With summer drawing to a close, it’s time to start thinking about your winter garden, and that means cover crops! Here are some things to consider when planting your cover crops this year:
Normally, a gardener or farmer planning a crop rotation (over time) would start in the late autumn/winter/early spring season by planting a nitrogen-fixing legume, such as a cold-hardy fava (perhaps using the Banner* variety, which can fix up to 0.22 pounds of nitrogen and can withstand temperatures down to 10˚F) or the even hardier Woolly Pod Vetch*, which fixes up to 0.63 pounds of nitrogen/100 sq. ft. and can withstand temperatures to 0˚F., or the truly cold-loving Hairy Vetch*, which can withstand temperatures down to -25˚F. Then, in the following late spring/summer/early autumn, the farmer would plant a summer grain crop to take advantage of the nitrogen stored in the soil by the legumes the previous season.
A challenge with this rotation scheme is that the amount of nitrogen fixed is estimated based on harvesting the legumes before they produce a significant amount of seed. Once the crop flowers and begins to set its seed, the nitrogen fixed in the soil is picked up by the plant to be used for seed production, and this means that the nitrogen is used up by the time one approaches the next winter season.
An alternative to this sequential rotation of legumes and grains in place is to interplant the legumes with grain. In the late autumn/ winter/early spring season, interplant with winter/spring grains (such as Wheat, Hull-less Barley, Hull-less Oats, Cereal Rye, and Triticale); in the late spring/summer/early autumn season, interplant with summer grains (such as Flour/Tortilla Corn, Sorghum, Pearl Millet, 45-Day Japanese Millet, Grain Amaranth and Quinoa).
For example, to use this inter-planting approach in the late autumn/winter/early spring season, you can prepare, fertilize and apply compost to the growing area and soak 5.5 ounces of vetch seed/100 sq. ft. in room temperature water overnight to encourage better germination. The next day, drain the vetch seeds and mix them with a small amount of dry soil; this will allow the seed to be broadcast more easily. Scatter the vetch seeds evenly over the bed, and using a bow rake, very gently chop the seed shallowly into the soil. Then, using a transplanting board, transplant the winter/spring grain onto 5″ offset centers. When the vetch reaches 50% flower (it looks like full flower)—and before it begins to make a significant amount of seed—carefully remove it from the growing area, cutting the plants at ground level and leaving the roots, with their nitrogen-rich nodules, in place. Then, let the grain continue growing to maturity.
To use the inter-planting method for summer crops, prepare, fertilize and apply compost to the growing area and soak, prepare, broadcast and incorporate 5.5 ounces of vetch seed into 100 sq. ft. of growing bed, as described above in winter crop method. Then, using a transplanting board, plant summer grains such as flour/tortilla corn, amaranth or quinoa on 12″ offset centers in late spring/summer/early autumn. Then, (exactly as described previously in the winter crop method) when the vetch reaches 50% flower, but has not produced seeds, cut the plants at ground level, leaving the nitrogen-producing roots, and allow the grain to continue growing to maturity. For other summer grains such as sorghum, pearl millet and 45-day Japanese millet, which must all be transplanted on 7″ offset centers, follow the same method, but instead of planting the grain on 12” centers, plant the grain seedlings on 7” centers and proceed as above.
The reason for using vetch in the inter-planting examples above is that vetch produces are smaller plants than fava beans and makes more efficient use of the space when sharing a bed with grains. While favas could be used in an inter-planting design, because they are large plants and require wider spacing, when interplanted, they would fix much less nitrogen (1/7th the amount as compared to the amount they fix when planted by themselves) as compared with smaller legumes.
Note: For the best plant health and yield results, there needs to be about 0.5 lbs. of nitrogen in your soil/100 sq.ft. As you can see from the above inter-planted examples, approximately 0.25 pounds, and sometimes more, can come from the inter-planted legumes. Up to 0.25 pounds of additional nitrogen may be added by applying 2 cubic feet of cured GROW BIOINTENSIVE compost (including ~50% soil) per 100 sq ft. of growing bed.
If you’re interested in learning more about cover crops, nitrogen fixation and crop rotations, the USDA Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education Program (SARE) has an excellent free publication Managing Cover Crops Profitably which you can download from https://www.sare.org/Learning-Center/Books/Managing-Cover-Crops-Profitably-3rd-Edition
A little bit of effort with cover crops now can mean better yields and richer soil in the spring!
