(While this article stands alone, it is part 2 of a series. Read part 1 here:Why Completely Failing at Gardening is a Sign You’re Probably a Great Gardener)
The crux of our puzzle: with our completely destructive, expensive and unhealthy food system more people want and need to participate in growing food for themselves and their communities. YET, the economics and realities of doing so rarely work out the way we envision.
Our corporate food system is so heavily subsidized by taxes, exploited labor, and ecosystem destruction that we have to be really clever to complete with it on a small scale. Just look at this:
That’s a whole chicken, processed, shipped, stored, marinated, roasted, conveniently packaged and kept warm for $2. A bag of chicken feed costs $30, not to mention housing, etc. Difficult for a small operation to compete with that! And there’s this:
Companies putting “Paywalls” between us and our own produce. Pay $100+ to replace the sun, soil, fertility, and disease-resistance provided FREE by nature, with polluting energy, wasteful materials, and unsustainable resources.
And look at that. $500+ dollars for a garden that will grow $50 of food. If you like the look, go for it. But I routinely hear from new gardeners who think it’s necessary to have some expensive raised beds to start gardening, and it’s not. It certainly won’t add to the value (or traditional aesthetics) of your garden.
If we’re investing time and money in unnecessary costs, it’s hard for our gardens to give us a return on our investment, especially in today’s economic environment.
The situation’s even worse for farmers looking to earn an income, especially if they’ve bought one of the “profitable farming” models based on expensive specialized materials, soil testing, tools, machinery, and training.
But we CAN have high value gardens, and food-producing systems that pay for themselves. We’ve just got to be honest and smart about it. In Part 1, we discussed why a lot of people feel the conventional techniques don’t work for them.
Now we’ll lay out the curriculum we’ve developed for creating gardens, farms and landscapes that actually provide real, measurable return on investment.
Let’s start with a few basic tips for high value gardening:
Don’t worry, these aren’t sacred principles to commit to memory or follow to a T to have a high value garden. These are just guidelines that have helped us, so maybe they’re worth a quick review. You be the judge.
Guidelines to wise gardening:
1. Prune things that aren’t working: That includes expensive products (even organic ones) heavy weeding, irrigation systems, fancy fencing, machinery… Most of these investments are usually unsustainable, rarely pay for themselves, and don’t help us meet our real goals. Our path is to keep pruning costs that don’t work for us until we arrive at a system that does.
2. Know what our real, holistic goals are and do things that will help us meet them. Write our goals down so we’re clear about them. What do you want out of your garden?
3. Keep it simple, stupid (avoid complex solutions.) The key to profitability for big corporate farms is to make money off a complex scheme of tax subsides, insurance and land speculation – even if the produce is sold at a loss. The key to increasing value for us home gardeners is to maximize value per unit, by reducing costs and labor. Natural Farmer Masanobu Fukuoka said “look for what you can quit doing (or buying) rather than looking for new things to do (or buy.)”
4. Follow the Pareto curve. With most of the work we do in the garden we get 80% of our returns for 20% of our investment (of time, or $.) Research has demonstrated this with weeding, irrigation, fencing, tilling, pest-prevention, etc. Yet in our eco-cidal culture, we try to push all the way to 100% because green things should respect our authority!!!, and plus extra likes on Youtube and IG. But unless we have free labor to exploit, the quest for 100% purity in all things is killing our ROI, and our joy, and not providing any measurable benefit.
5. Invest in long-term, durable, HOLISTIC systems: Instead of spending our money and time fighting nature, a holistic approach is about making smart investments in long-term ecosystem health, soil, biodiversity, and stability, in ways that naturally reduce pest, weeds, watering and disease problems over time. This catches and stores your labor and pays it back for years to come. And it’s less stressful and feels better to see nature as an ally to be nurtured, rather than an enemy to be monitored and controlled.
6. Right scale for ROI. Too small is a waste of time and too large becomes unmanageable. Once we put on our boots, get our tools, and figure out a plan, we can manage 1000 SF of well-designed garden in about the same time (and $) as the standard 50 SF community garden bed, but we’ll get MORE than 20 times the yield for the same investment. One person can probably manage up to 10,000 SF. Beyond that, we’ll go past the “Pareto point” and start to get diminishing returns, so eventually we’ll either need machines ($), additional labor ($), or to find ways to get nature to do more work. Which is why:
7. Finally, every HIGH VALUE landscape, especially productive ones, need to balance “intensive management” vs. “extensive management.” Intensive, means we put in more energy to hopefully get more return, and extensive means we rely more on nature to do the work – we may get less yield, but we might put 0 time or money in for what we do get.
