You have undoubtedly heard that soil is the key to successful gardening. Did you also know that it is a battleground?
A healthy soil is perhaps the most important factor in growing anything. It is teaming with trillions of micro-organisms competing and cooperating with each other for nutrients, water and oxygen. Mycorrhizal fungi form symbiotic relationships with plant roots, receiving food (carbohydrates) and providing a large network of filaments (hyphae) that extend the plant’s roots many-fold and bring back water and other nutrients.
Don Breckenfeld, retired USDA soils scientist, and wife Cris are firm believers in maintaining the health of the soil of Breckenfeld Garden. And it shows.
Cris is the keeper of the records. This year their first tomato crop has totaled about 1000 pounds, and the second crop is just starting. According to Cris’ careful records, last year, they harvested nearly a ton of tomatoes from 800 square feet of garden in two crops.
And to top it all off, they use about ½ the water of conventional agriculture.
Don keeps careful track of his water use. Not surprising, since it costs between ¼ and ½ their total income from the farmers markets they supply each week, just to pay the water bills. But there isn’t a “trick” to this efficiency, but a system of standard practices.
Don doesn’t allow his fields to “go fallow”. The vibrant biological activity would simply eat up the food and produce nothing in return. Instead, he works to maintain soil fertility and minimize exposed soil.
After every crop, Cris chops up the spent plants with a lawn mower and then Don adds manure and turns the residue into the top layer of soil to let it compost in-place. Every few years, he adds a lot more organic matter and turns it in deeply with a ripper bar mounted on a tiny tractor design for Asian rice paddies. The goal is to get these nutrients deeply into the soil, so they hold moisture and support the microbes that gather and become nutrients for the plants.
In addition to continuously building the soil, Don plants everything very close together with only the smallest space between rows. You almost can’t see the paths between the masses of plants, and this greatly reduces moisture loss. Don doesn’t mulch the space between plants, because there isn’t any.
To avoid most diseases, Don rotates crops whenever there is any sign of disease. Two or three years is the maximum, in most cases.
Because of this “system” for maintaining soil fertility and minimizing water, the Breckenfelds are able to produce large quantities of high quality fresh vegetable for one and sometimes two farmers markets in town. Don estimates that his 1/3 to ½ acre market garden could provide all the vegetables for 20-25, 4-person families.
While this is impressive, it really gives us a sense of the scale of creating a secure local food supply. At that rate, it would take about 2000 (very well managed) market gardens of similar size to produce 25% of the vegetables Tucsonans eat.
And that’s only the vegetables. Grains, whether corn or wheat, or others we aren’t familiar with, like barley or millet, take much more land. While a garden growing a high-weight, high value crop like tomatoes might produce as much as 20# per square foot per year, wheat is closer to 2#. A more secure food supply will require real expertise that we don’t currently have.
And that is one of the key lessons from the Breckenfelds. We aren’t limited by land or water, nearly as much as we are limited by our knowledge. In the discussion after the tour, Don identified three critical barriers to expanding the number of market gardens:
- outlets (e.g. Community Food Bank’s consignment program)
- time & energy
The biggest was knowledge.
The knowledge of how to raise food, has skipped a generation. Most people today have no direct experience with either farm life, or even know how to successfully garden. High school may be too late to get kids interested/ involved.
The key to our success, they feel, is to gather and share the knowledge we have. Some individuals know a lot, but the challenge will be to bring it all together and share what we have.
You can say that about a lot of the problems we face.
Potential tour sites for our next FT Champions’ Network tour are:
- Community Food Bank garden (Brandon Merchant)
- Compost Cats (Brandon Merchant)
- Las Milpitas (Tres English)
Attending: Candice Porter, Leticia McCune, Sheryl Joy, Anastasia Smith, Brandon Merchant, Paula Libsitz, Melissa Gant (Foodie Fleet), Leslie Hunten, Tres English, Cris Breckenfeld, Don Breckenfeld