Natural process” agriculture may strike you as a different, yet common-sense approach to gardening.
Rushing along a hedgerow, Bob Cannard is demonstrating what makes his soils cake-plush. “We need plants to be wonderfully strong, focused youngsters, so they’ll grow to become productive, useful adults!”
He’s explaining why he doesn’t turn in cover crop before it goes to seed. “It’s infanticide!” he’d say about the practice.
Part of Bob’s success as a farmer is his art of training weeds to become cover crops. You won’t see galinsoga or witch grass anywhere at Cannard Farms in Sonoma County, California. In place of weeds: a sea of field peas, lavender purple and pale pink, undulate, woven into a shocking green blanket of mature fava beans. Bright yellows of calendula, and the twiny bramble of hairy vetch also patchwork the landscape, among citrus and olive trees.
How to maximize soil health is the most important aspect of growing food in a “natural process” system—something I learned as an apprentice last year through the Green String Institute, an education farm and garden in Petaluma, California, for students of natural process agriculture.
Intro to Natural Process Gardening
Natural process gardening or farming is a principle of reciprocity: Give 50 percent of your care to growing good food for you, and 50 percent adding back nutrients to feed the soil. It’s predominately the growing of soil and the study of plants—watching plants through each stage of their development and observing how environmental factors can help or hinder them.
A natural process system views weeds unconventionally in that weeds have an important place in the food-growing habitat. Usually identified as unwanted or bad, most farmers and gardeners make it their mission to demolish any weeds and bugs that enter the food-growing space. Instead, weeds are embraced in the form of beneficial cover crop, and part of natural process is the acceptance of a mildly weedy garden.
In a natural process system, you are growing soil, not plants, which in turn will grow the habitat that provides nutritionally dense vegetables and a thriving backyard ecosystem. Another way you can boost soil health and the natural beauty of your landscape is to try and allow your cover crop to reach full maturity.
Another important philosophy utilized in natural process is the idea of channeling positive intention into sowing seed. By sowing seed with positive intention (energetically channeling your confidence and will into the unborn seed), you’re further enhancing the chain-reaction toward growing robust and vigorous plants—the bedrock of good nutrition.
It follows that the best-possible food is grown in soils that have been made lush through a diversity of applied nutrients with a mixed cover-cropping program, and sown with positivity.
Observation & Preparedness
To begin, understand that your plants are inscribed with a clear history of their life cycle. Healthy plants have good posture, radial symmetry, color uniformity (on both new and old leaves), good anchorage (how rooted is the plant? how difficult is it to pull?) and measurable tear strength. Use your fingers to test the tear strength—how much pressure can it withhold before it tears? On collards, the leaves should be waxy and thick, not crisp to tear. Compare old leaves with new leaves in tear strength. Additionally, plants will always show any nutritional or environmental shortfalls. Examine the root characteristics… Do they run straight? If you notice a tap root staying near the surface, that plant may be seeking nutrients that it isn’t getting beneath the surface.
The first 14 days of any plant’s existence are critical to maintain health for the rest of its life. Recognize that transplanting (when the plant is in its “childhood” state) is a stressful procedure, which could result in decreased yields later on. To minimize the impact, it’s important to feed your transplants a “boxed lunch” before they go in the ground, in anticipation of the stress. A good boxed lunch for your transplants should start with seedlings sown in a rich potting soil.
In How To Grow More Vegetables, John Jeavons provides an excellent planting mixture for seed starting, a recipe he gathered from revered gardener Alan Chadwick: one part each by weight of the following three: evenly moist sifted compost, gritty sand, and turf loam (vermiculite). All together this provides a loose-textured mixture simultaneously packed with nutrients. Other requirements for transplants include moist soil in which to plant, some finely ground rock minerals and oyster shells, along with daily feedings of compost tea.
The degree of infestation will also tell you what nutritional support your plants may need. Heavy insect pressure on your plants sends a clear message. A sick zucchini plant is open to bugs — it has no defense system, and hence it’s not prickly to touch. It may be going to seed too soon because it senses that it needs to reproduce quickly, before it’s too late.
Healthy vegetables should be bursting with a high brix (sugar) content, and as a result, have a complex taste. A healthy broccoli field should emit a light, clear aroma, whereas a sick broccoli field often smells heavy and sulfurous, like boiled cabbage. A carrot from your garden shouldn’t taste like a bagged carrot from the grocery store, organic or not: If it’s an unhealthy carrot, lacking in nutritional support, it may end up tasting woody and bland.
