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Central Florida Farmer Seeks Sage Advice  RSS feed

 
Harvey Juniper
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Hi. I started managing a small farm in Polk County back in the spring and could use some guidance from locals or people in similar climates and conditions. I've checked out some of the posts here, researched, consulted the University of Florida, and have talked to local gardeners/farmers but have more specific questions and I trust permaculture-ish minds for advice as opposed to the more conventionally agricultural. I've grown food in a variety of conditions but nothing quite like this!

Background on the farm: it is a certified organic CSA, growing the usual suspects of vegetables in about twenty acres of sand. Basically beach dunes dotted with oak trees. The land has been grown on for over three years, before that I think it had mostly been oaks, grasses and weeds. During the summers they've grow sunn hemp (crotalaria juncea) as a cover crop, with vegetables being harvested from fall through early summer. Generally things have grown well, but I am worried long term about the cost of inputs versus profits and general exhaustion of the soil. Chicken manure has been the primary soil amendment with added potash so that the NPK is 6-4-10. Don't remember what other amendments were used during the first couple years they worked the land. Trace element sources have been dependent on composted sea kelp (maxicrop) and fish emulsion as a foliar spray. We also spray copper occasionally to avert powdery mildew on cucurbits which I would rather avoid.

Pesticides/fungicides that I know of being used include neem oil, serenade, dipel, spinosad, and a couple other OMRI certified sprays. We tried unleashing thousands of ladybugs to help with a Colorado potato beetle problem, but it wasn't particularly successful. The problems with bugs are much less severe from fall to spring, but the main pest I noticed aside from the beetle were leaf-footed bugs, which I think the locals refer to as stink bugs. Irrigation is on an excellent drip system, and we may purchase a traveling gun as well. Moisture loss after watering is rapid so we have to run our sets for basically 24 hours at a time, which can be tricky to plan out.

All of that being said, I am looking for ways to change this approach toward farming in a less orthodox and more sustainable, cheap and harmonious way.

My main concerns right now are:

1. How can I transform this sand into soil? I don't think I can convince the owners to finance a keyline layout or other such drastic measures, so I am somewhat restricted and realize it will take a long time, but in monetarily reasonable ways what can I use for cover crops besides sunn hemp (I've heard good things about castor beans and a few others), green manure crops, and local sources of soil building material?

2. Any recommendations for varieties of vegetables, flowers, herbs, ground covers, hedges and cover crops that do particularly well here?

3. When do y'all plant tomatoes and how do you plan against the unpredictable late winter frosts? My farm tried remay before I started working and claims it did not protect their tomato plants but I kind of find this difficult to believe. We are looking into a buying a hoop house but I'd like to find some gardening methods as well. Does anyone have luck seeding tomatoes directly in the ground instead of using transplants?

4. Suggestions of pests I should prepare for from the months of September through late May, and if you know of any ways to battle them that aren't reliant on purchasing organic pesticides I would be much obliged. I'm definitely going to be growing hedges, beneficial flower/herb borders, and polycultures throughout the beds to try and limit space for weeds and the temptation of insects. I know a lot of the basics but am looking for locally trusted and successful plant varieties or seed distributors.

5. Is citrus wood okay for hugelkultur beds? I used some to plant veggies in and it did well but I don't know what the long term effects would be and have had trouble finding information.

6. I'm also helping manage a citrus grove-- any advice for plants I should use in a citrus grove to benefit trees? I know of the usual permaculture goodies but looking for more input from locals. Also interested in vegetable varieties that would be well suited for growing between trees, which I have been experimenting with.

7. What is a good mulch or other way to help preserve moisture that works on a farm scale?

8. How to cultivate a vibrant and diverse soil food network in sand


Truly would appreciate any advice and willing to return the favor if possible. Thanks!


 
John Elliott
pollinator
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1. How can I transform this sand into soil? I don't think I can convince the owners to finance a keyline layout or other such drastic measures, so I am somewhat restricted and realize it will take a long time, but in monetarily reasonable ways what can I use for cover crops besides sunn hemp (I've heard good things about castor beans and a few others), green manure crops, and local sources of soil building material?


Let all the tree trimming services in the county know that they have a new place to dump their loads of chipped brush. Once you start collecting piles of chipped brush, inoculate it with fungi and in a couple more months, you can start spreading mulch everywhere. Another thing to do would be to add biochar. That can be made from brush, or lumber (building sites), or chicken manure or.....what other industries in the county have organic waste materials?

4. Suggestions of pests I should prepare for from the months of September through late May, and if you know of any ways to battle them that aren't reliant on purchasing organic pesticides I would be much obliged. I'm definitely going to be growing hedges, beneficial flower/herb borders, and polycultures throughout the beds to try and limit space for weeds and the temptation of insects. I know a lot of the basics but am looking for locally trusted and successful plant varieties or seed distributors.

