Archive for Notes

Henderson on Hotbeds

Notes based on Gardening for Profit (Chapter 9) by Peter Henderson.

Hotbeds are something we don’t see a lot of, despite their simplicity and usefulness. The idea is that compost generates heat, and seeds need heat to germinate. So why not put seeds directly on the compost pile (the “hot bed”) and coax those little buggers into making their debut a little early in the season? Henderson was doing this in the 1800s, and the logic still applies today:

This is a freshly made hotbed at Singing Pig Farm. It’s about 2 feet tall, 8 feet wide, and 40 feet long. (Disclaimer: I’m terrible at judging dimensions, so give or take about 20 feet on the width and length.) It’s topped with a layer of straw to level the surface and provide additional insulation. Under the straw is a rotting pile of leaves and grass clippings, courtesy of a landscaping company that was happy to get rid of it. The temperature in the pile when it was formed was 105 degrees Fahrenheit. Read the rest of this entry »


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6 Rules of Biological Farming

Today I actually found the time to read. Gardening for Profit is buried somewhere in the moving boxes, but I did manage to bring along my copy of The Biological Farmer. I’ll finish posting notes for Gardening for Profit when I get back to Oregon, but now seems like a good time to start sharing what I’m learning from Gary Zimmer.

This author runs a sustainable agriculture consulting firm in the upper Midwest and this book was originally intended to be a primer for consultants-in-training. He also owns and operates a 500-acre organic crop and dairy farm, and manages a 240-acre livestock and crop demonstration farm. It sounds like he’s heavily influenced by Albrecht, so I’m using this book as an introduction to soil-focused agriculture.

Some of the information isn’t new to me, since I studied environmental science and ecology in school. My eyes didn’t perk up till chapter 2, when he described 6 rules essential to biological farming. By “biological” farming, he means farming to maximize productivity and profits over time by understanding and working with biological processes (whereas conventional practices focus on maximum productivity and profits ASAP, and don’t give a @#$% about biological processes). He goes a step further and describes his criteria for sustainable agriculture, which can be achieved by practicing biological agriculture properly and in the long run: zero soil loss, nutrient balance, and 25 earthworms per cubic foot of soil.

So here are the 6 basic rules essential to biological farming: Read the rest of this entry »

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Henderson on Sh—uh, Manures

Notes based on Gardening for Profit (Chapter 7) by Peter Henderson.

Back then when horses did all the work, there was lots of horse manure to be had. So Henderson took advantage of it and really piled it on.

At least six months before applying it, the manure was dumped in a natural depression. If there wasn’t one, they dug one out 18-24″ deep. They put up a 6′ fence around it. The wagons were pulled up next to the fence and fresh manure was tossed in, spread out evenly throughout the depression. Pigs were kept in the enclosure to break things up, and they were fed weeds and unsold vegetables from the field.

  • I wonder how large this manure pit needed to be. I guess it depends on how much manure he needed, which depends on how much land he was preparing (he’d spread 50 to 100 tons per acre).
  • Also, how many pigs? Two? Ten? That’s probably a function of field size and manure quantity, as well.

Henderson was a big fan of horse manure, and not just because it was plentiful. He considered it 1/3 more valuable than that of cattle and pigs, in terms of weight (i.e. 100 lbs of horse manure would work just as well as 130 lbs of cattle or pig manure). He also cites horse manure as being extra beneficial as a pulverizer on stiff soils. Read the rest of this entry »

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Henderson on Soil Preparation

Notes based on Gardening for Profit (Chapter 6) by Peter Henderson.

