Ben Rants: Herbin in my Suburban Garden

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About three weeks ago, right around Christmas, I made a post on facebook offering anyone I know the gift of assistance setting up anything garden / food related. It covered conventional gardens, raised beds, greenhouses, aquaponics, fruit trees & bushes, small livestock like chickens or bees, or even just a container garden on a porch. I believe that the ability to raise or grow even a small part of your own food is an important life skill, even if you never truly need to know how to do it. Food, taken as a whole, is one of the most important parts of every single culture in the world. A willingness to grow, prepare, and share food is, in my mind, a sign of healthy society. For a majority of people without any history of producing any food, a small garden is a logical launching point.

As you might have guessed based on the image above, which is a large mix of broadcasted spring greens with no further organization, I am not a fan of the conventional vegetable garden layout of rows planted directly in tilled earth. It is a system set up for large fields, not smaller spaces. You can do so much more in a small space by utilizing height, vegetation, light requirements, and rooting differences between plants. As an example, here is how someone might plant a traditional, non-intensively managed, row-based garden in one 4×4 foot area.

Silly Garden

Ok, great. You’ve got 1 tomato plant, 1 pepper plant, and 7 lettuces.

No. This is silly. Don’t work for this little yield in this much space. First of all, the ‘row’ spacing requirement on seed packets is mostly meaningless for small gardens. The row spacing is determined by how large the plant gets plus how much room a human needs to be able to walk down a row. The plant spacing, which is usually significantly smaller than the row spacing, is the only important number. As long as your planting area is less than four or five feet across, depending on the length of your arms, you won’t be planting rows. You can easily reach to the middle of that space from either side. So, what happens if I stop paying attention to the row requirements of these plants?

Improved Garden

By simply ignoring the row requirements, and just spacing by plant spacing within a row, I’ve increased the lettuce number by 2, and also added in 16 carrots. This is becoming a little more worthwhile! It is also less work than the first example, because there’s less overall space for weeds to grow, or for water to evaporate. If you’re worried about the plants competing for nutrients at this density, then simply build a raised bed and fill it with a mix of compost and soil; which you really should do anyway, because it also reduces weeding and water loss.

You can expand on this simple concept even further by taking into account plant growth habits, the time of year for each plant, and the rooting characteristics to get this:

4x43

I now have 1 tomato, 1 pepper, up to 27 lettuce, 8 peas, 8 beans, 4 corn, 1 squash, 16 carrots, and 16 green onions. This is a lot of production for a tiny space, and requires little additional maintenance over the previous example.

– The peas on the north side will grow from early spring into early summer on a vertical trellis. They won’t take up more than a couple inches of room along the edge of the bed and will be out of the way by the time the corn and tomato really get going.

– The lettuce that you see on top of both the tomato and the pepper will be planted much earlier than these summer crops, and can be replanted after initial picking underneath of the nightshades because the larger plants will provide them much needed shade from the summer heat. The lettuce acts as a living mulch to suppress weeds while the tomatoes and peppers grow and produce.

– The upper right quadrant is a classic ‘Three Sisters’ block. The corn acts as a trellis for the pole beans, the pole beans fix nitrogen into the soil for the hungry corn, and the squash shades out the soil to suppress weeds and hold in moisture.

– The carrots and green onions are an example of soil space and light sharing. Neither of these plants cast much shade, so they will not interfere with their light requirements. Additionally, green onions are relatively shallow rooted when compared to carrots, so they won’t compete for nutrients in a harmful way.

None of these suggestions are set in stone. You could replace the squash with a melon, for instance. Experience, knowledge, and some guess work all contribute to design. As the garden grows from 4×4 to, say, three 8×4 beds, you simply expand the concepts above to take up more space. It’s all highly modular, and your production rates can rise exponentially with more space compared to how little extra work it requires.

