Why is There a Problem and Why is My Garden Only a Hobby?
This is not your average gardening book. It is also not a cookbook or a book on food preservation and emergency stocking. In order to grow enough food for you and your family , you must know something of all three of these aspects of food. Most books are unicycles. Some, better, books are bicycles. This book is a tricycle: you won't have to balance to use it, you won't fall over, you won't fail to get where you're going with three wheels on the ground. Whenever you read a cookbook or diet book or garden book or pantry book, ask yourself about the missing cycles. I have noted books in my references with wheeled icons so that you may come to realize that some books will expect you to fill in the missing information (wheels).
According to the USDA, most Americans eat between 150-200 pounds of fresh vegetables a year, including potatoes. To give you a counter example, my family of two now (we are vegetarians) eats between 1500 and 2000 fresh vegetables a year, not including dried beans, potatoes or tomato sauces and other canned goods. If I was to supply all of our vegetable wants, I would have to grow about 3000 pounds of vegetables a year or more, say, ten pounds a day. If I were to grow fruit and nuts as well, I would have to add in another 500 pounds. But, for ease, let's just talk about a five-fold increase from 400 pounds for a normal family of two to my family's consumption of 2000 pounds a year.
A book on gardening is going to be aimed at the average eater. If you are a good gardener, you can get about one pound per every square foot of space you have to grow on (not paths). If you are average, you get about one pound of produce for every two-three square feet of space. So, for 400 pounds of veggies, the garden book estimates that you will need maybe 5-600 square feet of space in a 1000 foot garden, say, maybe a space that's 20 feet wide by fifty feet long, about a third of your back yard. This is a serious garden. Most books recommend that you begin with only about 400 square feet, or a space that's 20 by 20.
Let's look at the second wheel, from the diet perspective. A pound of peas will give you about 350 calories of energy. The average person in this country needs roughly 2000 calories a day. This amount varies quite a bit, from kids, who may need only 1000 calories to older people who are less active who may also need only 1000 calories, to super jocks like my nephew who need to eat 5,000 calories a day or more. But let's try to keep it simple. Peas pack in a lot of calories. A pound of carrots is only 150 calories; a pound of tomatoes is half that. Potatoes are about like peas. So, you would have to eat about five pounds of a high calorie food (peas or potatoes) to fulfil your dietary needs. If you bear with me while I do the math, that's 1,825 pounds a year, which, if you're a really good gardener, is roughly 2000 square feet of growing space (not including paths) per person. Even if you are a super gardener and follow biodynamic methods and can really crank out the food, you may get that space requirement down to 500 feet per person, but you might get awfully tired of eating peas and potatoes! You might also get really tired of gardening.
Let's look at the third wheel which is storage. Hm. Where are you going to store 2,000 pounds of food (if you can't grow year round) will it last for the winter, will the bugs get it, how much space will it take up in your garage (bad storage area) and what will it taste like next March when you're really, really, really sick of eating peas and potatoes. Did you freeze those peas? Did you can them? You may begin to see why people grew potatoes and stored them in root cellars. But potatoes get pretty dried out a a few months and may go ahead and sprout. Yes, the farmers pick them, but they spray them or store them in special condtions to keep them looking like they just came out of the ground. If you live in the northern half of the country, you may have 4-5 months of frozen ground, and I mean frozen, solid. It's no wonder that people just have given up and go to the store several times a week.
It would seem all right to rely upon the store; it's certainly less work. But consider this. The average family of four now spends about $20,000 a year on food. If food prices continue to rise like they are, in five years that could be $30,000 a year--more than the average person's take-home pay! And what about the half of the country who does not make this much money? Well, they can buy bad food or eat less, or put their kids to work or start trying to grow a garden. Well, maybe. If they need five pounds a day of food to live on and that costs them roughly $10 a day at the store, if they only eat 200 pounds a year of fresh vegetables, then you still have to get four or more pounds a day of food, so you cut your food bill by maybe $2 a day? All right, maybe that's worth doing. Let's look at doing that.
