Man in Overalls helps you #GrowYourGroceries!

Friday, January 19, 2018

Man in Overalls - Growing Great Soil

Good soil will basically grow your groceries for you, but how do you build great soil? 

The answer is that there are two options: a quick & easy way and a DIY, hard(er) way. 

So we're on the same page, I'm continuing my #GrowYourGroceries The Easy Way series by digging into the how-tos of growing great soil. These stories and techniques will likely make the most sense after reading Geeking on Good Soil, my last update. (I outlined where I was headed in The Big Picture.)

As I was saying, the easy way to build a great soil is to fill raised beds with a terrific compost-based soil mix like my Magic Mix to jump start your food garden productivity from year one. From there, seasonally, you simply top-dress each season before planting with another few inches of compost-based soil mix. This is how I manage my own food garden and those of my customers. Why? Because at the root of things, I'm a lazy food gardener, and long ago I decided to embrace it. šŸ˜Ž

But if you're not in the Jacksonville or Tallahassee, FL areas (where I can either supply you or vouch, personally, for certain suppliers), how can you know if the mix you're considering is worth your while? 

Here's the secret:

Ask gardeners (or small farmers) if they know anyone 'round town who sells a compost-mix in bulk, by the truckload. Then ask what they think about it. If the answer is anything less than, 'It's like magic!" you don't want it.  Trust me. 

Great soil will make beginners grow like veterans; lousy soil will make the most experienced master gardeners hang their heads in defeat.

Below are some of the things that people say about my Magic Mix, and I dwell on these testimonies just to give you a sense of the type of reaction you should hear when you ask if there is any good compost-mix available in your area:

  • A Riverside Community Gardener here in Jacksonville says, "I don’t think we understood what good soil meant…..until [we bought your Magic Mix]. The tomatoes are 6+ feet tall and the cucumbers are so prolific we are giving them away!"
  • Valerie Herrmann of The Food Park Project who is co-managing Clara White Mission's White Harvest Farms says, "Best compost... in town." 
  • I literally have people driving by my house who, seeing my food garden out front, back up, pull over & park, walk up to my front door, and knock. Dog barking, I answer the front door. "Hi," they say, "I was driving by, and I just had to ask, 'What kind of dirt have you got in your garden?' It's looks beautiful. It's some kind of magic!"
  • Suzanne, a customer says, "Your soil makes me feel like a master gardener."
  • And finally, Sylvia, a customer, she calls me seasonally to order more of "That magic soil."

Now, the funny thing is that, personally, I feel my Magic Mix, though great, could be even better, especially in terms of its micro-biological diversity. That's why I'm partnering with Jacksonville's Allen Skinner, who is a student of Elaine Ingham, one of the foremost soil biologists in the country. Allen is helping me take it beyond magic. Soon it'll be "Extra Magic Mix," I suppose. Names aside, I'll let you know when I'm ready to give my Magic Mix an "Overalls A+."

The point is: If you ask about a bulk compost mix (mine or otherwise), and people say things like "Yeah, it's okay," that's not good enough. Keep looking. If, on the other hand, they use words like "magic" or "It's amazing!" you've found something worth your while.

The long-haul, hard(er), DIY route to building soil involves a few techniques that you may have heard of: mulching, composting, and cover cropping. Rather than dive into how-tos right away, let me share a few childhood gardening memories to hang the details on.

If you recall from my last post, "Geeking on Good Soil," my family took a trip to Indiana when I was 11. I stood amazed under the shadow of 10-12ft tall cornstalks and wondered aloud at the jet-black soil I picked up in my hand: "What did they put in their soil?" My mother answered, "That's just how the soil in Indiana is." That answer wasn't good enough for me, so I went digging.

This was by-and-large pre-Internet, which meant that I was riffling through the great human-pedia, aka every single person I encountered- gardener, farmer, or not.  Before we made it back to Florida, I learned that "organic matter" is what makes soil dark. Then of course, I had to figure out what "organic matter" was and what types of organic matter I had access to. In my case, oak leaves were our wealth. We had tons of them, free for the raking (which I had to do anyway), and come March, the neighbors set out bags of them by the dozens. Yay, presents!

So I started mulching.
Well, first I had to "put together" a couple things: #1 - my Indiana lesson plus #2 - I'd grown up playing in a wooded park in my neighborhood (Lucky me! Truly.) I had noticed that there was, in fact, a dark, rich soil layer just under the leaves in the woods. Every year, more leaves fell, but they never really built up, which meant they must be breaking down, turning into that rich... you got it, "organic matter."

So I started mulching. And when I did things as a kid, I DID them. So, here's how I built soil as a kid gardener:

Knowing no other way, I prepared my garden traditionally by "turning over the soil" with a shovel, later using a tiller like my grandmother. I laid off my rows, planted my seeds and starts, and then, once everything was up about 6 inches tall, I'd spread a first layer of oak leaves, about an inch thick. Once everything had grown about a foot to 18 inches tall, I added another 8-12" of oak leaves.

