Growing Healthier Plants and Ecosystems Regeneratively With Biology

By Michael Wedgley, Permaculture Designer and Soil Food Web Lab Technician

We are excited to be working with Michael and Hampton Bay HOA on the designs for two pilot sites that will demonstrate how lawn in common areas can be replaced with low-water, low-maintenance sustainable landscaping that is healthy, beautiful and natural. Here, Michael shares about the importance of healthy soil biology as part of that equation.

Michael Wedgley meets with a client in a permaculture garden he designed with healthy soil biology in mind.
Photo courtesy of GMC Photography and Video

Growing with biology is a decision to strike symbiosis with the natural world and allow natural systems to support the life of your plants. We can create greener, more vibrant ecosystems that support wildlife and humans more effectively and abundantly. We eliminate the need for toxic and time-consuming applications to “feed” plants and keep disease and pests at bay. By introducing biology into systems that are lacking and nurturing their establishment we can achieve balance in a system that allows us to let go of the wheel and let nature take over. This blog is meant to give a brief introduction to the natural process in action that allow for this transition.

Learn more about the Hampton Bay HOA project and Permaculture Designer Michael Wedgley on our HOA Projects page.

Who Are the Players

Fungi – Mushrooms are the fruiting body of a group of organisms known as Fungus. There are Fungi that break down material like leaves and wood, Fungi that form beneficial relationships with plants, and Fungi that parasitize plants. Fungi is the dominant nutrient-cycler in an old growth forest.

Bacteria – There is aerobic (oxygen preferring) and anaerobic (lack of oxygen preferring) bacteria. Most beneficial soil bacteria is aerobic; most disease forming bacteria is anaerobic. Bacteria help to mine nutrients from parent material and create structure in soil.

Nematodes – Nematodes are like microscopic worms. There are 3 primary groups to be aware of; bacterial feeding, fungal feeding, and root feeding. Root feeding can cause plant disease.

Protozoa – Large single celled organisms that feed on bacteria.

Nutrient Cycling

By ensuring that soil has adequate numbers of each of our microbial populations we eliminate the need for fertilizers. All soils have the necessary nutrients for plants to thrive. The biology in the soil makes those nutrients plant available through the nutrient cycle. This semi-complex interaction starts primarily with bacteria and through predation by nematodes and protozoa, excess nutrients are released into the soil.

Diversification and Disease Prevention

By ensuring that we have high and diverse populations of beneficial microbes we ensure there is no room for disease organisms to dominate and thrive. In general, just as in the human body, disease organisms in the soil and on the surface of the foliage of plants need a weak ecosystem to establish and thrive. By creating a diverse and abundant ecosystem of microbes we create a system that is impenetrable by diseases and pests.

Fungal to Bacteria Ratio and Weed Suppression

By customizing the ratio of the amount of Fungi in the soil to the amount of Bacteria in the soil, we can actually select for which plants we want to grow and eliminate weed species. To understand this, consider an old growth forest. You’ll notice that there are ferns, there are large coniferous trees, but nowhere can you find your typical garden weeds. The reason for this is the form of nitrogen released by fungi. This form of nitrogen (ammonia) is a lower ph. This is why you hear people say “blueberries prefer acidic soil.” On the other end of the spectrum (bacterially dominated) you have early succession plants like grasses. This is because the exudates created by bacteria are more alkaline. You don’t see many trees in prairies. Applying different compost preparations that have higher fungal to bacterial ratios we can begin to affect the ratio in the soil and have healthier plants and select against weed species.

Thermophilic Compost

The process in which we create compost to ensure the highest diversification of beneficial organisms and that we are able to eliminate pest organisms is through Thermophilic Composting. Using a diverse source of material, in the right balance, while maintaining aerobic conditions we are able to raise the temperature of a pile to the point that disease and pest organisms are destroyed while beneficial ones are left to thrive given the rich and diverse foods provided. We monitor the pile’s biology by assessing it under a microscope. Once the biological numbers are at our desired numbers it is ready for a number of applications.

Applications

With a microbially dominant compost that has our desired ratio we can apply the microbes through 3 primary applications.

