Friday, 19 February 2016

So How Big Should Your Vegetable Garden Be? Part 1

Someone asked me this question; and I thought... I dunno; how much space do you have? That's always going to be the first question, and on further thought, my answer is mostly going to be a whole bunch more questions.

 - How much time and energy and knowledge do you have now?
 - How much do you expect to have in the future?
 - How much do you want to have? (That is; what percentage of your energies do you want to go into gardening, compared to other interests and obligations?)
 - Do you have reliable help?
 - What is your soil, sunlight, and water access like?
 - Why are you growing vegetables?
 - Who are you growing vegetables for?
 - What vegetables do you want to grow?
 - Do you expect to dry, can, or freeze some of your vegetables?
 - If so, how much?

Basically, these break down into 2 major points:

Consider your resources:

Most people have a physically smaller plot of ground than the size of their hopes and dreams. Unless you actually want to be a full-time farmer though, this is not necessarily a bad thing, although there is no question apartment dwellers are at a serious disadvantage here. Keep in mind it's not enough to have the space; you also have to maintain the space. Weeding, watering, and fertilizing, obviously, but also making sure that it is not encroached on by too much shade or creeping tree roots. Some kind of fencing to keep out critters is needed to grow many types of vegetables, and that means work. Pathways, compost piles, trellises, greenhouses and/or cold frames; you may not need or want all of these, but you may want some of them. Somewhat counter-intuitively, these things often allow you to make the most of your space and grow more in a smaller area, but they do take work and maintenance.

Maybe even more important than your physically available space are your time and energy resources. Most people have a smaller allotment of actual time and energy than the size of their hopes and dreams here too. Many an excited new gardener - us included - has bitten off more than they can chew, so to speak. Just because you have, say, 15 free hours a week to garden does not mean that you should set up a garden that requires 15 hours of gardening. Your health, or that of family members may change, or you may develop other interests that also demand a certain amount of time. Don't forget that a certain amount of lolling on the sofa is a positive requirement for good health and life satisfaction. As with adding ingredients to recipes, remember that if you want to add more time and effort once you've been doing it a while, it is much easier to do that than to try to reduce it once your garden is set up. Finally, the time required in a garden is only somewhat flexible - when the peas are ready to pick you must pick them today. Tomorrow won't do. Keep that in mind.
Do you have reliable help? If you have help, you really won't know how reliable they are until you've been gardening with them for a while. They may not realize how much consistently applied effort vegetable gardening requires, and keep in mind, people's interests do evolve over time. Even the keenest gardening partner may pull back at some point for all kinds of reasons voluntary or involuntary.

Finally, take into account what your garden is like. Is the soil sandy and easy to dig? Or is it stiff clay that  you will be fighting with for years? Is it full of stones? How weedy is it to start with? (If it's horribly weedy, you should put a season worth of weeding, tilling, and soil improvement in before you get serious about planting.) Do you have access to water? We started gardening in an allotment garden, and it was very frustrating because we had to bring all our water in containers - a lot of effort! If you can't get a garden spot at least 50 feet away from tall trees, you will constantly be fighting with roots, and your plants will suffer from them considerably. Shade will also really affect what you can grow. Is it worth the effort?

Keep in mind that your level of skill will greatly affect how much space you need. We based our ultimate garden size on our production in the first couple years of gardening here. In fact, if we were just growing food for ourselves we would now have about twice as large a garden as we really need, because we have learned to get a lot more food out of that space over the last 8 years, and improved the soil quite a bit. We do still use all that space though, because we have expanded our interests to include saving our own seeds and vegetable breeding projects.

Consider your goals:

Why are you growing vegetables? If you think you are going to save money, I have to say... likely not, in my experience, and definitely not while you are low on the learning curve. That probably means at least 3 years. You would almost certainly save more money by investing in a freezer, canning equipment, and/or a vegetable dryer and going to places like the Bruce-Huron Produce Auction, farmers markets, or direct to farms and stocking up and preserving in season. You may want to get those things anyway, as a gardener, but you'll have to be a canny and disciplined gardener indeed to evade the reality that you are going to spend hours, money, and real estate to grow something you can buy for $1.99 at the grocery store. You can save far more money by shopping the sales and checking the mark-down table at you supermarket than you can by gardening. That is a sad truth.

On the other hand, if you think you can eat much higher quality and more interesting vegetables, not grown by exploited labour (unless you have children. Kidding! Kidding! Kind of...) than you could ever get even at a good farmers market, you are absolutely right. It's a good way to get kids interested in eating vegetables (as long as you don't exploit their labour too much - they tend to like the harvesting part. Me too.) It's an absorbing hobby that can produce results even with a little bit of effort, but which will also keep you learning new things every year for as long as you do it.

More practically, are you growing vegetables just for yourself, for your family, or for an expanded group of people? Do you just want to pull out a salad every few days, or do you expect to provide most of  your vegetables for the year from your garden? Some vegetables are much more space efficient than others, and that is a consideration. I will say, although it's nice to experiment a bit, the reality is that your garden is not too likely to change your diet. Let your diet drive your garden. If you don't like radishes, why grow them? They may be very easy but they will just sit there and bolt. Corn is hard, mostly because you have to beat off the competition, but if you really love it maybe it's worth the effort.


Once you have considered your resources and your goals, the next question is how well do they line up? The reality is that your goals are going to have to fit your resources, because making your resources fit your goals is not too realistic for most people.


Probably smaller than you think.

Okay, that was me being a bit of philosophical smartass. In Part 2 of So How Big Should Your Vegetable Garden Be, I will discuss likely yields of individual vegetables, their space requirements and likely amounts for consumption. 


JennaMF said...

Ferdzy - thank you so much for this! Can't wait until your next post!

Peter Tschirhart said...

This is a good read Ferdzy. I have no Illusion that I'm saving money by gardening, but the value I get from the enjoyment of tending my small plot is immeasurable. Love the the idea exploiting child labour. Last fall my teenage son planted all of our garlic one day when he was "sick" from school. I could see he was at least a little self satisfied when he was finished. Standing by for part 2.