Over the last 11 years, I’ve been working on building a .6 acre farm in the city of Long Beach, Ca. In the beginning, I was in such a hurry to get growing that once we cleaned up all the garbage and threw on some fill dirt I quickly rotated my laying hens, threw on some compost, and got started. That’s all fine and good as a quick fix but it’s definitely not the long term solution.
Our first season of crops did ok. Looking back I was such a novice and have never worked on a farm before I took everything I learned on YouTube and from a few books and threw it into play. My crop selection was so diverse and growing in zone 10 had an endless window to recover and start again if there was a failure.
Growing our soil has been a priority since those humble beginnings. We grow with an intensive crop plan due to our small space and growing climate and try to keep the beds in production year round. Of course, the soil needs to “rest” after each cash crop but I believe bare soil is dead soil. Think about it. You spend all this time adding compost, worms, amendments to your well planned regenerative growing practices. Once those tomatoes or salad greens are finished growing, where will all your microbes go if there’s no food for them?
On Farm Lot 59 we have grown hundreds of different crops. Originally we sold to restaurants to support our non-profit farm, farmstand, and education programming. It was nice to be able to produce extremely high quality produce knowing it was going to get to the plate. Working with chefs is fun but it's also really stressful. When covid closed down all our clients our community was more food insecure than ever. We knew we needed to switch gears and grow once again for the community. Since March of 2020, we have been supplying our local food bank and unhoused neighbors with our organically grown produce. These community members that need it most deserve the produce to be grown on healthy and nutritious soil.
Now that I’m experienced and have time to reflect, I'd like to share some growing tips and tricks for creating a bee friendly farm. Of course, I’m speaking from my farm in Southern California so you will have to tailor your zones and availability to be specific to where you are farming.
Always have something growing. There are basically 2 kinds of crops. Cash crops, these are for sale or consumption and cover crops. Cover crops are the crops that feed your soil and the pollinators when the soil needs a rest. This crop is so important and sometimes gets overlooked because we want to keep our veggies crops going as long as possible but you can’t forget to feed the soil. We have 2 sewings each season of cover crops. Once in the fall for the beds that are not going to be in production for the winter and once in spring for the beds that were in winter production. We rotate our crop blocks in a clockwise rotation and keep notes on what works. We have tried different cover crop mixes along the way. The Soil Builder mix is nice and diverse including clovers, mustards, and peas. After a few years of that, we switched to more of a mustard mix but since we grow mustards for cash crops anyway we decided to steer ourselves toward more of the clover mixes.
This year our cover crops look the best to date. Our high tunnel soil was the most dead looking soil on our farm and now it's lush and green, full of life. After our tomato crop was finished we removed all the spent plants and old trellising to get ready for our off season cover crop. We prepped the ground by using a small walk behind the Honda tiller to break up the impacted soil. We broadcast the seed mix that Pollinator Partnership provided us and spread a light dusting of compost over the seeds. We irrigated with a telescopic sprinkler and waited. The seeds sprouted within a week and we were on our way!
The crop planted in November is now knee high and ready to be mowed. I’ll use our BCS rollerball mower to break down all the material, plow to form the beds, add compost, and then tarp for 2 weeks. With our heat and temperatures rising this should be enough time to break down all that organic matter and feed those worms. Once it's all broken down we will pull the tarps, put the irrigation back and plant a quick season of cut flowers before the main tomato crop goes back in. I hope you consider planting a cover crop not only to feed the soil and put back nutrients you’ve used up over your growing season but for the bees. Letting the cover crop go to flower creates a nice food source for the bees while the farm is a little scarce for the winter months.