Archive for the ‘Sun's Blog’ Category

By: Sun Butler

Monsanto sent a work group to the Food Shuttle Farm last week for their annual volunteer event. After a quick tour we got down to work turning compost, mulching rows and crimping rye. Rye cover crop is an important part of no-till or conservation tillage. Rye and clover are planted in the Fall. Clover is a legume that puts nitrogen back into the soil. When the Rye approaches maturity, but before it sets seed it must be crimped in organic systems or sprayed with Roundup herbicide to kill the cover crop. Soybeans, corn, or in our case tomatoes, can be planted through the killed rye with no additional tillage. This greatly reduces the amount of bed preparation and leaves the rye straw in place to act as a mulch. Rye also releases a natural chemical to the soil called ‘Diboa’ that acts as a weed seed inhibitor.

No-till agriculture is a vital part of sustainable farming. It reduces use of fossil fuels, builds organic matter in the soil and reduces the need for additional herbicides. As the maker of Roundup, a broad-spectrum herbicide, and “Roundup Ready Soybeans,” Monsanto has made important contributions to no-till research and development. No-till can also be used in organic systems by physically crimping the rye and relying on its natural herbicidal properties. So as we flailed away with shovels and our homemade crimpers, Monsanto and that Food Shuttle Farm had an important cultural exchange and meeting of the minds.

The Monsato group with Sun at the entrance to the Farm.


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Through The Garden

photo by Mark Petko

 By: Sun Butler

In 1972, my Mom quit her modeling job in NYC to start the first natural foods cooperative in Westchester County – in our living room. Furniture, TV and her prized stereo were replaced with bins filled with whole wheat flower, granola and brown rice. She stocked our refrigerator with tofu, kefir and local farmers cheese. We often arrived home to a packed house for coop meetings. If customers arrived at dinner time they were invited to sample her latest health food creations and to trade recipes for delicacies like mung bean soup and tofu lasagna. For the three of us, brought up on a traditional southern meat and greens diet it was quite a shock. But the real shock came 6 months later when my step-father lost his job and our struggling family was left practically income-less.

One day my Mom sat us all down and laid it out for us. There was no money for camp, scouts, dance or judo lessons. In fact there was precious little money just to pay rent and buy groceries. If we were going to “get-by”, we would have to grow a garden. That would be our summer project.

Born on the tail end of the Great Depression, Mom learned the art of “getting-by” with less on her grandmother’s farm , where her large extended family gathered to grow cotton and vegetables and wait out the bad times. Her Cherokee aunts taught her to make fertilizer with vegetable scraps, straw and fish heads from the local groceries and fish markets. We planted the entire back-yard with spinach, lettuce, tomatoes and the classic Native American ‘Three Sisters’ garden of corn, beans and squash. My nickname that summer was Jethro since much of the heavy lifting fell on my 14 year-old shoulders.

We hand dug, weeded, mulched and picked bugs in that garden without chemical fertilizer or pesticides at a time when organic farming was only mentioned in a few obscure books. The rewards were stupendous. Our back-yard became a garden of eating. We kids were delighted that really fresh vegetables tasted so much better than what we were used to from the grocery store. When the garden chores were over we went swimming, picked berries and netted shad out of the river. I found an old pressure canner at a yard sale and we learned to can what we grew.

A year later my grandparents arranged for my sisters to attend Rabun Gap Nacoochee School in north Georgia where they were privileged to work on the Foxfire books and magazine. I became my grandfather’s right hand man in his declining years, helping to look after the farm until I finished college. Lynn and Juel came home on vacations to help Grama can and freeze the pick-up truck loads of corn, beans, tomatoes, apples and black berries that Grapa and I brought in from the farm. And we all learned to sucker and barn tobacco. I remember at the time feeling like the poor country cousin to my friends in New York when we came home for visits. It was worse for my sisters who toiled away at the cannery in Chase City while their drama queen girlfriends participated in summer stock in NY.

For all of our complaining though, we acquired a fearless-ness and sense of self-sufficiency that has stead us well through the ups and downs of our adult lives. As Grama often said, “we have lived high on the hog and low on the totem pole, but we always had something good to eat.” It is my goal here at Inter-Faith Food Shuttle’s Farm & Community Garden program to pass some of that certainty on to every volunteer and participant in our programs. We will see ya’ll at the Farm this Spring.


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Here Comes the Sun…*

photo by Mark Petko


A recent question from New Hope Community Garden got me thinking about the whole pressure treated wood issue again.  I checked recent research and did some soul-searching and here is what I came up with…

 “Dear Sun –what about using treated wood or railroad ties for raised beds.  If we use un-treated wood will we have termites?”

The first question is – do you really need boxed beds?  There are two reasons to box in container beds.