  1. Direct compost applications – This application is recommended if the organic matter is lacking in dirt we wish to grow in. We can either till in some compost or apply to the surface of dirt.
  2. Compost extract – In this application we actually extract the microbes out of the compost and they become suspended in water. We can then apply this as a root drench to put the biology right where the plants will use it, or at areas of compaction where the bacteria can begin to loosen it up and create aerobic conditions with improved soil structure.
  3. Compost teas – Once we have an extract, we can “brew” it by adding oxygen into the water with some foods for the microbes. We let the extract bubble with aeration for roughly 24 hours while monitoring the growth under a microscope. Given time, bacteria and other microbes are able to multiply and form glues that allow them to stick to surfaces. We then spray this compost tea on the leaves of plants giving them a protective barrier from disease-causing organisms as well as allowing for nutrient exchange on the foliage of plants.

The number of applications necessary to establish a resilient and sustainable colony of beneficial microbes in the soil varies given many variables. The best way to picture what it takes is to think of settlers settling America, according to Elaine Ingham, microbiologist and researcher who created the Soil Food Web approach. Sometimes the first to arrive didn’t survive or few survived. The next ship was better prepared, or there were some settlers previously that made conditions slightly more hospitable so more were able to survive. Every subsequent ship going forward led to increasingly successful population growths until they became sustainable and reproduced and growing. It is the same with the microbes, and varies depending how hospitable or inhospitable the soil is to begin with, and how well it is protected during colonization.

Fertilizers, Pesticides, Salts, and Chemicals in Water

In establishing and maintaining healthy plants and healthy soil in a biological method we need to ensure the health and safety of the organisms. We must become caretakers of the invisible life that populates the soil beneath our feet and the foliage up above. A critical piece of this care is to ensure that their environment is not compromised by salts or chemicals which can completely eradicate the microbial populations. Fertilizers are a form of salts. All salts will dehydrate the cells of the microbes and cause death. Pesticides are created to destroy life. Even “targeted” pesticides have unwanted casualties and can upset the balance. Lastly chlorine and chloramine in water are designed to ensure lack of microbial growth in the pipes and therefore can do the same in your soil and on your plants. It is extremely important that we understand how fragile ecosystems can be. In general, these natural systems are extremely resilient, but when humans come in with their toxic approaches we upset the balance. Nature will always find a way back towards its attempt at turning everything into an old growth forest, but that takes time. If we want to have healthy and natural environments we have to help the biology along and make sure we don’t destroy it with our products.

Starting your Backyard Orchard Culture

by Kristina Fink

Fruit tree society is constantly evolving. Before we admired fruit orchards with big canopies and lots of space for maximum yields. However, the average homeowner doesn’t have space for a standard size fruit tree that can grow over 15ft tall. To accommodate the height issue, bare root fruit trees have been perfected just for that. So what are bare root fruit trees? They’re an un-potted tree that goes straight into the ground after purchase, bare roots and all. Each bare root tree is grafted on a semi dwarf root stalk that “only” gets up to 15ft tall.

A way of keeping your fruit trees well maintained is by properly pruning it when you first receive it. To do this, you must first prune it back; interfering with its branches and keeping the height up to 4 ft tall. When planning where to place your tree, make sure your planting area has well drained soil, and keep in mind that many bare root trees can die the first year from saturated soil, sunburn or too deep of planting. Additionally, fruit trees can take a few years before they start bearing fruit so if your tree looks unhappy but not dead then don’t worry, she’s just trying to get her nutrients right for fruit!

One way to maximize your personal orchard is by planting several fruit trees in one hole, this may sound crazy but it actually helps maximize your fruit yield, adds variety and gives different ripening times. When thinking about the spacing of your trees, keep in mind that there are many styles of planting, some dig a big circle, some kidney bean shaped, some in a straight line. Another big thing to look for is the branching patterns of your bare root tree since some may need more pruning than others! To get this just right, don’t be afraid to ask your nursery provider how to trim your tree or watch different videos to see how its done. Remember that every tree is different so not all pruning methods will be exactly the same.

 When planning to prune remember that your tree is on a grafted root stock so don’t cut back too far towards the main stem. It’s best to look for trees with branches that start 15”-18” from the ground, then trim branches back 1/2” to 2/3” back. After pruning and planting your tree then its time to wait; after the first year you’ll start to notice nodes for fruit and some height growth. If during the first year you want to prune your fruit trees back, keep in mind how big you want your tree to get. After all, its easier to make a small tree smaller than it is to make a big tree small. Figure out a manageable height for you and your family and stick to it for the years to come! 

