Monthly Archives: April 2019

Gardening for Food: Back to Basics and 2018 Review

Although there are still a few patches of snow on the ground, work on the garden started weeks ago. My house has seedlings crowded by the windows. The outdoor beds have had their winter damage repaired and are being weeded. A few pea pods have been planted outside as an early spring experiment, and the first round of kale and spinach seedlings are already up and growing in the greenhouse. They will provide the first homegrown greens of the year, and then be replaced with the eggplants, tomatoes, and bell peppers that will eventually outgrow their indoor container homes.

The vegetable garden is a key part of my life here. My goal is to produce more and more of my own food every year. Now, while the season is still young and full of promise, is the perfect time to take stock of the previous year and make sure that this one is even better. This is an economic exercise, since FIRE is the overarching goal. But let me also ask you to keep all the intangible benefits of the vegetable garden in mind as well: increasing food security, reducing environmental impact, and getting the healthiest food you can eat.

I am re-reading an excellent book that I came across last year: Gardening when it Counts: Growing Food in Hard Times by Steve Solomon. The majority of gardening books I’ve read approach gardening as a hobby, which is fine – I’ve gleaned something valuable from almost all of them. At the end of the day however, there is a large gap between viewing this is a pastime with some sort of budget vs. an activity that eventually saves money and contributes to financial freedom.

Solomon’s book takes the view that the vegetable garden exists to provide the gardener with a harvest that takes the place of grocery items, be it by choice or necessity. I strongly recommend that anyone who is approaching gardening with a FIRE mindset read this book. There is a boatload of both practical advice and technical detail. Even if you don’t end up using everything in the book, there are still a ton of little nuggets of wisdom and ideas that will make your life easier and your garden better. For example, knowing which seeds are easy and practical to save, and which are better purchased is critical knowledge for a successful cost-effective garden.

Lessons Learned

The methods in this book are best suited for folks with fairly large plots of land for wide plant spacing (which allow for bigger healthier plants and a lot less watering) and large compost piles. I have the space, but still find myself falling back on a more intensive style of raised bed gardening to get around my clay-heavy soil. At least now I have an explanation for why some widely-acclaimed methods did not work for me.

Last fall, I set up two new raised beds using the lasagna method. This basically involves filling the bed with thin layers of alternating organic material (I used horse manure, grass trimmings, and autumn leaves over a cardboard base layer), which ideally results in a rich planting bed the following spring. Unfortunately, mine hasn’t really broken down much at all at this point. I did find some earthworms, which can only be a good start.

The explanation? Lasagna gardening is at its core just sheet mulching without an existing soil base. If you live somewhere where it freezes over winter, decomposition grinds to a halt. So in retrospect, building a lasagna bed in autumn (as recommended almost everywhere) and expecting to find a nice loamy soil ready to go in early spring was probably not realistic. There are several things I could have done better: built the bed earlier in the summer, added in some agricultural lime, added a thin layer of poultry manure to decrease the carbon/nitrogen ratio, and dug the layers into a small amount of decent soil. As those things weren’t done, at this point I need to be aware that it may be a couple more months before those beds have adequate nutrition available for growing vegetables.

My compost pile is also not as decomposed as I would have hoped. Making good compost is not as simple as many sources would have you believe. The quality of the final product varies considerably based on both starting materials and process. My simple continuous pile (which contains an excess of yard waste) is a small step above what Solomon calls “low quality compost,” since at least now I know to leave tree bark, rotten wood and conifer needles out. I should have a bit of finished material for this year, at least.

And if you’re truly starting from scratch? Solomon goes through the basic tools that you need (a shovel, a rake, a hoe, and a file), how to buy them, and how to use them. My life was made considerably easier last spring when I learned that shovels could and should be sharpened!

2018 Expenses and Production

I felt like last summer was my first as a real gardener. I’d managed to grow tomatoes, lettuce, and a few herbs in containers on balconies previously, but now I had hit the jackpot. My very own land to prepare and plant. My garden last summer wasn’t huge, but I think my first year went pretty well. Seeing as this is an economic exercise, let’s start with the numbers. First up: expenses.

