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February 2008 : The Five-Bed Unit

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The 5-Bed Unit: An Overview

History |  Learning Goals  | Activites  | Design Evolution  | Garden Plan  


Learning through doing is the motivation behind the 5-Bed Unit.  After Summer Course 2006 mini-farm design projects were completed, it became clear that we lacked experience with, and therefore understanding of how, the design process applies to a garden over time and to the actual day-to-day responsibilities of food-growing.

Margo enjoys working with numbers and design and has a passion for bringing the planning full-circle through creating a sustainable diet.  Dan enjoys the hands-on food-production and wants to take responsibility for growing our diet.  At the conclusion of our apprenticeship with Ecology Action, we are planning to use GROW BIOINTENSIVE mini-farming as the foundation of a lifestyle that seeks simplicity and sustainability.  Because we did not understand how a design comes to life in the garden, it became important that we make this learning possible.  And so the 5-Bed Unit came into existence.

Below are the learning goals that guide the project, followed by a discussion of corresponding activities.  A description of the evolution of the 5-Bed Unit mini-farm design precedes a few words about the garden plan, concluding this project overview.


Learning Goals

  • To gain better understanding of using the mini-farm design to plan and grow a complete diet.
  • To understand garden planning, including scheduling of flatting, pricking out, transplanting, and harvesting, catch crop use, and crop rotation over time.
  • To be more aware of the daily garden needs and changes through direct responsibility for 5 beds.
  • To learn what the time commitment is for raising one’s own food.
  • To practice and understand record keeping as it applies to learning from each growing season and considering sustainability.


Activities to Achieve Learning Goals

  • Complete a mini-farm design, Forms 7-9 from Ecology Action’s Booklet #31 (based on intermediate yields from How to Grow More Vegetables), using our own dietary preferences.  Design a 5-bed unit based on the design.  In the kitchen, prepare and eat this diet once a month.
  • For each year, fall to fall, create a calendar of flatting, pricking out, transplanting, and harvesting.  Create a full season map including winter crops, main season crops, and catch crops.  Establish a crop rotation for the complete unit, if possible.
  • Look at our unit each day to be aware of garden needs.  Determine what care the beds need, consulting Carol if necessary.  Take responsibility for this care.  For example, cultivate and weed when it needs to be done.  (This includes flatting, pricking out, transplanting, and harvesting.)
  • Record each task and the time it took to complete on a calendar.  Include planning and record keeping.  Compile this data in the winter.  Extrapolate this data to the entire mini-farm design.
  • Maintain log sheets according to general garden procedure.  Compile data from the log sheets to look at yields.  Especially note the calories, biomass, and theoretical income produced as they compare to design goals.  Consider changes to the design and the unit based on this learning.  Conclude from record-keeping errors or gaps how to keep more thorough data in the following season.


Design Evolution

The mini-farm design is a plan to grow all the food one will eat in a year.  It assumes that effective food storage, food preservation, and crop phasing can happen, allowing each crop, for example potatoes, to be eaten throughout the year.  The mini-farm design for this unit is in its third revision.  It began as Margo’s Summer Course 2006 design and has been modified based on experiential learning.

Initially, the goals behind the design were to meet caloric and nutritional needs in the smallest space possible and have a low weight to eat per day.  The calorie goal is 2400 calories per day.*  When we weighed our daily food intake, we recognized that Margo eats 4 lb of food only occasionally and 3.5-3.7 comfortably.  Dan eats 4 lb of food comfortably and 5 only occasionally.  The goals became to create a complete diet of 876,000 calories (2400 x 365 days), to be eaten in about 3.5 lb of food each day, and grown in 40 beds or less.

The first design was completely theoretical.  Forms 7 (diet design), 8 (income design), and 9 (compost design) from mini-farm design Booklet #31 were used.  This plan included sweet potatoes, potatoes, and garlic for special roots; parsley, pinto beans (interplanted with corn), and cayenne pepper as vegetable crops; and flour corn, oats, filberts, and raisin grapes for carbon-and-calorie crops.  The income crops were early bunching onions (EBOs), leeks, amaranth for seed, and tomato for seed.  Additional immature compost crops were alfalfa, fava beans, comfrey, and medium red clover.

This diet felt strong at 3.75 lb of food to eat daily providing 2548 calories in a total of 40.57 beds.  This does assume all the crops are growing at the same time, not allowing for crop rotation over time.  This is one of the challenges between making the design and creating from it a garden plan.

After the design was finished, Margo completed a nutritional analysis with Form 10, looking at how closely the design fulfilled the National Academy of Sciences Recommended Daily Allowances (R.D.A.).  The following nutrients were considered: calories, protein, carbohydrates, fat, isoleucine, leucine, lycine, methionine, cystine, phenylalanine, tyrosine, tryptophan, threonine, valine, Vit. A, Vit. B6, Vit. B12, Vit. C, Vit. E, linoleic acid, folic acid, pantothenic acid, histidine, iodine, zinc, calcium, iron, phosphorus, potassium, magnesium, copper, thiamin (Vit. B1), riboflavin (Vit. B2), and niacin.

This design was nutritionally strong, meeting R.D.A. goals in almost every area with no areas of concern.  It was interesting to note that filberts are nutritional power-houses, often causing the totals to be well-above the targets.  This is especially true for fat, many amino acids, magnesium, and copper.  Without the filberts these numbers were close to or surpassing the target, with the exception of fat (R.D.A. 22-30 g, diet 13.44 g without filberts, 84.2 with filberts).

