Benefits of Crop Rotation

One of the most effective ways to deal with pests and disease organically is by rotating crops. This practice can be a little difficult in a backyard garden due to limited space, but it should be part of your on-going maintenance plan. Here are some key benefits of rotating crops:

Pest and Disease Control

Plants from the same families tend to be attacked by the similar pests and diseases, which is why crop rotation is largely based on plant families. Moving crops around the garden according to plant family can help decrease the population of pests and buildup of certain pathogens in the soil.

Soil Erosion

A common mistake is to leave soil exposed for long periods of time. A benefit of crop rotation is to plant crops back to back prevents soil from being dried up by the sun or washed away by rain. This is especially true with large farms that leave fields fallow for long periods of time, which can result in serious runoff issues and nutrient leaching. Cover crops help hold the soil together thus preventing any loss of topsoil due to wind, water or sun. They also improve the overall fertility, biology and structure of the soil.

Nutrient Management

Some crops take more nutrients out of the soil than others, with the hungriest of them being referred to as “heavy feeders.”  Heavy givers” include cover crops and green manures, which can help put nutrients and organic matter back into the soil between crop cycles. A good rotation for nutrient cycling is to plant a heavy giver, followed by a light feeder, followed by a heavy feeder, then repeat the cycle. See the list below for examples of heavy, medium and light feeders. Heavy givers include cover crops and green manures, which help put nutrients and organic matter back into the soil between crop cycles. If farmers or gardeners continue to grow the same crops year after year, they will deplete the nutrients in the soil, which will require them to apply more fertilizer, water and pest and disease controls each year.

Farmer D’s 4-Year Crop Rotation Plan:

Other Helpful Hints:
- Incorporate cucurbits (cucumbers, melons and squash), lettuce and corn wherever convenient; avoiding growing them in the same place too often.
- Perennial crops such as asparagus and rhubarb do not fit into the rotation.
- For a three-year rotation, combine legumes with onions and roots in one section, follow with brassicas, then nightshades.

Learn more about crop rotation and home gardening in Farmer D’s Citizen Farmers

Planting with the Moon

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The gravitational pull of the moon affects the tides. It makes sense, therefore, that the moon’s relationship to the earth most likely affects groundwater as well.  This is a basic practice of biodynamic gardening and farming, and it’s also an age-old strategy that our ancestors learned to use after witnessing the results firsthand. Why not try it in your garden and see if it makes a difference? Here are the basics:


When the moon is waxing: As the moon starts to grow bigger in appearance in the night sky, its gravitational pull is higher. Therefore, this is a good time to encourage growth in your plants. Recommended actions include transplanting, grafting, fertilizing, and harvesting leafy greens and fruits that you intend to consume right away, as their water content is going to be higher during this time.


When the moon is full: That big, bright full moon is your sign that it’s the ideal time to plant seeds or transplant seedlings. The high moisture level in soil will aid in their germination and the strong influence will help roots and leaves to grow quickly.


When the moon is waning: As the moon diminishes in appearance in the night sky, the moisture level in the soil recedes. Sound like a bad thing? Not at all! This time of the month is the perfect time for planting seeds that do most of their growing underground, such as root crops, or other plants that depend on robust root growth, such as trees. This is when you want to prune plants and divide perennials. Most important, especially after all your hours of hard work tending your garden, this is when you want to harvest any fruits or vegetables that you intend to dry or root crops you intend to store as their water content will be lower than during the waxing or full moon.


When there is a new moon: When no moon is visible in the night sky, the water content of your soil is lowest, so pay extra attention to watering your garden as your plants will rely on you at this time.

-Read more about biodynamic sowing practices in Citizen Farmers. 

Working with Children in School Gardens

You may have been excited to work with a group of children in a garden, only to discover that the experience did not live up to expectations for either you or the children. You may have overestimated what you could accomplish and gotten frustrated, or the children may have found your structured lesson plan, too structured.  You may have planned very little and then realized that the children could have used more guidance. You may have not anticipated the specific stage of development of the age group with whom you were working, or you simply have needed more adult help or more tools and supplies. Don’t give up. Learn as you grow, so to speak, and try again. Here are some tips that may help:

Remember that many children may have never been in a garden. This means they may not know basic garden etiquette, such as not stepping on (or running through) garden beds. They may actually be scared of some things, like bugs or bees. They may not be used to patiently observing things. And they need your help to teach them about all these aspects to a garden, and how to behave safely and respectfully. Keep it clear and simple and kids tend to get it.

Young children are happy to putter, and they lose attention quickly. Don’t get hung up on long lesson plans for the little ones.  They will be happy to dig a hole, plant a seed, paint a decorative rock or try to catch a butterfly.  Be aware that the mood you create with them in the garden will set the tone for how they feel about gardening perhaps for the rest of their lives. Make it fun. Make it memorable and let them enjoy the discovering nature.

Follow the children’s lead to see what they are interested in. If they find an inchworm, use that as an opportunity to teach about measurement. If they seem fascinated with how fast a bean seed germinated, that’s a great time to talk about the parts of a plant and how seeds grow. Toss in a little history nugget here and there, such as “Did you know that people carried seeds with them when they moved to a new country?” Show math in nature: “Look at how the beehive is made up of hexagons!” Create art in the garden: “Let’s see how many make different colored dyes we can make from plants.” Tell stories. Sing songs. Dance. Pretend. Senses are heightened out in nature, and the children will learn more than you can imagine. 

