Friday, November 27, 2009

Rob Hopkins on TED: Our Future in Transition

Rob Hopkins is the founder of the Transition movement, which has been an influence on the Rodgers Forge Farm Initiative. The "transition" of Hopkins's movement is one away from an oil-dependent lifestyle -- because, Hopkins posits, oil is going away. The idea behind Transition is to make one's living situation as resilient as possible. In this talk, he outlines the Transition movement and discusses how it is different from the more popular notions of sustainability.

Wednesday, November 25, 2009

Peak Oil and Your Garden

At the Rodgers Forge Farm Initiative we've been concerned about climate change, soil depletion, and the health effects of chemical additives in our food. These are all reasons to garden here in the Forge. However, people are increasingly talking about another reason to garden at home, one we feel compelled to share with you: peak oil production.

You may have heard the term "peak oil" -- it has been in the news a lot lately. The idea isn't new, but it has remained on the margins of conversations about energy for decades. But with the steep increases in the price of oil in the summer of 2008, peak oil went mainstream.

Peak oil is the point at which oil production -- a single oil well or the entire production capacity of a country, or even a planet -- reaches its maximum. In the simplest terms, a peak corresponds to the midway point in reserve capacity. Oil production can increase year after year until the point at which half of the reserve has been reached. Then oil becomes harder and more expensive to extract, and production begins to decline. (United States oil production peaked in 1970 and has been in decline since.)

According to proponents of peak-oil theories, this decline in production can lead to price shocks and rising oil prices. While many proponents of oil interests insist that there are great reserves yet to be discovered, other geologists and executives of petroleum companies and energy investment firms refute such claims. The graph here shows the major oil discoveries of the past century. You can see that they mostly happened in the mid-20th Century and have been going down ever since.

What does this have to do with food and gardening? As Michael Pollan and others have pointed out, when you eat food from the supermarket, you are eating oil. Fossil energy was used to plow the fields and fertilize, harvest, freeze, and transport that food 1,500 miles from the field to your plate. The journalist Richard Manning has estimated that each food calorie in this country is backed by 10 calories of oil energy.

That means that food will have to be less energy intensive in the future, which means that it might have to be growing right out your front or back door. We'll return to this idea in future posts.

Friday, November 20, 2009

Preparing for Spring

So, you've read all about front-yard gardens and back-yard gardens in Rodgers Forge, and you're eager to start your own next year. Well, the time to start working on that garden is now. There is plenty of work you can do this fall to make your garden better next year.

Find a Place For the New Bed: Pick a sunny spot somewhere in your yard. Keep in mind that the sun is in a different spot now than it will be in June of next year. Make sure a water source is nearby. Also, make sure it is out of the way of any activity that might happen in the yard in warmer months.

Make Your Bed: We prefer raised beds, framed with two-by material -- usually 2x8 or 2x10. Make a box with no top or bottom (in other words, earth will be the bottom and the sky will be the top) that has a maximum width of three to four feet. (Your arms have to be able to reach the center to weed and pick.) The box can be as long as you like. Then dig that into your selected sunny spot.

Get Soil: You can get bagged stuff or bulk. Fill the box. You'll find it cheaper to get soil in bulk through, say, a compost operation.

You now have a garden bed that will hold plants next year. But you can do more to help the bed grow more vegetables come spring....

Set Up a Composter: You can set that up right on top of your new bed. Fill it with leaves and grass clippings and turn often. (See our brief guide to composting for more information.)

Dig In Leaves: It is absolutely insane that we bag up leaves and throw them away. The leaves are valuable soil amendments, filled with nutrients. Take a bagful, spread it on the soil, and dig it in. Take another bagful and use the leaves to cover the bed, insulating it from hard rains and cold snaps. When spring comes, you will pull those leaves off and compost them, and your garden bed will be ready to go.

Tuesday, November 3, 2009

Saturday, October 10, 2009

How Do You Feed a City?

"How do you feed a city?" asks Carolyn Steel, an architect. "It is one of the great questions of our time, yet it is one that is rarely asked. We take it for granted that if we go into a shop or a restaurant... there is going to be food there waiting for us, having magically come from somewhere. But when you think this, every day for a city the size of London" -- or even Baltimore -- "enough food has to be produced, transported, bought and sold, cooked, eaten, and disposed of, and that something similar has to happen every day for every city on earth, it's remarkable that cities get fed at all...."

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Swapping Vegetables

"Wish you could turn your excess plums into lemons, or maybe even a little cash? Use this site to find neighbors to swap with or sell your excess produce to. Or if you specialize in growing tomatoes, find neighbors who specialize in other produce and form networks to share in the variety. Even if you don't have a garden, Veggie Trader is your place for finding local food near you."

Kris at the Forge Flyer alerted us to a new site that creates a Craigslist-style listing of home-grown produce and services. Veggie Trader lets people list either items or services they have to offer to trade for items or services they want. If you have carrots galore, you can trade them for beets. Listings are categorized in a variety of ways, including by type of fruit or vegetable, and are searchable by proximity to one's zip code. There are already listings there for herbs and other veggies to trade in 21212.

Of course, this is a fantastic idea for a service. But let us offer a word of warning: As with any site that facilitates transactions between strangers, you should approach initially with caution. First of all, you should be sure that any vegetables you acquire (particularly root vegetables) are grown in clean, toxin-free soil. You should probably visit the growing site and check it out. Is the garden bed set up next to a house with peeling paint? That's a bad sign.

For trading with your Forge neighbors, don't forget the Rodgers Forge listserv. You can connect and trade with other Forge farmers there, too!

Monday, September 14, 2009

Seeds and the future of food

Sorry, more videos. We'll stop being busy in about a week. Fortunately, there are a lot of good videos out there. This one is part of the latest crop released by TED, about the future of genetic diversity and seeds. Cary Fowler describes his work on the seed vault that recently opened in arctic Norway. I made a reference to that seed vault in an op-ed about the importance of agricultural education in The Chronicle of Higher Education.

Friday, September 4, 2009

an edible schoolyard

Unfortunately, we're too busy to post real articles at the moment, so we're offering up more videos -- this time of the Edible Schoolyard projects. Lots of you are probably aware of Alice Waters and her Edible Schoolyard in the Berkeley public schools. This is important work that has been imitated across the country.

