Small Farm, Real Profit: Mother Earth News


(A few goodies from our garden at Lillie House.)

Add up 1 part impending ecological catastrophe WITH 1 notoriously unhealthy food system PLUS 2 decades of declining economic opportunity, and you’re sure to get a crazed North American obsession for finding meaningful work on the land.

With real incomes declining since the 70s, unpaid work hours sky-rocketing while paid work hours per capita decline, it’s no wonder that more and more people are looking at their back yards as a way to make an income, while simultaneously providing healthier food for their communities and fighting the lead cause of climate change: our industrial food system. 
This is a fantastic trend! In fact, it’s possibly one of the most positive, hopeful and impactful developments I’ve seen in recent years.
And to support all these would-be back-yard growers, a whole industry has arisen to provide information, models, training and consultation. Many of these are fantastic as well. 
But as someone who would like to see this trend, and the growers who’ve joined it, truly prosper and thrive, I like to look into these programs and their numbers to provide some additional perspective and realistic expectations for those who want to get started. 
In the most recent issue of Mother Earth News, Josh Volk published one of the best recent articles on the economics of market farming, Small Farm, Real Profit  This article gives us a very helpful accounting of inputs, costs, and gross and net profit from Cully Neighborhood Farm, what it calls a “successful urban farm” (I’d say a VERY successful farm) on half an acre in Portland. What’s truly fantastic about this article is that most “systems,” classes, and models available online don’t go into half as much detail on their numbers, so we never really have a full accounting to give us an accurate expectation. 
I think anyone looking at growing for cash or creating a land-based income should take a look at this article and dig into the numbers.
However, as a grower myself, and an advisor to others looking to grow professionally, I have a slightly different perspective and a slightly different set of numbers I like to look at. Often, I think we can get misled by looking myopically at “the bottom line” when for most of us, there are actually way more important considerations. So l’d like to take a look at the numbers from Cully Farm and fill them out a bit to give a good impression of what they’ll mean to the prospective grower. (You can click the link to the article to view the numbers in a raw chart.)

Profit VS. Hourly Profit

THE BOTTOM LINE! It’s the big thing most of us focus on: what kind of ROI will we get for our investment! How much money will I be able to brag to my friends about? 
But for most of us, hourly pay is a much better indicator of quality of life, economic sustainability and the value of our “work.” I always like to point to the panel discussion from the 2015 MIFMA (Michigan Farmers Market Association) conference in which some of the star growers all agreed that – when a full accounting of their time and costs was done – made about $3/hour for their work. And while rewarding, make no mistake, it was very hard work. Looking at the few University studies on farming, that $3/hour seems a pretty reasonable baseline expectation for most growers in our area. (I’ve discussed many of these previously on this blog, for example, here: http://lilliehouse.blogspot.com/2017/01/spin-permaculture.html
Looking at the numbers out of  Cully Farm, his profit was: $13,852. And he claims to have worked an average of 20-30 hours during the season (6 months) and 10 – 20 during the off season (6 months) so lets give an average of 20 hours/week. 
So Matt’s yearly hourly rate was about $14/hour. That’s spectacularly high, given the numbers from other studies. But this number is very sensitive to hours/week, so if the yearly average time was closer to 30/week, the rate falls below $10. Clearly, labor time is usually the single most important factor in small farm hourly rates, while it has little impact on “profit!” 
Hourly Wage
Matt also hired workers during the season at a cost of $8,000. According to the article there were typically 3-4 people/work day during the season, and occasional help during the off season. Given the Cully Farm numbers, Matt’s hours, and university research on wage hours per acre, it’s safe to assume around 20 hours/week paid labor. Total labor costs, then were:
$8018 Wages
$500 payroll
$140 workers comp
$13,852 Matt’s “wages”
$22,500 TOTAL LABOR COMPENSATION
At a very reasonable 40 hours/week total labor (which is very low) this is an hourly rate of:

$11/hour. 

