This is our farm column from farmer Casey O’Neill. O’Neill is the owner operator of HappyDay Farms north of Laytonville, and a long time advocate for the cannabis community in Mendocino Co; more of his writing can be found here. The opinions expressed in this column are those of the writer. If you would like to submit a letter to the editor feel free to write to [email protected].
As February moves along with this warm, dry weather, my thoughts are heavy on water. I’ve been paying attention to the hugelkultur beds we built in the caterpillar tunnels at Brother Lito’s a few years ago. This is the third year of growing in these beds, and the cabbages, cauliflowers, broccoli and kohlrabi are very happy. The trenches are two feet deep, and we filled them with branches and wood chips, layering compost and soil back in on top.
Hugel beds act like sponges, holding water that is available to plants that send down deep roots. The woody biomass breaks down into a mycelial mat, releasing nutrients over time as decomposition proceeds. In a hotter, drier climate, I am finding my thinking focused more and more on ways to store and hold water in the soil.
Last year we moved to a practice of heavy mulching, putting down one layer of alfalfa and then a second layer of rice straw. I loved the effects, the alfalfa forming a mycelial mat that acted like a blanket to protect the soil, holding water so that we were able to cut our irrigation times way down. The alfalfa is expensive though, and we don’t have the budget this year so we’re considering other mulching possibilities.
The thick mulch has drawbacks, because it creates opportunity for gophers and voles to run amok underneath the protective cover. Farming is often a series of decisions that each have benefits and drawbacks, and the choices made over time create a set of practices that make up the farmer-farm relationship. I accept some loss to gophers in exchange for better water retention, and I try to grow enough crops that they can eat some and still leave plenty for us.
Bringing woody material into the garden can have drawbacks in terms of increased pest pressure and a possible tie up of nitrogen as the biomass begins to decompose. There are strategies for offsetting these issues, mitigating pests with traps, trap crops, flaming and spraying, and adding additional nitrogen the first year to avoid negative effects to crops. Overall, I believe that the added benefits in fungal soil properties and water retention make it worthwhile.
With PGE doing so much cutting of trees and clearing of brush, the amount of wood chip biomass available is at an all-time high. Forest health practices create extra biomass that is a free resource that can be used in farming to build hugelkultur beds and sequester huge amounts of carbon in the soil. Anytime a free biomass source is available, it behooves us as farmers to figure out a use for it.
With this thinking in mind, I’ve been working down at the Laytonville High School garden. Last summer I started managing the greenhouse, which had fallen into disuse for lack of someone to tend it. Amber and I cleared the weeds and I prepped the beds, adding some donated soil from Weathertop Nursery. I sowed salad mixes, turnips, radishes, daikon and transplanted in collard and other brassica starts.
Over the winter the culinary arts program at the high school made use of some of the produce, and I harvested each week for the Senior Lunch program. The high school got a grant to expand the garden program, and I hatched a plan with principal Tim Henry to get a significant amount of wood chips dropped off from the many tree-service operations happening in the area. Torrey Hansen and I are working as Garden Coordinators, revitalizing a program that we hope will teach students to grow food for years to come.
Hanabal and Justice came with machinery to spread the wood chips into a 50’x40’ pad, 18” deep. This woody biomass was laid out on a flat area near the greenhouse that was in a low space with poor drainage during wet periods. The wood chip pad gets us above the wet area, while holding water in retention like a huge sponge. Even after 6 weeks without rain, the wood chips are wet just a few inches under the surface.
On Friday my brothers and I, Torrey, and Michiel Reub and his tractor descended on the site to spread soil donated by North American Organics. We made eight garden beds 30” wide with 24” pathways on top of the wood chip pile. Weathertop Nursery donated chicken pellets and powdered oyster shell, which we put down on top of the wood chips to support decomposition and avoid nitrogen tie-up from the soil above. Michiel dumped the soil with the tractor and we smoothed it into beds.
Ben Reub at Mulligan Gardens donated bags of spent mushroom oyster mushroom substrate, with which we inoculated the paths, covering the substrate with an additional layer of wood chips. Volunteers Ananda and Soyer cleared the spent crops in the greenhouse and inoculated the pathways, while I used a seeder to sow salad mixes, asian greens, salad turnips and radishes.
It was a huge day, a massive undertaking that came together in a beautiful way. I am excited for the potential, and delighted to be part of a process of community members gathering to support a vision of more local food production and training for future farmers and gardeners. Big thanks to the businesses and people who donated time and resources to the effort!
We are looking for funding to purchase two 50’x16’ caterpillar tunnels, or if anyone happens to have ones that are not being used we would love to put them up at the high school. If you would like to donate, reach out to me via facebook, instagram, or email [email protected]. As always, much love and great success to you on your journey!