By the end of the season, sure enough, a little layer of organic matter was beginning to accumulate as the leaves broke down. Better yet, there were several un-intended benefits of mulch including: no weeds had a prayer of sprouting. And watering? Since the soil was so protected, it took a long time and a lot of heat to dry it out, so watering once or twice a week was sufficient. Additionally, the presence of mulch also provided food for soil life, most noticeably earth worms, which kept the soil loose.

By the time I cleaned up my garden as summer came to a close, there were bare spots in the mulch where weeds were starting to take root. As a child I didn't grow a fall garden because I didn't know any better, so I pulled the weeds, and then I banked my garden down for the winter. I used more leaves, whatever kinds were available, about a foot thick. Come spring, I started the process again by turning under and mixing the soil and decomposing leaves. Every year through the end of high school, this is how I managed my soil.

I know mulching was effective in improving my soil not only because my vegetables got bigger but also because when I was 14, the city showed up to build a sidewalk in the right-of-way where my garden was. You could see a noticeable contrast between darker soil in the garden and the lighter surrounding soil, and I was devastated at the thought of loosing "my life's work."

But then, Mom to the rescue! She asked the sidewalk crew if they could use their front-end loader to scoop up the the garden soil and set it to the side. They agreed, so I ended up re-creating my garden right next to the sidewalk (which set in motion its own story). And that's the year I banked my garden for the winter with a thick mulch of woodchips. For what it's worth, the next spring, I had the most productive season in all my school days.

Okay, enough stories about mulch. Just note that you don't ever want to till in or turn-under fresh mulch right before you plant. The introduction of all that raw carbon (aka soil food) will cause a bacterial bloom that will "bind up" all the available nitrogen in the soil (i.e., bacteria cells are made out of proteins, which are made out of amino acids, which are made out of nitrogen compounds), so- though it will increase the soil organic matter, benefiting the soil over the long term, in the short term, your plants will suffer because they need nitrogen to grow.

~ ~ ~

Alright, time to talk composting.  I actually, wrote a post entitled My Compost System, so sift through that to learn how to compost. Once you've got your own system in place, each season, simply add another inch or two of finished compost to your garden beds before you plant. This will feed you plants (this season) as well as contribute to building the soil for the long-haul.

~ ~ ~

This post is long enough, so I won't expound on cover crops, but since the concept is not widely known or practiced, I'll share a little.

The basic idea is this: growing certain plants can serve as a "living mulch," which protects and builds the soil - both while the plants are alive and as they decay back into the soil once they die. Some cover crops (namely grasses like sorghum and oats) are terrific at "fixing" carbon, that is growing a lot of bulky material that will contribute to the organic matter content in the soil. Other crops (legumes, in particular, like beans and peas) have the ability to "fix," or capture nitrogen (the element that makes things grow big, green, and leafy) from the air into their roots, which, once the cover crop dies, will release into the soil like fertilizer. You may have heard of "green manures." This is another name for nitrogen fixing cover crops.
For the rest of the quick and dirty on cover crops, find my "Cover Up that Soil!" quick reference guide on my resources page.  If you want the definitive (while also quite readable) guide, download SARE's Managing Cover Crops Profitably.

~ ~ ~
You can also, of course, combine these soil building techniques, which I did after graduating from college when I cultivated my parents yard once again in 2009-2011. The above picture is a sample of what our garden yielded in those years.

~ ~ ~

To wrap, you've got two courses of action to build soil. You've got an easier, albeit slightly more expensive route: you can bring in a widely-endorsed compost-based soil mix to fill your beds and then topdress your garden seasonally to maintain productivity. If this route's for you and you're in NE FL, learn more about my Magic Mix HERE or request a delivery HERE

Though more involved, you can also build your soil yourself over the long-haul by mulching, composting, and cover cropping. If you go this route, you should also look into biochar and hugelkultur and explore ways to nurture the diversification of your soil food web.

~ ~ ~

If I can support you...
in growing food for self and neighbor, please, let me know or book me for a site visit. I offer turn-key food gardening support services here in NE FL and can support aspiring food gardeners in other places across the Deep South as well. To inquire about that, email me.

If you'd like to support me...
in sharing my stories & expertise, please consider offering a donation to my tip jar and passing along this update to a friend. Each of my updates take 5-10 hours of resource gathering, writing, and editing, so I want to make sure they don't just sit on the digital shelf.


Nathan Ballentine (Man in Overalls)
Urban Farmer, Entrepreneur, Educator, Community Organizer
Growing in Jacksonville, FL
Connecting globally

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Monday, December 11, 2017

Man in Overalls - Geeking on Good Soil

"I just don't have a green thumb! I kill everything I plant!" Or, so folks say. Having grown up in the Deep South with a heavy cinematic helping of Fried Green Tomatoes, every time I hear such woes, I can't help but think, "The secret's in the [soil]."

Picking up on my "#GrowYourGroceries - The Easy Way" series, second to sunlight, the next most important thing for ensuring a productive food garden is great soil. (I outlined where I was headed with this series in my post, The Big Picture.)

- - -
My spring garden in '97 or '98
I remember taking a trip to Indiana when I was a kid, 11 or 12 years old. By this point, I had already been gardening every spring for a few years. Due to my wonderment, we stopped on the side of the highway to inspect a field of Indiana corn. The stalks were a solid 10-12 feet high, maybe taller! Each stalk had 2 or 3 ears of corn. But the thing that really hit me was the soil itself. It was jet black! Having been trying to build soil in my childhood garden, I asked my mom, "What did they put in their soil?!" She explained, "That's just how it is in Indiana." 

