HOME FARM FOOD MACHINE starting points plz
December 16, 2020 10:15 AM   Subscribe

My spouse and I have a neglected backyard of approx 10' x 30'. We do a lot of canning and preserving and some fermenting. We have a budget for a winter project and we're pretty handy. We know basically nothing about gardening. We live in northern California (no snow, lots of sun exposure in the back). We want to build a "home farm food machine" to max out the calories, vitamins, nutrients we can grow! Gardeners of AskMe, what starting points would you recommend for us? What are good examples of this kind of system?

Building greenhouses? Hoop houses? Barrelponics? Spirulina and chlorella, pole beans, potatoes, automatic watering and other systems for automation, idk -- space buckets? We eat and preserve a lot of different kinds of veggies, nothing is off the table. All plants, study/book recommendations, YouTube channels, etc etc welcome. Thank you!
posted by Stevia Agave to Home & Garden (18 answers total) 21 users marked this as a favorite
Square foot garden is a good book for this. But note that I find their estimates of area needed for tomatoes to be comically small. I also have had much better luck with lots of compose than the "mel's mix".
posted by lab.beetle at 10:32 AM on December 16, 2020 [3 favorites]

Start by checking out your local County Extension Agent. These folks can provide you with resources so you’ll know what does/doesn’t grow in your area, common pests and how to avoid/ treat, etc. You may even want to get into their Master Gardener program, which is more hands on, but also gives you access to a lot more resources.
We’re old-fashioned grow-it-in-the-dirt gardeners here, so I can’t advise you on hydroponics or other technological methods.
I would advise that you start small -10x30 can be a lot of work to keep up with when you first start out.
You’ll want to figure out what kind of sun/shade distribution exists in your yard, and how that changes over the season. Some things that are full sun in winter, may be in partial/full shade in the summer.
We generally favor some type raised bed arrangement, and use low hoops with floating row cover over root crops and brassicas to keep out pests.
For reading, a great place to start is Steve Solomon’s Gardening When it Counts. He’s written many other books, but this is quite useful.
There’s a lot more to discuss, but this is a very deep/broad topic, so the above are just the high points.
posted by dbmcd at 10:48 AM on December 16, 2020 [3 favorites]

First, a permaculture course.
Then, wicking beds.
And a drip irrigation setup.
And build up your soil.

There are a lot of gimmicky garden techniques out there but the most important thing is learning how to read the growing conditions on your site, in your climate. It won’t be a machine, it will be a little ecosystem. Put your money into learning, not building elaborate infrastructure. Also, grow what you enjoy eating.
posted by embrangled at 10:51 AM on December 16, 2020 [6 favorites]

Tomatoes definitely. Just make sure to protect them in an enclosure and beware the dreaded hookworm! (Consider determinate cultivars like cherry tomatoes to conserve space.)

Strawberries can be wonderfully productive during the summer months. The everbearing varieties will produce a small amount of fruit throughout the growing season (with high and low points). The annuals will generally produce one humongous crop in early summer. Strawberries work well as container plants.

Consider a rosemary shrub for the odd corner. It doesn't take much tending, and the dried branches provide a very aromatic seasoning (that goes well with tomatoes!).
posted by SPrintF at 10:51 AM on December 16, 2020 [1 favorite]

Consider Carol Deppe’s The Resilient Gardener. She’s not too far from your ecosystem, she’s thinking about really long term self reliance, and she talks about (and to) other food gardeners in the mid-PacificCoast.
posted by clew at 11:15 AM on December 16, 2020 [1 favorite]

If you're into podcasts, I recommend the Davis Garden Show. They are based in the Sacramento Valley but they are good about talking about regional differences and considerations. And they take questions from all over the country. Don Shor, one of the co-hosts, has a lot of articles on his business website.
posted by bread-eater at 11:16 AM on December 16, 2020

I second all the recommendations to get to know your climate and soil really really well as the first priority. All the fancy systems you mentioned are hacks to get around drought, poor soil or edge case conditions for some plants in your climate, or to cram more in a space. None are bad but you won't be able to decide what your big concerns are until you know your climate and what you want to grow vs what your conditions and space will support.