And here's a related video, from TED: Ann Cooper, talking about the importance of getting kids to understand where food comes from, which might help them eat better.

Imagine what could happen if we pursued these kinds of projects at our local schools. This could be important for the children of Rodgers Forge.

Wednesday, August 26, 2009

Eat the Suburbs

This is a short Australian film about dwindling energy supplies and the importance of home gardening.

Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Signs of different times

We just came across this collection of old World War II propaganda posters at Treehugger. Many of them promote the Victory Garden movement, but the most interesting ones are all about thrift and anti-consumption.

These posters have a deep appeal to people our age, even beyond kitsch. They symbolize the passing of a generation that still knew how to can, still knew how to grow food. That kind of knowledge is now dangerously rare, from our point of view.

In Shop Class as Soulcraft, Matthew Crawford says American education has trended away from hands-on learning in the trades, agriculture, and other foundational types of knowledge, and have instead favored training for white-collar work. He's not convinced that this is a good path for American society.

We are deeply anxious about what we don't know about the things that sustain us -- and marketers are aware of this. Crawford describes a recent ad for a motorcycle that shows an owner working intensely on his bike; the ad tells buyers that they can "build" the motorcycle according to their vision. But the ad merely hawks "custom" features that are ordered at the dealer and built at the factory, not applied by the rider-owner. (Crawford points out that the newest luxury cars and motor vehicles don't even let you check the oil or diagnose other problems in the engines; a computer at the dealer has to do that.) It's a bit like Betty Crocker cake mixes, Crawford says: Homemakers felt better about their "cooking" if they could add an egg or two to the mix before popping it into the oven.

This anxiety might explain the explosion in vegetable gardens this year. (Vegetable gardening one of the "back to basics" skills mentioned in this story about this very topic in The New York Times.) When things get tough, people seek out that foundational knowledge -- growing food to sustain their families. These days it's hard to find someone who actually knows how to make vegetable plants thrive. That is the main reason these posters and this generation carry a nostalgic appeal. These people knew something about how to make a living. Even though we live in better times, do we need this knowledge, too?

Monday, August 10, 2009

a farm for the future

This documentary, produced by the BBC, is a classic -- essential viewing for anyone who wants to see what we are facing with regards to food and energy. If you have an hour, sit down and watch.

Sunday, August 9, 2009

more on late blight and tomatoes

At a birthday party for my daughter this evening, I was talking to one of my neighbors. "You have to come over and look at one of my tomato plants," he said. "Something's up." He said the bottom leaves were beginning to shrivel. Could be some kind of run-of-the-mill wilt, but of course I thought it could also be Late Blight, the tomato disease of 2009. My neighbor's news felt especially bad, because I've started to notice some shriveling on one of my plants, and it's spreading at an alarming rate.

We're hobby gardeners, and I have come to accept that tomato plants are going to get hit with one thing or another by the end of the year. They don't live forever. But this year has been especially bad for tomato growers. Is there a lesson that we can learn from the Phytophthora infestans plague of 2009?

Here's one: Consolidation of agriculture in the United States is not just a problem of Big Ag and far-off farmers. It spreads to all of us.

Let me explain: The tomato (and potato) disease of 2009 came from concentrated, factory-farm-style nurseries that supply Big Box retailers, which then spread to the home gardener. This was explained well in a story today in The New York Times:

According to plant pathologists, this killer round of blight began with a widespread infiltration of the disease in tomato starter plants. Large retailers like Home Depot, Kmart, Lowe’s and Wal-Mart bought starter plants from industrial breeding operations in the South and distributed them throughout the Northeast. (Fungal spores, which can travel up to 40 miles, may also have been dispersed in transit.) Once those infected starter plants arrived at the stores, they were purchased and planted, transferring their pathogens like tiny Trojan horses into backyard and community gardens. Perhaps this is why the Northeast was hit so viciously: instead of being spread through large farms, the blight sneaked through lots of little gardens, enabling it to escape the attention of the people who track plant diseases.

The author of this essay, Dan Barber, at times seems on the verge of blaming the amateur home gardener for this problem. ("Here’s the unhappy twist: the explosion of home gardeners -- the very people most conscious of buying local food and opting out of the conventional food chain -- has paradoxically set the stage for the worst local tomato harvest in memory.") But he eventually acknowledges the real problem: a super-concentrated agricultural system that gets its supplies from mega-growers is not very resilient. Disease spreads quickly through these systems, as it would through any monoculture.

For the most part, Joe and I didn't get our plants from nurseries. We grew them from seed, starting indoors in the early spring, and we planted a bunch of different varieties (more variety means more genetic diversity, and maybe more disease resistance). For those reasons, our tomatoes have fared pretty well this year, while some of our neighbors' plants have completely wilted, as if doused in rubbing alcohol and lit on fire.

We have yet to see whether we'll make it to the end of the season disease-free. But one thing is certain: We will again be growing from seed next year, and growing many different kinds of tomatoes.

--Scott Carlson

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

the RFFI presents: FRESH

Update 9/10/2009: Ana Sofia Joanes, the director of FRESH will be on the Marc Steiner Show tonight, along with panelists who speak at the screening. City Paper is also running a glowing review of the film in this week's issue.

The Rodgers Forge Farm Initiative, the Hamilton Crop Circle, the restaurant Clementine, Urbanite magazine and the Center for a Livable Future at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health present the Baltimore screening of FRESH at Creative Alliance on September 10.

FRESH is a movie about what's wrong with agriculture in America -- and what we can do to fix it. The film has sold out screenings in cities across the country and garnered rave reviews.

A local-food bazaar will precede the screening and a discussion with local and national agriculture experts will follow. Tickets won't last long. Get yours today on the Creative Alliance Web site.

Monday, August 3, 2009

Zucchini! Zucchini! Zucchini! (or, what to do with all this food)

Sorry to be out of touch. We've been busy with some Rodgers Forge Farm Initiative stuff that we're planning for the fall, so this is our first post in a while.

I guess we've also been busy with the harvest. It seems that every day we go out into our RF yards, we're finding something that needs to be picked and cooked up. That can be an oppressive feeling sometimes -- the notion that you either use these vegetables that you worked so hard to grow, or they rot. (For an interesting story on that topic, see this from The Sun.) A friend of mine once said that her family used to grow tons of beets. She loved the earthy flavor of beets, but she inevitably came to a point in the year when just the thought of eating another beet made her want to cry.

