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Limiting factors in the garden

For conventional row crops, water or nitrogen is usually the limiting factor. Add compost and irrigate.Whenever I read permaculture-related books, I see great ideas that I can't resist putting into practice.  Some of them have amazing results, but half or more fail miserably.  Are the authors of the books merely book learners who haven't tried out their ideas on the ground?  Sometimes.  But more often, they simply fail to mention their specific growing conditions and I forget to think about how the ideas might mesh with my own site.

Limiting factorLimiting factor is a useful ecological concept to understand when deciding whether new ideas are worth trying in your garden.  Unless you're growing your plants hydroponically under lights in climate-controlled conditions, there's going to be some factor that keeps the crops from achieving their full potential.  The scientist who came up with the concept of limiting factors used the illustration of a broken barrel to help others visualize what he was talking about.  No matter how much water you pour into the barrel, it will only fill to the level of the lowest stave --- the barrel's limiting factor.

 The most common limiting factor for companion planted crops (and the one that's assumed by default in forest gardening literature) is light --- if you plant peppers under your apple trees, the peppers will be puny because the tree leaves steal their sunlight.  In the conventional vegetable garden, nitrogen is often assumed to be the limiting factor since that macronutrient can quickly wash out of the soil and since plants won't grow much at all if faced with a nitrogen deficiency.  Other common limiting factors include all of the macro- and micronutrients, water, growing season length, cold, and heat. 

If anything in the soil (water, nutrients) is the limiting factor, space plants far apart and add lots of organic matter.In the eroded soil of our forest garden, the limiting factor is unusual --- depth of topsoil/dry soil.  Once I figured out my limiting factor, I had more of a handle on guessing which permaculture tricks were likely to work for me.  Growing plants in the understory beneath my fruit trees is bad news in the forest garden because these plants will compete with my trees for the most limiting resource --- soil --- and will slow the trees' growth.

Light limiting factorIn my kitchen peach's forest garden island, on the other hand, the soil is prime, so the limiting factor is light.  I'm able to grow hungry comfrey directly under the peach's canopy with no ill effects because there are lots of nutrients and soil space to go around and the tree shades the comfrey enough that the understory plant doesn't provide much competition.  Instead, comfrey helps out here by pulling micronutrients up from the subsoil to feed to the peach when the comfrey leaves decay.  Even the volunteer butternut that showed up in the topdressed compost seems to be thriving beneath the kitchen peach.

If you're growing on new ground and don't know what your limiting factor is yet, you could do worse than follow Sara's lead.  She plants a vegetable garden in a new spot every year, adding soil amendments and learning what makes that plot of ground tick.  By the time she's ready to plant perennials that winter, Sara knows the best spots most likely to keep those expensive fruit trees alive, and she's also improved the soil enough to give them a head start.  Now that's permaculture in action!

Our chicken waterer solves another common homestead problem --- filthy water in the chicken coop.


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That's great advice. In my e-book on gardening, I worked hard to try to emphasize the "limiting factors" without calling them such, but I know I fell short. It's hard to remember everything...
Comment by Emily Fri Aug 19 11:43:48 2011
Interesting: I think of "limiting factor" as a basic scientific/troubleshooting concept, like Occam's Razor, or the idea of testing for both success and failure, and have no recollection of where I first heard of it.
Comment by irilyth [livejournal.com] Fri Aug 19 11:48:23 2011

Emily --- I was actually thinking, as I was writing this post, that some permaculture author should write a short ebook describing the limiting factors that would make all of the most popular permaculture techniques feasible or problematic in specific situations.

Josh --- I can't really remember when I learned about limiting factors --- whether it was specific to ecology or not. I'd be curious whether other people got the concept in basic science rather than in ecology class.

Comment by anna Fri Aug 19 18:14:58 2011

The concept of limiting factors is present in all kinds of interconnected systems and the study thereof. What a lot of people don't realize is that systems in different domains are essentially equivalent.

