This Birmingham Couple Reaps 500 Pounds of Produce From Their 600-Square-Foot Garden
These Are Some of Their Best Gardening Tips
This is not a misprint: Georgia and Crawford Downs get roughly 500 pounds of fruits and vegetables from a 600-square-foot plot behind their Birmingham home, and they do so organically. "I am a nut about it," explains Crawford, a biomedical engineer who works at The University of Alabama at Birmingham. "It's a challenge to figure out how to get the optimum mix out of what you want. I am always trying to maximize yield."
His wife, Georgia, who works at an architecture firm, says that she's the "sous gardener" and adds, "This is his thing. I assist."
"We tried to do things that would keep it looking nice, rather than untidy, while still being very efficient in terms of production," Crawford explains. An arbor covered in Confederate jasmine serves as an entrance. To lend a formal-
garden feel, they designed a center box taller than the rest and surrounded it with L-shaped and rectangular raised beds. "We want the garden to be like any other part of the yard," he says.
Crawford knows just how to grow efficiently (and deliciously). Ultimately, he says, it comes down to "learning what the plants want and then giving them that." He sounds like a manager. "Yes, a plant manager," says Georgia.
Let Nature Do Its thing
Four years ago, when the Downses bought their property and started their garden, the first challenge was a giant fig tree. It shaded half the plot, but Crawford refused to cut down a large fruit bearer. Instead, he pruned all but two branches that grow east and west. Now the tree casts no shade, functions as a natural screen between him and his neighbor, and produces enough fruit to feed his family all summer while also filling 100 jars of preserves. Warning: Don't try this with most other trees. "Figs will come back from a hard pruning," he adds.
Conduct Your Own Research
"Source your plants from someplace local," Crawford says. "They know your area." And consider trial and error part of the process. "We've cycled through about 20 types of tomatoes and settled on 7 that grow well and that we really like," he says. Crawford suggests keeping ground temperature in mind when choosing certain seed selections and deciding when to plant them. For example, a pole bean needs warmer soil temps and won't germinate until the ground hits 65 degrees. "The air might have warmed up, but if there isn't enough heat during the day for enough days in a row, the ground will still be too cold," he says. Some types of seeds, like lettuces and green peas, need cooler soil temps. However, when it comes to putting transplants in the ground, the air temperature matters more than the ground temperature.
Plan for Several Harvests
Choose plants that produce early, in the middle of the season, and late so you'll have a stream of fruits and veggies coming up instead of a single onslaught. For example, Crawford overwinters his carrots: He leaves the fully grown roots in the cold ground so they can be harvested anytime until spring. Asparagus (a plant-it-once perennial) comes up
in February. Lettuces grow in the fall and spring; summer heat is too intense for them. While some gardeners do two plantings of tomatoes, Crawford disagrees. "Tomatoes need time to get a big bushy habit before they produce much fruit," he says. Instead, choose types that will ripen at different times, even if they're planted simultaneously. His ‘Sun Gold' and ‘Black Cherry' tomatoes can be gathered early, while his ‘Amish Rose' ones come in later.
1. Fig tree
2. Pole beans
8. Pickling cucumbers
10. Slicing cucumbers
Grow for Beauty and Bounty
"We also plant what looks nice," Crawford says. For example, most eggplants taste the same to him. "So we pick selections because we like their shapes and colors," he says. It makes working in the garden more enjoyable. Presentation counts with tomatoes too. "When you put them on a salad, they're interesting looking and also taste great," he adds. Georgia likes to pick horseradish greens to display in vases or use as a garnish for cheese plates. "They are huge, bright, Kelly green leaves," he says.
Set Your Work Schedule
Crawford spends four full weekends a year on the garden (the first to mulch and compost, the second to plant, the third to weed and maintain, and the fourth to swap out seasonal plantings), but the rest of the work happens in small 20-minute increments. "If you care for your plants on a day in, day out basis, it takes much less time," he says. Besides, he adds, "When I come home, I am still on fire from the office, so it's good for me to spend just a little while weeding, pruning, weaving cucumber vines into the trellis, and calming down before I roll inside."
Share Your Harvest
The Downses have fresh produce for nine months of the year. During peak harvest, they only need to head to the grocery store for eggs and milk, because Crawford also fills the freezer with fish and meat from hunting. "My sister calls me a prepper," he says. But rather than hoarding their yield, they give it away. That's part of the fun of growing so much. The gift of a fresh tomato salad is especially appreciated. "We slice them up and add some cubes of mozzarella, basil from the garden, olive oil, salt, pepper, and vinegar. You take that to somebody's house when it's four hours off the vine? People rave about that," he says.
Still, there is surplus. If you plan to grow this much produce, prepare to preserve and pickle. After last season, the Downses made 36 quart jars of cucumber pickles, 20 half-quart jars of pickled banana peppers, 25 half-pint jars of plum preserves, a gallon of pesto (frozen in individual servings), 100 jars of fig preserves, several sheet pans worth of dehydrated tomatoes, and five frozen eggplant casseroles—many of which will be given away as gifts, of course.
First, make boxes no more than 4 feet wide, enough for two rows of plants but not so wide that you can't easily reach the center. "I can pick after work in my nice clothes and not get all dirty," he says. Second, design walkways between the boxes to be at least 2 feet wide. "You need to be able to kneel down on the ground and not be jammed up," he says. Third, orient most of your boxes so that they run from east to west. When plants grow tall, they will get full sun without casting shadows. The exception: Build a box running north to south for anything growing on a pyramid trellis, so each side of the A-frame gets full sun for a half day.
How do you get 500 pounds of produce out of a small plot? As the French say, espalier (like Crawford did with his fig tree), or take a cue from New York City, and grow up. "I wanted to have pole beans, but I did not want to take up a whole box," he says. He pulled on his experience as a building superintendent in college ("That's how I paid my rent," he recalls) and constructed an 8-foot-tall frame out of copper plumbing pipe. Then he wove "loop the loops," his technical term, with wire for the beans to hook onto. "It takes up virtually no space, and the beans are easy to pick because they are right by where I walk," he says.
Crawford constructed his 12- by 8-foot pole bean trellis with 3⁄4-inch copper pipe, solder, and a soldering torch. Afraid to solder? He advises using iron or stainless steel pipes and screw-on fittings and connections to get the job done. Also, wire the trellis into the ground to keep it from blowing over.
Everything In Its Place
"Engineering for sun and for water delivery are big considerations," he insists. Place plants accordingly. You can further minimize shadows by putting tall plants along the edge of a box so any small shadows won't reach plants on the other side of the box or in a neighboring one. If you use spray irrigation, place the tallest plants farthest from the sprayers, with plant heights descending in order from the spray nozzles. Also consider how you pair plants. Eggplants go well with bushy tomatoes because they grow straight up and down. Asparagus goes well with pole beans because asparagus plants won't get tall until late summer and therefore won't compete for sun. Finally, consider spacing. Crawford found that his bushy tomato plants don't like to crowd one another. He spaces them out, and the plants now grow 9 feet tall. He says, "I had to buy these special cages from Texas, where I guess they grow 9-foot-tall tomatoes."
Invasive plants, such as horseradish, mint, and lemongrass, should be planted in separate containers.