Category Archives: Planning

Process Learnings from Summer

2014 Spring final bed picOn the one hand, this year’s growing plan was in many ways a lot more intricate and ambitious than last year’s. On the other hand, because last year was my first year at the new location, there was absolutely a ton of infrastructure to build and soil to prepare for the first time. So I actually found this year to be a lot easier in various ways, although I still wouldn’t call it “effortless.” I’m working towards that.

Goals

Going into this growing season, as with every year, I chose several objectives regarding what I wanted to explore and work on. One of my bigger picture goals has to do with developing the process and know-how to make growing a lot of food–sustainably–a fairly routine and straightforward thing. Of course it’ll never be as easy as driving to a Farmer’s market and trading paper money for food (how easy we have it!). But growing food also doesn’t need to be arduous, mysterious, or otherwise unattainable.

 Process

I’m convinced that with careful focus and experimentation, I can refine the processes I use to grow food so that it takes a lot less time than it does now, without taking much more resource or equipment. I have a clear goal to reduce my “dependency chain” as much as possible when it comes to growing food, and so using anything that contains a computer processes or relies on precision machined parts is what I’m trying to get away from. So that leaves me with my hands and a desire to develop know-how.

Here are process goals I set:

  • Successful direct planting of grains, as opposed to transplanting to save time.
  • Layout to allow stirrup hoeing between plants to simplify weeding.

Planning

There was so much to do last year that I didn’t have much time to think ahead. I started the year behind because of when I received my new space, and spent the rest of the year catching up. Then I was taken by surprise when my Spring potatoes matured, and I didn’t have a plan for what to put in the ground next. The soil went unused and uncovered, which is bad, and so I decided to do a much better job this year.

  • Have a plan to keep the soil working w/ no more than a 2 week gap in between crops.
  • Plan ahead for fall, and even next spring, so I can optimize timing and placement.
  • Plan ahead for when to put fertilizer crops on much of the garden.
  • Move my paths around for simplicity. And also to take advantage of the fence as a trellis.

Crops

  • Lima beans
  • Sweet Potatoes
  • Strawberries
  • Dryland Rice

 

 

 

Danger of frost has passed for peninsula gardeners.

One of the challenges that any gardener faces is deciding when to plant seeds in the new year. Here in the San Francisco Bay Area, and in particular the peninsula, we are very fortunate to have extremely moderate weather and so it means that we can start the planting season very early. But how early?

The one danger that we face is that we can get frost in February. Frost is particularly damaging for certain types of seedlings, and so it’s important to consider. In fact early last year we had about a full week of evening frost. I remember this vividly because I had potatoes that were about to go to maturity and so I was out there every night covering them, and out there every morning uncovering them. I know that people’s memory of weather can be unreliable and so it got me wondering if there was good historical data out there. It turns out that there is.

A few years ago I really got into analyzing weather data. I discovered a UC website that had free, rich, downloadable set of climate data for various spots in California. And with the help of Excel I did a lot of analysis on it. At the time I was just doing it for fun but now as a gardener I can look back at the analysis that I did and pull out some very important information.

Frost danger climate chart SFO RWCHere is a chart of climate data from the year 2000 to the year 2010 for the San Francisco Airport and a spot in Redwood City. The red dots show the high temperature for the day and the blue dots show the low temperature for the day. The green dots are precipitation. For the purposes of deciding when it’s safe to plant, let’s focus on the blue dots.

Although technically 32 degrees Fahrenheit is freezing temperature, I personally start to get concerned when the temperature is below 34F. And so I have drawn a blue dotted line showing approximately where 34F it’s. And you can see that from around the middle of February onwards, the nighttime temperatures in this 10-year period have never dipped below 34F. So this gives me a fair amount of confidence with respect to going and putting seeds or seedlings in the ground.

I would say that mid February is a fairly safe guideline overall. Granted, it depends on what you’re planting, but I feel comfortable that I can plant from now going forward and I won’t have frost problems. Keep in mind that some vegetables need much higher temperatures than 32F in order to work, but the point here is that frost creates special problems for many food crops.

One might reasonably ask what happened to the data from 2011 to 2014. The problem I ran into is that the University of California website stopped published the data I was using. Fortunately somebody at the UC extension office was able to refer me to a data source from Utah State University which for some reason has California climate data. (Thank God.) And so if I wanted to I could work that data into my spreadsheet and update my chart.

