Guerilla Gardening is……..Biblical

God is a God of second chances. Of redemption. Of re-formation. Of new life.

That feeling we get in the Spring when all the flowers are blooming and the trees clothe themselves in rich greens.  That reassurance that everything is not dead and the landscape will be filled again with life, lush curves and swaying leaves………God created that.  Birds sing about it all the time. (If they didn’t, the stones would start singing, I’m sure: Luke 19:40)

When people rip out the life of creation and smother it with concrete, erect buildings on it and spray chemical showers on what’s left of it, God is not surprised (we can’t ‘surprise’ God) or incapable of redeeming in the midst of the damage.

When people (and “corporate persons”) slay and beat and force the land into submission, stopping just short of genetically modifying dollar bill genes into heads of grain, using other people to do the dirty work (is soil dirtier than greed?) and slaying and beating and forcing them into poverty and dependence, God is weeping but not surprised.

God weeps and works.

He works on hearts. On minds. On relationships – with Himself, people, moving creatures and the earth.  God works on greed and in the soil.

‘Guerilla Gardening’ can mean, “illicit cultivation,” “war against neglect and scarcity of green and growing public spaces,” and “activism through gardening.”  It’s happening in many large cities (and smaller towns) where abandoned lots and empty, neglected buildings and spaces are just sitting, hurting the eyes, and begging for new life.

When guerilla gardeners take an unused space and fill it with new soil and plants, they are reclaiming what has been lost and giving it new purpose (whether for food or beauty.)  Just after Zacchaeus admitted his wrong in stealing money from others and realized his higher calling, Jesus affirms this message by saying: “For the Son of Man came to seek and to save what was lost.” Luke 19:10.  Jesus IS God’s proof of His redemptive heart.

In the book of Amos, God practically coins the term Guerilla Gardening:

“In that day, I will restore David’s fallen tent.
I will repair its broken places, restore its ruins, and build it as it used to be, so that they may possess the remnant of Edom and all the nations that bear My name,” declares the Lord, who will do these things.
“The days are coming,” declares the Lord,

“when the reaper will be overtaken by the plowman and the planter by the one treading grapes.
New wine will drip from the mountains and flow from all the hills.
I will bring back my exiled people Israel;
they will rebuild the ruined cities and live in them.
They will plant vineyards and drink their wine; they will make gardens and eat their fruit.
I will plant Israel in their own land, never again to be uprooted from the land I have given them.”

Amos 9:11-15

The heart of God towards His created. His image-bearers. His beloved.

No matter how much concrete, how many corporate persons, how much spraying.  There is always a remnant. Rebuilding is always possible. Restoration is the name of the game.

One of the last images in the book of Revelation describes a garden, with a huge river flowing through it (a river coming from the new city of God, by the way):

On each side of the river stood the tree of life, bearing twelve crops of fruit, yielding its fruit every month.
And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.

Revelation 22:2

City and garden are finally reconciled.

Here’s a taste of what that can look like.  Though it doesn’t end well for Adam Purple, the fulfillment of God’s promise of redemption and restoration is still lingering.  There’s still work to be done; vacant lots to plant, workers to be healed, chemical action to be amended and greed to be addressed.

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All you farmers out there (and concerned consumers) beware! The USDA has officially de-regulated the use of genetically engineered alfalfa – meaning that it will now be allowed to rampantly taint any other source of true and organic alfalfa crops nationwide!

With alfalfa being such a staple crop for any farmer with livestock, this means it is imperative to consider when buying hay for animals, meat from producers and manure for composting.

Please be conscious of this new loss in the organic world, and if you can, find some way to vocalize your outrage, discontent, fear, non-support, etc. for this move on the part of the USDA.

Seed Saving 101

Onion seed head

If you ever wanted to know the ins and outs of how to save seed from your favorite varieties and crops, the difference between monocots and dicots, if your region’s climate gives you a step-up on any crops, how to store seeds and how long their shelf life is or even how to plant with seed saving in mind, then “Seed Saving for Farmers and Gardeners” is the class for you.