Zucchini is another one of those vegetables that is so prolific that you run out of things to do with them after a while. And you can do damn near anything with them: put them in chocolate cake, make them into muffins, fry them as fritters, put them in soup.... Yeesh. A friend once told me a story about a town, maybe somewhere in Pennsylvania, that has a tradition: On one night of the year, you sneak over to the neighbors' houses and put zucchinis on their doorsteps. The idea is that everyone has so much zucchini that you can't give it away easily.

There are a number of books out there that might help with the glut of vegetables you're getting. First of all, you might want to find ways to store these veggies into the winter months. We gotten two books here recently that cover storing vegetables, but I have to admit that we haven't had time to review them properly. (Maybe you can and let us know what you think.) Both books are distributed by our favorite gardening publisher, Chelsea Green.

How to Store Your Garden Produce: The Key to Self-Sufficiency (Revised Edition), by Piers Warren, lists foods alphabetically and offers a number of options for storing them. I learned about "clamping," or burying some foods, like potatoes, from this book. Regarding zucchinis -- or "courgettes," as this author is British -- the book says that you can blanch and freeze them, or make them into "courgette pickles."

There is also Preserving Food Without Freezing or Canning: Traditional Techniques Using Salt, Oil, Sugar, Alcohol, Vinegar, Drying, Cold Storage, and Lactic Fermentation, by the Gardeners & Farmers of Terre Vivant. (Chelsea Green describes Terre Vivant as "an ecological research and education center located in Mens, Domaine de Raud, a region of southeastern France.") Among the zucchini recipes offered by this book: boil in vinegar with herbs, then pack in oil.

If your harvest is coming in, congratulations -- and good luck.

--Scott Carlson

Sunday, July 19, 2009

RFFI in the press

How a Greener City gets Growing, The Baltimore Sun, May 26, 2009

Rodgers Forge, state map their gardens, B'More Green, June 10, 2009

Ground Rules, The Urbanite, July 2009

Gaining Support in Suburbia,, July 7, 2009

The Marc Steiner Show, WEAA 88.9 FM, July 14, 2009.

Wednesday, July 15, 2009

Late Blight Alert

University of Maryland College of Agriculture and Natural Resources has issued an alert to Maryland gardeners concerning an invasion of Late Blight of tomatoes and potatoes. Though it is called Late Blight, the fungal disease can attack plants at any time during the growing season.

According to Jerry Brust, integrated-pest-management vegetable specialist for the University of Maryland Extension, “Usually the disease shows up in late summer and is a moderate problem; however, this year—thanks to a prolonged period of wet and cool spring weather—it was first diagnosed in mid-June and confirmed up and down the Eastern seaboard in early July. Compounding the problem, large retail stores on the East Coast unintentionally sold blight-infected plants, resulting in an increased distribution of the disease.”

Late blight first appears as dark, water-soaked spots on leaves which shrivel and die. Dark brown spots can also appear on stems and fruit. The Home and Garden Information Center of the Maryland Cooperative Extension has an excellent fact sheet on Late Blight. If you have questions about whether your plants have Late Blight you can contact a the Maryland Cooperative Extension at (800) 342-2507.

Friday, July 10, 2009

Sharing Yards: Another way to Garden

Every summer for the last five years, the neighbors around my block have an alley party complete with moonbounce for the kids and potluck and grills for the adults. Since we've had so much fun at the summer party, we've even begun having a fall party. Held in October, the fall party has face-painting and homemade scarecrows for halloween. These get-togethers have forged wonderful friendships.

At last year's fall party, Scott and I started talking with an elderly neighbor about gardening. She was delighted to hear about what we were doing with our yards. Being nearly 80 and living alone, this neighbor did not have the ability to maintain a vegetable garden. Scott and I asked if we could establish one in her yard, and she immediately said yes.

This spring Scott and I built a few raised beds in our neighbor's yard. Two 4-by-4 beds and one 4-by-8. The 4-by-8 bed has a variety of heirloom tomatoes. One of the 4-by-4 beds has poblano and green bell peppers as well as tomatoes. The other 4-by-4 bed will have arugula. In fact, the first green pepper we picked recently we gave to our neighbor. She was delighted at how we have worked with her in her yard to produce fresh food.

Scott and I care for these plants as if they were ours, but we enjoy the sense of community that this joint effort has created. We have met our neighbors' daughter and grand-daughter, we spend time talking with her when we are watering or weeding, or just checking in, and we feel a stronger bond to our neighbor--and, by extension, our neighborhood.

If you are interested in gardening on more land than you have in your yard, consider asking a neighbor if you can share their space. You may be surprised at how readily they may say 'yes.' Many people have the space to garden but can't garden themselves due to time or physical limitations. Many others have the time or ability but not the space. The Rodgers Forge Farm Initiative encourages others in our neighborhood to seek ways to garden together across our small spaces. We will have a stronger, more closely bonded community if we do.

If anyone has space or time to offer and need help connecting with others on a collaborative garden, please contact us at

Thursday, July 9, 2009

The local that isn't

The Baltimore Sun reports on the movement to label things as local, even when they aren't really:

Signs atop the produce case in Baltimore-area Safeway stores promoted "local" apples from Virginia and New Jersey. But the Granny Smiths and galas in the case hailed from Chile and New Zealand.

Under a cute farm-truck mural and the words "Home Grown," Wegmans in Hunt Valley offered eggplants grown so far away--the Netherlands--that their stickers were in French: "Aubergine." Also in that produce case: white asparagus from Peru, bell peppers from Canada--and, yes, some zucchini and yellow squash grown in the United States.

No wonder shoppers are confused. Large grocery chains, eager to get a bite of the locavore movement, are promoting produce from nearby farms - even when they have little in stock. It doesn't help that the federal government allows produce to be labeled "local" if it comes from within a 400-mile radius, which for Baltimore is roughly an arc that runs from Boston to Charleston, W.Va., to Cape Hatteras, N.C.

"It's an arms race in marketing," said Patty Lovera, assistant director of Food and Water Watch, a Washington-based consumer group that fought for country-of-origin labeling on produce....

