Garden Contingency Planning.

I probably won't get to look at them until after Isaiah's birthday and our Chanukah party next weekend, but the seed catalogs are piling up, and I'm starting to think about gardens again.  I can't wait to sink down into the couch with a stack of catalogs and dream.

This was a tough year for gardening - I was already behind in early spring because of the final push to get _Making Home_ out.  On May 1, K. and C. arrived, and it took the better part of a month before things normalized.  That was ok, I thought, the fall garden will be SPECTACULAR, I'll just put my energies there, and get serious about the garden on the first of July.  Except, of course, a few days after the first of July, Baby Z. arrived.

Beyond the nigh-universal  heat and drought, the main problem in my garden was the sleep deprivation of the gardener.   K. and C. went home to family later in July, following weeks and weeks of full-tilt advocacy and work to get that accomplished.  That devoured July.  By August we were so TIRED that many things simply went by the wayside.  It wasn't an awful garden year, just not a fabulous one.

I don't resent anything, though - I'm so glad that Baby Z. got most of my time and attention - we are fortunate that I had that luxury.  If some zucchini turned into baseball bats and I ate more tomatoes fresh than I canned, if I didn't get much but kale and spinach planted for fall, well, in the end, I'm grateful I had the capacity to turn outwards to others to fill in what I didn't do myself.

I should say I'm looking forward to a much better garden this year, and I am.  I am also, however, looking forward to one that doesn't work out so well.  By which I mean that I'm doing what I should have done all along - contingency planning to optimize my garden for non-optimal conditions, in this case, a non-optimal gardener.

My garden has had a non-optimal gardener many years - in fact, all of them.  I went through three pregnancies during the summer.  There was the year we lost Eric's grandparents and much of the spring was taken up by grief and the sort of their things.  There was the year I foolishly agreed to place the deadline for _A Nation of Farmers_ on May 31, meaning that peak planting season was spent with my staring at the computer and feeling guilty.  There were years when we were sick or busy or away during a critical moment.  In fact, I don't think my garden has yet ever had the garden it deserves.

It is a beautiful patch of land, it deserves the kind of devoted, anal, obsessive gardener that never says "Yeah, I'll get at that tomorrow...or maybe the day after" or "that's good enough for me."  It definitely deserves a gardener better at keeping chickens out, one who pays more attention to aesthetics than practicality, and one who never thinks it is just too bloody hot to go face the weeds.  Sadly, she's not available or returning my calls.  Instead, my garden gets me, the lazy, overly-busy gardener with grand ambitions for perfection and a high tolerance for imperfection - a multiple personality gardener who never quite gets the balance all right.

I still have the grand ambitions, the desire for a thousand varieties, the plan for a perfect seed-saver's garden, the goal of growing every herb and fruiting plant in nature.  I like that part of my gardening self, the one whose reach exceeds her grasp.  Without her, I wouldn't have quinces or have coddled a maypop into producing for me in Zone 4.   Without her I'd never have threshed my own oats or made ornamental borders of chili peppers and okra.   Her "too much is never enough" attitude (the same one my kids have towards sprinkles on ice cream) leads to good and interesting things - she pushes all boundaries, always wants to try one more variety, one more new thing, to go bigger and better.  This year, I resolve to give in to her, to try some new stuff, to add a new variety or two here and there, to get bigger in some respects.  But she's not the only part of my personality.

The other gardener in me is the one that is kinda lazy and really busy.  I've got a book due to the publisher in February, carefully set before planting season begins.  But that puts me editing in April and May.  Baby Z. will still be a baby in the spring if he's with us (and it is looking like he might be), and while he's sleeping better, let me not be completely foolish here - a crawling or toddling baby is still a very large hindrance in the garden.

I'm hoping I'll have more children by then, and that could easily include toddlers or another baby.  A new placement could easily come in the growing season, indeed, is more likely than not, and that changes things and takes a bit of time to reorient our lives around.  Kids could go home, which also takes up time and emotion.  The reality is that my life really isn't all that stable, and that lack of stability makes gardening go up and down.

