Sometimes it is helpful to think of how we grow in a new light, from a new angle, in a different way. Here, we will discuss seeing the grower as similar to an action sport athlete, say a snowboarder, skater or soccer player.
I know—this isn’t a normal analogy for a farmer who deals with potato yields and blight on tomatoes as factors of success. But hear me out! There is something to be said for looking at our gardens in this way.
Gardening as Sport
Consider these questions:
- Aren’t we racing against time with a limited growing season?
- Don’t we have goals to achieve using the supplies, land and equipment we have?
- Couldn’t we look at our various farm projects and give them some sort of relative rating of success?
- Don’t we have different tricks of the trade that we apply to garden crop production?
This last statement is the crux of this point of view. Namely, professional growers are great at what they do because they have mastered specific gardening concepts by applying various tools and energy to a specific practice.
Or, in other words, they have their garden tricks.
Linking Garden Tricks Through the Season
Of course, professional athletes learn tricks too, and they apply them in a string of events when they engage in their sport.
The snowboarder will take a run down the hill to the bottom while carving, jumping and spinning. Or the soccer player will run along the field towards the goal while dribbling, stalling and passing.
This is similar to how a grower starts out the gate in spring and must make it to their last CSA drop off or final farmers market by applying their best tools and techniques to help them succeed! Each farmer has a run on the “street course” of their fields, where they can apply their skills as a series of tricks.
A successful run is one that utilizes great tricks and techniques and minimizes falls and fumbles. Yields are high, quality is up and energy is efficient.
In the recent Olympic events, it was fun to watch skateboarders compete for the first time. I showed my kids how these athletes strung together a series of maneuvers as a “successful run.” Skaters that used great tricks and style with minimal mistakes scored the highest. When approaching different obstacles such as ramps, quarter pipes, or handrails, each skater applied an appropriate trick based on the obstacle and available strength, equipment and knowledge.
Similarly, growers encounter different obstacles during a growing season and can turn them into opportunities with the right trick. Just as a ramp becomes a launch spot for a 360-degree spin, a wet year with properly spaced crops for air flow (coupled with well-drained raised beds) becomes one that doesn’t require irrigation.
Farming is all about running up against obstacles and making the best of it.
Breaking Down the Tricks
The concepts and techniques we apply to growing a market garden, from understanding season-extension to succession planting, can be further broken down into effective tricks of the trade.
So, what is a trick for a gardener or small farmer? One example could be stale seeding your Permabed before seeding weed-sensitive crops like carrots. By understanding the needs of the carrot crop and the concept of pre-weeding (literally weeding an unplanted bed) we can apply stale seeding as a great trick!
Here the grower prepares an ideal garden bed, then waits a week. Next they weed it quickly without any crop to go around and then seed!
Another great trick is alternate maturity patterning (see my book Permaculture Market Garden for more on this). In this, crops of a different maturity are preferentially planted in adjacent beds to maximize space sharing.
Take squash, for instance, planted in a middle bed between beds of spinach and lettuce. Here the squash can mature and sprawl over adjacent beds after salad greens have been harvested.
Yet, there are many ways to apply this alternate maturity patterning trick. And perhaps, to continue our earlier sports metaphor, this is similar to trick variations an inline skater may perform.
For instance, the inline skater might do a straightforward Miszou grind on a rail. Alternatively, this inline skater might do a 180 spin up to the rail and then the grind. Or further still, they might approach the rail while skating backwards, jump and then do the grind backwards.
When we learn great grower tricks like using row cover to prevent frost damage, we can apply them in different ways, such as
- sealing the edges with soil for a better seal
- using row sand bags for a quicker covering
- using galvanized wire hoops to keep plant leaves unweighted so as not to bend more fragile stems
Or we can link these tricks all together by putting in the galvanized hoops for the tomatoes, dropping row bags to quickly hold the row cover against the wind and then later sealing the edges with soil when a cold night approaches. When we know garden tricks and their variations, we can apply them appropriately in different circumstances and link them together as effective systems.
Catalog of Tricks
The point of this analogy is to liken a successful growing season to a successful “play” or “run” in a sport like soccer or skating. We do this because, when we learn great tricks of the trade and truly understand them, often the only missing element is stringing them together in a successful manner, with minimal fumbles or falls.
Every year I learn new tricks or variations of techniques that help me grow more efficiently and effectively. And often what I find is that, when something goes wrong, it is not because I didn’t know the right trick. Rather, I didn’t actually use the trick or didn’t have enough rhythm in my season to use it correctly.
Can it help us as growers to catalogue the tricks we know? By better defining the tricks I know and the variations I sometimes need, I can be prepared for changing environmental pressures or economic opportunities.
I give my farming tricks solid names. As as result, they become familiar to me. In gardening, I use succession planting and stale seeding. These names are similar in usage to a kick flip, “Bio 540” or even a slam dunk.
And like a skater performing a run, in a successful season we string together gardening tricks. We just need to determine when a trick is appropriate and the correct order of operations for a particular variation.
We can feel confident that we have what it takes for a great season no matter what ramp, slope or other obstacle comes along. When growers move through the seasonal motions rhythmically, approaching each obstacle with a known solution, we will succeed.
And, sometimes we’ll find a top notch trick—like a triple-axle in ice skating. These we must practice, learn and perfect to become champion growers!