Sunday, November 28, 2021

Backyard gardening reality revisited, part 3: the complete-diet design collides with reality

The greens and roots bed on November 17


The last post included a complete-diet design for a 2100 square foot garden (twenty-one 100 square foot beds), using crop varieties that I grow and yields I have obtained for them, which can provide marginally enough calories and sufficient protein and calcium for one vegan adult for one year in a good growing year. Now I want to look more critically at the practicality of that design, in garden terms and also in kitchen and eating terms. How would your life change if you were to attempt to grow and eat from this garden, and are those changes acceptable to you?


How much of your backyard is needed for such a garden?


The space required for the garden will be more than 2100 square feet, because you’ll need paths around each of the beds in order to reach all the space in each bed. I can reach a little more than two feet, so a four foot bed width works for me. At 64 years old I am still limber enough that I can leave a one foot wide space between the long side of each bed, but I don’t know for how much longer this will be the case. For those of you who need a smaller bed width or a wider path between beds than I use, you’ll need a larger garden area to accommodate beds and the paths around them than I need. Conversely, if you have a longer arm reach than I do, your beds can be wider and you will need a smaller garden area for the same width paths as I use.


The 12 beds in my garden are arranged in two groups of six beds, oriented with the long sides on an east-west axis. There is a six foot wide path between the two groups of beds and a five foot wide path around the edges of the twelve beds as a unit. You’ll need this much space to easily get a garden cart or wheelbarrow to either short end of each bed – and you’ll need a cart or wheelbarrow to transport compost and possibly other amendments to your beds. Because I have to fence around the paths and beds to keep rabbits from eating most of the garden, my current 1200 square feet of growing space requires closer to 2000 square feet of fenced-off space in the backyard.


Let’s hazard a guess that twenty-one 100 square foot beds will require at least 3000 square feet total to include the paths between and around the beds and at least another clear space of 1000 to 2000 square feet around that to keep anything larger than small shrubs from shading the garden. That means anywhere from 4000 to 5000 square feet is restricted to the actual garden beds, the paths between and around them, and an area that cannot be planted to anything bigger than small shrubs. In the US a typical suburban lot might be about ¼ acre, or 10,000 square feet in size. That means the backyard is probably no more than about 5000 square feet or so. In other words, my complete-diet garden design will require the majority to nearly all of the backyard space available in a typical suburban lot to be devoted to the garden. Most city-dwellers have smaller lots, sometimes much smaller, than this. And even people who have a large enough backyard may have various issues that prevent devoting this much space to vegetables, such as steep slopes or existing large trees on their own or neighboring lots. The complete-diet design, in other words, requires more space than most homeowners in the US have available for food gardening.


How much time will you spend working in this garden?


My current garden of 1200 square feet requires on average 10 to 20 hours a week to prepare, plant, maintain, and harvest from. The garden design I developed is not quite twice as large so a first estimate of the time required for it will be on average 20 to 40 hours a week, or the equivalent of a part to full time job. In case you think my estimate is too large, take a look at this post from an urban gardener with a very large property (2 acres, about twice the size of my lot) who keeps about 2000 square feet of growing space for vegetables. He reports that to keep up that garden plus the fruits, berries, and grapes that he also grows requires the equivalent of about one full time job for one person. Let’s say that you as the gardener are trying to raise all of your food using my garden design and keep up a full time job … you won’t be doing much else besides your job and gardening.


What preservation methods will be needed, and when will you need to plant, harvest, and preserve the crops?


My design is based on my living in zone 6, where I cannot grow anything in open beds for three to four months of the year. Not even kale will overwinter successfully here. Thus my design squeezes a year’s worth of food into a little more than half a year’s growing time. A lot of the food from the garden will need to be stored and preserved in various ways.


