The Most (and Least) Important Tasks for High-Value Gardens (and Farms)
(Draft design sketch for a Habitat for Humanity project.)
Sure, maybe you’re willing to put in $30 of cash and work for a single tomato because it’s your hobby. But honestly, most people I see start this way end up letting the garden go after a few years because it just isn’t worth the time.
From my observations, the people who harvest the most value, satisfaction and, well, produce out of their gardens are those who take gardening seriously. We keep things simple, but we also plan, prioritize and intend to progress over time, becoming better and better growers. Over time, we get better results.
The same is true for those who want to turn their growing into an income through farming.
One tool we can use to maximize our garden value is the Pareto curve, which shows us 80% of our returns will come from just 20% of our efforts. This is often called the 80/20 principle. Take weeding, for example. The pareto curve implies that 20% of our weeding gives us 80% of our results, yet many gardeners continue weeding to sterile perfection, long past the “point of diminishing returns” where the hours of weeding will have no noticeable results on yields. As it turns out, research on herbicide and pesticide value confirms exactly this!
Over 30-something years spent involved in farming, foraging and gardening, here’s my list of the MOST (and Least) Important Tasks for a High-Value Garden or Farm:
The Least Important Garden Tasks:
1. Weeding. Each hour we spend weeding dilutes the real value of our produce, period. Past a point, it has 0 value, yet we slave away (or make the kids do it!) And still, the perfectly, painfully weed-free garden just takes one vacation, bad cold, or family emergency to turn into a weed-covered mess and total loss! I’ve seen it 1,000,000 times! Yet, you don’t have to weed at all to have a good garden….
2. Tilling and digging the soil. It destroys the soil, wastes time and gas, and breaks your back. And yet it is completely unnecessary, in fact – We haven’t tilled or dug in years.
3. Strimming. Again, unnecessary. Add gas-powered lawn mowing to this list, too.
4. Fall garden clean-up. No value, actually harms garden health.
5. Fertilizing. Most conventional and even most organic fertilizers have been shown to be completely unnecessary, and even harm long-term soil health.
6. Most fancy irrigation – especially drip irrigation. While they DO have a place in a smart design, research from multiple sources have been unable to document any value from the time and investment put into fancy irrigation systems.
7. Most greenhouses. Again, they may have their place in a well-designed system, but it has been difficult for researches to document any good returns on most greenhouse projects. And they’re unnecessary for winter produce!
8. Spraying herbicides and pesticides. Just don’t do it, ever. Totally counter-productive to a happy and healthy garden.
9. Cultivating the soil. Again, unnecessary. Haven’t done it for 15 years!
The Most Important Garden Tasks:
There’s not much in the world I’m certain of, but this list is one thing. Here are the tasks that have unquestionably given us the biggest yields:
1. Day-dreaming in the garden. Specifically, creative daydreaming about issues of design, project vision, and if you’re a farmer, branding. This is probably the single effort that has paid me back with the most value. If you don’t have a clear vision about what you really WANT out of your landscape, garden or farm, you’re extremely unlikely to get it. It’s not enough to think: “I’ll start a farm = profit!” You need a clear vision of what kind of farm, what kind of garden – and what kind of life you want those to support! Then you can start assessing whether that vision is realistic and making a plan to get where you want to be. For farms, a study from MSU found that one of the biggest determining factors of profitability was the ability to charge a higher rate at market. And that was all about having a compelling vision and brand.
2. Design. “Permaculture is protracted thought and design, instead of protracted labor.” Almost every grunt-work task on the list above can be designed out of a garden! For example, why spend hours per week weeding when you can design a low-weeding or weed-free garden system that will last for years? Why spend time watering, when you can design gardens that water themselves – without expensive, time-consuming irrigation systems! In Permaculture, we use a variety of tools to maximize the design of our own personalized food systems to ensure truly healthy food and gardens that really provide value. To start that adventure yourself, I recommend our Community Supported Permaculture Program.