Henderson describes the soils he works with. His general guideline is to look for a dark-colored loam soil (neither sandy nor clayey) that’s at least 12″ deep, preferably with a yellowish sandy loam underneath (good for drainage). Soils to look for, in order of preference:

1. alluvial saline deposit – usually within a mile from the tide mark; dark heavy loam containing decomposing shells; 10-30″ deep; overlaying subsoil of yellow sandy loam

2. lighter soil, both in color and specific gravity – 8-15″ deep; similar subsoil to above

3. still lighter soil, in color and specific gravity – sand predominates over loam; subsoil is pure sand; good for melons, cucumbers, sweet potatoes, radishes, and tomatoes; not good for onions, cabbages, celery

4. clayey loam – 10″ deep; over thick stratum of stiff bluish clay; found on highest points; not good for early vegetables; favorable for a late crop like celery

Note to self: Look further into soil classification. I’m having trouble visualizing these distinctions because I’ve never closely analyzed soils. Read the rest of this entry »

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Henderson on the Business of Gardening

Notes based on Gardening for Profit by Peter Henderson.

One of the first things Henderson emphasizes in the introduction is that he’s no phony. He makes a distinction between self-made farmers–practical people who’ve “risen from the ranks”–versus people who have a little hobby garden or farm, spend a few years dabbling, and then write a book. Henderson wanted to let his readers know that he practiced what he preached. This is an interesting distinction because if I’m looking for information on how to farm profitably, I need to pay special attention to people who started off in a similar situation as mine (i.e. from scratch) and who’ve achieved goals that I’m after (sustainability and profitability). Why re-invent the wheel?

I wouldn’t have thought that this book, written in the late 1800s, would be of much value to someone like me, but Henderson must’ve really known his stuff. Sure, some things are outdated, like starting a farm for $300 per acre in the outskirts of NYC (ha!) as well as the hand tools and the horse power (i.e. horses as workers, not as pets). But other elements of the book are as relevant as ever. One example is his view on what it takes for a person to be successful as a farmer. More recent versions of this book have a handy list in the foreword that sums it up quite nicely: Read the rest of this entry »

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PR for Albrecht

Everything is still on hold because of the aforementioned medical emergency. The holidays are keeping me busy, too. But the good news is that I’ve gotten a small piece published in Culinate, an online food magazine based out of Portland, Oregon. It’s a news piece based on one of my first entries here, The Drought Myth. While it’s quite brief, it brings Albrecht’s point closer to the mainstream. Check it out:

The fertile plain,

[Edit: 1/30/08]

Some readers commented that Albrecht wasn’t condoning the use of chemical fertilizers, which is was the piece implied by connecting his article to the NYT article about Malawi. That’s not what I was getting at, but I can see how that implication could be drawn.

The comments further implied that the Malawi government is doing more harm than good by turning to chemical fertilizers. I wonder, though, if we look beyond the “evils” of chemical fertilizer, if using them for a few years can possibly lead to a win/win situation. Here’s the comment I posted:

I completely agree that raw materials are the most effective way to encourage soil health in the long run. But, I’m not sure it would be economical or feasible for Malawi’s government to fund a more sustainable approach to soil fertility, at least not at first.

If raw materials are not affordable, then the next best thing would be for Malawi to jump-start their agricultural economy with chemical fertilizers (which are cheaper, more accessible, and more convenient) and use the excess income to fund more sustainable (usually more expensive) methods ASAP.

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Keep your carbon to yourself!

Found an abstract which might explain how excess N messes with soil carbon sequestration:

“The added NO3- suppressed mineralization of C from SOM and stimulated mineralization of C from stover. Adjustment of rates of stover decomposition to temperature regimes normally encountered in Iowa fields after harvest showed that stover decomposition would not be complete within 1 yr and that increases in NO3- availability decreased the amount of stover C remaining in the soil. This effect of NO3- could explain how additions of unneeded N could decrease concentrations of SOM in long-term studies in which residues and NO3- are added in annual cycles. These observations suggest that practices that reduce unnecessary fertilization could help conserve SOM and reduce net amounts of CO2 released to the atmosphere.”

Next: My pathetic attempt to translate this into understandable terms after reading the whole study, if I can get my hands on it.

Update: No luck finding the full study after searching two state university library systems. Here’s the citation for this article in case anyone’s interested:




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