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In honor of Earth Day we’ve been invited by Jan at Thanks For Today to participate in the Garden Bloggers’ Sustainable Living Project.  Jan has asked that gardeners highlight what it is they’re doing to help, rather than hinder, Nature.

Garden Bloggers' Sustainable Living Project

There are numerous definitions of sustainable living and gardening, but in general sustainability hinges on the principle that in the time we are here, we strive to meet our needs, but without preventing others from meeting their own needs in the future, be they plant, or animal, or insect.  In short, conservation of resources are at sustainability’s core.

Gardens do not exist in a vacuum.  Every garden, large or small, is an ecosystem.  Whether or not it’s a functioning and thriving ecosystem wholly depends on the methods deployed by the individual cultivating the land.

It’s fair to presume that all gardens impact the environment.  The key is to maximize the positive impacts, and minimize the negative, and to mitigate any negative impacts as much as we can.  To do that effectively we as gardeners need to consider that our garden is more than mere plants.  It’s an oversimplification, but at a minimum the core elements of our garden are water, air, soil, plants, animals, and insects, and each deserves our consideration when working within the landscape.

Water Quality and Conservation

Sustainability in the garden often evokes images of a closed garden system that provides for all of its own needs without the importation of any external resources.  However, in reality most gardens, even the most sustainable ones, will at a minimum require the use of at least some water.

Even when our creeks are full, water conservation is still important

We use private well water for irrigation, but that doesn’t mean we have an unlimited supply.  We’re situated over an aquifer recharge area, meaning that the water that falls on our land, and runs off our slopes, perking through our soils, eventually goes to sustain others in the community outside of Curbstone Valley.  To conserve water we avoid the use of wasteful overhead watering methods, and instead have installed drip irrigation throughout the orchard.  The drip irrigation for the vegetable gardens hopefully will be completed by later this spring.

To reduce our long-term watering needs, we also are planting and propagating water-wise native plants that are adapted to growing in our region, and don’t demand excess irrigation.

Our native Iris fernaldii thrive with only winter rain

This has turned out to be easier than we expected, as we’ve discovered a host of native plants on the property that are adapted to growing here.

At the end of last year we invested in a weather station.  It may seem like an extravagance, or a fun toy for weather geeks, but we’re also hoping it will aid us with water conservation.

Soil moisture sensors attached to the weather station will help to control our watering schedules

Through the use of integrated soil moisture sensors, we hope to be able to have the weather station control the irrigation for our orchard and gardens in the near future. This way, rather than water on predetermined days of the week, whether it’s needed or not, we’ll only be watering when the soil and plants really need it.

Preserving Air Quality

I remember once being shocked that in America some of the worst air quality is found in the areas surrounding farmland.  I’d grown up in England, in a time, and place, where mammoth scale farming simply didn’t exist, and filthy air was confined to the city.  Large scale farms in the United States are notorious for contributing to poor air quality. Ploughing and tilling release particulates into the air, along with thousands of pounds of pesticides, herbicides and synthetic fertilizers that significantly, adversely, and invisibly contribute to high levels of air pollution.

Delicate lichens, like this Ramalina menziesii, won't grow in areas with heavy air pollution

That said, gardeners can also impact air quality, in all of the same ways, albeit on a smaller scale.  Our gardens here are tiny compared to the average commercial farm, but even so, the use of pesticides, herbicides, and poor soil preparation methods would still impact our regional air quality, and pollute our waterways.  We don’t use synthetic pesticides, fungicides, or herbicides, both for our benefit, and for the other residents of the farm.

Amphibians, like this Ensatina, are especially sensitive to toxins in their environment

As individuals we can also affect air quality, even beyond the farm, by where we choose to source our food.  Simply eating foods that are in season, and available either in our own gardens, or from local area farms, significantly decreases how much fuel it requires to get our food to the table.

These lettuces only traveled a few hundred feet from garden to table

Trees of course are vital to maintaining, and improving air quality.  We’re fortunate to be surrounded by trees.  Rather than clear the land for our own purposes, we’ve chosen to only cultivate a small piece of the property.  We are also striving to improve conditions for some of our native trees in the surrounding woodland, especially in areas that have become overgrown around the native Oaks and Pacific Madrones, significantly jeopardizing their health.

We're fortunate to have many beautiful native trees on the property

By improving their growing conditions, and decreasing overcrowding, the remaining trees should be healthier and hopefully will continue to grow here for many years to come.

Essential Soils

Our soils are poor.  There’s no denying it.  Our most fertile soils are on the valley floor, but the slopes and plateaus are comprised of relatively nutrient devoid sandy soil.  For much of the property that’s fine, it’s what our natives are adapted to growing in.  They demand excellent drainage, and would resent rich soil.  Orchards and vegetable gardens however do not grow well in sand.

For those areas, we compost our kitchen scraps, at least those that don’t go through the chickens and turkeys first.

By composting kitchen scraps, and garden waste, we are gradually improving the quality of the soil

We amend the compost with nitrogen rich poultry manures, and now are incorporating the by-products of a nearby stable to help improve soil quality, texture, fertility and moisture retention.

Through Freecycle.org we've been able to source additional materials for composting

Most of the vegetables are grown in raised beds so we have the most control over soil composition there.

Growing in raised beds gives us more control over soil composition

The beds also prevent erosion and run-off compared to planting vegetables directly on our slopes.  The orchard soil is largely left alone, with the exception of mulching directly around the fruit trees. As we want native annuals and perennials to in fill the orchard between the trees, rather than conventional cover crops, the soil there needs to remain relatively lean.

Another issue with our loose soils, especially with heavy winter rains, is that they are prone to erosion.