In any case I just downloaded fresh data and did a quick spot check of weather data from 2011 to present. What I found is that in 2011 there was a late frost from 2/26 to 2/28. And in 2013 there was one night of frost on 2/20. To find the previous late February frost, I have to go back to 1996, and before that, 1990. So while historically there is a *chance* of frost in late February, it’s rare.

The key point I want to communicate here, besides mid-February being a safe time to start planting, is that there is wonderful free data available, if you know where to look, and we can learn a lot from it.

Sneak Peak: 2015 Spring and Summer Garden Plan

2015 garden plan sneak peak

Believe it or not, I’m trying to keep things simple this year. With the new job I don’t have nearly as much time as I used to, and so this year will be a test of how well I can keep the garden happy, while still showing up to work.

Here’s my thinking on this year’s plan:

Grains
First of all, in order to have a sustainable garden that builds soil, rather than just chews it up, I need to grow a lot of grains. In fact for the whole year, 60% of my garden needs to be growing grains. I do more in the winter than in the summer, but it’s still important for me to get a lot of grains going in the summer.

I have experimented with all of the grains you see on this year’s plan, in addition to others such as Pearl Millet, Oats, Amaranth, and Triticale. They all have their pluses and minuses. This year I’m going to back the “winners” from previous years:

  • Quinoa is an amazing crop to grow. After starting out very small, and seemingly not doing anything for a few weeks, it gets happy and grows vertical so quickly you can almost see it. I’ve gotten more than enough quinoa to eat each of the past two years, from relatively little space.
  • Sorghum is a hardy, easy to grow, low maintenance crop that can give you grain or syrup, depending on the variety. The stalks make fantastic compost, and the extensive roots put great organic matter in the soil.
  • Wheat, and in particular Ethiopian Blue Wheat, is a strong, satisfying crop that doesn’t get too tall. It actually does have a blue tinge when it’s close to maturity.
  • Japanese Millet is a fast growing grain that I’ll cut before it goes to seed. This one is specifically for compost material, and is one I’ll cut and let regrow several times this spring.
  • Cereal Rye is a holdover from winter, that I’ll let grow for part of spring, to nurture the soil for my second potato crop.

Low Water Crops
So we’re in the midst of a serious and potentially long-term drought. Being that I grow in a community garden on the edge of a park, I have access to city water. Nonetheless I am super interested in trying several varieties of crops known to grow well with limited water. I will be getting these seeds from the nonprofit Native Seeds/SEARCH which has many seeds from Arizona. There is an area at the back of my plot that is hard to water, and will be a good test ground for these crops.

Calorie Crops
As much as I love Kale, it won’t keep me alive and kicking. It takes calories to do that, and so in addition to being a “carbon farmer” (for the soil) I need to be a “calorie farmer” and be smart about what I grow.

The best known calorie crops, that give a lot of calories reliably, quickly, in a small area, are tubers. I’ll be doing traditional potatoes again this year, as my main calorie crop. I’ll also be continuing to grow two varieties of Andean tuber, Mashua and Yacon. I am not going to grow Oca again this year–it didn’t do well last year, and the tubers I did get were too small; Oca simply lost out.

One tip on growing several varieties of potatoes is that if you want to track yields, your life will be much easier if you plant very different looking varieties next to each other. Last year I did purple, white, and red potatoes and that worked really well. No more squinting at the difference between a Norkotah and a Burbank.

I will also not being growing sweet potatoes again this year. In 2013 I got the plants to grow, but planted them too late to get any useful yield. Last year I got the timing right, and added heat via a black plastic mulch, but the yields were still lackluster. We have enough to enjoy a few meals, but nowhere near the yields I’d hoped for. In future I may track down short season varieties that should do better around here, especially since we don’t get the heat that sweet potatoes crave.

Kitchen Crops
In my early growing seasons I tried growing everything and anything, to see what would happen. It was fun and suspenseful however we sometimes ended up with crops that weren’t much use in the kitchen. Bushy Salsify, anyone?

Thus now we grow things that we know we’re going to want in the kitchen. The big winner here is onions. The trick with onions is that they can be a pain to grow from seed. I have two strategies I’m using this year to deal with that:

1. Grow “walking onions.” There is a variety of onion that propagates itself, by growing the new crop off the top of the old crop. I’m not kidding. In nature the new ones separate and plant themselves (hopefully) next to the old crop. So as you can imagine, it’s very easy to help the new seedlings along by hand.

2. Buy seedlings. Yes, I said that out loud: buy seedlings. I will be sourcing organic seedlings this year, to save me the drama of growing onion seedlings. I get a bit better at it every year, but I still have a ways to go to get the hit rate that I want. Given my time constraints this year, I will throw in the towel and buy from my local garden shops. The good news is that you get a surprising number of seedlings in one container.

