Tilth’s demo garden: Life in the sustainable garden

Standing in a garden on a warm sunny day, watching cream-colored butterflies flutter among the tidy plots of vegetables, listening to the buzz and whir of hover-flies and bees, I wasn’t really thinking of Tennyson’s “nature red in tooth and claw.” But I was touring Seattle Tilth’s demonstration garden, and tour leader Amy Ockerlander was just then telling us about watching a centipede cut up a cabbage worm and eat it. How can you raise the odds that you’ll have a hungry centipede patrolling your garden patch? We were there to see how Tilth harnesses natural processes to grow healthy vegetables in sustainable ways.

Big message number one was start with mulch. (That’s Amy by the huge pile of it.) Especially in a climate like ours, where it rains all winter long and then in summer (usually!) rains hardly at all, mulch soaks up moisture, keeps nutrients from being washed away, and suppresses weeds that fight your veg for nutrients. Plus it provides a happy home for critters like centipedes, spiders, and other helpful killers. You can also protect your soil by putting down a layer of feed bags (especially effective over the winter here to keep soil dry-ish). This is Seattle, so of course we go for coffee-bean bags!

Mulch was only one “layer” strategy we talked about. Those cream-colored butterflies?–As they flutter prettily from plant to plant they are laying hundreds of dot-sized eggs on your cabbage-family plants that hatch into voracious bright green cabbage worms. One way to mess them up is to put in a physical barrier–cover the plants with row cover, a light cloth sheet that keeps the butterflies from sticking their eggs to the leaves.

In following the “layer” strategy, you don’t always have to put the layer on top. In “hugelkultur,” the raised garden bed starts with a layer of rotting wood (chips, twigs, sticks, branches . . .) at the bottom. Then you mound the soil on top. Think of the wood as a “nurse log” for your plant, sponging up water and nutrients that otherwise would leach away.

To thrive, your garden also needs pollinator insects like mason bees. The Tilth gardeners have constructed mason bee “blocks,” little bee condominiums, under the eaves of the building, so that the bees can over-winter and re-populate year after year. And to attract pollinators, the garden has flowering ornamentals planted among the vegetables.

Some plants naturally thrive when planted together, like the “three sisters” in Mexican farming: corn, squash, and beans. (Normally, the corn would be close to eight feet tall!–but here in Seattle, it’s lucky to hit five feet.) The corn provides a trellis for the beans to climb up, and the squash shades the roots of the other “sisters.”

Big message number two was keep your resources where you use them. They use a rain garden to manage the rainfall runoff from the building–about 20,000 gallons of it in a typical year! (This is water that isn‘t going into the sewer system, to be processed and then bought back from the city to water the garden. That’s a long round trip to water that veg patch over there!) Pipes capture the water and feed it to a narrow trickle of rock-lined stream bed that delivers it to a  bowl-shaped depression about five feet across. The thick plantings hold it there until it soaks out to the surrounding area. They also use compost “digesters” to break down plant trimmings into nutrients that leak out of the bottom into the surrounding soil to be taken up by the next-door-neighbor plants.

Amy described the whole sustainable gardening endeavor as “bringing life into the garden.” I loved to hear how cleverly these master gardeners wove together and managed the thrust of life in soil, plants, insects, light, and water to make a healthy, bountiful harvest. But for me, it is also a sustaining pleasure to see the order and grace of their well-tended garden–to sit on a lovely trellis bench and gaze at the garden, to admire a fragrant stand of basil corralled by an artful soldiering of bamboo stakes, to imagine beans scrambling up the string trellis behind the lettuces in their hoop pergolas. I love these minutely tended plots that speak so eloquently about the diligence and hopes of the people who built them!

Taylor Shellfish Grand Opening and other action at Melrose Market!

Melrose Market was hoppin’ yesterday when I went by to buy my pork fat! The big event was the Grand Opening of Taylor Shellfish Farms‘ new Seattle store. The grills were cranked up and covered with oysters on the half-shell, and at the other end of the booth, paper boats of curried mussels on rice were sailing quickly into the crowd’s hands. You had to move fast to get a serving, but it wasn’t hard to tell who the go-to guy was! (He looked like he was having a great time, but seriously, how do they get people to do these things?)

Both oysters and mussels were delicious! (I’m guessing that at least one of you out there is saying, but Judy, I thought you didn’t eat bi-valves . . .? Well, that was then! It turns out that there’s pretty much nothing that I can’t eat.)

