Search This Blog

Saturday, December 5, 2015

Introduction to Sequestering Carbon In The Soil For Gardeners

Mesquite beans from The Learning Garden

We already know that the level of carbon in the atmosphere is beyond acceptable levels. No agreement in France or anywhere else is going to reduce the level of carbon to levels that are necessary for the human species to survive without some pretty radical changes in our relationships with the planet and our human activities.

On the global level, governments are merely trying to cope with mitigating the damage we've caused and the resultant damage humans will suffer in turn. We already know about acidification of our oceans and the indication that the ocean's temperature increase of only .3ºF has started release of plumes of methane – another greenhouse gas – from the ocean floor. If this loop becomes established it could mean that NOTHING humankind can do to prevent collapse of our world's ecosystem. I'm not trying to paint a more bleak picture than there is already. It is pretty scary.

As usual, with these global environmental problems, individuals feel powerless to make substantial changes that can influence the outcomes. In this case, farmers can play a significant role and gardeners can also contribute. The way I advocate we garden already sequesters carbon in the soil and now we know how to even more effectively sequester carbon by combining parts of the garden that were formerly segregated and to interplant annuals with perennials. Simply using appropriate actions in our farming and gardening, we can emphasize carbon sequestration in the soil. It is a win/win propostion.

An important vehicle for moving carbon into soil is root, or mycorrhizal, fungi, which govern the give-and-take between plants and soil. According to Australian soil scientist Christine Jones, plants with mycorrhizal connections can transfer up to 15 percent more carbon to soil than their non-mycorrhizal counterparts. The most common mycorrhizal fungi are marked by threadlike filaments called hyphae that extend the reach of a plant, increasing access to nutrients and water. These hyphae are coated with a sticky substance called glomalin, discovered only in 1996, which is instrumental in soil structure and carbon storage. The U.S. Department of Agriculture advises land managers to protect glomalin by minimizing tillage and chemical inputs and using cover crops to keep living roots in the soil.  Yale University Research Report, Soil as Carbon Storehouse: New Weapon in Climate Fight?

Research suggests that it is more beneficial to have plants with an active mycorrhizal community. This aligns with the very propositions I have been proposing for over 15 years. The Yale report mentions that pesticides and fertilizers interrupt the biological cycle and the presence of the mycorrhizae, which is prerequisite for sequestering carbon in the soil.

The following gardening practices are included:
  • Conservation tillage – minimize or eliminate manipulation of the soil for food production. Including leaving crop residues on the soil surface. Reduces soil erosion and improves water use efficiency and increases carbon concentrations in the top soil. Avoids disruption to the mycorrhiza in the soil and provides channels for water to penetrate more deeply in the soils.
  • Cover cropping – use of crops such as clover, alfalfa and small grains for soil protection and improvement between seasons of growing food. Cover crops enhance the soil structure and add organic matter to the soil making it better for carbon sequestration.
  • Crop rotation – by rotating crops in succession in the same area, we mimic the diversity of natural ecosystems more closely. How effective this is, however is related to the crops involved and the amount of time devoted to each one. (Millet is shallow rooted and is less efficacious than the same amount of time devoted to alfalfa which has a massive root structure.)
  • Zero use of chemical fertilizer and pesticides – already noted as detrimental to mycorrhiza/soil relationships – all of these are petroleum products that kill off the mycorrhiza in the soil and ruin exactly what you are trying to build. Besides, we will need to wean ourselves off petroleum anyway, might as well start now learning how to do without the stuff. Once you accept NOT using these items, it doesn't take long for one to learn how to live without them and soon you see how superfluous they were all along.
  • Mulching – placing organic matter over the soil and allowing it to breakdown without disturbing the process sequesters carbon. This is what creates the bases of all you want to achieve. Don't scrimp.
  • Growing perennial crops – often with interspersed annual crops where practical, leaving the detritus on the soil between growing seasons. Perennial crops lend themselves to soil sequestration better than annual crops and survive untoward weather fluctuations on a seasonal basis without dying. Their mere presence makes cultivation more difficult and ensures a limited disturbance of the soil.

Keeping in mind those practices, let's concentrate on perennial crops as they afford the easiest effort to go with no-till and will increase the carbon in the soil with very little effort on our part.
Perennial crops include a wide variety of different crops and more are coming online all the time.