Local produce is not only about getting things from growers immediately around you, but also about getting it directly from those growers. Some major food corporations have tried to label themselves local, even though they are in essence multinational.

Tuesday, July 7, 2009

mulch season

Grass clippings used as mulch.

People have written the Forge Farm Initiative in the past to ask about mulch: What is it, what does it do, and which materials can be used?

Mulch has a few basic roles in the garden: It moderates the soil temperature, holds in water, suppresses weeds, and provides a small amount of nutrients. July really is mulch season. With that sun blasting down and the rain sparse, you need something there to protect the roots.

There are a number of different kinds of materials you can use for mulch. You can buy bagged mulch, but I don't recommend that for a couple of reasons: One, it's pricey; there are free options out there. Two, some mulches can come with noxious weed seeds in them. A neighbor recently had a bad experience with commercial mulch: It came with seeds of Canada thistle, which is one of the most tenacious and evil invasive weeds out there. Impossible to get rid of.

Some use plastic sheeting as a kind of mulch, but I don't. I want to use a mulch that will decay and offer something to the soil microbes after I'm done with it. Plastic sheeting is just headed to the landfill at the end of the season.

But there is no shortage of free mulches available to you. Here are a few:

  • Grass Clippings: Collect them from a neighbor with a clean, pet-free lawn right after the neighbor has finished mowing. Bagged lawn clippings will quickly go sour -- that doesn't necessarily mean you can't use them, but they will mat up and smell for a day or three.
  • Shredded Newspapers/Cardboard: Perhaps not the most attractive mulch, but it is effective.
  • Shredded Leaves: You might want to avoid oak leaves, which could leach tannins and acids into the soil.
  • Pine Straw: Great for acid-loving plants, like blueberries.
  • Coffee Grounds: Ditto.
  • "Living Mulch": Some people are advocates for shallow-rooted plants that carpet areas around vegetables to suppress weeds and provide nutrients. One example is Dutch White Clover, a low-growing clover that fixes nitrogen in the soil. You can buy clover seeds at garden stores, like Valley View Farms.

With any mulch, you want to make sure that you are choosing clean materials, because this will touch your food (like lettuces and cucumbers, if they lay on the ground).

Mulch is also a great way to eradicate weeds in a particular area, or prepare new ground for garden beds. That method is often called "sheet mulching." We'll offer a recipe for sheet mulch in a future blog.

Thursday, July 2, 2009

the dirt on the Farm Initiative

More good press. We had missed Meredith Cohn's item about the Rodgers Forge Farm Initiative, which appeared about a month ago on the Baltimore Sun's "B'More Green" blog.

As some might have already seen, there is another story in this month's Urbanite about Scott Carlson's front-yard vegetable garden -- and what the Rodgers Forge Community Association thinks of it. (Scott is a co-founder of the Roders Forge Farm Initiative.) Here's a clip:

"Horticulturally, my formative years were schizophrenic. My father was a salesman for a lawn-fertilizer company; I’ll always remember him on top of a riding mower, plying his monotonous expanse of suburban green. My mother, on the other hand, grew up a farmer’s daughter, and she was used to putting the land to work, growing peas, lettuce, or rhubarb for the table.

"Four years ago, when I bought my own home in suburbia—a run-down Rodgers Forge rowhouse with a scraggly, south-facing lawn—I had to choose which side I would follow. I get my environmental sensibilities from Mom, so I did what seemed natural: I started ripping out the grass and planting vegetables....

"But if the process of re-greening the Forge has earned us the admiration of some neighbors, it’s also stirred some ire. This spring, I got a letter from the Rodgers Forge Community Association telling me that my front-yard garden 'does not adhere to the ideal of keeping a traditional design.' The association wants the garden gone...."

Wednesday, July 1, 2009

suburban farming in virginia

The Washington Post has a story today about Jim Dunlap, a former CIA operations officer who has transformed his suburban plot in Loudoun County, situated among McMansions, into a small-scale farm.

His little piece of suburbia is perfectly situated for a small farmer just starting out: The land is fertile, and the location, just 55 miles from Washington, puts him within striking distance of lucrative urban farmers markets, where prices and demand are high for produce grown without pesticides or chemical fertilizers. "We need to take a lot of this land that's used for pet horses and giant lawns and find ways to grow food on it again," Dunlap said. "My work is an experiment to figure out how we can do it."

Mr. Dunlap and others think that small-scale suburban farming is one model for future food development. He is planning to get acres from his neighbors -- who are supportive -- and he wants to set up small houses where young farmers could gain experience working on his farm.

For Dunlap, the stakes are high. Reviving suburban farming is not a luxury but a must. If -- or he would say when -- oil prices spike again, it will be less practical than ever to fly in grapes from Chile and apples from New Zealand. "If the future that appears to be coming actually comes, local food isn't going to be a nice thing; it's going to be a necessity," Dunlap said. "We have to find a way to feed ourselves. And the only way to do that is to create farmers."

We think if you have a guy from the CIA worrying about the state of the world's resources and America's land use, you should listen.

Saturday, June 27, 2009

A very, very brief guide to composting

The process of making compost scares off a lot of people, but if you follow a few rules, it's actually fairly easy. There are a number of guides out there to help you learn the basics, but we'll cover the most important points in this blog. (Pick up one of the books recommended below for more information.) Compost is perhaps the most important element of any garden plan. As the British garden writer Monty Don says: "No garden should be without a compost pile. No organic garden can be without one."

First, what is composting?: It's basically controlled rot, even accelerated rot. Most people associate "rot" with things that are poisonous and smelly. That's anaerobic (or oxygen-deprived) rot. Composting is aerobic (or oxygen-rich) rot. Basically, you are trying to create a rotting environment that has lots of access to fresh air (through turning the pile), which will not only make the decomposition happen faster and preserve plant nutrients, it also will not smell. Well-made, finished compost -- which is rich in organic materials -- smells like good, clean dirt.

