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!