How did our Garden Goals work out?

Submitted by Ben Stallings on Thu, 05/03/2018 - 08:41

It's been almost 10 years since we moved into our house in Emporia, Kansas. Here's what I posted about my goals for the garden on January 8, 2009 (links updated):

A number of people have asked me just what I'm planning to do with the yard.  Some are asking because they know I admire what Brian and Kelly did with their home in Fairfield, "The Pharam," even though Brian and Kelly themselves call it an experiment in chaos.  Others just want to know why the front yard is 6 inches deep in leaves.  So here are my ambitious goals for the project, which I hope Jessie supports:

  1. The yard will produce useful food and materials, year-round.  This will require some cold frames and probably eventually a "high tunnel" greenhouse.
  2. It will provide us with a local, organic source for foods that are most contaminated with pesticides when you buy them in the store.  We've already got walnuts, pears, raspberries, potatoes, and strawberries planted, and we should be able to get grapes, tomatoes, spinach, peppers, lettuce, and squash planted this year.
  3. The yard will accumulate all its own inputs, including fertilizer and water.  This will require nitrogen-fixing plants such as clover, nutrient-accumulating mulch plants such as comfrey, and rain barrels.  We may have to rely on the neighbors for leaves for a few more years.
  4. Once established, the garden will be less work than the lawn it replaced.  This is the trickiest goal of all, and will require a lot of cleverness and at least as much laziness.  Anything that is too much work will have to go.  Ruth Stout is my inspiration for laziess.  Read that article -- it's great stuff.  As for cleverness, I use an old-fashioned reel mower on the lawn, so a lot of gardening tasks are less work than that!

So how did it work out?

  1. I kept track of what was growing each year. We had as many as 75 edible and useful plants in the yard at one point, but we pared the list down to those things that grew best and sold them at the local farmers market, which was not particularly lucrative, but helped to raise our profile in the community. I experimented with an unheated greenhouse adjoining the garage, but although I was able to keep plants alive through the winter, I was not able to harvest enough to make it worthwhile.
  2. We had no trouble growing the most pesticide-laden fruits and veggies organically, with no spraying or tilling or even crop rotation, by the use of polyculture plantings. We do have some heavy competition from the squirrels and birds at harvest time.
  3. We have continued to import autumn leaves from neighbors' yards for mulching, but we've taken in less every year; in the fall of 2017 we filled only one wire cage with one neighbor's leaves, down from as many as 5 cages in past years. This spring for the first time we were independent for green matter in the compost. We have cut down from as many as 8 rain barrels to just one, because our soil organic matter has increased from as low as 1.5% to over 8% and now holds water through drought.
  4. I experimented with hiring part-time helpers to grow more produce in the neighbor's yard as well as our own, but there was not enough profit in produce to make that worthwhile. Then I had some health issues that required spending less time on physical labor, and I really put Ruth Stout's work ethic to the test! The garden has continued like a champ, producing perennial and self-seeding annual crops without much help. Most of my work so far in 2018 has been to harvest the excess green matter -- thinning out the over-enthusiastic plants and putting them in the compost. It is probably not less work than just mowing the lawn, but it's a lot more fun!