Developed and put on by the Organic Seed Alliance (OSA), and presented by Micaela Colley, this was the class that answered all my questions and got me over my fears about when, how, where and even why to save seed.

A pollination explanation started us out and addressed open-pollinated varieties as opposed to hybrids: with open-pollinated crops the pollen is carried by the wind, insects, birds or other external method; hybrids – known in seed catalogs as F1’s – are crosses of open-pollinated lines of the same species, but they don’t breed true to seed themselves and will separate back out to their parents’ individual traits.  She also addressed Genetically Modified seeds (it’s illegal to save them, but I don’t know anybody that wants to) and other patented varieties (even on non-GMOs), and the standard 17-year PVP (Plant Variety Protection) that exists for some specifically bred traits.

Head lettuce

After a thorough but quick discussion of basic plant botany covering perfect flowers (those that have both male and female parts in the same flower), imperfect flowers (each flower has either a male anther or female stamen), monoecious plants (separate plants have either male or female flowers), and dioecious plants (the same plant has both male flowers and female flowers), and the difference between dicot seeds and monocot seeds (dicots are things like beans and grains and produce 2 cotyledons; monocots like corn produce only one cotyledon), we moved on to the annual, biennial or perennial natures of crops.

A foot-peddled Amish style thresher

Biennials are the most intriguing to me; they require what’s called a vernalization period, which is a time of cooler weather and ideally higher humidity in order to fulfill their life cycle and decide to bolt and go to seed.  The thing is, depending on your region’s climate or the type of year you’re having, vernalization could happen in only one year (as opposed to the 2 years you normally think of with a bi-ennial) thus lending your crop to an annual life cycle.  Now, when you’re a plant breeder yourself you might consider this an advantage depending on the crop; if the fruit of the plant is harvested an earlier ripening date may be preferred, but if the vegetative parts of the plant are what you eat then holding it off for the longest amount of time before it bolts would be ideal.  Seed saving and plant breeding are starting to become something of an interest and a playground, aren’t they?

From there we learned about the amount of spacing between bodies of crops you’ll need if you want to save seed that is true to this year’s crop: as little as 3ft for peas and lettuce, but up to 2 miles might be required for things like brassicas, squash or corn whose pollen travels the farthest.  Also – having at least 50 individuals in one planting seems to be the magic number for optimal pollination.

When growing for seed it’s important to remember your bases:

These beets definitely need this trellis

1-Timing; you have a much smaller window for planting to go to seed than for mature harvesting.
2-Spacing; as just discussed, you’ll probably need more plot space for a body of seed-saving crop (also, it’s best to plant in blocks rather than rows for seed crops.)
3-Staking; bolted plants get HUGE, taller than people in a lot of cases, and they’ll need support and air flow. Have trellising in mind.
4-Irrigation; You definitely don’t want an overhead watering system, since you want the fully formed seed heads to dry out as much as possible before harvesting. Drip is the way to go.
5-Fertility; your soil is going to need more and longer sustained nutrients since the seed growing process takes a bit longer.
6-Weed management; DO NOT LET THE WEEDS GO TO SEED. Nobody wants tainted seeds.
7-Pest management; the case I’ve seen involved trying to keep hungry deer away from fully ripe plants, they can destroy a season of waiting for seed head maturity in one night.

Fanning: pouring off the seeds in front a full-speed fan; the heavy, mature seeds fall off into the 1st bin, the lighter chaff into the 2nd

 

In the case of seed from edible vegetation crops (things like carrots, kale, cabbage, lettuce; anything that isn’t a fruit of the plant) you’ll want to let the seed head get fully dry before processing the chaff and debris off.  Drying on the stalk is one way, but even after that you want your moisture level to be as low as 6%, so further drying, like on a tarp or ground cloth in a well-ventilated space helps a lot. You can then thresh the seed off the heads and sift and/or fan (winnow) off the rest of the debris until you have clean, dry seeds ready for storing or selling.

