Thoughts on Transitioning to More Food Production and Raised Bed Gardens

M and I are getting more and more frustrated with our temporary living situation which has existed for…well…since we were married (almost 9 years now)… And by that I mean the fact that we’re always on the move, without roots. That’s one of the factors that’s prompting this coming move. We want to get a place of our own where we’re going to be a while.

One of the ways this has played out is that we’ve been restricted to very limited container gardening. Mostly herbs, peppers and tomatoes. We’d love to have a bigger, more comprehensive garden once we “arrive” but we’re just not there yet.

As we talk more about rules of life (more on that later) and sustainability and how we’d like to embody our priorities, we’re starting to see this delay as an advantage. I’m working off the fundamental notion that—diets don’t work. (Bear with me for a moment…) If you want to lose weight and keep it off, diets fundamentally don’t work. What works is long-term lifestyle adjustment. A diet is something you pick up and put down—often in cycles. A comprehensive lifestyle change is far more long term. It means changing the ways you eat food, changing how you cook, changing how you schedule your time to include time for regular exercise, etc.

I think the very same is true of making a move to sustainability. It’s one thing to get excited and to put some plants in a pot. But—like a diet—that can burn out rather quickly. (And there’s nothing wrong with doing that for fun for a season or two to test whether growing food is something you have skills/gifts for or as a casual hobby.) But if you’re serious about 1) planting a measurable percentage of your own food, 2) reducing your grocery bills, and 3) moving towards a more interdependent sustainable way of being then it actually means being “serious” about it. Like, making budgets. Analyzing your grocery store receipts. Thinking abut what and how you cook. Putting together with your family a picture of where you’d like your food growing to be in five years on a year-by-year basis. Calculating how much time, energy, and money it will take to achieve those goals. (Especially as we recognize that we both have jobs—we’re not full-time farmers…)

Or, as Jesus mentioned… “‘For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation, and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, This man began to build, and was not able to finish'” (Luke 14:28-30). Of course, he was talking about counting the costs of discipleship, but the point still holds…

So—we’re seeing this delay as a time of planning, of thinking, of exploring and researching. It’s not wasted time; it’s essential if we’re going to make an long term changes in how we live.

I’ve been thinking in particular about food supply and trying to wrap my head around just how much food we’d have to produce to feed us on a regular basis. I find the best way to do this is to boil it down to completely concrete terms.We make a pretty rockin’ home-made pizza and it’s our tradition to have it every Friday—so let’s break it down:

  • Ingredients: flour, olive oil, salt, water, yeast, sugar, tomato sauce, tomato paste, basil, wine, cheese
  • Of these, realistically, we can only grow two: tomatoes and basil (which grow especially well together. Bonus!)
  • We use perhaps a cup of sauce a week spread over two crusts.
  • By my crude estimate, a cup of sauce at the consistency I like might require 5 or 6 roma tomatoes.
  • Assuming that we’d be canning quantities of sauce for our use through out the year, this means that 1 pizza a week for a year would require something on the order of 300 tomatoes.
  • How much does an average Roma plant produce in a season? (I don’t know yet…)
  • And that’s just one meal—we go through salsa like there’s no tomorrow and like tomatoes in other things as well. Suddenly the scale seems a bit more sobering, and the need for good research and planning comes to the fore…

So, keeping these kinds of things in mind, I’m going to and fro in my “spare” time to get a sense of what’s out there and what’s feasible. I may post some of what I find as the mood strikes me. And, at the moment, I’m liking what I’m reading about the efficiency of raised bed gardens—and here are three of the things I’ve been reading: a pdf from the Kansas State Ag Extension, a pdf from Purdue University with some basic construction calculations, and a website from some chump school in the state where the University of Texas holds pride of place. (Did I mention my dad and brother both graduated from UT…?)

14 thoughts on “Thoughts on Transitioning to More Food Production and Raised Bed Gardens

  1. Chris

    Hats off to you both for thinking about how to live your priorities. I’d have a hard time growing weeds, but . . .

    In terms of sustainability, I would love to ride my bike and take public transit with much greater frequency. Today I rode my bike to work, dropping off our middle child at her daycare on the way (I have a trailer that attaches to my bike). It is not efficient – I could get to and fro faster in a car – but I think it is more faithful and true to what I profess to believe.

  2. John-Julian, OJN

    Great, Derek!

    And it is something that sort of lies there almost unnoticed beneath monastic discipline: the stability, the community support for one’s efforts (as well as the community pressure to conform – so easy to lose when one is by oneself), the conscious effort to simplify.

