Tiny Garden Grows 300 Lbs of Produce Annually

Submitted by jwalton on

By Nicky Schauder of Permaculture Gardens, a member of our Green Business Network

My family and I have a Climate Victory Garden in the suburbs of Washington DC. I wanted to give you a tour of our tiny garden with the hopes it will inspire you. Permaculture designer Geoff Lawton is known for saying, “All problems can be solved in a garden.” The real problem of climate change is no exception. 

Remember, you don't have to fulfill all the commitments to have a Climate Victory Garden but getting to all 10 is not as hard as you may think. Start with one and grow slowly but surely from there. We're a family of 8 living in what some consider a tiny townhome, and we grow over 300 pounds of produce each year. Here's how we try to live the Climate Victory Garden commitments:

1. Grow Edible Plants 

We can all grow something, even during the cooler months. If you're going to grow a garden, you might as well get the most bang for your buck. Choose your plants wisely. Many people grow ornamental plants for their beauty. But selecting plants that are also edible allows us to capture carbon from the atmosphere and feed ourselves all in one go (not to mention, they're still beautiful). If your plant is also medicinal (i.e. herbs), then you have a 4th function to boot!

We grow food in our garden and home year-round. We grow over 300 pounds of produce per year in our townhome’s back and front yards (around 500 sq ft). In the spring and fall, we have cool weather crops like peas and carrots. We grow seasonal mushrooms both outdoors or indoors in logs, bags or mason jars. Summer harvests include beets and tomatoes, and in the winter we start seedlings and grow herbs and lettuce by the south-facing windows.

Hand-picked vegetables, including peas, carrots, mushrooms, beets, tomatoes, and herbs

2. Keep Soils Covered

There are so many reasons to keep the soil covered. Here are some of them:

  • We are trying to maximize our space and therefore maximize our yield, especially when growing in small spaces. No “plantable” space should be left uncovered.
  • Nature will help you out. Go with her flow. When weeds come to cover those empty spaces you've left bare, don't take the weeds out unless you have a better idea of what should live there and are ready to plant it in the weed’s place.
  • Covering the ground reverses soil erosion and depending on what you plant, may even build-up your soil fertility.
  • Covering soil keeps moisture in. Even if some ground cover doesn't provide apparent edible benefits, it may be harboring beneficial animals as well as shading other plants from too much sun.  

3. Encourage Biodiversity 

Just as in a community of people, in our garden, even a tiny garden, diversity is the key to abundance. And by diversity, we mean we encourage the growth of all the 6 Kingdoms on the planet! We want a diversity of plants, animals, fungi, algae, archaea, and bacteria even if we are planting in a small space. 

A diversity of plants with quote: "Our front yard alone has more than 50 different plant species."

A monoculture (planting the same thing in rows) may give an appearance of neat and tidy-ness. But it is not a healthy one. If you must have rows of the same kinds of plants, consider planting what's known as a "polyculture" of alternating plants and planting diverse habitats around these production patches. From our experience, it is possible to design your gardens to be both beautiful and biodiverse at the same time.

4.  Plant Perennials

Perennials provide stability to your garden. Less fussing with the soil, allowing plants to "take root" and establish themselves over time will lead to less work for you and the garden ecosystem. Perennials include powerhouse plants like trees, vines, and bushes. There is nothing like a tree to stabilize a garden. When you cut down a tree, you alter the weather. Trees are havens for biodiversity and great helpers in rain/water management. So, choose your trees wisely and remember that trees can outlive us! 

In our backyard, we plant apples, pears, cherries, native trees called pawpaws, and figs. We even grow bananas indoors! 

5. Ditch the Chemicals

When talking about balance and ecosystem health, permaculture designer Geoff Lawton says, "You don't have a mosquito problem. You have a lack of dragonfly (or bat or mosquito fish) problem." Your species and crops have to be in a balance that favors bountiful yields and keeps “pests” in check. That balance is not achieved when we use pesticides and unwittingly kill the good bugs (and plants, and ourselves) too! 

We understand that everything affects everything else. So, we cannot in good conscience justify the use of chemical pesticides to wipe out a pesky population of mosquitoes (or rats or weeds) in our backyard. Instead, we have sought out natural alternatives that work in a holistic way. The balance in our yard is an ongoing process. But we have learned more and more every year how to slowly keep the "pest" population down and the favorable species population up! This takes more time than spraying chemicals, but it’s worth it!

As Ron Finley said, "If it's in the soil, it's in our food." We already know about all the evils of glyphosate. No thank you!

