Homestead Reflections

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Homestead Reflections

I originally wrote these articles for the NOFA/Mass (Northeast Organic Farming Association Mass Chapter) newsletter more can be found at the website:  https://www.nofamass.org/search/node/homestead%20reflections

 

Homestead Reflections March 2019 My Homestead Journey- part 1

This article comes from the NOFA/Massachusetts 2019 March Issue Newsletter

By Sharon Gensler

On this sunny but bitterly cold February morning, I thought I’d write about my journey as a homesteader.  Since placing our NOFA classified ad seeking to transition the care of Wild Browse Farm to new stewards, I find myself thinking and talking a lot about our history because folks keep asking about how I came to be a homesteader here in Wendell.

I grew up on a small family farm in upstate NY and couldn’t wait to go to college and get away from the country.  After graduate school, my jobs in University Administration first took me to NYC and then Ann Arbor, MI.  Both destinations were a far cry from the long hours of weeding row-crops, mucking stalls, haying, carrying water, and other ‘’odious chores’’.

After 6 years of advanced study and 6 more years of professional work, I realized that something was lacking in my life.   Missing the joy of riding my horse, the taste of homegrown fruits & veggies, feeling the soil between my fingers & toes, listening to birdsong, and feeling the sunshine on my back (yes even while weeding) led me to re-evaluate my life choices.  Guess you can take the girl out of the country but not the country out of the woman!

wild browse farmThe late 1960’s and early 70’s were a time of national questioning and upheaval.  The anti-war, civil rights, and feminist movements all impacted not only the country, but my personal life as well.  I’d become very active in protesting our government’s ill-conceived policies i.e. Viet Nam, segregation, voter rights, treatment of women, and other social justice issues.  I was involved in large protest marches, draft counseling, feminism, radical lesbianism, women’s consciousness-raising groups and working within the university system to change how minority students were treated.

At some point, the frustration of my taking on all these entrenched systems became overwhelming.  I began to realize that the only thing I could really change was me.  So, in 1976 I “dropped-out” of the proverbial “rat race” and began my search for a place and way to send down roots and put energy into changing “the system” from the ground up!  I thought by becoming self-sufficient  “living simply so others can simply live”, I would at least not be adding to the problem but become part of the solution.  This became my way of life long before I ever heard of the voluntary-simplicity movement.

I realized that this goal was different from my parents’ and grandparents’ way of farming.  I gravitated to the Pioneer Valley and began working on building the skills I would need to live a simpler life.  I read copiously, talked with others, took workshops when available and worked on Valley farms.  Some of the major influences at the start of this journey:  Helen & Scott Nearing, French Intensive growing, Ruth Stout, Alan Chadwick, Organic Gardening magazine (back when it was great), Women in Agriculture, Permaculture, Findhorn, Sir Albert Howard, and eventually NOFA/Mass.  I availed myself of various training programs like Women in Construction where I was trained to be an electrician and was also exposed to other construction skills.

I also worked at The New England Small Farm Institute (NESFI) when it first obtained land in Belchertown.  Among other things, we built and operated a solar greenhouse and rescued an old orchard from poison ivy and sumac.

During this time I was also part of a land group.  We met for many months trying to figure out how we could live together in community in the country.  Too many differing, often clashing, ideas led to the disbanding of the group.  At this point one of the members bought 140 very wooded acres in Wendell, MA and offered me the opportunity to obtain some of this land.  This was a huge blessing.  My partner at the time, GK, and I had been about to buy a house and 1/2 acre in Hatfield, entailing a mortgage and unknown to me, exposure to huge amounts of agricultural toxins.

woods clearedSo, in 1980, the homestead dream-seed was planted on these wooded, hilly, rocky acres.  I walked through the land, sat on a huge rock and watched the site-plan for my homestead appear full-blown, in my mind’s eye.  It was several years before I actually lived here at Wild Browse Farm, but that spring, I started the hard work of site preparation.   What an exciting time!

Amazingly, in the fall of 1979, I had the good fortune to spend a week walking the new NESFI land with Permaculture co- founder Bill Mollison.  I was a sponge, absorbing his insights and views on “seeing” the land and its potential in a very non-traditional way.   At this same time I was avidly reading the organic “greats” mentioned above.

So, it was with permaculture eyes, an organic heart, a Nearing work ethic and a Findhorn spirit that I began planning and working with this land, to co-create Wild Browse Farm.  With my long-term thinking cap on, we began cutting trees to clear for the orchard and garden first, then planted 3 apple, 1 pear, 2 peach, 2 plum and 3 chestnut trees.  There really wasn’t any real soil to start with, so we used permaculture soil-building techniques.  After planning the location of the permanent beds, the first section of the garden was layered with wood chips and manure, right over the old hard and softwood stumps and a thin layer of forest duff and subsoil.  Unconventional as that was at the time, I now know the additional benefits we received from this practice. As the buried tree roots slowly decayed, they became organic matter, food for the soil microbes, as well as water and air pathways deep into the subsoil. The forest mycorrhizal fungi were already in place, waiting to assist in the soil building process.

Well, that is Chapter One in my homestead journey.  Next month I’ll continue with more of this story. But right now, I need to finish this year’s garden planning, so that I can finally get my seed order into the mail.   Hope you’re getting as excited about the 2019 growing season as I am.

Homestead Reflections January 2019

This article comes from the NOFA/Massachusetts 2019 January Issue Newsletter

By Sharon Gensler

Heart Bowl

First of all, I want to thank all of you who have been so supportive during my recent health challenge; thanks for the good energy, thoughts, prayers, meals, cards and concern.  I’ve heard from other NOFA staff that some of you have been asking about my status, so here’s a brief rundown.

I had a very successful mitral valve repair performed through open-heart surgery on December 4th.  Because they were dealing with a genetic abnormality that caused the prolapse and there were no other problems with my veins/arteries, it went really well.  Then I spent 4 ½ days in hospital and have been home for a week and a half.  I’m slowly and steadily making progress building up stamina by walking and doing gentle exercises.  Not being able to lift over 7-10 pounds has been a challenge.  Pru has been an amazing “nurse” as well as being “Homesteader Extraordinaire” by doing EVERYTHING while I sit back and watch (not an easy thing for me to do).  I also want to thank my amazing Wendell community who has pitched in to help with meals, Sharon-sitting and encouragement.

I can’t drive or do much for 6 weeks, and then it will be a gradual build up of my strength and abilities, with the prognosis that I’ll be better than I was before surgery.  But for now I can’t stay focused for long, so I will end here with a wish for all of you to be healthy and enjoy this new year, as it unfolds.  Since I’m not really up to doing much, I’ll share a “re-run” of last January’s article, which still seems relevant. I hope it feels relevant to you.

Homestead Reflections January 2018

Seeds

It’s that time of year when the days are beginning to lengthen and the seed catalogues have started to arrive.  I’m still glad it is winter and I am hoping for more nice deep snow to keep my garden soil protected from the harsh winter temperatures and to inspire me to indulge in more cross-country skiing.  However, when not availing myself of an opportunity for a great aerobic workout, I’m happy to do my indoor gardening!  Time to dream and plan, while curled up next to the wood stove, with a cup of tea and the seed catalogues.

I tend to stick with my old standbys, the vegetable varieties that we like, both for their taste and for their reliability; those that have proven themselves over the years and grow well under our particular conditions.  First, I go through my box of seeds to inventory what I have on hand and what I need to buy new, this year.  Some seeds can be viably held over from previous years (carrots, brassicas, beans, peas, corn…) and others need to be obtained new each year (squashes, onions, parsnips…).  Just keep I mind that held over seeds probably have a lower germination rate than what is stated on the packet.  For these I usually do a germination test to check seed viability.  Soak 10 seeds for a couple of hours, drain and place between sheets of damp paper towels, keep damp and monitor until seeds sprout.  Count the number sprouted and you will get the percent rate of germination (5 sprouts equals 50% rate).  This will help me decide whether to buy new or to just plant the seed at an increased rate.  I also do this test with seeds, which I’ve saved from our Wild Browse Farm crops. Just as a precaution to make sure I didn’t screw up!

After taking care of my old standbys (the must-plant veggies), I then scan the catalogues for something new that might strike my fancy.  A new variety or a totally new veggie or one I haven’t grown in years.  It’s fun to look at the pictures, read about the improvements and then just dream.  It always brings a ray of summer into the short days of winter cold!