N. California is experiencing increasing intermittent drought so water is the #1 thing to figure out. Hand watering might get you started but some irrigation system is going to be needed to reduce water waste and the labor of watering over the long run. Look into wicking and drip systems. I use above ground soaker hoses here in TX where I can't install anything more permanent in my community garden and you can get ones controlled by apps and timers, it's all a matter of budget. Anything like a below ground drip system or wicking bed involves moving alot of soil so you need to make those decisions up front before you plant.

For that reason, deciding on irrigation means you also need the brushstrokes of a long term structural plan. This requires you to observe how sun moves over the course of a day and thinking about height, ease of access, and other layout considerations. You almost certainly want to plan for some vertical growing space for things like beans, cucumbers, melons, etc. and that will cast a shadow so think carefully about where you can put it to be within reach and not shading other things too much. If I were you I would pick some fruit trees of which there are many suited to your climate, but you need to plan them carefully; you need to give them enough space to grow, pick dwarf varieties that won't overwhelm the space, and make sure they don't compete with veggies when small or shade them completely when full grown. Espaliers and containers will let you cram a tree into limited space. I'm kinda jealous because you could probably have so many of the best things and the hard thing will be choosing; stone fruit, grapes, berries, citrus.

Third after planning for irrigation and layout is a soil test. You almost certainly need to add significant organic matter but detailed testing will tell you if you have other problems like pH imbalance, deficiencies in calcium, magnesium or other trace elements, etc. Where I live I can do this for $20 by mail to the local agricultural university and your results tell you exactly what you need to add to the soil to correct any problems. If you're not already composting start today, right this second, do not pass go. You probably need to buy commercial compost up front to have enough, but it's an ongoing investment in the microbial health of your soil that you need to sustain annually or semi-annually, which is 50% of success. There are all kinds of ways to do this, you can involve worms or chickens or just a bin, just find something you like and can maintain.

I didn't point you to any specific books or resources for a reason; CA is full of weird little microclimates and your best knowledge is going to be local, even hyperlocal. Find a nursery, the longer they've been in business the better, ask their advice and buy from them. Find people growing in your area on YouTube. If you are near a UC or CSU ag program, check their events and classes.
posted by slow graffiti at 11:27 AM on December 16, 2020 [2 favorites]

I will give you one good recommendation for inspiration on how to grow intensively in not a ton of space: Charles Dowding, the key evangelist of the no-dig method. Whether you go no-dig or not he has many other useful takeaways on timing and maximizing your available season and space that are really helpful.
posted by slow graffiti at 11:41 AM on December 16, 2020 [1 favorite]

Some folks are suggesting a lot of intensive start-up for you that I think will wind up being counterproductive. I have a permaculture certificate, they're great, but they're not a good starting point for someone with little gardening experience. And part of permaculture advice is to get to know your site and not make big changes all at once!

Spend the winter reading books and looking at seed catalogs and planning. Get familiar with some different gardening strategies, get a soil test (is lead a concern?), and get in touch with your county Master Gardeners. Double dig some beds (when it's not so wet you'll compact the soil, this may not be a winter project) and mulch some paths between them (cardboard boxes work), amend soil if needed, start a compost bin. Spend a season or two doing some basic gardening to get a feel for how much light you really have (plants generally need a lot more light than you'd think, but you can also sunburn things), and what sorts of problems you're running into (pests, diseases, nutrient deficiencies, forgetting to water, etc.). I would skip growing your own starts and stick to purchased starts and direct-seeded things for now. 300 sqft isn't too much to hand water, you can buy soaker hoses mid-year if you're getting sick of it. Keep your irrigation system simple for now - you need to be out there checking on the plants often. You will figure out what you prioritize and enjoy and build your garden from there.

+1 grow things you like to eat. Since you can/preserve, determinate tomatoes/strawberries/beans might be a nice complement - you'll get a big harvest all at once. If you know you want a particular fruit bush, go ahead and put that in. Selecting fruit trees and pruning can be a bit of a learning curve and you won't get a yield right away, but if you're excited about one or two in particular, go for it.

Sorry this is a bit boring. I love your enthusiasm for building a food machine, but you need to have some experience gardening for some of those projects to work well for you on your particular site. It is likely that so many things you do not expect will go wrong (hi, I work on a farm), and it's nice to work out the kinks before you build a bunch of infrastructure.
posted by momus_window at 12:03 PM on December 16, 2020 [3 favorites]

I usually recommend MIGardener as a pretty good distillation of the most do-able best practices of gardening (and soil/nutrition management, and the sometimes neglected art of growing what actually works for you and you will consume).

