One of the foundations of permaculture is the idea of obtaining yourself a yield. In the process of awakening our senses from "modern" society and reconnecting to the natural world around us, it makes sense that our gardening efforts provide real, tangible goods we can use. These could range from aromatic and medicinal herbs to vegetables and fruits for our meals, to things as diverse as wicker basketry woven from willow branches, and coppiced firewood from fast-growing leguminous trees. There is really no limit to the useful items that nature gifts us.
Applying Yields to Gardening
As gardening educators, we've found that it's really important for gardeners to experience a satisfying harvest that first year of gardening. Quite often, the enthusiasm of the beginning gardener is tempered by the reality of gardening as an exercise in patience and humility. There is nothing more frustrating than taking care of young seedlings with parental care and seeing your "babies" wither and die out a few days after transplanting.
Since we would like to maximize our yields, we want to tilt the odds in our favor by focusing on crops that generally take care of themselves, produce abundantly, and are normally expensive to purchase from a supermarket.
Common Annual Plant Yields
|Name||Family||Yield||Space Requirements||Monetary Value1||Days To Harvest||Easy-To-Grow|
|Beets||Chenopods||.5-1lb/sq. ft.||Small||Medium ($3/ft2)||65||Medium|
|Sweet Potato||Morning Glory||5-10lb/plant||Large||Medium($4/ft2)||120||Easy|
As you can see from the chart, fruiting plants and tubers tend to have the highest effective yields, but in some cases might not be your best choice because they typically take a bit longer to mature in order to form a bulb or produce fruit. Items like carrots might be great bets from an economic perspective, but can produce very heavy yields, depending on the soil conditions, and require almost no maintenance.
Permaculture focuses on perennial plants because their combination of resiliency and yield are unmatched by annuals that have to establish a complete root system from seed in under 100 days. I've listed a few easy-to-buy perennial plants that are worth considering in a beginning garden because they produce abundantly in the first year or two of planting and have less problems with insects and weather than their annual cousins.
Common Perennial Plant Yields
|Plant||Early Yields||Established Yields||Space Requirements||Monetary Value1|
|Turkish Rocket||1lb/plant||4-5lb/plant||Medium||Not Commercially Sold|
How to Multiply Your Crop Yields
I like to use the term, "multipliers" to describe actions that you can take in your gardens that will multiply your harvests by 2x or 3x. This might sound like it involves magic or something complicated but in most cases these actions are really simple. After your first season of harvests, start designing your garden and planting calendar with these multipliers in mind to quickly scale up to hundreds of pounds of vegetables and fruits. There are other multipliers in the garden designer's playbook, but I've included 2 that make the biggest immediate impact.
Use Permaculture Crop Rotations to Grow Year-Round
Most annuals require less than 100 days from seed to harvest, so rotating new plants in once your first crops are spent means you can easily grow 2 and in some cases 3 complete cycles of crops in one year. This is by far the easiest way to multiply your harvests but most people are unaware that you can even do this. One of the concerns I sometimes hear is that the soil will get depleted, but multi-cropping with a little foresight will actually enhance your soil life instead of depleting the soil2.
An important aspect of effectively managing multiple crops is knowing how and when to pull out the first crop. Many people will leave their fruiting crops (beans, tomatoes) in too long; when you are only getting harvests once a week instead of every day, it's usually best to rotate in your new crop.
Grow in 3 Dimensions (and 2-3x your yield)
So how do we practically take advantage of multiple layers in our gardens. One easy way to design a multi-layer garden is to identify plants that primarily occupy one of the layers without having much footprint in the other layers. An obvious place to start are vining plants like sweet potato, indeterminate tomatoes, grapes, etc. Even though these plants have relatively large root systems, you can place the roots in places that don't get a lot of sun and train them up trellises and vertical support systems into areas that do get better sunlight.
Some root crops like garlic and carrots do very well with other crops and don't take much space above the ground. Ground covers like yarrow and strawberry provide a living mulch that keeps the soil moist and grow easily under other large berry bushes or shrubs. You can even take advantage of your existing vertical structures like fences or walls and mount small containers to grow easy crops like lettuce and radish.
One final word on ensuring that you have high-yielding crops this year is to diversify what you grow. Surround your cash crops with players that will promote their growth, deter pests and produce some tasty food as well. We've written more about building diversity in your garden here.
Call to Action
If you want to start committing to a garden routine and grow food in just 15 minutes a day, check out our "Garden Streak-Tracker."
- Organic Produce Price List. https://www.foodcoop.com/produce
- Information about multiple cropping https://ag4impact.org/sid/ecological-intensification/diversification/multiple-cropping/
- Crop Rotation Templates http://www.betterhensandgardens.com/garden-crop-rotation-a-simple-system/
- Robert Hart's classic guide to food forests https://www.amazon.com/Forest-Gardening-Cultivating-Edible-Landscape/dp/0930031849
- The Sun is our greatest natural energy resource. http://zebu.uoregon.edu/disted/ph162/l4.html
- Plant's Sunlight requirements http://https://www.hydroponics.net/items/details/choose_a_grow_light.php/