Thursday, June 3, 2010
Posted by Kate at 6:33 AM
This year I promised to discuss food production in small spaces on my blog. A lot of people wouldn't consider our 2/3 acre residential lot to be a small space, and I have to admit that I don't really feel cramped here most of the time so far as food production goes. Between the huge detached three car garage and three fully grown shade trees that dominate the front yard, plus the house itself, we're left with about 1/3 of an acre to really work with. Three years into our serious food production project we still haven't fully utilized all the space we have available to us, and what we do use we haven't used to maximum effect. But I'm working on it year by year.
One of the crops that I've enjoyed growing is pole beans. We're not big fans of green beans, so we select varieties that produce good soup beans. Beans are amazingly unfussy plants once they have established themselves. They aren't too picky about soil quality since they make their own fertilizer by fixing nitrogen from the air. Since I don't have to harvest beans that I intend to dry at any particular time, I can ignore the bean pods as they form, plump up, and then shrivel and dry. I like a plant that doesn't demand harvesting when there are so many other things to attend to. Pole beans, as the name indicates, like to climb. For the space-constrained gardener, there are upsides and downsides to this trait. On one hand, they don't require much in terms of (horizontal) square footage in the garden; on the other, they are quite capable of shading out things behind them if you plant them densely and give them the support they want. I've found though that the harvest of dried beans from one bean plant is fairly small. So I gave some thought to expanding the number of plants we could grow.
This is how my comparatively generous land allowance brings me to strategies for small space growing. I'm guessing that many people with limited space for food production have fences or other structures around the space they do have. (Fire escapes, perhaps?) Fences make great support for pole beans, and the beans won't do wooden fences any harm. They only latch on to the surface of whatever they climb, rather than drilling into it, as ivy will. If you have a slatted fence or any fence that is not perfectly tight, such that no light passes through it, pole beans will love it. Obviously, you can use the fence line that is pole-ward (the fence on the north side of your property, which faces south - if you're in the northern hemisphere, and just the opposite if you're in the southern hemisphere). In that case, you would plant the beans right up against the fence, but still inside your yard. Any shading issues would be your neighbor's problem, though fences already cast shadows, so it's probably no issue at all.
A good trick though is to also use the fence line that is sun-ward. That means planting just on the outside of your fence line, and it will mean the beans cast a heavier shade from that fence onto your property. Provided that you have good relations with your neighbors and physical access to the outside of your own fence, this shouldn't be problematic. In the US, at least, it is likely that the little bit of space just beyond your fence line belongs to your property anyway, since most zoning codes require a small set-back when fences are erected. That means that if you plant right up against the fence, even though you're outside of your own yard, you're still working your own property. I hope this all makes sense for you, spatially speaking.
Since I'm writing about some of these space-saving techniques the same year I'm trying them myself, I don't have any pictures that really show what the techniques might achieve. But I don't want to wait to write about this until my beans are tall, and twined around the fence and bearing their purple pods. I'd rather share this now and hope that some of you might get your beans into the ground this year. It's not too late in most parts of the US at least. The picture at the top of my post shows the fence enclosing our property with little bean seedlings beginning to grow. I'm standing on my neighbor's long driveway, and through the slatted fence you see a bit of our backyard. This is the south-facing side of the fence along our south property line.
As the seedlings grow a bit more, I'll begin to train them to the fence. All they'll need is the suggestion of where to grow. I'll just tuck a tendril from each plant between a gap in the fence, and the plant will begin to grow up the vertical surface, twining around and around each upright board in the fence. My guess is that the plants will put most of the bean pods and leaves on the south side of the fence to maximize solar exposure. The picture above only shows a short stretch of beans I've planted this year. I've found in past years that it takes quite a few plants to produce a good quantity of dried beans. So when I planted I put two beans in most of the holes. I think the plants that germinate and survive will be able to share the space nicely. I'll try to post an update later in the summer when the beans have grown up the fence and I have a sense for how this project is working out.
Of course, if you prefer green beans to dried beans, you can use the same technique. You'll get a larger volume and heavier harvest weight with green beans, since you'll be eating the whole pod and harvesting when they're still full of water. If you have a slatted fence that would present problems for a climbing plant, you could consider hanging netting on or over the fence, or placing a length of hardware cloth or wire caging along the fence to give the beans some purchase.
If you're using this technique for beans or any other crop, I'd love to hear about it. Please let me know.
More food production in small spaces:
Fig trees in containers