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Our Experiment In Organic Gardening

After a whole post series around the risks of real estate investing, I thought I should give us a break. So it’s a lighter topic today. I’ll be talking about gardening. Specifically, our experiences with gardening on a patch of organic field that we rented for one season last year.

The Roman politician, lawyer, philosopher and writer Cicero is often cited to have said: “If you have a garden and a library, you have everything you need.” After I started thinking about what is important for a good life myself, I kept coming across this quote.


A garden that makes you happy

Since I read a lot and really appreciate books – just as gardens (at least to leisurely relax in them), Cicero’s view quite appealed to me. Maybe I should have looked up the original quote in Latin. I only read that when I researched the exact quote for this post.

The original runs: “Si hortum in bibliotheca habes, deerit nihil.” Now, my tuition in Latin has been QUITE some time ago and I only have the small Latinum. But if I’m not totally wrong, the literal translation would be: “If you have a garden in a library, you’ll never want for anything.” Maybe he did actually mean a courtyard garden adjoining the library of a Roman villa. Although that would not really be in the library itself obviously.


Inspired by homesteaders

After reading the original in latin, I do suspect, though, that the “garden” might have been of figurative nature. If I had only thought of that earlier…But I didn’t. And so this garden that was definitely bigger and more developable than the little patch around our house-slice kept reappearing in front of my mind’s eye.

Growing your own vegetables, or even having livestock is a recurring topic in the less-is-more/frugal-living-community, that inspired me as well. And I had fond – probably rather romanticized – memories of growing yummy things like strawberries in our family’s garden during my childhood. So the idea kept fermenting.

So the ground was well prepared (excuse the pun), when we received a brochure of the Ackerhelden (“Field Heroes”) with a delivery from our organic farm of trust.


All-round carefree package?

The Ackerhelden rent out – usually in cooperation with organic farms as far as I know – single plots of a larger field for individual use. It’s a package deal for the whole season. The season runs approximately from May to November, and we paid 199 EUR für a plot of about 40 square meters.

The plot comes prepared, i.e. ploughed, and the package contains a certain number of seedlings already planted. There is an on-site kick-off meeting and an “instruction manual” and other tips are available via an online-account. The Ackerhelden are not the only company offering this type of package. And there are organic farms that run their own, similar models. So just google what’s available in your region if you are interested.

There is generally nothing wrong with this type of concept at all. I thought pricing was quite okay as well. Besides the things mentioned above, packages include the provision of gardening tools like rakes, hoes, watering cans and wheel-barrows on site. The same goes for water. And that’s where we come to our first problem.


The relaxed week-end gardening illusion

In the days before the official start of the season which happened to fall on Ascension Day last year, it had been pouring from buckets. So we decided to skip the on-site kick-off due to the terrible weather. Had we known that this was pretty much the last day in the whole summer of 2018 on which the field was naturally watered, we might have gone just for the experience..

Optimistic as I am, I had taken the average 1 to 2 hours of work necessary per week former customers were quoted with at face value. The website now lists 2 hours on average. After our own experience, I don’t think that this is realistic even in our usual summers with more rain. But little did I know then, and I envisaged some nice, rather relaxed week-end gardening together with my husband. With more relaxing and a nice cup of cappucino in the farm’s café across the street afterwards.


Mega summer in Northern Germany

The relaxed part happened precisely never. Instead our region was blessed with one of the hottest summers and the least rain we had seen for decades. I think the summer just didn’t make summer of the century heat-wise. But just thinking of it makes me feel too exhausted to actually google and cross-check. Anyway, with these weather conditions the field didn’t only have to be watered on a daily basis till the seedlings were enrooted sufficiently, but basically every day all summer long.

Due to the extreme temperatures, though, this could only been done in the very early mornings or very late evenings. Things were made worse by the fact that in the beginning, there was only one standpipe with a pump that had to be operated manually. Which – in respect to our patch – was positioned as inconveniently as it gets.