    Someone asked me the other day what I would do with $100,000. I said the only thing I could think of for myself is that I could afford a hybrid automobile. The rest could go to the Sudan or Daifur.

  3. LP

    Roma tomatoes are great, but we have been having pretty good luck with Patio Hybrid plants, a determinate variety dwarf plant that yields nice, tennis ball sized fruit. They are pretty resilient and grow great in 5 gallon pots with little fertilizer. Each plant has yielded between 15 and 30 tomatoes. We haven’t tried them for sauce yet, but they are fleshy and deep red, so should do as nicely as a roma.

    We are building raised beds as phase II in our little experiment. Another good resource to consider for this approach is Mel Bartholomew’s Square Foot Gardening.

  4. Derek the Ænglican

    LP, I’ve seen the Square Foot Gardening referred to in a couple of places. Do you have it? Would yu write up a review?

    Didn’t know about the cheese–I’ll have to look into that!

    Dude—you seriously need to keep writing about this stuff, including your phases and such.

    Chris, I’ve been doing a lot more transit and telecommuting. In our case it’s not entirely of our own initiative; we were down to one car, then a good friend loaned us one to use for a while. He needed it back so we’re back down to one.

  5. Derek the Ænglican

    Father John-Julian,

    One of the things that the BCP has taught us is about rhythms of life and I think it’s preserved something of monastic life (or at least Regular life) there. Simplicity just seems to be an essential part of the Gospel especially given the way the NT as a whole speaks about possessions.

  6. lutherpunk

    I’m going to keep writing about these things, but I am going to do it back at Idle Ramblings with the goal of integrating it with theological stuff as well.

  7. Caelius Spinator

    I’ve read bits of my father’s copy of Square Foot Gardening, but sadly lack any real estate suitable for application. But it is very good book and my dad made good use of it at his old house.

  8. JCW

    You might find John Jeavons’ ‘How To Grow More Vegetables…’, a great work on the bio-intensive method, to be helpful.

  9. Annie

    Pardon me, but experience has taught me that I always overestimate my needs and I don’t like having cans of tomato sauce for more than one year. You can try growing your own tomatoes and experiment on a smaller scale. I’d guess for one cup of sauce with romas you’d probably need no more than two or three–can it by the pint. Tomatoes can be stuck in the freezer whole and uncut.

    I hate romas myself. They are a new variety that was developed with a tough skin so tomatoes could be harvested by machine. Yuck. I remember when they were first released.

    You can also grow your own garlic.
    Chop it and freeze it. Onion, too.

    Don’t overlook your daily veggies.

    Reduce your estimates of how much to put by by the length of the harvest of the veggie. Tomatoes can be harvested for three or four months–longer if you can provide protection from frost.

    Tomatoes will not produce well if you don’t have enough garden space to rotate your crops. They need a fresh space every year. Estimates are only that and nothing more. One year you’ll have bushels, the next you’ll barely eek by.

    My raised bed was taken over as a temporary home for rose bushes transplanted from my dad’s house when he died. It appears I have no more raised bed. Beautiful roses, though. It was especially nice because we live on the ancestral home of all gophers and they all come home to feast and we lined the bottom of the raised bed with wire mesh. It saved a lot of loss!

  10. Derek the Ænglican

    Thanks for the advice, Annie, and yes, *everything* at this stage is just an estimate. Thats’ one of the reasons why we’re planning to progress in stages—so we can have a better idea of how things will go despite normal fluctuations.

    Our current plan is to have a “salad garden” section with spinach, swiss chard, carrots, peppers, cucumbers,etc. for routine grazing, some “crop” sections for things like tomatoes, beans, broccoli, squash, etc. for canning and freezing, and then herbs—yes, including garlic—scattered about.

    Of course, this is still just the plan… :-)

  11. Annie

    Of course it is. Most of the fun of gardening is the planning we do in January and February. But you can buy the romas or grow them in containers in experimental numbers just for fun if you have a bit of sun somewhere. My daughter is experimenting with hydroponics. She is going to turn part of her dining room over to the enterprise.

    Gardening is fun. The fresh veggies are the icing on the cake. I hope I didn’t introduce too much reality to your dreaming.

    Remember–always give your first fruits away to the needy. If you don’t, you’ll regret it. ;)


  12. Derek the Ænglican

    Gardening is fun. The fresh veggies are the icing on the cake. I hope I didn’t introduce too much reality to your dreaming.

    It is fun, but I do plan on the veggies too. As I’ve said before, both M and I grew up with large gardens—these aren’t exactly fantasies of people who have never been in the dirt before. I’ve weeded enough green beans to know it’s not all fun, games, and crop yields… ;-)

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