Remember to hang on to those catalogues, as they are a wealth of information that will help with your planning and also with your planting.  Useful information concerning:  planting & germination dates and temperatures, cultural requirements, days to maturity, disease and pest issues, seed saving tips and much more.

Seeds are so inspiring.  A tiny bit of life-force packaged in a hard shell just waiting for the perfect conditions so it can burst forth and strive to survive.  Our job, as gardeners, is to help each one do more than survive but to thrive and to reach it’s full potential; a delicious & nutritious vegetable, chock full of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, flavonoids and other necessary phytochemicals.

I think it was John Kempf, at one of the NOFA Soil & Nutrition conferences, who compared the growth of a plant to that of a human being.  He explained how stress at any stage of development could lead to the person/plant not reaching their full potential.  And that it is important to nurture growth along the continuum, from seed preparation to planting, transplanting, growth, maturation and harvest.  If a seed/plant is crowded or fails to get proper nourishment it will be stunted and then it is difficult, if not impossible, for the plant to become all that it could be.

We must pay attention to the needs of the plant at each stage of development. Each variety has a growth spurt, not unlike a teenager, which necessitates additional nourishment, either from the soil or from an auxiliary feeding by the gardener; a soil drench, compost side dressing, or a foliar spray.  I’ve learned that I can be most involved/helpful in this co-creation process by preparing and nurturing a healthy vibrant soil, paying attention & monitoring the plants and helping them as needed.

January is also a good time to think about your soil’s health and how to improve it.  I am appreciative of the NOFA/Mass Bulk Order, where I am able to obtain hard to find soil amendments and other products. I use this opportunity to purchase all of my cover crop seed and as you must know by now, my mantra is “cover crop, cover crop, cover crop”!

For beginner cover croppers I recommend my favorite three:  oats, field peas and buckwheat, as they not only improve soil health, are easy to work with and will also be killed back by winter temperatures, thus saving you work and providing on-site mulch.  But more on the cover crop topic in future articles.  For now though, it’s time to obtain those seeds and it is as important to get organic seeds for these crops as it is for your veggies.  Most farm supply stores do not carry organic cover crop seeds, so read your catalogues, order them with your other seeds or save on the shipping costs and buy through the NOFA bulk order.

Another seed to plant now is the larger one; conceptualizing and determining the shape and texture of my 2019 garden.  I make my garden plan by putting on paper my ideas about next summer’s garden.  By looking back at previous plans I can get a good sense of how to rotate my plantings, to help decrease potential disease and pest problems.  It is also helps determine how much of each bed needs to be allocated to each veggie in order to give us both fresh food and what’s needed for off season storage.  I also like to pencil in where cover crops will be planted, either as long or short-term crops before, during or after the main vegetable season.

It’s also a good time of year to plant the seeds of joy for future personal, family, community and gardening inspiration in my mind and heart.  I’ve never really gotten into New Year’s Resolutions, but I do enjoy thinking and planning ahead.  Thinking of these ideas as seeds helps me make them happen.  Seeds of positivity, community service, inclusion, activism, love over hate, travel, fun, sharing, health and well being for all…..

Plant the seeds, water them with inspiration and resolve, nourish them with attention and love, and harvest the joy of your accomplishments.

Happy new gardening cycle to all of us and may we truly enjoy the fruits of our labor!

Homestead Reflections: Early Season Cover Crops

The following articles are a sequence of how-to work with cover crops in a garden setting.  Hope it helps/inspires you to try your hand at using cover crops.

This article comes from the NOFA/Massachusetts 2018 March Issue Newsletter

By Sharon Gensler, Soil Carbon Outreach Coordinator

Green Cover Crops

Although it is only mid-February as I write this, spring is in the air. I am still hoping for more snow, as I like having the garden tucked in with a nice blanket of snow atop the mulch-covered beds. But alas, the snow is melting fast. Not only does snow replenish soil moisture, but also, its insulating quality helps protect the soil and soil life from a deep freeze.

I’ve been giving more talks on the topic of Cover Crops/No-Till For The Home Garden: Small Scale Practices for Soil improvement and Carbon Sequestration around the state.  There is a lot of interest in this topic because it is such a win-win for us and for the planet! Healthier soil equals healthier plants, equals healthier food, equals healthier eaters, all while taking excess carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and storing it deep within the soil.

Healthy soil is co-created, with our help, by an amazingly beautiful, symbiotic relationship between plants and soil microbes. There are billions of these creatures (bacteria, fungi, nematodes, protozoa, arthropods and others) in every teaspoon of healthy soil. Through photosynthesis, plants transform sunlight into carbon dioxide, water and glucose, some of which is used for their growth. However, over 60% of these sugars get “dumped” into the soil, becoming food for microbes, that in turn scavenge minerals, trace elements and other substances, making them bioavailable on demand to the plant. The microbes and plants have evolved this complex, mutually beneficial relationship over the eons. This process is also the basis for creating new topsoil and for storing sequestered carbon.  Maximizing photosynthesis by keeping the soil covered with growing plants is key to creating a vibrant soil and to carbon sequestration.

This is a very simplified explanation of soil biology. However, you can immerse yourself in fascinating readings and videos on this topic on the NOFA/Mass website at www.nofamass.org/carbon.

I will be discussing soil biology in greater depth over the coming months. Folks have asked me for more specifics of how they can use these techniques. So, even though I have written about cover crops (cc) in this column many times over the years, I’ve decided to write more specifically about how we use them here at Wild Browse Farm. Each month I will describe in more detail what, why, and how I’ll be implementing these healthy soil techniques.

Let’s start with a reminder about the benefits of cover crops. Primarily you are keeping your soil covered with LIVING GREEN PLANTS as much as possible, and in this way you are increasing the amount of photosynthesis generated on the planet. The use of cc’s is a long-term soil improvement technique rather than an instant fertilizer because, in addition to sequestering carbon and feeding microbes, as plants mature and dieback (or are cut back) their nutrients and their biomass are returned to the soil. Cover crops improve soil structure, suppress weeds, control erosion, increase water retention, create biomass, and help with pest and disease control.

So, it’s March and a bit early to work the soil, but not too early to plan for April. As part of ordering my vegetable and cover crop seeds back in January, I planned how much of each vegetable would be needed for the year and how much garden space would accomplish this.

Over the years, as our soil has become healthier and more productive, and with each plant having a higher yield, I have been able to cut back on the amount of space I really need for planting vegetables. Thus I have “extra” space available to use for cc’s, either for whole or for part of the growing season. For example, if I know that I can spare a whole growing bed for the entire season, I can plant it entirely in a cover crop. Or, because I know where my heat-loving veggies (tomato, pepper, eggplant, squash, beans, etc) will be planted, I can plant an early cc in their designated beds until the soil warms and that space is needed for mid-season crops.

Another way to use cc’s is to plant them later in the season, after removing the primary vegetable. An example of this is to plant cc’s after removing spring greens or again a little later, after garlic. Additionally, cc’s can be planted beneath taller vegetable plants or used to cover spots of any bare soil throughout the garden.

I want to encourage you to incorporate the use of this beneficial technique; thinking ahead about how you might use some cover crops this year is important.  There is still time to plan and to order appropriate seed.

Frost Killed Crops

Frost Killed Crops

I choose to plant almost exclusively cc’s that are killed by winter’s cold temperatures. By doing so, come spring, there isn’t any potentially “ invasive” cover crop to kill or till under. Instead there is a bed covered in “free” mulch, which has been protecting and feeding the soil throughout the previous growing season and winter months. Oats, field peas, forage radish, buckwheat, barley, sorghum/Sudan grass and sunflowers are my recommendations for cc’s which winter kill here in Wendell. It would be good to check your specific winter temperatures (you’ll need several days/nights in the 20s) to make sure that whatever covers you choose to plant will winter-kill.Next month I’ll describe how to plant early cc’s, depending on weather conditions, in mid- to late-April. So be sure to have some of the more hardy seeds, oats, peas, and radish ready to plant.

Spring Mulch

Spring Mulch

I’ll end with some enticement to get you committed to the miracle of cc’s. Here’s what to expect in the spring from a late summer/fall planted cc. A bed thickly planted in cc in August-mid-September will have a large standing biomass by the time it is killed later in the fall. A bed with a 3- or 4-foot tall cc will die back to 6 or more inches of mulch. By spring this will have decayed to only an inch or two covering an incredibly friable soil, which is ready for planting.Have a great time planning and thinking of ways to incorporate cover crops in your garden.

