Do you remember the post I wrote back in April about waiting for the soil to dry out? Playing the waiting game is something I do every year, but this year – for at least one field – I played and lost. Look at this soil: it’s dried rock solid. See those cracks? The clay contracts as it dries, and when those cracks open up they let air in.  With more air, the soil dries out even more thoroughly and at even deeper levels.

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You can’t till soil like that. Well, you can try, but running a rototiller over soil like that will be completely useless with a walk-behind machine, and on the tractor, it will be more like running a jackhammer than anything. With the higher horsepower of the tractor, you might perhaps be able to crawl along in first gear and pulverize that soil to the point that it looks kind of like crushed rock, but the noisy and very very dusty time you spend doing that will be only the first of your worries. I’ve had the sad experience of trying to transplant into that tilled-too-dry, crushed-rock-like soil. Work takes longer because it’s harder to dig in it, you’re kicking up dust yet stumbling over unwieldy soil clumps, and all the while you’re haunted by the knowledge that for all the time you’re putting into your work, you aren’t going to get the kind of return on investment out of your crop growth that you would have had if you’d just tilled on time.

Why did this happen? The first time I had this experience years ago I could chalk it up to just not knowing. I don’t want to be too hard on myself, but it’s important to ask why these things happen. It’s not that I didn’t check. I did check and kept finding that it wasn’t ready. Then I stopped checking for a while, and came back to what you see in the photo above.

Again, why? For one, we were short-staffed this spring, and I got overwhelmed. I put the blinders on and ignored some things so I could focus on others. Normal behaviour, but undesirable consequences. Then I ran out of fertilizer. In retrospect, I should have just tilled anyways, and then tilled again when the fertilizer came in, but I was trying, ostensively, to be efficient and not till twice. Why did I run out of fertilizer? I’ve been a bit scattered and distracted this spring for my own reasons, so I was late in placing our second order of the season, plus I had assumed I’d get a quicker turnaround from our supplier than what they were able to accomplish.

The third why is why I like plastic. The third why did I let the soil dry out? is this: the soil was bare all winter. It got rained on and compacted, so it took longer to dry out than it should have, and when it did dry out at all, it dried out all at once, making it easy to miss the narrow window in between. That kind of soil compaction and sudden drying doesn’t happen if the ground is covered either with a solid cover crop, or with a nice sheet of plastic.

Organic farmers aren’t supposed to like plastic, right? But I look at it this way: if we buy high-quality, made-in-Canada plastic silage tarp, it can last us a good ten years.  In those ten years, again and again you can pull that silage tarp over a field where the crop finished too late to plant a cover crop, and then walk away while the rain is kept from leaching nutrients out of the soil and while the worms are protected to work away at tilling the soil for you. Come back in the spring more or less at your leisure, and there will be plenty of moisture still in the soil. Till, then cover with the plastic tarp again, and all that natural moisture is locked in by the plastic so that it’s there for you when you go to plant your crop. The weeds don’t grow, so you don’t need to till the soil again to kill them. Now you’ve saved water and treated your soil better, all with a sheet of plastic that you can use for years to come.

Take a look at this. The two photos below are literally two feet or less from each other. One is just outside the plastic tarp, the other is just under it. I don’t know whether you can see it in the photo, but the bumps on the soil in the lower photo are worm castings.

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Does this justify the environmental costs of plastic? I think we’d need a full accounting of all the costs and benefits to figure that out. Admittedly, the plastic will eventually break down too much to be usable and end up as garbage.  Partly for that reason and partly due to financial cost and logistics, I’m not going to go hog-wild with it. In the field you see below, on the left is the too-dry area and on the right is the plastic-covered area. That plastic costed us more than $500.

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It’s too late now to throw a plastic tarp over my too-dry field.  At the time when it would have helped the soil, I couldn’t because we still had kale and other overwintered brassicas there (with plenty of bare soil in the pathways between them). Bit by bit, I’m running a little lawn sprinkler, moving it along at four-hour intervals, to gradually re-wet the soil since we don’t have a large-scale overhead irrigation system here. Is that a good use of irrigation water? I don’t think so, but if I don’t we won’t have anywhere to plant winter squash this year.

Let’s end on a positive note. I lost the waiting game on that field, but I won another game elsewhere: two of the terraces uphill from that field got planted with cover crops for a season-long rest this year. Those are hard-worked fields that haven’t had a break in a decade or more. I feel really good about seeing the curly little vetch seedlings coming up among the rye and oats and clover I sowed there.  The photo below is when they were first coming up a month ago.

