A garden is a piece of land that is used to grow flowers, vegetables or other plants for aesthetic or practical purposes. Modern gardens may use organic methods or rely on technology and science.
Starting with disease-resistant organic trees means you have a head start on the battle against insects and diseases. You can also keep your tree healthy with organic treatments like fungus control.
John and Molly Chester were living in a small apartment in Santa Monica when, suddenly, they had a problem. Their newly acquired dog, Todd, was barking eight hours a day. They tried everything to change his behavior but nothing worked. Neighbors complained and, finally, their landlord evicted them.
This was the beginning of a journey that would lead to the rehabilitation of a 200-acre farm in Moorpark, located northwest of Los Angeles, 15 miles north of Thousand Oaks. Initially, the Chesters had modest expectations of starting a small farm, perhaps ten acres in size, where Todd could roam freely and they could grow the vegetables and fruits that Molly, a chef by trade, was seeking as a source of fresh produce. As luck would have it, they found an investor who wanted to take on a project of much greater magnitude.
With no farming experience, the Chesters searched “traditional farming” on the Internet, seeking individuals who would want to participate in their venture. By traditional farming, they meant growing crops without any artificial inputs such as manufactured fertilizers and pesticides.
They then made the acquaintance of Alan York, who came with a reputation for instituting biodynamic practices in California vineyards. Think of biodynamic farming as organic agriculture to the nth degree, with highly specific criteria for creating the ideal environment for any agricultural enterprise. For example, biodynamic compost must contain chamomile, valerian, yarrow, stinging nettle, dandelion, oak bark, horsetail, and horn manure. Horn manure is created when a cow’s horn is filled with cow manure and then buried underground for the winter. Furthermore, whereas an organic farmer may simply spray an organic pesticide to dispatch aphids or thrips, a biodynamic farmer will create conditions that will encourage insect pest predators such as ladybugs and lacewings to take up residence so that no pesticides of any kind are needed.
Another requirement of Alan York for the Chesters’ future farm was the construction of an enormous worm composting facility. The compost tea made from worm castings, a euphemism for worm poop, is highly effective when sprayed on plants. You don’t have to be a biodynamic farmer to make this tea. Anyone can make it as long as there is a regular supply of kitchen scraps available along with a few handfuls of red wiggler worms, the kind used for fish bait. Worm composting bins are readily available through online vendors.
Monoculture, where a single crop or single variety of a crop is grown, often leads to insect pest and disease problems. Since the pest resistance of plants in a monoculture is uniform, if a few plants are affected by a particular pest, there is a good chance that all of the crop will be affected by it. Keeping this in mind, 75 different varieties of fruit trees were planted.
Among the most devastating pests encountered on the farm were gophers. Cover crops had been planted in between the rows of fruit trees. On the plus side, sheep grazed in the cover crops, getting fat and, at the same time, depositing manure where they grazed, enriching the earth. Another benefit of cover crops, especially on sloping terrain, is that they trap and store rainfall – that would otherwise run off – in the soil below.
Gophers were not all bad since they did an outstanding job of aerating the soil. But a problem arose when – attracted to the succulent growth of the cover crops – they began chewing on the roots of the fruit trees, leading to their death. To address this problem, owl nesting boxes were constructed and, in the course of one year, 87 owls consumed 15,000 gophers. Barn owls – those with the phantom of the opera faces –- had come to the rescue. These owls are found throughout North America although they are seldom seen. But as they say, “If you build it (an owl nesting box in this instance), they will come.”
There was another serious pest of the avian kind that the owls helped to control. Starlings had been ravaging the tree crops. Fully 70% of the fruit were damaged by these birds. It so happens that owls are fond of feasting on young starlings and that’s what they did here. Also, in the course of time, hawks and falcons, which also make a meal of starlings and do a good job of scaring them off, began to be seen more frequently overhead.
Yet another fruit tree problem developed when hordes of snails began to devour citrus foliage. This time it was ducks to the rescue. A raft of 100 ducks consumed 90,000 snails, not only saving the citrus trees, but – as part of the bargain – transforming mollusks into valuable duck manure.
Alan York had told the Chesters it would take seven years to achieve the balance with nature that would allow the farm to thrive, and it was in the seventh and eighth years that – confirming York’s prediction – it began to prosper. “The Biggest Little Farm,” a prize-winning film about the farm’s genesis and progress that was made by John Chester, is widely available for online viewing. You can make arrangements to take a tour of the farm at apricotlanefarms.com.
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On July 15th and 16th from 10:30 am – 4 pm at the Sherman Gardens (thesherman.org) at 2647 E. Coast Hwy. in Corona Del Mar, six plant societies will be exhibiting and selling species from their chosen botanical categories as follows: ferns, orchids, begonias, bromeliads, carnivorous plants, and plumerias. Admission is free for members and $5 for non-members.
California native of the week: Dune tansy (Tanacetum camphoratum/bipinnatum) is a ground cover with many special qualities. It can grow in clay soil, has foliage that will remind you of a fern, yellow pom-pom flowers, and it spreads easily due to its rhizomatous roots. Furthermore, it has a fragrance reminiscent of camphor, as indicated by its species name. If you are planting a garden of native aromatic plants, this species, no doubt, would be among them. Other natives with fragrant foliage include Catalina perfume (Ribes viburnifolium), many sages (Salvia spp.), yarrow (Achillea millefolium), mugwort (Artemisia douglasii), and chaparral currant (Ribes malvaceum).
If you know of any farms in the area that you think would be worthwhile for readers of this column to visit, send that information to email@example.com. Your questions and comments regarding any plant species or gardening practice, as well as photos, are always welcome.