Designing for Short Term Yield

Many of our homestead and permaculture projects take multiple seasons to plan and execute. They should be worth the wait, but in the meantime its also nice to have some smaller wins along the way that complement our greater objectives.

This case study shares a design process for a single experimental crop over the course of one season. Anyone can use a similar process to design to their own unique goals, space and constraints.

Introducing the Space

This moderately sloped area lies just below a fenced garden. A long and wide blackberry patch was well established for many years. We have enjoyed a low to moderate yield of blackberries from this patch for a few seasons now.

Side view of the blackberry patch that is just down slope from a fenced garden space. The blackberries are unfenced. The small cage on the right is protecting a young fruit tree from deer.

We had decided we’d love to plant some additional food trees, flowering shrubs, herbs and veggies in and around this space to take advantage of the nice soil and convenient space close to water faucets, just down from a garden and fairly close to our home, zone 2-ish.

Expanding our garden would require a larger fenced zone that would protect the space from from deer, turkeys and rabbits. But we chose not to prioritize the time or resources to that fencing project this season.


The blackberries were growing directly on a slope below one of our gardens. We were enjoying some blackberries from this patch but the deer also got some of them before we did. Nonetheless last year I aimed one of our garden sprinklers to overflow and irrigate the blackberries so that we could get larger, plumper berries. That happened but we still competed with deer for the berries in this particular location.

Over a dozen years ago now, and well before we lived on this land, the garden above the blackberries used to be a fenced pen for alpacas when they were not out grazing. I quickly realized that any overflow of manure and nutrients were being captured and cycled by the blackberries directly downhill. And it was no wonder those vines were happy and thriving.

Our first winter here I dug many test holes around the property to get a feel for the soil composition and how well it is draining. In this particular location I knew the soil was a nice sandy clay and was well draining.

When I looked down in the soil under the blackberry leaf litter it was fairly rich compared to the adjacent soil that was much thinner under the grass. The blackberries were holding soil from erosion, shading the soil and retaining and building organic matter.

However, the vines were growing up and over themselves for years and there was a mass of dead canes under the first and second year growth which made harvesting and managing the vines somewhat difficult. The large amount of dead material is also a fire hazard in this climate and we wanted to remedy that as part of our larger fuels reduction effort.

The decision came to slash and burn the blackberries, so last winter, when it was safe to do so, I burned to the ground the swath of wild blackberry bushes that had probably been growing for the better part of two decades, if not longer.

Blackberry canes were cut in the winter, raked into a windrow, various branches piled on top, allowed to dry and then burned during the wet season during an approved burn day. (This is actually a different patch of blackberries burned in the same manner.)

Post-Burn Observations

After burning the blackberries we were able to plant the trees that we had selected for this area. With the area more open we also saw an opportunity to inter-plant the trees with shrubs and perennial herbs and flowers. I also noted that we could carve out some micro terraces, or terraced pockets, and grow a few patches of veggies, at least in the next few years while the trees were still small.


Personal Energy

Last winter I was being protective of my energy. I knew this year I was going to be starting a lot of perennial herbs, I knew I would be planting more trees and shrubs and I knew I would be spending a fair amount of energy watering, protecting and caring for the trees and perennials that I put in the ground over the last three seasons. So I made a conscious decision to grow less annual vegetables this year so that I could spend more time caring for the early years of the perennials that will make up our future food forest.

Wildlife Access

In the interim time span of at least one season, this space would remain open to deer and other wildlife, until we have time to put up a fence. So the trees that were planted in this space were individually and temporarily protected individually with small wire cages. Anything else planted here would need individual protection or be resistant to wildlife browsing.


The burning opened up easy access to soil which was in nice condition compared to other soil around our foothill setting. However it is not fluffy or filled with organic matter as one would expect for the ideal veggie bed. It would take some work and inputs of manure and compost to be great for veggies.


The slope grade is a low to moderate angle. Walking, working, tending and mowing is not as easy as on flat land. Irrigation and water retention may also be less ideal.

Blackberry Regeneration

The burned blackberries will re-sprout this season. Actually established blackberries love being burned and respond vigorously because it opens up light, airflow and nutrients. Anything grown here will need to stand up to the blackberries, or the blackberries will need to be pruned if they are not removed.

Goal (Short Term)

I briefly alluded to our long term goal of turning this space into a polyculture garden.

In the meantime our short term goal for this space is to obtain a yield this season (Permaculture principle #3) from the exposed earth where the blackberries had amassed prior to being burned.

Initially (in late winter) I went down a list of veggies in my mind that were deer resistant and that we wanted to grow and came up mostly short so I put a pin in that idea.

Additionally another short term goal is to continue observing and interacting with the space in order to gain valuable insight and inspiration that will influence our long term design.

