It’s no secret that gardening is good for the body and spirit. Gardeners have known the peace and calm that comes from tending their plants for centuries – I certainly feel it when I’m watering, weeding, harvesting or just being in the garden, feeling a part of that life growing in the plants around me and in the soil beneath me. Modern medical science agrees that the mental health benefits of gardening are real. Herbalists take the medicine of the garden one step further, exploring the healing effects of plant extracts and supplements on the body. Anyone who has sipped mint tea to calm a queasy stomach or rubbed aloe vera on a sunburn knows that plants can help heal our bodies. So, it’s not a surprise that herbs can also help heal the mind.
The question is, how to figure out which herbs may be beneficial for improving mood and well-being. If you are interested in exploring the topic, I think that Janet Kent’s book Ease Your Mind: Herbs for Mental Health (Medicine County Herbs, 2014) is a good place to start. This easy-to-use guide is a basic pathway to better health and mental health! It includes instructions on how to make herbal solutions, including suggested dosages, herbal combinations, contraindications, a glossary and index. These make it especially useful for those just learning herbal practices as a more holistic and proactive approach to a better life.
Topics included are:
A fascinating practical reference! Available for $5 from http://www.medicinecountyherbs.com/ease-your-mind-zine.html
Also, check out Medicine County Herbs’ blog Radical Vitalism at, https://radicalvitalism.wordpress.com/
Please note: The content in this post is meant to inform, not to diagnose or treat any ailment. Always use common sense and consult with your healthcare provider before attempting to treat yourself or others.
Everyone seemed to enjoy the Lost Crops of Africa so much, I thought I’d mention another treasure from the National Research Council: Lost Crops of the Incas (published in 1989). This book is an excellent resource for anyone interested in ethnobotany and heirloom varieties, whether for research, study or growing purposes, but especially for farmers and gardeners in Latin-, Central- and Caribbean-America region!
Like Lost Crops of Africa, the purpose of Lost Crops of the Incas is to remind us of the existence of little-known (at least in the “developed” nations) crops native to Latin-, Central-, and Caribbean-America and to outline their potential for expanding and diversifying food supplies in those regions and around the world. The materials are interesting and well organized. Each crop mentioned is illustrated with photos and drawings, plus growing, harvesting and handling information, as well as an index. There are also “boxes” containing additional material about individual crops, which make it easy to browse for information. The crops covered include:
Roots and Tubers:
Nunas (popping beans)
Squashes and their relatives
Goldenberry (Cape Gooseberry)
Pacay (ice-cream Beans – yes, it’s a thing and now don’t you want to grow some?)
Tamarillo (tree tomato)
In addition to the crop information, there are selected readings, information on centers of Andean crop research, and research contacts. Altogether, this is an enjoyable and useful source of information on native food varieties for everyone, and like it’s sister publication, IT’S FREE!!
To view and download this publication for through the National Academies Press, go to
This 3-book series Lost Crops of Africa (Volumes I, II and III on Grains, Vegetables, and Fruits, published in 1996, 2006 and 2008, respectively) is a treasure for us all, but especially for the African continent, with the hope it presents of growing food security for its 1 billion people!
Compiled and published by the National Research Council, the purpose of these books is to highlight the magnificent assortment of native African crop varieties, and their potential for expanding and diversifying African and world food supplies. The material presented is extremely interesting and well organized. Each crop mentioned is illustrated with photos and drawings, a map showing its natural growing areas, a chart of nutritional content, prospects for its use, and growing, harvesting and handling information and additional information about individual crops. Great books for anyone interested, whether for research, study, enjoyment, or growing purposes.
Grains covered: rice, millet, fonio (acha) pearl millet, sorghum, and teff, including sub-varieties for subsistence use, commercial use, fuel and utility use, as well as other cultivated grains and wild grains.
Vegetables covered: amaranth, bambara bean, baobab, celosia, cowpea, dika, eggplant, egusi and related plants, enset, lablab, locust bean, long bean, marama, moringa, native potatoes, okra, shea and yambean.
Cultivated Fruits covered: balanites, baobab, butterfruit, carissa, horned melon, kei apple, marula, melon, tamarind, and watermelon.
Wild Fruits covered: chocolate berries (tell me that alone doesn’t make you want to read more!) custard apples, ebony, gingerbread plums, gumvines, icacina, imbe, medlars, monkey oranges, star apples, sugarplums, sweet detar and tree grapes.