Let's look at the garden books again. But before we do that, let's do the math. $2 a day, times 365 days equals $730. That's our store savings. If we put more than that into the garden, we're losing money.
Okay. Bear with me. Let's assume that your time is free. So you have cleared a spot in your yard, about 400 square feet (just for your veggies.) The first thing you need is seeds. Okay, let's grow peas and not worry about potatoes. Peas: no problem. Well, you can expect about 1 oz of peas per plant. So, sixteen plants is going to give you a pound of peas. A seed pack usually has about 160 seeds, easy--that's ten pounds. If you only want to grow your USDA average of food (peas is just an example) you want 200 pounds of peas (or tomatoes and squash and whatever). So (math again) one pack of seeds equals ten pounds of produce, hm, we need 20 packs of seeds. Well, that's $40, if they are cheap seeds. Okay, that's all right, you may think.
One for the cutworm, one for the crow, one to get sick and one to grow.
I'm a really good gardener. I expect 90 percent, look at it again--90 percent--failure. This little rhyme expects 75 percent failure. Okay. plant four times as much as you think you need. That's suddenly about $160. Okay. I'm still way under budget. Most people don't buy tomato seeds, and buy a lot of starts. But we'll be really fair and include that price in our $160. So $160 from $730 still leaves us $570. No problem.
If you are a normal gardener, you're just growing on the soil that you opened up in your lawn. If you're a good gardener, you've added stuff to it. You read all about acid soil or alkaline soil or clay soil or sandy soil, etc., etc., and you're a good gardener so you make some corrections, maybe even buy some compost. Okay. Let's just do compost. The books (and store people) say about a quarter of an inch on top of the soil. No problem. A bag of that stuff is about $4 for half a yard. At 1/2 inch, that bag will cover about 2,592 square inches of our garden. For those who want more math, that's about 18 square feet. I've got 200 square feet of space, but I'm going to go a bit on the thin side, so I only use 10 bags. There's another $40. No problem. I have $530 dollars left, I've planted my 200 square feet with starts and seeds and now I'm set. Or so you might think. I know, I'm teasing you. But not really; we already figured for the bugs getting stuff in our rhyme.
What you didn't figure for is water, but that's all right. A garden takes as much water as grass does, about an inch a week. In the East, the garden will cost you about $20 a month to water during the summer months. So another $100. In the West, that garden will cost you about $100 to water, if you can water overhead outside. Some places won't let you do that. In the West, if you don't have water restrictions, your garden just broke you. But, like me, you're hard headed. You're going to put in a watering system, leaky tape or pipe or something. That broke you, too, but only for the first year. The next year, you only spend about half the amount on watering, so you made $200 out of your garden.
In this country (and in most of the Western world) gardening is a hobby. To put an inch of water on your garden means you have to stand there with the hose for three hours a week. If you pull weeds and pick off bugs and harvest and cheer the plants along, there is another hour a day. Okay, that's ten hours a week. No problem. You've got a weekend. Five hours both days. Every week, all summer (and spring) and if you let it go one week, you've got to spend twenty hours the next making up for lost time. An hour a day sounds doable. But that's an hour a day, not skipping a day. If you don't jog one day, no problem. Having a garden is like having a dog. It's alive. Ninenty percent of gardens fail, not because of bugs or water, but because people don't have that kind of time. It doesn't look like much, but it is. And it's a hobby, so we're not saying that your time is costing you $100 a week to muck about in the garden.