So, I actually got through the crowd into the store and bought some beautiful frozen scallops. More cheerful people in there! Taylor Shellfish Farms is headquartered south of Seattle in Shelton, Washington, and they also have a store up north near Samish Bay in the Skagit Valley, which is one of the most beautiful places on the globe. (Stay tuned for more on that!) But it will be super to have them here in town too.

I don’t go to Melrose Market without making time to hang around and visit my other favorite shops. I told you a little bit about Rain Shadow Meats yesterday. Proprietor Russell Flint, known locally as a chef but also with ten years’ experience in butchery, opened up about a year ago. He offers beautiful meats and meat products from local farmers, labeled with the name and locale of the provider. And the staff can answer any question you can think of (and the people who shop here can think of a lot of them!).

Across the way, The Calf and Kid owner Sheri LaVigne was heading out the door, but Erin Burgess got me up to speed on their new cheeses. After tasting pretty much everything she mentioned (probably not a great idea to offer me samples), I ended up getting two. The first is a chevre from Yarmouth Farms up in Darrington (I told you about one of their other cheeses in my very first post!)  I also got a raw sheep’s-milk cheese called Queso de Oreja from Adna, also in Washington. This one is a hard cheese similar to a manchego. How do I know that?–Because Erin explained it to me! That’s why I stick with shops like these, staffed by people who love what they are selling. You get a great product, you get an education, you feel like you’ve been chatting with a friend. What a great experience! (Visit Sheri’s blog for a running account of her sixteen months or so ramping up the business–also great stories!)

Opera night at the UW Club: All artistry!

The kids straggle in, swing down their packbacks, fish out water bottles, grin, tease, chatter. Then the baton goes up, they step to the cue, and their outsized voices soar. Rehearsal day for these students in the UW opera program!

The event they are getting ready for is Opera Night at the UW Club–the first ever:  a three-course meal, accompanied by three arias, then an after-dinner ensemble program, itself in three courses.

The UW chefs are also laying the groundwork for the event, exercising their very different expertise: cooking down sauces, searing chicken breasts, stirring simmering rice until it’s thick and silky.

Show time! These two teams, with such very different talents, wove together a delicious program! They let me sit in from warm-up to execution, so take a look at how this event came together (and read the credits below):

Who prepared the dinner:  Chef Greg Fazzini (who unfortunately has just left the UW Club), sous-chef (now Chef!) Jon Maley, and Mike Hoffman.

Who prepared the music: students of opera from the UW School of Music (names below), under the direction of Thomas Harper, professor of voice/opera

The pianist for all of the pieces was Alexandra Tsirkel.

Learn more about the UW Club here:  http://depts.washington.edu/uwclub/


First course

The dinner:

Spring greens with pea vines, baby turnips, grape tomatoes, and herb chevre in champagne vinaigrette

The music:

“Mein Shenen, Mein Waehnen,” from Die tote Stadt, by Erich Korngold

sung by Jared Ice, baritone

Second course

The dinner:

Supreme of chicken with wild mushrooms in butter sauce, grilled fresh asparagus and red pepper, and crusted parmesan risotto

The music:

“Quando m’en vo,” from La Boheme, by G. Puccini

sung by Kathleen Payne, soprano

Third course

The dinner:

Local rhubarb cake with strawberry sabayon

The music:

“Vision fugitive,” from Herodiade, by J. Massenet

sung by Jared Ice, baritone

Continuing with dessert, after-dinner music

Card trio, from Carmen, by G. Bizet

Sung by (left to right) Emily Autrey, soprano (Frasquita), Elizabeth Giesbers, mezzo-soprano (Carmen), and Annalisee Brasil, mezzo-soprano (Mercedes)

Quartet from Idomeneo, by W.A. Mozart

Sung by (left to right) Nataly Wickham (Elettra), Jeremiah Cawley (Idomeneo), Cecile Farmer (Ilia), and Nina Alden (Idamante)

Quintet from Zauberfloete, by W.A. Mozart

Sung by (left to right) Annalisee Brasil, Nataly Wickham, Cecile Farmer, Simon Khorolskiy, and (substituting for Thomas Ball, who was ill) Thomas Harper, professor of voice/opera in the UW School of Music


Auf wiedersehen!

Sung by Thomas Ball and Simon Khorolskiy, with (off-camera) Annalisee Brasil, Nataly Wickham, and Cecile Farmer

Down on the (campus!) farm

On-campus at the University of Washington, on a meandering quarter-acre around the Botany Greenhouse, UW students have labored for over seven years to build out a working farm, complete with “beds in buckets,” cold-frames, irrigation system, two bee hives, and four plump chickens with their own custom chicken-tractor. And last but not least, a functioning clay-and-straw pizza oven! (More on that later.)

