Growing the First Third of your Plant Produce – an Overview

Richard Freeman, Designed Ecosystems


In this brief presentation, I overview a practical approach to growing the first third of the household plant produce with an emphasis on annual crops. The first third is the easiest to grow and has the highest return on investment of money, resources and labor. It also represents a big chunk of money.

This presentation is directed to an audience of dedicated, focused practitioners who want to maximize production of annual plant produce on their sites. It emphasizes a framework for gardening in an urban environment with limited space, so every square foot counts and horticulture must be intensive. In addition, since we’re growing in a northern environment, the weather limits our growing season.

Future presentations will detail each of the steps overviewed below.

My presentation will following this sequence:

1. I’ll begin by discussing some key principles.

2. Then I’ll outline an easy process for designing, planning and planting an intensive annuals garden for the first third.

3. I’ll follow with a brief example.

4. Finally, I’ll briefly conclude.

Key Principles

Return on Investment or ROI.Growing the first third of your household’s total diet is all about choosing crops that produce the highest and most immediate return on your investment of money, labor, and resources.

This “ROI” has two parts – the return and the investment. The return includes the equivalent of the grocery bill one would ordinarily pay PLUS the labor and transportation costs for shopping PLUS the nutritional and health benefits of eating immediately fresh, better-than-average produce. What’s more, using ecological principles to grow this produce will increase long-term productivity of the site you are farming, large or small. This increase in productivity increases ROI and it increases the productive value of the site.

The investment includes the work, money and resources put into the project. Common costs include transportation costs (for hauling tools or supplies), tools and tool maintenance and repair, seeds or seedlings, and other miscellaneous costs.

Design. Garden design is significantly important. Design allows the designer to see how elements fit together. It also allows for mistakes and errors. Figuring out an error on paper is far less expensive than figuring it out on the ground. A simple map drawing, a GIS representation or anything in between is fine; it need only represent the relevant and important elements of the site as it is and as it will be. The permaculture framework offers a concise, highly effective approach to designing a site. I will touch on the permaculture design framework later.

A Brief How-To for Growing the First Third of household plant produce

This approach to garden design and installation requires eleven steps.

Step 1. Assess and Map the site

Assessing and mapping a site are mutually-dependent processes that build on each other. Maps and assessments can be “back-of-the-envelope,” detailed and precise, even computerized, or any standard in between, depending on the designer’s preference or style.

This step takes four sub-steps:

1. Draw by hand or computer a good basic map of the whole site, as it is, and make plenty of photocopies.

2. Assess the site for all relevant built and natural attributes, such as terrain, energy flows, and hydrology.

3. Draw the assessment findings into the map.

4. Make several photocopies of the final map to use during design.

Step 2. Identify your vision, mission and goals.

I follow this step to clarify my vision, what I want to do. If I clarify my vision early on, I can be much more clear on the details and saves a lot of time and effort later — far more than the initial investment. This step takes takes three sub-steps.

1. Create a clear vision of what you want to do, preferably as a written vision statement. For example, “I want to grow one-third of the annual vegetables and fruit that I consume, working in a pleasant, comfortable environment with good flow, and tangible return on labor.”

2. Identify (and jot down) the goals that provide tangible substance to the vision — statements of tangible goals you want to fulfill. For example “I want to grow produce for raw consumption for one-third year” and/or “to grow food for preserving.”

When appropriate, divide general goals into more specific subgoals, for example, “grow produce for fermenting,” or “for canning” or subsets of canning like pickling and making sauces, jams and jellies.

Step 3. Explicitly define garden objectives based on your goals.

This step requires translating your general goals to specific production targets. The process requires three sub-steps.

1. Calculate how much of any given consumable food (in the form that you put in your mouth) you will eat in four months. For example, I will eat 40 lbs of kimchi in four months (1/3 year).

2. Calculate how much fresh produce each consumable food requires. These values will be your production targets.

Use weight (lbs) or individual units (like “heads”) when possible. For example, 40 lbs of kimchi requires 8 heads of napa cabbage, or roughly 56 lbs, 30 garlic cloves, 40 scallions, four medium-sized daikons (4 lbs).

Step 4. Determine the size of the garden and garden beds

This step takes three sub-steps.

1. Based on experience and/or seed-packet information, determine how much growing area in square feet each production target requires.