Homestead Reflections: Early Season Cover Crops Continued

This article comes from the NOFA/Massachusetts 2018 April Issue Newsletter

By Sharon Gensler, Soil Carbon Outreach Coordinator

Cover crops 12” tall, 4 weeks from emergence

Last week when it was 60+ degrees and the drumming of woodpeckers filled the air, it felt like it was going to be an early spring. Now that our second Nor’easter has covered the bare ground with over a foot of snow, and a third is predicted for tomorrow, I’m thinking, “nope, still winter”.  However, we gardeners know that at some point we will be able to get our hands in the soil and begin a new season of growing.

As promised, this article is the second in an on-going series about the value of and the “how-to” of using cover crops (CC) and no-till growing methods, in the home garden. I am hoping to provide you, a month in advance, the information needed to begin your cover-cropping journey. See the first installment in the March newsletter.

Last month, I talked about carbon sequestration and the importance of improving soil health through gardening practices. Increasing the types and numbers of soil organisms and microorganisms creates an intricate web of biologically active soil life. This biological soil web is like a spider web, intricate, beneficial, all parts delicately joined together to form a whole. If one part is damaged, the whole web is impacted. Looking at soil under a microscope, one can see these intricacies, especially those of the fungal hyphae and mycelium.

We are at the tip of the iceberg when it comes to understanding our soil and these inter-relationships. In our temperate climate, fungi are the predominate cellulose decomposers and thrive on woody ligneous material, often found in a good organic mulch of straw, hay, wood chips, or other mature plant stalks. Their mycelium is a vast transportation and communication system, enabling plants to ”request” a certain needed mineral and have it delivered to its roots. Fungi also help plants boost their immune systems, helping defend against pests and diseases.  This network of mycelium surrounds and penetrates plant roots and grows considerable distances beyond those of the plant.

As gardeners, one way to encourage this beneficial relationship is to practice no-till or minimal-till methods. Every time the soil is plowed, rototilled, or turned over, this network is damaged or destroyed, depriving our plants of these benefits. In addition to keeping our soil profile in tact, no-till improves soil texture and increases water retention, air penetration and erosion control. Another advantage is that dormant weed seeds are kept deeper in the soil preventing them from sprouting.

So, when preparing the soil for planting, how do we keep soil disturbance to a minimum?

  • Gently move your winter mulch back enough to plant your seeds or transplants, only disturbing the soil as little as needed to plant and cover.
  • Wherever possible, keep soil between plants/rows covered with mulch or a cover crop.
  • If soil is compacted, use a broadfork or garden spade to lightly “fluff” or aerate, but not turn, the soil. Over time, by not walking on your garden soil, using no-till and CC’s this will become less needed as your soil becomes increasingly more healthy and friable.

Fungal hyphae & mycelium Photo

Fungal hyphae & mycelium Photo

If you didn’t have an over-wintering mulch, and now have a bed of baby weeds. Try solarizing the bed to prepare it for planting. Solarization traps the sun’s radiant energy killing unwanted vegetation.

  • Spread lightweight clear plastic over the bed.
  • Weigh down the edges.
  • Do this on a sunny day so heat builds-up.
  • Leave on 24 hours (48 maximum) to kill weeds; more time will damage soil microorganisms.

How about for a bed with bigger and/or more abundant weeds? Try occultation; a method that prevents the sun’s rays from reaching the soil, trapping warmth and moisture, encouraging weed seeds to germinate and sprout into a darkened “unfriendly” environment, where they die and become food for worms and microbes.

  • Cover the bed with an opaque barrier (e.g.: tarp, black plastic, cardboard).
  • Weigh down the edges.
  • Leave covered for 3-6 weeks or as long as necessary.
  • Will not totally break down large amounts of plant residue or persistent perennial weeds.

Use the Lasagna Method as a way to create new garden beds without turning or preparing existing soil. This technique is good over sod, and particularly for overgrown beds. I used it right on top of stumps (cut close to soil level) to create soil in a formerly wooded area.

  • Lay down large pieces of cardboard on designated area. Make sure to overlap so all is fully covered.
  • Add layers of organic matter: rotted hay, shredded leaves, manure, compost, etc, with the top layer being straw or wood chips to help keep other layers from drying out.
  • Keep watered, moist but not sopping.
  • This will create fantastic soil; worms and other microorganisms love the cardboard and other organic material.
  • After six months you can plant directly into the bed.
  • Plant sooner by making planting holes and filling with compost/topsoil.

And of course mulching is another no-till technique that shouldn’t be overlooked. Use biodegradable materials: rotted hay, straw, wood chips, shredded leaves, cover crop cuttings, burlap, etc.

  • Allows for moisture penetration but helps prevent evaporation.
  • Suppresses weeds.
  • Prevents erosion.
  • Moderates soil temperature.
  • Constantly decomposes, feeding microbes and worms, and eventually becomes soil.

What follows is a brief word about weeds (which is a whole topic by itself and will be saved until another day). In general, I try not to look at them as the enemy. They can tell us a lot about our garden’s health and needs. Many can also be eaten or used as medicine. As bio-accumulators, they pull minerals from the subsoil, which eventually becomes available to our veggies. However, some are in the way or about to spread too many seed and need to be removed. Don’t pull them out which would disrupt the soil profile, rather cut them off at, or just below the soil line leaving the root in the soil to decompose, feeding those microbes and becoming air and water pathways deep into the soil.

Some of us love our tillers and tractors, so it may be hard at first to even contemplate no-till. I grew up driving an old 1940s Allis Chalmer on our family farm and have lusted after a little Kubota.  Now I’m grateful that neither our pocketbook nor our homestead terrain would accommodate a tractor.  We’ve reaped the benefits of no-till for over 35 years without realizing the science behind our practices. Hopefully, understanding the benefits of healthy soil will make it easier for you to transition. Start small, do a trial. Think of some of the other advantages, like no more expenses for the equipment, (gas, repairs, time for maintenance) plus no more breathing and covering your veggies with stinky gas fumes all while growing more nutrient dense food and sequestering carbon.

I also want to tell you my cover crop plans for April. It could still be cold and even snowy, so I only want to seed some of my most cold tolerant CC’s like oats, peas and forage radish.  I can’t give a specific planting date, as timing is dependent on air and soil temperature and accessibility (snow covered, water-logged, etc), which is a factor of your particular location and changes each year. For me, some years I’m able to plant early in the month and others much later.

As I discussed last month, I’ve already planned my garden and know which beds I will plant in early CC’s. These will be areas that will stay in CC’s all year and those that I will eventually need for another crop a bit later in the season.

Soil fissures caused by freezing temperatures

Soil fissures caused by freezing temperatures

For the most part, I will either “frost-seed” or sow directly through my over wintered mulch. Frost seeding makes use of the fissures created in the soil by overnight freezing and daytime thawing. Gently sprinkle seed on top of the soil early in the day when the ground is still frozen. They will be incorporated/self-planted by the action of the soil heaving up and down. This works on bare soil or on thinly mulched beds where the temperature can reach the soil enough to cause this effect.To sow through mulch that is around 2-3” deep, sprinkle the seeds on top, and then use a rake to shuffle the seeds through the mulch so that they have contact with the soil. If the mulch isn’t too thick, the oats peas and radish will emerge through the organic materials and cover the bed.

The cool air and soil temperatures of early spring may cause some seeds to rot and germination will take longer than those sown in warmer conditions. Oat & pea seed on fissured soil

Oat & pea seed on fissured soil

So increase the amount of seeds sown, and in about 10 days the plants will emerge and you will have a very early CC growing, photosynthesizing and improving your soil. Remember, like any seed, they need to be watered and kept moist until germination.Next month we’ll continue with ideas for early summer cover cropping and soil improvement. Until then, happy spring and happy growing!

Homestead Reflections: Feed the Soil With Cover Crops

This article comes from the NOFA/Massachusetts 2018 May Issue Newsletter

By Sharon Gensler, Soil Carbon Outreach Coordinator

Cover Crop

Cover Crop Cocktail

Here it is, another wild-weather day here at the homestead. I realize that it is still early spring and the weather is unpredictable, but somehow in recent years, the swings in daily weather patterns seem more extreme. Another good reason to be glad that I am a “Carbon Farmer”, co-creating a more healthy and resilient soil, which can roll with the punches, tolerating swings between mild, 60-degree days and those like today, with high wind, snow, sleet and rain.

