To Till or Not To Till

Seems like everyone is talking about no-till gardening these days.  This is the idea that if you inoculate your soil with bacteria and-fungi and layer enough enough compost and “duff”on the surface, that you can recreate the forest floor and avoid the tedium of digging our heavy East Bay clay.

While sheet composting, straw mulching  and shallow surface cultivation will work in the long run, it may not be the perfect choice for those who wish to garden in well amended clay soil in the next five years.  An integrated system of sheet composting,  double digging, single digging and amending with compost for the first few years will decrease the amount of time it takes to achieve an effective no-till system.

Here is a sample scenario:
Year 1:  Sheet mulch.

Year 2:  Double dig.  add compost and green manures, mulch with rotted straw, aged manures or other easily decomposable material.

Year 3 & 4.: Double or single dig with green manures or finished compost, mulch tops of bed with rotted straw,  aged manures or other easily decomposable material.

Year 4 or 5:  Start no-till gardening, continue to layer mulch on top of beds at each planting.

English: Photo of plant roots with striga plan...
Read more:   Roots Demystified  by Robert Kourik is a bargain at $8, shipping included.

Integrated Pest Management: Compost Tea


Real Compost

WHY  Many of us now understand that healthy soil is the foundation of a healthy garden.  Beneficial bacteria and fungi in the soil partner with plants to bring them water and nutrients in exchange for exudates–sweet carbs that the plants release from their roots. Micro-organisms may also provides protection for the the plant in the root zone, by out-competing, killing and warding off less beneficial organisms. These very same bacteria and fungi can be brewed up in a tea and used to protect the above ground part of the plant. Spraying compost tea  on the leaves (called foliar feeding) inoculates the plant with beneficial micro-organisms that colonize the leaf pores to protect from  pests and pathogens.  Through this action, these same micro-organisms ensure themselves first dibs at decomposition dinner when the plant dies.  Foliar feeding can be done safely on a regular basis as a preventative, or at the first sign of a problem.

HOW  Put about a gallon of finished  living compost in a 5 gallon bucket.  Add a goodly dollop of molasses. Fill will water that has had the chloramine removed (a product for fish tanks and ponds will work well for this or use rain water). Place an air stone bubbler in the bucket and  run it for 24-48  hours (chloramine remover, airstone and small aquarium pump can be purchased in the fish supply section of any pet store).  When ready it smells fresh like compost. Strain through a fine cloth and spray it onto your plants.You may also use this as a soil drench to inoculate the garden beds or compost pile with beneficial microbes.

K. Ruby Blume


Paradise Lot, Book review

Paradise Lot: Two Plant Geeks, One-Tenth of an Acre and The Making of an Edible Garden Oasis in the City

I’ve been aware of Eric Toenmeier’s work for some time – he authored a compendium on perennial vegetables ( as well as co-authored, with Dave Jacke, a simply gigantic book  called Edible Forest Gardens ( which is the bible on  the ecology and design of home scale food forests.

Paradise Lot is the story of how Eric, along with his friend and ally Jonathon Bates, decide to test the theory of the home scale edible forest model put forth in Edible Forests Gardens by putting it into practice on a small, highly compromised inner city lot in post-industrial Holyoke, Massachusetts.

This easy to read book is the story of how these two men—proud and obsessed plant geeks—spend a few years observing, designing, mending, planting, digging, sheet mulching, experimenting with different cultivars, planting trees, cutting down trees, building greenhouses, and in every other way, testing the limits of the home scale edible food forest. They buy a duplex with the intention of not only growing a great garden, but of attracting their life partners. Happily, they succeed in both endeavors.

While choosing a site with deeply compromised conditions (“there was hardly any way we could have made conditions in our garden worse…”) they also note that this project was “an example of…. Regenerative design, which asks us how our designs can bring a site to life and bring us into a deeper relationship with it and each other through doing so. While sustainability is focused on maintaining things as they are, regenerative land use actively improves and heals a site and its ecosystems… It’s kind of an important topic for humanity this century.”

I liked how part of the story was about the creation of an alternative family and ownership structure, and I appreciated the successes and limitations of the small scale model which they were fairly honest about. I appreciate when people note the mistakes they make, and the good learning that comes out of them. I have run into some similar problems on my small urban lot—also about one-tenth of an acre—but as I am a renter, and a mother, and live in an entirely different ecosystem, my commitments, choices and outcomes have been different. Also, to be honest, I am not quite as geeked out about plants as these guys are!

A banana tree.

A banana tree — yes! in Massachusetts

This book is best for people who are already versed in the permaculture practice of regenerative agriculture, and it will most specifically serve those who live in the cold northeast of our country. I found myself reading about the plants they were growing and how they were interacting and knew that they were not plants that I would have easy access to in my drought-prone place.

But as a model of what is possible, Eric and Jonathon proved that the home scale edible forest garden can grow beyond theory and into practical application, no matter what ecosystem you inhabit. It’s just a matter of finding the right plants for your place, and working with them with conscious intent. This book is an inspiration to be part of the culture of repair, right in your own backyard.

Remediating Lead in the Soil

Lead and Pyromorphite Lecture by Steve Calanog of the EPA

Report back by K.Ruby Blume

I attended a lecture on lead in the soil and how to deal with it given by Steve Calanog of the EPA who is currently working on a massive clean-up in the Prescott neighborhood of West Oakland. The lecture was densely informative, I will try to summarize the most important bits here.

