Edible Landscaping: Grow $700 of Food in 100 Square Feet!

Americans would realize astonishing savings on their grocery bill if they set aside a small amount of land for edible landscaping instead of growing so much grass.
By Rosalind Creasy with Cathy Wilkinson Barash
December 2009/January 2010
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The total value of the fresh vegetables author Rosalind Creasy grew in her 100-square-foot garden in 2008 was $683.43!
SAXON HOLT & ROSALIND CREASY
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In 2007, I began to get lots of questions about growing food to help save money. Then, while working on my new book, Edible Landscaping, I had an aha! moment. As I was assembling statistics to show the wastefulness of the American obsession with turf, I wondered what the productivity of just a small part of American lawns would be if they were planted with edibles instead of grass.

I wanted to pull together some figures to share with everyone, but calls to seed companies and online searches didn’t turn up any data for home harvest amounts — only figures for commercial agriculture. From experience, I knew those commercial numbers were much too low compared with what home gardeners can get. For example, home gardeners don’t toss out misshapen cucumbers and sunburned tomatoes. They pick greens by the leaf rather than the head, and harvests aren’t limited to two or three times a season.

For years, I’ve known that my California garden produces a lot. By late summer, my kitchen table overflows with tomatoes, peppers and squash; in spring and fall, it’s broccoli, lettuces and beets. But I’d never thought to quantify it. So I decided to grow a trial garden and tally up the harvests to get a rough idea of what some popular vegetables can produce.

The Objective

I took a 5-by-20-foot section of garden bed by my tiny lawn to see how much I could grow in just that 100 square feet. I wanted to produce a lot of food, and because it was part of my edible landscape, it had to look good, too.

The Plants

I wanted to make this garden simple — something anyone in the United States could grow. I didn’t include fancy vegetable varieties; I chose those available at my local nursery as transplants. I also selected vegetables that are expensive to buy at the supermarket, as well as varieties that my experience has told me produce high yields.

The first season (spring/summer 2008), I grew the following:

  • Two tomato plants: ‘Better Boy’ and ‘Early Girl’
  • Bell peppers, which are often luxuries at the market when fully colored: two ‘California Wonder,’ two ‘Golden Bell,’ one ‘Orange Bell,’ and one ‘Big Red Beauty’
  • Four zucchinis: two green ‘Raven’ and two ‘Golden Dawn’
  • Four basils (expensive in stores but essential in the kitchen)
  • 18 lettuces: six ‘Crisp Mint’ romaine, six ‘Winter Density’ romaine, and six ‘Sylvestra’ butterhead

The only plants I grew from seed were the zucchinis. Hindsight is always 20/20; I should have thinned each of the zucchini hills to a single seedling, but I left two in each hill. As a result, I needed to come up with creative uses for zucchini, including giving them away as party favors at a dinner I hosted.

It looked a bit barren at first, but the garden flourished — especially the lettuces. Within several weeks, I started picking outer leaves for salads for neighbors and myself. The weather forecast predicted temperatures in the upper 90s. I was heading out of town and feared the lettuces would bolt, so I harvested the entire heads earlier than I normally would. Within about a month of transplanting the lettuces into the garden, I had grown enough for 230 individual servings of salad. And by that time, the tomatoes, zucchinis and pepper plants had nearly filled in the bed.

A Living Spreadsheet

Although I’ve grown hundreds of varieties of vegetables over the years and kept rough notes, this garden was different.

My co-author, Cathy, created spreadsheets for each type of plant, and we kept meticulous records each time we harvested. We recorded the amount — pounds and ounces, as well as number of fruits (for each cultivar of tomato, zucchini and peppers) or handfuls (for lettuces and basil).

The Investment: Time and Money

This 100-square-foot plot took about eight hours to prepare, including digging the area, amending the soil, raking it smooth, placing stepping stones, digging the planting holes, adding organic fertilizer, and setting the plants and seeds in the ground. On planting day, I installed homemade tomato cages (store-bought ones are never tall or sturdy enough) and drip irrigation. And I mulched well — a thick mulch is key to cutting down on weeding, which is the biggest time waste in the garden, in my opinion.

We hand-watered the bed for a few weeks to allow the root systems to grow wide enough to reach the drip system. Three times over the first month we routed out a few weeds, which was only necessary until the plants filled in and shaded the soil.