Where to compost?: Compost can be produced in an open box or open pit, but since we're here in the 'burbs, where people get fussy about the appearance of a yard, we recommend buying a commercial compost bin. Baltimore County sells the Earth Machine composter every spring for around $35 -- a bargain. There are lots of other bins available out there. We recommend one like the Earth Machine that puts the compost in contact with the ground below (rather than keep it off the ground, like the ComposTumbler brand), which will allow underground creatures to invade the compost and help with the decomposition. Also, Earth Machine-type composters can be set directly on beds where you plan to grow, making the ground under them very fertile. Just move the composter around year-by-year. Your composter should be an enclosed container with a cover. Use that cover. Also, buy a compost turner -- a wand with a handle that has two wings on its point that open up when you pull it up through the compost. This tool helps mix and aerate the pile. (Watson's Garden Center, on York Road north of the Beltway, sells sturdy turners for around $25.)

What can be composted?: It's better to answer this question by listing what cannot be composted (at least in home-scale systems): Do not compost bones, meat, oils and fats, dairy, or any kind of synthetic or non-organic material, like plastic bags, chemicals, or aluminum cans. The bones, meat, et al., will smell and attract pests; the synthetics won't break down. You're better off sticking with yard waste. Vegetable trimmings, egg shells, coffee grounds, and other organic wastes from the kitchen are frequently used as compost material, but composting food is against the rules in Baltimore County. (It is allowed in the city, so ponder that little mystery.) If you want to play by the rules, you might want to start a worm-compost bin. You should also avoid composting pernicious and invasive weeds, or their seeds. There's a chance that they will not die or that their seeds will not be sterilized in the heat of the compost pile, and then you'll have a big problem when you add that compost to your garden.

How do you get started?: Compostable material is either a nitrogen-rich "green" or a carbon-rich "brown," and you need a certain mix of the two to get good compost. Grass clippings are a "green." Fallen leaves or shredded paper are "browns." But don't go by color: Manure and coffee grounds are compost "greens," even though they are brown in color. Got it? Here's an easy recipe to get started: Mix even portions of fresh grass clippings and fallen leaves in your composter, then use your compost turner to mix the stuff up. (Don't waste your money on compost activators, by the way.)

What will happen next?: Let it sit for 12 to 18 hours and turn it again. You will find that it has started to get really hot. That's good. Themophilic (or heat-loving) bacteria are the first to go to work in a compost pile. They will quickly heat up the center of the pile to 120 to 150 degrees. They thrive on oxygen, so keep turning that pile every day. If anything smells off (like vinegar or alcohol), turn the pile more often and add more brown leaves. If the pile doesn't heat up, add more green grass. You will find that this mixture breaks down really quickly, to about half of its volume. Just keep adding more stuff; the pile needs mass to maintain its heat and action.

When is it done?: When it stops heating up. Just let it sit, or transfer it to a garden bed, where the worms will go to work on it. But I find that if you keep adding nitrogen-rich stuff, along with some carbon, it's never really done. And remember, it doesn't have to be completely done when you put it on a bed.

For more on the compost process, you might look into these books: The Rodale Book of Composting is a classic that we have recommended in the past. Let It Rot! has been in print for decades, and you can still pick up new or used copies everywhere. Composting: An Easy Household Guide is, true to its title, extremely easy and quick reading, but it gives you most of the basic points and more.

If this confuses you, or if you have questions, write us.

Thursday, June 18, 2009

one more thought...

We couldn't resist this quote from Gaia's Garden, which hits on the very spirit that the Rodgers Forge Farm Initiative is trying to promote:

"Where you have fruit, you have friends. For millennia, food has been at the center of community creation and rituals of friendship, and sharing it is one of the most natural ways for neighbors to meet and trust each other."

Wednesday, June 17, 2009

introducing permaculture

A great book just hit the shelves at your local bookstore -- one that is valuable for anyone learning to garden. It's called Gaia's Garden: A Guide to Home-Scale Permaculture, Second Edition, by Toby Hemenway.

The idea of permaculture is probably new to most readers of this blog, so here is a brief definition: The word "permaculture" is a contraction of the words "permanent culture" and "permanent agriculture," and it describes a set of principles that create a sustainable, interdependent form of gardening. Through the use of annual and perennial plants and gardening techniques that fix nitrogen, ward off pests, attract pollinators, conserve water, and so on, you are creating a ecological space that (theoretically, at least) is self-sustaining and therefore requires less work.

Gaia's Garden goes into all sorts of information that would be valuable to any gardener, whether you decide to pick up permaculture techniques or not. The book has charts on various nitrogen fixers (in other words, plants that take nitrogen, an essential nutrient, out of the air and put it in the soil), plants for birds, plants for pollinators, and so on. The sorts of gardens that Hemenway advocates would be perfect for spaces like those behind Stanmore or around the Rodgers Forge apartments -- places that could accommodate some lush growth.

Hemenway is also an advocate of neighborly cooperation, particularly in city and suburban gardens, an ethic that we at the Rodgers Forge Farm Initiative wholeheartedly endorse. This passage -- about Hemenway's dilemma of having not enough garden space in a suburban or urban area -- struck us, and we offer it to you as food for thought for what's possible in the Forge:

"The great strength of any city -- the reason people go there -- is the social capital: the synergies and opportunities generated by creative people working together. As I've noted, a major weakness, particularly for gardeners, is the paucity of land. Fortunately, if we play it right, the social resources are exactly the force needed to make up for the scarcity of land.

"Here's an example. In moving to Portland, Kiel and I traded our ten rural acres for a 50-by-100-foot lot. My first thought was, 'How am I going to fit all my favorite fruit trees into this tiny space?' The back yard was almost a blank slate: mostly grass, some bark mulch hastily installed by the seller to mask formerly weedy spots, and a dog run. The sole trees were a sapling Japanese maple and a mature European prune plum that straddled the property line. The plums came ripe just after we arrived. One morning I was chatting with my next-door neighbor, a retired electrician and fervent gardener named Johnny, while we harvested plums on our respective sides of the fence. Johnny asked me if I liked figs. My strong affimative resulted in a plastic tub brimming with ripe mission figs wobbling my way from his side of the fence. For the next few weeks, whenever I returned the empty basin to Johnny, it came back moments later loaded with fruit.