Topics include summaries of the qualities of individual species, potential roles for selected African vegetables, overcoming malnutrition, boosting food security, fostering rural development, sustainable land care, increasing wild fruit usage, developing wild fruits, nutrition, sustainable forestry, and social difficulties.
I saved the best part for last: THESE BOOKS ARE FREE!! Yes, the print edition costs US$65 per volume, but you can view and download the free PDF versions through the National Academies Press here:
Volume 2: Vegetables https://www.nap.edu/catalog/11763/lost-crops-of-africa-volume-ii-vegetables
One of the most frustrating experiences you can have in the garden is to see a plant—or worse, and entire bed! —struggling with disease or pests.
Conscientious farmers want to bring health to their gardens, but the chemical remedies provided on the shelves of stores can have side effects that are worse than the problem! Through the years, I’ve read many volumes on alternative methods for treating and preventing plant diseases and insect problems, and Homeopathy for Plants —A Practical Guide for Indoor, Balcony and Garden Plants—With Tips on Dosage, Use and Choice of Potency By Christiane Maute (2nd Edition from Narayana Publishers, 2011) by stands out as one of The Good Ones™.
An amazing, “handy guide to the most common plant diseases, pests and damage with information on how to treat them homeopathically”, it includes treatments for “leaf spot on roses, tomato blight, fire blight on fruit trees, aphids, leaf corn, cancer, mildew, fruit rot and sooty mold, along with problems like slug infestation and weak growth.” Also covered are “Treatments for the consequences of frost and hail damage, exposure to excess damp, heat and sunlight, as well as “wounds’ inflicted when pruning or repotting” in easy to understand ways. Illustrations enable recognition of an “ailment at a glance” and make it easy to find the correct remedy. Dosages and treatments are described in detail. Clear “materia medica giving information on each remedy” is given.
This book is a real treasure for creating health for your garden, homeopathically! The formatting, level of detail, color photos and index make this very practical publication easy to use. Its clear, easy to follow instructions make it a good choice for amateur gardeners, but even seasoned farmers interested in what homeopathy can do for plants will find this a valuable addition to your bookshelf.
Skeptical about the effectiveness of homeopathy? The garden is the perfect place to try it out and see for yourself, but don’t just take my word for it:
Treating plants with homeopathy requires time and patience, but it is well worth it, as indicated by its effects: aphids literally fall from the leaves. After just a few hours there were only a few aphids remaining. —Demeter Rundbrief, April, 2011
If you’re plants are struggling, give Homeopathy for Plants a try – it is wonderful to do something new, and feel your proactive capacities validated!
Nora Waln was an unusual and adventurous woman.
A Philadelphia Quaker and best-selling writer and journalist in the 1930s–60s, she was the first to report on the spread of Nazism in the lead up to WWII, and wrote on Mongolia, communism in China, and the Korean War. In 1920s, she became the adopted daughter (literally a “daughter of affection”) in the upper-class Chinese farming family Lin, living with them for 12 years.
In 1933 Waln wrote a memoir about her experience in the Lin family—The House of Exile—which Pearl Buck called “Undoubtedly one of the most delightful books of personal experience that has yet been written about China. Its authenticity is beyond question.”
In addition to a wonderful depiction of daily life in China, Waln wrote about the Chinese approach to agriculture. Because of their extensive in-field experience and collective memory, Chinese farmers were venerated as living libraries! Their own knowledge and experience, combined with data gathered from earlier work on the same land, produced the best result. The Lin family homestead had been occupied for 30 generations—a total of 900 years! According to Waln, farming information and yield data from the previous 30 years’ work was always used in the planning of the next year’s crops to obtain the best results.
This book resonates with me personally, and with all of us at Ecology Action because feels like a validation of what we’re doing. Though well short of the Lin family’s 900 years, we have over four decades of experience which we use in planning each year’s crop of food and compost materials. Because we constantly take this experience into account, we have been able to obtain significant results while using small spaces, minimal resources and less time than standard farming approaches.
Our GROW BIOINTENSIVE Closed-Loop Mini-Farming practices are built on a foundation of historically recognized sustainable farming methods like those described in The House of Exile and are being used successfully in 152 countries around the world, in virtually all climates and soils where food is grown. We are continually learning from and building on our own experience, and that of our international partners, working towards discovering the best ways to build and maintain sustainable soil fertility everywhere our method is used.
