Furrows: Low-tech Rain Harvesting

columbus urban farm

We’re enjoying a brief, heavy downpour right now, and I wanted to take the opportunity to show you something. Fans of raised-bed gardening often criticize row gardening (as depicted above) as being wasteful of space. But look–those paths aren’t just for walking or operating machines. When you use a furrower between rows to build the rows up, the paths become irrigation channels. Particularly in clayey soil like we have, this allows the rows to be well drained, while the paths act as reservoirs. Over the next couple days, most of the water pooled up in those paths will soak down into the soil. In a few days (if we don’t get more rain), the hilled-up rows will have mostly dried out, but there will be a reserve of water several inches deeper that the roots can get at.

Here’s a shot of the same thing going on out back. Notice that I’ve laid these rows out along the contour of the sloping land, so that the water gets caught between the rows instead of just washing down hill and eroding the soil.

natural low-tech rain harvesting

Garden Progress

Glass Gem corn urban farm Columbus Ohio

The is the front garden. In the half towards the street, you see flint corn growing. The other half is beets, carrots, and onions. Between the rows of corn, I planted rows of winter squash…acorn, I think. Within the rows of corn, between the corn plants, I planted pole beans. This is my own take on the “Three Sisters” technique. Native Americans traditionally grew corn, beans, and squash together, but all together on little mounds of soil. By doing it this way, I retained the benefits of the Three Sisters technique–nitrogen from the beans feeding the corn, the corn stalks serving as poles for the beans to climb, and the squash spreading out to smother the weeds all around–while maximizing the use of space and speeding up the process by using the hiller/furrower attachment on my tiller to make rows instead of hand-building mounds.

Three Sisters corn bean squash Columbus urban farm

Here’s a closeup of the squash providing weed suppression around the corn.

Out back, here’s what it looked like before I pulled up the garlic:

Music hardneck garlic Columbus urban farm

Weeds, weeds, and more weeds

Since harvesting the garlic and hanging it up to cure…

Columbus urban farm sustainable organic garlic

…I tilled up the garlic plot. Here it is after planting a row of bok choy and a couple rows of broccoli yesterday:

Columbus urban farm local food

Last night I picked the first couple handfuls of hot peppers and gave them to the neighbor across the street who gave us the pepper plants. You can see the pepper plants in the picture above growing immediately to the left of the three newly planted rows. The weedy looking things in the middle are tomatoes. Toward the top of the space between the bok choy (the new rows) and the tomatoes is mint that I’m going to cut this evening. As soon as I’m done with this post, I’m going to go out and plant some red cabbage and Brussels sprouts in that space between the bok choy and the tomatoes. I’ve got a lot of half-ripe Indigo Rose tomatoes–purple on top, but still green on the bottom. Maybe I should offer them as-is and call them “Joker tomatoes.” To the right of the tomatoes, you can see some young summer squash plants. To the right of that, there are late plantings of collards, chard, and potatoes but you can’t really see the sprouts yet in this picture.

The deer have completely given up trying to eat the gardens, but we’re battling groundhogs now. At least it’s a battle and not just unfettered destruction on their part. We often scare them away while they chew grass outside the fence, but we have seen a lot of plants that have been nibbled. They’ve eaten pepper and tomato plants, some collards, and a bit of chard (visible just to the upper-left of that yellow watering can, near the top point of this diamond).

I’m still pulling out cart-loads of rocks. I’ve been using them to pave over the muddy spots on the trails throughout the property, but I’m starting to run out of muddy spots! I may have to start making French drains and filling them with these stones. I guess I could use the soil I dig up to build raised beds.

Garlic Harvest 2014

garlic harvest 2014I really let the weeds in the garlic bed get away from me this summer. I went out to weed it yesterday, but the leaves had already started turning yellow. It was time to pull it. So instead of just pulling weeds, I harvested the garlic, too.

