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Month: June 2016

The farmer in the arena

The farmer in the arena

Feeding billions of people is a very difficult task. My hat is off to the people who have been doing it and keeping pace with explosive population growth. We have big problems with how we make our food, though.

Most importantly, the industrial way we make food right now is simply not sustainable. Organic or not, industrial agriculture ultimately leads to wastelands and deserts. There is no question about this — every year we lose arable land to topsoil loss, salt buildup, and etc. We literally cannot keep doing things the same way or we will run out of land.

And this does not even mention all the other problems like the abuse of harmful chemicals, ensuing collapse of honeybees, the economic strangleholds exerted on farmers by the multinational chemical and ag companies, the dependence on fossil fuels for equipment and fertilizer, disappearing aquifers, etc.

But the problems (and solutions) go a lot deeper than new tricks for growing and harvesting things. We need farms that can *sustainably* produce food, yes, but also farms that can pay livable wages to workers. We need a lifestyle and workstyle such that more people will *want* to have those jobs. And even then, most modern people won’t want to do farm work. So we need agriculture that is de-industrialized but still efficient enough that the work of a few people can feed many, many others. We need grain and vegetable cultivars that fit this, and we need to embrace currently uncommon crops.

I could go on, but I will stop there.

I do not see the industrial system addressing it’s fundamental problems until it reaches a breaking point. And while alternative agriculture has come a long ways, there is still a ton of work to do figuring out how to deliver those things that I just said we need. Market gardens and CSA programs and the like are an important and necessary step in rebuilding agriculture, but few of them are successful businesses, almost none of them provide affordable staple crops, and they don’t produce enough food for the labor input. There are critical pieces that are still missing.

I do not claim to have those pieces, and maybe they do not exist. Maybe the agriculture we have now is the only kind that we can have with the culture and society and economy as it is. I honestly don’t know. But I’d like to try my hand at putting the pieces in place.

I haven’t been able to articulate it quite like this, but this is on of the very core reasons that I’ve become so obsessed with “gardening” lately. Now that I’m coming to understand more what it is I’m trying to do, I intend to start getting serious about it. Starting with the little garden we have, I’m going to start learning to farm.

Exactly what that means will be the subject of future posts…

The myth of the $1500 sandwich

The myth of the $1500 sandwich

We are on the road, and post I’m writing is not complete yet. As a teaser, here’s the current opening…

I’m sure a lot of you have seen the project (summary here, and the original video here) where the guy chronicled his adventures in making a sandwich mostly from scratch, and counted the expense as six months and $1500. I say mostly from scratch because while he did things like milk a cow to make his own cheese, he didn’t raise the cow or grow its feed, so he didn’t really do things from first steps. Anyway…

It’s a very interesting project, and I’m a big believer in people understanding how the world works and where food and other things come from. So kudos to him for the education he is providing. However it is sad that the takeaway is that growing and preparing your own food is absurdly impractical and the result is just kind of so-so. With the implied takeaway that we are so fortunate that professionals take care of it all for us, so we can get our sustenance neatly wrapped in plastic at the market.

There is so much missing and mistaken!

First, let’s talk about taste. One of the best reasons to grow and prepare your own food is because that is the only way to have the freshest, best tasting stuff. Imagine a chef dressed in a white apron, with a big old chef’s hat, or a peasant Italian grandmother. Or anyone who to your mind represents the ability to turn ingredients into good food. Not necessarily fancy food, but heartwarming and delicious homemade food.

In your mind, ask this person if they’d like to go to the garden to gather heirloom vegetables, and get a hand-smoked cut of meat from the cellar, or if they want to go shopping. Then ask if they’d like a spice mix or would they rather have fresh herbs? The exercise can be continued with bread fresh out of the oven, a dessert of home-canned peaches, and etc.

Yes it takes some practice to make good food from scratch, but there is nothing magical or difficult about it. If you can follow simple instructions on classic recipes, you can in very little time learn to make very good food.

…and this will continue at a later date…

UPDATE on June 22nd, 2016…

I had intended to go through the video and list out all the ways that this deviated from a realistic situation where people grow and make their own food. But I realized two things: (1) I’m trying to be a more positive person, focusing on how great it is to do things the right way, instead of how wrong it is to do things the wrong way, and (2) there really is just one relevant point, and no need to waste a ton of words elaborating on it.

And so here is the point: if you are just preparing food to make one sandwich, it will be very inefficient, and probably not very good. If you grow and prepare more of your own food you can process in bulk more efficiently, and you will get practiced and be able to do a good job of it.

