Growing Your Own Food Sucks: Understanding Scale



Chris and I are attempting to grow as much of our food as possible this year. Doing so on paper seems reasonable, but once you get started, you realize this isn’t a simple task. After talking it out this morning in the garden, we determined the main issue behind this dilemma is scale. Sure, planting five pots of tomatoes on the patio is not a giant undertaking; even a 10x20’ veggie patch is still straightforward. However, things get complex quickly once you start expanding your garden size to accommodate more food.


I am no novice when it comes to growing plants. I have been doing this for the past twenty years. Still, I feel very overwhelmed trying to grow out as much as possible to help offset our rising grocery bills. We have a lot of land, and I want to do everything I can to help my family make it in the Long Emergency.


What we mean by scale is growing, planting, and cultivating as many edible plants as possible to maturity so we can eat them. The problem with scale is something that almost all Americans will encounter in the future; we just discovered it a lot sooner due to our lifestyle choices. Hopefully, our thoughts on the subject will enable you to adapt sooner and adjust accordingly to produce enough food for yourself and your loved ones. That’s my hope, at least.


Water:


As you may already be aware, we live 100% off-grid. This means we only have solar electricity to run tools or appliances. No other grid-tied power sources are running our system. There is no faucet to turn on to have water magically spring forth, nor is there a simple way to seed start 100’s of veggie seeds each spring using heating pads and grow lights. When it comes to watering, we have to water ALL plants by hand from our centrally located pitcher pump. Even though we used permaculture design to locate everything in its proper position in relation to the number of visits and energy flow, this is still a daunting chore. Even more so when it’s in the 90s and high humidity come summertime.


A beautiful example of a hand pump

It's June 1st at the time of this writing, and it’s become apparent that we need to invest in systems that help bolster our production scale while shaving off time and resources (usually human labor) in creating and maintaining food production. As previously mentioned, watering all of these vegetables takes a lot of time. When it comes to the more extensive block plantings between fruit tree rows in our food forest, it gets even more time-consuming and physically exhausting to water such large areas.


For context, we have our vegetable garden directly south of the tiny house. Every other row has a trellis system planted with red noodle beans, a pole bean variety, a cucumber variety, and tomatoes. Beneath these are peppers, tomatillos, parsnips, melons, watermelons, and bush beans. I am trying to think of crops to grow that we enjoy and provide calorie-dense food. We have more bush beans, potatoes, artichokes, salsify, and sweet corn in beds that are not trellised. Due to pest and disease pressure, these species will be altered to see what grows well and what is too difficult to raise.


In the pictures, you can see that we are maximizing space while also keeping energy flow (i.e., human labor) efficient due to the placement of elements in the system.

Rows and rows of our trellis system

Now, we want to think of other ways to improve. The first thing that comes to mind is a solar electric well pump. CM was able to find a small-sized pump at a reasonable price. We have some older, less efficient solar panels that we can use to run this guy, so we need to find a good location, dig the well hole, buy the PVC pipe, and hook it all up. We also discussed having the well pump bring water into a large rain barrel or IBC tote to then run a garden hose around the garden and water directly from that via gravity.


Implementing a new watering system would be a massive game-changer in shaving off hours of manual labor in watering everything. Due to the topography of our property, we are considering the possibility of filling rainwater tanks up with the solar well pump and then gravity-feeding the water via hoses. I am not sure if a single long garden hose would be enough or if a series of drip irrigation tubes would be better, but that is what we are still exploring at this point. For other folks, their water source, energy inputs, and materials will have to be determined on a case-by-case basis.


Seed Starting:


So many veggies to start

Another problem is seed starting and growing the veggies to a big enough size that enables them to resist pest pressure (especially slugs). For many folks, buying greenhouse plants in flats is a great way to get around doing all of this yourself. Alas, that will not be an option for most going forward due to rising fuel costs . So, what can we do at the local level to circumvent this? For us, we decided to build a small greenhouse that enables season extension and seed starting. If someone has a larger house with ample south-facing windows, the need for a greenhouse would not be as great for starting seeds in late winter, but for us, it’s a must living in a tiny house.


Broad Scale Production:


When it comes to broad-scale direct seeding, the need for a lot of planting seeds is a must. There are so many factors that impact germination and survival in this type of planting situation. For us, cutworms, slugs, rabbits, grackles, crows, and God knows what else all destroy germinating seeds. We must plant at a higher density to compensate for predation from these “pests.” Trying to find bulk, affordable, GMO-free organic sources of vegetable seeds is nearly impossible. We simply cannot find a company that sells heirloom-tested GMO-free Tenkuro soybeans, for instance. This means we have to buy several packets of a particular heirloom variety from Baker Creek, grow them out, and keep saving seeds each season to increase our inventory.

We need a lot of seeds to feed a lot of people

The amount of seeds it takes to grow enough produce for a person/family annually is mind-blowingly high. It's critical to understand this. Buying a few seed packets (non-hybrid) of this and that, will not cut it when it comes to avoiding starvation. We are very much aware of this and are taking steps to buy larger quantities of seeds and then grow them out to save our own seeds. I can see this as a significant small business venture for people with the foresight to see what is coming.


Structures:


We are devising a way to combine the solar well pump into a structure that acts as a greenhouse, hot weather cookhouse, and outdoor shower, all under one roof.

Season extension and seed starting

This is not only a permaculture design technique for an element to serve multiple purposes, but it also saves us money. Perhaps the greenhouse will have to be in another structure, but that is the idea for now. I believe that if we can start enough plants early in the season and reduce the time it takes to get water, we will save a tremendous amount of energy that can then be applied elsewhere.


Build Back Food Resilience:


Scale may seem like a trivial topic, but it’s important to realize we all eat a lot of food and will likewise need to grow a lot of food to keep our asses alive. These are just a handful of the problems that arise from living in a deindustrializing system. None of what is unfolding is a walk in the park. Most of it takes hard work to keep yourself above water and well-fed. It is in these moments we can adapt to the day-to-day challenges and work to innovate to create a more abundant life for each and every one of us.


Happy trails

 

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