

Aquaponic Gardening Phase III: Build your light stand

Our aquaponics set-up has been enjoyed an ideal nitrogen level for months now, with the ecosystem of various fish and water plants settling into a healthy regimen and routine. Our grow light arrived two weeks ago (ordered through the newly opened North Country Hydroponics in Waterotown), and we scooped up some gravel for inside the grow bed. All that's left to do is build our light stand, add seeds, and watch 'em grow.


There are tons of designs on the market for building a grow light stand, or you can buy your own for a pretty penny. We liked the simple, lightweight construction afforded by plastic pipes; though you could create a similar design with 1x1's as long as your light isn't too heavy.

Here are some easy plans for building a 24-inch grow light stand, courtesy of Cornell University. If you're like us and have a different size grow bed/light system/tank, be sure to adjust the measurements listed below to accommodate your system.

Before you start:

Before making any connection, make sure that the pipe and fitting are correctly positioned. (See diagrams.) Insert the pipe into the fitting as far as you can by hand. The fitting has an internal ridge. The end of the pipe should touch this ridge. Hit the fitting with a block of wood until the pipe is snug against the ridge. Several blows with some force will probably be necessary.

Cut the pipe:

Most types of saws will make the cuts. A miter box is helpful to make straight cuts.

  1. From one 10' pipe length saw two 49" pieces and two 8" pieces.
  2. From a second 10' pipe length saw three 36" pieces.
  3. From the third 10' pipe length saw one 36" piece, two 8" pieces and eight short pieces.
    To determine the length of the short pieces: Measure the depth a pipe will enter an elbow from the edge of the elbow to its internal ridge. (This depth varies depending on the manufacturer of the fitting.) Measure the similar internal depth in a Tee. Add the two depths together and subtract 1/8". This will be the length of the eight short pieces to be cut.
  4. From the fourth 10' pipe length two other pieces will be cut after their lengths are determined.
Assemble the base:
  1. Connect one 90º elbow to a 49" pipe. Connect another elbow to other end of the pipe in the same direction as the first elbow. Connect elbows to other 49" pipe in the same manner.
  2. Figure 2

  3. Position a Tee in the proper direction. Insert a short piece of pipe between them and force the fittings together. Connect three other Tees in the appropriate directions.
  4. Figure 3

  5. Connect two 8" pipes (one fitting at a time) between the Tees on each side of the base.
  6. Figure 4
Assemble the top:

The front assembly of the top should have the same width as the front assembly of the base.
  1. Place an elbow and a Tee touching each other along one end of the front of the base. Place another Tee and an elbow touching each other along the other end of the front of the base.
  2. Measure the distance between the edges of the Tees and then add to this measure the depths the pipe will fit into the two Tees. (This depth varies depending on the manufacturer of the fittings.) The total is the length of each of the two pieces of pipe remaining to be cut.
  3. Figure 5

  4. Cut the two pieces. With two elbows, two Tees, two short pieces of pipe and one of the new pieces of pipe, connect the front assembly of the top. Connect the back assembly of the top with similar pipes and fittings.
  5. Figure 6

  6. Connect the front and back assemblies of the top with two 8" pieces of pipe.
  7. Figure 7
Final assembly:

Connect each of the four 36" pipes to the four Tees on the base. Position the top assembly onto the 36" pipes. Connect the four Tees of the top, one at a time, to the 36" pipes.

Figure 8

Hang the shop light

Loop the chain around a top 8" pipe and close the loop by connecting the end of the chain to one of its links with an S hook. Similarly loop the other piece of chain around the other top 8" pipe. With S hooks attach the lower end of the chains to the slots on the shop light.

The distance between the top of the plants and the shop light can be adjusted by changing the lengths of the loops.

Double shoplight option
If you would like to double the depth of the unit described, cut and use four 17" pieces of pipe instead of the four 8" pieces. Purchase a second 48" fluorescent shop light (2 lamp) (40 watt), one 48"cool white fluorescent bulb (40 watt), one 48" daylight (warm) fluorescent bulb (40 watt), (4) S hooks ( 1" size) and (2) 2 ½ feet of chain ( loops large enough for S hooks).

This system of using two shop lights will allow you to adjust the height of each set of lights independently and provide light to both short and tall plants within the same unit.

24-inch model:
If you have limited space, you can construct a frame that will accomodate a 24" shop light. This smaller version requires only 3 10' sections of PVC pipe. Follow these initial cutting instructions:

  1. From one 10' pipe length saw two 25" pieces and two 34" pieces.
  2. From a second 10' pipe length saw two 34" pieces. Two other pieces will be cut from this pipe after their lengths are determined.
  3. From the third 10' pipe length saw four 6" pieces and eight short pieces. Follow instructions above for determining the length of the short pieces.
  4. Follow the assembly instructions above, only substitute the 25" pieces for the 49" pieces, and the 34" pieces for the 36" pieces.

