Thoughts on water, living with water, and storms  by Elizabeth Licata

This is some stage of Arthur, off Topsail Island, NC, July 2014

We’re drawn to water and connected through water, especially gardeners. Most of the gardeners I know—not just in WNY but all over the US—spend half their growing seasons hoping for water in the form of rain. They have rain gauges and weather stations and use apps and websites to monitor annual rainfall in their areas. They have become amateur rain scientists. Gardeners try to save rain with rain barrels and to stop it from running out into storm gutters—as much as they can—through creating rain gardens and other plantings that capture water.

We revel in water as humans, seeking out opportunities to swim, splash, and float. I’m often scheming about how I could get a small, good-looking pool installed, and I haven’t given up. I love beaches even more. For years, we have spent at least one summer week on the beautiful coast of North Carolina, a place very familiar to me from childhood summers spent there when my father was in the USMC Reserve. Given the number of summers, and, later, visits, it’s inevitable that we’d encounter hurricanes now and then, and we have; our family started coming down just after the one everybody still talks about, Hazel. None of the storms we’ve encountered called for evacuations or drastic measures; as a child, I found them exciting.

Over the past 20 years, however, the number of hurricanes hitting NC and throughout the US are having increasingly devastating effects on property and ecosystems. University-based studies confirm that storm surges are getting bigger and bigger, though a 2010 NC Coastal Resources Commission study about the surges was banned by state government. The question of whether climate change increases the chances of these storms is in some ways not even relevant; a bigger factor is that far greater numbers of residential and business populations are in the path of this weather, whatever is causing it. And they’re not ready for it.

One does not judge where people choose to live or need to live. I can’t imagine dealing with yearly incidences of tornadoes, wildfires, and earthquakes, which are not common where I live. But then, many others cannot face the possibilities of freezing cold weather, snow, and occasional blizzards. So be it.

However, to ignore weather and climate trends in the face of loss of human life, damage to ecosystems, and destruction of property makes no sense. In 2012, North Carolina passed a law that effectively ordered state and local agencies that develop coastal policies to ignore scientific models showing an alarming acceleration in sea level rise. Since then, storm surges (including Florence, the most recent) have engulfed homes and flooded areas with waste from pig farms and toxic disposal sites. These events also cause fish kills and algae blooms.

If the study had been accepted and measures taken to adjust developments, reinforce at-risk infrastructure, and take other precautions specific to storm surges of a nature never before anticipated, could the disaster we’re now seeing unfold (and have seen unfold so many times elsewhere) be averted? I suppose we don’t know. And we’ll never know as long as the denial of science continues to be government policy at so many levels. Maybe once we’re all under water, we’ll figure it out.

Thoughts on water, living with water, and storms originally appeared on Garden Rant on September 19, 2018.

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The Iconoclastic Gardener – Breaking May’s Stranglehold  by Scott Beuerlein

Way back in 1914, an awful calamity happened that would ruin gardening in America forever. With the seemingly benevolent stroke of his pen, Woodrow Wilson foisted the Tyranny of Mother’s Day upon us all. Soon after came the backhanded slap from the long arm of the law of unintended consequences.

To be clear, I’m actually fairly okay with honoring moms.  I’ve got one, and my wife even became one too. Willingly. What I don’t like, however, is that this holiday has established the second Sunday in May as the one and only epicenter of the entire Horticultural Universe. As if graven on stone tablets, it was apparently ordained that every homeowner in America must cram a year’s worth of yard work, and do all their garden shopping, within two or three days of that holiest of holy days.

As you can imagine, because people inherently buy from garden centers things that are in flower, this has ensured that every last homeowner’s yard explodes into bloom right on Mother’s Day and sheepishly goes out of bloom a week later. Therefore, the rest of the growing season–from June to frost–the vast expanse of American suburbs is a sad, flowerless wasteland, bereft of color, wondering what life is about and why it always feels so empty inside.

