Book Review: Lentil Underground by Liz Carlisle

Lentil Underground by Liz Carlisle

I adore this nonfiction book for so many reasons! As a gardener, a dreamer, a reader, and a Montanan (after being here 43 years), this book nurtures those of us craving some prodding towards creativity. It’s about the conversion from conventional, large-crop, synthetically fertilized farming to rotating, small crop, organic farming. Technical while still being accessible to the non-scientist, Lentil Underground explains the process of finding new ways to do what no longer works and the willingness to take the leap away from the mainstream. Many third-generation farmers were facing bankruptcy in the 1980s while farming the way they were told to do by the U.S. Department of Agriculture and Montana State University agriculture professors.

Liz Carlisle, a Missoulian by birth who holds degrees from Harvard and the University of California at Berkeley, writes in a crisp journalistic style made popular today by writers such as Michael Lewis and Mary Roach. She weaves information into a timeline featuring real characters in an ongoing story that reflects recent history of the past few decades.

“My intention has changed from making money to growing good-quality, healthy food. I think the soil’s happier. The farm just feels better. It’s like it knows I’m not going to pillage.” These few farmers in Montana who moved away from debt to large corporations towards certain weeds to replenish their soils represent a broad philosophical shift. The independence and innovation of farmers fortunately cannot be restrained, even though they were bucking the trend and often alienating neighbors and family members. In the long run, most organic farmers not only survived but thrive.

What began with some founders of AERO (Alternative Energy Resources Organization), now based in Helena, has become essentially commonplace. Albertson’s and Walmart carry organic produce, whereas that designation used to be only carried by specialized, expensive health food stores. The movement no longer is the domain of a small, kooky cluster of transcendentally minded hippies, although the evidence, as explained by Carlisle, is that it started that way. Both the history of the movement and the character descriptions involved make colorful fodder for reading.

As a gardener, I still feel mixed about black medic and clover helping fix the nitrogen in my flower and vegetable beds. On one hand, I care about appearance. I get stuck in those middle class values that Carlisle confronts: “It became customary, when passing by a tidy, productive farm, to remark that a good family must live there.” Alternatively, I feel relief knowing I help the soil by ignoring what’s under the canopy of flowers and vegetables, thereby contributing to healthier, nutrient-rich soil.

She includes some celebrities, too, since land use often mirrors personalities of those that own it. I won’t be a spoiler, though, because reading the book far exceeds reading this review. If you have doubts about picking up a copy, keep in mind that it was the ‘Read for all Incoming Freshmen’ at the University of Montana in the fall of 2017. The themes of thoughtful change while taking charge of destiny from the ground up can inspire future leaders and gardeners everywhere to ask essential questions and experiment.

BOOK REVIEW submitted by Bess Lovec

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Got Hail Damage?

Wild summer storms can discourage home gardeners as well as farmers. The best defense is a good offense by using proper cultural practices – location, watering, fertilizing and pruning techniques – from the beginning of the season. When hail happens, trees, shrubs, perennials, and annuals can successfully survive if the proper maintenance is done after damage.

Trees and Shrubs
Prune off any broken branches caused by hail. Use proper pruning cuts, taking care not to cut into the branch bark ridge. If trees or shrubs were split and large limbs were broken, clean the wounds with a sharp knife or pruning shears. Browned leaves will not turn green. To assess the ex-tent of damage, move up the plant and past the leaves to check how far back dead material extends. Dead twigs will snap. Moving further back on the branch, you can use a knife to scrape the top of the branch to look for live wood. Prune twigs and branches at the point where there is live, green wood. Do not apply paint or wound dressings, but let the wound close naturally. If damage is too great, consider removing the plant.

Continue to inspect branch wounds closely and monitor throughout the growing season. Many wounds will callous over with proper plant watering and maintenance. Be vigilant about spotting Fire Blight if humidity and temperatures (60°F to 85°F and relative humidity above 60%) are conducive to the bacterial growth. A preventative spray of horticultural oil in the spring or fall can reduce overwintering egg casings and spores.

Hail often destroys leaves, but trees may have enough reserves to re-leaf. Because this takes a lot of energy, be sure to give the tree adequate water throughout the summer (approximately one inch per week, depending on species). Applying two to three inches of mulch at the base of the trees but not touching the trunk and shrubs will also help moderate soil temperatures and maintain soil moisture.

