Thursday, March 29, 2012

1000 pound challenge accepted

Vegetable and herb seedlings for the 2012 season.
Photo by Brad Sylvester, copyright 2012.
A friend of mine who writes "The Good (& Simple) Life" blog has thrown down the gauntlet. With a 500 square foot area in which to garden, she has vowed to achieve a yield of 1000 pounds of produce over the course of one full calendar year -measured from April 1st 2012 through March 31, 2013 (assuming the Mayan prediction for the world to end in 2012 doesn't come to pass).

That's two pounds of produce per square foot and it's not an easy goal. It helps that Angie, the woman behind "The Good (& Simple) Life" blog's 1000 pound challenge, is planning her garden in the state of Georgia where the growing season is significantly longer than ours here in New Hampshire. Conversely, the fact that she's doing it all organically makes it arguably more difficult.

North vs. South Gardening Challenge

We, here at the "Living with the Land" blog, are taking up the 1000 pound challenge and we'll be comparing results over the course of the year. We will represent northern gardeners while Angie will represent the South.

Size Matters

As Angie noted in her challenge post, she will be growing "tomatoes (enough for canning), peppers, eggplant, zucchini, winter squash (my personal obsession), lettuces, cabbages, fennel, onions, garlic, peas, beans, cucumbers, celery, okra, beets, radishes, carrots, potatoes, parsnips, watermelon, spinach, Swiss chard," and other items as whimsy dictates throughout the year on her rectangular 20 x 25 foot garden plot. That's 500 square feet of garden space.

My garden plots total about 375 square feet and I'll add in another 30 square feet of herb garden. I will not count other producers like an existing grape vine, apple trees, maple trees or other edible wild plants growing throughout my 5.25 acre yard for the purposes of the challenge. I will, however, keep a record of these things as a side note since it may be of interest to those trying to live with the land.

What to Grow This Year

Since I still have some time before the regular growing season starts here, I hadn't yet fully planned what I'll be growing yet. I have already started some seedlings indoors, however. So far I have several varieties of tomatoes including grape, Roma, and Better Boy hybrids, among others. I also have started summer squash, cucumbers, sunflowers, and red cabbage. I have a handful of 2nd year leeks already in the ground along with garlic chives, asparagus crowns, and some garlic cloves planted last year, and have about 40 square feet of the garden area dedicated to strawberries.

I expect that I'll be planting garden peas, pole beans, chili peppers (several varieties), bell peppers, lettuce, spinach, carrots, beets, various greens such as mustard and arugula, and a variety of herbs. My herb garden already contains a few plants that are able to overwinter here with minimal protection: sage, chives, lemon thyme, peppermint, and oregano. I'll weigh the herbs as freshly picked, rather than dried. I use them both ways.

Organic Versus Not so Much

Angie is a committed organic gardener and even uses as much passive watering (collected rain-water) as possible. I am less avid, but still like to avoid using chemicals on my food where ever possible. My water comes from a well on my property. I compost our vegetable and plant scraps along with some of the chicken manure that our backyard flock produces. I have been known to spray Miracle Grow on my garden, use a fungicide for powdery mildew infestations, and once I even used Sevin insecticide for a particularly bad infestation in the garden. I sometimes buy composted cow manure and peat moss to enrich the soil if I am adding a new section of garden. My gardens are raised bed (about 180 square feet) and on a terraced hillside (the remainder, minus about 30 square feet of non-contiguous herb garden).

I have mentioned the short growing season here. As I write this, it is snowing here despite the fact that we had two days of 83+ degree heat last week, naturally followed by two nights at 20 degrees or less. We are in what New Englanders refer to as "mud season." Even my terraces and raised beds are too saturated with water for planting even if the temperatures allowed. With a few exceptions, a significant portion of any seed I put in the ground now would likely rot. As long as we get nights that are below freezing the soil temperature is going to stay low, although the terraces help on that front.

Early spring planting here is a wager. You plant your toughest crops and hope that the weather doesn't call your bluff. Row covers or a small greenhouse could provide protection and greatly extend our growing season for some of the hardy crops, but I don't want to spend more to grow my own food that it would cost me to buy it at a local farmer's market.

The North Poised to Take an Early Lead

A quick survey or the gardens shows me that the warm days we had last week have kicked a few things into gear already. On day one of the challenge, I'll be able to make a token harvest and, hopefully, take the lead over "The Good and Simple Life." It'll be just a handful of chives, some lemon thyme and a bit of oregano, and possibly those few remaining leeks, but if our northern garden is going to have a chance, then every ounce counts and a lead is a lead.

Advantages and Disadvantages

Despite a much shorter productive growing season, we do have the advantage of mature garden beds. The majority of our garden has soil that has been prepared in years past with compost and manure mixed with the sandy and unproductive soil that naturally occurs in our yard. Depending upon the soil quality of Angie's yard, and the amount of available organic compost and composted chicken manure she has available, she may struggle to attain maximum productivity for the first year as nutrients are added into what may  (or may not be) less than optimal soil.

Goals and Techniques

I also want to mention that both of us are aiming for a well-rounded garden whose goal is to provide as much of the table produce for our families as possible. If this were a straight productivity race, we'd each figure out which one or two crops are the best producers by weight and ground area required and plant only those one or two items. Conversely, I expect we'll both benefit from intensive gardening methods and by using a vertical approach such as providing vertical surfaces so that cucumbers and other vines grow upward, letting pole beans climb high up posts and the stalks of sunflowers, while squash and other ground covers act as a natural mulch holding in moisture and preventing soil nutrient run-off.

We'll use successive plantings to try to double up on area used for short-lived plants (like spring peas). and, of course, as I've mentioned, I'll be giving our veggies as much of an early start as possible by seeding them indoors until the weather allows them to move into the garden. While we are having fun with the race to 1000 pounds of garden produce, the real goal is to learn to optimize the available garden space that we have, share best practices, and pass on a little of what we learn to others.

Game On!

We'll detail and compare techniques, obstacles and results with Angie over the next year. Hopefully, the two of us and our readers will learn a few things throughout the process. Don't forget to participate by sharing your favorite tricks for higher yields as comments on the blogs as well.

Game on!


  1. Having no arable land and numerous city ordinances, I'm out. But I'm enjoying, by proxy, my son's urban Detroit gardening. As for your garden, you had me at grape vines. After that, it was all wine-dreams...

  2. I'm definitely going to be following this challenge. Good luck to both of you!

  3. Good luck to both competitors. I can't wait to see the stuff you guys produce! Even if no one 'wins' the challenge, both of you are winners in my book.

  4. Thanks for the good wishes. I'm preparing to take an early lead with a harvest tomorrow (April 1st)!