But for those of us in the Deep South-- who don't live in the Bayous of Louisiana or in Belle Glade, FL, we don't have the luxury of inheriting eons' worth of jet-black soil.

Before I go into how to build soil for better crops, which I'll explore in my next post, let's talk background: what is soil? And, what makes it great?

Notice I didn't say dirt. Dirt is a 4-letter word for that dusty crap that piles up at the base of your driveway, the stuff smeared on your backdoor by your 3-year-old, the skeletons in your closet that someone has on you. Don't call your soil dirt.

Okay, sometimes I say dirt, like when I fill a bed with my Magic Mix and say, "Look at that great dirt!"

But the point is that soil is more than dirt. Dirt is just the "mineral" part of soil, which is- mostly - sand, silt, and clay. And, you should know that this sand, silt, and clay often contains nutrients like nitrogen, phosporous, potassium (aka "The Big Three" - which you'll see listed on bags of fertilizer) and, even things like sulfur, calcium, magnesium, iron, boron, and a host of other micronutrients. So, clearly, dirt is important but, by itself, won't grow very good crops.  To explain, let's talk about what distinguishes soil from dirt.

Good soil contains as much as 45% dirt but is also comprised of roughly 25% water, 25% air, and- here's the kicker- at least 5% organic matter. At least 5%. Sometimes good soil can be as much as 49.9% organic matter, with just a "smidgen" of dirt. But, however much there is, it's the organic matter that's key to great soil.

Organic matter, is everything that is 1)alive, 2)recently dead, and 3)once alive but long-ago eaten up, pooped out and probably digested again, again, and again. (This last type of organic matter is called "humus," which is what makes soil dark, or, in high amounts, black). These three types (or stages) of organic matter are both the food and the lodging of beneficial microbes that continually breakdown nutrients, so that they are "available" to the plants you're trying to grow. You can consider good bacteria, fungi, protozoa, beneficial nematodes, and the rest of good soil's microbe community as the chefs of the soil. Most nutrients in the soil are much like whole potatoes. Just as you'll need to chop up and cook your potatoes before expecting dinner guests to eat them, your microbes have to breakdown the nutrients in the soil, so they're "available" to your plants. 

Another benefit of organic matter is that the worms (and other visible creatures) will move in because they've got something to eat. They'll open up channels in the soil for air & water to flow. They'll poop out sticky stuff that helps hold the soil together in clumps, so it doesn't collapse into a bunch of anaerobic mud when it rains. These channels and clumps allow it to quickly absorb water as well as drain, so it doesn't water log.  

This "soil structure" that helps water flow into and through good soil also helps air penetrate deep into the soil, which helps maintain the 25% air, 25% water balance - key to keeping the beneficial soil life alive and well. Another way of saying this is that good soil is both moist and aerated. 

Good soil is awesome! It's a whole ecosystem in and of itself. Everything you learned about ecosystems: primary producers, herbivores, predator-prey relations, nutrient cycling,... it's all happening right there in the top couple inches of any good soil, and it's key to plant health. In fact, according to one of the foremost soil biologists in the country, Elaine Ingham, plants are largely in control of the "soil food web" since they have the ability to secrete sugary substances (called exudates) through their roots. 

Plants' exudates are specifically tailored to benefit the growth of specific nutrient collecting bacteria and fungi, so, for instance, if a plant needs chromium, the plant will put out exudates that encourage the chromium-finding bacteria and fungi to reproduce and gather chromium. However, it's not until another, larger, soil microbe, further up the food chain, like a beneficial nematode or protozoa, eats the bacteria or fungi that the nutrients will be "mineralized" or made "available" to the plant.  So, without a well-developed soil food web, your plants won't be able to get what they need no matter how nutrient rich your soil might be. This is what I meant when I said that dirt, by itself, won't grow good crops.

(As a side note, all this, I'd guess, is why bagged soil always seems mediocre: by being sealed in plastic, all the beneficial aerobic soil life dies.)

Anyway, if you geek on soil science like I do, here are a few additional resources to explore:

-  - -

In my next post, I'll talk about how to build great soil. For now, to close, my tip is: avoid chemical fertilizers, herbicides, and pesticides that disrupt and kill your soil ecosystem (Yes, this includes Miracle Gro). In the meantime, learn all you can about caring for and improving your soil food web. If I had to venture a guess, one day soon, we'll openly wonder at the fact that we once used chemical fertilizers, broad-spectrum pesticides and herbicides on our gardens and farms because working with natural systems is wildly more productive-- not to mention less poisonous. 

Just take a look at this picture from a recent webinar with Elaine Ingham, the agricultural soil biologist I mentioned above.
The pictured fence line separates two farmers' dairy pastures. Until the year pictured, these two fields had been managed the same. This year, the field on the right was re-seeded (to fill in ruts & gaps in the grass) and fertilized with "conventional," chemical fertilizer (your standard "seed and feed"). This is the standard and recommended practice. On the left, per Ingham's suggestion, the field was not reseeded or chemically fertilized. Instead, it was inoculated with beneficial soil micro-biology by a few applications of compost teas. By late in the growing season, the grass on the left had grown so prolifically that the farmer had grazed cows through the field 5 times and, at the time of the photo, just weeks later, was 6-12" tall again. The farmer of grass on the right, which had been chemically fertilized was only able to graze cows on it once, and by season end, it was looking brown and patchy, in need, again, of re seeding and fertilization.

