The Grovestead

Farm, Family, Fun.

Category: Gardening (page 2 of 11)

How much to grow?

How much do I grow?One of the most common questions I get asked about gardening is “How much should I grow?” Another question that goes along with it is “How  big of a garden do I need to feed my family?”

These are good questions and ones that I haven’t had a good answer for. Until now.

I just plant more of the things I like to eat and less of the things I don’t and hope it all works out in the end. But after doing this for several years, that system is not working. It’s a lot of work to plant crops you won’t end up harvesting and there’s a limited amount of time and storage when harvest season comes around.

Corn and potatoes

Planning the harvest to your specific needs is the only way to ensure you aren’t wasting precious time, money or labor. There are various “rules of thumb” on the Internet, such as “grow 5 celery plants per person”. But everyone has different preferences when it comes to diet. It makes a lot more sense to figure out plantings based on how much food you actually eat rather than vague per-person estimates.

So over the holiday weekend I created a spreadsheet that lists every vegetable we grow. Next to each vegetable I enter the serving size for each meal and the number of meals we consume that vegetable each month. For example, 1/2 cup of corn once a week or 3/4 cup of potatoes 3 times a month. Then it calculates the number of plantings needed to produce that much harvest for the whole year. For example, 78 stalks of corn and 17 potato plants.

Spreadsheet used to figure out planting calculations based on food we actually eat

Spreadsheet I used to figure out number of plantings based on food we actually eat

I also added fields for Family Size and Sufficiency Goal so it is easy to change the calculations as our family and goals change. This year our goal is to grow 50% of our own produce.

Lastly, I converted the spreadsheet into an online calculator and published it on this site so I could share it with others. It’s been a tremendously helpful tool already. Besides knowing we need to plant 177 onion bulbs, I also know how much area is required for each vegetable, so I know how big to size the garden plot.

I used the area calculations for each vegetable to lay out the garden plot

I used the area calculations for each vegetable to lay out the garden plot

At 50% sufficiency for our family, we need a garden plot with just over 600 square feet, which is about 25′ x 25′. But if we wanted to produce all our own produce, we’d need a garden double that size.

Click here to see the How Much To Grow Calculator or find it under the “Gardening” tab in the  menu bar. Let me know your thoughts to improve it and any other vegetables you’d like me to list.

 


Back to Eden Garden Update

Garden Update -- Blueberries & Cherries!

It’s a happy day when blueberries and cherries are ripe for picking!

We spent the the evening in the berry patches after dinner. Strawberries have come and gone, blueberries are ripe right now, and the raspberries are a few weeks away from fruiting.

Raspberries

The raspberry canes were cut to the ground at the end of last season and heavily mulched. But the soil underneath is so healthy they have grown to enormous proportions. We’re still enjoying raspberry jam from last year’s harvest but we expect another huge harvest this year.

Garden plot as of July 2016

The main vegetable plot is much smaller this year as I slowly transition to a Back to Eden (deep-mulch) approach. I can only make the space as big as I have wood chips to fill it with.

I first experimented with a Back to Eden plot two years ago. The results were incredible. Minimal weeding, no watering, and much larger produce. But not having more wood chips I decided to go back to the traditional tilling method last year. Despite a herculean effort to keep weeds out (I even used black plastic and mulched the walkways), I was still overwhelmed. I probably spent 3-4 hours a week weeding, but a short vacation in mid-July was all it took for the weeds to gain the upper-hand. It became a lost cause by late summer.

I am happy to report the Back to Eden method virtually eliminates the weed problem altogether. Since planting I have spent no more than an hour weeding all year! Whatever does come up is simple to pull because the woodchips are so porous. I haven’t watered either.

However, I have had the same problems with germination as I did a few years ago, due mainly to woodchips falling back over the soil I had pulled back to plant. Being one of the wettest Springs on record, I also had a lot of problems with slugs (wood ash takes care of that problem… until the next rain).

