Maximize Your Garden Harvest

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Fresh kitchen herbs are easy to grow but expensive to buy.
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If your yard has lots of shade, grow mini-gardens of sun-loving crops such as tomatoes and peppers wherever the sun shines.

Organic, homegrown produce is more nutritious, delicious and sustainable than typical store-bought fare, and the best way to keep it on our tables year-round is to grow as much as we can in summer, then preserve some of that garden harvest for winter enjoyment. But growing enough food for year-round consumption can be challenging when we’re working with limited time, space and budgets. These creative planting, management, harvest and food-preservation strategies will help your garden reach its fullest potential–and stock your kitchen with garden goodness all year. Choose those that work for you, and enjoy maximizing your return on the time, work and money you invest in your homegrown food supply.

Plan for Good Garden Production

Whether you draw garden plans on paper or use a software tool such as the Mother Earth News Vegetable Garden Planner, try these yield-maximizing strategies for a great garden harvest.

1. Grow high-value crops. “Value” is subjective, but growing the food that costs the most to buy makes sense, provided it is suited to your climate. Value can also be about flavor, which means making space for your favorite veggie and herb varieties first.

2. Start early and end late. Use cloches, cold frames, tunnels and other season-stretching devices to move your spring season up by a month or more. In fall, use them to protect crops from frost and deer while extending the season for cold-tolerant greens and root crops. (The time to plan the fall garden is now. Read how in “Fall Gardening Plan.”)

3. Emphasize what grows well for you. Crops that are easy to grow in one climate may be challenges in others, so repeat successes. When you find vegetables that excel in your garden, growing as many of them as you can use will move you a step closer to food self-sufficiency. And don’t overlook your gardening neighbors’ wisdom.

4. Conversely, don’t grow more of something than you could possibly use. Last year, some novice gardening friends told me they’d planted 50 tomato and pepper plants. At my house, 14 tomato plants and 10 peppers supply two of us with a year’s worth of canned, dried and frozen goodies. Growing more would be a waste of resources.

5. Plant perennials. Plants that return year after year save planting time, and maintenance is usually limited to annual weeding, feeding and mulching. Asparagus and rhubarb thrive where winters are cold, sorrel is a terrific perennial salad green, Jerusalem artichokes and horseradish grow almost anywhere, and in climates with mild winters, bunching onions or bamboo shoots grow as perennial crops.

6. Choose high-yielding varieties. Few things are more disappointing than nurturing a tomato plant for three months to harvest only three fruits from it. Don’t let this happen to you! Network with local gardeners to find varieties known to grow well in your area. 

7. Include essential kitchen herbs. Culinary herbs are easy to grow yet pricey to buy. Start by trying easy-growing, multipurpose basil, dill, mint and parsley.

8. Try something new. Part of the fun of gardening is discovering new things. Try cool-season crops in both spring and fall–some varieties that are duds in spring may amaze you with fall exuberance.

Use Space Efficiently

It’s a rare gardener who has as much growing space as she would like. Most of us work limited-space gardens as intensively as we can. In gardens of any size, try these tips to make prime use of every inch.

9. Plant in blocks. You can quadruple the per-square-foot production of vegetables by planting in blocks rather than rows, according to Colorado State University Extension research. Block planting keeps spacing between plants tight and eliminates unnecessary pathways.

10. Try vertical gardening. When he moved from a suburban Baltimore home to a smaller condo in Albuquerque, New Mexico, organic gardener Ary Bruno went vertical to make the most of his limited space. By adding 3 to 4 inches of compost to compact beds each spring, Bruno can grow trellised tomatoes, pole beans and cucumbers in his patio garden in summer, followed by greens in fall.

11. Interplant compatible crops. For example, try planting lettuce in the shade of taller, sun-loving crops such as tomatoes, suggests reader Bonnie White of Albany, Oregon. Learn about complementary crops with Mother Earth Newsguide to companion planting with flowers and vegetables.

12. Succession sow for steady harvests. With lettuce, snap peas, sweet corn and other vegetables that mature like clockwork, make two sowings three weeks apart to lengthen your garden harvest season. Or plant two varieties with different maturation times (check “days to maturity” in seed catalogs or on seed packets) on the same day.

13. Use seedlings to run tight successions. Let’s say it’s June, and you want to replace lettuce that’s going to seed with summer squash. You can pull out the lettuce, add some compost and plug in squash seedlings all in the same afternoon. To save money buying inexpensive seeds rather than pricier nursery seedlings, start plants from seed indoors a few weeks before you’ll be ready to plant them.

