We encourage & assist folks to grow food for self and neighbor

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Man in Overalls - Back to Basics: What You Need to Know to Grow, Part 1

Sunlight, y'all. You need sunlight to #GrowYourGroceries. 

Sunlight, like this:
This, on the other hand, is not a "nice spot" for your food garden:
Photo courtesy James Willamor
Yes, I jest, but only because I've encountered, truly, countless people for whom either hope springs eternal or who, honestly, struggle to understand the connection between food garden productivity and sunlight. Namely, food crops (with, noted, a few exceptions) do not yield without at least 4-5 hours of direct sunlight.

Let me give you the scenario. It's the same story every time. It happened years ago when I launched my food gardening business, and it happened, literally, last week. I show up for a food garden consultation or dream session to take a look, offer edible ideas, and answer questions. Or, then again, maybe I'm there to install a raised bed or simply to deliver a load of my Magic Mix. I knock on the door, and I'm warmly welcomed. Then, promptly, either through the house or around the outside via a side gate, I'm shown to the back yard. The front yard had adequate sunlight. Immediately outside their backdoor, the sunlight was still, at least, marginal, but we don't stop there. "Here!" they say, "Right here!" we've walked into the dark recess of their backyard, a forest more or less, often under a giant oak tree. "I want to put the garden here because I can't get the grass to grow."

To be fair, often the spot they select does get some direct sunlight, an hour or two, maybe, through the gaps between several trees. Or, perhaps, their pecan tree hasn't leafed back out in the spring, and so, temporarily, it seems the spot will have plenty of sunlight for their garden. So, perhaps it's not the lack of understanding that food crops need sunlight to produce. (Okay, probably :). But, maybe, folks don't know how to calculate how much sunlight will shine on a spot without having to hang around all day and take notes. If that's your situation, keep reading.

To check your available light, track the arc of the sun from horizon to horizon, then divide it into 12 segments. Each is roughly one hour. Along the arc, how many clear segments are there? Another way to think about this is to “guesstimate” the fraction of the sun’s arc that’s open to the sky, then multiply by 12.  For example, if the eastern horizon is entirely clear, but there's a house to the west, that's half a day's sun: 1/2 x 12 = 6hours. Or, more likely, you have trees or shrubs on both sides of your lot, so only one third of the sun’s arc is open to the sky above your garden site: 1/3 x 12 = 4 hours of sunlight.  Note: the sun always dips towards the south (moreso in winter, less in summer), so trees, tall plants, and buildings will cast a longer shadow (to the north) in December than in June.

If that still doesn't make sense, call me, and, if you're in NE FL, I can come out for a Food Garden Consultation to help you choose a spot for your garden, offer edible ideas, and answer all your other questions while we're at it.




Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Man in Overalls - Back to Basics: What to Do When it Freezes in N FL

Planning for Spring
I'm writing this quick note to let you know about the probable freeze tonight in north Florida. Here's the short version: If you've got tender warm-season plants growing (think tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, squash, and the like), water thoroughly and then throw a sheet over your warm-season veggies & tropical fruit trees (especially if they've only been in the ground 1-2 years).

I can't count how many people I've met who have a complex about "killing plants" and who think, "I don't have a green thumb." What they don't realize is that anyone (EVERYONE!) who grows their own groceries is well-versed in killing crops (myself not-withstanding). Why do you think there are entire USDA funding streams for crop loss insurance and crop-loss loans? Even the best of farmers-- much less gardeners-- inadvertently kill things from time to time.

On the topic of freezes, a few years back (2010 I believe), I was up late organizing a kids food gardening workshop when I suddenly remembered it was supposed to freeze that night. Being 11pm or midnight already, I googled the temperature and discovered to my chagrin that it was already 27 degrees outside! I had some beautiful lettuces I had intended to harvest, so I rushed outside with a knife and a flashlight. Sure enough, the lettuces were crispy and frozen. I cut the largest ones and hustled back inside where I attempted to "save" the frozen lettuces by thawing them in running water. They melted into a mushy slime like I'd thrown them in boiling water. Ruined! (Mind you, I did this after I had "hung up my sign" as they say. I was, at this point a "professional food gardener.")

Resigned by my failure, I went to bed. The next morning, I went outside to inspect the rest of the lettuces (and other cold-season crops)-- expecting total crop failure. Much to my surprise, all the smaller lettuces (which I had not attempted to save!) had thawed slowly via sunlight filtered through the pine trees towards the east and had gone right on growing without a hitch: all fine! How did that happen!?

