Skip to main content

Man in Overalls - You Don't Need a Farm to Garden

I've been rolling my #GrowCart through Jacksonville's streets to highlight the fact you don't need a lot of space to grow your groceries. In other words, you don't need a farm to have a garden - which is worth celebrating!
If you're like me, you'd love be able to pick something from your garden, more or less, everyday - something to base dinner on or something to give it that extra touch of flavor and the health that only fresh can provide. Growing your groceries gives you the freshest food money can't buy as I like saying. Unfortunately there's a deep seated myth in the American psyche about having a food garden.

I can't count the number of folks I've met at workshops, calls and emails I've received, and Facebook comments I've gotten over the years from folks saying something akin to: "I'd love to have you out to help us start a garden once... we've got a bigger place" - or - "we move to the country." The assumption here is that in order to have a successful garden, it's necessary to replicate our grand & great-grandparents' multi-acre gardens. This just isn't the case - for two reasons, well three.
You just don't need a lot of space to #GrowYourGroceries.

But how can that be?

For starters, unless you're a serious jump-in-the-deep-end type, you're not likely to swear off the grocery store entirely. That means you can still buy things like potatoes and onions- not to mention your grains- that are relatively cheap at the store (and take a lot of space and time in your garden). By focusing on growing the right veggies (such as those most perishable and most expensive), you'll save yourself at least a good 60-70% of the space compared to the subsistence gardens of times past. So, whatever that vision of the country garden estate you thought you needed, chop that in thirds.
Also, as it happens, much of what folks think they know about agriculture, actually comes from the cultural legacy of the puritans' experience, a la pumpkins in October, Thanksgiving in a time of bounty before winter sets in, etc. Need I point out that the puritans were in New England, a place, Google tells me, is 1200 miles, more or less, due north of us).  Folks, we're in the Deep South. We have no need to grow an entire year's supply of food in a three month growing season because our reality is: we can grow 12 months a year, 4x as long. So, take what was left of your gi-normous garden from the previous step, and divide that in fourths.

Finally, because most of our gardening ancestors of yesteryear were first farmers, and when you've got a hammer, everything looks like a nail: they organized their garden crops in rows because farmers farmed with plows pulled by mules and, later, by tractors, and both required a giant row between crops for them to pass. Growing everything in well-spaced rows, is- from a space and a weed-prevention perspective (a story for another time)- a terrible idea. But land was (relatively) cheap, and farmers had plows, so "good straight rows" became synonymous with the perfect American garden.

Until sometime in the 70s, that is, when, along came a guy named Mel Bartholomew who asked a little question: If the seed packet says I can plant lettuce every 6" in the row, could I simply plant them that far apart between the rows, too? (Instead of 30" apart like the seed packet said). Turned out: it worked. He tried a 3rd row, then a 4th. How long could he keep this up growing rows next to rows? Turns out, if you have dedicated paths and beds not more than 4 feet across, you could reach to the center to plant, to thin, tend, weed, and to harvest without need to ever step into your garden beds at all - no rows required. (Mel ended up writing a book you might know: Square Foot Gardening.) Anyway, in the case of his lettuce, he could grow 8 rows of lettuce where before he could only grow 2. So, remember the remaining fragment of that giant garden you had planned originally? Cut it in half and then half again; you'll only need one of those four pieces.

If we do all that math, you'll need less than 1/45th that amount of space.
Or, in simpler terms, I recommend the equivalent of one 4'x8' raised bed for each adult eater in your household, a little more if you're a big veggie eater, a hair less if you really just want fresh herbs and salad on occasion.

It's counter-intuitive, I suppose, that a person who earns his living on building gardens would tell you to aim small, but in my experience right-sized (smallish) food gardens have proven over the years- personally and for my customers- to be the longest lasting, and most loved gardens - not to mention productive. This is probably because the work-to-reward ratio is just awesome. Let me give you two quick examples.
For starters, let's revisit my GrowCart. Right now I've got 20 different types of edibles growing in what is a glorified grocery cart. Granted, it's a bit over-planted to be fair, but it's bursting with abundance, and it's tiny in terms of gardens. Imagine how long it took to plant? How long it takes to water? No time flat.
And then there's my garden from a few years back when- for a time- my wife and I weighed and recorded everything we harvested. Our garden was 80 square feet, or two and a half 4x8 raised bed equivalents. We grew 400lbs in less than a year. That's over $1600 of the freshest produce money can't buy.