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You’re always up some and down some. I choose to remember that.

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As a side note, many thanks to Midland Industrial Covers in Vancouver for helping us source high-quality made-in-Canada silage tarp from AT Films in Edmonton, Alberta.

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Even on a busy harvest day, I enjoy taking a moment to enjoy a sight I often encounter when I’m harvesting greens (komatsuna, mizuna, wasabina, etc.)  As the plants grow big enough that the leaf canopy closes and keeps the soil surface moist, the little white roots of the plants appear at the soil surface, as you can see if you look closely at the soil near the mizuna plants below:

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This never ceases to amaze me, but what amazes me even more is that sometimes a clump of fertilizer or even a clump of soil at the surface induces an additional phenomenon.  In the photo below, you can see the roots thickly clustered around a few soil clumps.

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Isn’t that amazing?  I didn’t get a photo, but when I tried to take the top off one of these soil clumps it broke off along a clean line parallel the soil, showing a layer of white roots growing up into the soil clump from under the soil.

I wonder if the greater surface area of the soil clump allows more oxygen to the roots, so that they can feed more effectively, being able to breathe.  After all, it’s only the leaves that exude oxygen.  The roots need to breathe oxygen and give off carbon dioxide; it’s by sensing higher carbon dioxide levels that pests such as wireworms find their way to roots in the soil.  I wonder whether these concentrated clusters of roots indicate that soil is oxygen-deprived (compacted maybe) and so once the soil surface is consistently moist enough, the roots are coming up there where they can breathe?  Not sure, just a hypothesis.

One last photo: only a few surface-roots here, but this is red mizuna, rather than the white you see above.

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I was very happy to score the chance to get a truckload of okara this past Tuesday.  Okara is the white pulp left over from tofu production.  Like manure, it’s a good source of nitrogen, phosphorus and potassium, but unlike manure, it’s not a significant source of human pathogens, so we don’t need to worry about the rules that govern the use of manure on food crops.  That’s also true of alfalfa pellets, our usual fertilizer, but okara carries more phosphorus, and farm lore has it that unlike alfalfa, okara can suppress a disease called clubroot.   I’m inclined to give that lore some credence since we’ve had way more clubroot in the years after lack of okara obliged us to switch to alfalfa.

But unlike alfalfa, which comes in dry pellets that can be stored almost indefinitely, it takes only a couple weeks or so for okara to turn into a stinking mass of slime that’s lost much of its nitrogen content to the air via those foul-smelling molecules.  Also, I had to return the bins it came in today and no later.  My challenge, therefore, was to find somewhere with soil dry enough to spread the okara and till it in while it was still fresh and easy to work with.  Unfortunately, with the wet April we’ve been having until now, many of our fields and greenhouses still have patches where the soil is wet enough of form those compacted rolls when I rub it between my hands.  The frustrating part is the patchy nature of the situation.  On the field shown below, the area just up from the middle of the greenhouse is too wet, while the whole rest of each terrace is well and truly dry enough.

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My solution has been twofold: in one case proactive, in the other case reactive.  On the third terrace from the top of this field, I took a broadfork and loosened the yet-untillable area so that it would dry out more quickly.  That was on April 11th, and good thing too, because just a couple days after getting the okara, I was able to spread it while it was still fresh and easy to handle, then till it in all on the beautiful sunny afternoon of April 19th. (You can see one tilled strip on the left, and an untilled strip with the white okara on the right.  The orange bit is the nose of the tractor, as this photo is taken from the driver’s seat.)

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Part of my drive to take the time to fork that terrace came from the need to plant potatoes there ASAP.   On the next terrace down I didn’t do that.  It still had mounds left from daikon grown the previous fall (we grow daikon on raised mounds so that they have a greater depth of nice, loose soil for those long roots).  Since the soil on top of the mounds was dry enough to till, I spread what was left of the okara on there but not on the pathways beside them, which were still too wet in that stubborn patch just up from the greenhouse.  I elected to till the okara in with our rototiller,  which is narrow enough to drive only on the mound, versus the wide and heavy tractor which would have greatly compacted the wet soil in the pathways.  The result wasn’t pretty, as you can see in the photo below.  Heavy weed growth on much of the terrace was hard for the rototiller to turn under, so a lot of those deep-rooted weeds are going to just keep growing, whereas the tractor could have left the field looking much cleaner, with the weeds nicely buried.  But using the tractor would have come at the cost of greater soil compaction in that wet middle part of the terrace.

