I have developed a formula which I think allows us to estimate how much time and labor a food growing piece of land will take.
Size of Land x Diversity of Plantings x Intensity of Management = Time and Labor required!
Now, there are no units associated with this formula, so it’s not going to spit out some hours per week calculation for you. But it allows us to consider how to create a garden that works for the time we really have.
The amount of land you garden, in combination with the diversity of things you grow and the intensity at which you grow them combine to determine how much work your garden or urban farm will be.
Let’s compare two very different models of growing food.
Industrial Commodity Growing
One dude with the right equipment can grow a single crop of corn or soy across thousands of acres. The amount of land worked is huge, the amount of calories grown are huge, but the diversity is nonexistent and the intensity of the management is pretty moderate. What’s the joke about modern industrial farming: drive and spray, drive and spray?
According to Corn and Soybean Digest, a commercial farming publication,
Improvements in management and technology — such as Roundup Ready crops, reduced tillage practices and larger-capacity machinery — have significantly increased the amount of land one person can farm. We now have equipment that can plant 500 acres in a normal day. And it isn’t difficult to find producers who farm 1,000 acres and still have a full-time, salaried job.
Think about that: in modern, industrial commodity farming, the crop diversity and management intensity is low enough that growing food on 1000+ acres is part-time work.
Square Inch Urban Farming
In contrast let’s look at my least favorite modern homesteaders, the Dervaes Family of Pasadena, California.
This family has made quite a name for themselves growing a huge diversity of crops and raising micro livestock on one-fifth of an acre in a very urban area outside LA. They provide for much of their own food needs, sell excess crops to restaurants and local people, raise dairy goats and poultry, brew bio-fuel, use human-powered appliances and generally do a bang-up job of squeezing every last drop of productivity and from their limited space.
According to the Dervaes family website, the family grows over 350 different vegetables, herbs, fruits & berries, and harvests 6000 pounds of produce from the 1/10th of an acre that is dedicated to crops. Pretty freaking impressive production, even for a year-round, Zone 10 growing climate.
But here’s the key: the family doing this is four fully-grown adults – no children – and as I understand it managing their 1/10th acre homestead is the full time job for all of them.
So the intensity and diversity of activities on the Dervaes’ urban farmstead is so high that, even on a tiny urban plot, it takes a huge amount of time and labor to keep it going. They describe their planting style as “square inch” and I believe it. The work input to maintain a very high-intensity annual edible growing system like that is very, very high.
Time: Is It On Your Side?
So what can these two extreme examples of food production teach the average backyard gardener who has the normal time-constraints of job, family, other hobbies, etc.?
For a homestead-focused urban grower, I think it starts by honestly assessing how much labor and time you can give to your garden or backyard farm, and finding the optimum intersection in the land/diversity/intensity triangle based on that.
Scale Down, or Up
Even small-space gardeners can decrease the land they use for production – taking a raised garden bed or a few patio pots out of production or landscaping annual growing areas with easy-care perennials. I’m not saying that kind of decision isn’t nearly impossible for most of us plant-nerd gardener types, but sometimes downsizing a garden “right-sizes” it.
On the other hand, if a gardener is routinely looking at their garden and wishing they had something to do, it’s time to look at expanding. Kill your grass, add another pot, grow vertical, sprout seeds – whatever – if you are itching to put more time into your garden, find a way to expand or squeeze more from the space you have. Or move to the country and buy 14 acres and get goats. That ought to keep you busy.
The Good and Bad of Diversity
I grow a huge diversity of edibles, but I’ll admit I could make life easier on myself by focusing on just a few crops. Hell, even just picking one tomato, one green bean, or one potato variety would simplify my gardening. Yet like many compulsive vegetable collectors, too often I feel compelled to grow “one of each.”
In a recent guest post, my friend Grace argued for not trying to grow it all in a small space, and if you can manage to just say no, I think she’s on to something. Find the right diversity point for your family.
Diversity for diversity’s sake – 9 kinds of summer squash for a family of 3 – is just make-work, but the right kind of diversity – lots of beneficial insect attractors and nitrogen fixing support plants, for example – can actually help reduce time and effort in the long run. So be smart about where you reduce diversity and where you increase it.
Intensity (Or, My Fingers Are Too Fat For Square Inch Planting)
You can moderate the intensity of your gardening, too. Instead of Square Inch Planting, I allocate room in my garden based on half-bed increments. These are 4×4 squares. I rarely plant less than a half-bed at a time, it’s just too fussy for the space I’m managing.