This is an image of my current plan for the 2014 garden. It isn’t complete, and may still change. I also have not designated all of the less important under-crops or space sharing items due to it’s sized. In three 4×10 foot beds, I’m planting about 50 different types of vegetables and fruit, not including some different varieties of each. The yields for this amount of space can be impressive, and completely worth the effort.

Anyone with a lawn could spare some space for practical food production. Historically, lawns were a sign of wealth used to signify a lack of concern for growing food. The fact that we’ve turned millions of square miles of suburban America into closely-cropped prairie or old-field mosaic is a disturbing given how much food could be produced on even small pieces of land.

Quarter Acre Homestead

This is an example of what I want to work towards, and what I want to encourage other people to appreciate. That is one quarter of an acre of land that could potentially produce over 3000 lbs of mixed food. It would require a notable amount of time, but not much more than someone who cares about their grass yard and ornamental gardens would be spending every week.

As I said at the beginning of this post, I’m willing to help anyone who contacts me about getting started or continuing projects related to this. It allows me to share what I know, see what ideas others have, and learn more along the way. A couple of people have requested help already, and I’m sure there are more of you who would love to pick something out of your yard and immediately take a bite of it. There’s not much better when it comes to food.

Wabbit Season

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A choice a little less obvious for working pets than chickens is rabbits.  Before ya’ll get all squeamish about the idea of eating a pet’s babies, hear me out.  I swear as a former vegetarian it’s more good news than bad.

Before Ben first suggested getting breeding rabbits, we were looking (as always) for new and exciting recipes.  We tried our hand at rabbit cacciatore.

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It was delicious; and the seed was planted.

Ben sat on the idea for months.  Doing his research on their needs, their maintenance, and where to get them.  Turns out they are about as much work as indoor cats.  Our rabbits eat a combination of hay and grass pellets.  They each have their own homes called hutches, and we are currently waiting until the snow melts on the ground before we can make them something like the chicken run, so they can run around on their own.

After weeks of research, one fine evening I came home to, “I got rabbits.”  Turns out there is a breeder in Annapolis that had a good line of American blue rabbits.  So, we started a new project: The Rabbit Hutch.  About an hour of “planning” (which was out the window once we started), two or three late nights, and three trips to Home Depot later…

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Then, while I was away at work, Ben went to Annapolis and picked up two grey buns.  He picked up two not so little girls.  These rabbits would be our pets.  We wouldn’t eat them, and could love and care for them like the cats.

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To the left is Rosemary, and the right is Tore, as in cacciatore.

Tore was the first to be held.  She’s such a cutie-pie with her fuzzy feets.

Craigslist to the rescue again for two more rabbit hutches, and our [temporary] rabbit village is complete!

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There were things we kept in mind with each hutch.  First, that it was made from wood and metal and not plastic, and that there was a fully enclosed space in each hutch.  The enclosed part will protect them against the elements when it gets below freezing, and the open area would allow them to cool down in the summer heat.  Though, the heat is more of a problem for these rabbits, which were breed to withstand cold temps (hence the features like the fuzzy feet). Cleanability was another consideration.  Tore’s hutch has two doors, Rosey’s has three doors and a top that hinges, and the third hutch we got has a tray on the bottom as well as a hinged door on the top.

After a new litter was born at the Crabtown Rabbitry, we got to go pick up Stew!

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Stew is our buck and will have Tore and Rosey as his lady friends (what a lucky fella).  He is the cuddliest of the three and actually likes being held and petted.

Soon, we will be able to put them together and breed some rabbits!

Now onto the Why:

Why rabbits?

Well, rabbit is delicious for one.  We wouldn’t go through the trouble if we didn’t like eating rabbit.  For another reason, rabbit is actually a very healthy meat as they go.  It is a lean meat with a good amino acid score and errs on the side of anti-inflammatory.