It went so much better this year than last year! Last year, we’d had so many days straight of rain that I was afraid the bulbs would rot in the ground, so I pulled them in the mud. The were so completely covered in mud that I had to spend several hours rinsing them off. And pulling any kind of root crop out of mud is like trying to pull your foot out of deep mud without losing your shoe. We ended up snapping off a lot of stems and had to spend extra time digging bulbs out of the mud. But not this year! I did have to use two hands to pull it, but it popped right out and was relatively clean. After we hang it to cure for a few weeks, we’ll remove the outer skin and the dirt will come right off with it.

Considering the weed pressure this year, I’m not at all disappointed with the size of these bulbs. I think some of them might even be bigger than last year’s!

I told you those weeds were big!

I told you those weeds were big!


Free Film & Panel Discussion

me small







Come out to the Drexel at 7:30 p.m. on Tuesday, June 24th, to see a free screening of Growing Cities, a film about urban farming in America. The film will be followed by a panel discussion with Lisa Daris of Slow Money, Eric Pawlowski from OEFFA, and me, yours truly, pictured above. The discussion will be moderated by Michelle Moskowitz Brown, Executive Director of Local Matters. See you there!

Tuesday, June 24 at  7:30 pm
Drexel Theater, 2254 E. Main St., Bexley

Scape Harvest



I picked the rest of the garlic scapes today. We have just under eight pounds, enough to fill three plastic grocery bags. If I don’t hear from anyone in the next couple days, I’m probably going to chop them up and freeze them for my own family. The price I’d get delivering them to a store wouldn’t be worth the bother.


Remember, we’ve got garlic scapes for sale, 10 for a dollar.

Getting Back on Track

columbus garlic scapes

At 9:40 tonight, it was dark enough that I had to use my phone as a flashlight to find the shutoff switch on our new tiller. I’ll be tilling most of the day tomorrow. With luck, I’ll even get most of the planting done before the rain comes Tuesday night. We’ve got 14 tomatoes in the ground already with drip line under black plastic. Only about 135 more to go…plus the greens and the beets and the onions and the cucumbers, corn, beans, squash, and herbs. We should be able to get a much earlier start next year. Once the rain comes, I can go back to weeding the garlic and harvesting scapes.

Early this morning, I saw a groundhog nibbling grass just outside the new deer fence. I’ve no doubt he could have scurried underneath it, but I scared him away before he figured that out. I’ve had tomatoes out in the newly fenced-off area for a few days now, and no deer nibbles.

The former owner of this property had patched the privacy fence using pieces of sheet metal that I think he salvaged from the fire engine. Since I’m going to be rebuilding the fence, I’m thinking of using some of that metal to predator-proof the hen house. Once that’s secure, I’ll be able to get chicks and work on securing the run.

At this rate, though, it looks like we may not have eggs until winter or spring…which isn’t so bad, actually. I know a lot of you have been really eager to get eggs, but I prefer to get chicks in the fall and raise them over the winter so they start laying in the spring. If they started laying in the fall, they’d slack off anyway over the winter because of the decreased light, but they’d still eat just as much as any adult hens. It’s more economical for me to have them as juveniles over the winter…providing I can keep them warm enough that they don’t pile up on each other and smother each other to death, that is. To that end, I’m thinking about building a rocket stove in the hen house. I’m going to be using sand as bedding, so fire isn’t a concern. It’s just a matter of whether I’ll be able to get it done in time for cold weather.

Garlic Scapes Are Ready



Yesterday, we ate the first of the mulberries and garlic scapes. I don’t know whether we’ll have enough mulberries to sell this year (we harvested those at our old house in previous years), but there should be more than enough scapes to offer some for sale. Email me if you’d like to come by to pick some up. wayne@frijolitofarm.com

The catalpa trees are blooming today. Catalpa is my favorite floral scent, more so even than roses.

Garden Progress

This was maybe a week earlier. The plants are bigger now. I used the old egg cartons you gave me as seed starting trays.

