Natalie Ross is an aspiring soil whisperer. She studies denitrifying bacteria in agricultural soils at NC State in Raleigh. She lives in Durham, NC, where she practices creating healthy soil in a land of water-logged clay. She drinks way too much tea, loves to garden, and wishes she had more time to play guitar.
Climbing Camelback Mountain

Climbing Camelback Mountain

John and I took a quick trip to sunny Scottsdale, AZ, to visit my paternal grandmother, Nana. We only had three and a half days, but we packed in as much action as we could. Nana’s best friend threw a beautiful bridal shower for me, and I received the most...
A Perfect Day to Collect Greenhouse Gases

A Perfect Day to Collect Greenhouse Gases

It is the day after Thanksgiving, Black Friday, and I’m standing in the middle of a field contemplating the quiet beauty of late autumn. While others scramble to score the best deals in the malls of America, I think about the last time I stood in these fields. Corn, corn...
Waterfall Hiking and Autumn Magic in Asheville, North Carolina

Waterfall Hiking and Autumn Magic in Asheville, North Carolina

If you are feeling the need to immerse yourself in clean, natural beauty, head to the North Carolina mountains. It was in 2002 that I first took up residence in NC, trying every few years to move away. Somehow the Raleigh/Durham Triangle area always pulled me back like a magnet....
Miriam's Garden: A Place You Don't Want To Leave

Miriam’s Garden: A Place You Don’t Want To Leave

Miriam’s garden is the sort of place that makes you want to stay a while. Towering zinnias wave above your head in bright hues, while a luscious patch of strawberry leaves invites you to lay down and take a little nap. Basil and peppers spill unapologetically over the edges of their...
Tractors Make Dreams Come True

Tractors Make Dreams Come True

For eight months my family has been piling horse manure in a wide, low formation. Suspecting that it wasn’t composting, I took my compost thermometer out there and tested it. Lo and behold, it was not heating up, and the manure was not breaking down. Luckily we have an amazing...
The Patron Saint of Ferns

The Patron Saint of Ferns

A bucket-full of freshly dug forest ferns. The land they are on is slated for harvest. Fern rescue! My family has bestowed upon me the title of the “Patron Saint of Ferns” for my efforts to rescue the multiple species dwelling in our forest before it all gets bulldozed this summer....
Garden Anxiety, Relieved

Garden Anxiety, Relieved

Every year I feel anxious about how my garden will turn out. I worry whether things will grow or die, and whether they’ll look good where they are. At first everything seems so short and small, and I worry whether things will fill out. It’s always hard to believe that...
Compulsive Gardening and a Bird Funeral

Compulsive Gardening and a Bird Funeral

NOTE: This post was originally published May 8, 2013, but was reposted due to an epic battle with internet hacks in which this post was lost. Somewhere deep in me there is a desire to study for finals, but I have a problem. I have an irresistible impulse to check on...
A Garden is Born: Part 1

A Garden is Born: Part 1

The backyard looked like a derelict wasteland when I moved into my previous home in February 2010. A short chain-link fence surrounded a large plot of green and brown weeds and grass. A couple of struggling rose bushes sat on either side of the back steps. For all its depressing...

Climbing Camelback Mountain

John and I took a quick trip to sunny Scottsdale, AZ, to visit my paternal grandmother, Nana. We only had three and a half days, but we packed in as much action as we could. Nana’s best friend threw a beautiful bridal shower for me, and I received the most beautiful and thoughtful gifts.

Mary and Jesus in the garden Beautiful garden wall sculptures of Mary and Jesus. John couldn’t go to the shower, since it was ladies only, but he and I had plenty of fun on our own excursions. First we headed to the Desert Botanical Gardens in Scottsdale to see the Chihuly installations amongst the cacti and the wildflowers. If I had to describe the native vegetation of the desert, I’d say it’s prickly.

Chihuly in the Desert Botanical Garden in Scottsdale, AZ. Cacti blooming in the Arizona desert. A cactus in the Arizona desert
Chihuly’s glass exhibit was scattered throughout the garden, and it looked as if the glass had grown right there between the plants. John’s favorites were the red and purple spikes.

John Jack poses in front of a cactus at the Desert Botanical Garden in Arizonablack and white cacti at the Desert Botanical Garden in ArizonaBlack and white cactus in ArizonaNatalie in front of a cactus at the Desert Botanical Garden in ArizonaArizona desert landscape with saguaro cacti, a mountain, and a clear blue sky.Red cactus flower in ArizonaA hummingbird in the desert with saquaro cacti in Arizona.

