Saturday, November 22, 2014

Doing push-ups

3 rows of onions push up through plastic

Planting things through plastic used to make me think of the Hmong strawberry growers, who use that method extensively. For some reason, it didn't sit well with me. Then I realized that it was what they did before putting it down that bothered me: Fumigate with pesticides and herbicides so powerful they have to put skull-and-crossbones tape all around the field. This is because they plant the same thing over and over and over, so nasty plant-specific pathogens build up. But come to find out, there are other good reasons to use plastic. For instance, see that little garlic sprout coming through the plastic at lower left? That little sprout is going to grow up into a big, beautiful head of hardneck garlic. Planting through plastic keeps the weeds down ... important for a plant that's in the ground for almost 9 months. It also keeps the soil warmer, reduces water evaporation and results in higher mounds of good soil for the plant to put out its roots in. The key for me will be to properly dispose of the plastic, which is recyclable. If I do that using the plastic should have no negative affect on sustainability.

A little garlic plant begins its 8 month journey to maturity

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Covered California

One great thing about farming is getting into mother nature's head.
You have to. If you simply throw fertilizer, herbicides and pesticides at every problem, pretty soon you won't be a farmer any more. Or, if you have a lot of money, you will be a farmer looking for new land.
Mother nature wants you to take care of her, and if you do there's a chance she will repay you with fertile soil and bounteous crops. Nothing guaranteed, of course. She's very fickle. And although you may think you understand her, you may instead be suffering from a bout of arrogance.
This year, I have planted cover crops on almost all my plots. What is a cover crop? It's something that starts in the fall, grows slowly through fall/winter and takes of in the spring, getting maybe four feet high if you are lucky. And with the warm weather it will start to bloom.
And that's when you interrupt Mother Nature's cycle.
When it starts to bloom you cut it down, till it in to the ground, then wait at least two weeks before planting your cash crops. Why?
That's what I was wondering: What's the point? Turns out if you plant the right type of seed, the cover crop will pull nitrogen straight out of the air through its leaves and send it down through its cell structure to be deposited in nodules on the roots: Little balls of nitrogen for your cash crop to feed off. And if you mix that seed with another one with really aggressive root systems, that second one will scavenge your soil for nitrogen left over from last year's planting -- nitrogen that just might have been washed away by winter rains. This second plant pulls the nitrogen up from the soil and deposits it into its leaves. So when you plow it down, the leaves will break down and start releasing the nitrogen!
So why do you have to interrupt nature's cycle?  Because once the crop starts flowering, it will begin drawing the nitrogen up from the soil to support the flowering process.
I hope my cover crops will be at least as successful at delivering fertile soil to me as Covered California has been in delivering health care to the maximum number of our residents. I'd consider that a big success!

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Surprise mission

Baby tomatoes grow

Crenshaw melon plants begin spreading their wings.
I am part of a competition, thanks to a very smart relative in the Slow Food Movement. I would say her name but I didn't ask permission. But thanks, Pat. Win or lose, because of this competition, myself and a companion will be at an all-day seminar in San Francisco soon to learn more about being a business-like farm, which in this post-9-11 environment requires a good deal of traceability of where food comes from. This doesn't take away at all from my goal, which is to provide wonderful tasting, organically grown heirloom vegetables to as many people as we can and to preserve the biodiversity of our plant world and continue the handing down of non-patented seeds that anyone can grow and collect new seed from. We particularly like heirloom tomatoes, which are challenging to grow because they don't all have the kind of disease resistance bred into most patented hybrids. On the other hand, heirlooms generally have better flavor than hybrids, so to me it's worth the extra effort. And the organic aspect likewise is worth the effort because organic farming not only eliminates use of dangerous pesticides, herbicides, etc., but increases the earth's sustainability. And it probably creates a few more decent jobs. So what's not to like? So, this competition I was talking about, it's at the Whole Foods Market/Folsom. A Local Food Maker grant of up to $6,000. I am one of three finalists and the voting continues until June 19. So if you read this blog in a timely manner and want to vote, here's the address to vote at:  or .

Friday, May 16, 2014


Yesterday it was 102˚ in the shade. Today it is cooler. Yesterday we potted up plants, unloaded manure and mowed down weeds. There is still a lot of planting to do in the next two weeks and tomorrow is the beginning of the final planting push. So that means today is set-up day. Get everything in order for the mad rush to come. Everything for the farmers markets must be in the ground by May 29, that's the day a special visitor will come to the farm and finalize my Famers Market Certificate for the season. Wish me luck. Now, time to get to work.

Thursday, May 15, 2014

Convergent pathways to ingestion

Now take that blackberry at left, the dark one, if you wanted to eat it all you would need to do is walk up to it, grab it between your fingers, maybe wash it off a little, and pop it into your mouth. Same thing if I wanted to sell blackberries at the farmers market: Just pick a bunch, clean them (probably better than if I was just eating them off the vine) put them in baskets and take them to the farmers market. Believe me, the hardest part of the whole process is deciding how much to charge! Plus I would wear gloves for the harvest, you know, the plastic operating
room type, just because it protects both of us: my hands and the fruit. If you are picking lots of anything it is best to wear gloves. Below are shallots drying in the barn. It's been about a month since I pulled them out of the ground and still they are drying out, getting ready for market. They have been more work since pulling them out than they were when they were in the ground and still there is plenty of preparation to get them ready. Is there a moral to this story? Diversity is what make the world such a wonderful place! Even on a farm ....

