Help me design the ideal mini-farm!
February 7, 2010 8:56 PM   Subscribe

It's time to begin my dream garden - help me design it! I've always dreamt of being self-sufficient enough to virtually take my family off the food grid. Last year we moved to a house with an acre of land, all woods, and as soon as this latest snow dump disappears the contractors will arrive and clear approximately 5,000 sf of it (out-of-scale pictures here). I'm poised on the brink of drawing up plans and am eager for some input; I've got the wee beginnings of an orchard coming in March, plus the beds will be built of harvested timbers and thus fairly permanent, so I want to get the design right the first time.

There is an access road from the North road to the cleared space. We're getting chickens and bees in the Spring, and I will need a tool shed as well. Plans include an orchard of about 10-12 trees and a tiny vineyard for table and wine grapes, plus a big bed of perennials such as berries and asparagus. (Eventually we'll get goats, but they'll probably be sequestered in the woods.) I was just going to fill the remaining space with as many beds as will fit; but I'm sure Mefites can come up with some more imaginative features to include and some clever ways to arrange things!

What have I not considered? How would you design the ideal mini-farm? Where would you situate things for the most efficiency? Should I dump the mulch and compost in a central location, or off of one corner? What additional features would you include: a clear space down the middle for a truck, for instance, or a patio to sit and relax? If you're a gardener, what would you change about your garden if you could start all over?

Thanks for the inspiration!
posted by GardenGal to Home & Garden (54 answers total) 32 users marked this as a favorite
Step 1 is to reduce your expectations. You are not going to feed your family with a plot that small.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 9:06 PM on February 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm seriously jealous.
You need a greenhouse. I don't know how far north you are, but if you're trying to feed yourself, you'll want to stretch seasons out as far as possible.
posted by Gilbert at 9:12 PM on February 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

posted by Gilbert at 9:16 PM on February 7, 2010

Response by poster: The plan was to start out small in an ideally arranged space. If I can manage it there is the possibility of expanding a bit more each year. We do have a whole acre if we need it.

I know I can't single-handedly manage a farm that will feed us completely; but I can try my best to see that a big percentage of our food intake was raised in our own back yard.

However, Barbara Kingsolver did manage to sustain her family of four (two teenagers!) very well for a year on a vegetable plot of about 3,500 sf. She also had poultry she didn't include in that square footage, and she allowed herself to buy some things from the local farmer's markets, but still. She documents it in the book "Animal, Vegetable, Miracle" if you're interested. A bit lecturey, but inspiring to me nonetheless.)

And the Dervaes family of 6 adults feed themselves completely - with a surplus! - from a city plot of 1/10th of an acre in downtown L.A. They are a big inspiration to me as well.
posted by GardenGal at 9:17 PM on February 7, 2010

very general advice;

Get really good at preserving food, seriously. A big part of feeding yourself off your property is preserving every last bit that you can for as long as possible. Canning, drying, jerking, building a root cellar, whatever you can do. In that way, also keep that in mind with growing. E.g., grow some sweet onions and spicy ones for eating, and then some seriously stinky sulfurous ones for storage. Try to stagger/rotate plantings as much as you can (I'm lucky to live in an area with a very long growing season, not sure how feasible this will be for you).

For a good introduction (in my opinion, would love to see other ones) to food preservation methods, try the Encyclopedia of Country Living. I'm a big fan of that book.
posted by circle_b at 9:27 PM on February 7, 2010

This .pdf suggests you can provide most of an annual suburban purchase of fruit and vegies in just ten square metres.

That claim is of course a crock of shit, but hey it's in the right direction...
posted by wilful at 9:36 PM on February 7, 2010

Not to answer the question, and it's a bit late now, but is this about sustainability? Because clearing land in order to intensively cultivate is probably a step in the wrong direction.
posted by wilful at 9:43 PM on February 7, 2010 [2 favorites]

When I was a kid we had a garden plot that was maybe half again as large as the one you're talking about. We planted beans and onions and carrots and radishes and beets but mostly corn and potatoes. We harvested a lot of stuff, too, and my mom was heavily into freezing and canning.

We ate food from our garden all year long, but it wasn't remotely close to even half of what we ate total.

My uncle, on the other hand, did raise most of what his family (5 kids) ate. But they had 20 acres. They put about 3 acres of that into veggies of various kinds. About half the rest was pasture for a herd of about 15 whiteface. On the remainder he grew alfalfa to feed his cattle in winter. In interstices they had raspberry bushes and apple trees and strawberries and things like that.

Barbara Kingsolver did manage to sustain her family of four (two teenagers!) very well for a year on a vegetable plot of about 3,500 sf.

