Like several others on this list, Eliot Coleman started out in another field. In his case it was education. His master’s degree was in Spanish literature. He spent his early years teaching, with time out for hobbies such as skiing and rock climbing. He became acquainted with Scott and Helen Nearing, who were two of the original back-to-the-landers in Maine (Living the Good Life is their classic book). Coleman began farming in 1968. He purchased the 60 acres of what is now Four Seasons Farm for $33 an acre, although it was not until 1990 that he returned to the farm full-time. He spent the intervening years running farms for other people. Gardening in Maine means short seasons and cold winters, so Coleman started thinking about how to extend the seasons. The Nearings had used stone-walled greenhouses and he used some of their principles in his work. The basics of the system:
- Movable greenhouses. Coleman’s plastic-covered hoop greenhouses keep crops from freezing in winter. In the summer, they are rolled aside to expose the beds and prevent them from overheating.
- Soil health. Coleman operates on the theory that insects and disease attack weak plants. Healthy soil makes healthy plants that are less attractive – sort of the way a mugger will go for the tottering old granny instead of the buff football player. Although I can think of at least one case when an elderly friend of mine staved off a knife-wielding mugger by whacking him with her purse.
- Use lots of compost, which you make yourself. Coleman also has the option of using seaweed, which is often loaded with trace nutrients.
- Avoid chemicals, pesticides and herbicides.
- Use row covers and similar materials to ward off bugs and provide plant protection when it gets cold.
- Choose plants and varieties that do well in your area (although Coleman also grows a few oddities just for fun, such as artichokes, which are not normally a Maine crop. He once said in an interview that he does it to make the Californians nervous).
Coleman’s methods are terrific for the person who has a short season. They are also good for people who want to get a jump on the season for plants like tomatoes. His gardens are productive and healthy. He uses a lot of plastics and other man-made materials in his system, some of which can be pretty darned expensive.
No-Till and Constant Cropping
Paul and Elizabeth Kaiser farm eight acres just outside the town of Sebastapol, in Sonoma County near San Francisco, although they only harvest a little over three of them. Two more highly-educated farmers: Paul has advanced degrees in international relations, natural resources management and sustainable development, while Elizabeth holds them in public health and nursing. Both are former Peace Corps volunteers who worked in drought areas such as the Gambia to help revive agriculture. Their techniques allow them to produce four to seven crops a year from each acre of ground. The basics of the system:
- Practice agro-forestry. Plant trees for windbreaks, to hold soil moisture, build fertility or provide food and cover for beneficial insects.
- Plow or double dig your beds when you first start the garden. After that, you don’t till at all.
- Don’t harvest the roots of your crops (obvious exception, things like carrots and beets). Leave them in the ground to build humus, provide worm food and create channels to aerate soil and trap water.
- Keep the ground covered with mulch, compost or plants at all times.
- Don’t direct seed (with a very few exceptions such as fine-seeded carrots). Grow successions of transplants so you always have something ready to go in the ground.
- As soon as you harvest, apply several inches of fresh compost and immediately plant new seedlings. So if you harvest a bed in the morning, by afternoon, you will apply fresh compost and put in new plants. If for some reason you can’t replant immediately, cover the exposed soil with cardboard, heavy mulch or agricultural fabric. This prevents the soil from drying, stops weed seeds from germinating and keeps the microbial life in the soil working away.
This system is pretty new and to some, very controversial. The controversy comes primarily from concerns about whether the use of so much compost causes water pollution from high-nitrogen runoff and whether it’s sustainable over the long term. Paul Kaiser says that water testing has shown there is no problem with runoff. He thinks it’s because the constant cropping and soil building uses up all the nitrogen. My primary concern about this one is that the Kaisers have to purchase two-thirds of the compost they use. Given that they live so close to Sebastapol, they’re using a lot of biodegradable material from the city that would otherwise end up in landfills, so that’s a good thing. If you lived out in the boonies, though, I could see it being a problem. There’s no question that the soil in their garden beds is in terrific condition and extremely fertile. They also use much less water than the average gardener or farmer. They have minimal problems with weeds, because the repeated layering of compost and close plant spacing prevents germination of weed seeds. The concept of trees and hedgerows is good for the farm and promotes beneficial insects, insect-eating birds and the overall ecology of the farm. They make about $100,000 per crop annually, which allows them to pay year-round full-time employees a decent wage. Mind you, their market is really close to the farm, so things like shipping costs are low.
