I am currently at the Autism One conference in Lombard – yay driving distance from my house! – and I again amazed by the amount of information available here. There is absolutely no way that I can digest it all, but I’m doing my best to grab bits and pieces that I think can help me – and others – and trying to synthesize them into something that makes sense. One of the things I love about the sessions I attend at Autism One is that they aren’t all specific to those who are interacting with others who have autism. Many of the sessions are just generally applicable, which I think is awesome. The first session I attended yesterday is exactly in that vein. It’s all about creating an organic garden.
Now, I don’t know if you remember the garden that I attempted to create last year. Let’s just say that it ended in epic failure. I had two issues. The first is that I was overwhelmed by the weeds currently existing (and still existing) in the area where I want to have my garden grow. The second is that once my seedlings were large enough to transplant, I couldn’t get them out of the berry containers and egg cartons where I’d panted them. Now? I have a plan for the first one and the most awesome solution ever (in my not-so-humble opinion) for the second.
The presentation was given by Seneca Kern of We Farm America, an organization based in Illinois that creates organic gardens in homes, schools, and empty lots. I love the concept, and I learned a ton from this. My favorite quote came late in the presentation, and it really sums up the problems we face today. “If the only animals that want to live near us are rats, pigeons, and squirrels, something is wrong.” Sorta eye-opening, isn’t it?
The power that lies in a garden. Most society is based off the fact that we can grow food. Now only a tiny fraction of people are growing food, and we’re disconnected with it and do not know where our food comes from. We can drive in the suburbs and see miles of corn and soy and think it’s all good, but it’s not. Many people have heightened sensitivity to all sorts of things, especially chemicals. Growing our own organic gardens can help with this, plus it saves a ton of money and helps teach others of the value of this gardening. It is the ultimate conversation starter. Food is something we can sit down and talk about.
Kids come into the farm and have never seen a tomato or an eggplant or arugula. Arugula isn’t expensive – it’s like a penny to grow. It isn’t elitist, so Seneca tries to teach people at the farm that there is no difference in what you can grow and what is at the fancy, expensive grocery stores. You get to vote with your food. It is a great way to build community and a foundation for economic sustainability.
He started an organization called We Farm America. It is basically a way to get people to grow food in the easiest way. We take a simple formula like a raised bed – get some lumber, some organic soil and some organic seeds and grow. Permaculture is the idea that we can observe nature and then build systems that don’t try to outsmart it but instead understand how to work together. The main challenge is people – they are the hardest part in the city of Chicago. Humans want their things in boxes; we want to make things this way even though in reality they aren’t.
In order for us to get started in basics to get connected to the land, we have to accept that we need boxes, which is why we start with the raised beds. The important thing is that the garden takes care of itself – we have busy lives, so they will put in an automatic irrigation system for the garden. They also use organic compost to help avoid weeds and get really lush harvests.
If you’re starting a garden, a raised bed is the best way to start. You can put a weed barrier at the base that stops the weed seeds – they can stay for 40 years. If you don’t, as soon as you start to water your lush spot you will get “volunteers” in your garden, so the fabric barrier with stop that. Put it down before you build the bed. Start with a 4×8 foot bed. Four feet is important to start because you have to be able to reach the middle of your bed. You don’t want to step on your soil or the bed. You can reach the middle from each side with a four foot wide bed. You have to protect your bed. Put the wood around your bed to keep it separate from where you step. When you step, it compacts the soil, and it makes it harder for roots to develop.
Thirty-two square feet will grow you two portions of vegetables per square foot per day in the peak season. You square it off in one foot by one foot squares. Most plants take only 30 percent of the water and sun in the spot. Plant on tomato plant then lettuce around it – the lettuce helps keep the soil moist because it stops evaporation, while the tomato provides some of the shade that the lettuce is looking for. It’s all about those symbiotic relationships. In a square, you can plane one broccoli and 16 carrots. Having the squares also allows you to do rotation.
Be mindful of the systems that work. Some plants like other plants around them, others don’t. Tomatoes and broccoli don’t like each other – it has to do with the chemicals they release, etc. Generally, you don’t want them next to each other, but you can skip a foot and plant it there. Look up companion plants to see what to plant together. You can look this up in the handbook at We Farm America’s website. You have to rotate – crops don’t do well in the same spot each time; they deplete the soil or have predators that go after them. Using a grid helps you track your rotations. If you put in beans next season, the bugs attacking your potatoes will die and go away. If you keep planting the same thing in the same place, you will have a degradation in your harvest as you go. On that note, marigolds are a must in your garden. They attract pollinators and also help keep away pests. Think about perennials – strawberries and blueberries grow back every year. Try serviceberries that taste just like blueberries. You can definitely grow these in Chicago.
When building the beds, he uses wood from the Rebuilding Exchange. It’s wood that’s being repurposed. They haven’t been painted or have chemicals, and they’ve been tempered, which hardens them and helps them resist rot. Don’t use pine or you will replace it every 2 years because it degrades too fast. Don’t use treated wood. Cedar works. Fir may work, but he’s never used it. If you have to use pine, line it with plastic so the water can drain out – you need drainage.
You put down a weed barrier that is semipermeable – water goes down but not up. Get a soil test before you start. There is so much lead and arsenic and other things because of all the cars and planes and factories, even paint chips, etc. that infect your soil. Go to University of Massachusetts, Amherst – for $10 they give you a kit for testing that results in a great set of info and recommendations of what to do with it. Plant fava beans and sunflowers to get rid of heavy metals in your soil.
Watering is one of the most difficult things about gardening. They put in a timer, which is great for those who have a busy schedule. Set one in the morning and at night. Watering in the morning is best because it’s not hot. If you’re going to do it, water one hour after sunrise and one hour after sunset. Doing it in the middle of the day is a huge waste of water because of evaporation. There are 2 types of irrigation – poly tubing and a soaker hose or use a dripline. He recommends using irrigation like this because it is easier on you and also because it provides a better way of watering for the plants.
If you have a rodent problem, put dog hair in the bed and around the perimeter. It works really well. Go to a groomer and ask for it. It doesn’t affect your plants, but the chipmunks, etc. have highly developed olfactory senses and don’t like it. You can also use pepper or chili flakes.
So many people never get to pull the vegetables out of the ground. It’s a great connection to your food when you see it right there. Only three percent of food consumed in Illinois is actually grown in Illinois. We have amazing soil, but it’s because we grow for commodities here, for ethanol and partially hydrogenated soybean oil, etc. We grow vegetables for industrial uses and not for consumption. It’s very inefficient, but it’s easy to mechanize so we do it. Other states around us grow substantially more food that they consume, but our food tends to travel very far. You’ll see Mexico, China, South Africa, California, etc. How does it travel so far and still stay competitive in cost? It comes from someone’s wages and environment. Traveling is gas and wages, the pollution and all the waste.
For rain barrels, go to delis or factories or car washes. They get product in huge barrels. They will give it to you for free. You just have to get a biodegradable rinse to clean it. It’s much cheaper than the $70 barrels.
Putting your hands in soil releases endorphins. It has the same effect as Prozac. It makes a real difference – and so cheap. Get your kids playing in the dirt. There are also so many great microbes that you want to be exposed to for your overall health. The electromagnetic fields from the gravitational pull is also very healing. It’s like walking on the beach with your bare feet. It makes you feel exhilarated and calmed. It helps to ground you.
I don’t know about you, but I’m inspired. This has solved my first issue – especially since I’ve discovered that We Farm America will actually come to my house to build my raised bed for me. Ahem. The second issue with the seedlings? Well, I learned a pretty awesome trick for that, too, but that’s another post.