2018 newsletter 17.1

Annual flowers and edibles
Plants that are completely stripped of foliage and have broken stems should be replaced. If less than one-third of the plant remains, it is probably not worth trying to save. Other plants with less damage might be salvaged, but they will need time and care to recover.

  • Trim and remove severely damaged leaves so that the energy of the plant is directed to create new growth. After trimming, spray edibles with a copper-based product available at garden centers.
  • Apply fertilizer to promote growth. Pat Appleby of Canyon Creek Nursery suggests Soil Diva either to spray on foliage or as a soil drench. It will enhance microbial activity to stimulate the plants.
  • Water regularly without stressing plants with too much or too little water.
  • Place new plants between damaged ones to provide instant color in the case of annuals – and to help insure a harvest in the case of edibles.

After a very intense storm, the soil around plants tends to form a crust after it starts to dry out. Use a small hand rake to gently work around those plants and break up that crust so it doesn’t form a hard shell.

Perennials
Perennials often have secondary buds that will provide new growth following hail damage. Perennials also require optimal care following hail so that they not only survive the current season but gain the health to overwinter and bloom again next season. Trim perennials back as far as the extent of the damage is visible. This also applies to perennial grasses.

Apply fertilizer to provide nutrients that will generate growth.

Do not cut back damaged foliage on bulb flowers such as daffodils and allium. The leaves enable photosynthesis which feeds the bulbs though severe damage may cause less vigorous plants the following year.

Water adequately. Xeric plants may need more water than usual to help them recover more quickly.

Living with Hail
In areas more prone to hail, use a cloth designed to protect plants from hail (or sun). Pat suggests using a 30% block to allow moisture and light to reach plants while protecting them from hail. You can also look for finer-leafed plants such as cosmos which the hail often falls through rather than shreds.

Sources 
Associated Landscape Contractors of Colorado https://www.alcc.com/dealing-with-weather-damaged-plants.
Ask an expert Cooperative Extension https://ask.extension.org/questions/395347.
Colorado public news http://www.cpr.org/news/story/after-hail-advice-resurrecting-your-garden.
Interview with Pat Appleby of Canyon Creek Nursery.

~Submitted by Elizabeth Waddington

Food Sharing

The Healthy By Design Gardeners’ Market is designed to bring healthy, fresh, local, and affordable fruits and vegetables to the community. The market is also a social meeting place to celebrate health and nutrition. Healthy By Design is partnering with Billings Parks, Recreation, and Public Lands to bring the market to the South Park. The Gardeners’ Market is located in South Park on the corner of South 28th Street and Sixth Avenue South in Billings, MT. The season runs Thursdays from 4:30—6:30 from the second week of June through the first week in October.

If you would like to receive a weekly reminder and update about the Gardeners’ Market click here! For more information or if you have questions, leave a message at 406.651.6444 or email market@healthybydesignyellowstone.org. Master Gardener’s can receive credit towards their hours by donating surplus produce to this program. Log into your account and add the pounds.

Food Hub 1.png

The Yellowstone Valley Food Hub, a project of the Yellowstone Valley Citizens’ Council, aims to revitalize our regional agricultural system, which once met 70% of Montana’s food needs. The Food Hub strives to link local producers and fresh, healthy food to local consumers and institutions. The food hub will raise awareness about the nutritional, environmental, and economic benefits of local foods.

A food hub is an entity that actively manages the collection, processing, marketing, and distribution of food products from area producers in order to strengthen their ability to satisfy individual, wholesale, and retail demand. We would love to hear your ideas and insights. To learn more, contact Maggie at (406) 248-1154 or email maggie@northernplains.org.

~Submitted by Elizabeth Waddington

 

WORMS TO REBUILD THE SOIL

Steve Charter is an innovative rancher with a cattle operation north of Billings. For the past couple of years he has been intensively studying how we can rebuild our soil biology where degraded from the use of pesticides, chemical fertilizers and over-tillage. Steve even traveled to Australia to see what measures are being used there for regenerative agriculture. To this end, Steve has developed a worm “ranch” on an industrial scale in order to harvest the vermicastings.

worm farm 2

ALERT: An invasive Asian worm (Amynthas) is present in the US and can cause extensive dam-age. Do your research to avoid acquiring or releas-ing Amynthas worms. http://blog.uvm.edu/jgorres/amynthas/
More to follow.

