Tuesday, December 22, 2020

The garden balancing act


Last time we met, I promised to write about how I have balanced seasonality, size, and opportunity cost in my own garden, and how that balance has changed over time. Now that harvest season is complete and the winter lull has begun, I can live up to that promise.


Before we moved to the land where we have lived for the past 19 years, we lived on a much smaller plot of land, about 1/8 acre (roughly 5000 square feet). By the time I became interested in growing food plants, the only part of the land that was not already planted to something else was the narrow strip of lawn between the north side of the house and the neighboring driveway. I squeezed two 40 square foot beds into this space. Small space and correspondingly low opportunity cost made this a very good first garden, where I learned fundamental lessons on growing and harvesting food to eat. However, its small size also limited it to growing plants that produce well in small spaces, primarily tomatoes, peppers, garlic, lettuce, and salad greens from the cabbage family, plus some herbs and short flowers like nasturtium. Except for a few winter squash grown vertically up a trellis on the north sides of the beds and the leaves I could dry from some herb plants like sage, garden produce was available for eating only from late spring through mid-autumn. I wanted more food over a longer season. The only way to accomplish that goal was to have more land to grow on. So we moved to our current place: a full acre with no more than about 3000 square feet allotted to the house and back porch, patio and sidewalk, driveway, garage, and garden shed. I could grow as big a garden as I could maintain! But how big was that? What mix of crops could provide us with a season-long harvest and some to store? How do I grow crops like corn, cabbage, and autumn greens that I hadn’t had the space or proper conditions to grow before? Answering those questions has taken up a considerable amount of my time for the past 17 years.


In 1999, a few years before we moved here, I attended a three day workshop on the methods in How to Grow More Vegetables (HTGMV), a book describing Ecology Action’s work to make small gardens grow large amount of food. Their famous claim is that it is possible to grow a spare but adequate diet for an entire year for one person in less than 1000 square feet. Such a garden must include a large percentage of calorie crops (primarily grains and starchy tubers) and protein crops (primarily dry beans); only a small percentage can be grown to the green vegetables and other salad crops like tomatoes that most people grow in their gardens.


Now that we had moved to a much larger lot I had the space to grow such a garden. I also had the motivation, because growing some of our food would save us money on our grocery bill, and HTGMV suggested that I could do it in an ecological way, using human-powered tools to work it and my own compost to provide for the plants’ nutrient needs. In 2003 I began to convert some of our lawn area to an Ecology Action-style garden by digging and planting one 100 square foot bed to a mix of corn, potatoes, collards, soybeans, tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, and autumn greens and roots. A smaller bed located underneath an old swing set frame was planted to a variety of spring and summer greens followed by pole beans and squash.


The first thing I learned that year is that rabbits eat most of these crops and that if I wanted to maximize the value of my time in the garden, I needed to fence rabbits out of the garden. The second thing was that I needed to improve my gardening skill level to make the effort worthwhile. The third thing was that if I wanted to get enough food to matter, I needed more garden space.


Over the next decade I continued to add (and fence in) 100 square foot beds that I grew by Ecology Action’s method, keeping track of the yields of each crop I grew. In 2013, when it was apparent that yields of most crops were declining, I changed to Steve Solomon’s gardening methods instead. By then the vegetable garden totaled fifteen 100 square foot beds planted as follows.


1.     Three beds planted to flint corn.

2.     Two beds planted to winter wheat, then squash following the wheat harvest.

3.     One and a half beds planted to potatoes, with the remaining half bed planted to sweet potatoes.

4.     One bed planted to dry bush beans, then to potato onions in November.

5.     One bed planted to shell and snow peas and peanuts.

6.     One bed planted to cowpeas and edamame soybeans.

7.     One bed with overwintered potato onions and garlic, with summer squash, melons, cucumbers, and gourds following.

8.     One bed spring planted to onions and leeks, followed by autumn greens and roots.

9.     One bed planted to carrots, beets, parsley, and cutting celery.

10.  One bed planted to spring and fall lettuces and cabbage-family plants.

11.  One bed planted to peppers, tomatoes, eggplants, basil, tomatillo, ground cherries, and zinnias.


I intended this garden plan to demonstrate a local versionof a southern complete-diet plan for one person, with more crops for wider eating interest at the cost of the larger garden area required. But when I attempted to put it into practice, I ran square into opportunity-cost issues. Simply put, the garden was too large, given my skill level and other commitments, to keep all of it up. Some of the beds did not work as I had hoped that they would. And the portion of it that I could care for did not provide a well spread out yield; sometimes there wasn’t enough food, sometimes there was more food than we could put to good use.


With two decades’ worth of gardening experience by this time, I had learned that for vegetable and small fruit gardening to be enjoyable enough for me to put in the time required for it, I need the following conditions to hold.

