What defines the success of a vegetable garden? Most people would say it’s the quantity of produce harvested. Some might choose the quality of the vegetables grown – no blemishes, rots, or insect damage. After twenty plus years experimenting with my garden, I would have to conclude it is how you make use all of the vegetables you grow, without wasting time and money.
In February and March, when seed displays pop up in the stores, it’s so easy to buy too many varieties of everything without thinking through what you will do with it all once it’s ripe and ready to be harvested. It’s not fun to have beans coming in faster than you can deal with them. And, the window to eat or store many vegetables is short, before quality starts to drop.
This is why I’ve come to the conclusion that vegetable gardening needs to be planned in reverse. Instead of buying all of your seeds and plants and then planning how to make it all work, you need to plan how it will all work and then make your purchases.
Decide which vegetables you will really use, how you plan to keep them, how much you will realistically need and what you are able to spend in materials. Once you have these answers, you will know what you really need to turn out a garden that fits your needs, time and investment!
What varieties of vegetables does your family typically eat? Make a list and for the most part stick to it. It can be fun to try one or two unique varieties, but limit the urge to try lots of new things.
How will you keep the produce? Some will be eaten fresh while the rest needs to be stored. Staggering your planting times is a huge benefit for a number of reasons. It allows for fresh produce coming in throughout the growing season, reduces the amount of work at any given time in processing, and produces more vegetables in less space. For example, plant half a row of beans, and then wait two weeks to plant the other half row. If you will be gone on vacation for two weeks mid-summer, keep this in mind when planning your time of planting. That way you won’t have everything ripening when you are gone.
Whatever does not get eaten fresh, needs to be preserved promptly through freezing, canning, or cold storage. Freezing works great for keeping produce about six months. Minimal preparation is required for this process. Some key vegetables that freeze well include asparagus, beans, beets, carrots, corn, peppers, peas, leeks and broccoli.
Canning involves heating vegetables in jars, hot enough and long enough to kill bacteria that can cause food to spoil. Produce that is canned will last about one year. There are two methods used: pressure canning and hot water bath canning. There is specific equipment needed for both of these methods. Taking time to read more about them is important before deciding if this will work well for you and which method fits the produce you want to preserve. Most vegetables will work with this process.
There are a few vegetables that keep for months, just by being stored in a dry, cool, dark location or even remaining in the garden until use. I keep potatoes and acorn squash in the back corner of my basement for up to 3 months. Again, there are some basic preparation requirements to read about beforehand. Many root crops (beets, carrots, potatoes) planted later in the season, can be left in the garden, covered in hay to prevent the ground from freezing, and harvested as needed through the winter months. Imagine pulling fresh carrots in January for a Super Bowl party snack!
For any type of storage, reading up on the various methods beforehand will help you decide which of them might be the best fit for you. Two companies that provide detailed guides on produce storage are Ball and Kerr. Your local cooperative extension office is a great resource as well.
As far as figuring out how much of each vegetable to grow, refer to those local cooperative extension services, as they often provide publications on vegetable gardening, including handy charts detailing space needed for different vegetables per number of people (see inset). Remember, just because there are twelve seeds in the zucchini package, or six tomatoes in a pack, doesn’t mean you have to plant them all! Be willing to sacrifice some at the start and/or thin as needed once they are growing.
The last decision to make is how much money you want to spend on your garden. Some varieties of vegetables need supports to grow on (climbing peas and beans); others are more appealing to animals (deer, raccoons, etc.) and may require fencing. For organic minded growers, the selection of varieties less prone to disease and insects and the decision on use of pesticides or organic methods such as row covers will be important. All of these cost money; although, many materials can be re-used for years.
This year, take time to plan your garden from the mind set of what and how much you can actually use, how and when you will need to preserve it and how much money is well spent for the value of the return. If you go about your garden planning in this way, I guarantee you will see your vegetable garden as a success this year!
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