Dirt Wisdom: Gardening Gradually

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Looking back on the summer of gardening that was, I ponder lessons learned. The first is one I have read in countless gardening books and magazines: “Start small and plant only as much as you can handle.” Every time I read those words, I yawn and skim. My ability to continually romanticize things is definitely where the trouble started.

Previously, my garden space was restricted in size and so this summer, with several years of banked yearning, I produced a sizable garden that overflowed with produce - and work. Not content with just a back yard garden or a community garden plot, I pulled our front yard space into commission too.


As a stay-at-home mother of one very active two-year old boy and wife to a husband who works full time, I failed to comprehend the work load required to make subsistence farming a reality. I had idyllic visions of stocking our pantry with enough local produce to last us the year. We came close to succeeding, but it definitely came at a cost to my sanity - and my family's.

While our friends were having lazy summer BBQs, my husband and I were canning tomatoes. While our neighbors were out playing in the park, my family was picking and shelling peas. I stressed about leaving town for holidays, worried about weather conditions and fretted that the weeds I no longer had time to pull were about to go to seed. Meanwhile, I probably wasn't the most enjoyable person to be around.

Unless you can walk away from excess produce when it comes time to harvest and preserve (I cannot), or you are willing to work around the clock to salvage it all, I can tell you first hand to be realistic in your expectations of how much gardening space you can handle.

Start small, expand gradually, and make sure you have your family's pre-approval to help with the workload. I definitely didn't have my husband's, which led to several heated discussions about my exact plan for next year. The 2012 garden, we decided, will not include the front yard, which is fine because I’m sure we can be more efficient with the remaining space.

How much space is enough? It all depends on whom you ask. The Devraes Family is one of my favorite inspirations on that subject; they produce 6,000+ pounds of vegetables annually on 1/10 of a city acre. Square foot gardening, container gardening and crop rotations can pack much produce into small spaces.

But be forewarned, intensive gardening in this manner does require some preplanning and organization. Two great resources on the subject are Mel Bartholomew's book, 'Square Foot Gardening' and John Jeavon's, 'How to Grow More Vegetables' - two books my husband, I'm sure, would appreciate if I reread this winter.

Mel Bartholomew's book is ideal for maximizing small spaces with planned crop rotations and the use of vertical growing. John Jeavon's book goes into detail about how much food a person needs annually to live and how much space is needed to grow it all.

Deciding on how much space to allot for a garden depends on a few personalized answers:

  • How many family members are you hoping to feed?
  • What percentage of each meal are you looking to supply from your garden?
  • Do you want to supplement your summer meals with garden produce or are you hoping to stock fridge, freezer and root cellar?
  • How much time do you (and your family) have to commit to garden maintenance?

Try to be honest with yourself when answering each question. If you're just starting out, plant what you know you and your family will eat. If no one in your family likes turnips, don't plant them. (Ahem. Lesson learned.)

As for seed catalogs, try to be disciplined. It may seem like an accomplishment to narrow it down to seven varieties of tomatoes from the hundreds offered, but seven still might be too many (depending on how many of each you decide to grow!). Come planting time, too many seed varieties, can lead to a garden with more plants than you can handle or enjoy.

In the end, I took one very important lesson away from the summer's gardening experience: Learning the skills necessary to grow your own food is far more important than how much you grow. It’s not necessary to grow it all every year, but to be able to pull from the knowledge of having grown a variety of produce over time, should you ever need to. What you can't or didn't grow, some one else surely did and will likely be happy to trade the excess.

Zucchini, anyone?

Shanon Hilton is a mother, wife, aspiring farmer, and passionate food advocate. She writes about her thoughts on food, farming and health at www.foodfarmhealth.ca.

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