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A Permaculture Love Story

February 15, 2013
In the Garden

Their Trip to Bountiful

Randy Harris for The New York Times

Clockwise from top left: Marikler Giron Toensmeier stirring a worm bin; carrots from the garden; Eric and Ms. Toensmeier, with Daniel, in the front row, and Megan Barber and Jonathan Bates with Jesse in the rear; the 12-by-16-foot unheated plastic house. More Photos »

Published: February 13, 2013
HOLYOKE, Mass. — It was the build-it-and-they-will-come principle that inspired two self-described plant geeks to buy a soulless duplex on a barren lot in this industrial city 10 years ago and turn it into their own version of the Garden of Eden. Their Eves, they figured, would show up sooner or later.

“Paradise Lot: Two Plant Geeks, One-Tenth of an Acre, and the Making of an Edible Garden Oasis in the City,” by Eric Toensmeier, with contributions from Jonathan Bates, tells the story of how it happened. Published by Chelsea Green this month, it’s just in time for armchair gardening — and Valentine’s Day.

It’s a love story intertwined with the tale of how a small, barren backyard shaded by Norway maples, with an asphalt driveway in front, became a place that could sustain about 160 kinds of edible plants, including pawpaws, persimmons, Asian pears, gooseberries, strawberries, blueberries and rarities like goumi (tiny berries with a sour cherry zing).

Dwarf kiwi vines now climb up mimosa trees, with a lush carpet of shade-loving crops like currants, jostaberries (a cross between black currants and gooseberries), edible hostas, Solomon’s seal and May apples.

Ramps, that wild leek so coveted by foodies that it’s being stripped from eastern forests, thrive beneath the pawpaw trees, and so does giant fuki (Petasites japonicus Giganteus), with its four-foot-wide leaves. And fuki is not just a beautiful leaf that lends a tropical look to the landscape; like rhubarb’s, its stalks are edible.

“You can already see the flower buds, here and here,” Mr. Toensmeier, 41, told me one freezing day about two weeks ago.

He fingered the little bumps emerging from the frozen-looking ground, picturing a spring still invisible to the eye.

“It’s our first flower as soon as the snow is gone in March,” he said. “We eat the leaf stalk” — boiled and peeled, he explains in the book, then marinated in raspberry vinegar, shredded ginger and tamari — “it’s like weird-flavored celery.”

At the moment, however, this paradise is an icy landscape of bare trees, stumps and limp leaves, with sprigs of water celery peeking out of the frozen pool. In the summer, water lotus blooms here, but after last week’s storm, it’s under two feet of snow.

Marikler Giron Toensmeier reached down to pick a bit of water celery emerging from the frozen pond. It was about the size of a snowflake, but it was green and tasted like celery. “And look, praying mantises,” she said, touching one of the wrinkled egg cases stuck here and there among the dried grasses and twigs of the sleeping garden.

Ms. Toensmeier, 38, a native of Guatemala, is one of the Eves.

Seven years ago, Marikler Giron Ramirez, as she was known then, appeared in Mr. Toensmeier’s life when he was managing a farm program for Nuestras Raíces, a nonprofit grass-roots organization that runs 10 community gardens in the city. She was working as an educator and fund-raiser for Heifer International, an international nonprofit group that donates farm animals to poor families to help them become self-sufficient and has a demonstration farm in Rutland, Mass.

As Mr. Toensmeier describes the moment in his book: “A woman with brown eyes and the most beautiful dark hair I had ever seen walked into the room. I spent the next half-hour trying to see if she was wearing a wedding ring.”

She wasn’t immune, either. “I saw this spark in his eyes, and I say to myself, ‘Uh-oh, Marikler, you are here to work. No way, no way,’ ” she said.

The next weekend, the two were thrown together at a seed-saving workshop, and Mr. Toensmeier got a cram course on the Spanish words for stamen, pollen, pistil and the like.

The two began dating, even though Ms. Ramirez, who was planning to go back to Guatemala, was reluctant. “My experiences with men hadn’t been particularly great,” she said.

So she made a long list of “what I would look for in a guy,” she said. “One of the big things was respect, because in my country, a lot of macho men, they don’t hear you as a woman, they don’t help, they don’t say, ‘Do you have any needs?’ ”

Mr. Toensmeier apparently got a lot of check marks. The garden came with the package.

“To tell the truth, I didn’t know what they were doing,” she said. “I just remember coming into the house and smelling mint.”

And tasting some fruits she didn’t recognize. “He handed me this little kiwi,” she said. “And it was so sweet and good.”

But it wasn’t so much the plants as the peace and quiet of the place.

“You go out there and you see a praying mantis and it’s just walking around like this,” she said, moving her arms in slow motion, the way the insect moves on a leaf. “Just turning her head like this, and looks at you, and stays so still.”

After spending childhood summers on her great-grandfather’s farm in the Guatemalan highlands, Ms. Toensmeier is tuned into animals and insects. With praying mantises, she can even tell male from female. “The males are smaller,” she said. “The females get big, strong, especially after they eat the male.”

She giggled. Mr. Toensmeier gave her a loopy look. The two were married in the garden in 2007 and now have a 14-month-old named Daniel.

“Eric is so nice,” Ms. Toensmeier said. “I’m in grad school now and he makes me sleep, he takes care of Daniel at night, he gets up in the morning, lets me sleep some more. You know that’s not something I would get from a man back home.”

As for Mr. Bates, he was pursued on the dance floor of a club in Northampton, Mass., by a woman who had spurned him years before.

“I always liked Jonathan, there was something about him” said Megan Barber, 38, who grew up on a farm in upstate New York. “We’d go out for ice cream, do things here and there. One day we sat down on a bench in Northampton and he asked if I would like to date. And I said, ‘Uh, I just want to be friends.’ ”

Mr. Bates, who is now 39, had heard that before. “I never called back,” he said.

Ms. Barber, a musician, went off to Mexico to teach violin and find a macho man. It didn’t work out. “I e-mailed you a couple of times,” she said, “but you never wrote back.”

