Small Gardens


Small gardens can produce a surprising amount of food. Yes, I know I have lots of land. However, I’m getting older, I’m still working full time and while I enjoy gardening, there are only so many hours in the day – eventually you have to do things like housework (darn it). So I’m always on the lookout for ways to get more out of the garden without having to make it bigger. And it should go without saying that a smaller garden usually takes less time.

Soil for Small Gardens

Small gardens will not produce well unless you have good soil. While that’s true of large gardens as well, with a small garden you really must pay attention to soil quality. That’s even more true if you practice succession planting, which is pretty much a necessity when you’re trying to get decent yields from less space. To that end, we use cow, sheep and horse manure, chicken litter and supplements. We bed the sheep and chickens on pine shavings, which adds extra organic material to the soil and balances out the high nitrogen content inherent in fresh manure. The bedding also contains hair and feathers, as well as minerals from the trees that make up the shavings. Typical amendments include Azomite, kelp, Fertrell Poultry Nutribalancer, Celtic sea salt, blood meal, bone meal and activated charcoal.

Watering Small Gardens

As I’ve mentioned before in this blog, I have no choice but to hand water my kitchen garden. While a small garden uses less water than a large garden, it may be more susceptible to drying out. Many small gardens are grown in containers, wooden growing beds or the shallow squares Mel Bartholomew advocates in Square Foot Gardening. If you’re growing in deep, fertile soil, it will retain more moisture no matter what its size. However, smaller gardens often do well with drip irrigation, especially for containers, or with soaker hoses. If you have no option but containers, use the following tactic to make better use of available water. Fill your containers clear to the brim with loose, fertile soil (do not pack the soil) and soak them thoroughly. Let them sit for a couple of days. Soak again and plant. The soil will typically pack down to about an inch below the container edge, which makes it easy to apply a gentle spray of water and let it puddle across the surface. It will then soak in instead of running over the edge.

Succession Planting

While you can grow anything you want no matter how large or small your garden is, it’s important to use your limited space wisely. If you choose to plant corn you might be lucky to get a dozen ears. Since you might get several months’ worth of lettuce, radishes, cucumbers and cherry tomatoes in the same space, most people opt for the latter strategy. Many people also opt for succession planting – growing different crops one right after another – to maximize yield. The best vegetables for this kind of garden are those that mature quickly (60 days max) and are either harvested all at once or can be harvested repeatedly. Alternatively, choose something that won’t take up much space but keeps pumping out veggies over a long harvest period.

Vegetables for Small Gardens

These are good choices for small gardens:

  • Baby Carrots (Little Finger, 60 days)
  • Beets (Cylindra, 60 days, is long instead of round, so you get more beet in the same space)
  • Lettuce (any variety but the iceberg types, 30-60 days)
  • Spinach (Bloomsdale Longstanding, 40-48 days)
  • Radishes (any variety but the winter storage types, 21 days)
  • Cucumbers (any variety, 50-60 days)
  • Summer Squash (I find Cocozelle to be most productive, 45-60 days)
  • Bush Beans (any variety, 45-60 days)
  • Bok Choi (any variety, (30-45 days for baby types 45-60 for bigger ones)
  • Kale (any variety, harvest baby greens at 30-45 days)
  • Bush Peas (Snow, Sugar Ann or Snap, (60 days)
  • Broccoli (any variety, 60 days)
  • Chard (Lucullus or Fordhook Giant, 45-60 days)
  • Cherry Tomatoes (Chadwick’s Cherry, 70 days)

Don’t let your garden horizons be limited by a small space. Follow the suggestions above to eat well no matter how big or small your garden is.

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Raising Your Own Meat


A home-grown food system should include protein. There’s an emotional component to raising your own meat. It’s hard not to become attached and if you are doing your own butchering, you’ll have to learn to make your peace with taking the life of another sentient creature. Yes, you could go the vegetarian route with animal products such as eggs, milk and cheese plus beans for protein. You could go vegan. I prefer meat. There are a number of reasons for my preference.

