For years, and I mean years, I planted vegetable gardens that were complete nonsense. I would look through seed catalogs, choose far too many plants, plant them too close together, and have tiny harvests of a million different vegetables. Also I lived in the suburbs where there was too much shade and no bees. Also I had my husband build raised beds, purchase soil, and generally spend so much on my hobby that there was no way I could come out ahead, even had I planned my garden well.
So it is now fall, the ending of gardening season, with nothing to dream of but next year. I have improved in my planning a lot, but still find that this time of year is the best for planning. What did I need more of? What was timed poorly? How was my spacing and my aisle widths? What did I end up giving away because there was too much? And what varieties have earned a spot for next year?
So in the spirit of planning, here are some things to keep in mind.
- Look at your grocery lists, not the seed catalog.
Plant what you eat. Sounds obvious. It is not. Why are are there so many sample plans with rows of turnips and rutabagas? Why? I am proud if you if you really eat these things, but if you don’t, please do not plant them. I am tempted every year by beautiful summer squash, but… I think it is gross. So does my family. Same goes for Lima beans and sweet potatoes. I remember once reading a book where a character makes a salad with beets on top and all the other characters like it. I planted beets, we ate one, it was okay. The others languished. Look at what you pay for at the store! (For us this means lettuce, onions, garlic, celery, carrots, tomatoes, extra tomatoes for canning, bell peppers, jalapeños, extra peppers for canning, sugar snap beans, green beans, corn, cucumbers, extra cucumber for pickles, spinach, cilantro, basil, and a lot of watermelon. We buy our potatoes because they do not do well in our humidity and I have nowhere suitable to store a years supply.)
2. Plant enough of one thing to be self sufficient in it for the season.
This might means reducing the number of varieties in order to get a usable amount of one thing. What will you do with twenty green beans a week? Nothing. Plant enough so that you do not buy any green beans for the season and you eat them as a side dish regularly. For us this means a thirty foot row, half planted late April and half planted late June. If you just want tomatoes for fresh eating, two or three plants should be plenty. Some things will need to be planted in succession to avoid being unusable. In the spring and fall, I plant small amounts of lettuce and spinach in trays every week. They are something that I want a little of, bit by bit. What would I do with thirty heads of romaine, all ready to eat in one day? Pay careful attention to how much, and when, each plant will produce. Plant enough so that you aren’t buying it at all; plant at the right time so you are actually eating it.
3. Obey the seed packet
It truly tells you all you need to know. Most gardening books have a first half of generic advice that boils down to “fertilize and weed your garden”, and then a second half with information of specific varieties. The second half reads like pages of seed packets. There is so much information on those little envelopes, and you really should listen to it! The most important thing is how far apart to plant your seeds and how to thin so that they have enough room to reach their full potential. Planting things too close does NOT result in more to harvest. EVER. If the seed company, whose motivation is to have you use a lot of seeds, wants to you to space them 12 inches apart, trust me that 12 inches is the absolute minimum distance they should be. Too much competition for water and nutrients will hurt all of them and you will wonder why nothing is turning out. Take a ruler with you to the garden. Also do not plant them 12 inches apart to start with, thinking you can skip thinning. No. Part of thinning is that you are selecting the strongest plants. Just do what the packet says!
4. Work in the garden every day
Water and plant in the mornings. Weed and harvest in the afternoons. Don’t touch it when it’s wet with dew or rain. Just stay out of it. If something is growing too slowly, feed it with some granular fertilizer worked in around the plant and then watered in. Set yourself a schedule for weeding, one row every three days, or 100 weeds a day, or whatever you can see yourself sticking to. It needs constant attention, but only a few minutes a day. Take your older children to help you. They can snack as they go. Just get out there and keep an eye on things.
5. Make it beautiful
Keep things in nice tidy rows with wide and comfortable aisles. Make it so that it were visible from the road, you would slow down and gaze at it in longing. Plant flowers that will beautify your home and the garden itself. If there is room for beautiful pumpkins, plant them. (Keep your herbs out of there, by the way, and put them in containers or a separate herb garden. Their variety makes things look messy, and it is nice to have them somewhere else, right outside your door.) Let your garden be a source of pride. It will draw you to it by being pretty and you will love keeping it up. Keep it as weed free as you can so that you feel accomplished, not defeated, when you see it.