UW Farm signLast week, Beth Wheat, newly minted UW PhD in Biology (now a postdoc in the Program on the Environment) and the Educational Coordinator for UW Farm, capped off the Seattle Arts & Lectures series “Following Wendell: the culture and politics of sustenance” by giving us a talk and a tour of the operation.

Beth set the stage by pointing out that less than 2% of our population now farms, and the average age of the American farmer is 57. Even here in Washington (an agricultural state, actually, if you leave out Seattle and Boeing), students were showing up in ecology classes with no idea what a growing vegetable looked like–they couldn’t match a carrot with a carrot top. Hence the motivating idea for UW Farm: actively educate citizens for a more sustainable future by teaching students how to grow food.

cold framesSo they started digging away, preparing all the beds and buckets by hand, adding structures like the cold frames shown here, trying out new ideas about growing food. They now layer crimson clover under chard, to fix nitrogen. They consider the salad-making possibilities of their “weeds.”

planting beds in medianThey also really ran with the concept of the parking-strip garden! Here, between a sidewalk and a bike path, they have a series of beds, borders, buckets, and teepees growing everything from herbs to beans.

student Michelle giving us the tour

Helping out with our tour were student farmers Michelle Venetucci Harvey and Julia Reed (Michelle shown here). Both are also active volunteers with the farm–two of the 150 students typically involved at a given time! The farm has a Compost Crew,  it has a Chicken Crew, it has the Dirty Dozen (now 40 students) who meet on Monday mornings at 7:30 (when I was in college, I didn’t know there was a Monday morning at 7:30) to plan the entire operation of the farm for the week. And, for recruiting, rewarding themselves, and educating the public, they have Pizza Bakes once a month!

pizza ovenNo way were we going to miss out on fresh-baked pizza. So everybody got a ball of dough and  rolled out an individual pie, which we dressed up with herbs and veggies from the farm. individual pizza on pizza shovel Here’s mine, fresh out of the oven!

Did I mention the salad ? As you can see, there was plenty!salad greens in a wheelbarrow

And the Prosecco went very well with both!

After years of operating slightly off the administration’s radar, UW Farm is now writing a business plan and working to become as sustainable organizationally as it is agriculturally. They’ve scored an additional (and larger) farm site at the off-campus UW Center for Urban Horticulture, and our remodeled student union building (now about half-finished) will incorporate a demonstration garden of several four-foot-by-ten-foot raised beds. Next up, they need funding to hire some actual paid staff; it’s hard to keep going when your  workforce turns over practically every quarter!

Read more about this fantastic operation here (oh, and don’t overlook the donation button!):  http://students.washington.edu/uwfarm/

The real staff of life

In the third of the Seattle Arts & Lectures series on the culture and politics of sustenance, UW geologist and Macarthur Fellow David Montgomery walked us through a few millenia of catastrophes caused by people abusing dirt. And in fact, he says, if we don’t knock it off, we stand to run out of fertile topsoil in only one or two more centuries.

First, the science. Basically, Mother Nature sees her job as moving all these mountains right here down there into the ocean, so that she can make room for her new mountains. Here’s how it happens. Rock thrusts up from the mantle of the globe, and heat, cold, water, plant roots, chemical processes and other forces break it up and grind it down. Plants and animals die on it, and worms fold their remains into the mix. Then rain and wind carry it downhill. This is nature’s long slow tumble of creation and destruction. David says that it can take about 500 years to produce an inch of topsoil; the covering of topsoil around the globe is only about one to three feet thick. Comparing the earth to the human body, soil is a “much thinner and more fragile layer than human skin.”

At the same time, the “fundamental condition for sustaining a civilization is sustaining soil and fertility.” Over and over again, civilizations from Neolithic Europe to the Easter Islands to the American Dustbowl have radically suffered or even disappeared as they have exhausted their soil. Remember that it can take 500 years to produce an inch of topsoil? Right now, the rate of erosion is one inch every 60 years.

David calls soil degradation an “under-appreciated crisis, a secret silent environmental disaster.” This was not news to the people living through it; Plato, for instance, comments that “the rich soft soil has all run away, leaving the land nothing but skin and bone.” And (skipping ahead a few years) our own George Washington observed that the situation could be turned around if farmers “were taught how to improve the old, instead of going in pursuit of new and productive soils.”