If Matt’s compensation was $14/hour, then the real paid labor rate was around:

$8/hour. 
Economic Notes:
I’ll get into more detail in the conclusion, but in my opinion, this model should be seen as a best-case scenario for several reasons. First, it’s clear that Matt really knew what he was doing, had a great market, and a great year in a climate with a lot of positives. It’s also clear that these numbers are in keeping with those published by other modern “farm business plans,” models and programs. 
There are some very important numbers missing from the article. One of those is volunteer hours. Many such small urban farms rely on volunteer hours, and to give a fair and accurate hourly rate, those should be accounted for, too. It also does not document full initial expenses or the previous two years of profitability. Nor does it detail any major losses, so I assume this was a very good year. Both of these figures would give us a more realistic expectation of average yearly profit, which is a VERY important consideration, but one that is rarely discussed in various online “models.” Eventually, even the best farm businesses face bad years and crop losses and bad years. They also require a few years to build profitability. 

Sustainability

Another important feature of the article is the emphasis on sustainability. Everyone wants to grow sustainably! For many, it’s one of the major reasons to get into farming.  
It’s clear from the article that Cully Farm cares about sustainability and, given the practices used there, I get the impression they’re a very sustainable operation, relatively speaking. Though there are still some important numbers missing, and sustainability is very complicated. 
Soil: The article states that the farm uses a minimum of 1/4 inch of compost in each bed. According to Grow BioIntensive, this is not a sufficient amount to insure sustainability. The addition of other materials, such as Azomite, may not be sustainable. 
Fertility Source: I agree with the Grow BioIntensive organization that the best real measure of sustainability is where a farm grows its own fertility on site. This is often a very difficult and advanced endeavor, and certainly cuts into the potential profitability. It is also the only safe source of fertility since the use of off-site compost is risky, as persistent herbicides have made it into the consumer market and has been known to harm farms. But what  remains true is that if fertility is being imported, it MAY be sustainable on farm, but at the expense of soils (and soil carbon!) elsewhere. 

Tilling: The article mentions that Cully Farm avoids the use of a rototiller to enhance sustainability, instead relying on forking, tilling with a rotary plow and a 30-inch horrow. It is true, tilling is one of the great causes of farm unsustainability! However, researchers and experts say there is no difference between these: they are both tilling. There’s nothing inherently wrong with a rototiller, in fact, they may be more energy efficient. 

Plastics: Cully farm appears to make heavy use of plastics, including irrigation, poly tunnels, a high tunnel, row covers, silage tarps, etc. It’s no wonder that agriculture (as pointed out in our recent blog posts) has become the fastest growing cause of plastics pollution. In addition, many of these uses (especially plastic hoop houses and soil solarizing) have been linked to plastics contamination in the food system. 

Market


It should be kept in mind that Portland is probably a very good market for vegetables, the grower is advertising as being “sustainable,” and he has a built-in market in the neighborhood and with the church. While $550/share is a fairly low price even in Michigan, the wild card with CSAs is what the custoer gets. Some CSAs deliver well over the value that a customer would get at the local grocer, while I’ve seen others that really skimp. Here, we don’t know what the price/unit is on the produce, but I’m surprised to see 52 shares from a 1/2 acre farm, while other systems suggest to aim for 30 families/acre. 

Conclusions


Very inspiring article about a very inspiring small farm! I think it shows that it really is possible to take your life back and grow your living on your land.

And for me, the most important and inspiring element is the land-sharing arrangement with the church. I can’t stress how absolutely vital it is to start using such large plots of urban land to use creating economic opportunity for urban farmers while providing good quality food with a lower carbon footprint.  

But we should also look at it with realistic expectations. The truth is, there’s a very lop-sided economic curve for farm work, with a very, very low median (probably just above $3/hour) and a steep spike away from that. That means, from what Cully Farm’s numbers look like to me, with a total/labor/hour rate of $11/hour, this is well above the average! At a profit rate for the farm manager, Matt, $14/hour is very high, compared to what I’ve seen in the research literature or online forums, and is very sensitive to hours worked. If Matt had just 10 hours/week of untracked labor (meeting with customers, commuting, staying late to fix an irrigation system or repair a hoop house) then his hourly rate would be below $10/hour.  

Realistic expectation – that means that if you have great soil, access to large amounts of compost, access to water, low-cost or free labor, a good market and some luck, and you do everything right like Matt, you could expect to make between $10 – $15/hour. 

