Abundant Harvests - garden info, Community Garden at Holy Nativity

forestgarden dec2015A forest garden is a garden of perennial plants that produce food.  It is often designed to look “forest-like,” with trees forming a canopy above, and smaller plants creating a “forest floor” effect underneath.

As part of the Westchester Community Oven project, we had always intended to try adding a food forest garden to the Community Garden at Holy Nativity.

Since the spot chosen was under an asphalt parking lot for at least 30 years, the first step was some soil remediation. Continue Reading

Abundant Harvests - garden info

The Secrets of Soil Building ebookYou can now get my new ebook, The Secrets of Soil Building, to help you in your gardening journey.

At the heart of every successful organic garden is rich, healthy, ALIVE garden soil.  The Secrets of Soil Building helps you build it, and become an awesome vegetable gardener.

If you liked my classes at the Community Garden at Holy Nativity and at Otis College of Art and Design, here’s all that rich info, collected in one place.  This ebook has been substantially revised from the 2012 paperback version, and it’s now available on all your favorite ebook platforms.

The Secrets of Soil Building ebook

Abundant Harvests - garden info

I’ve been thinking about soil pH lately – particularly since the oven project at the Garden will be creating an ongoing supply of wood ash.

pH is a measurement of the acidity or alkalinity of your soil. “Soil pH influences the solubility of nutrients. It also affects the activity of micro-organisms responsible for breaking down organic matter and most chemical transformations in the soil. Soil pH thus affects the availability of several plant nutrients.” (1) Continue Reading

Abundant Harvests - garden info, water wisdom

raised bed“To be a successful vegetable gardener you need raised beds,” the garden catalogs and East Coast garden magazines try to persuade us with effusive and glorious terms.

Consider what is behind their arguments: a drive for commercial sales, and a dramatically different growing climate.

East Coast gardeners raise their beds for two good reasons: 1) to be able to dig the soil sooner after a cold freeze, and 2) to keep the rootballs of their plants high so they won’t rot during extensive summertime rainfall. Neither of these is an issue here in Southern California. Thus their logical solution — raised beds — isn’t a good match for our Southern California growing conditions. Continue Reading

Abundant Harvests - garden info, Community Garden at Holy Nativity

someone else’s photo, that looks like what we saw

Yesterday in the Community Garden, we discovered that we are experiencing an attack of Root Knot Nematodes.  The beets we pulled up had failure to thrive, failed to form a beet root, and had tons of tumor-like growths on the hair roots.  Yuck.

The excess of one organism — to the point that we call them a “pest” — is a system imbalance.  It’s probably due to something lacking in the overall micro-ecosystem.

I’m sure our beets this year were weakened from lack of proper rain, and from excess high temperatures this season, so they were particularly succeptible.  My guess is that we probably have had low levels of root knot nematode everywhere for years, but thus far the soil ecosystem had kept them from flourishing and becoming an out-of-balance pest.

We grow organically, so that streamlines our treatment choices.  The goal is to regain the soil-ecosystem balance. Continue Reading

Abundant Harvests - garden info

Members of the Legume family – peas, beans, and all their cousins – are superstar soil-builders. In partnership with certain beneficial bacteria, legumes can capture nitrogen from the atmosphere and lock it into the soil where other plants can access it.

Plant legumes with every season. Include them in virtually all your garden rotations. If you have a gap in your planting schedule, or it’s too early for your next crop, plant legumes. If you’re thinking about your garden plans and not yet ready to plant, plant legumes. Let them go to work as soil builders while you’re figuring out your full design.

Legumes need certain beneficial soil bacteria to do their nitrogen-fixing work.  When you are establishing a new garden, or wish to boost the nitrogen-fixing capacity of your soil, dust your seeds with a bit of inoculant powder as you plant the seeds.  Peas, beans, favas, peanuts, lentils, and cowpeas use one kind of bacteria.  Alfalfa and clover work with a different kind, and garbanzo beans need their own. You can buy these special inoculants at the Bountiful Gardens website.

In Southern California’s year-round growing season, we must always be actively building our soil. Plus the legume harvest brings an important protein source to a vegetable-dominant diet.  Try it!