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I could afford to do a somewhat superficial job of tilling the field in this case because unlike the terrace destined to grow potatoes, we don’t need to plant anything on the terrace shown above until July when cabbage transplanting season hits.  In the meantime, I can wait for the pathways to dry out properly and then till again, using the tractor.

This is the sort of waiting game I play each spring.  Try to till early, but not too early.  The irony is that once the weather turns warm and sunny for a week or more at a time, I need to rush to till before everything gets too dry. I’ve missed that boat more than once.  Till a dry field, and the weed or cover crop residues don’t decompose properly, causing germination problems when we go to sow our weekly greens and turnips.  Not only that, but a field tilled too dry can turn into an awful mix of big clay clumps and fine powder (rather than a nice crumbly tilth), terrible for the soil structure and a pain to either plant or transplant into.

And so I wait, but watch lest I wait too long.  Given this week’s sunny forecast, the wait is going to be over as fast or faster than I can keep up.

 

You know that feeling when you try to tell a funny story and no one gets it? I’ve been reflecting on an incident like that from last summer. We’d just gotten a new priest a church, and being the choir director, I emailed him my Choir Operating Plan, which was based on a business plan template I got at a Young Agrarians conference. I assumed that a priest wouldn’t know anything about business management, so I was pleasantly surprised when he wrote back with detailed suggestions for how to improve the plan that sounded as if he’d been to the same management workshops as me and then some. Things like “SMART” goals, stuff like that.

I thought it was hilarious, the juxtaposition of my assumptions against the reality that I actually stood to learn something about business management from this new priest of ours. I thought it was so hilarious, that I told the story to a few people later that day. From my hearers’ reserved responses, they clearly didn’t think it was either wonderful or hilarious. They thought I was saying that my new priest wanted to run the church like a business.

That’s not what I was saying, and I couldn’t understand how I could have been so badly misunderstood, so I spent some time reflecting on this incident and what it might mean. Was I just not a very good storyteller? Possibly. Was it that non-church people sometimes (and often understandably) have negative impressions about priests and other symbols of Christianity, and so wouldn’t find any church story very funny? Possibly.

I wonder if the truth has more to do with what I was and wasn’t meaning when I said it was nice to have a priest who knows something about business management. On the most literal level, I have to admit I’ve gotten sloppy. I tend to use the term “business management” as a catch-all phrase for being smart about how you use your time and resources to reach your goals, even if there’s no money involved. My sloppy use of the term “business management” could lead to the second, and possibly more important misunderstanding.

I suspect that the word “business” tends to evoke a sense of “it’s just business, not personal.” In other words, “business” equally putting money before people, before environment, before everything. And maybe even not just putting money in front of everything, but more generally speaking putting things like efficiency and hard-and-fast numerical results in front of human needs. I can respect why anyone would recoil from the idea of using “business management” at church, if that’s your definition of business.

The thing is, I’ve come to forget that “business” can have such negative connotations. Some of this flows out of attitudes I’ve seen in Yoshiko, the farm owner, while in other respects my positive connotations around “business” have to do with my own role as farm business partner, where being smart about money is a way to safeguard the opportunity we have to care for this land and to maintain the community that’s grown up around the farm.

I admit I didn’t start trying to learn much about business management until a conversation I had one day with, yes, another priest. My previous priest used to live near the farmers market, so I’d go and talk with him sometimes after I’d finished with packing up the vegetable stand. On a number of occasions, I asked his advice about the ongoing frustration and anger I felt around certain situations at the farm. I expected that being a priest, he’d have something really spiritual to say about this, like something about patience and self-sacrifice maybe. Instead, to my surprise, he simply said, “The problem is that you need to learn more about business management.”

As we talked more, the priest told me stories of a man he knows who owns an auto mechanic shop.  Even in his sixties, this small business owner has business management audiobooks playing in his truck so that when he’s on the road, he can get tips on how to run his business more wisely. The payoff? When a long-term employee developed mental problems and wouldn’t be hireable anywhere else, he was able to keep him on payroll and engaged in meaningful work, even in a situation where many business would have simply fired the same person. Because he paid attention to business management, he could offer this generosity while still making sure that the business would still be there to provide for his family and for his other employees’ families in years to come.

