Building Healthy Soil Communities: Evaluating Soil Texture

Well, it has been a couple weeks since my last farm blog. And writing about farming becomes as linear of a task as everything else that needs to be done on the farm. So, I will have to admit this blog is weather induced…..it’s raining outside.

Sweet spring rain turning into a tumultuous downpour that makes Oregon such a great place to love plants. If you live in Oregon, you know spring is for warm sunshine, sideways rain, hard hail, and a rainbow finale all within a five-minute span. Nature is exhilarating! And it is within these short windows that my long-term tasks are completed for future harvest success.

On our farm, we track seasonal phenology. This is the term for watching our natural cycles in a specific location, to make daily decisions. When making farming decisions, I consider things like average rainfall, mountain snowpack, relative humidity, prevailing winds, day length, sun exposure, and heat units influence each crop cycle. Continue reading “Building Healthy Soil Communities: Evaluating Soil Texture”

Building Healthy Soil Communities for Medicinal Herbs

My first organic farm mentor used to refer to topsoil as “skin of the Earth.”.And each time this fine layer is broken by plow, nature’s response to heal by covering its wound with a green bandage of plants. This moment of healing becomes an opportunity. A chance for farmers to blend their own mixture of plants into a beneficial poultice.

This is where “cover crops” come in. Both preventative and restorative, cover crops are specific species of plants proven to restore soil fertility. On our farm, I make long-term rotational plantings of cover crops such as alfalfa, rye, clover, oats, buckwheat, vetch and sorghum key components of our fertility program.

But how do cover crops work? Why do they help? And why is topsoil so important anyway?

Continue reading “Building Healthy Soil Communities for Medicinal Herbs”

“Mum’s” the Word!

blogmumA popular garden perennial and well-known ornamental plant, Chrysanthemum, is beginning to grow roots at our farm.  Typically referred to as florist “mums”, the plants are noted for their spectacular display of autumn flowers.  Garden centers and grocery storefronts are heavily stocked with the alluring hybrid colors of pink, yellow, purple, red and white throughout September and October. In 1798, the first cuttings of Chrysanthemum were planted in Hoboken, New Jersey.  Since then, plant breeders have transformed this Asteraceae-family flower from a typical daisy pattern into attractive pompons, buttons, anemone, single and double floral displays.  The US national Chrysanthemum society has divided mum flowers into thirteen distinct bloom forms by the arrangement of its floral parts, and the flower occupies second position in the world flower trade behind roses.  Modern floral exhibitions of Chrysanthemums resemble pictures from the popular Dr. Seuss books.

However, Chrysanthemums share a much older cultural heritage near its wild origins of China.  As a native to Asia, historical evidence has documented Chinese cultivation of this plant as far back as the 15th century B.C.  The Chrysanthemum flower, referred to “Ju hua”, along with plum, bamboo, and orchid are collectively referred to as the “Four Noble Ones”.  Through several dynasties, mums were exclusive to the elite class and common people were not allowed to grow them.  In China, leaves are steamed for cooking and the dried flowers are typically prepared as a tea for consumption on a regular basis.  The pale white to yellow flowers are steeped in hot water to create a cooling, medicinal tea with a floral aroma.  Specifically, Chrysanthemum morifolium is cultivated for it’s broad medicinal attributes and especially noted for eye health.  The dried flowers spread through Korean markets as a popular cure for insomnia, and in the year 910, Japan adopted Chrysanthemum as their national flower. Japan’s annual festival of happiness is based upon recognition of Chrysanthemum’s healing properties.