This time of year (most times really) I like to take regular garden walk-throughs, inspecting and observing the conditions of the soil, growing beds and mulch. Earlier this week (in mid-April) I determined it was time to plant those early cover crops (discussed in the April issue of this newsletter). For the most part, the beds were still covered in mulch, with just a few bare spots of unprotected soil. The depth of all of the mulch is much thinner now than it was in the fall, an indication that throughout the winter, there has been a slow process of healthy decomposition. The worms, macro and microorganisms have been doing their jobs, integrating organic material into the soil and simultaneously receiving nutrients for their winter survival.

However, as the soil warms up, many more soil organisms will break dormancy and the rate of decomposition will speed up. So, in the interests of healthy soil, it’s imperative to not only keep these creatures alive but also thriving, by having additional food available.  Keeping the soil covered at all times is paramount. During the winter that thick mulch was essential. Now it’s time to use a GREEN, growing, cover crop, so that as much photosynthesis as possible will take place. Through photosynthesis, liquid carbon will be exuded through the plant roots to feed these important soil microorganisms. For this reason, as discussed last month, I plant cold tolerant cover crops (CC) as soon as possible in in the spring. Usually this means early April.

Yesterday was cold and raw, but despite my reluctance to go out, it was a good day to plant my cocktail mix of oats, field peas and forage radish through the thinning mulch. I won’t be planting many of my vegetables for a month or two, so most of my beds are now planted in CC. Knowing that today was predicted to have mixed precipitation, it seemed like perfect timing to get the seeds in. This morning the beds were covered in over two inches of snow, which protected the seeds as it then turned into slush from the heavy rain.  Depending upon the weather in the next couple of weeks, the seeds will germinate, sprout and start to photosynthesize –beginning another year of soil building.

One of the qualities of healthy, carbon rich soil is water absorption and retention. This is not only important for growth of our vegetables and fruit but also for the protection of our planetary store of fresh water.  Carbon is the basic building block of all life on earth, including soil structure. Glomalin, a glycoprotein produced by mycorrhizal fungi, is a highly stable form of soil carbon, and is the glue that holds soil particles together to form aggregates. These aggregates give soil its texture and are crucial to the water-holding capacity of soil. There is more water held within an aggregate than outside of it. Aggregates are also safe-houses for biological activity in the soil, protecting tiny microorganisms from larger ones.

Sandy soil allows water to pour through it with little moisture retained. A heavy clay or compacted soil is almost impenetrable and sheds water, often causing erosion. A healthy soil is like a rich moist chocolate cake, with the aggregate allowing water and air penetration and retention. Plant roots can easily grow within the light, moist crumb between aggregates. The longer the soil retains the rain and makes it available for plants and soil organisms, the less erosion occurs and the less dependent plants are on unpredictable rains and/or watering that we have to do.

soil aggregate “glued” to roots

soil aggregate “glued” to roots

I know that I’ve told you to not pull out plants, but to cut them leaving the roots in the undisturbed soil, however, occasionally, for hands-on research, it’s OK.  So, if you do pull up a healthy plant, you should see soil clinging to the roots in the form of tiny clumps. This shows that you have good texture and aggregate.Another test is to squeeze a handful of soil, then, upon opening your fingers, observe if it is a rock-hard clump, if it falls through your fingers like sand at the beach, or if it gently fall apart in small clumps. Yes, the small clumps are what we are after, indicating good aggregate.

I recently heard someone describe healthy water retention capacity with this analogy: poor soil is like a mound of flour, which sheds water poured on top rather than absorbing it. On the other hand, water poured over a stack of sliced bread is easily and quickly absorbed. The bread has crumb and texture, with many pours available to absorb and retain the moisture, while the flour is dense with very little porous space for absorption of air or water.

Well, now that we’ve added another reason to improve our soil texture, let’s look at some considerations for our May gardening.

Depending on where you garden and the temperatures there in early May, I’d stick with planting cold-tolerant CC (oats, field peas & radish). But, as the soil and air warm up and stabilize, it’s time to add more variety to your CC mix. Research is indicating that the more types of CC seeds we mix together, the greater the benefits to our soil. Remember, diversity is beneficial, whether in our soil, our plants, our garden habitat, our diet, or our society!

If you have growing beds, which haven’t yet been planted to CC, do so now, adding more cold-sensitive plants to the CC mix. Buckwheat, sunflowers, sorghum/Sudan grass, and barley are all good soil builders that will be killed by late frost and by 20-degree temperatures, come winter. This year, I am also going to experiment with adding any outdated vegetable seeds I happen to have on hand. I have corn, beans, peas, and some brassicas that may or may not germinate but hopefully some will grow and be beneficial to the soil.

I will use some of this mix on beds, which I want for veggies a bit later in the season. For example, a bed that will have second plantings of summer squash or my late/storage carrots will get two months of CC photosynthesis first and many benefits, before I cut it back.

Pepper Plants

Pepper transplanted through stubble

By mid-May, the mid-April-planted CC will be up and probably 12” tall. Whenever a bed is needed to plant a veggie crop, I will cut the CC back at or below the soil level, thus killing them back. The tops can stay on the bed as mulch, while the roots remain undisturbed, decomposing and feeding soil organisms. Seeds or transplants can be planted through the stubble.On those beds designated to remain in CC for the full-year, I just let them grow, or I may cut them back to about four inches in height and sow some of the more cold sensitive CC to mix in with them. By allowing CC to grow throughout the season, soils will reap the benefit of a long-term fertility boost while they are sequestering more atmospheric carbon, deeper into the soil.

lettuce plants protected by buckwheat

Lettuce plants protected by buckwheat

During late May, it is also good to sparsely sow some buckwheat around your lettuce plants, once they are at least 6 inches tall. I’ve found that the broad leaves of the buckwheat prolong my lettuce harvest, by shading both the plant and the soil, thus retaining moisture and cooling the soil.Before I end, I do want to remind everyone that the benefits of CC are fantastic, BUT they must go hand-in-hand with the practice of NO-TILL. No-till will exponentially compound these benefits! So, remember to implement these techniques discussed last month: solarization, occultation, lasagna method, and mulching.

It is so exciting to observe all of the new spring life returning. The bluebirds, tree swallows and phoebes are back, twittering and eating garden insects; the daffodils are pushing through the snow; and the sun is growing stronger every day. Breathe deep, give thanks and love this earth.

Homestead Reflections: Seeds

This article comes from the NOFA/Massachusetts 2018 January Issue Newsletter

By Sharon Gensler, Soil Carbon Outreach

Oats, field peas & buckwheat cover crop

Oats, field peas & buckwheat cover crop

It’s that time of year when the days are beginning to lengthen and the seed catalogues have started to arrive.  I’m still glad it is winter and I am hoping for more nice deep snow to keep my garden soil protected from the harsh winter temperatures and to inspire me to indulge in more cross-country skiing.  However, when not availing myself of an opportunity for a great aerobic workout, I’m happy to do my indoor gardening!  Time to dream and plan, while curled up next to the wood stove, with a cup of tea and the seed catalogues.

I tend to stick with my old standbys, the vegetable varieties that we like, both for their taste and for their reliability – those that have proven themselves over the years and grow well under our particular conditions.  First, I go through my box of seeds to inventory what I have on hand and what I need to buy new this year.  Some seeds can be viably held over from previous years (carrots, brassicas, beans, peas, corn…) and others need to be obtained new each year (squashes, onions, parsnips, parsley…).  Just keep I mind that held over seeds probably have a lower germination rate than what is stated on the packet.  For these I usually do a germination test to check seed viability.  Soak 10 seeds for a couple of hours, drain and place between sheets of damp paper towels, keep damp and monitor until seeds sprout.  Count the number sprouted and you will get the percent rate of germination (5 sprouts equals 50% rate).  This will help me decide whether to buy new or to just plant the seed at an increased rate.  I also do this test with seeds which I’ve saved from our Wild Browse Farm crops – just as a precaution to make sure I didn’t screw up!

After taking care of my old standbys (the must-plant veggies), I then scan the catalogues for something new that might strike my fancy – a new variety or a totally new veggie or one I haven’t grown in years.  It’s fun to look at the pictures, read about the improvements and then just dream.  It always brings a ray of summer into the short days of winter cold!

