Planning our organic market garden

I never thought we would get excited about, let along plan to do, the whole market garden thing. But while I’m all for no-dig polycultures like our domestic-scale kitchen garden, I’m also a pragmatist.

These days, we need more vegetables than we currently produce, especially from Spring through till Autumn. Way, way more. So I figure we’d better get ourselves into gear and learn how to grow ‘em.

Here at the farm we have a highly oscillatory pattern of needs, when it comes to food. From May until August, in the winter months, it’s just our little family here. Our domestic food supply is easy to mostly supplement from our basecamp kitchen garden and our family’s wiltipol lamb, with additions from local friends.

Food inputs graph for Milkwood Farm, September thru to March

However, from September through to April, we now have many more mouths to feed. To start with, there’s interns and wwoofers. On top of that, we’re now regularly running on-farm courses of every type imaginable – holistic management, food forest design, biofertilisers, permaculture design, beekeeping and so on.

The reality of having all those people on the farm for short periods (3 days up to 2 weeks, depending on the course) is that our food needs oscillate wildly from week to week. But any way you look at it, we need a lot of food. Good food. And, ideally, food that is primarily grown here, at the farm.

Up until now we have been able to supplement the massive amount of food inputs with our own lamb, and sprinklings of our own vegetables from our basecamp garden – herbs, a pile of potatoes here, a scattering of silverbeet there.

All very lovely and encouraging as a gesture, but when you come right down to it, we’re importing the vast majority of our food. And I want to stop.

The reality of this situation really sank in during last summer when we had a cook come in to cater for our two on-farm PDC courses. Before this, I was in charge of supplying and cooking all the food for PDC courses – 30 people for two weeks, three meals a day – and I was in such a whirlwind that I never really sat down to evaluate how much we used.

But now that someone else was cooking, I was relegated to food supply only . And I began to realize just how much food we went through in 2 weeks: 40kg of potatoes, 65 lettuces, 12 watermelons, 36kg tomatoes, 48 zucchinis and on and on and on. And that was just one course. Wow.

When Joel Salatin was at our farm last December, we asked him what advice he had for young farmers starting out. Trust Joel to walk straight up to the elephant in the room grab it firmly by the trunk:

Start with supplying your immediate needs, Joel said. Which in the case of this place (Milkwood), is sorting out all that food you guys buy in for course catering here. Figure out how to supplement whatever your basic costs are, and take it from there… you’ll figure out what to do next as you go.

Michael of Allsun and Polyface crew at Polyface farm. This kitchen garden has now been superceded by their new market garden share-farmer…

Hmm. Okay, I had thought of that, but I was hoping that growing enough food for catering would just naturally happen somehow through a progression of our kitchen garden. But the reality is that it won’t. We need to apply a market garden style approach to fulfill the seasonal food input needs of Milkwood Farm.

And so we started reading. And thinking, and talking, and planning.

Our parameters are: a market garden to supply as many vegetables as possible for Milkwood Farm’s seasonal needs.

I don’t mind if this reduces the variety of veges we all eat at the farm – infact, I would welcome being restricted to a seasonal, locally available diet. How exactly to make this happen, I’m figuring out this winter. There is a lot to consider:

  • placement and size of market garden
  • garden design
  • ground preparation (green manures, got to get them in asap)
  • graphing our timing of needs, based on our course schedule
  • preparing planting plans based on the above
  • figuring out what to plant where, next to what, and why
  • gathering tools needed for a first year of gardening
  • gathering other resources needed
  • making compost on a massive scale, starting right now
  • constructing a rabbit-proof fence around garden
  • probably a million other things I haven’t thought of yet…

Here are three books I have lapped up in the past month in preparation fro this grand adventure. They are good for different reasons:

Four-Season Harvest – Eliot Coleman

Eliot Coleman is the most rockin’ organic market gardener i know of thus far. His techniques align with permaculture principles, he’s super energy efficient, and he knows his onions. This book has been a  great starting point for getting our heads around the psychology of taking gardening from domestic to market scale.

Unlike many market gardens, Four Season Farm has a very large range of produce. We’re not just setting up to produce tomatoes and lettuces – we’re aiming for the lot! So this approach is invaluable to us.

The Winter Harvest Handbook – Eliot Coleman

This book has got me thinking about a bunch of ways that greenhouses can integrate into small-scale effective market gardening. Eliot uses unheated greenhouses and row covers to extend the season of many vegetables in a variety of funky ways which seem plausible to us, given our modest budget and labor availabilities, and our short growing season.

There’s also Eliot’s The New Organic Grower: A Master’s Manual of Tools and Techniques for the Home and Market Gardener (A Gardener’s Supply Book) but we haven’t read this one yet.

Bioshelter Market Garden: A Permaculture Farm – Darrell Frey

This book has been really important to us for reasons other than we expected: it’s a quasi how-to/narrative about a bunch of permaculture-inspired folks starting a market garden farm using bioshelters.

It chronicles the process from starting with only no-dig beds through to a balance of more standard market gardening techniques for some vegetables, and no-dig bed production for others, as suited to the vegetable. Darn interesting reading, especially if you take it from a narrative point of view.

Bale Shelters. These got us thinking about semi-permanent rawbale structures…
Inside the Bioshelter market garden

In addition to reading the above books, planning to read many more, and spending many hours considering and pacing out sections of our creekflat in the winter rain, I’m trying to get my head around the basics of planting plans. The Eliot Coleman books have been great for this, as (surprisingly?) have been simple books like Eat your garden by Leonie Shanahan.

To keep my spirits up during planning such a daunting project, I’ve been tempering the planning with large doses of pictures of successful, happy farms with market gardens integrated into them. And looking at other young farmers who have succeeded in producing food while managing to have happy families.

Four Season Farm does a lot of interplanting and companion planting
rawbale seedling-started coldframe thingy. Good idea.
Four Season Farm greenhouse. Not sure we’ll get this technical, but still…

Joyce Wilkie and Michael Plane of Allsun Farm down in Gundaroo are not only brilliant market gardeners, but their growing the growers project chronicles many amazing small farms (including PolyFace and Four Seasons) doing just what we’re planning to do.

There’s also The Greenhorns, a collective and doco crew in America supporting young farmers, and many other links and resources that I’m finding every day. It’s comforting to know that it can be done.

Allsun Farm, near Gundaroo in southern NSW

Happily, it looks like we have the excellent help and mentorship of Joyce and Michael of Allsun Farm during this undertaking. We’ve somehow convinced them to run a course in early spring at Milkwood Farm on how to start an organic market garden, which will run in parallel to our market garden’s setup.

We’ve also been about to offer a position on the farm for Spring which will be a market garden trainee. This person will spend time at Allsun Farm prior to getting to Milkwood in September, and then manage the market garden (with help from us and the rest of the on-farm interns, wwwofers and crew) until Autumn under the remote mentorship of Joyce and Michael. Pretty exciting!

It’s a big project, but it’s a necessary one if we’re going to take responsibility for the impact and the nutrition of the food we feed our family, our crew and our students at Milkwood Farm. We’re not aiming for self-sufficiency, but we are aiming to be responsible for our inputs as much as we can. Wish us luck!

Oh yes and… any suggestions of resources, or stories from the land of sub-commercial organic market gardening? Please share! A good recommendation is worth a thousand browsing moments…

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Filed under Kirsten Bradley, Planning

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