The Grass is Greener, but the Weeds are Taller

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Often, as visitors come to the farm for the first time, they make a comment about how beautiful things are, and in general, I agree.  A dairy cow with her calf, fifty or so chickens scratching in the dirt, a few hives of honeybees, and a bounty of garden produce makes for a pretty compelling image.  Certainly that is what I hoped to create when I started the farm five years ago.  However, I now feel like it is time to reevaluate my plans for next year and beyond.

Daisy and Penny

When I made the decision to expand our family garden into a small scale farm with approximately one acre of land under cultivation it seemed like a logical and reasonable decision.  We loved the food we were producing in our small raised beds, and we had plenty of land, so why not grow more and sell some on the side to family, friends, and neighbors?  Clearly this represented a much bigger time commitment and work effort, but I didn’t mind.

The problem came when I started making decisions based on economics, trying to maximize farm revenue versus optimizing the variety of vegetables we consume.   For example, in our area there seems to me an almost infinite demand for heirloom and cherry tomatoes, and it is much easier to grow a lot of tomatoes versus growing a huge variety of vegetables and finding a market for them.  Therefore, I planted over 200 tomato plants this year (which requires a lot of work to water, weed, and harvest), and ignored many things that our family enjoys eating.

My Plans for Next Year

Ironically, this is what I wrote a few months ago in Towards Truly Local Agriculture:  Starting Your Own Garden:

When my wife and I moved into our home nine years ago, we had no plans to become farmers.  Our first year, we set up a modest backyard garden, something that many of you may be considering. We built nine 4’x4’ raised beds and three 25’x3’ rows, giving us approximately 400 square feet for planting. If you have space limitations don’t worry – Based on our experience, it is possible to grow significant quantities of food in a small area.

Next year I plan to revisit my original farming objective, growing the best food for my family and building high quality soil.  I will absolutely keep the cows, chickens, and bees, but will scale down the vegetable garden dramatically.  Instead of trying to farm on one acre, I will reduce the growing area to one-tenth that size.  With an improved focus, I should be able to do a much better job of keeping the weeds at bay, improving the quality of my soil, and incorporating a plan for crop rotation.

So, for those of you gardening in small spaces and realizing prolific harvests, I look forward to rejoining you and rekindling my love for growing vegetables.

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  1. Philippa
    September 9, 2011 at 9:06 am

    We went through a similar thought process with our small CSA which has 5 members doing most of the work and another handful who are generally less available. We also cultivate about an acre.

    Our approach was to put 1,200 heads of garlic in the ground last November. They are fairly low maintenance, and there is a good demand for them in our area, which has been overtaken with cheap Chinese garlic.

    This freed up more of our time for more intense vegetable cultivation in a smaller area.

  2. Barb
    September 9, 2011 at 10:11 am

    Great article and very timely for me also. I had been buying all my produce at a Korean market down the road from me but who knows where all that stuff was coming from. I found a local farmer, less than a 1/2 mile away from me and stopped buying from the store for the entire summer. I realized now that I was totally deficient in greens (kale, collards, etc) and a lot of other things that I really like and that make me feel my best – and instead was totally loading up on delicious Jersey tomatoes and tons of fantastic peaches….While those things are great, they don’t make me feel my best.
    My local farm caters to the local shoppers- which is people looking for tomatoes, corn and other delicious things. Fewer people are looking for and more importantly, buying those leafy greens or other nutrient dense food items that we are.

    I’ve since started experimenting with a fantastic home made self watering bucket garden to grow my own greens in my tiny back yard. I’m hampered by having minimal land and living in a townhouse with a home owners association that says I can’t grow veggies in the front of my sunny house. I’ve got a crop of greens just starting and will expand this bucket garden next year for sure. We’re going to remove a couple of trees that are blocking the sun and I should be able to plant upwards of 20 five gallon buckets next year. Will it be enough to meet all of my needs? Maybe not. But at least it will give me some measure of food independence. I may still buy some tomatoes and peaches from my local farmer (because they are delicious!)and may still need to get some supplemental greens from the Korean market and that’s ok.
    -Barb
    PS – I’ve also got a crop of chayote squash that’s just starting to flower. If the weather hold it’s possible I’ll have more organically grown chayote that I’ll know what to do with. Bounty!