I’ll also be doing carrots, which are a pain to transplant (and yes, it CAN be done), and are challenging to germinate, to boot. I have a few tricks up my sleeve to try this year.

Root Crops
Parsnips are interesting because the deep root structure means that in properly tended and shield soil, they don’t need much water at all. Also they can stay in the soil for a long, long time and still be good eating. They give a lot of calories in a small space, too. Beware that they are slow germinators, but if you do it correctly, they’ll grow for you. The secret is consistent moisture.

I like to grow beets year round, in part because I can, in part because they are very tasty, and in part because of my Ukrainian heritage. I grow a variety of giant yellow beet that’s called a “Mangel” that has a subtle, sweet flavor. Beets are very strong growers, and are easy to germinate.

Beans
I have yet to have a stellar bean crop, but I will keep trying until I get it right. I’m doing big beans, Lima, and maybe some Soy beans specifically for making tofu.

Berries
When they are working, strawberries are a very happy crop to have in the garden. But they are a fickle lover: rain at the wrong time can ruin everything. Last year an oddly timed rain resulted in a disease the full die off of my Seascape strawberries. They were great while they lasted. The Sequoia are still kicking, though. It is important to cut off the runners, if you want lots of berries.

I planted a white strawberry called a “Pineberry” last year, and got a few fruit. It’s true; it is like a cross between Pineapple and Strawberry. Rest assured that it isn’t *literally* a cross, though. This year I should get a real crop of Pineberries, which I’m very excited about. Strawberries typically don’t yield much in year 1, from what I understand, and besides, the Pineberries went in late last year.

I have several types of raspberries and blackberries along the back fence. Some of them are going to go nuts this year–let’s help the Ollalieberries are among them. I’d love to grow Tayberries but can’t find the canes.

Stuff everyone else grows
Yeah, I do grow some “normal” stuff. Tomatoes because they are tasty, and why not? I saved some seeds from farmers market tomatoes, but will probably buy Master Gardener seedlings this year.

There is a specific variety of Squash, Fordhook, that John Jeavons recommended and so I’m going to grow those.

We like eating cucumbers so hopefully we’ll get a decent crop this year. I haven’t had much luck in the back right of the plot, so we’ll try more upfront this year.

What now?
I hope this rundown has been useful for you. I haven’t yet finalized my plan, but it’s pretty close. I need to do some calculations (hello Excel) to make sure I have my 60/30/10 Grains/Calorie Crops/Everything else dialed in properly. And then I need to consult my notes from past years to finalize crop placement. And finally, I need to figure out how to make this as year’s garden as simple as possible!

If you have any questions, contact me.

My Layout and Crop Strategy for 2014 Fall

map-2014-fallLast year I got too intricate with my winter garden layout, and so for this year I’ve taken strides to really simplify things in terms of layout.

WP_006924 crop

Cover Crops

In tan you can see the areas where I’m putting in cover crops. I’m doing cereal rye, generally in 6″ apart rows, along with vetch in the in-betweens. My thinking on the rows is that it makes it much easier to hoe, and also down the line when the weeds come, I’ll know where to expect them. I do plan to put legumes in between these rows, Wooly Vetch, shortly. I justed wanted to let my Cereal Rye get established before the Vetch comes in and takes over.

Perennials

WP_006702On the far right I have a mix of my perennials and my Onions and Garlic. I’ve put my Tree Collards at the top corner where they won’t cause a shading problem. I started these from cuttings I received from friends.

As an experiment, once I got the cuttings home, I took two of them and cut a bit off the bottom, like what you do before putting cut flowers in a vase. Sure enough, the ones I cut (with the green ribbon in the picture) grew leaves much more quickly. And two months later, they are still doing very well compared to the ones I didn’t cut before planting.

I have my Pineberries below that, and then at the bottom right my Sequoia Strawberries, which survived the Leather Rot that killed most of my Seascapes.

One other thing I’ve just started is I’m doing a row of Egyptian Walking Onions in the lower right corner, around my Strawberries. Snails and Slugs really are a problem for Strawberries, and so I want to see if a row of these onions can make a difference. Also I love how the walking onions so readily propagate themselves, given how much care it takes to raise onions from seed. My hope is that once I get the “fortifications” thick enough, then I’ll have a rotating supply of onions that we can eat when the new offshoots show up in late summer.

