Thursday, April 29, 2010

Double-Digging Potluck

On Saturday April 17, 2010 a group of students went to the garden to double-dig more beds and have a potluck after. Double-digging helps loosen the soil and provide structure. Many of the students were in the group Students for Sustainability but there were also students who came out from hearing about the event. We all worked together to start double digging beds in the area of the garden where there were not any. It was hard work because the ground was so solid and hard to turn. We tried to wet the soil to loosen it up, but even that did was not helpful enough for one bed. We had to use many instruments to double-dig and by the end we had made a more than a few new beds.

The process for double-digging can be tricky and hard to follow. To start the double digging, we would try and remove the weeds growing in the area we wanted the bed to be. Once we removed the weeds, we measured about a foot wide of the bed and removed the soil and put it in the wheelbarrow. Then we would dig beside that first foot, which was empty, and put the soil we were digging, in the first area we dug. We turned the soil and added compost to it. Then we would dig beside the area we had just dug and put that soil in the previous, empty area and turn the soil and put compost in. We did this until the entire bed had been completely dug up and formed.

In these new beds, we are planning on putting in more tomatoes, herbs, watermelons, and flowers.

Afterwards we all enjoyed delicious food like home-made hummus Nicole Ortega made, guacamole with half-cherry tomatoes made by Matthew Bush, a pasta dish from Camille Perret, and chips and drinks. It was a very hot afternoon, but having a group to work together really helped get more accomplished.

With this event we also found more students who wanted to be involved with the garden and join Students for Sustainability. Some of the new students did not know how to even get to the Arboretum and had never heard of Students for Sustainability. Having events like this, opens the door of opportunity for students to find out and get involved in the garden which is why it is important to have these events.
This is the bed that was the hardest to dig up because the soil was so clay-like. Even the addition of water did not help to loosen it up.

Learning Young

Lydia Atkins, a former New College student brought her fifth grade class and one fourth-grader from Tuscaloosa Magnet Elementary School to the Arboretum for a field trip. The students were lead throughout the Arboretum and saw the greenhouses, garden, and the tree topology. Camille Perret and I lead one group of students around to the different stations. The children had actually been learning about gardening with Lydia, so they were excited to see the Arboretum.

We first started off in the greenhouses. Camille and I asked them questions like, why we would start our plants in a green house instead of in the garden? We had various answers from the students. For example, students said because you are able to control temperature in the house and that it is a good way to make sure bugs and rodents would not get into the plants. We also showed the vermicompost and explained the importance of worm poop for the soil. The kids really enjoyed seeing the worms and were impressed by the big container. We also showed them the peels of fruit we eat like cantolope in the vermicompost. We explained how this helps make compost which is good for the soil.

After the greenhouses, we went to the tables outside where there were numerous tomato, basil, and marigold plants. We told the children they were going to be planting one of these plants in the garden. Camille showed them the correct way to remove a plant from the container and place it in the ground.

After the demonstration we lead our group of children to the garden where they each planted one plant. We had to make sure the children did not step on the beds and compact the soil.

Many of Lydias students had not visited the Arboretum before and did not know it existed. I talked with Lydia and Sarah Massey after the field trip and they said the children loved the Arboretum. They wondered why school could not be taught out there instead of inside. They both said the children were surprised to learn you can different types of plants in the green house like tropical and non-native plants. They said probably their favorite part of the trip was seeing the worms.

I think it is wonderful that children are getting involved and learning about gardening at a young age. I never had an experience like a field trip to the arboretum but I’m glad teachers are trying to incorporate and show the importance of growing plants. Growing plants are important because they help keep us alive. I’m glad these students were able to have a hands-on experience with the garden and I hope they understand the importance of growing plants.


On January 20 I attended the Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group in Chattanooga, Tennessee. The conference lasted three days and each day there were different seminars on how to promote sustainable agriculture in the south. Each meeting was about an hour and a half long and everyone in my group would attend a meeting they thought might be beneficial to University’s Garden. The students who attended the conference were: Nicole Ortega, Sarah Masterson, Matthew Bush, Matthew Smith, Lizzie Beale, Andrea Mabry, and myself. Not only did we listen to speakers discuss different techniques they use, but we also talked to others who attended the conference and asked about their involvement with sustainability in agriculture.