Gather Input

Eventually I had a conversation with a farmer friend and we happened to be talking about field crops that deer wouldn’t eat. At the time I was mostly curious about dry farming crops for a section of this land suitable to a small field crop, but that I didn’t want to irrigate. And he also brought up the option of corn (which does require irrigation in our climate).

I was surprised and asked him to clarify. I couldn’t believe that deer wouldn’t eat the corn plants because I knew horses and other ruminants love them. He assured me that it was true and that he had good experience growing unprotected corn.

I was excited about this discovery but still apprehensive about being able to replicate the deer resistance of his field crop in a much smaller scale, as opposed to acres of corn that can withstand some munching. So I decided to trial growing corn in the presence of deer this year so that I’d have some idea if it worked in our setting with a very small plot of corn.


  • Plant dent corn unprotected from deer in a trial plot and hope for some yield.
  • Corn can grow above blackberry canes with minimal management — I would not be digging up blackberry roots this season.
  • I’d be OK with losing the whole crop if deer ate it.
  • No soil preparation (no tillage or amendments) in order to reserve my spring energy for other priorities.
  • Minimal effort would be given to maintenance of the crop.
Corn stalks are now well above the lower browsed & branching blackberries.


Since the soil was recently exposed through the burning I didn’t have to pull weeds there at all. I didn’t cultivate the soil further, even though I knew I would get more yield and happier plants if I did. Nonetheless the soil had a nice amount of organic matter in it from the blackberries and the soil is quite healthy.

I gathered my corn seed and using a dibble stick that I had fashioned the previous year and plunked the corn down in the soil about six inches apart in 4 rows. It took about 20-30 minutes and I got a nice stretch in my lower back every time I bent over.

A row of corn planted along a recently terraced pathway growing in with blackberries.

The first row was on the edge of a terrace I had just finished making below the garden, at the steepest point. Actually it is a foot path roughly on contour lined with half rotted logs to prevent erosion, but its serving as a terrace for corn this season. Since that path was recently excavated and shaped, the grass was carved out and also had fresh soil exposed. This might be the only year I can easily plant this path without extra effort because it will fill in with grass.

Below the path on the small slope where the blackberries had been, I planted 3 other rows of corn, each row shorter than the one above it, matching the semi-circle shape of the footprint left by the blackberries. My planting area was limited to soil that was exposed from the burning and not too dense. i.e. I could stick my dibble in easily.

Profile of the dent corn growing on the slope. The cage in front is protecting a young persimmon tree. Other tree cages behind the corn can just be made out.

On the edges of the burn the clay soil became more dense and had less organic matter. It makes sense that the middle of the blackberries had softer, more friable soil with more organic matter because that’s where the leaf drop and blackberry roots were working their magic.

Initially the corn came up strong and was growing with lots of sunlight. As things really warmed up in the season blackberries and some larger weeds began to shoulder up to the corn. I ended up pruning the blackberries and pulling some of the larger weeds on two occasions during spring and early summer. By July the corn was above the blackberries (which were kept relatively low by deer nibbling on the tender shoots) and I stopped all weeding and pruning for the rest of the season.

Irrigation was pretty hands off because the corn was irrigated from one of the sprinklers in the garden above it. I simply adjusted the sprinkler to cover the new area in addition to the garden. I did however consider the corn’s watering needs during the hottest months. I was most vigilant about getting water to the corn while the ears were developing and anytime I saw the leaves start to curl and get a blue tinge, indicating they are thirsty.

A semi-circle of corn and mullein. The mullein picks up where the corn leaves off. They both reach for the sky with tall stature.

Is Corn Deer Resistant?

We got lucky and the deer didn’t eat our corn plants and they were healthy and happy throughout the season! Actually deer took some bites from a few corn plants when they were around 4-6″ tall but they didn’t mow down the entire row, which is what deer tend to do when they find something I planted that they like.

Those few bitten plants were easily and quickly able to grow into a full corn plant. Funny enough they only chewed the corn plants that were on the level pathway, not below where it was still sloping. I guess deer are creatures of convenience just like humans :)

So my farmer friend was right after all about deer & corn.

But don’t take my word for it and go planting corn in front of your deer because deer everywhere aren’t the same. In my research online I read some people’s small corn plots totally decimated by deer. That was part of my initial hesitation and reason why I didn’t want to invest too much energy into this experiment.

It could be that the deer in our local region just don’t care much for corn. But across the valley and up the hills it is much drier and there is much less food and water available for deer. The same corn grown up there might be much more attractive to those deer.

Its also possible we got lucky this year. Every season is different in regards to climate, which affects available food, population of the local deer, etc.

I also learned that some hunters grow corn to feed deer through the winter. Clearly I wasn’t about to leave my corn on the stalks that long but I am also not going to leave them around longer than I have to to find out when the deer start to find the kernels attractive. So I am harvesting the ears soon after the husks dry up but before the corn cures on the stalk.