The only crops that provide fresh food before the potato harvest in August are beets, garlic, and potato onions. I chose beets for the design because they can be planted in April and mature in July, the seedlings can be thinned for some food before the remainder mature, and both the root and leaves can be eaten. Once they mature, they can be harvested as needed and left in the bed until the temperature drops below the mid 20sF in autumn. I know many people don’t like beets, me among them, but Mike likes them so I grow them every year. I currently grow cabbage-family crops for late spring into summer fresh food, but I already have as many of them as I can fit into the design and still allow for crop rotation. Keeping them growing over the summer inevitably draws destructive insect pests that destroy the seedlings for autumn crops, when I include them in the design and when I also grow them for fresh food, as you can see from the photo above. If I could keep carrots alive in the garden over the summer I would include them in the design rather than beets because both Mike and I eat them, but many carrots rot or are eaten by small mammals during August and September, while beets do not rot and are not eaten by other mammals.  


From late winter or early spring until August, then, you’ll be eating mostly stored food, plus some harvested beets, garlic, and onions. Once the potato harvest begins it’ll be necessary to eat potatoes … lots of potatoes … every day. That’s because you’ll have 400 or so pounds of potatoes to eat before they sprout too much to be edible. Where will you store all of those potatoes? If you have a good place to store potatoes they might last into February, but I don’t; I’d have to start preserving them in November or December as they begin to sprout. And you’ll mostly stop eating corn once you harvest the potatoes, because corn will keep for years as seeds while the potatoes will keep for only a few months as whole potatoes. You’ll eat corn later, after you finish eating squash and potatoes and before the next potato crop matures.


Sometime in August or September you’ll also gain fresh soybeans (edamame) to eat. You’ll freeze or can a large proportion of the crop soon after harvest because it won’t store for long, and it’ll rot otherwise. As September goes on you’ll start eating thinned plants from the turnip and bok choy beds, and the squashes will mature by then. You can keep the squash in your living space and eat it over the next few months, but keep an eye on it and be ready to cook and freeze or can it once the stored squash begin to show a tendency to rot (and you also need enough space to store all that squash). You can start eating the leeks now too; they will be full size, and you can pull and eat them until the ground freezes.


In October and November you’ll have the most fresh food available: by now you’ll be eating, and also cooking and freezing or canning, turnip greens and roots and bok choy. You’ll have lots of turnip roots to store – do you have enough space for them? I find that turnips keep in my makeshift root cellar through late February, so if you have enough space, you can keep and eat from them until then and cook and freeze or can the rest. You’ll plant some of the potato onions and all of the garlic for next year’s crop during this time as well. These will keep for a long time as long as you have cool, dry storage space for them.


A turnip, ready to pick and eat



At some point in November to early December it will get so cold that you’ll have to harvest everything remaining. Better make sure you have plenty of time to process the leeks, turnip greens, and bok choy; none of them store well in my makeshift root cellar.


In March, after the ground thaws completely, you’ll plant the remainder of the potato onion beds. After that you’d better freeze all of the remaining potato onions, because they’ll sprout very soon if they haven’t already. Keep an eye on the garlic too; if it begins to sprout, you’ll need to freeze it too.  You’ll also be starting leek seeds at the beginning of the month so you have leeks to transplant in April. Everything else is direct-seeded.


After March, the carbohydrate in your diet will be some combination of preserved squash, preserved potatoes, and/or something you make from ground corn. For vegetables you’ll be eating from your frozen or canned stock of what you harvested from the previous year’s crops.


In early April you’ll start the bed of beets from seeds and plant the leek seedlings as soon as they are large enough, and you’ll also plant the potato beds. In late April and through May you’ll plant the corn and squash beds. In June you’ll harvest the garlic and potato onions, then plant the soybeans in those beds. In July you’ll begin harvesting beets. In August you’ll harvest the potatoes and then start the beds of turnips and bok choy from seeds. And that brings us back to where we started.


What processing and kitchen tools will you need?


If you expect to can some of the greens and roots, you’ll need a pressure canner, the incidental tools needed for canning, and a large number of canning lids, rings, and jars. You don’t need to buy the canning jars new as long as standard canning lids and rings fit re-used jars. I’ve re-used grocery store jars for water-bath canning without any issues. You may be able to find used canning jars in thrift stores or at yard or estate sales. But you’ll still need to buy new rings the first season – they can be re-used from year to year as long as they have no rust – and you’ll need to buy new lids every year according to current safety standards. Some people have had a hard time finding new canning supplies to purchase the last two years. You’ll also need a lot of sturdy shelf space in a cool and dry location to keep your canned goods. Better start looking for shelving now, or figure out how to build the sturdy shelves you’ll need or hire someone to build them for you. Do you have enough space for those shelves? And can you afford to buy them or the lumber used to make them?