Lead (Pb) and lead poisoning have been around for a long time and lead is the most prevalent toxin in our Bay Area soil. There are a few other things to worry about (like arsenic) but the occurrence of these is relatively low in comparison to lead. Lead is a neurotoxin which can cause blood and brain disorders and damage to the nervous system. It is most dangerous to children under 6, who have the highest risk of exposure (crawling on the ground and playing in the dirt) as well as the largest capacity for uptake in this period of rapid growth and development. Adults are at relatively low risk from lead in the soil.

There are various species of lead compounds in our soil, some naturally occurring, some man-made. Much of this lead is not toxic and/or can’t be taken up by our bodies. Most of the toxic forms are man-made such as those from gasoline, paint, car filters, pesticides, leaded glass, aviation fuel and so forth. It is worthwhile to have your soil tested. However, the current tests measure for total lead, so do not tell you how much of the lead present is the toxic kind. On top of that there is the issue of “bio-availability” — how much of this lead can actually be taken up by plants and animals, including humans.

The EPA considers 400 ppm (parts per million) a time to “take action.” The California number is 80 ppm. Soils in the Bay Area typically have 300-600 ppm. The bad news is that lead levels of this amount in the soilcan be dangerous for children, especially if they have direct contact with the soil–getting it in their mouth, breathing it, etc. Lead paint in older homes also poses a risk for children in terms of lead dust, you can get info about that here:

The good news is that this same amount of lead (300-600 ppm) is low risk for gardeners and food grown in urban gardens, given implementation of “best practices” based on understanding where the actual risks lie. Steve said that it you can safely eat food grown in soil with up to 3000 ppm lead, if you follow a few simple guidelines.

How can this be? Well, first of all, it is important to understand that not much of the lead present is bio-available to the plants. Only 1% of the lead available can be taken up by plants. So even if your soil tests at 300 ppm, the actual risk based on plant uptake is 3 ppm. Most of this will be found in roots and stems. The amount of lead found in fruits is close to zero, even in highly contaminated soils. The lead just doesn’t make it there. So if you have lead in your soil, you should plant fruit trees, cane berries and plants with accessory fruits like tomatoes, peppers, squash etc.

There is a much higher danger, especially to children, of lead poisoning from ingesting the actual dirt. In leafy greens the biggest danger is from dirt splashed onto the leaves–not so much from lead inside the plant. So wash your leafy greens well! Root crops pose the highest risk, as they will uptake some lead and the dirt is present on the skin of the root. So if lead is present in your native soil, always peel them or grow root crops in imported soil (raised beds).

But what about getting rid of the lead all together? The traditional method is expensive and highly disruptive. It involves removing the top soil, bringing it to land-fill and importing clean fill (which may or may not be better than our native soil—mostly the latter IMHO) This can cost up to 30K for 1000 sq ft. Plus it is not viable if we are talking about an entire city. The EPA is now looking at ways to remediate the soil “in place” and to inform people of these “best management practices.’

The great news is that if you are gardening organically, you are already doing much to repair your soil! Adding compost will help neutralize toxins and metals in the soil. In the case of lead this has been shown to be true. Any time you add phosphate and phosphate compounds to your soil, it binds with the lead and forms pyromorphite crystals, a form of lead which is non-toxic (not bio-available) to animals. If your soil is in really bad shape, you can amend it by adding up to 5% fish bone meal (calcium phosphate) or other concentrated phosphate. This is approximately 3 pounds per square feet, or 300 pounds for a 10 x 10 bed. That’s a lot fish meal!

But, this is not really necessary if you are a gardener who is adding compost and tilling in a couple times a year. There is plenty of phosphate available in well aged compost, chicken manure and other amendments and you will go far over time to reduce the lead in your soil this way.

Using this phosphare immobilization method does not change the amount of lead in your soil, it simply transforms it. So. if you re-test for lead, you will still get the same number. You are not removing lead, just changing it to a form that cannot hurt our bodies.

Here are some numbers:  According to the EPA
0-500 ppm low risk
500-100 ppm medium risk
1000-3000 ppm high risk
more than 3000 ppm very high risk
Bay Area average 300-600

What do you do if there is lead in your soil?
1. Implement best management practices (see below)
2. Traditional: dig up and replace top soil. expensive! up to 30K for 1000 sq ft
3. Treat soil in place through phosphate immobilization
- binds with lead in soil to create pyromorphite
- use various forms of phosphate up to 5% fish bone meal, TSP
4. Most importantly: If your soil falls in the 300-600 range there is very low risk for either adults or children in terms of eating food from this soil. For children 6 and under the risk is about direct contact with the soil, which should be minimized by covering the soil with lawn or playground mulch in the areas they are most likely to play.

If your result lands in the 300-600 range here are the best practices for minimizing risks:
~ Cover children’s play areas with mulch or grass.
~ Plant away from older painted buildings
~ Have children wash hands thoroughly after gardening.
~ Implement “shoes off” in households where children are still crawling.
~ Amend your garden beds regularly with compost and/or manure
~ If you are still concerned, create raised beds for leafy greens and root crops–you do not need to dig out the native soil, as the largest danger is from soil splash onto leafy greens and direct contact with the edible part of
the root. Simply clear and loosen the native soil and put 8-24″ of imported soil above.
~ Plant fruiting crops (fruit trees & shrubs, cane berries, beans, tomatoes, pepper squash, eggplant etc.)
~ When planting leafy greens discard older outer leaves, wash thoroughly
~ Wash and peel root crops
~ Keep your soil acidity low. Bio-availability is higher in extremely acidic conditions.
Crop Recommendations for different ppm
Up to 500 ppm
Any crop, wash well. Peel root crops.
500-1500 ppm

Limit low growing leafy greens

Limit root crops (except potatoes which will be fine as long as washed well)

All other crops are fine
More than 1500ppm
No leafy greens. No root crops.
Keep soil out of house.