Thursday, January 26, 2012

Gardening When It Counts: Steve Solomon's approach

A few years ago, while perusing a favorite seed catalog, I noticed a book with the title Gardening When It Counts: Growing Food in Hard Times, by a man named Steve Solomon. I’d read a little by him in other places and liked his work, and the short write-up in the catalog intrigued me. I was a little frustrated by what I perceived as too-slow progress in improving my gardening skills and wondered if a different gardening method might be worth a try. Plus my garden was growing larger and it seemed I was spending too much time digging, doing precise plant spacing, and weeding among closely-spaced plants. So I bought the book.

Solomon is the founder of Territorial Seed Company, based in Oregon; he sold the company to its current owners several years later and continued to garden and write about self-sufficiency in Oregon, then in Canada, and now in Australia. He’s writing to both beginning and experienced gardeners. He means to challenge what he sees as the intensive-gardening dogma being pushed on gardeners.

Solomon’s argument against intensively-planted beds is that they are, in his view, wasteful of water and fertilizer and do not allow plants to develop to their full potential, cheating us out of some of their nutritional value. When he began Territorial in 1979, he gardened using John Jeavons’ biointensive method (this was around the time Jeavons published the first edition of his book). Solomon even wrote three gardening books advocating intensive methods. But for his seed business, he needed to do variety trials at wider spacings in order to better evaluate the plants. (Although he doesn’t say this, I suspect that his trial gardens were large enough that he needed to plant in more time-efficient ways than the meticulous spacing required by intensive methods, and this by itself was enough to push him into using a traditional row style of gardening in his test plots.) He says that he actually irrigated the test plots less than his intensively planted beds; the plants in the test plots got larger and the resulting vegetables tasted better; and, he says, they yielded more for the space they took up, compared to plantings in intensive beds. After he sold the business in 1986 and since he had several acres to garden on, he began to research “the nearly lost art of vegetable gardening without irrigating at all” (p. 2). That research has led to several books, including this one, in which he outlines his method for growing with little to no irrigation. He points out that our future is likely to be one in which more people will want to, or have to, raise some of their own food and that they may well have to do it with little to no added water, manure, or fertilizers. He thinks this can best be done using a more traditional row-based gardening method and tells you how to do it in this book.

As my garden has grown larger, I’ve come to appreciate the extent to which the method of gardening that works best is dependent on the size of the space being gardened. If you try to do row gardening on the postage stamp of a yard that is available on a 1/8 acre lot or in a raised bed in a community garden, you’ll get very little food for your trouble and probably quit in frustration after the first season. Rows are too narrow, only a couple of feet wide at the most, and the space between the rows, another couple of feet, is wasted space. Half the garden or more is not producing anything but “weeds.” Go to an intensive planting method and you now have a 3 to 5 foot wide space in which to raise crops. If you keep the space between beds to 1 foot, you’ve gained even more space for the crops you want and less is left to the “weeds.” Now you can actually harvest enough food out of a small space to feel that the time and money you put into it was worthwhile.

As you add more intensively planted beds, the time needed to prepare, plant, and maintain the beds rises accordingly. If you run out of space before you run out of time for an intensive garden, fine - but what if you still have more space and want to use it? This is the situation I found myself in a few years ago. It’s when gardeners start looking at ways to make the more time-consuming tasks go fast enough to allow for further expansion. It may be true, as Jeavons suggests, that you only need 15 minutes a day to maintain a 100 square foot garden, but a garden that size doesn’t produce many vegetables, in my experience. If you are growing the number of beds you need to raise a substantial amount of food for two or more people, my experience suggests you’ll want closer to 10 beds, 1,000 square feet, of garden space, if not more. That 15 minutes a day has now grown to 2 1/2 hours or longer. Grow your garden into the few thousand square feet category and the row method’s potential for reducing the time needed for tasks like seeding and weeding is likely to look even better.

There is a lot to like in Solomon’s book. I haven’t seen a better description of how to file a shovel and how to use it for digging a bed anywhere. Even if you’re using Jeavons’ biointensive method, I suggest digging Solomon’s way, with a shovel rather than a spade. I found it took half the time to dig a bed Solomon’s way versus Jeavons’. For those of you who intend to use a tiller, Solomon tells you how to use it, and when (to convert a grassy area into a garden, and only then). He gives a recipe for what he calls a complete organic fertilizer, with several different choices of ingredients so you can match it to what is available in your area. He tells you how much of that plus how much compost and, if you can get it, manure to add to your garden - and what to do if you can’t get the fertilizer ingredients or manure. (He assumes you’re going to be making compost and tells you how to make it.) He suggests about how much space you’ll need to raise a substantial proportion of the veggies you want to eat if you’re gardening his way. He tells you the spacing to use for each crop for several different scenarios including differing amounts of available irrigation; those of you who garden in drier areas will find this information very valuable. He has some really interesting things to say about the quality of plants available in garden centers and the quality of seeds available from mail-order companies, and he makes recommendations on seed companies to use that make sense to me (not all are still in business, but that’s not surprising since the book was published in 2005). He understands that many gardeners don’t have the equipment or desire to start a lot of their own transplants, so he tells you how to get seeds to grow right in the garden and to buy only the few plants that need to be started early in temperate climates: tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants, perhaps squashes and melons. I had good luck starting rows of various kinds of seeds in my garden using Solomon’s directions on pages 121 to 123.

