Reams Principles: Feed the Soil, Feed the Plant, Feed the Leaf


During my first year making fertility recommendations for gardens, I made a wrong assumption. I had witnessed the steady fertility gains made in row crops with relatively modest fertility inputs.

I copied what was working in row crops to the newly developed garden program and was surprised to find a failure in the making. The level of reserve fertility was in significant decline – especially calcium and trace minerals. To compensate I had to dramatically increase the nutrients I recommended and that fixed the problem.

Vegetables remove far more earth minerals that grains, pastures and fruit trees by a factor of 2-10 times.  And this difference in crop removal has to be accounted for by increasing fertility inputs.

As I learned the principles of Reams teaching, I began to make a connection. Everything he taught in the abstract with detailed theory ultimately led to specific actions and inputs. What started in the theoretical always ended up with practical application. After more time listening to Dr. Carey Reams’ audio courses it dawned on me that all these actions and inputs could be consigned to 3 basic ideas.

• Feed the Soil

• Feed the Plant

• Feed the Leaf

Feed the Soil is about optimizing soil toward an ideal pattern. Feed the Plant is about giving a helping hand to the microbe/plant root barter system. Feed the Leaf is about foliar nutrition to further enhance yield and deliver trace minerals.

The greatest success in Reams Agriculture comes when all 3 “buckets” are used in a complete program. Without a doubt, the greatest quantity of inputs is needed to Feed the Soil. The other buckets take far less inputs. The rest of this article will discuss the inputs needed to Feed the Soil.

But first let’s address the question of why. Why use inputs? Because the proper use of inputs, with the help of plants and microbes completely changes the pattern of the soil.

Imagine a chef commissioned to make the world’s best chocolate cake in less than 4 hours. What is he going to do? First, he is going to find the very best chocolate cake recipe, then he his going to assemble the finest ingredients, and lastly, he is going to follow the recipe meticulously.

The highest quality cake is made with very specific levels of ingredients in very tight ratio with each other. Anything added too much or little or out of balance with other ingredients can completely ruin the cake. Just triple the salt and baking soda and the cake is not fit to eat.

The same with soil. Instead of calling it a recipe we call it a pattern. The pattern of soil is determined by the levels and ratios of available minerals. If we want a better output of high-quality crops or nutrient dense foods then we must create the proper pattern in soil. You can’t get a prize-winning cake with a lousy recipe and neither can you achieve nutrient dense produce with deficient or imbalanced soil. You have to meet natures requirements if you want top quality.

Let’s illustrate this with a typical soil test followed up by a decode of the soil pattern. All nutrients are in lbs. per acre on the Morgan soil Test.

Nutrient                                 Lab Result                  Desired Level     

Phosphorous                         16                                 175

Potassium                              290                               175

Calcium                                  900                               3,150

Magnesium                            125                               450

Ratio                                      Result                   Desired Ratio

Phosphorous to Potassium         .05:1                    1:1

Calcium to Magnesium               7.2:1                    7:1

Calcium to Phosphorous             196:1                    15-18:1

Calcium to Potassium                  3:1                         15-18:1

To calculate the ratio, take the lab result for the first nutrient and divide it by the lab result of the second nutrient. To calculate the Calcium to Magnesium ratio, divide 900 by 125 to get 7.2. This soil has a Ca:Ma ratio of 7.2:1.

This general pattern is found all over the south and the eastern 1/3 of the United States. But in many instances the soils have even less fertility than this example. So, what does this pattern tell us? Here is the decode.

• 16 lbs. of available Phosphorous indicates low brix and poor energy production in the plant. The energy cycle in plants depends on phosphorous since it is the P in ATP.

• 290 lbs. of Potassium signifies there will be a crop.

• Calcium at 900 lbs. means low yield, very poor root development, and inadequate feeding of soil microbes. Inputs to help the microbes are needed.

• Magnesium at 125 lbs. is a sufficient amount for leaf function but still low.

• The P:K ratio of .05:1 indicates broadleaf weed pressure.

• The Ca:Ma ratio of 7.2:1 indicates a soil that is workable and not sticky.

• The extreme Ca:P ratio of 196:1 further highlights how critically low phosphorous is and suggests insect and disease susceptibility. If Copper is also low and the year is wet, you might see a fungal attack.

• The Ca:K ratio of 3:1 is the other extreme. Such a high level of potassium relative to calcium indicates poor cellular integrity of the crop. This happens when Potassium substitutes for Calcium in the cell walls.

Altogether this is the pattern of a depleted soil. This soil can not produce high brix or nutrient dense food or crops in the near future. Animals eating forages grown on this soil will not perform well. The good news is this soil is easy to fix. The bad news is it is not cheap.

Inputs to grow the upcoming crop and improve the overall soil pattern could include the following:

• Soft Rock Phosphate

• Low-Magnesium Limestone

• 11-52-0 Mono Ammonium Phosphate

• Calcium Nitrate

• Epsom Salt

What is not suggested for this year is an application of compost or manure. They should be avoided because potassium will increase and it is already too high.

By giving a complete feeding to the soil it will impact roots and microbes. As the pattern changes to toward ideal crop health and yield improves. And so, does the nourishment of people and animals.

Next month we will cover the inputs to Feed the Plant and Feed the Leaf. In the meantime, I hope you are enjoying a diet of nutrient dense foods and that occasional slice of decadent chocolate cake.

Jon Frank is the owner of International Ag Labs (, based in southern Minnesota. He is a soil consultant with more than 20 years of experience in his field. He is the founder of High Brix Gardens (, the market garden/backyard garden division of IAL. Jon is fascinated with the correlation between minerally rich soil and nutrient-dense food and its subsequent impact on human health.

Experts Envision Future of Hemp in Acres U.S.A. Webinar

By Ben Trollinger
Acres U.S.A. magazine editor

Start small, have the end product in mind, make sure you get the right seeds, focus on soil health above all else and don’t expect to get rich quick — those were just a few of the takeaways during the Acres U.S.A. Hemp Farm Accelerator webinar on Tuesday, May 19.

Panelists for the free event included:

• Author and hemp entrepreneur Doug Fine, who grows hemp on 14 acres in New Mexico and Vermont and is the author of American Hemp Farmer;

• Medical cannabis pioneer Edgar Winters, who grows hemp on 22 acres in Oregon for research and development purposes, in addition to consulting with hemp farmers across multiple states;

• Sarah Cotterill and Jamie Perkins, owners of Lineage Hemp Group in Indiana, where they grow 1,200 acres of hemp, sell a line of full-spectrum CBD products and help farmers looking to transition from commodity crops like corn and soy;

• and Noel Garcia with TPS Lab in Edinburg, Texas, which focuses on developing crop- and place-specific growing strategies supported by data from soil testing and sap analysis.

In his presentation, Winters, who collaborates with Cornell University and other research institutions, talked about the importance of further developing and strengthening the genetics of the plant. Ideally, he said growers should want a seed that has been developed and stabilized over 10 generations. That means the plant is much more likely to express desired characteristics consistently over time.

For hemp farmers, one of the biggest concerns over seed genetics is growing a “hot” crop, which means the flower exceeds the federal limit on THC, the psychoactive component of the cannabis plant. A hemp crop over that limit could mean financial disaster for the farmer — hence the need for reliable genetics.

However, Winters said a seed certification process in the U.S. is about 2-5 years away. In the meantime, he advises growers to do their research and check with the department of agriculture in their state to see which seed providers are reputable.

Advice for Hemp Farmers

Genetic consistency aside, Fine said in his presentation that THC burden should not be placed on farmers. He believes that the federal THC limit on hemp should be increased to 1%, instead of 0.3%, where it’s currently set. However, most of Fine’s presentation focused on the branding and marketing potential for “top-shelf,” artisanal hemp.

Doug Fine at hemp webinar
Doug Fine speaks during the Hemp Farm Accelerator webinar by Acres U.S.A.

He believes that hemp farmers must also act as entrepreneurs who use a “value-added” model. For him, that means growing the hemp organically and regeneratively, processing it with care and then marketing a high-end product that touts its health-giving properties. He said it’s about emphasizing the terroir of the product, that sense of place that sets wines and other food products apart. Think Parmigiano-Reggiano or Champagne. That approach could mean farmers don’t just get pennies on the dollar for their work.

Start with the End in Mind

In that same vein, Cotterill and Perkins presented a model of vertical integration. At their Indiana-based operation, they control the process from seed to sale. They follow what they call a “farmer-first, placed-based approach.” And although they are bullish on the long-term prospects for hemp, Cotterill and Perkins urge those looking to break into the market to exercise caution. Start small, they said.

“No one should jump in and do 100 acres,” Perkins said.

They said farmers should first start with the end in mind: Consider what application you want to grow for — fiber, flower or seed. Flower, for example, is a manual process that requires ready access to labor, Perkins said.

Sarah Cotterill and Jamie Perkins in hemp webinar
Sarah Cotterill and Jamie Perkins of Lineage Hemp talk during the Acres U.S.A. Hemp Farm Accelerator webinar.

“Find your why,” Cotterill said. “Figure out where you want to be and be adaptable and open to the ways you get there.”

Fine explained that each hemp application has its own particular space requirements. For flower, a half-acre could make for a financially viable crop. Five to ten acres might be needed for a seed-focused operation, and far more space than that would be needed to grow hemp for its fiber.