If you pencil out the cost of buying local, heirloom varieties of sustainably produced food, and look at the time it takes to grow it yourself, it’s not a half bad deal. And if you then consider the time that hobbyist gardeners spend, and the health and spiritual benefits of gardening, the hours of “work” are even more substantially reduced, and then it becomes extremely economical. Just looking at time and money, it makes sense to grow your own food.

And that doesn’t even include the very real financial benefits of increased health.

And of course, not all that glitters is gold. Intangibles glitter, too.

Finding free gardenspace in your community

Finding free gardenspace in your community

We are going through a gradual process of getting more access to land to grow food on — and not just from buying our own land. Here is how we (and a few others) have found space. But first, I want to take an idealistic diversion to talk about why this is not just a practical way to grow food, but also a deeply important and good thing to do. Feel free to skip this section if you want to get straight to the practicalities…

The rightness of gardening any available land

In the Bible, there is a passage pretty near the start that says we are to fill the earth and subdue it. I do not take this to mean pavement and strip malls. This blessing was given in a garden, and it seems to me that the idea is for us to fill the earth with abundance, wisely tending the land to make it teem with useful life.

Most of the food that is created in our modern world is ruinous to the health of the people who eat it, and ruinous to the land. The deeper you dig into where our food comes from, the more you find adulteration and greed. It is so far backwards of what the original commandment and blessing that we were given.

We were created to tend land, in community with others, and share in the abundance. Not to dominate it by ploughing million-acre cornfields, but to subdue it with gardens teeming with every kind of natural life. The bible says — and I believe — that this is literally what we are made for. When properly subdued, all land can become made more productive by any measures, more diverse, and more beautiful.

Gardening anywhere, and especially in partnership with others, is fundamentally worthwhile. If you can eat the produce, that is wonderful. And given the scarcity of real food today, any of it that you can share is a blessing. I count it a privilege if I can get food growing anywhere, that anyone will eat.

At our apartment

After we filled our small deck with containers, our first tiny step towards expanding our garden was to approach the manager about letting us use a tiny (and I mean tiny!) little piece of ground at the bottom of our external flight of stairs. It was out of the way and we were granted permission. We grew a few potatoes and raspberries. Had we stayed there another year, I would have asked for more space – there was plenty of ground that could have been gardened there.

In this case, being out-of-the-way or aesthetically pleasing was important. Fortunately, there are a lot of herbs and vegetables that are absolutely beautiful and can fit in fine with ornamental plantings. If we had asked for more space, we would have approached the conversation with “let us maintain this area for you, for free, and here is how we will make it look nice.”

Many herbs are beautiful, and are sometimes grown purely for ornamentation. Rosemary, sage, and lavendar, for example. Mint, lemon balm, bee balm, and other mint family plants can fill areas with aromatic, attractive foliage. You can even plant a lot of things that are generally considered ornamental that are actually great edibles: for example, hostas have edible spring shoots, and nasturtiums have edible leaves and seeds which can be pickled to serve as capers.

In our neighborhood

We have a neighbor with a great big lawn (probably a half an acre) that gets mostly full sun. So we asked them if they would be okay with us planting an orchard there, and sharing the fruit with them. It would increase their property value, give them a variety of fresh fruits, and it would give us space to grow fresh fruits. A win-win.

And they said no, because they are planning to build something there someday. That was disappointing.

We have another neighbor, maybe a quarter mile down the street, who has a 40 acre lot that was clear cut a few years back. I asked him if I could scatter some seedballs on his land to see what varieties worked well in our area for doing that. And he told he that I could use an acre for that this year, and we are talking about planting rootstock apple trees from seed over a lot of the land. Hopefully we will grow hundreds of seedlings, give a ton away and have enough left for a nice big orchard. This is very exciting!

It took more than a year between thinking that I should talk to the person who owned the clearcut, and finally having the guts and followthrough to do it. And if the owner was not as friendly and open as he turned out to be, the answer probably would have been no. But if he had not said yes, someone else would have. Talk to your neighbors!

Guerilla style

My style generally includes asking for permission to do things. I have a friend (you know who you are…) who occasionally, and by that I mean regularly, indulges in guerilla gardening. There was an empty lot that he operated a community garden on for years. When the owner of the lot finally noticed, he thought it was a neat idea, and put together a $10 a year lease for the land. Sadly, a year or two later the lot was developed.

Now my friend is gardening in a strip of grass alongside the road that runs by his apartment. He is making a series of keyhole beds as he gets his hands on organic matter to fill them with. Search for “keyhole garden” if you are unfamiliar with the idea, they are fantastic drought-friendly garden beds. The crew that maintains the grass simply mows around his beds, and there has not been a problem. Only fresh, real food.

