Crops for Those “Unfarmable” Spaces
by Glenn G. Dahlem, Ph.D., of Honolulu, HI
Whether located in a suburban setting, or a rural one with limited available acreage, small farmers are always facing a perennial problem – not enough room. It seems a desired vegetable or two always gets left out, or if lucky to be included, there just aren’t enough individual plants to provide a desired yield.
However, right under a small farmer’s nose, on almost every city lot or nook and cranny of an oddly shaped rural parcel, there’s a home for some fruit or vegetable. Maybe that sliver of ground is only a few square feet, has limited sun, is in a ditch or against a wall or fence, but some certain garden plant or animal would love to call it home.
What may at first appear to make some location unusable – too narrow, presence of a tree, rocks in it – might be just the condition some plant could enjoy. For example, take the case of a narrow strip of land alongside a building wall. It’s only wide enough for one plant in a row, and receives limited sun due to the structure beside it. To the rescue – horse-radish! Horse-radish is one of the few plants that likes full sun, but does almost as well in the shade. It generally needs watering once a week, but in a humid climate, rain run-off from the nearby building roof may handle that chore adequately. Because it’s a perennial, it can be planted once as a root, and repeatedly harvested by removing the “suckers” that spring out from the central root. The leaves may also be picked for use in soups and salads. Some farmers like to pick horseradish flowers for inclusion in bouquets and as centerpieces.
What if the difficult to use space is a drainage ditch or culvert?
While somewhat unsightly and generally not thought of as a place to plant something, such a location certainly receives lots of sun and water. What better location for the venerable zucchini squash, which certainly needs lots of both? Zucchini’s large leaves serve to keep ditch weeds down, and its beautiful, large orange flowers will beautify what formerly was an eyesore. If the culvert experiences fast flowing water after a rainstorm, several small boards placed on edge at right angles to the flow will slow it down and prevent squash roots from being washed out.
Many hobby farm properties contain skyward-reaching appendages, like chain link fences, guy wires and poles of various kinds – eyesores to be sure, but potential homes for green Pole beans. Pole beans like to climb, and occasionally need to be steered in the right direction, but they offer the luxury of a lengthy, extensively yielding vine emanating from one small root area. Their hanging green bean pods offer the additional benefit of beautification of a formerly unattractive area.
Every small farm, it seems, has one little out of the way place, such as a rock pile or corner of land unsuitable to cultivation. What a great place for the two bad boys of the farming world, spearmint and peppermint. These two species have the nasty habit of spreading and choking out other plants. For this reason, small farmers avoid growing them. Just maybe there’s some little place for mint though, so it can be around to help flavor soups, stews and drinks, without choking out any garden neighbors.
Many small farms have a deciduous tree with unleafed lower branches, or a coniferous tree with widely spaced lower limbs. These could become ideal climbing locations for that free spirit of the gardening world, Clinton grapes. A cross between wild American grapes and two imported domestic European grape species, Clinton grapes are highly prized for wine making in America (but not in Europe where that use is even banned in some places). Many people like them as table grapes, others feel their flavor a bit strong. Clinton grapes like to climb trees, like their wild ancestors, eliminating any need to build a grape arbor for them.
Some small farms contain a rock outcropping, deteriorating brick or concrete wall, or some similar structure not in present human use. This could be just the place for Strangler figs. As their name implies, Strangler figs like to climb all over living trees and bushes, eventually killing them. However, Strangler figs aren’t choosy, and will seek to strangle a crumbling masonry structure just as much as a living tree. So that old crumbling wall on a small farm can be put to use helping raise a popular fruit treat, with minimal human labor involved.
A few small farms have the ultimate unfarmable landform feature, a steeply sloping bank or hillside. There is a way to deal with this problem, but unlike most other problem solutions, it’s costly and labor-intensive. The answer to sloping agricultural land is terracing. In simple terms, turn an inclined plane into a series of steps. Generally, a series of vertical risers are created using either thin concrete slabs or flagstones to hold back the soil of the next-highest level. The flat surfaces of each terrace are then planted with the preferred crop. A trickle-down watering system may be needed on the uppermost terrace in all but rainiest climates. Some Filipino and Asian farmers have been growing rice this way for two thousand years.
An alternative to terracing a hillside is to plant it with pasture suitable for a goat or two, presuming a small farmer wishes to tackle animal husbandry. Goats won’t mind a sloping pasture, but other hoofed grazers may, and even goats can overgraze a hillside, turning it into an eroding mess when it rains. Of all the mini-locations less desirable for any form of farming, sloping hillsides present the greatest challenges, both labor and money-wise.
When a small farmer seeks to increase production, a little imagination plus some specialized plant or animal knowledge can lead to big surprises. And those surprises were actually there all along.
Glenn Dahlem, age 84, resident of Honolulu, Hawaii, likes to write about farming/ gardening, coaching sports, linguistic anthropology, and teaching methods. He hold BS and Ph.D. degrees from his original hometown school, the University of Wisconsin- Madison and an MS from Winona (Minnesota) State University.