The Massachusetts chapter of the Northeast Organic Farming Association. NOFA/Mass welcomes everyone who cares about food, where it comes from and how it’s grown

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My lightweight pneumatic wheelbarrows are the single most useful tools around my gardens. I use them every day, multiple times a day, for ferrying compost and leaves onto my beds, and produce off of them; for carrying brush and weeds to a rot pile; for moving stakes and tools and lime bags and all manner of other heavy things.

I’ve made four modifications to my wheelbarrows, each of which has increased their utility and expanded the range of things they can do for me. Each mod is easy and quick to do yourself:

Always bring a bungee. Bungee cords are great for keeping a load of brush from falling off in transit, or supplying just enough hold to carry a load of garden stakes with confidence. I keep one or more bungee cords wrapped around the handles, down low and out of the way, but always at hand.

It is wonderful to speak to the elders of a community. A husband and wife team, Ms. Audrey and Mr. Walter (that is what I call them–this wonderful couple is older than me, so I show them respect by referring to them as Ms. and Mr.), and I enjoy a wonderful conversation on gardening and what got them started. 

Anna:

“Mr. Walter and Ms. Audrey, you all have such a beautiful garden. I always learn a great deal when I come over. How did you get started growing food and what keeps you going?”

Mr. Walter:

“My family is from Georgia. I had 13 brothers and sisters, so growing additional food was quite necessary. My father always had a garden and my mother would preserve food from that garden. I look forward to having a garden every year. You need food to survive.”

If you had looked for my onion patch a few years back, it would have been hard to find at this time of year—overgrown with endless amounts of pigweed, crabgrass, and all manner of other weeds, lording over and crowding out my onions. Last year I radically changed my approach to onions, and this year extended that approach to most of my gardens. This year, just before harvest, you can see every onion flopped over in the row, and the weeds in a 100-foot bed number in the low dozens.

I did three main things to effect this transformation, all designed to deeply bury my prodigious bank of weed seeds.  First, I stopped tilling the garden. Second, I laid several inches of new compost on each bed. Third, I mulched everything deeply with leaves, covering beds and paths alike, only pulling the leaves off the beds at planting time.

Last month you learned about Abby and Jonathan’s experience starting a first year CSA during a pandemic. This month, we’ll talk about the farming practices that Abby and Jonathan have used to get their farm started with limited time and with soil health and weed management as central goals.   

The Winter Street Farmers came up apprenticing and managing on organic farms just as the contemporary healthy soils movement was rising, benefiting from receiving a training in standard tillage practices while also having access to education about alternative, tillage-reduced systems. “We were really influenced by seeing examples of how much you can actually grow in a small area,” Abby explained, “and we learned a lot between NOFA workshops and reading farming books.” They decided early in their conversations about their own future farm that it would be no-till.  

It’s a bit early to be thinking about digging potatoes—in my garden, they have just finished flowering and the spuds are not much bigger than marbles—but it’s not too early to think about buying a tool that I’ve found makes the task of digging by hand far easier than with a standard garden fork.

The tool is variously called a trash fork, or refuse fork, or trash hook. It’s what you’d get if you took a pitchfork and bent the tines at 90 degrees. I bought mine to pull quackgrass runners from loosened soil, and it does a nice job with that, but it turns out it’s even better for digging potatoes.

I have a BCS, and since I was planting about 700 feet of bed, I bought a potato digger for it. Unfortunately, the tool was a disappointment—it sliced or bruised lots of spuds while it moved through the bed.

June 22-28 is Pollinator Week! Organized by the Pollinator Partnership, Pollinator Week is a national celebration of the thousands of insect species that are essential to flowering plants—including the food crops that we depend on for our meals.  

Pollinators (and, more broadly, insect biodiversity) are one of our long-standing priority issues at NOFA/Mass and one of our topline topics for educational programming, published content, and policy work. 

Of course, due to the coronavirus pandemic, we can’t gather for any in-person activities right now, but we wanted to take this opportunity to share some resources and actions that you can use to support these critical members of our food system and our ecosystem. 

There are three major reasons I love to use drip irrigation in the garden: It puts water where it does the most good, it puts enough of it there to really make my plants happy, and it allows me to set it and forget it for the rest of the summer—a real benefit to a busy, lazy farmer like me.

Drip systems got their start in the desert, and that’s where I first learned about them.  But they are useful wherever plants need more water than the sky will supply.

There are many types of drip emitters, but for gardeners, the most common and most useful is drip tape—thin tubing with regularly spaced slits. Laid in straight lines down the planting bed, drip tape weeps water that percolates down into the root zone, allowing the plant’s roots to dive deep for water (and bring up nutrients from there as well), rather than spread wide and stay shallow.

After several weeks of physical distancing and sheltering in place, I started a research project for NOFA/Mass’s partners, Home City Housing.  We wanted to find out which families may be struggling with food insecurity due to not being able to get to the store, or not having enough money to shop. 

Staff from both Home City Housing and Robinson Gardens Apartments (a part of the Springfield Housing Authority) started combing through their family listings to find out who was in need of food, while we at NOFA/Mass began searching to find farmers who accepted SNAP payments and could deliver fresh food to Springfield, MA.

 

When I started gardening, I thought everything got planted only once; when it was harvested, you waited until next year to get more. But over time I learned nothing could be further from the truth—with succession planting, you can reap multiple harvests of the same crop all season long.

Lettuce is perhaps the premier crop in this regard. There is no reason that home gardeners can’t have fresh lettuce on the table every week of the season, and no reason market gardeners can’t sell lettuce at the farm stand from March to December. All it takes is a plan, the right varieties, and keeping at it.

 

Early spring gives rise to planning for gardens: community gardens, backyard gardens, and school gardens are prepping their sites for planting.  In this time of the coronavirus, food insecurity issues have increased in communities across the country.  Community gardens are becoming not just a novelty, but a key source of produce and nutrition.  For communities of color that already have health disparities and few areas to access healthy food, the garden may now be the best place to provide for their households.

NOFA/Mass has an ongoing program with the youth and families of Home City Housing in Springfield, MA to assist with the self determination to grow healthy, nutritious food. Through programming that has been funded by grants and individual donors, Home City Housing and NOFA/Mass have been able to work with 15 youths to develop organic growing practices at their Tapley Street Apartment Complex.  As partners, NOFA/Mass and Home City Housing have worked together to create an interactive learning program for these youth leaders that covers carbon sequestration, no-till gardening, soil fertility and food nutrition/cooking information. 

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