Here is what this has cost us. The fun perennials, the really good stuff, all bloom later and, in fact, look absolutely fabulous on garden center shelves right this very minute when absolutely no one is there to see them. Hence, they’re not bought, not in gardens, and not bringing boundless joy to people in their everyday lives.

Late summer and fall blooming perennials tend to be bigger, bolder, and way more impactful. They also usually bloom longer, and they do so with all the star spangled colors of a big refinery fire. They invariably maintain a great form all season–not going to seed and not going limp too early, and they also attract loads of pollinators, which bring their own spastic fun to the party.

So do this. Be a lunatic. A rebel. Be contrary. Log off your computer right now and go to your favorite garden center and buy a bunch of stuff. Your garden and your life will be improved. Your late season garden will look so amazing you’ll want to show it to your mother. You might even invite her over. In September. Maybe October.

The Iconoclastic Gardener – Breaking May’s Stranglehold originally appeared on Garden Rant on September 18, 2018.

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Farm Bill Politics 3: Down to the Wire

As the September 30th farm bill expiration date looms, Lindsey checks back in for a status update with NYFC’s National Policy Director, Andrew Bahrenburg. What do the “Fab Four” have to do with farm bill conference negotiations? Will Congress pass a final farm bill in time? And what will happen to the programs young farmers rely on if they don’t? Take action, and tell your…


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“Invasive” Ground Covers and the Case for Allowing Periwinkle  by Susan Harris


I have a beef with the inclusion of Periwinkle (Vinca minor) on my coop’s list of banned plants – banned because they’re considered invasive (despite NOT being listed on the Maryland Invasive Plant list).

I’ve grown it in two suburbs of DC and in neither location (or the gardens of my neighbors) has it grown vigorously. If anything, my complaint, echoed by other area gardeners, is that it’s not vigorous enough.

So let’s find out where it’s invasive and under what conditions, shall we?

The Invasive Plant Atlas says it’s “invading natural areas throughout the Eastern U.S. It inhabits open to shady sites including forests and often escapes from old homesites.”

The State of Indiana says: “Once established, Vinca minor forms a dense carpet to the exclusion of other plants. This creates a problem where it is competing with native flora.”

Moving west, a California source says it “tends to become invasive in hot Mediterranean climates.”

Indeed I finally found a spot where Periwinkle IS clearly a problem. In this photo it’s seen covering much of the ground layer in the Treman State Park in Upstate New York.

Plant them in the Right Place

Ground covers have a job to do – covering the ground, and not taking too long to do it, either. When they do their job they prevent erosion and weeds. No surprise that successful ground covers can, in the wrong place, do their job too TOO well. So what’s the right place for Periwinkle?

Commenters on Daves Garden suggest answers: “Yes, vinca can be aggressive, but I am grateful for that, given the difficulty of getting anything to grow under my Norway maples or in the dirty fill around my 1885 house…I would not grow this plant if I lived where it could escape into a woodland.”

One newspaper suggests, “Place this lovely in a nice hanging basket or medium to large planter.”

I like what one commenter on Houzz has to say:

As with any so-called invasive plant, its invasive properties are determined by location and planting situation…It doesn’t play all that well with smaller, herbaceous perennials, as it can easily overwhelm and smother them. And I would avoid planting it in any area that would allow it to spread into any natural plantings, like open woodlands.

David Beaulieu (formerly of, now writing for The Spruce) suggests it as a lawn replacement under trees and lists its many advantages:

Because of their ability to root and spread, they can help hold the soil in place. This can be important on the side of a hill, where soil erosion might be a problem.

The vines need little care. They are deer-resistant and rabbit-proof flowers, and few insects eat them, so there is not much pest control to worry about. A

Tough, low-maintenance, and pest-free, Vinca minor has pretty foliage and flowers; it is also a useful plant. In spite of all of these benefits, it does have one drawback.