Remember to hang on to those catalogues, as they are a wealth of information that will help with your planning and also with your planting.  These catalogs include useful information concerning planting and germination dates and temperatures, cultural requirements, days to maturity, disease and pest issues, seed saving tips and much more.

Seeds are so inspiring – a tiny bit of lifeforce packaged in a hard shell just waiting for the perfect conditions so it can burst forth and strive to survive.  Our job, as gardeners, is to help each one do more than survive but to thrive and to reach its full potential: a delicious a nutritious vegetable, chock full of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants, flavonoids and other necessary phytochemicals.

I think it was John Kempf, at one of the NOFA Soil and Nutrition conferences, who compared the growth of a plant to that of a human being.  He explained how stress at any stage of development could lead to the person/plant not reaching their full potential.  And he stressed that it is important to nurture growth along the continuum, from seed preparation to planting, transplanting, growth, maturation and harvest.  If a seed/plant is crowded or fails to get proper nourishment it will be stunted, and then it is difficult, if not impossible, for the plant to become all that it could be.

We must pay attention to the needs of the plant at each stage of development. Each variety has a growth spurt, not unlike a teenager, which necessitates additional nourishment, either from the soil or from an auxiliary feeding by the gardener: a soil drench, compost side dressing, or a foliar spray.  I’ve learned that I can be most involved/helpful in this co-creation process by preparing and nurturing a healthy vibrant soil, paying attention and monitoring the plants and helping them as needed.

January is also a good time to think about your soil’s health and how to improve it.  I am appreciative of the NOFA/Mass Bulk Order, where I am able to obtain hard to find soil amendments and other products. I use this opportunity to purchase all of my cover crop seed and as you must know by now, my mantra is “cover crop, cover crop, cover crop”!

For beginner cover croppers I recommend, my favorite three: oats, field peas and buckwheat, as they not only improve soil health, are easy to work with and will also be killed back by winter temperatures, thus saving you work and providing on-site mulch.  But more on the cover crop topic in future articles.  For now though, it’s time to obtain those seeds and it is as important to get organic seeds for these crops as it is for your veggies.  Most farm supply stores do not carry organic cover crop seeds, so read your catalogues, order them with your other seeds or save on the shipping costs and buy through the NOFA Bulk Order (ordering starts January 1).

Another seed to plant now is the larger one: conceptualizing and determining the shape and texture of my 2018 garden.  I make my garden plan by putting on paper my ideas about next summer’s garden.  By looking back at previous plans I can get a good sense of how to rotate my plantings, to help decrease potential disease and pest problems.  It is also helps determine how much of each bed needs to be allocated to each veggie in order to give us both fresh food and what’s needed for off season storage.  I also like to pencil in where cover crops will be planted, either as long or short-term crops before, during or after the main vegetable season.

It’s also a good time of year to plant the seeds of joy for future personal, family, community and gardening inspiration in my mind and heart.  I’ve never really gotten into New Year’s Resolutions, but I do enjoy thinking and planning ahead.  Thinking of these ideas as seeds helps me make them happen.  Seeds of positivity, community service, inclusion, activism, love over hate, travel, fun, sharing, health and well being for all…

Plant the seeds, water them with inspiration and resolve, nourish them with attention and love, and harvest the joy of your accomplishments.

Happy new gardening cycle to all of us and may we truly enjoy the fruits of our labor!

Homestead Reflections – Growing Healthy Soil in Early-Summer

This article comes from the NOFA/Massachusetts 2018 June Issue Newsletter

By Sharon Gensler

Healthy Kale

Kale planted in stubble with little soil disturbance 2 – Buckwheat flowers 3 – Wasp eggs on tomato hornworm

While I’m taking a break from homestead work to write this article, I’m also enjoying the mid-May beauty surrounding me.  The apple and pear trees are in full-bloom, the pasture and garden (April planted cover crops) are pulsing with that vibrant spring green, and the Baltimore Orioles are vrooming in to feast on orange halves we’ve put out for them to replenish their strength after their long return flight. We also like to feed them following their migration, so we can enjoy their spectacular beauty, close-up.

Unseen beneath my feet there is another layer of beauty unfolding, that of the soil food web which is also coming to life after its winter slow down in activity.   If only we had microscopic vision, the wonders we would see!

Recently, I was fortunate enough to attend a NOFA/Mass sponsored workshop: Understanding the Water Cycle for Soil, Climate & Life, taught by Walter Jehne. It is amazing how intricate, how layered, and how intriguing the whole concept of soil health continues to be.   I start to think I have a handle on the topic and then, through workshops like this, my readings and from other direct experiences, I realize that this subject will bring me a lifetime of adventures in learning.

One, of the many ideas that Walter Jehne shared was the relationship between soil health and human health.  This is something that we organic gardeners know in our gut to be true, but Walter presented some important insights, which reinforced and explained how and why this is true.

The human gut microbiome is very similar to the one in a healthy soil. In the soil, a mycorrhizal cell membrane serves as a protective shield, an “ intelligence interface” which selectively screens out any soil toxins while, at the same time allowing needed minerals to pass through into the cell.  The cell is “nutritionally intelligent”, in that it can also assess how much of which minerals are needed and limit access, so that only what is needed passes through. Pretty amazing!

“From the evidence it is the mycorrhizal membranes that dominate in the selective ‘intelligent’ active transport of essential mineral ions and exclusion of toxic ions from soil surfaces into the cytoplasm of the fungus and from there to the cytoplasm of the plant cells and into us via our food,” shared Walter Jehne.

In a healthy soil with a well-established network of mycrohizal fungal mycelium working symbiotically with green plants, nutrients are located and absorbed by the mycelium and transported into the plant. (For a review of soil microorganism basics, please refer to earlier March and April newsletter articles).

In a nonorganic system, chemicals are fed to plants in a water-soluble form.  The plant roots act like a straw, drawing these chemicals directly into the plant, for the most part without passing through the cell membrane, thus bypassing “quality control”.

And as Jehne continues, “Given the critical importance that our food can provide us with the full range of essential mineral nutrients in the correct forms, concentrations, ratios and balances for our preventative health, these differences between the nutrient uptake processes of naturally grown mycorrhizal plants and chemically/industrially grown plants… may be highly significant.”

We are what we eat!

I’ve been writing about cover crops (CC) and no-till in detail for the past few months and the importance of these two techniques in maintaining and increasing the health of our garden soil.  But recently, I’ve been asked the important question of how to begin the process of creating a healthy soil biome, especially in a poor or depleted soil.

It’s true, as with everything, we need to start with a good foundation. The quantity, quality and balance of minerals must be available to the soil life as well as to the plant.  Remineralization by importing and adding essential minerals to the soil, will help jump-start your soil life.  Eventually, mycorrhizal hyphae, bacteria and plant roots will become established in healthy soil and then be able to mine the subsoil and bedrock for necessary minerals, making them bio-available to your plants, thus your external inputs will decrease over time.

Additionally, increasing soil organic matter (SOM) by applying compost and composted manure, mulching with ligneous materials and cover cropping will also provide food for soil life.

Along with adding minerals and increasing SOM, you can introduce soil microorganisms from a healthy soil.   Scoop up some of that rich forest duff from under healthy deciduous trees and deposit it under the mulch in your garden. If you have a really good friend with a beautiful garden they might let you take a few shovelful of their soil to use as an inoculant. You can also purchase various types of indigenous microorganisms to either inoculate your seeds or to apply directly to your soil or plants. When seeds and/or roots are inoculated at planting time, perfect conditions are established for a symbiotic relationship between beneficial fungus, bacteria and the plant to flourish.

I’d recommend getting a soil test from a lab which understands the importance of soil biology; NOFA recommends Logan Labs. I suggest making use of NOFA’s soil tech experts, here to help you interpret what lab results mean for you and your soil and suggest amendments. You can also have our team run soil carbon “proxy” tests on your site. The tests will measure the levels of biodiversity and other aspects of soil health that are attributable to building soil carbon. These will help you determine if your growing practices are successful.

Another way to address poor soil conditions is to use an extra boost of nutrients and biological reinforcements as a spray for your plants.  A healthy plant has increased levels of photosynthesis, which increases the amount of root exudates, which become available to feed the soil food web.  Even if you have great soil, a regular energy and immune boost is still very helpful.  Full colonization of a leaf surface by beneficial bacteria and fungi leaves little room for passing pathogens to get established.