George had it right–the real cause is not THAT we farm, but HOW we farm. David traces the growing crisis all the way back to the invention of the plow; the plow, he says, fundamentally altered the balance between soil production and erosion, dramatically increasing erosion by breaking up the ground cover that knits the soil in place. (We won’t even discuss the modern “512 disk ripper” plow for ridding your fields of “soil compaction.”)  In short, we practice self-destructive agriculture. As FDR had it, “a nation that destroys its soils, destroys itself.”

But if we change our agricultural practices, we can turn the situation around. And we actually already know how to do this! (–And have for centuries.) For instance, we could cut subsidies for erosive agricultural practices, and we could support no-till ag, terracing, and other soil-preserving strategies. To rebuild soil, you need to apply just two things, David says:  organic matter and labor. Small labor-intensive organic farms are in fact the most productive in the world. But to get there from here, we need to alter our whole socio-economic model of food production: we need to stop treating soil as a commodity and start treating it as the fragile ecosystem that it is.

Great talk!–I can’t do justice to it in just these few paragraphs. Get the book! (David R. Montgomery, University of California Press, 2007)

Getting to know your Mother

After farming for more than 20 years, Kurt Timmermeister is still working on his vision of a farm–working to get rid of it, that is, and replace it with the reality in front of him.

Mother Nature doesn’t love us! She doesn’t glow with pride when we try to do the right thing, she doesn’t catch our arm before we tumble off the ledge, and she certainly doesn’t write us a little check for a do-over when we screw up. Oh well.

Last Thursday, in the second of Seattle Arts & Lectures’ series of talks on the culture and politics of sustenance, former restauranteur and current cheesemaker Kurt Timmermeister took us on a tour of his twenty-year wrestling match with Mother Nature.

Twenty years ago, seeking a calmer life closer to the soil, Kurt found a house he could afford on Vashon island–four acres of brambles with a converted chicken coop for shelter. Later, he added an adjacent 13-acre parcel with the additional amenities of decades of buried industrial detritus and garbage from the old Beall Greenhouses operation.

But that’s not what Kurt saw; instead, he had a vision of a farm. You might recognize it (you might even share it!): a few sheep, some chickens scratching in the yard, maybe a couple of ducks, a bunny or two, some goats, cows of course, an orderly and verdant vegetable garden, and ranks of gnarled fruit trees in an orchard. Now, twenty years later, 90% of it is gone, and he is down to one or two things that he can actually do. He has Jersey cows and he makes a cheese (Dinah’s, a soft bloomy rind cheese). In a year and a half or so, he will offer a second cheese.

So what happened? Well, let’s start with that orchard. He wanted apple trees, to make hard cider. He ordered about 200–”very fussy trees; the more obscure the better I liked them.” The plan was to plant them, wait five years, and be all set to go. But one morning he went out to discover that the first tree had no leaves. The next one?–no leaves. The deer had come through and in one night destroyed his trees. He re-planted. They did it again. They stepped casually around his really scary scarecrow and kept munching. “My idea was, I was good. I took the land and made it better. The deer should respect that! Why are these deer against me?”  Well, say hello to the power of nature.

Even living there on the farm, Kurt says, he still doesn’t fully understand where food comes from. We go out to buy food, and we can have anything we want, all year round; it’s really hard to know what’s seasonal and local, or what goes into producing it. We eat meat, and so somebody slaughters animals; we need to know this and accept it–but it’s hard to get next to the reality of it. He points out that he himself has never seen a cattle slaughterhouse; in fact, he’s seen only two commercial dairy operations (not pretty, by the way).

Why does this disconnect matter? “It’s food. It’s vital,” he says. It keeps us alive; we should want the very best. But it is really hard to make food.

What’s worse, small farmers have to compete on pricing with large agri-business operations. Their advantage is that you can go out, shake their hand, and poke around their operation. You can see how they do things and talk to them about ways to do things better. But if you want this kind of personal relationship with your food providers, you have to pay them a price that allows them to pay for their farm and live reasonably–send a kid to college, hire some help. Replace the fridge. Have a nice bottle of wine. Have the kid see a future in coming home after college to run the place. This is the only way that small farming is truly sustainable, Kurt says.