Trees – nut and fruit trees are the first that come to mind. Plant a tree and, all things being equal, you have food production for many years to come – even decades. In our area, apple, almond, apricot, avocado, citrus, figs, peaches, pears (only a few varieties work here), persimmon, pomegranates, nectarines, and others are easy, requiring only a little pruning attention annually and certainly no plowing. Clover and other ground cover crops grown in between your trees and other perennials will enhance your soil and increase the sequestration of carbon.

There are many shrubs and similar plant forms that are wonderful for sequestration.

Beans – some of the climbing beans are really perennials – like Christmas Lima, Scarlet and other runner beans
Bramble berries
Blue Berries
Cactus – certain varieties
Jerusalem artichoke
Kiwi fruits
Onions (bunching or walking onions)
Wheat – perennial types

There are several perennial varieties of wheat and I have heard of perennial varieties of other grains as well. These are going to be quite important in the our very near future. I would encourage everyone to keep an eye out for them and eagerly try growing and using them. I do not believe this list is exhaustive. Keep your eyes open for other opportunities to plant food once and harvest over and over again.

What I am expressing is very much like the concept of the 'food forest' found in permaculture and in many other approaches to gardening. Other terms that might be encountered include Agroforestry or Woody Perennial Polycultures. These are essentially the same practice varying only in the fine print.
Furthermore, with these no-till techniques, we are just starting to transition to more permanent groupings of ever-bearing, perennial food plant groupings that include natural windrows, water harvesting/filtration and wildlife habitats – in addition to feeding the world.

The most important point is to leave the ground as little disturbed as possible. Try to avoid that in all your gardening activities of planting, weeding and harvesting. Whatever causes the soil the least manipulation, this is the goal to strive for.

This style of gardening also encourages beneficial insects, pollinators and is, of course, wholly organic. The food grown will have an overall better nutrition and will be less work. It will, of course, probably be less “neat” in the modern way of thinking, but that is merely a human construct. There are different levels of 'neatness' that are more important!


Wednesday, November 18, 2015

More On Bees

Introduction to practical beekeeping:

Equipment you need:
        Bee suit - covers your entire body except your hands
        Gloves - vented with sealable gauntlets 
        Veil - some have helmet inside; others you need a helmet with
I suggest purchasing these at LA Honey where you can try them on and get items that fit you. If I had purchased these items online, I would not have gotten the correct size.
Hive tool
Rags (some wet) (honey is sticky!)
Epi pen
Hive box(es) and frames
Couple of good books and a mentor


Los Angeles Honey Co
Address: 1559 Fishburn Ave, Los Angeles, CA 90063
Phone:(323) 264-2383

I am about half way through Rob and Chelsea's beekeeping book, Save The Bees with Natural Backyard Hives, and it is stellar.  Written in a very readable style and loaded with good data, it is now my #1 pick for anyone's first beekeeping book!   

We touched on this in class last week, and this is further proof in recent days.


Thursday, November 12, 2015

November 15th and 22nd

We have a schedule change to accommodate our guest speaker.

The 15th will be beekeeping.  As we have discussed, I do not have a live hive to show you, but I collected some links for you to examine before the 15th.

I want us all to observe the day as though we really do have a live hive.  Working with bees, things like scented hair spray or perfumes and the like are all bad ideas.  It is also not advisable to resemble anything like their most common enemy, a bear.  Avoid dark clothing, stick to white or light colors.

The most common hive in America is the Langstroth hive.

The hive I use is pretty much the same, although I've hybridized it with what is called a "nuc."  It is the same principle but a smaller hive with fewer moving parts.  Mine are built from scrap lumber by a friend of mine.

Here is a video describing the arrangement of a Langstroth hive - slightly different from above and he explains why he uses each component. Many folks find that a 10 frame box filled with honey is heavier than they can comfortably deal with, 8 frame hives are getting to be more popular.  This a different view and I like her presentation and "no drama!"

This guy does three package installs of bees.  I usually do not buy bees but capture local feral hives which I feel have superior genetics.

Even if we don't ever experiment with these different hives (I'll address some of the most popular hive arrangements in class, these are not them!) this site features some wonderful video of bees in a hive, it gives you a rather real sense of what it's like to look in at ten thousand bees in one small confined space with nothing between you and them.  Scroll down to see several different videos.

The 22nd we will be treated with the presence of Sheri Powell speaking to us on raising chickens and the soil food web.  Wikipedia introduces the matter here.

Food on the 15th will feature honey.