You are not Barbara Kingsolver, and you are not going to do that.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 9:49 PM on February 7, 2010

Response by poster: How could I have forgotten: I'm in zone 7b, central MD. Hot humid summers, mildish winters with only a week or three of consistent freezing temps. The land is rich in organic matter, sandy loam, but veeeeery close to the water table, hence the imperative for raised beds. I have a small, not-very-sunny sunporch where I can bring in tender plants (like potted lemons) in the winter, but it would not work as a greenhouse.

Circle_b: I have been canning and freezing and brewing cider/mead for years, even before I had any land to grow anything on, so food preservation is taken care of. We also have a north-facing basement wall appropriate for a root cellar; that's where my cheese cave is at the moment.

I also plan to build a sun-drier to dehydrate fruit and veggies. Mmmm sun-dried tomatoes.

I have read every self-sufficiency book that I could get my hands on; "the Self-Sufficient Life" was one of my favorites, as well as Heiney's "Country Life." Of course I already own the Ball Blue Book for canning. I briefly scanned through the Encyclopedia of Country Living, but it appeared to be just a list of where to buy stuff? Ought I have perused it more thoroughly?

I am most interested in the technical issues of physical layout; should the water sources be located at either end, or right in the center; does it really matter how long the beds are and which direction they run, that sort of thing.
posted by GardenGal at 9:52 PM on February 7, 2010

Best answer: 5,000sq ft is a huge vegetable garden, you should easily be able to produce most of your food. The main thing is be strategic: what kind of food can you grow in your area and what are you going to eat. Don't make the beginners mistake of growing 14,000 zucchinis and only a quart of peas. Luckily most common recipes do make use of vegetables and herbs that grow in the same climates: for example marinara sauce uses tomatoes, basil, oregano, garlic; salsa uses cilantro, tomatillos, tomatoes, peppers all of which grew very well in my CA yard. now that I live further north I grow more root vegetables and make things like vegetable stew (potatoes, turnips, carrots).

Set the garden up to be efficient: put the toolshed in the middle if possible and remember that it rains sometimes: mud management is critical. A good composting system is going to save you a lot of money over the long run so do your research on that and make sure it's not running off into your ground water or a creek. If you can swing it a concrete pad with three walls makes a nice permanent compost pile, otherwise compost in an area of your garden and move it around every year or so. The area under the old compost pile will be the most productive place.

Storage is critical: learn to can and time the appropriate plants to ripen at the same time so that you can make huge batches of sauces and freeze them. Make sauces and stews and freeze them too. Invest in a good freezer and (critically) a back up generator in case your power goes out.

Fencing- do you have deer? You will probably need a 5' fence but higher will be better. Consider electric too as an added deterrent. Ground squirrels/ rabbits/ moles etc require buried fencing of at least a foot.

Consider growing things like lettuce in hanging or completely raised beds to reduce losses to slugs and snails. It makes a huge difference in your yield.

Everyone will tell you that you have to make your raised beds out of very expensive treated lumber but you don't. Yes they will last longer if you do but if you use rebar for the stakes and set the edges in something that protects them from the ground and/or seal the wood then regular wood will last a while. And scrap wood is free!
posted by fshgrl at 9:53 PM on February 7, 2010 [2 favorites]

Oh and I vote for long skinny beds. if they are much more than 4' wide it is too difficult to reach into them and the plants on one side won't grow as well. I'd run them east-west myself to take advantage of the southern exposure.
posted by fshgrl at 9:56 PM on February 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

I'm not going to crap all over your dreams, but you might want to shift your mindset to frame this more as a learning experience. I just read a book (Growing Vegetables West of the Cascades) where the author spoke of beginning almost exactly as you are... and failing. You're going to have to be ok with that.

You didn't mention where you were - that's going to make a huge difference. Look for regional guides and other reference books; The Four Season Harvest talks about how to extend your growing season even in the coldest climates and may be appropriate.

Start small, learn a lot. Good luck. I'm a little jealous, this sounds like a fun journey.
posted by lilnublet at 9:58 PM on February 7, 2010

Response by poster: wilful: I did think about that contradiction for a long time. For me it's about sustainability, yes, but it's also about other things like not propagating the carbon footprint of our food; not supporting a food industry based on a chemical fertilizer foundation and transportation model; being self-sufficient; a desire to eat eggs and honey produced by happy animals; knowing where my food comes from; educating my children about nature and agriculture and giving them life skills; knowing I can provide for my family; and a simple unwillingness to spend money for what I could produce myself. Because money is an issue, I cannot afford to buy organic, and that is also a big deal to me.

It has also been my life-long dream, pure and simple. And I love gardening, so it all works out. :)

So while cutting down trees seems like a step in the wrong direction, consider first how small the space actually is (about the size of the average back yard) and second the benefits that the environment will reap in the long term if we do manage to pull ourselves away from the network of commercial groceries for years and years in the future.