You can lower the intensity of your gardening by forgetting season extension techniques, succession sowing, and other time-maximizing techniques. Although not ideal for the Maritime Northwest, it’s ok to opt to just put in your garden once and be done with it.
To do this, wait until sometime in mid-May, or whenever the frost-free, warm season is starting in your area. Go out the the nursery, pick up a flat of starts - broccoli, tomatoes, peppers, cabbage, etc. – plus a couple bags of compost and a bag of balanced organic fertilizer.
Spend one good afternoon working the compost and a bit of the fertilizer into your garden area and getting everything planted. Poke a few bean and squash seeds in the ground while you are out there and boom, you’re done planting for the year. Now all you have to do is water, weed and harvest. The garden shouldn’t take more than a couple hours a week, depending on the size.
Speaking of watering, we can take advantage of technology (just like Mr. 1000 Acre Part-Time Corn Farmer) to lower the intensity of our gardening, too. If I had to hand-water my 17 4′x8′ raised beds, in August everything in my garden would be dead. I am just not that dedicated.
Automating your irrigation can be as simple as a sprinkler or some soaker hose hooked up to an irrigation timer. That’s what I have in the front, and it works fine. Out back in the main garden it’s a bit more sophisticated. I have an irrigation controller with multiple zones that lets me easily adjust how much water different parts of the garden are getting.
I highly recommend that anyone with a garden more extensive than a few pots think about ways to put those irrigation robots to work. Bonus: you’ll probably save water and have healthier plants too – most people are really quite terrible at hand watering and manage to get the top 1/4-inch of soil wet before calling it quits.
Another way to lower the intensity of your garden management is to transition to more perennial food crops. Probably everyone has rhubarb growing, it’s totally ubiquitous. That stuff just comes up. In the Pacific Northwest, it’s easier to grow bramble crops than to get rid of them. Sunchokes are so prolific they piss me off. Blueberries in the right soil are as easy to grow as rhodies and – bonus! – they make blueberries! Plant those types of edibles once, and the ongoing intensity of managing them is very low compared to most annual crops.
My Take-Away and Changing Things Up
My personal analysis of the Land, Diversity, Intensity triangle intersection showed me that I was over-committed on land and intensity for the amount of Time/Labor I could realistically give my garden. Those kooky permaculture people would say my Zone One was too big.
Guys, I’ve spent the last ten years expanding my vegetable growing area, and frankly, I have the basics pretty well dialed in at this point. So to honestly say, “I just can’t take care of all this at this intensity” is a hard pill for me to swallow.
Even at my own small-space, backyard level, I can’t garden like the Dervaes. I don’t have the labor, so that degree of intensity isn’t realistic for me. While my family is supportive of my garden and does pitch in, I am the primary gardener and “help” from my children often takes more time than it saves.
That’s fine – I’m not just growing cabbage and beans here, I’m also growing awesome little people who need to learn these skills. (I had to tell my son that onion seedlings go root-side-down yesterday; that was pretty hilarious.) I also harvest, cook or otherwise process most of the food I grow, so I am both the farmer and the farmer’s wife. Plus, there’s this full time writing/blogging job thing and the rest of life to attend to.
There are only so many hours in the day, and I’m making some changes in my gardening to reflect a reassessment of what I can realistically do. Most notably, I made the decision to pull my hugelkultur beds out of annual vegetable production and plant them in perennial edibles as part of the installation of my new suburban food forest experiment (more on that in a future post).
It might seem a bit counter-intuitive to laboriously put in a food forest to reduce work, but I am fairly confident that the long-term management of a perennial food growing area will be less intense than the management of that same area dedicated to year-round annual growing.
While I cannot limit my desire for diversity too much (plant hoarders unite!) I’m growing a lot of staple and processing crops this year like potatoes and tomatoes. I’m also growing easy broadcast greens like arugula and green manure crops that do double duty as forage for the hens. Cover crops sown at the right time of year require almost zero work and legume-containing blends can improve soil while growing a lot of yummy biomass for the chickens.
I’d encourage any backyard homesteader who might be feeling like their garden demands a bit more time than they really have to do their own assessment and find that right balance point. Don’t be afraid to make adjustments based on the ebb and flow of your life.
And remember that when you see showpieces like the Dervaes’ urban farm, they have four adults dedicated to that kind of production. So even if you admire what they are growing, don’t get caught up emulating that set-up if the time and intensity isn’t realistic for your life.