And then I remembered: cold-season crops (see my "What Can You Grow in a Square" resource for a list) are actually able to freeze solid and unfreeze (assuming the temperature isn't down past 25) and go on growing just fine. The trick is the thawing. If they warm up slowly, their cells do not burst. If, however, whether by a flash-unthawing by water or by overly-warm direct sunlight right at dawn, the plant's cell walls crack and burst resulting in a destroyed crop. This is a large part of the reason why farmers cover cold-season crops for freezes with row cover; it's not so much that it keeps their crops warmer (though it does, barely). The real value of row cover is that it slows the warm-up process, so the plants are not flash-melted by the warming dawn sunlight.

But all that ^ is only about cold-season crops, which is not the cause of worry tonight. They'll be fine.

Warm-season crops, on the other hand, are vulnerable to any and all temperatures under 32 degrees. So if you have crops growing late into the fall/winter (next year) or you've already put out spring plants and we get a late-season light spring freeze (like tonight)...
  • If you're close to the River or downtown/near lots of concrete or your garden is somewhat sheltered from the north or your garden is on a slope, you'll probably be okay, but just to be safe....
  • On the other hand, if you're further from the urban core or your garden is in an open field or it has no protection from the north or your garden is in a low spot, you'll almost definitely get some freezing temperatures, so...
Either way, you should do at least the first of these two things:
  1. Water thoroughly before nightfall. Most freeze damage is caused by dehydration.
  2. Cover the most vulnerable or most tender warm-season plants (and tropical fruit trees) with a blanket, buckets, or something else to keep a small insulated air pocket to protect your plants. (Don't worry about yet-to-sprout seeds. They're protected under the soil).
If you're a visual learner, here's the same basic info in my How-to video I did with the FL Dept of Ag:


#HappyGrowing
#GrowYourGroceries

PS- if you (or someone you know) is interested in subscribing to my "Overalls On Call" seasonal Food Garden Tips, Advisories, and Q&A Support by text, email, or video-- which will include  advisories-- I'm going to be beta testing it with a handful of customers in the next few weeks. The price tag is $25/month. (If you're signed up for a maintenance plan, you'll get this included)

Friday, February 10, 2017

Man in Overalls - How to Start a School Garden: Design

Before you get to build your school garden like this,
before you can help kids get their hands dirty like this,
 or teach kids in your school garden like this,
there are a few things you've got to take care of first.

The #1 most important thing you've got to do is build your team. I say- with no exaggeration-- that human infrastructure is THE most important aspect of developing a successful school garden. But, I already wrote about building your school garden team last time. Assuming you're on track with that, a simultaneous step is to begin developing your school garden design.

Here are a few things to should consider as you develop a school garden design:

Purpose
  • In your school garden interest meeting, one of the first questions you should ask is: "Why are you interested in a school garden?" Interestingly, this question serves two purposes. First, it helps the team gel because there will likely be a lot of overlap in answers. This will lend itself to a sense of shared purpose. Secondly, use these answers to guide your design-- with regard to size & features as well as programmatic elements. For example, if teachers want to hold class in the garden, there should be an "outdoor classroom" aspect. Another way of saying this is that the best physical designs help programmatic design dreams come to fruition.
Existing Features, Life Flows & Patterns
  • Where do kids run and play? Don't get in the way.
  • Where are the existing footpaths worn-down through the grass? That might be where your pathways should be-- but definitely not where your beds or fruit trees should go.
  • Is there a bench outside for student/administrator 1-on-1 conversations? Could it be incorporated into the garden?
Location
  • Sunlight I. In order to grow, plants need sunlight. Food crops require 4-5 hours of direct sunlight as a bare minimum. 
  • Sunlight II. Here in the northern hemisphere, the sun dips towards the south (moreso in winter, less in summer), so tall objects will cast shadows (to the north)-- especially in the winter.  Think about this when locating your garden next to buildings, near trees, and when thinking about where to plant fruit trees or tall crops (like sunflowers).
  • Sunlight III. In Florida, given our extreme heat, if you have to choose, it's better to have morning sun and afternoon shade than the opposite.
  • Water. Is there a water faucet within 25-50ft of your food garden? If not, is there a way to get one installed?  Are you going to run a micro-irrigation system? Be sure to leave a clear path if you need to run pipe underground for a new faucet.
  • Visibility. The more visible a food garden, the more successful it will be. Think "front yard," not "back yard." My personal raised bed food gardens are immediately next to my front sidewalk; therefore, I walk by my garden daily. When there are weeds, I pull them; it takes 10 seconds. When there is produce ready to pick, I see it. Whenever a garden is out of sight, it is out of mind; whenever one has to "go garden," they don't. Grow your school garden as close as possible to where you and the school community pass by every day.
Beds & Paths

