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The OEC turned me from moose to muse

10 Lessons from the 
Organic Education Center



By Randall Cass

Fall 2010, my second 
AmeriCorps term with 
Oregon Tilth comes to an end and I will be leaving the Organic Education Center in Portland a wiser and tilthier organic gardener. After two years of working under the brilliant gardening minds of Kathy Dang (OEC Program Manager) and Conner Voss (Garden Coordinator) I am reluctant to say goodbye.

When I started, I was a useless recent college grad that couldn’t tell a hori-hori from a hula hoe. I’ve since learned far more than I could sum up in a single Yard and Garden article. Therefore, before I depart, I’d like to impart some of the most essential things I’ve learned

1. Mesa top beds

One of the first lessons the sagacious OEC Program Manager taught me was a technique Conner and I fondly refer to as the “Kathy Dang Patented Mesa Top Bed.” This is a bed prep method that creates an impermanent raised bed in the garden. Start by fluffing the bed with a digging fork to create airspace and raise the topsoil a few inches. Next, use a rake to break apart all the larger clumps of soil. Then rake the soil in from the sides to create a large mound in the center of the bed. Rake the mound flat, sweeping the larger clumps into the newly created trenches on each side of the mound. When complete, the Mesa bed should be a smooth plain for planting that is raised a few inches from ground level. This technique promotes drainage and, through expanded surface area, the soil heats up more quickly to encourage germination and microorganism activity. I also suggest adding a granular fertilizer and compost at the beginning of the process to incorporate some extra fertility as the bed is prepared.

2. Straw everywhere!

Mulch your beds with it. Add it to your compost. Mound potatoes with it. Toss it in the chicken coop for bedding. Sit on a bale and catch your breath after a hard day’s work. Find little pieces of it in your clothes for weeks. The possibilities are endless…

3. Weeding: there’s no 
wrong way to do It

Much to the chagrin of our garden volunteers, the OEC is about cultivating expert weeders as well as organic gardeners. And there’s no wrong way to weed. Conner is known for what I call the Straddle-And-Reach technique – a technique for the spry gardener that involves straddling a bed, keister pointed to the sky, and shuffling backwards down the row as you pull. He initially laughed at me for how lazy I looked utilizing a method we’ve since deemed the Rowing-the-Boat technique- where you sit down in the path and weed the areas around you, scooting along the side of the bed as you go – until he caught Kathy doing it too!

4. No es micrófono!

This is a saying I learned sharing maté in the OEC office. Maté is a loose-leaf tea sipped from a gourd through a metal straw. Conner picked up this tradition while traveling through Chile and sharing the gourd has become a cornerstone of any OEC meeting. Being the caffeine monger I am, I quickly became familiar with the phrase - “No es Micrófono!” – It’s not a microphone! – Meaning, you’re not singing a solo, share the gourd! I’ve come to recognize this as more than just Conner chiding me for hogging the maté – it’s a reminder that we are a community. In the OEC, as well as the gardening community at large, we rely on each other for advice, we delegate responsibilities, and we share in the harvest. So pass the gourd and share the love.

5. Floating row cover

Who would’ve thought that a flimsy, thinly spun, light permeable fabric could make such a difference when placed over a garden bed? Also known as reemay or garden fabric, row cover shields plants from pests, reduces the intensity of the sun, and mediates extreme temperatures. Lay it flat across a recently seeded bed to protect emerging seedlings or stretch it over PVC hoops in the garden to create a cloche for more mature crops. It can make all the difference.

6. Water deeply and infrequently

This lesson is sort of a mantra in OEC classes. Rather than giving your garden a light shower every other day, give it a heavy soaking just a few times a week (depending on the weather and how well the soil drains). As the water seeps deeper into the ground, it is less likely to be lost to evaporation and it encourages the plant roots to reach further for water and nutrients, thus  becoming more vigorous and self-sufficient.

7. Keep a garden journal

By logging what crops are planted each season and where, gardeners can effectively rotate crops each year to prevent disease, track successful and unsatisfactory seed varieties, and compare yields from year to year. As you plan your garden this winter, remember that the OEC offers some helpful garden planning and record keeping documents online in “The Toolshed” web page. To access these tools, visit and click “The Toolshed” on the OEC page.

8. Two words – “Awkward Moose…”

This is another one I picked up from Conner: There is no uncomfortable situation that can’t be remedied by spreading fingers out like antlers on either side of your head, bobbing your head from side to side, and saying in the dopiest voice possible, “Awkward Moooooose…” Just accidentally revealed your nerdy obsession with Battlestar Galactica? – “Awkward Moooose…” Just sideswiped a tree with the Tilth truck, knocking off the passenger side mirror? “Awkward Mooose…” Just stabbed yourself in the boot with a garden fork in front of a group of volunteers during a tool demonstration? – “Awkward Moooose…”

9. Burlap is versatile, invaluable, and plentiful in Portland

For those gardeners that do not already utilize this wonder mulch in the garden, I implore you to give it a try. Throw it over your fallow beds this winter to choke out weeds, prevent erosion and runoff from heavy rains, and retain moisture. Over time burlap biodegrades and adds organic matter to the soil. Additionally, it can be used to create new garden paths and for storing crops like garlic or onions. With an inordinate amount of coffee roasters in the Portland area, burlap is readily available too.

10. There’s always more to 
be done

Even after working some of the longest days in the demonstration garden and after deciding it was time to pack up and head home, there was inevitably 30 extra minutes of things left to do: a bed could use a good watering, a row that should get covered with remay, oh and the chicken tractor probably needs to be moved, and the worm bin that we forgot to feed… For all gardeners there’s a sense that our tasks are never done, and our gardens are never complete. I learned to realize, however, as we finally climbed into the truck and headed back to the office exhausted, that a garden is a work of art that will never be finished. There will always be weeds. You can’t control bad weather. And despite these things, maybe the most important lesson I learned from the OEC was to find satisfaction in what we could accomplish in a day, even if there would always be more.

Many of the techniques I mentioned are currently on display in the Oregon Tilth demonstration garden at Luscher Farm. I encourage you to visit the site or sign up for one of the OEC’s many organic gardening classes.

Randall Cass is leaving Oregon Tilth to pursue a Fulbright Scholarship in Chile, and we wish him all the best.


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