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

At the crossroads of organic vs. non-organic

 Weeds. Yeech! The top photo shows young Crenshaw melon plants fighting with weeds for light and nutrients. (Really, they're there, you just have to look closely!) Unfortunately, weeds (wild radish plants, in this case) germinate more quickly and grow faster than the melons. Thus the need to weed. Weeding takes time and if you have a giant corporate farm, with rows disappearing into the distance, it adds up to a lot of weeding. Which may be why conventional growers fumigate and then apply herbicides before setting in the seed. It's a real pain-in-the-ass to get rid of the little weeds by hand and UC Davis has yet to devise a machine to discriminate between the weeds and the crop. So it takes time. And time is money. WalMart won't buy your stuff if it costs too much. So, if you want on that WalMart, etc., gravy train, better go the chemical route. The compromise, of course, is that the chemicals applied turn the soil into an inert growing medium instead of living matter full of biodiversity. Worms die, beneficial microbes die. The soil becomes sterile. Personally, I don't want to eat "Roundup Ready" corn, melons or anything. And it bothers me that the oil industry is having this unwanted impact on my dinner table, for these chemical fertilizers are a by-product of the production of gasoline! And the crops they help produce come back to you mainly in the form of highly processed, over-packaged food-like substances that are adding to our nation's obesity crisis. I think it's time for all of us to take make some serious choices about food.

Tuesday, May 13, 2014

What is a Bishops Crown?

Above you can see a picture of my favorite pepper plant, the Bishops Crown. It's basically a sweet pepper with a hint of heat, mainly in the seeds and ribs. A picture of it is at right. I believe this plant comes from the Caribbean because of its growth habits. Whoever named the pepper "Bishops Crown" knows more about Catholic headgear than me. That's because I always thought that the little red hat that the pepper looks like is the zucchetto (below, right), but I've only seen members of the College of Cardinals -- you know, the dudes that pick the pope -- wear that gear. Bishops, on the other hand,  typically wear a mitre, above left, at certain points during public liturgies. To me that would be their "Crown". So it makes me wonder who it was that named this beautiful little pepper the Bishops Crown. All of this, of course, is beside the point, which is to say that this delicate pepper, with its fruity taste and hint of heat is a fabulous addition to soups, pot roasts, salsas, salads and -- my personal favorite -- scrambled eggs. And I can't wait until late August when we will start harvesting them!

Monday, May 12, 2014


Can you see the snow-capped peaks in the distance? Among them is Pyramid Peak at the south end of Lake Tahoe.

Young tomato plants recover from a windy experience.
It may not be obvious in the picture above, but what I'm trying to show is the Sierra Nevada mountains east of Singing Frog Farm. Thanks to the wind they are clearly visible today, and the air smells fresh and new. So while wind may be miserable -- I'm glad I wasn't pedaling in it like those cyclists who speed by my place yesterday on the Amgen Tour of California -- it leaves clean air in its wake, like after a rain but not quite as good. The downside is apparent in the other photograph, where a tray of young tomatoes recovers from a near-death experience caused by a full two days of relentless winds.

Sunday, May 11, 2014


Farming is full of challenges. The path between an idea and a final product travels many an unwanted byway before arriving on someone's table as a "farm to fork" treat. Two days ago we were finishing up planting the first succession of tomatoes, a group of 560 organic heirlooms, about 30 different varietals. Today they are in, and like the sunflowers at left, are being ceaselessly whipped by a north wind. All day yesterday the wind blew steadily at between 15 and 20 mph. Today the forecast is for more of the same, a precursor to an onslaught of hot spring days which may well bring the first triple digit temperatures to my little spot of land, where it seems the highs exceed those of nearby Sacramento by a few degrees. For my young plants, it will be trial by fire. And as if wind and heat are not enough of a challenge, yesterday I stared eyeball-to-eyeball with a gopher as I stood above his little hole on the edge of the tomato patch.  He scurried off, returned for a second look, then disappeared into his subterranean labyrinth. So when you grab that organic heirloom tomato off a table at a farmers market, think about the trials it went through to offer itself to you. I guarantee it will taste a little better!

Saturday, May 10, 2014

Twists and turns in the garlic patch

A garlic scape loops around a leaf.   This tasty stem only appears on hardneck garlic, little seen on the West Coast, where California White garlic rules. California White is a softneck variety and is what you find in supermarkets.  Scapes can be pickled, chopped up in stir fries,  sliced thinly into salads or used as a garnish. Many small growers, who like the extra spiciness of hardneck garlics,  have scapes for sale this time of year. You might find them at your local farmer's market. This scape -- photographed this morning -- will be chopped up in my scrambled eggs. The garlic plant, on the other hand, will spend another few weeks in the soil, then be pulled and dried for offer at a farmer's market.

Friday, May 9, 2014


Young tomatoes spend their first day in a new field at Singing Frog Farm, above, while newly potted up Rosa Bianca Eggplant stretch out a bit in their new confines on the veranda, awaiting eventual transplant into the garden. At bottom, three rows of newly sprouted cucumbers are protected by Agribon to keep the dreaded cucumber beetle at bay until the plants are established.

Five months ago, winter ruled. Ice broke pipes and frost withered leaves. Now a new world is upon us. Seeds have sprouted and all manner of living things are flourishing.  The promise of a great harvest shines bright. It's like the beginning of a season for a sports team: The sky is the limit. It's a time to enjoy the boundless hope the earth gives us free each spring as we tilt a little more away from the sun and enjoy longer days. This year, there seems more wonder at how warm we will get, how much change our environment will go through. How much will water tables drop? Will it be too hot for grapes in Napa? Too hot for tomatoes in Sacramento? Too dry for rice? Or will it be a wonderful summer, mild and encouraging to our basket of crops? Ah, the joy of spring.