Read about our aquaponic set-up in its entirety:
Aquaponic Gardening: Phase I
Aquaponic Gardening: Phase II
Building a Grow Bed for your Aquaponic Garden
Comment

Nicole Caldwell

Nicole Caldwell is a self-taught environmentalist, green-living savant and sustainability educator with more than a decade of professional writing experience. She is also the co-founder of Better Farm and president of betterArts. Nicole’s work has been featured in Mother Earth News, Reader’s Digest, Time Out New York, and many other publications. Her first book, Better: The Everyday Art of Sustainable Living, is due out this July through New Society Publishers.

Mulch Gardening in Full Swing at Better Farm

Jaci Collins, intern director, works on a row of cauliflower.
Manicured, conventional gardens are completely antithetical to how plants actually grow. Bare ground with nothing growing between plants may be deemed more aesthetically pleasing; but results of this "conventional" gardening method have created a booming business for chemical companies and garden supply businesses because zapped soil has high levels of sensitivity to temperature and moisture, and weak resistance to topical bacterial infections. Think of topsoil as a garden's skin; and imagine stripping away the top three layers to leave plants with higher sensitivities to temperature, moisture, and weak immunities to topical bacterial infections. You would also be forced to apply excessive moisture and take antibiotics to combat illnesses.


Enter mulch gardening: a layering method that mimics a forest floor and combines soil improvement, weed removal, and long-term mulching in one fell swoop. Also called lasagna gardening or sheet mulching, this process can turn hard-to-love soil rich and healthy by improving nutrient and water retention in the dirt, encouraging favorable soil microbial activity and worms, suppressing weed growth, and improving the well-being of plants (all while reducing maintenance!).

We're in our third year of mulch gardening at Better Farm, which means we're really in our first year of having extremely developed, thick rows of biologically strong dirt and compost for our plants. Here's some information on how you can get started mulch gardening.

How is Mulch Gardening Achieved?
First, a weed barrier like cardboard is laid down to smother weeds. The cardboard decomposes after the weeds have all died and turned into compost. On top of the cardboard you can pile dead leaves, grass clippings, compost, several-years-old composted manure, and other biodegradables such as old hay (our personal favorite). Mulch gardening can range from just a few inches thick to 2 feet or more, depending on how bad your soil is and how much raw material you have available (it will cook down and settle quite a bit). We made two-foot piles last fall, and by spring those had settled and cooked down to about one foot. We sometimes add a fresh layer of cardboard over the top of the rows as everything breaks down and we see evidence of emerging weeds. The cyclical process goes on year-round and works so well we don't have to put a single additive or chemical into the soil.
To say our experience at Better Farm has been a crash-course in everything organic is an understatement. We've been working uphill since Day One, when we "broke ground" (and several shovels) in the clay-rich, hard earth that had homed hay only for at least half a century.

Since that time, we've experimented with several planting, growing, weeding, fertilizing, and pest-control tactics. And what began as a small vermicompost bin in the kitchen has turned into a huge garden full of layered mulch rotting beautifully into dark, rich soil that feeds hundreds of plants every spring, summer, and fall.

Want to learn more? Here's a snippet from an old interview with the Queen of Mulch herself, talking about how you too can have a green thumb without an aching back.

My no-work gardening method is simply to keep a thick mulch of any vegetable matter that rots on both my vegetable and flower garden all year round. As it decays and enriches the soil, I add more. The labor-saving part of my system is that I never plow, spade, sow a cover crop, harrow, hoe, cultivate, weed, water or spray. I use just one fertilizer (cottonseed or soybean meal), and I don't go through that tortuous business of building a compost pile.

I beg everyone to start with a mulch 8 inches deep; otherwise, weeds may come through, and it would be a pity to be discouraged at the very start. But when I am asked how many bales (or tons) of hay are necessary to cover any given area, I can't answer from my own experience, for I gardened in this way for years before I had any idea of writing about it, and therefore didn't keep track of such details.
However, I now have some information on this from Dick Clemence, my A-Number-One adviser. He says, "I should think of 25 50-pound bales as about the minimum for 50 feet by 50 feet, or about a half-ton of loose hay. That should give a fair starting cover, but an equal quantity in reserve would be desirable." That is a better answer than the one I have been giving, which is: You need at least twice as much as you would think.

What Should I Use for Mulch?
Spoiled or regular hay, straw, leaves, pine needles, sawdust, weeds, garbage — any vegetable matter that rots.

Don't Some Leaves Decay Too Slowly?
No, they just remain mulch longer, which cuts down on labor. Don't they mat down? If so, it doesn't matter because they are between the rows of growing things and not on top of them. Can one use leaves without hay? Yes, but a combination of the two is better, I think.
What is spoiled hay? It's hay that for some reason isn't good enough to feed livestock. It may have, for instance, become moldy — if it was moist when put in the haymow — but it is just as effective for mulching as good hay, and a great deal cheaper.

