Letter Re: A 12-Month Harvest From a Small Garden

Jim –  
I’ve been growing food in the city for over 30 years. I addition to the standard  crops of corn, tomatoes, cucumbers, and beans I’ve spent these decades focusing on:

1) What grows well in  my climate?
2) What can I grow/store for the winter? 
3) What will we actually eat? 

I’ve always kept good records of what I grow but I’ve never tracked exactly how my food I pull out of the dirt each year. So in 2009 I bought a commercial hanging scale like those in the supermarkets for my backyard patio to weigh heavy crops like tomatoes and squash and a small kitchen-counter scale to measure things like salad greens, peppers, and broccoli.  

I live outside a big city in the Southwest; my growing areas measure about 1,000 square feet. I have a lot of problems with shade from my 2-story house and neighbor’s trees so my yields are not as good as they could be. The climate is Zone 21 on Sunset Magazine’s chart and gives me favorable growing conditions overall but we are susceptible to frost in December, January, and February. We produce food 12 months of the year even during the colder months. Following is an exact record of what we harvested in 2010:  

  • 88 ears of sweet corn
  • 70 lbs summer squash
  • 28 lbs winter squash
  • 93 cucumbers
  • 50 lbs tomatoes for the table
  • 6 lbs green tomatoes after frost for stir-fry
  • 3 quarts canned tomato sauce from oversupply of table crop
  • 4.75 lbs dried navy beans
  • 1.5 lbs dried lima beans
  • 16 lbs sweet red chili peppers
  • 55 lbs of baby mixed lettuce
  • 61 lbs peaches
  • 8 lbs nectarines
  • 3 lbs pears
  • 6 lbs broccoli
  • 3 lbs garlic
  • Continual harvest of kale throughout the year.
  • Fresh basil from June to December
  • Rosemary, sage, and thyme throughout the year.  

We pick sweet chili peppers, salad greens and kale all year long. The winter squash and dried  beans are stored for winter meals. Our four peach trees are different low-chill varieties that ripen from mid-May to mid-August so we have a steady supply during summer without being inundated. They are still maturing so I expect that yield to increase to about 100 lbs/year. The two pear trees are only three years old and I expect about 10-15 lbs per tree once they are full size. I also have two apple trees that are just starting to bear fruit. I do two plantings of heirloom tomatoes (April and July, both from home-grown seedlings) so we pick from June to December.  

All our food is organically grown and allowed to mature to maximum ripeness before harvesting. This assures not only peak flavor but maximum nutrition as the food grows slowly. Pricing my harvest against what’s charged at local markets requires a bit of estimating but works about to about $1,000 per year. I produce my own compost – a local landscape company supplies me with unlimited grass clippings and dried leaves that they would otherwise have to dump. My soil is very deficient in potassium and has virtually no phosphorus so I spend about $200 per year for bone meal, kelp meal, and other amendments that I order in 50 lb bags from Peaceful Valley Farm Supply. I also use one 50 lb bag per year of organic balanced fertilizer from a local farm-supply store to boost nitrogen for the heavy-feeder crops like corn. I don’t save seed  (but I could under survival conditions) so I spend about $50/year on seed, mostly because I’m always ordering new varieties that I want to try. The fruit trees were mail-order from Bay Laurel Nursery which has the best selection of low-chill varieties in the country.   Jim, I hope this helps your readers understand just how much food (and money) can be pulled out of a small backyard garden.   – J.P., a Country Farmer Stuck in the City