After all, living soil is the most important resource in the world, but according to academic estimates, there may be as little as 26 years of farmable soil left on the Earth. Life as we know it depends on a soil that is a living sponge cake made from the perfect combination of carbon, nutrients, water, air, and microorganisms all functioning in a balanced way to support healthy plants. Many years ago, an article in Newsweek said that biologically intensive soil is the sacher torte of soils – meaning that is uniquely and importantly rich, layered, and fertile.
Gandhi said, “To forget the soil is to forget oneself.”
Anyone who knows me knows I love to quote what Voltaire observed in Candide, “The whole world is a Garden, and what a wonderful place it would be, if each one of us just to care of our part of the earth/Earth—our Garden.”
The Hindu spiritualist Sri Kaleshwar has the wholistic insightful perspective, “The earth is so beautiful, creation is so beautiful. When we look at the mountains or anything in nature, seeing all the many beautiful things, our heart is completely softened by the divine energy. When this happens, it is easy to attract the earth’s energy.
Whoever connects to the earth energy will automatically receive great happiness and peace. They can live on the earth with great joy. Even though they must face the biggest of problems, they receive the type of strength and courage needed to deal with them. Even though they have problems, without even noticing it they no longer care about their problems and the problems will decrease; this type of happiness will take good care of that.
This is the happiness that comes through the earth vibrations. The earth energy and the soul energy connect to each other. Then the earth energy automatically protects them, making the big happiness.”
Like Waln’s “living libraries” we can use the experience of those who worked the land before us and integrate it into our own work, our own relationship with the Earth. I encourage you to take up the accumulated knowledge of GROW BIOINTENSIVE and begin integrating it into your own 900-year plan! If each person who can practice closed-loop biologically-intensive farming and gardening does so – even starting with a single bed! – we can make all the difference in the world. We can be a part of growing “the big happiness.”
In this beautiful film produced by the talented Amy Melious, I have the honor of introducing four remarkable individuals making a difference in the world through their involvement in the Biointensive farming movement.
Meet Mary Zellachild from California, Samuel and Perris Nderitu from Kenya, and Juan Manuel Martinez Valdez from Mexico. See people of all ages making a difference throughout the world. Become inspired to get started yourself, growing food and working toward a promising future of good food for all.
For more information on Ecology Action’s work and partners, go to www.growbiointensive.org
Copyright 2015 Ecology Action, Willits, CA All rights reserved.
GROW BIOINTENSIVE® Sustainable Mini-Farming is a remarkable method for increasing yields, decreasing resource use, and building soil fertility at very low cost.
When used properly, it has the potential to change our world for the better. However, when putting this method into practice, it is important to be aware that GROW BIOINTENSIVE is a whole system, and that the components of the system must all be used together to be sustainable.
If you are using GROW BIOINTENSIVE, be aware that if you do not use all of the components of the system together, the method’s high yields can rapidly deplete the soil, and can potentially cause as much damage to your land as conventional farming practices.
If you use all of the components of the system together, the method can build up the soil rapidly while producing higher yields and conserving resources.
We are eager for people to put GROW BIOINTENSIVE into practice, but we want to make certain that each farmer is aware that their garden or mini-farm is only as sustainable as the techniques used by the farmer. For this reason, we have created the following “check-list” to help you keep track of your progress away from soil-depletion and ecosystem destruction, and towards true, abundant sustainability.
To be considered as a true GROW BIOINTENSIVE Sustainable Mini-Farm, the garden, mini-farm, or farm of an individual, project, program, or organization must be using a specific group of practices in a specific way. These practices are grouped in three levels of increasing involvement:
1. BASIC GROW BIOINTENSIVE MINI-FARMER
2. TRANSITIONAL GROW BIOINTENSIVE SUSTAINABLE MINI-FARMER
3. FULL GROW BIOINTENSIVE SUSTAINABLE MINI-FARMER
To see what level of sustainability your farm or garden has achieved, please read the following lists, and check off the practices which apply to your garden, mini-farm or farm at this time. Click here to download the complete checklist.
I’ll be giving a talk, “Food for the Future: NOW” in Fort Bragg, California on Thursday, June 21st!
For FREE!! I’ll be discussing how sustainable, localized, small-scale agriculture can be productive, profitable, and can help solve some of our most serious environmental and social challenges – and how we can each participate in that solution. Location: 6:30-8:30 PM 490 North Harold Street. Come one, come all!