Cool season legumes for Southern California:
  • Peas: snowpeas, shelly peas, snap peas, soup peas
  • Fava beans
  • Clover, alfalfa
Warm season legumes for Southern California:
  • Beans: green beans, dry beans, shelly beans, bush beans, pole beans, runner beans, lima beans, yard-long beans
  • Garbanzos
  • Lentils
  • Soybeans
  • Peanuts
  • alfalfa
Hot weather legumes for Southern California:
  • Cowpeas, a.k.a. black-eyed peas
  • Garbanzos
  • Drought-tolerant and heat-tolerant bean varieties from the desert Southwest
Abundant Harvests - garden info

The term “fertilizer” is undeniably a marketing person’s invention. Looking to the roots of the word, “fertilizer” should be that which actively creates fertility.

But once we understand that the true sources of soil fertility are a rich abundance of diverse living organisms, and we realize that what chemicals do to those organisms is searing them out of existence, how can we possibly call any chemical soup a “fertilizer”?

About that chemical fertilizer

Lord Northbourne, writing in 1940 at the bare beginnings of widespread chemical agribusiness, said

Most of our “artificial manures” must be regarded at best as stimulants rather than as foods [for the land], and in no case therefore as substitutes for biologically sound feeding.
What then constitutes “biologically sound feeding”? That which will build the soil.

John Jeavons’ organization, Ecology Action, reports that in the U.S. for every pound of food eaten, 6 pounds of soil are lost due to water and wind erosion as the result of industrial agribusiness practices. In developing nations this jumps to 12 pounds of soil lost, and in China, 18. There may be as little as 40 years of farmable soil remaining globally.

There is enough evidence to know now that synthetic chemicals are destroying our health and our ability to reproduce and, thus, our ability to survive as a species.Agricultural chemicals have statistically and significantly been implicated in causing all sorts of cancers, behavioral problems, attention-deficit/hyperactivity disorder, autism, Parkinson’s disease, reduced intelligence, infertility, miscarriage, diabetes, infant deformities, and low birth weight …But all this research comes from the few scientists courageous enough to swim against the tide, to resist the easy funding offered by chemical and pharmaceutical companies and the pressure of their peers who rely on that funding.

We are allowing a few major global corporations, in collusion with our government, to poison us …   –Maria Rodale

At the 2015 international climate talks in Paris, soil sequestration was the buzzword.  Biologically alive, organic soils capture carbon — the global warming kind of carbon — and lock it away.  Building healthy, alive soil has become a critical global warming solution.

Thus biologically sound feeding and building the soil are critical to humanity’s survival.

Those brightly colored bags of “fertilizer” at the garden center – do they do this? Certainly not. At the Community Garden at Holy Nativity, we have begun to question whether we need any of that purchased “fertilizer” at all.

Given that we are moving into leaner times, when petroleum to create synthetic chemicals and to haul soil additives is becoming more precious, and when dollars to spend on “fertilizers” of any type are often scarce, growing our own seems quite practical.

Given the chemical stew we’re living in, active live composting seems to be a far wiser practice. Given the needs of our soil critters, and our need for them to be healthy and happy to make our planetary life-support system work, the answers become obvious.

Soil fertility

Dictionary.com defines fertility as the ability to produce offspring; power of reproduction. Thus true fertilizer should be that which boosts the soil organisms’ ability to thrive and multiply.

We can support healthy soil life by providing food (organic matter and compost), water, air (not compacting the soil), and shelter and protection (mulch). We can boost our soil life populations by bringing in live compost, full of eggs and spores.

Live compost

Building the soil means using practices which fold more and more organic matter (chem-free things-that-used-to-be-plants) into the soil to feed our soil organisms.

It means using rich, aged manures from animals of all kinds. It may include adding some “seed stock” of the soil organisms themselves – mycorrhizae, bacteria, fungi – particularly where these are known to be lacking.

read nourishing with compost

Worm castings

Worm castings from a worm bin are an excellent fertility booster. Worm castings are akin to a “balanced nutrient fertilizer” in that they do not emphasize one nutrient over another.

More about worm composting (here).


The Legume family (peas and beans) have the ability to capture nitrogen from the air – fertilizing the soil even as they are producing an edible crop.

There is some debate as to how to optimize the nitrogen-fixing. Some people say that all the action is in the root nodules, so to simply leave the roots intact and compost the tops of the plants is the ultimate way to go.

Other people declare that you must turn the green plants into the soil (heel them over and bury them), prior to their setting pods, in order to gain the most benefit. I have not heard of a clear answer to this issue.

I have a feeling that we will eventually discover that whether to turn them in or chop them off are merely shades of gray on the “good” end of the scale, where “bad” is not growing legumes at all.

The important thing is to make it your practice to grow legumes in every season.

Beneficial bacteria

When you’re establishing a new garden space (Lowenfels and Lewis say for the first two years) use inoculant as you plant your legume seeds.

