What Is Space Anyway?



I just finished reading a pre-publication copy of  Paradise Lot, by Eric Toensmeier and Jonathan Bates (out next year) that makes me wonder exceedingly about the meaning of what we refer to as “space.”  On only one tenth of an acre, the authors tell how they squeeze in 150 to 200 different kinds of food plants, including some in a pond and more in a greenhouse, all for year round eating in the north. From this “space” they are harvesting 400 pounds of perennial fruits and vegetables every year (some of which I have never heard of, like Rebecca violets) plus lots of annual vegetables. The book includes a detailed layout map showing how they do it, but I’m still finding it hard to believe. The best way I can think to describe their method is that they’ve eliminated space in their garden except for the pathways, which they are trying to fill with useful low-growing plants too. From now on, when someone asks me how we can prevent food scarcity forever I have a ready answer. Simply eliminate our preconceived notions of space. With work and knowhow, we can always find room to grow more food. Using the forest food methods of Paradise Lot, I have a hunch we could right now be growing all the food we need simply by eliminating all the space taken up by America’s lawns and filling it with food producing plants. If we run out of that space, there’s thousands and thousands of miles along all our roads which could be growing food or fiber.

Recently, we took our grandson back to college. Once more my notion of space was shattered. In a silo- shaped, tall apartment complex where he rooms, architects figured out a way to accommodate hundreds of students more or less comfortably by eliminating space. Something occupies nearly every square foot of that building. The cramped conditions struck me as inhuman but all the students I asked insisted that they “love” being in college.

How extravagant I am. My gardens occupy nearly two acres including the orchard trees and I don’t produce any more food than Paradise Lot does. I am now determined to get rid of all that wasted space between my conventional rows, something I had already started to do because of age. The rewards are immediate. There is less space to cultivate and therefore less expense and surprisingly less muscle needed. I can do “space-less” gardening with hoe and hand easier than a large space with a mechanical tiller. And cutting down the size of the garden means we don’t grow more food than we can eat.

Our house provides at least ten times the amount of square footage for us than our grandson’s apartment building does for him. When I think of the huge size of many newer houses I have visited in recent years, I wonder exceedingly. How often the people who live there admit that their houses are too big. The gross amount of unnecessary space that must be cleaned and heated and maintained in addition to the appalling cost of constructing these huge receptacles of space is obscene. That so many people borrowed so much money to trap all that space inside their houses is the main reason the economy collapsed.

How far off am I to say that space doesn’t really exist? It is a creation of the human mind. Objects in “space” define space and we could add many centuries, maybe immortality, to the earth and save many billions of dollars just by not pretending that space is real and that we need to capture very large amounts of it in our homes to be happy.  We have gotten to the point environmentally where we are spending more money maintaining space than we are on objects in space.


Mr. James Thomas,
All very well said, an abundance of excellent info in a small space.
–Greg M.

Yes Gene, college is a great experience. College kids love meeting new people and being social (sometimes more than school work, which may not be a good thing. Who knows?), so the cramped spaces only help them be around other kids. In my college experience back in the old days, I too was cramped in a room with three other guys, and those guys opened me up to a network of new people so I loved it. Us old folks view being close to people all the time as a terrible thing, but I believe that is mostly because we have lived that part of our lives and be like to be isolated back in our woods’ now.

We use to garden a space of about 1/3 acre we would put our veggies in rows, weed, till, till then weed some more, Did I mention we had bermuda grass. We grew alot but worked our butts off doing it. Half the time it didn’t look like I wished it could due to the grass and weeds. Several years ago we learned about raised bed intensive gardening we put in several 4×16′ beds and now grow on abouit 1/4th of the land we used to garden we will the beds up with our crops and that keeps the weeds at bay we can cover the beds easly which extends our seasons and we don’t ukse a tiller any more. Our wallkways are heavly mulched and gardening is once again fun. Did I mention we get more out of our smaller garden and I can actually control the bermuda grass as well (still work though)

small farms matter big December 10, 2012 at 4:01 pm

James M. Thomas, I believe you just did write a tome. In writing about space you managed to fill a heap of space. But that’s okay. You do have a command of the language, and talk of manure pack and Mycorhizzae is good talk, I suppose, no matter the short or long.