If you were farming or if you were in ag-business, if you were trying to buy milk for your children, or, if you were simply trying to #GrowYourGroceries in your own raised bed food garden, which of these two methods would you gravitate towards?

Though I tell people to #GrowYourGroceries, the real secret is to focus on caring for your soil, because good soil (with a little sunlight), will grow your groceries for you. If you've got good soil, your food garden will produce more than you can imagine. Then, you'll hear people say things like, "How do you do it? I kill everything I touch. You must work in your garden all the time!" You'll just smile and think, "The secret's in the soil."

Nathan Ballentine (Man in Overalls)
Urban Farmer, Entrepreneur, Educator, Community Organizer
Growing in Jacksonville, FL
Connecting globally

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Thursday, October 12, 2017

Man in Overalls - The Valley of Food & Ag Startups: Warren Wilson College

If you're interested in tech, pay attention to Silicon Valley. If you're interested in food and agriculture, Swannnoa Valley, more specifically Warren Wilson College, is the place to keep on your radar.

Man in Overalls with (L to R) Mary Elizabeth, my wife and
Rachel (Williamson) Perry, WW alum and herbal tea entrepreneuer
I'm an alum and proud of it, class of 2008. I studied community organizing, wrote a 140 page thesis about social movements as my capstone.

Nathan, as college Freshman
on WW Electric Crew. (Look
for the blue water bottle)
It's a work college, one of seven in the country. Think universal work-study, so in addition to whatever one's academic track, students are also working in the cafeteria, the library, admissions, as carpenters, lock smiths, lab techs, and-- per the agricultural legacy of Warren Wilson-- as row crop, animal, and vegetable farmers, gardeners, and edible landscapers.  Personally, I worked on the electric crew and then on the landscape crew where I led the edible landscape sub-crew in managing a 1-acre edible (Permaculture) landscape around the "Ecodorm."

Per the "triad" of Warren Wilson's educational system, we were charged with academics, work, as well as giving back through service.

The impact of Warren Wilson's food and ag entrepreneurial spirit, however, can only, in part, be understood through the lens of requirements. Warren Wilson is a place that encourages and replicates a culture of curiosity, passion, and dedication for issues and enterprises related to good food.

Kids would disappear for the weekend, and when someone asked where they'd been, they'd say, "Oh man! I visited this amazing farm!" In dorm kitchens across campus, students would share family recipes and offer samples to friends studying in common rooms. Students would ponder together as they brushed their teeth about how to affordably provide food access in low-income communities and overhaul the health of our current sugar-laden food chain. Cafeteria worker-students synced up with the recycling crew students to explore how to compost food waste, safely, at scale.  A friend brewed batch after batch after batch of organic beer... in his dorm room. Students conducted undergraduate research about the antibiotic qualities of garlic. Spontaneous student campaigns coalesced about every 3-4 years (for the past 30) to pressure our food service provider, Sodexo to... launch a new student-run vegetarian cafe on campus, purchase produce from the on-campus garden, partner with a student-run local food name it.

In the midst of things, I didn't realize the extent to which Warren Wilson was incubating generations of food and agriculture leaders. A few years after I launched as Man in Overalls, a friend and I started taking mental note of the many, many of our fellow alums (some agricultural majors, but mostly not) who-- whether they had started their own enterprise or were working for something larger- were all working in the fields of food and agriculture.  To give you a taste, this past weekend at homecoming, friends and I- in a couple minutes- brainstormed an extensive list of businesses & organizations that fellow alums have started:
And here are a sampling of food and ag organizations that our fellow alums work with and for:
WW Alumni, Emily
Beyond these organizations are
  • an employment and immigration lawyer who spent summers picking fruit as a farm worker to better understand the situation of his migrant worker clients
  • a serial soil-science entrepreneur who has co-founded multiple businesses and who speaks and consults globally
  • several doctors who - though poorly educated on the subject by med school- are nonetheless integrating holistic diet and nutrition into their practices
  • several artists and authors who elevate food and farming, for example Kathryn Stewart.
  • public health administrators who are writing policy and educating the public to address food desert realities
The question is, of course, from whence cometh this wellspring of curiosity, passion, and dedication that has compelled generations of Warren Wilson alums to become food and agriculture leaders, to become food system creators and influencers?

Sure, we've had a farm since the school was founded in the late 1800s, a farm that in 2017, won "Top College Farm in the US," a farm that continues to inspire incredible undergraduate research, not to mention a farm that supplies delicious protein and vegetables to the cafeteria year round. But it's more that that.

