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August 2009: Reflections on Expanding a Garden

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From 5 to 20 Beds: Reflections
From Margo Royer-Miller

For the 2008 main season we moved from the Ecology Action Headquarters east of Willits to the Golden Rule Garden (7 miles south of town) and expanded our 5-Bed Unit to a 20-Bed Unit.  This allowed us to grow all of the annual crops in our design from Booklet #31, 17.73 beds (see February 2008 On-line Newsletter).

Because we started in April, we didn’t have the opportunity to grow the winter crops, rye and garlic, in 2008.  We took advantage of some gopher-caged beds and some space in the greenhouse to experiment with 90 square feet of sweet potatoes and 50 square feet of potatoes, outside the contiguous 20-bed unit.  Here are some observations on the crops we grew:

Potatoes:  We suspect that we had some loss in yield due to gopher damage.  The only potatoes that achieved intermediate yield were our Red Pontiac within the gopher cage.  The yield of 205 lb/100 sq ft is 2.4 times the U.S. average for potatoes (as listed in How to Grow More Vegetables by John Jeavons)! The other two varieties in the gopher cage were the next highest in yield (see 20-Bed Unit Data for more yield information). 

We kept our potatoes under a shade net during the sunniest hours of the day, as they like to be cool.

Sweet Potatoes: We ordered slips from Sandhill Preservation Center.  They had a difficult spring, and our slips of northern varieties came later than ideal, in poor condition.  We also grew some of our own slips.  Our own slips looked much better, though the yields weren’t noticeably different.

There was a significant difference, however, in the yields inside and outside the greenhouse.  The foliage in the greenhouse was terrific, but the plants yielded very few potatoes, all of a small size.  This makes sense due to the aged fiberglass that doesn’t allow complete photosynthesis.

Parsley:  Darki is a variety that is normally planted for winter growth at Ecology Action.  We planted it in the spring and it produced better than intermediate yields!  Despite slow, steady gopher damage we still had a bountiful harvest.

Cayenne/Ancho:  Some of our cayenne peppers survived being dropped immediately after prick out, but some didn’t.  We had to plant ancho peppers to fill the square footage suggested in our design.  The cayenne didn’t mature well or produce many peppers.  The ancho produced fairly well, and we loved eating them.  They  yielded 26.5 lb/100 sq ft.

We experimented with interplanting lettuce in the peppers and tomatoes, because they are slow growing and on wider spacing (12-24” centers).  We wonder if the lettuce stunted the peppers a little bit, perhaps limiting their photosynthesis.  We harvested the lettuce very large, and chose first those heads directly beside the small pepper seedlings to give them more space.  Perhaps we should have harvested the lettuce smaller or planted it a little later, after the peppers were better established.

Pinto Beans:  Perhaps the most exciting part of the summer was our dry beans.  We used four different varieties, not only pinto beans which are listed in the design.  Sections of black, kidney, and pinto beans achieved better than intermediate yields, 2.8-3.8 times the U.S. average!  We were especially proud, and display the colorful seeds in glass jars while they wait to be consumed.

Flour Corn:  This was the other exciting crop of the season.  Some of our beds produced over intermediate yields in biomass.  The earlier we planted the corn, the better we found the biomass yield, important for our compost pile and sustainable soil fertility.

We experimented with saving our own seed through hand-pollination and bagging of ears.  This was fun!  We are going to plant our own Hopi Blue seed this season and see how it produces.

Of the four varieties we tried, we prefer Hopi Blue and Bloody Butcher.  Both have colorful seeds and make colorful cornbread and tortillas.  They also produce biomass well.  We found Seneca Red Stalker and Wachichu Flint to be beautiful, but shorter, so less biomass production.

Amaranth:  We enjoyed the color amaranth heads bring to the garden.  We harvested one batch of amaranth too early and noted a difference in the seed yield, though not as much in the biomass yield.

One section of our amaranth is part of our income design, intended for seed sale (hypothetically).  We put this on 18” centers according to Ecology Action’s Booklet #13 Growing to Seed.  The seed yield wasn’t impressive.  Through conversation with John and Carol, we learned they have been experimenting with amaranth spacing for some time.  Tighter spacing than the 12” recommended in How to Grow More Vegetables might even produce more seed.  We will do our income section on 12” centers next season, just like the diet section.

Leeks:  In April, 2009, we are still finishing up the leeks.  The Giant Carentan variety from Turtle Tree Seeds did impressively well in the cold season and seemed to improve through the winter.  We’ll grow some out for seed in 2009.

Early Bunching Onions (EBOs): We’ve adopted 2”centers through the trenching method described in the August 2008 Ecology Action Newsletter.  We tried two varieties.  White Spear is a Golden Rule favorite and grows well.  Most of the EBOs we harvested were past marketability, large and strong in flavor.  They were delicious!  Deep Purple was new to us, and we noted that they also seemed to improve in the cooler weather of the fall.

EBOs are part  of our income design.  We tried to plant a large section all at once and learned that it is difficult to use them consistently (we were not selling them).  We see room for improvement in a cycle of plantings in small sections.  This would certainly evolve with real market experience.

