Sunday, November 29, 2009

Thanksgiving Delight

On Wednesday, November 24, I got the chance to head out to the arboretum before leaving town for Thanksgiving festivities. When I arrived, I realized that the lettuce, mixed greens, mustard greens, chives, and kolrabi were all ready for harvesting, so I grabbed some and hit the road. My family was excited to see what I had brought home. The lettuce and mixed greens were thrown together to make a luscious salad for our big Thanksgiving dinner, and we added chives to the traditional mashed potato dish for flavoring. My family couldn't believe how good the food looked, and more importantly , how great everything tasted. As we finished up our big meal of the night, my mom told me that we will have to have our own garden next spring and summer.

When someone asks me why I believe we should try to eat local and organic, I usually start spewing off tons of reasons, such as we don't usually know where out food comes from, what fertilizers and pesticides were used, whether or not the seeds planted were genetically modified, and if people were exploited during the growing process. What I often forget, though , is to talk about the most important potential consequence of eating local and organic: the bonds it creates between people. Unlike past Thanksgivings, I felt that I was more connected to the food because I had helped grow it, and my family's appreciation of that made us all more aware of what we were eating and how we were all able to enjoy it together. I can't wait to have a garden with my family next summer.

If you, too, want to start your own garden for the spring/ summer, go ahead and start preparing now. Here's a little bit about soil composition to help you out:

Figure out your soil composition: Is it mostly sand, silt, or clay? Ideally, you will have a balance mixture of three, known as loam. Loam is best because it retains moisture and nutrients but doesn’t stay soggy.

Do you have worms?
The presence of worms indicates that your soil is very healthy and nutritious.

Make sure you have an adequate water supply: The student organic garden uses a drip irrigation system, which I've read is best because it decreases erosion and mineral loss.

What is the PH?
The degree to which a soil is acidic or basic plays an essential role in garden production. This will be tested in the soil test. Lime is usually added if the soil is too acidic.

Perform a soil test
: Some of the elements that a test looks at are Nitrogen, Phosphorous, and Potassium. It will tell you the levels of each and what organic material you need to add to make your soil more fertile.

Don't forget compost: "Compost is a soil conditioner, fertilizer, and mulch all wrapped into one". It will help with your soil's water retention and drainage issues and add organic matter to your garden.

Friday, November 27, 2009

2009 Food Summit

November 12-14 was the 2009 Alabama Food Summit in Birmingham. About eight New College students made the drive to meet organic farmers from all over the south and learn about the technical and philosophical aspects of sustainable agriculture as well as the marketing side of having a farm. We were able to make relationships with the farmers and learn from their stories of failure and success.

Some of the workshops included:

  • Cover crops
  • Health and nutrition
  • Food advocacy
  • Cooperative marketing
  • Future of seeds
  • Biodynamics
  • Permaculture

One of the farmers that stood out the most was Jeff Poppen from Red Boiling Springs, TN. Living up to his title as the “barefoot farmer,” Jeff rocked a long, dreaded beard and possessed an aura of simplicity. His appreciation for the Earth was contagious as he delved into the advantages of biodynamic farming and shared personal stories of life on his farm. He was extremely generous with his farming tips, sharing compost recipes and handing out the organic sweet potatoes from his farm. Jeff talked about the benefits of urban gardens, which are essentially a product of a nearby “mother” farm.

He gave us an apparently magical fertilizer recipe:

  • 25 gallons of cow manure
  • 2000 grams of egg shells
  • 1000 grams of basalt
  • mix with shovel for 1 hour (Jeff has “stirring” parties with his friends), and put in a wooden, bottomless barrel buried in the ground.
  • One cup of this stuff mixed with 3 gallons of water (stir for 20 minutes) is enough for one acre of land, sprinkled during the evening as the dew falls.

In true Jeff fashion, he wanted to distribute the awesomeness of this fertilizer, so I took on the task of getting my hands dirty and bagging it for everyone.

Jeff also went on a tangent about the moon cycle and it's effect on crops. He swears that the moon can be used a device in determining the best time to plant, weed, and harvest crops.