Is this vision of “business” as a way to support an extended family of employees through the long-term overly idealistic? I’m not sure it is. The more I read about “business management” and leadership, the more I hear professional, secular voices saying that in the long run, being smart about business means being smart about people, and being smart about people means being a good human being: take care of the people around you, foster trust, foster cooperation.

I will end with a link. “If you don’t understand people, you don’t understand business” and other talks by Simon Sinek are manifestos for the vision of “business management” I’ve been talking about here. I don’t see how we can loose if we do this at work, at home, at church, anywhere. 

After finishing a good draft of our 2018 crop plan, it was clear that I had to do some soil prep ASAP or we wouldn’t be able to plant on schedule. Because the organic alfalfa pellets we use as our main fertilizer need time to decompose in the soil before planting the crop, I usually try to do soil prep at least three weeks before the next crop is scheduled to go in.

The most urgent greenhouse on the list was the one we call Minami III. I checked the soil on Saturday, January 13th, by digging up a clump of soil about 10 cm deep and rolling it between my palms. By this test, if the soil crumbles easily, it’s OK to till, but if it rolls up into something resembling a turd, it’s better to let the soil dry out more first. I was surprised and very grateful when the soil crumbled easily in my hands, even in the wet eastern part of the greenhouse.

Last year it wasn’t like this. I left the sprinkler on too long in fall 2016, and so in spring 2017 the soil in Minami III stayed wet far longer than normal. I tilled it anyways, so that we could plant on time to meet our production schedule, but I felt horrible about doing it. Clay soil tilled too wet goes all clumpy when it dries out, which makes it hard to hoe-weed and decidedly not ideal for planting. This might be why the root crops we had in Minami III last spring (after that too-early tilling) were below average quality.

This is why it felt so good when the soil crumbled nicely in my hands this January 2018. Plus, the next couple days after were sunny, allowing the soil to dry even more. On Monday this past week (January 15th), a beautiful mild sunny day, I wheeled a couple wheelbarrows full of pre-soaked alfalfa pellets down to Minami III and scattered the green mash evenly over the soil. The rototiller coughed and spluttered a bit and had to be restarted partway through the first couple passes, but the soil crumbled easily beneath the tines. It helped that I tilled the west and mid part of the greenhouse last fall and planted an oat cover crop, but even the east side of the greenhouse (which didn’t get tilled since harvesting the 2017 fall greens crop) gave no trouble and easily tilled up into a nice seedbed.

I get a deep sense of satisfaction from early soil prep done right. It means we can care for the soil and also be ready to meet our production targets. There is no single beginning to our growing season, but that first time of tilling the soil in the new year feels like the real start of farm work for the year for me.

While I was tilling I thought a lot about symphylans. Symphylans are tiny, white millipede-like creatures that thrive in the loose, open soil and irrigated conditions of organic vegetable culture. Add a greenhouse to make things warmer, and they’re set for life. They eat the roots of plants, so in a bad infestation direct-sowed crops may not even make it out of the ground at all. It’s hard to spot symphylans because they shy away from the light, but we do find them sometimes, and we sometimes see symptoms that suggest their presence: patchy germination, and stunted seedlings growing next to ones that are thriving just fine.

I thought about symphylans while I was tilling because of the oat cover crop I was working back into the soil at the same time. Adding organic matter in one form or another is key to organic soil care, but symphylans feed on dead and decaying plant matter as well as living roots, so the organic matter we add today to help build the soil can also spell more symphylans and more crop damage tomorrow. This is just another twist on the farmers dilemma: do I care for the soil even though it means more symphylans, or do I treat the soil like dirt to limit their numbers?

I’m hoping that some advice from Steve Solomon’s Growing Vegetables West of the Cascades will help. He suggests that in their native habitat, symphylan populations are constrained by the lack of moisture in our dry West Coast summers. Irrigating the soil all year makes it possible for them to keep feeding and reproducing all summer. But perhaps here we can gain an advantage: after the spring greens crop, Minami III is scheduled for summer fallow. I could throw down a plastic tarp to suppress the weeds and lock in moisture for the fall plantings, but I think I won’t. I hope that if I let the soil go bone-dry, it will hold back the symphylans. Not putting a tarp on the soil will mean more time hoeing down any weeds that come up, but hoe-weeding uncropped space is pleasantly similar to running a vacuum cleaner over the carpet in an empty room: easy and mindless. Then in August, I can put on the sprinkler to moisten the soil and loosen up the hardened pathways, spread some more alfalfa pellets and till again to be ready for planting greens in September and October.