Plants are highly responsive. Having the right preparations at hand will make you better equipped to deal with any illnesses your plants may exhibit. In the natural process system, you’re becoming an alchemist in testing out different methods for plant care, in response to perceived deficiencies. Natural process is about providing good digestion to your soils, adding inputs directly from the surrounding environment of your garden or pre-digesting them through composting. You’re constantly on quality patrol, observing where there are deficiencies that limit your garden from creating the highest-quality produce imaginable, which in turn, will feed you and your family nutritionally dense, superior foods.
Foraging & Relationships
To be a good natural-process grower, you’ll have to start foraging. In the same way that mushroom hunters scout secret spots at different times throughout the year, you too will start hunting for and marking certain hot spots for raw materials that can go into feeding your garden.
Coming from the East Coast, I’ve learned a few tricks from resourceful small-scale farmer friends. One urban farmer in Providence, Rhode Island, became acquainted with his local mounted police unit, whose horse stables provide a free source of microbes (manure) for compost piles.
A friend in Cape Cod, Massachussets, harvests hay from marshes (marsh grass, also known as “salt hay”) at high tide by canoe; these grasses are renowned mulches for garden beds, because, unlike regular hay, their weed seeds cannot adapt to upland conditions.
The famed homesteaders, Helen and Scott Nearing, built their home in Bar Harbor, Maine, next to the ocean. Can you take a guess as to why? From the ocean, they had a seaweed gold mine at their fingertips, a capital which helps produce soil crumb structure and retain moisture.
All of these examples are lessons in resourcefulness, from people who applied what was at hand in their garden’s natural environment. All across America natural resources abound that can help native soils thrive.
Another example: Most soils are calcium deficient, particularly those in New England. If you don’t have any chickens on your property, strike up a relationship with a local baker, commercial or otherwise, and ask them to set aside their egg shells for you. To recharge the calcium in a small-scale garden, put 10 eggshells with water in a blender and apply the mix to your soil in various areas. Observe the results over the course of your growing season. Oyster shell (usually sold as a chicken feed amendment), oyster shell flour, or fish bone meal all work well to pump calcium back into degraded soils.
Giving your soils many light meals versus, for example, one huge meal of chicken manure at the start of the growing season, is preferred. For plants as well as people, indigestion results from overeating!
A natural process system embraces the chaos of nature, providing a habitat, or stage, for diversity to act out. Allowing good and bad bugs to compete, and letting your vegetables compete with weeds, is healthier than controlling the whole process through man-made chemicals or weed-free bare soils. Crops grown to compete with weeds — weeds trained to appear and nourish the soil on a rotating cycle — are not only a constant soil biology protector, but also year-round soil strengthener. With good nutrition, your vegetables will win out over the weeds. The success of your plants signals nutritional superiority, which in turn feeds you (the grower) handsomely. So let your cover crop go to seed! Let it choke out the unwanted weeds. However, take care to weed within the first two weeks of sowing your seed, to let new seedlings or transplants get a head start.
Eventually, with good mineral support, your soils will be an unhealthy habitat for “bad” weeds. By addressing soil needs, indicated to us by our plants, we can start creating a more resilient and healthy relationship between the two.
If you aren’t already, the single greatest thing you can do for your garden is to start composting. It will provide you with one of the essential ingredients for healthy soil, and especially, for compost tea brewing.
In Kitchen Gardener, Elaine Ingham, a longtime pioneer in compost tea brewing, says that “… when sprayed on the leaves, compost tea helps suppress foliar diseases, increases the amount of nutrients available to the plant, and speeds the breakdown of toxins.” Further, “Using compost tea has even been shown to increase the nutritional quality and improve the flavor of vegetables.
Plants thrive when fed a beefed-up version of this human-equivalent superfood juice, in the form of compost tea. Following a simple bucket recipe, you’ll have hearty brews to feed your garden. You can also construct a more technical compost tea brewer using an aquarium pump, bubblers, air tubing and gang valve, for less manual work over the long run, and greater tea yield (look up Elaine Ingham’s excellent compost tea brewer designs).
If we all take responsibility for growing high-quality food that nutritionally supports our health, working in tandem with nature and not in opposition with natural processes, our own environments could look as beautiful as those at Cannard Farm. Like all things, holding fast to your vision and having a little patience are what’s required.