The Hemp and Soil Connection

Additionally, panelists talked about the how-to of growing hemp, emphasizing a soil-first approach that moves farmers away from industrial inputs. Winters and Fine talked about the need for cover-cropping with plants like rye, alfalfa and clover to create a “green manure” effect. Panelists also suggested using compost teas that feed healthy microbial and fungal life in the soil.

“We are all soil farmers now,” Fine said.

During his presentation, Garcia said that soil testing is a crucial component in ensuring a healthy, high-quality crop that resists pest pressure. And because hemp is a bio-accumulator that absorbs toxic heavy metals from contaminated soil, such a test could also save a farmer from financial ruin. Additionally, he said that sap analysis should be part of a hemp farmer’s toolkit. He likened the analysis to a blood test that reveals the plant’s nutritional deficiencies in advance of any visible signals of distress. He called that the plant’s “hidden hunger.”

Hope for Hemp

Hemp has fast become a multi-billion dollar market in the U.S., but Tuesday’s panelists encouraged hemp hopefuls to act carefully and deliberately. Hemp is an emerging market, which means it is unpredictable — be willing to pivot and adapt.

(See also: 4 Pitfalls to Avoid When Growing Hemp)

Advancing Industrial Hemp event

Tuesday’s webinar was a foretaste of the Acres U.S.A. Advancing Industrial Hemp event scheduled for October 5-6 in Greeley, Colorado. That event was originally set for May 19, but was postponed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Speakers at the October event include Doug Fine, Noel Garcia, Sarah Cotterill and Jamie Perkins.

Watch the Webinar

The live event is over but you can still watch the webinar! Watch the Hemp Farm Accelerator webinar here.

A How-To on Hemp Planting

Author Doug Fine waves hello from the middle of a large hemp field in Oregon.
Author Doug Fine waves hello from a hemp field in Oregon.


Editor’s note: The following excerpt is from Doug Fine’s new book American Hemp Farmer: Adventures and Misadventures in the Cannabis Trade (Chelsea Green Publishing, April 2020) and is reprinted with permission from the publisher.

The easiest part of hemp planting is figuring out your seed depth, plant spacing, and watering protocol. The hardest part of hemp planting is getting your farm equipment to implement those instructions.

In fact, I’ll tell you right here to plant at a half-inch depth in moist soil that allows for good seed-to-soil contact and thus maximum germination. Doing that with the 7-to-15-inch spacing we discussed will occupy 47 minutes of your 20-hour planting day. The other 19 hours and 13 minutes will mostly be spent under a terrible device called a seed drill. By, say, 11:00 a.m., generally the emotional nadir of a planting day, you’ll be dirty, bloody, very hungry, and thinking, Huh, I would’ve thought my first hemp-planting day would involve more actual planting of hemp. By lunch you should consider yourself in very good shape if you’re even sinking the first seeds in the ground. In case it helps you remember that you’re not alone, this diary of my group’s three-acre 2018 planting of the dioecious Samurai cultivar in Oregon’s Emerald Triangle reflects how planting day usually goes.

7:05 a.m.: Survey of Field, Yoga, Return to Child Mind. The ideal date range for sowing hemp is a latitude-factored-on-climate-change issue. It’ll vary from late March to mid-June depending on your spring weather forecast and cultivar. In 2018, it is at the end of May for our field above the Rogue River. By this point we’ve cultivated billions of microbial communities before the seed even hits soil — mostly by leaving it alone for 20 years.

Not long after sunrise I set my coffee on the tree stump that marks our snack stockpile and tool dump near the gate to the field. After a few Sun Salutations, the whole thing looks so doable. I’m sure we’ll have our 50 pounds of seed in the soil in no time and I’ll be tubing the river by midafternoon.

I should know better. By 2018, I am aware — as I wake in the farmhouse of my mentors and partners Edgar and Margaret up in the hills of southern Oregon’s famous cannabis-cultivation region — that before noon we’ll have basked in two dozen nerve-curdling delays. This is not my first hemp rodeo. I’ve chased goats, woodchucks, and one determined family of wild pigs out of hemp fields.

After a baker’s dozen plantings, I have learned that the only certainty will be joys and hassles we can’t dream up. For instance, the Pacific Northwest version of the — ho hum — Anthropocene epoch’s annual millennial wildfires won’t start for a few weeks in Oregon, and they will last for more than five weeks. But as always, I am willfully forgetting the coming realities of planting day. Spring has sprung. So right off the bat, I’d probably be happy in the DMV.

Being outside sets up a struggle between logic and endorphins, between deadlines and love, where the right brain wins every time. As you stretch, you’re smelling forsythia and raspberry blossoms. Working in the dirt. Your office has no walls. Courting hawks land in nearby limbs. Nothing else exists. For those unused to the feeling I’m describing, it’s called sanity.

From a practical perspective, this “child mind” is what makes you forget last season’s planting nightmares. It is probably some chemical wafting out of healthy soil that casts an indisputable spell of forgetting. This is, really, the essential component of childhood—you don’t know, or don’t care, what’s coming next.

It’s not only last year’s seed drill delays that you forget. Your product’s bottle caps don’t quite fit the bottles? Your state’s regulators are sticking with the absurd “field out of view from road” requirements for another season? Whatever, that was yesterday. Today is planting day. The ultimate now.

7:19 a.m.: Return to Barn for First Human Error–Caused Tractor Breakdown. The wise farmer approaches planting day very much the way a pro ballplayer approaches spring training. It’s intended to get the cobwebs out. But Major League Baseball is smart enough to have 37 days of practice games. We farmers have to wake up, get dressed, and immediately pour lubricants into the wrong reservoirs in tractors.

Terrible sounds and smells alert the group to the problem. In 2018, our perpetrator (not mentioning names, he is just playing an assigned role) avoids eye contact by checking irrelevant tanks with a dipstick. Then the tractor expires into a profound quiet. Our planting day stops before it starts.

This, of course, happens when the temperature is still frosty, and the last thing anyone wants to be doing is unscrewing metal plugs. The next 27 minutes are spent draining one disgusting fluid, pouring in a second, and remembering that we meant to run to town yesterday to pick up a third.

7:46 a.m.: Talking Big. This important phase of planting day commences when, already three-quarters of an hour behind schedule and clustered around the stalled tractor and seed drill, your whole team is now on-site. Just seeing a bag of hempseed unleashes passion. The infectious excitement about the season opening in front of you all results in conversation that goes something like this:

“We can probably do two hundred fifty thousand units,” your partner gushes, pouring a bit of test seed into the seed drill reservoir from a 25-pound bag balanced precariously on his shoulder. “These babies look like they’re ready for it.”

Before you can decipher that remark, the tractor-fluid situation gets straightened out and the engine turns over, leading to a group cheer. The ice is broken.

The aged diesel motor is loud. You shout louder. The hawks scatter. You and your team continue crunching numbers, visualizing the killing the enterprise is going to make when this superlative crop finds itself on shelves.

“Gonna be a great season,” you agree, ignoring the fact that implementing your colleague’s 250,000-unit suggestion would mean 25 times the storage you have dialed in for the flower harvest alone.

As the seed drill is attached to the tractor in a sort of awkward Iwo Jima re-creation, you spend some moments wondering if they award prizes for Most Righteous Farmer of the Year. Before getting a seed in the ground, you tend to put the cart before the oxen.

In the business cycle, planting time represents what you might call the R and D retreat, or the spitballing phase. Some good ideas do come from these field meetings. But really what unfolds represents the primate love of daydreaming. It’s pleasant to visualize that “lying on the beach with an umbrella drink” moment that provides the final scene in 73 percent of movies produced in the 1980s. Everything is ahead of you.

7:51 a.m.: Tractor Moves. Leading a parade of choking farmers and dogs, the farm conveyance crawls 200 yards to the field, churning roughly Bhutan’s annual petroleum output. This is one reason my product labels boast of a petroleum-free harvest. The planting, usually but not always, has been a different story.

8:04 a.m.: First Seed Drill Malfunction. There comes a moment on planting day when the final distractions fade. You feel an all-systems-go sensation. You’ve built soil, acquired your genetics, and prepped your field. Your seed has germinated at 95 percent in the 100-seed paper towel test you conducted as soon as you brought it home six weeks earlier. The tractor has bumped its way to the east side of the field, something that seemed wildly improbable half an hour ago. There you plan to make your first “pass,” which is farmer-speak for the bundle of rows you plant each time your tractor does a lap.

Something clicks. The whole crew feels it. An internal timer signals that you’ve daydreamed long enough. Between fast-moving foggy hints of rain and skin-singeing teasers of how hot the day may get, everyone shoots one another an effervescent thumbs-up or shaka. Let’s get to work.

This, according to the universal calendar of hemp, is when the seed drill fails. As the walls of our bubble of forgetting explode around us again on May 28, Edgar and I shoot each other a glance that says, Oh, right. This.

This is my fourth year of planting delays. His 62nd. We know our day has changed. We will have to spend many gory hours resolving this kind of SNAFU.

The seed drill (also known as a grain drill) is a device invented to punish us for something (maybe for staying still and farming at all, rather than wandering around seminomadically after caribou, wildebeest, and bison, the way we’re hardwired to do). It’s a nonmotorized machine hitched to the back of a tractor (or oxen team), basically a storage container with carefully calculated leaks that drop seeds down a series of chutes from the bin to the ground as often and as deeply as you calibrate it to do. Theoretically.

