Refactoring In The Garden

2011 was The Year of Additions. We added to our garden: new perennial bed, new mini-orchard, new chickens, two new coops for aforementioned chickens, and a couple new raised beds. We added this blog, and with it a sizable commitment and a wonderful community of like-minded folks. And late in 2010 of course, we had added this guy:

So what does that make 2012? The Year of Refactoring.

All that growth was great fun – and the results were wonderful and will pay dividends in food, eggs and joy for years to come. But growth comes at a cost of more than sore backs, chafed hands and the fatigue of a newborn. It comes at a certain cost in chaos.

Our irrigation system, for example, seemed like overkill seven years ago. But as we’ve expanded our garden in size and variety, the irrigation system has convulsed through a host of of oh-crap-can-we-get-this-irrigated-so-we-can-leave-for-a-week-in-July? projects. Our “overkill” system is now an undersized kluge of hoses, hose doublers, ad-hoc arrangements of timers from big box stores and oscillating sprinklers. What used to be a fairly precise system of soaker hoses and individual bed spigots has become, in growth, a hosed-up mess.

That’s no way to run a ship or a garden, so my 2012 list includes reviewing the whole system: how can we most effectively deliver the right amount of moisture to the right plants with a minimum of waste or out-of-pocket expense, and how can we incorporate rainwater catchment (a trickier proposition than you might think in an area that is, supposedly, always raining)?

But this isn’t just about irrigation. There’s a fence to build so our chickens have a more secure forage space and stay the hell out of the kale. There’s some wiring in the storage shed to wrap up. There is toddler-proofing our not-totally-enclosed yard. There is converting the coop to a sand-bed system. There’s some painting and finish work to be done in the shed.

Time to refactor the garden.

Refactoring is a coder’s term, born among agile and rapid development methodologies, for going back and cleaning up your shit. This shit cleaning might mean a methodical rewrite of hastily constructed code or just some polishing and final review, but it is a planned and anticipated action, an acknowledged and necessary step of development.

I love the word for how it gives credence and gravitas to an easily overlooked part of creation. It codifies the need to clean up missed details, skipped steps, kluges, workarounds, and even downright embarrassing breakdowns in professionalism that occur from time to time. It accepts that unanticipated problems and unexpected solutions are part of the chaotic nature of the creative building and growing process itself.

The engineer in me likes systems to be elegant – only as complex as absolutely necessary to do the task, but no more complex. Growth tends to force everything from garden irrigation to Microsoft software (especially Microsoft software, actually) to stack new solution on top of old solution on top of older solution until everything is a mess of unnecessary complications. Refactoring honors the necessity of periodically going in and breaking that complexity back down to an elegant, planned simplicity.

Refactoring isn’t maintenance or general repair – I wouldn’t list the re-mulching of our ornamental beds or the fixing of our front fence gate or the building of a new worm bin as refactoring projects. Instead, it’s the deliberate tying up of lose ends.

Is refactoring going to be as fun or rewarding as building things in the first place, slamming the first few boards up or posts in the ground? Of course not. The hidden re-arrangement of some wires or pipes in the irrigation system doesn’t have the same end-of-day panache, the same “hey, time for a homebrew!” sense of accomplishment as does building a 300 square foot perennial bed out of a ton of juniper timbers.

Refactoring can be frustrating because it’ll involve revisiting projects that I’d already mentally classified as “done.” The chicken coop is “done” so I really don’t want to think of a way to fix the straw bedding so it doesn’t prevent the door from closing. Retrenching a path area we’ve already mulched – multiple times – to lay new irrigation pipe isn’t my idea of a fun weekend. But these little steps are necessary to keep the homestead running smoothly and efficiently.

This is a pattern I’d like to see us settle in to, a pattern that is an essential part of many development lifecycle management approaches: iterate between periods of design, development, evaluation, and refactoring.

What in your garden needs a little refactoring this year?


