For urban and suburban folk, finding proper gardening space can seem like an insurmountable task. Margaret Park offers a welcomed solution with More Food From Small Spaces (Great River Books, 2013), with tips to grow healthy, organic vegetables and fruits while maximizing garden space. This excerpt from the preface introduces the reader to the idea that any small amount of space can become a productive backyard garden, and that growing your own vegetables can bring sustenance to the spirit, as well.
A few years ago our family put an addition on the back of our house, and in the course of construction, most of the grass and plantings in our backyard were destroyed. We were faced with the task of designing our backyard from scratch. This was not an unwelcome development. There had not been much aesthetic sense or maturity to the backyard landscaping we’d inherited from the previous owners. Our house is very close to downtown in a good-sized American city. Needless to say, its dimensions are very limited, especially after the addition was completed. I have always loved gardening, and especially loved growing flowers, ornamental plants and creating peaceful outdoor resting spaces. My husband is fond of building rock walls and paths, so our thoughts naturally turned to creating a serene and beautiful oasis in the city. Then in 2008 with economic downturn and the ensuing stagnation, our dreams of a peaceful oasis in the city, turned toward another kind of peace — the greater security of knowing we could grow a lot of our own food.
Now, we are glad we chose this direction. The cost of food has steadily risen and our income has not followed apace. This is a familiar story for many of us. And if you have picked up this book because you’re feeling financially pinched, I want to assure you that even if you have just a small patch of dirt available to you — even as little as 8x16 feet — you can grow a lot of your own vegetables and save money, especially with current food prices and the likely prospect of future price increases.
Using these savings for other purposes every month will seem a great reward for your garden labors. As for a beautiful backyard, we’ve found that vegetable gardening in such a small space demands that order and structure be emphasized. At this scale, our vegetable garden has its own charm and exudes a vibrance and abundance that looks close enough to beautiful for our tastes.
A Renaissance of Backyard Gardens
Over the years, through various moves across the country, I’ve grown vegetables on a number of different properties. My prior vegetable garden in a rural area was 25x30 feet. I’ve now learned how to grow more food in my current 8x24 foot plot than I used to grow in three times this space. Over the last four years I’ve experimented and figured out how to make small space gardening work. And now I think I’ve got it! To express these discoveries in as few words as possible: you have to plant denser, deeper, higher for longer. It’s all about cramming as many plants as possible into an allotted space for a longer part of the year and the vertical supports and soil fertility that enables this tight grouping to flourish.
This book is essentially a how-to guide that includes all the information you’ll need to grow your own vegetable supply: from how to maintain soil fertility to how to cut and snap together inexpensive, durable plant towers out of PVC plastic pipes and pipe connectors. I also show how to make a portable/storable greenhouse that will add months of life and harvesting to your vegetable garden.
This is not meant to be a comprehensive book on the technical and scientific aspects of vegetable gardening. I do not delve deeply into soil composition and technical matters of plant growth. There are many fine books that present more fully researched technical information than what I offer here. I am motivated to write this book because I’ve been consistently successful with the methods I offer and have come up with some original solutions that I don’t believe are offered elsewhere. In fact, I’ve been amazed at how much food we now grow in our tiny urban backyard. These ideas will be of most use to the urban and suburban gardener, but even rural home vegetable growers may appreciate the many advantages to keeping the garden small. Less space means less work, especially for the initial setting up of the vegetable patch. Small spaces require less weeding and watering. Large vegetable gardens require walking pathways that need weeding and maintenance as much as the planting beds. Water, especially in mechanically watered spaces, is often wasted in watering pathways. Hand watering a large space is a lot more time consuming than a small space.
The money savings is only one of the rewards of planting a garden. It’s no secret that the activities involved in growing vegetables can be deeply satisfying. Gardening is one of the most popular hobbies in America. There’s something inherently inspiring about the great benevolence of plant life in our wide and interconnected world. Becoming a part of this ongoing, seamless whole by placing some seeds in the ground and caring for them as they grow makes us nurturers as well as consumers. It’s so ultimately trusting and optimistic and grounding to plant, not to mention the natural pleasure of being outside in sunshine and fresh air. It seems basic to our human nature to care for the things that are destined to become part of us.
Growing up in Brooklyn, New York, I remember the backyard gardens I could view from the rear windows of my parents’ railroad apartment three stories up. Cultivating vegetables in New York City seemed very foreign and old fashioned to me then. Actually, it was foreign, since the vegetable gardens were mostly planted by immigrant families extending their cultural values and cuisines into this new country. Living in this ethnic neighborhood, I saw vegetables in yards that never could be seen in the local supermarkets. I suppose that’s why people grew them. I only later in life learned the names of kohlrabi, arugula, and trombetta squash. Now, growing food is not at all foreign to me, it’s become an all around nautural and pleasurable activity.
The Benefits of Growing Your Own Vegetables
I believe there are great benefits for our health in eating what the garden provides. When we’ve grown the food ourselves, we know exactly what’s gone into the growing process. We can avoid the toxic pesticides and herbicides that are often applied on commercially grown crops. We can avoid the genetically modified plants that are more and more being introduced to consumers. We can select the varieties of seeds we want to plant. We can even choose heirloom, open pollinated seed varieties and collect our own seeds for future crops.
Will our home grown food be more nutritious? This is a question that is harder to answer. Like with so many topics, it’s hard to come to a general conclusion through the scientific studies. The results of studies that compare the nutrient content of organically farmed versus conventionally farmed foods fall on both sides of the question, so there’s no consensus about whether organically grown food has a higher nutrient load. Soil quality and amounts of sunshine and watering can vary greatly, so it is difficult to compare findings of different studies. But, what would we rather eat; food grown without the use of herbicides and pesticides or conventionally grown food?
As a home gardener you will have control over the factors that lend nutritional quality to your vegetables. Soils can be tested and amended through mineral supplements and other natural additives. You can avoid pesticides and other chemicals. You can be sure that the food you eat is uncontaminated by harmful organisms like salmonella or e-coli bacteria. You can choose the varieties you prefer based on your conditions, harvest at peak ripeness, and consume your produce at maximum freshness. It will be all under your control.
Peak maturity and freshness ensures that you’re eating food with all the final sugars and nutrients in place. Certain sugars, called glyconutrients, are very important for the body’s cell communication, thus immune system. Harvesting fruit and vegetables before they are ripe, as is commonly done with commercially grown food, can mean less nutrition because it’s only in the last few days of the ripening process that the plant puts important glyco-nutrients into the fruit or vegetable. And aside from the questions of nutrition, the flavor of just picked food is unsurpassed and it is probably still embued with vital life force.
We now grow most of our own vegetables in our diminutive, urban backyard. Our roughly 8x24 foot patch of ground yields nearly all the vegetables a small family can eat for almost ten months out of the year. In our climate zone, our fresh vegetable harvesting more or less ceases from late December through late February. It was such a surprise to me that such gardening success could be accomplished. It is the reason why I am writing this book. We can do so much for the health of our bodies and finances and feel a little more secure and empowered in our future. If all else fails in our lives, at least we can eat some healthy home grown vegetables and feel a little more independent.
My own goal of greater food security was achieved by optimizing a few significant gardening factors. I planted the vegetables densely, encouraged them to grow up instead of out, sowed seeds repeatedly through the year and extended the life of plants through colder seasons with simple effective techniques. This book will show you how to include all of these ideas and techniques in your own garden, as well.
Reprinted with permission from More Food From Small Spaces: Growing Denser, Deeper, Higher, Longer Gardens by Margaret Park and published by Great River Books, 2013.