Turkeys Make Their Appearance!

That brings me to a wildcard in this experiment. Ann noticed turkeys pecking at some of corn and excitedly pointed it out to me. I looked out the window and sure enough one of the corn stalks was shaking vigorously. I ran out there to chase the turkeys off and saw one of the lower ears they found. They were able to open it up through their pecking and completely remove the kernels.

So I harvested some of the lower ears, especially the ones with an open husk at the tip exposing the kernels, earlier than I would have otherwise. I’m glad we caught that early enough!

Turkeys probably wouldn’t have been much of an issue by the time the corn is ripening if the soil was more prepared, fertilized and mulched. My theory is the corn stalks would have grown much taller on average in a more fertile situation and more of the ears would be higher up. Surely that also depends on the habits of the variety of corn being grown and some are probably going to have lower ears anyway.

That reminds me of a time we had turkey eating corn sprouts at planting time a few years ago at a previous garden. I direct seeded the corn and went out to see them coming up perfectly, already a few inches tall.

Literally one day later I go out to find 95% of the corn sprouts gone with a few uprooted and strewn to the side. It turns out that turkeys had flown in over the fence from the neighboring trees and were so attracted to the nice fluffy bed for their dust baths and the helpless innocent little corn babies didn’t stand a chance to their gobbly nature.

I was feeling a bit disappointed having made this rookie mistake until I learned that a local farmer of 20+ years got his corn crop wiped out by birds and decided to transplant corn when they are larger from then on out, instead of direct sowing. Suddenly I didn’t feel so foolish and was reminded that everything is dynamic and that gardening and homesteading isn’t always easy or constant. I took comfort knowing I wasn’t alone in this challenge. Yet I am always looking for ways to go with the groove and fight nature less.

Still it was nice to see that I can get away with at least one season where turkeys don’t wipe out my directly sown corn crop.

Another lesson to takeaway here is that it pays off to befriend farmers. As you can see here and in the Gather Input section, feedback from two different farmers helped me with advice in regards to growing corn. Farmers have so much knowledge about challenges, strategies and techniques for growing plants, they learn how to be nimble as they dance with nature and seasons, and they are usually happy to share their knowledge.

A few pieces of husk tied in a double knot holds two ears together. Each pair is ready for hanging.

Bonus Yields

We got a nice little crop of corn out of this experiment. The size of most of the ears are modest and the count of ears is relatively low (not all the stalks produced full ears). But the yield I was after was not just ears of corn, it was also experience and I learned a lot!

In addition I am enjoying some bonus yields that weren’t anticipated:

  • The corn kept me coming back to this new space which helped me continue to observe and interact which will inform the future garden designs.
  • Experience with slash and burn horticulture on a very small scale.
  • Revitalized blackberry plants re-sprouted from their root balls. We may save and design around some of them and manage and prune them for berries, if only for a few seasons.
  • Corn silk saved and drying for herbal infusions.
  • Mullein seed, flowers, leaves, biomass and fuzzy friends. Mullein loves sprouting in scorched earth. These mullein came on their own accord but I’ve broadcast mullein seed after burning slash piles and had great results. In this case it wasn’t expected, and we welcomed the mullein in this space.
  • Yellow dock roots survived the burn and came back lusciously. Although the deer love nibbling the leaves so we’ll have to wait until next year, or whenever the fence goes up, for harvesting leaves here. Thankfully yellow dock are perennial and we can count on it!
  • Thistle roots that we can harvest this winter as part of our root veggies. Thistle also loves sprouting post burn.
  • Biomass from the corn stalks.
  • Joy watching the deer munching blackberry leaves in the summer and not my corn stalks!
Corn silk drying.
This first year thistle is prickly but the root will be tasty this winter.
Some of the yellow dock leaves the deer left for us.
A patch of first year mullein rosettes with blackberries and a stunted corn plant.

Lessons Learned

I wouldn’t do much different given that I was staying true to my original goals in order to obtain a small yield of corn and learn from this experiment. In that regard it was a big success!

One small adjustment I would make is quickly trench a few small grooves for each row of corn, just a few inches deep and wide. It wouldn’t have taken much more time or effort but would have helped the corn retain irrigation moisture on their slope once the dry season kicked in and just that small bit of tillage might have made a difference to the vigor of the corn.

After spending the better part of this growing season observing the corn growing in this space I have some new insights and ideas of how to design this space in the future for small food plots. The corn stalks and their varying heights are telling me where the soil is at in terms of organic matter and water retention. And we got some beautiful dent corn hanging up and curing for eating through the year!

Finally the possibility has opened for me to continue planting small plots of corn in unprotected spaces!

Pairs of ears tied together hang over a string, my favorite way to hang corn.

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