Also, rabbit is pretty darn sustainable.  When I was a vegetarian, I was in it for environmental reasons.  I loved animals but it turns out, I loved my health more, and found my way back to meat and away from grains, but I digress.  Rabbits reproduce, like, well… rabbits.  They need relatively cheap feed to produce a high quality meat in large quantity.   With the two does, assuming they will have one month pregnant, one month nursing, and one month off (which we have seen in other rabbitries and both agree that the rabbits were healthy and happy at that rate) we will get around 8 litters with about 8 babies at about 5 1/2 pounds each when grown, will yield about 350 pounds of meat a year.

What’s even better about this meat is there is no transportation (besides getting their yearly supply of hay and monthly-ish supply of pellets), no hormones or additives, and I know exactly how each and every rabbit is treated.  Even small rabbit farms or meat farms in general can’t be sure every animal gets their daily cuddling, but I can.  And furthermore, I can promise to try and find a good use for every bit the rabbits give us!  Once we get the rabbit run built in the spring, the rabbits will even get their share of running around outside; right now they get to run around the basement every so often.

Plus, the kittehs will get a special treat every once and a while, and I’ll have to try organ meats at least once.

All and all, I’m super excited to have some new pets to play with, let Stewbie do his thing with his lady friends, and most importantly have me some more rabbit cacciatore!

Backyard Chickens

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When I first met Ben, his profile picture featured him with a big smile on his face and a chicken on his shoulder.  I mean, I wasn’t a huge fan of birds, but didn’t think too much on it.  We went on our first date at a sushi restaurant, and I asked about his pets: eight chickens and two cats.  I asked the standard questions that I now field all the time like, “Do you eat them?” and, “Do they lay eggs?” To which the answers are no, and yes respectively.

Ben and one of his favorite chickens, Dagda.

Ben and one of his favorite chickens, Dagda.

About another month into our relationship, two of the chickens got sick. We believe they were egg bound (when an egg gets stuck in the chicken’s reproductive tract), and both died shortly after. I was surprised because I found myself upset, and I never would have guessed I’d have felt that way about a bird. Shortly after, a fox got into the chicken run and killed the remaining six chickens. It was a sad way to start a new flock, but such is life. It was a chance to start over.

Since it was early enough in the year, Ben decided to take a trip to a farm halfway between York and Hanover, PA. We got six chicks. One buff Orpington named Waffles, one blue laced Wyandotte named Herbert, two copper Marans named Roostroyer and Tilapia, and a black Silkie aptly named Fluffybutt.

The new baby chickens first time outside.

The new baby chickens first time outside.

I named Herbert first; he may have been my favorite.

He was so little he fit in my pocket.

He was so little he fit in my pocket.

They were housed in a giant storage bin with a heat lamp, food, and water with wood chips on the bottom. The bin was in the bathroom for about 3 or 4 weeks, and peeps could be heard round the clock. Those were both the cutest and most annoying weeks of my life.

Since Ben lives near his neighbors, he can’t keep roosters because of the noise they make.  So, when the chicks grew into chickens and those chickens started crowing like roosters, we had to find them a new home.  First Roostroyer started crowing, then Herbert.  We found a kind fellow from Ben’s father’s work to take Roostroyer, and a woman with a sizable collection of chickens for Herbert.  I know in my heart they are happy and getting all the tail-feather they could want.

Here is part of the chicken coop and run.  The chickens are enjoying some time outside in the open.

Here is part of the chicken coop and run. The chickens are enjoying some time outside in the open.

With only three and a half chickens (since Fluffybutt is a silkie, she lays half-sized eggs), we needed more!  Craigslist is the best bet for pullets (young chickens), which is where we found Kevin, an Ameraucana.

Kevin comes home!

Kevin comes home!

And two more! One Leghorn named Fog[horn], and one Barred Rocks that doesn’t have a name just yet.

Newbies!

Newbies!

Tilapia, the alpha hen, and Waffles, the giant, fluffy one, have started laying eggs.  I can’t wait until Fluffybutt lays little bitty eggs and Kevin, the jerk, lays her green or blue eggs.

They have become my babies, my pets, and my breakfast makers!