On Saturday we climbed Camelback Mountain and had an awesome view of Scottsdale, Paradise Valley and Phoenix. The hike up involved some real rock climbing, but seeing kids do it made me confident that I could do it. The trip up was exhilarating, and the hard work was totally worth it. We took the Echo Canyon trail up and the Cholla trail down.

Camelback Mountain in ArizonaNatalie in her birth element, the desert, soaking up the red rock and sun. The view from the top of Camelback Mountain in Arizona.Giant granddaddy saguaro cactus on Camelback Mountain in Arizona.Hiking up Echo Canyon trail at Camelback Mountain in Arizona.John at the top of a rough part of the hike up Camelback Mountain in Arizona.

While we were hanging out on top of the mountain, we realized that we miss living in a place with a dramatic and beautiful nature feature. Sure, Raleigh-Durham, NC, has a lot going on, but it lacks in the mind-blowing nature department. We’ll have to do some research about where to settle down. Sun, mountains, beaches and plenty of hiking spots are a plus when considering moves.

Scottsdale and Paradise Valley from the top of Camelback Mountain in Arizona.One of many lizards we saw on Camelback Mountain in Arizona.The view from the top of Camelback Mountain in ArizonaWhere the sprawl ends, farms begin. The view from the top of Camelback Mountain in Arizona.Obligatory mountain-top kissing selfie on Camelback Mountain in Arizona.A bright orange desert flower on the top of Camelback Mountain in Arizona.The Cholla trail on Camelback Mountain in Arizona.John on Camelback Mountain in Arizona

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A Perfect Day to Collect Greenhouse Gases

It is the day after Thanksgiving, Black Friday, and I’m standing in the middle of a field contemplating the quiet beauty of late autumn. While others scramble to score the best deals in the malls of America, I think about the last time I stood in these fields. Corn, corn and more corn was all I could see around and above me. Corn surrounded me, forming tunnels through a vast corn fort. Huddled between the rows, I crawled under layers of leaves to reach the chambers where we test for nitrous oxide coming out of the soil.

A tunnel between corn rows on the farm.

We use a syringe to extract gas from the chambers on the ground.

Today the corn is gone, and the whole farm is a wide open space interrupted only by groups of trees in riparian buffers and experimental forests. Between my feet and the trees are acres of dried stubble and freshly sprouted cover crops shimmering in the sun. Bases of corn stalks with their tentacle roots float like octopi in a sea of green.

The soil is covered with freshly sprouted cover crops.

My job today, as part of the greenhouse gas group, is to measure nitrous oxide emissions from the soil. I place an air-tight chamber over the soil and use a syringe to extract gas at specific time points. The air makes a high-pitched whine as it rushes into the syringe, reassuring me that something is happening even though I can’t see the gases moving around. I’m working on my first of three sets of chambers that I’ll test today.

The upside-down green bowls are our gas collecting chambers.

At each set I pour myself a cup of hot tea from my thermos. There’s an odd window of downtime between sampling points that’s too short to get engrossed in something, but too long to just do nothing. So I sip tea and gaze across the fields, imagining that this is my farm. I feel proud of this vast swatch of land blanketed by winter rye. Then I realize a real farmer would probably be standing there thinking of all the work that is yet to be done, or be in the shed fixing machines.

Hot tea from a thermos keeps me warm as I work in the chilly wind.

Watching each blade of rye vibrate in the wind I’m drawn into a meditative state. Today I’m grateful for the clear blue skies and the warm sun as I do this work. I’m grateful for the crickets still chirping in late November. I’m grateful for a reason to spend the day outside and enjoy the weather before winter sets in. Had I not been here sampling, I would have been busy with inside work, oblivious to the sheer beauty of the day outside despite the cold.

The roar of the Kubota drowns out my thoughts as I drive down grassy lanes to my final sampling set. At my last stop, I set up the chambers and wait. I have just enough tea for one more cup, and I snack on sweet potato biscuits from last night’s Thanksgiving feast. I could imagine a group of landscape painters setting up a plein air session out here.

Sunlight pouring through pine trees in Durham, NC.

Back home I go on what is usually my morning walk. My route looks different and new in the evening light, and I realize how much I enjoy being outside year round.

If you haven’t taken the time to spend an afternoon outside lately, go for a walk and enjoy the golden light and the crisp autumn air.