Raising Your Own Meat

Meat tastes good. There’s a big difference between chicken and beef or beef and pork or pork and venison or venison and goose. I must admit I’m not big on rabbit, which does taste pretty much like chicken. This is one of those cases where the cuteness factor outweighs the potential food value, especially for kids. The other thing is that you can’t get eggs from rabbits like you can from chickens. My hubby refuses to have goats on the place. Many cultures, however, use goats for milk, meat and hides. But we have all the other usual suspects: cows, pigs, sheep, chickens.

Wild Game

Technically, hunting is not raising your own meat. However, a lot of the wild animals we eat share the hay and grain we feed our ranch animals. Hubby and OGD (oldest granddaughter) are hunters, and generally keep us supplied with venison, goose, duck, wild turkey and pheasant. Although we have lots of quail, we don’t usually bother to hunt them, as it’s more effort than it’s worth for the amount of meat. In our younger days, we did all our own butchering. I once bathed – yes, in the bathtub – several quarters of an elk that hubby had dropped getting it up the hill from the kill site, so we could butcher it on the kitchen table. These days we’re more likely to do the preliminary work of kill, gut and skin, and let the professionals finish the job.

Meat and Iron

Contrary to what the vegans tell you, meat does offer better quality protein, especially if it’s grass-fed. One reason is meat’s iron content. Iron comes in two forms: heme iron and non-heme iron. Meat contains both, while vegetables contain only non-heme iron. Heme iron has more bioavailability, which means it’s easier for our bodies to use it than non-heme iron. Those plants that do contain non-heme iron also tend to contain other substances that inhibit the iron’s absorption.

Meat Has Healthy Fats

Meat comes with built-in high-quality fat (again, if it’s grass fed). Grass fed meat contains more antioxidants (which help you deal with those aging free radical molecules) like vitamin E, beta-carotene and vitamin C. It also has more omega-3 fatty acids, which provide lots of heart health benefits and probably help protect you from mental health problems like depression, schizophrenia, ADHD and Alzheimer’s disease. Conjugated linoleic acid helps protect us from cancer; it’s high in meat from grass-fed animals. Chickens that eat lots of greens or range on fresh grass also produce eggs with these beneficial substances.

Cooking Meat

Meat is endlessly versatile. Roast, pan fry, make stew or meat loaf. Any meat can be turned into fresh or smoked sausage or dried for jerky. Pork can be cured with salt or cured and smoked (bacon – yum!), but so can other meats. Not to mention that tallow and lard are very useful for cooking all kinds of things as well as making soaps and hand cream. Whenever I process tallow, the skin on my hands stays soft and supple for several days. Chicken schmaltz, goose and duck fat were once considered delicacies and hoarded for special dishes.

Other Animal Products

Raw dairy products from grass fed cows are so much better and healthier than the commercial stuff there’s just no comparison. Make your own cottage cheese, butter, cream cheese, fresh ricotta (which is made from whey), yogurt, ice cream and buttermilk. It’s also easy to make the softer fresh cheeses like mozzarella. Making hard cheese like cheddar takes a bit more effort and the right conditions, but it’s also doable on the homestead.

The Synergistic Effect

Animals can help feed each other as well as you. The milk cow can provide extra protein and fat for chickens and pigs. Make chicken cheese for the birds (clabber some milk, heat to boiling and dump in some vinegar). When you butcher, the pigs relish the offal. Ground meat scraps can be fed to chickens. Dogs love meaty bones and raw eggs. This feeding cycle includes predators and pests, by the way. We kill the !$*%&!# ground squirrels, as otherwise they’d take over the place. (On the other hand, maybe they’d either duke it out with the blackberries or come up with a negotiated peace settlement that would not take the human interests into consideration.) We give the remains to the pigs or chickens for extra protein.

Enjoy Your Animals

Animals are fun. Can’t say that about beans and tofu! Babies of any species provide us with many enjoyable antics, and even the older animals engage in games like Bowling for Wild Turkeys. Chickens love to play Chicken Keepaway. Each animal has his or her own personality. It’s always interesting to watch them mesh with the rest of the herd, flock or clowder (which is what you call a group of adult cats).