Chocolate Pickle, I'm not that different from Barbara Kingsolver either. She's an author and gardener and a self-professed geek. I'm a reader and gardener and a self-professed geek. Anyone can garden who sets their mind to it.
posted by GardenGal at 10:04 PM on February 7, 2010 [2 favorites]

I grew A LOT of food in a few containers in my backyard in South Philly, and I've only done this for two years.

But even what you've got planned is ambitious for a start. How many hours a day are available to work on the garden? Plot it all out. Think of all the categories of stuff you want to grow (not just the animals) as if they're each a new pet with their own personalities. But try enough different things that if something totally fails, you've got plenty else.

Your beds are going to need protection from animals. Simple wood-frame structures with chicken wire and a hinged door are great. That's another construction project for you.

Water isn't free. Rain barrel. A bunch of them, actually, for a garden that size. You don't have to buy the $100 versions -- companies that distribute bulk food will usually give 'em away for free.

Cooperative extension for your area will be invaluable. There are other people doing what you're doing, too...find them!

You're eventually going to want to put in some space for cold frames and/or a greenhouse. Check out Four Season Harvest.

This was a really scattered response, sorry!
posted by desuetude at 10:09 PM on February 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

Here's what I planted last year:

5-6 of each of these:
Brandywine tomatoes
Amish paste tomatoes
Hungarian heart tomatoes
Mini red bell peppers
Bull nose bell peppers
Napolean sweet peppers

Going up a trellis:

Green arrow peas
Empress beans


Dragon Carrots (they're purple!)
Red Potatoes
Vidalia Onions

Once the danger of frost was past for sure:
Parade Cucumbers (good for pickling!)
A Lettuce Mix

In the flower department I'll be growing:
Double Moss Rose Flower
Marigolds (to ward of wee pests)

I also mapped everything out so the things that took out nitrogen were planted next to things that deposited nitrogen and all of that jazz, if you'd like to know about that you can memail me or buy Carrots Love Tomatoes.

If I'd had more room I would have planted corn too, but I didn't. Also, I got my seeds from Seed Saver's Exchange.
posted by julie_of_the_jungle at 10:12 PM on February 7, 2010 [1 favorite]

Good for you for going for your dream!! I wonder why so many folks on here seem threatened by it?

My advice to you is to check out Permaculture... it's a systemic approach to growing food that's based on modeling gardens on natural systems, and maximizing efficiency by making things multipurpose.

Good places to start are here, here and here
posted by Sustainable Chiles at 10:18 PM on February 7, 2010 [3 favorites]

Seconding Sustainable Chiles, check out Permaculture. If you decide to go with beds, crop rotation is a must. You'll find some good tips here. This garden is in Tasmania, so adjust the seasons accordingly.
posted by Duke999R at 10:39 PM on February 7, 2010

Oh, and best of luck, I'd rather encourage than discourage.
posted by Duke999R at 10:41 PM on February 7, 2010

Best answer: - I would want, if possible, a large cistern.
- I'd also want irrigation piping run to all points of the land (or at least on the cleared bits, with an easy connection to the uncleared) with access points at the top of each row.
- Since you are by those woods, and in the East, what is your plan for deer and other varmints? Are you building a deer fence?
- Build a well-drained flat spot next to the tool shed for doing maintenance on various bits and pieces, as well as storage.
- Perhaps a greenhouse for starts?
- A series of compost bins (or a place for a big pile, depending on your preference)
- Don't crowd the beds too close together, remember to give yourself room to work, as well as extra beds for lying fallow or in the event of disease.
- With only an acre, having one truck or mule access would likely be enough, but you may want a ring for slightly less carrying.
- Lighting, if you plan collecting or planting late in the year.
- If the ground is as wet as you say, don't forget drainage for your working/walking areas, even if it's just crushed gravel.
- Lighting, if you plan collecting or planting late in the year.

On less practical ideas, a gazebo with enough space for sitting and contemplating.
Leave a pair of hammock trees, 'cause well, gardening can be hard work.
I've always found a border of native wildflowers to be an aesthetic and practical addition to a garden.
A water feature?
posted by madajb at 11:57 PM on February 7, 2010

My mother is involved with a community garden. One neat trick they have is this:

1. Collect empty brown and green glass bottles
2. Stick them, neck first, in a raised mound of dirt, so that the body of the bottle is sticking out.
3. Plant tomatoes on top.