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Waterfall Hiking and Autumn Magic in Asheville, North Carolina

Looking Glass Rock in the Blue Ridge mountains of North Carolina. www.natalie.net

If you are feeling the need to immerse yourself in clean, natural beauty, head to the North Carolina mountains. It was in 2002 that I first took up residence in NC, trying every few years to move away. Somehow the Raleigh/Durham Triangle area always pulled me back like a magnet. Embarrassingly, I hadn’t made the effort to visit Asheville and the nearby mountains until this fall. I’ve always known that I’d love it, but I didn’t realize just how much I’d love it. In my less-rooted years, I might have been tempted to move there, so I kept myself quarantined in the Triangle area, allowing myself occasional trips to the beach. Only now, with a fiancé, grad school, and plenty of things to keep me rooted, was I ready to make the trip.

A bouquet of zinnia, celosia, and kale at the Asheville, North Carolina, farmers market. DSC_1503

Atla, a dachsund, needs all the love she can get. She would sit

Walking the dogs in the morning sun. Asheville, NC. www.natalie.

John, Machi and I packed into the car on Friday at the end of October and drove into the night to my friend Liz’s house. Liz Niemeyer is an amazing painter, and her boyfriend, David, is a talented woodworker. With Liz’s two dachshunds, David’s German shepherd, and our mutt, it was a dog-party weekend overloaded with cuteness.

Red and yellow autumn leaves in the Blue Ridge mountains of Nort Winter the German shephard was the biggest dog in the pack, butSaturday morning we went to the farmer’s market on the UNC-Asheville campus to load up on greens, veggies and chicken. Then we headed to David’s house in a valley outside of Asheville. Outside his door is a beautiful mountain peak covered in autumn leaf colors. I can only dream of to always be cradled by ancient hills that were great towering mountains millennia ago.

When I saw this hydrangea in bloom in October I thought I must hDSC_1570
Along the Blue Ridge Parkway in North Carolina in the fall. Autu

After driving back and forth a hundred times to the top of the ridge line, we emerged from the trees to find a rock face covered in gigantic icicles. These sharp weapons could have been used by Norse warriors to fight epic ice battles. We pulled over to get a closer look, and I had a strange revelation that I identify deeply with the crystalline, cold beauty of the icicles. Perhaps this kinship stems from my Danish heritage.

The first freeze imprisoned still-green shoots in ice along the

We're in love! John and me standing next to a magical cliff of i

An icicle fit for an ice warrior drips down the side of a mounta

Back on the road, we cruised on the Blue Ridge Parkway until we reached Skinny Dip Falls. Machi was a brave little mutt as he carefully calculated his first leaps from rock to rock down the falls. He is a pro hiker now. John and Liz took the falls all the way down, but Machi and I wove in and out of the rocks and forest. I found a clearing that looked like a place where witches might gather on a full moon to call down the spirits. Rhododendrons made low tunnels that we had to wiggle through, only to come out on pathways carpeted in red by freshly fallen maple leaves.

Boulders line the creek below Skinny Dip Falls outside of Ashevi

Walking to Skinny Dip Falls in the Blue Ridge Mountains is easy

Red leaves carpet the trail at Skinny Dip Falls in the Blue Ridg

Sunset from the top of a mountain creek outside of Asheville, No

This dog quickly learned it's fun to jump from rock to rock when

After our hike we wound around the mountain peaks looking for sunset views. At last we found the perfect spot in the perfect light with a view of Looking Glass rock. We bathed in the golden light and absorbed the mountaintop air until our bellies started making a fuss. Fortunately dinner was nearly ready and waiting for us, as a chicken had been simmering in the slow cooker all this time. Back home we threw our broth in a pot with some ginger, garlic, spices, tatsoi and fish sauce for a simple, Asian chicken soup to warm our bones from the coldness that night had brought.

Skinny Dip Waterfall in the Blue Ridge Mountains outside of Ashe

Red berries on a log in the woods. www.natalie.net

Kissing on top of a mountain at sunset in the fall. Asheville, N

Sunday morning came too quickly, and I didn’t want to leave. Machi and I took a big walk around west Asheville, and then we headed home to make it in time for an evening party in Raleigh. Now that we’ve fallen in love with the mountains, we’ll be visiting again as soon as we can. I hope to see them in all seasons, and to venture down more magical waterfalls! I’d really love to come offer fertility management advice and take soil samples with an organic mountain farmer, taking 100s of pictures of the farm, of course, to share with all who wish to escape into the natural beauty of western NC for a moment.

Liz stands on the edge of the mountain bathed in golden light. w

The sunset casts long shadows over the mountains in the fall. As

Where are your favorite mountain or weekend escapes?