Pruning is most important in the first three years because this is when the shape and size of your tree are established. If you prune while there’s fruit on the tree you can see how far the wood has evolved which helps make better pruning decisions.  When picking your fruit trees make sure you know what fits your planning needs, for example some cherries need a mate in order to flower and apricots need more pruning. One of the best ways to find out if a fruit will work for you is by seeing the fruit and nut harvest dates. There are charts online or fruit tree distributors will have them posted in their office for customers to see. Harvest dates are important to know so homeowners can be aware when their fruit is going to be ready. While backyard orchard culture comes with many varieties, it starts with knowledge, bare root trees and patience.

For further knowledge on fruit trees, harvests, maintenance, etc, please visit Lemuria Nursery in Dixon or check out the main distributors website at: http://www.davewilson.com!

Our vision for Solano Community Food Centers is funded by USDA

Food, environment and human health, local economy and resilient communities

By Elena Karoulina

Executive Director of Sustainable Solano

Image from Pixabay

When was the last time you had Solano-grown produce on your dinner table? The most possible answer is ‘never’, unless you grow your own food in your garden or your backyard food forest. It’s a very unusual situation for a Bay Area county that is still largely agrarian, at least in the land use patterns.

Sustainable Solano is embarking on a new project to bring more local food to our communities and to connect our local farmers, chefs, and residents with the gifts of our land and with each other.

At the very end of September we received great news from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA): our proposal to further our vision by developing a business plan for Solano Community Food Centers was selected for funding! Annually, USDA funds about 14% of grant applications for local food projects, and we are honored to earn support on a federal level.

What is a Community Food Center? It is a hub for local food activities: CSAs deliveries, cooking classes, community education, and large kitchens where chefs and community members can cook wholesome nutritious meals. Larger Community Food Centers can include a food co-op.

Although Solano County produces close to $354 million worth of agricultural products and exports these products to more than 40 countries, only a fraction of that amount remains in the county due to weak distribution system, lack of sales outlets and somewhat low interest in local food. You can hardly find any Solano-grown products in our farmer markets, stores and restaurants. Small  farmers struggle to hold on to their land and to connect with local customers.

Where do we buy local food? People who can afford it obtain their local ag products in the markets outside our county: Napa, Sonoma, Berkeley (thus spending local money outside our local communities). Some cities in Solano are blessed with Community Supported Agriculture, but not many people know about this option and take advantage of it. People with low means have to go without local fresh food at all. Solano is a county of commuters, and unfortunately, the only option available for families on a go is fast-food restaurants and convenience stores (you cannot find local food there!).

We pay dearly for this lack of access to local food with our health: Solano County is among the sickest counties in the nation. Obesity, diabetes, heart disease rates are above national average in our home county.


Food, human health, the environment and local economies are all interconnected; by creating a network of city-based Community Food Centers, there is potential to re-envision and re-construct Solano County’s food system so that it works for everyone in the local food supply chain.


Sustainable Solano has partnered with researchers at UC Davis, Solano County Department of Agriculture and Department of Public Health to conduct a feasibility study, develop an effective business plan, and outline implementation for local food businesses that aggregate, process and distribute locally-produced, healthy food products. Our big vision is the environmentally and economically sustainable, equitable local food systems in Solano County.

We are looking for urban and rural farmers, chefs and local food activists interested to implement this vision. We’d love to hear from you with your comments, suggestions, reflections, and offers to help. Please email directly to me at elena@sustainablesolano.org

Let’s make it happen! I am looking forward to meet all of you at the official launch of the program on Wednesday, October 25, at 7 pm, at Benicia’s Heritage Presbyterian Church (doors open at 6 pm). Please join our Advisory Board members Dr. Feenstra and Dr. Campbell in the conversation about the future of food and why local resilient food system is so important. Come meet the project team and all of us interested to bring this vision to reality. 

Benicia Community Gardens Annual Meeting 2017

Share Plot Harvest, July 2016

Benicia Community Gardens Annual Meeting on February 18, 2017

After a brief welcome by Marilyn Bardet, Board President, our executive director, Elena Karoulina, explained that the Benicia Community Gardens and Orchard are now part of Sustainable Solano.  In the past few years Elena and the Board have added many new initiatives, including 7 food forests in Benicia and consumer supported agriculture programs to supply residents with sustainably sourced vegetables, meat, fish, and other food products.  The food forests have saved an impressive amount of water. These accomplishments caught the attention of Solano County officials, who asked our group to bring some of these programs to other parts of Solano County.  So the name change reflects the new and broader mission of bringing sustainable food (in many forms) to Solano County.

