Sunday, March 4, 2012

Gold Dirt

     "Dirt is Gold," says Greg Peterson of The Urban Farm. Dirt is what feeds your plants, what sustains them and nourishes them through the vagaries of a season. At our little farm, where we're extracting pounds of produce each week, we expect a lot from our dirt, and we treat it very kindly. We have a huge compost heap at the east side of the yard, tucked up against a wall, and under the neighbor's citrus. It's one of the dampest and darkest parts of the farm. Weekly we feed the heap with kitchen scraps, weeds we've pulled, crops we're rotating out, and - especially - the droppings from several Mesquite trees we're lucky to have on the southern edge. The seed pods, about to drop in another month or so, are especially rich in protein and starch. In fact, Mesquite seed pods can be ground for flour - something I'm really jonesing to do.
     Our compost heap is constantly "working", making replacement dirt for the stuff we cycle out of beds that have run their course.
     Also, however, I'm paying very close attention to crop rotation. It isn't that hard to follow, and makes perfect sense. First, never put a crop in the same place it was last year or season. This is to confuse the parasites - and in such a small space as an urban setting, this is especially important. Second, the cycle takes advantage of what nutrients the current crop is adding to the ground. What follows today's crop is what requires the nutrients it has left behind. Below is a simple chart, with crops divided up into 4 groups:
- Leaves - Needs Nitrogen - lettuce, spinach, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, kale
- Fruits - Needs Phosphorus - squashes, cucumbers, melons, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant
- Roots - Needs Potassium - onions, garlic, leeks, carrots, beets, turnips, radishes
- Soil Builders - Add Nitrogen - peas, beans, legumes
This week is the beginning of a major transition time in the Valley. In the north yard, where we've got more sun, we pulled the bolted broccoli, broccoli raab, kale, arugula and chinese cabbage. Soon to follow is a line of snow peas. They have been delicious, and we've still got some growing, tucked here and there throughout the farm, so we'll be eating them for a while. But the main - and earliest - crop is about played out.
     Now I get to decide what to plant next. This takes into account so many factors; time of year, companion planting, crop rotation, shading, microclimates. Where the leafy plants were, the broccolis and kale, we transplanted the baby tomatoes and peppers we've been growing from seed in our little nursery. Where the peas are - although I will be skipping a step - I'm going to plant melons. Now that we are moving into the hotter part of the year, they will provide some extra shading for the plants nearby. And the extra jolt of nitrogen they will get from the peas won't harm them.
     Science, art, beauty, patience, balance on our little farm.


  1. Dang, you are an EXPERT. Richard and I cleaned out our compost bin this morning. We have one of those plastic ones and it was so full the seams were splitting open. Took everything out, got all the good stuff out (almost an entire trash can, fixed the structure and put it back in. Good to go.

  2. Heidi, our heap is about 10'(L) x 4'(W) x 5'(H)!