"I had also met my neighbor Theressa, who lived across the street, and because I had a surfeit of plums, I carried a bag of them over to her. She smiled ruefully and said, "Sorry, I don't need plums -- I've got a tree of my own." Theressa then told me that I had just missed peach season, when she had been giving fruit away. But in a few weeks, she said, her Granny Smith apples would be ready, so I should load up on those. The neighbor next door to Theressa, a computer guy named Will, overheard us and said if I needed fruit, I should come right over and help him harvest the enormous Bartlett pear tree in his backyard. Will got my bag of plums, and I came home with twice as many pears. My neighbors' yards had become my orchard.

"I realized I didn't need to plant all my favorite fruit trees. I just needed to plant the ones that were missing from the neighborhood...."

We're already working with neighbors to share land to grow gardens. How can we incorporate this idea to create an orchard in Rodgers Forge?

Friday, June 12, 2009

Summer Reading: 'Seedfolks'

"All his life in Vietnam my father had been a farmer. Here our apartment house had no yard. But in that vacant lot he would see me. He would watch my beans break ground and spread, and would notice with pleasure their pods growing plump. He would see my patience and my hard work. I would show him that I could raise plants, as he had. I would show him that I was his daughter.

My class had sprouted lima beans in paper cups the year before. I now placed a bean in each of the holes. I covered them up, pressing the soil down firmly with my fingertips. I opened my thermos and watered them all. And I vowed to myself that those beans would thrive." (from Seedfolks, by Paul Fleischman)

My mother recently suggested I read the book Seedfolks, by Paul Fleischman, and I am glad I did. Though the book is written for a young audience, ages nine to 12, Seedfolks is an inspiration for gardeners of all ages.

Set in an urban apartment building in Cleveland, Seedfolks tells the story of a fledgeling community garden started by a nine-year-old immigrant girl in a garbage- and rat-infested vacant lot. Over the course of one spring, more and more residents of the apartment building join the little girl in establishing the garden.

Narrated through the voices of 13 different characters -- who have different ages, ethnic backgrounds, and jobs -- Seedfolks shows how a community garden might affect the different residents of a community. A Haitian cab-driver dreams of selling the lettuce he can grow on their plot. A Guatemalan immigrant watches as a vegetable garden revitalizes his elderly father. A pregnant 16-year-old girl learns to raise plants -- and raises her spirits in the process. These are the kinds of stories that Seedfolks uses to illustrate the power of gardening in community.

As I finished Seedfolks, I couldn't help but wonder: How can we create more community gardening opportunities in our neighborhood?

Tuesday, June 9, 2009

Lettuce grow together

All the rain and cool weather we've had lately is terrible for tomatoes and peppers, which thrive on heat. But it has extended the season for an easy-to-grow garden staple: salad greens. Salad greens like cool, wet weather; they "bolt" -- or go to seed (and in the process become tough and bitter) -- in the arid heat of summer.

A nice thing about lettuce is that you can grow it almost anywhere, anytime. The nutrient demands of these plants are low -- in other words, they don't need really fertile soil, like squash or broccoli. And using them in the kitchen is a no-brainer: Just pick, wash, dress, toss, and eat.

Here's how to grow them: First, pick out a packet of seeds. Burpee sells various packets that contain a variety of complimentary greens. There are tons of types of greens, with names like red deer tongue, black-seeded simpson, and royal oak leaf, buttercrunch, red sails. You can also grow beet greens and arugula (also known as rocket) for your salads.

Some people plant lettuces in tidy rows with proper spacing. This tends to produce nice, evenly formed heads. But I'm lazy. I just scatter seeds in a given area, and I thin as they grow (and I eat the thinnings). My way probably leads to more problems with slugs, which can hide between the packed plants. But I tend to think that thickly planted lettuces will do more to shade the ground they are growing in, keeping it more moist (which is what they like).

Since I plant thickly, I just pull up whole plants, roots and all, to harvest. If you have planted less thickly, you can lop the plant off a few inches off the ground (and it will grow back) or you can peel leaves off the sides.

The plants will bolt when they get too old, too hot, or too dry. You see them shoot up a seed head, almost overnight, and the leaves will be leathery. The leaves will get progressively tougher leading up to this day, so pick them before the bolt happens (unless you want seeds).

Potential problems: Slugs are your main enemy. See our earlier entry on how to deal with them -- handpicking and beer traps are our methods.

Heading into a hot summer: When weather gets hot, you'll have to tear out and plant new lettuce when your old stuff bolts. But you might also consider growing "salad greens" that like hotter weather -- like basil or parsley, for example. Nasturtiums are beautiful flowers -- and they are edible, leaves and flowers both. Mustard also produces highly nutritious greens, but beware urban gardener-farmers: Mustard is also one of the few plants that will absorb lead in the soil. Make sure your soil is clean, and don't grow any food in contaminated soil. (We'll post on that topic sometime in the future.)

If you're really enthusiastic about growing greens, you might consult an excellent new book about the topic: Charles Dowding's Salad Leaves for All Seasons: Organic Growing from Pot to Plot. Dowding, a British gardener, covers just about every green you would want to grow, and various methods for growing them.

If you don't have room to grow greens, you might check out plans for Salad Tables and Salad Boxes from our friends at the University of Maryland's Grow It Eat It campaign. With just a few 2-by-4 planks, some screen and hardware cloth material, and some fasteners, you can make a container that will sit on a deck or patio and grow greens all year long.

Saturday, June 6, 2009

Jay didn't ask us, but...

In his latest essay for the Rodgers Forge newsletter, Jay Dunn writes nostalgically about "just a few of the things that are disappearing in our country." It just so happens that four of the 12 disappearing things he lists are either directly or indirectly related to agriculture -- and are just the sorts of things that our organization is trying to address. Here are the four farming-related items that Jay lists:

Blue Crabs in the Chesapeake Bay:
As everyone knows, they are disappearing. Jay notes that it's because of overfishing, invasive species, and pollution -- but many people don't think about the source of that pollution. The bay is choking on nutrients, specifically nitrogen and phosphorus, two elements abundant in chemical fertilizers. A great deal of the harmful nutrients in the bay are coming from industrial-chicken operations. But a good chunk also comes from urban and suburban lawns. Chemical lawn fertilizer is highly soluble and tends to run off in the first rain, into the streets and gutters, and then out to the bay. According to the Chesapeake Bay Program: "Stormwater from urban and suburban areas contributes a significant amount of pollutants to the Bay. Every time we drive our cars, fertilize our lawns, leave pet waste on the ground or forget to fix car leaks, we contribute to pollution in our local rivers, streams and the Bay. Seventeen percent of phosphorus, 11 percent of nitrogen and 9 percent of sediment loads to the Bay come from stormwater." We encourage people to have less lawn and more garden, and we discourage the use of chemical fertilizers.

