Choosing What to Grow – Part II

We came from Part I, where I proposed 4 rules (or perhaps they are only guidelines) for choosing what to grow.  In Part II, we continue our example of planning a new garden in Mississippi for Gardener Jane.  Her list so far:

Early spring – Peas
Spring – Carrots and potatoes
Summer – Peppers, tomatoes, squash, peanuts, corn, green beans and watermelon
Fall – Cabbage and broccoli
Winter – Garlic

Jane has a fairly large suburban yard with a sunny spot well away from her septic tank.  She is planning to have a neighbor come over with his tractor and disc up a 20’x30′ space, giving her 600 square feet, which is the average size of a home garden in the United States.  She’ll be using standard rows and hills.

So how much space does each plant require to get the desired yield, and when does it require it?  The numbers below are entirely for illustration purposes; yield and pricing varies widely depending on many factors. For this example, I used prices from the USDA for January 2013 of advertised products of conventionally grown produce, except for a few missing items which I checked locally.  At this spacing, many of these row crops would require supplemental watering in most regions, which would be an additional ongoing cost.

Let’s warm up our left brains and look at the numbers:

janesVeggies

If you look at the green columns, you’ll see the intersection of space required versus what it would cost to buy those items in the grocery store.  On one hand, you see what amounts to three tomato plants producing nearly $180 of produce.  (There’s nothing like homegrown tomatoes.)

Some items make less sense from a dollars and cents viewpoint, like peanuts, which will also require special curing.  Potatoes and corn are likewise of questionable value, although for someone with a lot of space the cash return should be positive.  That special treat of 2 big watermelons will take up a whopping 100 square feet of garden area for many months while requiring a lot of water… and if you can’t get watermelon cheaper than 59 cents a pound in midsummer, I’d be very surprised.

At first blush, garlic looks like a poor candidate, too, except that the garden is mostly empty at that time of year so the space is open and you might as well use it.  So it gets a pass.

But money is not the only return that matters.  Calories, too, are a concern when you are gardening for financial benefit.  When you look at the blue column, potatoes and peanuts don’t look so bad from a sheer calories standpoint, whereas corn looks even worse as a financial value.

Jane needs to look at these numbers and evaluate what’s more important to her and prioritize what she can put in her garden.  Having a little extra space to try out those plaid eggplants may be important to her, too.  And don’t forget, at some point we want to revisit the fruit on her list.

But, Ms. Blogger, you say, I have a book here that says you can fit 50 carrots in 3 square inches!  We’ll discuss the pros and cons of intensively spaced gardening some other day.  There’s a reason why when you drive out in the country and see traditional gardens they are almost always a combination of old fashioned rows and hills, and it’s not because they haven’t read the latest gardening books.

Corn, too, has a special place in many gardener’s hearts.  20 years ago, fresh corn was amazingly sweet and the sugars started to deteriorate in a matter of minutes, hence the proverbial instructions to get the water boiling before you picked the corn.  With today’s modern hybrid varieties, those sugars don’t convert to starches so fast.  Freshness still matters, but the corn from a farm stand or a fresh grocery shipment is still quite good.  However, much commercially produced corn is GMO (genetically modified), which is a sticking point for many health-minded customers.  That, too, is a topic for another day.

Next, in Part III, we’ll talk about when to live with your local climate, and when it’s reasonable to fight it.

(By Nicole Castle)

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One thought on “Choosing What to Grow – Part II

  1. Pingback: Choosing What to Grow – Part I « Recession Gardening

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