He replied, his dark eyes twinkling: “I was busy with the ladies.”

Ms. Barber came back to Boston to earn an M.B.A. in nonprofit management at Brandeis University. A girlfriend dragged her to a club, where she spotted Mr. Bates, she said. “I tapped him on the shoulder and said, ‘Are you Jonathan?’ ”

Mr. Bates said he couldn’t remember her name. “I was probably embarrassed and shocked a little bit,” he explained. “I had to go home and look up her name in an old calendar.”

She called him and they met for lunch. She had a list, too, she said. “The funny thing is, at the bottom of my list, I said, ‘Whoever it is, it’s definitely not anyone I know.’ ”

Both women were attracted to the communal life.

“I grew up with a lot of extended family on the same road, walking between my grandparents’ house and aunts and uncles, people were always in and out,” Ms. Barber said. “The garden was definitely an added bonus.”

But as Ms. Toensmeier pointed out: “A garden can come and go. If you don’t have what you’re looking for in the person. …”

Then it’s all over, like the praying mantis.

But Ms. Barber had found what she was looking for, and she moved into the house in 2007, a month after the Toensmeiers were married. “I told Jonathan, ‘If I move in, I’m not planning to move out,’ ” she said. (These two were married in the garden in 2009; their son, Jesse, was born five months ago.)

It was the women, who had both grown up with chickens, who suggested adding poultry to the mix, and they soon began cooking from the riches in the garden. Left to their own devices, Mr. Toensmeier said, the men “would eat stuff raw, or heat up a can of Progresso soup and throw in some veggies.”

They were busy thinking about carbon sequestration and which vines would grow up which tree. And weighing the edibles in their forest garden: by 2010, Mr. Bates recorded a total of 400 pounds of fruits and vegetables in the space of six months. And that’s not counting cultivated crops like tomatoes and eggplants.

The term was coined in the mid-1970s by Bill Mollison and David Holmgren, Australians who were experimenting with these concepts on the degraded soils of Tasmania. Reading their book, “Permaculture One,” Mr. Toensmeier writes, “set the course for the rest of my life.” He and Mr. Bates had struck up a friendship in 2000 at the Institute for Social Ecology, where their mutual interests converged much like plants in the forest. Mr. Toensmeier was working on a bachelor’s degree, restoring old apple orchards using permaculture principles and compiling a list of little-known, cold-hardy edible perennials and their attributes. Mr. Bates, an engineer who had left a career designing aquaculture systems, was studying the potential of municipal-scale compost toilets, and cleaning gray water with plants, for his master’s thesis.

The two eventually rented an old farmhouse in Southampton, Mass., and started a mail-order seed company for unusual edible plants — ones that were not only tasty, but also improved soil fertility or attracted beneficial insects.

There was only one problem, Mr. Toensmeier said. “It was only 20 minutes from here, but man, it was really, uh. …”

Mr. Bates jumped in: “Out in the middle of nowhere.” (Like a lot of longtime couples, they tend to finish each other’s sentences.)

A big night out was hiking to White Loaf Ridge to collect wild mushrooms in the woods, Mr. Toensmeier said. “Where we were more likely to meet a bear, than — ”

Mr. Bates said: “Babes.”

But they moved to Holyoke for other reasons as well, mainly to work in an urban environment where their ideas might spread to other yards. And this impoverished old paper mill town in the Massachusetts Rust Belt, which had high rates of unemployment, drug use, diabetes and obesity, seemed a good place to start. Its population was also half Latino (mostly Puerto Rican), and Nuestras Raíces had developed quite an urban gardening tradition here.

The men spent the first year here analyzing their site: the way the sun moved across the lot in all seasons, where buildings and trees shaded ground, which corners were sheltered from the wind or basked in the collected heat of a south-facing wall — factors that are crucial in intensive production. Friends helped them sheet-mulch, a quick no-till method of planting that involves covering the ground with layers of cardboard and compost, and putting plants right into the soil. And they reassembled the old greenhouse kit they had used at their farmhouse.

The 12-by-16-foot unheated plastic house helped extend the growing season, but after the October snowstorm of 2011 sent a tree crashing into it, Mr. Bates began to design a better one.

The new structure is 20 feet on each side and 11 ½ feet tall, to maximize exposure to the winter sun on the south side; the north side is a heavily insulated wall. Around the perimeter, a wall of insulation four inches thick extends one foot underground to keep the soil beneath the house from freezing. “These beds haven’t dropped below 45 degrees all winter,” Mr. Bates said.

Three large black water tanks collect heat on a sunny day, and radiate it back into the house at night. “It was 40 degrees in here last night, when it was 20 outside,” he said.

That morning, it was a toasty 80 degrees inside, but just 31 outside.

But the tanks are more than heat collectors. They form an aquaponics system Mr. Bates is working on. The first tank will contain tilapia fish, whose waste will be pumped into another tank full of freshwater lobsters and clams, which are filter feeders. That water will then flow into a tank where watercress and willows feed on the nitrates in the waste water, cleansing and aerating it with their roots. The clean water then flows back to the fish tank.

It’s one more piece of the permaculture puzzle, whose possibilities on this tenth of an acre seem limitless — for the plants and their people.

Mr. Bates and Ms. Barber now run a mail-order nursery, Food Forest Farm, which offers dozens of edible plants tested on Paradise Lot. And one of these days, they may start farming upstate, on Ms. Barber’s family land.

Mr. Toensmeier travels all over the world, helping communities plant forest gardens that are appropriate for their climate and site.

And Ms. Toensmeier, who thinks of Heifer International as part of her family, imagines moving to their headquarters, in Little Rock, Ark., where it’s warmer.

So Paradise Lot won’t last forever.

“It’s more interesting to be in love than to have plants,” Mr. Toensmeier said. “And you can move plants to a new place. But it’ll be sad.”

No one seems to be in a hurry, though. As Ms. Barber said: “Things are going so well here. We really love our life.”

