March 31st, 2015

Early plowing of the Nile River floodplain made sense as new silt and fertility was deposited every year.

Kill your rototiller and save the soil (and planet)

It's time to prepare garden beds for planting.  The best planting soil is light and fluffy, full of air and with all plant residue removed.  Right?  That's what we have learned from industrial agriculture practices and rototiller advertising.  But these practices can reduce productivity and can be destructive to soil health and thus human health.  Over-tilling of farmland and garden systematically kills soil life and forces us to replace natural nutrients with chemicals fertilizers.

After over 200 years of industrialized agriculture and decades of "green revolution" chemical agriculture what is the health of our soils, and our farming and food system? Is farming more or less sustainable… economically, nutritionally and environmentally?  Are we behaving as if the health of the soil is directly linked to our health and that of the natural world?  Do we act as if the majority of the human-caused greenhouse gasses in the atmosphere result from cutting down forests, paving wetlands, overgrazing pastures and over-working farmland?  All these questions must be answered in the negative.

Fortunately, there is a growing movement in commercial agriculture called "no-till farming" that aims to mimic the way soils are actually formed.  We have learned that when soil is plowed, tilled and over-aerated to prepare for planting many negative affects result.  The biggest immediate problem is more rapid oxidation and loss of soil organic matter leading to lower fertility and more erosion.  This is followed by degradation and disruption of soil life, the trillions of soil biota (bacteria, microbes, mycorrhiza, fungi, earthworms, etc) that make up the soil food web.  There are helpful and harmful soil biota in terms of supporting plant and thus animal and human health.  How we treat our soil determines the balance of good or bad soil life.  Tilling makes this balance less healthy.


Tilling also can cause soil compaction creating a physical barrier for a healthy soil food web and accelerating soil erosion where topsoil is washed or blown away due to loss of plant cover, root systems, and soil texture and life.  Estimates for the US are that we have lost more than half our topsoil mainly due to poor agricultural practices and excess tilling over the past century, jeopardizing our entire food system.  And the costs are ‘externalized’, we do not account for them.  The estimated annual costs of losses related to soil erosion exceed $45 billion.

A rough calculation of current rates of soil degradation suggests we have about 60 years of topsoil left globally, and less in the US. Almost half of soil used for agriculture around the world is labeled as either degraded or seriously degraded (the latter means that 70%+ of the topsoil, the layer allowing plants to grow, is gone). 

No-till farming avoids many of these effects by growing crops without tilling. Crop residues or other organic matter are retained on the soil surface and seed sowing and fertilizing is done with minimal soil disturbance.

No-till farming increases organic matter retention (thus building soil fertility naturally) while also increasing the amount of water that is absorbed and retained in the soil. This in turn increases the amount and variety of soil life. The most powerful benefit of no-till is improved soil biological fertility, making soils and thus plants healthier.

 But perhaps the bigger benefit of no-till farming and other and other regenerate farming practices that build soil carbon is the capture and sequestration of atmospheric CO2. A  new report by the Rodale Institute notes that:


"We are at the most critical moment in the history of our species, as man-made changes to the climate threaten humanity's security on Earth. But there is a technology for massive planetary geo-engineering that is tried and tested and available for widespread dissemination right now. It costs little and is adaptable to local contexts the world over. It can be rolled out tomorrow providing multiple benefits beyond climate stabilization.

The solution is regenerative farming (and gardening).

Simply put, we could sequester more than 100% of current annual COemissions with a switch to widely available and inexpensive organic management practices, which we term "regenerative organic agriculture" (and gardening)."

No-till farming and gardening is the #1 soil regenerative solution.  Do you really need to power up that tiller this spring?

Snakes on a Plane!? Try worms on a plane…

March 2nd, 2015

A friend of mine works half the year in Vermont as a State Park Ranger and the other half of the year (when VT is coldest) she lives in Cost Rica where she dedicates herself to the rescue and protection of dogs.  She has brought many homeless street dogs back to the US for a better life.

I get involved in animal protection in Costa Rica too, especially sea turtles and Howler monkeys.  We have plenty of snakes here as well but they are not quite so compelling.  In fact. the photo above is of a semi-poisonous (to mice and lizards more than humans) 6 ft Lyre snake that I interrupted while it was eating a two ft iguana that lived on our roof.  The iguana died and I relocated snake.

snake eating iguana compost story will raap in costa rica

The gardeners in the development in Costa Rica that I started and where I also live are compost green season leaves and trimmings from our 220 acres. There now is enough kitchen waste to start a separate food waste comporting operation.  So, I began looking for red wiggler worms as our food waste composting helpers.