E.g. a lot of different types of systems (mechanical, electrical, thermal, etc) can be described identically via bond graphs. Any system can be described using combinations of differential equitions and boundary conditions.

Comment by Roland_Smith Fri Aug 19 20:04:19 2011
Hey, thanks for the mention. Interesting discussion, by the way. I first remember the concept of limits in mathematics. Even before calculus, the limiting factor is present conceptually in finding the greatest common factor. That was first grade math, for me. I'm not sure if that was the basis for later being taught the ecological concept, but for some reason I link GCF with limiting factors in ecology.
Comment by Sara Sat Aug 20 09:34:23 2011

Roland --- I always love the way different kinds of science/math link together. When I was taking calculus and physics at the same time in high school and they were both talking about the derivatives from their own perspective, I was ecstatic. :-)

Sara --- Thanks for the great idea!

I don't think of the mathematical version of limits and the greatest common factor as being similar to the ecological limiting factor, but maybe I'm not thinking about them broadly enough?

Comment by anna Sat Aug 20 19:41:09 2011

In mathematics there is a rather precise definition of a limit; it is a value that a function or sequence approaches as the input (or index for a sequence) approaches another value. Most common are the limit to 0 and ∞. Note that functions do not by definition have a limit. E.g. f(x) = sin(x) will oscillate between -1 and +1 over the whole domain of ℝ.

When considering limiting factors in dynamic systems the most generic name for it would be a bottleneck, I think.

Comment by Roland_Smith Sun Aug 21 04:58:47 2011

Roland --- Thanks for backing up my memory of limits. I think the only thing really similar is the name.

And thank you for translating "limiting factors" into common parlance. You're totally right that "bottleneck" would be the proper translation!

Comment by anna Sun Aug 21 07:41:55 2011

I had to think about this one for awhile, and the link I've always held between these two concepts is completely idiosyncratic. Maybe I can save face by pointing out that both phrases have the word "factor" in them. Did anyone else catch that?

Turns out that I haven't been practicing first grade math all that much recently. Though I do add and subtract daily.

Comment by Sara Sun Aug 21 21:35:09 2011
Sara --- You made me laugh. :-) To be honest, my first grade math is pretty rusty too, which is why I wasn't sure whether your comparison had merit.
Comment by anna Mon Aug 22 08:27:21 2011

I'm reading Steve Solomon's book Gardening When It Counts at the moment, and he discusses limiting factors near the start. He uses the same "staves on a barrel" explanation.

I think it's a good way to think about garden inputs (nutrients, minerals, light, water, etc). If you read books about gardening advice and biology, it's easy to be overwhelmed and start obsessing about trying to get the ratios perfect in your fertilisers etc.

But really, there's likely only one or two limiting factors holding you back and it's usually fairly easy to figure out what it is (light, water and nitrogen are probably the most common, although it helps to think about the six macronutrients and seven micronutrients). This simplifies the problem immensely, so you only need to work on one thing at a time and iterate towards ideal growing conditions.

It's a good way to think about compost, too - the main limiting factors are carbon, nitrogen, moisture and oxygen. Getting the C:N ratio perfect doesn't matter if you don't have enough moisture (or too much moisture, which is really not enough oxygen). People obsess about compost recipes, but really it's a simple matter to just keep an eye on your compost pile and adjust whatever the limiting factor is over time.

Comment by Darren (Green Change) Tue Aug 23 18:18:19 2011

Now that you mention it, Gardening When it Counts may be where I learned about limiting factors in the garden. That's one of my favorite gardening books --- Steve Solomon feels like my kind of grower who's serious about both ecology and yields.

Good point about applying the idea of limiting factors to compost too. I've always found in-depth compost recipes a little funny --- it seems like compost piles work pretty well by feel and eyeballing.

Comment by anna Tue Aug 23 18:59:55 2011

One very unique homestead, $1,500 per acre, the opportunity of a lifetime