The group then heard from the coordinators of Avant Garden, Swenson Garden and the Community Orchard.  Avant Garden is almost full, but many of the beds at Swenson are empty.  The Share plot at Avant Garden provided over 700 pounds, an impressive amount of food!  All 3 coordinators requested increased participation in work days.  As discussed last year, people who did not provide the minimum hours last year will be charged extra this year.   Annual agreements were signed and the annual fees were collected.  Agreements and fees for 2017 are due by March 21.  Contact your garden coordinator if you missed the Feb 18 meeting!

Pruning Workshop Recap

By Jason Lingnau of Intuitive Design

 

The pruning workshop on Saturday was informative and timely. The winter pruning season is upon us and my wife and I  have some work to do but have been hesitant to “make the cut”.

The speaker , Ann Ralph had such a wonderful approach to the subject and gave the group hands on lessons in pruning various types of fruit trees.

Ann is the author of Grow a Little Fruit tree and has a long career in the Nursery business. It was hosted by Sustainable Solano through Benicia Community Gardens. The workshop took place at the Benicia Community Orchard on a brisk February morning and this wonderful outdoor experience was part lecture and part story telling. Ann brought my rough understanding of pruning into focus.

I had a sense that pruning was an important part of keeping a fruit tree productive but learned the how and why of it. Ann broke it all down into simple and practical steps that anyone with a fruit tree of any age could perform.

There were folks from Vallejo and Fairfield that brought the discussion around to growing patterns from other parts of the county.

I was particularly interested in her promotion of the first “knee cut”. Others in the group knew what that meant and were just as horrified as Ann herself was when she was told to perform this on “all bare root trees that left the nursery”. In fact she says that she refused to do it! I hid the fact that I didn’t know what all this meant, but for me this pruning workshop just took an intriguing turn like an Agatha Christie novel.

My curiosity did push me to raise my hand and ask Ann to explain to me in more detail about this mystery “knee cut “. I was to learn how this dramatic cut really does set the stage for a future tree that produces a better crop of fruit. But I was unsure if I could do it to one of our freshly purchased bare root asian pear trees.

This hard pruning technique that was once ridiculed by nursery’s throughout California is now a standard practice for many or a suggestion given to those purchasing bare root trees from Bay Area nurseries.

The group learned how very common sense pruning can be and some tricks that are counter intuitive. I look forward to taking the techniques learned from Ann to promote stronger, more fruit producing branches in our little back yard fruit orchard.

Maggie Ingalls on Ann Ralph of “Grow a Little Fruit Tree”

Maggie (center) Taking notes on peach tree pruning.

When we asked Community Orchard Program Manager Maggie Ingalls why she invited Ann Ralph to speak to Orchard members, she said, “I took Ann’s workshop on backyard fruit tree pruning soon after we had planted several fruit trees in our new yard here in Benicia. I wish I had taken the course before we planted those trees, but I jumped right in with summer pruning and have successfully kept the trees to a manageable size. I find Ann’s theory of pruning and her teaching style to be very helpful.”

Which is a plus, because pruning can seem quite intimidating, with talk about sizing, different cuts, pruning for growth, pruning for fruit, dwarf trees, semi-dwarf trees, two-year fruit vs four-year fruit. The ideal angle of branches. At times, avid orchardists can forget there is knowledge and terminology that the average (or novice) fruit tree owner doesn’t know. It can be quite dizzying. Ann will spend two full hours teaching and demonstrating the simple logic of pruning: how to prune for short stature and easy harvest, seasonal routines, and pest and disease control. Because unless you do care for an orchard as your main activity in the day, most backyard caretakers will only be able to do what works for them.

To that, Maggie added, “I came away from her workshop with the confidence to maintain my own trees at the size that is convenient for me.”

Have you registered for our upcoming winter fruit tree-pruning workshop taught by author and educator Ann Ralph?  The February 11th workshop, which will be held at the Benicia Community Orchard, is a great opportunity to learn the basics of fruit tree pruning.

When: Feb. 11, 10:30am-12:30pm (potluck lunch to follow)

Where: Benicia Community Orchard, 1400 E 2nd St Benicia

Cost: $40 (free for orchard members)

Registration Required (space is limited to 20)