On wikipedia, Timothy Sturgeon is quoted as saying
Perhaps the strongest thread that runs through [Silicon Valley's] past and present is the drive to "play" with novel technology, which, when bolstered by an advanced engineering degree and channeled by astute management, has done much to create the industrial powerhouse we see in the Valley today.
Pie Day Pie Share at WW
This, I believe, is close to the mark. For years, as students, as faculty, staff, and administrators, we played with our food, no, our food systems. We experimented, daily, with ways to compost, plant, with new recipes; we entertained sweeping policy changes, imagined hunger away, cooked for (and cleaned up after) each other for meals. And, just as importantly, we talked to each other about all of it. If there was a subject that captured more air time than anything else at "Wilson," it was food and agriculture. One couldn't help but be instilled with the principles and practices of good (healthy, green, fair, and accessible) food.

People ask me if I majored in agriculture, and the answer is, of course, no. But should you ask me if I "studied" food and agriculture at Warren Wilson, the answer is, "Yes." My friends majored in sustainable agriculture, and we talked about soil science in the hallways. I spent two years observing and working, almost daily, in a Permaculture landscape. A friend interned at a major food waste reclamation nonprofit in the UK, and I followed her blog. I learned to cook on a whole new level with friends in my dorm's common room kitchen. I co-led a student campaign for a local food purchasing policy. I gained a better understanding of a part of the migrant farm worker experience through a study abroad semester on the US-Mexico border. I volunteered at the food pantry around the corner from campus. I taught freshmen a page out of my grandmothers book: how to can apple butter.

And, truly, my experience wasn't, isn't unique. Without realizing what was going on, only in looking back are we realizing that we went to school in a place just as generative as Silicon Valley, only the focus was food- not tech.

So, here's my tip. If you want to nurture new (and old) food ways, to help cultivate community-based good food systems that do, indeed, work for everyone-- or if you just want to have a prolific food garden this fall-- play with your food, in every way you can. And talk about it with folks of all walks of life. You never know, maybe they're looking to play with their food (system) too.

Man in Overalls at Oct 2017 homecoming garden cleanup day
with former landscaping crew boss, Tom & current student, Nick,
who now manages the edible landscape at WW's Ecodorm.
After posting, fellow alumni contributed these additional organizations founded or led by WW alums:

Monday, September 25, 2017

Man in Overalls - Today is 2 Years in Jacksonville

Today marks two years since my wife, Mary Elizabeth and I rooted ourselves in Jacksonville, FL the city of her birth, the city of my father's childhood. We planted here by way of a 16-month stint traveling the western world to learn language, culture, and community-based food systems. Though I'm still the new guy on the block, I've been welcomed into Jacksonville by an ever swelling network of folks working on issues of food: farmers, gardeners and permaculturalists; chefs and hunger advocates; writers and food desert activists; composters and herbalists; health professionals and neighbors - not to mention a growing base of customers to whom I owe my livelihood (along with my lovely wife-- as business picks up).

This city is teeming with amazing people doing great work! For those who know me well, I might even say there's a movement beneath the surface, a great many seeds planted, sprouting, and looking to grow and interconnect. Rather than my typical story, I'd like to share with you some of the awesome people and efforts I've encountered in hopes that you'll learn about someone or something you didn't know was going on. This is not an exhaustive list, but a start, the first page in Man in Overalls' Jacksonville version of Who's Who:
  • Chef Amadeus winner of Food Network's Extreme Chef competition who is using his celebrity to uplift local chefs by hosting Extreme Food Fights.
  • Duval County Agricultural Extension: Mary Puckett with the Urban Gardening Program, a great and (free) educational resource on edible gardening. She and the master gardeners run a fantastic demonstration garden just around the corner from the the McDuff Ave HQ. Also: Ashley Johnston is Program Manager of Family Nutrition Program, which has a little grant funding available for youth and community gardens in low-income communities.
  • Lauren Husband, former convener of the Duval County Food Policy Council. She's an amazing woman who knows how to make things happen in, with and for community.
  • At a meeting of the Coalition to End Senior Hunger in NE FL, hosted by Eldersource, chaired by Dr Tannenbaum, I learned that over 1000 seniors in Duval county are on a waiting list for feeding programs. While there, I met Sherrie Keshner. She's an amazing woman who is senior-by-senior, helping hungry elders sign up for SNAP over the phone (since the application process is online and, often, confusing for older folks). If you know folks who need a little extra grocery money but aren't computer types, have them give Sherrie a call: (904) 391-6688.
  • Diallo Sekou, founder of Urban Geoponic and the Sankofa Initiative is a community activist, entrepreneur, and former farm manager of Newtown Urban Farm. He's making plans for an urban teaching farm in Durkeville.
  • If you're a foodie, you've got to know about Edible Northeast Florida. Amy Robb, publisher, and Lauren Titus, editor are an awesome team that puts out the most delicious farm-to-table magazine!
  • I've been pleased to cross paths with a handful of peers who are also helping people grow food themselves: Val Hermann of The Food Park Project and Tim Armstrong of Eat Your Yard Jax.
  • And I'm glad to have made the acquaintance of farmers Brian Lapinksi of Down to Earth Farm, Caria Hawkins of Abundant Harvests Farms, and Simon of Urban Folk Farm.
Here are a few more folks you've just got to know about:
  • Ju'Coby Pittman's Clara White Mission feeds over 500 hungry people every day and runs a culinary job training program. A few years back, they started White Harvest Farms, a initiative to grow food (and offer education) in the midst of Jacksonville's northside.  (Note: Val Herman was just recently hired as White Harvest co-farm manager).
  • This past spring, I was honored to assist Melissa Beaudry in launching Fleet Farming Riverside, a program that converts people's front yards into micro-market-farms in exchange for a portion of the produce.
  • Betty Burney, director of I'm a Star Foundation, a youth-driven leadership organization. I first heard about them in 2015, when they presented their ideas on how to improve childhood obesity rates to the Surgeon General in Washington DC.  Every Friday, to combat lack of access to food, they operate a fresh-food market at the downtown Rosa Parks bus station, and they're making plans to launch a youth farm in NW Jacksonville. This fall, I've had the honor of doing a few workshops with the "Stars."
  • Kurt D'Aurizio is executive chef at Sulzbacher Center (for the homeless) and president of Slow Foods First Coast, which coordinates the Tour de Farm. I love their vision by the way: Good, clean, and fair food for all. Powerful words. I could take them as my own.
  • Karen Landry of War on Poverty is working with Agape Health Clinic and other partners to launch a vegetable prescription program, based on the national Wholesome Wave model that will prescribe fruits and vegetables (and provide vouchers to buy them) to patients in order to improve family health... as well as support the local farm economy.
  • Meanwhile, Florida Organic Growers' Fresh Access Bucks program is partnering with a number of area farmers markets to a)allow low-income customers to buy local produce with SNAP/EBT at farmers markets and b)to "double their bucks." (In other words, for every $10 a SNAP recipient spends with, for example, Riverside Arts Market's farmers, they can buy $20 worth of produce.) It's a food access, local farm development program rolled into one.
Lastly, I've found these great local sources for vegetable plants & seeds, herbs and fruit trees:
  • Standard Feed. On Kings Road, source for vegetable starts and seeds + baby chickens, coops, and feed
  • Gores Nursery. On Jax NW side, source for fruit trees
  • Hall's (ACE) Nursery, on Blanding, source for veggies starts, seeds, and herbs
  • Bluebird Growers, frequents farmers markets, source for tomato starts + great herb starts.
This list is too long, and I'm nowhere near finished. But, the rest will have to wait for another day. In apology, all I can say is that there are "too many" people doing good food work in Jacksonville. Haha. But really: it's wonderful!

