Posted by: A Part of the Solution | July 23, 2011

Symbiosis and Sustainability

We’re only nineteen months into farming, but the farm staff here have learned an awful lot about sustainability farming already. We still have a lot to learn, no doubt; but we’re on the way. One of our primary tools as beginning farmers is our brains. We read and research and question the more experienced (at this point, everybody who’s ever put hand to dirt is a little ahead of us most of the time). But we are learning.

I planned a melon bed this year specifically with the twin ideas in mind that we didn’t want to use Rotenone  on our plants this year. Rotenone goes on and off the Organic Approved lists. It is plant derived, but it works as a broad-spectrum insecticide–and therefore poses a danger to beneficial insects. Initial research conclusions are beginning to draw a connection between Rotenone exposure, and Parkinson’s as well. Therefore, I wanted a melon patch which honored the fussy melon plant without dishonoring the supportive buglife.

So we planted concentric circles of radishes around the melons to distract the flea beetles which otherwise would eat their leaves into photosynthetic inefficiency. And it works. The radishes, preferred diet of flea beetles everywhere, are all eaten to lace by the shiny black flea beetles. The melon leaves are intact and flourishing.

Last year, I knew it was a good idea to pick up the summer drop apples under our producing apple trees in order to lessen the transmission of diseases and harmful insects from one season to the next. But it was hard to find the focus and make the time. This year, I have four little greedy piggies in the bottom of the barn. They love little green apples. I take a few minutes each day to gather up apples from under the trees and collect them in a bucket I keep at the barn. The piggies get apple snacks several times a day, and the future health of my apple trees is already in progress.

We planted 50 apple trees, all great heirloom varietals, early last winter. Now we have 95 growing turkey poults in the lower  level of our barn. When they get a little bigger, we’ll pasture them in the orchard. The turkeys will eat the various nourishing grasses and field plants around the saplings, as well as consuming any bugs they find in the course of the day. This will ensure sounder health for our start-up apple orchard. And we won’t have to spray or mow to get our trees to grow easily and well.

Our pepper plants are in rows alternating with our tomato plants. As the tomato plants grow taller, and faster than the pepper plants, the tomatoes are providing partial shade during these hottest months for their more sensitive cousins. We’ll see less plant stress and more fruit-per-plant on the peppers using this system. And it makes rotating plant families in the garden next year less complicated since both tomatoes and peppers are Solancae.

These are just a few examples of how symbiosis promotes sustainability here on the farm.



  1. You guys rock. I planted eggplant in my orange mint this year. I do have to take the time to pull the mint away from the growing eggplants a few times – but interestingly, the eggplants are not beset by flea beetles. A few, but not a problem. I’m wondering if the critters just haven’t FOUND them? Or maybe I just confused them.

    • Hard to know, but it’s still a great companion planting tip. Some theories are that it’s a camouflage thing. Others are that the strong odor repels the pests. Too bad the USDA doesn’t spend any time on this set of issues. Maybe Rodale knows why the mint works on your Solanacae…

      • Oh, I’m not sure I would introduce mint into a csa garden like yours…I just had a few starts in my hand, and decided to plant them closer to the house, picked that spot, and it worked out. Being so close to the back door, I figured I’d be able to keep the mint in check. Now that the eggplant is taller than the mint, it’s pretty easy. I’ll have to look up and see if there’s something to the mint/flea beetle thing.

        And the USDA is still bending too far over for Monsanto to be able to do any intelligent research.

      • Maybe mint around the border of a plot of Solanacae. And you’re right about the USDA. The Sect’y of the Dept Ag likes to talk about his two children: Industrial Ag Business and Diversity Family Farmers. Which of them sees constant increases in funding into the millions upon millions of dollars in subsidies and waived research reqs? I think one of the Sect’y’s children is still a *red-headed* step-child.

  2. At the risk of sounding overly squeally: this is so exciting! Reading about your work on the farm just fills me with awe that anyone ever figured this out in the first place! And that it’s such a clear demonstration of the interconnectedness of living beings, which is all too easy to forget or otherwise dismiss. So cool. 🙂

    • It’s kind of weird how truly interconnected the entire of each ecosystem is. The more I learn about it, the more intense it seems to get! The mysteries only ever seem to deepen out here.

  3. AND… Our barn cats don’t even have fleas, since the truly free-ranging chickens keep the home acres scoured for every little bug. Is this a great system or what?

  4. Just a truth-in-advertising addition to my claims of “mint keeps away flea beetles from the eggplant”…now that the eggplant towers over the mint, the flea beetles are finding it just fine.

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