I’ve gardened in many ways in different years and eras, and I talk about them all in The Resilient Gardener. Sometimes I’ve had a few raised beds of tomatoes and greens in the back yard and a bigger patch of potatoes, corn, beans, and squash at the home of a friend. These days, my farm partner Nate and I garden on a couple of acres of good soil a few miles from home, a real luxury. Much of what is going on is determined by the fact that it is just our second season on that land.
About one acre is tilled. It’s divided into six sections. One section we’re turning into permanent garden beds to grow a big variety of garden crops, everything from amaranth greens and garlic to lettuce and strawberries. The rest is field crops that get rotated around each year. The field crops are all in rows spaced at 3 ½’. (Or 7’ for the big squash.) The basic 3 ½’ spacing is what is needed to get our rototiller between the rows, that is, when the rototiller works. Which it doesn’t always. The acre of crops is as much as we want to tend by hand when the rototiller is uncooperative. In addition, it’s as much as we want to water. This kind of spacing means we need to water the most water needy crops only once per week in August, the most water-short month, and less the rest of the time. And with this spacing, the potatoes don’t have to be watered at all. And everything could at least survive a good while if it didn’t get watered at all, even in August.
The permanent beds are 4’ across, the biggest we can reach across comfortably, with aisles between them that are alternating 3½’ and 1½’. That space is a compromise. Nate, being 32, can tend and harvest a garden by bending over or squatting. So if the garden was just his, he would space the beds with aisles 1 ½’ wide. That way, he would have the most possible planting area for the total area that needs to be watered. And there would be as little aisle space that needs to be weeded as possible. I’m 64. My back and knees rebel against squatting or bending over for very long. I can hoe comfortably using the right kinds of tools that permit me to work standing upright with my back straight. I can also tend and harvest comfortably on my hands and knees, but that takes aisles 3 ½’ across. If we split the difference, I wouldn’t be able to harvest from any of the rows. With alternating aisle widths, and Nate tending and harvesting preferentially from the narrow aisles, we can both tend and harvest. And we have lots more bed space than if we used 3 ½’ aisles for everything.
We don’t put sides on our beds, incidentally. If we did that, we would have to tend all the space near the sides by hand, squatting or on hands and knees. With no sides on beds, the beds can mostly be tended by hoeing from a comfortable standing position, with a straight back. In The Resilient Gardener, I talk a good bit about the labor implications of various gardening styles and practices as well as what tools and methods to use if you have back problems. Most people garden in a way that strains or trashes their backs or knees. That is totally unnecessary if you match gardening styles and tools to your physical needs. When gardening bigger areas, this matching is especially important.
In our field, one major section is potatoes, 23 varieties. Yellows, blues, reds, whites, bakers, boilers, early varieties, late varieties. The number of varieties gives us some resilience with respect to diseases as well as potatoes that are great for every possible cooking method, and that have many different flavors. We choose varieties based primarily upon spectacular flavor, but also upon storage ability and yield and disease resistance when grown under our conditions. We grow our spuds organically, with no irrigation, and with only the modest levels of fertility of the sort that can be obtained simply by turning under a legume cover crop. Our spud patch should give us at least a thousand pounds of spuds, which will be prime eating quality through February, through April for certain varieties. Part of that long storage is appropriate choice of varieties. The rest of it is our method of storage, which is “sophisticated low tech.” We store the potatoes in our attached garage. That’s low tech. What is sophisticated is that we have figured out exactly what containers to use for optimum storage, and a maximum-minimum thermometer-hygrometer sits in the storage area. We occasionally open the garage door or the door to the house as needed in winter to control temperature or humidity.
Our potatoes don’t get irrigated. We grow them at 16” in the rows instead of the 8 – 12” so as to have one important staple crop that doesn’t require irrigation. That cuts down our water use and gardening labor. In addition, if the electricity failed and we couldn’t irrigate, our practice of growing potatoes without irrigation would really matter. Not irrigating also gives us especially clean, disease-free spuds. In addition, the flavors are much more intense than when the potatoes are irrigated. Water and fertility needs are very much affected by spacing. If we crowded the spuds more, we would need more fertile soil, probably imported fertilizer, and irrigation.
The tomatoes are at one end of the potato patch for purposes of rotation, since they are potato relatives. We water the tomato end.
About 1/6 of the garden is in legumes, but not in one section because we plant different species that are grown at different times of year, a common trick for spreading many kinds of risks and enhancing resilience. In addition, overwintering cool-season legumes don’t require watering. Staple crops that don’t require watering (or electricity) cuts the labor in good times and might be essential in bad times. So we plant ‘Iant’s Yellow’, in fall and overwinter them. Winter is our rainy season. ‘Iant’s Yellow’ is delicious as a dry bean (but not as a shelly). It usually overwinters well. It was an unusually cold winter, though. Most of our favas died out. These things happen. That’s why overwintered favas is just one of our beans and overwintering is just one of our patterns of growing beans.
We planted ‘Hannan Popbean’, a garbanzo, in early spring. It was unusually cool and wet, but they did fine. I’ve selected ‘Hannan’ to grow well when grown organically, to germinate cheerfully in cold mud, to be highly resistant to all the aphid-borne legume diseases that are rampant in the Willamette Valley, and to finish a crop in late July and without irrigation. We harvested the ‘Hannan’ yesterday. This year, there has been almost no summer heat, and everything is delayed. So the ‘Hannans’ took until mid-August. But they still did fine. The fact that they finish so early gives us resilience that we called upon this year.