Onions, Garlic, Shallots, Leeks

Then in the middle of the perennials I have Onions, Garlic and Shallots. I figure that they will mature in a similar timeframe. Also they all need to be mulched, since none of them create enough canopy to shade the soil, and they all have similar water needs. It’s fun to see them poking through the soil as they come up.

I’m also doing a section of onions and leeks in the vegetable bed. Last winter the onions just didn’t bulb much, but I think that’s how it goes over winter. My hope is to get bulbs earlier in spring than I would otherwise.

Cabbage

Cabbage headBy dumb luck I ended growing one Russian Cabbage last year, from a seedling handed to me by a friendly neighbor. It turned out to be one of our prized crops for the winter season, and so this year we’re doing many more.

I chose 4 varieties, and 3 of them germinated strongly, and one, Primo, did not. I did a second seeding of Primos in order to get the 3 I had originally planned to grow. For the other varieties, January King, All Seasons, and Red Drumhead, all did great and so I decided to expand my cabbage planting area. All seeds are from Bountiful Gardens who, by the way, are looking into the Primo germination issue for me.

Rutabaga

Now here’s a crop that nobody knows about. It produces a lot of calories per square foot, however they aren’t particularly dense calories. Nonetheless I’m intrigued by the name and the lack of name awareness, other than as a vegetable that nobody really knows what it is.

I grew Rutabaga in Spring 2013 but had problems with insects, only to realize it’s much better grown as a cold season crop. So I’m trying again! On a visit to the Petaluma Seed Bank I got super excited and bought two varieties of Rutabaga (of the 6 or 7 varieties they had in stock) and so those are now in the ground and growing. I’m doing Collet Vert and American Purple Top this year, having done Brora last year.

Beets

sm_WP_004999-90q_19x12cI had a fantastic time last winter growing a variety of beets, and so it’s a natural for this winter. I’ll be doing my favorite monster Beet, Mangel, once again. These are mildly sweet blond beets that can get big. The greens are great too. I’ll do Bulls Blood Beets again, with an eye on the leaves this time, to see if indeed the snails lay off of them. And then I will once again give Cylindra beets a try, although they thus far haven’t done much for me in terms of size. I probably need to bite the bullet and do some seed saving on Cylindra beets to get better yields.

Japanese Greens

Komatsuna in the middle

Komatsuna in the middle

Last year’s Komatsuna was a good grower and so I’m going to do it again. Japanese Spinach also grew well but was inconvenient to frequently harvest at a distance. They are more suited to a backyard situation. Kakina was fine, but too similar to Komatsuna to do both.

And then Shungiku showed itself to be a very prolific grower. This time I’m giving it space from everything else, so that it doesn’t take away from other crops. Lots of hot pot ahead for Shungiku.

Gobou, AKA Burdock

Homegrown gobou, about to be Kinpira Gobou.This is a root crop that in the stores looks like a big long stick. It’s used to make a delicious Japanese appetizer, Kinpira Gobou, which is a mainstay in many Japanese restaurants. I started my Tokinogawa Gobou late last spring. It did nothing for about a year, and then as I was preparing to take it out, it took off and grew huge. Ultimately the roots on some of the plants went about 3′ deep. I didn’t actually dig that deep, and ended up snapping off what I could down to 2′ deep. I’m going to try a smaller Gobou this year, Salada Musume from Kitazawa Seed Company in Oakland.

Thousand Headed Kale

To be honest I’ve struggled to get consistent results from Kale, and so I’ve been on the lookout for other varieties to try. Bountiful Gardens is offering this Thousand Headed Kale this year and so I’m giving it a try. Theoretically, winter should be an ideal time to grow Kale.

Potatoes

I have an ongoing interest in potatoes, given how critical they are as a diet crop. I learned last year that potatoes planted in late October will have a poor yield because of low temperatures in January, when the tubers have the potential to grow. This year I was planning for a late summer plant-in, but ended up getting them in the ground September 1. I think I’m late, but not too late to hope for results.

One major mistake I made with my potatoes is that half of my seed potatoes were freshly bought farmers market potatoes, in fact from the Little Organic Farm up in Petaluma. Whereas my potatoes from my early Spring harvest had been sitting around for months and stared to sprout, my fresh market potatoes were much earlier in their lifecycle. As a result, 6 weeks later they have yet to emerge, whereas my Spring potatoes have grown plants nearing two feet high. Live and learn.