This is farming. Balancing the dilemmas of cost and benefit, long and short-term gain, always thinking about the next steps in the great circle of the planting cycle.

Here are a few pictures of the soil prep process in Minami III on this past Monday, January 15.

Spreading alfalfa…

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If you look closely you can see the green alfalfa mash scattered on the soil under the oats…

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Tilling: the rototiller stalled so I figured I’d stop and take a picture…

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The finished result…

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The oats were small, so they were easy to till down…

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Afterwards, we laid down plastic tarps to block the light so that the oats will decompose instead of regrowing.  The tarps will come off at planting time.

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Vacation is over. It’s time to work! In January there are certainly outdoor tasks to be done: harvesting, tidying up what’s left of last year’s crop residues in the greenhouse, and laying silage tarp on bare fields to protect the soil and give the worms a chance to work the soil more thoroughly. It’s indoors and at a desk, however, where most of my work keeps me these days. There’s enough office work to last all of January, but this week my focus has been crop planning.

Crop planning is the most exciting part of winter office work. Budgeting is a little depressing because you see in cold, hard numbers just how much running the farm is going to cost for the year (if everything goes according to plan, which it may not). But crop planning is about hope for the new season. It’s about bringing together the dreams that popped into your head last fall: what if this field could be squash next year? Or what if that greenhouse would be a really great place for cucumbers?

I start by making a list of the crops we plan to grow and how many metres of row we grew last year. Based on last year’s numbers, I set a target for how many metres to grow this year: more of a crop that was in short supply last year, less of the ones we had trouble selling or that have a track record of growing poorly.

Then I make a list of our greenhouses, and note when each one will likely be ready to plant. Some have overwintered crops that won’t be finished until March, others are so wet that you can’t till the soil until April, so I need to prepared to work around those limitations. Then I start my massive yearly Sudoku-puzzle game of crop planning proper, matching the amount we want of each crop to fields or greenhouses where that target can be met. First I note which greenhouses haven’t had anything from the tomato family for the last three years, and schedule our tomato-family crops there. Next I slot in the crops that are crucial at the start of the year, like our first greens or our early snow peas. Then I just go through the list of crops until I’ve found a place for each vegetable such that 1) we can meet our target amount and 2) no field or greenhouse has the same crop two years in a row.

After all the crops on the list have a place in the field or greenhouse, I double check my work. On a piece of paper I go through greenhouse by greenhouse, field by field to see if there’s unused space I didn’t know about or if I double booked the space (like scheduling 8 rows of greens where the greenhouse width only allows for 6!). Then I go through the whole thing again and ask myself when the soil preparation would have to be done in order to sow crop X in greenhouse Y by date Z. Is it realistic to prepare the soil that soon? Sometimes no. Much of Umi Nami Farm is quite wet in the winter. Until we get better drainage put it, I sometimes have to change the planting schedule to account for a later soil prep date. I said earlier that crop planning is about hope. Actually, it requires as much realism as financial budgeting. You’re just budgeting field or greenhouse space and time instead of money.

Although it’s still early in the year, I crop-plan up til early November, which is the end of our planting season. Something always changes by the time you get to those fall crops, but if I don’t have a plan in advance then I might make the mistake of not having the space ready when we need it in the fall. Some years I’ve done a second crop planning session in late summer for the fall crops, but that uses time when time is at a premium. Right now, I can afford to sit and think, so I do. It pays off later.

I hope you don’t think it’s too late to say Happy New Year! One of the most exciting things about 2017 was that I woke up to my love of writing again. It’s beautiful to have readers to write for, so thank you to everyone who is reading my blog. Best wishes for 2018!

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You would think the week of Winter Solstice would be quiet, but no. Umi Nami Farm tends to be a couple degrees colder than the forecast when frost strikes, so with -3 and -4 degrees Celcius always hovering at the end of the six-day forecast, we decided to harvest all of our rather excellent crop of cabbages, all two-hundred-plus of them. Some we shipped off to our friends at Tama Organic Life in Vancouver, but most are now piled up on a tarp in the apple room, covered with brown paper and an old quilt so that they don’t freeze if the temperature drops too low. Our apple room isn’t insulated, so extra cold temperatures can damage produce even in storage.

