Soil Fertility

SOIL FERTILITY

Healthy Soils * Healthy Plants * Healthy Animals * Healthy People * Healthy World

By Mike Serant

 

So simple. Without healthy soil we don’t exist, soil is the foundation of civilization. All Earth life forms, from microbes to humans, are carbon energy beings sharing the same planet, same atmosphere, same water, same gravity, and same energy source. We are all connected. To have true health all parts of life must be in good shape.

 

No matter who we are - landscape professionals or farmers or gardeners or humans on this shared planet - we must always take care of our home Earth and build good lives for us now and in the future. Primary to this is soil health. Anything we do that degrades the soil ultimately harms us. This is why chemical fertilizers and chemical pesticides should never be used. They always contaminate, pollute, destroy soil life and effect us humans directly and indirectly. 

 

Fortunately the Organic movement is strong and growing more powerful every day. Organic foods for example are the hottest trend in America and are growing by 12.5% every year since 2009. There are now millions of us leading by example, teaching others, creating dynamic farms, building the most beautiful of landscapes and connecting on a very personal level with all of creation.

 

EASY TO GO ORGANIC

First recognize that soils and plants have inseparable symbiotic union. Healthy soils will produce healthy plants that yield abundance and beauty. You can’t have healthy plants without healthy soils. 

Second, recognize that when we say healthy soils we are referring not only to oxygenated, aerobic soil structure but also to the abundance of beneficial microorganisms (microbes) that should exist in all productive soils. The famous adage ‘Feed the Soil, Feed the Plant’ means that whatever we apply to the soil should feed the soil microbes and the plants too. We want our soils to be teaming with beneficial bacteria, fungi, nematodes, protozoans and micro-arthropods. Through the amazing work of Dr. Elaine Ingham, The Soil Foodweb, started in the mid 1990’s, we now know of the incredible work that the ‘invisible to the naked eye microbes’ do to grow and protect plants.

 

And we now know that plants give up to 80% of their manufactured photosynthesized food through the root system to directly attract and feed the microbes. The plant feeds the soil microbes and the soil microbes help the plants grow and protect them from diseases, pest insects and weeds. So ‘to the soil do no harm’. This is easily done with Organics and can’t be done with chemicals. Right away we see that only Organics follows Natural Law. By working with Mother Nature rather than against her life becomes much easier, more productive and less expensive. Often we hear people claim that Organics are more expensive than chemicals. That simply is not true. Organics are always less expensive than chemicals. True the cost of Organic fertilizers (food) is more expensive but in just a years’ time Organic operations are 25% or more less costly than chemicals. We get these savings from reduced watering, less plant problems, more nutritious foods, increased safety and reduced liability.

 

Building Healthy Soils 

For a well-managed soil system and therefore productive plants, constantly add organic matter as a food source for microorganisms and to improve soil health and structure. Return crop residues, lawn clippings and add as much Humates, mulch and compost as you can. The minimum benchmark for good soils is Organic Matter at 3%. At that level you have enough energy to sustain a healthy population of microbes. Organic Matter is carbon; carbon is stored sunlight and is the building block of life. Only use quality Organic fertilizers, mulches and composts. There are a lot of deceptive ‘Organic’ products coming into the marketplace because of market growth. Read the labels as you would in buying your own food.

 

Lastly, if you do nothing else, grow your foods Organically and buy only Organic foods. The amount of nutrition in Organic foods in contrast to chemically raised foods is startling. And with Organic foods you won’t be consuming the nasty chemical pesticides that are causing us so much mental and physical illnesses. 

 

Live Better, Create a Healthier World...Go Organic. 

 

Mike Serant is creator and manufacturer of MicroLife and has dedicated his work career to educating professionals and homeowners alike to the great advantages that only Organics can bring to individual lives and society in general. Mike regularly teaches Organic lawn and garden care throughout the state.