  • Seeds: $17
  • Seed potatoes and onion sets: $12
  • Two strawberry plants: $9
  • Soil (by far the biggest expense. I topped up the raised beds in the greenhouse and filled containers with Promix, and also put some in my first new 4 x 7′ raised bed, which I extended with rotted manure and less expensive bulk soil): $101
  • Ant traps (ants were taking over the greenhouse at one point): $6
  • Five 7 gallon fabric containers for eggplants and indeterminate tomatoes: $22
  • Assorted Jiffy pots for seed starting (I usually use cardboard egg containers, but the pellets were convenient for delicate roots and the larger size peat pots for starting pumpkin and squash): $8
  • Grand total = $175

I also didn’t start from scratch. Freebies I received with my house included a simple greenhouse ( 8 x 10 feet, with two 2′ x 7′ raised beds), scrap lumber that I used to build additional raised beds, and a few miscellaneous containers and garden tools left by the previous home owners. I also scored a couple hundred liters of manure from nearby livestock owners. Finally, I started the year with a lot of free seeds. Some I purchased in previous years, some have been collected over the years from various seed sharing events across Canada, and some I saved myself from my trusty old container gardens. I also picked up a dozen 1 gallon containers (perfect for basil, mini bell peppers, and cherry tomatoes!) left by a recycling bin, to add to my original collection.

Outputs

I did consider weighing all my harvested food, and then crunching the numbers to determine the exact value of my harvest…but it didn’t happen, so instead here are some back-of-napkin rough calculations. I strove to keep my estimates on the conservative side.

  • Saved an average $10/week in groceries over the garden’s most productive 16 weeks from June through September: $160
  • Saved $5/week over an additional 12 weeks (May – just leafy greens, and October/November, when I was still enjoying my potatoes and winter squash while munching on the fall harvest of spinach and kale): $60
  • Herbs for the year, dried and frozen (basil, oregano, parsley, dill, mint, green onions, and chives): $20
  • Rhubarb, berries, and kale that were still in the freezer at the end of November, as well as the tomatoes and bell peppers put away in salsa, chili, and pasta sauce: $20
  • Grand Total = $260

I was also pretty generous about giving stuff away – increasing one’s social capital is always a smart idea, and good karma is priceless, right?

What Should I Grow?

When I think about which vegetables I want to grow, I try to choose crops that are expensive to buy, high-yielding and nutritious, easy to grow, require minimal resources, and store well. The following table gives each crop a score out of 5 in each of those categories. The total score is simply the sum multiplied by 4 to get a score out of 100. Further explanations of how the categories are scored are found below the table.

Vegetable Selection

VegetablePurchase PriceNutritional ValueLikelihood of SuccessResource Intensiveness (Time to harvest, space, feed, care)Ease of StorageTotal Score /100
Raspberry5455492
Basil, oregano, and other herbs5355488
Strawberry5454488
Garlic534*4584
Leaf lettuce, kale, collards, and spinach5455284
Peas3554380
Zucchini4553380
Beans2554376
Pumpkins and Winter Squash3542576
Potatoes1552572
Onions1354572
Bell Peppers5432368
Carrots243*3568
Tomatoes4432364
Broccoli244*3364
Cucumber3333360
Corn153*2356
Celery332*3356
Eggplant3331352

Ideal Crops are:

Expensive to buy. How much would it cost to buy this item at the grocery store? This varies depending on store, location, and season. It is a rough estimate based on my experience, and considers “cost per kg” more than “cost per serving.”

Nutritious. Considers yield and caloric density, as well as vitamins and minerals. Everything on the table is good for you. Taking a survival gardening approach, I generally gave calorie-dense, high-yield vegetables that I can build a meal around the highest scores. Crops that boast a high dose of essential minerals and/or vitamins were next, while lower-yield stuff scored a 3.