Unknown, Cold Hardy and Good Tasting

Eric Toensmeier has spent about 20 years coming up with a list of perennial vegetables that can stand the conditions and climate of the Northeast, and actually taste good, too. Yet few people grow them, or even know about them.

His 2007 book, “Perennial Vegetables: From Artichoke to ‘Zuiki’ Taro, a Gardener’s Guide to Over 100 Delicious, Easy-to-Grow Edibles,” explores the art of combining them in mutually beneficial polycultures. More plants and deeper explanations are in “Edible Forest Gardens: Ecological Vision and Theory for Temperate Climate Permaculture,” by Dave Jacke, with Mr. Toensmeier. The two-volume bible includes an extensive list of cold-hardy perennial plants for various climates and conditions.

Many stars have emerged in Holyoke, Mass., where Mr. Toensmeier and Jonathan Bates have conducted their own permaculture experiment. Among them is Caucasian spinach, which produces edible shoots in early spring, “like a skinny asparagus with tender leaves,” Mr. Toensmeier writes in his latest book, “Paradise Lot.” Its leaves may be eaten raw well into June.

Groundnuts, which make nitrogen readily available to plants, produce tubers high in protein. Relatives of the bean family, they taste good not only boiled, but mashed up with chile spices and cheese, like refried beans.

Sweet cicely is a perennial that scatters its seeds all over the garden, so be forewarned. But its lacy white flowers attract beneficial insects, and its large seeds taste like licorice when they’re green.

Skirret is a perennial that tastes like a cross between a potato and a parsnip; it’s sweet and filling.

And walking onions are perennial scallions that spread, and thrive with Hidcote Blue comfrey, which has blue nodding flowers. Chickens love the calcium-rich, dark green leaves, and its roots improve the soil.


The Terrible Tragedy of the Healthy Eater

February 10, 2013

From Northwest Edible Life

August 1, 2012 by · 452 Comments

I know you. We have a lot in common. You have been doing some reading and now you are pretty sure everything in the grocery store and your kitchen cupboards is going to kill you.

Before Your Healthy Eating Internet Education:

I eat pretty healthy. Check it out: whole grain crackers, veggie patties, prawns, broccoli. I am actually pretty into clean eating.

After Your Healthy Eating Internet Education:

Those crackers – gluten, baby. Gluten is toxic to your intestinal health, I read it on a forum. They should call those crackers Leaky Gut Crisps, that would be more accurate. That veggie burger in the freezer? GMO soy. Basically that’s a Monsanto patty. Did you know soybean oil is an insecticide? And those prawns are fish farmed in Vietnamese sewage pools. I didn’t know about the sewage fish farming when I bought them, though, really I didn’t!

The broccoli, though..that’s ok. I can eat that. Eating that doesn’t make me a terrible person, unless….oh, shit! That broccoli isn’t organic. That means it’s covered with endocrine disrupting pesticides that will make my son sprout breasts. As if adolescence isn’t awkward enough.

And who pre-cut this broccoli like that? I bet it was some poor Mexican person not making a living wage and being treated as a cog in an industrial broccoli cutting warehouse. So I’m basically supporting slavery if I eat this pre-cut broccoli. Oh my God, it’s in a plastic bag too. Which means I am personally responsible for the death of countless endangered seabirds right now.

I hate myself.

Well, shit.

All you want to do is eat a little healthier. Really. Maybe get some of that Activa probiotic yogurt or something. So you look around and start researching what “healthier” means.

That really skinny old scientist dude says anything from an animal will give you cancer. But a super-ripped 60 year old with a best-selling diet book says eat more butter with your crispy T-Bone and you’ll be just fine as long as you stay away from grains. Great abs beat out the PhD so you end up hanging out on a forum where everyone eats green apples and red meat and talks about how functional and badass parkour is.

You learn that basically, if you ignore civilization and Mark Knopfler music, the last 10,000 years of human development has been one big societal and nutritional cock-up and wheat is entirely to blame. What we all need to do is eat like cave-people.

You’re hardcore now, so you go way past way cave-person. You go all the way to The Inuit Diet™.

Some people say it’s a little fringe, but you are committed to live a healthy lifestyle. “Okay,” you say, “let’s do this shit,” as you fry your caribou steak and seal liver in rendered whale blubber. You lose some weight which is good, but it costs $147.99 a pound for frozen seal liver out of the back of an unmarked van at the Canadian border.

Even though The Inuit Diet™ is high in Vitamin D, you learn that every disease anywhere can be traced to a lack of Vitamin D (you read that on a blog post) so you start to supplement. 5000 IU of Vitamin D before sitting in the tanning booth for an hour does wonders for your hair luster.

Maxing out your credit line on seal liver forces you to continue your internet education in healthy eating. As you read more you begin to understand that grains are fine but before you eat them you must prepare them in the traditional way: by long soaking in the light of a new moon with a mix of mineral water and the strained lacto-fermented tears of a virgin.

You discover that if the women in your family haven’t been eating a lot of mussels for at least the last four generations, you are pretty much guaranteed a $6000 orthodontia bill for your snaggle-tooth kid. That’s if you are able to conceive at all, which you probably won’t, because you ate margarine at least twice when you were 17.

Healthy eating is getting pretty complicated and conflicted at this point but at least everyone agrees you should eat a lot of raw vegetables.

Soon you learn that even vegetables are trying to kill you. Many are completely out unless they are pre-fermented with live cultures in a specialized $79 imported pickling crock. Legumes and nightshades absolutely cause problems. Even fermentation can’t make those healthy.

Goodbye, tomatoes. Goodbye green beans. Goodbye all that makes summer food good. Hey, it’s hard but you have to eliminate these toxins and anti-nutrients. You probably have a sensitivity. Actually, you almost positively have a sensitivity. Restaurants and friends who want to grab lunch with you will just have to deal.

Kale: it’s what’s for dinner. And lunch. And breakfast.