I attended one seminar called “Plasticulture for Vegetables and Flower Production.” Grace Summers from North Carolina spoke about using plasitcultre. She said the use of place in agriculture can help diminish extreme temperatures for horticultural crops.
One typically uses a drip irrigation to help plasticulture. The advantages of using a drip irrigation for plasticulture are using less water and disease and weeds are reduced. The disadvantages of using a drip irrigation are a higher level of management required, potential to stress plants is greater, and can be damaged by insects and rodents. After setting up the drip irrigation and raising the bed, one can finally put the plastic on the ground.

I found out in this seminar this is used on big farms and would not help with our small, but valuable garden. Instead we are using tomato mulch which should help.

I also attended another seminar about biodiversity which was taught by the “Barefoot Farmer.” Everyone in our group attended this meeting because he was well known and his discussion was supposed to be very interesting.

He said how he reads books from a hundred years ago on how to farm because he does not want to replace good farming techniques. He discussed the importance of compost which is one of our strong points at the garden. He also said how microorganisms are important in the soil because they help the soil and the plants live.

One interesting technique that he uses is that he does not irrigate. He uses only compost and that is all he needs.

What I gained from his talk, was that there are millions of organisms and nutrients and they all contribute to our planet and how we live and work in agriculture.

SSAWG was a good introduction to starting the independent study. I knew very little about sustainability and agriculture, but by talking to those in my group and attending the conference, I was able to gain more knowledge on the subject.

Tuesday, April 27, 2010

High Tunnel Production Workshop

On Monday, April 26, Matthew Bush and I carpooled to Clanton, Alabama to participate in a high tunnel production workshop offered through a collaboration between SSAWG (Southern Sustainable Agriculture Working Group) and ASAN (Alabama Sustainable Agriculture Network).
Paul and Allison Wiediger of Au Naturel Farm were the presenters, but Paul presented alone on Monday because Allison went home to respond to a sudden and unexpected death in the family. May Allison's father rest in peace and may her family feel healing.
The day was split into two main sessions with a lunch break in between; first from 8:30 AM - 12:00 PM, then from 1:00 PM -4:00 PM. This was an excellent opportunity for many farmers who have just begun or are considering extending their seasons by growing in a hoop-house. Very few farmers that participated in the workshop were currently producing in a hoop-house. Mr. Wiediger's thorough and engaging presentation examined practically every aspect of hoop-house production, such as the construction and mechanics of building a hoop-house, Irrigation within the structure, necessary tools, pest and disease management, harvesting and post harvest handling, growth planning, pros vs. cons of hoop-houses, and the economics and market factors involved! Mr. Wiediger offered an excellent balance of technical knowledge and instruction as well as surprising and specific stories to illustrate lessons he has learned as a farmer for over 30 years.
Besides all of the information we absorbed psychophysically and can retain as knowledge, we did not go home empty handed. We acquired two copies of a CD produced by SSAWG called "Organic Vegetable Production & Marketing in the South", which is supposed to provide fabulous information and advise to farmers specific to our location. A group of long-time organic food producers collaborated to make this information available, and it features Alex Hitt of Peregrine Farm. We were also given a CD containing a copy of the Wiediger's powerpoint presentation and several worksheets and spreadsheets. But that is not all! The Wiedigers gave us each a copy of their book "Walking to Spring", a guide to using high tunnels to grow produce 52 weeks out of the year.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Snow's Bend Farm

Homegrown Alabama is performing their farm inspections now in preparation for their first Farmer's Market of the season on May 6th (3-6 PM) on the Canterbury Church Lawn, on Hackberry Lane. Farm Inspections are an important element of a successful farmer's market because they ensure that the farmer's are actually producing everything they bring to market on their own land. There will be a follow-up inspection towards the end of the growing season as well. Students working with the community organic garden took advantage of this opportunity to participate and meet local farmers face to face on the land they work. The first farm we visited was Snow's Bend in Tuscaloosa. Margaret Ann will be hiring 8 interns this summer to help her and her partner, David, run their 150-member CSA and prepare the naturally-grown harvests for the market!

Margaret Ann shows us her tomato field. She uses metal stakes and 6 in. checkerboard wire as trellis to support the plants, and black plastic to mulch, which suppresses weed growth and keeps the soil warm, which the tomato plants prefer. The plastic mulch is thinner than a plastic bag, and is effective is eliminating all weeds except nutgrass, which will occasionally poke a hole right through the plastic and keep growing!