But at the same time, top performers may do even better. Some of Matt’s expenses were for one year, and many other expenses like tilling, seed, compost, fuel, and water could be designed out of the system using Permaculture (for a savings of $4,900 to use MEN numbers.) Figuring that in, Matt could reasonably make $19-20/hour (using Matt’s numbers and budget for this calculation.) And while it appears that Cully’s market rate on produce was probably fairly high to begin with (given the numbers of members and market prices in Portland,) there are crops which are far more profitable on half/acre than a CSA, with some crops routinely earning $50-60k/half acre. With perennials to reduce labor, high value specialty crops and a well-developed market, the income rate/hour could realistically go up, possibly to $25/hour or very much more. Others will reduce production and increase value added products, as recommended by Grow BioIntensive. Still others will get that kind of hourly rate by exploiting free or very low paid labor, but that generally requires much more land and I personally consider it (usually) exploitive (but not always.) I’ve actually seen a couple of small garden businesses making that kind of hourly rate a reality, but that isn’t realistic for most, requires a great deal of experience, marketing savvy, connections and probably luck. 

For those who consider ecological and social sustainability important, I think this model would require some additional considerations. As more farmers start naming their tiller “George” so they can claim “I don’t till my fields, I George them!” I think the consumer criticism of small farms will continue to grow, which will eventually become an economic issue for those claiming to be “sustainable.” Already, economists and environmentalists are beginning to question the honest societal value of small farms, if they’re going to engage in practices that are less ethical or sustainable than industrial Ag. To me, the most sustainable farms will grow most of their own fertility, leave a functioning ecosystem in tact, pay a living wage for labor, avoid tilling, avoid spraying, minimize transportation distances, and minimize plastics. But, beyond the Grow BioIntensive models, I haven’t seen a one-sized-fits-all farm business plan that I’d consider honestly sustainable, yet. That still requires legitimate experience, deep familiarity with the land, good soil, understanding of the market, plant geekery and good old fashioned horticultural knowledge.




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The Sunchoke or Jerusalem Artichoke


Want an amazing edible landscape plant with the beauty of wild sunflowers, that’s a hard worker in the garden, a high quality medicinal, a great vegetable and also an extremely productive “carb” crop? 
Yes, yes, the sunchoke, or Jerusalem artichoke is all that and a bag of chips. Like literally, they make really, really great chips. 
But that’s just the start of their culinary potential. While I’m personally not too fond of the cooked, unprocessed vegetable, the thinly sliced raw tuber (in small amounts) is a great crunchy stand-in for water chestnuts in salads, and when processed, it becomes nearly as versatile as the potato. We use it plentifully throughout the winter as one of our main “carbs,” as the base for soups, in breads and pancakes  as chips, pasta, gnocchi and latkes. The only caution is that the tuber contains inulin, which can cause flatulence, especially in those unused to digesting it. However, according to a few sources, and our own experience, the inulin can be broken down with long cooking, yielding an ingredient better-suited for a party. (Unless you’re planning a farty party.)
But for homesteaders, permaculturists and home gardeners who want to maximize the value of their space, the Jerusalem artichoke is even better, because it’s the perfect example of a hard-working multi-function crop. 

How do I love thee? Let me count the ways:
1. It’s a perennial “carb crop” extraordinaire. Since grain agriculture, the world’s main source of calories, is a major driver of climate change, soil loss, erosion, fossil fuel use and a host of other evils, perennial calorie crops are often considered the “holy grail” of sustainable agriculture. Yet, in the cold temperate climates the sunchoke calls home, there are few easy to grow perennial crops that are calorie-dense and can be the backbone of diet. Que the potato, though it is typically grown as an annual on rotation to avoid pests and diseases. But the Jerusalem artichoke, according to many sources has “roughly the same calories as potatoes,” yet has “few pests and diseases.” As such, they can (and are generally recommended to) be grown in the same place every year, as a perennial. 
2. It’s often cited as one of (if not THE) highest-producing vegetable crop/acre we can grow in many cool and cold temperate climate areas, likely out-yielding potatoes in most regions. While this is frequently repeated by Permaculturists, agronomists, extension offices and other industry sources, some readers may be interested in digging a little deeper to see what data that backs this up. While output numbers are somewhat dependent on season and region, we do have some data to provide decent comparisons. For example, a study in the 1980s in Oregon found an average of nearly 64,000 lbs/acre of Jerusalem artichokes, without irrigation. The authors report that outcome was in keeping with research conducted by Washington University. Meanwhile, though Oregon is one of the highest yielding potato regions in the world, with modern high yields (actual yields, including some irrigation) at 53,000 lbs/acre. Purdue’s numbers are more conservative, citing University of Minnesota trials with an average production of 30,000 lbs/acre for sunchokes, while reporting statewide yields of 20,000 lbs/acre for potatoes. Although there is some disagreement across sources (with some placing average potato yields higher, and others placing maximum corn yields higher) the general consensus is there’s rough calorie equivalency between potatoes and corn  meaning that Jerusalem artichokes can produce more calories/acre than maize, the world’s most important calorie crop. While sugar beets and sugar cane outproduce corn and potatoes by calorie when converted into sugar, Jerusalem artichoke may compete or even out-perform these in terms of sugars and gross fermentables

