Thursday, June 3, 2010

Food Production in Small Spaces: Beans on a Fence

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:
Honey bees
Fig trees in containers


Unknown said...

I love seeing people use thier yards in the most productive ways possible. Surely you have heard about the Dervais family in Pasadena Calif. and what they have done with their lot. If you have not you have to check them out at I have no affiliation with them I am just a fan. They have some pretty amazing you tube videos out there as well. Can't wait to hear about your veggies as they begin to be harvested. Happy planting!!

Sense of Home Kitchen said...

We have a small yard and this year expanded the garden to about 300 square feet, not nearly enough to provide for all our food for a year, but a good start.

Anyway, I make use of this method by placing my peas along the garden fence, as they grow up the fence they are very easy to pick. This year I made a teepee with bamboo sticks and am attempting to grow cucumbers up the poles, hope it works since the garden is too small to grow sprawling vines.


Rachelle said...

That's how I'm growing peas, cukes, and tomatos; we have a large, completely fenced yard, and when we first moved in, I was cramming everything into a relatively small garden space (20x40).

This year, I've planted everything that might be enticed to climb, along the edges of my fences.

Now if only it would stop raining.

jake said...

Great idea. We are doing similar with our raspberries and blackberries. Letting them mingle up the fence so our neighbors can have some as well.

"Beans on a Fence" sounds better than "pants on da ground". :D


Jennifer Montero said...

Vertical gardening is THE new gardening trend - you're ahead of the curve!

Anonymous said...

I do lots and lots of trellising, and try to stack this function even further by placing containers and string trellises around my patio so that I get food, shade, and privacy all at once. I grow pole beans, cukes, cherry tomatoes and bitter gourds intermixed with climbing nasturtiums this way. We also have our "hop yard" close to the patio for the same reasons. Our patio is on the west side of the house and used to bake in the sun. I think our electric bill for summer cooling has come down considerably, and we spend much time sitting in this "green room" during pleasant evenings.

Rosa said...

This year I have tomatos on the sunny side of the fence, and peas on the shady side.

We plant a ton of peas and eat them as greens early in the season, and then in-pod a little later, and dried peas at the end of their season - where there's space I co-plant them with zucchini, which doesn't need a ton of space til it gets hot out and the peas are done.

String Theory said...

This year I only have a small deck for growing and I am growing beans and peas up the railings, as another poster said, I might see if they get big enough to to run up strings to the roof line for shade! I read someplace that the very cheap dried peas in the grocery store can be planted to grow for pea shoot greens, so today I had the kids plant up 70. A huge big bag was only a couple of dollars and if this works, then we will be in pea greens for a good long while!!! A timely article for me, looking forward to anymore thoughts you have on small spaces.

Kate said...

Laura, yes, I surely have heard of them. Will post further on the garden as it progresses this year. Happy planting to you as well.

Sense of Home, 300 square feet is a good start for a home garden. You can grow a lot in that space. I almost think that an excess of space has made me lazy about using it all efficiently and succession planting. I'm also trying luffah on my fence this year. Just spotted three that germinated this morning!

Rachelle, 800 square feet is respectable for a garden, I think. But it's all relative. I hope you don't have a month of rain like we had last year. That was awful!

Dave all of our cane berries are up against fences too, even though they don't climb the way beans will. Very neighborly of you to share your fruit with those on the other side of the fence.

Jennifer, ah...hardly. I think maybe it's "tomorrow's trend, late the night before."

Anon, we have hops trained up against our house as well. Although they're growing well, so far they really aren't providing all that much shade. Maybe in future they'll get fuller, and give us more benefit.

Rosa, that's an interesting dual use of the fence. I hope it works out for you. I also like the co-planting - very smart.

Queen of string, I'd love to hear back on how the store-bought peas work out for you. I'm curious about the germination rates and how well they grow. But as you say, the big bag was cheap. So it seems like there's little to lose. Stay tuned. I have a few more ideas yet on small space food production, though you're probably already familiar with most of them if you pay any attention to such things.

Joel said...

I happen to live in a place where runner beans are supposed to be perennial. I'm training vines from the top of my strawberry pot, and form the edge of my large herb pot, onto the wire fence at the edge of my patio.

Hopefully they'll over-winter a little better than the tomatoes did, but even if they have to re-grow from tubers, I'll be happy for a constant source of N in my perennial containers.

Anonymous said...

What a great idea!Thanks Kate. Definitely a 'Doh!' moment. I had a couple of bean plants spare, so I've now planted them in a little space between fruit trees on my south facing fence.

