Compost is gardener’s gold |

Compost is gardener’s gold

When our friends Marney Blair and Lisa Bjorn came to the ranch one day and asked if they could haul off the horse manure and straw from our stables, we thought they might want a single pickup load for composting. We’d been loading it into a manure spreader and one of our farm hands would use the tractor to spread it far and wide.

“How much do you want?” we asked.

“All of it,” was their answer. At first they used a pickup with wooden sideboards; now they have their own 10-yard capacity 1988 International dump truck.

These are resourceful women, whose workday begins at 5 a.m. at Fulcrum Farms, continuing until dark.

Frankly, I didn’t think the arrangement – or their energy – would last. Wrong. Those stable cleanings (over 50 yards so far) have been put to splendid use in creating compost for their Biodynamic farm operation.

Biodynamics? If organic gardening could be compared to high school, biodynamics would be graduate school. It’s a mixture of botany, horticulture, soil science, astronomy, philosophy and plain old hard work.

This week, I got a chance to visit their operation on a one-lane road off McCourtney Road and Marney (Lisa was elsewhere, modifying the dump truck) showed me an acre of luxuriant plants that they grow for their CSA (Community Supported Agriculture) program.

“It’s actually a fairly old concept from Europe,” she explains, “and instead of going to market, people subscribe a year in advance for a portion of the harvest.” Not vegetables, either, but seeds and grains for the pantry: Peanuts (including a purple species from Ecuador). Sorghum. Pumpkins (for their edible seeds). Heirloom beans. Amaranth. Sesame seeds. Quinoa (a highly nutritious Peruvian grain). Millet. Cow peas from Nigeria. A drought-tolerant Chick pea, Kabuli chana, from Afghanistan. Poppy seeds. Hickory King white corn (for flour).

Tracing the path that brought her to rural Grass Valley three years ago, Blair explains she was aiming for a Ph.D. in neuropsychology (she already had a master’s degree in psycho-neuro immunology from San Francisco State University), but the idea of spending her working career inside an office was daunting. And she had been studying Eastern philosophy – then Chinese medicine – and went from there to explore diet and organic gardening.

In San Francisco, she worked on a composting program at the Presidio to help make it self-sufficient, turning waste into compost and selling it to the city. She also helped develop a program using compost to top dress the golf course there, and used compost tea for pest control.

Then, a friend introduced her to Lisa, (who had already been here for 10 years and had used her carpenter skills to build a home) who wanted to see the Presidio program, and the friendship flourished.

“There’s one-acre garden here, and another the same size on the other side of the house,” Blair explains, “and we’re trying to grow crops in harmony with the ecology we’re in, the high desert. So we’re growing some things that are more drought tolerant and experimenting with things that deer usually won’t eat.”

Looking down the long rows of lush growth, I don’t see a single leaf that has been damaged by insects: “That’s because we use biodynamic preparations that Rudolf Steiner prescribed for really healthy soil and healthy plants.”

The same practices are employed, of course, in their personal fruit orchard and vegetable garden.

The Northern California Association of Biodynamic Farmers recently held its annual meeting at Fulcrum Farms, gathering together to make herbal preparations. “And we met some fascinating people as a result,” Marney smiles.

Long hours. Hard work. Is it a bit tiring sometimes?

“It’s funny,” Marney says, “but I was much more exhausted after working a day indoors in San Francisco. Here there are things that give you energy through the day, like chatting with the dogs, the cows and the chickens.

“It’s very exciting to cultivate the soil, but biodynamics brings another aspect to it that occupies my intellectual side. If a person wanted an overview of what it’s all about, there’s a good book, ‘Grasp the Nettle’ written about 10 years ago by Peter Proctor of New Zealand. Biodynamics is very big in New Zealand.”

Currently there are about a dozen members supporting Fulcrum farms, but plans are to eventually expand to about 35 subscribers, which should keep both women fully occupied. “Eventually we’ll have interns to help us,” Marney smiles.

Feed the soil and the soil will feed you.


When my friend Don Phillips mentioned no one had booked a wedding ceremony at his ethereal Big Springs Garden this year, I was a little shocked.

Big Springs, as I’ve written before, is a natural Sierra garden unlike any other I’ve ever seen.

And everyone I’ve sent there for breakfasts or lunches has come back with glowing reports in which the word “fantastic” is used to describe the garden, the food and the drive there.

Located at the 5,000 foot level on Highway 49, just a few miles beyond Sierra City, Big Springs is the result of years of planning and preparation by Phillips, now hosting lunch on Wednesday through Friday and two settings for weekend brunch.

Saturdays had been set aside for weddings, originally, but…..

My guess is there may be some concern that anyone who overindulges at the wedding punch bowl might be a danger driving the beautiful but winding road along the South Yuba River.

But for anyone who enjoys the beauty of nature, good food, good entertainment, good companionship, miles of groomed hiking trails and a garden like no other, this is the place to go.

On the internet, go to or call Phillips at 862-1333 for reservations.


Dick Tracy is an award-winning garden writer and photographer, a trained master gardener and former president of the Foothills Horticulture Society. You can write him in care of The Union, 464 Sutton Way, Grass Valley, 95945.

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