The “one drawback” of course is its potential invasiveness:

Vinca minor vines are considered somewhat invasive plants, so, if this is a concern for you, make it a point each year to keep their runners in check. But remember, the flip side of the coin for so-called “invasive plants” is that they are vigorous growers, meaning that they tend to be successful at filling in an area. This is often exactly what you want out of a ground cover.

Back home, here’s a patch of Periwinkle between my front yard and a parking lot. Surrounded by concrete and asphalt in all directions, this “invasive” isn’t going anywhere – because it only spreads by runner, not by birds or wind. It’s nothing like English ivy, which harms trees by climbing up into them, where it makes berries that are then spread by birds.

I wish “invasives” weren’t lumped together as they so often are – with little or no details as to how, where, and under what conditions they can damage other plants or natural areas. Plants that are invasive only along streams or in regions with mild winters can get banned from places where they’re no threat at all.

In my neighborhood the mistaken (I contend) banning Periwinkle creates a special problem. All coop members are required to cover the ground in their (mostly shady) yards, and banning the shade-loving, pest-free, evergreen Periwinkle leaves us with very few choices – mainly Pachysandra and Liriope. They too are listed as invasives – somewhere – and may end up banned, too. Then what?

Flowering Vinca minor photo by Margrit.

“Invasive” Ground Covers and the Case for Allowing Periwinkle originally appeared on Garden Rant on September 14, 2018.

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This is why I don’t grow my own vegetables  by Elizabeth Licata

Daniel Oles, Oles Family Farm (photo: Stephen Gabris)

Normally, we try not to repeat recent topics, but I, too, have been thinking about small family farms, which Allen posted about yesterday. Like Allen, I am a frequent patron of farmers markets. I am also a CSA (community-supported agriculture) customer. I’ve chosen one of the best sustainable farms in the area, Oles Family Farm, which dropped off corn, tomatoes, peppers, kale, Napa cabbage, potatoes, onions, and yellow beans today. I expect an avalanche of beets and kohlrabi very soon, when the fall crops begin to arrive.

Daniel and Jane Oles participated, along with three other area farms, in a recent roundtable discussion published in the magazine I edit (the discussion is not online yet). While the Oles are largely known for their vegetables, the other farmers specialize in dairy, fruit, and meat production. The outlook is not good, but nobody’s giving up—yet. Here are some of their statements:

On labor:
“In terms of labor, we’re small and rely on family and member labor, but other farms are affected by the threat of shutting off the migrant worker path. There isn’t enough help, and I don’t know who they think will do this work.”

On economics:
“So much of our food system is subsidized to stay falsely cheap, so people got used to paying less than what food costs to grow a long time ago. We have to raise prices sometimes, but you can’t do it often.”

How can there be better consumer access to locally grown/produced food?
“More emphasis needs to be placed on the quality and flavor of our regional foods, educating on quality, taste, nutritional value, and uses, while making sure a realistic agricultural story is being told.”

Nate Whitehead, Milky Hill Dairy (photo: Stephen Gabris)

“If we could get milk back into schools, that would help. Kids are learning that milk is bad for you, so they won’t be buying dairy in ten years when they’re grown up and shopping for themselves.”

“We try to grow what people want. We still grow rutabagas for our winter shares, but people want green and fresh all year round instead of the traditional storage crops, so we’ve increased greens, like spinach, that can be grown in hoop houses in the winter. And then we teach people how to use things differently [through the CSA newsletter], like a shaved fresh beet salad instead of boiling them like grandma did.”

Is there a future in this kind of farming?
“On a small scale, no. There will be people who will still try, maybe as a hobby or because it still sounds cute, and a certain number will do okay for a few years. But to raise a family on a small farm income – that’s barely possible, even if you love it.”

“If we hadn’t switched to the CSA and restaurant model, we might not be here. Hang on to beliefs and principles and don’t let them go, but adapt everything else where you can.”

