Wendell Berry, the Inhabit Conference, community gardens, and the kingdom of God

Last week I had the privilege of attending the Inhabit Conference, a collaboration between the Seattle School of Theology and Psychology and the Parish Collective, a network of faith leaders equipping churches to live out the gospel in their neighborhoods. It was a wonderful collection of people seeking an alternative imagination for being the church in this modern, commodified, flattened cultural moment. In a fitting convergence of events, Wendell Berry gave the Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities on Monday. The Inhabit Conference and National Endowment for the Humanities lecture both expressed a prophetic call to reconnect with a sense of place and a responsibility to people.

The Chronicle in Higher Education had the following report on the Berry lecture:

Mr. Berry's speech was a discussion of affection and its power to bind people to community. It was also a meditation on place and those who "stick" to it—as caretakers and curators. "In affection we find the possibility of a neighborly, kind, and conserving economy," Mr. Berry said.

The opposite of the "sticker"—in the words of Mr. Berry's mentor, the writer Wallace Stegner—is the "boomer," those who "pillage and run."

"That we live now in an economy that is not sustainable is not the fault only of a few mongers of power and heavy equipment. We all are implicated," Mr. Berry said. Our relationship to the land and to community is increasingly abstract and distanced.

"By economic proxies thoughtlessly given, by thoughtless consumption of goods ignorantly purchased, now we all are boomers....." 

The antidote, Mr. Berry said, is affection, connection, and a broader definition of education—to study and appreciate practical skills like the arts of "land use, life support, healing, housekeeping, homemaking."

Berry's comments echo much of what I heard at Inhabit. In the midst of the growing wreckage of "boomer" models of church in North America, people shared stories about what it looks like to be a "sticker" church that specializes in affection, connection, and homemaking. As someone who battles mightily with my boomer instincts in leading the church, the conference refreshed my vision for a different, stickier path of leadership.

Part of the gift of the conference was to help me see the blessing of the stories that have unfolded in our community over the last couple of years. (The test of a good church conference is whether you go home feeling envious of God at work in other people's stories or encouraged by God at work in your own stories. Inhabit provided me with the latter.) Many spoke of starting community gardens, so I thought I'd share part of our story here as an example of how community gardens can serve as a living alternative to the "pillage and run" pace of life.

The story of the garden goes back four decades to the start of an iconic neighborhood pumpkin patch on the shores of the Spokane river, located next to a major north-south thoroughfare in the Spokane valley. Generations of children grew up in our vicinity making a seasonal pilgrimage to the pumpkin patch to pick out the perfect pumpkin and pluck it from the vine. Not only that, they got to see the field plowed, the seeds planted, and the plants growing as their family station wagons drove by the site in the spring and summer. It was a community-sustained umbilical to the land and a constant connection to the rhythms of springtime and harvest that have been lost in most communities.

Ten years ago Spokane County set out to widen the Argonne bridge and the pumpkin patch was designated as the lay-down area for all the heavy equipment and machinery required for the year-long construction project. I was told that tractors came and shaved off the two feet of black humus that had accumulated from the years of growing pumpkins in order to level the land. After the construction was completed the land was left as a hard-packed abandoned lot that served as a turnaround area for school buses and a shortcut for people walking through the neighborhood. The land was so hard it took a pick-ax to loosen enough soil for a soil-test. 

Four years ago people in the church and in the neighborhood started a conversation about the potential of recovering the land and the story of the land by turning the site of the old pumpkin patch into a community garden. I had only known that plot of land as an abandoned lot and it was only after these conversations started that I learned its history. The loss of connection to the land is like that, we not only lose the use of the land we lose the stories that at one time gave life to the neighborhood.

We knew we couldn't do it on our own as a church so we reached out to the neighors and other community partners. The paper mill that owns the land agreed to let us use it and they even donated the water and facilitated the donation of lumber and compost through their connections. We enlisted neighbors, the school district, a local group home, scouts, local landscaping businesses as co-conspirators in reclaiming the land. We even had a bunch of guerilla gardeners from the Twitterverse that came to help us get started. We joined together and named it the Pumpkin Patch Community Garden.

I'll let the pictures tell the rest of the story:




The garden has become a gathering place for families and neighbors.


One of our goals with the garden is not only to let people have a plot to use for personal use, we wanted to bring back the pumpkin patch. So along with individual raised beds we have some area for row crops for Second Harvest and a place for pumpkins. Last summer we had a bounty crop of pumpkins and invited children from a local group home to come over and choose a pumpkin. The rule was that they had to pick a pumpkin that they would carry to the car. 

Some of them pushed the rule about carrying the pumpkin to the limit. 

Others tried to find the perfect pumpkin. It took this little girl 15 minutes wandering the patch to find just the right one.

It was a wonderfully redemptive moment to see kids once again walking on this land with anticipation in their eyes and joy in their hearts about finding a pumpkin to call their own.

I imagine that when these children now drive by the pumpkin patch they remember the fruit of the land, they remember the richness of the soil, they remember the rhythms of the seasons, and the joy of the harvest. To use Berry's words they have a new sense of affection, for a land that sustains them and a community that is committed to a place, which serves as a tangible sign that they are part of a community that is committed to them. 

Along with this I think they have a better sense of God's redeeming work in the world and we in the church who have been involved with the garden have a better sense of this work as well. We better understand that the kingdom of God is not some abstract notion, it's like a community garden -- putting down roots in a place, redeeming abandoned places, and renewing affectionate relationships.