After all the crow/rook talk the other day, I visited a neighbour with a smallholding to swap some produce for plants, and he greeted me carrying an air rifle. A crow is stealing his duck eggs as soon as they're laid, so it's now officially war!
I told him about the crowbusters site, and he said he'd had rook and beef pie in a pub years ago. Apparently, it was tasty to start with, but then the beef flavour fades and you're left with a lingering aftertaste of rook. Safe to say, if he gets his crow, it won't be dinner! Maybe I could have it for the dogs? Don't think they're bothered about aftertastes!

I've also got a plucked and drawn pigeon in the fridge, courtesy of my tiddly little tabby cat. It was a huge wood pigeon, bigger than her, which she caught but for some reason didn't finish it off. It was badly injured, so another farming neighbour did the deed for me. It was really easy to pluck (I've tried plucking pheasant before, but they're so hard it's easier to skin them), so that's tea sorted! Despatching birds is on my 'learn how to do' list, as I've a feeling this won't be the last time I'm in this position.
A game-y few days!


Joel said...


I've read some of Novella Carpenter's work, and she suggests long-handled pruning loppers (the sort you'd use to snip a 1" tree branch) are an easy & humane way to slaughter fowl.

Anonymous said...

Thanks Joel, I'll have a look.

It'd be a bit messy, though, I'd have thought?
I was so impressed with the neighbour who killed the pigeon. It was instantaneous and a minute movement. He definitely had the knack, which I suspect you have to practice a lot to get. The small holder friend uses a broomhandle and another person and says he'll show me that way too.

The pigeon was delicious, anyway, so Kate if you're going to have a pest problem with your corn I suggest you encourage pigeons rather than crows!


Kate said...

Wow, your beans look awesome. I only have three plants this year in pots on the deck (rather than a trellis, they're growing around some tall sticks I placed in the pots), but I wish I had half as many as you. That's great that you make some to store, too!

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure I understand the use of the "other" side of the fence. Here most fences are _on_ the property line and considered co-owned. i.e. if the fence needs replacing the two neighbors split the costs.
I can't imagine planting on the other side of the fence, it would be in the neighbor's yard! Even if the fence is set back from the property line as you describe, it is still in the neighbor's "visual" space. What if they don't want to look at your beans all summer? Or what if they chose to plant something along the property line in their space that shaded, conflicted, or damaged your planting.
In the house I am living in currently there is no fence between me and my neighbor and although I am considering putting one there, I wouldn't plant edibles against it. They routinely poison their yard with chemicals, both seasonal fertilizers and monthly pest control.
Your beans do look great though. I'm growing some green beans and although they are not our favorite, they provide some variety. I've hesitated to do dried beans because of the problem you described of quantity needed.
Love your blog!

Kate said...

Anon, sounds to me like you understand the concept fine, but it just won't work out in your situation. Our fence is not co-owned, we do have a set back, and the property to our south is essentially vacant so we needn't worry about sprays or the aesthetic preferences of the neighbors. Not every idea will work for everyone or in every situation. I just toss them out to whoever might be able to use them.

Katidids said...

We've a garden area about your size but I also have hanging pots on the deck with more tomatoes & another directly under...Redneck drip system LOL! Chives & herbs I have in long planter pots (love the fresh scent) & rubbermaid (homemade) earth boxes with extra squash and cukes. Potatoes are in 5 gal buckets. we're enlarging bits every year just trying not to bite off more than we can chew. My daughter has a old spindle headboard she uses in her garden for climbers, peas first then the beans. great space saver!

Kate said...

Joel, you must live in a very mild climate. Perennial runner beans! That's quite a concept for me and I can see the appeal.

Hazel, I went and looked up what HFW had to say about rook. Apparently, they're not the same as our crows here, and the fledglings are the ones considered edible. "Branchers" they are called - birds big enough to leave the nest and go out on the limbs, but not yet competent fliers.

We don't have proper pigeons here, though they're in the nearby city. I don't think I'd eat those. The pale brown doves we have here aren't much of a nuisance, and I hope it stays that way. Besides, we'd need an awful lot of them to make them worth eating. Not like the lovely wood pigeons of Europe. Those look like they could provide a real meal.

Also, I second Joel's endorsement of Novella's book, Farm City.

Kate said...

Katidids, I love hearing about what people use in their gardens, as trellises or for any other function. "Redneck drip system" is pretty funny too.

Anonymous said...

My family used to live on 20 acres and we had a HUGE garden, but we still used the vertical approach for peas, beans, cukes, and ornamental gourds. we discovered that cattle panels work WONDERFULLY!!! most feed stores have them. I believe they come in 6, 8, and 10 foot lengths. with some staking at the ends they can be bent into an arbor as well. Our wisteria crushed the wooden arbor that my dad had made, so we tried again with the metal cattle panel and as far as i know it's still there and supporting that dang wisteria! =) I love your blog and as a current apartment dweller I need all the ideas i can get about container, vertical, and small space plantings. Thanks!