The suspense now is twofold: Will I get a good crop from my Spring seed potatoes before it gets too cold? And secondly, will my expensive market-bought seed potatoes have the wisdom to wait until late February to come out of the ground? Or will they stampede out in late December to find frost around the corner?

 

Layout Learnings From My Fall 2013 Growing Plan

It’s fun for me to look back at my fall growing plan for last year, and take those learnings into this year. Here’s what 2013 Fall looked like. (Click the image for the larger version.)

map-2013-fall

My intent with last year’s layout was to walk a fine balance between growing food in winter, and feeding the soil. I also wanted to test out a number of different crops. Here are some high level learnings from last season, which I’ve used to build my fall 2014 plan. I hope there’s something in here of value for you.

2013’s fall plan was complicated. 

I was concerned about doing vegetables on the front row right after having done that for summer, and so I was going to plant Crimson Clover in between the crops. Although I did manage to do this in a couple of spots, I just didn’t have the precision to get it to work in general. Growing is more like horseshoes than it is with darts. If I can get to within 3 inches of my intended spot, then I’m doing well. So any plan that calls for more precision than this isn’t going to work. Besides, my plot isn’t actually rectangular anyhow! This is where the real world meets Excel.

Oh, and to top it off, it’s hard to tell Clover from Oxalis, a non-nitrogen fixing, hard to eradicate weed. So I ended up mistakenly leaving some Oxalis in and pulling some Crimson Clover out. For this year, I might try clover in a very specific spot, such as along the paths.

My fall 2014 plan cuts out the narrow strips of clover and instead focuses on large swaths of cover crops, with concentrated areas of food crops. I figure that after I harvest the food crops, I can put in some cover crops, but I won’t try to do both at once.

One foot wide growing areas are tough to manage

I found that when it came to transplanting, maintaining, and harvesting, the 1′ wide areas were a pain. I’ve since moved to doing 2’x2′ areas, which I found much more manageable.

I crowded out my garlic.

I had heard that garlic can act as a barrier to slugs and snails. So I thought I’d try growing it in a rectangle around some Asian greens (Shungiku, or a type of Chrysanthemum) to test the theory. On the bright side, I didn’t see any snail damage on those greens. On the downside, the greens totally crowded out my garlic, and were the likely cause of terrible garlic yields. Furthermore my sense is the Shungiku was actually so strong and resilient that once it got to be about a foot tool, an army of snails couldn’t have killed it off.

I got some of my cover crops started far too late.

There is this difficult decision-point in September, especially around here, of when to pull the remains of the summer crop and plant the winter crop. What makes it difficult is that in the Bay Area we have Indian Summer which frankly seems hotter some days then our regular summer, and makes for fantastic growing weather.

So last year I waited too long, and only put in some of my cover crops when the weather turned in November. What I didn’t anticipate is that when the weather cooled and the rains came, the weeds *went crazy* and took over the soil. My broadcast cover crops often got badly outcompeted.

For this year, I got most of my cover crops in as of the end of September. I have some legumes to plant here and there, but by large I’m “in the ground” now, and have been for about a month.

I didn’t properly make space to weed my compost crops.

If you notice the green boxes on the right of the map, you can see that I took out the narrow walkway in those parts and let the compost crop take over that whole space. It seemed like a good idea going in, but what I didn’t anticipate is how strongly the weeds would come in during winter. What I ended up doing is putting a few stepping stones in the middle of the morass and doing some weeding, a little too late.

For this year, I’ll be keeping the walkways in place. Also I’m planting my cover crops in rows, rather than broadcasting or in offset center, so I can weed more easily. Rows give me a big boost in knowing where to expect the weeds, and I’ve put the rows about 6″ apart, so I can easily hoe in between them, and still get a decent amount of shade on the soil.

How to use Excel to make your garden map

2014 Spring final bed picMany people have asked me to show them how I use Excel to make my garden maps, and so here is a walk-through. The summary is that I simply resize the cells to be square in size, create a border for the bed boundaries, color in the beds using patterns, and then insert labels using Text Boxes. Here is a step by step walk-through.

If you want to jump right in here’s the result: Sample Garden Map.xls

Any version of Excel will work, but for these instructions I’m using Excel 2010. For different versions, the exact location in the user interface may vary, but the features should have the same name.

A.    Resize the cells to be square

  1. Create  a new blank Excel document.
  2. Select all cells in the worksheet by clicking on the “triangle” towards the upper left, between the letters and the numbers.
  3. Right click on column header A and choose “Column Width”
  4. Enter “2” for column width. This maps to 25 pixels on my computer, but anything will do as long as it’s the same as what you put for row height.
  5. Right click on row header A and choose “Row Height”
  6. Enter “15” for row height. This maps to 25 pixels on my computer, but anything will do as long as it’s the same as column width.