Thanks to those at the Seattle School and the Parish Collective for putting on the Inhabit Conference. It helped remind me of the God who is at work in our neighborhood.

Gardening Advice - crop rotation, companion planting, and other planning tips

image from www.betterhensandgardens.com
One important consideration for planning your garden is rotating crops to manage soil fertility and control insects and disease. For example tomato, potato, eggplant varieties should not be planted in the same place from one year to the next because they are all in the nightshade plant family. Plants in the same family are all susceptible to the same kinds of insects and diseases. Remnants of these insects and diseases are left over in the vicinity of last year's crop. If you move the crops around it keeps the insects and disease from building up year after year.

Rotation is also important for maintaining healthy soil. You want to follow heavy to medium feeders that draw a lot of nutrients from the soil (tomatoes, corn, cabbage, peppers) with either light feeders (carrots, beets, onions) or heavy givers (beans, peas) that actually will fix nitrogen in the soil and enrich it. I like the methodology explained here that recommends a rotation of heavy feeders followed with heavy givers which are then followed by light feeders. I also like the chart above from Better Hens and Gardens that explains the sometimes confusing logic of crop rotatio in an easy-to-understand infographic. 

Another key consideration in plotting out your garden plan is to consider what plants make good companions and like to be together and which plants are arch enemies and will fight each other all summer resulting in reduced yields.

You can go here for a run down on plants that are beneficial and antagonistic. I get kind of overwhelmed by all the information and different criteria for planting, so I have developed Craig's anecdotal, simplified companion planting plan.

Basil & Tomatoes: My first recommendation is interplant your tomatoes with basil, lots of basil. We discovered this two year's ago. We always had trouble with our basil going to seed because of the intense heat of summer, but when we interplanted them with the tomatoes the large tomato plants shaded the basil just enough to keep them in check. We had wonderful basil all summer and the tomatoes seem to really like it too.

Nasturtiums and Marigolds all around: These are my go to plants to intersperse in the veggie garden. Marigolds are legendary among organic gardeners for helping with aphids although there is some debate on this topic. One farmer friend told me about the summer he found the aphids actually feasting on the marigolds. Some people say ants will one day rule the world, I say aphids will offer stiff competition.

Plant a rainforest of peppers: Peppers are one of my most challenging crops to grow. They love the heat of summer but they also seem to like humidity which we don't have in Spokane. Planting them close together is the best trick I've learned to keep them happy.

Enlist volunteers: I have companion plants that I put in the garden every year and then I have volunteers that come back every year from previous crops. I thin them out or move them around, depending on the layout. These are known as self-seeding plants, meaning they do all the hard work of planting on their own. Some of my self-seeding companions are borage, calendula, dill, and purple coneflower. Some plants like mint are too good at self-seeding and could be considered invasive. Raspberry plants are also notorious for spreading via underground shoots. 

One last consideration for your garden plan, make sure to plant you're tall shade producing plants on the north side of your plot so they don't block the sun from your shorter plants. Lettuce on the other hand is good to plant in the semi shade of sunflowers to keep it from going to seed too quickly.


Gardening Advice - Should I plant seeds or starts in the garden?


image from consumingspokane.typepad.com
When I installed a greenhouse five years ago, for the first time I had to ability to start a large number of plants early. I was so excited I started everything early in the greenhouse with the idea that it is always best to get a head start on the natural limits of cold weather and soil temperature. I've learned that this isn't true for every plant in the garden. Even if you don't have a greenhouse you will soon be faced with store shelves and farmers' market tables loaded with lush green plant starts that are hard to resist. The immediate satisfaction of a real plant is certainly more fun to buy than a pack of seeds but like most things in life, delayed gratification is one of the key lessons of gardening.


There are a couple things that are helpful to know when buying plant starts. Biggers is not always better. There is not a big advantage to buying a two-foot-tall tomato plant that is already flowering vs. the less expensive eight-inch start. In my experience the smaller plant usually catches up to the big one when they are planted in the garden and they end up bearing the same amount of fruit with similar timing. The problem with the large plants that sometimes already have tomatoes on them is that once they are out of the climate-controlled environment of the greenhouse and in the cool soil of early summer they slow down and their growth stalls out. When the temperatures heat up they get going again but by that time the other smaller plant has caught up with the bigger plant and it's a wash.


Another good example of this is pumpkin plants. I have always worked with the assumption that the best way to grow giant pumpkins is to start the seeds really early. It made intuitive sense to me that the earlier I started the seeds the bigger the pumpkins will get, but it turns out this isn't true. I spoke with the winner of the giant pumpkin contest at last summer's Spokane County Fair and asked him about his timing for starting seeds. He explained that he starts the seeds at the beginning of April and plants them in the garden at the beginning of May under plastic. I don't know the science behind it but in retrospect I understand why this works. I've learned that once squash plants start growing they like to keep growing and don't respond well to having their growth disrupted by transplanting or the shock of moving from the friendly confines of the greenhouse as a large plant to outside in the garden. When I have started squash plants really early and planted them as large plants they tend to sit in the garden for a long time without growing. When the plants are smaller they tend to make that transition more smoothly. 


One other consideration when buying plant starts is the issue of sustainability. Bigger plants means that more energy has gone into defying the local climate. In the past I've noticed that Home Depot is packed with plants from Texas. Smaller plants grown locally are generally more sustainable. Farmers' Markets are the best place to buy starts. The big plants are also expensive to buy.
While you don't necessarily need giant plants to grow a successful harvest of vegetables there are certain plants that are best planted in the garden as small plants instead of seeds.