3. Planning. Now, this is a research-based approach to a profitable farm and valuable garden. Research from MSU, Vermont and UCLA have all found that one important factor is associated with profitable farms: planning for success. This means creating goals, keeping records and using that feedback to improve over time. Even if you don’t want a profitable farm, that becomes key to a valuable, enjoyable garden. But “diminishing returns” applies here, too. You’ll get 80% of that value out of a few simple efforts.
4. Listening to community members (family members) and customers. This is the single thing that transformed our business from a low-impact money-loser to a high-impact profitable business helping real people achieve their goals. Give the people what they want and need. If you’re a home gardener, this goes a long way to getting the fam or friends to help out!
5. Investing in community-building. For farmers this is crucial. But for gardeners this is golden, too. The community of gardeners will be your best source of information, seeds, plant material and people to exchange produce with. Community-building is 80% of the point of having a garden.
6. Education. I grew up gardening and farming, and have apprenticed on a few permie-inspired farms. But taking a Permaculture Design class and really learning my local ecosystem revolutionaized the value I get out of my relationship to the land. Completely worth it.
8. Nurturing the Soil. Finally, we’ve come to an actual physical garden task. Each hour you spend mulching, building biodiversity and fertility in the soil will pay you back for years and years to come in better, healthier produce with less work.
7. Nurturing “Systems” and “Regenerative Assets.” In Mollisonian Permaculture, “regenerative assets” are those that produce for us and replicate themselves. When we invest our time into creating and establishing such powerful assets, they to will pay us back for years and years to come. Nurturing a young forest garden, vegetable guild or perennial vegetable patch will take less time than almost any annual garden, yet that investment will produce food for us for decades! Each year, that annual garden will need to be recreated, but the perennial system will keep on producing with minimal effort. And while the annual garden will forever require new seeds, new investments, new energy to create, the perennial systems will actual “reproduce,” giving you plant material you can use to spread them further and further, creating more and more valuable perennial systems. Now that’s a smart way to spend your time, and a smart way to garden!
8. Observation. Often, we rush to action at the first sight of disease or pest issues, without taking the time to understand the underlying causes, or how the plants and ecosystems might be able to fend better for themselves. Pests are natural! But so are predators, who will eventually show up to reduce pest pressures for us, if we’re patient enough to observe how nature works, rather than stepping in at the first sight of trouble. On a different level, observation can show us where appropriate microclimates are what good plant companions or agonists we have growing, or where we need to direct more (or less) water.
So there you have my list. What do you think? What garden tasks do you find most valuable?
Michael Hoag: Manager/teacher/gardener/author/designer/consultant.
Michael Hoag has spent over 20 years as a full-time worker in the army of Permaculture change-makers. He is founder of the Transformative Adventures Cooperative, managing director of Lillie House Permaculture, and a full-time Permaculture designer and consultant who has participated in over 300 projects. He has worked on farms of all sizes, worked with food justice organizations, colleges and universities, and environmental organizations including the Sierra Club, and PIRGIM. As a teacher trainer, he has worked as a pedagog in crafting university curricula, adult education curricula, and programs for environmental and ecological awareness, and Permaculture. He has worked at a farm credit bureau, a commodities exchange, and managed farmers markets. He has created businesses including market gardens, vermicomposting operations, and helped start and lead multiple community and non-profit organizations.
Michael has over 20 years experience teaching classes and facilitating group projects, including community garden and forest garden projects. He’s an enthusiastic researcher of traditional temperate forest garden systems and productive ecologies of the Great Lakes region. The culture, history and aesthetics of gardens and garden architecture are his great passions, and he believes beautiful, healthy landscapes grow beautiful, healthy people and cultures. He has taught and lectured for McHenry County College, Arora University, the Environmental Defenders of McHenry County, the Chicago Adult Learning Resource Center, The Kalamazoo Nature Center, and gives presentations to community groups, organizations and churches. He helps organize Van-Kal Permaculture, the SoMi Permimixer, Michigan Safe Energy Future, CORE and the Kalamazoo Climate Change Coalition’s Food Group.
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