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The Thrilling Return of "If You Fail to Plan, You Plan to Fail" (with an Updated Goal)

Posted Mar 08 2013 6:42am
The very first donation, 6 weeks after opening our community garden

Here's an example: Two years ago right about now, our first delivery to the food pantry from our then-six-week-sold community garden was three measly 8-ounce bags of mixed lettuces (see photo above). Since then, in just two years time, we've delivered about 4,000 pounds of fresh, organically-grown produce to that food pantry, for a donated value of $20,000 (this, from a previously unused, unloved piece of land). We used "A Ton for Hunger" as our poundage goal (and I updated the thermometer pictured with the ever-increasing total as a visual reminder), and we hit about 55% of that goal in year one. This year, we achieved the ton by August, and the food pantry team is still going strong.  Short answer?  You need a goal.  

After careful research and my own experience, I chose "2 pounds per square foot per year" (x $5 per pound in donated value) as an achievable target for food pantry growing in my climate. I have seen identified realistic goals of 1.24 pounds per square foot per year in raised beds in Ohio , and 4 pounds per square foot per year in Cuba.  You'll have to figure out what works in your growing zone (or look to someone like Eliot Coleman and his 4-season harvesting strategies in Maine as an inspiration). (Fellow bloggers around our FoodShed Planet: you may want to tailor this post for your local audience.)

Anyway, so here's what you do:
1. Figure out your annual poundage goal (square feet x pounds per square foot=annual goal);

2.  Make sure you know what culturally-appropriate crops would be most needed and appreciated at your local food pantry (have you seen this excellent article about refugee gardens that ran in the NY Times this week?);

3. Decide how much time and energy you want to dedicate to this effort (you can grow an easy 45 pounds of sweet potatoes in a 4 x 8 bed during the summer in my growing zone, with little to no effort--this is a great choice if you travel during the summer and don't have time to care for, let's say, tomatoes);

4. Decide how much money you want to spend (garlic is an easy-to-grow November-through-June crop.  The garlic heads cost a lot of money to buy originally, although you can save money over time by saving some heads to replant the next year, and the garlic requires no season-extension costs such as winter row covers or cold frames.) (Also, I suggest people aim to "recoup" their 1st-year investment in soil, wood frames, season extension equipment, and other 1-time costs in first-year donated value.)
A word about leafy greens--these are pound-light but prolific, and I have found personally that they come with a high level of dignity. Don't get hung up on "density of nutrients" when deciding what to grow for those in need--dignity matters, too. There just seems to be something nice about enabling a family to have a salad on its table at dinnertime (and herbs are a hit, too, and truly transform basic meals into something special). If you go with leafy greens, I'd suggest planting intensely (I literally toss, or "broadcast," the seeds--no relation to my Turner days).  If you have a number of beds to plant (or have some friends with whom to share), you may want to consider buying bulk seeds--you can get a salad mix or a cooking greens mix from High Mowing Seeds ( I met the founder and was really impressed with him , and have been buying from him ever since), available by the half-pound (and there's something like 240,000 lettuce seeds or 136,000 cooking greens seeds in a half-pound).  I bought about $1,000 worth of seeds for $100 last year by buying bulk.

So, let's consider a sample planting strategy for someone who has time to tend, assuming a 4' x 8' bed and aligning the following answers with the 4 points above:
1. 32 square feet x 2 pounds per square foot= a goal of 64 pounds per year (for a donated value of $320 per year--this takes into account higher-valued-per-pound items such as greens and herbs, along with lower-valued ones, and hits the mark for local, organic tomatoes);

2. Growing for a population that favors basics like greens, onions, sweet potatoes, tomatoes, peppers, squash, and herbs like mint and basil. No arugula or eggplant.

3. Have time but would like to reduce effort by putting in some long-season, low-effort crops as well;

4. Have a little money for a hoop and row cover season-extension solution.
Planting Strategy (be sure to add compost and fertilize with things like worm castings and fish emulsion every few weeks):

Fall: leafy greens in 100% of the bed, with a hoop and row cover added around November 15, for an expected yield of at least 2 pounds per week for November through January= 24 pounds;

Late January: plant onion sets in 1/2 the bed, keep the other half going with greens.  Expect at least a pound a week of greens for three more months=12 more pounds (we're up to 36 pounds now);

May: Plant sweet potatoes where greens were;

July: harvest onions=4 pounds (we're up to 40 pounds now), put in tomato, pepper and basil plants;

August/September: harvest sweet potatoes=20 pounds (we're up to 56 pounds now);

September: harvest tomatoes, peppers, and basil, and nail that 64-pounds goal.

Obviously, there are many ways to put this puzzle together--this is just one example to show you how a little forethought can help you achieve a realistic goal.  Of course, having more than one bed is a better ecosystem situation, because then you can rotate beds in and out of cover crops and boost soil fertility and the attraction of beneficials such as ladybugs (hint: hairy vetch).  That's also a good way to have some beds in "passive production" (onions, garlic, sweet potatoes) or permaculture production (asparagus, strawberries, perennial herbs, Jerusalem artichokes, fruit trees or bushes) while actively growing other beds with seasonal annuals that require more time, effort, and money from you.

The important things to remember?  You can do a lot with a small space, hunger doesn't take a holiday, and there is no "off-season" when you are growing for those in need.  (The five siblings in this picture insisted I take that picture with my friend Bob in it after he planted with them--it is one of my favorite pictures and favorite memories at the community garden Bob and I helped start, in which 20% of the space is dedicated to growing food for those in need.)

There are many books and online tools to help you with all of this.  I, personally, prefer to daydream and doodle first (which is why you will occasionally see me at a meeting), and then dig in and experiment so I can, as always, learn as I grow

This is Week 4 in the Operation Plant a Row series.  See the intro to this project here , plus these three other installments:

Operation Plant a Row: Choose a Method and Get Going (Growing)
Operation Plant a Row: "I Smell the Time" and It Is Now
Operation Plant a Row: More Starfish.  Mas Semillas.

Also, see "Food for Thought" facts throughout my book , including this one on page 160: Growing food breaks down barriers across generations, ethnicities, socio-economic levels, political parties, and borders.  We all need to eat.

Final note: If you need more info on anything in this post, I can pretty much guarantee you I've written about it already.  Just Google the desired search term and my name (Pattie Baker) and you'll most likely get a hit from this blog, one of my other blogs, or my published articles.  And, yes, of course, my book has lots of useful info like this as well, and a portion of the proceeds from the sale of my book goes to help grow food for those in need.

eclectic food-for-thought for a changing world
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