This is the dream. But…..
It’s January. It’s Vancouver. That’s my deconstructed deck, with plants removed. And, what may be hard to see.. that is sleet coming down. Wife and baby are sleeping – so in the quiet and dark of winter, it’s time to plan my new garden! I will take you through the design and some growing principles which may be useful if you plan on designing a garden of your own. I will also post updates on progress so you can see how it is coming along.
In a few weeks, I will be moving to “Full-Circle Farm” in North Saanich, BC. While I’m calling it a farm, it is actually a house on a half-acre of bush. But! – as I sip my Granville Island Brewing “Belgian Tripel,” I have the courage to dream of what is to be my farm – yeah, it’s a 9% beer, so the courage is thick!
Let’s get serious: I’ve decided on a layout. And while I believe it is achievable, I know that roots, rocks and a sewer-line may force me to change. In the meantime – I plan to make a series of raised gardens – probably raised by a maximum of 2 ft. Each will be 15 ft by 5ft, for a nicely-rounded 75 ft sq. This makes it easy to plan seeding (as it is often done per 100 ft sq) and also because it fits the property. I will have 3ft gaps between each box, a three foot wide garden along the entire fence line and a 4 ft gap running North to South down the middle. That leaves rows of 4 beds across. So, fence, 3 foot garden box, 3 foot path, 15 foot bed, 3 foot path, 15 foot bed, 4 foot path, it’s mirror from there and columns are 5 rows deep. However, the middle row will be a 15 foot bed, a short bed, an 8×5 foot pond and then the mirror on the other side. The rest of the space is still under review, but will likely include on large bed, two small and an enclosed chicken coop. See below:
Update: Want to see what it became three years later? Garden Update (June 2021)
I have been doing extensive research and have decided to base my growing techniques on two principles: that of John Jeavons How to Grow More Vegetables, ninth edition called “biologically intensive food growing,” and the principles, widely known, as “organic” and “sustainable”. Simply put, this is my mantra: use what is already there; build proper soil; facilitate the growth and density of living organisms; plan to take less than is given back to the earth. If that sounds flaky, or too spiritual to you, don’t turn away just yet. There is scientific and analogous backing to these theories. The only aspect that may seem “flaky” is the fact that sometimes the benefits of these techniques take years or generations to become evident. So have patience and read-on.
Being in the “Pacific North-West” means we have the potential for mild-wet winters and long, dry summers. I say “potential” because the changes in weather patterns as of late have changed our “climate” considerably. Regardless, it rarely freezes for longer than 24 hours. Even more rare is a freeze below -6c. Spring and fall are long – usually colder and wetter than I’d like, and summers are rarely over 30c with nights often between 10c and 15c. If it wasn’t for the amount of rain which leeches our soil and promotes the growth of coniferous trees, which acidify the soil, I would call it Eden. Compare this to where you are. Perhaps you have a longer winter….and if you do, you’re probably angry and saying “at least I HAVE a winter!” If your climate differs, nothing I say from here on will help you, unless you factor in the differences.
Update: Even a day before a forecast of 40C I didn’t believe it. In July of 2021 we had consecutive days of 40C. A sign of the times. Read about how the garden did in the heat here.
That being said – I have ignored climate-specifics in my garden plans… let me explain. Because I am not yet aiming for subsistence on my garden, I have some room to play around. I plan on growing all sorts of crops and seeing what, and what varieties survive in our climate, letting them seed and going from there. If I can afford the seeds, I may try peanuts, sesame, rice and other plants generally unsuited for our region. So with the bravado of claiming all the research I have done, I am now telling you that I’m just going to see what happens when I put seeds in dirt. Yep, that’s me.
I am serious, though. I drove around and found that major summer crops in this area are corn, and summer squash. Fall crops are mostly brassicas or cabbage. Spring is mainly grasses and dent corn for live stock…but, I can find most fruit and veggies at the local farmers’ market. So I have taken into consideration that those are also locally grown. I have also considered that in a sheltered spot, and provided with lots of water, I have grown bananas and, with less water, lemons outdoors and even put coffee plants on my deck for half the year – so micro-climates exist and need to be considered. Furthermore, I will test my soil. I just don’t know if I will do that first, or if I will wait for a future season. I suspect the soil will be largely clay-based and highly-acidic. Initial additives might be required. But, as you know, I want to “use what is there”, meaning, I bring nothing in. I guess this might be my first compromise.
However, knowing what do to with the soil you have is essential! I will likely plant Northern rye in the fall, which is known to stretch deep roots and break up clay, and plant blue berries and strawberries that love the acidity. But, my goal is to provide my family with food, so having just a bitter grain diet and blue diarrhea from too many blueberries is not acceptable. We must amend the soil and provide the rest of the food. Speaking of which….