For example, in my experience, a napa cabbage plant that will produce a 7-pound head is roughly 1-1/2 feet diameter at maturity. So I’ll assign it a square of 2.25 square feet. – 2.25 ft2 per head or 3.1 lbs per ft2. By dividing the production target (56 lbs) by (3.1lbs per ft2), I get roughly 18 ft2.

2. Determine the garden bed area that best facilitates your work flow. I prefer 8-ft by 5-ft beds (40 sq. ft.) with 32-inch paths.

3. Divide your production target values by your garden bed areas to determine how many beds you need. Our cabbage example suggests we need just shy of a half-bed. We can grow garlic, scallions and daikons in the remaining half. So, growing your kimchi supply for 4 months will require a 5’x8′ garden bed, plus adequate path space.

Step 5. Design the garden

Designing your garden beds in the context of the entire site will benefit you many times beyond the required effort.

The step involves four sub-steps.

1. Create a rough design for the entire site using the permaculture zoning system. Sketch your management zones onto a copy of your site map from Step 1.

2. Many factors will determine how you define these zones. The best approach for any given site will be unique, depending on your goals and the site assessment.

3. Design the garden beds within one of these management zones. The size of the various garden beds will depend upon your estimated needs as determined in Task 2, above. The design will include designing the garden soil profile, the containment system, irrigation, any supporting structures, and any sheltering structures.

4. Make a few copies of the design.

Step 6. Order Seeds

This task is pretty straightforward, especially since you have already worked out your production needs. If you are using a written table, this order will build on that table, which you can edit and adjust for future orders.

This step involves four sub-steps:

1. Collect seed catalogs from reputable companies selling high-quality stock.

2. Read through the catalogs and choose varieties that suit your micro-climate, taste, storage and preparation needs, etc.

3. Determine your seed needs, based on your produce target weights from Task 2 above. Depending upon how the seed company presents its seeds, you will likely need to refer to growing space requirements instead of weight.

4. Fill out the form and send it in with payment, or pay on-line if it’s a web-form.

Step 7. Create a Crop Management Schedule

Harvesting your crops when you are ready for them is key to using the produce most efficiently – with highest quality and least waste. Thus, scheduling when you plant, thin, harvest, and replant is as important as choosing what you plant. I recommend using a spreadsheet or written table for this task.

It involves twosub-steps.

1. Determine when you want to harvest a crop and how much you want to harvest at that time. Sequential harvests from a given crop is common, for example with lettuce.

2. Determine when to plant or replant. For this step, refer to the timetables of the seeds you have ordered, and with those, work backwards from your harvest times for any given crop.

Step 8. Lay out the design

Lay out the design with stakes and string and observe how it looks and feels. Walk around it with and without a wheelbarrow or cart. If necessary, revise the design. The time spent in revision will easily pay for itself.

Step 9. Construct the Beds

Building the beds takes time and materials and often some re-do work, but, it can be fun work. Site-level beds work well, as do raised-beds, depending on the situation. With heavily compromised soils, containers will often provide the best solution.

Step 10. Produce Soil Organic Matter

Start collecting and making materials for soil organic matter immediately. This step involves two sub-steps.

1. Obtain and/or collect clean, organic materials for composts, chars and mulches, including leaves, manure, wood, kitchen wastes, lawn clippings, etc.

2. Obtain and/or make wood char (also known as biochar). It’s easy to make, and one can make it in an urban backyard. Whenever and however you can, mix it with compost. If possible, collect large chunks of char and partially burned logs to use in garden beds.

3. Obtain and/or make compost. The more variety the better. I make hot composts (dominated by a mixture of thermophilic bacteria and fungi), worm composts, mushroom composts, moldering composts (leaf molds and “slow composts”), bokashi, and ferments.

Step 11. Plant

Planting involves several sub-steps, every year.

1. Prepare the bed for seeding. Mineral soils are best suited for seeding, so do not add compost during germination.

2. Stratify, soak, or otherwise prepare seeds.

3. Plant and water.

4. Diligently monitor and water


For the rest of this series I’ll go through each of these ten steps in more detail.

While growing the first third is mostly about growing annuals, the first third is really only the beginning. It will grow on you, and you might begin to think about the second third. You really oughta. The second third is about growing perennials and some critters (such as chickens and a goat or two); it really adds some dimension and variety. Then, of course, comes the third third, which is about growing the larger fruit and nut trees as well as the larger animals. Future series will discuss these two topics.

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