Foliar Tea:  For an extra boost of nutrients and biological reinforcements, spray as needed

  • Add to bucket:  mix of vibrant plants to obtain their nutrients, hormones, enzymes, minerals, and vitamins (red clover, comfrey, nettles, vetch, oat grass, garlic….).
  • Cover with water
  • Sit in sun for a day or two
  • Strain and add liquid fish and liquid sea weed as per labels
  • Spray plant foliage including the underside of leaves – if possible spray “when birds are singing” in early morning or evening as that is when the stoma are open and can take in nutrients more quickly
  • Use a backpack, or hand held sprayer to apply

Now it’s time to talk early-summer cover crop details.  On May 14, the oat, field pea, forage radish combination planted in early April is 8 inches tall and very vibrant.  This past week I sprinkled a mix of less cold sensitive seeds (buckwheat, sorghum Sudan grass, sunflower and some older leftover vegetable seeds into several of those beds that will not be planted in vegetables this season.  My goal is to have complete coverage of the beds with a large variety of plants all photosynthesizing through out the entire growing season.

The diversity of CC plants increases the amount and quality of soil biology. There are many varieties of mycorrhizal fungi, which are symbiotically connected to different plant species, therefore increasing the variety of CC’s increases total fungal activity.

One approach, to plant in April-seeded CC beds, can be used throughout the growing season.  I cut back the CC, in small patches (5-6 inch +/-  diameter), just below the soil line thus killing the oats etc. only in those areas.  These patches are where I direct seed various veggie plants. I allow the CC to continue growing between these planting spots.  Later, when the CC starts to shade my vegetables, I will cut it back, but not kill it allowing it to regrow.

Buckwheat flowers

Buckwheat flowers

In early June, I will use a similar approach (except the patches will be larger) when transplanting tomato, pepper, squash, and other tender veggies into the garden beds, which have been growing CC’s since April. The vegetable plants benefit from the soil life that has become associated with the living CC’s.  These CC’s really do not compete for nourishment as the soil biology is generating and transporting nutrients for all of the plants.Also, starting in mid-May/June, I try to make sure that there is a patch of buckwheat growing and flowering at all times. Buckwheat flowers are a major attractant and habitat for pollinators and beneficial insects. Native pollinators like bees, moths, beetles, flies, and wasps need small flowers from which they obtain nectar and pollen.  The beneficial insects (lady bugs, parasitic wasps, lace wings) also feed from small flowers while awaiting other food sources like aphids and caterpillars.  Keeping these beneficial close at hand in the garden will pay off when they dispatch unwanted insect pests.

Early summer maintenance of cover crops also entails monitoring and managing for your desired outcomes.  Beds in long term CC’s could be allowed to mature, grow deep roots, set seed, falWasp eggs on tomato hornworm

Wasp eggs on tomato hornworm

l over thus reseeding the bed while providing a deep mulch rich in lignin (a favorite fungal food) and sequestering carbon.  Or it could be cut just before seed maturity providing the same benefits without reseeding.If an outcome is to have a prepared bed for planting a mid to late season vegetable like carrots, then 1-2 weeks before planting cut the CC at or below the soil line.  Use the cut CC as mulch or add it to your compost. Plant seeds through the stubble with as little soil disturbance as possible.

Well, that’s all for now.  Hope you are enjoying the early garden produce; asparagus, rhubarb, dandelions, nettles, wild cress, lettuce, endive and volunteers like garlic and other greens as much as we are.  The feast is just beginning – think June strawberries!

Homestead Reflections – Growing Healthy Soil in Mid to Late Summer

This article comes from the NOFA/Massachusetts 2018 July Issue Newsletter

By Sharon Gensler

hand tool

Hand tool on newly prepped bed with CC seeds before raking in 2 Sorghum Sudan in mixed cover crop cocktail

As seems to be the norm around Wild Browse, there is a still a lot to do, however, the bulk of the crops are in the ground, which is a big load off of my mind.  Of course, there will be regular succession planting and maintenance of vegetables and cover crops as the weeks progress.

The signs of summer are everywhere; the strawberries have started to ripen, robins and orioles have fledged, and the deer flies have arrived!  The last few nights have served up a dazzling display of wonderment as the fireflies weave their magic in the early-summer night sky.  Having been enchanted by these creatures since childhood, I realized that I didn’t know much about their life cycle and how they might affect the garden.  So, the Internet to the rescue!   Turns out that unlike the short-lived adult (2 weeks), the larva lives about a year in the soil.  The larva is carnivorous and eats soft-bodied insects like worms, slugs, and other insect larvae.   After viewing some ID photos, I realize that I’ve seen plenty of them in the garden soil.  Some of those photos show firefly larvae eating grubs and cutworms, not just our earthworm friends.  Luckily my philosophy of “non-squishing” has prevented me from inadvertently disrupting this magic show!  It amazes me how these important lessons repeat, often in ways that make me pay closer attention.  Yet another indication that diversity leads to balance and harmony!

Implementing some of these cover crop (CC) growing techniques, like under-sowing and inter-planting, takes a leap of faith, as it seems counter-intuitive.  In the past we were taught many principles that are in need of revisiting and re-visioning:  keep competingvegetation away from your vegetables, a messy garden harbors disease and pests, weeds are bad… However, if viewed from a different perspective, there is a paradigm shift, allowing us to change from a model of competition to one of cooperation, from monoculture to diversity, clean cultivation to green covered soil, from controller to thoughtful co-creator and many of those old principles can be discarded.

So, let’s take a look at our mid to late summer healthy soil/cover crop adventure.

  • Keep soil covered as much as possible.  Sow a cover crop (CC) cocktail into any bare/unplanted spots in the garden, whether it is a 12” space at the end of a row or a larger area where an early veggie crop has been removed (early lettuce, greens, carrots, etc.).
  • Begin “under-sowing” CC’s amongst your tall vegetables. Remember the rule is to sow CC’s after the main crop is at least 1/3 of it’s way toward maturity.  As an example:  if corn with a maturity of 90 days, germinated on June 15 it would be well established and have reached 1/3 of its maturity on July 15.  At this point a mixed CC could be scattered between the rows/hills of corn.  It will germinate, and grow at a slow pace in the shade of the corn, ready to replace the corn after harvest.  During this time the CC serves as a living mulch; suppressing weeds and keeping the soil moist. It is also a living source of nutrients, photosynthesizing and feeding soil microbes to increase soil health.  This under-sowing technique can be used with all of the taller vegetable crops, including tomatoes, peppers, brassicas, and trellis crops like cucumbers.  Perennials, like asparagus, after it fully fronds, and tall, perennial herbs are also good candidates for under-sowing.
  • Maintenance of early-planted CC’s is also important.  April/May planted oats, field-pea, and forage radish are probably 30-40” tall.  If they are growing in a bed dedicated to CC’s, you may choose to let them mature and set seeds.  I often let this happen when I have enough space, allowing the bed to reseed itself, naturally.  At that point I often sow other CC varieties, including those well suited to summer growing (buckwheat, sorghum, barley, sunflowers) right into the fallen residue from the early CC’s, to diversify the cocktail. If unwanted self-seeding occurs in other areas of the garden, those plants are easily cut down and killed with simple hand tools. Sometimes I kill the CC by cutting it back, at or slightly below the soil line, and then replant right through the stubble adding the summer CC seeds to the basic oat/pea mix to create a new cocktail.
  • Regularly check and trim any of the CC’s, which surround your veggies, to prevent them from over topping and creating shade.   That said, I do sometimes allow for shading of crops like lettuce to help them withstand the August heat.
  • Plan ahead to prepare beds for mid or late season planting.  My main storage carrot crops are planted mid-July.  Therefore, I’ll cut back the CC, below soil line, about a week prior to planting the carrots.
  • Plant a CC in any bed whose main crop has been harvested.  I pull garlic at the end of July and sow a CC cocktail into the bed that same day.  It will be at least 3’ tall before it is killed by the deep freezes of October/November, leaving thick protective mulch to overwinter on the bed.
  • Continue to apply a nutrient foliar spray to your CC’s as well as to your vegetable crops.   Spraying the CC’s will enhance their growth and effectiveness in creating healthy soil.