  • Paths, gates, etc. should be wide enough for a wheelbarrow to fit. If the paths will remain grass, be sure they are wide enough for your mower to fit. If you don't know how the grass is cut, ask facilities. (While you're at it, ask facilities if there is anything else you should know; any input they have. Their knowledge of school infrastructure, past events, how things get done, and the like is invaluable.)
  • Make sure the distinction between paths and beds is clear; this makes it easy for students & visitors to walk through the garden without worry and without killing things. You can do this, for example, by building raised beds or by clearly mulching pathways with wood chips.
  • If you're building a garden for middle or high schoolers, the maximum width of beds should be 4 feet. For preschool and elementary school gardens, the max should be 3 feet. Why? Because that's the maximum distance that hands can reach from the sides of the beds without having to step into the garden beds, thereby saving your soil from compaction. (Length does not matter.)
A few other things

  • Start small. Any small, successful school garden can get bigger. On the other hand, school gardens that start off too big very rarely shrink; they fail.
  • Enclosure. If there is a way to do so, design the garden so you can go "into" it. Think gates, arbors, or fruit trees, grape vines outlining the space, or simply beds to outline entrances and the perimeter. Somehow, create a sense of enclosure so that when children are "in" the garden, they know it and feel it.
  • Google SketchUp is a free design software. Watch a few SketchUp YouTube tutorials like I did, and you'll be able to create basic to-scale food garden designs within an hour or two.
At the risk of going on too long, I'll leave you with two of my own school garden designs that I like enough to replicate. Feel free to use them as templates or jumping off places to inspire your own school garden design efforts.

Seminole Montessori Preschool Garden Design (Tallahassee)
  • (4) 3'x3' raised beds with 3' pathways between all four beds in all directions
  • (2) trellises that inter-connect beds with arbor-isk arches. These serve as a structure for climbing crops like sugar snaps. They also provide a fun pass-through to give preschoolers the opportunity to "run through" the garden, especially once the crops cover the wire arches.
  • Garden is located in the playground field near-- but not in the way of-- other playground equipment and heavy traffic pathways.
  • When I was still in Tallahassee, I returned each season to work with the kids to top-dress the beds with fresh compost and to replant seasonal veggies. Week-in, week-out, the teachers helped preschoolers water, and they harvested veggies and incorporated them into their school snacks.
Normandy Village Elementary Outdoor Classroom Garden (Jacksonville)
We started our design effort at Normandy Village in the initial interest meeting comprising a couple teachers, the guidance councilor, principal, and a few students from their Leadership League. First, I asked "Why are you interested in a school garden?" Next I asked, "What do you imagine in or about the Normandy Village Elementary School Garden? What does your dream school garden look like? What ideas do you have?"  I gave everyone a piece of paper, and asked them to take a few minutes to write or draw their answers. Then we shared with one another. Here are two examples:
As you can see from these two examples, there are both physical design ideas (fruit trees, garden boxes, "lots of color") as well as program design ideas (parent involvement, vegetables of the month).

Before our next school garden team meeting, I took the many ideas generated by the school garden team and played with them in the context of the space the principal had selected. I took into account things like sunlight, water, existing features, where people walk, how to create a sense of enclosure, appropriate bed width, and the many other things above. Additionally, my wife, Mary Elizabeth, who teaches 8th grade, had-- the week before-- asked me to help her rearrange the desks in her classroom. As part of this, I measured her classroom length and width. It was 27x28 feet. As I was preparing the Normandy Village design, I thought, "Could I incorporate a classroom-sized open-space in which teachers could gather their classes in the midst of the garden?

Here is my rough draft sketch:
Notebook rough draft

I sent this picture to the principal. She & other members of the school garden team approved, so I committed it to Google SketchUp:
Design to-scale via Google Sketchup
Here is the day we built & planted-- everyone together. (Remember the parent involvement?  This is an example of enacted program design.)

And here it is the "Normandy Village Outdoor Garden Classroom" two months later, just waiting on the grape vines to grow up the trellis and the fruit trees to fill out the space behind where a teacher would stand at at the front.

- - - 

If you think a bit of support to launch -- or sustain-- your school garden would be helpful, give me a buzz. As I'm able (and you're in NE FL), I'm happy to participate in your school garden interest meeting or assess your space and offer my thoughts on your design. Should you want more committed assistance, let me know. It's what I do.