Well Said Gene. (with the exception I’ll discuss shortly.)

I try to practice what is preached herein. Although my wife and I still have a long way to go in improving space efficiency , it is truly amazing how much can be grown in intensive beds enriched with manure pack.

However, as you have pointed out indirectly in previous writings, the lawns versus gardens conflict is a disaster waiting to happen. First of all, the Bluegrass/ Clover mix as you know is excellent sheep feed and that in itself is a means of maintaining fertility and controlling erosion. I’ve a friend who rotates strips of clover that are mowed several times during the growing season with strips of vegetables in a bed design.

Strips of lawn also maintain Mycorhizzae because of the nature of their perennial roots provides refugia that can host Mycorhizzae through tough winters in the form of tiny vesicles so that when conditions are favorable they can send out hyphae in abundance to provide water and nutrients, including otherwise insoluble Phosphorus to the plants. ( I could send some slides of such taken with powerful microscopic capable cameras in a PowerPoint Format, but that would probably exceed my Email limited capacity) Evidence indicates that when many, although not all, annual vegetables are planted in the cleared strips between the grass clover strips the Mycorhizzae can readily colonize the annual vegetables, but because the annual plants are annual, they can’t use them as a host to overwinter, at least not very readily according to current knowledge (Source: Larry Simpson with Mycorhizzal Applications in Grant’s Pass, OR). Hence the importance of the grass/clover roots to serve as overwintering sites for Mycorhizzae. Also very important :the Mycorhizzae are extremely important for creating long lasting true organic matter. Without “Lawn long lasting true organic matter is hard to replicate. Most compost eventually dissipates into gases compared to long-lasting true organic matter from decomposed Mycorhizzal hyphae. It why the plains were so fertile for so long until the droughts came. The organic matter from decomposed fungal hyphae made it that way.

This is also one of the reasons so many food crops need so much fertility, without the benefit of Mycorhizzae effectively extending the roots and making additional nutrients available they need to have easy to reach nutrients and water. For example,on my garden patches, I rotate with lawn/pasture, which lawn/pasture hosts abundant Mycorhizzae .

Here is a typical rotation: I fed hay to a couple of steers on the next year’s planned garden patch. I gave the steers a fairly small amount of whole corn to encourage the chickens to scratch out the manure patties so the ground was evenly covered with a small amount of “Waste Hay” which was mainly thick alfalfa stems and a small amount of grass and alfalfa leaves or processed hay in the form of urine and manure. Once the ground was dry enough to work the next Spring and the lawn/pasture Bluegrass/Clover 6″ -12″ in height, I mowed the vegetation short and then rotary tilled. Because I was short on manure pack, that was all the fertilization that plot received that year. It is incredible how tough it is to till under the Bluegrass/Clover sod and roots combination. No wonder it resists erosion.

All the vegetables and sweet corn that could benefit with Mycorhizzae were inoculated at planting and beans were also inoculated. Yields were more than we could use and quality and taste exceptional.

To reiterate a point:even in a small space such as a garden bed, to be truly sustainable, it is important to integrate grass/ legume lawn/pasture and if feasible some type of livestock to use the pasture, even if it is just a chicken or rabbit or two. Conflict between gardens and lawns should not exist, but the lawn/pasture should complement the garden and play a vital role in sustainability. Note; as I write this I’m watching soon to be butchered poultry and small livestock forage in the current lawn/ pasture which was garden in years past.