Although I did some harvesting today, I actually spent the morning transplanting a type of bok choy called Joi Choi. It was a day of brilliant blue sky, and the sun, though low on the horizon, was bright. Once I was in the greenhouse with the door closed against the sharp wind, it could almost have been spring, and the little seedlings I poked out of the seed tray shone jewel-green in the sunlight.

We sow Joi Choi in October or early November on the seed tray, then transplant in mid to late December. Somehow this little brassica is able to take root and grow even when it’s transplanted in the darkest time of year, giving us beautiful fleshy-stemmed bok choys to harvest in March when there’s little else to offer.

Joi Choi is a nice enough vegetable, but what I really love about it is the wonder of pressing those little seedlings into the soil even in the the very week, or some years on the very day, of the Solstice itself. For ancient peoples of Europe, evergreen branches symbolized the hope of spring and of renewed life even the face of winter’s darkest days. Perhaps for me, Joi Choi is becoming that symbol. Even in the darkest time, it’s still worth planting something, knowing, or at least trusting, that it will come to fruition as the sun returns again.

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Not everywhere has nice tap water, so I was pleasantly surprised to find the tap water in Cambridge hard but sweet. From a quick online search, I learned that Cambridge’s tap water comes from boreholes drilled deep into the chalk strata south of the city. Rainwater naturally filters through the chalk layers to renew the underground supply, not unlike how the clay and such beneath our soil filters surface water to replenish the aquifer that feeds Umi Nami’s well.

While doing this search, I came across a link for the Cherry Hinton Chalk Pits Nature Reserve. It wasn’t far from where I was staying, so I biked over to take a look. One of the first things that struck me was just how huge the chalk pits are, the work of centuries of quarrying out the chalk to build the beautiful colleges of the University of Cambridge and to make quicklime for agriculture. What was it like for the people who did that work, much of it in an era without petrol-powered machinery? I tried to picture it but couldn’t. The landscape itself prompted other thoughts, thoughts of something epic like dinosaurs or the battles of ancient Greece.

Given that the website describes the nature reserve as a “spectacular wildlife site,” I was surprised how sparse the vegetation was in the vast central area of the chalk pits. In many places the ground is almost bare, at least at this time of year: just some thin, scrubby grasses and what one might call weeds stand between ecology and utter barrenness.

That being said, there hasn’t been much time for a complex ecosystem to form. According to the website and the sign by the gate, chalk was quarried here as recently as 1980. Ecology certainly did step in—in the form of invasive Buddleia, which was cleared out in 2009. At that time the chalk surface was mechanically broken up to allow the smaller plants of the native chalk grassland to take root.

I’m used to thinking of nature reserves as places where lush ecosystems are set aside to prevent any alteration from their pristine state. The Chalk Pits Nature Reserve is different; it doesn’t exist to preserve an ecosystem, but rather to make room for one to come into being. The side of the chalk pits where visitors are allowed to walk is in fact the younger side, very early in its ecological succession—hence the apparent sparseness and simplicity of the vegetation. The other side is closed due to the instability of the chalk cliffs, but it hosts a much more structurally diverse vegetation, with young trees, shrubs and lusher, greener grasses.

Simple things, they say, come from the minds of simple people, and so to be fair, there were many things I likely couldn’t see in my walk through the chalk pits. According to the website, the chalk pits are one of only three places in England where the rare “moon carrot” grows, and in the summer visitors find glow worms among the grasses. Sixty species of birds can be found there, though perhaps not in this season, and I imagine that unseen fungal mycelia are working to make the chalk into a living soil. Not years, but decades and centuries will reveal what this ecosystem is becoming.

 

I had a great day today.  I’m staying with my sister near Cambridge, England for my vacation, and I biked into town today, aiming for the Fitzwilliam Museum, but along the way I took a detour and explored the bike path along Cherry Hinton Brook, a shallow stream flanked by reeds and small trees, with the occassional brown duck and a graceful wading bird something like a white egret.  It passed by two fields of allotment gardens, and I took the liberty of walking through to take a look at the kale and Brussels sprouts and fava beans all nicely laid out by someone’s labour of love.