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Miriam’s Garden: A Place You Don’t Want To Leave

Beautiful Miriam Lieberman stands proudly in her enchanting garden. Behind her is a handmade gate, and all around are beds full of flowers, vegetables and herbs. North Carolina, piedmont, grow, organic garden, soil, naturalLuscious strawberry leaves cover the ground in a happy green patch. Organic garden, gardening, grow, natural, fruit, eat, grow your own

Miriam’s garden is the sort of place that makes you want to stay a while. Towering zinnias wave above your head in bright hues, while a luscious patch of strawberry leaves invites you to lay down and take a little nap. Basil and peppers spill unapologetically over the edges of their beds. Sweet potatoes stretch out as much as they can. “No one is using this fallow bed, we won’t be a bother” they must think, as they creep across the aisles.

Hot pink zinnia. annual, flower, beautiful, prettyseedlings, soil, dirt, garden, grow, earth, green, vegetables

The garden beds are laid out in a perfect balance of order and unpredictability, making it easy to get around while you to explore the nooks and crannies. Petite logs with the bark still intact encompass some beds, while others are lined by large rocks from the woods. And the garden gate, oh, that majestic sculpture of a gate has the power to make you forget where you were going or what you were doing and enter the garden instead.

fish, pond, orange, garden, water, coi, goldfishA garden path leads to a unique and beautiful gate through lush herbs and vegetables. North Carolina, garden, grow, greens, herbs, basil, peppers, gate, build, organicGarden bed map in a moleskin notebook on a straw bale. Organic garden, North Carolina, plan, organize, draw

Miriam and I didn’t mean to spend hours in her garden the other day. I even tried to remind her that she told me she had so much to do that day, and that she couldn’t spend all her time in the garden. Still, little lettuces were hungry, and naked beds begged for crimson clover seeds to blanket them. There was much to do, and we were happy to tend to the tasks at hand.

soil sampling, organic, garden, grow, trowel, soil, soil test, nutrients, precision gardening, putting dirt in a bagsoil sampling, test, grow, garden, red, north carolina, soil test, organic, sweet potatoes, fallow, piedmont

Two weeks earlier we had drawn a map and numbered the beds. Then we sampled the soil according to how the beds had been managed. Now, with the data back from the lab, I was here to help her measure out precise levels of fertilizers. All of the nutrient levels look pretty good, so we only applied nitrogen in the form of bat guano.

Soil samples ready to go to the North Carolina Department of Agriculture, organic, soil, soil test, garden, grow, strawgreens, garden, organic, grow, vegetables, salad, rocks, garden bed, seedlings, soil, naturalThe handmade garden gate beckons to visitors to enter the garden and get dream awhile. gate, garden, organic, grow, north carolina

In the two weeks since I had been there, Miriam had constructed an impressive bamboo trellis for the sweet peas. I love that she used zip ties, which won’t rot like twine, to build the trellis. I will certainly be using that trick in the spring.

Freshly picked zinnias sit in my Volvo station wagon for the ride home. organic, flowers, grow, garden, orange, pink, white, red, yellow, volvo 240, 1993 volvo, bouquet, beautifulGARDEN TIP: When constructing a trellis, use zip ties instead of twine. It won't rot, and it's super easy to use. Sweet peas have a trellis to climb now thanks to bamboo, zip ties, and a little love from Miriam. organic, soil, garden, grow, vine, legumeA baby sweet pea peeks out of the earth from it's fertile, organic soil. Garden bed, garden, grow, north carolina, green, dirtA view of Miriam's garden from outside the fence. Sweet potatoes are growing like crazy, while seedlings are getting started in other beds. organic, garden, grow, north carolina, soil, dirt, vegetables, grow your own

We tried to use a refractometer to measure the Brix level of various greens, but I haven’t yet figured out how to extract enough juice from leaves for testing. Brix is something that is new to me, and I’d like to keep track of Brix levels as we adjust the amounts and types of amendments used in the garden. It is supposed to be a way to measure how nutrient-dense your produce is.

Thyme flowers, garden, organic, herb, grow, green, flowerPretty garden beds all lined up in a row. Organic, garden, soil, dirt, fertile, sweet potatoes, seedlings, north carolina

This abundant little garden is a luscious escape just outside of Chapel Hill, NC, that is rejuvenating both nutritionally and spiritually. Miriam is willing to be my guinea pig as I learn about tending soils with the intent of growing nutrient-dense food, and I’m excited to help her and others grow better food in beautiful places.skull, horns, steer, mystical, sacred, deathHoly basil grows abundantly in Miriam's garden. purple, leaves, green, garden, organic, grow, beautiful, luscious, herbs, medicinal

Black-eyed Susans are done flowering, but their job isn't done. Birds love to eat the seeds throughout the fall and winter. flower, garden, organic, fall, autumn, bird food, growMiriam's garden is nestled amongst pine trees in the Piedmont of North Carolina. organic, grow, garden, food, vegetables, herbs, medicinal, beautiful, fertile, luscious, wild