The only thing you are sure of is kale, until you learn that even when you buy organic, local kale from the store (organic, local kale is the only food you can eat now) it is probably GMO cross-contaminated. Besides, it usually comes rolled in corn starch and fried to make it crunchier.  Market research, dahling…sorry, people like crunchy cornstarch breaded Kale-Crispers™ more than actual bunny food.

And by now you’ve learned that the only thing worse than wheat is corn. Everyone can agree on that, too. Corn is making all of America fat. The whole harvest is turned into ethanol, high fructose corn syrup, chicken feed and corn starch and the only people who benefit from all those corn subsidies are evil companies like Cargill.

Also, people around the world are starving because the U.S. grows too much corn. It doesn’t actually make that much sense when you say it like that, but you read it on a blog. And anyway, everyone does agree that corn is Satan’s grain. Unless wheat is.

The only thing to do, really, when you think about it, is to grow all your own food. That’s the only way to get kale that isn’t cornstarch dipped. You’ve read a lot and it is obvious that you can’t trust anything, and you can’t trust anyone and everything is going to kill you and the only possible solution is to have complete and total control over your foodchain from seed to sandwich.

Not that you actually eat sandwiches.

You have a little panic attack at the idea of a sandwich on commercial bread: GMO wheat, HFCS and chemical additive dough conditioners. Some people see Jesus in their toast but you know the only faces in that mix of frankenfood grains and commercial preservatives are Insulin Sensitivity Man and his sidekick, Hormonal Disruption Boy.

It’s okay, though. You don’t need a deli sandwich or a po’boy. You have a saute of Russian Kale and Tuscan Kale and Scotch Kale (because you love international foods). It’s delicious. No, really. You cooked the kale in a half-pound of butter that had more raw culture than a black-tie soiree at Le Bernardin.

You round out your meal with a little piece of rabbit that you raised up and butchered out in the backyard. It’s dusted with all-natural pink Hawaiian high-mineral sea salt that you cashed-in your kid’s college fund to buy and topped with homemade lacto-fermented herb mayonnaise made with coconut oil and lemons from a tropical produce CSA share that helps disadvantaged youth earn money by gleaning urban citrus. The lemons were a bit over-ripe when they arrived to you, but since they were transported by mountain bike from LA to Seattle in order to keep them carbon neutral you can hardly complain.

The rabbit is ok. Maybe a bit bland. Right now you will eat meat, but only meat that you personally raise because you saw that PETA thing about industrial beef production and you can’t support that. Besides, those cows eat corn. Which is obscene because cows are supposed to eat grass. Ironically, everyone knows that a lawn is a complete waste in a neighborhood – that’s where urban gardens should go. In other words, the only good grass is grass that cows are eating. You wonder if your HOA will let you graze a cow in the common area.

In the meantime, you are looking for a farmer who raises beef in a way you can support and you have so far visited 14 ranches in the tri-state area. You have burned 476 gallons of gas driving your 17-mpg SUV around to interview farmers but, sadly, have yet to find a ranch where the cattle feed exclusively on organic homegrown kale.

Until you do, you allow yourself a small piece of rabbit once a month. You need to stretch your supply of ethical meat after that terrible incident with the mother rabbit who nursed her kibble and ate her kits. After that, deep down, you aren’t really sure you have the stomach for a lot more backyard meat-rabbit raising.

So you eat a lot of homegrown kale for awhile. Your seasoning is mostly self-satisfaction and your drink is mostly fear of all the other food lurking everywhere that is trying to kill you.

Eventually your doctor tells you that the incredible pain you’ve been experiencing is kidney stones caused by the high oxalic acid in the kale. You are instructed to cut out all dark leafy greens from your diet, including kale, beet greens, spinach, and swiss chard and eat a ton of low-fat dairy.

Your doctor recommends that new healthy yogurt with the probiotics. She thinks it’s called Activa

Gardening Simple Vegetables in your Back Yard

February 6, 2013
Go for the real food!

Go for the real food!

Ever wonder why you don’t find crooked carrots in the grocery store?  Or vegetables like kohlrabi and diakons that you’ve barely ever heard of? Often when we buy food we are getting the perfectly prepared bunch that someone took a lot of time on growing harvesting washing, packaging, and shipping usually from California.  Many kinds of food we don’t see commercially because they don’t ship, package and store well.

Imagine instead when you are cooking dinner that you suddenly fancy some parsley or basil or broccoli or zucchini and all you have to do is walk right outside your door and pick it. Convenient, fresh and oh so tasty!

When we grow food ourselves we can eat produce that is ugly, too small, too big, has three “ legs” and has one little bad spot.  Suddenly you open yourself up to a whole new world of food eating that doesn’t come from a can and taste like mush or make you fat.  The time you spend makes ups for itself in taste convenience and health. Have you ever tasted a tomato in the middle of February that tasted like well… cardboard and then later been given a home gown tomato from a friend?  Need I say more? We have forgotten what good food tastes like!

In this country we are so disconnected from our food source that many kids haven’t even seen a cow or even been to a farm. Many of us are overweight.  When we have a garden and practice seasonal eating and bring food and farms back into our lives we remember that veggies taste good, health is important, the environmental impact is lower and food is better fresh and in season.   And there is always one more fresh vegetable to look forward to.  When you are sick of peas, out come the green beans, sweet corn, eggplants, peppers and zucchini in all their colors. And if you get sick of them by fall you are thinking of pumpkins and cauliflower.

But are you scratching your head and saying how do I get from lawn to something to eat? It’s a lot easier than you think. Start with one or two beds and don’t overwhelm yourself thinking you need to grow everything you eat the first year!  A few favorite crops will build your confidence so you can expand next year.

The most important first step is finding the sunniest spot in your yard. Observe the sun pattern for a day but consider how things look during the entire season because some things need more sun in September while others need that first sun in April. Vegetables will not grow well in the shade. 6-8 hours of sun is ideal. If you don’t have a lot of sun there are many kinds of berry bushes that handle a little more shade.  Some that taste great but aren’t all produced commercially are goose berries, currants, raspberries, blue berries etc.