These white floating row covers are placed over melon seedlings to protect from insects and drops in temperature.
Many varieties of greens, which are delivered to locals through CSA subscriptions, grow in these lush fields, which are irrigated with a drip-tape system. The drip tape allocates water directly to the roots of the plants, thus minimizing waste and conserving water usage. Snow's Bend currently uses both well water and river water.
Although Snow's Bend is only raising pigs for the purpose of selling them at this time, they are interested in developing a system that integrates the pigs with the farm production in more ways. For example, it is possible to use pigs as part of a functioning composting system. Some sustainable farmers "Pigerate" - meaning they let their pigs dig in and till/turn the land and compost with their busy snouts as the pigs look for corn to munch on.

A high-tunnel (a.k.a. hoop-house) extends a farmer's growing season, which is very important for a professional farmer, because it gives farmers a "cutting edge" that makes them competitive producers in a market. This method of growing "in doors" allows farmers to sell early tomatoes when few other farmers have fresh vine-ripe tomatoes. Snow's Bend is growing two varieties of tomatoes in this hoophouse, using landscape fabric as mulch. Margaret Ann said she would rather use landscape fabric instead of plasticulture, but it is more expensive so she just uses it in the high tunnels.
New College graduate Lydia Atkins sniffs the aromatic tomato plants in a Snow's Bend high tunnel.

Farming With No Soil

Most of us were taught in grade school that plants need sunlight, water, and soil to grow. For those of you who still hold tightly to this assumption, be prepared for a shocking shift in your world-view, comparable to the discovery that Pluto is not a planet.
Indeed, some farmers grow crops with out soil!

John Bruce of "Miss Emily's Tomatoes" uses soil-less growing methods, such as hydroponics and coir-filled pots, under the cover of a greenhouse. My jaw dropped (some drool might have escaped out of the corner of my mouth as well) when we arrived and my eyes feasted on over 30 foot long tomato vines, with green tomatoes the size of grapefruits hanging in clumps. Apparently, John harvests the fruit of this dutch tomato variety from the end of October to the beginning of July - practically all year round!

John plants his tomatos in bags of coir. Coir is ground up coconut fibers. It is not nutritionally valuable to plants by itself, but is an excellent absorbent for water and nutrients, which makes it very useful for plant roots. John's green fingers show us how fluffy the coir is:

John has to tap the tomato plants about every other day so that the leaves and flowers are vibrated and pollinate themselves.
John purchased this water nutrient system from HydroGardens. The device measures the humidity and temperature in the air and waters the plants acording to how muh water they need at any given time. Thus John invests very little time, energy and attention to concern over watering his plants. This is avery different method of farming than that practiced at many farms, such as Snow's Bend, where natural river water or well water is chaneled through drip tape into open fields of vegetables.
These trays each have many little cells, in each of which is placed one little lettuce seed. One the seed germinates, the plant in given nutrients in a hydroponic pool and grows into a big head of lettuce.

Lydia admiring the root ball of the lettuce grown without soil. There is no evident bug damage to the lettuce because it is grown indoors where there are more barriers to the natural elements that can damage outdoor crops.
John has been selling out of tomatoes every day for the past several weeks, and he has not even had to leave his home! People come to his farm to pick up tomatoes and other seasonal produce, like asparagus, strawberries, or (soon to come!) blackberries. He participates in the Homegrown Alabama Farmers Market near the UA campus because he wants to.
John shows us how this filtration system made of rocks and cement and gravel purifies his well water of excess iron before it is fed to the strawberry fields.

The Farm Inspection Team, with farmer John Bruce.

Shitake Mushroom Cultivation

The Farm's Ecovillage Training Center in Tennessee (and its partner programs abroad) are oriented towards making the best of the post-petroleum energy transition. The Farm offers an array of courses and workshops in permaculture and sustainable living technology, outlined on the web calendar here.

On February 20, I traveled with a few Tuscaloosa residents to participate in a shitake mushroom cultivating workshop at The Farm. Albert Bates and Frank Michael were the main instructors for the day's event, having extensive experiential knowledge about growing all kinds of mushrooms sustainably and commercially. The course examined medicinal properties of several mushroom varieties, and went over all the steps of cultivating mushrooms (particularly shitake), from selection and cutting of logs, to preparation, inoculation, spawn run, fruiting, and how to continue maintenance of mushroom production.

