Garden Economics

By Chrissa Carlson
[email protected]

September is a time for gardeners to luxuriate in the bounty resulting from their hard work. Sure, weeds still need weeding, and water still needs sprinkling, but much less so than in deep summer. Spring, summer, and fall planting are done, but the time to put things to rest is still weeks away. In the meantime, the harvest pours in.

While we hang in the balance between spring set up and autumn break down, take a moment to assess the season. Look at your harvest basket. What were your greatest returns on investment? What would it have cost you at the grocery store? What did you learn? What will you do differently next year? What varieties were highlights, and which will you gratefully trade out for something new next year?

A food garden is an investment similar to a home: in the beginning, you devote a significant amount of time, money, and labor as beds are built, soil is amended, paths are laid. After installation, inputs follow a seasonal cycle of spring investment and fall returns. But unlike a house, whose long-term value is primarily influenced by the whims of the market, a garden’s value can continue to increase each year whilst your annual expenses decline.

But notice we said a garden’s value can continue to increase. The key to ensuring your time and money remain a sound investment is to become a student of your garden. Thomas Jefferson is quoted as saying, "Though an old man, I am but a young gardener." Each season is a single lesson in a lifelong curriculum. But by taking careful notice, and yes, studious notes, we can ensure that the garden appreciates each year. So as you savor a late summer caprese salad, make like a college freshman and take some notes: record successes and challenges, notes on varieties, pests, spacing, diseases, weeds—do it now, while the plants are at full size and telling their story (it’s so easy to forget the bad seeds in spring’s hopefulness!). Snap a few pictures while you're at it. And--here's the key--look at your notes next winter as you plan for the season.

If there’s a single item on your garden budget that’s always a good investment, it’s your soil. A thriving soil ecosystem includes a diverse community of bacteria, fungi, annelids, and arthropods—your allies in transforming organic matter into nutrients your plants can use, and creating a resilient garden that doesn’t crumble under isolated disease and pest outbreaks. As fall approaches, the natural world shifts gears from biomass production to senescence and decomposition, providing an opportunity to take advantage of this natural cycle: Fall is a great time to feed your soil; amending your soil with compost in the fall will give it time to incorporate and its nutrients to become bioavailable for spring plantings. All that organic matter falling from the sky is also available to build your first compost pile, use as mulch, or dig into your soil to compost in place. To learn more about fall soil stewardship, join Urban Farmhouse for a workshop at Roland Park Country School on Tuesday, October 9th at 6:30 pm. See page three of the course catalogue for details and registration, or email [email protected] for more information.

But before we sign off, an illustrative example: The Urban Farmhouse test garden took three seasons to establish, including beds, fruit trees and shrubs, hardscaping, composter, and a wash station, but by the fourth season, we spent only about $100 on the garden, mostly on seeds. And since late April, we've been cooing over radishes, leeks, artichokes, tomatoes, peaches, raspberries, beets, carrots, scallions, garlic...(we could go on). From hear on out, we're in the black.