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A Healing Journey or: I’m An Adrenal Burnout

Bye Bye Sugar, Hello Minerals

Since July 2012 I have been making efforts to eat healthier by cutting out sugar, junk carbs and alcohol and stocking up on vegetables and pasture-raised meats, yet I don’t feel as good as I think someone with my diet and lifestyle should feel. Now I know why. Just like the soil needs sufficient levels of minerals and nutrients in balanced proportions, so do our bodies. My own body is nutrient depleted and unbalanced, as well as overloaded with toxic metals, according to a hair mineral test from Analytic Research Labs (ARL). My mineral levels are so low and out of whack, that they’ve classified me as an adrenal burnout. No wonder I sigh constantly from feeling overwhelmed and tired.

What’s Living In My Gut?

On top of that, a parasite test showed that I have three stomach infections, Candida albicans, excess E. coli (beyond a normal healthy amount) and Klebsiella pneumoniae, that are preventing my body from being able to heal itself no matter what nutrients I provide it. After years of experimenting with different diets, thousands of dollars thrown at procedures I wish I had never done, consulting various health professionals in a wide range of woo-woo to conventional, and not getting to a place where I can say I feel healthy, I at last see hope for healing. I’m working with a renowned naturopath/nutritionist who I really gel with, and who finally suggested we do some testing that I’ve wanted to do all along. Under her guidance I am on a supplement regimen to remove the bad stomach bugs, clean out my innards, and populate my gut with healthy microbes. I’m also eating more nutrient-dense than ever before, and I’m loving it. For example I have sautéed kale with my eggs at breakfast, black Japonica rice cooked in coconut milk as a side, sweet potatoes prepared a bunch of different ways, and a rotating cast of greens with delicious sauces for dinner. I’ve been easing into this diet for three months, adding more and more nutrient-dense foods to my meals. Today marks the first full day of taking all my supplements. I’m also going to bed by 10 pm, before the second wind of the night kicks in, to get a better rest and let my adrenals heal. I’ll be updating my story as healing progresses.

When I Asked The BIG Question

My healing journey started in 2007, when I was introduced to juicing. About that time I started asking myself, “What does healthy even mean?” I had grown up feeling exhausted, overwhelmed, and depressed, having constant headaches and stomachaches, undergoing constant treatments for yeast infections, and suffering from insomnia. I also had awful, painful acne that deeply affected my self confidence. My health history was littered with antibiotic treatments for ear infections from a very young age, and I was treated for mononucleosis in the 11th grade. Somehow, despite my dislike of almost all vegetables and my affinity for Peanut Butter Kandy Kakes, Fruity Pebbles, UTZ cheese curls, and all kinds of breads and pastas, I was not overweight. At least I had that much going for me, as I delved into a journey to discover the meaning of health.

First Steps To Healing

The answers did not come easily, and the first major overhaul of my diet was to start taking a multivitamin and to juice fruits and vegetables. At this point I started having more energy than I ever did before. Next, in early 2009, I did an elimination diet and cut out gluten. My first few months without gluten were so incredibly difficult. I didn’t know what to eat, and so I was hungry most of the time! It took me a full year to transition to being completely gluten free, as I learned what did and didn’t contain gluten, and as I slowly let go of my favorite foods. A recent gene test shows that I am not Celiac, but I have inherited gluten sensitivity genes from both of my parents, thus prohibiting me from ever even thinking about eating gluten again. Though I’ve known since high school that I’m allergic to dairy, it wasn’t until July 2012 that I finally admitted it and gave up everything dairy. I had been using lactose enzyme pills, but they didn’t work too well for me. Eliminating these major allergens from my diet helped me immensely, but they weren’t all that I needed to get better.

Healing Deeper

I made measures to heal my mind as well, and I can’t even begin to stress how important it is to receive counseling from a professional that you trust if you ever wish to heal. Counseling helped me move through things I suffered from for years in mere months. Exercise, meditation, journaling, and creative expression are all so important to healing as well. For me photography and gardening are my greatest creative outlets. It is through these conduits that I can connect with and celebrate beauty, which is deeply healing in itself.

We Are The Soil

What I find most interesting about this healing journey is that it’s led me to the soil. I see in the soil the basis for health, nutrition and beauty for all life. As I learn more and more about how to be a healthy person, I am ever more deeply convinced that it all starts with healthy, living soil. We need healthy soil to grow nutrient-dense foods to heal our bodies and to grow beautiful places that inspire and heal our minds.

