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Shifting to community-scale food thinking

July 13, 2011 | Farming, Gardening, Grow It, Market Garden | 12 comments | Author:

This week I received all our yearly seed catalogs, and, as usual, started planning feverishly. How many is too many weird and wonderful heirloom watermelon varieties? And then I paused. Wait a minute, we’re aiming for community scale in our vegetable production this year. This shifts the goalposts entirely.

I’m now realizing that, for our organic market garden adventure, we will no longer be focusing on the craziest colored tomatoes. At least for this first year, while we learn the ropes, we will be going for yield and nutritional density as top priority. Pragmatic organic, here we come.

Green zebra tomatoes from our polyculture basecamp garden

Up until this year, we have delighted in a vast variety of multi-colored potatoes, rainbow carrots and a myriad of other unusual vegies. Which has been wonderful, and I rekon this approach is the best way to get excited about food growing.

We’ve also delighted in polyculture no-dig bed gardening, where many many species grow (or attempt to grow) side by side. It’s been one big experiment, and it’s taught us a lot about which grows with which, and what suits our particular climate.

This polyculture approach has also taught us a lot about microclimates within a garden bed, as we’ve watched the interrelationships between space, time, shade and companion planting evolve. I won’t be stopping this type of gardening any time soon. It’s just too interesting.

Scarlet runner beans flowering next to one of our no-dig polyculture beds
Rob Avis with some of the yield from the self-sown understorey in our food forest.

However. The market garden we’re creating has a primary function, and that is to provide as much of our farm’s vegetable needs as we can, as soon as possible.

This means we will be narrowing down the varieties of each species (tomato, lettuce, beans, eggplant, carrots, capsicum, spinach, chard, artichoke, etc) and focusing on heirloom varieties which have high yields, high vitamin content, and are suitable for our climate.

The polyculture aspect of this system will come in how we use herbs and other beneficial plants to edge, divide and neighbor our intensive production plots.

Polyculture hedgerow at Allsun Farm, with corn crop beyond
The direction we're going for the market garden: carefully strategised inter-cropping and under-cropping, with carefully selected varieties. Photo; Allsun Farm

While a small part of me feels this approach is unutterably boring, the larger part of me is a pragmatist. This particular system on Milkwood is about efficient use of energy. It’s about outputs for inputs. It’s about growing enough food for our needs without breaking our backs in the process.

So my focus will be shifting from the crazy delights of Diggers Club and Green Harvest seed catalogs to things like The Italian Gardener, a heirloom vegetable seed provider that Joyce and Michael of Allsun Farm, our mentors in this process, use predominantly.

I can see the logic of this approach. If I’m going to nurture a tomato plant through to harvest, I’d rather it bear 10kg of fruit than 4kg. Times that by 30 plants, and that’s a lot of extra yield – a simple input-to-output ratio.

And as I get an inkling of how much hard work this market garden is going to be, I want to make sure we maximise our efficient use of energy (human, nutrient and water) in all things, for the maximum output.

Classic polyculture planting at White Street community garden, Sydney. Everything healthy and thriving, thanks to the interrelationships above and below the ground.

On the upside, we’ll be approaching the new kitchen garden next to our tinyhouse in a no-dig polyculture style, so i can still scratch the crazy-vege-variety itch. But the market garden varieties will be only those that will grow and feed us all with the most yield and certainty.

It’s a bit like growing up, but the gardening version. I can’t wait to see how it all goes.

If you’d like to join us in learning how to set up really-truly community level food production, we’re running a Starting an Organic Market Garden course with Joyce and Michael from Allsun Farm in September at Milkwood. Or you could just live vicariously through our efforts.

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  • Sharon July 13, 2011 at 10:15 am | Reply

    I’m on a similar journey with my gardening, I love all the crazy varieties, but this year I’m looking at the yield and the number of seeds in a pack to get my value for money. I want to supply my family with all our food needs for many reasons. I like your analogy of growing up, very true!