1. Where space is limited – boxes allow more efficient and intensive plantings.

2. Easier access for seniors – a 10″ or 20″ high bed is easier for senior gardeners to work.

 Most community gardens utilize a combination of  free-standing raised beds and box beds depending on the space available.  Free-standing beds can be built up with compost and surrounding soil to a height of 8″.  This gives you good drainage and soil depth.  You lose some garden space due to the sloping sides but I think this is minimal given the size of the garden that New Hope is planning (1/4 acre or more).  With the space that you all have available I do not think that boxed beds will be cost effective for the whole garden.  The two 20″ high  3’x 60′ beds we built for seniors at the Mayview Community Garden cost over $600.  Add another $150 if you use treated wood.

 The debate over possible health effects of treated wood rages on and is adequately addressed in the two articles I reference here at the bottom.  It really comes down to how much arsenic do you think is safe in the soil where you grow your food?  Even though arsenic migrates only a few inches from treated wood surfaces, the plant’s roots will be in this zone regardless.  When you till or turn the soil this contaminated zone will be mixed into the rest of the soil and, over time, arsenic levels will rise in your garden.

Regardless of how you feel about arsenic in your garden, the continued production and use of CGA treated wood, especially on decks and landscape (where it leaches into the environment) presents a long-term threat to our health my opinion.  That is why the federal govt. called for industry to voluntarily phase out CGA treated wood 5 years ago.  The racks are still full at Home Depot.  So much for voluntary efforts from industry.

 Railroad ties are treated with cresote, a highly toxic and carcinogenic chemical and should never be used in gardens or anywhere around your home – period. 

 Termites are everywhere.  If you use untreated wood, the life of your bed boxes will be 3-6 years.  Termites will not hurt your plants but you will want to keep untreated wood structures at least 12′ from your home or storage shed.  I am trying some different organic treatments on the Farm including diatomaceous earth to see if they are effective on termites.

 My recommendations would be to

  • Minimize boxed beds to where they are really needed.  Raised free-standing beds are just as effective unless you are really crunched for space.
  • Where you do need boxed beds use treated posts sunk in concrete and painted with sealant. Use untreated boards for the sides.  Try to find salvaged 2″x 6″, 8″ or 10″s if possible.  

 Other boxed bed alternatives include…

  • cinderblock walls – (must have masonry reinforcement over one row high)
  • landscape block walls ( expensive and take up more space), 
  • natural stone (even more so). 
  • If there is a sawmill nearby you can sometimes get slab-wood, the pieces that are sawn off logs to make structural timbers.  These will only last 3-4 years but are very cheap(sometimes free) and can be replaced easily.  Otherwise any untreated 4″ or wider salvage wood will create a good boxed base and then you can hill up another 4″ of free standing dirt on top of that.

 One more thing – whether you do free-standing or boxed beds you need to get your roto-tilling done first.  This week may be the longest dry-spell we have all winter given the El Nino effect.  So as soon as we get a thaw, put your tillers to work.  Soil that is tilled now will break down clumps and turf before Spring.  If you wait until April you will be dodging showers and trying to work new ground – a recipe for a late garden.

Here are a couple of other views on the subject.

Pressure-treated wood: Old poisons, new cautions 


 Does Pressure-Treated Wood Belong in Your Garden?


 Hope this helps you as you begin to think about your garden this year.


* Since we appropriated the name of Sun’s Blog from George Harrison, we thought we’d pay homage with this. From the Concert for Bangladesh:

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How was your holiday? We hope it was terrific. We’re glad you’re back here checking out what the Inter-Faith Food Shuttle is doing to fight hunger via our Farm and Community Gardens Project.

Did you make any resolutions? Check out some from the Food Shuttle staff here. One resolution that didn’t make it in the video is that we want Sun Butler to show up more on the Farms and Gardens blog.

Sun is our Farm Manager/Educator, our Garden Guru, the Sultan of the Soil, the Viceroy of Vegetables. He’s been farming for, oh, most of his life and has so much knowledge and passion about the subject that we have to share it with you. You may remember Sun in his turns as star of a few of our Food Shuttle videos. Check him out here. And here.

With that in mind, we are hitting the ground running in 2010. Here are a couple of posts that Sun wrote up recently. One is about working with the students from the University of Florida who were here for an alternative break. The other is about how Sun spent some of his New Year’s Day. The cold temperatures that settled in last week meant that Sun was on the move. Enjoy!

PS-The best way to glean from Sun’s knowledge of all things AG is to help out on the Food Shutle Farm or in the Community Gardens. Click here to get signed up!

Sun’s blog – Through The Garden…


Dec 22nd, 2009

University of Florida left for home tonight.  13 college students on an alternative service break arrived four days ago to help out on Food Shuttle Farm.  With looks that can only be described as “what have we got ourselves into?” they clambered out of their vans last Saturday at 8 AM in a 10 knot wind blowing a cold mist of rain and water standing in the garden rows.  After an orientation and pow-wow in the greenhouse there was a unanimous decision to put off farm work and tour Food Shuttle headquarters and a few community gardens. Later that afternoon, after cleaning out the vegetable cooler at Food Shuttle, we headed for Chapel Hill with a stop at Walmart to buy long-underwear. By this time they had figured out that they were not in Gainesville anymore.   More community gardens in Chapel Hill, a quick orientation on Franklin St. and then our intrepid convoy pulled into Harry’s Community Market in White-Cross for music, hot-cider and conversation.  They wanted to meet the locals so who better than our locally colorful farming and gardening community just west of the ‘Paris of the Piedmont’.