My First Day as a Garden Educator

by Camia Lowman

I am walking through the halls of Gregory-Lincoln Middle School, led by an 8th grade office aide wearing a bright purple backpack.

“Have you taken Mrs. Karavias’s class?” I asked her as she guides me past rows of lockers.

“Yes, I took it last year."

“What was your favorite dish you made?”

“Bok choy salad, it was really good.”

She leads me to a classroom, where Kellie Karavias is busy setting up for the day. When I walk in, Kellie enthusiastically greets me and says,

“Welcome to my Cultivated Classroom!”

Behind the rows of desks in her classroom are shelves full of colorful mixing bowls, spoons, and other kitchen utensils. All the walls are decorated with garden-and-kitchen-themed artwork, and the whiteboard is covered in hand-drawn pictures and learning objectives for the day. Kellie has an electric charge of positive energy, and I can immediately tell her students must adore her. Her striking black hair even looks spiked with energy, and I can’t help but think she looks like Storm from the X-men movies.

“Come on, let me show you our fruit tree orchard," she says.

As Kellie leads me back outside, she greets students in the hall. She seems to know students all by name and they all smile when they see her. I reminisce about my own awkward middle school days and remember the dynamic teachers I loved. We finally reach a set of doors and emerge at the back of the school where there is a playground next to a row of various fruit trees. Kellie describes each tree and says,

“The apple tree produces little bitter crabapples, but the students love them. You know how they love those sour candies like WarHeads.”

We walk around the corner and come up to an enclosed grassy area in a nook of the school building. Inside the enclosure, 10 chickens excitedly run up when they see Kellie.

“Good morning, ladies. I’ll be back to feed you in a bit," she says. The hens cluck eagerly in response.

Kellie’s students collect the hens’ eggs to use in recipes. In return, the students collect scraps from the cafeteria, such as beans and rice, to feed the chickens. Students also feed them grubs from the garden. Speaking of, Kellie has led me to our final stop  the edible garden.

At first glance I see beds full of basil and okra, trellises covered in beans, melons, and cucumbers, and tall groups of sunflowers surrounded by clouds of buzzing bees. The skyscrapers in downtown Houston are visible over the vine-covered fence. Gregory-Lincoln Middle School is located in Fourth Ward about two miles from downtown Houston.

Kellie is telling me about how she is duplicating her Cultivated Classroom program at Hogg Middle School, about 

a 10-minute drive north.

“My Cultivated Classroom is officially a chain!” she says happily.

I marvel at the energy she must have to teach at two schools. One of her former students, now a graduate of the Culinary Institute of America, will help split teaching duties at each school. It still sounds like an awful lot of work.

We meet Carol Burton, Director of Youth Education at Urban Harvest, who is prepping for the first day of lessons in the garden. Carol holds up a passionfruit she just picked in the garden and says,

"I recently learned the best way to eat these! You cut a small hole and suck the juice out like a juicebox."

carol with student

Together, Kellie and Carol come up with today’s objectives: Explain the outdoor classroom rules, introduce instructors and learn student names, do a quick ice-breaker activity, then split into groups to harvest bean pods, pick and taste moonbeam watermelon (being careful to save the seeds), weed and prep garden beds that had been “put to sleep” for the summer, and begin planting seeds for the Fall. I am thankful Kellie, Carol, and Priya, an experienced Garden Educator, will be there to lead the activities.

The first class is 3rd-5th grade students. We introduce our names with a fruit or vegetable mnemonic. Carol is Miss Burton-broccoli. I am Miss Lowman-loquat. We explain the outdoor classroom rules, such as being respectful of animals in the garden. Kellie uses laminated pictures to show students the difference between beneficial garden insects and pests.

“Who can name some beneficial insects, the good bugs?" she asks the group. I am impressed that the students correctly name butterflies, bees, ladybugs, and spiders. Kellie adds earthworms and wasps.