Animals and the Land

Animals benefit the land. Grazing animals help keep the microbial populations in the soil healthy, provide nutrients with their manure and urine, and stir up the soil a bit to help seeds germinate. If you mix species, they’ll keep the pasture grasses from becoming uneven. Cows are constructed to graze the top portion of taller grasses, while sheep and horses can nip closer to the ground. Sheep are also browsers and will eat things the cattle and horses won’t, so it helps to keep your pasture plants in balance.

Aside from all the nutritional aspects of raising your own meat, exposure to farm animals is beneficial to the kids on the place. Kids raised in “sterile” environments without animals tend to have a much higher incidence of problems like allergies and asthma. They also learn the basics of sex and the responsibility of daily chores, get plenty of healthy exercise , fresh air and exposure to sunlight. So go ahead – raise your own.

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Late Winter? Don’t Despair


This has been one of those late winter years when Old Man Winter is reluctant to let go. Hard frosts, heavy snow, sleet, major windstorms, high rainfall – we’ve had it all. Under normal circumstances, we would now be enjoying daytime temperatures around 70. My various cool-season vegetables would be at least six to eight inches high. Not this year. The soil in the garden beds is too soggy to add amendments. Branches and immature pine cones, broken by snow loads or high winds, litter the garden. If it were not for the crocus, daffodils and hyacinths, you would never know we’re in the middle of the spring gardening season.

Late Winter Flexibility and Planning

So what do you do when your food production plan is stymied by a late winter? I’ve noted a time or two in my writings that flexibility is key to gardening. If you have a greenhouse (which I don’t) you can grow leafy greens and such, not to mention starting warm-season plants like tomatoes when the snow lies deep. In the absence of such niceties, the key is to plan ahead and take small risks. It helps if you’re a seed-saver, as you can afford to use extra seeds to beat the vagaries of the weather. It’s a little tougher when you want a head start on the aforementioned warm-season plantings, but still doable.

Start in the Fall

Spring planting preparation starts in the fall. Add soil amendments – you don’t need to work them in, just spread them on your beds. Cover the beds with mulch or compost. I grow a lot of things in big pots, old water troughs or bathtubs, and half barrels. It’s easier on my elderly back, helps with succession planting and minimizes soil disturbance. During the gardening year, the soil settles below the rim of the containers. I top off the pot with compost in the fall. In January, I grab a few hours to seed things like lettuce, cole crops, carrots and radishes. I sow thickly and plan on losing some of the seedlings, although it’s surprising how many germinate and do well no matter what the weather is like.

Warm-Season Crops

For solanums, melons and squash, I use a similar approach. If you have lots of seeds, it’s easy to plant some in the late fall after you’ve had a few frosts. Where do you think volunteer seedlings come from? The cold weather and short days will stop them germinating until conditions are right. Plant several pots a couple of weeks apart. If a late frost gets one batch, the next batch may make it. All too often we humans try to tweak things to get earlier crops when we would be better off to let Ma Nature do her thing. I don’t need dozens of early tomatoes, so if even two or three make it to maturity from these early plantings, I’m ahead of the game. Not to mention that I’m selecting for plants that will germinate under harsh conditions.

Other Late Winter Strategies

You may be wondering why I don’t mention late winter strategies that involve hot beds, row covers, plastic containers full of water or cloches. First, all of these require a lot of extra work – and I’m efficient because I’m lazy. Second, I can’t get excited about using a lot of non-renewable plastic. Third, our strongest winter winds come barreling down through the canyon and straight across my garden. I have found it nearly impossible to keep such winds from wreaking havoc, especially with row covers and cloches. And finally, in the winter I leave for work before sunrise and get home after dark. If there are problems with the season extenders, I’m not going to know it unless I traipse out with a flashlight.

Let the garden do most of the work while I sit in the warm with a good book? Sounds like a plan to me.

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