Like the tractor itself, it’s supposed to make agricultural endeavors easier by improving on the time it would take actual human beings to plant seeds. Instead, working with a seed drill is easily the most maddening element of planting season. Not the only maddening element. Just the most reliably maddening. More practically, seed drill–maintenance delays ensure that agriculture remains about as efficient as it was on the first planting day along the Euphrates.

We appear to be trapped in a constant here, which I call Fine’s Law of Abandoning Traditional Economic Rituals, or FLOATER. This constant establishes that in mechanized agriculture (defined as farming that employs machines rather than hands, hand tools, or livestock), a mission critical problem with a poorly designed, factory-made piece of crap will occur exactly once per pass during the first morning of a given year’s planting season.

It can vary, but early in the day when everyone and everything is rusty, the time it takes to plant a pass plus deal with the malfunction leading up to it usually totals around an hour and a half. We have about 60 passes in front of us this day.

For a long while all the hawks can see are eight booted feet protruding, midfield, from under a tractor and its seed drill attachment. All they can hear is the occasional expletive when yet another socket wrench attachment proves to be just the wrong size.

Despite the delay, spirits are high in the long-angled morning light. That’s because the mood in the field is that of a home birth. We are hemp midwives, and loving it. If you speak to most midwives, they’ll tell you it’s a pretty joyful occupation. A perpetual birthday party. And in our bodies as we plant any crop, oxytocin is exchanged as in any parent-child relationship.

Plus as a farming group, enough of us know that the pace tends to pick up in the afternoon. Even during the worst moments of FLOATER despair, it helps to keep in mind that the hemp will get planted. It’ll just take 10 times longer than you’ve budgeted.

I haven’t yet heard anyone say, “Dang, planting day was just too much of a pain in the ass. I decided not to go through with it.” I have indeed heard such a sentiment following harvest quagmires. But not at planting.

The brain is a remarkably flexible chemistry lab. It can secrete, at electromagnetic speed, any emotion for which the situation calls. The sequence of planting day emotions is: Bliss. Frustration. Elation. Repeat. Unless you really do plant a small-acreage crop by hand, though (not a bad idea), just don’t imagine for a second that you’re immune from the FLOATER constant.

Read more about Doug Fine’s adventures in hemp farming in the book American Hemp Farmer in the Acres U.S.A. bookstore.

Doug Fine is an investigative journalist and pioneer voice in cannabis/hemp and regenerative farming. He’s an award-winning culture and climate correspondent for NPR, the New York Times, and the Washington Post, among others. His previous books include Hemp Bound, Too High to Fail, and Farewell, My Subaru (a Boston Globe bestseller). Find him online at and @organiccowboy.

Doug Fine Teaches Hemp

Learn how to grow hemp from one of the leading experts! Doug Fine is the instructor in our Eco-Ag U Online course A Grower’s Guide to Hemp: From Soil to Seed to Sales. In addition to a broad overview of the many of uses of hemp — from food and fiber to medicine and construction material — Doug will go deep into regenerative growing methods and soil preparation as well as strategies for building a profitable business and navigating legal challenges. Learn more here!

Doug Fine was also a key speaker at our May 2020 Hemp Farm Accelerator Webinar. This free webinar included presentations by hemp expert Edgar Winters, soil consultant Noel Garcia and hemp farmers Sarah Cotterill and Jamie Perkins. In this webinar, Doug Fine discussed hemp entrepreneurship and marketing. Watch the Hemp Farm Accelerator webinar here.

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Event Replays: Experts on Hemp

Acres USA has hosted two virtual Advancing Hemp events, designed to prepare farmers for successful hemp production through practical, applicable advice from industry-leading experts and growers. Learn more about the 2020 replay including Doug Fine and Gary Reding here, plus the 2021 replay including John Kempf and Dr. Whitney Cranshaw here

Accelerating Industrial Hemp 2020

Free! On May 19, 2020, Acres U.S.A. hosted the Hemp Farm Accelerator webinar – an educational event focused on advancing the education of growers who are trying for market share, a higher quality product, a higher CBD percentage and to improve their soil management program. Gain in-depth information on soil analysis, fertilizer and crop nutrition, and pest and weed management from hemp industry innovators and soil health experts.

Watch the Webinar

View the full 2-hour Hemp Farm Accelerator webinar here!

Meet Our Expert Speakers

Doug Fine

Doug Fine

Doug Fine is a pioneer voice in cannabis/hemp and regenerative farming. In the hemp/cannabis sphere, Doug is a farmer, author and well-regarded researcher and consultant for projects all over the world.

Noel Garcia

Garcia is a Certified Crop Advisor under the American Society of Agronomy. He joined Texas Plant & Soil Lab in 1991; he now serves as vice-president, operations and technical director.

Sarah Cotterill & Jamie Perkins

Sarah Cotterill

Sarah Cotterill (pictured) and Jamie Perkins are the CEO and owner, respectively of Lineage Hemp, a vertically integrated hemp company harnessing generational wisdom and agricultural innovation to produce and distribute high quality hemp (fiber, grain, and CBD) using regenerative organic methods.

Edgar Winters

Edgar Winters

In 2014, Edgar Winters received the first Oregon-issued hemp license in 77 years. His roots in Hemp go back to the late 1950s when his grandfather used to cultivate hemp for baling twine. 


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Read our writeup

Read our written summary of the Hemp Farm Accelerator webinar here – “Experts Envision Future of Hemp in Acres USA Webinar.”

Join the Advancing Industrial Hemp event this October

The Advancing Industrial Hemp event will be held virtually on October 5, 2020. Learn more and register at

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Advancing Industrial Hemp is a virtual event on Oct. 5, 2020.

Tractor Time Episode 42: Gerry Gillespie on Feeding the Soil with Household Organic Waste

When you think about recycling, what do you see — plastic containers piling up in the garage maybe? The overflowing bin of clinking wine bottles you’re more than a little embarrassed by on pickup day? Do you just see waste? Out of mind once it’s out of sight.

Or … do you see a farm?

Today, we’re talking with Gerry Gillespie. When he thinks about recycling, he sees healthy soil and nutritious food. He sees communities coming together to claim the rightful value of what most of us think of as trash.

In his native Australia, Gillespie saw two big problems he wanted to fix: farmland that had been degraded by years of chemical agriculture and overstuffed landfills that were belching methane into the atmosphere.

The answer to both problems would be to harness a largely untapped resource hiding in plain sight — the massive amounts of organic matter being discarded every day. We’re talking about yard waste, cardboard and newspaper. We’re talking about kitchen scraps — the potato peels, the coffee grounds, the eggshells. What if we could capture these nutrient-rich resources and funnel them into regenerative farming systems?

An internationally recognized recycling expert, Gerry Gillespie wants to challenge our preconceptions about waste. And he’s been doing this kind of work for decades. He’s a pioneer in the Zero Waste movement and the mastermind behind the City to Soil project, which connects household organic matter with farmers. He is the author of a new book from Acres U.S.A. called The Waste Between Our Ears: The Missing Ingredient to Disrupt Climate Change is in the Trash. He’s traveled all over the world to spread the word, but he calls New South Wales home.

Ranching Like an Economist: It’s All About the Soil

Scott River Ranch specializes in grass-fed, holistically managed cattle.


Dawn creeps over hills overlooking the alpine pasture of the Marble Mountain Wilderness in California’s far north. Gareth Plank reins his horse alongside a mooing herd of red and black angus, their snorts and chuffing breath hang in the frigid air as a silent, gentle snowfall coats the hillside.

On the same morning three thousand miles away in New York City, the Twin Towers — where Gareth had served at a top-level firm as a financial securities analyst — lay crumbled. Only three years before September 11, 2001, Gareth had left the financial sector to live out the dream he’d held since he was ten years old: to buy a ranch and raise cattle with his family.

Tucked on the edge of the Klamath National Forest in California’s far North, Scott River Ranch occupies six square miles of verdant, lush pasture where Gareth and Millie Plank raise grass-fed, holistically managed cattle. “There’s no place better on the planet to raise cattle than Scott Valley,” Gareth Plank says. The climatic shifts and harsh winters in this area west of Yreka tends to produce more hardiness and vigor in grasses and animals. “There’s better TDN and crude protein in our grasses because of the contrasts in climate, we tend to have less pests because of our winters,” he says. In a state known for water conflict and scarcity, 740,000 acre feet of water flow through Scott Valley each year. Plank says, “Farmers and ranchers use about 5% of it, about 40,000 acre feet. Where on the planet can you find that?” Livestock and hay make up the primary agricultural operations in this valley. “We can’t grow melons here: it’s a 120 day growing season, but we can grow great grass.”

Plank has owned and operated Scott River Ranch for twenty two years. “When I first started out I was growing cattle, and then thought I was growing grass. Now I believe I am growing soil. The soil is really what creates the dynamic complexity of flavor.”

Rather than seeing the individual components of his operation as siloed elements, Plank takes an integrated view: producing delicious, well-marbled meat at Scott River Ranch happens to the benefit of the local ecosystem and the Plank family, rather than at their expense. 