Food on the 22nd will feature eggs. From chickens.    

We have several things to catch up - so we will be up and around getting a few things done.  It looks to be quite cool and blustery on Saturday, so be prepared!  


Sunday, November 1, 2015


Now is the time when leafy greens such as chard are tender and delicious. Chard can be prepared in many different ways, and in this respect it closely resembles its cousin, spinach. One of the ways that chard shines is in braises and stews.

This dish might seem to have daunting ingredient list. But don’t be put off; enough of the ingredients will already be lurking in your kitchen. And, if you leave out any one of the spices, it will probably still turn out well. In contrast to some meat tagines, which take hours to prepare and cook, this dish can be made from start to finish on a weeknight. And the flavor is a lovely mélange of spices, slight sweetness from the raisins, and savory flavors from the chickpeas. Serve with rice or quinoa for hearty vegetarian dinner.

• 3 tablespoons extra virgin olive oil
• 2 cloves garlic, minced
• ½ sweet onion, minced
• 1 teaspoon paprika (sweet or smoked according to preference)
• 1 teaspoon ground cumin
• ½ teaspoon turmeric
• ¼ teaspoon thyme
• ½ teaspoon salt
• ½ teaspoon ground cinnamon
• ¼ cup golden raisins
• 1 tablespoon organic tomato paste
• 1 bunch chard (about 8 ounces) washed, center ribs removed, and chopped
• 1 cup cooked chickpeas plus 1 ¼ cups of their cooking liquid, or 1 can organic chickpeas with liquid plus ½ cup water
• 1 teaspoon hot sauce or ¼ teaspoon cayenne (optional)

Add the olive oil, onion, and garlic to a heavy-bottomed Dutch oven or 3-4 quart pot, and turn the heat to medium. Allow to cook for about 5 minutes, then add the paprika, cumin, turmeric, thyme, salt, and cinnamon. Stir together and cook for a minute or two until fragrant. Add the remaining ingredients, cover, and turn the heat down to medium-low.

Be sure to stir every 3-5 minutes to ensure that the bottom does not burn and that your ingredients are evenly combined. You can add a tablespoon of rice flour if you like your stew thicker. Remove from the heat after 20 minutes. Enjoy!

A Gardener's Bibliography

Some of the books on this list and some that will be added soon.

Becoming Native to This Place, Jackson, Wes, © 1994 University of Kentucky Press, One of our most brilliant thinkers in agriculture today, Jackson founded The Land Institute in Salina, KS. His work is leading to the development of perennial wheat that will mimic the native grasses of the Great Plains, enabling them to hold the soil in place – a farsighted goal by any measurement. This seminal work introduces the 'native' of the place he wants you to imitate.

Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties: The Gardener's & Farmer's Guide to Plant Breeding & Seed Saving, Deppe, Carol © 2000, Chelsea Green Publishing, Don't let the title send you running for the exits. The first half of this book, all about breading your own veggies; he second half is on seed saving, she switches gears and it reads at times like well-written poetry. I have read most of this part many times since getting it in 2008. If you are interested in seed saving or breeding your own vegetable varieties (Hint: you can and it's not that hard!), this book needs to be on your shelf!


Gardening With a Wild Heart, Lowry, Judith Larner, © 1990 University of California Press Nothing to do with food gardening, but a lot to say about why plant California Natives near your food garden – I totally agree.

Good Bugs for Your Garden, Starcher, Allison Mia, © 1998, Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill Allison Starcher is an artist who grows in Santa Monica. This book's illustrations were drawn in her garden and that means this book is written for those of us in Southern California. A delightful book, you can learn from it and use it to teach children about insects in your back yard. Out of print – but you can find it used.

Heirloom Vegetable Gardening: A Master's Guide to Planting, Seed Saving, and Cultural History,Weaver, William Woys © 2003, BookSales Inc, Originally published in 1997, it is now out of print and getting a copy is expensive. The book sells for almost $300 used on Amazon! It is a wonderful book that needs to be put back in print because the research he put into the book allows this to be one of the most informative books on heirloom vegetables that has ever been published. Good luck in finding it, I'm sorry to say. The entire book is on CD-ROM from Mother Earth News.