If you'd like to get a sense of what you could grow in a 4x8 raised bed food garden, sign up for my updates below, and I'll shoot you a copy of my planting guide that includes a Square Foot Gardening planting grid for you to plan your own garden.
- - -
If I can support you in growing your groceries locally (here in NE FL)...
please, click here to see my services & book me for a consultation, so I can assess your site; we'll discuss design, answer your questions, talk #s, and get your project lined up. I offer turn-key raised bed food garden support services.
If you'd like to support me...
in freely sharing my stories & expertise, please consider passing along this article to a friend or sharing on social media. Each of my articles take hours of resource gathering, writing, and editing, so I want to make sure they don't just sit on the digital shelf.
Respectfully,
Nathan Ballentine (Man in Overalls)
Itinerant Urban Farmer, Entrepreneur, Educator, Community Organizer
Growing in Jacksonville, FL. Connecting Globally.
(904) 240-9592
Email Man In Overalls at Gmail dot com
Man in Overalls on FB & IG
ManInOveralls.com
Blog - Services - Projects - Resources - About - Events

Most viewed Man in Overalls posts of all time

Why Can I Eat Bread in France, but not the USA?

Updated 10/31/2017 as the National Organic Standards Board meets in Jacksonville, FL. This may well be the most important thing you read this year for your health. (Originally written in 2015 while I was traveling-- and eating bread-- with my wife in France.)

I've got a food riddle for you from Paris, France: Why can I eat bread over here when it makes me sick at home?

I'll share my best guess in a minute, but first, a little personal background.

Since my senior year of high school, I've not been able to eat much bread at all. For five years, I was severely hypoglycemic, and everything I ate had to have more protein than carbohydrates. That meant, in effect, that I spent my years of college beer-less and eating lots of salad with meat on top. I ate tons of vegetables, very little fruit, basically no carbohydrates to speak of, meat, nuts, eggs, and cheese. If I accidentally ate, say, meat loaf that was, unbeknownst to me, made with bread in it, I'd spend the next 2-3 da…

Man in Overalls - It's Like Washing Your Dishes

I often hear folks joke, "Yeah, I had a garden once. I put in all this money & effort, and I only got a handful of tomatoes. Each one of them cost $27!" And they usually end by saying something about not having a green thumb.

I smile and think about a mental model I've been working on: Growing your groceries is like washing your dishes.

While they're raving about how many plants they've killed, I'm thinking, "It's not your thumbs. I bet you don't have a sink. And if you do, are you using decent soap or that garbage from the dollar store? And did you mention you've never washed dishes before in your life? And you're surprised you broke a couple wine glasses with no more experience than a four-year-old?" My eyebrows furrow involuntarily belying my thoughts, "Really? That doesn't seem all that surprising to me." But, of course, not only would saying all that confuse people, it'd kill the moment, so I just smile som…

Man in Overalls - The Valley of Food & Ag Startups: Warren Wilson College

If you're interested in tech, pay attention to Silicon Valley. If you're interested in food and agriculture, Swannnoa Valley, more specifically Warren Wilson College, is the place to keep on your radar.
I'm an alum and proud of it, class of 2008. I studied community organizing, wrote a 140 page thesis about social movements as my capstone.
It's a work college, one of seven in the country. Think universal work-study, so in addition to whatever one's academic track, students are also working in the cafeteria, the library, admissions, as carpenters, lock smiths, lab techs, and-- per the agricultural legacy of Warren Wilson-- as row crop, animal, and vegetable farmers, gardeners, and edible landscapers.  Personally, I worked on the electric crew and then on the landscape crew where I led the edible landscape sub-crew in managing a 1-acre edible (Permaculture) landscape around the "Ecodorm."

Per the "triad" of Warren Wilson's educational system,…

Man In Overalls - My Compost System

Composting, they say, is an art form. But, truth be told, I'm just too lazy for all that. My own compost philosophy is, "Crap rots in the woods, doesn't it?"

But really. :)


Whenever I think of home gardening systems, I always reflect back on my grandmother. She gardened up until the week she died at 93. She planted by the signs and assured me that's why her collards were not eaten up by bugs and were able to grow for 3 years running and up to 8 or 9 feet tall. She had a little rototiller, planted straight rows, mulched by spreading leaves to keep the weeds down. She threw out a little 10-10-10 from time to time and kept the cabbage worms at bay with Sevin dust. She hoed if the weeds called for it. But mostly, she harvested. Her pots were always full and her freezer always stuffed with produce: collards, mustards, turnips, peas, tomato gravy, squash, you name it.

