Get the Most from Your Vegetable Garden

Get the most from your vegetable garden
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When you set your mind to grow your own food, you don't want your garden merely acceptable - you want it as productive as possible, giving high yields of healthy food. Here's my advice on how to make that happen. 

Feed Your Soil 

The number one thing you can do to maximize your garden and improve yields is to feed your soil well. The more accessible nutrients your soil contains, the healthier your plants are, and
the more food they will produce. 

The best way to begin feeding your soil is to conduct a simple soil test. You can either purchase an inexpensive soil testing kit at a gardening center, or you can mail samples to a soil testing company. Either way, the results will tell you if your soil is low in any macronutrient, and how to amend the soil to correct any deficiencies. Ideally, testing is done in the fall, so that any organic amendments you use will have time to break down and become accessible to plants come spring - but as long as the soil isn't frozen, you really can do testing and amending any time of year. 

No matter what your soil test says, however, you should always add lots of organic matter (such as manure, dry grass clippings, dry leaves, and compost) to the soil at least a couple of times a year. In my garden, I add rabbit manure (which does not have to age before going into the garden) or chicken and quail manure (which does need to age first), as well as homemade compost, to my soil in the late winter or early spring, before planting anything new in the garden. Once my garden is planted, I often add wood chip mulch. Throughout the growing seasons, I add more manure and/or compost, as needed, giving special attention to plants that feed heavily, like tomatoes. Finally, as the garden quiets down in the late fall, I add more manure, so it can break down over winter. If I'm really on top of things, I also add additional mulch, to help suppress weeds over the winter; as the mulch breaks down, it also adds nutrients to the soil. 

Because vegetables grow quickly and need lots of nutrients to do so, you should also consider fertilizing your garden. For instance, I like to fertilize seedlings with fish emulsion, which is packed with nitrogen and encourages leafy green growth. I also fertilize tomatoes all season long, using manure tea or a store-bought balanced vegetable fertilizer

If you want to maximize your garden, it's important to plant quick-growing varieties.


Choose the Right Varieties 

An oft-overlooked tip for maximizing your garden is to choose vegetable varieties that grow quickly. For example, if I have a choice between a variety of beans that takes 54 days to reach maturity and a variety that takes 75 days to reach maturity, I'll almost always go with the faster-growing variety. (The only reasons I might go with a longer-growing variety is if it has a certain disease resistance I need or if I just really favor its flavor.) If I gather in the harvest and plant something else in that quick-growing plant's place, ultimately, I get more food from the same amount of garden soil. 

It's also smart to consider how many big producers vs. small producers you are planting. One example is Brussels sprouts vs. collards. Being relatively big plants that must grow all spring, summer, and fall before their delicious heads are ready for harvesting in the late fall or winter, Brussels sprouts are a small producer. 

On the other hand, collards are a big producer. They produce food continually throughout spring, summer, and fall. They will even survive some snow, giving you winter harvests. If your goal is to fully maximize your garden, you'll want a lot of big producers and few, if any, small producers. 

Get Cozy 

Planting crops in rows is a poor use of space. Instead, plant in berms or plots. Arc the soil at the center of your berms or raised beds, which will give you a bit more space for plants. 

Plant things at minimum distances apart; not only will you get more plants in your allotted space, but vegetables that grow close together choke out weeds. This saves you work and prevents weeds from competing with food crops for soil nutrients and moisture. 

Also, whenever possible, interplant. For example, plant out your tomatoes in the spring, and then, in the space around those tomatoes, plant lettuce, radishes, or other quick-growing, smaller veggies that won't crowd out your tomato plants and will be harvested long before the tomato plants get large. Let no space go to waste in your garden! 

Planting in arced berms gives you more space to plant food.


Succession Plant 

If you want to eat fresh veggies, spring through fall, succession planting is highly valuable. To achieve this, simply plant a certain amount of one type of vegetable one week, and then every week or two after that, plant a little more. That first planting should reach maturity first; harvest that bounty and eat it right then. As subsequent plantings mature, continue to eat them right away. 

If you're looking to can lots of vegetables, you may be inclined to avoid succession planting and instead plant all your seeds (or seedlings) at once; however, if there are vegetables that aren't safe to can (or perhaps you don't enjoy eating them after they are canned), it pays to succession plant them. Another good reason to succession plant even when you want to preserve most of your veggies is that having huge gluts of food come in all at once makes preserving exhausting. If the harvests come in a little at a time, the task of canning, freezing, or otherwise preserving the food is much more manageable. 

Vertical Gardening 

You can save a lot of space in your garden, allowing you to raise more food, if you grow some of your plants vertically. Train them up fences, trellises, poles, and tepees...really anything you can devise that is sturdy enough to support the growth. Good candidates for vertical growing include pole beans, cucumbers, peas, and summer squash. You can even grow smaller winter squashes and melons vertically if you devise slings made of soft netting to help support the edible part of the fruit or veggie. 

A thriving vegetable garden requires the correct amount of water.