I recommend buying and growing plant starts for:


Winter Squash (pumpkins, butternut, spaghetti,etc.)
Summer Squash (zucchini, scallop, crookneck)
Cabbage/Kohl Rabi/Kale
Marigolds (these are great companion plants for a vegetable garden and I always start some early but also direct seed them)


Summer squash, like zucchini, and cucumbers can be successfully planted as seeds but I have problems with birds that love to nip at the young plants. They leave the bigger ones alone so, if I have time, I plant these as starts. If I don't get around to starting them early I plant the seeds in the garden but plant twice as many seeds as I need, anticipating that the birds will kill many of them. The one advantage of starting squash plants from seed in the garden is that they don't like to have their roots disturbed so this method avoids the shock of transplanting them. Take note that it's beneficial to loosen the roots of most transplants before putting them in the garden, but squash plants are the big exception to the rule. I always plant winter squash as plants because they usually take around 100 days to mature and I like to get a little head start.


Plants that are best planted as seeds in the garden:


Corn (don't bother growing in a backyard garden)
Bunching Onions
Carrots, Beets, Parsnips, and other roots crops
Lettuce & other greens
Cucumbers (if birds aren't an issue)
Sunflowers (I start these a couple weeks early but it's not really necessary)
Potatoes (buy seed potatoes and plant directly in the garden)


I know I'm forgetting some so let me know if you've got a question about a plant not mentioned.

Gardening Advice - Given limited space, what vegetables do you recommend I plant?

Another common question I get is, given a limited amount of space, what vegetables do I recommend people plant. A lot of my answer depends on the climate that you're gardening in and the length of the growing season.

In places like Houston, where I lived for awhile, the high humidity and mild temps allow for early and plentiful harvests of short-season vegetables like green beans, peas, summer squash, beans, and all kinds of greens. The challenge comes with long-season vegetables that require more days with fruit on the vine to ripen. The high humidity and abundance of insects in the heat of summer will wreak so much havoc that I would shy away from pumpkins and tomatoes that take longer to mature and focus on varieties that ripen over a short period of time. 

In the Inland Northwest where I garden it's the late and early freezes that we have to work around. We have a relatively short growing season that starts on May 15 with the traditional last-freeze date and concludes on September 15 with the traditional first-freeze date. That being said, the hot weather required for tomatoes, peppers, and other hot-season vegetables usually doesn't kick in until mid June. Last year my cucumber starts sat in the ground without growing until the beginning of July because it was so cool. 

Because of our limitations I usually look for varieties that require less time to mature. Take note that many of the heirloom varieties that are so tasty, like Brandywine tomatoes that take 85-100 days to mature, often have longer days to harvest. Many of the hybrids, like Early Girl tomatoes that mature in as little as 50 days, were developed to accommodate shorter growing season. The down side is that some of the hybrids don't taste as good. Early Girl tomatoes are, in my opinion, one such variety. It's always a balancing act but make sure you have enough time to get to harvest. Most seed packs include a number for "days to harvest" or "days to maturity and most plant starts have an information tab that also has this information.

Another key consideration is the growth habit of the particular plant variety you're growing. Most vegetable plants come in bush/determinate or vining/indeterminate growth habits. Bush varieties are compact and will only grow to a certain height and width and will stop setting fruit after awhile whereas indeterminate plants will continue to extend new growth and continue setting new fruit until freezing weather sets in. Going vertical with vining plants can be a great way to make use of limited space and bush varieties of pumpkins and summer squash can also be a good option for limited space.

One of my rules for selecting plants is to choose varieties are different than what is usually available at the grocery store. Instead of Russett potatoes plant Yukon Gold or French Fingerlings. Instead of iceberg-type lettuce plant a Mesculun mix or Red-Speckled Leaf varieties. Instead of planting Jack-O-Lantern pumpkins plant Wyatt's Wonder, one of my favorites. Instead of the old standard Black Beauty zucchini plant the Armenian or Golden varieties, that are much tastier. A big part of the fun of growing your own food is to try new foods.

In a limited space I would recommend the following:

1. Green beans - Bush or vining are easy to grow and provide abundant food. Stagger several plantings every two weeks for continual harvest. The Royal Purple variety is a fun one to grow. I usually prefer bush varieties.

2. Zucchini - Zucchini gets a bad wrap. We've all heard the one about locking your doors during the summer so people don't unload their unwanted zucchini on you, but we always plant a lot and have never had too much. The trick is to harvest them when they are small and tender, about the size of a banana. Don't let them grow to the size of a small tank.

3. Peas - My favorite is snap peas and they are best grown on a trellis or tepee.

4. Carrots - They don't need much room. Wait to harvest until the first freeze hits and they will be sweet and crunchy.

5. Kohl Rabi - These don't require as much room as cabbage and are tasty when they are baseball size. They get woody when they get much larger than that. I prefer the white variety.

6. Cucumbers - These can be grown on a trellis but, in my experience, are best grown on the ground where they have some room to roam. There are some bush varieties that work well too. Marketmores are good keepers but have thick skin. We grew a long skinny Chinese variety last summer that was awesome. I avoid pickling cucumbers because their window of opportunity to harvest before they turn into mini watermelons is too tight for my lazy harvesting habits.