Now here's a giant "duh" moment - I suddenly realized that this is normal.  For the last 10 years, I've been serving my inner dream gardener - the perfect one who does everything and wants to do everything.  I've gotten used to failures, enough so that I expect them and I don't beat myself up for them.  But what suddenly struck me is that here I am, forty years old, I've never actually tried to plan a garden for the kind of gardener I AM rather than the one I want to be.  I teach contingency planning for a living, and have contingency plans for my garden - for drought, for flooding, for lack of access to inputs.  The only contingency I've never planned for is the one that happens all the time - that stuff happens.

Don't get me wrong, I still think a gardener's reach should exceed her grasp.  By and large I've been glad that I've over-reached most years, because I think the net gain has been greater than the loss.  Yes, sometimes things fail from lack of attention or my lack of ability to deal with them, but I always have a good and ample variety of crops.  But what if I actually set up my garden to work better if I'm interrupted?  What would that even look like?  It suddenly struck me that I must be missing something.

So that's my project for this year - I'm working on redesigning my garden in layers, working outwards, partly on the old permaculture principle of zones (ie, closer in you put the things you need to get to daily, etc...) but also for more things that are self-operating, more things that are flexible in their harvest dates (for example varieties of beans and cherry tomatoes that mature over a longer stretch),  and having a plan for when I'm not going to get to something - for example, a quick cover crop mix at hand to get into beds I just won't be planting.  I'm also working on getting Phil-the-housemate into gardening on the theory that if I'm distracted, I might send him off to do my evil bidding in trade for my cooking him a portion of the proceeds.  Hmmmm....wait a minute!

I realize this is a classic physician, heal thyself moment, of course.  In fact, I routinely tell garden design students not to overreach, to think about how they will really use the space, how to involve others so you don't have to do it all yourself etc...  I KNOW all this stuff - it just never occurred to me that it should apply to me, because well, I've always liked having a lot of balls in the air, and the pleasures of an excess of ambition.  But then, I realized I don't really know if I would like constrained ambitions and more limited goals that I did a better job of accomplishing better, because never occurred to me to try it.  I have just assumed it probably wasn't for me.  I think it might be time to see, however, whether trying to accomplish more limited goals would be more fun than throwing a lot of balls in the air and seeing how many I actually catch ;-).

So off I go to the graph paper.  Anyone else making garden changes this year?



More like this

Over the years I've been actually planning a bit less. I still have a whole list of dates and varieties that have to get started, long about February, but I've taken a more casual approach to succession planting and greens, basically just tossing seeds into empty beds as I feel like it.

I always have some kind of cover seed mix on hand for empty beds, but I've been actually using them all more than before.

I'm trying to not be so ridiculous about mowing around the garden either. It's okay for the grass to be a bit taller than before.

At work, the garden/farm is going to be pretty big this year. I have accepted a new position at my agency now that we've consolidated a program from Jamaica Plain out at our suburban location. We now have a whole bunch of younger kids, mixed gender this time rather than just boys, and I am now in the outdoors full time as the farmer/agricultural guy (not counting the rather generous amount of time I have off to go play at my sometimes-house in Maine.) There are almost 50 kids on site and another 40 or so day students along with a much larger school, new school cafeteria, new school kitchen and 4 full time food service staff plus a nutritionist versus the single person we limped along with last year. On the flip side, most of the rest of us staff are basically kept OUT of the kitchen now, so my new role will allow me to shovel COPIOUS amounts of harvest into the cooks' hands under some kind of plan I hope.

I am going to really push season extension this year too, for greens if nothing else, so I can really keep our food service people supplied.

Now if they'd only allow me to keep some live stock there....

I'm still working with a culture that is inherently indoor and institutionally oriented, that fears much about the outdoors, that has, in the past, really marginalized outdoors-oriented people, especially middle-aged guys such as me, but there also seems to be a new willingness to really go with this farm/garden thing too.