Before purchasing the ranch, Plank absorbed the writings of Allan Savory and the Holistic Management approach. Known for its instructions on biological monitoring and planned grazing, many readers might not know that Holistic Management encompasses more than just grass management. Longtime friend of the Planks, agricultural educator and co-founder of the Jefferson Center for Holistic Management, Spencer Smith, points out that an integrative mindset like Plank’s is really what Holistic Management is all about. “The grazing aspect is the part of holistic management that gets the most attention because it’s so different and it does provide such profound ecological results, but if you don’t pace that within your financial realities it won’t work. We need to bring financial realities, social equities and ecological benefits up together in order to be in business for the long term. Gareth is really conscious of that and the work that he does is proof that you can improve all things simultaneously.”

Gareth Plank owns and operates Scott River Ranch.

Dirt Roads via Wall Street

“From my earliest memory, I knew I wanted to be a rancher.” Plank says. In his early years Plank worked for ranchers around his community in the San Joaquin Valley who became much more than employers, having a profound impact on him — not only as a future career choice but also as the kind of person he wanted to become. “I’ve met a couple of presidents and dined with senators, but the people who’ve left me the most inspired were always farmers and ranchers.”

Plank committed to spending his early life working in another field to save up for a ranch. “I was resolute from an early age that by the time I turned 40 I wanted to be ranching.” Plank says. “The happiest I’ve always been is playing in the dirt.”

Before acquiring the beautiful acreage in Scott Valley that would become Scott River Ranch in 1998, he built a successful career in the financial sector as a senior securities analyst. His experiences on Wall Street consulting on investments for foreign governments, Fortune 500 companies and the United States Government offered Plank a big-picture approach and long-term pragmatism that drew him towards the principles of regenerative agriculture. “There’s a certain amount of sobriety that comes from being an analyst. My experience with markets and government policy reminds me to keep painfully alert and stay sober: I know I’m not going to change the world instantly.” Plank’s analytical skill set also helps him unpack both the business, science and visionary aspects that make small family farms successful. “My profession as a financial analyst made me pretty nerdy: getting excited about numbers and trends is part of my DNA.”

Plank carried with him the lens of an economist as he approached his second career in ranching. “Gareth is good at assessing capital improvements for reaping long-term financial benefits,” Smith says, “Like his irrigation system, which wasn’t cheap to put in; however, it’s creating irrigation efficiencies in wet years and dry years that will increase the amount of forage production on the farm that with time and good grazing can increase the amount of livestock and cash crops that can come off the ranch. That all together is part of a healthy business model.”

Plank sees a lot of parallels between investment mistakes in the recent market crashes and the increasing instability of practices in industrial agriculture. “Going back to my experience on Wall Street: I observed extremely smart people doing very stupid things because we are creatures of habit.” But he says we shouldn’t demonize the people following these farming trends, it’s just human nature to want to streamline farming and automate our way out of the daily problem-solving that filled our agrarian ancestors’ daily hours. “On the farm it’s natural to do anything we can to avoid extra work. [The brain is] a super big, expensive organ, so we want to find ways not to use those calories — that’s just evolutionary biology.”

Rather than ranching with formulaic, one-size-fits-all approaches that have characterized the short-cut taking of modern agriculture, Plank has seen better outcomes on his farm through hands-on observation: picking through the dirt to find insect species, sitting out by the riparian zone watching for incoming wildlife, running a hand over the glossy coat of a steer. “If you’re relying too much on apps and tests, you stop observing with your eyes. You go out and look at the coat of your animal — you can tell if it’s stressed and you can learn to observe what it needs.”

Both an extensive knowledge of the Holistic Management strategy and an intimate connection with his own land have been critical for creating the mental grid with which Plank measures the data he’s observing every day. “The first thing I want to do is get out of the way of Mother Nature. That’s hard because we’re control freaks.”

Converting to Organic

While still exploring the principles of Holistic Management, Scott River Ranch wasn’t certified organic until 2003. The turning point came when Mad Cow was discovered in Washington shortly after the ranch had sent a group of cattle to be sold. “When 50% of your income comes in one check and the market is off because of an event, you know you’re doing something wrong! Usually people don’t change until the rug is pulled out from under them.” Plank says participating in the commodity market is a matter of personal preference. “There are people doing a wonderful job, making nice livings. But for myself I recognized that I wasn’t smart enough to work with [agribusiness,] they have far too many resources.” 

Plank not only looked to the organic market for more stability, but also for the social wellbeing of his family on the farm. “I increasingly recognized that [my previous methods] we unsustainable. I observed my small children running around barefoot in the fields and playing by the creek, then I looked at the label of what I was spraying.” While the EPA designates certain herbicides and pesticides as safe after a 48-hour period, Plank felt uncomfortable putting these synthetic chemicals where his children were playing. “If it’s not good enough for my children, I don’t want it for my livestock or land either. The truth is petrochemical industry is not our friend.” Plank believes that the extensive litigation in the mid ‘90s over the tobacco industry’s false claims will be completely eclipsed by a future reckoning with the petrochemical industry’s longstanding minimization of its negative impacts. “We are biochemical beings that live on hormones, so what is the cost of being continuously exposed to a hormones and nerve agents?”

While convinced of the health and ecological benefits of following organic principles, Plank cautions farmers considering the switch to think economically while phasing in organic. “For example, when we converted to organic we had planted wheat, and we lost approximately a hundred thousand dollars on that crop because we could not spray it. So it cost us about a hundred thousand dollars to convert that field to organic to get a 2-3% premium. That’s expensive. In retrospect I should have kept that wheat field conventional and then later converted it into pasture and not taken a loss that year on the wheat harvest.” Over a process of five years, Plank certified Scott River Ranch in sections via Oregon Tilth. “I’m sure you’ve read Don Quixote, you know, Cervantes?” Plank says, “It feels like chasing windmills sometimes: organic should not be labelled, the other food should be labelled.”

Despite the high costs for a marginal premium, Plank believes organic principles have greatly benefitted Scott River Ranch. “We’re raising more cattle here on an organic basis than we were on a conventional basis. We’re running 100 fat steers, 200 moms and another 100 yearlings out there. We used to run 60-80 head here. There were absolutely short term losses, but now we’re running more cattle, producing more feed.”

Calving Naturally to Minimize Losses

“We calve when the deer have their fawns,” Plank says. “Why would you want to fight with Mother Nature? There’s a reason why the elk and the deer are born now: we’re told to calve during what’s known as ‘spring calving’ which for us is during the January blizzard and February blizzard, but that’s to have a calf available when the market is higher.”

Plank points out that calving based on market preferences means higher mortality in the harsh January and February conditions. “Getting up in the morning the first thing I want to do is check for catastrophe, you know: make sure all the animals are standing, but then I want to slow down, observe and get out the way of what the mothers are doing for their calves.”

Plank’s strategy for natural, gentler calving is to purchase bulls that had a low birthweight: this is a trait they will pass on to their offspring. In his experience, the need for intervention is more of a signal that management isn’t going right. “It’s considered unmanly not to pull calves: you’re supposed to be out there in the rain, the snow, the blizzard. Why? About 5 years ago we got a bad bull and had to pull a lot of calves, but in 10 years, outside of that one bad year, have pulled maybe two calves. The calves we have now are between 55-60lbs at birth instead of the typical 110-120lbs but their wean weight is the same.” 

Large birth weights have often been correlated with favorable market weights, but Plank says that this just isn’t true. Additionally, a 120lb calf could paralyze a mother cow or the calf, traumatized from a difficult birth, might lay on the ground for hours and become too weak to access colostrum during the critical window for the calf’s survival. Inversely, a calf genetically predisposed to be born at 55lbs will be born quickly and can suckle immediately, fortifying its chances of survival. Plank has had consistent success in getting calves of this birth-size to grow out. “There’s no relationship between birth weight and adult weight: low birth weight is a genetic trait.”

Grazing Economics

The typical practice of grazing down to four inches isn’t a norm at Scott River Ranch. “I want 60% of my dry matter left in the pasture when the cattle move to the next paddock. Your water retention plummets when you graze down to four inches. We found that in conventional haying, if you give a butch haircut the top 5-6 inches of soil are immediately dry, hot: where do your earthworms go? Where do your dung beetles go? They’re either dead or disappear.” 

Using electronet fencing, the cattle move every day at Scott River Ranch both to limit animal impact and to break down the life cycle of the fly. The watering systems are carefully configured around the ranch to accommodate an ever-changing sequence of paddocks.

Diversity is a critical element of Plank’s philosophy. “When I went to Nepal in the ’80s I had never seen so many different kinds of potatoes, all different kinds of textures and uses —and when a blight would come through and wipe out one potato crop, there were 50 other varieties that weren’t affected.” The pastures at Scott River Ranch have dozens of naturally occurring varieties of forage to offer his cattle. “When it comes to forage we’d like to see 15-20 different species out there and the reason for that is different climates, different rain environments, different species do better depending on the year.” Plank says. This also helps manage invasive and inedible species with the power of diversity. “Each year is a weed du jour!” He also points out that it’s more helpful nutritionally to plant a diverse offering for his cattle. “You need dozens of different species out there for metabolic health. If you don’t have a good smoragsboard out there, they’re probably not going to be as healthy.