Julie Blackman, Blackman Homestead Farm (photo: Stephen Gabris)

I’ll admit, it isn’t always easy using up my CSA bounty. But then I look at friends who do grow their own and are giving away or even composting baskets of veggies every week, and I think I’d rather do it my way. Oles has bent over backwards to make its CSA more attractive, including, now, a biweekly option, for small households like mine. The farm also delivers to my doorstep, for which I pay an extra fee.

Another CSA model, called Fresh Fix, is arising in Western New York; it allows members to cancel weeks when they don’t want a box, delete items they don’t want, substitute items they do, and add on extras, like artisanal bakery goods. Sort of like a meal delivery model.

Truth be told, I suck at growing food; there are shade issues, and I prefer an ornamental garden. But I also love living in a city surrounded by rural acreage and small farms. It’s terrifying to think of it irretrievably replaced by patio home developments, “lifestyle centers,” and office “parks.”

Many thanks to writer Devon Dams-O’Connor, the writer who put together the discussion from which these excerpts came and to photographer Stephen Gabris, who did some great shoots at the farms.

This is why I don’t grow my own vegetables originally appeared on Garden Rant on September 13, 2018.

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How Do We Raise More Farmers?  by Allen Bush

I may have come across the future of American farming. Mind you, what I found was small-scale farming, but if farming and rural communities are to survive, it may come down to farm internships and incubators to nurture young farmers.

When Rose and I were visiting family last month in Bellingham, WA, we went to the Saturday Farmer’s Market. In the midst of vendor stands full of veggie samosas, meat pies, cut flowers and produce, I found Cloud Mountain Farm. Business was booming. We bought plums, fat figs and little ‘Centennial’ crab apples. I asked a few questions, but there wasn’t much time. Annah Young and Aram Dagavarian were managing the farm stand. Annah is Cloud Mountain Farm’s Education Coordinator, and Aram is a farm intern.

Bellingham Farmers Market

A crowd was waiting behind us. We didn’t linger long.

I was intrigued. I wanted to visit the farm and find out more. The next day Rose and I drove to Cloud Mountain Farm Center (CMFC) in Everson, WA.

American farming and rural communities have been under siege since Earl Butz, Secretary of Agriculture under Richard Nixon and Gerald Ford, directed farmers: “to get big or get out.” Land grant universities followed suit, teaching agriculture students to step up. Be more efficient. Never mind huge capital input and worrisome debt. Focus on what’s going to make the biggest return. Count your barnyard chickens before they are hatched.

Chicken Little was right. The sky is falling.

If “Eating is an Agricultural act,” as Wendell Berry wrote, then we will need young farmers. The average age of an American farmer is an alarming fifty-eight.

‘Centennial’ crab apples

Big agriculture has been in a race to the bottom. Although food costs are low, bigger hasn’t always been better. America currently produces too much.

Soybeans and corn are overplanted in the U.S. The production costs are outpacing net returns.

Tariffs are the latest hit on big agriculture’s operating profits.

Donald Trump threw a lifeline with a $12 billion subsidy for soybean, corn, dairy and hog producers, intended to soften the body blow inflicted by the tariff war.

It won’t stop the bleeding.

Cloud Mountain Farm Center (CMFC) offers a healthier, diversified farming alternative to Get Big:

Get Better.

Rose and I arrived at CMFC late in the morning. Andrew Tuttle, a tall, fit 27-year-old former Marine, met us in front of the office. (Andrew spent part of his service as a mechanic on Marine One, traveling with President Obama.)

Tempting plants in the well-stocked CMFC Garden Center

We were surrounded, on one side, by a tempting and well-stocked garden center. We couldn’t carry back large containers on the flight home, but I made a note of an elderberry called ‘York’ that was labeled: “Most productive variety.”

There was a beautiful paper bark maple near the office’s front porch. Adjacent columns supported an Akebia vine and a climbing Hydrangea. Below the office was a picnic area and garden with Japanese anemones, a weeping spruce and lavenders that caught my eye.  I also spotted a beautiful Daphne ‘Carol ‘Mackie’ that brought back painful memories of my own repeated failures to grow this lovely, variegated, sweet-scented shrub.