    • Tim Huntley
      September 10, 2011 at 3:28 am

      Congrats on taking many steps toward “food independence.” With 20 buckets next year, you should have quite a harvest.

  3. Tyler
    September 9, 2011 at 10:23 am

    I have heard, with regards to weeding, that placing a layer of burlap sacks (such is easily gotten at your local coffee shop!) over the gardenable land before snowfall (if you get snow–we do in Minnesota!) will help to kill off weeds and everything for the next year.

    Then, when it comes time for planting, all you do is poke a hole in the burlap sack and place the seeds there. Then the plant will grow up atop a bed of burlap. No weeds will thrive, or really have an opportunity to grow.

    Have you looked into this method? I’ve heard good things from it from a friend who works at The Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy (http://www.iatp.org/), although I can’t find anything on their website on it.

    A quick google search did turn up this, however: http://thetanglednest.com/2010/02/upcycled-burlap-bags-in-the-garden-and-farewell-to-grass/

    Thanks for the update!

    • Tim Huntley
      September 10, 2011 at 3:33 am

      I have looked into this Tyler as preventing weeds tends to involve a lot less labor than fighting with them in the middle of summer. This method works great when you pair it with drip irrigation and place the tubing or hoses beneath the burlap.

    • Barb
      September 12, 2011 at 8:54 am

      There’s instructions for making a “bag garden” here – if you’re limited on space like I am. It’s a great use of recycled burlap bags and soda bottle, etc.
      http://www.uaff.us/How_to_make_a_Bag_Garden.pdf

      I think this would make an awesome project for kids and schools, urban gardens where to soil contains some sketchy contaminants, etc. where you might not want to plant directly in to the existing soil.

      Both the bag gardens and the self watering buckets that I am using raise the plants up quite a bit which is a big help if the gardener has any limited mobility issues. Think of making a bag garden for your elderly neighbor or relatives that has maybe tomatoes in the top of the bag and cut some smaller holes around the side planted with basil and other herbs. Then you’ve done something cool for some one else and helped increase food independence for yet another person!
      -Barb

      • Darcy
        September 27, 2011 at 12:33 pm

        Okay I’m totally trying that bag garden idea next year.

        Side note I’ve read Soil to Sustenance and I wondered why so many tomatos when it was blogged there in the spring. Now I know lol

  4. angelyne
    September 10, 2011 at 3:12 pm

    When I moved into our house years ago, I also inherited a really nice garden. I produced a lot of vegetables that first year. The following year, I decided to set up 4 4′ X 4′ raised beds. To fill my boxes, I used the “recipe” for soil I found in the square gardening book, which was a mix of vermiculite, peat moss and compost. Since then, my production has been poor. Even weeds don’t grow that well. Could it be the soil mix? I tried amending it with compost for several years, but it didn’t seem to do much.

    Also, the boxes don’t get as much sunlight as I would wish, due to being in the corner of the yard, overshadowed by some rather large cedar hedges. It could be that the hedges have grown much bigger over the years and are blocking too much light.

    Do you have an opinion?

    • Barb
      September 12, 2011 at 9:01 am

      My trees have grown much larger over the 10+ years I’ve been in my house. That’s definitely one of my problems that I’m going to deal with the fall. As much as I hate to cut down trees…. They’re going to have to go. I had a few days off from work due to Hurricane Irene so I sat in the yard for one whole day and really watched the track of the sun and how much these particular trees are screening the yard.
      There is some common property behind my house that I am going to do some guerrilla gardening in and to make up for cutting down trees in my yard, I’ll be planting trees there. Of course, they’ll just happen be some kind of hardy fruit and/or nut trees. If I could just get my hands on some native pawpaw trees I’d be a very happy girl!
      Barb

  5. Penny McIntosh
    September 13, 2011 at 6:09 pm

    Great info…thanks…Penny (not the cow!)

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