If it doesn't work out this time (we had slipped backwards so badly over the past several years for a variety of cultural and institutional reasons as I've alluded to in the past here) then I may jump to the Maine house for good and start over up there. Honestly, however, as much as I would love to relocate to Aroostook, I seem to have this calling at this residential school here in MA. Maybe this time, now that our campus merger is complete, we'll be able to better utilize our amazing farm and forest campus.

Ya, some things are going to be different this year!

By Stephen B. (not verified) on 02 Dec 2012 #permalink

I realized this fall that a natural destination for my excess dried greens and herbs is the local Food Not Bombs chapter. I felt bad last year because I quit drying stuff when I had all I needed for the winter. I'm not into selling things -- but giving it away to willing recepients who will use it hot nourishing meals for the poor in my community through the winter -- yes! Also going to dried a big amount of herbs for cold-fighting tea for those volunteers who serve that hot meal outdoors in January and February. Grow, mint and yarrow, grow. You want to do it anyway in some happy patches on my land -- go for it!

By Anne Trudell (not verified) on 03 Dec 2012 #permalink

Hey, I really enjoy your blog. I don't think I've ever commented on it before, but I couldn't resist this question, "... Anyone else making garden changes this year?"
Constantly :) I'm still convinced that I'm going to have that perfect garden, and that it can be bigger than last year. This spring I'm trying some mangel beets and extra winter squash for the livestock. I'm also planning some companion planting under the fruit trees because it turns out all those people who say that fruit trees don't like to compete with grass knew what they were talking about and this is western Oregon - if I don't plant something in the open spots, something (grass/blackberries/fir trees) is going to volunteer. I'm also adding to the raised beds around the house as soon as I find some more rocks, hopefully in time for planting this spring and trying to come up with something nice to plant around the chicken coop (probably comfrey and raspberries). I'm finding it hard to draw a line between food gardening and general landscaping which is mostly ok, but it does mean that every time I sit down to plan this year's vegetable garden, it's completely impossible to keep it neat and uncomplicated. Also, I have a greenhouse for the first time ever, which means my seed starting is not constrained by the size of my window ledge...

Funny you should ask about what I might be planning to do differently in the garden next year ... I spent a few hours yesterday rereading Eric Perennial Vegetables book and started to plan a new perennial vegetable bed for in front of the south-facing, glassed-in front porch. At the moment this hot, dry bed has a mix of Autumn Joy sedum, bouncing Bet, an ornamental grass, and a few native plants in it. I've been pondering how to make it more useful. As I reread the book, it occurred to me that if I removed most of what is there except for the sedum, I could put up a trellis for runner beans, thus aiding to keep some of the summer sun out of the porch. If I mulched the bed well, it might not freeze and I could perennialize the beans. If it's that well mulched, it might be able to grow moringa as a dieback perennial. Throw in some sorrel, chicory, dandelions, and garlic chives, and there's a perennial bed that might accommodate itself well to the conditions.

I'm also wondering what I can do to make my garden more drought-proof and if I need to start the spring garden earlier to accommodate to the warmer conditions we seem to be having. The high yesterday was 75F. It might get warmer than that today. If it does, it will tie or set the record for warmest December high on record here. This whole year has been an exercise in warmth, and that's even after two months of cooler than normal weather. I'm waiting to see this winter's pattern and how it compares to recent winters. Gardening according to past patterns may no longer be appropriate. If so, I need to figure out how to adapt my gardening practices.

I think 2013 will be a year of having more money than time--an unusual thing in my life, as usually I have neither!--and relying more on the farmers' market instead of trying to grow EVERYTHING. I'll also be putting at least one bed in cover crops because the soil seems to need it.

We'll see what really happens when planting time comes!

Have you read Carol Deppe's "The Resilient Gardener", Sharon? This planning for resilience in the garden is exactly what she talks about, and reading it was a real Aha! moment for me, because I'm just the same: something always happens to derail my careful plans (although we probably get more done with the plans than we would without, even so).

Mind you, that doesn't mean we have solved the challenge, far from it! It's definitely a process...