7. Winter Squash (if you have room) - I love winter squash so I always make room for these. My favorites are Spaghetti Squash and Butternut. They also come in bush varieties.

8. Greens - Fill in the gaps of the garden with different greens. We love spinach, kale, and Mesculin Mix lettuce. 

9. Tomatoes - If you've only got room for one or two tomato plants I recommend Sun Gold cherry tomatoes. They are the best tasting, off-the-vine tomatoes I've ever had. Their small size means that short seasons won't be a problem and they will keep producing and growing until frost sets in. They need some room to spread out because they are an indeterminate variety.

Those are my recommendations and I would set the priority based on what you like to eat. I guess I should also fess up that you need some substantial space to do all of the above which leads me to another conversation I'd love to have about why you should make more room to grow vegetables. Maybe that can be the next post in this series. 

(The picture is from the Smithsonian collection of vintage seed packs and seed catalogs.)

Save Money - How to make your own professional seed-starting soil mix



I'm planting my first seeds today and to do that I'll need to mix up a new batch of seed-starting soil mix. If you're starting your own seeds in trays like me you need to use a soil "medium" that is sterile, meaning that it doesn't have fungus and bacteria that will be hard on your tender little seedlings, especially in the humid conditions that are ideal for seed starting. 

You can buy seed starting mix at your local garden supply store or, as I've learned, you can make your own that is just as good if not better. It will take an initial investment but if you're going to get into starting plants I think it's worth it and if have a large volume of seeds to start and transplant as they grow you'll save some money by making your own.

To get started you need to buy three basic ingredients:

    - Vermiculite

    - Perlite

    - Peat Moss

I buy the big bags of each for around $25 each at Northwest Seed and Pet, and those usually last me two growing seasons, with the perlite and vermiculite lasting longer. I find that I don't need much soil medium to start the seeds, but when I transplant the growing plants into larger pots I really use a lot of soil medium.

The basic mix is 3 parts peat moss, 1 part perlite and 1 part vermiculite. I make my batches by using a plastic pitcher, and I use a dedicated garbage can to mix 9 pitchers full of peat moss, 3 of perlite and 3 of vermiculite. Note: use a particle mask while doing this. I usually wet it down a little before mixing it to keep the dust down.

Make sure to mix it up well, wet it all down so it's damp, but not soggy, and it's ready to load into your planting trays. It's much easier filling plastic trays with soil that already has the proper moisture content.

I learned this mix from Bruce at GEM Garden and Greenhouse. He sells this medium with some other goodies added in for a great price. If you're only starting a couple of trays you might want to go that route.

Seedlings supply their own fertilizer for the first week or so as they feed off the remnants of the seed. After this you will need to use a regular regimen of fertilizer to help them grow. Take note that peat moss is slightly acidic so, depending on the sensitivity of the plants you're starting, you may want to compensate in your fertilizing to neutralize the acidity.

I've used this seed-starting mix for four years with great success. Let me know if you have any questions.

Photo: From an amazing photo collection of vintage seed packs and catalogues at the Smithsonian.

Gardeners start your engines - Seed starting schedule for a vegetable garden

Here is the schedule I follow in Spokane based on a May 15 last freeze date. I have a greenhouse which makes managing larger plants easier. You might want to push it back 2 weeks if you're putting them by a south facing window.

March 1 - 11 weeks ahead of last freeze date

  • Clean up greenhouse and get heater set up
  • Map out this year's garden plan
    • rotate crops to limit disease (for example tomato, potato, eggplant varieties should not be planted in the same place from one year to the next.)
    • Be aware of plants that like each other and plants that don't. Go here or here for an overview.
  • Start seeds for peppers, eggplant and onions.
  • Plant parsnip seeds in the garden

March 15 - 9 weeks ahead of last freeze date

  • Start seeds for tomatoes, perennials and some flowers (I'm experimenting with wildflower seeds I collected last year so I'll probably plant some trays of those for the fun of it.)
  • I'll either start pea plants in the greenhouse or more likely just plant the seeds in the garden. It's so mild this year you could probably get away with it.
  • Six weeks is probably more than adequate for starting most tomatoes but I like to make the most of the greenhouse. The bigger they are the more fun it is to give them to friends and neighbors.

March 29 - 7 weeks ahead of last freeze date

  • Start seeds for squash, lettuce, kohl rabi and other "cole" crops like cabbage. I might start the cole crops earlier. Every year I swear off growing cabbage, kale etc. because we don't eat them. But the chickens sure do like it.
  • I'll probably start a another tragic saga of the giant pumpkin somewhere in here too.

April 26 - 3 weeks ahead of last freeze date

  • Go cry on the shoulder of Bruce Metzger from GEM Garden and Greenhouse and ask him why my plants are dying.
  • Start seeds for cucumbers.
  • Buy some of his starts from his greenhouse and put them in my greenhouse and feel a lot better about the green in my greenhouse.
  • Plant pea and lettuce starts being sure to cover them at night if it freezes.

May 15 - historic last freeze date

  • Empty the greenhouse and get it all planted except the tomatoes and peppers that really like it warm. June 1 is the usual date to plant out tomatoes and peppers around these parts.
  • Beans really do best by direct seeding them into the garden so now is the time to do that. I don't bother with corn anymore. It takes up a lot of space, hogs water and fertilizer and generally disappoints come harvest time.

May 22 - one week before I told everyone on the blog to plant out their tomatoes and peppers

  • Plant out tomatoes and peppers because I just can't stand taking care of them in the greenhouse anymore.