Bin 1 with seed; bin 2 with chaff

Seeds obtained from fruits (tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, peppers) have to be cleaned and then dried, and in the case of tomatoes, a slight fermentation period is necessary. Just cut open the fruit, scoop out the seeds and sieve out the pulp.  Let the seeds sit in their juice for about 3 days, uncovered at room temperature.  If a white mold develops it’s ok, it just means the seeds are ready.  Pour off the tomato juice but not any of the seeds, then add water to the bucket or bowl and pour that off, reserving the seeds in the bottom; a few times and the seeds are cleaned of their residue and juice and you have clean seeds ready to be laid out and dried.

Using a sieve to separate big debris off the seed pods

When the seeds are completely clean and completely dry storage is the next step.  As stated before 6% moisture is the target percentage and a rule of thumb is that if the number of temperature degrees plus the number of the percentage of humidity equal less than 100, you’re in the clear and your seeds should store fine.  Envelopes, jars, rubbermaids, tupperware and ziploc bags are a few of the best options for storage, and these are best when kept at a constant, cool temperature.  Stored well, seeds can retain their viability for 4-5 years.

And so my comfort level in seed saving savvy has progressed beyond garlic cloves and potato eyes.  And with countless traits just begging to be reigned in and bred out in future generations, I have renewed hope for our contemporary food revival and the broad scope that stewarding the earth entails.

Harmony of Farming

Farming can encompass many things, from family sustenance to farmers’ markets to grocers supplying, to flowers, bugs, birds, livestock, perennial fruits and annual vegetables, grains as cash and cover crops, watching for frosts, keeping to the routines of animals, harvesting and recognizing abundance . Homesteading and being a radical homemaker can encompass these things and beyond to include putting up enough food for the family and then some, building and repairing your dwelling place, sewing, weaving or knitting to meet clothing needs, family-raising, community involvement (and contra dancing!).  The main thing is, farming and a life connected to the land is never static.

It’s all these things that can make your head spin and leave you fretting about not getting the 15 things done on your 14-item list, all of which need to happen yesterday. Take spring, for instance, when you’re coming out of the winter doldrums with hope taking the form of seed catalogs, preparing beds, finishing repair work that needs to be done before the season takes off, working around frost dates, planting new crops and finishing up the overwintered ones while also planning your full season’s itinerary – and all this when farmers’ wallets are the farthest thing from being green.

But it is also all these things that keep it interesting, broaden your spectrum and diversify not only your job, but your life, since with farming the connection between work and living hasn’t been severed. Instead of just one task or routine day in and day out that can make your life seem to roll like a short wheel down a long road, your attention and focus is exercised in multiple ways by demanding knowledge and being in many and varied situations. And the beautiful thing about this aspect of farming is that it’s all connected, inter-dependent and even cyclical.

Now, certainly the iron hand of the industrial revolution has left its heavy thumbprint on today’s forms of agriculture giving us fertility-stripping monocultures, chemicals from WWII aftermath and even genetically modified potatoes with frog genes.  But even this type of agriculture brings with it its own various tasks such as continual tractor maintenance, chemical selection and a schedule of plowing, spraying, planting, spraying, cultivating, spraying (again) and harvesting.  This proves to weaken the soil for future generations of plantings and farmers, relies heavily on petroleum energy and creates disease-resistance in pests and plants as well as unforetold health-risks to us (frog genes?).  This type of agriculture seems to exit the realm of farming and takes on qualities more to the effect of exploiting, lab testing and stripping.  It bullies its way into the cycle of harmony and breaks the rythm.

But living a sustainable mindset in regards to God’s creation and working with nature rather than against it to produce crops, health and a cleaner world are things more likely to be involved in a multi-tasking farmer’s life.  Respect for the soil, happiness and health of plants, animals and humans, and creating and sustaining family and community and their harmony are all foundational.

In my WWOOFing travels I’ve found:

In Lawrence, KS, farming was about not disturbing the soil, recognizing “weeds” for their uses, strict rotation of both pasture and crops, listening to the sheep and being tuned in to their needs, volunteers coming together to have a part in the farm and developing strong friendships.  It was also about farming in the dark with a headlamp because the farmer couldn’t support herself on her farm alone and had a full-time off-farm job.