Now, I don't use 10-10-10 or sevin dust, and I'm not big on tilling. However, the thing I cont…

Man in Overalls - Growing Great Soil

Good soil will basically grow your groceries for you, but how do you build great soil? 
The answer is that there are two options: a quick & easy way and a DIY, hard(er) way. 

So we're on the same page, I'm continuing my #GrowYourGroceries The Easy Way series by digging into the how-tos of growing great soil. These stories and techniques will likely make the most sense after reading Geeking on Good Soil, my last update. (I outlined where I was headed in The Big Picture.)


As I was saying, the easy way to build a great soil is to fill raised beds with a terrific compost-based soil mix like my Magic Mix to jump start your food garden productivity from year one. From there, seasonally, you simply top-dress each season before planting with another few inches of compost-based soil mix. This is how I manage my own food garden and those of my customers. Why? Because at the root of things, I'm a lazy food gardener, and long ago I decided to embrace it. 😎

But if you're not in th…

Man in Overalls - Summer Garden Blues & What To Do

Welcome to mid summer in the Deep South! If you're anything like me, you're actively looking for excuses to avoid going outside this time of year. The heat doesn't so much radiate down from the sun as it seems to rise from the side walk. Rain helps- for about ten minutes- and then simply adds to the humidity as it vaporizes on the payment, so that it feels like you need a snorkel to make it from the house to the car, but of course, it only gets worse when you turn on the AC, and that first puff of hot air feels as though someone just wrapped your face in a plastic bag - not to mention that if you cut your grass yesterday, you're going to have to do it again... tomorrow. And, lets not even talk about how fast the weeds grow this time of year! Or the insects seem to multiply! Oh, home... :)

Here's the good news: If your garden looks a little worse for wear, it's okay. Really. Mine does too. As much as I aim for- and largely achieve- a productive & beautifull…

Man in Overalls - What to Do When it Freezes in N FL

Here's the short version: If you've got tender warm-season plants growing (think tomatoes, peppers, cucumbers, squash, and the like), water thoroughly and then throw a sheet over your warm-season veggies & tropical fruit trees (especially if they've only been in the ground 1-2 years).

I can't count how many people I've met who have a complex about "killing plants" and who think, "I don't have a green thumb." What they don't realize is that anyone (EVERYONE!) who grows their own groceries is well-versed in killing crops (myself not-withstanding). Why do you think there are entire USDA funding streams for crop loss insurance and crop-loss loans? Even the best of farmers-- much less gardeners-- inadvertently kill things from time to time.

On the topic of freezes, a few years back (2010 I believe), I was up late organizing a kids food gardening workshop when I suddenly remembered it was supposed to freeze that night. Being 11pm or mi…

Man in Overalls - How to Start a School Garden: Design

Before you get to build your school garden like this,
before you can help kids get their hands dirty like this,
 or teach kids in your school garden like this,
there are a few things you've got to take care of first.

The #1 most important thing you've got to do is build your team. I say- with no exaggeration-- that human infrastructure is THE most important aspect of developing a successful school garden. But, I already wrote about building your school garden team last time. Assuming you're on track with that, a simultaneous step is to begin developing yourschool garden design.

Here are a few things to should consider as you develop a school garden design:
Purpose
In your school garden interest meeting, one of the first questions you should ask is: "Why are you interested in a school garden?" Interestingly, this question serves two purposes. First, it helps the team gel because there will likely be a lot of overlap in answers. This will lend itself to a sense of s…

Man in Overalls - Fall: The Best Time to Garden

Here in the Deep South, September through the end of October is the time to plant your fall food garden. When most folks think garden, they think spring: tomatoes, cucumbers, squash, green beans, peppers, etc. While I do love tomatoes, the fall-- here in Jacksonville-- is the most pleasant and bountiful season to grow! In the fall you can grow salad greens like lettuce, arugula, spinach; cooking greens like collards, kale, mustards; root crops (other than potatoes) like turnips, carrots, radishes, beets; the garlic/onion family of crops; and many herbs (other than basil) such as parsley and cilantro, which actually do better in the fall than spring.
(If you want a fall planting guide, sign up for my semi-monthly updates at the bottom of this post. Also, if you want to learn more from me directly, check out my facebook events for upcoming workshops and speaking engagements.)
But let me back up. Beyond the greater range of fall options, why do I love growing food in the fall? It's s…