Click here to donate
About us

Garden Report:
Common Ground Mini-Farm at Ecology Action Headquarters in Willits, CA
by Ryan Batjiaka, Assistant Garden Manager

Ryan processing vetch

The last of the summer-planted crops have made their way to the compost piles, and the Ecology Action garden is filled with hopeful fava beans, winter grains and different vetches. These cover crops will help nurture the soil over the winter so that when spring comes the land will be healthier and ready to support a new cast of life-giving plants.
Cover cropping has so many benefits from so many different angles that you know this is how nature intended things to work. Even though the weather will be cold, our cover crops will spend the coming months turning
sunlight , water and carbon dioxide into large amounts of plant matter (we like to say "biomass") both above ground as leaves and stems, and below ground as roots. When we are ready to plant in the spring, all the above-ground biomass of the cover crop is cut and put into compost piles while all the roots stay in the bed where they break
down and feed the soil.

On top of this addition of plant matter to our compost piles and soil, when we plant fava beans and vetches we are adding nitrogen to the soil, thanks to the nitrogen-fixing bacteria these plants support. Cover crops also help suppress weeds and prevent erosion, which is a big danger when heavy rains pour on a hillside garden like ours.

Our arsenal of cover crops includes rye, oats, wheat, barley, triticale, hairy vetch, wooly vetch, purple vetch, Austrian field peas and fava beans. Currently we are running many different experiments to see what combination of these different crops provides the most biomass for our compost piles. We'll also try to see if certain seeding rates and combinations of cover crops have a noticeable effect on the crops that are planted after them. If a particular cover
crop mix is exceptionally good at fixing nitrogen, for example, we might be able to see that reflected in the health and yields of the crop planted afterward.

This spring we planted two beds of quinoa right next to each other on the same day. One bed of quinoa had been
preceded by a nitrogen-fixing cover crop of fava beans and the other by a cover crop of winter rye. The quinoa that followed the fava beans had a much deeper green color while the other bed of quinoa was lighter green, with occasional yellowing lower leaves, a sign that the fava beans probably increased the nitrogen levels for the one bed of quinoa. In addition to the visible health of the plants the yields of the two beds also indicate that the fava beans probably helped the quinoa that came after it. The quinoa that followed the rye produced 4.1 lb of seed and 9.6 lb of biomass per 100 sq ft, while the quinoa that followed the fava beans produced 4.3 lb of seed and 11.3 lb
of biomass. So the quinoa growing on soil cover-cropped with nitrogen-fixing fava beans produced 15% more biomass, and although it did not produce a significantly larger quantity of seed, it would not be surprising for the seed to have a higher protein content (protein is basically a carbon structure with nitrogen and some sulfur) and be qualitatively superior.

Cover crops are a great way for us to increase our soil's fertility while minimizing our need to purchase outside
inputs. Decomposing layers upon layers of biomass on the land is one of nature's ways of building soil. By managing this natural process, with a little nudge here and a helping hand there, we can speed up soil creation so that people can give themselves relatively productive land where once it could not provide enough.

After all of our cover crops are in the ground, we will shift our focus to organizing our seeds. Some seed we will
save for planting, some we will send off to Bountiful Gardens for them to feature in their seed catalog, and some seed—in the case of beans and grains—we will eat. Seeds are without a doubt one of the most wondrous entities of this earth. On a single plant there can sometimes be enough seed to sow thousands and thousands of new plants. A good amaranth plant, for example, can have over 20,000 seeds. That means a single plant provides enough seed to grow 1/3 of an acre of amaranth. Put another way, one acre of amaranth produces enough seed for 20,000 acres.

This impressive feat of expansion reminded me of Lamine Diawara's plans for GROW BIOINTENSIVE in West
Africa. Lamine, as you may know already from the September 2012 Newsletter, was a 2012 intern from Senegal with years of experience in social organizing and youth leadership who served as the head of Scouting (Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts) in West Africa. In the detailed plan he created to bring GROW BIOINTENSIVE to his compatriots and his region, he described how in five years he hoped to teach 33 million people. It starts with simply teaching 32 people who will be dedicated to ensuring the food security of their communities. Each of these 32 community
members then becomes the trainer for 32 more future teachers. Clearly not everyone who is trained will go on to help others, but if trainers end up teaching hundreds of people in a year, at least 32 people could be found who would be willing to reach out to others in their communities. By year two, 1,024 people will have been trained this
way, 32,768 reached the third year, over 1 million people the fourth year, with a goal of reaching 33 million people the fifth year. It may be tempting to scoff at such an equation, but so too is it easy to doubt that one tall amaranth plant can sow one third of an acre.

Certainly if we just sit and watch the amaranth produce its enormous spikes of seed and do nothing, the next year there will merely be a smattering of amaranth plants around the parent. But if we give the natural process a little helping hand and collect the seeds and nurture the seedlings, starting from the seed of this one amaranth plant, in five years we could sow every foot of North America and Europe in amaranth. Yes, you would have enough seed for every single inch, and this is using a much more conservative estimate of 5,000 seeds per plant instead of 20,000.
So we should realize that Lamine's ability to reach 33 million people in 5 years is indeed very feasible, but if we can assist the process rather than standing on the sidelines wondering if it is possible, we can be the deciding difference. It is a personal goal of mine to one day travel to Senegal to help Lamine. If you are interested in Lamine's project or want to help, feel free to contact our Assistant Executive Director, Jake Blehm, at:

The numbers and graphs are painfully clear that in the near future there will be very difficult challenges in agriculture we must overcome. Rather than barricading ourselves and waiting in isolation we must venture out to solve these problems where they are already happening. If we can face hunger where it is striking now, we can do
it as a world community; if we wait, we will do it alone.

—Ryan Batjiaka,
Assistant Garden Manager

top | Newsletter Home | Article Index | Archive

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