Select trees and cut logs for mushroom cultivation sometime between when the leaves turn brown in the Fall to a few weeks before leaf-bud in the Spring. Oaks work exceptionally well (except for blackjack), but you can get good yields from hornbeam, ironwood, hard maple, and sweet gum trees as well. Other trees yield less mushrooms, and softwoods yield none because their aromatic resins are fungicidal. The bark should be medium-thick, healthy and intact as much as possible; this creates a good barrier to other fungi. You do not want to use rotten logs. A good size for logs is 2" - 6" in diameter and 40" long.

Inoculate your logs with spawn within three weeks of cutting. Delays can result in lower yields becuse the logs dehydrate and are colonized with other microorganisms. If you cannot inoculate your logs right away, first make sure the bark is dry, and dead-stack them like firewood over two horizontal logs off the ground in a shady spot, and lightly cover them with plastic to keep off the rain, but you want to maintain air circulation.

You'll need
-a hot plate

-an old pot
-half a sponge cut lengthwise to apply
the melted cheese wax
-A high-speed drill makes life easier for runs of over 100 logs. (Use a 5/16" diam. bit for plug spawn, or 7/16" diam. for sawdust spawn, with a drill stop set at 1" depth for plugs, 3/4" for sawdust)
-an inoculating tool (keeps your fingers from wearing out)
-aluminum tags and some 1" roofing nails to label your logs with the date/variety
-and mushroom spawn

Once you inoculate every log with the mushroom spawn, you want to make sure you label the logs correctly with details such as type of wood, type of mushroom, date of cutting/date of inoculation, etc...
Shitake is suggested for beginning mushroom growers because it is one of the most forgiving growers. It is also noted for its health-boosting properties - it is a friend to your immune system. Shitake reverses T-cell suppression caused by tumors, making it a valuable anti-cancer food. Shitake's spores and mycelia are antiviral, inhibiting cell-division of viruses. Albert Bates informed us that one shitkae mushroom, eaten with a tablespoon of butter, actually reduces serum cholesterol. In Japan, it is used to regulate high and low blood pressure, and improves stomach ulcers, constipation, and heorroids as an anti-inflammatory. Shiitake also diminishes fatigue, generates stamina and improves the complexion.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Got Green?

Spinach, cilantro, and chives make for a savory delicious green smoothie. Today I also tried baby beet greens in a green smoothie and they were full of a mild spinach-like flavor! Nothing like what you get in a supermarket.

The Boutenko family embarked on an entirely raw foods diet in 1994 because they were seriously ill. Victoria had arrhythmia and edema, depression, and was obese. Igor suffered from painful rheumatoid arthritis and had severe hyperthyroid. Sergei was diagnosed with juvenile diabetes and was supposed to go on insulin. Valya had asthma. After switching to raw foods, all of their health concerns were healed. The Boutenko's Raw Family website offers free articles, recipes, and viewpoints on the ins and outs of eating more raw foods.

One defining characteristic of a living (and sustainable) system is its ability to repair itself, or regenerate itself. The Boutenko family has observed that the extraordinary ability of all living organisms to repair themselves is the only power that can heal any illness. All healing methods and techniques developed by people are successful and sustainable only if they reinforce the body’s own natural ability to regulate itself. A human body can heal a disease only when all bodily substances and systems are maintained within particular optimal functioning. Homeostasis is arguably the most important process in the body because it is what keeps all systems and substances in the body at balanced and functioning levels. If we are increasing our body's ability to maintain homeostasis, we are taking the best possible care of our health.
In order for the process of homeostasis to occur, our bodies need supplies of all nutrients, including vitamins, amino acids, carbohydrates, essential fatty acids, minerals and all trace elements. Greens match all of these purposes better than any other food! Particularly when blended, the nutrients in greens are absorbed more efficiently and provide many times more nutrients than other foods and even regular salads. By drinking green smoothies we support our homeostatic balance in the most optimal way! In my own experiments, I have found green smoothies a great and SIMPLE pleasure to make.