Nematodes. You can get spray solutions from your local home improvement store. If you boost the beneficial nematodes on a regular basis, pests are going to have a much more difficult time trying to make a lunch out of your crops.


5. Is citrus wood okay for hugelkultur beds? I used some to plant veggies in and it did well but I don't know what the long term effects would be and have had trouble finding information.


Should be no problem. There's nothing in the wood that makes it difficult to break down.

6. I'm also helping manage a citrus grove-- any advice for plants I should use in a citrus grove to benefit trees? I know of the usual permaculture goodies but looking for more input from locals. Also interested in vegetable varieties that would be well suited for growing between trees, which I have been experimenting with.


Maybe hyssop, because it's a good bee plant? Bee balm? Got to keep the pollinators happy.

7. What is a good mulch or other way to help preserve moisture that works on a farm scale?

8. How to cultivate a vibrant and diverse soil food network in sand


Back to my first comment, a lot of mulch, inoculated with local fungi will do a world of good. And if you need an on-site consultation for the proper fungi, I'm only a day's drive north of you.
 
John Polk
steward
Posts: 8019
Location: Currently in Lake Stevens, WA. Home in Spokane
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For large quantities of mulch, have you considered 'Spanish Moss'?
I know that FL used to export it by the semi truck loads.
While it is alive, it absorbs calcium, magnesium, phosphorus and potash.

For Colorado Potato Beetle control, try intercropping with beans which help repel those pests.
And to add icing to the cake, potatoes help repel Mexican Bean Beetles.

I have a friend who lives in a comparable climate.
He's in SE TN, about 15-20 minutes from either GA or FL borders.
He plants a dozen varieties of heirloom tomatoes each year (1 early crop, & 1 late crop).
Mid summer is his 'down time'.
Some years, the weather wipes out most of his tomato production.
As an insurance crop, he plants a hybrid crop of Jet Setter.
He says it is the only thing that survives every year.

Good luck.

 
Harvey Juniper
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Johns, thank you both for your insight!
 
Nathan Selikoff
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Location: USDA Climate Zone 9b, Central Florida
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To get some face to face time with local permies and organic growers, check out the following if you haven't already:

Monthly organic growers meeting put on by the Simple Living Institute:
http://www.simplelivinginstitute.org/organic-growers.html

Local food cooperative, to see who is selling what:
http://homegrowncoop.org/
http://homegrown.locallygrown.net/growers/list

In particular you might want to meet Tom Carey at Sundew Gardens who uses a mixture of permaculture and more conventional techniques, and Tia and Terry Meer who use a lot of permaculture at Econ Farm:
http://sundewgardens.com/
http://www.simplelivinginstitute.org/econfarm.html

Research oriented farm in Fort Myers:
http://echonet.org/global-farm-tours/

-Nathan
 
Ken Peavey
steward
Posts: 2524
Location: FL
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We have under our feet a quarzipsamment entisol soil...sugar sand. It's low in nutrients, usually acidic, drains heavy rain in a few hours, has practically no minerals or weathered rock, no clay, and consumes organic matter in a few months with the steady warmth and humidity. You can pour the soil amendments in to find yourself starting over in a year. Stuff will grow, there is sun and rain, but heavy feeding vegetable crops will scavenge the soil in a few years leaving you with a lost field of crops without warning.

It ain't easy, but it can be done.

I've been messing with this stuff for over 10 years now. There are some things you'll find helpful.

-Cover the ground.
The sun directly overhead beats down on the exposed soil like a hammer, heating the sand to a point that it will burn barefeet and drying the moisture in a day. This makes for tough conditions. Covering the exposed soil offers a shield. Temps are dramatically lower, moisture has a chance to stay in place, harsh conditions are moderated. If you did nothing else, this one project can reduce your water use by half, as well as reduce nutrient leaching.
Leaves, grass, hay, spanish moss, citrus peels, wood chips, bark, pine cones, anything you can get a hold of, even cardboard and shredded paper can give you an advantage. With 20 acres, you'll need plenty, perhaps a million pounds, probably more. Until the ground is covered, nothing is going to change.

-Add Humus
Leaves and woody debris will offer more humus pound for pound than would compost, grass, and hay. It's the humus that holds onto the nutrients and water. I preach about leaf mold all the time. With a water holding capacity of around 4 times it's own weight, a couple pounds of leaf mold will hold a gallon of water. Cover with leaves, the leaves break down into leaf mold, the leaf mold breaks down into humus where it is stable for many years. Your challenge is to find the great volume needed.
Compost and other organic material is also essential. The compost brings the nutrients, the leaf mold brings the minerals, the ground cover keeps it protected, and the humus holds it all together, promoting an environment capable of housing bacteria and fungi which will do the work of chelating and transporting foodstuffs for the crops.