Result: Your Excel sheet should now look like graph paper.

B.    Scale the sheet so you can see your whole bed

NOTE: my beds tend to be 4 to 5 feet wide, and so I like to make every square on the sheet map to a 3” x 3” section of my garden. Thus a 4×4 set of squares represents one square foot of the garden. On my laptop, if I scale my view to be 45%, then I can see the full width of a 25’ wide garden bed. You can experiment with the zoom feature to see what the best zoom level is for you.

  1. Click “View” menu and choose “Zoom”
  2. Choose “Custom” and enter “45%”

Result: The “graph paper” will look much smaller now.

C.    Draw the boundaries of your garden bed

  1. Click cell C3.
  2. Hold the “Shift” key on your keyboard, and click cell CX18. You should see the whole range for C3 to CX18 now highlighted.
  3. From the “Home” menu click the arrow next to the “Borders” icon. (The look will vary based on what the last border was.)
  4. Choose the “Thick Box Border” option, which for me is the 8th option down.

Result: There will be a Thick border that defines a 4’ x 25’ garden bed.

D.   Color the inside of the bed with a pattern.

  1. Click cell C3.
  2. Hold the “Shift” key on your keyboard, and click cell AZ18. (Different than last time.) You should see the range for C3 to AZ18 now highlighted, which is half of the bed.
  3. Right click and choose “Format Cells…”
  4. Click the “Fill” option, which for me is the second tab from the right.
  5. From the “Pattern Style” drop down, choose a pattern. I like the cross hatch one, which for me is in the third row, second from the right.
  6. In “Pattern Color” choose the color of your liking. I’ll choose a green. Then click OK.

Result: half of the bed now has a green cross-hatch.

Tip: You can color the other half of the bed to your liking using similar steps.

E.    Add the first crop label for your bed

  1. From the “Insert” menu click “Text Box” and choose “Horizontal Text Box”
  2. On your bed, click and drag to define the size of the text box. You can resize it later.
  3. Right click on the text box you’ve just created, and choose “Font…”
  4. Change the “Size” box to be “25” and click OK.
  5. Click on the text box and enter your text label. I’m putting “Sorghum”
  6. Right click on the text box, and click the “Center text” icon.

Result: Now there’s a label for the bed.

Tip: You can resize it by clicking and dragging any of the corners. You can save time by sizing it wide enough for most of your crop labels.

Tip: You can move it by clicking and dragging the text box’s top or bottom border.

F.     Copy an existing label

Note: it can be quicker to copy an existing label, than to create a new one.

  1. Right click on an existing label.
  2. Click ”Copy”
  3. Right click on your sheet, where you want to place the new label.
  4. Click the leftmost “Paste” icon.
  5. Click on the text in the text box and change it to your liking.

Result: now you have a new label, with the same size and text as your original one.

Tip: Once you map out the areas in your garden, you can simply make a new copy of the sheet for every season. If you keep the outlines of the map the same, then it’s really easy to flip from one sheet to the next, and compare what you planted this season in a given spot to what you planted last season. This is really convenient for planning crop rotations.

Growing map for 2014 Spring and Summer

When I was first starting with Grow Biointensive, I really wanted to see how other people were laying out their garden beds, so I could have some idea of how to do mine. So if you’re interested, here’s where I landed for this year’s garden layout for my vegetables + grains garden.

2014 Spring final bed pic

When I compare this to last year, I see that it’s much more complicated. I think of the book The Collapse of Complex Societies and I don’t know if that’s a good thing! In any case, what I tell myself is that I’m “testing a lot of different crops,” and in fact that is true.

Here’s blow by blow commentary on how I ended up with this crop selection and design.

