Thursday, March 3, 2011

Grow your own, and please, keep it simple

As anyone who reads this blog knows, last season we managed to produce nearly 1100 pounds of our own food here at home. Sometimes even now, I look at that number and realize what an accomplishment it was. While it seems like that may have been an endless amount of work, it really wasn't. Other than the initial sod pulling, the rest was a breeze. With all of that out of the way, this year will be even easier.

That very part leads me to the reason behind this post. I've been asked many time, in many place, how we managed that much produce from just one acre. There isn't just one answer to that question, but there is one main point, and it's easy-make it a priority.

I read about and hear of so many people that have, or want to, start their own backyard gardens, and honestly, they turn it into something more complicated than building a space shuttle. I've read about people who have built a raised bed from lumber, purchased all of the "proper" ingredients to make the perfect soil, made a cumputer spread or data sheet on each and every plant, spent countless hours laying out the perfect grid to within 1/8 of an inch, and end up spending hundreds or thousands of dollars to grow $75 worth of vegetable. I commend anyone who makes the decision to grow even some of their own food, but at times I have to stand back and ponder the logic behind it.

It's hard for most people to consider their property to be anything more than the typical suburban lot. As much as I'd love to convince people otherwise, they've been programmed by generations of suburbanites to think of it as nothing but a lawn to be mowed and decorated with flowers and a perfectly green grass. Lawns are ingrained in our brains as the norm, but at one time were only for the wealthy. Most people had simple dirt yards (ever heard of someone sweeping the yard?), or had small gardens with a mix of flowers, herbs, and vegetables. No one owned a lawnmower, or at least one that we think of. If the grass wasn't cut with a scythe, it was kept down with livestock. The first available lawn mower wasn't available until 1870,and it was nothing more than a large scale production of a machine that was used to cut the nap from velvet in factories. The first commercial mower was born, and sales boomed as people let the grass grow. Largely after World War 2, with the growth of what we now know as suburbs, the simple reel mower has changed into the machines that we all know today, machines that can cost upwards of $5000 with one single purpose-cutting grass that has no real purpose. Most don't see it as anything but normal. Dad had a lawn to cut, so did grandpa, and now we have our own. Figure in the cost of a mower, fuel for that mower, maintenance on that mower, trimmers, edgers, fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and we Americans spend $30 billion annually on our lawns. Think about that number. Thirty Billion Dollars.......on grass. It makes my head hurt.

Lawn grass has no purpose, none at all. Why have it? Why spend money year after year to grow something that you have to mantian, to do nothing with it but cut it and look at it? Why not turn that land into something usefull? In 2008, the EPA estimated that the area in the United States covered by lawns was bigger than the state of Texas. Can you imagine if that entire area, or even half of it, was used by people to produce their own food? We used close to half of our one acre for growing food last year. Just for example, the area the size of Texas is 172,000,000 acres of land. If just half of that was used (86,000,000 acres) to produce the same 1100 pounds that we managed last year, it could easily be used to produce an astounding 86,000,000 pounds of food. That figure is breathtaking. But, instead of all of that food that we could feed our family, friends, and nation with; we use it for grass. Do you see where I'm going?

My approach in the past few years has been simple. Eliminate as much of that worthless grass as possible. I've hand-dug the main garden, along with beds for strawberries, potatoes, peas, greens, carrots, cucumbers, and all of the other fruits and vegetables that we've grown here. I took the food production as a priority, and not just a hobby. To me, producing our own food is more important than nearly anything else we do. When I put it at the top of the list and dug up more areas for it, I not only was able to produce more, I was able to not spend as much valueable time on mowing, trimming, and maintaining that same worthless grass that I have mentioned many times. The initial work was hard. I can't lie about that. Every bed last year was hand dug with a shovel before tilling; but I enjoy the labor and refuse to rent equiptment to add to the cost of gardening. It is partly about saving money, right?

That brings me to the next part. As I mentioned earlier, I've seen or read of people spending hundreds or thousands of dollars putting together a vegetable garden no bigger than our car. My garden areas are extremely simple. I mark them out with stakes and string, then pull the sod layer up with a shovel. The sod is piled generally behind the garage, grass down, and covered with plastic until the following year. This way, the grass is burned off, and I have clean soil to add to areas before I till in the spring. When available, I border the beds with landscape timbers at ground level. This way, I can just mow the grass around them right to the very edge of the bed, and never have to worry about needing to use a trimmer. I use no pretty fencing or stained lumber. Just those timbers to keep the grass from growing into the beds. As always, my garden is to produce food, not to impress anyone or try ending up in some magazine. While I try me best to keep things presentable, I never, ever strive for "pretty".