Barley (Hordeum vulgare) is a dynamic late autumn, winter and early spring grain crop that is somewhat higher in calories that other short-day crops.
Added to soups, it tastes great, and thickens the broth beautifully. It can also be used as a fodder crop for animals, as an ingredient in the making of beer, or as natural algae-killer in ponds!
Barley normally takes 90-days to mature rather than the 4 to 8 months for other short-day grains. This is an advantage, as it can be planted on time and go to maturity earlier, or be planted later, to work with your garden’s schedule. In both instances, it means the extra growing time per unit of area made available can be used to grow other crops for nutrition and for compost materials.
According to Cereal Crops by Warren H. Leonard and John H. Martin (Macmillan, 1963 – out of print, but still available used online or at the library) barley has an additional advantage compared with other grains: its capacity to be harvested two weeks early (!!) without changing the nutritive value of the grain. In this way, the 90-day growing period can be reduced to 75 days. In fact, might be reduced even more, to approximately 60 days, if you stop watering it a month earlier than you would with the 90-day harvesting point. The benefit of this characteristic is the possibility of clearing a growing bed early in the spring, so another crop – such as a summer grain – can be planted in time to allow for full maturation of the seed and the biomass accumulation of the summer crop in short-main-growing-season regions. In our 5-month growing season at the Willits mini-farm in northern California, this time-saver can make a key difference in creating a successful multi-season garden plan for compost and nutrition!
Consider using a bearded barley with its grain head spikes that tend to keep the birds away from feasting. Or, use beardless “naked” barley varieties such as like Faust, Shrene or Ethiopian for an easier-to-thresh experience (particularly if you’re using it for forage – barley awns are sharp and can irritate an animal’s mouth). Hayes malting barley is an easy to grow beardless variety for home brewers. Whatever you choose, barley is a beautiful and bountiful addition to your garden.
If you think you see a theme starting to develop here, you’re right. I’ll say it again with feeling: THERE IS A WEALTH OF HISTORICAL FARMING KNOWLEDGE AVAILABLE FOR MODERN SUSTAINABLE FARMERS TO USE!
My latest find, Ancient Agriculture — Roots and Application of Sustainable Farming By Gabriel Alonso De Herrera, Illustrated by Bryan Romero, Compiled by Juan Estevan Arellano (Ancient City Press, Salt Lake City 2006) is an excellent example of useful information from past farmers informing the present and creating a sustainable future.
This excellent publication from the “Father of Modern Spanish Agriculture” discusses functional methods for achieving optimal farming results, based on types and location of soils, using easy to understand considerations. The original, “Obra de Agricultura‘, was published by Gabriel Alonso de Herrera in 1513. This compilation by Juan Estevan Arellano is the first English translation of the book that carried traditional farming techniques from the Europe to the Americas. Revised several times based on increased experience, Ancient Agriculture provides “Old-world techniques for new-world gardeners and farmers who are striving for agricultural sustainability.”
Topics include everything from traditional Moorish farming techniques used in Spain and North Africa to water conservation and irrigation techniques including the use of acequias, sangras, and arroyos. Written over 500 years ago, the content is still fresh and vibrant, with key practical insights for today’s sustainable farmers and special significance for our increasingly arid world. Many of de Herrera’s practices were successfully integrated into Indo-Hispanic farming in the southwestern United States, where drought conditions call for water conservation – and they are still relevant today.
Climate change has made the “treasure trove of the past a seedbed for a whole new generation of farmers and gardeners striving for agricultural sustainability.” With an emphasis on working the land in harmony with nature and producing more food through soil improvement and water management, this book is a gem and worth a read!
Sweet Potatoes (Ipomoea batatas) are starchy root vegetables originating from Central or South America.
Not to be confused with starchier and drier yams (Dioscorea) from Africa and Asia, sweet potatoes have a long shelf life and are usually sweeter and moister than regular white potatoes (Solanum tuberosum). In addition to being delicious, they are a very important crop in diet planning, because of the number of calories they contain per pound, and for overall sustainable gardening and farming!