We play a rock, paper, scissors game where students model the life stages of plants as they win each round: First crouching as seeds, standing up ‘sprouting’ as seedlings, putting hands out ‘forming leaves’, holding their fingers by their face like ‘blooming flowers’, and finally holding hands in a circle as ‘developing fruit’. The students excitedly play the game. I smile when I notice a few students skipping life stages in order to win.

Next, we divide into groups. Priya and I take 6 students to a trellis covered in green bean vines. Priya describes each type of bean and explains which seed pods are ready to be picked. Picking one, she breaks off pieces for students to taste. Most of the students say they like it, one student doesn’t like it. I thank the student for trying it, and tell her maybe there will be something else in the garden she likes. Students enthusiastically begin picking the beans and quickly fill a bucket with dried, brown pods.

Camia Lowman in the garden

Before long, the class is over and students file back inside. Priya tells me she recently learned at a meeting that 40% of the students at this school are homeless. My heart aches as I remember each of the sweet, excited children I just met and wonder how many of them don’t have their own beds to sleep in and feel safe at night.

The next two classes are middle school students in 6th-8th grade. Many of these students took Kellie’s class last year and are excited to be back. After introductions and ice-breakers, I take a group to plant green bean seeds in 4-inch pots. Students will harvest these beans next month and cook a Fall harvest meal. They will set aside some plants to give to volunteers that help maintain the garden as thank you presents.

Nearby, Kellie is cutting a moonbeam watermelon picked from the garden and giving each student a slice.

“Isn’t it delicious? I just love these. How would you describe it?” she asks students. The students describe it with words like “sweet” and “refreshing” and “soft”. She tells them to carefully collect the watermelon seeds so they can have more next summer, and to throw the rinds in a bucket to be composted.

All over the garden, groups of students weed beds and plant seeds for Fall vegetables. They compost weeds and collect grubs in a bucket to feed the chickens. Other students stack trays of newly potted seeds on pallets and water them. Students talk in different languages as they work, and everyone is engaged and working hard despite the Texas heat. I catch a 6th grade student trying to sneak a second slice of watermelon. Trying not to laugh, I tell her to eat it. Mouth full of the juicy, yellow fruit, she tells me how she and her mom are trying to eat all organic fruits and vegetables and to not eat as much fast food. I think about what a great experience this class is for her. Learning to cook with the food she grows in the garden and eggs she collects from the chickens.

After class ends and students leave, Kellie asks me what I thought. I think what these kids are doing and what she’s doing is awesome!

DONATE to give the gift of garden education to Houston school children. 

BECOME A VOLUNTEER and learn to garden with us. 

A Bounty of Slow Food in School Garden Programs

Slow Food Nations, Day 3: Having missed the excitement of Chef Waters’ delegate luncheon, we took the opportunity to attend the “Gardens Galore” panel discussion which included Ron Finley, Kimbal Musk and Slow Food International Vice President, Alice Waters. Each shared their passion in working with students through the programs they helped create.

 

“I don’t grow food. I grow people,” 
Ron Finley opened the discussion. 

Finley’s Gangsta Gardener program began when he became determined to change South Los Angeles from food desert to food forest. . . to give kids a chance to grow up with the option of healthy food, instead of fried, fattening staples. Ron envisions a world where gardening is gansta, where cool kids know their nutrition and where communities embrace the act of growing, knowing and sharing the best of the earth’s fresh-grown food.


Ron Finley
(Photo from ronfinley.com)

 

“Gardens allow parents and teachers to connect with students. It removes the educational barriers,” observed Kimbal Musk.

Musk’s school garden program, The Kitchen Community, aims to improve the health of students and communities by creating experiential learning and garden-based education opportunities in low-income schools. With a focus on nutrition and health, the Learning Gardens are inviting outdoor classrooms where teachers can teach and get inspired while students can engage in creative learning.



Kimbal Musk
(Photo from twitter.com/kimbal)

 


According to Waters, 
“The garden is an education of the senses. Children find very quickly how to connect to nature.”