In Golden, CO, it was about double-digging beds to prepare them each year, manually moving the solar-tray to pick up energy for the watering system, pulling out adventitious thistles by the root so they wouldn’t come back, covering small transplants with cloche’s at night for protection from frost, trying to get the community involved, trying to wrangle and hassle with drip irrigation specifics before digging trenches for the lines and using a south facing living and dining room as a greenhouse for starts.

In Canon City, CO, it was about a multi-generational family not stepping on each others’ toes as they went about their specific areas of farm management;  grandma on the land, dad on the cows and daughter on the greenhouses, crops and markets.  It was about ditch-style irrigation, deciding which markets were most profitable and worth making the drive, fixing falling-apart garden tools (note: ductape is not the answer in this case,) spending a good hour at least watering the entire 3-domed greenhouse, and also taking time for a cold one next to the river on a hot day.

Cucumber trellises

In Hamilton, MT, farming included watering the in-ground plants in the greenhouse without crunching the tender ones with the back length of hose, mulching strawberries with straw as well as the rows between the beds (note: “guaranteed weed-free straw” is another way of saying: “I am soaked in herbicides”).  It was also about picking out rocks from first-year prepared beds so the tractor could go through and root crops wouldn’t have to deform themselves to the spaces underground.  Unfortunately it was also about having to re-do an entire row of pea trellising because the T-posts “weren’t perfectly straight,” spending thousands of dollars on a faux barn-front wall for the greenhouse and ill management of chickens by keeping them confined to too small a space and forcing them to hard pack the ground around them.

In Sorrento, BC, it was about weeding, weeding, weeding, picking un-trellised peas (not recommended), weeding, long and lavish feasts for lunch and a good mid-day break, weeding, drying food and herbs, going for cold, clear swims in Canada lakes on hot, hot, dry afternoons and weeding.  It was also about 10 hour days and top-notch harvesting for both Urban Harvest food distribution programs and 2 quaint markets a week in neighboring towns.

In Mount Vernon, WA, it was about thinning and using all sizes of beets and green onions, providing to the co-ops in the area.  It was also about taking produce to sell to the food bank even while being eligible to receive a food box in return.  It was about who looks after the kids while the other goes out to spend time in the fields.  It was about slow mornings, going out every 2 hours during the day to manually move drip-irrigation lines between beds of kale, evenings spent at the grandparents’ lake house eating burgers and whatever sides happened to come in the food box that week.  Experimenting with cover crops or no-till wasn’t a viable option, there simply wasn’t enough time or money.

Becka, the sheep puppy

And in Chimacum, WA, it’s about morning and evening chores with the 500+ chickens and turkeys (watering, feeding, collecting eggs and having to wait until the very last remains of sunlight have escaped over and beyond the horizon before the birds will even think of retiring to their coops where they’re shut up safe and sound for the night – in the summer that’s 10:30pm, in the winter that’s 4:30pm), the 20 or so sheep and the newly acquired sheep-puppy in training, Becka (short for “rudbeckia”, the latin for black-eyed Susan’s.)  It’s about building of infrastructure (a cold storage building for crops, travelling chicken coops and renovating an old trailer as housing for interns someday,) weeding and mulching thousands of blueberry plants, gleaning raspberries from their early crop while waiting for them to set their late crop, harvesting zucchini everyday at fat finger-size; that’s the way the cafe down the street likes to buy them.  It’s about one spouse having an off-farm job to keep things financialy viable, specializing in off-season varieties of fruits, establishing apple and pear orchards, moving land into conservation easements and inserting permaculture practices they learned from over-seas agricultural work.

Blueberry field at Spring Rain

No two farms or farmers have been the same.  None of the soils have been the same.  Farming is a completely unique livelihood dependent on the sun, weather, altitude, latitude, organic matter in the soil, space, neighbors, city/county regulations, the saleable outlets, environmental care and the family demands.  To weave these in to a person’s lifestyle is to recognize and honor life, the earth, it’s Creator, cycles, fertility, rest, indivuals and community.  This is harmony, and it’s never static.