This dusty black powder is the necessary beneficial bacteria which legumes need to do their nitrogen-fixing job. Use of inoculants will help build your soil and will also boost your yields.

Different types of legumes work best with different inoculants (i.e. different bacterial species) – for example clover inoculant is different from bean inoculant.

At the Community Garden at Holy Nativity, we buy our inoculants from Bountiful Gardens because they sell the various inoculant species separately, and you can buy the one you need.

Foliar sprays and compost tea

Foliar sprays are a homemade fertility booster.

To make a foliar spray, you make a “tea” from compost, manure, or specific plants or herbs, steep it for a significant length of time.  You then strain it, and spray it onto your garden – onto leaves, soil, and all.

Although I have not personally used foliar sprays, some people swear by them. Bountiful Gardens offers a publication exclusively about them.

Lowenfels and Lewis, however, caution against steeping because people worry that its anaerobic decomposition has a chance of producing harmful E. coli.

Lowenfels and Lewis recommend Actively Aerated Compost Tea which uses a repurposed aquarium pump and airstone to infuse bubbles during the steeping time. They say that the aerating process cultivates a broader spectrum of microorganisms. Look to their book for instuctions because they devote an entire chapter to the details of the process.

Abundant Harvests - garden info

Making compost isn’t rocket science.

Admittedly, upon deep scientific analysis the soil web is highly complex. But Nature knows her stuff. Don’t get in her way. Work with her, embrace her as your partner, and she’ll ably handle all those complexities for you. In other words, quit worrying so much.

Compost booklets lay out instructions with percentages for “green” versus “brown.” Catalogs eagerly sell you compost starters and compost turning devices and elaborate (expensive) compost containers. You don’t need any of it.

Short of the possible (and rare) exception of petrified wood, if you leave things-that-used-to-be-plants alone in a moist pile for long enough, eventually they’ll break down. The issue is, how quickly?

As gardeners with massive amounts of vegetables to grow in order to feed people, on deadened urban soils overdue for compost, we’re wanting to speed up the process. We want compost to happen relatively quickly and efficiently. We want to optimize retained nutrients. Compost will happen. But achieving rich, fast, hot compost is an art form.

Veteran bread bakers understand that the quantities of flour and liquid, rise and baking times they use will vary widely depending on the humidity of the air and the temperature of the kitchen. Veteran composters realize that “green” versus “brown” vary widely with weather conditions and shade patterns and the relative dryness of the materials you started out with.

When practicing an art form, the trick is to get personal with your product. Observe and interact. In the case of compost, touch it (yes, with your bare hands). Feel it. Smell it. Some gardeners even taste it.

If your in-process compost is getting crumbly and overly dry, add water and turn it. If it’s sticky and stinky and overly wet, add dry stuff (dry leaves, straw, shredded newspaper or junk mail) and turn it to bring it back into balance. If it’s not warm, turn it. If it’s in searing summer heat, turn it and give those live compost critters a little shade from the sun’s beating rays. When you keep the soil critters in mind, a lot of this becomes common sense.

If an ant colony has moved in (tons of ants, to excess), it is probably too dry. In Southern California, dryness is our biggest problem with compost. Particularly in warm weather, we have to water our compost piles!

If it’s not alive at all, water it and turn it. Then bring in a quart or so of “starter” – live compost from a friend’s active pile. Bury this precious black gold in the middle of your turned pile and jump-start your population of soil critters.

Entire books and websites have been devoted to the finer details of making compost. Realize that these are all about optimizing rich, fast, hot compost. But compost will happen, even if you ignore it, and the less-ideal stuff works too.

At home, my husband and I have overcooked some batches. At the Community Garden at Holy Nativity, we’ve used some batches before they were completely “done.” I’ve worked with some near-perfect material and some well-past-prime material. None of these have “harmed” our garden. Considering all of these within the context of the current state of most of our city soils, I’d say any homemade compost is a great benefit.

There are probably as many types of compost piles and techniques as there are composting gardeners. You don’t have to buy a bin. You can make one from wire, from wood, from found materials.

Or you can do it in an open pile. You can do it on top of bare dirt. You can even do it on top of a hard surface like concrete, although direct contact with bare dirt will make things easier for you because any resident soil organisms will come to help, plus they’ll have a place to retreat to in times of drought or less-than-ideal conditions.

Because Nature is so eager to make compost, there are many successful ways to the same result. There simply isn’t a wrong way to make compost. Just start.