Globally, people get many calories through growing and eating both “Irish” potatoes and sweet potatoes as staple crops. Sweet potatoes are the most practical calorie producing root crop by weight (see HTGMV 9th ed., p. 40 for more details). Garlic is more weight-efficient, but one can generally eat only 2 to 3 cloves daily, while 5 pounds of sweet potatoes—an amount that can reasonably be consumed by an adult human—can provide all the required calories to sustain a person for a day. Of course, you will need to eat other crops to get the essential amino acids, vitamins and minerals you need, but if you start with sweet potatoes as the base of your food pyramid, you’ll be on solid ground. (Also, using other crops for the missing nutrients noted above will allow you to reduce the weight of sweet potatoes you need to eat. This is because those other crops also contain calories.)
Sweet potatoes come in many colors—white, yellow, red and even purple. Purple ones are an ancient superfood and turn a beautiful bright violet color when cooked! They are high in anthocyanins, the antioxidant compounds that have been linked with a reduced cancer risk. The Stokes Purple variety is available from friedas.com/stokes-purple-sweet-potato, and the Hawaiian Purple variety is available at hawaiiveggiefarm.com. Check out this Pinterest board on purple sweet potatoes! https://bit.ly/2IWc440
Most sweet potato varieties take 6-8 months to mature. This makes it difficult to grow in many temperate climates, unless you do it under a double-walled miniature greenhouse (see HTGMV 9th ed., pp. 205-212. A plus for 6- to 8-month maturing varieties is the fact that you can harvest up to 20% of the nutrient-rich leaves (known as talbos ng camote or kamote tops in Spanish-speaking countries) for eating in the second month without lessening the ultimate yield. Excitingly, Sand Hill Preservation Center in Iowa, carries 225 sweet potato varieties, (including Korean Purple), including eight certified organic sweet potato varieties that mature in only three months–and they come in many colors!
A good article on the Purple Sweet Potato can be found in the spring 2018 issue of Heirloom Gardener. Another key resource for short growing season growing is Sweet Potatoes for the Home Garden—with Special Techniques for Northern Growers, by Ken Allan (available only from Mapple Farm).
Humans aren’t the only ones who love these delicious tubers: amazingly, gophers know three days before the optimal harvesting point that it is time to eat! To eliminate or minimize this challenge, you can build underground protection with a gopher cage (see “New Gopher Cage” article and illustrative photos on pp. 2-3 in the May, 2007 Ecology Action Newsletter).
For a Biointensive garden, sweet potato starts and slips should be planted on 9-inch offset centers, 6 inches deep. For full sweet potato planning information see the Master Charts in HTGMV 9th ed., pp. 150-151.
Hungry? Get planting!
Living Fences for Fruit, Nuts, Building Materials, Bird and Beneficial Insect Habitat, Plus Animal Protection!
“Hedgerows” is an old English term that refers to narrow planting strips of trees or shrubs that grow along field borders, fence lines and waterways. These borders serve as effective windbreaks and improve conditions for the nearby crops, forming an “edge habitat” that supports ecological diversity. Hedges have been used around the world since the stone age, and hedgerows are first mentioned “officially” in Europe in the 12th century. Through time these living fences – some hundreds of years old! – became an integral part of many farming regions, until recently, when they became unpopular because they “waste” space in the field. However, in England, when the farmers removed hedgerows to have more land to grow crops on for higher production, not only did they lose a beautiful and bio-diverse part of their farm, their yields decreased immediately! Still, the damage was done, and by 1996, Britain had lost over 80K miles of hedges. Now, people are starting to look again at these sustainable, affordable, long-lasting fencing alternatives, and some are replanting hedgerows for wildlife and pollinators they shelter, and the benefits they provide to the crops.
I am intrigued by these living fences, and hope to begin building one in the next few years, using plants appropriate for my region. If you can find it, the book Hedgerow by Eric Thomas and John T. White was published by Morrow in wonderful full color throughout 1980s and is an excellent and very inspirational book. It shows hedgerows through all four seasons. Just think of it: a luxuriant fence producing berries, filbert nuts, food and habitat for birds, a home for predatory insects and pollinators and a means for repelling deer—all at the same time. What’s more, the materials for tools (such as wooden bow rakes among many others) can be grown as part of the living fences. It is fascinating that the bow rake needs a different kind of wood for its handle, crosspiece and tines – and that the materials for all these parts can be part of your fence!
The book is out of print, but you can usually find used copies at Amazon and Powell’s or your favorite online book-seller at a reasonable price. Otherwise, you can arrange to use it through the Interlibrary Loan program at the local library. Enjoy!