At Herb Pharm, we are growing three medicinal cultivars of Chrysanthemum morifolium, Bo Ju hua, Chu Ju hua, and Gong Ju hua.  Each variety is named after a specific region of initial cultivation in China’s Anhui province.  We are fortunate to have received stem cuttings of these rare varieties from Peg Schafer’s certified organic farm in Sonoma, California.  In 2011, Peg published a wonderful book titled “The Chinese Medicinal Herb Farm” and claims to be one of the few, if not only, grower of these varieties in the U.S.  The cuttings arrived rootless in the beginning of March, and our challenge was to sustain the tender cuttings until root development.  Chrysanthemum morifolium does not grow true from seed, so cuttings are the only option for propagation.  Stem cuttings require a high level of relative humidity, while maintaining a soil temperature of 70-75 degrees.  Cuttings should never wilt and a continuous film of moisture should cover the leaves until roots are able to form.  The plants grow best in well-drained, slightly acidic soil.  Throughout the growing season, mums should be pinched back a few inches every month to encourage bushy, compact growth.  Pinching stem tips will increase flower yield and create a healthy structure for future growth.  Just remember not to keep pinching too late into summer, or you could lose the entire fall bloom.  Also, mums will over-winter in our climate and last several seasons given the appropriate pruning and soil requirements.  At the farm, we will be harvesting our first flowers in September/October for drying, and propagating from these original plants for many years to come.  The dried flowers are a key component of Herb Pharm’s new Eye Health™ Compound, and we are excited to become one of the few farms cultivating these medicinal varieties outside of China.

Originally published in June, 2014.

Behind the Veil of Smoke

Bees at Herb PharmCasual observers and beginner hobbyists often wonder about the role of beekeeper. Is there really more beyond the mysterious veil, brimmed hat, and billowing smoke? The answer lies in the healthy reproduction and nutritional patterns within each hive. A beehive, also referred to as a bee colony, is a single unit of genetically related bees. The average colony population consists of 40,000 inhabitants, primarily female worker bees. Within the hive, female worker bees socialize, forage meals, nurture young offspring, and provide security against intruders. Male bees, referred to as drones, are present in the hive for only a short period of time throughout the calendar year. Worker bees will rear male drones in early spring with anticipation of their queen leaving the hive on her annual mating flight. Drones spend most of their day outside of the hive and congregate together waiting for the queen to fly past. Besides a spring mating ritual, male bees contribute very little to the daily production tasks of colony survival, and therefore are restricted by female workers at the hive entrance after the queen begins building her brood nest. And yes, there can only be one queen for a colony to remain happy!

Beekeepers breed bees that have adapted to local climate patterns and exemplify strong disease resistance through good hygienic behavior. They provide attractive housing opportunities to each colony by offering protection from threats of extreme weather and hive predators. Bee housing can be constructed of wood, plastic, or fiber and take many different shapes and sizes. But no matter the outward appearance, bees always form a tight cluster resembling a sphere for maximum temperature control.  The center of the sphere is where the queen prefers to lay her eggs for workers to nurture into maturity. This area is referred to as the “brood nest”.  Spring through fall, proper beekeeping requires inspection of the brood nest on a bi-weekly basis. The brood cycle, from initial egg to mature adulthood, is a very short 21- day pattern. Most modern bee pests, diseases, and nutritional deficiencies are centrally located within the brood nest. Waiting longer than 1-2 weeks to address hive problems often result in loss of young offspring and eventual colony collapse in a short period of time for a new or errant beekeeper.

Beyond the brood nest, bees store thick layers of pollen and honey to feed their young. Pollen is the key component towards nutritional health and is the only source of complex protein available to bees. Chemical compounds, referred to as sterols, within pollen protein molecules have been identified to trigger molting hormones for maturing bees. Experienced beekeepers will spend time to evaluate pollen storage during each inspection to ensure growing success of the colony. Protein levels can range from 10-40% among different types of plants throughout the growing season. With our dry summer climate, a pollen dearth is often expected by the month of August. Honey is the primary source of carbohydrates in the bee diet. Honey is processed from the nectar of blooming plants. Honey stores can be determined by a beekeeper without opening up the brood nest and lifting the hive to determine honey storage by weight. Sixty pounds of honey is a recommended weight per colony approaching winter dormancy. Beekeepers often choose to supplement feed weak colonies suffering from poor nutrition rather than sacrifice long- term survival. Also, beekeepers will often combine weak, light, or queenless hives with stronger colonies to also assist in their management.