Steve and his partner, John Brown, use a bulldozer to create worm beds 50 yards long and two feet deep with mounded sides. He uses red wrigglers, the worm of choice for composting. He places a layer of straw in the bottom of the trench, then puts the worms and compost mix on top. He cold composts a mix of wood chips, straw, kitchen scraps, coffee grounds, juice bar pulp, beet tailings, cow and horse manure, and weeds to feed the worms. He strives for a mix of carbon and nitrogen similar to compost, but the mix doesn’t have to be as exact as it does with compost because he is not trying to heat it up, just feed the worms. If it does heat up, the worms can go deeper in the soil to escape the heat. The worms stay in the trenches because that is where the food is. Steve doesn’t feed the worms in winter, so if they get too much food in summer, they can munch on that over the winter.

In November, he prepares the worms for winter. He covers the trenches with straw, then a water-permeable tarp, then bags of leaves. The worms lived through the winter last worm farm 3year. They are not completely dormant and can live as long as the temperature doesn’t drop below about 40 degrees F. He hasn’t been able to check the temperature this year because there is too much snow, but he is hopeful that the worms are alive.

When there is a demand, Steve harvests the vermicastings (worm “poop”). Steve and John feed the worms at one end to get the worms to move to the end of the trench, then dig up the vermicastings, which are spread to dry. The result is then put into a trummel, which tumbles the mix and sifts out larger pieces like sticks and wood chips. This product can be bagged and used directly in soil to stimulate and restore the biology of the soil. It is not a fertilizer per se but rather food for the soil web of bacteria, fungi, protozoa, nematodes and microarthropods. Compost also helps this process of restoration—adding the worm castings speeds up the process.

Another way to use the castings and make the beneficial effects go further is to make a worm tea or worm extract. To make tea, the castings are put in water with a feed like molasses and then aerated. The tea must be used within hours of preparation to keep it from going anaerobic so this process is more useful for a home operation. For an extract, the castings are added to liquid and aerated but not fed. It is more stable before application than the tea and thus more useful for a commercial operation.

Gardeners can have a worm operation and use the castings and tea or extract for lawn and garden, but need to know how to balance the feed to encourage various microbes depending on use of the final product.

Steve has primarily used his products to develop the soil on his own ranch, but will sell the castings and extract at some point commercially if all goes well. He is interested in continuing to study ways to re-store the soil and educate others on the problems and solutions. For example, he is also learning about ways to sequester more carbon in the soil. Restoration agriculture is a sideline for Steve whose primary business is cattle ranching, but helping to restore the earth is a deep passion and commitment for him and he is grateful that he can put his ideas into action on his ranch.

– By Ann Guthals

UPDATE: After a great deal of checking with Amy,Toby, and Steve Charter, and double checking sources that supply compost in Montana, our follow up on the Asian Worm situation has found no evidence of the Asian Worm here in Montana.
We will keep you in formed if new infor-mation comes in…..

Just What is Plant Select and What is Happening at Zoo Montana?

Plant Select is the country’s leading brand of plants designed to thrive in high plains and inter-mountain regions, offering plants that provide more beauty with less work so gardeners of all levels can achieve smart, stunning, and successful gardens using fewer resources and with a more positive environmental impact.

Driven by the belief that the right plants in the right place matter and that cultivating plants in tougher growing environments requires smarter approaches, Plant Select leverages a uniquely collaborative model and highly selective cultivation process to find, test, and distribute plants that thrive on less water.

Plant Select’s goal is to create smart plant choices for a new American landscape inspired by the Rocky Mountain region. Plant Select is a nonprofit combining forces of Colorado State University and Denver Botanical Gardens. I (Teresa Miller Bessette) applied to Plant Select for the gardens at Zoo MT to become a test site. Sharon Wetsch and I drove to Fort Collins in August and received plant material. A new site was cut and the plants were planted. There will be meetings and more plant material in the spring!

Submitted by Teresa Miller Bessette

On Thursday March 15th from 4- 5:00 PM in the Community Room at the Billings Library, Master Gardener Teresa Bessette will be giving a presentation on the gardening activities that are going on at ZooMontana’s Botanical Garden. Make plans to attend to hear more about how the Zoo qualified as a test site for Plant Select and what it involves.