We were lucky enough to have soil beneath that horrible grass that once held a vegetable garden. We haven't had to add any kind of fertilizer or other additives at all, other than the normal spring dose from our compost pile. While I'm sure that many who want to garden haven't been blessed with good soil, and they may need to work with it so it is suitable for gardening, I see lots of people that make it a lot more work than necessary. I've seen people go for a certain mix that they got from a gardening book that I won't mention. This mix, is to the author and his followers, THE only way to grow vegetables. Sure, it's a great mixture that will work wonders, but again, it isn't necessary. All you need is rich soil, and the basic old time super-secret garden soil amendments that our ancestors used for thousands of years, and still continue to use to this day. They get rather complicated, so grab a notebook and pen to write them down. Here they are-Garbage and shit. C'mon, that's all the garden needs, right? Compost and manure? Sorry to put them into such blunt words, but that's what they are. We only need terms like compost and manure to sound like we're reading straight from the gardening bible. It's no different than calling cow meet beef, or pig meat pork. It's just a made up title to cover up what it really is. But, for now I'll stick with those terms and use them, just for the sake of playing nice and non-offensive.

Anyway....back to my point. All of this soil testing and additives aren't necessary at all. Look back in time at how our ancestors fed their families year after year from their gardens. They never had to run to the local hardware store to get bags of this, packages of that, and sprays for another. They used nothing more than compost and/or manure. No peat moss, no vermiculite, and no chinamart bags of ready-to-go vegetable garden soil. They used physical labor, and what they had around them to gorw their food, and this is the very main point to this very long and outspoken post. Keep things simple. Use the basics that you have already available. Don't try to follow each and every thing that these books say. If you must use these books, use them as a guideline and not a bible. Seriously folks, don't make your garden more work than it actually is or needs to be. It's not that hard, it's not that complicated, and it's not that much work when you put it first.

Get out there and get your hands dirty. Dig your beds and grow things to feed yourself and your family. No matter what your reason behind your garden, give it the attention and respect that it deserves. Feel the power within you to free yourself, even just a little bit, from the marketing trap of the grocery store. Feel the freedom of doing things for yourself that you once felt could only be done by others. Take it seriously and make it a priority, and it will reward you with food and satisfaction for years to come.

One last thing, for those that know who I am referring to. There is a somewhat famous family who has managed to feed themselves for years on a plot of land smaller than ours. They have written books and articles, teach classes, and run several websites. By recently turning themselves into one of corporate-like, money grubbing machines that the spoke out against for so many years, they have lost thousands of followers. They stood on common garden ground with many of us for many years, but now thanks to greed, and quite frankly, egos, they are nothing now but the manure between our toes. Use them as an example. Show them that anyone can do the same things they have by making it a priority. Show them that they aren't and weren't the kings of the movement to bring homesteading back to the suburbs. Prove to them, and to yourself, that it CAN and WILL be done by anyone. Knock them off that high horse they have been riding for so long, and put them in the compost pile where they belong, with the rest of the garbage.


The Wilderness said...

Nice article Chris. I enjoyed the history lesson on mowers and grass.


Toria said...

Great post, it really annoys me when I see articles that start of with 'save money by growing your own food ...', then continuing with 'first go by some {very expensive} raised beds that come in designer colours. Yeah, they look nice, but I'm sure it discourages people from growing food if they think there is that huge initial outlay.

However, I will quibble with your description of beef vs cow. Cow came into english from the saxons, beef (deriving from the latin word for cow) came into the english language when the normans defeated the saxons. Pig & pork are the same, as is sheep & mutton.

It's not some cover up, it's called development of a language as you get conquered by different people over the centuries. Gradually people go from having two words for the same thing (because many people still spoke saxon for long after the norman invasion), to using one of the words to describe the animal & one of the words to describe the meat you get from the animal.

Jane said...

I like to work in the garden too. I need to grow two gardens this year,what with the price of everything soaring like it is. Blessings jane

Anonymous said...

Great Post Chris! and I think your probably right about making the gardens simple. With the price of veggies going up, I think you'll see a lot more little gardens sprouting up in the suburbs!! Can't wait to see what you guys are going to plant this year! ...debbie

Ralphy said...

Great post Chris, Keep up the *good* work.

OBTW, several weeks ago I paid $1.59 a pound for Butternut squash. Squash, mind you! Not hamburger. Sheesh.....

RiverBend Farm said...

What an inspiration you are to me! I'm sooo glad I came across your make me want to go out and get my hands dirtier than they are! Believe me, we've got plenty of garbage and manure around here..thanks for the encouraging words.

Anonymous said...

Great post, though in my case I need to get inventive. My plot of yard here in the village is surrounded by black walnut trees. You know what that does? It poisons the soil with juglone so that only certain veggies can grow and even then it's a struggle. So, I'm looking to rent a small parcel of land from a friend...

AutumnRose said...

Wonderful post!

I am an urban homesteader!

On Facebook: Take Back Urban Homesteading!!/pages/Take-Back-Urban-Home-steadings/167527713295518

Next Day of Action: Monday, March 7th

Chris W said...

@TW-glad you enjoyed it!

@Toria-I know why we use the terms for beef & pork, I just find it funny that many kids today don't know what they really are.

@Raplhie-produce prices are soaring, and will continue as gas prices rise.

@Andrew-Black Walnuts are a nightmare, though the timber can be worth a pretty penny. Maybe look into a community garden area if there are any available.

@AutumnRose-I'm on that Facebook group! LOL I've been following that mess since it all began....which explains my last paragraph.

small farm girl said...

What a great post! Sometimes we forget how simple and enjoyable gardening should and can be. Thanks for the reminder.

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