How to be a Good Gardener/Farmer, Simplified

    “The poor farmer grows weeds, the mediorcre farmer grows crops, the good farmer grows soil.” How true, when I think of the good farmers and gardeners I’ve visited over the years. I aspire to be a good farmdener and spend a lot of time trying to grow soil.
    Growing soil isn’t all that complicated. (You do need to start with good drainage of water.)
    First, keep the ground covered. Organic mulches, such as leaves, straw, and wood shavings, keep rain from pounding the surface. The pounding drives small soil particles into pores, sealing the soil surface so water can’t percolate in. Bacteria, fungi, worms, and other soil organisms gobble up organic mulches, releasing nutrients and forming humus, which improves percolation and moisture retention, and makes room also for air in the soil. In my gardens, I never want to see bare ground.Bare, cracked soil
    Live plants likewise protect the ground. The plants might be cabbages, marigolds, carrots, and other garden plants. They might be cover crops, such as rye, oats, peas, or buckwheat, sown specifically to clothe and protect the ground during or at the end of the growing season, and through winter. They might even be weeds — Mother Nature’s way of protecting her soil.
    Second, maintain soil organic matter. Mulches do this, as do growing plants. I go one step further, and import organic matter. Bushel after bushel of leaves that have been raked and bagged by neighbors are collected are unbagged and unraked once they arrive here. Leaves that have been vacuumed into a landscaper’s large truck and then left here in a pile get unpiled here one pitchfork and garden cart at a time.
    I also pitchfork horse manure into the bed of my pickup truck at a local stable. Mostly, that manure is transmuted into compost and then slathered onto beds in the vegetable garden.

Compost, in the making

Compost, in the making

    I also import — really just transfer — some organic material from one part of my property to another. My small hayfield gets mowed once a year by tractor to keep it from becoming forest but parts of it I periodically scythe, these mowings to feed, along with the horse manure (and kitchen waste, old garden plants, etc.), compost piles.
    The third key to growing soil is to maintain fertility. A soil test can confirm what, if anything, is needed. If the first and second points in growing soil are followed, fertility is probably up to snuff.
    And finally, the fourth key to growing soil: Minimize soil disturbance, avoiding tillage or, at least, excessive tillage. Tillage mixes so much oxygen into the ground that soil organisms go into a feeding frenzy, in so doing gobbling up organic matter too fast. Thus, many of the above benefits, physical, biological, and nutritional, waft away, literally, as carbon dioxide.
    Farming and gardening aren’t “natural.” At their best, they are a balancing act that leans towards emulating natural systems. Which is to say, for instance, that tillage, is not all bad; it can be part of good soil growing if not done to excess and points one, two, and three are followed.
    A measure of “organic matter content” (OMC), from a soil test, provides a rough indication of soil growing progress. Less than 3% means more work is needed. Five percent, or more, is very good. (My vegetable beds are at about 15%.)

Blue-Green Algae Redux

    Last week’s notes about the darker side — and the brighter side — of blue-green algae may have left everyone feeling helpless. After all, you can’t change the hot dry weather that is, in part, responsible for the current blooms. But nitrogen, phosphorus, and other minerals washing into waterways to feed the bacteria also play a role, and it’s something over which we have control.
    Improper septic systems are one culprit.
    More topical culprits are mineral nutrients originating in backyards and farm fields. Too many farmers and homeowners subscribe to the philosophy that “if a little is good, more is better,” when it comes to fertilizer. Not so. Too much fertilizer not only is a waste of money; it damages or kills plants and, with rain, leaches through or runs off the soil to eventually find its way into waterways. A soil test will tell what nutrients, if any, are needed.
    Even better, if fertilizer is needed, is to use an organic fertilizer. Most are not water soluble until metabolized by soil organisms, which means they are less likely to wash through the soil.
    Better still would be to use compost to provide fertility. Nutrients in compost are locked up physically and chemically, waiting to be released by soil life in synch with plant uptake and growth.

Terraced field in Viet Nam

Terraced field in Viet Nam

     Phosphorus is a plant nutrient that binds tightly to soil granules, but makes its way downhill when rain washes over bare soil to move it downslope. One way to keep this nutrient out of waterways is to keep the soil covered with mulch or vegetation, especially on sloping land. Another way is to avoid exposing soil by tillage. Another way, if tillage is needed, is to till perpendicularly to the fall line of a slope. And yet another way is to alternate tilled areas with grassy strips to catch and hold soil.

Rye cover crop

Rye cover crop

    Do a lot of these recommendations — mulches, cover crops, composts, no-till — for preventing blue-green algae blooms sound familiar? Good gardening and farming practices are also good for the environment.


Upcoming Fall Fruit Workshop

See web page for details.