The final test of the design was to eat it.  Margo planned a three-day menu including things like sweet potato and filbert soup, garlic sauce, tortillas, polenta, oatmeal with cayenne and filberts, mashed potatoes and garlic, bean salad, potato and bean cakes, filbert and raisin spread, parsley on everything, filberts for snacking, etc.  After one day we stopped eating the diet, it was too extreme! The problem was not the total weight to consume; rather, we had trouble with the overwhelming quantities of certain foods, namely garlic, parsley, cayenne, flour corn, filberts, and sweet potato.  It was clear the design was a theoretical success, but a failure at the table.  Back to the drawing board!

Because the main shift needed to be in diet crops, not income or compost, only Form 7 was revised at this stage.  The goal was to create an edible design providing 2400 calories in 3.5 lb of food per day grown in 40 beds or less.  (Note: Another important area where a shift is required is in the diet we typically consume.  It is important to slowly transition our diet into one that can be more easily grown in a small area.  For example, learning to eat more corn and moving away from so much wheat.  We have been working at this for the past three years.  At our pace of change, it is likely that we will be close to completing this shift two to three years from now.) 

Based on eating discoveries and preferences, the amounts of potatoes and pinto beans were increased.  The daily consumption of sweet potatoes, garlic, parsley, cayenne, flour corn, and filberts was decreased.  Oats were replaced by amaranth and cereal rye, after considering the ease of processing and preparing these and other grains.  Leeks, parsnips, and wheat were considered but determined not weight-efficient and area-efficient enough for the stringent goals of this re-design.  The resulting totals were 3.93 lb providing 2129 calories in 23.51 beds (diet beds only).  The calories fell short of the 2400 per day goal.*  Not wanting to add more weight makes this a challenge.  Of the crops included in the diet, the remaining calories can be acquired by raisins with the least amount of increase in edible weight, only 0.2 lb.  The final question is: can one eat a total of 0.26 lb of raisins in one day?  This question remains untested, the new design has not been prepared and eaten, and a nutritional analysis is pending.

The income design remained the same, accounting for 1.5 beds.  The compost design was revised based on the diet design changes.

The last area of challenge between a theoretical design and the practical garden plan was timing.  The design process assumes growing all crops in the same growing season.  The farming practices of winter/cover crops and catch crops (grown between crops harvested in the early summer and the crops planted in the fall) are omitted from the design exercise for the sake of education and understanding the important points.  As we prepared to grow a 5-bed representation of our design, we needed to adjust for seasonal growing.  The compost design, Form 9, was affected. 

Because we began growing our 5-Bed Unit before this last design revision was made, the design now reflects the reality in the garden plan.  The mature crops are carried over from the diet and income design.  The immature compost crops in the design are fava beans and B14CC (Booklet #14 compost crops: interplanted wheat, rye, fava beans, and vetch), the cover crops we are growing in the garden for the winter season.  The beds in the design reflect the proportion of these crops in the 5-Bed Unit.  This incorporation of seasonal growing means no beds are added to the compost design specifically for immature compost material production; instead, beds growing diet crops in the main season are growing compost materials in the winter.  Now the compost design is a year-round design.  This required some creative thinking as Form 9 assumes one main-season crop.  We used [] and () to indicate crops in beds that are already accounted for in other design totals; therefore, they will not contribute to any other totals (except when calculating production totals) and will not receive a compost application.  (The only crops not included in the design are catch crops, because they rely on the flow of each season and are not planned far in advance.)

The total bed count of the design is now 25.01: 23.51 beds from the diet design and 1.5 beds from the income design.  The design uses 277.9 of 300.12 possible bed-crop-months (BCM).  (BCM is a measure of how many beds are available for planting through one year, calculated by multiplying the beds by the months: 25.01 x 12= 300.12.  The more BCM used, the more efficient the use of garden space.)

This is the evolution of the design to date, February 2008.  The remaining tasks are as mentioned:

1-testing the diet for edibility, including an increase in raisins to meet calorie goals and
2-completing the Form 10 nutritional analysis.
One other variable that will affect the design is the practical learning provided by the garden; the soil, the climate, and other realities will likely lead to changes in the theoretical design.


Garden Plan

In the Ecology Action Research Garden, the 5-Bed Unit will include contiguous beds, 26 and 36-39.  In addition, one 25 sq ft gopher cage in bed 67 will be used.  This comes to a total of 583 sq ft.  The annual crops in the mini-farm design will be grown according to design proportions.  The perennials will not be included in the 5-Bed Unit.  The crops grown will be part of the garden research, including some special tests.  The garden research will be presented as normal, outside of the 5-Bed Unit data.

One discrepancy between the design and the crops grown is grain.  Because of flow in the garden it is best to grow a whole bed of winter grain, though the design only includes 40 sq ft of rye.  To better merge with the garden we are growing 70 sq ft of other winter grains to have a full bed.  To balance the caloric impact this would have on the design, we are growing less amaranth in the summer.  The actual crop yields and calories grown can be seen in the data.

The 5-Bed Unit data and experience will be evaluated each season through a presentation of biomass, calories, and income (theoretical) produced and the time invested in the unit.  In addition, we will consider any qualitative learning we acquired and look at changes we might want to make in future growing seasons.

*How many calories we each need to consume daily remains an unknown.  The 2400 calories per day goal was determined to be the average daily intake of all people: women, men, children, elders, pregnant, lactating, etc., from a UN report.   In 2006 Margo completed Form 2 (Booklet #31) to calculate caloric need, keeping track of all of her activities for 2 weeks, in 15-minute blocks.  The result revealed she need 2586 calories in the heat of the summer.  Several Internet sites calculated her need to be between 1306 and 3103 calories per day.  In the fall of 2007, we both calculated how many calories we consumed for two days, discovering we ate about 1800-1900 calories (cool season).  We recognize we do not know how many calories we need each day, but will go with the 2400 average in planning and work on answering this question over time.




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