Perhaps as the recent film by Ken Burns pointed out, people have forgotten the Dust Bowl wherein grasslands were plowed out to plant crops and the hard lessons learned that such abandonment of grasslands to the plow can result in horrible damage, or even loss of human life. True enough, it’s a bit of a stretch to equate a backyard garden bed with plowed up plains, but the lessons in soil and water management still apply. Soil is still soil and water is still water, no matter what scale or “Space” we are referring to.

If I had more time and “space” I would simply apply manure pack on the sod for next year’s garden and save the hard work of tilling, but I’m not there yet. I think you refer to that practice as sheet composting. But it is still hard work by any method. whether tilling is involved or not. I have yet to figure out how to reduce the weight of a wheelbarrow full of manure pack. So whether the sod strip to be converted to garden is tilled , spaded or covered with manure pack or other organic material there is still work involved, which, considering my girth from all that abundant produce, is not a bad deal for my health.

Eventually I hope to match nutrient cycling so the lawn/pasture and crops grown are adequate to support the livestock and the gardens with no imported inputs such as purchased hay, straw and grain. At that point, especially if we are adequately supplied with, not only produce, but all needed nuts,fruit and livestock products we will be truly sustainable.

Small spaces can be very productive but it is important to consider all the inputs and think seriously about true sustainability. Which means outside inputs are eventually minimized. The question to ask is: were the nutrients used to produce a high amount of produce obtained from that same small lot or not? If not, then it is a vegetable version of a feedlot referred to as a: Confined Animal Feeding Operation (CAFO). Hmm … a confined vegetable feeding operation (CVFO) . Please Consider ALL the space involved to produce those vegetables.

Another great post, Gene.

Twenty years of gardening in a suburban backyard (in Fort Collins, CO — Hello to previous commenter Betty!) I’m glad I got onto bio-intensive techniques via John Jeavons’ book “How to Grow More Vegetables etc.” so I could absolutely maximize use of space in that little yard.

Now, on seven acres, I still pack the gardening in as tightly as possible to save as much other space as possible for grass; pasture for herbivores just can’t be done ‘intensively’ so every square inch is precious.

I’d encourage you to look into the Jeavons method. I rarely use a hoe or cultivator, though i do spend a fair amount of time on my knees in the narrow aisles between raised beds (which I keep filled with a comfy layer of tree leaves saved from previous autumn). Not a bad way to garden, much easier on the back than standing using long handled tools. Lots and lots of organic ground cover mulch means that weeding is only needed on beds when nursing seedlings up big enough to get more mulch around them.

Check them out at: http://www.growbiointensive.org/

You’re right about the less space you grow vegetables in the more work and time it takes to do it.I’ve gone to 6ft row spacing with most vegetables so I can drive a garden tractor down between the rows for weed contol and harvesting.I guess I ‘waste’ alot of space in a way but
I have acres on my farm the aren’t really being used for any particular purpose so I don’t see the need to have my gardens and truck patches cramped.I also have grass areas at the end of the rows to turn the equipment around on.If it were not for my mechanical helpers and plenty of space to use them I’d of had to give up gardening.

I am a produce farmer making my entire living on 3.5 acres. Subtracting square footage for house, drives, barn, greenhouse, sheds, implement storage/parking, I have about 2.25 acres available for crop. I can make a living here only by dint of much labor. That is what is lacking wherever you see “space.” Oh sure, you could plant fruit and nut trees along the highway, or turn a quarter acre lot into a lush bounty, but only by applying the one element that Americans avoid — hard, laborious, constant physical labor in all weather conditions. Who would prune, weed, mulch, harvest all those miles of fruit and nut trees? Can’t be done just when the weather is nice. That quarter acre? well, be prepared to make that space your number one priority over sports watching, socializing, shopping, reading, arts, culture, even cooking and cleaning. I don’t mean to cast a negative pall over the ideas presented here, but rather, I am interested in not candy-coating the effective realities of bringing these ideas into fruition. Lots of work when Mother Nature says, not when you say. I work all day, seven days a week, every week, all year long in order to turn my allotted 150,000 square feet of earth into a supportable existence.