John Keats famously called Autumn the “Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness” and I couldn’t agree with him more. Just when the summer seems like it will last forever, the turn of the seasons begins to make itself known in a subtle change of light, the delicious tang of dew on the air early in the morning (this year, at Ecology Action, mixed with the far less pleasant tang of wildfire smoke from the gigantic Mendocino Fire complex), a slight cooling breeze at night, and of course the main event: Harvest Time!! After a whole season of patient waiting, tending, sampling less-than-ripe fruit and vegetables “just to see if it’s ready yet” we have the gardener’s reward: the simultaneous ripening of EVERYTHING! RIGHT! NOW! And so, the race begins to put up the harvest, storing the treasure trove of jewel-colored fruits and vegetables and pungent herbs to enjoy through the winter.
One of my personal favorites for preserving is the D’Agen French Prune Plum, harvested at peak of maturity, split in half, seed removed and then dried. Already a sweet and delicious snack or dessert, once dried it’s even more exquisite. According to Trees of Antiquity these plums were traditionally “…dried and kept over a long period of time when refrigerators did not exist and winter meant months with few fruits or vegetables. Prunes were almost as precious as salt and were used to bargain wages during the 15th century. The French Prune was introduced to the states by Pierre and Louis Pellier, brothers who went to California for the Gold Rush, and started a nursery business near San Jose in 1856 with plum cuttings they brought from France. Today they are sought by connoisseurs around the world. The French prune has a very sweet, rich flavor with tender, fine-textured flesh. Medium-sized prune plum of red to violet purple skin over amber flesh. Delicious for eating fresh, baking, chutneys, and drying. Long-lived and self-fertile.” Ours are almost ready, and I’m looking forward to enjoying them now, and when the winter winds are howling.
Everyone has their go-to recipes for storing food. Many that I like appear in one of my favorite books: Keeping the Harvest: Discover the Homegrown Goodness of Putting Up Your Own Fruits, Vegetables & Herbs (2002, Storey Books) by Nancy Chioffi and Gretchen Mead.
If you’re looking for new or different ways to preserve the harvest, I highly recommend you try this excellent guide. “…for fresh-off-the-vine flavor and a full payload of vitamins, you can’t beat the fruits, vegetables, and herbs preserved from your own garden…complete, easy-to-follow, step-by-step instructions …completely updated so you can take advantage of the latest techniques and most up-to-date equipment…”
But don’t take my word for it:
“There seems in fact to be no aspect of home preservation they have not sensibly considered” – Horticulture
“One of the most up-to-date, helpful books on home food preservation to be published… excellent for the beginner as well as the more experienced food preserver.” – Seattle Post-Intelligencer
Some of the clever tricks it details is the use of salt and vinegar to preserve vivid colors of canned fruits, and “…important technical details—for example, how much headroom is required when freezing fruits and vegetables, or how to keep liquid from boiling out of the jars…” Interesting recipes include jams and jellies, pickles and relishes, and condiments like homemade ketchup and chili sauce, as well as instructions for canning, freezing, drying, curing and cold storage.
Be sure to read the chapter titled Planning Ahead which provides a wealth of information, including a guide for the optimal time to pick produce, how to set up the most efficient “flow” in your preserving process, and how to keep an inventory to avoid waste. And check out Our Favorite Methods for Preserving Fruits and Vegetables on p. 11 for special insights.
Keeping the Harvest provides a pathway through harvest season using proven methods, so you can enjoy your abundant produce all year long! Exciting!
A Law School Exam Without Any Rules from The Paper Chase Television Series
The “Scavenger Hunt” episode (4/24/1079) from Season One of The Paper Chase television series (produced by 20th Century Fox) is an extraordinary experience among many exceptional episodes.
This segment describes what occurs when law professor Charles W. Kingsfield, Jr. assigns an exam without any rules for its students. The result is of this 100-question exercise has the rest of the law faculty and the administration in opposition to the approach, as it is so cutthroat, and they cannot understand why Kingsfield “structured” it this way.
To pass a student must correctly answer all the questions.
You will be fascinated, and confused too, as the activities commence. The why eventually becomes clear. It may surprise you. Whatever your reaction, the “Scavenger Hunt” has great insight about people everywhere, providing an excellent contribution to understanding an essential element in creating better communities, countries and a positively functioning world.
For a blast from the past (and a glimpse of some of the underlying factors influencing our world today) you can watch The Paper Chase, Episode 22 on YouTube, below, or you can buy the whole series on DVD from Shout! Factory
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.