Get the Dirt!

Summer Food Forest Farm Newsletter

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For those folks who have already joined our mailing list, "Get Farm News" in the footer of this page, you should be receiving our seasonal e-newsletter soon. For everyone else, if you've thought about signing up, but haven't yet done so, here is a special sample newsletter of what we offer each season.

(Note: the newsletter includes things like farm updates and event announcements. Whereas the monthly website blog posts "Get The Dirt"are generally articles and musings relevant to the farm, and may also include farm updates and event announcements. So, if you want updates about farm events and products sign up for our newsletter at the bottom of this page. If you want us to send you informational articles from our blog use the "subscribe via email" form on the top of our blog page "Get The Dirt".)

Click to read a sample of our e-newsletter--> "Happy Summer! From Food Forest Farm"

Grow Food and Soil With A Food Forest

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Soil before and after

After ten years of learning from and collaborating with a mega-diverse, globally inspired, edible forest garden, new wonders are under foot. Paradise Lot, here in Holyoke, Massachusetts, USA, has a soil story to tell, and we are finally getting around to deciphering its wonders.

Since 2004, each year we installed a portion of our design of perennial polycultures of multi-purpose plants into sheet mulched garden beds. Although we knew adding copious amounts of carbon and nitrogen rich materials onto the nutrient poor, lifeless ground, would one day “bear fruit", we got real fruit and lots of it, along with fruit of another kind — humus.

Humus is the be-all and end-all of healthy soil. With aggregates formed by life, able to hold multiple times its weight in water, teeming with unfathomable organisms, and packed chock full of the minerals plants and animals need for growth, humus is what gives us powerful resilience in the garden.

With very little direction from us, life has taken the components we offered: compost, mulch, plants and water to turn a dead lot into a thriving edible ecosystem. Here are the results:

SOIL CONDITIONS: 2004

2014

Compacted clay and sand, no topsoil

6 to 12 inches of new spongy topsoil

Opportunistic weeds like quackgrass, goldenrod

New introduced overgrowth is useful to the system: food, fodder, mulch, nursery stock

Organic Matter (OM) 2.4 %

OM 9 % (5 % humus)

Wide range pH 5.3 to 6.8

pH 6.2 to 6.7

Base Saturation ~ 86 % Ca / 7.5 % Mg

Base Saturation ~ 68.3 % Ca / 11.7 % Mg

Low to medium: NPK, calcium, magnesium, and trace minerals

“Almost perfect soil” — few mineral adjustments needed according to comprehensive soil audit

3.5 cation exchange capacity

11 cation exchange capacity

Partially polluted with lead

Lead soil is under mulch, healthy plants less likely to accumulate lead, lead bound to humus

Low diversity, soil smells like damp sand, or sulfurous clay

Dozens of worms in every shovel full of soil, soil smells like a forest

 

From the beginning, the garden has chiefly been an experiment about growing tasty, geeky plants. Eric Toensmeier and I also hoped to answer the question, "Is it possible to grow food by mimicking a young temperate forest?" The answer is looking more and more like "yes!" Growing fruit was expected, creating a living soil — smelling, looking and acting like forest soil — that’s an unforeseen surprise.


Backyard before and after

When starting your own edible forest garden or food forest, consider some of what we learned — a permaculture perspective on healthy soil:

  • Start any planting project by doing a comprehensive soil auditBring someone in who knows about biological or nutrient dense farming, who can take soil samples, do the tests and provide recommendations for improvement. There is a cost, but trust me it’s worth it. Northeast US resources include: www.forstersoilmanagement.comwww.bionutrient.org and www.loganlabs.com. Or learn yourself how to assess the soils mineral needs with a book: "The Intelligent Gardener: Growing Nutrient Dense Food"
  • Although university soil labs offer basic soil tests, I suggest staying away from them. Their tests are usually geared towards monoculture, conventional food production, and the data doesn’t account for the micronutrient complexities of no-till, ecologically rich soil. Labs like Logan Labs are accounting for soil nutrient balancing that the university labs don’t consider.
  • For instance, gardeners are taught that a neutral garden pH (i.e. 7 on the pH scale) is best for growing plants. In fact, a pH of 6.4, in mineral balanced soil, has been shown to grow the best food. Some university labs are now testing for base saturation but usually leave out how to fix it (a base saturation of 68% calcium and 12% magnesium is best). They encourage a good organic matter content but don’t necessarily tell you how to accomplish raising it to excellent (% humus is actually a better benchmark). Cation exchange capacity is tested by universities but not highlighted as important. High total cation exchange capacity means high biological activity and mineral availability.


  • Foot of new topsoil

    Balanced minerals: testing labs will provide you with values for macronutrients as well as some of the more important trace elements. Many of the trace elements that aren’t tested can be balanced with a little broad spectrum foliar fertilizer (seaweed emulsion or liquid sea minerals) each year. The dozens of other trace minerals are taken care of by the soil (it’s very hard to add them precisely, and they are used by plants at low amounts anyway).