Small farmers also have to navigate through the murky waters of costs and regulation. Let’s take the case of sending a cow to slaughter. (Kurt doesn’t, by the way; wouldn’t be a good experience for him or the cow, he says.) But he looked into it early on. (This was after he came to grips with a big fact about dairy cows: if you want them to continue producing milk for you, you have to outfit them every year with a baby. Roughly half of those babies are going to be future bulls. Not so useful on a dairy farm. Plus, after a while you have some aged old girls.)

Remember that Vashon is an island; that means that the cow will have to take the ferry to the slaughterhouse. But the fare for a truck pulling the trailer she is riding in is huge (plus, how is she feeling about the scrum of cars being loaded on the ferry? what’s her view of Seattle traffic on the other side?) Then, after she’s had the Bad Moment at the slaughterhouse, you still have to pay the cut-and-wrap facility–and pay them a lot. Plus, Kurt adds pragmatically, you don’t get back the bones and blood. (Nothing going to waste around here!)

So Kurt does his own slaughtering on the farm, and shares the products of it with his employees. More hard work!–And it has its hazards. (Picture yourself wrestling with a 500-pound carcass suspended from a hook above your head.)

So, why does he do it? Why has he stuck with it all these years? Because he loves it, and because he relishes the challenge. “Life is short,” he says, and “I want to be scared every day.”

See my “What I’m reading” posting for February 24th for a review of Kurt’s new book, Growing a Farmer: How I Learned to Live Off the Land. And visit his website to browse his journal and see photos of his beautiful farm:

“Local” isn’t enough

“Mind the ‘local’ trap,” Branden Born warned. But wait, I thought “local” was good!?! Last Thursday, in the debut talk in a Seattle Arts & Lectures series on the culture and politics of sustenance, Born challenged us to get clear about what we really want from our food system.

He points out that the food industry has been nimble in capturing the words we use to describe what we want our food to be: “natural,” “organic” . . . and, yes, “local.” In the face of this country’s huge losses of agricultural land, rapid urbanization, and corporatization of the food system, we no longer know what our food looks like, where it comes from, or how it actually gets from plot to plate. We don’t know who grows it or who processes it for our consumption. But we have a sneaking feeling that we have put ourselves in the hands of people who just may have interests other than feeding us well! He quotes Wendell Berry, the animating spirit of the lecture series:  as urban dwellers, we now share the fears of “people who understand what it means to be landless.”

When we say we want to eat locally, in Born’s view, we point to a whole range of more fundamental ideas that we value (and he encourages us to discuss values, not scale). Food safety. Food equity. Access to healthy food. Democratization of the food system. Connection to the earth. Given our current urban environment and food supply-chain system, these values are in fact in trouble. But Born points out a range of alternative choices that we can begin to make to create a “new urbanity”around food.

For instance, if we value community engagement over food production efficiency, we might join an urban ag activity like Seattle’s p-patch system.  Go here to see a group working  in the High Point Garden (http://www.seattle.gov/neighborhoods/ppatch/)–one of 75 community gardens in the city. These gardens don’t just provide food and a sense of community for the people who work them; last year, p-patch gardeners donated almost 21,000 lbs. of fresh produce to local food banks and feeding programs. (Full disclosure: I put myself on the waiting list for my neighborhood p-patch last year; I hope to get a plot before I’m too old to work it. I mean, I’d better hurry!)

Or, we might go with urban development that scales up our sense of what urban gardening can be; vertical gardens can cover the side of your house (see http://www.cleanspirited.com/blog/?p=336) or a chunk of a huge multi-story building like Weber Thompson’s Eco-Laboratory (see http://inhabitat.com/files/ecolab-lead01.jpg), designed around a community garden and featuring numerous other “green design” elements–energy systems, ventilation, etc.

Or, we might focus on urban community-development activities. Born described a number of fascinating programs. To offer just one example, the Clean Greens program runs a community garden east of Seattle in Carnation (read: likely to get some actual sun) to grow and deliver “clean, healthy, and fair produce for everyone at affordable prices” (http://www.cleangreensfarm.com/), especially families in need in Seattle’s Central District. They also have a thriving educational program focused on healthy eating habits and food justice.

Eye-opening talk! You can find much more on these topics on Born’s website, http://faculty.washington.edu/bborn/.

Branden Born is a professor in UW’s Dept. of Urban Design and Planning. His talk, “Bringing the Urban Back into the Food System–Questions of Culture & Technology,” was the first in a five-talk series from Seattle Arts & Lectures, “Following Wendell: The Culture & Politics of Sustenance,” http://www.lectures.org/season/sal_u.php?id=298. I’m signed up for the series, so stay tuned for future installments!