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How to Turn Your Patch of Earth From Barren to Bountiful

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How to Turn Your Patch of Earth From Barren to Bountiful
Photos courtesy of Apricot Lane Farms

By Courtney Lindwall

Growing your own juicy tomatoes or crisp peppers sounds idyllic. But in practice, backyard farming can be daunting. Many gardeners dealing with pests, weeds and unpredictable weather quickly find themselves questioning whether they are working with nature or against it.


Just ask John and Molly Chester, who bought a sandy, barren plot of land in Southern California eight years ago in the hopes of starting the farm of their dreams. New to farming, the couple relied on holistic, regenerative practices (and a lot of trial and error) to revive Apricot Lane Farms. Through their hard work, the 214 acres are now a lush, largely regenerating ecosystem with fertile soil, diverse animal life and an abundant orchard with well over 75 varieties of fruit trees. Better yet: The farm never uses toxic, synthetically derived pesticides, which can kill soil microorganisms, harm pollinators and other wildlife, pollute waterways and make us sick.

John and Molly Chester

Yvette Roman

The Chesters' story, recounted in the documentary The Biggest Little Farm, is a testament to the wisdom of nature's own fine-tuned systems — and the remarkable rewards that gardeners will reap if they follow its lead. Here's how to cultivate a bit of Apricot Lane Farms' success in your own backyard.

Feed Your Soil

When the Chesters arrived at Apricot Lane Farms, the ground was dry, hard and mostly devoid of life. They knew they'd need to convert dead dirt back into soil before they could grow any crops. "When it's biologically diverse, soil is like this alchemizer of death into life, but you have to feed it," John said. Feeding the soil means building its biota — its below-the-surface ecosystem of microorganisms like bacteria and fungi, which break down decaying organic matter and infuse the soil with nutrients for the next cycle of plant life.

If you find yourself with similarly unhealthy soil, the Chesters recommend worm compost tea: worm waste steeped in water to make a liquid fertilizer teeming with beneficial microorganisms. At Apricot Lane Farms, the couple built an entire vermicomposting (worm composting) facility, but you can make do at home. Just put some worm castings, i.e. the black earthy-looking particles in your compost bin (you can also purchase a bag of castings) into a bag made from old panty hose, cheesecloth or a porous T-shirt. Add the tea bag to a pitcher or bucket of water. "Brew" your tea by adding a sugar supply like molasses for the bacteria (which will feed and multiply) and a small aerator (like a bubbler you'd add to a fish aquarium), which will concentrate the beneficial aerobic microorganisms. Let it bubble for one to two days, stirring occasionally, until a layer of foam develops — a good sign of active microorganisms. Apply to your soil within 48 hours. (If you'd like more information before brewing your own, step-by-step recipes and video tutorials on making worm tea abound.)

Plant Cover Crops

Cultivating native grasses, or simply refraining from ripping out last year's garden plants, will help you maximize the number of living roots in the ground, which offers many benefits to your soil. But by far the best means of nourishing and building up your soil is by planting cover crops. Farmers often plant them after the primary crop has been harvested or in areas that would otherwise be bare. And as John and Molly can attest, they're a critical component of any holistic farming practice. Not only do they protect exposed soil from the baking sun, which can kill critical fungal communities and other important microorganisms, but they also prevent erosion, naturally suppress weeds, improve soil quality, sequester carbon from the atmosphere and minimize flooding.

Cover crops can also enrich your backyard garden. Many gardeners plant them in the fall, in order to protect the soil through the winter and into the spring. Cover crops can also carry nitrogen from the air down into the soil, eventually making it available for the roots of other plants. Come spring, you can then turn these plants into "green manure" by mixing them into the soil and letting them decompose, which releases beneficial nutrients. "Cover crops are protecting this complex universe beneath the ground," John said. "They're also creating soil structure with their roots and increasing oxygen so that you get healthy, aerated soil that is filled with aerobic bacteria instead of anaerobic." At Apricot Lane Farms, cover crops include a "cocktail of grasses and legumes," though the best species for your backyard will depend on climate and your garden's specific needs, be it weed resistance or soil regeneration.