The basic tools you will need are at least a shovel, a digging fork, and a rake. A spade also makes nice clean edges and cuts the grass roots clean so they won’t come back as much. Rototillers are useful but not needed if you are starting small. A weeding tool is also useful.  The hula hoe is one that works great.tunnel2

Once you have tools and have determined your sunniest spot, create a nice soft nutritive place for your plants to land.   Make your beds narrow enough so you can reach the middle from both sides and run them east to west for the greatest amount of sun. There are two possible methods of building beds depending on your existing lawn and how fast you want to eat your produce.  You can either build up or build down.   The building up method takes less work up front but takes longer to make nice soil. The building down method works if you don’t hit huge boulders or sand.

The very easiest planting down method is to take an already existing bed that has flowers or something else in it and adding fertility (more on that later) for vegetables.  Or, if you are digging down, cut out the sod in squares and shake them out and add them to your compost bin. If there is too many for the bin stack them upside down and cover the top of the stack with a little bit of soil. They will turn into compost eventually. Once you have the soil bare, take a fork and dig it up and loosen and take out any leftover roots. Add a couple good wheel barrows of either compost or some kind of digested animal manure and your amendments listed below.

Planting up is used in an area that has been mowed for many years or is super rocky. The soil is usually super compacted in pretty poor shape and hard to dig or has a lot of sand.  In this case stick the fork in the ground in many places as possible and wiggle it back and forth to make some air flow.  If you have leaves or grass clippings or any green plant material lying around layer this on top of the ground. If you can save your leaves from the previous fall they make a great base layer though don’t make them too thick because then tend to matt. Usually any town transfer station will give you leaves and wood chips for free.  Lay down cardboard on top of your greens and leaves the size of the bed with the tape removed. Don’t use weed block because the ground and the built up bed will eventually become one when the cardboard is eaten by worms.  Spray the cardboard with water and on top of it add a good thick layer of compost or manure. Manure is cheaper to get in larger amounts than finished compost. Some farms will scoop a whole load into your truck for cheaper than the price of packaged bags at the store.  Add a nice layer of soil and your amendments and then mix together the top layer of soil ammmendments and compost.  The cardboard will kill the grass underneath while the stuff on top makes the bed plantable.  Some plants are better adapted to new beds usually squash and cucumbers and things that tendril. Something with nice long tap roots can help loosen the soil over time. In the fall it’s a good idea to refresh the soil with more manure  because plants take nutrients out of the soil.IMG_2261

In organic backyard gardening, unlike commercial production, soil is the most important factor. If the soil has everything your plants need they will be happy. In most places the ground lacks the trace minerals that the plants need to grow well.  As a gardener you can rebuild the soil through adding some amendments each serving a different purpose. At any garden store has these things and will explain how much you need.

For Nitrogen add bone meal alfalfa or cotton seed meal. For phosphorus add Rock phosphate or bone meal. And for potash and trace minerals add kelp meal or green sand. To bring the Ph back to basic add Lime and Wood ash. If you notice pine trees around or even understory blueberries your soil has some acidity and could use balancing. Crushed eggshells work well to add calcium. Manure and Compost add worm and hummus and microbial life.

Mix all of the ingredients together and rake out your bed nice and smooth. You are ready to plant but what and how much and where?  Focus on a few things you really like to eat that you would enjoy running outside to pick.  Many of the coops and garden stores all sell really nice starts and keep you from having to baby the plants for the hardest six weeks of their life.

The season goes in three waves. The early cold weather crops like peas, fava beans and spinach get planted first usually by direct seeding rather than transplants.  Then comes seedlings of cabbage, broccoli, beets, collards, brussel sprouts, chard, and kale in April or early May. And by the end of May out comes the hot weather crops like peppers tomatoes basil squash and cucumbers as we cross our fingers and hope the temperature will not dip below 32 degrees.  If this happens the warm weather crops usually pull through by being covered with a single sheet of plastic over night.  By June salads are being eaten and peas are busting off the vine.  And by the end of July you wonder what you are going to do with zucchinis the size of baseball bats. (Maybe they really do make good bats!)

Often people plant their seedling way too close together.  Plants that are too crowded will not have enough nutrients to support all the plant life.  Most seed packets tell you the correct spacing Keep in mind companion planting when planning the garden. Plants are kind of like people. There are some you like some you are indifferent to and some you really don’t like.  Do you want to spend all your time with that one i- law who drives you nuts? Yeah tomatoes don’t like it either.  Companion planting is the method of creating symbiosis between plants. It includes creating microclimates, using other plants to fight disease or adding nutrients to the soil and space management. If you plan it right there are immense rewards to how you organize things in the garden. For example planting a ring of radishes around your baby squash stops the squash borer, or lettuce interplant’s

nicely with broccoli and is grateful for the extra shade in hot summer. There are some great books that talk about companion planting and backyard gardening including Carrots Love Tomatoes by Louise Riotte or   How to Grow More Vegetables  by John Jeavons.

This is what happens to your lawn mower when you start growing food...

This is what happens to your lawn mower when you start growing food…

When planting tuck them in gently their beds just like one of your own kids! Give them a good watering making sure not to drown them with too powerful of a spray.  At first they will just sit there and not do much until they have adjusted to their new homes.  But when you least expect it they will get bigger and start to hold their own.  Give them enough water when they are young.  If you stick your finger in the soil the ground should be wet a little ways down.

People often get scared by weeding.  But if you get them when they are just a fine carpet on the bed it will save hours of time later. Run over the whole bed with a hula hoe scratching up the surface and your plants will gain on the weeds.  It makes all the difference later.  Most of the garden stores sell hula hoes which are one of my favorite hand tools.

By midsummer your efforts will have paid off and though your kids though they may still hate zucchini and brussel sprouts, they may go for that nice looking tomato. Or they may find that carrots take on a whole new meaning when they helped plant and watch it grow.  You can start putting produce in the freezer or canning it for those midwinter days in February when all the food you can buy comes from 1500 miles away.