Curbing erosion is critical for creek health

This winter it was a significant problem.  Not just because of the physical risks associated with collapsing and eroding soils, but because of the impact that erosion has on the creeks.  Mitigation of erosion and runoff is essential to creek health, and during some of our severe storms this winter it was disheartening to see the creeks on the property turn brown due to all of the soil particulates in the water that were washed down the mountains.

Soil erosion not only increases the turbidity of the water, but fertilizer runoff alters the nutrient cycling within creeks and oceans, and can lead to unfavorable growth of harmful organisms such as bacteria and algae.

The water cycle illustrates how gardeners and farmers can impact the environment far beyond their property line (Image Source: USGS - Public Domain)

Although we don’t use chemical fertilizers, we also don’t use organic fertilizer late in the growing season to decrease excess nutrient runoff from our slopes, preferring to use compost instead.  This year, to limit the soils being washed directly into the creeks from this property, we’re consulting with soils engineers and contractors to help us install a retaining wall along the base of the orchard slope, which currently seems to be the most prone to weathering and erosion.  It’s not much in the grand scheme of the entire watershed, but we feel is necessary nonetheless.

Picking Plants

We can’t have a garden without plants.  Plant selection here is critical to minimizing the need for water and fertilizer inputs.  Fussy plants, grown out of place, in climates or conditions they’re not ideally suited to, frequently demand extra care and resources.  We intentionally select plants that like to grow here.  Whether it’s choosing pest and disease resistant fruit cultivars that perform the best in our climate, or carefully selecting or propagating natives that are already here, and thrive without supplemental irrigation.

These Sticky Monkeyflowers grow on the property with zero supplemental irrigation

As plant choices strongly impact water use, we’ve chosen not to cultivate lawns on the property.  Even organic lawns waste water to maintain their lush color, and require too much wasted energy to mow.

We'd rather plant a blooming plant to attract hummingbirds, than have to mow a lawn every week

Most importantly lawns lack the diversity necessary to sustain the wild creatures, including the pollinators on the farm.

Resident Wildlife

If you’ve read much of this blog, you know we have wildlife…lots and lots of wildlife, and that’s so much of what makes Curbstone Valley special to us.

Curbstone Valley Farm is a Certified Wildlife Habitat, and Monarch Waystation

Leaving the majority of the land here as it was, removing invasive plants, and slowly restoring and enhancing the natives that should be here, we hope we’re contributing to sustaining the wildlife populations that live here, both now, and in the future.

Although we did fence the small orchard and garden area, we’ve ensured that no fences block the ability of wildlife to travel through or around the property.  The deer, coyotes, bobcats, mountain lions, and other wildlife are free to walk all around the orchard and garden unencumbered, and invariably around Frodo’s pen too.

Without a perimeter fence, wildlife can freely travel through the property

Although fences help us to protect our plantings, fences are also potentially harmful to the wildlife resident on the farm.  So much land is fractured and fragmented already in urban areas, that many larger wild species simply can’t survive where they once did.  We’ve chosen to balance the needs of our own animals, and plants, with those that were here long before us.  Honestly, having owned a number of fences in the past, we’d rather look outside our windows and see this, than a six foot fence…

We love seeing the fawns in spring

The advantage of not encumbering the movements of local wildlife, is that it helps to sustain a balance between predators, and pests.  Even fencing the small area of the orchard has tipped a balance.  Without the fence, there would be no fruit, but with the fence we have increased populations of voles and gophers as some of their key predators can no longer reach them.

The consequence of fencing even a small area, is more Pocket Gophers in the orchard

This means the Bobcats and Coyotes that would have helped to keep the populations in check, now have to forage for food elsewhere on the property, and we are left cursing at the gopher holes, and missing pea plants.

By encouraging owls, we hope to decrease the populations of gophers and voles in the fenced area

To mitigate this we’re hoping that by encouraging owls on the property that they can help to fill some of the void.

Important Insects

As at least part of the point of Curbstone Valley is to grow food, we’d grow nothing without the hoards of insects that live here, and not just the pollinators.   Even the pests are important!  Really!  Remember?  Our goal is a thriving eco-SYSTEM.

Believe it or not, there is a benefit to having at least some aphids on the Farm

For example, without aphids, our Syrphid fly larvae miss out on an important and nourishing meal, and as adults the Syrphid flies are important crop pollinators.

Adult Syrphid Flies are valuable pollinators

The most obvious beneficial insects on the farm, but by no means the only ones, are of course the bees, both the European honeybees and our native bees.  It’s gratifying to see the numerous bumble bees zipping around the wildflowers in spring.

Yellow-faced bumble bee on Lotus scoparius

The green sweat bees lurking among the sunflowers in late summer…

A male green sweat bee on an heirloom sunflower

…and the honeybees covered in pollen in the vegetable garden throughout the growing season.

A European honeybee coated in squash pollen

These alone are tens of thousands of reasons for us to be mindful of the quality of our water, air, and soil, and to ensure we have a diversity of plants on the farm.

The butterflies are also important pollinators, and by providing host plants for them, we ensure we’ll have future generations visiting our gardens.

This Variable Checkerspot larva was feeding on our native Sticky Monkeyflowers in late winter

It's now spring, and there are numerous Variable Checkerspots in chrysalis form waiting to emerge as butterflies

So in short, we’re not perfect, and we’re not doing any one revolutionary thing here at Curbstone Valley.  We are simply doing our best to maintain a healthy and sustainable environment for all of the inhabitants of the farm.  We have grown attached to the land here, and know this is a very special place, not just on Earth Day, but every day.