Permaculture seems to be a viable option for utilizing the space (at least as far as home gardens and small farms not involved in monoculture) the ideas are smart and are remarkably like what the Indians did for centuries! Since I live in the suburbs on a somewhat busy road, it is hard for me to imagine having a front yard garden (Zoning wouldn’t allow it for one) but I always think of car exhaust and people walking their dogs, not a good mix with my food.
As for land, I don’t have my farm yet but I always dream about having somewhere between 10 – 20 acres because I would like to have a few animals and they need that space, plus the fact that I want a mix of open space and woodland. If I didn’t have animals I would probably need a minimum of 5 acres because there are too many restrictions as to what you can do with your land until you get at least 5 acres. A certain amount of space would mean a degree of freedom from county/state regulations. (Where I live you can’t have chickens on your property unless you have a minimum of 3 acres AND you are zoned Rural/Agriculture).
As for small vs large homes, my house would be considered small these days at 1850 sq. feet, but I have found that I much prefer that amount of space to the square footage of my first home which was somewhere around 1200. Needlessly large homes aside, the issue for me isn’t necessarily that smaller will make you more efficient and that bigger is wasteful because there seems to be a setpoint where things just work whether it be because of freedom from regulations or just how you live in your home.

I am an American who moved to Germany. I left a 1350 sq ft apartment with no garden space in America for a 650 sq ft apartment with a large terrace with pots for planting. I have grown tomatoes and herbs and next year hope to plant sunflowers, tomatoes, peppers and maybe sweet potatoes. We also have a kiwi vine and raspberries. We have quite a few decorative plants and trees too. I would like to plant an Elderberry bush too, along with some more herbs for eating and home health. Our flat is just right for the two of us and the only time I miss any more space is when the weather is unpleasant out and we get a little ‘on top’ of each other. We have plenty of space for us and for growing a bit of food. I think people need to go back to being ‘adaptable’ and content in your circumstances. Forget ‘perfection’ of circumstances, or appearing to have everything, forget wanting others to admire your success. Of course, cutting out most commercial television also cut down on my wants. It is remarkable how much media influences the things we think we need, and thus the space we have to have to house all of our stuff.

I live in Germany on a half acre and like most people here we have a big house. It must be said most houses are multi-generations OMA/OPA, Parents and Grandchildren sometime Great Grandparents. My good friends live in the Netherlands where land had to be created from the sea and they have small houses. I like them but you have to be very comfortable with the smaller personal space between people. My garden is planted mostly in metal square meter top/bottom less boxes (slug fences) to keep the slugs out. I have one for zucchini/yellow summer squash, beets, carrots, onions, broccoli, cauliflower, red cabbage, white cabbage and Savoy cabbage. I grow lettuce between the young Brassica oleracea plants. I tried to have the boxes very close together but found weeding difficult I now space them 2 feet apart in a row and 3 feet between rows. I try to utilize every bit of land but keep finding that everything is a comprise between wasting space and being too crowded. Now if I only didn’t have to go to work I could make things just the they way they should be. But then, I think my wife would change my mind on how things should be.

Ha, great minds must really think alike because i was recently thinking of all the space wasted in modern agriculture. A 20 acre field is really only 10 because of the space between the rows that’s simply wasted as room for tires. It would take some thinking, but why couldn’t we take the smaller integrated systems like you mentioned in the article and apply it large scale like in a field? The idea of space saving isn’t new. The native americans didn’t plant in nice rows. Their 3 sisters style of farming involved planting corn, when the corn was a few inches tall beans were planted around it which grew up the stalk of the corn, once the beans had grow to a few inches squash was planted around the beans which grew big leaves that helped shade the soil and keep moisture in; genius! Gene, if you’re interested in a fascinating native american farming book, i just finished one called “Buffalo Bird Woman’s Garden” that was historically interesting as well as agriculturally.