How to Grow More Vegetables, Eighth Edition: (and Fruits, Nuts, Berries, Grains, and Other Crops) Than You Ever Thought Possible on Less Land Than You ... (And Fruits, Nuts, Berries, Grains,) Jeavons, John © 2012, 8th Edition (so far, it seems to be close to an annual event) Ten Speed Press, Jeavons has research to back up his assertions but he's not intimidating by facts proving him wrong either. I do not agree with him on many thing, but the tables that tell what you need to feed a family of four translated into square feet of garden space are worth the books cost.

Making It; Radical Home Ec for a Post-consumer World, Knutzen, Erik and Coyne, Kelly © 2010, Rodale Press Local heroes both, their blog Root Simple has interesting topics and I've learned a lot from both of them. Gardening and cooking and all things home ec are included – it's a great book if conserving everything is on your mind!

Out of the Earth; Civilization and the Life of the Soil, Hillel, Daniel © 1991 Free Press This is probably the best book to read to get introduced to the soil we use for our gardens. What a tremendous book with such an authoritative presentation, so thorough and yet accessible at the same time! This is a wonderful introduction to soil without a lot of hoopla. I have enjoyed re-reading this book several times

Pests of the Garden and Small Farm © 1998, University of California, Agriculture and Natural Resources (ANR), One of many books that are a part of my gardening reference bookshelf. I can't remember all these pests and if I could only have one book on pests, this would be one of two. With Trowel and Error (below). (Their entire catalog is worth a look: )

Save Three Lives; A Plan for Famine Prevention, Rodale, Robert © 1991 Sierra Club Books, Bob Rodale was killed before this book made it to print. We lost a leader in compassionate food production when we lost him – we lost a visionary and a solid business man that took over his father's publishing company and turned it into a (if not 'the') powerhouse in the organic farming/healthy eating field. When ever I go to countries struggling to feed their population, I always have copies of this book with me. I think it is golden.

Shattering; Food, Politics and the Loss of Genetic Diversity, Fowler, Cary and Mooney, Pat, © 1990 University of Arizona Press Though somewhat dated (1990 seems like a million years ago!) this book is still worth the time to read. Showing the way to becoming the man that would one day spear head the Svalbard Global Seed Vault, Fowler in 1990 is already formulating the framework and vision that will be required to lead such a profoundly important seed saving enterprise.

Small-Scale Grain Raising, Second Edition: An Organic Guide to Growing, Processing, and Using Nutritious Whole Grains, for Home Gardeners and Local Farmers, Logsdon, Gene 2nd Edition © 2009 Chelsea Green Publishing ANYTHING written by Logsdon is worth the investment of your time and money. I read this from its original 1970 Rodale Press printing and it is still an excellent resource if you become intoxicated with growing your own wheat and other grains. It takes more land than most of us have, but a small patch of wheat is a delightful experiment.

Sunset Western Garden Guide 8th Edition, Brenzel, Kathleen Norris, Editor, ©2007, Sunset Publishing All of the recent editions have their merit, but each successive edition has more plants and updates the scientific undergirding of gardening, so I encourage you to invest in the most recent edition you can afford (used copies are usually easy to find.) This is the number one go-to book for horticulture in Southern California; no other book is as authoritative as this one for our area.

Teaming with Microbes: The Organic Gardener's Guide to the Soil Food Web, Revised Edition Lowenfels, Jeff and Lewis, Wayne, © 2010, Timber Press This book changed the way I garden. Forever. Their introduction to the soil is somewhat dry, but when you get to the modern scientific discoveries dealing with soil, you will be amazed!

The Resilient Gardener, Deppe Carol, © 2010, Chelsea Green Publishing, Deppe has written one of the few books to really teach me something about gardening in the last 15 years. I love her writing style, yes. But I love the depth of knowledge she possesses and her well-earned observations. Not all of her ideas translate readily to Southern California, but we can learn from her and adapt.

The Home Orchard, Growing Your Own Deciduous Fruit and Nut Trees, University of California, Agriculture and Natural Resources, © 2007, Another great ANR book.. This book is about the most thorough book on home orchards you will ever find - comprehensive and easy to follow. Valuable.

The Kitchen Garden, Thompson, Sylvia © 1995, Bantam Books, Sylvia is from our area (she has written for the LA Times) so she knows a bit of gardening here. This is a great book that I refer to frequently along with her Recipes from a Kitchen Garden.

The New Seed Starter's Handbook, Bubel, Nancy © 1988, Rodale Press There is no facet of seed starting that isn't included in this book. It is old, still the best. The only thing that has changed are the new super powerful lights for growing plants. Which aren't useful if you are just starting seeds indoors to be planted out in a few weeks.