Sun will warm the bottles and channel warm air into the dirt, raising its temperature significantly.
Result: Increased yield and longer season
posted by qxntpqbbbqxl at 1:51 AM on February 8, 2010,M1short
posted by timsteil at 2:15 AM on February 8, 2010

The New Complete Book Of Self Sufficiency would be an excellent read for you and includes a guide to dividing up your land use for best results, crop rotations, siting compost heaps etc etc.
posted by theCroft at 3:04 AM on February 8, 2010

Some people have given you some helpful advice, I'll mention a couple of things. From the photos, the current composition of the woods looks like a bunch of willows and red maples, (maybe river birch?) which would make me think it's kind of swampy. I don't know, one of the coppice clumps looked like it might be black locust, which you could actually have milled for bed edges and such. I really can't see from the small photos. But anyway, if it is "close to the water table" you may have problems with drainage and anaerobic soils that you'll constantly be fighting. Just making paths between raised beds that won't have to be raised themselves may be difficult. Maybe not, but something to consider. Also, how are you going to have the land cleared? What are you going to do about all of the stumps and roots? If you use skidsteers or other heavy machinery to grub out the stumps and haul away the debris, you'll be removing most of the topsoil and compacting what's left. If it's not already decided, you might consider having someone come in with a mulching head to leave the organic matter there. They'll still pummel the soil somewhat, but it won't take as long to recover.
posted by Red Loop at 3:18 AM on February 8, 2010 [2 favorites]

Best answer: should the water sources be located at either end, or right in the center

Pipe is cheap, and the smart time to put it in the ground is before you put in the raised beds, the shed, etc. So I'd strongly suggest putting in standpipes (probably of the frost-free variety, but whatever is proper for where you are) in multiple locations. That saves you dealing with long hose tangles, and allows you to set up supplemental automatic drip irrigation really easily.

And if you are thinking you will need to irrigate, plan for that piping now, too. There are lots of options (drip is how you'll save the most water, but at the cost of more complexity); all you really need to think about now is zoning and where to run the supply line. Capturing rainwater is ok (if it's legal where you are), but requires you to think about mosquito screening, gravity, and maybe pumping. And it takes a lot of rainwater storage capacity to irrigate a large area -- make sure that the cost/benefit on this makes sense.

Put the shed both where it is convenient and where the shade it casts won't be a problem. Probably that means north side near the entry, but you'll have to see what works for you. Next to the shed, build a slatted planting bench with a standpipe for water. Put a trellis or roof over it if you will want to be working there in the summer heat.

When you fence it, include a 10' or 12' opening, so you can get a pickup truck or tractor in easily if you ever need to. Even better if you allow a path for a vehicle to reach the center, or near the shed. This lets you bring in big loads of compost, lumber, soil, etc.

Would it make sense to fence a larger area now, but only start gardening that area incrementally, adding a few more raised beds every year? The incremental cost of clearing and fencing a larger area might not be all that much more, and just because it is fenced does not mean that you need to put it into production immediately.

Lastly, consider using the fence itself as a trellis for plants (eg grape vines) and espaliered trees. Again, think strategically about shade, but why not get more use from the fence than just deer protection?
posted by Forktine at 3:43 AM on February 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

Best answer: Disclaimer: I just have an intensive little suburban garden, of a couple hundred square feet. A tiny rototiller is the only mechanized equipment I've used; you are clearly operating on a different scale, and will have resources I do not.

5000 square feet is a square 71 feet on a side. If that space is carved out of woods, then quite a lot of it will get less than full sun. If I've got my solar geometry right, a fifty-foot tree in your area will never cast a shadow shorter than ~13 feet long, even at noon on the summer solstice. Areas on the north side of the space will get the least sun. Areas towards the west will get morning sun (coolest part of the day), and areas towards the east will get evening sun (hottest part of the day). Try to avoid wasting the sunniest spots on buildings and such.

Separate the permaculture (hardy herbs, rhubarb, sunchokes, etc,) from the parts of the garden you'll be turning over every year. Make the beds which will be turned over and replanted frequently completely separate. The permaculture stuff is dealt with rather differently, and is an interruption to various tasks if it's scattered among the beds which are turned over and replanted frequently.

Plan for crop rotation. My garden is divided into even squares, with an eight-year rotation that goes salad greens--> curcubits--> alliums--> potatoes--> cabbage--> nightshades (except potatoes)--> root crops--> Legumes. It's really nice to have a clear idea of where things should go each year.

A simple drip irrigation system with an electronic timer saves a lot of time.

Raised beds that are about four feet wide are about right. Narrower, and more space than necessary is devoted to paths. Wider, and you can't easily reach the center.

You might enjoy the TinyFarm blog.

As many others have already suggested, a garden of this size seems very ambitious if you've never actually done large-scale gardening before. If you are employed or otherwise can't devote many, many hours a week to it then disappointment does seem like a distinct possibility here.
posted by jon1270 at 3:48 AM on February 8, 2010 [2 favorites]

Have you considered training as a Master Gardener? You'd gain a lot of local knowledge. If that's too much, it still might be worth a call to the U of M extension agent to talk about your plans. There may be free local resources and incentives you'd otherwise not encounter. They might even be willing to do an on-site consultation with you. (Sorry, I don't know about your area, I just knew people who took advantage of similar programs in Kansas.)
posted by melissa may at 3:49 AM on February 8, 2010

nthing Four Season Harvest. It'll really get you thinking about crop rotation, soil improvement, green manure, etc. Eliot Coleman (author of FSH) recommends 30" beds. I've found that to be a little narrow for some crops. My tomatoes, squash, and some herbs want more than that.

