Spangenberg small plot organic farming
Photo by Gerard Attoun
This small garden not only provides food for the family, but it also serves the family’s growing list of customers at area farmers markets, as well as local chefs and health-food stores.

Organic grower Paul Spangenberg and his family harvest 30 different culinary herbs, more than 30 vegetables and another 30 support or medicinal plants, not to mention the 11 varieties of peppers for which he’s known in his area. All that is not unusual for obsessive gardeners.

But there’s more. He, his wife Tammy and their two children, Ethan, 14, and Britney, 12, make a good living growing these organic herbs and vegetables. That’s not so unusual either.

What is unusual, almost astounding, is that the Spangenbergs do all this on a typical suburban lot measuring only two-tenths of an acre in Republic, Missouri. Subtract room for the house and driveway, and a few ornamental flowers and bushes here and there, and what’s left is about one-tenth of an acre for the gardening business.

“I make more on this lot than professional farmers make per acre of their land,” Paul said, before cautioning a visitor to watch where he steps so as not to damage the densely planted rows.

Secrets To Success

Planning is the secret, said his business partner and wife Tammy. “When you have a small area like this city lot, you have to plan.”

The planning starts on graphing paper in winter, when Paul sits down to chart what he needs to grow for his business, what plants go well together and what plants can share the same space at different times of the growing season. He practices succession planting and schedules his crops to get the most out of every square foot of the small space. Garlic, bush beans, spinach and radishes are good candidates for succession planting because they are ready to pick after only a few weeks.

“If it’s something that I’m going to harvest all season, like tomatoes, then that’s going to stay in a standard spot,” he said. “But if it’s something that’s going to come out, like garlic, then I have the choice of letting the plot stay fallow and using it like a compost or planting something new.”

Organic farming greenhouse
Paul with some of his pepper plants in the small greenhouse on their lot. He is known locally for his hot peppers.

Multi-Tasker Plants

Another way the Spangenbergs boost production is to plant vegetables that do more than one thing in the garden.

“See the cucumber there?” Paul asked. “You look at the plant and you think I’m going to get some cucumbers, but that’s not all it’s going to do for me. No, it’s also shading the soil and keeping moisture in the soil, and at the end of the year, it’s going to give me a load of compost. Plus, the flowers keep pollinators coming and feed the bees and other pollinators.”

A plum tree between the house and garden provides plums, but it also shades the house in the heat of summer, as well as the plants and the rain barrels so water is not lost to evaporation. Another plum tree gives the herbs a break from the sun. As Paul put it, “These may be sun lovers, but that does not mean they need every single hour of sun.”

The currant bushes feed the birds, which in turn eat insects, thus protecting plants from pests. To attract bees and keep them buzzing, Paul plants mint, sage and other herbs.

“All of this,” he said, with a sweep of his arm, “is one more piece of the puzzle that something eats, something lives on or something repels.”

Fitting the pieces together is the result of lots of planning and is what keeps his backyard ecosystem intact. “The insects coming around for the blooms keep the birds coming, and the birds keep the grasshoppers down.”

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Organic Stampede

This small garden not only provides food for the family, but it also serves the family’s growing list of customers at area farmers markets, as well as local chefs and health-food stores. And their list of out-of-state customers is growing as well.

“One woman from Michigan visited the farmers market on vacation and called us because she ran out of her seasoned salt. Some people get jars as gifts and they want more or they want to give them as gift care packages,” Paul said.

To cater to faraway customers, the couple list their available salts and dried herbs on their Facebook page, ptgardens, and hope to start their own website in the future.

“We started as a hobby and sold a few,” Paul says. “Then we got busier and busier and now I’ve got a product line that I can’t produce enough for.” Eventually, they hope to buy some acreage nearby so they can meet this growing demand.

His product line started with organic chile peppers, including Paul’s favorite, the popular chocolate habañero, and other vegetables and herbs. Last year, he introduced three hot sauces: Tame and Tasty, Mind Blasting and Brain Smacking. The couple produced 1,000 bottles in October and sold out by January.

“I have a following of pepperheads,” Paul says, “so this year, when our very hot ghost scorpion peppers come in, we’re going to bring people to tears.”

Also popular are the couple’s 1-ounce packets of fresh-cut herbs, including purple sage, cilantro, dill, parsley, lemon basil, chocolate mint, spearmint, peppermint, lavender, tarragon, thyme, oregano and others.

Organic farming peppers
The habañero seasoned salt is one of the Spangenbergs most popular products. They use only sea salt in their many blends.

Spices Of Life

The couple’s staple products are the 40 flavors of seasonings they blend and bottle in their home kitchen, including their habañero sea salt and elephant garlic salt, their cinnamon vanilla sugar, bacon salt made from organic pasture-raised bacon, kale and sage salts, and popcorn seasonings made with Egyptian walking onion, sea salt and cayenne peppers. Recently, the couple added salts flavored with rose petals and daylilies.

Selling packaged products made in a home kitchen is not always possible, explained Paul. “Where we live and because the salts are a dried product, we do not need anything from the health department or the state. We are, however, inspected as a farm from both of our farmers markets. The rules on this do change based on where you live.”

Paul uses only sea salt in his spice blends because of its health benefits. Most sea salt is harvested naturally and contains 80 trace minerals and electrolytes, unlike refined table salt, which contains only two or three elements.

“All told, between what we harvest to make our salts and what we sell fresh, we harvested about 3,000 pounds of herbs this year,” he said.

That size bounty would not be possible if the Spangenbergs did not fanatically follow organic principles.

A Natural Ecosystem

Paul and Tammy mostly leave their “natural ecosystem” alone. Only rarely, they say, do they have to interfere in this ever-changing, self-balancing dance of nature. Sure, they pluck a weed now and then, or step on a slug slithering out of the mulch path, but those instances are rare. No pesticides, no herbicides, no “cides” or chemicals of any kind. Even Japanese beetles are kept at bay with occasional patches of tansy flowers.

Using chemicals would lead to a garden disaster in which nothing could grow naturally. “When we build the soil, the weed issue becomes less and less. That soil is moving, it’s alive with worms and other beneficial bugs,” Tammy said.

The couple practices no-till gardening. They let the worms do all the work. Another practice they follow is to plant things in patches to minimize the risk of pest infestation.

“All your garlic doesn’t have to be together, all your corn doesn’t have to be together,” Paul said. “If I have corn earworms come to attack and all the corn was together, the worms would work their way down the row and eat every bit of it.” His 3,000 basil plants are spread out in several patches throughout the garden.

The couple also plant densely, with most plants touching each other. “Everybody wants specimen plants, with nothing around them. Where in nature does that happen?” he asked. “Plants need the touch of other plants, and I know that sounds weird, but it’s true.”

About the only thing they add is lots of mulch. Each year, Ethan and Britney help shovel in 20 cubic yards of mulch to lower the plants’ watering needs and to keep weeds at bay. Eventually, the mulch breaks down to make more soil.

“What I tell people,” Paul said, “is that I’m not growing herbs, I’m not growing peppers. I’m growing soil, and everything else just draws from that.”

This article originally published in THE NEW PIONEER® Winter 2015 issue. Print and Digital Subscriptions to THE NEW PIONEER magazine are available here.

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