The Rodale Book of Composting: Easy Methods for Every Gardener, Gershuny, Grace © 1992 Rodale Press I learned how to garden organically in the early 1970's with Rodale Press and I owe a lot to many of their different gardening titles. This is the most authoritative book on composting for the layman that has been published to date. Everything you want to know about composting is here.

The Soul of Soil: A Soil-Building Guide for Master Gardeners and Farmers, Gershuny, Grace, © 1999 Chelsea Green Publishing, One of my favorite books on soils, this was not written for gardeners but for farmers which limits its usefulness, but the principles are useful and she writes with passion and clarity.

Trowel and Error, Lovejoy, Sharon © 2002 Workman Publishing, this is really the only pesticide book I use, although, it is not strictly a pesticide book. She is a delightful writer with lots of humor and she has gem of a home-made this and that collection.

Uncertain Peril, Genetic Engineering and the Future of Seeds, Cummings, Claire © 2008 Beacon Press, presenting a scientific look at the shortcomings of genetically modified seeds and their shortcomings to their lofty goals. Especially good for the rebuttal of the Yellow Rice, poster child of what is supposed to be good about GMOs.

Unlikely Peace at Cuchumaquic, Prechtel, Martín, © 2011 North Atlantic Books, It took me a long time to get into this book, but once I was able to follow his narrative and understand his approach, I became mesmerized by his prose and the process. With the subtitles of The Parallel Lives of People as Plants and Keeping the Seeds Alive, he introduces us to the ancient way the people of Guatemala see the seeds and their world.

Where Our Food Comes From, Nahan, Gary Paul, © 2009, Island Press Nabhan is a glorious writer and in this case he has picked an equally glorious hero to follow in his journey to discover where our food really does come. Nabhan follows the footsteps of Nicolay Vavilov's travels over the world, finding the centers of discovery for most of our food today. Vavilov was so far ahead of his time, even though he died in Stalin's Gulag in WWII, the institute he founded which still bears his name, is yet one of the premier seed banks in the world. This is good reading – fast, yet profitable.  


Sunday, October 11, 2015

Promised Hand Outs - List of Seed Houses and Cool Season Suggestions

List of Seed Houses:

BAKER CREEK HEIRLOOM SEEDS; 2278 Baker Creek Road Mansfield, MO 65704; 417.924.8917 What a catalog! Beautiful pictures of the produce – vegetable porn for sure. I have never ordered from them, but I have heard good things about them. Anyone who works this hard in putting out a beautiful seed catalog is working with a great deal of love. Drooling is hardly optional here.

BOTANICAL INTERESTS; 660 Compton Street, Broomfield, CO 80020; 720.880.7293. I 'have been dealing with these folks for only a couple of years - I have seen their seeds on seed racks here and there, but I really got to know them for the quantity of seeds they donate to Venice High School and other educational programs. Good seed.  Clean.  Good variety and a good price. Great packaging!

BOUNTIFUL GARDENS; 18001 Shafer Ranch Road; Willits, CA 95490; 707.459.6410 Organic seed; open-pollinated. A part of the work done by John Jeavons, a proud and active member of the population of organic and open-pollinated gardeners. If you see him, he owes me a laser pointer.

PEACEFUL VALLEY FARM SUPPLY; PO Box 2209; Grass Valley, CA 95945; 916.272.4769 I have purchased many seeds (and a lot of other things!) from Peaceful Valley – I love their catalog. They have an excellent selection of cover crop seeds as well as a lot of organic gardening supplies and tools. I have used their catalog to teach organic gardening because they clearly explain their products and how to use them.

NATIVE SEED/SEARCH; 526 N. 4th Ave. Tucson, AZ 85705; 520.622.5561 (Fax 520.622.5591) Specializing in the seeds of seeds of south western United States, concentrating on the ancient seeds of the First Nations People from amaranth to watermelon. A worthy cause for your money. And good seed – some amazing varieties found no where else.
PINETREE GARDEN SEEDS; PO Box 300, Rt. 100; New Gloucester, ME 04260; 207.926.3400 Probably the best for a home gardener – small packets of very current seed, a very good value. The smaller packets mean a smaller price so a person can order a lot more varieties and experiment. I have been a customer for many years.