Jeavons suggests that 60% of our garden space needs to be calorie and compost rich foods, like flour corn, and grains (we get food, but the biomass for compost is large). This is practical in his garden, but also reflects out diet. It turns out, most of our calories traditionally come from said corn and grains (I have simplified these for the sake of writing, but the list is longer and contains potatoes, legumes, sorghum and quinoa of course and outside of the western world, rice is #1), so less garden space needs to be spent on the awesome and fun stuff, like tomatoes, herbs, and leafy greens.
Here, I varied away from the research and decided that I want all the benefits of vegetable crops, and will consider the calorie and compost rich foods secondarily. One reason is that grains and legumes have incredible shelf-lives. So, while fresh is best, I’d take fresh tomatoes over fresh oats. It isn’t really a problem of one or the other, as in some cases the calorie crop is a winter crop (like rye) and the vegetable crop (like tomatoes) is a summer one. So they can live together. And coupled with a proper crop rotation, means we can “have our beans and eat them too” – which is a saying I’m trying out…see if you like it.
Crop rotation is a weird one. Lots of shit-theories out there. A good rule-of-thumb is ‘don’t ignore the traditional’ because it’s traditional for a reason, and then use some common sense. Many sources will say “don’t follow this crop with this”..etc, and Jeavons touches on it, by also adding the cycle of heavy, light and medium “feeders” for consideration. My plan is this: consider all of the above mentioned theories, and then do simply this: rotate. Use a different crop every planting. Boom! The benefits of rotation are met, the problems of similar successive plantings are avoided. I will leave it at that, except to touch, momentarily, on companion planting. (Plants that, side-by-side, have some sort of symbiotic benefit). There is not much scientific proof that we need to concern ourselves with this, but adding additional plants to a crop means bio-diversity, which means we all win. I will talk about it later…but plan on considering companion planting.
So my garden plan ends up with fourteen 5 x 15ft boxes for seasonal rotations, one 8 x 5 pond, two 8 x 5 boxes for perennial companions to the garden and four 5 x 15 permanent perennial boxes for food production. Let’s ignore the pond and companion boxes for the moment and consider the perennial food boxes.
#1: Blueberries. This needs acidic soil, but is a large plant, I will likely plant with it only spring bulbs to help promote fertilization.
#2: Strawberries: Also acidic. It is likely all I will grow…cause I like them and they need full sun. I am still considering planting something else to help them. Likely something with a deep root and that flowers (maybe dandelions or chicory)
#3: Asparagus and Rhubarb: Asparagus at the back (north) and Rhubarb at the front (south). Neutral acidity. Both become large plants – no companions necessary.
#4: Raspberry and cranberry: Neutral soil. Raspberries on the north side. I’m not convinced cranberries will grow, but it’s worth a shot for the versatility and nutrition.
These perennial boxes will be initially dug (various factors-permitting)18 inches to 24 inches to loosen the soil and then brought up at least two feet into a garden box. This >4 ft depth will promote long term root health. It is particularly important for these boxes since the established plants do not allow for future tilling. The raised box will restrict the chance of soil compaction as it will keep critters (and kids and dogs) out.
Annual boxes: 14 boxes of 75 sq ft. Each dug to 18-24 inches (again, I’m hopeful in this). Right now, I am afraid to commit to building raised boxes here, only because of the huge work load. They will eventually be in boxes the same height as all the others, so I may do a few. In the meantime, because each crop has a definitive end, it allows for times to re-till and add soil to make up the boxes. My biggest reservation about not initially building the boxes is because it will invite being trampled upon or peed upon by my dogs. So we’ll see what happens. Here are the rotations. Anything in brackets will refer to something previously planted (obviously that won’t be the case in the first year.) You will notice that they are mostly in plant family groups. That way, after a year dedicated to legumes (for example) the box will be dedicated the next year to a difference plant family, like squash. Plants in the same family usually need nutrients in similar ratios and differently from other families. So the rotation method gives the soil a break, in some cases. Below, the boxes are numbered (#1-#14), and then a list of what is planted follows each seasonal indication.
#1: Spring: (Rye from previous season) beets and chard. Summer: Amaranth, beets and chard. Fall: Barley, beets and chard. Winter: (Barley), cold weather fava.
#2 Spring: (Barley), (Fava); Summer: Zucchini, watermelon, squash, pumpkin, cucumber; Fall: Rye; Winter: (Rye)
#3 Spring: (Rye); Summer: Sweet Corn, Millet, and another summer grain. Fall: Buckwheat, Wheat. Winter: Fava (Wheat)
#4 Spring: (Wheat), Sunchoke, lettuces. Summer: Sunflowers, Lettuces. Fall: Lettuces, fava. Winter: Lettuces, (Fava)
#5 Spring: Cold weather Peas and beans and flour corn. Summer: (Flour corn) hot weather beans and sunflowers. Fall: Rye. Winter: (Rye)
#6 Spring: (Rye); Summer: Hot peppers, bell peppers, basil, egg plant, tomatoes, tomatillos. Fall: Oats and fava. Winter: (Oats and inter spaced fava)
#7 Spring: (Oats, cut out fava). Summer: Sweet Corn, sorghum, sesame. Fall: Garlic, onions, leaks. Winter: (Garlic), (onions), (leeks).