Sunday dawned clearer but colder.  Never-the-less, with fresh layers of thermals, hoodies and jackets those Floridians tore into a compost pile that needed turning, transplanted broccoli starts into pots and started bending hoops for the new tunnel greenhouse.  On Monday the guys worked on the greenhouse while the ladies rode shotgun with Food Shuttle drivers.  We finished the greenhouse by Tuesday at lunch and picked 100 lb. of collards as well.  It is always a blur of activity keeping these large work-groups busy, especially one that stays four days straight!  It is also a wonder to see how much we can get done working together for a common cause. 


We had so many cool discussions these last few days about organic farming.  We talked about how tiny soil organisms called mycorhizal fungi live in symbiosis with plant roots, supplying them with dissolved nutrients while thriving on the sugars that plant roots exude.  We talked about the microbial ecology of soils and how conventional fertilizers and herbicides like Round-Up burn-up beneficial soil dwelling organisms.


We talked about food deserts and food insecurity.  When kids on the school lunch program go home and the refrigerator is empty and all they have to eat for the weekend is on the dollar fast-food menu – then we are all food insecure.   I also talked about how good it feels to prepare food from the garden for your own table at home.   Healthy living is more than just eating the right things.  It is cooking at home with food that has been grown in our own community if not in our gardens.  It is the positive “intent and energy” that goes into helping to grow, cooking and then sitting down to a meal together. I call it garden chi.  The UF students got a big kick out of that.


I am really encouraged when student groups come out for a day or more to help on the Farm.  It takes grit and determination to brave the elements for a whole day while working out of your own element at unfamiliar tasks.  Volunteers here learn that farm work is not all fresh air and sunshine.  We also learn that there is a connection that we share when working together.  One that goes beyond the physical bounds of toiling with pitchforks, shovels and harvest buckets in near-freezing temperatures with a stiff wind.  A sense of understanding and empathy for those whose job it is to grow and harvest our food.  An appreciation for our connection to each-other, and therefore to the natural world we are a part of.  UF went home for Christmas, grateful and wiser.  I could not have hoped for more.  Happy Solstice!



Jan. 1, 2010

New Years Day finds me on the road back to Raleigh.  The weatherman has advised that we are heading into the longest cold spell in a generation.  If we are going to keep the lettuce, turnip greens and kale going at Mayview Community Garden, the beds will have to covered with frost-guard cloth.  The translucent white cloth will keep plants from freezing down to 24 degrees Farenheit.  Even if they do freeze, the cold hardy greens will continue to grow and thrive with the cover protecting them from dehydration as they thaw.  I have picked frozen broccoli out of the snow that thawed and tasted wonderfully fresh and sweet in January.


As I pulled into the parking lot at Mayview the kids were playing out front in spite of the cold.  I recognized several who attended the Will Allen Urban Farming lecture last month.   I called out –“Hey guys, can you help me spread this cloth over the beds?  It will help keep the plants in the garden from freezing.”  Four of the boys aged 6-10 jumped up and said “we will!” Turning cartwheels and swinging on lampposts they tumbled down the hill.  I marveled at their energy on this cold day.  The girls, only a degree or two shyer came to watch from the hill – commenting on our progress. 


We unrolled the Frost Guard cloth and spread it over the wire hoops.  “Hey look! Its like a tunnel under here!” one calls out.  As we pin the sides down the boys want to know the name of each plant.  “Those are turnip greens, we just planted that lettuce last week, kale grows all winter long” I elaborated.  “Can we eat it? they asked.  “Sure, lets pick some and you can take it home for your Moms to cook” I suggested. “No, we mean can you eat it now? Right out of the garden?”  “Well sure, but you probably ought to wash it off…” Too late – broccoli shoots, lettuce leaves and collards started disappearing into curious lips, a bite or two at first, then handfuls.  In 10 minutes the kids had memorized the names of every plant in the garden and were scampering up and down the rows repeating them and daring each other and to try them raw.  “Hey that’s sweet!  I want to try the collards! This oriental tatsoi is pretty good too!”


Caught off guard, I just stood there grinning.  Is this what we are out here for or what?  Kids discovering that winter grown greens are even sweeter than summer time; full of energy and the thrill of discovery these boys and girls are truly engaged on their own terms.   We cut heads of broccoli and some small cabbages for them to take home.  With the garden bedded down for the cold nights ahead we all headed back up the hill talking about having collards and black-eyed peas on New Year’s day for good luck.  My New Years good luck has started already.  I hope yours has too.

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