Saturday, August 1, 2020

The six weeks' want: backyard garden reality

Two posts back, after a friend imagined Mike and me living indefinitely off our backyard garden during the COVID-19 lockdown, I promised to dig more deeply into why that idea is mistaken. Basically it comes down to three interrelated issues: seasonality, space, and opportunity costs. In this post I will examine how these three factors affect the possibilities and reflect the limitations of backyard gardens.

Before I begin, please do not get the idea that I am dismissing backyard gardens! If I did not recognize the continuing value of my own garden to Mike and me, I would not be gardening. At the same time, thinking that all you need to have is a few packages of seed, a shovel, and a gardening book and you will grow more than you can eat whenever you think you will need to is misguided at best and dangerous at worst.

Let’s start with seasonality, because the timing of the COVID-19 pandemic brought that to the forefront of my mind when I read my friend’s comment. In St. Louis County, MO, where Mike and I live, restrictions to the size of gatherings began to be applied in early March, with the fullest extent of the lockdown going into effect on March 23. The first stage of re-opening began on May 18.

At the time the first COVID-19 restrictions began, Mike and I had no vegetables or fruits from the garden left to eat, except for some garlic. Everything else had already been eaten, with about a month to go before I could plant anything in the garden, and about two months before the first significant harvest, of strawberries, would begin. It is only since mid-July that we are eating garden vegetables at every meal, with enough extra to make some pickles and tomato sauce for later (though we did have a few weeks of salads and some bok choy and cabbage for stir-fries in June). For about three weeks or so from mid-May through early June we ate strawberries every day and made 2 gallons of strawberry wine and about a quart or so of strawberry cordial from what we couldn’t eat, but except for a handful of apricots and a couple of pounds of peaches we haven’t had any meaningful amount of fruit from the garden since early June. That will change in August, but please pay close attention to these long time lags during which we had no fresh fruits or vegetables from the garden. Notice that we are talking not days, not even weeks, but months.

This is the problem of seasonality. In a climate with a long, cold winter there will be months that go by when an open garden has nothing to harvest in it. If a gardener can store some of their harvest then the time when food starts running low is delayed somewhat, but there is a reason that the phrase “six weeks’ want” is associated with the transition to early spring, as this was traditionally about the time when the stored vegetables and fruits ran out or spoiled in the warming weather. Because of the time lag in the growing season between planting seeds or seedlings and harvesting, and because harvest ends months before it can begin again, gardeners in cold-winter climates will be eating mostly fruits and vegetables that farmers grew for at least several weeks before their own gardens begin producing again. This is the inevitable result of the compromises I and all gardeners must make between seasonality, garden size, and opportunity costs.

Suppose you live in a cold-winter climate and are determined to minimize the issue of seasonality. You could grow more food so you can store some of it, for instance. How could you grow more food to store? You could increase the size of the garden, but only if you have the space to do so, and only if you have time, not just to tend to the increased garden size, but also time to put up some of the foods that you grew (the opportunity costs I mentioned, because you’ll have to not do something else in order to garden or to put up pickles or tomato sauce). Or you might decide to freeze some of the crop, but you’ll need to find the time to prepare and freeze it, and if you don’t already have enough freezer space, you’ll need to get a freezer. That’s another kind of opportunity cost, because you can’t spend the money on something else if you spend it on a freezer, plus you’ll need to pay the cost of the electricity to run the freezer (and what happens if the electricity shuts off?). Or you could store some fresh produce in a root cellar or a smaller-scale version of a root cellar such as a buried cooler, but again you’ll have to increase the size of the garden to grow the extra produce, and you’ll have to improvise a storage system like our anteroom, or use space in a cool closet, a basement, or your living areas (Carol Deppe stores squashes in her living areas, and I store them under a table in our living room), or perhaps fashion your own root cellar. Even then, when the ground begins to warm in early spring, in March here, I have found that anything I still have stored deteriorates rapidly. Or you could cover part or all of your outdoor garden so you can harvest something in the winter, but again space and opportunity costs will limit what you can do in a backyard situation. My experience with cold frames and the front porch suggests that to get a substantial amount of food you will need a lot of covered space, and you’ll have more pest problems in a covered space than you will in an open garden. So these three interrelated factors will determine how much of your vegetable and fruit harvest you can store, and it is almost certainly going to be a lot less than you think if you have a standard-sized urban or suburban backyard garden, nowhere near enough to get you into the following summer.

You can partially mitigate the six weeks’ want by adding grain and dry bean crops to your garden. Even though Mike and I were out of fresh garden food (except for garlic) by March, we had over 45 pounds of stored flour corn and at least 10 pounds of stored popcorn to eat, representing harvests from the previous few years. I also grow blackeyed peas as a dry bean crop most years, although I didn’t grow any in 2019. One of the best ways to use these crops, since they can be stored for a few to several years, is to hold them in reserve until the winter squash and root crops, like potatoes and turnips, have been eaten. Then start eating the grains and beans, supplementing them with whatever you may have frozen, canned, or dried, plus the earliest leafy greens from the garden (sorrel, spinach, asparagus) or foraged from the yard or elsewhere (dandelions), until you begin to get enough of the salad and cabbage-family greens to eat a real salad. Still, to do this you’ll need to devote a significant amount of garden space to grains and to the dry beans, because they do not yield as heavily as most vegetables or fruits on a square-foot basis. Besides that, you’ll also need to grow enough grain plants for sufficient genetic diversity for seed-saving if you plan to do that, and enough of both for replanting as well as eating. Plus there is an opportunity cost not just for growing the plants but also for the time you’ll spend in processing them to a state in which you can cook them and in the equipment required to grind the grain.

In the next post I will describe how I have balanced these three factors – seasonality, space, and opportunity cost – in my own garden, and how that balance has changed over the years. By giving you a real-world example I hope to make the general principles I’ve discussed here easier to apply in your own gardening efforts. Till then, I wish you well.