Before he began writing his blog Talk Dirt to Me—you can find it at valleyadvocate.com—Caleb Rounds had already made an impression on a couple of Advocate editors who’d had the chance to see his garden up close and personal.
For all the thousands and thousands of vegetable gardens you’re likely to see as you drive through this agriculturally abundant valley, precious few of them stand out as notably attractive, healthy and diverse. And so what? Vegetable gardens are made for eating, not looking at, right? Well, to a point. But how a vegetable garden looks, particularly if that garden grows in a city, on a pretty typical house lot of a quarter of an acre or so, can absolutely tell a passerby something about not only the garden—Is it overrun by weeds? Are its plants being consumed by pests? Is it arranged and planted in such a way as to keep producing lots of varied food throughout the whole of the growing season?—but about the gardener who tends it (or not).
Caleb Rounds’ garden is notably attractive, healthy and diverse, the epitome of efficiency, where form follows function and small but daily doses of effort keep things in order. Unlike many gardens you’ll see, Rounds’ isn’t the type that looks great in May or June, but ends up an unproductive jungle of weeds by Labor Day. Rounds’ garden looks good year-round, even when it’s covered in snow, and it produces food his family eats not just during the growing season but all year.
We recently had the chance to ask Caleb about his garden and about growing vegetables in small backyard plots. Here are some excerpts from that conversation:
Valley Advocate: How do you decide what to grow and how much to grow?
Caleb Rounds: I grow what we eat. That sounds foolishly simplistic, but I think it is tempting to grow cool plants, or plants that you hear do well. I try to grow only things I know will get eaten. I also favor produce that I can store in some way: either by freezing, drying, canning, or cold storage in the basement.
Finally, I try not to grow too much. To accomplish this I do a lot of succession planting of beans, but only one or two zucchini plants in a hill. However, since I moved to Northampton, every one of my zucchini plants has been killed by vine borers. I need to use floating row covers, but I haven’t handled it yet.
VA: How do you translate those decisions into a plan? Do you actually draw it out? Count the number of plants? Calculate the various permutations of spaces between plants?
CR: I do not draw it out, though I certainly should. I’ve been taking pictures of the garden this year from the kids’ room on the second floor and it occurs to me that I could easily use these to do some planning. Thus far, I just keep a basic plan in my head and try to keep a good rotation going.
I don’t calculate distances, but I use a yardstick to make sure I don’t cheat. I don’t plant in rows, either. I have four-foot-wide raised beds and plant them in blocks of about four feet (so a four-foot by four-foot block). These I split into one-foot squares, or plant in short rows perpendicular to the axis of the bed. So in a four-by-four block I’d have three or four short rows of beans.
Thinning is very important. A weed is a plant where you don’t want it, so as soon as a bean or a spinach plant is in the wrong place, it is a weed and should die.
VA: How much latitude does a gardener have in the spacing of plants?
CR: One can get away with all sorts of things depending on your particular conditions, but a plant needs room for its leaves so that it can collect enough sunlight and enough room for its roots to collect enough nourishment. Crowding inevitably leads to poor yields. I use a couple of different sources: Square Foot Gardener, Rodale’s gardening encyclopedia and a book with the felicitous name How to Grow More Vegetables: Than You Ever Thought Possible on Less Land Than You Can Imagine and some Eliot Coleman books. These all give ballparks for spacing. I take an average, though I think you quickly get a feel for how much room a plant needs.
VA: In an older vegetable garden, is it essential to keep rotating plants? Even with rotation, does the soil wear out?
CR: Ideally you should incorporate a fallow period into your rotation and you’ll keep it going forever. Rotation is important for nutrition but also for diseases. If your beans had a disease of some sort and you plant in the same spot, you may get the same disease again (well, your beans will).
Soil doesn’t wear out unless it isn’t maintained. By this I mean you need to do a soil test every year and add organic matter and nutrients as needed. This is a bit of a touchy subject. There are those who argue you need to add various rock dusts to “remineralize” the soil. There are those who advocate “double digging” organic matter in. Some want you to add compost and mulch and avoid tilling. Others advocate for various fertilizers, synthetic or otherwise.