Part of the grazing strategy for building up a beef’s frame and musculature involves being strategic about the composition of carbs and proteins in the forage species of any given pastures. “We finish the animals on the highest legume concentration for putting on more intramuscular fat.” The fact that Plank runs a terminal ranch, rather than selling 6-month-old steers on the commodity market, means he is invested in having not only the steer’s weight at market perfection but also the flavor, marbling characteristics and texture. “The industry is working against itself: the cattleman at the front end wants a big body, the butcher at the other end wants good marbling, but they’re fighting each other. When you’re a terminal rancher you don’t want high live weight, you want high dead weight.” 

Plank is interested in pasture cropping, but still prefers to allow the ecosystem of the ranch to call its own shots. “What I really want are the native grasses that reside in the soil that this landscape has evolved for.” During a drought one year, 70% of the ranch’s lushest pasture on Horn Lane died out and yet without reseeding, chiseling or disking the pasture was able to restore itself naturally. “We’re watching our diversity explode without our interceding: we’re getting our timothys, or different types of brome, plantain out there —things that we didn’t even plant are emerging because of the Holistic Management methods.” 

Preserving the Land is Preserving Ranching

While the economic interests of ranching and ecological interest of the land may seem disparate in some circles, Scott River Ranch offers an exemplary approach, not only for maintaining the beautiful wilderness habitat of a diverse riparian and forest zone, but also in creating economic value in these conservation efforts. 

Placing smooth wire on the bottom of his fences allows wildlife to move freely from the uplands to the riparian zone. “That’s been part of our integrative pest management.” Plank says. “It harbors beneficial insects, raptors and allows the deer and elk to have more cover.”

With the ranch’s fish ladder system for Salmon and Steelhead, Plank was able to benefit fish populations while securing his access to a critical water source and getting paid by conservation resources for providing a service. Smith explains the triple-bottom-line approach that helps farmers and ranchers reframe ecological considerations the way Plank does. “The Scott River is a sensitive watershed with a high conservation value when it comes to fish, and many ranchers might see that as an obstacle. Or you can look at that obstacle as an opportunity to create ecosystem services that will have financial dividends as well as ecological benefits.” 

When considering how Gareth Plank’s mindset has inspired him, Spencer Smith says “he’s one of those early adopters: a forward thinking person who creates opportunities for others within Scott Valley, increasing economical and social dividends while improving biological results.” For all his skills at analysis and integrative systems management, Plank’s motivation for running Scott River Ranch is pretty simple: “This is the best beef you’ll ever eat.” Producing a delicious end-product for his family and customers is both an intricately impactful act and a simple joy.

Making the Most of Your Space for Fruit and Vegetable Production


Agriculture can come in all sizes. Having a small space in which to work doesn’t have to limit you in terms of the diversity of what you produce, nor does it mean you won’t be able to satisfy your needs handsomely; it simply means you need to know how to go about it. There are several different approaches to getting the most you can out of your land.

(An important strategy for achieving top-level production that I won’t be covering in this article is to make your soil as healthy as possible, which leads to healthy, productive plants. Not to worry! I will be covering this subject in another issue.)

Plant Variety Selection

If you have had any experience with vegetable varieties, you will know that they are not created equal. Plants thrive in different growing conditions, even if they are the same species. There are also different things that they will or will not be able to do for you. Can they be staked? Will they produce a heavy crop? The required nutrient level and drainage of soil, required sunlight level, and ability to compete with weeds are further characteristics that will continue to separate plants. It is useful to think about potential members of your garden in a variety of ways to determine which are the plants for you.

One approach to variety selection to make the most of a small space is choosing varieties that are noted for heavy production. If you thumb through seed catalogs, you are sure to find a variety or two of most every vegetable or fruit that will be worthy of this description. For example:

  • Irish Potato—Red Maria, Elba, German Butterball
  • Snap Pea—Super Sugar Snap
  • Pickling Cucumber—Double Yield
  • Bush Bean—Provider
  • Mini-Hubbard Winter Squash—Gold Nugget (doubly useful as it is a compact plant)

And almost every variety of acorn winter squash is noted for both enthusiastic production and compact growth. Pole beans are also famous for high yields, and note that they come in flat and round regular, Romano, and French/filet varieties (there are even some dry shelling varieties, such as Bingo). On the other hand, there are many varieties of fingerling potatoes and heirloom tomatoes, which are much more judicious when bearing fruit and should possibly not be considered.

Some produce varieties should be selected because they make great use of the space given to them. Long salad radishes like Dragon and French Breakfast will give you more radish flesh with their one inch-square of ground than, for example, Cherry Belle and Easter Egg, because they simply keep on growing down. Cylindrical beets, as opposed to the more familiar round roots, repeat this technique. Pole beans, as well as being productive plants, are also very large plants (8 to 10 feet tall) that produce very large yet tender beans (pods range from 6 to 11 inches long depending on the variety). Yard long and runner beans also boast enthusiastically tall plants, and a correspondingly greater harvest potential.

Then there are the “keep on picking” plants, those with a larger harvest over time. Kale, Swiss chard, and collards are the sorts of greens that will keep on giving as long as you keep on taking. As long as eggplant and pepper plants have time to produce more flowers, and as long as you keep on picking, they also will produce more fruits. Broccolis can be different; some varieties produce only a strong central head, and the harvest is over. Instead, select one that produces a central head and then a good harvest of side shoots (De Ciccio and Umpqua are two nice open-pollinated varieties); or pick a sprouting broccoli.

You could also select plants that have a compact growth habit. There are varieties of summer and winter squash, melons and peas that produce very large or long plants. And there are cabbages and carrots that require ample space because they produce a generally large plant. But there are also varieties of all of these that stay small. Sometimes it is because the produce you harvest is of a diminutive size as well, and sometimes because they just don’t need to grow as large vegetatively to produce their crop. See Table 1 for a listing of plant varieties that are especially suited to small areas. Note that varieties listed in the “container” column can readily be grown in a “tight” planting scenario, but that the converse switch should not be assumed to be true.

Table 1: Plant Varieties for Container or "Tight" Plantings

Tomatoes offer different options for the small garden; the key is to remember what is what. They can be indeterminate, which in the scenarios above would mean “keep on picking.” Indeterminate plants continue to grow and produce tomatoes until there is a killing frost. On the other hand, a determinate tomato plant will only grow to a certain size and fruit count, which ripen all at once. Compared to indeterminate plants, determinate ones are compact and bushy, better for spaces where you don’t want them trailing all over. So as you can see, you can choose to grow either kind of tomato plant as long as you remember what it will do and where/how to plant/culture it accordingly.

There are plants that can do double duty for you, giving you greater opportunities to harvest. Squash like Tromboncino (zucchini rampicante) can be harvested when smaller and immature as a nice summer squash, or allowed to mature and be used as a winter squash. There are many heirloom squash varieties that can bridge the summer/winter gap, such as Kamo Kamo, Mongogo du Guatemala, and Table King Bush. A favorite cucumber of ours is the Silver Slicer. It is from the “slicing” section of the seed catalogue and it is a great slicer, but there have been years when pickling cucumbers became scarce before the canning was done and we found that when picked small they were perfect pickling stand-ins. Depending on your corn proclivities, you could raise Hopi Blue or Painted Mountain and pick ears at the immature, sweet corn stage for fresh eating (provided you are not afraid of exotic colors and real corn flavor), and allow the rest to mature to be harvested and ground into corn meal. When maximizing the edible is an important consideration, you might want to confine yourself to hardneck (stiffneck) varieties of garlic. This is the class of garlic that produces a hardened flowering stalk, which is the garlic scape. Garlic scapes are a harvest unto themselves, and with this one simple guideline you are now producing more food.

And there are still other interesting crops to explore. Celtuce is one. A type of lettuce, you harvest the lettuce leaves from the plant at any stage of its growth, as it is the 12- to 14-inch stem on which they are produced that is your primary objective; it is crunchy and tasty. Cracoviensis, or Asparagus Lettuce, is similar. A lettuce that grows fast in cool weather, there is again no bitterness in the leaves on the thick, fleshy, “bolted stem” it sends up, which is to be peeled and eaten like asparagus.

So far I have focused on vegetables, but fruits have a place in this discussion as well. Strawberries in particular offer a wealth of options. A standard variety like Honeoye is known for being highly productive and for producing fruits over a longer period of the year than other June-bearing varieties. Several varieties are everbearing strawberries, which produce all summer (smaller quantities measuring by-the-week, but for many more weeks). Some varieties have a compact growth habit, so that one can easily find room for them in a small garden or a container, even a hanging basket. Alpines are a strawberry type that have varieties of this sort.

The list goes on. Huckleberries can easily be grown in containers. Top Hat is a blueberry variety that grows on a miniature bush, measuring 2 feet tall and 12 inches in diameter, and will fit in a container or anywhere at all. There are other blueberry varieties that have compact growth, and some that offer two separate harvest periods (such as Bushel and Berry Perpetua). There are many fruits that grow on vines and so have a small “footprint” in the garden, including grapes, goji berries (goji berries are a double duty crop, as they have edible leaves), and kiwi. The kiwi Prolific is self-fertile, compact in growth, and produces fuzzless, bite-size fruits in hardiness zones 4-8. And there is a plant called a dwarf flowering cherry or sand cherry, which is a 5-foot bush and not a tree like other sweet cherries, and so much easier to fit into a limited space.