Dying Honeybees: In the past few years, people became alarmed when honeybees started dying off. The phenomenon was called Colony Collapse Disorder, and now researchers have come up with some theories about why it's happening: One cause might be stress on bee colonies, which are trucked around the country to be used as pollinators in industrial farming. Another might be the widespread use of pesticides. Both of these factors weaken bees' resistance to various pathogens. We encourage people to grow pollinator plants (starting by letting Dutch white clover grow in lawns) and avoid pesticides. (Kudos to the Rodgers Forge neighbor on Stanmore who keeps a beehive in the alley. Join our group!)

Family Farms: People see that they spend more and more money on food, but that rising dollar value is not getting to the farmer; instead, it largely goes to middlemen, who transport, repackage, and market the food, as you can see in this report. Jay notes that family farms have declined from 5.3 million in 1950 to 2.1 million today. But go back a few more years, and you'll find that the decline is much more drastic: Just prior to World War II, there were almost seven million farms in the United States (and around 130 million people). Today, in a country of 300 million, a mere 1.2 million people claim farming as their principal occupation, and the average age of those farmers is around 55. About 74,000 farms, or 3.5 percent, accounted for more than 60 percent of the market value of agricultural products sold in 2002. This means that food production in our country is concentrated in industrial megaproducers and a dwindling, aging population. We need to rediscover our agricultural roots, and we need to diversify the kinds of landscapes that grow food. This is what the Rodgers Forge Farm Initiative is all about. We also encourage supporting local farmers, which leads us to "disappearing thing" number 4....

The Milkman:
Jay says he misses the milk that was delivered to his home when he was a kid. "When Mom would let us have chocolate milk, well, oh boy!" He can still get that good milk, and support good local dairies, if he wants to. The South Mountain Creamery is just one local dairy that still delivers milk -- in old-fashioned glass bottles, no less. (And it even comes in chocolate. Yum!) Trickling Springs Creamery is another local dairy operation, as is Clear Spring Creamery. All of these dairies try to adhere to sustainable farming methods. You can also get South Mountain goods at the weekend farmers' markets, in Waverly and under the JFX; Trickling Springs is available at Atwater's in Belvedere Square. We support local producers like these, because they add resilience to our foodshed.

So, we invite Jay (and you) to join the Rodgers Forge Farm Initiative. We seem to be concerned about some of the same things he is.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Composting with Worms

On Friday mornings we put our milk jugs, beer bottles, soda cans, and newspapers out for recycling. This act helps reduce the amount of new raw materials needed to create glass, aluminum, and paper, but it also cuts down the solid waste that we are sending to county landfills. One big source of solid waste that we may not be "recycling" -- but we could -- are our kitchen scraps. Vegetable and fruit scraps are easily recycled through composting.

Composting is the process of decomposing organic matter into humus, the dark, rich material that is essential for healthy soil. Many people are already familiar with compost bins or tumblers that facilitate the decomposition of yard wastes and kitchen scraps. In that method, bacteria and fungi do the decomposing. There is another method of composting, however, that is not as well known but is easy and effective, and that is worm composting.

Worm composting, or vermicomposting, does not rely on bacteria and fungi but rather on worms to consume kitchen scraps. As the worms eat the food scraps, they leave behind their excrement, known as castings, which are highly enriched with nutrients, minerals, and microorganisms. Worm castings are one of nature's most potent fertilizers. They feed both the soil and the plants that thrive in it, and worm castings are not dangerous to plants in any concentration or application.

We mentioned in an earlier post a great composting guide, The Rodale Book of Composting. This fantastic book has a chapter on composting with worms. The classic on the topic, however, is Mary Appelhof's Worms Eat My Garbage. The Baltimore County Library system has many copies, as do area bookstores. Mary Appelhof's website,, is a great resource as well.

My family took the plunge and began worm composting in April of this year. I ordered one pound of Red Wiggler worms, roughly 1000 worms, for $19.95 from Uncle Jim's Worm Farm in Spring Grove, Pennsylvania. The worms arrived safely a few days later in a bag of peat moss, and we began composting immediately.

Worm bins come in a variety of shapes and configurations and can be purchased online easily. However, we chose to make one from plastic bins purchased locally (and inexpensively). We bought three Sterilite brand 28 qt. bins, roughly 5.5 inches high, 16 inches wide, and 22 inches long, costing about $7 each.

Worms need air, darkness, moisture, a few inches of bedding, and food to thrive. To provide air we drilled holes into the sides and bottom of two of the bins, leaving the third bin undrilled. For the drilled bins, small holes of 1/4" ring the bin about midway up the side, while 1/2" holes are spread out around the sides and bottom.

Unfortunately, we didn't realize the true significance of worms' need for darkness until it was a little late. As can be seen in the photo below, the bins we purchased were transparent. We thought the basement would be dark enough for the worms. We were wrong. The worms did not thrive.

We realized that the worms were concentrated in the center of the bin, avoiding food on the edges. After applying a coat of black spray paint to one of the bins and transferring the bedding and worms to it, the worms have moved into every corner of the bin.

Tip: When making your own worm bin be sure to buy opaque containers.

To provide moisture, we shredded newspaper and submerged it in water briefly to achieve a moisture level like that of a wrung-out sponge. This bedding is then placed into the first bin, filling it completely.

Lastly, a small portion of food scraps is placed in one of the corners of the bin. The resources listed above can provide a list of foods worms can eat. Our worms did not like potatoes but loved asparagus, cantaloupe, and coffee grounds.

The worm bin sits inside the one undrilled bin which catches any liquid, bedding, or worms that might fall out of the worm bin. To allow air circulation, a few blocks of wood are placed in the bottom of the undrilled bin to elevate the worms.

We have been feeding our worms every week for eight weeks now. The bottom of the bin is filling with castings and baby worms are visible all over the bin. In the next month or so we will be ready to move the worms from bin 1 to bin 2. When we get to that point, we'll post on it.