All right, all right, you cry. I give up! Well, I agree, but I'm the hard headedest person you will ever meet and I never did give up. That is why I'm writing this book for you. Because gardening my way will save you money, take WAY less time, give you WAY more food, and be fun for you, your family, and the local wildlife. Better yet, when groceries start costing $50,000 a year, you'll be able to eat out of your yard. All of it. 3,000 calories a day of it. It's actually not hard, but it does require some brains. I'm lazy. I don't like doing more work when I can do less work more smartly. But it's too danged hard to find out what to do. It really is. It's like trying to ride three unicyles all at once in the middle of rush hour traffic. Which is just silly. That is why I wrote this book--to save you time and effort.
What are in these Articles?
Cabbage: A Nutrionist's Dream, A Gardener's Hell.
There are three problems we face in growing our own food. They are as follows:
- What can (should and will) I eat and what will nourish me?
- What can (should and will) I grow and how much effort will it take?
- How can (should and will) I prepare these crops in order to get the most out of them?
I did not put in those parenthetical comments just for fun. Most gardners fail because what they can grow is not what they want to eat. Most diets fail because what people should eat is not what they will eat or can eat. Many gardens go neglected every year because it's too hard and it takes too much time and it's just easier to go to the store. I agree. I'm lazy; I don't like eating buggy food; I sunburn in ten minutes and I'm way too busy to spend all my time in a garden. But I also have major food allergies and cannot eat 90 percent of what is in the grocery store. Restaurants are a total joke for the most part. So do I have to just force myself to do what is good for me and be miserable? No, no, no, no, absolutely not.
Let's look as some aspects of the three wheels of our problem that are covered in detail in these pages.
- What is a nourishing food? A food must: taste good, feel good, and be good for you.
- What do I eat, how much do I eat, why do I eat it? Food must be: filling, satisfying, and delightful.
- How should food be prepared? Most people never learn to cook--learn how to enjoy feeding yourself.
- Will it make me sick? Learn about plant poisons and food poisons that we commonly ingest (not just pesticides!)
- Eating is life long. Eating is a skill. Eating habits should be flexible enough to accomodate life changes.
- What about the kids (spouse)? There are different kinds of eaters and different eating needs.
- Eating for illness. Food can help heal any problem that you have. But it's up to you, no one else.
- What should I have on hand? Food for when things go wrong: storms, emergencies, politics even!
- How can I keep food fresh? What to do with the harvest--seriously.
- What happens if the whole world goes to pot? Yes, I'm going to tell you that, too, for serious hoarders.
- The canning/freezing dilemma. It's not the time/skill doing it, it's the dollars it takes to do it.
- How can I make emergencies less expensive? You can, you must, otherwise it's a disaster.
- What do I do with 20 pounds of wheat berries? What the books tell you is wrong, wrong, wrong!
- We've got the storage, but I'm tired of eating tuna fish! Emergency rations must taste good, not be boring, and be good for you.
- What is not in the books. Either you must read every garden book you can find, or forget about them.
- Getting rid of prima-donna plants. Every plant should do double or triple duty, like provide leaves AND roots to eat.
- Many plants are poison until cooked. I don't grow plants that I can't eat raw. If you have no power, you can't eat them.
- Put your money into the soil. How to compost, how to prep a bed, how to mulch--the serious way.
- Don't waste money on water--don't waste water. Simple rules to follow in getting around the West's big problem.
- Why garden books are not written for your climate. Grow smarter, don't follow directions!
- Don't till, don't plant, don't rush, don't panic. Getting out of the gardening cycle with perennials and self-seeders.
- Cut costs by cutting the hobby out of gardening. No frills, no waste, no costs.
- Why you can't survive on red tomatoes and iceberg lettuce. How to grow better and different foods.
- It's where you live. How to make your garden an Eden for you and the kids.
How can I say this with all certainty? I'm a human being; I have a brain; I'm willing to use my brain in order not to have to work harder or keep feeling bad. I'm willing to solve problems. Many times, knowing more is not useful in solving the problem. You have to learn what to learn. Before you throw your trowel at me, let's look at a couple of examples of what I mean. Then I will show you the links to the other pages of this book and you can go explore. You can skip more of this introduction if you're already curious!
