Sunday, December 16, 2018

Vegetable gardening: biting off more than you can chew

A lot of vegetable gardening advice emphasizes starting small and growing your garden very gradually. This advice assume that it is better to grow a small area well than a large area badly. Or that you'll burn out attempting to keep up with a larger garden if you're not experienced enough. The goal of this narrative is help you garden long-term, rather than giving up, which seems a very good thing and is probably true.

And yet...

I fear this approach promotes perfectionism. I think the size of your garden depends on your personality, available space, water, and whether you have opportunities for free sources of carbon/nitrogen (manure, bags of leaves, etc.).

Finally, we have hundreds of granadillas and some other dillas coming along.

We're harvesting a lot of tomatoes, basil, spinach and zucchini, and our other kinds of squash and peppers are coming along pretty fast, so hopefully in a month we'll be eating those also.

can you see the bananas in the background? and the bags of dirty raw wool. I came to terms with the fact that my windfall of wool was never going to become a beautiful carpet, and am using it as a really useful mulch. This year is all about Serious Mulching.

Our reservoir stores our rainwater for irrigation (and to have a nice place for dragonflies and frogs). Behind it are 2 of our beehives, 2 mango and one quince tree (and a lot of kei apples, all around). 

I've actually never eaten Hubbard squash before, so I'm REALLY hoping we like it, because we have so many.

So I am an advocate, within reason I guess, for gardening a large area badly... or rather, as best you can. I'm not entirely convinced I could garden any area (big or small) brilliantly. I think "better to do a small area well!" narrative is condescending and promotes a sense that if only you were knowledgeable enough, you're guaranteed a great vegetable yield. Which in turn leads to increasingly protected and controlled types of gardening-- hydroponics is perhaps the epitome of this. While experience is a wonderful teacher, I don't think there are ever any guarantees of success; failure should be considered normal, unless one is completely dependent on success for survival. Try again! Use all the resources you have been given! One of my favourite neighbours has a truly amazing vegetable garden, and even with their skill and experience, they lose a lot of food because the baboons have decided their garden is a good place to forage. Even when you're doing everything excellently you can still lose crops.

On our property, last year I wanted to get things set up to vegetable garden in a serious way, and then put effort into improving over time. It's definitely more space than I can actively manage, and yet... I would prefer to extend myself and potentially grow at a scale that puts a serious dent in our food needs. I've already learned a lot-- I just need to work to find the time for weeding or watering or picking off insects (I've got starting seedlings covered- because there it's just as easy to do a lot as a little).  The costs of a crop also decrease significantly as you scale up-- in the case of our garden, we can take on weekly deliveries of free manure and hay because we are trying to improve the soil in a fairly large area (it is much more difficult to get these free inputs if you're picky about quantity). I am not against short-cuts when necessary: I had enough time and had made enough compost to start a couple of new beds in our garden, but not enough time to start another round of seedlings-- so I just bought seedlings for the new beds. With the garden bed prepped and set to lay empty for longer if I started from seed, a tomato plant only had to produce a few tomatoes to pay for the purchase.

On a small scale, I tend to be no more attentive a gardener than on a larger scale-- I think we have limited control of each season's crops so I am a strong believer in focusing on making sure the soil is in good condition, then hedging my bets and sharing with critters and weeds if that's the way it goes (I'm lying about being completely sharing here: don't talk to me about mole rats. Here, some lies are just better than the truth. The truth being that I can't figure out how to kill those mole rats.) If a weed gets out of control, I generally only fight it for a short while, and then I plan for the next crop to be better-- usually I won't lose everything at once (except for that one time that pig razed the garden). I also tend to try to grow various families of vegetables in 6 different places at once (I'm insane), trying to remember (I keep pretty terrible records) where they were last year and where I've added compost most recently. I figure while we will have losses, there will be something that does well. Over time, I'm developing a feel for the space and the water needs of a variety of vegetables. I no longer mulch the vegetable garden with waste straw or unprocessed horse manure, as it creates too many weeds-- the soil is good enough that I can make compost, and this year I invested in a load of woodchips to help with weed pressure.

With vegetable gardening and small-scale farming-- especially if we did not learn from our parents or grandparents, or we are not living in the house or region we grew up in-- we don't have a whole lot of time to build our skill sets. There's an urgency to get going. So go ahead and do whatever you need to do, and don't worry if you fail (certainly don't stop because you failed).

Our advantage today is that we have access to virtually infinite information, so can improve our skills rapidly. Yet so many of us are living in different climates, and different soils, with different conditions, and we have a limited time.  Each crop takes time to grow, and if we're really lucky, we have a maximum of 30 or 40 opportunities to grow a crop before we get too old, move, or die. Then there's climate change.... We have the advantage (or burden) of being able to grow year round in Cape Town, so with planning we can grow 3 or even 4 crops in one place in a year.

Some other things that cause burnout are overly high expectations and/or expecting that you can control a space. That, and very low vegetable prices due the dominance of very large scale supermarkets and Big agriculture. For me, it has been very meaningful to commit fully to staying in the space we're in, and improving the soil on a large scale. Digging in, literally, and being along for the ride long-term. The size that's actually actively cultivated year to year may change according to how many seeds I start or how organized I am-- but the potential to grow a lot is there.

I'm cheering you on in your vegetable gardening efforts.