You can also blanch and freeze the greens and roots for later eating (onions and leeks don’t need to be blanched before freezing, but you’ll want to coarsely chop them first). You’ll need a large stock pot or steamer for blanching, and plastic freezer bags to hold the foods you’ll freeze. If you plan to freeze a substantial fraction of the greens and roots, you’ll need a chest freezer. Do you have the space for a chest freezer, and can you afford one? Will you be willing to defrost it every month if you get a cheap one? I don’t defrost ours as often as I should.


If you intend to dehydrate any of the crops you’ll grow, you’ll need a food dehydrator. Since you’ll be harvesting most of the greens and roots in autumn or early winter when there isn’t enough sun for solar dehydrating, you’ll have to use an electric dehydrator. That’ll cost you some electricity, plus you’ll need room to store and use it, and you’ll have to put up with noise from the fan while it operates.


You’ll need a grain mill to grind the corn into meal or flour. To grind dent corn with a hand mill, you’ll want one with a flywheel so you can get enough power behind it to grind the corn to meal in two passes. It’ll take time, say 20 minutes to a half hour to grind 2 cups of kernels to about 3 cups of meal. Of course you’ll need space to store and use it. You’ll also need a hand-cranked sheller to shell the 500 or so ears of corn you harvest. And you’ll need a place to store the ears of corn before you shell them and containers to store the shelled kernels in. You might be able to get some containers for free from businesses who buy ingredients in 4 or 5 gallon plastic buckets, otherwise you’ll need to buy them.


You’ll also need to cook all your meals from scratch, so you’ll need all the standard kitchen appliances and tools and you’ll want cookbooks that tell you how to cook the foods that you’ve grown. If you cook large quantities at one time and can keep what you don’t eat in a refrigerator, you might not need to cook meals every day. But you’ll cook a lot more than you do now.


Are there sufficient fats in the design for good health?


One aspect of the complete-diet design that I did not investigate is whether or not the fat content is sufficient. A range of fats are required for good health. However, determining whether the diet has a sufficient amount of fat is less straightforward than determining if it has enough calories, protein, or calcium. For that reason I did not choose to calculate the fat content, although I will hazard a guess that it is insufficient based on what the design includes.


Will you be able to eat a monotonous diet with little fresh food for several months?


Finally, I address the psychological issue of whether or not you would be willing to eat this way even if you can make everything else work. A complete-diet garden relies on a small number of crops that provide a lot of nutrition for the garden space that they require. This is as true for the designs in One Circle (10 crops in the northern version, 11 crops in the southern version) as it is for my 2100 square foot design (10 crops). Even people who eat vegan diets eat a much wider variety of crops than are in any of the diet designs I’ve seen.


I’ve heard many people say that if you are hungry enough, you’ll eat anything. However, after eating boiled eggs every morning for the past 5 years I’m no longer willing to eat boiled eggs, though I ate fried eggs day in and day out for more years than that and never got tired of them. How long would it take for you to start disliking any of the foods in the diet enough that you’ll no longer be willing to eat them, even if you do have a wide variety of ways to cook, flavor, and eat them? How long would it take before the very low level of sugar and fats in the design bored you to the point where you could no longer face eating the foods you have grown, even if you like them in the quantities you now eat? I would not last long on such an austere diet, even if I liked beets.


I conclude that for reasons of time (growing, harvesting, processing, and cooking) and the psychological factors of food and eating, not only could I not turn the complete-diet garden design into reality, but the number of people who could is very tiny, if it’s not actually zero. But this extensive criticism of my complete-diet design does provide some insights into what makes sense for a backyard garden and the people who grow and eat from it at this particular time. In the final post of this series I’ll discuss this.