The Practical Gardener

When I lived and gardened in southern New England, I heard about the Northeast Organic Farmers Association long before I ever went to one of their gardening conferences. NOFA has a chapter in each New England state, as well as in New York and Pennsylvania. It’s the advocate and local information clearinghouse for organic farmers in the Northeast.

I’d heard about NOFA for several years and had read the local chapter’s newsletter, but I always figured it was only for farmers (little wonder, considering the name). And I’d heard about the group’s annual three-day farming conference for a long time before a gardening pal finally dragged me off to Amherst, Mass., to attend my first one. (As it turned out, NOFA includes gardeners, activists, businesspeople and organic consumers as well as farmers.)

But going to that conference was an eye-opening, mind-expanding experience for me. I learned more about gardening in those few days than I would ever have imagined, and my overriding feeling as I drove home was regret at having missed the previous ones.

So when I moved to WNC, I wasn’t about to repeat that error: One of the first things I did was to find out about the analogous group down here. The name Carolina Farm Stewardship Association didn’t fool me. I suspected that CFSA would serve a similarly diverse constituency of gardeners, businesspeople, activists and farmers, and that’s exactly what I found. I also learned that they, too, produce an outstanding conference each year.

The best thing anyone can do for their garden is to lavish it with organic matter. “Organic matter, organic matter, organic matter” is the mantra preached continually by gardeners who are far better at our chosen avocation than I am. (As a WNC gardener in search of a broader understanding of the Way, I often fail miserably in my quest; this is actually a good thing, however, because those sometimes-painful experiences have been the fodder for the 150 or so articles I’ve produced for this column. But I digress.)

It’s all well and good to know that organic matter is what solid, sustainable gardening is all about; but that information alone is as useless as philosophy is to a carp, unless a gardener can also find out the “why” and the “how” of it all.

Here in these mountains, the CFSA is our resource for doing precisely that. And this year’s edition of the group’s annual statewide sustainable-agriculture conference is just around the corner (it will be held in Boone Nov. 15-17).

The lineup of workshops is a tasty one. There are 10 tracks, each covering a different theme: The Organic Home, The Organic Garden, The Organic Farm, Fruit, Transition to Organic Farming, Teaching Stewardship to Our Youth, Livestock, Agroforestry, Economics/Marketing and The Politics of Food. Each track comprises six workshops, and attendees can go to whichever ones they choose. For the home gardener, there’s a remarkably broad array of choices, even in the tracks that seem heavy on the commercial emphasis. In fact, some of the best information I have gleaned for my home garden has come from commercial-scale workshops.

In the Agroforestry track, Keith Johnson of Earthaven Eco-Village will be talking about mushroom production, and legendary herbalist Joe Hollis will be talking about useful perennial herbs. In other tracks, the always-effervescent bug man, Dr. Richard McDonald, will be talking about beneficial insects, and WCQS talk-show host/organic farmer Pat Battle will decipher the mysteries of compost tea.

Elizabeth Henderson, a longtime NOFA member from upstate New York, is an organic grower and well-known organic activist. I’ve attended excellent workshops she’s presented on beans and squash at the NOFA conference. Happily, Elizabeth is this year’s keynote speaker at the CFSA event; on Saturday night, she’ll be talking about the importance of local agriculture (a fitting subject, considering that the conference’s theme is “Feeding Our Neighbors as We Would Ourselves.” Elizabeth will also present a workshop titled “The Politics of Food”; it should be an inspirational 90 minutes, especially for those who care about making a difference in the world around us.

A few years ago, an organic farmer from the Piedmont named Alex Hitt gave an outstanding keynote speech at the CFSA conference. A frequent presenter, he has a reputation for being meticulous about the systems on his farm (and an all-around great guy). I’ve sat in on a couple of Alex’s practical workshops and have found them to be thorough, inspiring — and absolutely applicable to my home garden. This year, he’ll give a talk called “Introduction to Sustainable Systems.”

The really cool thing about these conferences is that the workshops are presented by folks like you and me who have excelled in some way in the garden and are able to share what they know. There are plenty of presenters who are asked back again and again, but these are not professional speakers — they’re people who are passionate about their subject and can communicate that passion effectively.

Gardeners are a passionate lot — if they weren’t, they wouldn’t pour their energy into such hot and sweaty work in the name of having fun.

I can’t say enough good things about the CFSA. The organization’s mission is to “support and expand local and organic agriculture in the Carolinas by inspiring, educating and organizing farmers and consumers.” The annual sustainable-agriculture conference is all about inspiration and education — but that’s just the tip of the iceberg.

The CFSA also hosts four annual farm tours — one of them right here in WNC (on Father’s Day weekend). Our region also hosts one of the group’s six Organic Growers’ Schools. Other CFSA-sponsored services include an apprentice referral service, a sustainable-gardening curriculum for elementary schools, organic-certification education for farmers, policy advocacy at both the local and national levels, conducting research on marketing and production of organic products and crops, doing public and media outreach, and providing technical assistance to local farmers. Best of all, however, CFSA gives organic gardeners and farmers a chance to come together regionally in fellowship, learning together and enjoying periodic potlucks.

The group’s Western Chapter is a loosely organized collection of local folks who periodically assemble at someone’s farm or garden to see what they do well. I’ve hosted two such gatherings myself — at Jardin Fou and at an educational garden I established at the top of Reems Creek Valley. The energy is always high, and the potluck food is predictably spectacular. The next such get-together will be sometime this winter. The best way to find out the particulars is to visit the Western Chapter’s Web site (http://main.nc.us/cfsa_mountains); there, you can check on upcoming events and find out how to get on their mailing list. To learn more about this year’s sustainable-agriculture conference, go to www.carolinafarmstewards.org.

This is my last article of the season — and as it turns out, it will also be my last weekly column for Xpress. The chances are pretty good that I’ll be appearing in these pages in the future, but on a much-less-frequent basis.

So in my final installment of The Practical Gardener, I humbly offer these three suggestions for making you a happier, smarter gardener: Feed your compost pile; love your family (whatever and however you conceive it to be); and get involved in the Carolina Farm Stewardship Association.

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