SEED SAVERS EXCHANGE; Rt. 3 Box 239; Decorah, Iowa 52101; 563.382.5990 Membership fees $35. Free brochure. Some organic, but ALL open-pollinated. There are two ways to save seeds: one is to collect them all and keep them in a huge building that protects them from everything up to (and including) nuclear holocaust. The other way is to grow 'em. You can find the chance to grow them here. I have been a member for about 10 years and believe in their work.
SOUTHERN EXPOSURE SEED EXCHANGE; P.O. Box 460, Mineral, VA 23117, 540.894.9480 (Fax: 540.894.9481) A commercial venture that is somewhat similar to Seed Savers Exchange, but really isn't an exchange. They do carry seed saving supplies - nice to have if you are going to save seed.

Suggestions for The Cool Season:

Artichokes (a perennial)
Burpee’s Golden, Chioggia, Detroit Dark Red
Nutribud, Calabrese,
Brussel Sprouts
Cabbage (including Oriental cabbage-like greens)
Point One, Sombrero, Copenhagen Market,
Dragon, St. Valery, Paris Market, Scarlet Nantes,
Cauliflower – there are purple ones too!
Rhubarb, Five Color Silverbeet,
Fava Beans
Windsor; Aprovecho (sometimes appended with “Select”)
Florence Fennel (bulbing)
Romy, Zefa Fino.
Garlic (this is a long season crop, plant in Fall harvest next Summer)
Spanish Roja, Music, Chesnok Red, Georgia Fire
Dinosaur (also called 'Lacinata'), Redbor, Scotch Curled
Carina, King Richard
more varieties than you can shake a stick at – or grow a mix!
Onions (also a long season growing; find “short-day” varieties like Italian Torpedo)
Other leafy salad things
Tall Telephone Pole, Dwarf Gray Sugar,
All-Blue, Caribe, Yukon Gold,
French Breakfast, Black Spanish
Bloomsdale's Long Standing, America
DeMilan, Purple Top White Globe

Include all perennial herbs and perennial flowers. In addition, try some fun annuals like calendulas, larkspur, poppies (bread, California or Iceland types), sweet peas, and venidium. Make room for cilantro! Lots of cilantro!!  

Monday, October 5, 2015

The Soil Triangle

How to Take A Soil Sample

Taking soil samples for any kind of garden analysis should be done in a manner that will net you the results you need to make your garden more congenial to that part of the plant that lives in the soil – the roots. Roots for most of the plants in our gardens, live about 4 to 18 inches beneath the surface of the soil. Exceptions to this include most drought resistant plants (with roots that range some distance out and down) and other notoriously strong rooted plant – mention just about any weed and it will fall into that category. You want to take your sample around nine inches down. This method of taking a soil sample is effective for the soil triangle tests and is the preferred technique for soil samples sent to labs for testing.

What to do and How to do it
Follow these steps to determine the name of your soil texture:
1.Place the edge of a ruler at the point along the base of the triangle that represents the percent of sand in your sample. Position the ruler on or parallel to the lines which slant toward the base of the triangle.
2.Place the edge of a second ruler at the point along the right side of the triangle that represents the percent of silt in your sample. Position the ruler on or parallel to the lines which slant toward the base of the triangle.
3.Place the point of a pencil or water soluble marker at the point where the two rulers meet. Place the top edge of one of the rulers on the mark, and hold the ruler parallel to the horizontal lines. The number on the left should be the percent of clay in the sample.
4.The descriptive name of the soil sample is written in the shaded area where the mark is located. If the mark should fall directly on a line between two descriptions, record both names.
Feel the texture of a moist soil sample between your fingers.

  • Remove as much surface organic matter as possible before taking your soil sample.
  • Put approximately one cup of soil into a straight-sided quart jar with lid.
  • Add approximately one tablespoon of alum or Calgon bath beads – this is a surfactant to help the particles separate from one another.
  • Fill the jar with water almost to the top.
  • Shake vigorously for several minutes to get all the soil moistened. 
  • Let the jar stand undisturbed for at least one hour, separation continues for as long as 24 hours with some soils.
  • The soil mix will separate into layers. The longer it sits, the more distinct the layers will appear.
    Figure out the percentages of sand, silt, clay, and organic matter in the water – do not measure the water itself. The sand will be the bottom layer. Silt will be the next layer, followed by clay; the combination of these three should add up to 100%. Organic matter will float on top of the water and does not figure in the total of percentages..
    Determine soil type by comparing percentages with soil triangle. Follow arrows in example—15% sand, 70% silt, and 15% clay—to merge at silty loam category.
    Understanding soil type will help you know how to properly amend, fertilize, water, and plant so that you will have healthy, disease-resistant, and pest-resistant plants.