Have a high likelihood of success. This metric is based mostly on my personal experience if it is something I’ve already attempted to grow. Scores with an asterisk are veggies that I haven’t grown myself, and are based entirely on what I’ve read or heard from other local gardeners. For context, I am in USDA hardiness Zone 3 or 4, depending who you ask.

Minimally resource intensive. Crops that need little space, can survive a drought, don’t require a lot of extra soil amendments (compost/fertilizer), and have a short time to harvest are best for economy of time and money. Bonus point for perennials (raspberries, strawberries).

Good for storage. Ability to keep well for months is key if we’re getting serious about food security and making a difference in annual grocery spending. 5 can be stored with very little effort and no freezer, 4 does well in a freezer, and 3 requires a bit more effort to process before freezing, or needs to be canned. Greens with a long growing season get a 2 since you can in effect store them in the ground for use into the fall. I found that the vast majority of my crops can be stored overwinter one way or another.

Also note that the vegetable has to be something I’m actually going to eat. Not much point in growing kale if you’re not going to eat it. Only veggies I like made it to the table; apologies if I missed someone’s favorite.

Grow Potatoes. Lots of Potatoes.

A word on potatoes. I love potatoes, but almost didn’t grow them because they are cheap to buy and require a fair amount of space and compost to grow (see table). On the other hand, they are very easy to grow and store well for months after harvest. The real benefits? Potatoes are a surprisingly nutritious source of vitamins and minerals, and perhaps most importantly in a survival garden, they are a calorie-rich, high-yield crop. We’re talking more than 10,000 kg per hectare, according to our friend Steve Solomon.

Potatoes are apparently very easy to grow in containers. I balked at buying enough containers and soil to grow the 15 plants I wanted, so instead I dug a 16 foot row (18″ deep and 12″ wide) and mixed the dug out clay with a large amount of composted leaves and manure. I hilled up the potatoes with grass clippings as they grew, and after harvesting a bumper crop, I left all the organic material in place over the winter.

Fast forward to a couple weeks ago, when the snow over the bed finally melted. I pulled back some of the decomposing grass, and underneath was rich, dark soil with very few weeds, and all the clay clumps nicely broken up. My plan is to use this bed for something else this year (pumpkins and winter squash most likely), since growing potatoes in the same place two years in a row allows yield-lowering disease and pests to build up in the soil. As soon as the ground dries a bit more, I’ll dig out a new potato patch for this year somewhere else on the property. And repeat the whole process next year. Table be damned. In my mind, potatoes are an ideal crop – high-yielding, easy, nutritious, and a tool in the crusade to turn my clay lawn into productive garden.

Final Thoughts

Jacob Lund Fisker (who literally wrote the book on Early Retirement Extreme) touched on growing, storing, and preparing food, but there are quite a few FIRE success stories that make no mention of a vegetable garden at all. Gardening is very important to me and my plan. However, it may only be a good cost-saving measure for those who enjoy it. Perhaps I’m just not particularly skilled or efficient with my time, but I spend a huge number of hours working in my garden. Mostly digging – breaking up clay, digging in compost, and of course digging out weeds and the ever-encroaching grass. Also starting seeds at this time of year. Transplanting. Watering. If you did the math on my “profit” of $90 ($265 – $175), well, I probably would have been better off working some sort of temporary job for a weekend.

On the other hand, my efforts are cumulative. Each year my growing space gets bigger. And a big reason my garden work takes so long is that I love just being there, puttering around and looking at my plants. It makes me happy. As anyone who hates their job with a passion knows, it can be a challenge to find a truly immersing escape. How wonderful is it that this thing that I love also produces one of the basic requirements for life?

If you want to give vegetable gardening a go, my advice would be to just pick a few things you like to eat, add some compost to your soil, and start growing. Along the way, learn everything you can from books and blogs and videos. Perhaps most importantly, make friends with nearby gardeners to find out what works in your area. At the very least, you’ll have found an inexpensive hobby compatible with a ERE-friendly budget.

How does producing your own food play into your FIRE plan? Do you think gardening is worth the time and effort?