This was maybe a week earlier. The plants are bigger now. I used the old egg cartons you gave me as seed starting trays.

I spent most of yesterday in the greenhouse. I’ve got about 150 tomato plants potted now. Most are seedlings, but about 40 are around 18″ high. I’m just waiting until the deer fence is up and the ground is tilled. The tiller is due to arrive next week.

Here are the tomato varieties we have that I can remember off the top of my head:

(Those links will take you to pictures of the varieties.)

I also have seedlings of mustard, collards, blue curled leaf kale, lacinato kale, broccoli, cauliflower, a couple kinds of cabbage, cucumbers, and watermelon ready to go in the ground. I’ll also be direct seeding these and more. In addition to the plants I’ve already started, I’ll be planting Swiss chard, carrots, onions, Glass Gem corn, pole beans, beets, radishes, yellow summer squash, butternut squash and/or acorn squash, and bok choy. I’m also going to be putting in an herb garden. At the very least, I’ll grow mint, chamomile, and probably lemon balm there.

To get enough poles to enclose the north yard with deer fence, I’m cutting down trees in an area that will have another garden as big as this one, probably in 2016. Mayda was telling her dad, who grew up on a farm in Cuba, about me building the fence. He said the poles would last about a year, maybe longer since I’m painting the ends that go in the ground, but the old guajiros would fell their trees for fence posts between the last quarter of the moon and the new moon. He says that’ll make them last ten years. Something about the way they dry. I figure it can’t hurt to try it. I’ll set the smaller trees aside for use in furniture making. Basically, though, that gives me between now and next Wednesday–when the tiller arrives–to clear that field.

One final note, just a reminder that WE DO NOT HAVE CHICKENS YET. Please stop calling asking for eggs and meat. We don’t have any and won’t until some undefined point in the future. Probably this year, but no time soon.

Genes Matter

locally grown tomatoes, Columbus, OH

These tomatoes in 2012 were awfully spindly. The ones I have now look better.

I have lots of tomatoes growing in the greenhouse–not enough to sell plants, as most of the seeds I tried to start in the float bed never sprouted. I think they were too waterlogged. I’ll try again sometime with actual float trays instead of egg cartons. Looking at the varieties that were growing–Atkinson, Peron Sprayless, Moneymaker, Chalk’s Early Jewel, White Tomesol, Indigo Rose, Garden Peach–I regretted that I didn’t have any cherry tomatoes or paste tomatoes this year. I expressed this to my wife, and she surprise me the next day by coming home from work with some cherry tomatoes and Romas from the grocery store.

Of course, when you start seeds saved from fruits and vegetables, there’s always the chance that you’ll get something unexpected, either because the seeds are the result of cross-pollination with another variety, or because the parent plant was a hybrid, and its parents’ genes come through. Given that they came from a grocery store, though, we presumed they were grown in a huge monoculture, so cross-pollination was unlikely. And given these particular varieties, I knew it was likely I would get some kind of cherry tomato and some kind of paste tomato. That was good enough for me.

I had another thought, though. “What if these are genetically modified tomatoes?”

If they were genetically modified, even if I didn’t sell them, simply growing them would create a risk of cross-pollination with all my other tomatoes, meaning I could end up with transgenic material infecting the whole crop. Even if I didn’t save the seeds, or if I covered all my other plants to protect them against cross-pollinating with the transgenic tomatoes, there’s the risk that the transgenic tomatoes could cross with a neighbors’ tomatoes, and they might save their seeds. If they did, and they planted those seeds next year, then my tomatoes would be at risk again, only I wouldn’t know it. So even if I took care that year to not only shun GM seeds, but to shell out the extra money to get certified organic seeds, I could still end up producing tomatoes with frankenfood seeds in them.