-Perseverance
You'll need to replenish this material regularly while the soil builds up, but it will improve each year as the depth and amount of mixing of the material in the soil increases. The worms will come, nematodes will decline, oxygenation will improve, more diverse insects will come-including beneficial insects, as the land offers a more suitable habitat. Water demand will decrease as the holding capacity increases.

 
william mcewan
Posts: 1
Location: Tampa
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If you plant soybeans, allow the plants to grow full size,and disc it under, it will help nitrate the soil.

There is a trick, if you breed earthworms, you can use manure from

many animals to feed the worms, they will help to convert useless

soil and manure into richer soil. When it is damp, move the extra worms

out into the rows upon the farm at night, there's nothing better for the soil.

I know of a few folks

who raise rabbits

and keep the earthworms beneath.You can sell earthworms by mail

to fishermen, to generate cash, once you have a surplus.

You may or may not already have a compost pile.


Do you have any wild hogs causing trouble upon your land?
 
Alder Burns
pollinator
Posts: 1387
Location: northern California
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Look into biochar. This will take some of your hard-scrounged organic matter and turn it into a form resistant to breakdown, so you can begin to build up a lasting reserve in the soil. This is key. That sand seems to just make incredible quantities of organic matter of all kinds just vanish! Hugelkultur might be good too, since the large chunks of wood have to decay from the edges in. You might focus on trying to cover the ground with living plants in addition to or in place of dead mulch. You will need tropical species and varieties for more than half the year. Check out ECHO in Fort Myers....they maintain a seedbank of a lot of interesting things.....There's also a pretty good permaculture scene in and around Gainesville.
 
Harvey Juniper
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Wow, thank all of you for the great information! I truly appreciate it.

Ken, I suspected that would be the case as far as excessive inputs go. We haven't used a lot of fertilizer yet, I am trying out foliar sprays instead to get the crops through. This is going to be the fourth year that vegetables have grown well, so I think we are okay, but I am sure that more diversity of cover crops, carbon, calcium and micronutrients are needed.

William, no problem with hogs as of yet. Solid fencing. We are going to try castor beans actually instead of soybeans.

Alder, I've been considering biochar for sure. And thanks for the heads up on ECHO that sounds perfect.
 
Ben Walter
Posts: 92
Location: Deland, FL
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I agree with what folks have said so far. Especially about keeping your soil covered, however you decide to do it. As far as cover crops go, my main summer covers have been sunnhemp, sorghum and iron/clay peas. I usually plant the sorghum and peas together and plant the sunnhemp by itself. I also added lab-lab to the mix, which climbs the sorghum nicely, but could probably stand a lot longer if I didn't have to knock down the sorghum when it starts to set seed.

I've grown a few cool season covers: rye, vetch, winter peas, oats, winter wheat, etc. They all do well if irrigated.

I've started row cropping between my pecan trees, which has worked well. They add some shade in the summer and drop their leaves early to let in the winter sun. I'm actually thinking about adding some perennials to my main vegetable garden. Things like moringa, banana, papaya, sunchokes, acacias, etc that will die back in the winter. I can use them to nurse up early fall tomatoes, peppers, etc in the summer and hack them down if I need to let in the lower winter sun. I've got pigs, sheep, chickens and cows that love that kind of stuff if I have to chop it.

I highly recommend getting your soil tested so you know what you are working with. If you haven't read 'Hands on Agronomy' by Neil Kinsey I highly recommend it. Tweaking your micronutrients will go a long way to keeping your plants healthy...and we have plenty of pressures with the insects, diseases, frosts and extreme heat/humidity.

If you are ever going to be in the Deland area, message me and stop by for a visit. Good luck!

 
Mar Barak
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Location: NYC
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Hi guys,
This is an older post but Im going to recommend a group
out of UF that I have been volunteering with that knows
their stuff. EPP, Edible plant project.
thanks
 
Ken Peavey
steward
Posts: 2524
Location: FL
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Got a link?
 
Mar Barak
Posts: 79
Location: NYC
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http://edibleplantproject.org
Thanks Ken
 
Brian Shepherd
Posts: 9
Location: Lakeland Florida zone 9
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I live in Polk county and do a lot of experimenting in the yard.
I have a much larger farm experiment in north Florida it am working on as a future homestead. Www.40acrewoods.com
I have found that a mixture of wood and biochar in the ground and mulch on top of the sandy soil is awsome,
I am currently using this in some raised beds and it is outperforming anything I have done in the past.
Also, cover everything in sweet potatoes in the hot Florida summer.
The rest of the year make sure you are doing a heavy poly culture, I plant densely with many layers of plants and herbs to fill all the spaces.
 
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