Monday, February 1, 2016

Lower Savanna Project

So, we’ve been talking about this thing called The Lower Savanna Project wherever we go, all over town and on the Internet, for the last 6 months or so. But, we haven’t explained exactly what it is. Here it is folks...

Wolf Gardens has partnered with two local charities to help feed people. We’ll grow the crops, and they’ll distribute the abundance.

See, it works like this: I have these permaculture, homesteading, and general gardening students who need projects to work on. I also have a few acres of land that needs attention in order to serve as demonstrations for future students. The charities need suppliers to help feed people. Basically, I have a farm that grows food, but I don’t want to get into distribution right now. They have food distribution programs, but their current suppliers are drying up for various reasons. So, I’ll grow it and they’ll sell it or give it away.

Now, it’s actually a little more complicated than that, but before you can understand the details you need to know  a little about these charities. They are both programs that we, as both a family and a business, feel very passionate about.

Valley NAZ $10 Food Box Program

The Valley Community Church of the Nazarene here in Chino Valley has been running an affordable foods program for a few years now. The flagship of this program is simple: pay $10 and get a box containing $30 or more worth of fresh foods. No canned goods, few processed foods, mostly fresh vegetables and a little bit of meat.

YCA Food For Veterans and Children

The Yavapai County Angels are a group of volunteers who work secure the needs of vets and families with children who are in desperate need. In these parts they are best known for their Adopt-A-Vet programs over major holidays, like Christmas and Easter. But the group, which I am a member of, does a lot more than just the adoption programs. We run drives for the specific needs of various individuals and families for things like firewood, clothing, and yes, food. Our other charity partner, Valley NAZ, has even partnered with us to get food boxes and such to some of our recipients in the most need.

So, these two highly deserving charities have already been working together to what they can for people in the area.

The problem, now that we come to it, is that the main supplier for the $10 Food Box program is drying up. It is a central food bank distribution center down south that has been relying on... wait for it... WalMart for the food it distributes to various food banks and programs all over Arizona.

You see the problem with this? It’s right there in that one word: WalMart.

Over the last year problems have been creeping into the supplier. First it was certain months there would be no food, or not enough. Then the quality of the food they got started going down hill. This last fall and winter has been horrendous. They’ve had no food for their food banks at all.

I started talking to Valley NAZ last year, in order to try and cover those “certain months” they expected not to have enough food to fill their boxes. The deal was for two months. I would help supply crops for the two months they expected not to have any food. The idea was that between Wolf Gardens and a few other farmers and gardeners in the area we could get the boxes filled and get everyone fed.

Then the quality of the food coming up from the distribution center started dropping, and we hit on the idea of growing for them on a more permanent basis. Just enough to compensate for the stuff that might have to be rejected. They knew the center was doing it’s best, and that it was not their fault.

But, then the bottom fell out and the food stopped coming up here altogether.

So, now we’re in overdrive. The church is most likely going to have to suspend their affordable food program until it can be revamped to run in a more independent way. This also affects the YCA program that several vets and low-income children have come to depend on, since Valley NAZ was supplying YCA with a little food every month free of charge.

Now we can get into the details of the Lower Savanna Project!

The southern end of the Lower Savanna on oddly foggy morning in 2014. We had already begun stacking slash there to break down for the anticipated food forest. 

Here at Wolf Gardens we have this 1-acre front yard that is the bottom of a bowl, where every nutrient on the front half of the hill has a tendency to eventually find it’s way to. We call it the Lower Savanna. There is very little planted in this area right now, just some grapes, lilacs, and a few trees of various types. Nothing terribly productive at the moment. But, that is about to change.

We plant to plant a food forest here. We plan to turn the Lower Savanna into the Lower Jungle over the next 5 years. The problem, as it sits now, is that this area was over-cultivated (to no good end) before I took over the farm. There are lots of nutrients in the Lower Savanna, but very little carbon, and soil biota is all wrong.

This, however, can be fixed by taking advantage of this El Nino year (and the subsequent following wet year) by planting in a carefully managed maincrop, aka: an annual food garden.

A maincrop, planted in polyculture, rotated properly, done in a chop-n-drop no dig style, can fix all of the problems with the Lower Savanna that is currently keeping productive trees from taking and growing.

Epic pile of herbivore poo, the first of many, donated by a local micro-ranch for the Lower Savanna Project.

So, we are dedicating the entire project to the benefit and use of our charity partners. My students and I will grow the food, and they will distribute it. Moreover, we’re setting up a scholarship program for recipients of the YCA program, and bringing in the volunteers from the Valley NAZ program in order to train them up, all bright and shiny, so they can grow their own food, and maybe help supply the network.

There are also a few other food ministries and gardeners in the area that have signed on to help supply said network, thus broadening and stabilizing our ability to both feed people and educate people on how to feed themselves.

So, there you have it folks, The Lower Savanna Project. To find out  more or keep up to date on what's going on follow us on Facebook.