The work of a beekeeper can be tedious, heavy, and uncomfortable during the heat of summer. You should expect to spend 20-30 minutes per colony during each inspection. Our current Herb Pharm apiary consists of second year hives with 100% winter survival rate and has been a great addition to our educational and ecological mission. Remember, there are no bad bees, just bad beekeepers. I highly suggest seeking assistance from a seasoned beekeeper before obtaining your own hives. However, the rewards of working with honeybees are offered in surplus honey, pollen, propolis, beeswax, and a good buzz of working closely with nature!

Herbal Spotlight: Bloodroot (Sanguinaria canadensis)

A member of the Papaveraceae or Poppy family, Bloodroot is a native wildflower from the shaded woodlands of eastern North America. In early spring, this perennial root projects a tender shoot that is tightly wrapped around an elegant single flower. The white petals with yellow centers emerge in the early months of March and April. Native American tribes harvested the root of this plant for a wide variety of ailments in our traditional medicinal heritage and current research continues to study the unique constituents in the root of this plant. The distinctive red “blood” in Bloodroot exudes heavily from the fresh root when broken, giving the plant both its common name and botanical genus.

Due to the increasing demand of wild-harvested Bloodroot and loss of native habitat, Bloodroot has been listed as an “At-Risk” species by United Plant Savers. Yet, in the rich, moist woodland soils along our farm’s field edges, the flesh-like fingers of Bloodroot are expanding beneath the ground. We began an initial trial planting of Bloodroot in 2007 from small root pieces that we received from an Appalachian nursery in Tennessee. With these small roots, we planted a single 140 foot bed of Bloodroot along the forest edge.

After three years of cultivation, we decided to record our growth rate and potential yields last autumn. What had emerged was a success. The roots had tripled in physical size and each root exemplified vigorous health. This plot had yielded 22 pounds from 43 bed feet, so almost ½ pound per foot! The farm has submitted trial data on drying specifications and small samples for analytical testing, but we have mainly relied on the initial planting as a propagation springboard. We have quadrupled the size of our field plots over the last two seasons through root division. Our goal is to provide dried Bloodroot for production starting in Fall 2013. Given the right soil and shade conditions, I am encouraged by Bloodroot’s potential to continue thriving at our farm in Williams.

Originally Published in November  2011

Herb Pharm Reaches Out to Troubled Youth

On April 18th, I spent an afternoon working with several young men at the Rogue Valley Youth Correctional Facility, which is located in Grants Pass. The facility is dedicated to housing and rehabilitating males (who are charged with criminal offenses between the ages of 12-18). The trained staff fully recognizes the importance of interaction between the offenders in custody with their family and members of the local community to create a new direction in their young lives. The idea of planting and tending a medicinal herb garden to foster a positive change was the first step in collaboration between Sherri Harmon, correctional staff employee, and Herb Pharm.

After disclosure of herb seeds, seedlings, organic fertilizer, and personal items, I was admitted into the facility, where I met the group of young men eager to learn about gardening. The plants glowed with vibrancy and life amongst the white walls, metal doors, and concrete. I had begun to capture their attention as we tasted the bitter Artichoke leaves and chewed slowly on Echinacea seed. We talked about the gentle nature of Catnip tea, extracting resinous Calendula flowers, and other examples of plants for medicinal use. After that basic primer on the medicine of herbs, and more in soil biology and seed propagation, it was time to get our hands in the dirt. The boys began turning new soil, adding compost and mixing potting soil in their small greenhouse. We planted Mullein, Echinacea, Feverfew, and Lavender along the concrete edges of the courtyard, planted the seeds of cilantro and peppers for food as medicine, and transplanted many other herbs and seeds into containers. I sensed the excitement in the group towards the future tending of this new garden and recognized the opportunity to learn new concepts and skills for each of them. Our accomplishment ended with high-fives and handshakes, as I passed the daily commitment of watering, weeding, and harvesting onto the group and vowed to return in a few weeks to see how the garden was growing.