Growing your own food is a fun, enjoyable, empowering experience. Until quite recently everyone used to be farmers.  By growing some of our own food, we reconnect with farmers, gain gratitude for all the work food takes, and remember good eating is essential it is to our lives, our health and the health of the planet.

Dont Let Monsanto buy out NPR!

May 12, 2011

If you listen to NPR, you might have been surprised to hear a story that ran last week on the program Marketplace that sounded as if it were written by Monsanto itself.

The report, entitled “The Non-Organic Future,” claimed that the only way to feed the world is to give poor farmers fertilizers, pesticides and genetically modified seeds.

Pedro Sanchez, a proponent of industrial agriculture who works as a soil scientist at Columbia University, is the mouthpiece for the absurd proposition that soil is “like a bank account, you’ve got to have a positive balance, and if you deposit only organics, you’re going to go broke.”

In a comment posted at Marketplace’s website, Anna Lappé, author of Diet for a Hot Planet, pointed to a gaping hole in their reporting: the failure to acknowledge the 2009 International Assessment of Agricultural Knowledge, Science, and Technology for Development (IAASTD) Report, a joint project of the U.N. and the World Bank, among other agencies. Here’s Anna’s apt description of the report:

“The groundbreaking study brought together 400 experts who worked for 4.5 years to explore the most efficient, productive, and sustainable strategy for feeding the world. The conclusion – quite the opposite of the one reached by those quoted in this segment – stated in no uncertain terms that we must move away from chemical- and fossil[-fuel]-dependent agriculture, which by the way includes biotech.

“Business as usual is not an option, was the radical consensus. Instead, small-scale and mid-scale agroecological farming holds our best hope for feeding the world safe, healthy food, all without undermining our natural capital.”

As the IAASTD report shows, Sanchez’s view is hardly the only or even the dominant view among development experts about how to “feed the world.” Indeed, if there is a consensus, Sanchez’s views are in the minority.

Listeners might chalk the whole thing up to sloppy reporting, if it weren’t for the fact that over the last couple of years, Marketplace has been underwritten by Monsanto, and the program’s been running ads that tout Monsanto as a sustainable agriculture innovator! Rather than being sloppy, it turns out that the reporting is actually a carefully constructed thank-you gift for a prized advertiser!

If you find this type of corporate influence and media bias unacceptable, please ask American Public Media, producers of Marketplace, to stop spreading Monsanto’s lies

Campus Food Revolution Heats Up with Summer 2011 Trainings for Student Food Co-op Leaders

May 5, 2011

Campus Food Revolution Heats Up with Summer 2011 Trainings for Student Food Co-op Leaders

Summer 2011 series of regional leadership trainings for college students to incubate and empower the next wave of student food cooperatives on college campuses across the US!

For Immediate Release – May 3, 2011

A food revolution continues to simmer in higher education, as students from college campuses through out the country will be trained this summer to launch student-run food cooperative projects. With training and support provided by the Cooperative Food Empowerment Directive (CoFed), college students are learning business and organizing skills in order to create local and sustainable food enterprises on their campus.

# College students who attended CoFed’s first national training, held January 2011 in CA

Through summer incubations, which include week-long intensive trainings and follow-up support services, CoFed will teach campus teams the essential skills and strategies for establishing new student-run food co-ops.  Students will be trained in areas including how to write a business plan, conduct market research, raise start-up capital, collaborate with local farmers, gain support from college administrators, and recruit a team of fellow students committed to practicing the cooperative business model.

“This campus food revolution is emerging all across the US, from Athens, Georgia to Kalamazoo, Michigan, and from Washington, DC to Seattle, Washington. We are seeing a new generation of college students rise up and cooperatively build alternative ways to feed themselves real food,” said CoFed’s co-founder and director Yonatan Landau.

“We see thousands of college students hungry for greater access to healthy, ethically sourced, locally produced food. Campus food co-ops give students great food at affordable prices, while supporting local farmers and imparting students with financial and organizational skills crucial for success in life after college,” said Landau.

In addition to the leadership training that dozens of campus leaders will acquire via CoFed’s week-long regional leadership retreats in June, these students will also receive personal assistance from CoFed’s six regional directors, who serve as expert advisers helping each campus team design and implement a strategic plan for launching their new food co-op.

CoFed retreats are like summer camp for campus “real food” activists, fusing workshops on business planning & team building with leadership trainings, and tons of fun!

GW Food Co-op student leader Melissa Eddison (2nd from left) wins the $10,000 Knapp Fellowship award – April 26, 2011
“Planning and building a campus food co-op is a major endeavor that requires a lot of hard work and collaborative effort,” said CoFed’s Mid-Atlantic regional director and University of Maryland Student Food Collective worker-owner Liz Ciavolino. “This is a challenge for busy students, but the benefits they’ll gain in access to cooperative food empowerment make it totally worthwhile. The good news is that CoFed has a ton of knowledge and resources in place to help our campus partners succeed.”

Already, students who participated in CoFed’s first national training, held this winter in California, are beginning to reap the benefits. For example, the GW Food Co-op’s plan for a nonprofit, student-run food co-op at George Washington University in downtown Washington, DC has earned them the $10,000 inaugural Knapp Fellowship for Entrepreneurial Service-Learning award.

The cost per student to attend a CoFed summer retreat is $250; scholarships are available, but the deadline to apply is May 15th. Students can apply here:

For more information, interviews, or to schedule media attendance at a CoFed summer retreat, please contact:

CoFed National Director  – Yonatan Landau, (510) 207 3850 or OR CoFed Media Coordinator – Jeff Genauer, (856) 535 8547 or

Permaculture evening talk

April 18, 2011

Backyard Permaculture Gardening
evening talk
Where: Sirius Community 72  Baker Rd Shutesbury MA
When : April 20th 2011 7:30
Cost: Free

Want to stop mowing so much grass and turn it into something edible?
It can happen in less steps than you think.