The simplest and easiest to use hand tool for cutting that I’ve found, is a Japanese serrated sickle.  It is light- weight, inexpensive and stays sharp for many years, even after using it to cut through the soil.  I obtain it at a local, for me, store but it can be ordered through the mail through Orchard Equipment Supply Company.

cover cropsI love all of the winterkill cover crops with which I’ve been working for many years.  Each has a variety of attributes, which add to the overall complexity and increase their multiple benefits.  This month, I want to highlight Sorghum Sudan grass (SS).  When looking at SS, it has many similarities to corn including its height, wide leaves and aerial roots.

SS needs warm soil to germinate, loves heat, and is fast growing and drought tolerant.  It also deters root nematodes, which affect carrots.  I love that it is a great biomass producer, which can be used as mulch or an addition to the compost pile.  Plus, by cutting it back to a height of 6-15” it will encourage tillering (side shoots) and increased vegetative regrowth plus stimulate root growth.  Root length and mass increase after cutting.  Not only does this increase root sub-soiling action, but also it increases the amount of mycorrhizal activity in the soil.

SS has the ability to form symbioses with an astounding number of 50 different mycorrhizal fungi, each of which helps improve soil diversity and health.   It’s a good idea to plant so that the SS has a full 3 months of growth, as this allows for maximum mycorrhizal hyphae and spore creation.  This will help insure a good supply of both spores and root-housed hyphae segments to overwinter in the soil.  Come spring, they will be ready to engage symbiotically with your newly planted crops.  All in all, SS is a great addition to diversify your CC cocktail or as a stand-alone crop.

Start small and experiment.  The tremendous benefits that CC’s in combination with mycorrhizal fungi and other soil biology, will quickly become obvious to you and help you make a larger leap into the culture of cover cropping.

Time to send this off, eat diner, lock up the chickens, and prepare for tonight’s magic light show.

But first, a reminder: I will be leading a Homesteading intensive on Friday, August 11 at the NOFA Summer Conference at Hampshire College.  It would be great to see you there.

** Refer to previous newsletter articles for more and background information.

Homestead Reflections November 2018

This article comes from the NOFA/Massachusetts November Issue Newsletter

By Sharon Gensler

Green Tomatoes

A rainy day, another in a long succession from the wettest summer I can remember. We did have a few weeks of hot dry days when I began to wonder whether we were at the beginning of a drought.   It surely has been a crazy summer.  I thought I’d talk about some of the successes and challenges of this year’s growing season.

Successes

Of the 23 permanent growing beds, 9 were planted in cover crops (CC) for the entire growing season.  All of the rest either had early CC’s planted in April and then managed for future vegetable crops or had CC’s planted after early vegetables were removed.  I think it was the first time I was able to use CC’s in every bed at least at one point in the season.

Tomatoes and Peppers Ripening

As I’ve explained in previous articles, having soil covered almost continuously is essential for soil and microbial health.  We didn’t experience any erosion or flooding in our garden, though other areas of the homestead, like paths, were gullied and/or flooded.  For the most part, during the dry spell, the garden soil continued to be moist and friable.We also experienced little or no unwanted weed pressure.  I do allow some areas to self-seed lambs quarters, dandelion, and pigweed, because we like to eat them. Also garden sorrel gets a pass as a useful CC in certain areas.  I also try to have some Pennsylvania smartweed around as I’ve noticed that Japanese beetles prefer it to my vegetable crops.

Mixing outdated vegetable seeds into the CC cocktail worked well.  Pole beans grew up the tall sorghum plants while, kale and tomatoes held their own while mixed in with the oats, peas, buckwheat and other CC’s.

Challenges

This year I experimented with a few changes in how I worked with my CC’s and veggies that weren’t as successful as I’d hoped.  I let the early oat, field pea and forage radish get much more established in the beds before planting my main, heat loving crops.  The CC’s were around 18” tall at veggie planting time, when I cut back a small circle into which the tomatoes & peppers were transplanted. Then I let the rest of the CC grow for a month, before cutting it back.  In the past I’ve had great success cutting all of the CC close to the soil before planting the veggies, but this year’s approach seemed to slow down the early growth of the veggies. Whether this was specifically from the planting technique, the weather, a combination, or from some other variable is unclear. Maybe next year I will try using both approaches in a more controlled way.

I do have a constant issue with invasive crab grass and gill-over-the-ground, so this year I decided to experiment with planting kale transplants through the cut grass, as I did with the CC’s.  Some folks talk about having a perennial ground cover to use as a CC, so I wondered if I could turn the sow’s ear into a silk purse. Sorry to say, most of the kale didn’t thrive.  So. guess I’m back to looking for a different solution to the invasive grass issue.  Any ideas?

Rodents were a huge challenge this year.  I know that healthy soil, no-till methods, and heavy mulch seem to increase the vole problem, but this year their chipmunk and squirrel kin joined them.  2017 was a heavy “mast year” in that there was an abundance of acorns, which resulted in an explosion of rodents.  I think the problem was exacerbated by my inadvertently supplementing their early summer food supply.  I had let a few early-planted beds of oats and field peas mature and their seeds ripen.  It was cute watching the chipmunks pull down the stalks to harvest the seeds, but not so cute later as they harvested MY food!

As tomato, peppers, and squash began to ripen they were often either eaten on the plant or carried off for later enjoyment! I had to harvest at the first signs of ripeness or miss out entirely.  And as we all know, nothing can compare to a vine ripened tomato. But a tomato on the table is better than no tomato at all!

Other homestead thoughts

Northern hardy kiwi with kiwi jam

Northern hardy kiwi with kiwi jam

We had our first mild frost yesterday (Oct. 14), and now my thoughts turn to preparing for winter. There is a 20-degree night predicted later this week, so time to harvest the remainder of the tender vegetables and fruit. There are still tomatoes, peppers, squash, raspberries and kiwi to bring in and preserve.The rest of garden winter prep will be fairly easy, as all of those beds with cover crops will mulch themselves as their CC’s die back with the cold weather.  Vegetable plant tops will be composted after I cut them off at the soil level. I will be leaving the roots in the ground to nourish soil microorganisms over the winter.  And remember that fungal mycelium overwinter in roots, which they have previously penetrated. So save yourself the work of pulling plants and just leave them in the ground, where they are very beneficial!  Kale, collards and other brassicas will keep producing well into winter and hopefully again in the spring.

Elsewhere around the homestead there is plenty to keep us busy, like shutting off the unprotected water supply to the garden and pasture as well as to our outdoor shower; cleaning, repairing, and storing tools, wheelbarrows and carts; winterizing the brush mowers; adding “deep litter” to the winter chicken coop; a final mowing of the pasture for, among other things, making it smooth for cross country skiing; transferring the hens to their winter quarters after the pasture is snowbound; finishing the last of the sauerkraut and kim chee fermenting and making kiwi jam!  Luckily, our cordwood is all in and stacked, and we’ve even had a couple of fires to warm up the house and our toes.

Yesterday, I gave one of my Soil Health presentations to a group in far away Roxbury, CT.  During the talk I spoke of the necessity for a strong and diverse community of soil microbes and compared it to the community of gardeners, environmentalists, and activists that those in attendance represented.  The “it takes a village” sentiment is more important now than ever before. We, as growers, cannot only grow healthy soil and food while sequestering carbon, we can also sow seeds of community, of harmony, and of the joy of working together.  I’m not sure what the mid-term elections will bring, but I know that we have a strong and loving NOFA community in Mass and throughout the region.  Together we can sow and nurture those seeds of love, diversity and strength.

I hope your larder,  hearths and hearts are as full and warm as mine is going into this winter season.

Homestead Reflections: Transitions & Gratitude

This article comes from the NOFA/Massachusetts 2017 December Issue Newsletter

By Sharon Gensler

cider pressing

Some of the pressing gang

Transitions and gratitude have been on my mind a lot lately while watching the change of seasons and the concurrent changes around the homestead, especially in the garden.

Many of the garden beds are still green with cover crops though the recent temperatures in the teens and 20s have begun to weaken them. Soon they will be dead and will have turned into a deep layer of mulch on their respective beds. I watch this transition with gratitude. I planted the seeds in August; the mixed cocktail of oats, field peas, field radish, barley, sorghum, and buckwheat grew and photosynthesized, vibrantly feeding the soil life, sequestering carbon, preventing erosion while retaining soil moisture, preventing weeds and providing habitat for pollinators. The transition will continue through winter and early spring. The dead plants, both tops and roots, will protect the soil throughout the winter, slowly decaying and becoming soil.

younger ones pressing ciderThis is where the gratitude comes in – all of this “free” soil improvement with very little physical or financial input on my part. Come planting time, the beds will be all prepped, with wonderful friable, worm laden, healthy soil, rich in micro and macro organisms ready to work symbiotically with newly planted seeds or transplants to start the garden cycle again.