  • Originally I was only going to do one kind of bean–soy beans–but then I realized that I can only grow beans during the summer, and so I might as well take advantage of that. Furthermore in crunching the numbers on pole Lima beans, I saw how strong they are in terms of yield per square foot. To sweeten the deal, I’m told that you pretty much can’t buy pole Lima beans because they are not economical to harvest and sell commercially. Thus there could be a niche there one day. Thus I’m trying 3 kinds of Lima beans this year. (And it’s a struggle, but that’s another story.)
  • I was going to grow a few different kinds of beets, but since I can grow those very well during the San Mateo winter, I decided to only grow Cylindra beets this summer. They are a very high yielding variety, and a great crop, and so I wanted to see how they do in this location during the summer. So far they are looking great.
  • I’m doing Parsnips again this year. Last year’s parsnips were of note because they grew so aggressively (after I finally figured out how to germinate them) and they stayed green and nice until I harvested them well into late fall. This year I plan to do two crops of them, with the second crop being harvested after the weather turns “cold” (well, cold for around here.
  • I didn’t intend to do so many tomatoes, but I got carried away at the Master Gardener tomato sale and bought…lots. The thing is that as someone who generally starts everything from seed, it was just so exciting to have the chance to try 5 new varieties, from hardy seedlings! I didn’t measure my garden bed properly and ended up planting into an adjacent area. “With the ideal comes the actual.” <breathe.> The tomatoes are doing fantastic, in any case.
  • There’s a funny story behind the Japanese Burdock (aka gobo or ごぼう ). I planted it last year, a bit late in spring, in a marginal part of my plot, and didn’t really do anything all last year. Come this spring I was getting ready to write it off to experience and move on when the plants suddenly “blew up” and got huge. My best guess is that perhaps they finally got deep enough to find the nutrition they needed. Or maybe they are psychic. Whatever the case, we’ll have some decent gobo this year.
  • Japanese millet is supposed to have a 45 day growing cycle, and so gives the possibility of yielding a lot of compost crop in a small area. For now I’m figuring out how to get it to reliably germinate when broadcast. BTW I was able to buy a half pound of this from an eBay seller for about $7 delivered.
  • I stumbled on the blue tinged Ethiopian wheat while looking for something interesting to add to the cart when I bought my Pineberries. I subsequently found it for half price on eBay. So far it is an aggressive grower.
  • I found the Pineberries on the excellent strawberryplants.org website. They are a white strawberry that apparently tastes a bit like pineapple. Again, too small to harvest commercially, and thus in interesting niche crop.
  • I decided to make better use of the top fence this year as a trellis. My French Pole beans germinated so well that I put the extras up top. And then I put bare root Raspberries of various types along the fence as well. It is interesting to note that many of the bare roots arrive at the nurseries around Thanksgiving! I really wanted to grow Tayberries (hello $10 jar of jam!) but I missed my window. There’s always next year. I did get an Ollalieberrie cutting that seems to be catching on.
  • Onions are a core cooking crop, and so I’m giving a go to several different kinds. After experiencing poor survival of seedlings, I finally made the connection and got a hand mister to water them when they are tiny. I was knocking them over, even with a Haws watering can. (say it ain’t so!) I got a great misting hose attachment as well, but the water pressure is so high that even with a regulator, I still brings a lot of force to the droplets. The hand mister is perfect–just be sure to get one with a locking trigger to save on thumb fatigue.
  • Quinoa and Sorghum were my star grains last year, and so I’m trying 3 new varieties of each this year. For the sorghum, the Mennonite was a very strong germinator and grower, whereas the White African had poor germination. For the quinoa, the Shelly (black) and Campesino germinated and is growing strongly, but the Kaslala has been struggling, possibly because of soil texture at that location.
  • Because tubers are important to my diet planning, I decided to diversify and try several different kinds this year. I was very fortunate to be gifted Andean tubers, namely Yacon, Oca, and Mashua, and so I have those growing. I also received Sunchoke to grow, along with a stern warning to grow it in a pot, lest it take over! All are growing well, although I had to rescue the Yacon from an early snail attack.
  • And last but not least, I am trying to grow dryland rice this year. I am told that there are varieties of rice that can be grown just like wheat–in a normal, non-flooded garden bed. So I am trying Duborskian, Blue Bonnet, and Koshihikari, and using exactly the same amount of water as I am for my wheat. Thus far they are just looking at me and going slightly yellow, although the Koshihikari looks the best of the bunch.

When I tell people I have a food garden, I often hear “that’s a lot of work.” Well if you do what I’m doing this year, and testing out 50+ varieties of “this and that” then it *is* a lot of work. However it doesn’t have to be–I could have easily kept it to 5 varieties, and had this be not a heck of a lot of work. But that’d mean less learning and less adventure. For now, since I have the chance to try (literally) 50 different things, I’ll do it.

How much space do you need to grow enough feed for your chickens?

Chickens are pretty cool, but you’ve got to think of how you can feed them–sustainably. If you’re just going to have them go out on the pasture, and you believe they can get all of the nutrition they need out there, then you might be all set. But from what I understand, you’ll very likely need to supplement their diet. And that’s nontrivial.