Come learn whats possible and whats needed to grow your one food on land that
you already have.
We will show a short film clip about Eric Toensmeier (co author of edible forest gardens) and how they
went from barely grass to an edible paradise in a few short years.

Come learn about resources available.
Have your questions answered.

Meet  Permaculture teachers and consultants: 

KAY CAFASSO,  of Sowing Solutions
LLANI DAVIDSON, of Gardens for Change
RYAN HARB,  Sustainability Specialist. Umass Amherst

Monsanto Lawsuit

April 10, 2011

Dan Ravicher and his organization have an impressive track record for other patent
cases. Mr. Ravicher expects the case to last 4-6 years with all the appeals
and procedures. Publicizing the case is highly desirable, so spread the news
far and wide. There are a lot of comments by the farming organizations below, which give a good overview over the concerns of the farming community.

That Would Prohibit Monsanto From Suing Organic Farmers and Seed Growers
If Contaminated By Roundup Ready Seed

NEW YORK – March 29, 2011 – On behalf of 60 family farmers, seed
businesses and organic agricultural organizations, the Public Patent
Foundation (PUBPAT) filed suit today
Monsanto Company to challenge the chemical giant’s patents on
genetically modified seed. The organic plaintiffs were forced to sue
preemptively to protect themselves from being accused of patent
infringement should they ever become contaminated by Monsanto’s
genetically modified seed, something Monsanto has done to others in the

The case, Organic Seed Growers& Trade Association, et al. v. Monsanto,
was filed in federal district court in Manhattan and assigned to Judge
Naomi Buchwald. Plaintiffs in the suit represent a broad array of
family farmers, small businesses and organizations from within the
organic agriculture community who are increasingly threatened by
genetically modified seed contamination despite using their best efforts
to avoid it. The plaintiff organizations have over 270,000 members,
including thousands of certified organic family farmers.

“This case asks whether Monsanto has the right to sue organic farmers
for patent infringement if Monsanto’s transgenic seed should land on
their property,” said Dan Ravicher, PUBPAT’s Executive Director and
Lecturer of Law at Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law in New York. “It
seems quite perverse that an organic farmer contaminated by transgenic
seed could be accused of patent infringement, but Monsanto has made such
accusations before and is notorious for having sued hundreds of farmers
for patent infringement, so we had to act to protect the interests of
our clients.”

Once released into the environment, genetically modified seed
contaminates and destroys organic seed for the same crop. For example,
soon after Monsanto introduced genetically modified seed for canola,
organic canola became virtually extinct as a result of contamination.
Organic corn, soybeans, cotton, sugar beets and alfalfa now face the
same fate, as Monsanto has released genetically modified seed for each
of those crops, too. Monsanto is developing genetically modified seed
for many other crops, thus putting the future of all food, and indeed
all agriculture, at stake.

In the case, PUBPAT is asking Judge Buchwald to declare that if organic
farmers are ever contaminated by Monsanto’s genetically modified seed,
they need not fear also being accused of patent infringement. One
reason justifying this result is that Monsanto’s patents on genetically
modified seed are invalid because they don’t meet the “usefulness”
requirement of patent law, according to PUBPAT’s Ravicher, plaintiffs’
lead attorney in the case. Evidence cited by PUBPAT in its opening
filing today proves that genetically modified seed has negative economic
and health effects, while the promised benefits of genetically modified
seed – increased production and decreased herbicide use – are false.

“Some say transgenic seed can coexist with organic seed, but history
tells us that’s not possible, and it’s actually in Monsanto’s financial
interest to eliminate organic seed so that they can have a total
monopoly over our food supply,” said Ravicher. “Monsanto is the same
chemical company that previously brought us Agent Orange, DDT, PCB’s and
other toxins, which they said were safe, but we know are not. Now
Monsanto says transgenic seed is safe, but evidence clearly shows it is

The plaintiffs in the suit represented by PUBPAT are: Organic Seed
Growers and Trade Association; Organic Crop Improvement Association
International, Inc.; OCIA Research and Education Inc.; The Cornucopia
Institute; Demeter Association, Inc.; Navdanya International; Maine
Organic Farmers and Gardeners Association; Northeast Organic Farming
Association/Massachusetts Chapter, Inc.; Northeast Organic Farming
Association of Vermont; Rural Vermont; Ohio Ecological Food& Farm
Association; Southeast Iowa Organic Association; Northern Plains
Sustainable Agriculture Society; Mendocino Organic Network; Northeast
Organic Dairy Producers Alliance; Canadian Organic Growers; Family
Farmer Seed Cooperative; Sustainable Living Systems; Global Organic
Alliance; Food Democracy Now!; Family Farm Defenders Inc.;
Farm-to-Consumer Legal Defense Fund; FEDCO Seeds Inc.; Adaptive Seeds,
LLC; Sow True Seed; Southern Exposure Seed Exchange; Mumm’s Sprouting
Seeds; Baker Creek Heirloom Seed Co., LLC; Comstock, Ferre& Co., LLC;
Seedkeepers, LLC; Siskiyou Seeds; Countryside Organics; Cuatro Puertas;
Interlake Forage Seeds Ltd.; Alba Ranch; Wild Plum Farm; Gratitude
Gardens; Richard Everett Farm, LLC; Philadelphia Community Farm, Inc;
Genesis Farm; Chispas Farms LLC; Kirschenmann Family Farms Inc.;
Midheaven Farms; Koskan Farms; California Cloverleaf Farms; North
Outback Farm; Taylor Farms, Inc.; Jardin del Alma; Ron Gargasz Organic
Farms; Abundant Acres; T& D Willey Farms; Quinella Ranch; Nature’s Way
Farm Ltd.; Levke and Peter Eggers Farm; Frey Vineyards, Ltd.; Bryce
Stephens; Chuck Noble; LaRhea Pepper; Paul Romero; and, Donald Wright
Patterson, Jr.

