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Mimic Nature and You Can’t Go Wrong

In early October I interviewed seed farmer James Duxbury of B&B Farms in Kuna, just outside of Boise. He practices a number of farming approaches that are meant to let nature’s processes alone as much as possible. Using these methods, James has successfully grown a number of squashes for the coop including the Jack-o-Lantern Pumpkin, Giant Dill Pumpkin and the Yellow Crookneck Squash. He’s also growing the Crane Melon. 

Yellow Crookneck Squash with Fava Beans

Yellow Crookneck Squash with Fava Beans

The basis of James’s farming theory is to “look at what Nature does and you can’t go wrong.” James works with the concept of polyculture vs monoculture, meaning diversely planting a number of different crops. “You can’t stress out about it with all the natural predators and pests - deer, rabbit, squashbugs… If you have monoculture vs polyculture, it’s like opening the door and ringing the dinner bell. If they’re going to do damage to a crop, they’ll take out the whole thing. If you have other things mixed in, they’ll do less damage.”

Squash bugs are a threat to melons as well as squashes. I was fascinated to learn more. He said “The squash bugs weren’t too terrible the first few months this year, this last 6 weeks [late August into September] has been terrible. It’s been hard on the Yellow Crook Neck.” He’s growing them in an 80x40 ft space “amongst corn, peppers, tomatoes, radishes, wine grapes and everything else.” 

His understanding is that “if my soil health is well balanced the plants will be as healthy as possible, and the bugs won’t want to feed on them. They prey on the less healthy plants. That’s where I do have this wonderful compost tea that I’ve been using. Helpful for bringing trees back, some of the grapes as well. I haven’t done it to the annuals yet, but I did it to their soil beds. I think that’s definitely helped compared to the last few years.” This is right in line with the Dr. Elaine Ingham’s Soil Food Web work, which he’s been inspired by.

 

More Natural Approaches

James is “experimenting with cover crop in small areas, including daikon radish.” The nature-intent he is mimicking is to keep the soil covered in the winter. “Right now I”m doing the ‘tarping method,’ which worked well last year. In the fall, you water an area, lay down a tarp, such as silage tarp, which is pretty heavy duty.” He recommends checking out Farmers Friend. For home gardeners, large pieces of cardboard can achieve a similar outcome. The function, he explains is that the tarp “basically doesn’t let weed sprouts survive. I’ve had carbon based stuff underneath the whole winter through. You pull the tarp in the spring. Maybe run through the heavier weedy material with a weed whacker. That robs it of sunlight, and saves an enormous amount of time with weed pressure. This is also working with alfalfa, I whack it down, let it lay and it provides nitrogen to the soil.” 

I asked what kinds of weeds he’s contending with. “Scotia - pretty much a tumbleweed, with Goatheads here and there. We have irrigation issues, as much as surface water--we’re surrounded by it. At least once a year we get surface floods and get weed seeds and undesirables. The water laws are 150 years old, and we’re surrounded by industrial farms, and that’s a major challenge.”

 

He is inspired by the regenerative no-till methods Gabe Brown writes about in his book Dirt to Soil, One Family’s Journey Into Regenerative Agriculture. These are essentially: limiting disturbance, keeping soil covered at all times, diversity in crops and in animals, living roots, and integrating animals into his practice. 

James raises goats and utilizes a mix of manure and barnyard straw to add nutrients as well as cover to his soil. I asked if there was a particular time he works on soil health, and he said “Constantly! Focus on keeping carbon on the soil and keeping things managed. Right now I’m weed whacking between the grape vines. Alfalfa, Scotia, and different grasses. I won’t spray them of course. Cut them at the base and let them rest. I don’t irrigate between the rows. It’s definitely helped with the 8 years we’ve been here. Even in a desert landscape I’ve got no reason to irrigate here. Similar to what Gabe Brown is doing, no till.” 

 This coming season he intends to continue expanding his growing space, using drip irrigation vs. accessing the local irrigation. “The surface water/irrigation isn’t desirable at all, it’s full of nitrates.”

He works to preserve the beneficial fungi that grows in the carbon matter he’s accumulating, by not disturbing it. He’s established sections of woodchips and allows for what he calls “beneficial weeds” like alfalfa. James explained that “they’re great pollinators. Bees and flies come to them. The sunflowers that are going crazy love them. We’ve got lots of moths and birds, huge amounts of goldfinches that show up.” He has installed bird boxes, and plans to install more. He’s “considering owl boxes to help take care of gophers and voles. In 'Snowmaggedon' [2017] the voles were terrible, possibly due to the long snow covered winter. Gophers are the biggest challenge, I trap them as much as I can.”

In terms of adapting to shifting frost dates, he just checks the weather regularly and takes note of changes. “Last year it was Sept 26th, year before the 30th. The frost in the spring has been delayed more and more. Here it’s supposed to be May 20th, its been June 6th. I work within last frost to first frost. We’re in a little valley, a couple hundred feet lower than Boise.”

Crane melon

Crane Melon

 He plants way more than he anticipates needing, saying he “would rather have too much than not enough. We had late flowering for some desired crops, the Crane Melon. Planted them in two areas, to see what method would work better. One heavily mulched with goat barnyard waste, that did really well. The later-in-development crop, was planted with plastic weed cloth between rows. I rotate them. The sunflower seeds were hard to keep thinned out, in these particular areas. Just got to cover them and rotate and go from there.”

Lastly, though he mentioned it early in our discussion, he works with an interesting philosophy about weeds, he allows 50% of his operation to go to nature, some of which can get weedy. His logic is multi-part. For the Crane Melons, and the anticipation of pests, he reasons that “if they have many roots to choose from there’s better odds of success.” The melons are “planted all around the gopher mounds. Interspersed with purple millet, beans, corn.” 

On this method he’s inspired by Bob Cannard, a farmer practicing sustainability for 30 years, who provides produce to a notable chef named Alice Waters at the Chez Panisse restaurant in Berkeley. He grows 50% for humans and leaves 50% to nature.

The amount of effort gardeners and farmers can put into keeping a space weed free “can drive a person crazy, or to spend a bunch of money. If you go down to the Boise river and check out the soil under the base of a great cottonwood, it’s the best soil you’re going to find, with natural plants and weeds all around.

James's growing philosophy and practice relate well to some of the points we were exploring in our other focused post this month, exploring ways that gardening can help to mitigate climate change

 

By Mary K Johnson

 

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