So if you need to provide them feed, and want to grow that feed, how much space will you need?

There is a surprising lack of information on this out there for the mini farmer. I found only one site that had any information on this, the good folks at Avian Aquamiser, and they came up with a number similar to what I ended up with, which (I think) is reassuring. They say based their numbers for type of feed, and pounds of feed, from Joel Salatin’s book Pastured Poultry Profits.

So I cooked up a spreadsheet from what I learned from Anna at Avian Aquamiser, I fed in Grow Biointensive yield numbers, and here’s what I got:area to grow chicken feed

Based on these numbers, I think it’s fair to say that if you count some space for overhead such as bed paths and compost storage, you get a realistic estimate of about 1,000 square feet of space per egg laying hen, to grow enough supplemental feed for a pasture chicken for a year.

I am providing this spreadsheet for you to use for your own personal mini-farming efforts: Excel file: square feet for feed per chicken

You can plug in whatever feed and yield numbers you want, and see what you get. I think it’d be great to get numbers from a bunch of mini-farmers, and hear what people are seeing as the actual space needed.

I wonder, for example how the feed needs vary based on:

  • what kind of chickens they are
  • egg laying hens vs. fryers
  • how much kitchen scraps you feed your hens
  • your climate
  • how warm your hen house is kept in winter

And who knows what other factors? In any case, I think it’s really valuable to get a sense for how much space you actually need to sustainably raise chickens.

I would be so happy to hear people’s experiences in raising feed for their chickens, so we can all learn from each other.

Challenge: Can you grow enough food, in 4,000 ft.² of space, to feed yourself for a year?

When I really sit down and think about it, it annoys me that I am so dependent on “the machine” of Western society to feed myself. Right now, if the metaphorical Trader Joe’s trucks stopped coming, I would starve. On my bad days I don’t feel that different from the character Neo in The Matrix.

So rather than complaining about the situation, I decided about a year ago to learn how to grow food. You’ll note that I didn’t say “learn how to garden.” Gardening is cute. Gardening is generally about growing flowers and shrubs, and maybe tomatoes and peas in the summer. I’m talking about growing food, and I’m talking about developing the skills to grow enough food to feed myself and my family.

Now here’s the problem: although I’d grown before, the thought of growing enough food to feed my family for a whole year was daunting. I’d driven through the Central Valley of California and seen acre after acre of large industrial farmland and been completely daunted. The prospect of working hundreds of acres of farmland seems totally inaccessible, and as a result I had assumed that I could never grow a reasonable amount of food.

But this past weekend I saw the solution: I saw a high intensity, high yield, individual scale mini farm of under 4,000 ft.² (about an tenth of an acre) that grows enough calories, protein, and nutrients to feed one person for a year.

And the even more amazing part is that this mini farm also generates all of the compost and fertilizers that are needed to continue working that land indefinitely. Furthermore the longer that you work this particular system of mini farming, the better your soil and your yields get.

So I want you to think about that for a moment. If you’re like me a year ago, you assume that in order to grow food, you have to go to the garden center every spring and buy fertilizer that you apply throughout the growing season in order to “feed the soil.” And in a way it makes sense that when you are taking vegetables out of the soil, you need to be putting something back into the soil.

However this “go buy fertilizer” system isn’t sustainable, leads to feeble soil, and results in a variety of problems which leads to the “go buy pesticides” system. I have now seen that there is a sustainable way to not just feed the soil, but to actually make it “higher performance” over time.

This weekend I was in Willits, California at a three-day Ecology Action workshop to learn the basics of the Grow Biointensive system. Building from the ideas of bio-dynamic farming, the Ecology Action team has spent over 40 years developing a way to grow all of the food you need for a balanced diet in 5,000 ft.² or less. And that includes the growing space, the pathways, the compost piles, the compost storage, the work table and the tool shed. This is no pipe dream; it’s totally doable and it’s being done now.

These 4 long garden beds are all it takes. Seems doable, doesn't it?

These 4 long garden beds, and a bit of space in the back for storage, are all it takes. Seems doable, doesn’t it?

Even though I’ve been starting to use the Grow Biointensive over the last year, this workshop really took my understanding to a new level. My biggest take away from the workshop is “this really works and it is actually possible.”

Although I don’t yet have 4,000 ft.² of land to use, I do have a little bit of shared space in a community garden to learn how to grow the key crops—for both food and compost—to make this system work.

My guess is that it’ll take me 10 years to get really good at this method. I’ll keep you posted.