Extra space and crops—Because our design is 17.73 beds of annual crops, there was a little more space in the 20-Bed Unit for crops we wanted to grow to experiment with.  We chose several.  Kale has not grown well for us yet; this season we’ll try Red Russian instead of Dino.  We had a good crop of celery, harvesting outer stems consecutively.  Here are some other notes:

Peas:  We grew several varieties.  Super Sugar Snap are by far our favorite for flavor and tenderness, but not our all-around favorite.  Dwarf Gray Sugar were supposed to have edible pods but we found them tough and shelled these for peas; they were fantastic.  Our favorite is Schweizer Riesen, a pole snow pea.  It produced beautiful, large, and tasty pods.  It was also productive for an extended period of time (longer than expected).  We’ll grow this variety again.

Radishes:  We are experimenting with spacing and have tried 1, 2, and 3” centers.  Our preference is 2” centers.  1” centers need to be thinned and were smaller and the leaves less bold.  3” centers were beautiful but didn’t produce as many radishes or cover the soil thoroughly.  2” centers were a happy medium; no thinning, good number of radishes, good soil coverage, and healthy-looking greens.  A test of 1.5” centers versus 2” centers failed due to soil cave-ins from gopher activity below.

Spinach:  We tried two varieties as later summer crops.  Just after transplanting we had a hot-spell.  Steadfast was a good variety, yielding close to Beginner levels between July 15 and August 18.  Definitely worth trying again.

Other Observations/Learning—This was a smoky season due to forest fires.  The valley we are in was filled with smoke for a month or more in the main growing season.  We suspect that many of our crops suffered limited photosynthesis this summer due to the smoke.

Another challenge we experience is a heavy weed seed base.  This isn’t true for all the beds, but it is still one of our areas of consistent work.  We conjecture that both garlic and winter/spring grain yields in the whole garden were negatively affected by weed competition.  2009 will be a different year, we are determined!

As far as comparing our yields to our design, we produced 58% of the calories and 75% of the compost material projected for the annual crops we planted.  Many of our yields were short of the Intermediate level on which the design is based.  Additionally, when we started looking at data we realized that for very few crops did we actually plant the full square footage mentioned in the design!  This surprised us.  We will watch more closely this season to see how such inconsistencies occur and to observe the daily decision-making process that happens in the garden.

Design Review and Adjustments—Each winter we look at our diet design and try to make changes that are climate-appropriate and get us closer to growing what we eat.  (We work on our diet too, so that every year it is closer to what we grow).  This season we will remove sweet potatoes from the design; they are not a crop that grows well in Willits, so we will say goodbye (but we’ll still try a small section outside the unit to see if we can improve our yields).  We’ve replaced sweet potatoes with leeks, parsnips, and
Jerusalem artichoke.  These all grow well in our climate and in this garden.  We’ve also shifted our grains to include barley and wheat, because we enjoy these grains as well.  The weight to eat went up a little bit. 

When we ate the design for a day, we enjoyed it.  The cayenne pepper is still excessive and we’re considering taking it out of the design and planting it as an edge crop like annual herbs (cilantro and dill, for example).  This design definitely includes more potatoes than we are used to consuming in a day.  Otherwise, it was great!  We especially enjoyed the raisins.  The menu included polenta with raisins, soaked filberts, and a pinch of cayenne and water sautéed leeks and potatoes for breakfast.  We made baked potato fries and a parsley-, garlic-, cayenne-flavored dip out of mashed potatoes and parsnips.  We ate beans cooked with parsnips and Jerusalem artichoke, flavored with parsley, garlic, cayenne and leeks on top of corn tortillas.  Lastly we had small grain and filbert biscuits with a topping of the potato and parsnip dip.

Other Notes—We have expanded to a full 40-Bed Unit for 2009.  We are doubling our diet design, so the annual crops to feed two people fit within our 40 beds.  This has been a fun lesson in garden planning and crop rotation.  We have figured out a rotation that provides 3 years of rest between plantings of the same crops and crop families.  It was an exciting mental exercise for the winter months.

Dan has started a blog to share the goings-on of the Golden Rule garden.  We think it is great, but we might be a little biased.  The address is:

2009 Season—Looking Forward—We are anticipating continued growth in research and data-keeping.  When we compile our data, we see the missed opportunities for recording garden events.  For example, noting our first harvest day for dry beans was something we often forgot.  We are also using a scale that is a limitation.  We measure our amendments to the hundredth of an ounce but our scale only registers ounces in ¼, ½, and ¾ denominations.  A good scale is a must for anyone keeping data.

Our data-presentation is also growing.  We didn’t invest the time with our 20-Bed Unit to create a data system that is easily updated each year.  We are in awe of the system Carol Cox has created at Ecology Action!  We realize the value of including the bed number, the Intermediate Yield index, and the US average index for means of comparison.

We’re already over half-way through potato planting; and we have lots of seedlings coming along.  Soon we’ll be watering the garden every day and trying to remember all the things we wanted to make sure to record this season.  Compost is something we’re interested in paying more attention to as far as data is concerned.  And we can’t wait to eat the first snow pea!




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