It has been a great year for our tree fruit and berries. The larder is full of dehydrated apples, applesauce, canned pears & kiwi conserve, frozen peaches, strawberries, raspberries, blueberries and cider. We had a really fun day pressing cider with our friends and some of their kids. This was a second-generation experience for us. Our friend Chris’s daughter, Tavi, spent part of almost every Wednesday with us, starting when she was a toddler until she started junior high and her school schedule kept her too busy. She was visiting her mom from her home in Hawaii and we scheduled our pressing party around her visit. We all wanted her girls to have some of the same farm experiences that she had growing up. Plus the Hawaiians got to spend time with some Wendell homesteader-kids-another transition and another opportunity for gratitude.

Cover crop in transition

Being a gardener has helped me through other life transitions. At 72 I am now an “orphan”. My mom died this past April at the age of 97 and my dad at 93, six years earlier. I am grateful for their long independent lives and for the many things I learned from them. I grew up on a small extended-family farm, which was more of a homestead than a commercial operation. We raised almost all of what we had on the table and my siblings and I all had chores and responsibilities. Of course, I couldn’t wait to leave for college and get away from the farm. But what they taught us and what I gleaned from that life has brought me back to the land. You can take the girl off of the farm, but not the farm from the woman!My mom always hated that I “gave up my education to work so hard,” especially since I was the first in our family to attend college. She had been a city girl and never quite made the transition to farm life in the 1940’s. She was thrilled to move to suburbia in the late 1960s and wanted a similar life for me.

However, late in her life she finally realized I was happy and healthy and the nagging stopped and she even bragged about our accomplishments. She also looked forward to the farm care packages we’d bring on our visits, especially those heritage turkeys for Thanksgiving!

This week, over Thanksgiving, our family will gather to bury both of my parents’ ashes. I know that this gratitude will help me through this major transition in my life. I am now the matriarch of the family and know that what I’ve learned from them and my garden will guide me in this new role.

Another Wild Browse transition is making the garden beds more accessible to my aging body. My knees scream at all of the bending and squatting. Our 4-foot wide permanent growing beds with 12-inch paths are too hard for comfortable work. We are widening the paths and shrinking the bed widths. I‘ve purchased one of those garden “scooters” with large pneumatic tires, and a tractor swivel seat, which makes it much easier to reach and work the beds.

The soil removed from the paths and added to the top of the beds is really beautiful. In fact, a neighbor helping with this project commented that our path soil was so much better than his garden soil. I know that this work will temporarily disrupt the soil profile, but hope that by spring, all will be well again; that the healthy complex soil life will have easily re-established itself.

Along with this aging theme, we have also, been thinking more about the homestead transition process. We love this life and this place of abundance and beauty that we’ve co-created. We also know that we want Wild Browse Farm to continue to nurture and support others. We have the infrastructure in place to support us and another person/couple now and moving into the future. We chose to keep the homestead non-commercial, but as a micro-farm, it could easily become an economically viable operation. Vegetables, herbs, fruit, poultry, lamb, mushrooms and more are all possible. Are YOU interested in talking with us about this opportunity? Winter is a great time for dreaming and planning for the future! Send us an email sharonagensler@gmail.com.

Well, it’s time for me to transition from this laptop to the great outdoors. The rain has stopped and I can return to getting our winter pasture fence ready for the hens’ upcoming transition to their winter coop. Hope all of your transitions go smoothly and that gratitude overflows in abundance through all of our lives.

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Looking up the Lane

Looking up the Lane at Wild Browse Farm and Sustainability Center

Homestead Reflections

It’s been over a year since I last wrote this homesteading column.  Much has changed in that time.  The summer/fall of 2011 was one of personal prolonged grief and dislocation. The successive deaths of my sixteen-year-old niece, brother and father sent me for a loop.  My normal rhythm was interrupted and some things, such as writing this column, were lost in the turmoil.

However, working our homestead has been instrumental in bringing me back to balance, a reminder that all things change and are part of the great cycle.  Having my hands in the soil, nurturing seeds, plants, and baby chicks, smelling rain and soil, being held by my partner, crying and laughing with

friends have all helped.  So, as part of that cycle, it’s now time to give- back hopefully, supporting other homesteaders by writing this column again and by expanding our teaching and workshop offerings.

Other changes:  Due to the crazy weather patterns, we decided to put up a small hoop house/high tunnel, which is started but not finished.  We installed a 5 kW photovoltaic electric system.  This necessitated dismantling and moving our tool shed in order to build a bigger one with a roof oriented south.  Now we have a fantastic tool shed but 2 months later we are still waiting for the electric company inspection.

Both of these “improvements” were arrived at after much debate and soul-searching.  What’s the balance between new technology and the “simple life”?  It’s a far cry from my years of living without electricity, running wa

ter, or indoor-plumbing.  I have the same quandary with using this computer and the satellite-dish to run it. Yet, I can see that these changes are part of the cycle of change and hopefully of growth.

Speaking of a natural cycle, I’ve been watching, for several weeks, our local Barred Owl hunt in the garden.  With the snow crust, it has come in close to hunt near the compost and mulched overwintering beds.  (Today it perched on the satellite-dish, hmm, a message?)  “Yes eat those voles!”, I encourage it as it reminds me we are all a part of this cycle.

Is this a comment on technology?

Is this a comment on technology?

Published Feb. 2013 NOFA/Mass e-news http://www.nofamass.org

Homestead Reflections

Homesteading: Spring Decisions

Spring is in the air, or at least in the lengthening daylight hours.  The great awakening, around the homestead, has begun and we had better be prepared.  It’s time to make final decisions on this year’s direction. Which of our plans/dreams will we commit to for this year?  How much time/energy do we have now and think we’ll have through out the upcoming year?  So many dreams, so little time!  Where’s my crystal ball!

One thing I will commit to is continuing my quest to co-create the best possible soil in the garden, pasture, and fruit growing areas.  My focus will be implementing at least a small portion of the information I’ve absorbed from the NOFA/Mass soil health and nutrition classes I’ve taken over the last several years. A healthy soil growing the most nutritious, delicious, healthy disease and pest resistant plants, not only leads to a healthier me but to less time and work.  I’ll plant more beds to soil- building cover crops and grow fewer but more productive vegetable plants. I’m excited about expanding my use of cover crops as active soil builders, feeding and nurturing them as I do my vegetables, which will multiply and enhance the benefits to the soil.

I’ll also commit to finish building the hoop house that we started in the fall.   Having this operational will expand our growing seasons both in spring and fall and maybe even give us some winter greens.  The other aspect, I’m looking forward to, is the worm bins constructed in the aisles.   We’ll have worms (protein) for the poultry and also castings for soil fertility.

Another major area is to continue and increase our educational commitment to share our many years of homesteading skills and knowledge.  Pass-it-on, so to speak.  This includes not only preparing for and teaching our monthly workshops but also creating a yearlong internship program.  This will necessitate finishing up-grading our summer intern cabin to make it ready for year round use.  The compost toilet addition is well under way, but we will have to finish upgrading the kitchenette and the sleeping loft.  And most importantly advertise for, interview and select the “perfect” person who is committed to learning the homestead life, from a couple of lifers!

The big question up for grabs is whether to raise a few sheep to increase our farm’s sustainability level.  The pros include: they would be great in a pasture rotation with the poultry; less mowing to keep the forage at a chicken desirable height; increased soil fertility via their droppings; and they would sure look pastoral out there.  The cons include:  added responsibility; extra work especially, when Pru is away a lot of time caring for aged parents; and increase financial outlay.  Decision to be made very soon!

Hopefully, I’ll be able to report not only progress but also success on these commitments as time progresses.  Though I must say, and try to remember, that life has a way of intervening.  I guess my final commitment today, is that I will not only roll with the punches but also be open to new possibilities.  Change is life/ life is change.  Harmony and balance to all of you in your life and choices.

To be published March 2013 NOFA/Mass e-news http://www.nofamass.org

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