So, as our culture re-discovers the power of herbal plant healing, people are not just grabbing tinctures and teas for acutely treating bruises, colds and headaches. We are realizing the potential benefits that plants offer on deeper level. Many common herbs offer us a broad, safe path to social, mental, physical, and environmental wellness. For these young men, my hope is that through learning to grow and use medicinal plants, it will help expose new skills towards a better understanding of themselves and their impact on the broader community.

Originally Published in June 2012

The Forgotten Pollinators

pleurisy_bee_800

Longer, warmer days are here, and with them we acknowledge a key player in the wonderful seed to flower transformations happening all around us – our friends and allies: the pollinators.

These creatures, which include beetles, butterflies, moths, bees, and bats, are responsible for the transfer of pollen from the male sex organ of the flower (anther) to its female counterpart (stigma). This well manipulated strategy ensures the birth of a seed in the plants ovule and the continuance of certain species. Pollen can also be moved by wind, water, or a gardener’s helping hand. Wind pollinated plants tend to produce a large abundance of lightly weighted pollen. At Herb Pharm’s “pharm” our Corn, Sweet Annie, Wormwood, and Stinging Nettle are wind-pollinated herbs. My nose always knows, along with itchy eyes, where to find these plants. However, insects pollinate the majority of medicinal herbs, including many of our farm’s crops.

From observation at the farm, bees seem to be our most prolific and efficient pollinators. Worker bees voraciously consume nectar and pollen in the early summer from our Motherwort and Mullein patches. They move happily towards July through the Hyssop, Lemon Balm, Catnip, Calendula and Echinacea purpurea. Worker bees, which are female, will forage nectar to bring back to the hive. Female nurse bees will feed nectar, honey and pollen to the queen’s young brood. There is only one queen per colony, but worker bees can choose to feed the young larva “royal jelly” to create a new queen. New queens are typically raised in the spring, when it becomes a colony’s natural instinct to swarm. A swarm is how honeybees advance their population, when approximately half the hive’s workers leave the colony with a new queen. You may have seen a swarm of honeybees land on a tree, under house eaves, or in chimneys and walls during this time.

The farm crew rarely encounters a male honeybee, called a drone, in our crop fields. They do not forage pollen or nectar from our plants. They fly to the “drone congregating area” and hang out all day with other male bees waiting for the queen bee to pass by. Their main role is to mate with the queen. However, the free meals and ride is over in the fall. The female workers will drag drones to the hive entrance and close the door. Drones serve no purpose to the winter hive, and they will not survive on their own.

One type of male bee we do encounter on the farm is the male bumblebee. Once a male bumblebee leaves the nest hive, he will not return to it. Instead, they sleep inside the flowers at night for warmth and slowly emerge, while drinking nectar as the sun warms them up. We observe bumblebees drifting amongst our Wood Betony, Bugleweed and Hyssop flowers.

Butterflies are also an important pollinator for many of our farm’s herbs. It’s hard to miss the giant swallowtail butterfly feeding on Goldenrod, Echinacea, and Pleurisy flowers. The smaller skipper butterflies are always attracted to our Yarrow beds. Beetles are some of the most primitive forms of pollinators on the farm. Finally, hoverflies enjoy feeding and sleeping in our Calendula flowers, and typically get trapped in our hands during the harvest. However, they are all buzz and no bite! Their bee-like appearance is to frighten predators, but these flies do not have the capability to sting.

Overall, these remarkable beings gather nourishment from the flower’s pollen and nectar to strengthen their own health, disease resistance, reproductive capabilities and individual societies. As we work alongside these creatures, our human-insect mission melds into a common goal of gathering and living well. A lively hum of chatter can be heard between the student farm crew and the bees in these flowery fields. And as the summer crops and crew begin to fade away, everybody will benefit from the transformation of flower into seed, perpetuating an ensured co-existence between plants, pollinators and people.

Listen to Herb Pharm Farm Manager Matt Dybala as he discusses the importance of bees on our 85-acre organic farm in southern Oregon.