    Sand will feel "gritty", while silt will feel like powder or flour.
    Clay will feel "sticky" and hard to squeeze, and will probably stick to your hand.
    Looking at the textural triangle, try to estimate how much sand, silt, or clay is in the sample.
    Find the name of the texture to which this soil corresponds; that will be the descriptive name of your soil.

Syllabus 2015, Fall Urban Food Production

Course Number: Biology X 489.6  

Instructor: David King


There are no prerequisites for this course, although some experience with gardening will prove useful.

All classes meet at The Learning Garden on the Venice High School campus where it can be hot and cold by turns – but reliably MUCH COOLER than other parts of Los Angeles. For your own comfort, please bring a sweater or coat to every class meeting. We will have access to a classroom for really rainy days; class will meet regardless of the weather. Expect to get wet or cold as we will be outside whenever possible.

The production, packaging, and transportation of food are large contributors to our global carbon emissions. Throughout the Los Angeles Basin, food gardens have sprung up to produce local healthy and nutritious fruits and vegetables while contributing energy and financial savings in difficult economic times. Using the history of growing food in the city in times of need as a template, this course explores how homegrown food can reduce your food budget and address environmental concerns. Participants each have a small plot for growing food where they can experiment with new ideas and enjoy their harvest. Topics include fruit trees, vegetables, and berries that do well in our climate as well as often overlooked food-producing perennials and how to grow food in modern city lots where the "back forty" describes square feet and not acres.

Textbooks Required:

Title The New Sunset Western Garden Book
Author Brenzel, Kathleen Norris (Editor)
Edition Feb. 2012
Publisher Sunset Books
ISBN 978-0376039170

There will be no assigned reading from the book, but it really is essential if you are gardening in Southern California. The most recent edition is not really necessary, it does have more data in it and with each edition, Sunset pays more respect to food gardening.

This will be supplemented by liberal postings on my Garden Notes blog, . I hope to post most of the material in the days prior to the class when it will be used.

Textbooks, Recommended:

Title The Kitchen Garden
Author Thompson, Sylvia
Edition First
Publisher Bantam Books
ISBN 0-553-08138-1
*(She has a companion cookbook that is worth investigation too!)
Title Heirloom Vegetable Gardening
Author Weaver, William Woys
Edition First
Publisher Henry Holt
ISBN 0-8050-4025-0
Almost impossible to find – out of print
Title Pests of the Garden and Small Farm
Author Flint, Mary Louise
Edition 2nd
Publisher Univ of California Agriculture & Natural Resources
ISBN 978- 0520218108
Title The Resilient Gardener

Author Deppe, Carol
Edition First
Publisher Chelsea Green
ISBN 978-1603580311

There will be no assigned reading from these books. The rest of the literature, as references, will prove invaluable to any serious student in this field. There will be bibliographies describing other books as the quarter progresses, I am a ferocious reader and not at all shy about suggesting books I think deserve your attention.

Course Schedule:

04 October
Introduction/Seed Starting/Urban gardening in context today
11 October
Plot Assignment/SLOLA/Seeds/Light/Soils/Water/in Urban Gardens
18 October
12 Points to a Better Garden/Garden Tour/Tools/Varietals/ Soils and Fertilizers in the Urban garden
25 October
Planting/Sheet composting/Composting/Vermiculture Planting Timing and Design/
01 November
Sustainability and Food Issues in Modern America/Supplies/Sources/Annuals/
15 November
Planting/Companions/Crop Rotation in a Small Garden/ Chicken Raising Sherilyn Powell/
22 November
Perennials/Bulbs as a part of your food supply/Beekeeping
06 December
Home orchard/Vines/Turn in one page write up
13 December
Planning for Continuous Harvests/Potluck/Submit your journal for a grade.

(Syllabus may be changed as needed to reflect reality.)

Please note that November has a few holidays and plants do not take a holiday. – we will need to ensure that watering happens to keep the plants alive if there is no rain while we all enjoy the celebrations.

Point Assignment Structure
Class participation (and cooperation)

Grade of A
> 90%
Garden Journal

1 page write-up*

Planting Project

D and F

    * A sample one-page write up is the final page of this syllabus.

Please note, I try to grade you on your personal improvement. Cooperation is counted more than competition in my classes.

