After a February tease of spring, the first few days of March have been a soggy, chilly flashback: crummy conditions for tromping around the quad of UNC-Asheville for the Organic Growers School, as we did last weekend. Fortunately, most of our classes and workshops were indoors, though there was a point where I found myself barefoot in a parking lot, in the snow, stomping in a frigid pool of mud (for a build-your-own wood-fired oven class). It took all day for my toesies to thaw out, and they are still a little Oompa Loompa-looking – stained orange by the Appalachian clay.
This was the 18th year of the spring conference, which tells you something about the priorities of this region. I know I’m a nerd, but I absolutely love being on a college campus. I love the sense of possibility and opportunity. I love being surrounded by people who love to learn, who practically worship learning, and accumulate ridiculous resources to do so. Libraries, computers, labs. I also love sitting in a lecture hall, listening to someone talk about the minutia of an obscure topic within a sub-sub-specialty that is his/her life’s work. Wacky experts are so cool. And they abounded at the OGS – mushroom experts, bee experts, flower experts, manure experts, chicken experts, blueberry experts. In other words, the OGS was right up my alley.
T had a slightly different experience – he’s not really a by-lecture learner; hands on is more his gig. (The OGS did offer a few hands-on (and feet-on) workshops – T did the one on artisan bread baking, and actually got to use a clay oven like the one I helped build.) I think you also have to be careful what classes you choose. My impression is that the courses at OGS are designed for the lowest common denominator. If you’ve already spent a lot of time on the internet or reading books about a topic like, say, gardening in a low water environment, the OGS class on the topic will probably just be a review. T is always on web looking up his interests, not to mention doing a number of farmy internships, so some of his classes were a disappointment. That being said, he did get to rub elbows with some big names in permaculture, got some inspiration, and brought home a tasty wood-fired baguette.
Fortunately, I don’t know much about much when it comes to organic gardening, so everything was new and delightful. I started with a class on growing small fruits, and did three classes on insects: attracting beneficials, native pollinator habitats, and beginning chemical-free honeybee keeping. My wildcard class was mycoforestry – mushroom growing – which was the geekiest of all, and WAY over my head with details. I walked out thinking, “I’m not sure mushrooms are going to be my thing.” But, I have to admit, it is the class I’ve been thinking and talking about the most since. And then there were the other-worldly infrared time-lapse videos of fungus growing in a Petri dish – eye candy for a science geek like me. Here and here are something similar.
Anyway, I thought the best way to go about sharing what I learned is to just focus on the big take-home messages, which might seem like no-brainers, but are not often put into practice, even by serious organic farmers. Sorry I don’t have any photos. I may get a few from another participant, and will update this post with them if I can. Here goes:
1. Don’t poo-poo the ornamentals – With the rising popularity of “edible landscaping”, it is easy to think that the traditional flowerbed lining your driveway just isn’t cool anymore. Case in point, the small fruits instructor actually issued the decree, in an exasperated tone, “Don’t plant something that flowers but doesn’t bear fruit!” To be fair, I think he has a particular beef with the ubiquitous Bradford pear – which isn’t one of my favorites either (is it just me, or do those trees STINK?). But, (forgive me small fruits expert –for your class was very interesting and informative), I think this attitude risks seeming snobbish, and is one reason some people are turned off by organic advocates. We have to incorporate things we love into our gardens, or we won’t want to be out there at all. More importantly, a diverse selection of beautiful, non-edible plants brings all kinds of benefits to your (or your neighbor’s) food garden: including pollinators, fungi, birds and predator insects. I remember H & M had a wonderful variety of flowers in their vegetable garden that made weeding around the bean poles so much more pleasant.
2. Wait and watch – This applies to almost everything: planting, building, spraying, medicating. We just react too fast, and I’m no exception. I’m incredibly impatient and just want my gratification now, thank you very much. But the message this weekend was ‘slow down.’ Have some faith that Mother Nature can take care of a few things, given some time. In a healthy, balanced garden with a diversity of plant life, beneficial insects may be able to take care of whatever is eating your broccoli. Don’t bring out the ‘big guns’ until you are really sure you’ll need them… Don’t build your wood fired oven or bee hive till you know which way the wind blows on your property… A strong beehive will often be able to purge itself of mites without chemicals… Watch how the water drains on your property and plan your veggie beds to make the most use of this.
3. Even bad bugs can be good bugs, except when they are very, very bad – That infestation on your collard greens might just be a smorgasbord with a big neon sign for predator insects. If you kill off the baddies (even with organic sprays), at the very least you’ve destroyed the buffet that will attract the good guys, and you might have even killed the beneficials with friendly fire. Give it a few days, and if the predator bugs don’t take care of the problem, then spray. But – be sure you are spraying the right part of the plant at the right time – you might not need as much as you think. This all applies until you are dealing with the invasive, foreign bugs – stuff like Japanese beetles – in which case the native environment is not adapted to deal with that threat, and you might need to intervene.
4. Fungi are a farmer’s friends – I associate mushrooms with dead and smelly stuff, like rotten logs and cow poop. But of course, the role of fungi in breaking down the detritus of the forest is very important in the ecological scheme of things. And it turns out that fungi not only eat dead things, but also live in symbiotic relationship with other plants. Apparently, in healthy forests, there are huge underground networks of mycelium, the root-ish part of mushrooms, which bring water, nutrients, and even medicines to trees. Speaking of medicines, mushrooms are being investigated for their virus, bacteria and cancer fighting properties in humans. They can also be used to remediate polluted ecosystems, to make dyes for fabric and paper, and a host of other practical applications. Of course, as our forests are being destroyed for large-scale agribusiness and housing development, the mushrooms are disappearing too. The mushroom guru who taught the class has taken a guerrilla approach to this problem: he mixes mushroom spores in with his bird seed so that they are spread all over the place. He also puts it in the oil he uses on his chainsaw, so that every time he has to cut down a tree, the stump is inoculated with fungus. As to being the farmer’s friend, mushrooms can be incorporated into wood chip mulch, logs that line garden beds, chicken coop bedding, and even straw bales. The fungus can protect plants and animals from disease, and makes more nutrients and water available to plants. Fascinating stuff. This is all not to mention the big bucks one can make selling edible mushrooms to restaurants. Mushroom-man told us he can sell some varieties for $20 a pound!
5. Incorporate natives – Go for diversity, but when you can, go for native diversity. Varieties that evolved in your region are more adapted to your climate, the insect ecology in your area, the companion plants and fungi, the hours of daylight you get, the water table, the soil content, and so on. When possible, go really local, as in what grows well in your specific holler or neighborhood. But even just regional plants, or North American plants, are a better bet than imports. I was excited to learn how many native Appalachian small fruits exist – and discovered something called paw-paw, which is apparently god’s perfect fruit (calorie dense, with a perfect fatty-acid, carb, protein and vitamin/mineral combination). The local idea can apply to animals and honeybees as well. Local breeders have often created a hybrid chicken that is well adapted to the region’s climate; and bees split from a hive that has done especially well in a region may do better than mail-order bees. Chickens and bees aren’t native to North America, but have been here long enough that there are adapted strains.
That’s my review of the OGS in a nutshell, for the stout-hearted reader that has made it this far. I hope these ideas are useful and inspiring for you! What gardening classes have you taken that changed the way you did things? Are there any new methods you are trying this year?