I love High Mowing Seeds if you're starting your own plants, and if I were in your position I'd seriously consider investing in a greenhouse or at least a hoophouse.

Give some thought to trellising. It's a great way to maximize your space and make for easy harvest by getting some of your plants as vertical as possible. You can do pole beans, peas, tomatoes, cucumbers and several other things this way and if you line them up in beds on the north end of your plot you won't be stealing sun from anyone else.

I put in a new 20' X12' plot last year on some former pasture. Any time you start fresh you're likely to need to amend the soil. Four Season Harvest has some pretty good info on how to amend and how to best apply each treatment.

Most importantly, don't get discouraged! You'll get bugs or fungus, you'll have critters eating your stuff, and you'll get lower yields than you want the first year or five. It's ok. You'll learn about how each crop needs special treatment for your situation, and nobody can really tell you that until you've tried it.
posted by GodricVT at 7:26 AM on February 8, 2010

You don't have moose there do you ? because moose will destroy fruit trees and they will need to be fenced individually. Deer will eat all your lettuce and some herbs. but you can grow these things in coldframes or make a fencing dome over them (removable) if you can't afford a fence. Tip: deer will not eat onions, garlic or lavender. Use that knowledge to your advantage. Those plants don't need to be fenced. Although I put down wire fencing at the bottom of my bed where I grow onions and garlic to keep the moles from eating them.

you can plant a lot of things in pots right next to your house. a lot of animals won't come right up to your house. and it is easier to water. I have 7 acres and I still grow a lot of plants right next to the house in pots. A lot of plants love growing in pots: chives, strawberries, parsley. You can grow garlic and onion in pots and just chop off the scapes for soups and salads. very convenient.

You won't want to grow tall things like sunflowers in a place where it blocks the sun from the other plants.

I grow tomatoes in those upside down hanging pots. I think this is very convenient and the deer can't get them (I hang them off my deck).

You should learn about root cellars.

I put my food waste in a bin far from my house and garden. because I don't want to come face to face with a bear when I open my door. or skunks. throwing some manure on top of food scraps will help keep animals out of the food scrap compost bin. by our garden we keep containers we make out of fencing (forming a length of wire fence into a cylinder) and we put leaves and horse manure in these. we collect leaves in town when people rake them into the street, and we get horse manure from neighbors.

I'm not sure why people are discouraging you. This is not rocket science. The problem is if you make a mistake it takes a whole year to try again. So get started! I know you can do it!

Master Gardeners is a fantastic idea. and also martha stewart knows a lot about gardening, pick her brain. Also hang out here: GardenWeb Forums
posted by cda at 7:42 AM on February 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Thanks all. A couple clarifications:

This is not my first attempt at gardening, just my first on my own land rather than a community site and certainly the largest. I have been gardening my whole life, I have successfully managed a plot of 25' by 25' before for several years running. (I know, big difference). So I'm pretty familiar with how to grow things; just not how to arrange things from scratch.

I'm ok with failure; that plot could always just become a flower garden or lawn instead. -shudder- What I'm not ok with is never trying.

Seems I have to consider plumbing (I've never had a garden with running water before!) and mud control. And I can't believe I forgot the compost piles. And a space for a future greenhouse, maybe just a cold frame to start with.

My wet paths won't be a joy to sludge through in april. I was thinking landscape fabric over gravel; saw that in a Costa Rican rainforest once and it seemed to work well?
posted by GardenGal at 7:52 AM on February 8, 2010

Response by poster: And oh yes, I've been planning on installing 8' deer fence around the entire thing.
posted by GardenGal at 7:52 AM on February 8, 2010

Response by poster: Thanks cda: Oh I would love to be able to garden right next to my house, but I've mapped it with video and camera and there is not a single spot that gets more than 1.5 hours of sunlight per day. That's why we have to clear the trees.
posted by GardenGal at 7:55 AM on February 8, 2010

Have you looked at a design involving the Square Foot Garden concept? If not, I would strongly recommend it to you. We have have a 2,300 SF garden (48 x 48) that essentially consists of three 4 x 30 raised beds (2 cinder blocks high - about 20") in the middle, with the outside edges planted to long lived crops like asparagus, dwarf apple trees, blackberries on a trellis, rhubarb, etc...