Office hours are by appointment only – please call or email me. I am willing to meet with you; I want you to learn; I do not want you to struggle. Please do not hesitate to call me, rather than try to talk to me in class when I can't really give you undivided attention. Extra points are available if you need to earn more credit.

Each class, as we start, will usually begin with lecture and then proceed to the garden where you will have your own small plot. As the sun sets earlier, the order will be reversed – everyone starts in their garden and then we go in to lecture.

You are encouraged to experiment in your garden plot. Your process should be thoroughly documented in your journal – your thinking and your understanding of what is happening in your garden. If you have a problem, research a solution.

Pick one plant to become an expert on for your one page write up.

Every week, we will prepare some seasonal food to eat. There are no places to buy food while in class and we are here for four hours. Students are encouraged to bring in food to share with the class at all meetings. Students should bring in their own plate and eating utensils so we can have a minimum waste event. The last class meeting will be a potluck where we will all share local and fresh food! (That's the point, right?)

The Learning Garden is open daily, 3 to 5:00 PM, Wednesday, Thursday and Friday and 10 to 5 on Saturday and Sunday. You are welcome to come here and work on your plot or just come and hang out. It's always best to call ahead to make sure I'm here as sometimes I have errands or meetings off campus.

Criteria for your garden journal grade:
  1. Documentation of what you planted when
  2. Documentation of weather elements – temperature (minimum and maximum) as well as an precipitation and noting humidity or dryness, especially of Santa Ana winds.
  3. Germination precent.
  4. Choice of varieties and reasoning.
  5. Success/failures

Criteria for your garden plot grade:
  1. You should experiment and try something you have never done – explore!
  2. Your plot and adjacent pathways should be cleared of weeds.
  3. Your plot and adjacent pathways should be well mulched.
  4. Your plot should be attractive and be growing some food.
  5. Your journal should indicate you learned something from the plot.
  6. When presented with the opportunity, you should cooperate with other students, help those in need and be team member of this class.

The person who starts from seed vs. bringing in growing plants, will have plants not nearly as far along as the others – but stands to make a better grade if they have experimented with growing from seed – I am more interested that you LEARN in this class – just doing what you already have done doesn't teach you anything. We are all gardeners here, if we don't have patience yet, we soon will. Cultivate patience with your plants while in The Learning Garden.

All handouts (including this syllabus) will be available on the blog site:

BEETS Beta vulgaris
Botanical Information:
Chenopodiaceae, Goosefoot family
4 to 8” tall
Growing Season:
Spring, Fall and Winter
Seed to Harvest:
8 weeks or more
Spacing: 3” on a side
Seeds store: ~4

Choice Varieties: Chioggia, Burpee's Golden,

The sweet roots of beets are often over- looked because of their 'earthy' taste. The problem with most beets on dinner tables these days is that they've been out of the ground for a very long time – the earthiness overtakes the sweetness. These two beets, the Italian Chioggia and the Golden Beet from W. Atlee Burpee Co. breeding program in the late 1800's, are among the sweetest vegetables in any garden!

Starting the seeds: Direct sow in the garden, a short row every week or so all through the cool season

Growing: Keep the moisture as even as possible. Mulch the beets as soon as possible – don't cover their leaves, but bring the compost as close to the plants as you can without covering the leaves. Cut off the leaves of any that are too close together – throw the baby leaves in salads. Do try to give them enough space to make an edible root, an inch or so for those who want baby beets, two or more for larger roots.

Harvesting: Pull roots as you need them. Beets do not have to be pulled all at once and will hold in the garden for a few weeks – longer if it's cool out.

Preparation and Using: Beet greens can be used just the same as chard – they are, in fact, the same species, one bred for a root and the other for its leaves. They taste pretty much the same and can be cooked the same or used raw in salads.
Today, most folks don't realize that American sugar was beet sugar until the mid 1900's when we switched to 'pure cane sugar.' The roots, though, should be just par-boiled enough to get the skins to slip off. Slice them into convenient slices and sauté in orange juice until slightly al denté. This is a wonderfully sweet side dish. Cut red beets into heart shapes before sautéing and serve on Valentine's Day or another significant holiday for your love.

Problems: Not much in our climate, although snails and rodents will eat the baby leaves as they emerge.

Contents of this site, text and photography, are copyrighted 2009 through 2017 by David King - permission to use must be requested and given in writing.