Our vetch cover crop died out instead of growing last winter because of the unusual cold. So we’re short of fertility in the patch for summer-grown legumes. In addition, we didn’t get that area tilled during the short spring tilling window before an unusually wet spring ensued. (We got the ground tilled for the potatoes, garbs, and one corn planting, but didn’t have enough of a weather break for the rest.) So we got a late start planting the warm-season legumes. And it was already looking like a cool summer. This meant that any summer-grown beans might not mature until the rainy season. Common dry beans (Phaseolus vulgaris) tend to mold, rot, or split if they are asked to dry down in the rainy season. So we planted ‘Fast Lady Northern Southern Pea’ on all the land for summer grown legumes.
‘Fast Lady Northern Southern Pea’, our Northern- and maritime-adapted cowpea, is very fine in texture and delicious, and like other cowpeas, doesn’t need to be soaked before cooking. Cowpeas are much better at making their own nitrogen than P. vulgaris dry beans, so our cowpea should be less affected by the fertility problem. Also, cowpeas are less harmed by getting rained upon when drying down than common beans. Cowpeas are also more drought resistant and better at scrounging water. This summer we didn’t irrigate one section of the ‘Fast Lady’ at all. They didn’t seem to notice. And we can eat the shoots, leaves, green pods, and shelly beans during the summer as well as harvest the dry seed. It adds flexibility when your main staple crops give you good summer green crops as well. And I’ve harvested ‘Fast Lady’ right in the middle of the rainy season before, and it was fine. The drying pods shed rain very nicely instead of absorbing it. In addition, being a cowpea, we can save pure seed from ‘Fast Lady’ even if we are growing pole beans, since the cowpea and common beans are different species. And ‘Fast Lady’ is by far the easiest to thresh of any bean I have ever grown.
We did an early planting of ‘Magic Manna’, the early corn that provides our parching corn, savory corn gravy, sweetbreads, some flavors of cornbread, and cakes. I’m talking about fine-grained cakes, such as angle food cake or sponge cakes. Real cakes. True flour corns can give you a flour almost as fine in texture as commercial wheat flour. ‘Magic Manna’ is a flour corn that gives us four different colors of ears, each with different flavors and cooking characteristics, all from one patch. Red and pink ears make great parching corn and sweetbreads. Pancake ivory and white ears make great pancakes, sweetbreads, and cakes. And brown ears make a delicious gravy as well as savory (non-sweet) cornbreads. ‘Magic Manna’ is very early. I bred it by selecting for flavor and culinary characteristics starting with Dave Christianson’s variety ‘Painted Mountain’. I designed the genetics so that one variety could produce corns with several flavors and culinary niches all from one patch. ‘Magic Manna’ should also be a great ornamental corn.
Then there is a much later planting of a late flint corn. Usually I grow pole beans on late corn, but we put the corn in too late for that this year.
We planted our early flint sister varieties ‘Cascade Creamcap’, ‘Cascade Ruby-Gold’, and ‘Cascade Maple-Gold Polenta’ on the farm of a cooperating grower. It pollinates at the same time as ‘Magic Manna’, so we don’t grow both on our land. The Cascade sister lines are so designed genetically that they can be planted in adjacent patches and still allow for saving seed. The Cascade planting will give us all our polenta, johnny cakes, and five different colors of ears for five more different flavors of cornbread, all from a single patch. Corn is my basic grain staple. I’m gluten intolerant. With these corns, I can make cornbread that holds together well enough to make sandwiches, and that requires only corn, water, eggs, butter or fat or oil of some sort, salt, baking powder, and water. I’ve bred these Cascade lines to be the ultimate survival corns as well as to be spectacularly delicious.
The squash patch provides winter squash, summer squash, and dry squash.
Then there is a huge patch of brassicas, mostly kale but also cabbage, broccoli, and others. We plant those mostly in late July and eat them all fall and winter and spring. Nate and I both love kale. Nate also makes lots of sauerkraut.
The backyard is now heavily shaded by trees on neighboring properties. I gardened there when I first moved into the house. At this point, we garden on our leased land, and the back yard is duck pasture. My flock of 35 laying ducks (Anconas) provides all the eggs we want as well as some to sell to cover the feed bills. They also provide all our breeding stock as well as generate ducklings for sale to others in the area. The Anconas eat commercial chow and forage in summer, but in fall, winter, and spring they eat mostly cull and small potatoes and winter squash, and such goodies as worms, sowbugs, and slugs. Ducks are a better choice for free-range layers in the maritime Northwest than chickens. In our climate, they are the ultimate ecologically well-adapted livestock. Compared with chickens, ducks lay better (especially in winter), are happy outdoors year round, can scrounge a much larger portion of their feed, eat even big banana slugs, and are the best at yard and garden pest control. And they love our weather.
One of our friends is a melon grower. We trade potatoes for melons. We also sell potatoes to the duck egg customers. And starting in December this year, we plan to start selling seeds of some of the varieties I’ve been breeding for the last two decades. We forage wild cherries and serviceberries and sometimes hazelnuts. And we buy huge amounts of blueberries from a blueberry farm down the street.
Ideally, we would like to have a small farm with some sheep and maybe water buffalo for milk, meat, and draft, and a full orchard, and of course, a pond for the ducks in addition to land for our garden and seed crops. But resilience is about just doing something now, making a start, doing what you can with what you have. And what we can do at the moment is lease some good gardening land that isn’t too far from our home, and grow lots of food, and breed new varieties selected specifically for flavor and resilience. And we can just play around and try things and have fun.