I'm glad to be moving and shaking among such a wonderful network of great folks. More power to you, and keep up the good work!

Nathan Ballentine, Man in Overalls putting down roots in Jacksonville, FL

Nathan Ballentine (Man in Overalls)
Urban Farmer, Entrepreneur, Educator, Community Organizer
Growing in Jacksonville, FL
Connecting globally
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Thursday, September 14, 2017

Man in Overalls - Fall: The Best Time to #GrowFood

Here in N Florida, it's time to plant your fall food garden, now through the end of October. When most folks think garden, they think spring: tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, green beans, peppers, etc. While I do love tomatoes, the fall-- here in Jacksonville-- is the most pleasant and bountiful season to grow! In the fall you can grow salad greens like lettuce, arugula, spinach; cooking greens like collards, kale, mustards; root crops (other than potatoes) like turnips, carrots, radishes, beets; the garlic/onion family of crops; and many herbs (other than basil) such as parsley and cilantro, which actually do better in the fall than spring.

But let me back up. Beyond the greater range of fall options, why do I love growing food in the fall? It's simple really: less bugs, less heat, less work, more production, all the while looking gorgeous!

Heat and bugs go together. As the temperature goes down, so do the number of bugs trying to eat up your garden.  And, as the heat drops each passing day, it becomes more and more pleasant to check on and harvest from your food garden, so you're more likely to actually benefit from what your garden produces.

There's less work in a fall food garden than in a spring/summer garden because none of the fall crops require staking and tying; plus there are fewer weeds sprouting.

In terms of production, you get far more per square foot in the cool season than you will in the warm season. For instance, in a square foot in a warm season garden if you grow green beans, you'll likely yield a handful or two. In the same space in the fall, you could yield as much as 12 heads of lettuce.

And then there are things like kale and collards! Plant them once and harvest for six to seven months! It's easy to yield at least 5-6+ bunches per plant, a value of $2-3 each. Largely due to to the fall season, I was able to grow 400 lbs in my 80 square foot food garden, a total value of roughly $1600 of organic produce.

Last but not least, all the fall crops "stay in their place" so to speak; they don't vine or climb* all over the place, so you can count on a more manageable, kempt-looking garden. (*Okay, Sugar snaps do climb and like a trellis, but they don't go all over the place.)

For all these reasons, I love growing in the fall!

To help you plan your fall food garden, here's my planting guide that outlines raised bed plant spacing and seasonal crops for food gardening in N Florida. Also, since your garden is still likely a hot mess from what's left of your warm season garden (especially on the heals of Hurricane Irma), here's a little how-to video about cleaning up for the next season.

If I can support you in growing food for self and neighbor this fall, let me know. I offer full service food gardening support services here in NE FL and can support food gardeners in other places remotely via live-stream video conference food gardening lessons and Q&A consultations.