 

Middle-schoolers need to feel necessary.

They are at an age where they are not quite sure where they fit in. This is also a time when they start to feel a heightened sense of environmental concern or responsibility. This coincides with them being at an age where they are strong enough to do real work now. Take advantage of these crossroads in their lives to focus their attention on solving a real problem and achieving something tangible. They are ready now to be presented with goals such as “create a new twenty-five foot row” or “ Find ways to save more rainwater” and to figure out for themselves how to achieve them. Give them the opportunity to create their own vision so they truly feel ownership of it. Jump in to help where needed, but don’t solve the problems for them (and do let them make mistakes). You’ll see their self-esteem, decision-making capabilities, and teamwork skills soar.

High schoolers are ready for serious projects and leadership. 

Students of this age are ready to tackle higher-level academic subjects in depth and to propose innovative experiments that test their knowledge as well as what’s possible in a changing world. A high school garden program is a terrific place for a STEAM emphasis (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art and Mathematics) as students computerize irrigation, build solar systems, propose biomimcry inventions, and study all aspects of environmental science. Artists can find inspiration in the garden, journalists can cover the garden story through multimedia, film students can document it, language students can build communications connections across cultures through signage and multicultural events, math students can create budgets and planting plans, and those with special needs can benefit from sensory integration as well as job skills training in the garden to create pathways to future success.  In fact, I can’t think of anything that can’t be taught in some way in a school garden! If you listen, truly listen, to what the children— of all ages—  tell you about their interests, the garden can help them grow in those directions.

For more gardening tips and inspiration, check out Farmer D’s book Citizen Farmers.

How to plan a community garden

Farmer D has a lot of experience planning community gardens in the Southeast. Here he’ll share practices to ensure that all members of your community can participate in the garden and enjoy the fruits of their labor: 

Community gardens have become the new hangout at parks, schools, places of worship, previously-empty lots, and any other little swath of land that can be transformed into a vibrant garden where both food and community are grown. Many community garden leaders intend their locations to be welcome havens for all, but achieving that in reality can sometimes be challenging.  Here are 5 tips to help your community garden succeed:

1. Make sure your location is easily accessible. 
Can you see the garden from the street, or is it blocked by weeds and debris? Is there available parking, including a bike rack? Do you have signs letting people know that it is a community garden and all are welcome to visit? If not, these are all easy, inexpensive fixes that might just mean clearing out and designating a little extra space to make your members and visitors feel more welcome.

2. Accommodate those with disabilities.
If you haven’t thought about accessibility for people with disabilities, you’ll probably think of it pretty quickly the first time someone with a cane, walker, or wheelchair can’t get up your wood-chipped path. This is where a paved path, at least partially, and an extra-high raised bed that a wheelchair can slide under or beside come in handy. many community gardens are incorporating these elements right from the get-go. Other amenities that take into consideration a wide range of abilities include shade areas, benches, convenient restrooms, and sensory integration elements such as herb gardens, wind chimes, art elements, water elements, food sampling areas, and other features where the five senses are awakened.

3. Maintain an open door (gate) policy.
There comes a time, usually around the first tomato-snatching, when community garden leaders decide to lock their gardens to reduce the chances of theft. Best practices nationwide show proven strategies to achieve this goal without locking out the public. These include encouraging members to personalize their beds and harvest frequently to show that the food grown is valued, dedicating excess produce to a local food pantry to show commitment to those in need in the area, and offering a “thieves’ bed” where anyone can pick whatever’s ready to be harvested. Also, keep finding ways to involve more parts of the community in the garden, and you will increase the number of people who feel ownership and pride in it, and will thereby help protect it. Buddying up with your local police department is always a good idea. You could even offer a neighborhood precinct a few free plots in exchange for their support.

4.  Provide a welcoming atmosphere.
Community garden leaders can set a good example for their members by always greeting visitors to the garden, engaging them in conversation, and inviting them to help or browse. People who linger, laugh, and learn together create a positive environment that is attractive to others. Some ways to know if you’re a quart low on this attribute are: (a) if your garden members are simply running in, watering, and leaving, (b) if your garden members don’t know each other’s names, (c) if you don’t have a steady stream of non-members coming by to check out the garden, and, of course, (d) if going to the garden is simply not fun.  

5.  If you want to grow food for sale, check the rules.
You now need to determine whether or not commercial activity is allowed, plus how you can accommodate larger equipment, food storage, accessory structures, and a larger compost operation than a community garden or home garden might require. Contact your city hall for exact details about local ordinances that affect growing food where you live. And be ready to dig in when it’s time for spring planting.

Pick up a copy of Farmer D’s book Citizen Farmers for more tips, stories and inspiration to get gardening! 

Best Crops for Kids

Citizen Farmers is full of tried and true tips that Farmer D picked up while working on different community farm projects all over the country.

Here are his Top Ten Best Crops for Kids. Even the pickiest young eater will get excited about fresh fruits and vegetables if they grow it themselves: 

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A love of gardening runs in the family: here’s Farmer D’s son Tilden watering their backyard garden. Tilden’s favorite veggie is Broccoli.