Whatever the methodology, a garden is an extractive process. If you eat a tomato, you are eating sugars that came from carbon dioxide fixed in the chloroplasts, but you’re also eating nitrogen that came from the soil. Every nutrient that comes out needs to be replaced somehow. If you allow the soil to remain fallow for a while, it will probably recover, but if you don’t, the nutrients are going to disappear into your stomach.
VA: Does proximity to other plant species, either in general or in specific instances, matter in laying out a vegetable garden?
CR: There are people who believe in companion planting a lot more than I do, but there are definitely plants that don’t get along very well. Mostly, I just try not to plant species from the same family in the same soil every year. I attempt to do a three-year rotation. I don’t do a perfect job with the legumes, but I’m very careful with nightshades, aliums, brassicas and cucurbits as my experience is that they have a lot of disease and bug problems.
VA: I have basically the same question about successional planting. Do you plan out where and what you’ll be replanting after a first harvest?
CR: I don’t plan this every year, but I have a standard succession. Peas usually finish about the time I’m putting in the crops for fall harvest. Lettuces and beans make excellent succession plantings. The garlic finished about when I want to do fall cabbage and brussels sprouts.
VA: Are there vegetables you won’t grow because they bum out other plants or take up too much room?
CR: I don’t grow watermelons or pumpkins because they take up too much space. I do grow butternut squash and cantaloupes because I feel the yield per plant is better. I don’t grow tall peas.
I also—and this is heretical—tend to avoid too many heirloom varieties. I don’t have anything against them in particular, but just because the breeding was done 75 years ago instead of recently doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s better. It doesn’t mean it’s worse either. A lot of the recent breeding has neglected taste. That doesn’t mean the fruit tastes bad necessarily, it just means you must be wary.
Some of the modern tomato varieties I’ve grown are delicious and also resistant to disease, whereas many of the heirloom varieties need a bit too much babying for my tastes.
VA: Are there ways to get a decent yield of melons and pumpkins without a lot of space? How about true Fourth of July watermelons? The seed-spitting-in-the-backyard kind?
CR: We live in New England. There are ways, and they involve giving these plants a head start with floating row covers and black plastic. For me it’s not worth it, but for others it is. Personally, I feel that pumpkins are overrated. They’re cool looking as Halloween decorations, but butternut squash tastes awfully similar and gives you much better calorie-per-square-foot yield.
VA: Do you use mulch? How, and what kind? Does it really matter?
CR: I love mulch, though in New England there have been very wet years that have punished me for this. I generally use what I can get for free: grass clippings, leaves, straw, spoiled hay, et cetera. With a little friendliness I can usually coax people into sharing what they’d otherwise throw away. For me, mulch cuts down on watering and weeding. I usually run a soaker hose underneath the mulch. That way if it actually does get really dry, I can water the plants without wetting their leaves.
The weed thing is huge, huge, huge.
VA: Any other thoughts or strategies on how to use garden space efficiently and put a lot of varied kinds of vegetables on the table?
CR: Learn to love weeding. I try to get into the garden every day to look for bugs, weed, or get rid of plants that don’t look right. I can’t afford a lot of time every day, but if I’m out there every day I can keep my finger on the pulse, so to speak.
VA: Why did you start gardening?
CR: A friend of mine who is now a forester for the city of New York showed me that you could grow a begonia plant from a cutting. He allowed as you could really take any tiny portion of a plant and with the right coddling grow a whole new plant (it’s called totipotency). I thought that was the coolest thing ever. After I moved to Texas I got a little space and started putting some plants in to see what would happen. The first time I ate a tomato from my garden I was hooked. The feeling of making a meal out of things you’ve found/grown/killed yourself is more empowering than anything I’ve ever done. When my kid eats a broccoli floret and says, “I love it, pop,” it’s better than buying him anything.
The woman foolish enough to marry me picked me up for our second or third date at my house. She found me in the back yard fussing with some broccoli. I snapped off a floret and handed it to her and she said, “That’s the prettiest flower anyone has given me.” Who wouldn’t keep gardening? I should mention that she doesn’t say that anymore: she wants me to grow a flower garden.