Many available fruit trees (apple, pear, peach, and plum) have been grafted so that they bear five different varieties of one fruit, offering selection in the space of one tree. And many of these are dwarf trees, meaning that they only grow 8 to 10 feet in height and so won’t overwhelm the area where they are planted. Additionally, there are also single-variety fruit trees that are dwarf and/or self-fertile, cutting down on the height of your trees and the number required for fruit.

Cultural Techniques

It is not only what you grow but how you grow it. There are various culturing techniques that will help you maximize land use.

Time to Grow Up: As referenced earlier, one option it to make crops go up. Whether it is tomatoes, pole beans, or cucumbers in cages, on trellises, on a tripod, or on cattle panels, it is important to keep efficiency when harvesting (or at least convenience) in mind when setting up your “aerial” system. Some varieties of crops are more suitable to growing up than others. Many varieties of slicing cucumbers have sufficiently strong vine growth. Melons that also have strong vines and/or come as dainty fruits (such as the honeydew Orange Silverware and the speciality melon Tigger) are exceptionally well suited. And caging all manner of small-sized tomatoes makes harvesting them so much easier (as well as being a good way to save space), they should not be grown any other way.

A Little Training: Simply sending plants up into the air saves space. Further manipulation and training of plants to grow in a specific way can be of even greater use. Techniques that come to mind are espalier pruning and cordon trellising of fruits, which are most often used to orient plants to grow flat against a wall or straight up within a small circumference. Once the basic objectives of pruning are understood (once you know how not to cut off next year’s fruit), almost any shape can be achieved or, rather, almost any space can be filled. And filled by many different kinds of fruits, from apple or pear trees to currant or gooseberry bushes.

Close Quarters: Container production opens up other options as well, both indoors and outdoors. Whether it is fresh herbs or microgreens in the kitchen itself, cucumbers in a window box, or strawberries in a hanging basket, the more plants that are happy to grow in a container of any sort, the more ground area you will be left with for others. Again, refer to Table 1.

Space it Out: Plants need to be given sufficient space to produce their crop, but required spacing can be investigated. Take the onion family. Always plant scallions in bunches of 4-6, and pull them out of the ground in a bunch. Instead of planting bulbing onions individually in a row, plant them 2-4 in a group. They will simply push each other aside as they each size up. And a leek variety like Zermatt can be planted densely and used for a first picking of (alternating) baby leeks, leaving the remainder with space to produce full-sized leeks. What other space modifications are out there?

The Best of Friends: Companion planting is planting different crops in close proximity for a variety of reasons, all of which are intended to lead to increased production. Improved pollination and pest control are a couple, as is “plant partnerships” that use nutrient cycling and associated soil microbes of plants to help one another. Research companion planting for the specifics.

A Shapely Approach: Yet another practice for filling up a garden space efficiently involves the basic planning of the garden so that you can practice intensive crop production. Raised-beds (typically rectangular) and the further specialized keyhole and pyramid gardens are some on the layouts on which most intensive gardening takes place; the garden areas are more contained and more controlled, with the objective of being more productive. Square foot gardening is about as precise as it can get, with plots marked at each foot to closely monitor plant density. Raised-beds can be of even greater benefit if they are used along contour lines on slopes, creating garden space where there otherwise couldn’t be due to erosion.

The Element of Time

We have been discussing ways in which plants don’t take up a lot of room spatially. There are also ways to work with how they take up room temporally.

A Winter Garden: An excellent production booster is the planting of an off-season garden that will continue to yield in the dead of winter and into spring of the next year. You can find varieties of many different crops to serve this purpose. The Giants of Colmar carrot, Tadorna leek, purple sprouting broccoli, and many other crops can withstand the cold months of winter. A successful winter garden is simply achieved by planting the correct varieties and possibly using a bit of mulch for extra protection. Imagine the possibilities if you were to use cold frames or other means of season extension as well! Be sure to plant these long-term crops with ones that grow rapidly so that the ground for your winter garden isn’t out of production for a time; rather, you can still get a fall harvest and then have the winter planting as a bonus.

Space Holders: Which brings us to the point that cool-season crops that grow in the spring (and do so rapidly) should be thought of as space holders in the garden. This refers to arugula, lettuces, mesclun, radishes and spinach, for example. Summer transplants can be put into the ground as soon as the spring crop comes out, or they can be planted at the same time (see interplanting below).

In Rapid Succession: Successional planting is keeping your ground in fairly constant production by having seeds or transplants ready to go into the ground as soon as the previous crop is removed. Be mindful of varieties, as succession planting depends upon crops’ time-to-harvest, which varies from crop to crop and even variety to variety. For example, some carrot varieties may take 50 to 60 days to reach maturity, while others take 80 to 90; you must decide which is appropriate where. Even crops like tomatoes and potatoes that require a lot of time in the soil can be thought of for succession plantings. They can go into ground that was used for an early spring crop, or move right in when the winter garden plantings come out. Various short-season crops like scallions and cress, as well as the rapid growth, cool-season “space holders,” are certainly great for hopping in and out of the garden in rapid succession.

Profitable Partnerships: The growth of plants can complement one another in many different ways, leading to numerous combinations to keep your ground packed for production. Interplanting is planting different species in close proximity to make the fullest use of a given resource. For example:

Sunlight: Some crops require full sun, while others can grow in (or prefer) partial shade. See Table 2 for a sample of crops that fall into the “light” and “shade” categories, and so can be planted together.

Rooting Depth: You can interplant species that make use of different zones of the rhizosphere, as plants do have characteristic rooting depths. See Table 3 for information on the rooting depths of various crops.

Time to Maturity: It is considered when you plant successionally, and also when you interplant crops with different dates to reach maturity. In a sense, interplanting based on time to maturity is successional harvesting as opposed to successional planting.

The combinations are endless, though you will find some work better than others. Obviously, the well-known “Three Sisters” combination of corn, vining beans, and vining squash makes use of complementary rooting depths perfectly, and they clearly work together in terms of sunlight, moisture and nutrition, as well as by the corn providing a natural trellis for the beans. Onion, carrot, and lettuce is another good combination that works for rooting depth, sunlight, and time-to-harvest. And there are other ways in which crops can fit together well and be synergistic in a close arrangement. People use “prickly,” vining cucurbits as a physical barrier to help keep furry garden pests from the succulent crops they desire. Or they use crops like peppers or dry beans as markers to help locate the “base” of melon plants for soil drenching at the roots, which can be hard to find in a sea of vines. And why not use sunflowers or broom corn as natural trellises, too?

Table 2: Light and Shade Partners

Edible Landscaping

A final thought is to remember you might have access to more land than you think you do. Creating an edible landscape allows you to go beyond a conventional garden and employ plants that can offer you food as well as provide for other practical needs. If you are in need of a hedge, why not an eight-foot-tall blueberry (or serviceberry or Nanking cherry plum) for a hedge you can also harvest from? Or if you are in need of a ground cover, try putting in lingonberries or strawberries. From small trees (like aronia berry, sea buckthorn, or crab apple) to vines (hardy kiwi or vine peach), there are numerous options of plants to choose from which are attractive and practical.

Not to mention that there are many typical garden plants that are attractive enough to be used in landscaping, too. Jerusalem Artichoke or Red Veined Sorrel, or any of those really intriguing eggplant or okra varieties, especially those with arresting colors. What is more beautiful than an okra flower? I saw a quinoa variety in a catalogue recently called Brightest Brilliant Rainbow. With vivid pink flowers, it is absolutely gorgeous. As it has calcium and iron-rich leaves, and seeds that provide a plant-based complete protein, it is a plant worth growing for a variety of reasons. Also bear in mind that having the full expanse of your lawn at your disposal (with occasional buildings interspersed) should make plant isolation easier in case you wish to save seed.

Table 3: Characteristic Rooting Depths

Anything Is Possible

Don’t stop here; there are yet other ways to produce your own food without using a great deal of space. Why not grow grain? Grain crops don’t have to be planted in large fields and harvested with a combine. I think buckwheat is fun. Flowers for the honeybees, seeds for the chickens, and more seeds for you. Why not the Otaheite Orange, a dwarf plant that does well in indoor container gardening? Or the Moringa, a complete protein superfood full of vitamins and minerals with leaves, seed pods, and seeds to offer? And there is absolutely no reason that the list of shallow-rooted, shade loving “plants” that you consider for your garden shouldn’t include mushrooms (with the correct mulch, of course).

The potential benefits of urban and small-space agriculture are many. From more land being used to perform carbon and nitrogen sequestration to providing food and habit for beneficial insects to helping to reduce storm runoff in urban areas to energy conservation for society in general, as well as the energy and food savings and personal satisfaction provided to the growers themselves, the challenge of gaining the knowledge, skill, and technique needed to make urban agriculture work really well is more than worth the returns.

Leah Smith works on her family’s organic farm in mid-Michigan, called Nodding Thistle. She is a home and market gardener, avid reader and writer, and editor of the Michigan Organic Food and Farm Alliance (MOFFA) quarterly newsletter.

This article was originally published in the April 2020 issue of Acres U.S.A. magazine.

Using Ancient and Perennial Grains to Build Soil Health

Larry Kandarian focuses on ancient grain and perennial wheats at his farm in Los Osos, California.


