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.