PS: Whenever i tell someone about your books, i always describe them the same way: It’s like listening to stories from your grandfather…that’s what keeps me coming back!

I’m with you on what a waste of time,money and energy lawns are for no return and today’s houses are mostly large to be a status symbol,but I grew up in a large old farmhouse and we put most all the space to good use like the sewing room with its large quilting frame,the pantry that held things like barrels of corn meal,flour and the like.part of the kitchen was used to work up slaughtered chickens,hogs,beef etc.Also we needed a room to store the many goods we canned and dried over the course of a year.The more self sufficient I have become the more space I need.I don’t imagine those college students butcher or can much of what they eat.

A timely post. I just returned from visiting my daughter and her husband in Ft Collins, CO. On my daily walks, I passed many little houses in the older part of town with beautiful veggie gardens as front yards. One day while there, I had lunch with an old friend from Denver and she described her inner city garden that was still producing beets, carrots and lettuce. This same little garden had fed her and her husband all year!
My sprawling 1/4 acre for one person is very inefficient! Yes, I give away lots of produce, but now this old dog thinks she could cut down to 1/4 of this space and still be more productive.

Mel Batholomew,might like to comment here. I have long-proven to myself that his methods work well, using less space to get the same yields and less effort needed to manage weeds, However, there are many people derive their income and make valuable contributions to society with no connection to the aina [land] at all. The complexity of balance in life on earth greatly exceeds my grasp. All I know is that simple all-encompassing or grand solutions always fail.

I only lived in the US for two years, but having to pour water onto our green lawn in semi-arid dessert of Colorado at our rented home riled me on many levels. The fact I couldn’t even have a vegetable garden there was particularly irksome. Oh it would be lovely to see some changes where even in rented houses vegetables would be grown instead of lawns.

I’ve always wondered about all that wasted space in the median between the interstate. Why not fruit or nut trees? It would make the drive prettier and be practical. Get rid of some of those ugly concrete barriers.

I’m with you on the wasted lawn space. I read somewhere that during the world wars with the push for victory gardens, home gardeners produced anywhere from 25 – 50% of US produce.

So many of our problems are due to rigidity in our thinking and perceptions. Very frustrating to see people determined to keep their minds closed…

Ah, Gene, great post; you are writing about one of the basic tenets of my life! I am efficient because I am lazy (and, of course, because I usually have too much to do since I have a tendency to get over-committed). So I want it smaller whenever possible, or at least designed so it’s as efficient as possible. This is a struggle for my husband, especially when it comes to housing, as he grew up poor in a tiny house with four kids and to him, bigger is a sign of success. I tell him that the person who has to clean it gets to call the shots on size. So far, he hasn’t offered to take over the cleaning duties…
The one place where I will push for some extra space is in the kitchen, especially in the matter of countertops and pantry storage. Houses out here rarely come with basements, so if you can or otherwise preserve food, you need to have other storage arrangements. And I live far enough out that no way do I run to the store for a dozen eggs.
As far as the garden goes, I discovered the intensive gardening concept years ago, and my lazy gardener side stood up and cheered!

Gene, I too have been trying more productive and efficient in my garden. And I have found also this leads to less physical work. The chickens take care of any “over production.”

small farms matter big December 5, 2012 at 7:45 am

Here is a recent article from the NYT about a North Carolina couple who decided to do something about wasted space.

Small houses matter big.


Feeding the world wasn’t such a problem, when I was born in 1928, as the whole world population was a scant 2 billion. Now its 3 1/2 times more in a single lifetime, a BLOOM [BOOM?] of over seven billion.

By 1960 a vasectomy office visit, including surgery, was $60.

Hurricane Sandy ushers in a probable tend unfavorable for our survival. The forces of Nature are striving for a balance. In a grundgy discomfortable world the choice is to produce less, or “preemptive demise”?

Charles Mac Arthur altenergyinventor@gmail.com Sangerville, Maine. 04479

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