Click here to donate
About us


2012 Garden Report from Circle of the Sun
By Dan Royer-Miller

Dan, Margo, Carol and Interns at Circle of the Sun

Dan and Margo Royer-Miller were apprentices and staff at Ecology Action from 2006 through 2009. Since then, they have been working on a new GROW BIOINTENSIVE farm on Dan's mother's land in Ohio. 2012 was their third growing year there, and a very challenging one. We are following their progress because we believe it will supply important information for others just starting out as GROW BIOINTENSIVE farmers. Challenges, though difficult and sometimes frustrating, especially during times of climate change, can provide good learning tools for future production. Carol Cox, former EA garden manager, visited Dan and Margo last summer.

his season at Circle of the Sun was the kind that brings a sigh of relief as the last crops are drawn in. I believe it was as early as July that we began looking forward to the chill of late September, which would signal the end of
the main season. It was then, too, that we began talking about changes we would make for 2013 and anticipating a new season with hope.

For the second time in three years we experienced extraordinary drought. Between spring's last frost (April 27) and fall's first frost (September 23) we received 13.8 inches of rain. The most remarkable part is that, most often, the rain we got was during one strong-to-severe storm every two to four weeks rather than any long, slow soaking. To date this year we have received 28 inches, as compared to 49.6 inches at this point last year. Our area's average rainfall is 39 inches.

Additionally, this year's drought was accompanied by strings of exceedingly hot days. Temperatures were, at times, mind-boggling. The winter was very mild; only 5 nights dropped into the single digits (Fahrenheit) compared with 17 nights of single-digit or negative temperatures in the winter of 2010-2011. This summer echoed the warmth,
with 21 days reaching or exceeding 100°F. In 2010 and 2011 combined there were only 5 days that reached 100°F, and that was the highest temperature that registered. This year the highest was 108°F.

For conventional farmers in this area it was a disastrous year, as the record-breaking heat /drought combination broke the proverbial backs of their crops. We were able to water ours, so they fared a little better; crops didn't die outright, but they didn't thrive or even produce modestly. We brought over water at the rate of approximately 660 gallons a week, or around 2.25 gallons per bed per day. Of course, some crops got watered every day according to need, and others were watered less than once a week, but the numbers above are the average.

Naturally this season has given us cause to rethink our procedures. We'll need much larger rainwater storage to make use of this year's type of weather patterns, for instance. This was our first year applying compost to all beds, and we expect successive years of compost application to make a big difference in retention of water in the soil. We believe that, as we raise the level of organic matter in the soil, this kind of season will cause our crops to shine in
comparison with other systems.

Our crops did suffer. Our sorghum, the best performer in 2010 and 2011, and our pearl millet were late going in (soil too dry to prepare and not enough water to get beds ready to dig), and as a result did not reach maturity by the end of the season. We did get appreciable biomass from them although the data aren't in yet on exactly how appreciable. Most of our flour corn was planted in plenty of time, but pollination was nearly nonexistent due to heat. Amaranth was severely stunted, as were our tomatoes. One variety of the latter, Principe Bourgese, produced
continually, beginning as early as July 9, but its total crop of fruit was far from abundant at 11 lb per 100 sq ft. (GROW BIOINTENSIVE beginning yield is 100 lb per 100 sq ft.) We experienced complete crop failure in our butternut squash, yacon, dry beans, carrots, and a third of our garlic varieties.

Another challenge for the crops this season was a notable pest population. We did have plenty of beneficials present, but had more aphids (corn, sorghum, and kale), stalk borer, hornworm caterpillars, and a variety of beetles than we've had before. We're attributing this to the mild winter followed by stressful summer conditions for the plants.

On the other hand, our cereal grains, especially rye and fall-planted wheat, did do reasonably well. Our 150-sq-ft section of cereal rye produced at the rate of 7.3 lb per 100 sq ft of grain and 13.8 lb per 100 sq ft of biomass, which thoroughly beats last year's yields of 2.3 and 4.6 lb per 100 sq ft respectively. One key reason for the difference may be that we transplanted this year's rye while last year's was broadcast. We planted two varieties of winter wheat:
Hard Red Winter and Peters SS791. HRW, a shorter variety at 30 inches tall, gave us 4.25 lb per 100 sq ft of grain and 5.7 lb per 100 sq ft of biomass. Peters, which grew to 44 inches tall, produced 5.1 lb per 100 sq ft of grain and 13.3 lb per 100 sq ft of biomass. We've planted them this fall to compare yields once more.

We did have some main season successes. Kale has once again surprised us: though we made sure it got priority at watering time, we didn't expect the yield of 181.2 lb per 100 sq ft that it has given us to date. (GROW BIOINTENSIVE high yield is 153 lb per 100 sq ft.) And it isn't necessarily done yet, either! We also count our onion harvest a success. While they yielded a paltry 12 lb per 100 sq ft, we had something around 90% survival and
bulbing as compared to last year's 10%.

One more garden note is Alten's favorite activities. Our two-year-old was never far from the tomatoes and had to learn our procedure of weighing crops first before eating. He eventually became a happy helper using the scale and counting with us. We also had to convince him that the green tomatoes should stay on the plant. His joy overflowed during the final harvest of the year when he got to pull ALL the tomatoes! His other favorite garden task
was checking in on the worm population. All earthworms found are carefully lifted up, acknowledged with excitement, and returned to the soil with the announcement, "Put the worm in the soil where it lives." And we would be remiss without noting the addition of some livestock: a friend gave us a swarm of bees this spring. The learning
has been a joy, and the 47.5 lb of harvested honey isn't bad, either!

Dan, Asbeta and Esther inspecting the cornFor the second year in a row we offered a three-month course in partnership with Ecology Action, GROW BIOINTENSIVE Agricultural Center of Kenya (G-BIACK), and the Multinational Exchange for Sustainable Agriculture (MESA). As with last year, we had two skilled women from Kenya, Esther Kiruthi and Asbeta Kangara. They were put through the wringer as we crammed all the knowledge from EA's six-month course into half that time, including tours of other farms and instructions on building solar box cookers and solar food dehydrators. Our hearts go with them as they transition into using the information they learned during their summer with us. Check out our blog to
get updates on the work of our interns in Kenya:

We are in the midst of our own transition, too. In late October we added a fourth member to the Royer-Miller family:
Isaac Wynn! He is showing us that we actually did have some time and energy to spare raising Alten, counter to our own perception. And Dan has taken on a fulltime job in construction to help balance the family budget and gain additional useful skills. (Our conventional farmer friends joke that, having gotten an off-farm job to break even, we are now real farmers!) We look forward to exploring the prospect of maintaining a 40-bed unit with a small
family and full-time work. It is truly a joy to be on this path.

May you all have a restful winter, and be emboldened and ambitious in your farming and gardening in 2013!

top | Newsletter Home | Article Index | Archive

Please donate $40 to our 40th Anniversary Fundraiser! Click here to donate!