1.     I have fresh fruits and/or vegetables available to harvest as early as is consistent with gardening in open beds here in St. Louis (April for sorrel, early May for strawberries, late May for annual crops);

2.     I have something to harvest from then until it becomes cold enough to kill any remaining garden crops (depending on the year, November to December);

3.     I have some harvested food available in short or long term storage that we can eat after the crops die in the garden;

4.     Each bed is planted with crops that grow under the same conditions, and the entire bed is planted on a single day;

5.     Crop rotation can be accomplished by rotating the beds, with at least two full years between plantings of a particular crop family in each of the beds;

6.     I can obtain a high enough yield of each crop to make the time I spend on that crop worthwhile;

7.     We can eat most of what I grow before it rots, and preserve what we can’t eat fresh in a manner appropriate to the time, expertise, and facilities we have available;

8.     The garden as a whole is large enough to provide a substantial fraction of the fruits and vegetables that we eat and some of the grains and dry beans, and small enough that its upkeep fits within the time I have available to care for it.


With those points and three years of gardening experience with Solomon’s methods in mind, in 2016 I reduced the number of beds growing vegetables, roots, herbs, and grains to ten and added one bed each of strawberries and raspberries. Since 2016 the 10 beds growing grains, roots, herbs, and vegetables are planted as follows.


1.     Three beds are planted in the second half of May to early June to a dent corn or popcorn crop, with a hill of pumpkins in the middle of each bed.

2.     One bed is planted in late October to early November to garlic and potato onions. In early to mid-June these are harvested and the bed planted to a mix of cucumbers, summer squash, sunflowers and/or zinnias, and a variety of soybeans used for edamame.

3.     One bed is planted in May to tomatoes, sweet peppers, eggplants, and low growing edible flowers such as nasturtiums and/or signet marigolds.

4.     One bed is planted in May to a mix of summer and winter squash and melons.

5.     One bed is planted to a mix of culinary and medicinal herbs; this is the only bed that is not all planted at the same time, because some of the herbs I grow can tolerate frosts but others cannot. This bed includes a short row of perennial sorrel and some perennial herbs as well as annual herbs. I rotate plants within the bed while the bed itself remains in the same location relative to the other beds.

6.     One bed is planted to potatoes in early to mid-April. The potatoes are harvested in July and the bed is then planted to a mix of autumn greens and roots, most of which are in the cabbage family.

7.     One bed is planted in April to a mix of leeks, beets, carrots, lettuce, cabbage, and bok choy.

8.     One bed is planted in May to a mix of crops in the bean family. In 2020 this included pole green beans, pole lima beans, and bush cowpeas.


I garden primarily for fresh eating and try to avoid growing more of anything than we can eat right away or store short-term in the refrigerator, aside from specific crops that I can store in our living space or in the improvised root cellar and fruits that freeze well to store in the freezer. Winter squash and pumpkins can be stored for a few months in the living area, but they soften and rot before spring comes. Corn, potato onions, garlic, and potatoes can all be stored in the basement, but the potatoes and potato onions will only keep until the following March at best. I store the root crops I harvest in late autumn (beets, turnips, carrots, and radishes) in the root cellar; by March they begin to rot. The leeks do not last more than a month or so in the root cellar, the greens less than that; if we had a larger refrigerator I could keep them longer, but absent that, the best I can do is limit the area I plant to them so that we can eat, freeze, or ferment them before they rot. With only 20 tomato plants, I do not harvest enough tomatoes to can them (not a problem as canning is not something I want to do in hot summer weather); I cook down some tomatoes into tomato sauce and freeze that, amounting to a few pints. Excess strawberries, raspberries, and elderberries are frozen and later made into wine; persimmons, pawpaws, and chestnuts are frozen, then thawed and eaten on demand.


For several of the years between 2003 and 2013 I tried growing cold-tolerant greens inside cold frames or the front porch. Neither effort proved to provide enough food to matter, and what little I grew suffered from aphid attack, a problem I don’t experience in the open garden. As a result I don’t try to grow any food crops over the winter except for the citrus, bay, and rosemary plants that overwinter on the front porch, none of which are not overly troubled by aphids.


To give you a real-life example of what we eat out of season, on December 21 our breakfast included corn mush made from our dent corn and pawpaws that were thawed in the refrigerator and eaten out of hand. Lunch and dinner included a vegetable medley made from frozen peppers and summer squash, and leeks, turnips, daikon radishes, and carrots from storage as well as raw ‘Red Meat’ winter radishes. Mike cooked some of the stored beets for himself (I don’t like them). We ate the last of the stored greens a couple of days previous and the last of the potatoes earlier this month. We still have dried herbs, butternut squash, and pumpkins and their associated seeds in our living space; turnips, leeks, beets, and daikon and winter radishes in the root cellar; tomato sauce, summer squash, sweet and hot peppers, chestnuts, pawpaws, persimmons, and elderberries (the latter four from elsewhere in the yard) in the freezer; and fruit wines, potato onions, garlic, and dent corn and popcorn in the basement. By March all we’ll have left are dried herbs, wines, garlic, dent corn, and popcorn.


The current 1200 square foot garden doesn’t provide anywhere close to what two omnivorous adults eat, though it does supply a substantial amount of food. But how large a proportion of a vegan diet for one adult could it supply? I plan to address that question now that I have several years of yield data to draw on. But first, I have the results from the 2020 garden to discuss, in my next post. Until then, I wish you all a happy 2021!