  • If and where there is need, build rain capturing swales and catchment areas. This is something we left out, yet should have included. Water can be a life enhancing force. Bring more into your garden for system stability, less irrigating from a fossil fuel powered chlorinated tap (in the city), all the while saving money and time. (If you have too much water, then build raised beds to get above it).
  • Lift and aerate the soil as best you can before planting using a hand powered broad fork or machine-driven keyline plow/chisel plow. Then add a mineral blend based on your soil test. Mulch over the native soil with compost and organic matter, then plant. Or at least grow a thick diverse cover crop over areas that will be planted later. There shouldn’t be a need to disturb the soil again after establishing your plant polycultures (perennials mean no-till).
  • Good perennial plant diversity, designed to use the sun and root zone efficiently, seems to be key. Imagine what happens underground when dozens of species of plant roots, with their own unique biogeochemical mechanisms, pump life enhancing root exudates into the soil around them. I envision this enormous rhizosphere begetting an extremely vast soil food web, the cornerstone of healthy soil.
  • Over the first 2 to 5 years (we retested at 10 years) you are striving for the highest percent humus you can, holding water in the soil, providing habitat for a high diversity of soil food web organisms, particularly worms and mycorrhizae. Mycorrhizae are the nutrient and moisture accumulators of a forest garden. The more you have, the more resilient the system will be.
  • Bring animals into the system any way you can. They help with organic matter and nutrient cycling (saving labor, while producing a yield like eggs or meat). If the animals can’t be in the garden, bring the garden to them by cutting and carrying the weeds and chopped overgrowth to their pen. The resulting composted weeds and manure can be removed from the pen an added to beds at a later date. The woody prunings can be chopped up and added to the planting beds to feed mushrooms.
  • Once your soil minerals are balanced and in the excellent range, your plants are thriving, pests and diseases are low, and you can’t keep up with the abundant nutrient dense harvests, consider the garden’s long term mineral balance. If you eat from the garden, it makes sense to return your poo and pee, and the nutrients that would otherwise be flushed away, back to the garden.
  • We found that it is important to incorporate copious amounts of human engagement throughout the life of the project, particularly during the first years as we are aerating and mulching (planting, weeding and harvesting later on). We all get a workout, have fun learning and doing, and create important relationships for strong local networks (organize a permabliz in your own yard).

Some resources to check out regarding balancing and building soil in gardens and farms: Jeff Lowenfels two books; the book, The Intelligent Gardener: Growing Nutrient Dense Food; any of the editor’s picks at Acres USA; http://www.amazingcarbon.com/; http://www.soilfoodweb.com/; and the resources recommended by Dan Kittredge at bionutrient.org.


Backyard — before and after

From Voles to Skirret Fries

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One of our tastiest and easiest to grow perennial vegetables is skirret (Sium sisarum). A Parsley/carrot relative, self- sowing clumping perennial. It forms clusters of edible roots that taste like parsnips. Once the top growth dies to the ground, you can harvest roots to eat, and then replant the crown to grow it again. The flowers are lovely and they attract beneficial insects.


Yesterday I went digging for skirret plants to pot up and sell in the nursery. I pulled back the mulch and what did I find, well, I didn't find the nice rows of skirrets I'd planted, but giant piles of skirret roots! As you can see in the picture, our resident voles have a habit of collecting their food and piling it in caches for winter storage. At first I thought I had lost my inventory, then on further observation, realized that the voles had done me a favor by also piling the sprouting crowns, and organizing the edible roots for me to harvest and eat! The voles may have saved me an hour of digging and labor.




Cooked in butter, garlic chives, salt and pepper, the vole harvested skirret was devine. Thank you voles!



Spring on the farm

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During this busy time of year in the nursery, its nice to slow down and take in the happenings in the garden. I wanted to share some snapshots of what's been going on over the last few weeks:

It was sad to see it go. One of our biggest trees, the beach plum, grew twice as big as we expected it to, and it didn't have a pollinator, and it got diseased 2 out of 3 years, and we wanted to grow something else that we know will provide more food per area. So this picture is showing one of our Garden Help Days visitors sawing down the tree to make room for something new.

Well at least we had a few nice spring days in the 70's. But winter just won't go away. We got up this morning to see two inches of snow on the ground! Luckily we designed the garden with mostly hardy plants... Here you can see perennial leak (Allium ampeloprasum var. ampeloprasum) poking through the snow, kinda beautiful actually.

I end with a more hopeful image... hundreds of sea kale (Crambe maritima), perennial bean (Phaseolus polystachios) and chinese yam (Dioscorea batatas) starts. Our plants have a positive impact on the landscape and peoples lives, but they start down in our basement patiently waiting for their new home.

Food Forest Farm is now taking 2014 plant orders

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We are excited to share with you that our new, beautiful, mobile-friendly web site recently launched!  And we are taking plant orders for spring shipment or pickup. Now is your chance to order plants before they sell out.

Save the date for these Food Forest Farm educational opportunities:

  • April 26, Paradise Lot Spring Vegetable Tasting & Workshop
  • July 12, Paradise Lot Summer Fruit Tasting & Workshop
  • October 10, 11, Paradise Lot Fall Harvest Tasting & Workshop
  • November 15, Year-Round Food: Backyard Bioshelter Workshop

Coming soon to our new blog, 2013 Food Forest Farm Highlights:

  • Inspiring visit by Geoff Lawton, international permaculture teacher
  • Life changing urban Permaculture FEAST course
  • Shocking Food Forest Farm soil analysis, ten years later

Because of your great support over the last 5 years we were able to expand the web site. We look forward to continuing to serve you this year, and years to come.

Coming soon!

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We're excited about our new site - stay tuned for news and updates coming soon!

Photos by Eric Toensmeier and others.

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