Tomatoes in my arid climate are susceptible to bronze mites that cut down on the harvest and flavor. To prevent mites, we sprayed sulfur in mid-July and again in mid-August, which took about 30 minutes each time. In rainy climates, gardeners often need to prevent early blight on tomatoes. To do so, rotate tomato plants to a different area of the garden each year and mulch well. After the plants are a few feet tall, remove the lower 18 inches of leafy stems to create good air circulation.

For the rest of the season, we tied the tomatoes and peppers to the stakes as they grew upward, cut off the most rampant branches, and harvested the fruits. The time commitment averaged about an hour and a half each week. (Our harvesting was more time-consuming than average because we counted, weighed and recorded everything we picked.)

The Results

To determine what my harvest would cost in the market, I began checking out equivalent organic produce prices in midsummer. On a single day in late August, I harvested 49 tomatoes, nine peppers, 15 zucchinis of many sizes, and three handfuls of basil — which would have totaled $136 at my market that day.

From April to September, this little organic garden produced 77.5 pounds of tomatoes, 15.5 pounds of bell peppers, 14.3 pounds of lettuce, and 2.5 pounds of basil — plus a whopping 126 pounds of zucchini! Next time I won’t feel bad about pulling out those extra plants.

I figured the total value of my 2008 summer trial garden harvest was $746.52. In order to get a fair picture, I also needed to subtract the cost of seeds, plants and compost (I can’t make enough to keep up with my garden), which added up to $63.09. That leaves $683.43 in savings on fresh vegetables. Of course, prices vary throughout the season and throughout the country. I live in northern California, and for comparison, Cathy, who lives in Iowa, checked out her prices and figured the same amount of organic produce in her area would be worth $975.18.

The Big Picture

I started this garden to see what impact millions of organically grown 100-square-foot gardens would have if they replaced the equivalent acreage of lawns in this country.

According to the Garden Writers Association, 84 million U.S. households gardened in 2009. If just half of them (42 million) planted a 100-square-foot garden, that would total 96,419 acres (about 150 square miles) no longer in lawns, and no need for the tremendous resources that go into keeping them manicured. If folks got even one-half of the yields I got, the national savings on groceries would be stupendous: about $14.35 billion! So, a 100-square-foot food garden can be a big win-win for anyone who creates one — and for our planet.

Looking Forward

I have decided to keep the records from my 100-square-foot garden going indefinitely. Last fall, I planted broccoli, chard, snap peas, cilantro, a stir-fry greens mix, kale and scallions. This took much less time, as the soil preparation was done and the drip system was in place.

In the summer, I planted different tomato varieties, added cucumbers, a tipi of pole beans, chard and collards. Remember, I’m growing all of this in a bed that is just 5-by-20 feet! You can check my website to follow the progress of the garden, and to download easy-to-use spreadsheets to help you track your own garden harvests.

Read More, Share Your Results

My lecture audiences, the media and visiting gardeners are excited to report on data about how much food a gardener can produce. Other organizations seem to be on the same wavelength. In spring of 2008, Burpee started to record harvest amounts; Roger Doiron of Kitchen Gardeners International kept a tally of his family’s summer garden; and MOTHER EARTH NEWS put out a call for readers to share information about their most productive plants.

While you’re here, please share your totals with us and other gardeners by posting a comment in the comments section below. We’re looking forward to hearing about harvests from folks all over the country.


Getting the Most Food from a Small Area

  • Choose indeterminate tomatoes. They keep growing and producing fruit until a killing frost. (Determinate varieties save space but ripen all at once.)
  • In spring, plant cool-season vegetables, including lettuce, mesclun and stir-fry green mixes, arugula, scallions, spinach and radishes. They are ready to harvest in a short time, and they act as space holders until the warm-season veggies fill in.
  • Grow up. Peas, small melons, squash, cucumbers and pole beans have a small footprint when grown vertically. Plus, they yield more over a longer time than bush types.
  • Plants such as broccoli, eggplant, peppers, chard and kale are worth the space they take for a long season. As long as you keep harvesting, they will keep producing until frost

Rosalind Creasy has been growing edibles in her beautiful northern California garden for 40 years. The expanded second edition of her landmark book, Edible Landscaping, will be released in April 2010.

Cathy Wilkinson Barash, author of 13 books, including Edible Flowers: From Garden to Palate, spent parts of the past three years working with Creasy in California . She helped document, harvest and feast from the 100-square-foot garden.


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Post a comment below.

 

Cayt Hopfner
4/21/2012 11:58:48 PM
Thank you over and over, this is such a great concept, growing food rather than the up keep of a lawn! Bravo!