One parting piece of advice: if you're filling raised beds, make sure you start with the best compost-based mix available. If you're in the Jacksonville area, I sell my Magic Mix at cost to school and community gardens. If you're in Tallahassee, iGrow is your go-to. If you are somewhere else, make sure that several long-time area gardeners vouch for the mix you'll be using. You'll thank yourself when the kids "Oooo" and "Ahhh."

Happy Growing

Tuesday, January 31, 2017

Man in Overalls - How to Start a School Garden: Build a Team

 You want to teach kids where their food comes from because if kids grow it, they'll be more likely to eat it, and since you hope to improve kids diets, offer a little exposure to the natural world and provide outdoor, hands-on, STEM learning experiences, or simply, you want child to have an opportunity to care for something and learn responsibility.

So you want to start a school garden.

I understand. School gardens can be beautiful opportunities for schools to engage kids, parents, and community partners in a collective effort that spills over into all manner of benefit for kids, the school, and the community as a whole.
Regrettably, I've seen lots of school gardens grow into weedy plots that are ultimately reclaimed by turf grass. This is often the case in spite of inspiring community build days where 10, 20, 30 even 50 people come out to get a school garden started. I hear similar stories from Kristi Hatakka, Farm to School Garden Specialist with the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (FDACS). (They've got great resources by the way, including the School Garden Guide that I wrote back in 2013, which they updated last year.)

So you want to start a school garden. And you want it to succeed and continue growing into the future. 

Basically there are two routes that lead to thriving school gardens: 1)Find the money, or 2)Build your team. Or, more simply: money or people.

In terms of money, it's rare but-- who knows-- maybe your school has extra cash on hand for a "beatification project," or maybe you're a fundraising genius and serve on the PTO board.  With money in hand, you can hire someone like to me design, build, handle weekly maintenance, provide educational support to teachers, and otherwise facilitate your school garden.  Sometimes, the money is in the hands of a local nonprofit that has a mission aligned with school gardening. Kristi with FDACS says that some of the most successful school gardens around the state have "a very active nonprofit or entity that maintains or works with a very active parent or two." This is a great model because teachers -- more often than not-- are simply stretched too thin to make it happen without a lot of external support. Exemplary school garden related nonprofits around the state include: The Edible Peace Patch Project (in Pinellas), Memory Trees (Palm Beach), Miami Dade Education Fund, Keep Tampa Beautiful, Damayan Garden Project (Tallahassee). 

But then, maybe you don't have money; there's no school garden nonprofit around; the nonprofits that do that sort of thing aren't taking on new projects, or they are only offering minimal materials grants or garden-build volunteers.  That's not enough, so what do you do?

You build a school garden team: teachers, parents, kids, community partners, grandpa Jones, anyone... so long as they have some related interest.

When I help build school garden teams, I use an ABCD or asset based community development approach. In essence, this is the idea that everyone has assets to bring to the table, or more simply, everyone has something to offer. Everyone has things they know (skills, ideas, knowledge), things they have (time, tools, money, materials), and connections to other people and groups, which have assets of their own.  This is the philosophy I take with me as I start talking with people about the idea of a school garden. 

The flip side of the ABCD coin is that everyone has a dream. Unless there is an exchange, a sense that people are in someway getting something they want (out of participating), any sharing of their assets and participation or support of a school garden is going to be short lived. If you're going to effectively rally & sustain a school garden team, you need to think like the below community garden partner map developed by the American Community Gardening Association. What does the school garden get? And what does the school garden team member get? It's got to go both ways.
With this in mind, let me stop while I'm ahead before I end up re-writing the entire School Garden Guide I developed with FDACS. The guide will take you step by step through how to build a school garden team.

[As an aside, if you're looking for inspiring school & youth garden leaders here in NE Florida, you ought to know about Success Gardening's work at First Coast High School, Urban Geoponics's New Town Urban Farm, YMCA's Seed Differently program, the Eastside Environmental Council's school garden projects, I'm a Star Foundation's youth farm dream, and I hear there are many more. If you know of any impressive school or youth gardening efforts, please tell me, so I can keep learning.]

Let me close by offering you a magical question, one that has helped me build more teams and groups than I can count. When I'm trying to tease out whether someone might be interested in joining an effort or to see if they might be willing to offer some sort of support-- and to do so without putting them or guard and to provide them with an easy way out in case they aren't actually interested but don't want to disappoint me,  I lead in with "So I was talking with so-and-so about the idea of starting a school garden here at _________. They said...." and then I ask, "Who else do you know who might be interested in the idea of a school garden?" 

Happy Growing.

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