Optimal Watering 

Last year, my neighbor stared at my vegetable garden, bemoaning his gardening skills. As we discussed why my garden was thriving and his was not, one of the important points that came up was water. I live in a windy area where we don't get rain during the summer. Therefore, during the warm months, I water my garden every single day. This astonished my neighbor. But the fact is, plants will not grow to their full potential if they are dehydrated. 

Now, you may not have to water daily as I do, but you should check your soil frequently for moisture. Every day, stick a finger an inch or so down in the dirt. If it feels moist, your plants are fine. If it feels dry, you need to give them water. 

When irrigating, water deeply, and whenever possible, water only at the base of plants, avoiding the leaves. Using a sprinkler is easy, but it puts a lot of water on plant leaves. Much of this water gets "wasted" through evaporation. 

To avoid diseases that slow down or kill your crops, water in the morning, before it gets hot, so that any water that accidentally lands on plant leaves can evaporate off during the day. (When you water in the evening, water may linger on plants overnight, encouraging fungal and bacterial diseases.) 

To water less and keep your plants stress-free, use thick layers of organic mulch to hold moisture into the soil. 

Keep Weeds Down 

Weeds compete with vegetables for both water and nutrients. This means a weedy garden is a struggling garden. No one wants to spend tons of time weeding, so here are a few tips for keeping weeds down while still having a life outside of the garden: 

1. Use the no-dig method: Place two layers of plain cardboard (edges overlapped) over mowed weeds, and then spread either garden soil or compost (for growing spaces) or a thick layer of organic mulch (for walkways) over the top. This not only helps suppress and kill weeds, but if weeds do manage to come up, they are MUCH easier to pull. The cardboard and mulch also slowly break down, feeding the soil. (Find full instructions for creating a no-dig garden here.)

2. Weed early and often. If there are weeds in the garden, try to weed a little every day, instead of pushing yourself into marathon weeding sessions. 

3. Never let weeds go to seed. If you can't pull or dig out weeds that are blossoming, cut off their heads to prevent their seeds from spreading. 

4. Make sure your garden is well-weeded by the end of fall. That way, come spring, you should have fewer weeds to contend with. 

Keep your garden going into fall - and even winter!


Extend It 

As the cold months approach, gardening isn't over! For example, you could install cold frames, row covers, hoop houses, or a greenhouse to extend your growing season into winter. 

More than that, you can easily have a thriving fall garden - and, depending upon your location, even a winter garden. Choose cool-season crops (such as cabbage, lettuce, kale, collards, peas, broccoli, cauliflower, bush beans, radishes, spinach, and turnips), and sow the seed so it will have plenty of time to mature before your first hard frost. To determine this timeline, look up the first killing frost date for your area, then check your seed packets to see how many days to maturity your plants require. Count backward that exact number of days, then add time for the seeds to germinate and be transplanted out into the garden. 

Here's an example of how to do that: If I want to plant Buttercrunch lettuce for my fall garden, I note that the seed packet says it takes 48 days to reach maturity. It also says the seeds take 2 to 15 days to germinate. So I need about 63 days for my lettuce to go from sowing to harvesting. If my first killing frost is November 21st, I know I need to plant the last of my lettuce no later than September 19th. If I can plant a few weeks earlier than that, all the better, since plants tend to grow more slowly as the weather cools and the hours of sunlight they see diminishes. (Do note that if your September is hot, you'll need to shade your lettuce seedlings until the weather cools; otherwise, the lettuce will tend to "bolt" or go to seed.)  

For more information on creating a fall garden, click here.

Catching problems early results in higher garden yields.

Be Vigilant 

One unfortunate reason gardens can be less productive is disease and pests - but there are several ways to avoid this, or at least minimize the damage. 

The first trick is to choose varieties that are resistant to the diseases that are common to your garden. Does late blight keep hitting your tomatoes, despite careful cultivation? By choosing a tomato variety that's resistant to late blight, you are far more likely to have a successful tomato harvest. 

Another trick is to aim for biodiversity. Plant lots of different veggies. Throw some flowers in, too, if possible. (For instance, aphids will attack nasturtiums before they go for almost any other plant. The nasturtiums in your garden can look pretty for a while, and then become a sacrifice to save your food crops.) Also, instead of having one row of broccoli and another row of lettuce, interplant them or scatter varieties across your garden. That way, when pests or disease do come, your entire crop likely won't be hit. 

If you know flying pests have been a problem in the past, be proactive and put row covers over your plants. Get them on as soon as you plant seedlings, though, or the pests may beat you to the punch. 

It's also tremendously helpful to be on the lookout for early signs of disease or pests. Check your garden at least once a week - more ideally, every day - for hints that your plants are under attack. At the first sign of pests or disease, strike back! For instance, if you catch aphids when they are just beginning to suck the sap from your plants, you can spray them off with a blast of hose water or hit them with insecticidal oil, preventing a more serious problem. On the other hand, if you wait until the infestation is large, you'll likely lose your crop, no matter what steps you take.

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