I had in mind to head straight into town along Mill Road, but arrived there only to find that the entire length of it was blocked off for the Mill Road Winter Fair.  Thus began the best detour of all.  I listened to a couple street bands before finally giving in to parking my bike and getting myself a cup of mulled wine from one of the roadside vendors.  I really enjoyed milling around with the crowds and taking in the vibe.  Mill Road is a little like Commercial Drive, very eclectic and multicultural, but far less gritty and much narrower (this ‘main road’ is about the width of some side streets in Greater Vancouver).  One lone singer with a guitar sang a song about an old-time miner, which added a poignant note to the afternoon.

I did eventually make it to the museum around 4 pm.  It was still open (and free admission) so I took a quick look at the Degas exhibit.  I appreciated the commentary about how he, in contrast to many of his contemporaries, chose to carefully study the work of earlier artists through imitation rather than focusing solely on spontaneous expression.  It fit with thoughts I’ve been having lately about wanting to be more intentional and disciplined about my writing.

Nonetheless, I found I couldn’t really settle into enjoying the exhibit.  I’ve found it somewhat challenging to find precise locations among Cambridge’s narrow, curvy streets and knew I would need time to find St. Ephrem Orthodox Parish where I was hoping to attend Vespers.  I did indeed need time to find it, way in the back of a courtyard hidden behind a big wooden door in a brick wall, but I’m glad I persevered and found it.  It was lovely to be at Vespers, and a few people invited me to eat together afterwards at Itsu, an Asian fusion place nearby.  There were six of us around the table, representing a few different countries of origin.  It was special to share a moment so local and so placeless, bowing our heads to say the Lord’s Prayer before we ate.  Somehow we managed to end the evening seeing how many different languages we could sing the Paschal troparion in.  This is the crowning hymn of Easter celebrations in the Orthodox church.  ‘Christ is risen from the dead…’ in Slavonic, Greek, Romanian, Arabic, Spanish…we tried not to sing too loud, since we were in the restaurant.

I biked home well after dark but somehow felt perfectly safe.  It’s been a great day.

 

At this time of year I sometimes wonder whether anyone has ever invented something like snowshoes for walking in mud. They would be rather useful for harvesting beets and carrots from C1, the field down near the creek here at Umi Nami Farm. There’s probably good technical reasons why such a thing doesn’t exist, and it’s easy enough to put a few boards down on the ground for stability, which is what I did on Tuesday when I was harvesting beets for the box program. From the pictures below, you can get an idea of what our beet patch looks like right now.

You might ask why we grow a fall-harvested crop in a field that’s all but flooded at this time of year. We do this mostly because beets and carrots are sowed in the summer, which is very dry, and the soil here hold water better than anywhere else in the farm. Beets and carrots take a long time to germinate, so a place that’s easy to keep moist is a huge plus, especially given our limited irrigation system.

I feel very blessed to be harvesting crops from outdoors at this time of year. That being said, the downside of late fall crops is that we don’t have time to plant a cover crop. Without some kind of plant cover over winter, all that rain we’re getting now washes nutrients out into the subsoil (which doesn’t need them) or the ocean (which doesn’t need them either). Also, good soil consists of granules combining clay with organic matter, but with all the rain we get, the unprotected soil gets smashed into a single undifferentiated layer on top.

The challenge with cover crops is that they need time to grow before winter, which means cleaning up the summer crop and planting the cover crop no later than mid October. If we don’t get a cover crop planted in time, I also like to cover the soil with plastic. This is especially good when we want to have an early crop there the following year, because the soil is perfectly clean underneath and free of any plant material, easy for planting potatoes or early greens. I usually feel like I need to apologize for using all this plastic. But the truth is, tilling the soil is not particularly good for soil organisms, whereas all sorts of macro- and micro-organisms are very happy and active under the plastic cover. Last year, I even succeeded to turn a pasture into a perfect field by covering it with plastic all winter and then making a single pass with the tiller, whereas without the plastic I would usually have to till at least three times to kill the grass and get the field good for planting.

In the pictures below you can see a couple fields covered in plastic for the winter. One is shows a cover crop in the foreground. I’ve also included a close-up of our best green manure crop this year, a combination of rye and vetch sowed in September. I’m excited to see it grow so thickly, because the stronger the cover crop, the better it will protect the soil over winter. I think it grew particularly well on this field because this location (field #1T4-6) gets more sun than some of the lower areas of the farm. We did sow the same cover crop mix on the same day on other fields but it didn’t grow as well in the places that get afternoon shade.

I realize as I’m writing this how challenging it is to explain all the what, why and how of something you do all the time to readers who aren’t as familiar with it.  Please feel free to leave a comment if you want to ask questions!

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