JANE AUSSICKER
2/23/2012 9:32:57 PM
This past summer a friend's neighbor decided to plant his first vegetable garden. It was so successful he resorted to making stealth deliveries of zucchini to many back doors under cover of darkness. As a result we learned that nutmeg and cinnamon are nice additions to zucchini bread. It was a good outcome for all.

Midge Smith
1/15/2012 11:54:24 PM
We live in BC"s southern interior. My husband and I have been city gardeners for about 20 years. No matter how small our yard has been we've always been able to scratch out a good producing garden space. In March we move into our new home on 1 acre! There is an existing chicken coop and a creek running through the back of the property. Using ideas and suggestions from the "1 Acre Homestead" and this article, we are anxious to get planting and harvesting! The temperature is a cool -7 as I write this but the thought of all the beautiful, homegrown produce warms me through and through!

amber valenzuela
1/11/2012 10:56:26 AM
I'd love to check out their "Easy to Use" Excel sheet but all links to their website prompt a Malware Warning. (I'm using Google Chrome). Any safe suggestions?

Mimi Winter
1/5/2011 11:34:04 PM
I planted my first garden 3 years ago in Arizona (zone 7 I believe). It did great until the Javelina got to it. They tore up everything. What the javelina didn't get, the fire ant got, and what the two of those didn't get, my chihuahuas dug up. Ants eat veggies too. So now I have a big chain link fence around the place, and have found the best ant killer (Amdro Ant Block). Put up small fences around the growing areas to keep out the dogs. I did well with spinach, green beans, cilantro, beets, carrots, dill, mustard, asperagus, chives and catnip. Some things seem to just not grow here. I had heartbreak with the garlic, cherry tomatoes, and the eggplant and cucumbers of course got by the javelina. Dogs dug up the potatoes. I'll try again this year. I am scared to plant in fall with fear it will not grow in spring. I guess it's time to face my fear! I hope I can count on information from MEN as I don't have many other resources.

Carolyn_30
5/13/2010 7:26:40 AM
I have been growing most of my family's food for several years now and recently started making pickles, sauces, jams and jellies, which greatly increase the monetary value of crops and taste fabulous, too. Organic gardening feeds us in so many ways! Sherlock - please visit my blog at cowlickcottagefarm.com for tips on vegetable gardening in Florida. We have the great advantage of being able to garden for most of the year, but there are some specifics to elarn about. Good luck!

Sherl0cke
1/12/2010 7:21:05 PM
Does anyone know how to grow a garden in mid-Florida? It seems all the gardening rules change for our area.

chantel chapman_1
1/7/2010 12:25:22 AM
My husband and I live in San Antonio, TX. We have been gradually expanding our garden for the past three years. The best plants as far as production would have to be peppers. We started of with six bell pepper and banana pepper plants. Last year I was able to freeze several gallon bags of choped up peppers and I gave tons away to friends and neighbors. The seed from peppers we didn't get to managed to sprout on their own, and we had to remove eight plants to move to a different location or give away to friends. Tomatoes are also great here, if you can keep the stinkbugs from getting them. Our trellis goes up about ten feet in the air,and was covered in tomatoes from April until November. We have also planted russet potatoes and sweet potatoes with great success. If you plant carrots here, be prepared, because they spread like weeds. We had some go to seed, and they spread all over our yard. It's ok, our dog loves to pull them out and eat them, too. We put in a fall garden, and we are just now ready to harvest some great big heads of broccoli and some lovely brussels sprouts. Our favorite crop though is blueberries. There is nothing like a blueberry right off the bush! My only warning, is to either plant in a raised bed, or a pot. Make sure not to buy soil from wal-mart or home depot. Find a garden supplier. Fertile gardens here sells a cubic yard for around $20 with a military discount.

Jennifer Lauruol
12/23/2009 5:39:49 PM
For Debbie in central PA, check out books on Permaculture, such as Toby Hemenway's Gaia's Garden; also the magazine Permaculture Activist--these will provide you with the design tools to create your garden as you would like.

Paula Perez_1
12/22/2009 9:55:52 AM
This past summer, my husband and I made a radical change to our front yard. Since our backyard is heavily shaded, we cut down two dying trees in our front yard, took out the stumps, and laid out a beautiful, fruitful garden. Besides setting in paths from recycled chunks of broken concrete, we dug a small goldfish pond, set up a composting area, planted three dwarf fruit trees (an Asian pear, a 5-way cherry, and a prune plum) and set up our first raised veggie bed. This bed grew 30 lbs. of produce by my records, including 2 types of tomatoes, sweet corn, pie pumpkins, basil, jalapenos, lettuce, string beans, spinach, dill, sunflowers and onions. I used the "Square Foot Gardening" methods of Mel Bartholomew's books. Next year we plan to continue with our garden plan by planting 3 types of raspberry bushes, a mid-sized blueberry bush, a rhubarb bed, and installing 5 more raised veggie beds which will then total 126 square foot of veggie gardens. Our first year was an awesome success and we look forward to an exciting future!