What started with a 1-acre garden project at a middle school 20 years ago is now the Edible Schoolyard Project, a non-profit with an expanded mission of building and sharing edible education curriculum for kindergarten through high school. ESP supports edible education in programs across the country through an online network and resource center and offer professional development opportunities at our annual Edible Schoolyard Academy.

 

 

Her aspiring challenge to national and local school administrators: 

“We need to feed every kid in this country a sustainable free school lunch. We need to make it an academic subject, to add it into the academic curriculum.” 
             

 

 

 

 

 

We laud Alice’s message: Together, you feel empowered. That’s a theme of Slow Food Nations: we all have a part to play. There’s all of these different groups doing amazing work. We need to find how to put these amazing ideas together. We need to be strategic, really strategic.

Our own takeaway from Slow Food Nations 2017 . . . each of us can easily become part of the Slow Food movement right here in our own kitchens — by cooking meals using local seasonal ingredients to share with family and friends; by being intentional about where we spend our food dollars; by learning to appreciate real food. Find out more about our local chapter Slow Food Houston, then slow down and smell the home cooking!


 

“Thank you, Denver!”

“We ate, we hugged, we debated. We learned about food sovereignty and food waste, beer pairings and new tastes. After meeting new friends and catching up with old buddies, we leave inspired to change the world through food that is good, clean and fair for all.”

So notes the Slow Food Nation 2017 Festival website home page which was held in Denver, July 14-16. Inspired by Slow Food International’s biennial Terra Madre gathering in Turin, Italy, Slow Food Nations combined the energy of a street food festival, rigor of an academic conference, and inspiration of a cultural exchange. It was last held in San Francisco in 2008. Read a local recap of the festival.

So, as part of an organization that educates, connects and grows people who love nutritious local food, staff members from the Youth Education Team knew where we needed to be that weekend! Billed as 3 days of events with 100 exhibitors, 500 delegates and an estimated 20,000 participants, everything we attended and everywhere we looked, revolved around delicious food.

Not knowing what to expect, we started with something familiar . . . a small farms tour that was a wonderful overview of the Denver metropolitan area that proved to be eye-opening as well as fun. Later workshops were highlighted by an entertaining and inspiring storyteller, appropriately entitled, “Heretics Unite!” by farmer, author and lecturer, Joel Salatin.

Another highlight was the poignant film screening of the “Deeply Rooted” documentary to be aired again this fall on PBS. It is the story of a young man’s 40-year journey to preserve heritage seed and farmers’ stories in Washington Parish, Louisiana.

The “Food and Freedom” workshop featured Slow Foods International founding member, Carlo Petrini. He stressed the importance of buying local and thinking global — by supporting our local food system; by knowing your farmer; and by being mindful of global issues in the areas of consumption.

——

Our next post will cover what we learned from the school gardening “Gardens Galore” panel, which included legendary chef and activist Alice Waters. Each panelist shared their passionate mission to teach school children to grow, eat and appreciate where their food comes from, and the land that grows it.

Farm to table visits: Shiner Pork & Beef and Presidio

By: Caroline Orr

 

On Friday June 16, farmers market director Tyler Horne and I spent a full day visiting an Urban Harvest Farmers Market vendor’s farm, Shiner Pork and Beef in Shiner, Texas.  We aslo did a tasting of fresh vegetables from vendor, Scott Snodgrass of Loam Agronomics, at Presidio restaurant located in the Heights. While connecting with the farmers whom behind the scenes make our food taste and feel great, Tyler and I got to watch and learn from start to finish where our food began and how it ended up in front of us at the table, over all creating a day of experiencing fresh farm to table food. 

 

Just 110 miles out of Houston, the small town of Shiner Texas is notable for more than just beer. Beyond the heart of the city and past the Shiner Brewery, Patricia and Ross Tieken have together established their sustainable farm and family business, Shiner Pork and Beef.  On land that used to be cotton country, Ross and Patricia have raised much more than just a family. Five years ago, they began their production of meat using Beefmaster-Tajima mix calves and English Large Black Hogs. Meat production however, was not always part of the master plan. 