3. That’s just the tuber! Yield increases if you count the stalks, which are being studied as an animal feed, an ethanol source, and a compost crop. In Grow-BioIntensive gardening, it is both a “carbon crop” used to grow fertility and create a sustainable farm system, and a “special root crop” used to maximize the nutritional value of the garden. (Jeavons, How to Grow More Vegetables.)
4. We consider it an excellent mulch-maker plant. In Permaculture and forest gardening, mulch-maker plants are used to grow mulch right in the garden. Because Jerusalem artichoke is hardy, perennial and produces large amounts of mass, it is an excellent source of mulch in the garden. 
5. It’s also a great “fortress plant.” These are plants that exclude other plants or potentially even pests. In the wild, I consistently see Jerusalem artichoke shading the ground and producing stands without other weeds. Often at the forest edge, it succeeds into grasses expands the forest. It does the same thing in our garden. 
6. A beneficial attractor, wildlife plant, and companion plant. According to the Ladybird Johnson foundation, it has value to birds, pollinators and other wildlife. It attracts a wide variety of native pollinators, moths and bees, including specialist bees that rely upon sunflowers. 
7. As a common plant of thickets and forest edge, it can fill in gaps in hedgerows and dead hedges while woody perennials get established, then tends to fade as these larger plants grow in. We’ve used this at Lillie House and a few of our related client and student sites. 
8. It’s salt-tolerant. 
9. It’s medicinal. It is a well-known source of inulin, used to help diabetics and others with problems related to insulin. As a prebiotic it may improve the composition of gut microflora. But while Jerusalem artichokes are a great source of inulin, most inulin available in the US is imported. Studies have documented Animal studies have found positive results on rats  pigs, and even fish. One study found that a Jerusalem artichoke diet improved the digestion of pigs and made their farts smell “sweeter.” 
Considerations:
To Cut or Not to Cut? 
Cut out cutting out the flowers of crop plants. The internet is filled with old farmer’s tales about cutting the flowers off Jerusalem artichokes to improve yields. As with most other crops, where it either completely false or economically disadvantageous, removing the flowers dramatically reduced yields in both the M.U. study and the Oregon State study. In fact, yields were more than halved by late-season removal of flowers.  
“Invasive?” 
While Jerusalem artichokes have few pest or disease issues, are salt-tolerant, drought-tolerant and may require less fertilization than other crops, the common warning is that they may become “weedy” or “aggressive” in some situations. Some even call them “invasive” even in ranges where they are native plants!