    1. milkwoodkirsten July 13, 2011 at 4:02 pm | Reply


  • dixiebelle July 13, 2011 at 11:32 am | Reply

    Love the massive pumpkins!

    This is what we are doing this year too, in our urban block… instead of growing a wide variety of heirloom produce (I have 107 varieties in my ‘seed bank’!), I want to focus on the things that grow well, that we eat, and that we can preserve/ store well too. Instead of trying interesting herbs and vege’s, like chicory, chia, yacon, and oca, we will grow more of the ‘basics’ like Black Russian & Roma San Marzano tomatoes, Lebanese cucumbers, Yellow Button squash, Black zuchini, Potatoes, Black Beauty eggplant, Rattlesnake beans, Dwarf beans, Spaghetti Vegetable, Queensland Blue & Australian Butter Pumpkins… grow well, eat well, store well, preserve well!

    (It will be hard to not be tempted into growing from all the wonderful seeds I have, but they won’t go to waste… I am planning on doing some ‘Sow. Grow. Give’ seed giveaways, starting with my neighbours mailboxes! )

    Good luck to you guys!

    1. milkwoodkirsten July 13, 2011 at 4:01 pm | Reply

      good luck! and cheers for that link :)

  • Stephen July 13, 2011 at 4:58 pm | Reply

    I feel sure that “crazy-vege-variety itch” will be well scratched ! And isn’t variety what it’s all about anyway – all the time fulfilling that need to feed …..

  • Lucas July 17, 2011 at 9:59 pm | Reply

    hey kirsten, I think this is a really interesting development. I reckon a lot of us who have the garden itch have been sustained, at least intellectually and emotionally, by the novelty of our yields: a kilo of tomatoes here, a couple of buckets of potatoes there, some lettuce for our salad once a day.

    But for all the talk of us belonging to a “sustainability” movement, it’s really just a bit of a hobby. We still go to the shops for our staple food nourishment. If the shops were shut for a week, our little hobby gardens would soon seem pretty thin.

    So your “growing up” idea is a really interesting experiment. Key to the approach which you outline above is care: careful selection, and careful design of your herby neighbourhoods, which now might look more like apartment blocks than shanty towns.

    I’ve just spent this weekend reading Percy Yeomans’ book “The City Forest”. In this book, which he self published in 1971, he moves from a basic and rather sober elucidation of his keyline principles for landscape design, to a more impassioned and overtly political plea. You can hear the frustration in his writerly voice as he complains about the destruction of soils – and by extension, human health – brought on the spread of industrialised agriculture.

    The final chapter in Yeomans’ book is called “The Family Farm”. He talks about the return to small-scale (but commercially productive) organic farming as a ‘rebel’ activity in the face of large-scale chemical agriculture. As I was reading it, I was thinking of you guys. It’s like he’s predicting your market-garden project, thirty years in advance, when he writes:

    A successful Human Environment Revolution will depend on youth and the ‘rebel’ farmer. A simple way to get the best for the environment from these farmers is to buy the food which they produce. They must be made prosperous and given their rightful place in the community. There are too few of them now but their numbers would be swelled quickly with the demand for wholesome food.

    All power to yer rebel family farm, Milkwood!

    1. milkwoodkirsten August 12, 2011 at 10:19 am | Reply

      thanks Luca! Right back atcha x

  • annisveggies July 22, 2011 at 2:41 am | Reply

    I’m interested in lots of what you are doing, particularly your polycultures. I am in the UK and am experimenting with growing (mainly) perennial veggies in polycultures in no dig beds.
    I completely concur with the imperative to get the most food out for the least input of labour and other resources and will be looking to extend my experiments in a similar direction.
    All the best.
    Anni Kelsey

  • […] Shifting to community-scale food thinking […]

  • […] large amount of specific foodstuffs in a timely fashion. This is now necessary for us as we shift to community scale food production, and away from just our little family’s vegie […]

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