  1. says

    Best of luck with your refactoring. We’ve got a lot of that to do too, but some how it is easier to put off than new jobs. I’d like to suggest you try wood shavings for your chicken coop. I find it much more absorbant and easier to deal with than straw. And, it composts well and you can get it for free from wood working shops. Just make sure it’s a shop that uses real wood, not plywood to build their stuff. We get ours from a wooden window maker and they give the rest of theirs to a local compost/soil outfit. We also have an inward opening door on the coop and find it brushes out of the way easily. I haven’t heard great things about the sand. Again, good luck with your projects.

    • says

      I’ll look around for wood shavings, thats a good idea. I’m not thinking of sand in the run, only in the coop proper. The idea would be a sand bed inside the coop to allow for easy “sweep” of overnight roosting poop down into the outer run area, which we would maintain as it currently is in a deep-litter style. Thoughts?

      • says

        I currently do deep litter with wood shavings in the roosting area too. Every few days when it needs turning, I throw some scratch in there and they mix it up so it will compost better. Every few months, when it is ready, I remove it and put in new shavings. I layer it with horse manure in my regular compost for a little longer after that. It works really well for me and is pretty low maintenance.

        • says

          FYI, I used to have a system where I “swept” the roosting area daily, but that drove me nuts. It was fine when I started, but got to be a drag when life got busy.

          • says

            Excellent point. OK, I’ll look into your method. The straw gets too matted in the roosting area for the chickens to turn it particularly well. Thanks for the tips, I’m all about lower maintenance. :)

  2. Saskia says

    “The chicken coop is “done” so I really don’t want to think of a way to fix the straw bedding so it doesn’t prevent the door from closing.” Uggghh! We have this same problem (because we have your same coop design.) We’ve considered changing the door to swing out instead of swing in, but the door was the most frustrating part of building the coop and re-hanging it would be a nightmare. We’ve thought about a sand base, too, so I’m curious to see how yours turns out!

    • Just Nick says

      Saskia, I wouldn’t bother re-hanging the door!

      Ours IS an out-swing and still have a problem with bedding getting in the way, though probably not as bad as yours. The bedding spills out, lands on the sill, and gets wedged up against the bottom doorstop, making it really hard to completely close the thing. We need to give it a quick sweep every so often to get the mashed up straw out of the way.

  3. says

    Last year was our first year in the new garden. And we moved in during mid-June. Oh, and the last occupants had allowed weeds to get 5 feet high. So last year was spent just trying to catch up and stay ahead of the weeks and the crap that previous tenants left behind.

    I made so many mistakes because I was rushed and didn’t know the sun pattern in our garden yet, etc. This year will be about refining lessons learned from last year and adapting. I have the luxury of actually planning this year rather than last year’s approach of “oh shit, there is some bare dirt. Um, put a tomato plant in it, quick”!

  4. says

    I love how everything becomes useful once you have chickens. I used to feel bad about veggies that were over the hill in the fridge and got tossed into the compost, but now … it makes the chickens SO happy. Also used to be annoyed by persistent weeds in the garden, but since the chickens have successfully eradicated their own forage area, pulling weeds is treat time for chickens and makes me happy.

    • says

      Agreed. I have a food hierarchy: people, people again (leftovers), *possibly* people again (3rd round leftovers), chickens, worms, general compost.
      Another thing we need to look at is how to appropriately direct chickens to areas that need “weeding” without letting them into areas that have just been *seeded.* I’m not sure if that is true refactoring but it’s certainly on the “systemic improvements” list.

      • says

        My hierarchy is people (dinner), people (lunch), worm-bin, chickens, compost. We pass most things through the worms first and then feed the worms to the chickens. We’ve been trying not to feed the chickens too much ‘white-bread’ like rice, noodles, tortillas, even though they’re mostly whole grains, since we got the “fatty-liver-hemorrhagic-death” diagnosis for our best layer.