Tim Peters, something of a legend in the plant breeding world, would use the sides of roads for isolating different trials of his perennial rye project. Periodically along the roadside he would plant a few rye plants, and they would simply blend in with the various grass and weeds along the road. He was able to significantly expand his ability to experiment by doing this.

On the internet

I have tried a few different ways to arrange garden space over the internet. There are several yard-sharing websites designed to connect people who have extra yard space with people who want to garden. Those did not work for me, because they either didn’t cover my region, or the people I contacted never responded. That was disappointing.

What worked the best was posting to my and adjacent neighborhoods on, a social network for neighborhoods. I posted to ask if anybody had yard space for a project to breed drought resistant vegetable varieties, and said that I would share what was not needed for saving seeds. There were somewhere between a half dozen and a dozen responses, about 4 or 5 people who stayed in communication, two people who were ultimately interested, and one person who I had time to actually work with before we left.


  1. Think about what you can offer — free maintenance, beautification, produce, teaching, or improvement of property value. Or all of the above!
  2. If you want to find some space, be willing to talk to a number of people. Some will say no, some will be interested but fall by the way. If you are persistent, you will find somebody who says yes.
  3. And if you are thoughtful about it, you probably don not need to be afraid of turning unused public-ish space into gardens.
  4. If you can have a project for the space you are seeking, it can help you get interest. For example, a seed breeding project, or maybe sharing with a food bank. One of the best things about gardening is that it opens a world of abundance. It does not take much effort to grow a large amount of food to share.
  5. It is okay to garden for purely esthetic and practical ends (i.e. getting good food). It is also okay to garden with lofty, idealistic notions about changing the world (a little bit) and living the life we were created for. And it is especially okay to do both. : )
Making a nursery bed

Making a nursery bed

Recently, some very kind people have given me some seedlings transplanted from their gardens (thanks Barrett and Robin!). These were volunteer plants, dug out of the ground, and they seem to generally be very happy having been transplanted.

I did some googling, and found out the phrase “nursery bed”. It’s a closely manicured place in the garden where you grow transplants or seedlings before planting them out. There are a number of really nifty benefits to this.

I sunk the bed down to help it stay moist, and lined it with rotting boards to help keep moles out. The burlap is to keep down the buttercups that will otherwise instantly take over.


Growing seedlings directly in the dirt doesn’t need as much finagling. I don’t need to precisely place seeds in the little cells, just make a furrow and spread them out. Much of the time I won’t need to water (using a sunken bed with soil mix that retains water well), and having water come from below will encourage deep roots.

Speaking of deep roots, I made the soil in my nursery bed about 6 or 8 inches deep. Normally when I transplant out seedlings grown in flats, the roots are running circles at the bottom and poking out the drainholes. It’s got to be better for them to have as much space as they want to grow deep. Assuming I’m careful when transplanting, the extra root depth should translate to the adult plants being able to reach deeper into the soil for water and nutrients.

Filled with soil. Half coco coir potting mix (thanks Paul!), and half compost.


I’ve been inspired by the people who have been giving me plants — friends, family, and random people who posted their surplus free on the internet — and I want to be able to grow extra plants to be able to give away. I don’t really have enough space with my current indoor setup to grow all the plants I want, much less enough to give away. If I can put otherwise unused space along my fence to use growing seedlings, I’ll be able to start many more than I can otherwise.

Seeds going in! Currently in the bed are triple-headed dandelions, fava beans, cinderella pumpkin, pie pumpkin, mammoth sunflower, acorn squash, tepary beans, zucchini, runner beans, asparagus, cinnamon basil, marigold, anise, and sweet mace. And there’s extra room…


Another motivation for this is that I travel fairly frequently, and want to be able to start seedlings in a controlled manner, but also in a manner that is tolerant of neglect. Fluorescent lights are great for indoor seed starting. But they really aren’t a substitute for the sun, and they are expensive. And you have to be there every day to turn them on and off. And even if it’s during our wet season, you have to carefully water your indoor seedlings regularly. I just planted the nursery bed, and will be out of town for weeks. Hopefully I’ll come back to a bunch of happy seedlings regardless. We’ll see!

Covered with a *very* light layer of straw after planting. It looks thick, but it’s mostly one or two pieces of straw deep, and there are lots of gaps. I’m hoping this’ll help it stay moist enough.


For next year, I plan to expand this, and prop up glass over it so I can get some extra warmth in the soil and start seeds outdoors before the last frost. It should be interesting!