Make the Most of Small or Shady Gardens

For many gardeners, the biggest obstacles to growing more vegetables are cramped spaces and shade from buildings or trees. Don’t let these challenges keep you from maximizing your production potential.

14. Create many mini-gardens. For many crops, you must seek out spots that receive more than six hours of sun and create small “spot gardens” wherever the sun shines. Establish small beds wherever the sun beckons, and use large containers to make use of sunny spaces on your deck or patio.

15. Choose crops wisely. Instead of struggling to grow resolute sun-lovers in a shady yard, grow shade-tolerant plants such as chard, lettuce and other greens. See “Best Shade-Tolerant Vegetables” for a chart of shade-tolerant plants.

16. Garden beyond your yard. Tomatoes and other sun-loving vegetables cannot fruit without an abundance of sun. Securing a sunny plot at a community garden may be the best solution if you lack good growing space. Or ask your employer about starting an office garden and garden on your lunch break. (Learn how to organize a community garden in 8 easy steps.)

Smarter Harvesting

Growing a great crop is only half of the story. To make the most of our harvests, we must pick or store fresh veggies with a constant eye toward preserving flavor and nutrition.

17. Pick at the peak. Aim to harvest in the morning, when plants are pumped with nutrients and moisture. Preserve the flavor of greens, root crops and other vegetables by refrigerating them, but never chill storage onions, sweet potatoes, shallots or tomatoes.

18. Grow cut-and-come-again crops. Some marvelous plants produce more the more you pick them. Chard is the best example of a vegetable that bounces back each time you harvest it. If cut high, broccoli, cabbage and bulb fennel will grow secondary heads, and bush beans will often produce three flushes of blossoms and pods. Look for cut-and-come-again lettuce varieties, too.

19. Pick early and often. Many vegetables are best harvested often and when immature–budding heads of broccoli flowers, barely plump snap peas or tender summer squash. Harvesting early and often keeps vegetables in reproduction mode longer, increasing yields. In a study from the University of Idaho Extension comparing summer squash harvested daily as baby squash with the same varieties picked every two to three days, researchers gathered more than twice as many squash from the more intensively harvested plants.

Limit Inputs of Time and Money

Many people limit garden size to limit their investment of time, energy and money. Use these tips to grow more with fewer resources.

20. Use free fertilizers. Take advantage of free fertilizers such as chemical-free grass clippings, and collect kitchen garbage, pulled plants, leaves and other organic materials to create rich compost.

21. Save seeds. Saving your own seeds means spending less money on your garden each year. Save seeds from open-pollinated varieties (OP on seed packets), whose offspring replicate parent plants.

22. Weed early and often. Streamline weeding by doing it at the right times: five to seven days after sowing or transplanting; again seven to 10 days later; and three to four weeks after planting.

23. Use the right tools. Gardening is more efficient if you use tools that fit your garden. Use long-handled spades and hoes if your garden is big, and short-handled tools in small raised beds. Keeping a sharp edge on all tools always makes them work better.

24. Water efficiently. Reduce watering needs with mulches, which help soil retain water, and soaker hoses, which efficiently deliver water to plant roots. You can also capture free water in rain barrels and route it to garden beds using perforated soaker hoses.

Plan to Stock Up

Food preservation is best learned over several seasons as you try different methods. Whether you’re growing your own or buying it at the farmer’s market, you can take control of your food supply by preserving.

25. Grow crops that store themselves. Handled gently and given time to cure (learn about curing at The Walden Effect), dry beans, garlic, onions, sweet potatoes and winter squash will keep for months in a cool, dry place.

26. Build a root cellar. Root cellars are one of the most efficient ways to preserve food. Learn how in The Complete Root Cellar Book by Steve Maxwell.

27. Freeze in small batches. Put chopped peppers, cubed summer squash, sweet corn kernels and whole green beans in lidded containers and freeze them. Use frozen veggies as you would fresh in soups, pastas or other dishes.

28. Learn to can. One of the easiest ways to preserve food is water bath canning–submersing jars of goodies in boiling water. Properly canned foods last a year or more. To learn more, visit Put ‘Em Up! Easy Home Canning Recipes.

29. Try drying food. Stored in airtight containers, fruits and vegetables dried in a dehydrator keep their quality for many months. Cooking with dried celery, mushrooms, peppers, tomatoes and other dried produce is oh-so-simple.

30. Take stock in late winter. Before you plant your next garden, take stock of what preserved foods you have left. Note what you’d like more of and less of in the upcoming year, and adjust garden plans accordingly.

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