The ancient Native Americans – Anasazi, Pueblo, Hopi and Pima, among others – were the first experts in this sort of agriculture. Steven Solomon (Gardening Without Irrigation: or without much, anyway) and Nita Wilton (blog: Throwback at Trapper Creek) are two modern proponents. Solomon was a history teacher who gave it up for a series of different careers, including creating a typesetting business and starting Territorial Seed Company. Wilton is and has always been a farmer (third generation and pretty much done raising the fourth generation, who is in her twenties), although she’s also brought in income doing things like accounting and consulting. Solomon originally gardened in the Pacific Northwest on the east side of the Cascades and now lives in Tasmania, Australia; Wilton farms near the Columbia River Gorge in northern Oregon. The basic principles of the system are:
- Direct seed or plant transplants as soon as possible after a spring rain so there’s plenty of soil moisture. If necessary, irrigate prior to planting. You may also need to water a little bit until the seedlings become established.
- Build your soil with cover crops that are tilled into the ground and left to rot. About half of Wilton’s gardens are in cover crops at any given time.
- Space your plants much more widely than in conventional gardening. You may need to give them 1½ to two times the space. Wilton gardens in rows but spaces the rows widely.
- Keep weeds down; this means cultivation prior to planting and lots of hand or hoe work once the plants are growing.
- Cultivate your soil regularly to keep the soil particles fine and provide a dust mulch that helps hold in moisture.
- The Native Americans used a system of small catchment basins that sloped down to catch rainfall. They planted in the low end of the basins. Some dryland gardeners use a similar system of level basins so plants are protected from drying breezes and there is no water runoff. Others plant in trenches.
- Choose varieties that are adapted to dry conditions. For example, the Pearson Tomato, Black Aztec corn, chard and amaranth are all naturally drought-resistant.
- Wilton also raises grass-fed beef, has a confined chicken flock and keeps a milk cow. Part of her system is using the bedding and manure of these animals to build compost piles with which she fertilizes the garden and her pastures/hay fields. During the winter, her beef animals are kept confined in an area heavily bedded with straw. At the end of the winter, the barn is cleaned out and the bedding goes into the compost pile. Her system does require heavy machinery, but for a smaller garden, you could duplicate it with bedding from the chicken coop and do it by hand.
- Dry fallowing and rotation. The first technique is to cultivate the ground in the spring and let it sit until fall, when you till under the weeds that have grown. Dry fallowing can help decrease soil pests and diseases. The negative – it can also cause erosion in areas with regular summer winds. What some dryland farmers do is rotate their growing areas. They plant an area to grasses and legumes, graze or hay it for a few years, and then turn the pasture under and grow vegetable crops. This also breaks disease and pest cycles, and adds to the soil fertility.
- Although it’s not specific to dryland farming, Wilton is also one of the few who ties in some historical methods of gardening. Among these are pollinator rows in the garden, seed saving (which Jeavons also espouses), companion planting (ditto Jeavons and the Kaisers), and planting by the phases of the moon. She grows root crops specifically for her milk cow. She is also, as far as I know, the only one who has a Cosmic Pipe in her garden. I only know what I’ve read, but the theory behind the Cosmic Pipe is that it draws down energy from the cosmos.
- Wilton uses fixed greenhouses for season extension, as she has a short season and would not otherwise be able to grow things like tomatoes, eggplants and peppers. The greenhouses are big enough so she can plow them with a tractor, and like the outside gardens, she also grows cover crops in them. She takes the cover off the greenhouses each winter to expose the soil to natural light and weather conditions, as she says it keeps the soil in much better condition. Removing the cover also protects the greenhouses from collapsing under heavy snow loads, which happened to her one year. The other big advantage to her greenhouses is that in the spring, when she has a lot of rain, she can plant and harvest in the greenhouse without worrying about whether it’s too wet to work the soil.
Dryland gardening, done right, can be very productive. In areas with limited rainfall, it may be the only way you can raise your own food. As the weather continues to get crazier, knowing how to raise food on less water will become much more important in many places. Even in my area, which is on the southern end of the Pacific Northwest, there are some years when we get only about half of our historical ‘normal’ rainfall. Aside from the weather, pumping water usually requires expensive electricity. You cannot do dryland farming without lots of soil improvement, as the fertility in the soil is one of the most important factors in water retention. Wilton has the sort of diversified old-fashioned farm in which animals are key to building fertility. She keeps her chickens in an unused hoophouse (she has several), lets them turn their bedding into compost and plows it in the next year before planting warm-season crops. The bedding from the beef and milk cows also becomes compost. She uses pigs to root up new areas for planting and get rid of blackberries.