The best way to learn is to try and try again.


Fun With Google Earth - Garden Labyrinth Looks Like Suburban Crop Circle

I thought this Google Earth view of our vegetable garden labyrinth was pretty cool. Our own little mysterious suburban crop-circle.

Go here to see the start of the labyrinth from awhile back. The end result of the first year's garden is featured on the cover of the book.

I was also stoked to see this view of the Pumpkin Patch Community Garden. It looks like an earthy patchwork quilt.

Go here to see the tranformation of an empty lot into the community garden.

Girls Scouts Unveil "Locavore" Badge

image from www.thefoodsection.comAlongside Architecture and Water Fun badges, Girl Scouts can now get a Locavore badge by learning about local food and cooking up a meal with local ingredients. According to Alisha Niehaus, Executive Editor, Program Resources:

"All of our badges reflect what today’s girls said they wanted to know about -- girls are interested in what they eat and how it affects their health and the environment, so the Locavore badge gives them a chance to delve into those issues in their communities....Plus, what’s more fun than making your own food, and truly knowing it from farm to table?"

Neihaus points out that there is a strong history of food-related badges with the Girl Scouts, including a Canning badge from the 1920's. 

It might be time for the Boy Scouts to get with it and bring back their Beekeeping badge, (Go here to sign the petition) or their Poultry Farming badge. They already have a Gardening merit badge.

In another sign of the trend, a local Boy Scout chose to make a nice dual compartment compost bin for the Pumpkin Patch Community Garden as his Eagle Scout project. 

The heart of the local food movement is about developing a healthy connection to where your food comes from. It's hard for me to understand why some people are so concerned about it. It's as American as Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, and apple pie (made from organic, locally grown apples). 

The Other GDP - Gardening Domestic Product Worth Over 21 Billion In Homegrown Food

This week saw the final harvest of our garden. There is a small mountain of potatoes, tomatillos, green tomatoes, cucumbers, and spaghetti squash in the garage. It got me thinking about what the dollar value of this year's harvest and I came across this infographic at Mother Nature Network that puts the dollar value of home food gardening in perspective. 

The statistic that jumped out to me the most is that $2.5 billion invested in home gardening resulted in $21 billion worth of fruit and vegetables. To put it more simply, for every $2.50 invested in home gardening we harvest over $20 worth of food. They calculate it more precisely and estimate that on a per household basis, the average home garden translates into $530 worth of fresh goodness.

image from www.mnn.com

"Project Hope" in Spokane Teaching At-Risk Youth Urban Gardening & Life Skills

Project Hope is a great model program in Spokane teaching at-risk teens life skills through urban gardening, backyard chickens, farmers' markets, and landscaping. Project Hope was initiated by a group in the west central neighborhood, with Salem Lutheran Church as a key sponsor. It's yet another example of how churches are leading the way in these kinds of earthy outreach endeavors. Here's a recent TV report


Portable raised bed farm made from milk crates takes root in New York

image from images.fastcompany.com
An enterprising restaurant in New York has developed a farm to table garden on the dormant construction lot next to their location. According to a Fast Company article, "The farm now contains 7,400 milk crates and over 100 types of plants. Riverpark currently gets about 25% of its produce from the farm, but expects to get more soon."

It's a ingenious design created out of the necessity of not being able to dump large amounts of garden soil on the temporary site they had secured.

Ortuzar and Zurofsky presented their quandary to ORE Design and Technology Group, which proposed the milk crate idea: Staple a piece of landscaper fabric (a material that allows air and water to pass through) to each milk crate, and fill it with soil.

There is now truly no excuse for not growing some of your own food. All you need is a milk crate, a piece of landscape fabric, and a litle dirt. I love it. Now all we need is a design for a milk crate chicken coop.

View From Your Garden: Life is Good When You Can Keep a Garden

View from your garden

Here's a VFYG submission from Cat. You can read more about her garden at her blog Growing on the Swan Slough.

I was practically raised in the farmers market scene, coming along with my mom while she sold her homemade soap and home harvested honey when I was a kid. A few years later she started Flying Tomato Farm of Snohomish, WA with my stepdad and I really started to get interested in growing food. I'd keep coming along to market and would also help out a little here and there in the greenhouse, then I was hired on as a farmers market seller by an organic farmer in the Skagit. For the past six summers I've spent my weekends peddling all sorts of unique heirloom fruits and vegetables: orange and pink striped beets, numerous varieties of fingerling potatoes, super sweet shuksun strawberries, snap peas and english shellers, fava beans, rainbow carrots, mixed greens with edible flower petals, peacock kale, speckled troutsback romaine, purple tomatoes, jahrdale and cinderella pumpkins and far much more. I have found a passion for produce and feel fulfilled when I can grow, cook and enjoy it! 

This is the first year that I've really had the opportunity to get my very own garden going. It's been a very mild summer but I've done fairly well regardless. Right now I have all of the following growing in my garden: rhubarb, raspberries, blueberries, sugar snap peas, lacinato kale, brussel sprouts, french fingerlings, red thumb fingerlings, nordland potatoes,  yukon gold potatoes and peruvian purple potatoes, red runner beans, blue lake green beans, turnips, candy onions, red onions, yellow onions, three types of sunflowers, marigolds, sugar pie pumpkins, delicata winter squash, jack o'lantern pumpkins, Japanese red pumpkins, hops, and in the greenhouse I have pink brandywine tomatoes, evergreen tomatoes, yellow pear tomatoes, sweet 100 cherry tomatoes, basil, and agnes pickling cucumbers. Today, I harvested two wheelbarrows full of garlic! I had two spicy red hardneck varieties growing and elephant garlic. I feel soul-satisfied when I can get my hands into the dirt and raise my own crops to enjoy with loved ones at the dinner table. Life is certainly good when you can keep a garden!