One may wonder how, with such an “invasive” plant growing natively across much of North America, anything else ever managed to grow here! Or why it’s so relatively uncommon when compared to so many plants that don’t bear the burden of the scarlet I. 
Or perhaps it isn’t so surprising when considering that many sources, including the Illinois Wildflower.org noting that it more commonly persists on disturbed soils, with other plants succeeding in time without tilling.
We can learn the same thing from the dozens of reports online of gardeners failing pathetically in their attempts to pull, dig up, till or otherwise “weed” Jerusalem artichokes. This does NOT work. It only makes them happier. However, I have been monitoring several wild patches for years in my area, and can report that without the encouragement of “weeding” them, they show no signs of spreading. Some patches appear to go into decline after a few years without disturbance. The same has been true at our site, where a few of our prize patches have disappeared completely. 
Other patches have been killed by animal pruning. Recall the huge negative impact of late-season removal of just the top 3rd of the plant? Imagine what happens when you remove the whole stalk earlier in the season. In fact, it is a little too easy to kill plants completely by poor timing of cutting. Mowing is a sure way to control their spread. 
My advice is to plant them into naturalistic systems like forest gardens, where they will be controlled by the process of ecological succession, or plant them where they can be controlled by mowing. A linear food forest or edible hedgerow may be the perfect place for them. And for heaven’s sake, if you’re trying to get rid of them do not try to remove them by “weeding!” 
Storage 
The best place to store Jerusalem artichokes is in the ground. They tend to go rubbery in refrigeration or even cellaring. But patches can be dug throughout the winter where soils do not freeze, and maintain a good texture and flavor all winter. 
Harvest
We leave most of our sunchokes until January, as I believe the sugars are highest by then. Tubers harvested later are considerably sweeter in my experience, than those harvested in the Fall. 
Growing
Plant disease-free healthy tubers during the dormant season, Spring or Fall. The Oregon study found maximized yields at 17 inch spacings, but closer spacings did not significantly reduce yields, making them ideal for perennializing or inclusion in naturalized ecological growing systems like food forests or hedgerows. Yield was best in full sun, but chokes can grow and produce in fair shade, yielding moderately in fairly dense shade where few other vegetables would have produced. 
On our site, they have persisted and produced well within the dripline of black walnuts, suggesting them as potential juglone-tolerant crops. 
Sunchokes can be found producing even on depleted soils though they produce best with fertilization. 1 inch of compost or 4 inches of organic mulch is generally recommend for organic growers, along with minerals where soils may be depleted. 
Chokes can typically survive and produce in the Great Lakes region with no irrigation, but some watering during drought may increase yields. 

Fall clean up VS. chop & drop, mulch, and wildlife habitat

Question and Discussion: Eliminate debris to reduce pests and diseases (clean garden practice) VS mulching, chop & drop and creating wildlife habitat: which is better? 


Question from one of our students: 

“I’ve read that one major way to inhibit garden pests organically is to eliminate debris to get rid of places the pests hide.  But you taught us the value of mulching and chop and drop which also make sense.  So I have been putting freshly chopped leaves down in the fall.  I think it helps with weeds and retaining moisture and must also add organic content.  But I am still having trouble with the squash vine borer… and had to throw away the squash plants early because of the vine borer and also a virus in the zucchini.  Do you have any thoughts on that?  I also practice crop rotation.”


Definitions: 

Clean Garden Practices: Typically, this refers to removing all organic material from the garden in Fall to reduce places for pests and diseases to overwinter. The aim is to reduce pest and disease populations by reducing the places they can overwinter. 

Organic and Green Mulches: Dead and living organic material, plant materials, placed deliberately on the soil surface to increase soil moisture, regulate temperature, save water, increase soil carbon, repair soil fertility, increase soil life and wildlife in the garden.  

Chop and Drop: A Permaculture term for the action of cutting organic matter, plants, weeds, and grasses and using them for mulch in the garden rather than removing them to the compost pile. When uses as the basis for managing the soil, such a system is academically referred to as “slashmulch,” and is an ancient gardening practice from around the world. 

The Diversity Resiliency Principle/Theory: A Theory in Ecology, sometimes referred to as a principle, that states: the greater diversity in an ecosystem, the greater degree of resilience (from climate factors, disturbance and pest and disease pressures) is conferred to the individuals in the system. Greater diversity = Greater health.

Ecological pest and disease control: Fending off pests and diseases, in part, by increasing wildlife habitat, habitat for pollinators and generally relying on the “Diversity Resiliency Principle.”



SUMMARY DISCUSSION

Unfortunately, there’s no good short answer to this complex question. Most gardeners will pick one of the two approaches that best matches their temperament and goals. but advanced gardeners may create their own hybrid to support their specific goals. My review of the history of this discussion found a strong move away from clean garden practice over time, with studies showing many benefit of mulching, debris and “messy garden practice” (as some termed the action of avoiding fall clean-up) including on populations of beneficials, and crop resistance to disease and pests. Many mainstream horticulture sources now advocate against strict “clean garden” practice. Meanwhile, most of the evidence supporting clean garden practice appears annecdotal, or dependent upon chemical management of pests. 

Personally, I favor the more natural approach, as I believe current research demonstrates it better matches my goals of achieving sustainability, maximizing wildlife value, saving time, and still producing high yields of high quality produce. 