Larry Kandarian of Kandarian Organic Farms in Los Osos, California has been a farmer for over forty years. Starting with a conventional model and then transitioning to a diversified organic farm, Kandarian’s career in agriculture has progressed by rewinding back to the beginning.

 “Farro is the very first thing mankind ever grew.” Kandarian says, “In Paleolithic times we were not only hunting, but also gathering einkorn.”

Kandarian Organic Farms boasts almost two hundred crop varieties, most of which are commonly known as ancient grains: old varieties of heritage or heirloom grains preserved from pre-industrial times and saved year-to-year. For Kandarian, growing ancient grains is personal: his ancestry hails from the exact region where grains were first cultivated by early civilizations in Ancient Mesopotamia.

“My dad was Armenian from right near Iran, so it just made sense to grow some of those grains. I love them,” he said.

Kandarian got his start in the flower seed business. “I’ve done flowers, herbs, vegetables and grasses. It was natural to move to [grains] in 2007 during the economic downturn because nobody was buying flower starts while the housing market was going to hell!”

With their high nutrient and fiber content, ancient grains not only offer an ideal nutritional staple for Kandarian’s customers, but also an opportunity for him to preserve unique varieties. The farm produces certified organic, quinoa, millet, flax, Teff, chia, emmer farro, Ethiopian Blue Tinge Farro, spelt, rye, Kamut, sorghum, einkorn, triticale, Hard Red Winter Wheat, Black Barley, Nude Oats and Sonora White Wheat.

“A lot of the seeds we started with came from the seed repository of the United States and then we get seeds from all over the world. With my background in the seed business I’m able to take a small sample and make more.“

Kandarian not only provides nutritious grains and grain blends as a health product, he grows them in a way in which grains and legumes working in tandem on a field to fix nitrogen and balance soil.

“The Teff gets to be twelve to eighteen inches tall while the khorasan gets to be around five feet. Then we cut them together, thrash and separate the seeds,” he said.

Kandarian even grows several trios grains on one field, such as einkorn, Teff and Sonora Wheat, and farro, fava and flax. The trick is to have enough contrast in seed sizes to allow easy separation at the end of processing. Multi-seeding is a simple process for Kandarian.

“We’ll either hand seed or use a spin spreader,” he said. “We’ll cover the larger grains first and then put the Teff on top and add the sprinklers.”

Ancient vs. Modern Grains

While grains are having a moment of derision in popular dieting literature, Kandarian believes the problems with grain lie not with grains themselves, but with agricultural practices and breeding for scale and efficiency rather than nutrition.

“The good thing about ancient grains is they are alkaline-based, while modern grains are acid-based, and acids can promote cancer,” he said.

Kandarian is also concerned about pesticide inputs. “When you spray grain with RoundUp, the seeds that are green finish maturing with the RoundUp absorbed inside.”

But abandoning grains altogether, like in popular iterations of the Paleo diet, would be a mistake in Kandarian’s view.

“If I was a Paleolithic person hunting and gathering and I came upon this big grain head of einkorn as opposed to other foxtails and weeds, there’s no way in hell I wouldn’t eat it.” Kandarian said. “The Paleo diet should include ancient grains.”

Kandarian points to Paleolithic remains found in West Asia as evidence.

“In our Paleo ancestors’ guts they did have grains: they also had einkorn in their teeth. We can handle grains, which is why we have molars in our teeth to grind those kinds of things,” he said.

Where modern grains have failed nutritionally, Kandarian believes ancient grains offer a solution. He subscribes to the Weston A. Price philosophy of pre-soaking grains with apple cider vinegar to help eliminate the bitter phytic acid in the bran layer as well as lectins.

While ancient grain varieties provide superior nutrition, Kandarian says that they have moved to the margin of the grain industry over the last 100 years as the growing process became more tailored towards the uniformity required by machines.

“Most grain farmers are looking at dollars: they’ve got a combine that cost them half a million dollars so they have to run a lot of stuff through it,” he said.

The pressure to produce more per acre lead farmers to prefer chemical fertilizers and shorter, sturdier varieties yielding thousands of pounds an acre — exponentially more than ancient grains. “We use a different process from the conventional combine harvesting. A combine is literally the combination of two processes — cutting and thrashing. Because we have such different height of grains, we use two machines, the wind rower and the thrasher. So we pick up the grain out of the wind rows laid out on the detritus of the field and then we pick that up just like picking up a carpet and thrash it.”

Growing Perennial Wheats

While maintaining his love of ancient grains, Kandarian has also been an early adopter for new perennial wheat varieties. He has grown these experimental grains for 20 years.

Kandarian Organic Farms currently grows 60 acres of a perennial wheat called Kernza developed by the Land Institute. Kandarian is drawn to the way perennial wheats come back every year without needing to be replanted.

“Annual crops require tilling and fertilizer inputs,” he said. “They have a shallow root system: typical wheat roots go down about two feet while a perennial wheat can have a root system as deep as thirty feet.”

The expanded surface area of these dramatically long root systems offers perennial plants better nutrition.

“Plus, the fact that you’re not tilling means you’re sequestering carbon as opposed to letting it escape,” he said. “As the soil gets more aggregated the water intake improves so that even if you have a slope the soil planted with perennial wheat has minimal runoff, which prevents the nitrogen from collecting in the waterways and causing dead zones in the ocean. It’s a win/win.”

While encouraged by these ecological effects, Kandarian is careful not to treat Kernza like a silver bullet.

“Kernza yields 600 lbs an acre, maybe eight or nine maximum, and then you have to take the husk off, so they’re working on de-hulled varieties where the seeds come out easily (like our Ethiopian Blue Tinge Farro) but the variety we currently grow holds the seed pretty tightly so we have to take that husk off mechanically.”

Kandarian is optimistic about future varieties and crosses with higher-yielding wheats, and is willing to move forward with Kernza because of the dramatic improvements in his soil. “Kiss the Ground [a regenerative agriculture nonprofit] came out and did some sampling and found that our Kernza field that has been in for twenty years has the highest infiltration rate of any soil in the United States. 30 inches of water an hour. The typical amount is about half an inch an hour.”

Always interested in staying at the cutting edge of perennial grain development, Kandarian looks forward to trialing new varieties.

“I’m working with Dr. Steven Jones of the Bread Lab at Washington State University to get one of his perennial wheats called Salish Blue, which is a cross between a wheatgrass and a wheat,” he said.

Kandarian works carefully with his grain varieties to select ones that will perform best in his region.

“People said I couldn’t grow Teff but it grows extremely well here,” he said. “They think it has to be 110 degrees like in Ethiopia, but that’s not the case — it just needs to stay above freezing.” Over the years of working with grain varieties on the farm Kandarian has saved his seeds and found that they adapt to perform better with time.

“You never want to discount a variety and just move on, I will always try something at least twice,” he said. “Like for example a tritium variety from the Indus Valley that didn’t seem to like it here. I want to keep alive as many grain varieties as I can, so I’ll try it again next year.”

Growing for Soil Health

On his own acreage, Kandarian is using every inch of land to work in tandem to produce food.

“I own 130 acres and we’re farming the bottom 65 on a sloped hill going up about 100 feet and the top will be used for grazing,” he said.

On the upper pasture, oak trees provide acorns for Kandarian to finish his market hogs and this frost-free zone will allow the farm to have avocado trees in the future.

“Any place you can grow avocados you can grow coffee and other sub-tropicals, so we entertain the idea of putting a lot of different things in,” he said.

Arriving at organic practices was an evolution for Kandarian. After farming conventionally for the first 30 years of his career, Kandarian’s first attempts at organic struggled.

“I really failed miserably when I first came to Los Osos in ’99, I just couldn’t keep up with the weeds,” he said.

By 2007, through close observation of his land and help from the Soil Health Academy and Conference, Kandarian arrived at successful practices.

“I learned how to grow soil first and then crops on the soil later, and once you get into that mindset it makes everything a lot simpler,” he said.

Kandarian uses cover crops and carefully-timed planting of taller species to manage through the weeds, always conscious to balance the carbon/nitrogen ratio and the bacteria/fungus ratio. “People ask, ‘how do you know if your soil is good’ and I answer, ‘put a shovel in it and if there’s worms it’s good!'”

Kandarian eschews heavy tilling and opts for lighter methods. “We just strip till where we’re going to put our crops in, so every 30 inches I run a ripper shank down a little bit just to get loose soil, then we drag it, plant in a low spot to retain moisture.” Relying on careful successions of annuals and cover crops, Kandarian’s soil structure is held together by root systems that communicate and share nutrients.

“There’s an awful lot of exchange that goes on under the soil: you can’t always tell what’s going on just based on what’s on top,” he said.

Kandarian’s latest project is incorporating animals onto the farm. “We’re getting a herd of sheep now. We’re not just regenerating the soil but we’re also preserving the blood lines of rare and endangered animals by running them behind rare and endangered grains.”

These ruminants will provide pastured meat and fiber for local use and will help process the stems and stalks of the grain fields.

“These animals provide not only their feces and urine but also their saliva when they bite on the perennial crops, which triggers the plants to grow even more: it encourages root branching and faster growth,” he said. “Some animals wrap their tongues around the plant so they grow even more; other animals like sheep have two sets of dentures that allow them to bite lower so you can’t leave them in one spot for too long.”

