We planted potatoes this week, around 450 row feet of them. In a few days, we'll plant that many more. It's a rather big deal and involves some pretty intense labor, primarily in preparing the rows for planting. In addition to plowing and harrowing, both of which are done with our little tractor, the rows have to be opened (again, with the tractor) and then compost and fertilizer laid down in the rows. These "inputs" are then lightly mixed with the soil. Meanwhile, in the house, the "seed potatoes" which are simply potatoes that have been inspected and certified to be free of disease, are prepared for planting. Each potato is examined and cut into pieces with each piece containing at least 2 or 3 "eyes," or sprouts. These cut potatoes are laid out on a flat surface and allowed to dry for a day or two lest they rot when put in the ground. When all is prepared and the cut potatoes are dry, each piece is placed carefully, cut-side down, in the row and dirt pulled over them. A layer of mulch is then placed over the dirt, irrigation lines laid over this, and we wait for them to grow.
Every year when we are planting potatoes, the conversation inevitably turns to yield. Yield is the term used to describe the amount of crop that is ultimately harvested. And our potato yield is typically in the 1300 to 1500 pound range. That's a lot of spuds! And THAT conversation usually turns to our frequent comment, "Man, we pull a LOT of food out of this little piece of dirt, don't we?" It isn't bragging we are doing (though we are awfully proud of what we are able to produce), but rather our constant amazement at what is possible.
I am often asked how we manage to produce so much in such a relatively small space. Our "farm" is a mere 2.4 acres, and most of that is taken by the house and various outbuildings along with 7 enormous pecan trees. The areas that remain are sunny and have mostly been turned into garden space. For ease of discussion, we call them The Front Garden, The Back Garden and The North Patch. The Front and Back gardens are further divided into sections which we have numbered. Sounds silly, I know, but when two people are involved it is necessary to know that you are talking about the same thing! Additionally, these numbered sections are irrigation zones, also handy to have a reference when discussing.
When our CSA began, we only had the Front Garden, and it was much smaller than today. We've expanded it twice and it now covers an area that is roughly 150 by 150 feet. The Back Garden was added during our second year and a couple of small expansions were added to it also. It is L-shaped and overall contains about 2/3 the planting space of the Front Garden. The North Patch is a rather small triangular space that was begun last year and has just been planted with its second crop. It is about 65 feet at its broad end and the sides are maybe 50 or 60 feet long.
It is a lot of garden space for two middle-aged folks like ourselves to manage, but we somehow keep it all going. We've learned a lot of tricks along the way and figured out ways to accomplish our goals with a minimum of labor and expense. But the most important thing we do to keep the volume of vegetables up, is caring for the soil. Our soil gets a workout, most of it is planted with 3 crops a year. We try to "rest" each area for a season every couple of years, but it doesn't always happen. Every time we plant, we add compost. This is either compost we've made or mushroom compost that we've purchased. We use no chemical fertilizers on our soil, only a mixture of cottonseed meal, bone meal, gypsum and lime along with foliar spraying with fish/kelp emulsion. When an area is going to be planted with a long-season crop like corn, we will scatter chicken manure or cow manure prior to planting, and we do the same for areas laying fallow for a season. Between the planting rows, we try to keep mulch on the soil--either ground leaves or grass clippings--that serves to keep down weeds, insulate the soil, conserve soil moisture, and enrich the soil as it breaks down. In short, we feed the soil and the soil feeds us.
The other thing we practice that greatly enhances the yield from our gardens is companion planting and intensive gardening techniques. For instance, lettuce plants are set about a foot apart and we usually plant them in double rows. Between the two rows of lettuce, we like to plant onion sets which will be harvested as green onions. They share the space nicely and the onions work to repel the slugs which like to feast on salad at night. Then in the rows of lettuce, between the plants, we'll put a few carrot seeds. They get such a slow start that by the time they need more space the lettuce has been harvested. This method makes premium use of our fertilizer and compost, as well as our irrigation. It also cuts our labor by allowing 3 crops to be grown with only one planting bed prepared. Other combinations we've found that work well are spinach along the edge of the edible podded pea plantings, and radishes outside of cucumber rows. Basil plants are nice between tomato plants and are said to enhance the flavor of the tomatoes they grow near.
I've been known to plant watermelons along with eggplants, the vines and huge leave of the melons shading out weeds around the tall eggplants, and both loving the same hot temperatures. We've all heard of the Native American method of planting "The Three Sisters" which are corn, beans and squash in the same space. I don't do this, however, since modern sweet corn bears little resemblance to the maize grown by the Natives and it must be fiddled with throughout its growing season--hilling, fertilizing, etc. done for the corn would interfere with the other two sisters.
We produce several tons of vegetables here each year and deliver them to the eager hands of our CSA members. In addition to more than a half-ton of potatoes, a typical summer will see 700-800 pounds of summer squash, 500-600 pounds of tomatoes, a couple hundred pounds of green beans, several hundred watermelons, at least 1,000 ears of sweet corn, and I won't even venture a guess how many eggplants and peppers. Many hundreds of pounds of leafy greens leave here each fall, along with thousands of carrots, radishes and turnips. We eat pretty well, also!
The soil is rich, crumbly and produces vegetables with full dark coloring and intense flavors. The healthy soil is home to healthy organisms that play a major role in maintaining a balance of good vs. bad bugs. The birds are free to hunt in the gardens, and between the eastern bluebirds and the mockingbirds, thousands of pest insects are eliminated each season.
We've learned to carefully nurture this little piece of dirt and avoid doing anything that would harm it.
We are cautious about introducing mulches or composts from unknown sources for fear that we might contaminate our precious garden space with unwanted chemicals or pests. We try to work with nature rather than against, understanding that it is all about balance, rhythm, restraint, and a clear understanding that while we may hold the deed to this property, it is only truly being borrowed for a short while and must eventually be returned in the same or better shape than when it was loaned. As a result of having learned these simple truths, our CSA members are able to rely on a steady supply of abundant and tasty vegetables throughout 3 delivery seasons each year. And because we've allowed ourselves to fall into the rhythm of growing, we find that these same principles are replicated in the rest of our life. And there, my friends, is the true magic to be found in working this land.