IN-DEPTH DISCUSSION
A very timely question as gardeners in the northern hemisphere contemplate whether to follow the “fall clean-up” regimen, or newer advice to leave debris and mulch to create wildlife habitat. 

First of all, these are some very common questions regarding the practice of chop and drop and mulching. And once you’re asking these kinds of questions and making these kinds of observations, in my opinion, that’s when you’re on the path to expert old-world gardening! You can only take the conventional color by numbers approach so far, but once you start coloring outside the lines you can really maximize the value of your garden, if you’re willing to trouble-shoot and experiment a bit. 

First we’re going to look at the conflict between chop and drop and clean garden practice, then we’ll get into the specifics about squash as an example. 

So, clean garden practice VS. ecological pest control: The truth is both of these methods work. Clean garden practice reduces SOME garden pests and diseases, those that overwinter in debris. 

Or at least there’s annecdotal evidence of this, though an hour search through extension and master gardener recommendations on fall clean up from a dozen different sources found 0 studies documenting the effect of clean garden practice. With this, I turned to my collection of horticultural and agricultural textbooks, my copy of Integrated Pest Management, and again found no sources documenting a positive impact of clean up. However, this classic did site a few studies where summer pest populations (such as spider mite) were predicted based on sampling populations of overwintering insects, but there are several reasons this doesn’t quite clearly support clean garden practice. 

What I found instead, was a history of changing opinions and practices, with a textbook from the 30s recommending VERY thorough clean-up, even to the point of mercilessly removing every last fallen leaf! Of course, as studies have increasingly demonstrated the value of leaving debris (such as leaves which fertilize soil) these old-fashioned practices have consistently loosened up. (If anyone has studies showing or implying the benefits of clean garden, please send them my way!)

Anyway, whether it’s proven or not, it is logical to assume that removing debris reduces the numbers of certain pests that overwinter in that debris. The downside is it also gets rid of the pest-predators and beneficials, which often live in the same debris! Hey, living with your food is a good idea! For most of our existence humans did the same thing. Of course beneficial organisms do the same. And we do indeed now have plenty of good research to show that leaving debris increases populations of beneficials! And, researchers are concluding that plant residues and no-till systems are correlated with a “lack of serious disease and pest pressures.”



And that’s a major reason why, while still debated, even many mainstream horticulturists are no longer advocating for a strict Fall clean-up.

If we want to take a more forest-like approach, we can mulch deeply, and leave debris in the garden, which also leaves more pests in the garden, but also provides habitat for beneficial organisms that fight pests and diseases. This is important, because pest populations typically grow much faster than the predator populations needed to provide natural control. Often, unless there’s already a population of predators in the garden, our crops are destroyed by the time they ever show up! But OVER TIME providing habitat builds up an army of beneficials to help fight pests and diseases for you. Mulch and debris are fantastic beneficial habitat. For example, comfrey leaf debris has been found to host large numbers of beneficial insects. Hollow plant stems are the main over-wintering spot for predatory wasps and native pollinators. Corn debris hosts a beneficial bacterium that also predates on powdery mildew (though some disagree), and even inhibits weeds in squash, two reasons why the Native American 3 Sisters planting works! 

Using this method, we’re recruiting the power of what’s often called the “Diversity Resiliency Principle” which been demonstrated to function in natural ecosystems, and there’s increasing evidence proving the theory is sound and showing it works wonders in agro-ecologies, too. 

In addition  to increasing soil life and beneficial organism populations, there are very many benefits of deep mulching, especially “chop and drop” mulching with plants grown in the garden: 
– it saves water
– it conserves soil moisture which helps plants regulate their health and prevents problems like splitting, damping off and blossom end rot, 
– it increases soil carbon
– it increases soil fertility
– it prevents erosion, 
– it reduces weed germination and weeding work
– it can replace importing compost




The down side of deep mulching is that it DOES provide habitat for some pests to live in, both overwinter, and during the growing season. It sometimes can take time for the needed beneficials to establish themselves in the garden and provide that ecological control and balance. 