NorCal can be - if you are well and truly out of the Central Valley - a fairly cold climate as far as food production goes. Classic summer crops can be disappointing if you have cool nights year round*, and you may need to go with cold-hardy/short-season versions of things like tomatoes and peppers. (Upside, this often means you can grow many "winter" options - kale and cabbage family, nutrient-dense stuff - almost the entire year, maybe with basic hooping if you actually get frost where you are.) You definitely want to look at whatever local extension materials are available, there may be niche stuff you can grow there that wouldn't normally show up on a generic California list.

*This can be a problem even down here in LA. We have cool nights while the days get longer, and it only gets 'mater-hot once the days are getting shorter, and tomatoes know what daylength and overnight temps are.

I don't really think you can hack or disrupt gardening very much, you have to start by throwing plants at dirt and see what happens, and I think a really productive garden is developed, not shazaam'd. Start with basic raised beds and a drip system attached to a hose before you get a backhoe in and drop in an underground system or even a more convenient hose bib. You may find your sun exposure swings so dramatically between winter and summer that you're better off with a moveable system, or you may find you have a wind situation that requires completely non-standard watering procedures (these CA microclimates can be frustrating as shit). There's a lot of personal preference/limitation in gardening, too - people with jobs can't really garden the same way retired people do, who can't garden the way younger/bendier people often can, etc etc. You will have to pick your battles around water, pests, effort-to-return, how much to stick to tried-and-true versus Shiny New (you know the distracted boyfriend meme? that except the girlfriend is a classic boring old Burpee burpless cucumber and the other girl is Stained Glass corn that you're going to waste 8 square feet on and rats are going to eat when it's 18 inches tall). Your next door neighbor could be a pepper-producing beast because he starts them hydroponically in his basement and murmurs mantras to each one individually, and you will have your biggest success of the year with a spinach you don't even like very much and ignore and sometimes call names.

Be wary of gadgets and Methods (especially the Methods that are as much about white conservative fundamentalism as just making plants grow), be moderate in embrace of technology but use it where it pays off (irrigation timers yes, brand new dramatic vertical growing systems no for 3-5 years until someone else figures out if they work, they rarely do), beware Shiny Things. Just get started. Your land and your plants will teach you a lot of the lessons you need.
posted by Lyn Never at 12:30 PM on December 16, 2020 [3 favorites]

Oh, and if you really do turn out to have a cool-ish growing climate, you may want to look to UK gardeners. I can't grow everything he does, but Huw Richards is doing a lot of interesting work and lately has started backing away from so much Methodology and just is growing things.
posted by Lyn Never at 12:33 PM on December 16, 2020

What part of NorCal are you in? If you're in Eureka, look at gardening books for the PNW and northern Europe. In Sacramento, you can almost start looking to desert regions for advice.

Came in to recommend Carol Deppe as well, especially The Resilient Gardener. We've gotten a lot of mileage out of Chelsea Green Publishing's catalog - Will Bonsall is another good one, though operating on a larger scale.

The New Vegetable Growers Handbook is a fantastic reference guide.

Ecology Action's Grow Biointensive Method is the result of research done in the SF Bay and Willits with the aim of maximizing the productivity of any given piece of land.

The Edible Forest Garden approach is a very different way of maximizing food productivity. I believe when I ran the numbers a while back both Grow Biointensive and the food forest books I was reading suggested that you need at least 8,000 sqft to grow one person's food without significant inputs once the system is established (note that that is a maximum; it assumes both excellent conditions and skilled gardeners).

Mostly the intensive gardening techniques (with the exception of tech-y things like aquaponics or fancy greenhouses) seem to say:
1) Build good soil. Lots of carbon matter. Plenty of nutrients. Compost everything!
2) Don't leave the soil bare, especially when it's raining. Cover cropping, intercropping, green manure... (exception: planting at wider spacing to reduce summertime water usage is a thing)
3) Make use of vertical space. Not so much gimmicks like stacked growing racks, but trees and trellises and whatnot.
4) Know the environment you're growing in. Is it warmer by that wall? Does the fence make a good windscreen? Where does the occasional frost hit hardest?
5) Know the plants. This mostly comes from time and tinkering, I think, though books and the better (read: smaller company) seed catalogs can get you started.