Feeling Better, Continuing To Heal

Though this is a very abbreviated synopsis of my healing journey, it covers the basics. These six years have been a time of many trials, some failures, disappointment, and many beautiful successes. Even now, as I feel 1000 times better than I did at the beginning of my journey, I still suffer from some of the same symptoms. Healing is not linear, and the more I learn about health, the more I understand how everything is connected. In order to nourish ourselves, we must nourish our communities and our environments and make every effort to live in deeply meaningful ways. If you would like me to elaborate on a part of my healing journey, please ask, I’m happy to share.

Your Healing Journey

What has your healing journey looked like? When did you ask yourself what healthy means, and what answers did you find? What methods do you see for creating a healthy planet?

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Breaking Ground: Cover Crops and a New Garden Bed

Fall is here, and my cool season white clover cover crop is starting to sprout. Yesterday I bravely wielded a pitchfork to break ground for a new garden alongside our new French drain. This is a project I’ve been procrastinating on, so at last I came up with a compromise for myself: do it in small sections at a time. With my soil tests in hand, liming calculations figured out, and clover seeds ready to spread, I managed to till, lime and seed an area 5′ wide by 9′ long.

2013-09-22-cloversprouts

Do you use cover crops? Their contributions to soil fertility and plant health are numerous and extolled by experts around the world. Some of their benefits include:

  • Adding nitrogen to the soil, thus helping reduce fertilizer costs
  • Adding organic matter, which improves the soil’s water and nutrient holding abilities
  • Preventing erosion and nutrient leaching- did you know sediment from runoff is one of the three biggest water pollutants?
  • Providing food for microbes which keep the soil food web up and running
  • Blocking weeds – the cover crops are taking up all the space that those pesky weeds would occupy!

Many of these benefits continue to accumulate through the years, with the benefits becoming more and more noticeable as time passes. It’s like composting in place. If you aren’t using cover crops, now is the time to start!

If you live in the Triangle area of NC, you still have time to plant cool season cover crops.

  • Until mid-October plant crimson clover, winter rye and/or Austrian peas
  • Until early November plant winter rye and Austrian peas
  • From early to mid November plant only winter rye

This is an incredibly simplified recommendation, as there are many details that go into choosing a cover crop and timing when to plant it. If you just want to get a cover crop going, throw down some seed. If you want to get into those dirty details and make a more informed choice, here are some resources:

DSC_1081

Above: My winter (cool season) cover crop of white Ladino clover is sprouting next to a nice mycelium.

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Curveball: My PhD advisor is moving a looong way from NC

Two days after starting a soil science PhD program, my advisor told me she’s moving to Minnesota in April. The news was a shock to my system as I sat in her office, discussing possibilities for my future. I considered going with her to Minnesota, but two big things held me back. John has an awesome job in Raleigh, and I have a condition where blood flow to my fingers and toes is constricted when I’m cold. Arctic winds and temperatures in the teens all winter? No thanks. I’d rather bake in the NC summers than endure the torture of frozen hands and feet for months. Getting that decision out of the way opened up doors to a million new questions. Do I really need a PhD? What do I really, and I mean REALLY, want to do with my life? Should I apply to Duke? Stay at NC State? Is the thought of farming my family’s new land too ridiculous to consider?

2013-09-09-DSC_0524

For the past two weeks my mind has been racing, churning and working it’s hardest to come up with a feasible plan to feed my interests and my belly. So far the biggest revelation has been my ever-present and lifelong desire to grow beautiful spaces. My passion for plants, soil fertility, microbiology, and human nutrition give me plenty of directions to go in interpreting how to materialize my new catch phrase, “Grow beautiful spaces.” When I say it in my head it feels so good, so right, and so grounding. I can tell I’m onto something, but I can’t yet tell just what it is. What I can tell you is how I define beautiful: a space that uplifts and relaxes, is created by loving hands, that excites the senses and inspires hearts and minds, is built upon non-toxic, sustainable practices, and that feeds the people in healthy life-affirming ways. I fantasize about teaching people, from community gardeners to big farmers transitioning to sustainable practices, how to make the most of what they’ve got beneath their feet. I would love to develop new protocols for Southeastern gardeners and farmers to grow the most nutrient-dense, disease resistant, and flavorful produce they can grow. The only catch is that answers to my questions require long-term studies, and a graduate program may be too short. Heck, my life seems too short because I have more ideas than I can carry out before I die.