By Kevin Wilson (not verified) on 03 Dec 2012 #permalink

My favorite way to reduce garden fussiness is that I don't plant summer squash any more. I plant all winter squashes, and if I want a zucchini, I just eat a baby butternut, pink banana, etc. Then, if they "get away from me," I just let them ripen all the way and that's my winter squash. Never have to fear I've wasted a squash by failing to harvest it, and they taste a lot better than zukes, too.


It's kind of off-topic, but what do you think of terra preta and the whole concept of adding charcoal/biochar to garden/farm soil? I don't think we all have ever really discussed it.

The reason I ask is that, after reading about it for some years, this winter, I have begun shoveling some coals out of my stove, and quenching them it water and then putting them aside for later crushing and adding to some garden soil.

At some point, I am going to experiment with making a small biochar "cooker" out of some steel pipe. I plan on taking a 3 or 4 inch diameter steel pipe and fitting it with removable ends. I'm going to stick some smaller firewood pieces in it and place it in my stove fires (a masonry heater actually.) I am planning on drilling a few holes in it to let out the off-gases and then recovering the charcoal at the end of the fire.

I read recently that a ball park figure for adding charcoal to soil is about 2 pounds per square foot. Scaling that up to farm fields, that's about 43.5 tons per acre. Given that a pound of carbon/charcoal equals about 3.65 pounds of CO2, that's a lot of carbon tied up in soil if done on a world wide scale, though this assumes that the touted agricultural benefits of added charcoal are at least partially true.

Even making just 5 or 6 pounds of charcoal in this way, in theory pulls out all of the approximately 18 or 19 pounds of CO2 the gallon or so of gas that I burn in the chain saw for every cord of wood I cut. 5 or 6 pounds of charcoal is not even a full pail...!

I'm becoming of the mindset that it's now too late to do much about averting a serious worldwide warming, but it seems to me that we still need to increase farm yields or at least repair agricultural soils in many areas of the world. Adding compost adds carbon as well, and of course that's a good thing, but carbon added that way doesn't persist in the soil as long as pure carbon/charcoal does. From what I've read, both forms of soil carbon seem to work together to increase soil nutrient retention as well as water retention which are thought to increase plant health and yield, all of which sounds good to me, even and especially if we end up living in a world where Greenland's ice has washed into the ocean. (BTW, don't read Stuart Staniford's blog today if the thought of a melted Greenland is too troubling to ponder right now :-( ) A quick computation says even my 10 acres of presently tillable land up in Maine could hold 10X43.5X3.65=1587 tons of CO2 and it might help my crops (presently tenant-farmed by a neighbor) regardless of the sequestration.

One thing I do wonder is if the biochar will mess up the soil's pH, this land being potatoes alternated with 2 years of grains and clover. Of course wood ash raises pH, but I wonder if biochar does? I suppose it depends if the biochar is rinsed in water before being added.

I envision local cogeneration facilities, burning local biomass crops, partially, down to charcoal in a modern, oxygen-deprived retort, generating heat and power, mainly in replacement for fossil fuels, with all ash and char being added back to soils. Over some time, this could return huge amounts of carbon to the world's soils, return, in fact, more carbon than the Fossil Fuel Age has added so far. I don’t think burning biomass strictly for making biochar, without capturing and using the heat energy for other things is quite as desirable.

I know, nobody gives a damn about CO2 beyond our circle here...*sigh*

If not that, then I am still doing this on a small scale in my stove.

Even poorer farmers and gardeners around the world could add charcoal to their soils and increase their soil's potential, though the poorest probably couldn't afford to "waste" part of their meager fuel wood supply by foregoing a complete burn for charcoal making. I guess it's really up to us "rich" nations to do this, which in a way makes some sense since we created so much of the problem by de-carbonizing our soils and putting so much CO2 into the atmosphere to begin with.

I guess I already laid out my thoughts. What say you or any other of your readers out there?

By Stephen B. (not verified) on 03 Dec 2012 #permalink

Next year, I'm planning to put in a herb bed (having finally realized that the deer won't eat most cooking herbs, so they can be put just outside my electric fence). I'm also planning to landscape around my house (I was waiting until after it was resided this summer to put plants in).