 

Grazing on their property for over 40 years, Beefmasters are attractive to ranchers for six key points: fertility, docile temperament, milk production, high quality of beef, conformation, and easy calving. Because of these attractions, the Tiekens used to take the calves to auction when they were about a year and a half old to be sold to a feed lot up north. Though they soon discovered, this was not the most profitable use of their beloved cows.

 

Beefmaster female

 

Patricia and Ross got the English Blacks only seven years ago. Their initial idea was to sell them as breeder pigs as they are an endangered breed. 

 

English Blacks enjoy the mud in the heat of the summer

 

However, with such high-quality breeds of cattle and pigs, meat production proved itself to be the most appealing and practical option. 

Before meat production officially began, the Tiekens bought a Japanese Tajima Bull to improve the quality of their beef.

 

Tajima calf, named ‘BB’ bred with the Beefmaster females

 

“We bought him when he was such a young bull, just six or seven months old, and since we’ve started breeding and using him, he’s improved the quality of the beef tremendously,” said Ross. “I’ve actually myself been very surprised at what improvements in the taste and texture the beef there has been just by changing the bull.”

Named after a specific region of Japan, the Tajima breed is responsible for the origination of the sought after and world renown Kobe beef. 

The Large Blacks on the other hand, are too known for their exceptional taste and for being a ‘bacon breed.’

Apart from the Tiekens use of superior breeds that produce a difference you can taste, the Tiekens set themselves apart in their relationship and treatment of the animals. All the animals are loved, cared for, and even named by the family. Compared to their neighbors, they have half as my animals that live on roughly seven times the amount of land. The cows typically graze rotating from one field to the next in order to keep the grass growing, while the pigs enjoy their feed, milo, which is ground fresh onsite.

 

 Patricia holding the fresh ground milo

 

In terms of sustainability, the Tiekens do everything possible themselves and onsite using just the animals and their land. They use no pesticides and maintain a considerable garden that supplies their family with fresh homegrown fruits and vegetables.

“Our main goal is really to make the land sustainable so that it pays for itself,” said Patricia. “We do it all on a small scale and it provides the best quality. We avoid the pressure of just trying to get bigger and bigger.”

 

 

At the end of our visit Tyler and I got to truly be a part of the family, as we sat down and were served a homegrown and home cooked lunch by Patricia of cheese and tomato tart, boiled potatoes, and of course, English Black sausage with homemade barbeque sauce and sauerkraut. 

As starving as we were, the food nourished our empty stomachs as well as our souls! The sausage was juicy and flavorful and the barbeque sauce was distinctively tangy. 

 

 

Purchase Shiner Pork and Beef at the Eastside Farmers market on Saturdays, or enjoy a farm to table meal prepared by award winning chef, Chris Shepherd, at Houston’s Underbelly, serving unique creole cuisine.

 

Interested in a visit? Go online to visit their website for contact information at shinerporkandbeef.com

Thank you, Ross and Patricia!

 

After the visit and Shiner Pork and Beef, Tyler and I had the privilege of meeting vendor, Scott Snodgrass, of Loam Agronomics for some tasty bites at the Height’s new restaurant, Presidio. Presidio, which opened at the beginning of this year, notably chooses local sources like Loam Agronomics for many their seasonal menu items. Enjoying fresh vegetables that Scott had brought over to the restaurant that day that had been harvested earlier that morning made for a special and filling experience. We were served over eight items on the menu! Below were some of our favorites.

 

 

Blistered shishito peppers with pickled beets, candied hazelnuts, ricotta salata, fish sauce vinaigrette

 

 

Loam heirloom tomatoes with whipped goat ricotta, peach sage, basil, and seeded granola

 

 

Sweet potato beignets dijonaise, fennel frond, smoked paprika

 

 

Scott Snodgrass enjoying his very own shishitos

 

 

 

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