This is the problem with tampering with genomes. It creates what is essentially a genetic disease (albeit a purposeful one) that nature has not had the chance to cull through natural selection. And short of labeling or having a genetics lab, it’s difficult-to-impossible for the grower to selectively breed out these manufactured genes. Given that we’re still largely ignorant about the long-term health effects of food from GMOs, they could prove to be a time bomb. Growing them not only multiplies the threat, it also displaces non-GMO options. Bad genes that can’t be selected out until it’s too late are like a virus, eventually corrupting the whole species. For all we know, the tinkered tomato genes could even jump to related plants like eggplants and potatoes.

With these concerns in mind, I decided to confirm that the seeds were not genetically modified before I planted them. I looked at the sticker on the package of cherry tomatoes, and there was a web address for the produce distributor: marketfreshproduce.com. I sent a message asking them whether their cherry tomatoes were genetically modified.

Their reply:

Good Morning Wayne,

Thank you for the inquiry on our website. Our cherry tomatoes are not organic. Have a wonderful day.

I wrote back to say that I understood they were probably grown using chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and fungicides, or they would carry the organic label, but that I specifically wanted to know whether they were transgenic. I said I was interested in growing the seeds, but didn’t want to do so if they were genetically modified. They sent a reply saying they’d look into it, and asking where I bought them.

In other words, there’s a definite possibility that they are GMOs. The first reply I got from the company was telling: “Our cherry tomatoes are not organic.” That is, if they don’t have to meet all the standards for organic certification, they’re not going to bother trying to meet any of them.

The lesson here is that any time you see produce in a grocery store–stuff produced on a large scale and shipped through a distributor–and it doesn’t specifically say it’s organic, you might as well assume it’s genetically modified. I believe that’s why there’s such heavy resistance to GMO labeling laws in Congress. GMOs are so prevalent that they’re dominating the industry, and now that they’ve let that genie out of the bottle, there’s no getting it back in. Those genes are wild now. Honestly, even certified organic growers can’t reliably ensure their crops aren’t being cross-pollinated by neighbors’ GM crops. If they save their seeds instead of buying them new each year from a supplier who can certify that they’re organic, they run the risk of unwittingly growing GM plants. The problem, then, of requiring labeling is that most growers probably don’t even know whether their produce contains transgenic material.

Regardless of what I hear back from Market Fresh Produce, I’ve already decided I’m not growing these seeds. I don’t really even care for the taste of their tomatoes.

Update: Sure enough, here was their reply:

“Because we use multiple suppliers/growers across the nation, it is difficult for us to say with certainty whether or not these tomatoes were genetically modified.”

Frijolito Farm is not certified organic, and probably never will be, because I don’t want to deal with the fees and record keeping when my customers can come here and see the plants being grown. I only use pesticides or fungicides when there’s actually a problem (sometimes not even then), and only organic-approved ones at that. I prefer to rely on natural methods like spreading wood ashes around a plant to deter slugs, and letting birds and predatory insects eat the harmful insects. If the aphids get out of control, I’ll spray them with either soap or a mixture of vegetable oil and hot peppers. That’s why the veggies you buy here won’t be as picture-perfect as the plastic-looking things you see in the grocery store. The little bug nibbles you see here and there on your greens or squash is how you know they’re not loaded with poisons.

Taking this gentle approach to pest control means we create a friendly environment for the critters that can help. I posted recently about our garter snakes. Over the weekend, my wife spotted a beetle neither of us recognized. She looked it up on the internet and discovered it was a click beetle. They eat the larvae of tree-boring insects. That’s good news, as we have a problem with emerald ash borers. I’m hoping the click beetles will reduce their numbers.

Recent Posts

Furrows: Low-tech Rain Harvesting
Garden Progress

Garden Progress

July 25th, 2014

Garlic Harvest 2014

Garlic Harvest 2014

July 10th, 2014

Free Film & Panel Discussion
Scape Harvest

Scape Harvest

June 12th, 2014

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