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Would you believe me if I told you that I have had just as many, if not more, garden failures as I have had garden successes?
It is true.
From my first trays of herb seedling that got waterlogged to complete single crop failures in my 2/3 acres former CSA plot (corn – why do plague me so?), I have had more than my fair share of garden flops. And my absolute, bang my drum, and blow my horn success? Their scales were considerably smaller. Perhaps, like my first backyard garden in my first “real” backyard. Like the year season that I took over a tiny patch of land at the vineyard I worked for. Like my half moon culinary herb garden at the old house (gosh, I will miss that). Each of these locations and conditions was very different. But one thing is similar – they were all relatively small.
So what is an ambitious herbalist homesteader to do now that she has 20 acres when she is itching to reestablish her overgrown, once abandoned slice of the Pacific Northwest?
Why she is going to read every page of her friend Amy Stross’s new book The Suburban Micro-Farm and apply those small scale concepts to her land. Because you see, suburban micro-farming doesn’t have to be limited to the suburbs. These concepts can apply to patio container garden, community plots, and even larger bona fide farms such as my own!
Amy’s book hits home the lesson that I have learned by trial and error. Well planned, concentrated gardens with a strong focus and purpose are often more manageable than and rival the productivity of larger row crops. And I need manageable. Writing on herbs and holistic, sustainable living is my full-time job these days, so my garden has to be a respite more than a task-y chore. Amy’s book has reinforced a few old concepts and introduced a few new ideas that I am definitely going to put into action as I reclaim this land from the brink of blackberry domination.
Row cropping is not the only way to a productive vegetable garden: Amy offers a variety of traditional row cropping alternatives for the vegetable plot. Consider planters and raised beds to minimize the physical demands of gardening, while simultaneously increasing drainage, and preventing soil erosion or compaction. “Square foot gardening” snaps out a smart planting grid, which takes organizing the crops to an A-Type personality level that this unabashedly B-type is enthralled with. I find that people that use the square foot method often end up with densely planted beds that require little weeding and have conservative water requirements. Even the “sunken bed” method is explored for those in hot and dry climates – a climate that I often seen overlooked in so many how-to-garden books!
Irrigation and water conservation strategies: Once upon a time I thought that I had the well that would be the talk of my farm community. Because Mother Nature is especially fickle and I have a habit of counting my chicks before they hatch – this is no longer the case. My fifteen gallon a minute well now only sputters out two. And while water rights allow me to irrigate the fields, that is not an ideal solution for my landscape or kitchen garden. Amy dives deep into water issues and discusses options like swales, conveyance trenches, rainwater catchment systems, and simple, efficient watering methods that reduce waste, run-off, and time spent on the task.
Incorporating edibles into the ornamental landscape: Perhaps one of my FAVORITE parts about applying micro-farming techniques to any size garden is the use of edibles and medicinal in the traditionally ornamental beds and borders. Stop and think about how very pretty food can really be. Crimpy Savoy cabbage, frilly leaf lettuce, rainbow chard, towering sunflower – these are visually stunning botanicals that look right at home when peppered into the landscape. And one is certainly not limited to vegetables – culinary and medicinal herbs are right at home in a mixed border, lending tons of visual interest, fragrances and a myriad of uses. Amy offers a number of suggestion for dotting your ornamental beds with edibles to stretch your growing space.
Compost if you want to: Now that I am at a whole new property, it means a whole new compost system. When I was at our old property and raising 100+ laying hens my compost plan was simple. All food scraps went to the chickens and they, uhhh, did most of the work for me. Then we cleaned out the coop, deposited the bedding in a corner of the garden, and then that barnyard waste was tilled into the soil next spring. Large branches and vines were burned and the ashes dumped into the garden for spreading and the grass was mulched and dropped. Now with a family-sustaining mere dozen chickens and a much greater walk to their coop, I must develop a better plan. Amy details heaping, round bines, 3-bin turning units, and even vermin-composting (worms). She even offers a bit of a composting primer for the composting newbies. I think my carpentry oriented and A-type husband will lean toward the 3-bin method – and I do have a newfound appreciation of a tidy and orderly existence, so perhaps this is the way we will go.
Organize, organize, organize: Perhaps one of my greatest downfalls as a farmer and gardener is my lack of organization. My mother really raised me better than my haphazard, distracted by pansies and pretty weeds, leave the seed packets out in the rain kind of ways. Amy offers suggestions of calendars and checklists, sketching your garden plan (what a novel idea), seed starting step-by-steps, and transplantation instructions so that we can all be organized, efficient, and most of all successful gardener. It is always a bummer to realize that you dropped the peas too late, or set out the tomatoes starts before the last frost. A little preparation and planning can save you a lot of effort and pay off handsomely come harvest.
I have a feeling that The Suburban Micro-Farm is not going to collect a speck of dust on my bookshelf. Even this experienced homesteader knows that she has a lot to learn still and I LOVE having my eyes opened to new methods. These micro-farming techniques can simply be applied anywhere – whether you have a mere parking strip or a thousand acre farm in the countryside. As the saying goes, work smarter, not harder – and Amy deliver’s all the smarter ideas in this wonderful book!