In the fall of my senior year, after staying up late studying for an exam, I woke up and made a big batch of fresh green smoothie for my roommates and I, with nothing but handfuls of leafy greens and some fruit (such as banana and apple, maybe lemon juice). While walking to take the test, my stomach fell when I realized that I had to go buy a test booklet before class, which started in just a few minutes. I RAN to the Ferguson center Supe store to purchase a test booklet, and immediately felt as though a switch turned on: my body had immediate access to boundless energy from the raw foods I had consumed for breakfast! It was a surprise to feel the abundant energy flowing through my body after consuming such a simple meal. Many people usually feel tired or overburdened physically after eating a meal, and I learned that eating green smoothies increased my energy both immediately and over long-term, instead of depleting my energy in difficult digestion. I also saw a significant reduction in acne and skin problems after incorporating green smoothies into my diet!

As soon as you feel the benefits of green drinks, you will want to drink them every day! A local community organic garden can save you a lot of money on greens and provide therapeutic recreation simultaneously. I have never opened a bag of spinach from the supermarket that even came close to competing with the vibrant, chlorophyll-rich, sweet spinach that I pick in our garden. You can taste the gratitude in anything that comes out of this community garden!

made with local organic greens from the community garden at the UA Arboretum.

couple handfuls of spinach
handful of cilantro
a few chive leaves
1 banana
1 apple
optional fresh squeezed lemon juice
plenty of water

Future Farmers of Alabama

Last week, over 250 third grade students explored the Community Organic Garden at the arboretum that UA New College students are coordinating as part of an independent study this semester. Austin Creel, New College student and employee of the arboretum, organizes community events at the arboretum and activities for children.

Camille Perrett and I guide this class through the gardens, and demonstrate how to tell the time with your shadow, by standing in the correction orientation to the sunstones, depending on the month of the year.
Watch out! Not only birds like to live in the treehouses, but wasps take a visit in there occasionally. The kids are inspired to make bird houses and bird feeders at their own homes. One little girl pulls my sleeve and exclaims "I wish I lived with you! Then I could come out here every day!" I tell her that the arbroetum is open every day and that if she asks her parents, she probably can come visit again soon.
In the photo above, Aleisha and Blanca smell the flowers on the way to the vegetable garden.
Below, Camille Perrett demonstrates to 3rd graders how to install a tomato cage around young tomatoes. The kids got to see the bee hives where honey is produced, and the strawberry beds that are already producing sweet red berries. Even if the kids do not grow up to be farmers themselves, at least they realize that it is possible to have a very close relationship with your food and how it is grown.

Garden Update

As the semester comes to a close and I begin to take stock of what I have learned and of all the work that we've put into the garden, I realize that the work has only begun! Spring is finally upon us and the tenuous period of nurturing seedlings in the greenhouse through a ridiculously wet winter is over. Now we have begun to harvest some exceptionally spicy radishes ad the odd, succulent strawberry or two; and this is only a hint of the bountiful summer to come.

Along with our soil amendments of potash, green sand, micro-nutrients and others that we ordered through the mail, we also received some coconut fiber hanging baskets. We plan to hang these on the fence surrounding the garden and fill them with a panoply of flowers both beautiful and functional, such as marigolds, which have a certain insect repellent quality about them.

Although we have managed to give some of our tomato plants to students hoping to grow their own at home, we will still have an overabundance of tomatoes this summer. So in order to maximize space, we utilized some local bamboo that was going to be discarded to the local landfill to build some ladders and trellises for added strength and support for the tomatoes, whose productivity is maximized with a high amount of vertical growth.

(Here is a close-up of a freshly planted glacier tomato seedling next to one of our bamboo trellises, which have been left open to later modification to suit each tomato's growing needs.)

Last week, we continued the expansion of the second half of the vegetable garden with a double-digging picnic/garden party. All the help was deeply appreciated and highly productive; as the saying goes: "many hands make light work." These photos show independent studier Nicole Ortega preparing a freshly dug bed for the planting of okra, jalapeno pepper and sweet bell pepper seedlings, and the placement of the plants on rows in the bed to maximize water retention. The okra were all placed on the lower row to prevent later shading out of the pepper plants.

(Some of the remaining members of our tomato seedling forest, in need of a hearty meal. These plants were treating with a healthy dose of worm compost tea before being planted or given to students at Earthapalooza.)