But the biggest problem has been the overall tepid progress of the garden as a whole. It’s as though the garden is about a month behind schedule. This has been quite disappointing and confusing because I experienced the opposite result when I tested this method out a few years ago. And this time around I even gave the wood chips a full 6 months to break down.

What I was finally able to discover was the difference in quality of compost I laid down before adding the wood chips. In my experimental plot a few years ago, I laid down several layers of high-nitrogen fertilizer (litter from my chicken coop) before adding the wood chips. This offset the nitrogen-robbing effect of the carbon in the woodchips.

Wood chips will eventually break down on their own releasing both carbon and nitrogen back into the soil, but it’s a long process. Many people I have talked to with Back to Eden Gardens have said that it wasn’t until year 3 that they really saw their gardens take off. And each successive year is better than the previous because the soil continues to build.

B2E gardens are definitely a huge time savings in weeding and watering. But if you want a really productive first year,  it makes a difference what kind of compost you use. I know this to be true because of the mammoth growth of our cherry tree planted in our chicken pen.

Cherry bomb

This tree was planted a mere 9 months ago, in the Fall. But it is the most productive vegetation on our entire property, producing a full crop of cherries in its first year and prompting my sister-in-law to say “that’s the healthiest cherry tree I’ve ever seen!”

Here’s what the tree looked like when we planted it:

Cherry tree when planted last Fall

Clearly, the quality of compost makes a difference. Just as Paul Gautschi does with his garden, I have begun harvesting the top layer of this nutrient-dense soil as a fertilizer for the garden plot. But it will take some time to work its way down to the root zone.

Elsewhere in the garden, our Bee-Friendly Garden perennials are beginning to bloom. Purple coneflower, wild bergamot, and blue flowering borage:

Purple Coneflower in our Bee Friendly Garden

Beebalm in our Bee Friendly Garden

Borage in our Bee Friendly Garden


Back to Eden No-Till Garden, Revisited

2015 Garden

Last year I experimented with a no-till garden plot based on Paul Gautschi’s “Back to Eden” gardening method. This year I decided to go back to the conventional method of tilling, largely because I didn’t have enough wood mulch to cover my entire garden space, nor did I have the energy to put in the work up front. I promised myself I would stay on top of the weeds this year as opposed to letting them get out of control like I did last year.

And I did keep on top of them for awhile. Hoeing pretty much every day in May and June. But a 4-day hiatus in mid-July is all it took for the weeds to become unmanageable. July is probably the worst month for weeds because you’re at your least motivated place to do anything about it. It’s hot. You’ve been carrying on for months. Nothing is ripe yet. I’ll get to it tomorrow! Tomorrow eventually comes and the weeds are taller than you, so you throw in the towel. Weeds: 2, Me: 0.

It was about this time that I started thinking about no-till approach again. Avoiding weeds isn’t the main point of a Back to Eden/No-Till garden—building healthy soils is. Still, it was hard to ignore that the old plot had fewer weeds than any of my fresh garden beds, even a year later after no tending.

I felt like God was trying to teach me something. I had tried the traditional gardening for another year and really gave it my best effort, as much as one could without quitting their day job. But the results were no better. The soil was getting depleted and crop yields were way down. On the other hand, the no-till plot, while it requires more up-front work, requires less work throughout the season and builds my soil over time.

Watch the full documentary here: Back to Eden Film.