Email me if you want to submit a pic and a paragraph about your garden.

Community Gardens Sprouting on Rooftops in Hong Kong

Screen shot 2011-06-29 at 9.39.43 AM
CNN has the story of a growing, but still small urban farming movement in Hong Kong. 

For just $15 per month, Lam rents out toolbox-sized planter boxes to businessmen, elderly couples and families alike, and even runs horticulture classes. He uses imported soil from Germany to fill his planters and lets the humid, subtropical climate do the rest.

Fifteen dollars a month seems pretty steep but Hong Kong does have some of the highest property values in the world.

I thought this comment regarding resistance to gardening was interesting:

Outside of convincing politicians, Chau said Hong Kongers themselves have historically been resistant to the idea of farming as a suitable pastime.

"It is the lowest of our traditional caste system. In traditional Chinese culture, if you're good at nothing else, you work on the farm," Chau said. "Also, Hong Kong is a very money-minded place... land is also very expensive in Hong Kong, so people don't spend time worrying about growing their own food."

America has its own version of this caste system story. The consensus opinion on the growth of the US economy is that advances in farming freed people up from working on the farm so they could apply themselves to other more GDP-enhancing activities. This chart tells the story of the movement out of farm work in the U.S.:

image from media.spokesman.com
China has its own version of this chart but relative to the American move away from the farm they are in 1850. This chart compares farm employment stats around the world and puts China at 47% in 1999.

Screen shot 2011-06-29 at 9.55.57 AMIn countries that have moved dramatically away from the farm there are efforts in place to reconnect with land and food. My sense is that this, in large part, is what drives the local food movement, the interest in farmers' markets, CSAs, and rooftop gardens - even in Hong Kong. It's a kind of farming-deficit disorder. It may be awhile before perceptions in China change around farming but they are already shifting dramatically in North America.

Pumpkin Patch Community Garden Up and Running for 2011

We had a great work day today at the Pumpkin Patch Community Garden in the west valley of Spokane. As you can see from the picture even the little guys were putting their muscles into preparing the soil for a new growing season. We added 12 more beds today, giving us a total of 42 10x4 ft raised beds. If you're interested in having a garden plot this summer there are still some openings. Go here to find out how you can be involved. If you're not close to the Pumpkin Patch go here for a map of all the community gardens in Spokane.

Books on Faith and Green - Book 3 "Farming As a Spiritual Discipline" by Ragan Sutterfield

Farmingasspiritualdiscipline Ragan Sutterfield's collection of essays, Farming as a Spiritual Discipline, is a call for churches to start gardens and grow food. He introduces the essays by saying:

My hope is that Christians will come to see one of their tasks as staking out claims for God's Kingdom by redeeming land from the margins and using that land to create gardens that offer not only good food but also community development and hope.

True to his comments in the book about the need for patient preparation of soil, he aims with this small book, to prepare the topsoil of the church with amendments of biblical reflection, kingdom theology, and agrarian sensibilities.

He starts out with the assumption that before engaging the practice of farming we must first grapple with our understanding of creation, which is ultimately a question about how we see ourselves in the order of creation. He says:

Farming is essentially the practice of cultivating creation, and how we see farming depends entirely on how we see creation.

Sutterfield grounds his understanding of the human place in creation in a perichoretic, or social understanding of the trinity, with God inviting us into the "eternal exchange of love, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit," and into the task of widening that divine embrace of love. The author lifts up sustainable farming as a generative practice that anchors us in the humus of created order, and ultimately in the triune embrace of the creator God. 

He makes a keen observation about our typical response to the wreckage of rapid industrialization and the burgeoning green movement. He says:

So far, the answer seem to be mostly, keep doing what you are doing, only do it "greener."

Again here, he points to farming as a path to not just tweaking what we're already doing, but shaping an alternative path. He says:

Humility and frugality are both practices born of accepting our creaturely limits. Farming, perhaps better than any other practice, brings us up against the realities of the creaturely life and forces us to live within the limits of our power, knowledge and resources.

The two main essays are followed by a sermon given to Englewood Christian Church in Indianapolis, Indiana. Sutterfield argues that the church should "seek a foothold for Eden," as a way of looking ahead to the ultimate fulfillment of what God is doing in the world. He says that the best place to start is with places on the margins, on abandoned patches of earth that need resurrecting.

It's getting quite interesting reading all these 28 books in a condensed period of time. I'm learning that perspectives on environmentalism and faith are shaped significantly by the places where people are standing in the world. Scott Saban sees the movement from the missions field among the poor, Tri Robinson sees it from his role as an evangelical pastor and leader in the church, Jonathan Merritt, author of Green Like God, sees through the lens of being a Southern Baptist, and Ragan Sutterfield's perspectives are shaped primarily through his experience as a farmer. All four advocate for the church to embrace the care of creation.