Many of the plaintiffs made statements upon filing of the suit today.

Jim Gerritsen, a family farmer in Maine who raises organic seed and is
President of lead plaintiff Organic Seed Growers and Trade Association
based in Montrose, Colorado, said, “Today is Independence Day for
America. Today we are seeking protection from the Court and putting
Monsanto on notice. Monsanto’s threats and abuse of family farmers
stops here. Monsanto’s genetic contamination of organic seed and
organic crops ends now. Americans have the right to choice in the
marketplace – to decide what kind of food they will feed their families
– and we are taking this action on their behalf to protect that right to
choose. Organic farmers have the right to raise our organic crops for
our families and our customers on our farms without the threat of
invasion by Monsanto’s genetic contamination and without harassment by a
reckless polluter. Beginning today, America asserts her right to justice
and pure food.”

Dr. Carol Goland, Ph.D., Executive Director of plaintiff Ohio Ecological
Food& Farm Association (OEFFA) said, “Consumers indicate,
overwhelmingly, that they prefer foods made without genetically modified
organisms. Organic farms, by regulation, may not use GMOs, while other
farmers forego using them for other reasons. Yet the truth is that we
are rapidly approaching the tipping point when we will be unable to
avoid GMOs in our fields and on our plates. That is the inevitable
consequence of releasing genetically engineered materials into the
environment. To add injury to injury, Monsanto has a history of suing
farmers whose fields have been contaminated by Monsanto’s GMOs. On
behalf of farmers who must live under this cloud of uncertainty and
risk, we are compelled to ask the Court to put an end to this
unconscionable business practice.”

Rose Marie Burroughs of plaintiff California Cloverleaf Farms said, “The
devastation caused by GMO contamination is an ecological catastrophe to
our world equal to the fall out of nuclear radiation. Nature, farming
and health are all being affected by GMO contamination. We must protect
our world by protecting our most precious, sacred resource of seed
sovereignty. People must have the right to the resources of the earth
for our sustenance. We must have the freedom to farm that causes no
harm to the environment or to other people. We must protect the
environment, farmers livelihood, public health and people’s right to non
GMO food contamination.”

Ed Maltby, Executive Director of plaintiff Northeast Organic Dairy
Producers Alliance (NODPA) said, “It’s outrageous that we find ourselves
in a situation where the financial burden of GE contamination will fall
on family farmers who have not asked for or contributed to the growth of
GE crops. Family farmers will face contamination of their crops by GE
seed which will threaten their ability to sell crops as organically
certified or into the rapidly growing ‘Buy Local’ market where consumers
have overwhelmingly declared they do not want any GE crops, and then
family farmers may be faced by a lawsuit by Monsanto for patent
infringement. We take this action to protect family farms who once
again have to bear the consequences of irresponsible actions by Monsanto.”

David L. Rogers, Policy Advisor for plaintiff NOFA Vermont said,
“Vermont’s farmers have worked hard to meet consumers’ growing demand
for certified organic and non-GE food. It is of great concern to them
that Monsanto’s continuing and irresponsible marketing of GE crops that
contaminate non-GE plantings will increasingly place their local and
regional markets at risk and threaten their livelihoods.”

Dewane Morgan of plaintiff Midheaven Farms in Park Rapids, Minnesota,
said, “For organic certification, farmers are required to have a buffer
zone around their perimeter fields. Crops harvested from this buffer
zone are not eligible for certification due to potential drift from
herbicide and fungicide drift. Buffer zones are useless against pollen
drift. Organic, biodynamic, and conventional farmers who grow
identity-preserved soybeans, wheat and open-pollinated corn often save
seed for replanting the next year. It is illogical that these farmers
are liable for cross-pollination contamination.”

Jill Davies, Director of plaintiff Sustainable Living Systems in Victor,
Montana, said, “The building blocks of life are sacred and should be in
the public domain. If scientists want to study and manipulate them for
some supposed common good, fine. Then we must remove the profit motive.
The private profit motive corrupts pure science and increasingly
precludes democratic participation.”

David Murphy, founder and Executive Director of plaintiff Food Democracy
Now! said, “None of Monsanto’s original promises regarding genetically
modified seeds have come true after 15 years of wide adoption by
commodity farmers. Rather than increased yields or less chemical usage,
farmers are facing more crop diseases, an onslaught of
herbicide-resistant superweeds, and increased costs from additional
herbicide application. Even more appalling is the fact that Monsanto’s
patented genes can blow onto another farmer’s fields and that farmer not
only loses significant revenue in the market but is frequently exposed
to legal action against them by Monsanto’s team of belligerent lawyers.
Crop biotechnology has been a miserable failure economically and
biologically and now threatens to undermine the basic freedoms that
farmers and consumers have enjoyed in our constitutional democracy.”

Mark Kastel, Senior Farm Policy Analyst for plaintiff The Cornucopia
Institute said, “Family-scale farmers desperately need the judiciary
branch of our government to balance the power Monsanto is able to wield
in the marketplace and in the courts. Monsanto, and the biotechnology
industry, have made great investments in our executive and legislative
branches through campaign contributions and powerful lobbyists in
Washington. We need to court system to offset this power and protect
individual farmers from corporate tyranny. Farmers have saved seeds
since the beginning of agriculture by our species. It is outrageous
that one corporate entity, through the trespass of what they refer to as
their ‘technology,’ can intimidate and run roughshod over family farmers
in this country. It should be the responsibility of Monsanto, and
farmers licensing their technology, to ensure that genetically
engineered DNA does not trespass onto neighboring farmland. It is
outrageous, that through no fault of their own, farmers are being
intimidated into not saving seed for fear that they will be doggedly
pursued through the court system and potentially bankrupted.”


The Public Patent Foundation (PUBPAT) is a not-for-profit legal services
organization affiliated with the Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law.
PUBPAT protects freedom in the patent system by representing the public
interest against undeserved patents and unsound patent policy. More
information about PUBPAT is available


Daniel B. Ravicher
Executive Director
Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law