With a garden of the size you're talking, the absolute key is planning to minimize dead (row) space and weeding. Square Foot Gardening does both of those things. There are a number of very active SFG forums on the web; I like the one on in particular. (The "official") SFG site is a bit hokey and is trying to sell stuff; just ignore the sales pitch, get/borrow the book, and make your beds out of whatever works for you. Do, however, try to follow the general ratios of soil building, using locally available products as substitutes as needed.

If you pickup the SF Gardening book at a library, make sure you get the most current (2nd edition I think), as it's MUCH better organized than the 1st edition. There's also a fun little book called "Cinder Block Gardening" which is a very similar concept to the SFG idea, just not as formalized. I highly recommend both.

One last suggestion: if this is going to be a long-term setup, you might want to rethink using timbers as a structural element and instead go with something more durable. With wood, you either have to use treated lumber, which will leak preservatives into the soil over time, or non-treated lumber, which will quickly decomposed and decay given the amount of water you're going to have to put on the garden for plants.

OK, one last suggestion, really: Mentioning the water issue above, caused me to remember yet another HUGE advantage of SFG over traditional rows: SFG is much more efficient and lends itself much more easily to drip irrigation than regular rows. I can't tell you how much more I enjoy my garden now that we've switched to SFG from rows and installed drip irrigation. My weeding time is cut far more than half, watering consists of turning a few valves instead of dragging hoses around, and when I do have to weed, I can sit on the edge of the raised beds and only need to reach in 2 feet to the middle instead of having to stoop over for hours or kneel all afternoon.
posted by webhund at 8:17 AM on February 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

Response by poster: Red Loop: you sound like you know what you're talking about. My contractors are going to cut everything down flush to the ground and use a root rake to claw out the little tree stumps and undergrowth roots. Then I'll drill the big stumps full of holes, fill with manure, and build the raised beds on top of them. I figured that would leave most of the organic matter there. I'm going to have them chip all the debris and leave it on site as mulch; the logs that are too small for landscape timbers will become fence rails, those too big for me to use without splitting will become firewood.
posted by GardenGal at 8:20 AM on February 8, 2010

Response by poster: webhund: Thanks, I do own that book. I was thinking with the quantities of things I was going to grow: 50 tomatoes, 25 broccoli, 400 beans, etc. that Square Foot methods wouldn't apply to me? I was going to go with the biointensive method instead. But you think I could still do it?
posted by GardenGal at 8:26 AM on February 8, 2010

Best answer: Maybe a little too elementary, but the height of the plants should progress from shortest to tallest as you go north, assuming you have a southern exposure. So, lettuce and beets at the southernmost end, corn, peas, and trellised stuff at the north.

Even if you don't have time to do the Maryland Master Gardener course, definitely pick up a copy of the handbook. We've got one and it's a really nice reference. Also spiral bound with water resistant pages, so you wont' ruin it too quickly.

The great thing about gardening in MD is that we have long summers, so you can get to plant most things twice, if you plan correctly.

Also, consider making one of your raised beds a cold frame. You can probably produce salad greens year round in MD. We haven't gotten around to it yet, but we're about to have a bunch of old windows on our hands, so we may try it.
posted by electroboy at 8:33 AM on February 8, 2010

One final book to consider before you leap: The 64 Dollar Tomato.

Not trying to be a downer, just a realist. Good luck!
posted by webhund at 8:36 AM on February 8, 2010

Best answer: You may find this link helpful. Specifically, there's a garden plan (complete with layout) for a garden that can produce most of the vegetables needed by two people for one year, in about 1000 sq feet. Basically do that garden plan, only double it. You'll have 3K sq feet leftover to play with. It's an excellent plan because it makes use of your three LONG growing seasons in zone 7b, and you don't have to even think about the plan. Just implement it!

Have a blast. I'm doing a 25'x25' garden this year.

Oh, and start your seedlings soon!
posted by Stewriffic at 8:45 AM on February 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

One final book to consider before you leap: The 64 Dollar Tomato.

Not trying to be a downer, just a realist. Good luck!

It's an amusing book, but it's like the HI-LARIOUS Hollywood version of gardening, complete with gardening-porn expectations and the most expensive possible solution to every problem.

Nthing cold frames, GardenGal. You can build frames to sit atop some of the beds. When I read 4-season Harvest last year, I put cold frames on the "someday" list. After one year with a substantial yield, it's moved up to be a priority for next year. The promise of salad greens in winter is just too seductive after a summer and fall of eating from my backyard.

Check out resources for urban gardening...successful urban gardens make the most of their space and tend to be thrifty and DIY. City Farmer has a collection of links, as does Greensgrow Farm and others like it. (Greensgrow is my local urban farm, if there's something similar near you it's a great place to get veg starts so that you don't have to start everything from seed.)
posted by desuetude at 9:42 AM on February 8, 2010

Best answer: You said money is tight and that you can't afford organic food - I will assume then that you won't be able to budget for all of the things you might want or need to get your mini-farm going in the first year. I faved the greenhouse idea, but on second thought, that's a bit expensive to build and your money is better spent on the plumbing/drainage/irrigation to start. I don't want to be another downer, because I think this can be done, but I think you need to be very careful about where you spend money so that you don't waste it on materials that end up being wrong for your needs.