So I’m back at it, getting my garden set up for next Spring’s planting already. I’ve done a lot more research to correct things I missed the first time around. Becca has joined my enthusiasm and we’ve spent several days watching Paul Gautschi videos on YouTube and making our plans for next year. Here’s what we’ve learned:

  1. Back to Eden gardening is about building healthy soils. Many people (me included) give it a shot for one season and list off the pros and cons. But it takes years, decades even, for the garden to really shine. Paul has been doing this method for 35 years.
  2. Weeds are reduced, but not eliminated. As long as the mulch is deep enough (at least 4 inches), they should be easy to pull. One great tip to deal with patches of weeds is to throw newspaper on top and shovel another scoop of mulch. Anything that doesn’t get oxygen and light will eventually die off.
  3. Layer compost and new mulch in the Fall. Paul follows the cycles of nature. The Creator fertilizes the earth in the Fall, when trees lose their leaves, so the nutrients have all winter to decompose into the soil. That’s when he adds compost from the chicken pen to the top of his beds. Rains and snow wash the compost below the mulch. No mixing, just layering like in nature.
  4. Nutrient dense soil doesn’t need crop rotation. Paul has been planting his potatoes in the same spot for 26 years. There are no diseases because his soils are healthy and have an abundance of minerals and nutrients.
  5. Wood chips do not need to be brought in every year. After the first year or two, the chips will settle and provide a covering for the next decade or so. Paul has mulched his garden twice in 35 years.

Paul encourages everyone to use what they have. In my case, I didn’t have enough mulch to cover the whole garden. But I felt that I could grow more in a smaller space than I could in a larger, conventional garden. So I built a box, mainly as a border for lawn mowing, and filled it with compost and wood chips.

Small Back to Eden garden plot

Next year I’ll plant and if I come into any more mulch I’ll expand the box. Someday I might cover the whole garden with wood chips, but then again, I may not need to.

 


Saving heirloom tomato seeds, step-by-step

Saving heirloom tomato seeds

One of the joys of hobby farming is discovering trends that develop over many seasons. A homegrown tomato plant originally inspired me to start my own garden. Five years later I’m still growing them–and just about everything else that will sprout in Minnesota soil. I still feel like a beginner and often chide myself for not putting more effort into the essentials like weeding, pruning, mulching. But looking back over the long haul, it’s fun to see how far we’ve come.

This was the first year I grew some of our garden veggies from saved heirloom seed. Heirloom seeds are from plants that breed true, meaning the children grow up to produce the same edible fruit as the parent. Heirloom seeds are what our great great grandparents relied on when settling the Midwest because you could reliably reproduce the same crop year after year. Hybrid seeds, by contrast, have many advantages such as disease resistance, better flavor, or yield but are usually good only for one season. For that reason, I’ve decided to become proficient at growing–and saving–heirloom seeds. Personally, I’d rather have a locally-adapted, organically grown seed bank of my favorite garden veggies than rely on mass-produced seeds from the garden section of the hardware store.

First heirloom generation

Last year I saved my first batch of several breeds of tomatoes, including cherry (small), rutgers (medium), and the same cherry variety that happened to produce tiny yellow tomatoes. The saved seed all grew exceptionally well, and in fact germinated better than my store-bought seed.

Heirloom tomatoes growing in our garden

Now I’m saving the second generation of seed. Here’s how:

1. Pick good tomatoes.

Cutting the tomatoes to save seed

If you can distinguish one plant as being a better grower (more disease resistant, better flavor, etc) pick tomatoes from that plant.

2. Scoop out the goop.

Scooping out the seeds

Cut down the middle of each tomato and scoop out the gelatinous goop into a plastic or glass bowl. The seeds are embedded inside the goo, so don’t bother trying to separate.

3. Cover and let ferment.

Cover cup and let ferment

Add a little bit of water to the bowl, enough to cover the seeds. Cover the bowl with an air permeable lid like cloth or plastic wrap with a hole poked in the top. Set on a windowsill or someplace warm for a few days to ferment. Stir once a day and recover. If you see foamy suds atop the mixture, its working. The fermentation process separates the goo from the seed and kills off any pathogens which might carry disease into your next crop.

4. Strain and dry.

Use a kitchen sieve to strain seeds

After a few days have passed, use a fine kitchen sieve to strain the mixture and wash off the goop. Spread the seeds out into a coffee filter to let dry for about a week.

That’s all there is to it! Put the seeds in an envelope and store in a cool, dry place until next Spring.

 


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