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Shifting to Community-Scale Food Thinking

This week I received all our yearly seed catalogs, and, as usual, started planning feverishly. How many is too many weird and wonderful heirloom watermelon varieties? And then I paused. Wait a minute, we’re aiming for community scale in our vegetable production this year. This shifts the goalposts entirely.

I’m now realizing that, for our organic market garden adventure, we will no longer be focusing on the craziest colored tomatoes. At least for this first year, while we learn the ropes, we will be going for yield and nutritional density as top priority. Pragmatic organic, here we come.

Green zebra tomatoes from our polyculture basecamp garden

Up until this year, we have delighted in a vast variety of multi-colored potatoes, rainbow carrots and a myriad of other unusual vegies. Which has been wonderful, and I reckon this approach is the best way to get excited about food growing.

We’ve also delighted in polyculture no-dig bed gardening, where many, many species grow (or attempt to grow) side by side. It’s been one big experiment, and it’s taught us a lot about which grows with which, and what suits our particular climate.

This polyculture approach has also taught us a lot about microclimates within a garden bed, as we’ve watched the interrelationships between space, time, shade and companion planting evolve. I won’t be stopping this type of gardening any time soon. It’s just too interesting.

Scarlet runner beans flowering next to one of our no-dig polyculture beds

Rob Avis with some of the yield from the self-sown understory in our food forest

However. The market garden we’re creating has a primary function, and that is to provide as much of our farm’s vegetable needs as we can, as soon as possible.

This means we will be narrowing down the varieties of each species (tomato, lettuce, beans, eggplant, carrots, capsicum, spinach, chard, artichoke, etc) and focusing on heirloom varieties which have high yields, high vitamin content, and are suitable for our climate.

The polyculture aspect of this system will come in how we use herbs and other beneficial plants to edge, divide and neighbor our intensive production plots.

Polyculture hedgerow at Allsun Farm, with corn crop beyond

The direction we’re going for the market garden: carefully strategised
inter-cropping and under-cropping, with carefully selected varieties.
Photo: Allsun Farm

While a small part of me feels this approach is unutterably boring, the larger part of me is a pragmatist. This particular system on Milkwood is about efficient use of energy. It’s about outputs for inputs. It’s about growing enough food for our needs without breaking our backs in the process.

So my focus will be shifting from the crazy delights of Diggers Club and Green Harvest seed catalogs to things like The Italian Gardener, a heirloom vegetable seed provider that Joyce and Michael of Allsun Farm, our mentors in this process, use predominantly.

I can see the logic of this approach. If I’m going to nurture a tomato plant through to harvest, I’d rather it bear 10kg of fruit than 4kg. Times that by 30 plants, and that’s a lot of extra yield – a simple input-to-output ratio.

And as I get an inkling of how much hard work this market garden is going to be, I want to make sure we maximise our efficient use of energy (human, nutrient and water) in all things, for the maximum output.

Classic polyculture planting at White Street community garden, Sydney.
Everything healthy and thriving, thanks to the interrelationships
above and below the ground.

On the upside, we’ll be approaching the new kitchen garden next to our tinyhouse in a no-dig polyculture style, so i can still scratch the crazy-vegie-variety itch. But the market garden varieties will be only those that will grow and feed us all with the most yield and certainty.

It’s a bit like growing up, but the gardening version. I can’t wait to see how it all goes.

If you’d like to join us in learning how to set up truly community-level food production, we’re running a Starting an Organic Market Garden course with Joyce and Michael from Allsun Farm in September at Milkwood. Or you could just live vicariously through our efforts.


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