Sutterfield offers a small critique of some of these other approaches. It wasn't a direct critique that he targets at others, but one that I can see in the middle of all of this reading. He says that there are two heresies founded on the idea that we, as humans, are not part of the created order. One of these heresies has been roundly rejected in all of my reading so far, which is a rejection of an extreme environmentalism that sees human impact on the earth in a wholly negative light, as if the creation would be better off without people. That's a bit of a straw man, but I understand what he is saying. The other heresy, he says, envisions "creation entirely in terms of human use and value...," which includes those that warn of global warming because of it's negative impact on humans. 

Tri Robinson lists as one of his foundational assumptions, that the earth exists for human use. Saban's main observation is that caring for the environment is a way to care for people, especially poor people. I have often spoken of care of creation in the context of loving our neighbors as ourselves. Sutterfield's point is that there is something in the story of caring for creation which runs deeper than human use and valuation. I think he's arguing against a modern, reductionist view of the earth, but I'd like to hear more about what he means by this. 

Farming as a Spiritual Discipline is a small book that packs a big punch. It's more like a fresh layer of compost than a flashy quick-release packet of NPK fertilizer. Sort of unassuming at first glance, it is packed full of health and a great contribution to the debates about faith and environment. Personally, it has re-sparked my imagination around my work with the Pumpkin Patch Community Garden and Millwood Farmers' Market and helped me see how those fit into God's unfolding kingdom.

Vegetable Garden Seed Starting Schedule


Here is a re-post from last February regarding a vegetable garden seed-starting schedule. It's a little early but I can tell from Google search links that people are starting to think about this.

Here in the Spokane area May 15 is the traditional last freeze date, so short of using a hoop house over the soil you want to plan your seed starting around that date. I recommend Irish Eyes Seeds, a locally owned seed company in Ellensberg, WA. They source a lot of their organic seeds from the Inland Northwest. Just like most commodities veggie seeds regardless of brand are likely from the same source of "who knows where." I like the local connection and local sourcing efforts of Irish Eyes. I noticed Seeds of Change Seeds at NW Seed for the first time. They are also a good choice.

Below is my game plan for the garden. I have a greenhouse which makes managing larger plants easier. You might want to push it back 2 weeks if you're putting them by a south facing window.

March 1 - 11 weeks ahead of last freeze date

  • Clean up greenhouse and get heater set up
  • Map out this year's garden plan
    • rotate crops to limit disease (for example tomato, potato, eggplant varieties should not be planted in the same place from one year to the next.)
    • Be aware of plants that like each other and plants that don't. Gohere or here for an overview.
  • Start seeds for peppers, eggplant and onions.
  • Plant parsnip seeds in the garden

March 15 - 9 weeks ahead of last freeze date

  • Start seeds for tomatoes, perennials and some flowers (I'm experimenting with wildflower seeds I collected last year so I'll probably plant some trays of those for the fun of it.)
  • I'll either start pea plants in the greenhouse or more likely just plant the seeds in the garden. It's so mild this year you could probably get away with it.
  • Six weeks is probably more than adequate for starting most tomatoes but I like to make the most of the greenhouse. The bigger they are the more fun it is to give them to friends and neighbors.

March 29 - 7 weeks ahead of last freeze date

  • Start seeds for squash, lettuce, kohl rabi and other "cole" crops like cabbage. I might start the cole crops earlier. Every year I swear off growing cabbage, kale etc. because we don't eat them. But the chickens sure do like it.
  • I'll probably start a another tragic saga of the giant pumpkin somewhere in here too.

April 26 - 3 weeks ahead of last freeze date

  • Go cry on the shoulder of Bruce Metzger from GEM Garden and Greenhouse and ask him why my plants are dying.
  • Start seeds for cucumbers.
  • Buy some of his starts from his greenhouse and put them in my greenhouse and feel a lot better about the green in my greenhouse.
  • Plant pea and lettuce starts being sure to cover them at night if it freezes.

May 15 - historic last freeze date

  • Empty the greenhouse and get it all planted except the tomatoes and peppers that really like it warm. June 1 is the usual date to plant out tomatoes and peppers around these parts.
  • Beans really do best by direct seeding them into the garden so now is the time to do that. I don't bother with corn anymore. It takes up a lot of space, hogs water and fertilizer and generally disappoints come harvest time.

May 22 - one week before I told everyone on the blog to plant out their tomatoes and peppers

  • Plant out tomatoes and peppers because I just can't stand taking care of them in the greenhouse anymore.

The best way to learn is to try and try again.


Spokane Permaculture Study Group to Launch on January 26 at Sun People Dry Goods

Mary Kate Wheeler is a recent transplant to Spokane from Vermont and she is initiating a study group for folks interested in permaculture and ecological design in the Spokane region. The first meeting will be held at Sun People Dry Goods - 32 W Second St Suite 200, Spokane, WA (corner of 2nd & Browne), from 6pm to 8pm and it is free of charge. Bring questions, ideas, and snacks to share.