Overall, the Food Summit was a success, and students left with a packet of information, a more extensive knowledge about farming, and the knowledge that we will always have a welcoming home in Boiling Springs, TN with Jeff the barefoot farmer.

Pesky Pests

Pests are problematic, but it seems contradictory to douse plants with poisonous substances – because ultimately, our goal is to eat them. If the chemicals kill pests, what are the long-term health effects on us? Ideally, one should manage pests before they even arrive in the garden. That is, use sustainable techniques like crop rotation, soil structure, and pH management in order to increase a crop's resistance to pests.

Fire ants have been a concern in the garden recently, but we don't want use harsh pesticides to control them. We are trying to find a sustainable method to get rid of the ants, so we applied cornstarch to the beds, which, according to the ever-dependable internet, expands in their bodies and kills them. Apparently, this is a myth. We tried it, only to learn that the cornstarch was ineffective.

(above) Beth applying cornstarch to the oregano

Also, the copious amounts of rain we've had in the past month hasn't really been ideal for the plants, but it did at least wipe out a giant ant bed that was once plopped in the middle of the chives.

The use of pesticides reflects our cultural mindset: we prefer quick, easy solutions and don't look too far into the future to see the consequences of our actions. Sustainable pest control is about long-term solutions that take into consideration all of the factors. Most of the time, the best solution is to kill the pests, but to build an immunity in the crops with sustainable methods like crop rotation and fostering healthy soil.

Monday, November 16, 2009

Eat 'em up!

On Thursday, November 12, Students for Sustainability took some of their harvest to the NEW 100 Intro to Interdisciplinary Studies class. The class had been studying Barbara Kingsolver's novel Animal, Vegetable, Miracle -a read that definitely belongs at the top of your list, and members of the student group realized how relevant bringing fresh greens from the student garden would be to classroom discussion. Consequently, a couple of students drove out to the arboretum before class and harvested the two delicious foods that are ready for eatin': mustard greens and chives.

Not sure how many of you have enjoyed mustard greens before, but the student group's are extra spicy. So, not necessarily the ideal way to introduce people to the beauty of eating local and organic food. Even the classmates that expressed a love for spicy foods had a look of surprise and coughed a little when they bit in. Despite the reactions, the class generally seemed intrigued by the garden project (and enjoyed the chives, where are much more tame for the pallette) , and Students for Sustainability gained about six more student volunteers for the spring garden!

In other news, the very generous Dr. Joe Brown, who teaches organic farming in New College and owns his own farm, donated a hundred strawberry plants to the student group. Students gladly added the strawberry plants to back two garden beds, where just recently they had uprooted the withering peppering plants and spread new compost. They look forward to April, when the strawberry fruit will hopefully appear. It will certainly be motivation to get the rest of the spring garden in motion!

And last, but certainly far from least, group leaders are working with faculty to design an independent study that will involve experiential learning through the student organic garden. If you're interested, please join the facebook group and/or email for more details. And please, please, please, come eat some mustard greens and chives. We have plenty for everyone!

Sunday, November 8, 2009

Sunny Skies

Finally, a week free from rain! Students took advantage of the beautiful weather and visited the arboretum almost everyday last week.Thanks to the arboretum staff, students used straw from the arboretum's Halloween event to mulch all of the beds. Mulching will really help the garden by keeping weeds down -weeds are less exposed to sunlight -and help moderate soil temperatures so the plants aren't as stressed by drastic day to night changes. Students also uprooted old plants and prepared empty beds for strawberry plants. They also noticed that some of the pumpkin plants are turning gray and plan to investigate what the odd coloration is.

Who wants a mustard green? Despite the heavy rain, these guys are thriving. Students are thinking about different ways to make sure that the excess is no wasted. One of these options includes taking some of the produce to freshman classes so that they can get a glimpse of what
participating in an organic garden will give them.

The pepper plants have been very good to the student group throughout the spring and summer, but it's time to go. They'll be back next spring.

Lizzie Beale helps uproot the last of the pepper plants.

If you look closely, you can see the straw covering the beds. The mulch will really help with garden maintenance.