6. Compost

Our garden is a cyclical one. We try our best to have a zero-waste gardening process and teach others to do the same. Our main household aim is to eventually become a zero-waste household. I was shocked to learn that if global food waste were a country, “it would be the third largest carbon emitter in the world.” What an inspiration for composting. We use several methods:

  • chop & drop - just prune or chop leaves and let them fall close to the plants.
  • mulch with leaves - we use what we have or ask the neighbors if they want someone to rake their leaves for free!
  • hot composting - we use an 18-day process called the Berkeley method.
  • compost pile - when we are lazy we just let our compost heap rot and harvest the rich remains to feed our garden after 3 months.
  • vermicomposting - we have worm pets that eat our kitchen scraps and turn them into "black gold" quality soil.
  • Bokashi - we put all non-compostables such as meats, bones, and fish into an anaerobic air-tight bin filled with EM (effective micro-organisms) that ferment these foodstuffs so they can be safely added to the outdoor compost heap or directly into the soil.

7. Integrate Crops with Animals

The backbone of every Climate Victory Garden should be a pollinator-friendly patch. Or better yet, several pollinator corridors sprinkled throughout your garden beds. Our goal is to support the ones who do the real work in the garden. Bees rely on plants and flowers for their homes and food and our crops rely on bees.

Integrating crops with animals has a lot to do with diversity and function. We want the garden to be an ecosystem, a web of functions and relationships. The more crops and animals, the more stable your garden will be. That means fewer diseases, fewer crop decimations, and more wildlife. A total win-win-win all around.

In our garden, we keep mason bees and have made a cute little bee lodge for these early spring pollinators. We plant native varieties of flowers and plants to support the native species of wildlife in our region. As we learn more and more about plants and animals, we begin to see that plants that we once thought of as "weeds" and animals that we once thought of as "pests" shoulder the burden of stabilizing our local ecosystems, our home gardens, and our nutrition.

Two types of homemade native bee homes with the quote: "Our goal is to support the ones who do the real work in the garden."

We don't have chickens or other large animals (our HOA won't even allow us to grow crops in our front yard!), but we've asked neighboring friends with farms and stables for manure to add to our compost for a natural nutrient boost that makes this “waste” useful. 

8. Use People Power, not Mechanization

There are so many benefits to getting "grounded." To us, low-tech people power means:

  • less dependency on fossil fuels and therefore less carbon released into the air.
  • a healthier, truly mobile, human body. Our bodies were made to move! 
  • a connection to the process of food production. 
  • no mechanized tilling to keep the soil biome alive.

When we teach students how to best water plants, we tell them what Brad Lancaster writes in his book Rainwater Harvesting for Drylands Vol 2: households that use automatic timers and other high tech approaches tend to use more water than those who water by hand. For example, households that water with a hand-held hose use 33% less water than those that do not. That's why we try to capture the water into our landscape passively instead of sourcing it from the grid and spraying it into the air.

9. Rotate Plants and Crops

We have written a whole boat-load about how we do crop-rotation in our garden. Basically, we try to keep renewing our soil's fertility with every action we take. How? By feeding it the way John Jeavon's teaches in his Grow Biointensive method: follow a “heavy-feeder” plant, with a “heavy-giver” plant. 

Nicky's husband in the garden with the quote: "crop rotation: follow a heavy-feeder with a heavy-giver."

Tomatoes and most summer crops are heavy feeders. After the harvest, they can leave your soil depleted of trace nutrients and minerals. To help that cause, we plant nitrogen-fixing legumes in between large harvests. In fact, no garden bed is ever without a legume plant in our yard.  It’s that important!

Rotating annual crops also helps confuse pests like squash beetles. We usually give the squashes a rest for two years before we try again for this reason. And, we try different bug-resistant squash and cucumber varieties to keep from crying after a bad year when all baby cucumbers have been lost to beetles!

10. Get To Know Your Tiny Garden

Finally, observe your yard. I cannot say enough about this. Don't just rely on garden manuals and Youtube videos. Find out what the weather is like by going outside and feeling it (in many areas of your garden). There is no replacement for your own personal observation. There are myriad ways to do this

Garden sketch with quote: "Observation and reflection are where the cycle of growing begins."
Photo: Courtesy of botanical artist Lara Gastinger with permission

By getting to know your tiny garden, you will find out what gardening techniques work or not. Getting to know your garden is directly proportional to your gardening success. And by doing so, you will be able to better plan and prepare for an epic next year. In essence, observation and reflection is where the cycle of growing begins again.

Together all our gardens make a difference.

Nicky and her family in the garden with the quote: "Wherever you are on your gardening journey, we salute you."

Our family of eight eating from our tiny townhouse garden is but one version of what a Climate Victory Garden could look like. Your garden may be on an apartment balcony or in a community garden plot. You may have been practicing these Climate Victory Garden commitments all your life. Or you may only be "Ditching the Chemicals." 

Wherever you are on your gardening journey, we salute you. We celebrate you. And we encourage you on your way, at your own gardening pace.  

Through our gardens, we are all connected in this environmental campaign. Each of our gardens, small or large, make more of a difference than we think. Together, they capture carbon in our soils and bring all of us closer to real global climate victory. With these Climate Victory Gardens, we all move the needle towards a greener, healthier, and happier life.

Join forces with us and sign-up to become a Climate Victory Gardener today!

More from the Blog