In the end, I feel like this is not a tragedy, but instead an opportunity to focus more deeply on what really motivates me: growing plants and feeding people real food. Nestled within these simple ideas are many unknowns about plant-microbe interactions, soil fertility and food nutrient density, and connections between healthy gut microbe populations and healthy soils. If time allowed, I’d work on every question that puts a fire in my heart, but for now I’ll have to choose just a few and see where they take me.

What did you do when life threw you a curveball, and did you end up somewhere even better than you had anticipated or imagined?

 

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Late Summer Morning Light

It dawned on me during yesterday’s evening walk with Machi that I ought to take pictures of the beautiful scenes I come across during our daily walks. Shivering in the dewy grass this morning, Machi and I stood on the lake’s edge until the first light peeked over the tree line. I love this time of year when fog rises off the water and all the colors seem more vibrant than during those hot summer months.

Just a few minutes can completely change the scene, as shown in the two photos below:

DSC_0683

DSC_0738

This lake changes every day, hour to hour, and I come out here often to see what’s happening in the sky and along the water’s edge.

2013-09-08-parkwoodlake022013-09-08-parkwoodlake

Machi says he’s sniffed all the good sniffs, and can we please go back inside so he can sleep some more?

I am so grateful everyday for the beautiful view right outside my doorstep. This morning light gets me inspired and motivated!

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Quest for the Best Soil Possible

I have been on a quest to create the healthiest soil I can with my soil type. I’ve read claims that a nutritionally balanced soil will grow plants that resist pests and diseases. I’ve also heard that certain weeds can be eradicated simply by correcting soil nutrient deficiencies or excesses. These claims are intoxicating, and I’m curious whether I can create these scenarios in my piedmont North Carolina soils.

Working with the native clay soil is difficult, and I managed to make a bad situation worse. When I moved to Durham in winter of 2012, I didn’t want to have to do the typical double digging that I had done for my other gardens. It’s so much work, and my new yard was huge. After lots of reading, I decided that the no-dig lasagna garden looked like a good idea, with layers of cardboard, leaves, finished compost, and straw. The only problem was that I had a ramen-noodle budget and a lot of space to fill. I worked out a plan to collect horse manure from my family’s two horses, purchase a dump-truck full of leaf compost, and use inexpensive straw from Craigslist. I would have liked to have had compost made from a variety of sources, instead of just leaves, but it was 3 to 4 times as expensive as the leaf compost.

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Left: Taking soil samples in my yard using a back-saver sampling probe. Right: The only veggies in my garden that grew were some volunteer squash in the composting manure pile. 

My plan was to go every week or two to get manure, but I only ended up making 3 or so trips. Also, since the horses were relatively new, we didn’t have any ready-to-use composted manure, so I had to compost it myself. Fresh horse manure should be composted at LEAST 6 months before use, but a year is better. I had to accept my fate and make garden beds without composted manure to begin with.

Fast forward to early summer, when everyone’s plants are growing and green, tomatoes are starting to get unruly, and the hard work is starting to pay off. This didn’t happen in my garden. Plants failed to grow, some turned yellow, slugs were everywhere, and I was not getting any fresh herbs or vegetables. The only things thriving were my rescued ferns from the forest. As a beginning soil scientist, this was devastating. Even more devastating was that I had recommended that we use the same leaf compost for our new community garden. In my yard, and at the community garden, things were looking rough.

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Left: A soil probe with my native Durham, NC, clay. Right: A very stunted sunflower growing in nutrient-imbalanced leaf compost.

I had a soil test done by the NC Department of Agriculture (NCDA) not long after purchasing the leaf compost, and at pH 5, the compost is acidic. We applied half of the recommended dolomitic lime to the leaf compost in April, with plans to apply the other half in October. Since then I’ve done more reading, and I’m not sure if using dolomitic lime was the right thing to do. I’m also unsure as to whether the NCDA strong-acid soil test is giving me useful information. Certain people advocate for precise nutrient ratios based off of a weak-acid Reams soil test. I learned that this type of test is different than the strong-acid Mehlich test used at the NCDA, in that it more accurately measures the amounts of nutrients that plants can use from the soil. Based on the Reams test, I’ve seen the recommended ratios for Calcium (Ca) to Magnesium (Mg) anywhere between 5:1 to 10:1 by weight. Using dolomitic lime, which is common gardening advice, will supply too much Mg if your Ca:Mg ratios are not high enough.

So now I’m convinced that I need to do a Reams test, and I’m starting to accept that the detailed recommendations to help me understand the soil I’m working with will be worth the high cost of the test. I’m predicting that my soils have too much Mg, are missing some micronutrients, are low in organic matter, and are not hospitable to beneficial soil microbial life.

