Happy belated Solstice! June 20 is the longest day of the year, marking the beginning of summer. Solstice is an important moment in your garden, since the warm, long days and warmer evenings cause growth so rapid it feels that you can sit and watch your plants lengthen towards the sun.
Now is the perfect time to set out a late or second planting of summer veggies such as squash, cucumbers, tomatoes, peppers, basil, winter squash or corn, since we don’t need to worry about a frost date here on the coast. Don’t forget to grace your garden with summer blooms for pollinators; branching sunflowers, zinnias, cosmos and calendula are lovely flowers which bloom the more you cut for the table while feeding the many insects who call your garden home.
And since solstice also marks the beginning of the turn towards shorter days, it’s important to look ahead in your garden. Soon it will be time to order garlic and shallot seed, start perennials and biennials from seed for fall and winter planting and prepare to rest and restore your garden bed or back yard with rich layers of compost or cover crop over the winter.
As some of you may know, I recently left my job as coordinator at the Carpinteria Garden Park to return to full-time farming. My partner and I rent roughly an acre of land just behind town to grow non-certified organic cut flowers and herbs for farmers markets, local florists and CSA (community-supported agriculture) customers. I will continue to write this column, since I treasure the opportunity to share my love of plants, nature connection and wild landscapes with my community. And while I will always include home gardening advice, I intend to expand the scope of my column to explore the future of farming in southern California and the Carpinteria Valley, and how our agricultural practices and land use are connected to the complex, at-risk ecologies which surround and sustain us.
These issues are particularly pressing as we face the reality of rapid, human-caused climate change which seems to be leading to more extreme summer temperatures and less water every year in this part of the country. Sustainable farming – including many techniques that return carbon and groundwater to the soil – shows a lot of promise to help mitigate some of the most devastating consequences of a rapidly changing climate, in contrast to industrial agriculture which is currently one of the leading drivers of climate change. However, here in coastal southern California we are faced with the further complication of a meteoric and seemingly limitless rise in real estate prices, which have pushed working farm and ranch land out of reach for all but the super-wealthy.
Where I live, on Highway 150 behind town, I have watched this happen in real time in the last five years. When we first began renting our house, our neighbors ran a small, diverse farm producing organic greens, pastured animal meat and fruit which was shared directly with the community via farmers markets, a roadside stand and retail shops. When they were no longer able to sustain mortgage payments through farm income, the property sold and within a year the market gardens were bulldozed, and the orchards were on the brink of death with the well run dry. While this is just one small family farm, this story is writ large all over Santa Barbara and Ventura counties, as well as in other highly coveted real estate markets up and down the California coast.
While I can certainly relate to the desire to live in the country and have a lifestyle connected to farming, the consequences of the conversion of working, food-producing land with carbon capture potential to second and third-home estates will be profound. Sustainable agriculture provides practical solutions to many facets of our current climate crisis.
Localized farm economies are an essential link to our community’s well-being as well. As the Covid-19 pandemic highlighted, our expansive food supply chains leave our community’s food security extremely vulnerable in the face of any future disruptions, whether they are from the next pandemic (which global health experts warn could be much worse), climate change or global tensions. There is also an incredible opportunity to heal some of our country’s structurally racist land policy history, as we move into a future of farming where the diverse expertise of farmers of color are welcomed. These are incredibly complex issues with enormous potential for change; I look forward to teasing some of them apart in the coming months.
Alena Steen was formerly the coordinator for the Carpinteria Garden Park. She and her partner now own and operate a small, diverse flower and herb farm just behind town. You can learn more at nightheronfarm.org.