You might end up fencing an area as cheaply as possible, for example, only to realize that your fence is tall enough for the deer but not quite deep enough for the gophers, and you need to rip it out and start over. I'm not saying you'd make that mistake, but it's hard to anticipate the unique problems of your plot until you actually grow stuff there for a full year.

I would make a long-term budget and keep things scalable in order to avoid wasting money. Tally the cost of clearing the land, the fence, the plumbing, and toss in an extra $1000 for all the little things you won't think of now. Then decide what you absolutely need to get up and running this summer, and what can wait.

Think about the lifespan of things, how long pipes and the like will last exposed to the weather, and if it's worth it to shell out more at the start for better materials for the things you know you need the most. Consider that it may take 5 years or more of harvests before you break even.

You are right that SFG will not scale well to the size of operation you anticipate, and will cost way too much compared to bio intensive.
posted by slow graffiti at 10:12 AM on February 8, 2010

Response by poster: Cold frames: check. I *really* like the idea of making one to fit over an entire bed. One of my girlfriends was the unhappy recipient of 30+ homeless storm windows, so I'm delightedly on my way to pick them up as soon as the roads are clear.

I always try to make do with what I can find, wherever I can find it. (My husband hates it. :) But there's such a pleasure in creating something for FREE by YOURSELF and saving stuff from the dump at the same time! I'm also a big fan of the dump. That's where I got all the timbers for my last garden. And salvage places like Community Forklift; I wish I weren't so far from it now.

slow graffiti: I like the idea of making a long-term budget. I don't know why (compulsive list-maker that I am) I hadn't thought of that before. It might help me cool my heels a little bit - I tend to be full-charge-ahead.

electroboy et al: I have definitely considered (several times, esp. when I was working in a nursery) training to become a Master Gardener. It has a lot of appeal; I'm not sure about the community service part, though. Experiences?
posted by GardenGal at 11:35 AM on February 8, 2010

I have definitely considered (several times, esp. when I was working in a nursery) training to become a Master Gardener. It has a lot of appeal; I'm not sure about the community service part, though.

No better way to learn than by teaching, right? If you go this route, consider blogging it so that some of us can enviously follow along.
posted by desuetude at 11:50 AM on February 8, 2010

You're new to the area. Besides asking the cooperative extension rep for county-specific advice, you might consider asking a neighbor to help you out. If you can find an experienced grower within easy walking distance who would help with the planning and work for the first couple of years in exchange for a split of the harvest for those years, you could learn a few things about the local microclimate, local pests (including people), etc., that might otherwise take you years to pick up.

Anyway, basic stuff:
  • Plants have particular tastes in soil acidity. Get your soil tested or get a DIY pH kit so you know what kind of soil you have.
  • Keep records so you know exactly what you planted where and and when, and follow up each entry with a note on when you harvested and how good or bad the harvest was. If you plant from seed packets, keep the empty packets, or at least record the exact type of plant you put in each spot. Also note important dates. Last frost in spring. First buds of certain plants. Phenology. Ripening, harvest, seeding. First frost in autumn. Your records from this year will be your guide next year and every year after. You might think you should go fancy and start a database or something, but a sturdy paper journal and maps might work best year to year in the field and at the kitchen table.
  • Short stuff south, tall stuff north.
  • Grow what you like, not what you think you ought to grow. If you don't particularly like tomatoes, don't grow them just because everyone else does.
  • Grow some perennial stuff: berries are good low-maintenance fun.
  • Don't use fertilizers or pesticides that you wouldn't let your kids lick.
  • Grow things bred for your climate, not stuff you'll have to coddle because it is out of its element.
  • Compost pretty much everything that could possible decay, including a lot of things people are often nervous about composting. There's no sense sending something to the county dump that could become a part of your own land. If it's something you don't want on your veggies, you can still bury it deep and forget about it forever.
  • Some people set an extra place for Elijah at the dinner table or leave out milk and cookies for Santa on Christmas eve. Find out what local animal species (maybe some butterfly or dragonfly, for example) is endangered and plant something just for it. If it never shows up, no harm done. (You might see if you can grow something that is itself endangered, but be careful how you go about this -- you of course can't just go grab an endangered plant and stick it in your garden, but you might find that you already have something that you shouldn't dig up.)

posted by pracowity at 12:14 PM on February 8, 2010 [1 favorite]

I got it backwards this morning when I wrote, "Areas on the north side of the space will get the least sun."

