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Just Big Enough
It is often said that when a person loads up their plate with more food than they can possibly eat, that they have “eyes bigger than their stomachs.” The result, of course, is that much of the food is wasted. Gardeners find themselves in much the same situation. Not so much with food, but with their gardens. “What if I just add another bed of flowers here?” they might say. Or “how about a bigger planting bed for the tomatoes?” Unfortunately, the result in many cases is a waste of resources—time, energy, even water and soil amendments.
The best resource that gardeners have is their fertile and imaginative minds. Before contemplating another expansion of the garden—given that extra space is available—it is time to take a hard look at what is required in terms of personal resources and other inputs required to maintain a larger garden.
For example, a 100-square-foot planting bed, roughly five feet wide by twenty feet long, planted to wheat will yield enough grain to provide a one-pound loaf of bread each week for six months. But there’s quite a bit more to it than just planting the seeds—ensuring there is adequate water, weeding the bed, and then, at long last, harvesting the grain. The wheat needs to be threshed to remove the grain from the stalk, winnowed to remove the chaff from the grain, ground into flour several times to produce a fine enough flour for bread baking, and then there is the whole process of making a loaf of bread.
In times past, people lived in communities where there were small, sometimes called “cottage”, industries that provided services for others in the community. Milling grain and bread baking were but two of such small businesses. So the principle of “many hands make the load light” operated for the benefit of everyone. People who lived in town and could only manage a small kitchen garden relied on the farmer who lived on the outskirts of town to grow the grain. The miller in town earned a respectable living milling the grain. The bread baker likewise earned a living and provided a never-ending supply of tasty, whole-grain bread to local families. Everyone benefited.
Today we live in a society that believes in the myth of “the rugged individualist”, someone who can “do it on his (or her) own”. And the result is that many people suffer from massive stress and “burnout.” Gardeners can find themselves in a similar situation, if they allow their gardens to grow beyond their available resources. Of course, growing a yard full of flowers isn’t nearly as labor-intensive as a truck garden full of vegetables. But flowers still need to be watered, weeded, deadheaded, and cut back at the end of the growing season. Things get even more difficult if the garden is full of vegetables maturing at different times—or all at once, as is often the case.
Using the prolific zucchini as an example, just a few plants produce so much fruit that even a good-sized family might have a hard time keeping up with eating them. And after a month or so of zucchini at every meal a person just simply can’t stand another squash on their plate. So, after taking the time to cut, blanch, and freeze the excess, what does a gardener do when the plant just keeps on producing? You can only give away so many squash before your friends and neighbors start avoiding you. Generally, you throw away the excess. But what have you paid—in time, energy, water, fertilizer and so forth—for the food that now gets wasted?
When you find yourself dreading another trip to the garden to harvest the vegetables, it’s time to reassess. How much is really needed to provide enough good meals for yourself and your family? Might not one zucchini plant fill that need rather than half a dozen? And think of the resources saved in the process. And this is where “big enough” becomes the goal to strive toward. Yes, it takes a bit of experimentation to find out how much is enough. But it also takes some hard questions and equally hard answers. By figuring personal resources—your own time, energy, physical ability, even patience—into the equation, the answers become a bit easier to come by.