In the short term, clean garden practice probably reduces SOME BUT NOT ALL pests and diseases (just those that overwinter in plant debris.) But when these pests do find the garden (which they always do) there will be no predators to hold them in check or for plants to call on for protection. Modern research shows plants really do “call” for help, secreting hormones that attract predators of the pests and diseases attacking them, but this only works if the predator populations are also built up in the garden. 

In that between time, deep mulching and chop and drop will probably greatly reduce gardening work and required imported inputs like fertilizer and compost, but the pests may mean somewhat reduced overall yield. My personal experience and sense is that most of the time, a deep mulched garden will still have a higher “return on investment,” meaning a greater yield for the time, money and effort put into the garden. 




So, my take is that clean garden practice might work better for gardeners who are prioritizing maximum yield over “return on investment” and looking to do 90% of their own pest prevention through spraying, etc. Or for those who don’t have time to let a more balanced ecology develop over a few years time (though it might not take that long at all!) An ecological approach may take time to build up enough diversity to give the plants all the tools they need, so that when they call for help, there are predators nearby. But it will quickly start saving time and imports, and eventually, it can radically reduce the pests and diseases in the garden. 

Most gardeners will choose one of these two approaches, since they seem opposed. But I think expert-level creative gardeners can actually maximize by using both, selectively, depending on which pests they’re dealing with and which crop they’re growing. For example, black rot on grapes is spread through “corpses” of infected grapes and plant tissues. When dealing with these tissues, I move them away from the grapes, rather than chopping them in place. But clean garden practice won’t help much with slugs, since some species (and life-cycles) overwinter in soil rather than in surface debris while fireflies (which, in their larval form, eat slugs!) do overwinter in grassy debris! So, if slugs are the problem, clean garden practice over winter may hurt beneficials more than the pest. But during the season, slugs largely live on and in debris and mulch. So if a slug population get’s very destructive on a crop like small seedlings of greens, I might temporarily remove the mulch until the greens can fend off the slugs better. Or I might just put down some crushed egg shells or slug traps around the vulnerable plants. 

Squash bugs, however, overwinter in debris (and other sheltered places like rocks, logs, or buildings) so clean garden practice MIGHT help control populations. Parasitic wasps and flies feed on squash bugs, though, and these too overwinter in debris…. 

Overall, my approach is to trust ecological controls and good variety selection as my “baseline” approach, allowing diversity to build up over time to reduce pests and disease in the garden. This also keeps my gardening very simple! And it reduces my overall “input” time. If a particular pest gets out of control, I try to learn about its specific life cycle and natural predators, so I can apply a remedy that really makes sense. In some cases, that remedy might be clean garden during a part of the year near that particular crop. In this way, my gardening slowly evolves, becoming very subtle, very in-tune with the specifics of my own site, the beings I share it with, my crop preferences, and my own needs and way of living. 




Regarding the specific question of squash, the biggest factor is variety and species. Not all squash are the same! For example, the pepo species (summer squash, zukes, acorns, etc.) are much more susceptible to both disease and pest pressures through most of North America, while the Mochata species (my favorites are the Seminole pumpkin, Tonda podana, and neck pumpkins) are much more vigorous and disease/pest resistant. Maximas (brodee galeux, hubbards and buttercups are my favorites) are typically considered inbetween, but that may depend somewhat on location, with them performing poorly in our gardens in Illinois, but better than pepo for us in Michigan) My own personal solution is to grow all of these in deep slashmulch, but plant pepo and maxima species in successions and plant mochata species (especially seminole) once. Pepos usually produce much faster than other species, and you can get a good yield before the plants succumb. I find this preferable to fighting a long losing battle to keep them alive against wilt, powdery mildew, squash bugs, cucumber bettles and vine borer. With all those enemies, I assume I’m going to lose the battle and my goal is simply to get as many squash as I can over the season, not to keep the plants alive the longest. Mochatas take longer to produce longer-lasting squash with deeper flavores and more nutritional density, but they can also tend to fend off most of these attackers better if given good nutrition, as you experienced. Since Maximas tend to also require a long time to mature, but fend poorly against pests, they take the most work to grow and tend to require diotomaceous earth for squash bugs and BT (a liquid bacteria that kills the larvae) for borers. Unless I’m in the mood to do that extra work, I let somebody else grow maximas. (There is also the C. Angyosperma species (like cushaws) which I’ve heard would be similar to Maxima, but I have no experience growing them.)