(Picture courtesy of naturestation.org)
Here is a picture of a lettuce plant in the summer. Lettuce is a marsh plant that grows through the winter in Mediterranean climates. It likes to get about 20 inches of rain a month, although it will tolerate as little as 5 inches a month (16cm). When the rains stop in the spring and the temperatures get warm, lettuce bolts. It's sensitive to day length and heat and drought. When lettuce bolts, the lactic acid that gives lettuces a bit of bitterness, gets unbearably bitter, so much so, that trying to eat lettuce that looks like this would probably make you sick. Throughout time, lettuces have been bred to not bolt and to stay sweet. But this is only true if you can fake the conditions that lettuce likes: rich soil, wet soil, cool temperatures, and even short day length. This means work and money and time, which is why summer lettuce costs more. To grow lettuces like you see in the stores, you would have to water your garden for a hour or more every day, standing there with the hose blasting away. To water a bed of ten lettuce heads at 20 inches a month, you would have to use 130 gallons of water a month. This means running the sprinklers for maybe three hours every day. You would have to use shade cloth to keep the sun off the lettuce and for ten feet of bed, you'd spend about $50 buying the cloth and frame to keep off the sun. Lettuce likes a lot of nitrogen, so you would have to spend some more money to enrich your soil. Then you have to pick off slugs and keep other rascals from eating it. Pretty soon, that backyard lettuce is costing you about twenty dollars a head and about an hour every day in time. Not bad for a hobby.
What happens if it still tastes terrible? Or the bugs get it? And here is something you have not considered. What if you can't eat lettuce? Yes, some people can't eat it. If you have ragweed pollen allergy, you may not be able to digest or tolerate other foods in the same family of plants. This means lettuce, which is also a composit, or in the aster family. If this plant goes to seed, the pollen may bother you. Lettuce is also a cooling plant, so according to the Chinese herbalists, if you have too much yin (sluggish, tendency toward swellings, cold all the time, poor circulation) if you eat raw lettuce you will make the problem worse. Most lettuce is low in vitamins and is mostly water anyway. But some people love lettuce and they will go to lengths to get it from their yards, usually in the spring before it bolts.
The gardener's solution to this problem is to grow lettuce that is more heat tolerant and less prone to bolting and to grow lettuce like romaine lettuce which needs less water and TLC. The Chinese solution is to cook lettuce in stir-fries. Another gardening solution is to grow lettuce in the spring or fall and grow something more heat tolerant in the summer for greens. There are many approaches to every one of these small problems, but what I want to show you is an overall approach to the larger problems of no time, frustration with failure, wasted food, wasted space and general acknowledgment that the whole mess is a bit stupid when you can go down to the store and buy what you want. Rising food prices may deter some, but that problem is usually solved by people buying lettuce of less quality. You should know that lettuce is one of the worst foods as far as pesticides and herbicides and other things you don't want to eat. For people to grow lettuce professionally requires an enormous investment in nasty chemicals that are so bad, the most of the people working in the fields are so poor that they will tolerate getting sick over starving to death.
My solutions require you to work with Nature, not against it. If you have access to summer water and have cool summers, then lettuce is a good bet for you. If not, I have a range of plants that you can grow to simulate what you like about lettuce. If you like lettuce crunch and juicy greens, eating amarananth will not be like eating lettuce any more than eating New Zealand spinach is like eating spinach. I love iceberg lettuce; I used to eat it by the head as a child. I love the crisp juicy crunch of it. I've not been able to find anything that replaces it. But I have been able to enjoy salads with other greens and save iceberg lettuce for when I can grow it without too much trouble. With choice, you can begin to satisify your diet desires as well as your diet needs. I know a woman who cannot tolerate lettuce (ragweed allergies) and switched to spinach salads, but she eats them so much that the oxalic acid in the spinach is making her osteoarthritis problem worse because oxalic acid tends to bind calcium. Not much, but to eat spinach every day is not good for her. She needs more choice. However, at her supermarket, that's about it for choices in greens. They don't even sell kale there.