Areas to the north side of the patch will actually get the most sun. It's areas to the south which will get the least.
posted by jon1270 at 2:05 PM on February 8, 2010

Response by poster: Actually Jon1270, you had it right in this particular case because the land to the south (neighbor's land) has already been cleared. Thus no trees there to throw shade.
posted by GardenGal at 2:56 PM on February 8, 2010

Response by poster: desuetude : of course it'll all be blogged. I blog regularly already, so with a project of this scale you can expect lots of updates. In a year or so we'll be able to see who was right.... :)
posted by GardenGal at 2:58 PM on February 8, 2010

Fruit trees get all kinds of fungus disease so figure out what you're going to spray with and budget time to do it. I think the stuff I have says to do it 3 times in the spring but I never manage it. I think the scary non-organic stuff works better short term but I feel safer using the organic. Gardens Alive is where we got the last batch of stuff.

By the way if you bought any, dwarf fruit trees take the growing height as more of a suggestion so count on a few trees being 5 to 7 feet taller. You're suppose to prune every year but we end up doing every other. The pear tree is fine with this but the apples end up with tiny fruit if you take this lazy approach.

The biggest suggestion I have is to write down all the upkeep and figure out how much time you'll need to do everything so you don't get overwhelmed. It's good that you already have lots of gardening experience but you're undertaking something big here. Planning a schedule will make your life so much easier.

One last thing, I've never had chickens so I'm definitely not an expert but looked into it a little because a friend was thinking about it. Have you see the movable coops on wheels? It seems like such a great idea since the chickens can eat bugs all over the yard. The one I saw had the coop at one end with an enclosed area made of fencing so they could safely forage without becoming dinner for something else. I don't know if it would work for your situation since you'd need a decent amount of room to roll the coop around but here's a link if you want to check it out. Good luck to you and hope you garden goes well!
posted by stray thoughts at 6:41 PM on February 8, 2010

I haven't done the master gardener thing yet. My county's (Baltimore City) program is a little disorganized, but the master gardeners I've worked with at community gardens have been great, knowledgeable people. If you're reasonably handy in the garden, but don't have the time to commit to the program, I'd just get a copy of the handbook. It's really nice to have a Maryland specific reference, rather than most gardening books that have to account for all sorts of conditions and pests that may not apply to you.
posted by electroboy at 7:59 PM on February 8, 2010

was thinking landscape fabric over gravel; saw that in a Costa Rican rainforest once and it seemed to work well?

If at all possible* would dig down to the the sub soil, lay the landscape fabric (or even better get some "cow carpet" from your local feed supply place) and then stone over top of that. rock is ex.pen.sive. and mud eats it so try not to feed it to the mud. You live in Virginia so should be able to get stone dust which will pack nicely and is a million times easier to walk on than pea gravel too. I'd personally lay coarse quarry rock, then an inch or so of stone dust on top of that and grade it all to drain somewhere sensible. Organic soil makes the worst mud of all so keep organic/ growing areas separate from walking/ driving areas as much as humanly possible. Use timbers to edge your graveled areas to prevent mud creep. I talk about mud a lot but I spent the first 25 years of my life on farms and it is the biggest pain in the ass.

*like at all. If you have to force your kids to dig it out with shovels by hand go for it.
posted by fshgrl at 10:38 PM on February 8, 2010

Response by poster: fshgrl: thanks so much! I had no idea paths were that complicated, and with our wet soils we'll certainly get our share of mud.
posted by GardenGal at 11:13 AM on February 9, 2010

You should have lots and lots of woodchips from clearing all those trees. Woodchips make a pretty decent path, and they're cheap as free.
posted by electroboy at 11:23 AM on February 9, 2010

Response by poster: Oh yeah I hope so! That was one of the "interim" plans until I can afford landscape fabric (or "cow carpet", whose name intrigues me. They'll go nicely around big plants like tomatoes and melons, too. And to layer in my compost.
posted by GardenGal at 3:41 PM on February 9, 2010

Woodchips work well temporarily. Lay them about 8" deep at least.
posted by fshgrl at 6:17 PM on February 9, 2010

Response by poster: Update fshgrl: Cow carpet is $525 per 1000sf. Sigh. Looks perfect, too. :(
posted by GardenGal at 7:15 AM on February 12, 2010

Best answer: In the case of cow carpet, what you're trying to prevent is the fine soil particles in the subsurface from migrating upwards into the free draining stuff you're building your path out of. Since free draining = lots of voids, you need to separate the soil from the path material. Cow carpet is just a medium weight nonwoven geotextile similar to landscaping fabric, although cow carpet is a little heavier duty. Since you're not actually using it for livestock, lighter weight fabric should be fine.
posted by electroboy at 8:15 AM on February 12, 2010 [1 favorite]

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