The Tao of Vegetable Gardening:
A Q&A with Carol Deppe
Groundbreaking garden writer Carol Deppe (The Resilient Gardener, Breed Your Own Vegetable Varieties) has done it again with her latest book, The Tao of Vegetable Gardening. Called a “vegetable gardener’s treasury” by Booklist, this new guide focuses on some of the most popular home garden vegetables and through them illustrates the key principles and practices that beginner and experienced gardeners alike need to know to successfully plant and grow just about any food crop.
In The Tao of Vegetable Gardening, Deppe introduces her innovative “Eat-All Greens Garden” which could be the easiest, most space-saving, and labor-efficient way of growing greens. With this method, a family can raise all their summer greens as well as freeze and dry enough for the winter months with even a tiny plot—a perfect approach for small-scale and urban gardeners.
For more specifics about the “Eat-All Greens Garden,” read this interview with Carol Deppe.
A no-labor garden. Really? It seems too good to be true. Can you give us a little background on how you came to develop this Eat-All Greens Garden?
CD: My first eat-all greens garden came about mostly by accident. At the time I only had three small garden beds. I was never able to grow as many greens as I wanted with my tiny garden. One spring I had a large pile of compost delivered and dumped on the concrete driveway. I wasn’t going to need the compost for a couple of months. Or the driveway. If the compost was spread on the driveway, I thought, it would almost double my gardening space…at least for that couple of months. I decided to try it. What could I grow in a couple months? Since it was mid-March in Oregon, a full two months before our average last freeze in spring, I needed something that could handle freezes and grow fast in cool weather. And I craved greens above all else. So I chose ‘Green Wave’ mustard. It’s a mustard with erect plant form and blazingly hot flavor raw, but a rich succulent, non-hot flavor when cooked even only briefly.
A few minutes of work with a hoe gave me a shallow bed of compost about six inches deep over most of the driveway. It was the work of another three minutes to sprinkle the seeds on the newly formed bed and to bounce a leaf rake across the bed lightly to disturb the surface of the bed enough to cover the seeds. That was it. I never weeded. And since we get regular rains in early spring, I never watered either. Once the bed was formed, I did no work at all beyond sowing the seeds and harvesting. And the crop grew in an unusual way that made harvesting and handling in the kitchen much easier and faster and the yield much higher than I had ever experienced growing any greens.
After that, of course, I tried to repeat the experience to no avail initially. I happened to have chosen what turned out to be the very best mustard variety for growing as eat-all greens. And just by accident, I had managed to sow at the perfect density for an eat-all ‘Green Wave’ mustard crop. It was a few years before I could successfully repeat that first eat-all ‘Green Wave’ mustard patch reliably. And it was the work of another two decades of testing many varieties of different greens crops before I developed a repertoire of, at this point, eleven different basic greens crops from five plant families that work as eat-all greens crops.
The eat-all greens do fine on pure compost. But any good fertile garden soil will do. A good eat-all variety must grow fast enough to overgrow and shade out weeds. The harvesting and handling in the kitchen involves unusually low labor because there are no weeds or dead leaves that need to be sorted. Everything you harvest is edible.
ST: You mention that this garden has the potential to feed families—even in small, urban gardens. Just how much can you grow in a season?
CD: I once planted a 5-foot square eat-all patch of leaf radishes. (Leaf radishes are bred for the leaves rather than the roots, and are widely used in China, Korea, and Japan for greens for stir fries, soups, and pickled vegetables.) This patch was just 25 square feet of gardening space. I harvested 13.3 pounds of greens a mere forty-one days later. This represented a yield of 0.53 pounds per square foot. Considering I can grow leaf radishes about seven months in the year, I would be able to grow five eat-all leaf radish crops per year for a yield of 2.6 lbs. per square foot per season.
Sometimes eat-all greens crops don’t take any space at all, because they occupy garden space during times that it would otherwise be wasted. Eat-all greens are the ideal catch crops. I like to plant eat-all greens in beds in between the rows of big-vined squash, for example. I can grow and harvest an entire eat-all greens crop before the squash vines need the space. And I can grow and harvest an eat-all crop of greens in the tomato patch in spring before it’s time to set out the tomato transplants. I also plant small eat-all greens patches in gaps in other plantings wherever the main planting failed to come up.
ST: Does it work well in all climates? Is it possible to adapt the variety selections to different growing zones/regions?
CD: Many of the good eat-all varieties I’ve discovered are varieties that are already widely adapted. ‘Green Wave’ mustard, for example, was developed in the Southeast, but also does well everywhere else. The Indian spinach ‘Red Aztec Huazontle’ is a relative of quinoa that is a Mexican heirloom, but it is also happy in the maritime Northwest. I think it will probably grow just about anywhere. Leaf-bred radishes are also widely adapted. The particular varieties of leafy amaranths that do best for me, might well be different from the ones that do best for you if you live in another region. But you can probably find some leafy amaranth that will grow fast enough in your climate to work as an eat-all crop if you do a little exploring. Gai Lohn, aka Chinese broccoli, is also widely adapted.
If you live in a region with much hotter summers than mine, you may shift your growing of eat-all greens to spring and fall instead of growing them straight through the summer. Or you may even grow them in winter. In regions with much shorter summers, you might want to use a cloche or greenhouse so as to extend your harvest season and get as many crops as possible per year. Since a small patch of eat-all greens is so high yielding, it’s much more practical to use season altering methods than it is when using standard greens growing methods.
ST: What about growing eat-all greens in containers? Or on rooftop gardens?
CD: Practically speaking, my very first accidental eat-all crop of ‘Green Wave’ mustard was container grown, since it was just a six inch (15 cm) deep layer of compost spread on a solid concrete driveway. That was basically a wide shallow container. I think eat-all greens should work much better in containers than other edibles. That’s in part because the yields are so high and growth is so fast that you can plant multiple successions. But it’s also because you don’t need very deep soil to grow eat-all greens since they aren’t in the ground very long. In addition, greens are generally shade tolerant. That’s ideal for containers on porches, balconies or in window boxes where there is inevitably partial shade.
I think the eat-all greens garden method also has potential to allow serious production of edible greens on rooftop gardens.