Chelsea Green Publishing

Chelsea Green Blog

Pulling More from Your Plot: Year-Round Intensive Farming

The following is an excerpt from the Year-Round Intensive Farming chapter in The Winter Harvest Handbook: Year-Round Vegetable Production Using Deep Organic Techniques and Unheated Greenhouses by Eliot Coleman. It has been adapted for the web.

Work the lazy garden. You pay rent for it all winter, do you not? Make it earn dividends every month of the year.
—Henry Dreer, Dreer’s Vegetables Under Glass (1896)

If farmed intensively, a small area of land can be very productive. The key to increased productivity is to make better year-round use of every square foot. The most impressive skill of the old Parisian growers was their ability to develop techniques for maximizing output from their one- to two-acre holdings. When looking to expand production on our own farm, given our limited land base, we refer to finding the “hidden farm.” Whenever a section of our land is empty of crops and something could have been growing there, that is the hidden farm.

In our quest to find the hidden farm, the intensity of our cropping has reached the point where we grow almost no green manures anymore because we are growing commercial crops so early and so late. Yes, we lose the organic matter contribution from a green manure, but we gain the organic matter contribution from the root residues, outer leaves, and stems of the harvested crop in addition to the financial return from selling it. We double-crop and triple-crop most of our outdoor fields. We also sow at much closer in-row and between-row spacing than used by large-scale field growers. Not only do we sow twelve rows of baby leaf salads or radishes or carrots on a 30-inch (75 cm) bed in the greenhouses, we use that same close spacing in the field.

Let’s take an area on which we plan to grow carrots as an example. We begin outdoor sowings as early in April as we can. Since we try to have every crop available all the time from the moment we first sell it, there are always fields set aside for later sowings of carrots. Some are areas we won’t need to sow until June or July. Rather than having those fields in a green manure or cover crop until needed, we use them for early production of unrelated crops, such as lettuce or spinach or Asian greens that can be harvested before the upcoming carrot-sowing date. The same holds true for fields where, say, lettuce will be planted later which are similarly used for an earlier unrelated crop.

Through focusing our planning on double- and triple-cropping, we have achieved gross yields per acre that are almost double what might be expected off our small acreage. Because we sell only in local markets (stores, restaurants, our own farm stand), we need to maintain a consistent production level of everything we grow, which requires even more planning and analysis. If we had a market where we could occasionally come in with large quantities of this or that crop and be able to sell it, we could keep every square foot planted continuously with much less forethought.

We keep harvesting hardy crops from our fields as late in the fall as possible in order to reserve the greenhouse space for even later crops. But we were always wondering if we couldn’t do more. In the spirit of Henry Dreer’s quotation at the head of this chapter, why should all those fields not covered by cold houses lie unused during the winter months? Given our climate, the only answer to that seemingly ridiculous question would be to build more greenhouses or sow lots of winter green manures. But the expense of a greenhouse is excessive if all we want to do is winter-over hardy crops for early spring harvest. And there are no winter green manures that can be sown and get established in this climate after our late-fall vegetable harvests.

From these musings, we evolved the idea of redesigning low tunnels for winter use. Obviously, crops that are actually harvested during the winter, like leeks, require the easy access of a walk-in tunnel, but we figured that low-growing overwintered crops for extra-early spring harvest would become an economically viable option if protected by a low temporary structure. For inexpensive overwinter protection of fall-planted crops such as onions, spinach, and lettuce, we now use low structures that we call “quick hoops,” and we have found them perfect for taking advantage of still more of our “hidden farm.”

Related Posts:


New French edition of The Resilient Farm and Homestead available

Great news for French-speaking fans of Ben Falk’s The Resilient Farm and Homestead: An Innovative Permaculture and Whole Systems Design Approach. The French language translation is now available from Imagine Un Colibri, from French booksellers, and on Amazon.fr. Falk’s book is a technical manual that details the strategies he and his team have developed for […] Read More

How to Make Biochar

Doing some spring cleaning around your property? By making biochar from brush and other hard-to-compost organic material, you can improve soil—it enhances nutrient availability and also enables soil to retain nutrients longer. This excerpt from The New Farmer’s Almanac, Volume 3, explains how to get started. To make biochar right in your garden, start by […] Read More

Generosity as Activism, and Other Homesteading Principles to Live By

“Like everyone I know, we occasionally find ourselves faced with a decision to which there is no obvious answer,” says Ben Hewitt, coauthor of The Nourishing Homestead. “Do we borrow money to build a bigger barn, or do we keep getting by with what we have? Do we spend our meager savings on trees and […] Read More

Pass the Walnut Syrup?

Everyone knows and loves maple syrup, and in some states (like Chelsea Green’s home state of Vermont), it’s big business. However, it’s a widespread myth that maples are the only trees that can be tapped to produce sap, according to Michael Farrell, sugarmaker and director of Cornell University’s Uihlein Forest. Sap can also be collected […] Read More

4 Books for Growing Food in Winter

Don’t let cold weather stop you from producing and enjoying your own food. For many, the coming of winter simply means cultivation moves indoors or under cover. Small farmers, homesteaders, home gardeners, and commercial growers can extend the growing season with techniques outlined in these essential books. There’s no need for urbanites and small-space dwellers […] Read More
Follow us
Get every new post delivered to your inbox
Join millions of other followers
Powered By WPFruits.com
+1
Tweet
Share
Share
Pin