Red wigglers are used in Costa Rica coffee processing operations to help digest the pulp (the skin surrounding the coffee bean) and make it into organic fertilizer and soil amendments,  But the coffee growing region is 5-6 hrs from us.  Plus, I knew of some red wigglers in VT that wanted a new home, far away from the most brutal winter temperatures in 100 years.

But how to get my new compost helpers to Costa Rica from VT?

I googled “red worms on a plane” and got some good advice: the TSA does no prohibit them.  So, I loaded the adventurous worms into a plastic container with moist coffee grounds and yesterday’s salad so it could pass as my lunch in case Costa Rica officials got curious.  The container went into my backpack so the worms would not freeze in the luggage compartment.  We took off to Costa Rica.

As we flew over Lake Nicaragua and began descending toward the Liberia airport in Costa Rica I noticed my backpack had turned over and worms had escaped through the air holes.  Some were exploring the floor and others were heading up the wall toward the airplane window.  The unsuspecting tourist next to me was still sleeping but the flight attendants were about to start the last collection of service items

I had minutes to collect the 2-3 dozen worms.  The immigration form was just thin enough and also stiff enough to scoop up and corral the slithering escapees.  Back into yesterday’s salad they went.

Now these ‘extranjero’ compost helpers are happily eating local mangos, bananas, star fruit, and melons, plus coffee grounds, tortillas and old rice and beans.  They will never need to worry about freezing again. 


My Top 5 World-Changing Gardening Innovations from 2014

February 4th, 2015

I garden in Vermont 8 months each year, and then we have a winter garden in Costa Rica.  This leads to very different gardening challenges.  I am always looking for new and better solutions for my garden and so much the better if they help with the big issues I see us wrestling with now and in the future: loss of biodiversity, depletion of soil, water resources and ecosystems, and climate change.

So, here are my current favorite World-Changing Gardening Innovations”…

Groasis works for trees as well as vegetables 

1. Groasis: let the desserts bloom

It is rare to find a gardening innovation that saves water, reduces fertilizer use, builds soil and leads to 90% survival of trees and plants even in the harshest climates and without added irrigation.  That’s what the innovative new Groasis delivers. 

Test Groasis in your own garden, for FREE.  You will be part of a world-wide program of reforesting deserts, feeding a billion hungry people living on degraded lands, and restoring soil and ecosystems.

Our First Steamed Milkweed Greens of the Year (like Spinach, Green Beans)

2. Plant Milkweed to Save the Monarchs (and feed yourself)

In the past decade I learned to view common Milkweed as much more than a weed.  It is a uniquely important plant critical for the survival of the Monarch butterfly. I wrote this piece last year about the importance of milkweed as a food source and breeding habitat for Monarch butterflies when I learned 90% fewer Monarchs made it from the US to Mexico to overwinter. I encourage gardeners to help reverse this Monarch emergency. Just plant some easy-to-grow common milkweed seed.

You control the flow

3. Every drop of water counts

The new “Deluxe Micro Snip N Drip Irrigation Kit” makes it easy customize micro drippers to deliver pinpoint-precision watering that sets up in minutes. You can set up pinpoint-precision, root-zone drip irrigation in minutes and flow controls let you fine-tune watering, even from a rain barrel.  You will get healthier plants and use 90% less water.

4. Can the ‘sun’ indoors, and kill those blasted spider mites?

Here’s an idea for a product that does not yet exist, but it should, for indoor gardeners? It turns out that certain spectrums of light are 100% lethal to some insects. Someone could figure out the light spectrum that kills spider mite larvae and work that into a next-generation LED grow light array. Then, we would have an energy efficient lighting solution with built-in insect control and every indoor gardener would be interested in it. Any “makers” out there?

5. Gardening and wifi

The Edyn Garden Sensor and Water Valve monitors and tracks environmental conditions so that outdoor plants can maximize their health potential. The system includes the Edyn garden sensor, water valve, and a supplemental app, which helps you monitor soil quality and make sure the garden is healthy any time of day. It’s too complicated for my disorganized approach to gardening but if you try it please let me know how you like it.


To reverse global warming, we must first rethink agriculture

6. (Sorry, one more BIG idea).  Gardening with ”The Carbon Underground”           

Last year I wrote about how regenerative agriculture can help solve climate change. Here’s a great new article on the topic.

And here is a smart new advocacy organization to check out, The Carbon Underground!