B. Tomlinson
12/20/2009 10:47:59 PM
Love the info! One point of caution, having nothing to do with the method but rather to a reference here: Avoid Doiron and KGI! I was, according to Roger, the first to step up and support KGI with my time, money, and knowledge because he swore that the group was to encourage real solutions and peaceful interactions. Unfortunately when issues arose amongst members concerning the use of peaceful approaches rather than direct coercion, Roger decided to attack the notion of civility, abandon the aforementioned goals, and have members removed who dared to speak out against the use of personal attack, incivility, and members who encouraged peaceful practical solutions. There is no place for KGI for the gardener who embraces respect for others, peaceful interaction, and practical solutions to the need to feed the world.

Debbie Rogers_11
12/19/2009 6:52:04 PM
I live in Central Pa. and have a small area piece of property in which I would love to produce a "little piece of heaven"...which would be an edible garden, but with an small area in which I could sit and enjoy the produce of my workings. I am looking for a book or some type of magazine in which to research so that I don't plant all the wrong things at the wrong times. I know a lot of it will be trial and error, which I will love doing, but I'd like some type of guidelines to go by. Does anyone know of such a book that I could read?

anita spence
12/15/2009 2:48:36 PM
We live on the Oregon, California border. It is high desert, we live at about 5000 feet. It is a short growing season. We can't hardly plant in the ground before June. Our first frost is about labor day. We have big gardens and grow many vegetables. We grew over 600 big beautiful onions,plus leeks, pumpkins, summer and winter squashes, 91 tomato and 50 pepper plants from seed. Lettuces, beans, cucumbers,radishes, peas, potatoes, herbs and flowers. We sell our veggies and donate to the food share bank. The school kids come to pick pumpkins. We have guest cabins and cook with the garden produce. We always have fresh flowers in the cabins. We have hens and sell our eggs. We also designed and oversee a garden at the prison here near us. Last growing season we harvested over 16,000 pounds of veggies in about 3/4 of an acre. It is a wonderful program for the inmates. They do all the work , and all the food goes to the kitchen. We have a greenhouse and grow lights and use geothermal heat in the greenhouse. We compost, collect leaves and grass from the town and save the scrapes and egg shells from the kitchen. We build birdhouses, and grew giant pumpkins so the inmates could watch them grow.

CARMEN ORTIZ
12/12/2009 3:52:50 PM
I live in Central Minnesota, I still have kohlrabi, broccoli raab, kale and carots in my garden. This year I grew 3 types of potatoes (now in storage), 12 types of tomatoes, peppers, tomatillos, 2 types of egg plant, peas, 9 different types of cabbage family veg, squash, onion and garlic. I also grow 6 different fruits, 2 nuts and 8 types of berries. Indoors, I have acerola, lime, fig, bay and coffee trees, 7 different herbs and taro (edible elephant ears). Strangely enough, I can't grow lettuce or spinach (in or out) no matter how much I try. I live in a city lot that's 1/3 of an acre, with many old trees, which means a lot of shade in a 90 year old house. Every year, I reclaim more of the grassy area. I also grow lots of native plants and perennials. I can enough to last me until next harvest season.

Robert Haugland_3
12/11/2009 9:51:27 AM
I have grown gardens since I was a kid and can say that I would get out of an 8x20 area way more produce that my family could use. This was on a tiny lot that was only large enough for our house and too small for a garage or any other buidings. I wuld freeze tomatoes, peppers, parsley and other vegetables and would dry herbs. The amount of savings in terms of our grocery bill must have been tremendous. I always wanted to have enough room for a gigantic garden. Later in life I moved, with my wife, to a farm in West Central Illinois and now grow for ourselves and for the Local Growers Network, a group of farmers that sells produce to customers in our area.

apbbear
12/4/2009 1:44:29 PM
In urban area where land is still a scare resources, it's hard to know if your neighbors use fertiziers or any chemical for your lawn/yards. If you are really concern about chemicals in the ground when planing, raise the vegetable garden bed or better still put your plants in big pots.








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