Kandarian uses mob grazing and rotational grazing with electric fencing systems to keep the animals on fresh forage and keep land impact at its prime efficacy.

“We’re getting a [guard] donkey and a herd of St. Croix, which are hair sheep so you don’t have to shear them, the hair just drops off; and because they don’t have wool they don’t produce lanolin which changes the taste of the meat.”

Kandarian chose St. Croix because of their threatened status as documented by the American Livestock Conservancy, and also plans to run large-growing hair sheep like Dorper and Barbados. The plan is to run these sheep on after-harvest fields of grain to clean up the stalks and stems left by the almost 200 different crops. “There’s a lot going on.” Kandarian says.

Along with his new foray into multi-species grazing, ever expanding palate of old and new grains, Kandarian Organic Farms is working towards cultivating more collaboration and education opportunities. Kandarian’s operation is in the process of rebranding to “Heart and Soil Farms,” which will encompass the many ventures this operation is taking on.

Kandarian is very optimistic about the future of agriculture when he sees more opportunities for young people to learn about ancient grains, organic farming methods and permaculture living. “The more kids we can teach to grow a seed rather than play on their iPad, the further we’re going to get. I have a lot of faith in the new generation.”

With strong ties to both ingenuity and antiquity, Kandarian seeds that future with every grain he plants.

Learn more about Larry Kandarian at or on Instagram @kandarianorganicfarms.

Preparing For Difficult Growing Conditions


Cold, wet weather with low PAR light and few or shortened growing degree-days made 2019 a disastrous year for agriculture in many parts of the United States. It delayed planting in some areas and prevented planting in others — all resulting in a shortened growing season. Much of the same was predicted for 2020. Developing a plan to mitigate the effects of difficult field conditions is essential for the farmer to survive and crops will need all the help they can get at the very start. So, what do we do to play catch-up and even avoid having to replant?

Get a good start with starter fertilizers

“Pop-Up”/Starter Fertilizers can be game-changers to your ultimate success. Getting your crop off to a healthy, strong start is more important than ever in persistently poor conditions. Conditions such as compaction, crusting, cold soil temperatures, salinity and wet/dry soils are detrimental to most crops.

Achieving good starts with rapid and strong early root development is essential — then followed by in-season monitoring utilizing sap analysis to proactively achieve balanced nutrition. While season-long balanced plant nutrition is needed to minimize plant stress for best yields and quality, phosphorous is the foundation for good roots, early fruiting and uniform maturity.

Utilizing proper adjuvants based on soil type is essential for keeping the phosphorus plant- bioavailable for an extended period of time to keep the rhizosphere active during less than ideal conditions. The solubilities of other elements to form compounds holding or binding phosphorous are directly related to soil pH. The pH range of greatest phosphorus availability is 6.0 to 7.0. At a lower pH (< 6.0), when the soil is very acidic, more iron and aluminum are available to form insoluble phosphate compounds. In strongly alkaline soils (> 7.0), more calcium and magnesium are available forming insoluble phosphate resulting less available phosphorus.

The use of starter fertilizer is a source of debate for many agronomists. Most growers see the benefit of early uniform harvest but are likely to over-fertilize. There are hazards to using fertilizer in close proximity to the seed and this scares-off many advisors from recommending it. Like physicians, advisors’ first concern is to “do no harm.” It is easiest to say, “Just Don’t Do It.”  

But in dire times, the battle for profitability and survival requires stepping out of a traditional “safe” zone.

Starter fertilizer risks and benefits

Due to their close proximity to the roots, starter fertilizers in particular, with high salt indices are to be avoided, as they cause reverse osmotic pressures on the roots resulting in dehydration of the plant — resulting in stress or death. Accordingly, components of starters must be carefully researched and selected.

The risk of seedling injury is higher in sandy soils due to the low CEC of such soils causing more nutrients to remain in solution. The injury risk increases under dry conditions because of higher concentration near the seed for extended periods of time. Salt injury from fertilizers is typically not a problem if fertilizer and plant roots are separated by time, distance or both.

Starter placement for maximum benefit has been shown by research to be most beneficial when germinating seeds’ first roots immediately hit a band of high phosphorous — especially in cold, wet soils. It is safest to place the band of starter fertilizer in-furrow in a 2×2 band (two inches below and two inches on each side of the seed). With this placement, the risk of seedling injury is virtually nonexistent.

Be aware that the benefit of early phosphorous decreases by each additional half-inch away from the seed. Seed treatments are now available for sown crops. Dr. F.L. Fisher of Texas A&M University was one of the first researchers in starter fertilizer in the early 1960s.

Phosphorous by itself is seldom harmful. It is the other plant nutrients in fertilizer, which have high salt that can harm germination and plant growth. Nitrogen, potassium and sulfur have high salt indices and should be kept to a minimum but are beneficial early as are micronutrients such as zinc, iron, manganese, copper and boron in minute amounts.

Use fertilizer sources and rates that minimize the chance for injury. In addition to salt injury, some N compounds (such as UAN, urea, and ammonium thiosulfate) produce free ammonia, which can cause poor germination or seedling death.

The best fertilizers for seed-row application have a low salt index and N compounds that do not produce free ammonia, and potassium phosphate rather than potassium chloride as the K source. Additions of carbon sources such as humic/fulvic acids, amino acids and sugars also help protect the seed and buffer the fertilizers. They also help keep the fertilizer in a bioavailable form for extended periods — especially in cold or alkaline soils.

These carbon sources also feed the soil life thus increasing the microbial activity, which slightly raises the soil temperature, enhancing germination. Areas with potential for heavy surface crusting that may interfere with germination, over-the-top applications of soil inoculants (beneficial soil bacteria) can help alleviate this potential problem.

Additionally, a multiple hormone (auxin, cytokinin, gibberellins, seaweed/kelp) formula can yield dramatic results, especially during prolonged bad weather. Root systems are a plant’s lifeline and the use of plant hormones with starter fertilizers or foliar-applied can give a plant the best chance at success.

The bigger and healthier the root system, the bigger and healthier the plant. It has been proven that the use of these products can:

  • Promote the growth of roots and shoots;
  • Improve early season vigor;
  • Enhance a crop’s ability to produce its own natural growth hormones;
  • Reduce early season stress with increased healing abilities;
  • Increase the overall health of the plant, and
  • Increase both yield and quality.

Again, many consultants avoid using these, as they don’t well understand them and they must be fairly precisely applied.

Application info

Phosphorous can be sprayed directly on the seed but caution is advised, as too much of any good thing can be harmful. Use products that are designed for foliar application and have low salt indices. Only one quart per acre of a high phosphorous formula next to the seed is needed to produce benefits. It is generally recommended that one to three gallons per acre of a high P formula be used that contains a balance of nutrients. This should be mixed with enough water to allow accurate application. Five gallons per acre total solution is minimum but a 10-gallon per row-acre rate would be much better for dilution as well as accuracy of application.

Application equipment must also be functioning properly to deliver uniform rates of starter fertilizer when using in-furrow placement. Fertilizer injury often occurs from problems with application equipment on the planter. A common problem is getting rates too high due to improper settings or calibration, or unequal distribution on liquid systems (some rows receiving more than others) that can lead to over-application and fertilizer salt injury.

Foliar applications while crops are under stress from excess soil moisture and cloudy conditions for extended periods are highly effective. Plants under prolonged anaerobic conditions will be stressed and have retarded development. Supplementing with a balanced phosphorous formula can boost plants while mitigating stress and enhancing development. Guidance from sap analysis at critical stages of plant development is used to formulate the proper foliar program and customize it to specific crop needs. This is essential to playing catch-up in times of duress.

First feeding the soil and then the plants with a balanced diet at their critical stages of growth will accelerate maturity, lower production costs and increase yields and profits.

Noel Garcia is a senior consultant at TPS Lab.

Editor’s Note: This article first appeared in the January 2020 issue of Acres U.S.A. magazine

Meet Noel Garcia at the Advancing Industrial Hemp event

Acres U.S.A.’s Advancing Industrial Hemp event will take place Oct. 5-6, 2020, in Greeley, Colorado. It will be focused on advancing the education of growers who are trying for market share, a higher quality product, a higher CBD percentage and to improve their soil management program. Gain in-depth information on soil analysis, fertilizer and crop nutrition, and pest and weed management from hemp industry innovators and soil health experts – including Noel Garcia! Learn More here.

Tractor Time Episode 41: Darby Simpson on Finding Opportunity During a Pandemic

On this episode, we’re talking with Darby Simpson. If Tractor Time is only but a part of your farming podcast diet, you may already know who he is. He does the Grassfed Life podcast with Diego Footer. He’s also a contributor to Acres U.S.A. magazine. And what I really value about his perspective is its practicality. Through his podcasts and online courses, it’s clear he wants to help equip farmers with the tools to run successful farms — not just act out a romantic, Instagram version of farm life. He truly puts the economical in eco-agriculture. But he’s a conscientious farmer too, running a pasture-based, non-GMO livestock operation in Indiana, located between Indianapolis and Bloomington. In this interview, we talk about everything from farm diversification to the future of farmers’ market to the impact of COVID-19. Darby’s answers are thoughtful, insightful and, hopefully, prophetic.