Shouldn't the hay be chopped?
Well, I don't have mine chopped and I don't have a terrible time — and I'm 76 and no stronger than the average person.

Can you use grass clippings?
Yes, but unless you have a huge lawn or neighbors who will collect them for you, they don't go very far.

How Do You Sow Seeds into the Mulch?
You plant exactly as you always have, in the Earth. You pull back the mulch and put the seeds in the ground and cover them just as you would if you had never heard of mulching.

How Do You Sow Seeds into the Mulch?
You plant exactly as you always have, in the Earth. You pull back the mulch and put the seeds in the ground and cover them just as you would if you had never heard of mulching.

 How Often Do You Put on Mulch?


Whenever you see a spot that needs it. If weeds begin to peep through anywhere, just toss an armful of hay on them. What time of year do you start to mulch? The answer is now, whatever the date may be, or at least begin to gather your material. At the very least give the matter constructive thought at one; make plans. If you are intending to use leaves, you will unfortunately have to wait until they fall, but you can be prepared to make use of them the moment they drop. Should you spread manure and plow it under before you mulch? Yes, if your soil isn't very rich; otherwise, mulch alone will answer the purpose.

How Far Apart Are the Rows?
Exactly the same distance as if you weren't mulching — that is, when you begin to use my method. However, after you have mulched for a few years, your soil will become so rich from rotting vegetable matter that you can plant much more closely than one dares to in the old-fashioned way of gardening.

How Long Does the Mulch Last?
That depends on the kind you use. Try always to have some in reserve, so that it can replenished as needed.

Now for the Million Dollar Question: Where Do You Get Mulch?
That's difficult to answer but I can say this: If enough people in any community demand it, I believe that someone will be eager to supply it. At least that's what happened within a distance of 100 miles or so of us in Connecticut, and within a year after my book came out, anyone in that radius could get all the spoiled hay they wanted at 65 cents a bale.
If you belong to a garden club, why can't you all get together and create a demand for spoiled hay? If you don't belong to a group, you probably at least know quite a few people who garden and who would be pleased to join the project.
Use all the leaves you can find. Clip your cornstalks into footlength pieces and use them. Utilize your garbage, tops of perennials, any and all vegetable matter that rots. In many localities, the utility companies grind up the branches they cut off when they clear the wires; and often they are glad to dump them near your garden, with no charge. But hurry up before they find out that there is a big demand for them and they decide to make a fast buck. These wood chips make a splendid mulch; I suggest you just ignore anyone who tells you they are too acidic.

Recently, a man reproached me for making spoiled hay so popular that he can no longer get it for nothing. The important fact, however, is that it has become available and is relatively cheap. The other day a neighbor said to me, "Doesn't it make you feel good to see the piles of hay in so many yards when you drive around?" It does make me feel fine.

Now and then I am asked (usually by an irritated expert) why I think I invented mulching. Well, naturally, I don't think so; God invented it simply by deciding to have the leaves fall off the trees once a year. I don't even think that I'm the first, or only person, who thought up my particular variety of year-round mulching, but apparently I'm the first to make a big noise about it — writing, talking, demonstrating.

And since in the process of spreading this great news, I have run across many thousands who never heard of the method, and a few hundred who think it is insane and can't possibly work, and only two people who had already tried it, is it surprising that I have carelessly fallen into the bad habit of sounding as though I thought I originated it?

But why should we care who invented it? Dick Clemence works hard trying to get people to call it the "Stout System," which is good because it should have some sort of a short name for people to use when they refer to it, instead of having to tell the whole story each time. I suppose it does more or less give me a feeling of importance when I come across an article mentioning the Stout System, yet I am cheated out of the full value of that sensation because I've never been able really to identify the whole thing with that little girl who was certainly going to be great and famous some day. What a disgusted look she would have given anyone who would have offered her the title of Renowned Mulcher!

And it borders on the unenthralling to have the conversation at social gatherings turn to slugs and cabbageworms the minute I show up. And if some professor of psychology, giving an association-of-ideas test to a bunch of gardeners, should say "moldy hay" or "garbage," I'm afraid that some of them would come out with "Ruth Stout." Would anyone like that?

If you want to learn more about the Stout System, you can locate copies of Ruth Stout's books through a used bookseller. You also can order the VHS or DVD video Ruth Stout's Garden from Gardenworks.
Comment

Nicole Caldwell

Nicole Caldwell is a self-taught environmentalist, green-living savant and sustainability educator with more than a decade of professional writing experience. She is also the co-founder of Better Farm and president of betterArts. Nicole’s work has been featured in Mother Earth News, Reader’s Digest, Time Out New York, and many other publications. Her first book, Better: The Everyday Art of Sustainable Living, is due out this July through New Society Publishers.