It takes a lot of time and work and I'm still an inexperienced novice, but... do some reading, build your soil, and plant things! You'll figure it out, and have a lot of (tasty) fun along the way.
posted by sibilatorix at 1:30 PM on December 16, 2020

If your garden is open dirt, honestly your best purchase is probably a cultivator. In my experience, unloved gardens get compacted and digging them over when they're past a certain size will just stop you flat from doing anything. Once you've got that far, work out what you can do to your soil to make it better, which is almost always 'dig in compost' in my (limited) experience. Digging in general is a muddy process but if you're in an area with dry summers then now is a good time to do it since dry ground is like concrete.

I feel safe in suggesting onions, toms, eggplant and zucchini, and if you are frost free then citrus ought to work, but I agree with the above that expert local advice is out there and that's your best option. (Also: ALL THE HERBS. Many are perennial, so once they're in they'll last as long as they get water. Parsley self seeds every couple of years, so it's also a safe bet, and cilantro is an annual but also excessively fertile.)
posted by How much is that froggie in the window at 8:33 PM on December 16, 2020

If your garden is open dirt, honestly your best purchase is probably a cultivator.

This person is likely correct, but mattocks are so much more fun.
posted by pompomtom at 9:18 PM on December 16, 2020

The composting subreddit (r/composting) is a universally nice and friendly place, and I learned a lot more from seeing pictures of people's compost piles than reading text about brown/green ratios and moisture levels even though I often prefer reading to learn new material. Also, a great winter project would be finding local sources of compost materials. Coffee grounds are especially great and easy to get buckets of if there's a neighborhood shop around willing to set them aside for you.

The biggest garden hack I know here in the short seasons and cold spring nights of Colorado is to start your transplants out in wall-o-waters, which are translucent water-filled teepee like structures that provide warmth and protection from the cold. I use them to extend my growing season by around two weeks. Using them has let me grow ridiculous amounts of tomatoes planted straight in the dirt, with cardboard boxes as crude mulching. I amended it with aged manure and probably 50 gallons of coffee grounds 6 years ago, but have done very little since then other than letting some leaves compost in place. I eke more yield out every year by improving my plant spacing (more space!), trellising, watering, and buying more wall-o-waters so I can get more plants out and growing in warm soil sooner.
posted by deludingmyself at 9:52 PM on December 16, 2020

Oh, and the r/gardening and r/vegetablegardening subreddit a are really nice places, too. If you follow them for a single growing season you will be able to take advantage of seeing all possible newbie gardening mistakes versus just your own, and also learn what not to do faster. Beginners really struggle with thinning their seedlings, getting light close enough to them (if they're starting indoors), and spacing baby plants far enough apart from each other. Both of those spaces are great places to ask questions about your setup and also learn from friendly feedback on others' questions.
posted by deludingmyself at 9:58 PM on December 16, 2020

Reading John Jeavons got us started on creating raised beds with a shovel and garden fork. We were already experienced organic gardeners, but having raised beds has simplified our gardening. His books suggest how to orient the beds, how wide and long to make them, how to maintain them, how to find out what crops will be most productive and nutritious for you, how to plant intensively, composting, and cover cropping.

There are lots of good gardening books out there that will have some of this information, but I got more out of John Jeavons than from most other authors.

Off the top of my head, two other authors that impressed me are Eliot Coleman and Ben Hartman. I think you'd find Ben Hartman's instagram page useful or at least inspirational, even though he's growing on a large scale to sell to restaurants.

If you want to start plants from seed, get your orders in early. Last year the seed companies were overwhelmed.
posted by sevenstars at 5:41 AM on December 17, 2020

Check out what your neighbors do, start compost heaps now - three year old deciduous leaf mold is magic for several purposes - and TAKE NOTES. What you started, the phenology of native plants around you, weather events, accidents, pest resistance, ripening times, flavor, keeping quality, germination rate of saved seed.

Even in much of Northern California you might have as many crops that want a waffle (sunken) bed as a raised one, unless you’re quite near the coast or high elevation.
posted by clew at 4:04 PM on December 17, 2020

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