#GrowYourGroceries - with Overalls Support


Nathan Ballentine (Man in Overalls)
Urban Farmer, Entrepreneur, Educator, Community Organizer
Growing in Jacksonville, FL
Connecting globally

Man in Overalls on FB
Blog - About - Services - Projects - Resources

If you would like to receive my "semi-monthly" updates, which include a story and food gardening tip please email with subject line "Count Me In."

Monday, August 14, 2017

Man in Overalls- #GrowInYourFrontYard #GrowYourGroceries

I grow my groceries in my front yard.

I've been growing in front yards since I was eight years old.

It started that way simply because that's where the best sunlight was, right out front.

Let me ask, if you're honest, where's your best sunlight?

For, I'd say, 90% of Americans with yards, their best sunlight is in the front yard.

"Yeah, but..." I hear a lot of people say, "...if I planted it out there, people would take my tomatoes!" Like their neighborhood is especially prone to vegetable thieves. Like, maybe there is a vegetable-eating gang of young people that roams their streets, who they're afraid to talk about. (Which, if you do have a vegetable-eating gang in your neighborhood, please tell me about it because I definitely want to meet these kids!)

Anyway, as I was going to say: if you're afraid to grow in your front yard where you've got good sun, and you instead choose a protected (albeit shady) spot, you won't grow much at all, so you won't have to worry about people stealing anything. Voila, perfect. Theft averted!

But, I was in the middle of a story. Let me back up.

Because I grew a vegetable garden in the front yard as a child, I became known as "that kid who gardens on the corner."

I never had anything stolen out of my garden as a kid. But it was in a "quiet" suburban neighborhood. And there was no sidewalk.

But then my elderly neighbor who had been campaigning for a sidewalk on our block for a decade finally got her wish. So then people walked right by my vegetable garden. And, as it happened, our street actually was a short-cut between the "projects" and a shopping mall. So guess what happened after the sidewalk was built?
...I got to know more of my neighbors, plus some folks who walked through. And, I learned that food gardens are one of the best icebreakers for meeting people, learning recipes, and hearing stories about other people's families. And, still, no one ever stole anything.

Well, there was that one time around Thanksgiving, during the 2008/9 financial collapse when -- I can't remember, did I tell somebody they could pick some greens?-- someone harvested three collard plants down to the nubs, seemingly in the middle of the night. So, I lost like $3 of collard greens. Maybe. Meanwhile I had another 50 plants laden with greens that went untouched.

But, after all, that was in a suburban neighborhood.

In 2011, my wife and I moved near downtown into a duplex, our first home. Our landlord allowed us to build and grow a garden, and the best sunlight was, again, in the front yard. So, there we grew.
There was heavy foot traffic on a sidewalk across the street, and a long, long red light stopped people immediately in front of our food garden for minutes on end. My wife and I weighed and recorded everything we harvested for the sake of research. Out of our 80-square-foot raised bed food garden, we harvested 390lbs of veggies and herbs in 9 months. (Here's a little press release my friend wrote up about that garden.) We think, but aren't sure, that someone took a single head of lettuce.

Next, in order to be close by TFN's iGrow Whatever You Like youth farm, we moved to "D-Block," a section of a neighborhood that was the "hood" by most definitions: boys walked the street who were probably selling; ladies walked the streets who were, also, probably selling (something different); one of our neighbors regularly ran down the street playing imaginary football with himself.

Nevertheless, by this time, we realized that not only did front-yard food gardens afford the best sunlight and, therefore, productivity, and give us a great way to meet our neighbors; front-yard gardens also permitted us to see and tend our food garden in small easy ways almost daily,  so weeds couldn't sneak in, nor could produce go bad before we noticed it ripening. (This deserves it's own post, so stay tuned). So, once again we planted in the front yard, right by the street (both inside & outside the chain-linked fence).
I remember one day when I was out pulling carrots and cutting lettuce for dinner, bent over, back to the street. These two big guys came walking up on me; I just caught them out the corner of my eye; they'd kind of snuck up on me. I had that sinking feeling like "Oh s***" as I slowly stood up and pivoted to face them. And you know what happened?

This guy, the bigger one, he smiles, the glasses on his face rise on his cheeks and he said, "Evening, how you doing? It's a cool thing you're doing with the garden. I like it."

I don't believe we had a single snap pea taken from our garden in the hood.
- - -

So, as you might imagine, when we moved to Jacksonville, FL because, as is usually the case, our best sunlight was in the front yard, and since we wanted our groceries growing "in-sight and in-mind," and because we wanted to get to know our neighbors, we, once again, decided to grow our groceries in the front yard.

This past week, someone took a bush full of habeƱero peppers, a definite disappointment because our buddy, Chad, had planned to make hot sauce. But, to keep things in perspective, the loss of the habeƱeros brings our total lifetime losses up to about a full $10.  In 25-ish years of growing our groceries in front yards we have harvested, conservatively, $10,000 of produce. My household has eaten its fill, and we've given hundreds of pounds away to friends, family, neighbors, passersby, and food pantries. Easily $10,000, maybe more. Any loss pales in comparison to the bounty of our front-yard food gardens.

So, I'll say it again...




#GrowYourFaithInHumanity But moreso, just

#GrowWhereTheSunShines, please.