There are almost 3,000 plants listed at Plants For a Future (an online database project) that can be eaten for greens. Many of them can be eaten raw in salads. Many of them thrive in summer with less water. Many of them are very good, better than bad lettuce, for sure. Many of them are perennial or require little care. But if you open a popular seed catalog, you will see pages and pages of lettuce and maybe one page of "alternative" greens, most of them mustard.
(Sesame in my Florida garden - 2003)
I'm a bit bonkers--I've put in 16 gardens in twenty years. I've grown in zone 10 and zone 2. I've never grown anywhere that had a good gardening climate. I've never grown anywhere where I had good soil or did not have to fight the critters. But I'm hard headed and was determined to garden. I can also say that all my gardens made back the money I had put into them. I've never had the money for an expensive hobby. I don't like being outside for the most part, especially in the summer. I don't like bugs or sweating to get my heart rate up. I was an invalid as a child and I don't have the high energy that many people do, or a lot of strength. I don't even like to eat. I began gardening when my son was very little, thinking that he would like to be outside. Like many moms with toddlers, I was bored out of my skull. I had gardened as a child, growing the 1 cent seed pack and not expecting (or getting) much. I had no people in my family who gardened and I had no gardening friends. But I plunged into it even though my son hated the garden and was jealous of my putting time into it. He would stomp every seedling that went into the ground. But within a year he was eating out of the yard, and eating on hikes and eating pretty much any plant that looked appealing. After he ate a bunch of green iris seeds (thinking they were peas) and I panicking not knowing if he would start vomiting or die or what since we were far from any hospital, I realized that much of what people grow is poisonous.
People grow plants usually because they are pretty. They also dump chemicals on their yards to deal with the bugs and weeds. Here I was, trying to raise a child on home-grown veggies in a world, not only full of naturally poison plants, but plants selected by my neighbors who were ignorant of their danger. Rather than keep my son out of the garden and break him of the habit of eating anything he found that looked appealing, I began a long path of adjusting my own yard to be completely edible. Most children are very good at asking if something is edible by the age of four. Before that time, kids have to be watched. If you are on the trail, that's one thing, but if you're in the yard, hacking at the tomatoes and the kids are playing in the bushes in the front, you may not know that they've eaten something poisonous until it's too late. Most people are afraid to let their children run wild in the world, and knowing that their own yards are unsafe is even worse for them, aggravating their fears.
One of the HUGE problems in our culture is that we have all grown up being fed by mom. Being yelled at by mom (or dad) to eat what she gives us and not eat what she hasn't given us. We grow up stealing food at friend's houses if their moms are into cookies and candy and our moms aren't. Kids are smart. They will get away with whatever they can get away with. They also want to make their own decisions and must be fought with constantly to eat what parents think they should eat. Eventually that path leads to the grocery store where if it is in a box, it must be okay to eat. People are afraid of eating things that are unfamiliar and, if they get sick off of familiar food, they blame themselves, not the food. They go with what feels right and what they are accustomed to tasting. If they grew up on butter and cheese, butter and cheese will always be appealing if the texture is right. Any talk of chemicals and pollutants in butter and cheese will be shrugged off as just some whacky nonsense because if it tastes good and is satisfying, then how can it be bad? Round and round. I'm with you. For years I ate cheese (one of my favorite foods) and bread not knowing that I was really, really allergic to both. It was not until I had serious health problems and was already out in the whacky land of organic produce that I was able to look at this. And it took me two years to break my cheese habit. Every time I ate it, I got very sick, and it was worth it. But when my dad died, I realized that I was not just making myself sick, I was headed toward getting cancer and dying. I may sound "over the top" to you, but this is how people die in this country. We are also eating toward death, not toward health.