  5. Anna says

    I hear you about the refactoring! I am having to do the same. Last year we made huge progress in the garden. Yet, we will be taking down huge trees, which will change the gardens sun pattern and water needs. So I have to slow down on planting, so I can change the design, again! I think this is why they call it ‘Slow Food, Slow Gardening.’ So much to learn. I love that part of it. :) Gardening is my favorite, working on everything else is second. I may have to balance that out more… hmmmmm. Like the idea of wood shavings in the coop… Hopefully in the next two years we will have the animal enclosures done. No pressure on our part!

    • says

      I like “slow gardening” in theory, but in reality it’s more a seasonal rhythm around here: big early spring seed starting push, catch breath. Huge early summer transplant push and summer seed starting push. Barely catch breath. Harvesting, harvesting, harvesting with lamaze breathing. Mini push for fall and winter crops + HUGE late summer harvesting + HUGE late summer/early fall preserving push. Do not catch breath, ever. Then real fall comes – everything slows. Kids in school, garden winding into stasis. Winter: except for the damn holidays, just one long breath-catching session with periodic easy harvesting. Calm, slow, reflective. :)

      • says

        Given the warm weather in CA, this winter we’ve been extremely lazy about the garden (a lot of time to catch our breath). I just pulled out the last of the tomatoes this week! And they still had a few green tomatoes that I brought in to ripen. I’ve only been gardening about 8 years, but we’ve never had tomatoes into the new year before! Needless to say, the winter garden didn’t really happen. We chose more peppers and tomatoes over winter veggies, which means we’ve been buying those at the farmer’s market instead.

  6. says

    We’re constantly refactoring. This past weekend we updated all of our garden bed irrigation (went from T-tape to inline drip) and soon plan to redo the rest of the irrigation on our property. Then of course we’re constantly rebuilding coops and switching around walls in the barn. We need to add on to our goat barn for more hay storage. I want to add on to the rabbitry to include an additional level for the rabbits to romp around on. Then we’ve also got additions like the greenhouse and the outdoor kitchen and cob oven.

  7. says

    As you consider your watering system… I have found myself quite intrigued by the concept of hugelkultur ( I am not particularly arid here (just over the mountains in Idaho) but this sounds too good not to try. Plus, I live in the middle of the forest, so rotted wood is not so hard to come by. You might want to try this.

  8. says

    Crap, our coop needs some serious refactoring. It is a mess. The coop works well enough- the run, however, is a nightmare. And an eyesore. It keeps them contained, but it is an oogy mess. We use straw on the run floor and areas get wet and it gets mashed together. Ugh. I am starting a hugelkultur bed (today? maybe?) and am going to move it there. Should be good- all partially rotting and poopy. =)

    And, yes, the maddening irrigation system. Worked fantastic back then. But now? Not sufficient.

    Boring tasks. =(

  9. says

    I need to refactor the vegetable bed irrigation. Not quite yet a “hosed-up” mess, but then I don’t have quite the space you do. Still, it was thrown together without a lot of research and doesn’t really do the job. I think my pattern of sprinkler rotation works well enough for the rest of the garden, but the veggie beds have to be watered by hand after having the drip irrigation running the full time everything else was getting sprinkled! Pretty pointless, but because I thought it was finished once, I’m really dragging my feet about fixing it. Perhaps thinking of it as refactoring will help with the motivation.

  10. says

    You said:”Growth tends to force everything from garden irrigation to Microsoft software (especially Microsoft software, actually) to stack new solution on top of old solution on top of older solution until everything is a mess of unnecessary complications. Refactoring honors the necessity of periodically going in and breaking that complexity back down to an elegant, planned simplicity.”

    That is a profound statement that applies to many areas of life. Will borrow, with credit given of course.

    • says

      Thanks Ien – there are a few things that have hit us in this journey that we talk about in regards to the garden and home, but which we think have larger applicability. Refactoring is one, “Hope In A Bottle” is another. Glad you liked this post, thanks for you kind words!

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