Here's how Mary Kate describes the project:

So what is Permaculture?
Permaculture is a whole-systems approach that can be applied to design problems at any scale – from your back yard garden to a regional plan. Can you envision a living landscape that collects and cleans water, builds nutrient-rich soil, supports a variety of wildlife AND produces an abundance of food, fuel and other resources throughout the year?
Permaculture offers tools to design and create fruitful landscapes that mimic natural ecosystems. You can use permaculture design principles to increase your garden's productivity while reducing time spent on maintenance; to improve air and water quality, build soil fertility, and create wildlife habitat in your neighborhood; to gain self-reliance (and skills you can share) by meeting your own needs more directly.
Why a Spokane Permaculture Study Group?
Bringing people together for inspiration, learning and laughter – the Spokane Permaculture Study Group is open to anyone interested in investigating permaculture design principles and applying them in the Inland Northwest. We aim to build on the ideas, experiences and goals of group members. Our content will be shaped by the group and may include: videos, readings, skill-share workshops, design projects, the occasional guest speaker, whatever you want to see!
You can contact Mary Kate at marykatewheeler (at) gmail (dot) com

KFC, Jack in the Box, and Other Fast Food Restaurants to Accept Food Stamps

The California Restaurant Association is lobbying San Diego County supervisors to allow participants in the CalFresh Food Benefits program to use their federally funded debit cards to receive hot, prepared meals at restaurants. North County Times reports:

The San Diego County Board of Supervisors on Tuesday unanimously approved early plans to allow elderly, disabled and homeless recipients to redeem their county-administered benefits at local restaurants. With the vote, county staff is charged with crafting a way to put the plan in place, and presenting it to the board in three months.

Supporters say restaurants should be an option for food stamp recipients because many have no way to cook or store the food they receive at grocery stores. About 10 percent of the county's 213,000 food stamp recipients would be eligible for the program, county officials said.

"A lot of the elderly and the homeless don't have kitchens," said Andrew Casana, a lobbyist for the California Restaurant Association, speaking to the board at its downtown chambers.

The association brought the idea to board members last year, saying it would boost business and fill a community need. The number of people receiving food stamps countywide has spiked by 79 percent in two years, according to the county.

At first blush this seems like a terrible idea to me, but I can see why they are taking the proposal seriously. The option would only be open to the 10% who are homeless or don't have access to a kitchen. The menu items would be limited to supposedly healthy options, but the list of participating restaurants doesn't inspire confidence -  Long John Silver's, Pizza Hut, Jack In The Box, KFC, and Carl's Jr.. I am thinking of one homeless person I'm working with lately who doesn't have access to a kitchen and he mostly just wants peanut butter from our food pantry. The worst fast food would be a better option for him than just peanut butter. So for him, and people like him I would support something like this.

What concerns me is that this is the beginning of a shift in the way federal dollars are used to help the poor. This door has already been opened in Los Angeles and San Francisco, and I'm wondering how long it will take the lobbyists to suggest that the program has been so successful that they need to open it up to people who have kitchens but who don't know how to cook. That is a major problem for many people in poverty. In working with the EBT program in Spokane County at the farmers' market, I know there is hard fast rule that benefits cannot be, in any circumstance, used for hot, prepared foods. I think that's a good thing, but I'd like to see more resources go into helping people in need develop skills for preparing healthy meals with low cost fresh foods subsidized by the government. Another helpful direction would be to help people learn to grow their own foods and preserve them. Ironically, the local food movement that is much maligned as elitist, is the cultural resource that is best able to help people poverty develop these skills. 

The Food Sense program in Spokane County is a doing some of this important work.

Top Ten Posts of 2010 at Year of Plenty

According to Google Analytics these were the most popular blog posts on Year of Plenty in 2010.

1. Newsflash: Dairy Industry Wants You to Eat More Dairy - What's So Controversial About That?

This post created quite a stir. It got picked up by the president of Dairy Management Corp. and was emailed to all of his contacts. The folks at Domino's Pizza linked it all over the internet. James McWilliams at the Atlantic Monthly credited Bill Bishop at the Daily Yonder with being the first to grasp the way this story was being misreported, but I think I was the first one on the story. My first official big scoop.

2. World Comparison: Fresh vs. Processed Food Consumption

Google placed this high on their search criteria, so it has received a steady flow of clickers all year and also got picked up in some online communities.

3. How My Little Blog Out-Reported the New York Times

This was my follow up to the Newflash post about Dairy Management.

4. Roast House Coffee Newest Roaster on the Spokane Scene

This year I actually started doing some in-the-field reporting, visiting local businesses and writing up short narratives. Roast House was one of the first.

5. What Would You Do If You Had One Year to Live?

This was my first and only blog post to get "Dished," meaning Andrew Sullivan at the Daily Dish linked to it as one of his "Quotes of the Day". 

6. Wendell Berry: Gardening as Health Regimen and Holy Sacrament

This post got picked up a couple different places on the web.

7. American Farm Bureau President Declares War on "self-appointed and self promoting food experts" 

Unlike the post on Dairy Management where large ag interests were eager to see my blog as an asset, this post led to quite a push back from folks at the AFB and the conventional farming community. The AFB PR took issue with my characterization that the AFB president had declared war on consumers concerned with large ag. practices. 

8. Why You Shouldn't Rototill Your Garden

I did a whole series of gardening posts last Spring and this was the most popular of the bunch. Other popular gardening posts include; How to Turn Your Lawn Into a Vegetable Garden, Planning Your Garden Plot (Companion Planning, Rotation, and Location)How to Make Your Own Professional Seed Starting Soil Mix, Tips for Planting the Garden

9. How to Get Started Raising Chickens in Your Backyard: Choosing You Chickens

This was part of a series of posts on raising backyard chickens. The other posts included one on building and designing a chicken coop and another on convincing your spouse it's a good idea.

10. Year of Plenty | The Book

I'm told the book goes to print on January 15 and will be released on March 1, 2011.

Thanks for everyone who has contributed and commented on the blog in the last year. If you want to follow along in 2011 you can sign up for the RSS Feed here, you can follow the blog on Twitter here, or click the Like button below to follow on Facebook.