For your own sake as well as for the sake of that gang of vegetable-eating teenagers in your neighborhood.

- - - 

Nathan Ballentine (Man in Overalls)
Urban Farmer, Entrepreneur, Educator, Community Organizer
Growing in Jacksonville, FL
Connecting globally

Man in Overalls on FB
Blog - About - Services - Projects - Resources
If you would like to receive my "semi-monthly" blogs by email, which include a story and food gardening tip please email with subject line "Count Me In."

Thursday, July 20, 2017

Man in Overalls - Back to Basics: What You Need to Know to Grow, The Big Picture

After making sure you've got adequate sunlight, the next two things necessary for food gardening success -- as any kindergartner can tell you-- are good soil and, you guessed it, water. These are your food growing basics: sunlight, soil, and water.

However, before I jump into talking about soil, which I'll do in my next post, let me take a step back. You see, I've realized that I could draft a book by writing it a blog-post at a time. Originally I had conceived this "What You Need To Know To Grow" series as several blog posts about sunlight, soil, and water-- with "sequels" about how to plant, deal with pests, what/when to harvest. Not more than 5-6 posts in total.

But then I thought: rather than stop there, what if I expanded beyond the basics to share my own "bigger picture" perspective that helps ensure my food gardening projects are bountiful & successful in a holistic sense? secret food gardening recipe so to speak.  And, of course, in keeping with my style, I'd plan to share stories & personal experiences to give you something to anchor the facts onto.  What do you think? Should I do it?

To give you a sneak preview of this possible "What You Need to Know to Grow" book, here's an outline sketch:
In short, as I approach any food garden project, this is my triple-lens through which I think about things: agriculture, nature, and people. Any successful food garden project requires a synergy between these three elements.

Agriculturally, you need to have sunlight, good soil, and adequate water. It's also helpful, of course, to know the technical basics like how to plant. Regarding nature, at a minimum, you need to plant in season. Also, knowing about your existing soil, adapting your practices to the regional climate & terrain, and attracting beneficial insects will make you more successful and your work easier. Finally, it's essential to consider the people you're trying to engage (even if that's just you). What do they like to eat? Where is the kitchen? Is the food garden space inviting? How easy is it to maintain?

Say you get your grand-kids excited about growing a garden (people), and you were a successful gardener up north (agriculture), so you just do what you did there. But things go wrong: your lettuce gets eaten up by bugs, and your tomatoes yellow and die right before your eyes. What happened!? It turns out the climate and seasons are entirely different in the Deep South compared to the North, so you planted at the wrong time of year. Whoops! You forgot about nature. If on the other hand, say you're a great agriculturalist-- even if you integrate natural principles-- you may end up with an uninviting food garden in the far recesses of your backyard full of produce that no one recognizes or will eat.  And, ultimately, since no one feels any real benefit, it will go neglected, be overtaken with weeds, and then, finally, be mowed to the ground. You forgot to think about people.

Let me share a story.
In 2009 right as I launched my food gardening business, I volunteered extensively with a nonprofit to assist a community elder in starting a community garden in a subsidized housing community (in other, less gracious terms, in the "projects"). It was exciting! It was vision of abundance in the midst of a food desert! Tons of kids in the neighborhood- okay, maybe a dozen- came out to join the day we built and planted the garden. In the following weeks, everything grew great because the team of day-of volunteers had brought in great compost, planted things in season, and we kept things well watered in the weeks that followed.
However, after that initial build day (and one more when volunteers planted a bunch of fruit trees), very few people were involved other than Mr. Oliver and I. A few kids ventured over to join us when we were pulling weeds from time to time, but generally it was just the two of us. I got to know folks in the neighborhood hoping to find and cultivate interest in participating, but they saw the garden as "Old Man Oliver's Garden."  As the red chard grew one foot then two feet tall and the spinach plants were beautifully abundant (but no one touched or harvested any of it), I started asking friends in the neighborhood if they wanted some of the produce. "Oh, chard, you say? Oh, that's what that is. I've been wondering. Never heard of it. It's like spinach you say? What's spinach? ...Why don't y'all grow some things that people around here know? Like collard greens and mustards."

I share this story because it's an oft repeated story in the community gardening world. Between us volunteers, we had the agricultural knowledge, and we worked with nature so far as growing in season and planting flowers that attracted beneficial insects. We also had lots of "one-time" volunteers, but the most important people, the community residents themselves had not been considered, consulted, or engaged from the beginning, so the success of the whole community garden project was compromised. (Don't worry. It wasn't a complete "failure," but it certainly wasn't as successful as it could or should have been.)

It takes all three (agricultural best practices, natural systems and cycles, and engaging people "where they're at") to make for a successful food garden project -- be it a community or school garden, an edible landscape, or simply a raised bed or a patio container garden. Like a fire which requires heat, fuel, and air, a food garden can't be wonderfully successful over the long term without paying attention to all three of these key elements: ag, nature, and people.

Next up, let's talk about soil.

#GrowYourGroceries - I'll help!

Nathan, Man in Overalls
Urban Farmer, Entrepreneur, Educator, Community Organizer
Growing in Jacksonville, FL
Connecting Globally

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