Following the 'rule of thirds'
by Rachel Foster
I looked at the Shiro plum tree in our garden, its branches literally encrusted with fruit like some kind of parasitic infection, and thought of Tom Schneider. Tom and his wife Victoria are experienced gardeners with an interesting history. Among other things, they spent 15 years living off the grid in Haida Gwaii (formerly known as Queen Charlotte Islands, B.C.) where they learned about foraging from the Haida people. I met Schneider one April a few years ago for the purpose of foraging for wild nettles. On the way back we stopped in at the Grassroots Garden on Coburg Road and shared in a delicious lunch prepared in the outdoor kitchen from Grassroots produce by a young chef named Laura.
More recently, Schneider shared with me some thoughts about serious food gardening; that is, growing food as a substantial contribution to one’s own sustenance. He told me he has come to believe that gardening is “a 1/3-1/3-1/3 effort. Soil preparation and planting is one third of the effort. Watering, weeding and growing is one third of the effort. But I find many folks when they plant don’t adequately plan for the final third of the effort, which is getting the food they grow from the harvest basket to the plate and fork.”
Schneider asserts that the sheer magnitude of the harvest in the summer and early fall can take the joy out of gardening for new gardeners. ”Before you put a seed in the ground, you need to develop progressive strategies, whether it be for eating fresh, freezing or canning. Or simply finding somewhere to put produce you can’t use today, like a second refrigerator or a root cellar or some other cool space. You need baskets to harvest into, flat surfaces to sort the harvest, maybe space and equipment for canning and drying. And budgeting time for these tasks that will get the food to your plate is essential.” Schneider’s rule of thirds is not just about planting; it’s a way of life.
People vary in their approach to feeding themselves year round. Some put more effort into preserving the summer harvest of fruit and vegetables, while others put more emphasis on always having something growing in their garden beds. Back in August, Schneider pointed out that the period between Aug. 15 and the end of September is the most important of the planting season. “What a person does during those six weeks will determine what the garden will produce for the next six months, when fresh stuff is more expensive. Having fresh cilantro at Thanksgiving and crops to protect with those simple hoops we use [see ‘Head Start,’ EW, Feb. 11] depends on not being overwhelmed with the final third of getting the summer’s abundance to the table or freezer. Zucchini is cheap now in the Farmers Market or at your local farm stand.”
So perhaps, rather than trying to keep up with zucchini in August, you should have been making space in the garden to sow cilantro or winter chard. And I should have been clearing out a bed for winter salad greens and another bed of kale, instead of fretting about what to do with an overabundance of Shiro plums, which are not my personal favorites. And another thought: Should I even keep that plum tree and spend time picking plums just to give them away? Or would it be better to use the space for a freestone Italian plum I would really enjoy? Surely part of that final third of the effort should assure that you don’t waste precious space and water on things that your family won’t eat.
So plant things you, your family and friends enjoy. Plant only as much as you think you can use and have time to harvest and process. Spread the harvest out by making smaller plantings progressively, or by planting fruit and vegetable crops that mature at different times. Plan an early start by making at least a couple of raised beds that will warm up fast. You can sow peas, radishes and salad greens as early as February, and that space will come available again in time for warm weather crops.
And while most of us will never have an outdoor kitchen like the one at Grassroots Garden, it sure would make harvesting easier and cleaner to have a table and outdoor sink, however primitive, for sorting, trimming and preliminary cleaning. Next to the compost area, perhaps.
Rachel Foster of Eugene is a garden writer and consultant. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org