#8 Spring: (garlic, onions and leeks). Summer: Okra, sunflowers, peanuts. Fall: Fava, Wheat. Winter: (fava), (wheat)
#9 Spring: (wheat) beets, spinach, mustard, Chinese cabbage, radishes, parsley. Summer: beets, mustard, quinoa (parsley). Fall: Spinach, mustard, radish, beets (parsley) fava. Winter: (fava)
#10 Spring: Broccoli, Brussels, cabbage, cauliflower, kale, kohlrabi. Summer: buckwheat. Fall: Broccoli, Brussels, cabbage, cauliflower, kale, kohlrabi. Winter: fava
#11 Spring: (fava), lentils, peas and snap beans. Summer: Sunflower, pole beans, chick peas, black beans, lentils. Fall: Lentils, barley, fava. Winter: (fava), (barley)
#12 Spring: Parsley, parsnips, carrots, fennel, cilantro, celery (barley). Summer: Carrots, celery, chicory. Fall: Parsley, parsnip, carrot, fennel, cilantro, celery. Winter: leaves.
#13 Spring: Potatoes, rutabagas, turnips. Summer: Sweet potatoes, tomatoes. Fall: potatoes, rutabagas, turnips, wheat, barley. Winter: potatoes, rutabagas, turnips, wheat, barley.
#14 Spring: Flour corn (barley, wheat). Summer: buckwheat. Fall: Rye. Winter: (rye)
As you can see, the winter crop of box #14 is what will be found in the spring of #1. I know this 14 year rotation is ambitious, but it certainly gives variety. After one year it is likely I will change what is grown to better suit what is eaten. The cost of seeds will also be prohibitive, but hopefully I will collect most of my own future seeds. Also important in the rotation is the cold weather fava which is in many boxes. This is a legume used to fix nitrogen for the upcoming season. It is grown and then cut down as it flowers and before fruit is set. This is when nitrogen in the soil peaks. It is an important winter crop also because it protects the soil during poor weather and contributes biomass via it’s roots, and compostable tops. Also to note, is I plan to have a no-till principal on these boxes – most of the time. Leaving the roots in the soil helps aerate the soil and provide the biomass needed to retain water and provide nutrients. As long as the plant is dead, the roots will begin to break down. Some plants will be pulled-out: those that will regrow from too much root left behind. Also, there will be tilling when it comes to the root veg and sunchoke crops (#13 and #4). Sunchokes require planting at 6” as do potatoes. So I will likely till to plant these crops and till when harvesting. Over a 14 year cycle it is probably beneficial to till. Maybe I will find it needs to happen more often.
The pond: It is my belief that having a water source that is chemical free for birds and insects is essential for the health of a garden. Obviously animals need water, but most insects get it from their food or non-permanent sources like dew and rain. However, when you see the activity flying around or swimming in a pond that has had time to naturalize or establish you can’t help but feel that the pond is promoting, facilitating, or adding biomass that would otherwise not be there. The pond plants, the algae, the water bugs and those that need the stationary water all fit into the food web that otherwise would not be there, or not be there in any meaningful capacity. The pond will be 8×5 ft (as close to the golden rectangle as I care to get). It is centered on the property and will likely be raised to the height of the beds, but with masonary. Solar-powered pumps (if strong enough) will help aerate the water, and the overflow will spill into a ground level “bog” for the accessibility of water to those on the ground. My biggest concern: Kids. The pond will be deep, so I will likely build a mesh on top of the pond that will not restrict plant growth or bird and bug access, but will prevent kids from falling in. Ugly, but necessary. Hopefully (without the protective cover) it will look something like this – for starts.
The two perennial companion gardens will be 10ft by 5ft. These will be established with a variety of plants to promote habitat and food for insects. Flowers, ever-greens and herbs will be a focus, but as will aesthetics. As this will not be tilled, it will likely have other components, like rotting logs, and rocks.
Finally, there will be tall posts, probably part of the bed construction that will be home to (bug hotels). Mostly for promoting solitary bees and other pollinators, but also to house and overwinter bugs like lady bugs that prefer dry and protected wood. I may also place the occasional bird house – mostly for a kid-project – but bird poo and a predator for the bugs is also a bonus. Here is an example of a bug hotel:
As mentioned before, I still need to plant the borders, design a chicken coop and decide if a play area or more garden is best for the remaining space. I envision fruit trees, and herb and pollinator garden, space dedicated to growing green compost and a variety of perennial shrubs that help facilitate life in the back yard. I make no promise of getting this done soon. We’re going to need baby-steps on this project, and I’ll post each one as we go.
The next step and likely the next entry in “Full-Circle Farm” will be clearing the property, so stay tuned and I’ll see you next spring….which here on the coast is February.
I’ll leave you with these pictures (some from Oct, some from Dec) of the state of the property. You can see how much work this will take.
Update: The above was written in February of 2018. I have since been “farming” the property for three years. See how my plan worked out with the updates below.