Thursday, November 29, 2007

My Friend Pat Can Feed the World

Ok, maybe not quite, but if you haven't followed the link over from my blog to her site, run into Pat on one of several lists she runs helps run, including "Healthy Cheap Cooking," the enormously popular "Edible Container Gardening" or the Riot For Austerity list, or bought seeds from her back when she ran a small seed company specializing in varieties for container gardening, you ought to meet Pat. Or maybe you have already - perhaps you've read what she wrote, or what I wrote about here now-famous "The Theory of Anyway." She's one wise woman.

Here's me riffing on what's so wonderful about it (Pat kindly allowed me to go on about her idea):

And here's Pat's own take:
(Again, you'll have to read the first article, since I can't link directly. But it is
Pat's list of reasons for buying local food so that's probably all to the good!)

Not only is Pat a friend of mine, but she's damned inspiring. We've never met in person, but we've been internet friends for years, and one of these days, I hope to meet her. She and her husband live in rural, appalachian PA, and they are both disabled, with a variety of serious medical conditions. They live on disability payments, on quite a low income. If anyone on earth has an excuse not to grow their own food or cook from scratch, it is Pat. Which is what makes her so remarkable. Besides mentoring container gardeners and cooks online, Pat grows an enormous amount of food in her gardens, almost all of it in containers, since she has trouble getting down to the ground.

Now it isn't quite true that the whole world can eat from Pat's garden, but I want you all to hear about what Pat did this year. She's kindly given me permission to include this
in my book, and I thought some of you might like a preview here (plus it allows me to make a blog post without actually writing anything, helpful during this end-of-book-push ;-)).

Pat's husband Brian made 22 Self-Watering Containers (hence referred to as SWCs). She did this after reading Edward Smith's book _Incredible Vegetables from Self-Watering Containers_. Her review of the book is here: (it is the second post down - for some reason blogger isn't allowing me to link directly into her post, but there's a great article on yogurt making at the top, so maybe that's no bad thing). Her review includes links to how to build your own SWCs cheaply. I have the book too, and it is indeed quite useful.

So this year, virtually all of Pat's garden was in 22 2' SWCs. That's 44 square feet of gardening space - not a lot. In the ground, that would be about the same size as a hammock would take up in your yard. As Pat points out, you probably couldn't quite get these yields in the ground, unless you were using superfertile, double dug soil - the container soil is much looser and the nutrients don't wash a way.

Here's what Pat reported this summer about what she grew in her SWCs:

In that 44 square feet, we have:
6 full-sized (indeterminate) tomatoes
2 early tomatoes (determinate - smaller plants)
16 Swiss chard plants6 peppers
4 eggplants
4 orach plants (an edible green, in the spinach/beet family)
3 (huge!) fluffy top Chinese cabbage plants
2 bush cucumbers
4 basil plants
1 tomatillo
18 bush bean plants
4 bush zucchini plants

Repeating for emphasis: all these plants are growing splendidly; some would probably win prizes for the 'largest whatever'. :) Some of thetomatoes are 8 feet tall now, by the way.

Think about this for a minute. That's *hundreds* of pounds of fresh produce. Pat doesn't keep records of her total yield, so we can only estimate, but she tells me yields were excellent, and as she said, a number of the plants could have won prizes. Pat and I both live in a part of the country where soil leaching is a problem - you put nutrients in, they wash away in the copious rain. Adding more organic matter helps a lot, but it is a process. SWCs keep the nutrients where the plants can get them.

Pat added to me in email that she wasn't really trying very hard to get the maximum yield out of her SWC's. She said,

And, you know, Sharon, I could have grown quite a bit more food than I didin the 22 SWCs. I didn't have an early spring garden (because the SWCshadn't been made yet), I didn't try to grow any salad greens because I joined a CSA last year and the CSA was keeping us supplied with all the salad greens we could possibly use. I didn't plant a fall/winter garden either.

Also I didn't interplant: I could have encircled a pepper plant withbeets, for instance. I didn't do any of that. I was really going for'easy' last year rather than 'high productivity' (because of the CSA).So all those things could have increased the amount of food I grew in the
22 SWCs.

Can you believe how lazy Pat is ;-)? I mean come on - she had 44 feet and all she produced was 2-300 (my own best guess of how much food you'd get from that many plants growing well) lbs of food. And she's pointing out that she could have increased that number substantially - my guess is that she might even have been able to double it.

The earthboxes will last a good long time, and could be made out of wood if you didn't want to use plastic bins - for people with more energy than Pat and her husband, making earthboxes out of renewables would probably be a good project. The soil does require a supply of micronutrients, fertilizers and composts - you might need 30 lbs
to do it for 5 years, plus compost. You could store that in one sealed 5 gallon bucket.

I do a fair bit of container gardening myself, depite having acres of land to play with, simply because of this - containers get warmer than my climate does. My summer nights are routinely in the 50s and often high 40s - we're at 1400 feet, not that high, but it makes a big difference. We do have hot periods, but they are the exception, not the rule. Last frost is in late May, and often things aren't really warm until mid-June. Also, heavy rains in the spring mean that soils aren't ready for planting early.

So containers allow me to get a head start, and also to produce heat-loving plants more easily than I can in the ground. My eggplants are routinely more productive in containers, as are peppers - the only way I can get really hot hot peppers or red ripe peppers reliably is in containers. I also have a sunporch, a glassed in area that grows wonderful cold climate vegetables all winter - all these are opportunities for me to use SWCs, and I plan to make some.
All of which is just a long way of saying that I think these containers have the potential to expand many of our gardens - they are wonderful for urban dwellers and the disabled who can't bend and stretch well, for the elderly and otherwise physically limited, but they also represent enormous possibilities for all of us. We can use them to grow crops we might not otherwise be able to grow because our home is too cool or too dry, they are moveable, so they can be brought undercover to extend our seasons, and they can help every one of us begin to think about feeding ourselves.

When we hear statistics like the one that Hong Kong provides half of its own produce and meats from within the city limits, it can seem impossible to imagine our own cities doing that - to imagine New York or Tucson, Paris or London doing the same. Here's the start of a vision.

If you want to learn more about edible container gardening, check out Pat's container gardening list - you can go to the list's homepage and subscribe here:

And if you want to learn how to cook all this bounty, check out Pat's cooking group. The homepage where you can join is here:

You can also find all of Pat's material here:



Rosa said...

Thank you for posting all these links, Sharon, and thank you to Pat for putting up the information in the first place.

My downfall with containers is water. I'm going to take a close look at the self-watering containers.

Anonymous said...

This is really inspiring and useful information. Thanks to you both.

Anonymous said...

I had borrowed the Ed smith book from the library this summer and did up a self-watering container of tomatoes as a gift to my parents. They loved it. Didn't get round to any SWCs myself -- the soil seemed a lot on the soggy side and I didn't want to take the time to delve into that. Maybe next spring....

Susan in Ontario

Rio said...

My friend's mother came to New York City from the Phillipines with nine young children, a fresh divorce and $20. She became an accountant and has lived the American dream, becoming very successful.

When she first started out though, as you can imagine it was extremely difficult. One of her survival strategies was keeping chickens in a closet of their rented apartment.

Her daughter was embarassed; I found it brilliantly resourceful. Even heroic.

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