On Good Land

On Good LandAlthough we live in a world where loud, relentless self-promotion is the only sure way of being noticed, there will never be anything more magnificent to behold than quiet devotion. In the garden, such devotion is visible everywhere. A wren sits motionless for countless hours over its brood, a hummingbird painstakingly builds her pithy nest, an ant carries one heavy load after another without complaint.
Devotion is the underlying theme of Michael Ableman’s book “On Good Land” (Chronicle Books, 1998). Subtitled “The Autobiography of an Urban Farm,” this book tells the story of two struggles: one is the struggle to build a farm, and the second is the struggle to protect the farm from urban development.
In 1981, Ableman arrived in Goleta, near Santa Barbara, to work on a 12-1/2-acre farm. Shortly after his arrival, the farm manager left and Ableman found himself in charge of the operation.
Abelman eventually made the farm thrive, and today those 12-1/2 acres produce an annual income of more than $500,000. His success was based not on his training, but on his open-mindedness and ability to see. “I came to farming without training, academic credentials, books or expectations,” the author writes. “I thought technique was important. I thought I should become masterful. Over time I discovered that it was more important to learn how to see.”
To learn how to see! Truer words were never spoken, as anyone who has gardened for long will humbly admit. The keenest observers, especially when they record their observations over many years, are the most successful gardeners in the long run. “My best agricultural practice was to walk the fields and orchards, observing, taking notes, poking, digging, smelling and inspecting,” Ableman confesses. “… A sudden heat spell made tiny green beans grow to harvest size in a matter of hours. In the waxing cycle of the moon, seeds germinated almost overnight, in the waning cycle, roots strengthened and took hold. … Fruit trees responded to compost or pruning. By trial and error I learned and relearned until the technique I aspired to was internalized and forgotten, as technique should be.”
His advice on pruning fruit trees – a task which, incidentally, should no longer be delayed, as our winter will soon be over – runs the spectrum from practical to mystical. “Prune to create openness and air movement. Each cut stimulates a response. If you cut too much the tree will respond with rank and vigorous growth, too little and it will languish and lose vitality. Seek balance … Consider not pruning at all. Allow one tree to be wild and compare the results. Read a pruning manual or speak to an `expert’ and you will get a different opinion from each and every source. Find your own way. Trees will speak to you if you listen; they will guide your hands and shears.”
Ableman farms organically, which means that he relies on compost (decomposed plant or animal matter) to condition his soil. Plants growing in well-composted soil are less susceptible to pests than plants growing in soil that is not composted. “We don’t have many pests,” Ableman says. “The analogy is that if people eat well, sleep and take care of their bodies, they don’t get sick. It’s the same with plants. When they are properly nurtured, grown from good seed, planted at the right time, and given proper moisture and well-balanced, healthy soil, they are rarely susceptible to insects or disease.”
With the forecast of a dry winter and rising water costs, Ableman’s words on watering are particularly significant. “Water deeply and less frequently; most plants prefer less water to too much … Use drip tapes, micro sprinklers, soaker hose, and automatic time clocks to help conserve. Most importantly, use and develop your sensitivity to what is happening in the soil, what the plant is telling you, and when to wait and when to water.” A mistake of novice gardeners, for example, is to water as soon as the surface of the soil is dry. Always check beneath the soil surface to get a true picture of water availability to your plants’ roots. The soil surface may be tried for several days or more before watering is necessary.
“When growing food, water for tenderness and flavor,” Abelman explains, “not just to keep plants alive. When growing tomatoes, we irrigate only to get the plants to a certain height (sometimes only three to four waterings) and then stop. While fruit size can suffer slightly, the improved flavor and sugars in the fruit make it a worthwhile practice. Crops like lettuces and greens want to be moist all of the time. Experiment and adjust the frequency and amount of irrigation for each crop.”
Throughout the book, Ableman points out the importance of putting down a thick layer of mulch around plants. Mulch, which can be made from decomposing grass clippings and leaves, will always reduce watering frequency. “Mulch is nature’s blanket,” he observes.
Abelman’s Goleta farm, called Fairview Gardens, “has proven to be a successful economic model,” employing 21 people and providing weekly bags of produce, in a co-operative arrangement, to 500 families in the area. Ableman was successful not only in his struggle to build a flourishing farm, but in his struggle to protect the farm from commercial development. He formed a nonprofit organization that was able to raise the money to buy the acreage and keep it as a farm for all time. The farm provides a wonderful opportunity to show schoolchildren, who are always welcome guests and come from as far away as South Central Los Angeles, “where food comes from.”

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