Monday, January 4, 2016

5 Gardening/Farming Terms I Get Asked About.. A LOT!

Recently, I’ve been getting a lot of questions about basic gardening and farming terminology that were, once a upon a time, considered common knowledge. But, like most things that were considered common knowledge “once upon a time” they weren’t written down commonly, and so the meaning is lost to the average modern person. Now, most people ask the question (what does this mean -or- what does that mean) and stop themselves, assuming that this is the kind of information I charge for. In fact, it’s the opposite.

Information like basic terminology is something I think should be given away for free. I actually believe that this is the very kind of thing that should be taught in public primary schools so that all children grow up with a basic understanding of how to grow their own food. Or, at least, what goes into growing it.

Now, I’m not going to go into too much detail in my explanations of each term. That would make this post entirely too long and mind-numbing. Besides, each term deserves it’s own day in the sun, and can be expounded upon in future posts that focus on just them.

Anyway, here is a list of the 5 most common terms I get questioned about:

1. Kitchen Garden: Sometimes called a Truck Garden; a kitchen garden is a garden that serves the kitchen(s) of the site it’s grown on.  Think of it as the farmer’s personal garden where he/she grows their own veggies for their own use. This is also usually very close to the house, where the cook can just step out and pick a tomato or a sprig of herbs as they’re cooking. If your mother or grandmother had some tomato plants and a couple of salad greens growing just outside their kitchen door, that was a kitchen garden.

But, kitchen gardens can also be very large. My own kitchen garden is 1/8 acre, and that’s just for the veggies and annuals. I grow most of my herbs and perennials in another garden, that’s also close to the house. I have friend who runs a local food ministry farm who grew up with a 5-acre kitchen garden.

2. Main Crop (Maincrop): A maincrop is where you grow the produce you intend to sell or trade. Again, a maincrop can be anywhere between a small garden to many acres. In modern society we’re used to thinking of this in terms of fields. Acres upon acres of monocropped corn, wheat, tomatoes, or what have you. But, this is a relatively new way of doing things, just since the invention of the industrial tractor. For thousands of years before that maincrop fields were smaller, easier to work by hand, and more diverse. The practice of polycrops was not uncommon.

3. Polycrop: Poly, meaning many, crop, meaning.. well, crops. Manycrop. A polycrop is several different kinds of plants, or guilds, being grown together. Your average kitchen garden is grown in this manner. The more common term for it is “companion planting.” Plants are grown together with other types of plants that make for good companions. Space isn’t wasted in a polycrop, and the guilds (collection of plants that grow well together) are made up of plants that each offer some benefit or another to each of the other plants in it’s guild. For instance, tomatoes and basil are commonly grown together because they are chemically compatible and offer benefits to each other. A more famous guild is the “3 Sisters” guild: corn, pole beans, and winter squash.

4. Crop Rotation: Crop rotation means just that. We rotate our crops every year. If one guild is planted in one bed one year, then another guild will be planted in that bed the following year. The planning for crop rotation is more complex than that, but that’s basic gist.

5. Sacrificial Plants/Crops: Sometimes called by other names like Trap Plants, Windwalls, Barrier/Anchor Plants, and Cover Crops.

  • Trap Plants are plants that are planted in order to lure bugs away from other plants that you want to protect. It’s not uncommon to plant a few isolated soft-bodied summer squash on the edge of a pumpkin patch in order to draw bugs away from the pumpkins. Squash bugs love pumpkins, but can’t resist a nice tender yellowneck squash if it’s available. So, the sacrificial yellowneck is planted as a trap plant to protect the pumpkins.

  • Windwalls are tall plants, such as corn, pole beans on a trellis, grapes, etc which can be grown to form a living wall that protects other plants from wind damage. Windwalls are to wind what a gabion is to water. They slow and calm the wind coming through the area. Not to be confused with a Wind Break, which is usually tall trees or bushes planted very close together in an effort to stop wind almost entirely. Windwalls are typically temporary living structures designed to live for no more than 10 years, while a Wind Break is designed to be far more permanent, living 50+ years, sometimes hundreds. 

  • Barrier/Anchor Plants are plants that either form a barrier between two zones in order to divide them, or create an anchor point that brings two zones together. These are usually multi-purpose plants that not only provide a physical or visual barrier or anchor between two different areas, but may also offer the area biochemical advantages to the soil, structural advantages, or offer specific properties for attracting beneficial bugs (like bees), or repelling unwanted bugs (like cucumber beetles). Barrier/Anchor Plants can also be used as a kind of cover crop to suppress weeds. 

  • Cover crops have many advantages for everyone from the small-at-home-gardener to the large industrial farm. The most common cover crop is the legume (beans, peas, etc), which infuses the area with beneficial bacteria that converts the nitrogen in the atmosphere into usable nitrogen in the soil. This process is called “nitrogen fixing”. But, cover crops do more than just fix the soil’s chemical structure, they also aerate the ground with their roots, hold the topsoil together during rains and winds, and protect the topsoil from too much sun exposure. In dryland areas, such as mine, they also act as living mulch to help the ground retain moisture and stay cool.  

So, there you have it. The brief definitions of the most common gardening/farming terms I’m questioned about. I hope that helps some of you out there in cyberland. Please feel free to leave questions in the comments section.