Nematodes and other things

Well, the weather is finally warming up and it’s starting to feel at least springlike if not summery.  Every day on the farm continues to be a delight and a joy for me. I feel extremely lucky to be here.


Betsey has started a new blog for her farm!  We’re working on getting it up and running, at

I wrote a little post on there about our recent trip to Sequim, which was *awesome* as we got to learn about draft horse farming and drive a team of draft horses.  More pictures from the trip are on my flickr page,

I have a lot of prior horse experience, but it’s all been with riding. I was really surprised at how hard it was to drive the horses while sitting behind them on a wagon instead of on top of their backs. It’s the same communication, right? Wrong — when riding, you have your whole body (seat and legs) to use for communication. When driving you just have your hands on the lines and your voice. John, the horse trainer whose farm we visited and who taught us the driving lesson, has amazing communication with his horses. He can be standing across the field and say “back” and that horse will march backwards. It comes from a lifetime of learning on the part of the trainer and years of building up a relationship with that particular horse. I hope that someday I will have the opportunity to own horses again and experience that relationship as a daily part of my own life.


Mainly, I wanted to write this post about beneficial nematodes. What are those?? I wrote about soil microbes in my compost post and then realized I didn’t really know what I was talking about. What is a microbe exactly? And why exactly is it good to have them in soil that you want to grow stuff in? I decided to investigate one type of microbe.

A microbe or microorganism is an organism that is too small to be seen with the naked eye. Nematodes are one type of microorganism I had already heard about from Betsey. She applies a spray to her fields containing these little guys as a preventative against pest problems.

A nematode is a wormlike creature that lives — get this — in the film of water surrounding soil particles. Crazy! There are many types of nematodes. In fact, they are the most numerous multicellular animals on earth. But one type of nematodes are what we call beneficial or insect-parasitic. What they do is burrow inside a larger insect, entering through one of its natural body orifices(!), and then emit a bacteria that kills the host via blood poisoning.  The nematode then feeds off of the host and multiplies inside it.  Yikes!

As much as this sounds like some terrifying horror movie, the fact that this happens is great for farmers because having a healthy nematode population will keep down your soil-dwelling pest poulation. Pests like black fly (Brian worries about them on carrots) and root maggots (Betsey had some failed onion transplants because of them) can wreck your crops if they get out of control. In organic farming we can’t (and don’t want to) use chemical pesticides to kill those bugs. What we have to do instead is make sure there is not a good environment for the bad guys to flourish. This includes making sure we have really strong and vigorous plants that will be more resilient and not overwhelmed by a bug attack. It also helps to keep natural predators like bumblebees, ladybugs, and nematodes happy.

To that end, Betsey uses the beneficial nematode spray. The nematodes come via mail order from someplace that grows them (can you imagine being a breeder of microscopic wormlike creatures as your job?) She mixes them with water and sprays them on the fields. I see Betsey out there in the onions occasionally with a backpack sprayer in the evening and I know she is spraying her nematodes — ultraviolet light and heat will kill them so it’s best to apply in the evening.

So…… now we know!


Compost 101

We are eating some fantastic vegetables lately! Eat a bunch of Brian’s carrots and you will never again be able to snack on a grocery store carrot and be satisfied. They are like two completely different vegetables. One is sweet and tasty and tender; the other is chemically-tasting roughage in comparison. Why such a big difference?

One of the main reasons is the quality of the soil they were grown in! Commercial crops are produced on a large scale by using pesticides and herbicides to kill pests and weeds. But when these chemicals are applied, they also kill off all the good stuff in the soil. Chemical fertilizers are then added which can boost nitrogen levels and make the plants grown vigorously but this doesn’t restore life to the soil. At that point the vegetables are being grown in dirt — the kind you sweep off your kitchen floor — instead of rich, living soil with all the minor nutrients required to make a fully flavorful vegetable.

Alternatively, in organic farming, we weed by hand instead of using herbicides. And we rely heavily on compost to boost levels of beneficial soil microbes. Compost is amazing! It can be created from a variety of materials. The point is to provide the perfect environment for soil microbes to live and break down the materials into humus.

The two base ingredients are “greens” (nitrogen-rich materials such as grass clippings or food waste), and “browns” (carbon-rich materials such as dry leaves or wood shavings). Here on the farm we have been spending a good amount of time building Betsey’s compost pile, a delicious layer cake of horse manure (“green”) and straw (“brown”). The other critical components are proper moisture and airflow to provide the aerobic bacteria a happy little home. You’ll know they are working away in your pile by checking the temperature. It gets super hot in there! After a year or so, as long as the balance is right and the pile is turned over a couple times, you will have compost.

When we grow crops in our soil, we suck nutrients out of the land. Therefore we need to add organic matter back in if we expect to continue producing good food from that space. Luckily we can create compost from various waste produts. Instead of disposing of food scraps, manure, etc, we can enlist our microbe friends to compost them into beautiful rich humus we can use to add more nutrition and flavor to our food.

Today, the other apprentices and I picked the first sugar snap peas of the season and snacked on a few while we weighed them out into half-pint containers to put out for our CSA members at our farmstand. This is real food, straight from the ground to the plate, and you can taste the difference!