The River Runs Green

    Crossing the bridge over the Wallkill River on my way home, I glance to my right to admire the river itself. What a beautiful color it has turned, a bright turquoise. Ponds I pass also have taken on this bright complexion, for which we can thank, or curse, organisms known as blue-green algae (heretofore referred to as BGA).
    Algae, they are not, though. BGA are bacteria known as cyanobacteria. “Algae” generally refers to eukaryotes, organisms with distinct nucleii and specialized organelles. BGA are prokaryotes, lacking such features.Green river, from cyanobacteria
    BGA can be toxic, which is good reason to curse them. Drinking or swimming in contaminated waters can cause problems to humans and other animals, including dogs, who seem to be otherwise able to drink almost any water without ill effect. The “cyan” in the name and the criminal cyanotoxins are not at all related to cyanide. The name come from “cyan,” which is the color blue-green.
    Many kinds of BGA are found throughout the world, often in extreme conditions. Not all produce cyanotoxins; some produce them only under certain conditions. Not all are even blue-green; the Red Sea gets its color from Trichodesmium erythraeum, a species of BGA. Certain conditions cause “blooms,” such as those I was admiring in the river and ponds. Here, it’s probably a combination of relatively dry conditions resulting in shallow and calm waters along with the usual influx of nutrients, mostly phosphorus and mostly from farms, septic systems, and lawns.
    BGA are photosynthetic organisms, just like plants, imbibing carbon dioxide during the day and spewing out oxygen. These primitive organisms, “in the beginning,” were important for oxygenizing the Earth’s atmosphere, thus stimulating biodiversity. We could praise them for sequestering carbon.
    Agriculturally, some cyanobacteria are important because they can convert atmospheric nitrogen into forms of nitrogen that plants can use. Although these cyanobacteria are especially important for maintaining fertility of rice paddies, they are present, to some degree, in virtually all soils. Some research even points to benefits of inoculating soils with these organisms.

Bags vs. Fungi

    So now I’m home, my head out of the soil, and admiring my grape vines. The dry weather has been almost as good for the grapes as it has been for the cyanobacteria. Dry weather minimizes grape diseases and abundant sunlight puts flavor and sweetness into the berries. With annual applications of mulch around the grapes and their far reaching roots, I never worry about my established vines being thirsty.Bagging grapes earlier in the season
    Back in early summer, we went to the trouble of affixing paper “delicatessen” bags around 100 bunches. Now is the payoff. Peeling back the paper usually reveals perfect, full, bloom-dusted bunches of especially delectable grapes. “Especially delectable” because I can let these protected bunches hang longer on the vines than unbagged bunches, which do have some disease and are prey to bees, wasps, and birds. These bagged grapes get dead ripe before being harvested.Unbagging grapes for harvest
    The bagging isn’t really all that troublesome. We just select downward hanging bunches, made easier because I train fruiting canes horizontally across a 5-wire, flat trellis, and remove any tendrils or leaves opposite the bunches. After making a slit down each side of a bag, the slitted opening is slid up the cane on either side of the bunch, the top of the bag is folded over, and then the flap stapled down on either side —  well worth the minute or so it takes from selection to finish bagging a bunch.

Grapes to Keep

    With many varieties of established grapevines, I can cut down any whose flavor is not up to snuff or that don’t produce well without having to bemoan waiting for new ones to start bearing. The “keepers” tide me over.  Variety choice is somewhat limited here because of winter cold and because cooler, damp air collects in this valley, promoting disease, abetted by inoculum from all the wild grape vines grappling high into neighboring trees along the forest edge.

Glenora and Vanessa seedless grapes

Glenora and Vanessa seedless grapes

    I’ll be doing a Henry IVth on Mars and Concord.
    Some of my current favorite varieties are Vanessa, Somerset Seedless, and Glenora, all seedless varieties. Of the three, Glenora has the best flavor, Vanessa the best texture, but they’re all very good. Some of my favorite seeded varieties are Alden, whose corpulent berries hang in large bunches, and Brianna, which isn’t quite ripe yet, but every year has rewarded us with foxy-flavored, pale green berries.
    Still to come for this season are Edelweiss, which has a rich, very foxy flavor but has not been very productive the last few years, and Brianna, with its own rich flavor not so dependent on foxiness.
    A few more years of tasting and watching will dictate whether New York Muscat, Cayuga White, Bertille Seyve 2758, Lorelei, Reliance, Swenson White, and Wapanuka keep their home here. They’re all good grapes, but why grow good grapes when I could grow great grapes from among the 5,000 or so varieties (not all adaptable here, of course)?
    (That “foxy” flavor I kept referring to is characteristic of many American grapes, and is typified by the variety Concord. No one is sure how “foxy came to describe that flavor.)