All this reading sent me into a rabbit hole of confusion about soil nutrition. Apparently there is no single consensus on how to best measure soil nutrients or on what ratios are optimal. Everyone recommends something different, and every soil test is different. Further complicating my understanding of these things is the nature of nutrients, in that they depend on each other in intricate ways in order to function properly. Obviously I have a lot more reading to do and important choices to make with my own soil. For now I’m going to send in some soils for a couple Reams tests so that I can make informed choices and have a baseline for comparison down the road. I’ll be sure to post the results and recommendations, as well as reports about how my soil progresses after following through on the recommendations.

Have you experienced frustration trying to figure out how to make the most of your soil? Have you had great success? Tell me what you’ve done in your garden or farm to manage nutrients and create healthy soil.

In case you were wondering, I have ensured that the horse manure accumulating at my parents’ house is composting properly with the help of a neighbor and his tractor.

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Tractors Make Dreams Come True

For eight months my family has been piling horse manure in a wide, low formation. Suspecting that it wasn’t composting, I took my compost thermometer out there and tested it. Lo and behold, it was not heating up, and the manure was not breaking down. Luckily we have an amazing neighbor who was willing to bring his tractor over and pile up all the poo into one great, big compost pile. I’ll return sometime this week to check the temperature, and I suspect we will turn the pile in October. I am hoping that this pile will be ready to use by next spring.

My dream for a giant compost pile came true. Now I have a new dream, I want an orange Kubota tractor.

2013-08-05-tractor01The poop makers

The poop makers
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The Patron Saint of Ferns

A bucket-full of freshly dug forest ferns. The land they are on is slated for harvest. Fern rescue!

My family has bestowed upon me the title of the “Patron Saint of Ferns” for my efforts to rescue the multiple species dwelling in our forest before it all gets bulldozed this summer. We will be keeping a large wooded buffer on either side of the stream, but much of the fern habitat is making way for horse pasture.  As a lover of ferns, I could not let these beautiful and valuable plants go to waste, so in late May and early June I set out into the woods with a wagon and a shovel and at least one sister in tow. Together we hunted and dug five different kinds of ferns, and I transplanted them into shady beds in my front yard.

Here I am digging up some ferns from my family's forest.

The transplanted ferns are progressing nicely, and many of them have put out at least one or two new fronds. So far I’ve rescued at least 35 ferns. I’ve also dug some wild ginger for my grandfather, and found bright orange chanterelles hiding on the forest floor. I can’t tell if they’re the edible type or the toxic Jack O’Lantern mushroom. Either way, I think I’ll admire them with my eyes and not my mouth.

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Left: A new frond emerges in a rescued and transplanted fern. Right: Laying out the ferns in their new home.

Left: A new frond emerges in a rescued and transplanted fern. Right: Laying out the ferns in their new home.

This has been the summer of plant rescues. For three years I tended a garden at my rented house in Raleigh, NC. I moved out in December, but I left the flowers for my roommates to enjoy. When the owners caught wind of this “wild garden” they wanted it out! Well, that was fine with me, as I’d just as well have my beloved plants living with me at my new house, so I went and dug up every single one. The old backyard is now just weeds and grass, and my new front yard has sprouted a row of instant cottage garden plants. They are a little sad from the move, but doing well overall. I expect they’ll make a full recovery.

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I packed my car to brim with my plant children from my old house.

 

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My travelling garden made it hard to change lanes.

 

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It was a long day of digging, garden bed preparation, and transplanting. At last they made it into their new homes all snug and tucked away. 

 

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I wonder what my neighbors thought as I put in an “instant” garden along the front of my yard. 

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Garden Anxiety, Relieved

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Every year I feel anxious about how my garden will turn out. I worry whether things will grow or die, and whether they’ll look good where they are. At first everything seems so short and small, and I worry whether things will fill out. It’s always hard to believe that there will come a time when everything is growing like crazy, and I’ll barely be able to keep up with tending it.

Part of this anxiety comes from not having the feedback of many years in the same garden. I’ve moved so many times that I’ve started at least six or seven gardens in the last 10 years, and only now have I gotten to see how a garden changed and matured into it’s second year. Though I left the garden at my old house in December, I have gone back this spring to see what bloomed like crazy and what kicked the bucket. This feedback has turned my garden anxiety into excitement, and I’m full of ideas about what to do this fall for next spring’s garden at my current house.

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These are poppies that self-seeded from last year’s poppy bed. I first scattered poppy seeds from a dried seed head in February of 2012. There are columbines and snapdragons in that bed that are also from seeds planted in spring 2012.

I have taken home many cuttings from plants I love and put them in willow water in hopes of rooting them.

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