Pumping like in the olden days

For a sociologist it might have been interesting to watch that despite being organically aware and totally sustainable at the water pump everybody fought for themselves: one, usually male, member of a team of “Ackerhelden” ran and claimed a wheelbarrow as quickly as possible an ran on towards the pump. The other member(s) of the party grabbed as many watering cans as could reasonably squeeze inside the wheel-barrow. Then the pump was worked more or less energetically – yes, as long as it takes to fill six to eight watering cans with a handpump – while the rest of the line at the pump tried to keep  up the pretense of relaxed watching. Seldom very convincingly.

To be fair, this problem seem to have been due to some start-up problems in the first year of working with the organic farm, or on this particular field. A second standpipe with running water was made available later. And it was positioned slightly better for us.


You better like what you grow

By this time we had already transferred our self-planted tomato seedlings from the patch to our balcony at home to save them from withering on the spot. Which was successful. But rather unfortunate in so far, as we weren’t actually fans of most of the pre-planted seedlings left on the field.

The exact selection of vegetables wasn’t defined when we decided on signing up for the package. I just checked on the website and it’s the same this year. In hindsight, we could have deduced from the additional seed packages sold, that our personal favorites would probably not come pre-planted.

I suspect it would boost your motivation for spending one to two hours on your patch of land every day if your mainly growing produce that you actually like. And that seemed to work for a lot of people. Some were passionate gardeners, and some plots were immaculately kept.


We’re definitely no “Field Heroes”

We did hoe the weeds as well. But possibly rather free-style. Our patch definitely stood out between its super-well maintained left and right hand neighbors. And we didn’t put up any nets, plastic tunnels or wind wheels.

But we at least tried to water daily throughout the whole summer. All the more since we had additionally planted our own cucumbers, carrots, colored beets, peas and beans among others. All vegetables we really love. Yupp, despite basically no real gardening experience whatsoever, we were quite the optimists…

Due to the watering only making sense very early or late in the day, my husband almost completely took over either on his way to or back from work. And since he’s generally an early riser on the week-ends, he often drove to the plot between 6 and seven on Saturdays and Sundays as well. So: big shout-out for him!


And the result?

Considering the effort, the outcome was very modest: Lettuce worked. Cucumbers, carrots, beets and beans didn’t even germinate or withered despite being watered. We harvested about five pea pods. Some vermin coated the pre-planted straw- and cornflowers with such a disgusting slime that we didn’t have any desire to put them in a vase, let alone bring them as a gift for someone..

We mis-timed harvesting our chard. There was some kind of cabbage for which I forget what did go wrong exactly. But wrong it went. The pre-planted onions and red beet did fine and we ate them.

And we learned that zucchini are the ideal vegetable for gardening-dummies like us: We harvested crazy amounts of zucchini. We had zucchini for dinner for what seemed – at least to our son – a never ending row of weeks. We had so many zucchini we actually gave away some particularly big ones as gifts. “From our own patch. So cool, aren’t they?”. Our gifts are usually received more enthusiastically…


Worth the experience

So what is our conclusion? We’re obviously not doing it again this year. And I’m really grateful for the fact that we don’t have to grow our own vegetables. I have seen farming from close by as a child. But this experience has really brought back to me how much work goes in the produce we just pick up at the supermarket. Even more so, when it’s grown organically.

But if you enjoy doing this kind of work, renting a package like this can be a great idea. I don’t think you will generate massive savings versus buying organic vegetables. Maybe if you’re already quite an experienced vegetable gardener. But you’ll be harvesting at the same time as the professional farmers. So offer should be high and prices correspondingly low.

There’s one thing that bothered me which is not directly tied to the package. Although the field was only about five kilometers from our house, the distance felt too long. If you only had to go during the week-ends it might not have mattered much. But I don’t think that’s realistic even if the season wasn’t as extreme as last year.

Although we were no ‘field heroes’ at all: We learned what makes sense growing ourselves on a small scale: primarily herbs, tomatoes, maybe garlic and spring onions. And our balcony is sufficient for that. For the (successful!) transfer of our tomatoes, we bought three of these high-beds (no affiliate-link). They will be put to good use this year. And I’m already looking forward to that.

Financial Independence Rocks!

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