If you have any questions about setting up a worm bin, please ask.

Wednesday, June 3, 2009

yards to farms in colorado

Kipp Nash "farms" neighbors' yards in this video. The pictures on his site are pretty interesting. Looks like they have several plots under development, along with an institute for post-oil multi-plot gardening in the works.

Tuesday, June 2, 2009

the revenge of broccoli rabe

Anyone who has had a garden, or even a CSA subscription, knows the feeling: The vegetables are there -- you've paid for them, or spent valuable time coddling them and growing them -- and you don't know what to do with them.

Such is the case with my broccoli rabe, also known as Cime di Rapa. I had heard such great things about this vegetable -- like broccoli, but leafier and milder -- so I grew a couple rows of it this spring. Now it's bolting and ready to be eaten, and I'm wondering how many ways I can cook it. I'm at a loss. I tried putting some in stir fry -- that was fine, but I wasn't blown away. Broccoli rabe has little heads, so you cook it more like spinach than broccoli -- leaves and all.

Tonight I made a breakthrough: I rediscovered a Mark Bittman recipe from a few months back, in which he cooks rabe with pasta and breadcrumbs. You can get the recipe, along with a video and a short article on the leafy vege, on The New York Times site, but I will summarize briefly how I did it:

  • Slowly fry sliced garlic in a fry pan with olive oil.
  • Pick a big handful of broccoli rabe.
  • Throw it in boiling water till limp, then spoon it out into a colander and cool under running water. (Keep the hot water; you will use it for the pasta.)
  • Put a few slices of bread in the food processor and make into bread crumbs. Fry bread crumbs with garlic, stirring often (even constantly). You may have to add a little oil.
  • Cook pasta in water.
  • Transfer bread crumbs and garlic to a bowl. Set aside.
  • Put rabe and pasta in hot fry pan. Stir up. Then transfer to bowl or plate.
  • Top with crumbs and garlic, along with salt and pepper to taste.

I just finished my bowl and realized I forgot to add the parmesan. There is always more broccoli rabe out there, so I guess I have another shot to get it right.

Monday, June 1, 2009

the organic threat

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Leave it to The Daily Show to tell what's up with the industry objections to Michelle Obama's organic garden. I had just read an interview with Michael Pollan on Amy Goodman's Democracy Now! about this very issue. Here's what he said:

Goodman: Michelle Obama’s organic garden, that the pesticide industry had in a memo that they shuddered when they heard her use the word?

Pollan: Yes. You know, I think her garden is actually a significant development. I mean, you can dismiss it as symbolic politics, but in fact symbols are important. And the word “organic” are fighting words in this—is a fighting word in this world. And she did not have to say it was an organic garden; she could have simply said it’s a garden. And that she did was noticed.

And the Crop Life Association, the trade group of the pesticide makers, wrote her a letter, being as cordial as you must be to a First Lady, saying, you know, “You’re really casting aspersions on industrial agriculture, and we really hope you will use our crop protection products.” In other words, “Buy our poisons, whether you need them or not.”

preserving the harvest

The Baltimore Food and Faith Project, a program of the Johns Hopkins Center for a Livable Future, is sponsoring a workshop on canning later in the summer, on July 16. You might think about signing up for the program now. Here's what's on the agenda:

Join us as we learn two ways of preserving food: Hot Water Bath and Pressure Canning. We’ll discuss both techniques and then get serious and can up a batch of green beans in a modern pressure cooker. We’ll also discover how to share Maryland’s wonderful produce with the smallest among us. Learn how to prepare, store, and transport baby food, and share some stories about how infants respond to this food, and what happens in the long term when they eat baby food prepared at home.

The announcement says that light dinner fare will be provided. RSVP by Thursday, July 2, by calling (410) 502-7577 or e-mailing

Friday, May 29, 2009

from lawns to Edible Estates

How many times have we seen this sign around our neighborhood? And what does it signify?

For the artist Fritz Haeg, it means that the lawn is something different from the typical green feature of our suburban terrain. "The lawn as we know it today... we should think of as an industrial landscape," he says in this compelling video. "It is an industrial environment that depends on cheap oil, on water, and on pesticides that suppress all sort of other organisms and plants that grow there. Essentially, you have a pretty significant amount of the land that we have occupied rendered unusable and, for that matter, toxic."

Haeg is the creator of Edible Estates, a movement to dig up front lawns in suburban settings and replace them with vegetable gardens. It seems like a simple idea, but it would surely unsettle some people to see the grass go, to be replaced by beans, tomatoes, and broccoli. The lawn is a barrier, a "moat" of the modern home, said one Los Angeles man who participated in the Edible Estates project. "It makes you very aware of how the lawn acts as a buffer between public and private space," he said.

Haeg has ripped up front lawns in six cities, including Baltimore. And his rationale is as much environmental as aesthetic, as cited in statistics and facts presented in a mini-documentary about the first project in Salina, Kansas:

  • Of the 30 commonly used lawn pesticides, 13 are probable carcinogens, 14 are linked to birth defects, 18 impact reproductive systems, and 20 are neurotoxins; 17 of those pesticides have been found in groundwater.
  • Homeowners use up to 10 times more pesticides on their lawns than farmers do on their fields.
  • Americans use 64 million pounds of 2,4-D, a herbicide that shares ingredients with Agent Orange and that is common in weed-and-feed lawn products. Dogs whose owners use 2,4-D products are twice as likely to develop canine malignant lymphoma.

We won't go on. You get the point. The lawn is frequently not as green as it's supposed to be. But, as Haeg points out, it's the default setting in any neighborhood. You don't even think about it: You buy a house, and you have a lawn. Period. Haeg's says that with Edible Estates, he wants to jar people into a new way of thinking. "The ultimate goal is to have everyone that comes into contact with the project to reconsider whatever way they occupy the land," he says.

In a neighborhood like ours, with lots of kids, grass is actually a great play surface, so we're not advocating the abolishment of lawns. (However, it would be nice if we didn't have to put warning signs on our grass.) But the Rodgers Forge Farm Initiative wants to encourage people to engage the dirt in an active way. Rip up some part of your lawn, and we'll help you grow things there -- vegetables that your kids can take part in growing. Just ask us for help. This is a community effort.