In the garden, I've given up on growing melons (if they didn't grow the past summer, they're never going to). I'll be starting my leeks indoors next year (they didn't grow nearly as large when I started them outside this year to save time / space). To (hopefully) save time on weeding, I'm going to use a thick straw mulch in most of the vegetable beds next year.

I recently went from part time to full time at work, which is good for finances but not so good for the homestead plans :( I spend a lot of time on the weekends preparing meals for the week, because i get home from work around 5:30 and now that I cook mostly from scratch, even a "quick" meal like pancakes and bacon ends up taking at least an hour. I have decided for the coming planting season to only grow those things that I have grown successfully in the past (carrots, beets, turnips, broccoli, cucumbers and green beans), plus 1 or 2 new varieties, so as not to get overwhelmed. It is tempting to grow all kinds of things, since I work for a soil farm and can get all the free soil and mulch I want :) This will only be my 3rd year of gardening, so I am still on the learning curve, but I hope to at least get to use my new pressure canner for some of my garden's bounty. Plans for a chicken coop have been drawn up and I have been promised chickens after the last frost in mid-February.

By Sandra Wilson (not verified) on 05 Dec 2012 #permalink

I have trees that make wood that I turn into charcoal on purpose. I put this on my compost pile (80% leaves as source) and it ends up in my gardens. It's small-time though, maybe not-quite one cubic meter of charcoal in 10 cubic meters of compost. There's ash too. I depend on the spirits of rot (bacteria) and oak leaves composting to fix the pH thing, though perhaps for me the ash is actually fixing an otherwise-too-acid situation. This fall's leaves are compost I'll use starting next fall, but mostly in spring of 2013, so it does have time to settle down.

The thing I'm going to think about next is compaction. Maybe it's not the same enemy I once thought. I religiously have never stepped in my beds, trying to keep them fluffy, and they are damned fluffy - a visitor who is ignorant and actually dares to put their foot in there will sink in 4 inches or more. This habit came with me from red-clay Virginia dirt upbringing, which is a harsh professor (and the charcoal thing is something I'd really try hard there), but I now live on very sandy southern Michigan outwash. My soil amendments (that's my compost) seem to vanish, no matter how much I've added for how many years. I'm starting to think I've got too much air getting into my dirt too easily. I imagine it's like an invisible fire in the ground, burning my carbon - poof. And this past year was very dry, so it made me wonder if I could keep more water in the ground by having it be less fluffy as well. Maybe I'll keep my usual practices, which are pretty french-shovel intensive (I'm only feeding a small family), but then use my feet to squish the dirt down after the plants reach a certain size, after mulching as usual (more compost, some 2-year old wood chips).
Trouble is, I'll be doing uncontrolled experiments.
Criticism and such appreciated, but not expected due to my late arrival.


I too wonder about charcoal added to sandy soils. We have very sandy, glacial outwash soil at the school farm/garden I help tend. It's a very dry garden that needs irrigation/watering much more than the clayish soil at my house just 2 miles up the road.

I hear what you're saying about soil amendments "vanishing." Then too, as temperatures increase, we can expect soils to oxidize out their carbon content even more quickly too. Having seen what conventional agriculture has done to the organic matter content of most soils, I realize that we really have taken an awful lot of carbon out of US, if not world soils, and tossed it into the air. Conventional ag might get okay yields due to their fertilizer applications, but they really ought to start getting carbon via compost and biochar back into the soil, as they have nothing to fall back upon, without adding chemicals to the soil.

One last thing about glaciers...we recently tore down an older residence at the school I work at, a residence that had a large piece of bedrock ledge hiding in its crawl space. It turns out that this newly exposed ledge has museum-quality glacial striations all over its top and north sides. One can stand next to it, and see exactly where the glacier was moving from and how it passed over the rock, kind of bouncing over the rock as it moved, sparing most of the lower, south side of the rock. It's amazing that this land of ours, now getting as warm as it is, losing Arctic ice as it is, was once fully glaciated all the way down to south of Boston. I mean, I already knew this, but to stand there and look at this rock....!

By Stephen B. (not verified) on 07 Dec 2012 #permalink