R. Ann Parris on Growing Management: Methods & Tradeoffs


Management Methods & Tradeoffs by R. Ann Parris

The management methods and growing styles we choose have intimate relationships with the space and labor required to produce food at home. Whether our priority is getting the most out of each square foot of soil, or lowering workload – initially or in successive days/weeks/months if not successive seasons and years – will affect which efficiency methods most appeal, and thus the crops we’ll most lean on.

There’s no one-size-fits-all. The relationships are just something to be aware of, especially for preppers, so that various methods and crop needs-results can be compared and tailored to fit individual needs and abilities.

How we manage our crops affects how much land we put under production, the ratio of yielding beds/rows to walking or driving paths inside our planting areas, and the labor involved.

There are pro-con tradeoffs to everything in life.
• I need more total space to run a machine off an ATV or pony versus wiggling in on foot with a hand tool, but my back-aching labor is significantly reduced.
• Running a manual push or pull cultivator, furrower, wheel hoe, or planter requires a middle-road amount of space – less space than required for powered options; more space than if I’m using a rake and spade.
• I need less space if I’m congestion planting beds (versus single or double row crops), but it leans heavily on healthy soil or a high-fertility method, and it routinely leans on human labor for maintenance and harvest.
• I need more space for dryland farming than irrigated crops.
*Aquaponics and hydroponics vary hugely in the amount of tech and space by specific setups even within general types of systems, so I’m not even touching on them here.

Even within a method, there are tradeoffs. I need less footprint to run things that grow vertically or can be stacked vertically, but I may be sacrificing airflow and-or light, which can impact plant health, and I may have to climb to harvest.

Equipment Needs
If we’re already growing, we likely already have the minimum equipment to work that management style. With each step toward more mech and higher tech, whether it’s a PTO attachment or a wheel hoe that converts to numerous options and a drop seeder, we need more.

It’s not just the investment in initial equipment. We’ll need more backups and maintenance tools as well with each successive level, and more know-how to use them and keep them running.

Method Interactions
How well our equipment works together with our other systems can change the labor and ease involved, and may influence some of the management practices we put into play. For example…

– It’s not a big deal for somebody who works mostly by hand and on foot to incorporate row covers and irrigation lines. However, for somebody going whole hog on mech – electric hand tools, diesel or gas burners, or pony powered – it can either require specialized or upgraded equipment, or extra steps to clear them ahead of regular maintenance tasks and harvests.

– Succession planning methods where we incorporate a fast-growing crop in between the lines of a slower-growing crop (say, radishes in between onions, leaf lettuces in between head cabbage, beets in between spinach) lets us plant an “extra” line of something inside the grid/rows of our larger and longer-growing crop, using that space until other plants need it. While some equipment can be set up tight enough to be basically using the gap between already tight crops like beets or carrots, it’s usually going to require either manual follow-up, or entirely human-based planting.

– Techniques like double-hilled or trenched-hill furrows for irrigation typically require extra manual labor or at least a second pass with equipment (and equipment that can be modified for the new height and narrower width, quickly enough to be worth it), but it helps keep water available for newly sprouted crops and can make watering those delicates both faster and more efficient.

Irrigation/watering methods, mulching and mulch types, and the need for trellising are other areas with common interaction compatibility that can crop up, from tote-sized containers in apartments to wide acreage.

There are always balances between management practices, growing styles, scale, and the amount of space and labor – and type of labor – required and available for production.

Almost any crop can be produced with any method. However, the efficiency of crop+method combinations vary hugely. Some things lend themselves really well to balconies and patio containers and 30-48” wide beds. Others really lend themselves well to single-row planting with space to sprawl. Still others must be sown densely and in general blocks to ensure pollination and reduce weeds.

Sometimes tradeoffs are worth it to pick a single method. Sometimes we’ll be inclined to mix base production and management methods to specific crops and areas of our property.

Picking which is best – for each of us – means understanding that the relationships exist, doing some research, and working some trials to see what best fits us and our needs and abilities, balcony container gardens to tilled acreage.