A few common cover crop varieties to investigate:

  • Hairy vetch: This legume is hearty, resilient and a powerful nitrogen fixer. Its long roots also help break up soil.
  • Buckwheat: Known as a "smotherer," this cover crop will naturally help keep weeds at bay while attracting pollinators. It can then easily be tilled into the soil.
  • Clover: The many species of this legume are known to be versatile and powerful nitrogen fixers.
  • Alfalfa: This crop's long roots help aerate and bring up nutrients deep within the soil.
  • Peas: These legumes taste good, yes, but they also fix nitrogen and crowd out weeds, too.
  • Marigold: Well known for its vibrant flowers, this plant also naturally controls pests like insects, frogs, fungi and weeds.

Maintain Habitats for Pollinators and Other Native Wildlife

Biodiversity rules at Apricot Lane Farms. By planting hundreds of plant species with a wide variety of roles, the Chesters have invited in diverse animal life. "Think about an ecosystem as the planet's immune system," John said. "You're trying to imitate that biodiversity." In other words, a diverse ecosystem has better odds of being able to heal itself. Keeping as many pieces as possible of that ecosystem intact provides a natural check on any one plant, animal or disease running amok.

Here are some biodiversity boosters for your own backyard:

  • Introduce native flowering species that provide food for visiting pollinators.
  • Hang a bee nesting box somewhere it can get sunlight and warmth.
  • Provide green, leafy plants for caterpillars to eat, such as milkweed for the monarch butterfly.
  • Set up a small wood pile, using brush or old logs, as shelter for lizards, fungi and snakes (the latter can eat other pests, like slugs or rodents).
  • Plant trees or shrubs that provide plenty of nesting and cover for birds, or set up a bird house.
  • Add a barn owl box or just a simple roosting perch to a pole. Owls and hawks help with rabbits and gophers.
  • If you have the space, create a reliable water source in the form of a pond or container garden, which will make your yard more attractive to birds, frogs and dragonflies. Stem the problem of mosquitoes by including goldfish or guppies, which eat the bugs.
  • Plant a diversity of cover crops. Instead of just using clover, for instance, mix your clover seeds with some hairy vetch, legumes and more to help your soil reap a diversity of benefits.

To Manage Pests, Play Detective, Then Look to Nature to Help Crack the Case

Over the years, the Chesters have dealt with everything from snail infestations in the orchard to hungry coyotes picking off their chickens. But the challenges have only made them better problem solvers, says John. He suggests that every gardener facing an intrusion — whether by pest, predator or disease — ask a few questions before attempting to control it, especially through artificial means like pesticides or other harsh chemicals.

For starters, understand the source of the problem and what might be fueling it, he says. Then look at what its food is, and in turn what eats it. Finally, ask what conditions it does not like and what conditions benefit its predators.

With those answers, you may find a nature-friendly solution. Take slugs, the bane of many a gardener. If they're chomping down on too many of your leafy plants, think first of what could provide a natural check. Toads and beetles will snack on the slugs if given the proper habitat themselves, potentially ridding you of your problem without requiring use of chemical pesticides. You can also address what snails don't like — sharp, rough ground — and put a layer of crushed eggshell around your plants, which act as a natural deterrent.

"You start to frame the complexity and context of the things you're trying to coexist with," John said. "It's not harmony you want," he added, but a "comfortable level of disharmony."

Looking to take the next step? Consider connecting with a master gardener program in your home state. These programs will not only help you hone your own green thumb but also set you up to train others in your community who want to make a difference in their backyard or garden plot.

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In early October, Britain's Prince William teamed up with conservationist David Attenborough to launch the Earthshot Prize, a new award for environmentalist innovation. The Earthshot brands itself the "most prestigious global environment prize in history."

The world-famous wildlife broadcaster and his royal sidekick appear to have played an active role in the prize's inception, and media coverage has focused largely on them as the faces of the campaign.

But the pair are only the frontmen of a much larger movement which has been in development for several years. In addition to a panel of experts who will decide on the winners, the prize's formation took advice from the World Wildlife Fund, Greenpeace and the Jack Ma Foundation.

With more and more global attention on the climate crisis, celebrity endorsement of environmental causes has become more common. But why do environmental causes recruit famous faces for their campaigns? And what difference can it make?

'Count Me In'

"We need celebrities to reach those people who we cannot reach ourselves," says Sarah Marchildon from the United Nations Climate Change secretariat (UNFCCC) in Bonn, Germany.

Marchildon is a proponent of the use of celebrities to raise awareness of environmental causes. In addition to promoting a selection of climate ambassadors who represent the UN on sustainability issues, Marchildon's team has produced videos with well-known narrators from the entertainment world: among them, Morgan Freeman and Mark Ruffalo.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," Marchildon explains.