 

Originally Published in June 2011

New Crops on the Pharm Farm

Angelica (Angelica archangelica)
This plant is a biennial native from northern Europe and Western Asia. A biennial is a plant that grows vegetative leaves during the first summer, and completes its life cycle in the second year by producing flowers and eventually seed. The seed is commercially grown for flavoring wine, vermouth, and liqueurs. The plant easily reaches six feet tall during flower production with white umbrella-shaped flowers and the flowering stalk is hollow. Gardeners can remove these flowering stalks to prolong the plant’s life for a few extra years. Angelica prefers to grow in moist soil and is deeply taprooted. It is the root that will be harvested for medicinal use.

Arnica (Arnica montana)
Arnica grows wild in high elevation, mountainous regions across Europe from Southern Norway southward down to Portugal. It spreads east to the high alpine meadows of Italy and Romania. Arnica’s flowering tops are often the main constituents in many topical herbal crèmes and oils. The plant’s healing properties are in increasing demand on the herbal market. United Plant Savers has identified Arnica montana as a potential species in which its native population is in decline due to loss of habitat and unethical wildcrafting practices. At the farm, we are currently planting a German variety of Arnica montana that has been bred to grow in cultivated environments. This spring’s seed germination success rate was very high, and now we have 6,000 seedlings in the field!

Originally Published in July 2011

The Promise of a Seed

Spring has finally arrived at the Pharm, and with unfurled leaves and emerging seeds, the race of plant reproduction begins. With an average life span of 77 years, humans mope like tortoises through our life cycles when compared to the efficiency of a plant’s lifespan. Right now, the majority of our farm’s herbs are breaking through their embryonic seedpods and progressing into young seedlings within a few weeks. Many of these herbs will reach full maturity by mid-summer and produce hundreds of viable offspring by September! The plants are highly influenced by sun/moon cycles, water cycles, seasonal temperatures, and specific environmental conditions. It is the grower’s responsibility to unlock the life mysteries of these plants, and most importantly, to be on time! For the gardener in spring, the time to plant seeds is now.

According to my farm records, we have already planted a minimum of 250,000 seeds into our potting soil mix and greenhouse trays. This quarter of a million seeds will equate to roughly 100,000 to 150,000 individual seedlings. In farmer terms, this equates to 4-5 acres of new plantings. We have added some new crops to our farm plan this year, which includes Cayenne pepper, Angelica, Arnica, Blue Vervain, and Elecampane. We are growing a total of 68 individual species of crops on our farm and the majority of these plants are propagated from seed in our two commercial greenhouses. Transplanted seedlings afford the grower many advantages when compared to a direct-seeded crop in the field: Primarily, we can accommodate room for 200,000 seedlings in neatly organized planting trays on tables in both greenhouses. Remember, this amount would equate to 5 acres of field space that is now vacant for another production or cover crop, while our plants grow in their trays for the next 2-3 months.

Also, greenhouse growing allows us to control the temperature and water needs of individual plants, resulting in increased germination percentages. The farm has recently installed a bench-top heating system to bring heat directly to our plants’ roots. This system is similar to the efficiency of radiant floor heating. Opposed to blowing hot air to raise the room temperature several degrees, this system simply raises the temperature of circulating water 5 to 7 degrees as it recycles throughout our greenhouse tables. This heat source supplements soil temperature loss that occurs at night in the greenhouse after the sun is away. We can maintain consistent temperatures during cloudy days or the frost-filled nights of spring and increase soil temperatures for heat dependent seeds to germinate, such as Yerba Mansa, Cayenne Pepper, and Spilanthes. The farm crew currently tracks days to emergence and germination percentages by lot number. Our new system will result in faster, more consistent rates of germination and a higher percentage of successful early seed emergence for heat-loving crops.

Finally, my favorite benefit of growing seedlings in the greenhouse is that there is no hoeing involved. Once our transplants are set into the field, they already have a 4-8 week head start, ahead of millions of weed seed that will emerge soon after transplanting. If the plants are healthy, they will outcompete and shade most weed species with one or two cultivations by hand or tractor.

Nature’s gift of seeds to humans permits the mutual benefit of propagating species and nourishing our bodies. It can allow a gardener more control over success during the growing season. Just remember to be on time and don’t miss the planting window.

Originally Published in June 2011