For anyone who has a lot of ground for gardening (say about 1,000 square feet or more), needs or wants to raise large amounts of food, and doesn’t have a lot of time, money, or water for irrigation, Solomon’s method is probably the best method to use. Solomon’s opinionated writing style makes the book fun to read even if you don’t have that much land. Most gardeners will find something useful enough to be worth the time to read the book, even if they choose to garden by a different method.

I have some disagreements with Solomon. To start with, the organization of his book is idiosyncratic, to say the least. Everything you need is there somewhere, but you’re going to have to hunt for it. Why, for instance, is the drawing of the different ways to arrange plants on rows or in beds on page 58, but the chart of plant spacings is much later in the book? It would have helped a lot to have them next to each other, so I could visualize how each kind of crop was to be planted. Why is growing seedlings in the garden center chapter, not the seeds chapter? Frustrations of this sort keep cropping up. The book can be annoying to use until you get a sense of where to find what you want to know.

I don’t agree with his choice of hoe and hoeing method. If you’re going to use Solomon’s method and you expect to remove “weeds,” you’ll need a hoe. He suggests using the classic garden hoe that is available in just about every hardware store that stocks garden tools. Maybe it works OK for him. I find that I can’t stand upright using this hoe, and I’m only five feet seven. After a couple of attempts with it, I quit using it. I suggest the 3 3/4” fixed blade collinear hoe available from Johnny’s instead. You’ll find weeding a good deal faster and easier on your body if you stand upright while doing it, and this hoe blade is small enough to use between rows as long as rows are at least 8 inches apart.

For all that Solomon criticizes the biointensive method, his method isn’t as different as he makes it out to be. For one thing, Solomon recommends hand-digging a raised bed, or at least a wide raised row, for almost every crop; so does Jeavons. He’s using about the same amount of compost (roughly 4 five gallon buckets per 100 square feet) that Jeavons uses. Both methods suggest organic fertilizers if any are needed and use similar amounts to the best of my ability to tell. The major differences are the planting patterns (hexagonal spacing versus rows aligned along either the short or long dimension of the bed) and whether you start most plants in flats for later transplanting (Jeavons) or directly in the raised bed or row (Solomon). Solomon doesn’t get Jeavons’ spacings correct in his chart on pages 148 and 149: the way he reports them is as if Jeavons’ spacing is square (i.e. 6” by 6”) rather than hexagonal, and the spacing for some of the vegetables has been revised in later editions of Jeavons’ work. If you aren’t strongly drawn to one or the other method, try each and see which you prefer.

Solomon claims that he gets nearly the same yields with less water and fertilizer as the biointensive method. I’m not sold on that claim. He doesn’t give any actual yield numbers or the units in which he measures them, so there is no way to compare his yields to what Jeavons suggests can be achieved. Yield can be a tricky concept. Jeavons measures it on a weight per unit area basis. The few times Solomon discusses yields, he seems to be talking about weight per plant. These aren’t directly comparable unless the area taken up by the plant is known.

I’ve been keeping detailed records of weight per unit area for all of my crops for over a decade. For crops that I have raised by both methods, so far the weight per unit area has been considerably higher using Jeavons’ method, as much as twice as high. It’s easy to see why: the spacing between plants is much higher using Solomon’s method than Jeavons’ so less of the square footage of the bed contains the desired plants. Solomon would have you keep that space weeded so the “weeds” don’t suck up the water and nutrients meant for your crops. Some of the most interesting research I’ve seen, however, as reported in Edible Forest Gardens by Dave Jacke and Eric Toensmeier, indicates that having plants cover the soil at all times is crucial to keeping minerals like calcium cycling between soil and crops in areas with enough rain to grow forests. If there are no plant roots available to take up calcium and store it in plant bodies, the calcium ions tend to dissolve as water enters the soil, eventually winding up in groundwater below the reach of plant roots. Here in St. Louis, on the edge of the eastern broadleaf forest and where we usually get enough (if not too much) rain most of the growing season, we may have a more sustainable garden if we pack it closely with the plants we want so as to keep the calcium cycling between soil and plant. Having a lot of bare soil might mean too much calcium lost, even though other nutrients might be more available because there are fewer plants competing for them. However, if we were to get into a drought during the growing season and irrigation water were not available, I’d do what Solomon suggests and remove plants to increase the spacing, hoping to get at least some yield.

I’m finding that it takes a lot of time to write these posts. Starting now I’m going to attempt to keep to an every other week posting schedule - no promises, but that’s the goal. In two weeks, then, I’ll tell you how I’m gardening, and why. Unless something else seems more important at the time.


  1. The conventional wisdom from my organic farming buddies was the smaller the farm, the higher the yield per area. This is precisely because you can plant more densely but still manage to weed and maintain properly, whereas with a huge area, intensive plantings become unmanageable, like you suggest. They knew this not because they weighed anything, but because smaller farms almost always make more money per area!

  2. Thanks for all the useful info. This year, my mom and I are going to use something similar to both methods. She's square foot gardening in raised beds near the house, and I'm working in the larger garden farther away. It's shaped into slightly raised, 2-3 foot wide beds with wood mulched paths. I want to try Solomon's "dust mulch" method on some, and mulch others with straw to compare moisture loss.

  3. thanks very much for your large information .and knowledge full description . i think it is sus a topi that many kinds of people face many problem. thanks for this.

    Information visualization Low