"Sometimes they reach out to us themselves, as David Attenborough did recently. And then they can promote the videos on their own social channels which reach more people than we do — for example, if they have 20 million followers and we have 750,000."

Environmental groups focused on their own domestic markets are also taking this approach. One Germany-based organization that uses celebrities in campaigns is the German Zero NGO. Set up in 2019, it advocates for a climate-neutral Germany by 2035.

German Zero produced a video in March 2020 introducing the campaign with "66 celebrities" that supported the campaign, among them Deutschland 83 actor Jonas Nay and former professional footballer Andre Schürrle. They solicit support as well as financial contributions from viewers.

"Count me in," they say, pointing toward the camera. "You too?"

"We are incredibly grateful for the VIPs in our videos," says German Zero spokeswoman Eva-Maria McCormack.

Assessing Success Is Complex

But quantifying the effectiveness of celebrity endorsement of campaigns is not a straightforward process.

"In order to measure effectiveness, first of all you need to define what is meant by success," says Alegria Olmedo, a researcher at the Zoology Department at the University of Oxford.

Olmedo is the author of a study looking at a range of campaigns concerning pangolin consumption, fronted by local and Western celebrities, in Vietnam and China. But she says her biggest stumbling block was knowing how to measure a campaign's success.

"You need a clear theory of change," explains Olmedo. "Have the celebrities actually helped in achieving the campaign's goals? And how do you quantify these goals? Maybe it is increased donations or higher engagement with a cause."

A popular campaign in China in recent years saw famous chefs Zhao Danian and Shu Yi pledge to abstain from cooking endangered wildlife. While the pledge achieved widespread recognition, both Olmedo and Marchildon say it's difficult to know whether it made any difference to people's actions.

"In life we see a thousand messages every day, and it is very hard to pinpoint whether one campaign has actually made a difference in people's behavior," she explains.

Awareness Is Not Enough

Many campaigns that feature celebrities focus on raising awareness rather than on concrete action — which, for researcher Olmedo, raises a further problem in identifying effectiveness.

"Reach should never be a success outcome," she says. "Many campaigns say they reached a certain number of people on social media. But there has been a lot of research that shows that simply giving people information does not mean they are actually going to remember it or act upon it."

But anecdotal evidence from campaigns may suggest reach can make an active difference.

"Our VIP video is by far the most watched on our social media channels," McCormack from German Zero says. "People respond to it very directly. A lot of volunteers of all ages heard about us through that video."

However, some marketing studies have shown that celebrity endorsement of a cause or product can distract from the issue itself, as people only remember the person, not the content of what they were saying.

Choosing the Right Celebrity

Celebrity choice is also very important. Campaigns that use famous faces are often aiming to appeal to members of the public who do not necessarily follow green issues.

For certain campaigns with clear target audiences, choosing a climate scientist or well-known environmentalist rather than a celebrity could be more appealing — Attenborough is a classic example. For others, images and videos involving cute animals may be more likely to get a message heard than attaching a famous face.

"We choose celebrities who have a lifestyle where they are already talking about these issues," says Marchildon from the UN. "You need figures with credibility."

McCormack cites the example of Katharine Hayhoe, an environmental scientist who is also an evangelical Christian. In the southern United States, Hayhoe has become a celebrity in her own right, appealing to an audience that might not normally be interested in the messages of climate scientists.

But as soon as you get a celebrity involved, campaigns also put themselves at risk of the whims of that celebrity. Prince William and younger members of the royal family have come under fire in recent years for alleged hypocrisy for their backing of environmental campaigns while simultaneously using private jets to fly around the world.

But Does It Really Work?

While environmental campaigns hope that endorsement from well-known figures can boost a campaign, there is little research to back this up.

"The biggest finding [from my study] was that we were unable to produce any evidence that shows that celebrity endorsement of environmental causes makes any difference," says Olmedo.

This will come as a blow to many campaigns that have invested time and effort into relationships with celebrity ambassadors. But for many, the personal message that many celebrities offer in videos like that produced by German Zero and campaigns like the Earthshot Prize are what counts.

The research may not prove this conclusively — but if the public believes a person they respect deeply personally cares about an important issue, they are perhaps more likely to care too.

"I personally believe in the power this can have," says Marchildon. "And if having a celebrity involved can get a single 16-year-old future leader thinking about environmentalist issues — that is enough."

Reposted with permission from DW.

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