Everything Starts With the Soil
Tucked in the foothills of the Santa Cruz Mountains, Hidden Villa is a working farm where animals and crops coexist a stone’s throw from Silicon Valley’s tech hubbub. And for the farm’s Facilities and Agricultural Director Jason McKenney and Horticulturist and Flower Farmer Lanette Anderson, everything starts with the soil.
At the core of the agricultural process, soil building involves a delicate balance of the elements: earth, water, fire, metal and wood. To begin with, red wigglers use their gut flora to digest crop residue and produce castings that enrich the earth, a process known as “vermicomposting.” Then there’s “thermophilic composting,” where a massive pile of shredded, re-hydrated animal manure, animal bedding and green waste creates a rich, oxygenated environment, ideal for aerobic bacteria to colonize.
McKenney explains, “The bacteria begin eating, decomposing, fighting and even eating one another in the process. There’s just this incredible amount of trophic activity going on.” The bacteria generate substantial heat, leading to temperatures that can even start a fire if the compost pile isn’t managed properly.
When the cold grip of winter descends on Hidden Villa, it’s time to grow cover crops—leguminous crops that convert atmospheric nitrogen into a more plant-available form. Later, when it’s time to plant spring crops, enough nitrogen has been developed in the soil that there’s no need for synthetic fertilizers or amendments.
Once the crops are safely planted, “sheet mulching” helps to suppress any weeds. Large pieces of cardboard are laid around the crops, and then ramial wood chips—salvaged from Hidden Villa’s oak, bay laurel and buckeye branches trimmed during trail maintenance—are laid on top to form a unique miniature ecosystem. “You can dig through the wood chips and see these white little strands,” Anderson says. “That’s the fungus colonizing the wood, breaking it down and building the soil.”
“We’re mimicking a natural system that you would find on a forest floor. A tree falls, leaf litter falls, and they slowly decompose on the forest floor to build the soil. We use these wood chips to mulch our gardens and give them a nice, clean, finished look. At the same time they’re suppressing weeds, they’re helping to retain moisture in the soil and they’re slowly breaking down and building the soil. It’s a fantastic system that’s low-cost and efficient, which is what we’re really looking for in organic agriculture.”
And maintaining balance is crucial. So when building compost piles, McKenney and Anderson carefully calculate the optimal ratio of water, earth and wood. “If there’s the right balance of air to earth and water then we get this perfect environment for the aerobic bacteria. If the balance is off—for example, if there’s not enough air and too much water—then we get the anaerobic bacteria,” Anderson explains.
How can you tell if the balance tips too far? McKenney says it isn’t hard: Anaerobic bacteria smells like “oversteamed broccoli.”
As for metal, it appears in the soil in the form of iron, calcium, magnesium and selenium. This mineral profile promotes both aerobic bacteria’s respiration and nitrogen fixation, both key processes.
In all, the right balance of the elements provides food for a sturdy band of beneficial creatures. Together, they create Hidden Villa’s biggest asset: its deeply fertile soil.
Though it’s hard work, McKenney finds the process of soil-building incredibly rewarding. “Good earth starts making my mouth water,” he says. “It has the aroma, in some ways, of fresh-baked bread. There’s a damp, musky vitality to good, healthy soil.”
Tracy Wu lives in Palo Alto and is an enthusiast of preserving foods and long mornings in the kitchen. She has written about food, farming and music for Edible Marin and Wine Country, My Table and Rice Magazine.
Hidden Villa’s “organically fed, seasonally pastured, antibiotic-free pork, lamb, chicken and eggs” are available for purchase at the Los Altos Farmers Market May 1–September 30, and they run a community-supported agriculture (CSA) program with pickup locations at Hidden Villa, Los Altos and Palo Alto.
For other purchase opportunities, contact Animal Husbandry Program Manager Jen Estes at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Hidden Villa also provides numerous opportunities for the community to harken back to its agricultural roots. It runs day programs for preschoolers through 12th graders, farm tours for families with young children, summer camps, volunteer opportunities, internships for aspiring farmers and programs for individuals, such as a beehive tour led by local apiarist Kendal Sager.
You can even spend the night at Hidden Villa, choosing a rustic bunk or private room at the historic hostel, or by renting Josephine’s Retreat, a snug cabin on the property. Fall asleep to the throaty mutterings of frogs and wake up to birdsong.