Beyond Salads, Growing Resiliency in our Backyard Gardens
by Mark DuPont
It’s always a great time to garden, but now even more so. With the Covid-19 pandemic, people are staying at home, minimizing shopping trips, and uncertain about future supply chains. Home gardens conjure images of vine-ripened tomatoes and fresh salads, but they can produce more than just salads and garnishes, and historically they have provided vital calories during times of crises. This article will review how a few different gardening writers have approached ways to maximize the amount of nutrition you can produce in your own garden.
In 1966 Alan Chadwick introduced the French intensive-Biodynamic method to the US and changed the way people garden. Suddenly gardeners were planting in raised beds, double-digging and companion planting. Chadwick showed that finely honed gardening skills focused on a small area could produce spectacular results. E.F. Schumacher called him “the greatest horticulturist of the 20th century.” He blazed his way through the US, leaving a trail of magical gardens (I had the good fortune of living and learning at one of them, Camp Joy Garden, for six years) and inspired gardeners whose hearts were lit on fire by his passion for nature, beauty and the garden itself. Chadwick was part gardener, part mystic and part inspirational madman. His teachings were hard to encompass and capture into words. John Jeavons was the first to describe Chadwick’s gardening methods and publish them in the book “How to Grow More Vegetables Than You Ever Thought Possible on Less Land Than You Can Imagine”, which has become a gardening classic. Jeavons re-named the method Biointensive Gardening, and his book is full of practical information on getting a lot of food out of a small area. The non-profit EcologyAction was formed in 1972 to research and develop the Biointensive method and teach high-yield sustainable agriculture worldwide, through ongoing workshops, internships, research and publications.
Above: Camp Joy Garden in the Santa Cruz Mountains, one of the many inspired by Alan Chandwick.
Ecology Action addresses issues of growing population and topsoil loss, often working in areas throughout the world where arable land and fresh water are in short supply, so their objective is to maximize yields utilizing small areas. Equally as important as how to grow is what to grow. What crops yield the most food from a small area? “One Circle: How to Grow a Complete Diet in Less Than 1,000 Square Feet” by David Duhon is an effort to answer that question. Trying to grow a complete diet in such a small area is quite a challenge (that’s a square 32 feet on each side), and the book tackles it first with in-depth discussion of human nutritional needs; and then follows that by looking at the nutritional composition of many crops. It’s a wonky book, full of charts and tables and even a slide rule(!) that helps you figure out how many square feet of a crop to grow to meet the daily requirements of various specific nutrients (this was written long before apps). It’s been on my shelf for years and I confess I’ve never used the slide rule, I just find the whole idea intriguing. Perhaps the most useful insight the book provides is that some crops are area efficient, while others are weight efficient. Weight efficient crops include nuts, seeds and grains, i.e. foods that jam a lot of nutrients into a small package but tend to require more space to grow. Area efficient crops will yield a lot of nutrition from a small area and include root crops and deep leafy greens. After a detailed analysis of human nutritional needs and rating crops for their weight and area efficiency, fourteen crops are chosen for the Once Circle Garden (drumroll please): collards, filberts, alliums (onions, leeks & garlic), parsley, parsnips, peanuts, potatoes, soybeans, sweet potatoes, sunflower, turnips and wheat.
If “One Circle” can be called the geek approach, then “The Resilient Gardener” by Carol Deppe would be the practical approach. Deppe writes from years of gardening experience in Oregon, and explores how to grow your own food in a changing climate, amid economic uncertainty, with minimal inputs. It’s a practical book full of tips and insights on gardening tools, variety selection, dietary needs, food storage and more. Like many people, Deppe has had to deal with food allergies, so she shares how she learned to produce her own gluten-free breads and staples to accommodate her changing needs. Like many who started out as a young gardener, she’s now an aging gardener, and talks about ways to garden and work that are easier on her back and whole body. At the heart of the book is a list of five crops she considers the backbone of a resilient garden: potatoes, squash, beans, corn and the laying flock (that is, chickens or ducks that provide eggs). I personally prefer this list over the One Circle list. I’ve grown wheat and barley several times and find that I rarely get round to threshing and processing the grains. Sunflowers are great, but the birds usually end up eating more than I do. Filberts are hit and miss in our area – too much heat and not enough water and they’ll produce a lot of “blanks”, empty shells with no meat. Potatoes, squash, bean, corns and the laying flock. All of these crops are nutritionally dense, grow well in our climate, and are easy to store and process. I would add to this list alliums and leafy greens. Grow these crops, and you’ll always have substantial food in your garden and pantry. Of course, above all you should grow what you love. Flowers feed the soul. Being Italian, but I can’t imagine not growing several rows of tomatoes every year, even though they're not on either list.
Notice that the crop that makes it to both lists is potatoes. Potatoes are high yielding, easy to grow, and produce more calories per square foot than any other temperate crop. They are also high in protein, second only to legumes in the veggie world. They require few inputs, are drought resistant, easy to store and will taste far better out of your garden than off the shelf. So, if you’re not sure where to start, plant spuds! It’s best to use certified seed potatoes, but in a year like this they can be hard to find, so use store bought if you need to, but avoid commercial potatoes, which are often treated with sprout inhibitors, and buy organic potatoes instead. An ideal seed potato is a hole or piece of potato about the size of an egg and contains two to three good sprouts. Potatoes prefer a well-drained loam but can deal with heavier soils if you mulch instead of mound. Don’t put too much nitrogen in the soil as it will make leggy plants with watery tubers and may encourage scab. Thin to 2-3 sprouts per plant and begin mounding when plants are 6 – 10 inches high. Tubers grow along the stem and must be covered with soil or they will turn green in sunlight and be inedible. The goal is to end up with a mound at least 12 inches over the planted seed tubers. Some gardeners like planting in a trench in order to get a head start on mounding, but I find it counterproductive in the early season when the soil is still cool – potatoes planted too deeply in cold soil will rot before sprouting. Don’t skimp on the mounding; green potatoes are a drag. And be sure to store potatoes in a cool place that is completely dark. Potatoes exposed to light develop toxic glycoalkaloids. Check out the Resilient Gardener for more tips on growing, harvesting, storing and enjoying this amazing crop!
For more regionally-specific information on gardening, animal husbandry, fruit trees, soils, irrigation, food preservation, and more, check out the Foodshed Pages on the MKWC website here.
Mark DuPont is a MKWC Board Member and the owner and operator of Sandy Bar Ranch and Klamath Knot Permaculture with his partner Blythe Reis. Mark has over 25 years of experience in Permaculture as a farmer, nurseryman, instructor, consultant, and organic inspector in California and Latin America. Mark supports community-based food needs by organizing seasonal workshops, providing technical support for gardens and farms, and supporting community initiatives regarding food security.