“Think of this like a dimmer switch for your garden.”
Intensive systems include our annual vegetable garden beds.
In extensive systems nature does most of the maintenance work. These include hedgerows, wild “forest gardens,” and other self-organizing foraging systems that require very little time or inputs.
Every high-value garden needs both.
Every sustainable society needs both, too. Some ecologists call this concept the “intensification spectrum” and all sustainable, long-lasting societies have a pracitcal balance where the extensive systems “pay” for the intensive production through their natural regeneration.
Key Insight: Every kind of regenerative agriculture, alternative farming, and natural gardening are all essentially about returning that state of balance.
This balance gives the landscape the important quality of flexible adaptability to meet our needs – it has a built in dimmer switch that allows us to switch from low-maintenance mode to high-maintenance mode. If we’re busy, we can let nature do more work, but still get a yield. If we find ourselves with more time or money to invest, we can quickly scale up our yields. If we take a month off the garden, we won’t lose the whole thing to weeds and pests and have to start over from scratch next season. Now, we’ve got a practical garden that really works with the modern lifestyle.
To sum: simplicity, ease, balance.
With those guidelines, here’s a basic, simple path of learning adventures for beginners or advanced gardeners, that will help us create a garden that is really worth our time:
Learning Adventure 1: Study foraging. Foraging is the ultimate high ROI production activity, where we get a good yield with NO investment of time or money. Plus, we harvest recreation, healthy activity, and education. It puts us in a position to observe what such high ROI systems look like, and how nature mangages the land. Perhaps more importantly, it teaches that many of the “enemies” we see as “weeds” are actually friends.
Learning Adventure 2: Create an Extensive garden. In this adventure, we take what we learn foraging, and imitate it. Because we’re usually dealing with hardy perennial plants, this is a great way for beginners to build fundamental skills with more reliable results, than with traditional annual vegetables, plants that are fussier and more prone to problems. And, because inputs are so low, and yield extended over many years, there’s no minimum size for an extensive garden.
This kind of garden teaches us how to work with nature, think in systems, minimize our inputs, and maximize our ROI. This is the teacher garden. It is also the supporter garden, as these systems can actually provide extra fertility to fuel the veg garden, and biodiversity that helps reduce pests and increase plant health. It provides the “low maintenance” mode for the garden dimmer switch we talked about. And it’s also the kind of garden that has the biggest impact on the beauty and sustainability of our landscape, too.
For many home landscapes, the first extensive gardens could be developed around an existing fruit tree, in part of an existing vegetable garden, or even in some flower beds or ornamental border.
If you’d like to learn more about these extensive gardening and landscape systems, and you’d like to support our work, consider taking one of our online correspondence courses.
Learning Adventure 3: Intensive “natural” gardening: With this adventure, we’ll create an “intensive” vegetable garden. For the purpose of our learning, it’s not necessary to make a big study over what’s ideal, just to choose a style that works well for us. For beginners, I recommend BioIntensive Gardening, as explained in John Jeavon’s book How to Grow More Vegetables. Some beginners may like Square Foot Gardening, though it requires buying soil and boxes. For more advanced gardeners, BioIntensive Gardening can transition naturally into French Intensive Gardening, which will provide the highest sustainable yields.
Over time, what we learn in the extensive garden will teach us tricks for the Intensive garden, and most gardeners will start to adapte “natural” methods like appropriate mulches, polycultures, self-sown crops and guilds. Here’s our article on French Intensive Gardening from a Permaculture Perspective. This is the style we do at Lillie House.
These three adventures can be pursued independently, in sequence, or altogether at once. We can do separate gardens, or integrate Intensive and Extensive together into one installation, as we often do with our clients.
What we’ve seen over the years is that together, these three adventures consistently transform our personal food systems, our landscapes, and our gardening, if not our entire world view.
Without making a big fuss, these adventures create landscapes that look like the best Permaculture designs. They’re virtually guaranteed to help us arrive at a gardening system that has high value, both financially and holistically. And they’re the best training system available for learning the skills of truly advanced gardening. After completing these, more adventures await to teach us advanced skills, habitat creation, smart food storage and preparation, making our medicines and fertilizers, or full Permaculture Design. But these three give us the 20% solid foundation of knowledge and experience to build upon for years to come.