Andrew must have sensed my heartache. He asked if I knew the paw paw tree. “Yes” I said enthusiastically, my confidence momentarily restored. (We have several, large colonizing paw paw patches growing naturally along the Salt River in Salvisa, Kentucky. I didn’t want to spoil our moment of enthusiasm by telling Andrew that it’s always a race with raccoons to see who gets the first ripe paw paws.)

Andrew pointed us up the hill where grapes and cherries are undergoing crop evaluations—a vital role that CMFC plays. Elsewhere there were walnuts and kiwis in trials.

There is a lot going on at Cloud Mountain.

‘Hope’ grapes

CMFC is currently accepting applications for their 2019 Internships. The internships provide a “vocational learning program for those interested in starting their own farm business and/or being a key employee on a farm.”

Similarly, the Berry Center in New Castle, Kentucky, is collaborating with Sterling College in Vermont to educate and train young farmers.

I was particularly interested in Cloud Mountain’s Incubator Program. CMFC has leased young farmers two acres for $500 a year. They also provide equipment sharing for $25 an hour. It’s an inexpensive way to dip your toes in the farm pond and manage a small agricultural holding. The hope is that this will be the jumping off point for young farmers before they decide to embark on their own.

Cloud Mountain Farm Center was started as a for-profit nursery and farm business on 20 acres in 1978 by Cheryl and Tom Thornton. Educational workshops began a few years later to encourage a vibrant farm community. Six years ago Cloud Mountain Farm was sold and converted to a 501 (c) (3) non-profit. Their mission: “…to build experience, knowledge and community to expand local, dynamic local food systems.” There are an additional 22 acres for the farm incubator. Cheryl and Tom Thornton are still at the helm.

When he was growing up, Andrew Tuttle spent time with his grandparents, on their dairy farm, a few miles down the road from Cloud Mountain.  CMFC left a big impression on the young boy. Andrew remembers the fall fruit festival when he was six years old. He loved the apple press and the fresh cider.

Andrew Tuttle in the garden of Cloud Mountain Farm Center

Andrew has been working this year at the Center’s plant nursery as retail and nursery assistant, but he and his wife Mary have ambitious plans to begin their own careers this fall. They will stay tied to the community on eight acres of their own, adjacent to CMFC’s vegetable production. Andrew and Mary are starting a landscape design and installation business that will focus on permaculture designs that will incorporate wildlife habitat restoration and edible landscaping. “Mary is a great artist and does beautiful work,” Andrew said.

Andrew and Mary hope to use a portion of their land for a small native-plant tree farm (for their landscape projects), with a little left for giveaways to visiting school kids. They also hope to pursue wildlife restoration and set up incubator farm leases for other young growers.

It is almost magical to think of how pressing apple ciders could change a young man’s life

The early memories brought Andrew back to Cloud Mountain Farm Center to: “join the community of farmers, gardeners, students and plant enthusiasts.” Andrew will be leaving CMFC later this fall, to launch his dreams, but already he has plans to continue teaching courses at CMFC next year. “Teaching is a big part of my calling,” he said.

Hopefully, one day Andrew and Mary Tuttle will be able, in the words of Wendell Berry: “…to speak in the same breath of work and love,” as they walk their land and support their community.

How Do We Raise More Farmers? originally appeared on Garden Rant on September 12, 2018.

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Drought, wildfire, hail: is there a USDA Disaster Assistance Program to help your farm or ranch?

U.S. Drought Monitor Map, September 10, 2018 Every year, natural events, from drought and wildfires to hurricanes and hail, impact the businesses of farmers and ranchers across the country. Currently, the Four Corners region of the U.S. is experiencing exceptional drought (the worst category!) and most of the Southwest is experiencing some level of drought or dry conditions. In addition to a very…


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