I spent 2012 in southern Maine so I could learn just how my sister and brother-in-law coax so much of their own food from their homestead, and to help them do it. I went because I needed a break, because I wanted to work on a cookbook, and because just as I had started getting the hang of growing vegetables in a community garden plot, the landowners closed it, and I was bereft.
When the year in Maine was over, I had my answer about the secret to their success — it involves days and sometimes nights of hard work — but I also was facing the prospect of returning to Washington with no place to put any of my new gardening know-how into practice. The sum total of outdoor space attached to my condo was a narrow window sill in my kitchen.
I did what I had to do: I sold the condo and bought a little townhouse. There’s an elevated yard in the front, where it’s sunny, and a deck in the back, where it’s not. Now I’m trying to take the lessons I learned from helping my family grow their own food in beds that totaled 8,000 square feet and apply them to a mere 150.
I’m not the only one trying. All it takes is a glance at Amazon’s best-seller list (and the 900-plus reviews on Mel Bartholomew’s “All New Square-Foot Gardening”) to see that people are hoping to do more with less. I had used Bartholomew’s organizing principles in my plot at the community garden, and figured I’d do the same now.
But where to start? I’ve taken inspiration (and bought seeds) from the Southern Exposure Seed Exchange catalog, so when I saw that one of its worker/owners, Ira Wallace, had published “The Timber Press Guide to Vegetable Gardening in the Southeast,” I spent much of January poring over her friendly, no-nonsense advice. And when I went to the exchange’s website, I noticed its online garden planner, a boon for someone like me who loves a good spreadsheet. I quickly got to work, using the tool to sketch out my yard into six 4-by-4 squares (plus one strip), making something of an upside-down L shape as it extends around my porch. And I started dragging and dropping from the exchange’s long list of plant varieties, trying to keep in mind which parts of the yard I think will get most of the sun, which might be partially shaded by a nearby tree, and which might get even more shade from my house and my neighbor’s.
When my sister Rebekah visited in February, we took a look at it. She was cheerful and encouraging, as always, but nearly speechless at my ambition. The exchange’s planning tool lets you look at your layout a few different ways, including as a list of plants along with a calendar showing when you would seed them directly outside, start them inside or set out seedlings. When Rebekah saw the list of more than 50 plants, and heard that I was planning to set up a seed-starting system in my basement, she cautioned: “Are you sure you have time for something this, well, involved?” After all, she works part-time and her husband is retired, so they can afford to spend days at a time on the weeding, planting and harvesting. Could I handle even a fraction of that? Not a chance.
I made my first “keep it simple, stupid” decision: I’d skip the seed-starting this year, instead focusing on vegetables I could either directly seed or transplant as healthy seedlings.
But I knew I needed more direction, more help cutting my ambition down to size. So I signed up to attend Rooting D.C., a day of free workshops and seminars hosted by D.C. Greens that drew more than 1,000 people interested in urban agriculture to Washington’s Wilson High School in early March. The sessions on small-space growing I attended were packed with attendees who, judging from their questions, were just as in need of advice as I was.
And we got it. Abbie Steiner and Haley Baron led us through an exercise to take our fantasy list of garden vegetables and filter them through a decision-making pipeline by answering questions about what we really will eat, how much money we want to save, which are the most space-efficient crops and which carry the most pesticides when bought in supermarkets. Steiner urged us to be brutally honest with ourselves, and to err on the simple side.
“Start small and be successful,” she said. “Grow that one great tomato plant, and then next year you’ll be really motivated to do it again. If you start too big and aren’t successful, you won’t be motivated next year.”
In another session, Joe Ludes from the Neighborhood Farm Initiative echoed the keep-it-simple idea. Don’t grow tomatoes in the shade or lettuce in the heat, he said, and if you only have one or the other, pick your niche.
“Ask: What is my space telling me it wants to be? Become the herb person or the tomato person or whatever it is, and then find someone else who can become the potato person,” he said.
Ludes also made the case that it’s just as important to get to know your neighbors if for no other reason than the chance to expand your footprint. He used a hypothetical situation of someone with a townhouse front yard that’s 10 by 15 feet (he might as well have been talking about me), but it’s shaded by a tree, while the neighbor has a patch of sun-drenched dying grass. The strategy: Ask if you can plant a bed next door.
“What better way to conquer your small space than to get more?” he asked.
Finally, Gail Taylor, owner of Three Part Harmony Farm, talked about her work biking among her several small plots and maximizing her time and output at each one. She extolled the power of intercropping and succession planting, always putting something new in the ground every time she harvests something. Example: In mid-March, she plants peas at a climbing trellis, and four weeks later plants rows of carrots between them. When she pulls the peas out in mid-June, she harvests baby carrots just where she wants to plant late-season tomatoes.
“If you want to eat all season, you have to plant all season,” she said.
After taking it all in, I felt overwhelmed — but also inspired. I sent away for a soil-analysis kit. I signed up to get a big compost delivery. I revisited Steiner and Baron’s exercise. I sat at my computer, in the office that overlooks my front yard, covered with mulch and awaiting my next move, and I pulled up my saved garden in that online planner and starting pruning.