Backyard Gardening: How to Get a Lot From Your Plot
Whether this is your first year growing a kitchen garden or your thumb glows green from years of use, it’s possible to quickly turn dreams of bountiful organic harvests into a reality. Even small gardens can be surprisingly productive, sometimes yielding enough squash to feed the neighborhood. These 10 tips will help you reap top harvests of superb vegetables and herbs.
Shop from Your Garden First. After a lifetime of buying food in stores, you may need to change your shopping habits to accommodate the stream of veggies from your own produce patch. It makes sense to shop here first. When you plan meals based upon your garden’s abundance, much less overripe produce ends up as compost.
Spread on the Mulch. Everywhere but in the subtropics, rain often becomes scarce in summer, so do everything you can to keep plants supplied with consistent moisture. Tomatoes, in particular, are sensitive to changes in soil moisture that can lead to black spots on the bottoms of ripening fruits. In any climate, drip irrigation from soaker hoses on the surface makes watering easy and efficient. Covering the hoses with mulch reduces surface evaporation and discourages weeds at the same time.
Harvest Often. From snap beans to zucchini, vegetables will be longer and stronger if you keep them picked. Gather what’s ripe at least three times a week. Early morning is the best time to gather garden-fresh veggies.
Make Plenty of Pesto. A fast-growing annual herb that loves hot weather, basil will keep producing new leaves over a longer time if you harvest big bunches just as the plants develop buds and flowers (the flowers are edible, too). If you have too much basil to use right away, purée washed leaves with olive oil and lemon juice, then cover with water in ice cube trays and freeze. Store the hard cubes in freezer bags for use in making pesto during non-harvest months.
Squeeze Tomatoes. In choosing your favorite tomatoes, taste them fairly by keeping them in a warm place because cool temperatures can destroy their flavor compounds. In addition to watching the vines for ripe colors, make a habit of gently squeezing tomatoes to judge their firmness, the same way you might check an avocado or peach. Heirloom varieties, in particular, are at their best just as they begin to soften, but may become mealy if you wait too long.
Taste Local Favorites. Trying new crops is always fun, especially if you know they grow well in your region. To learn more about which vegetables and herbs naturally grow well in your climate and soil, visit local farmers’ markets to see what local organic farmers are growing. Any crop that grows well in a neighbor’s field is likely to also do well in your garden.
Keep Your Cool. Take on big garden tasks early in the morning or in the evening, when it’s cool. If you must work outdoors on a hot day, try freezing damp kitchen towels into a U-shape and drape a frozen collar around your neck to keep from overheating.
Bet on Beans. Most vegetables are fast-growing annuals that decline after they have produced for several weeks. Replace tattered spring crops with fast-growing bush snap beans, which will promptly sprout and grow in all but the hottest climates. Where summers are sultry, there is often time to follow spring crops with a planting of edamame (edible green soybeans), which offer sensational taste, texture and nutrition.
Sow More Salad. Lettuce and other salad greens often go to seed and turn bitter when hot weather comes, but a second salad season is right around the corner. Leafy greens, from arugula to tatsoi (a gorgeous Asian mustard), thrive from late summer to fall in most climates. Keep seeds left over from spring in the refrigerator and start planting them outside as soon as cooler nights arrive in late summer. In subtropical areas, start seeds indoors and set the seedlings out after the hottest months have passed.
Fortify Soil. Each time you cultivate a bed, mix in a generous helping of compost or another form of rich, organic matter. Over time, the soil will become better and better, which means ever more beautiful homegrown veggies, fresh from your own garden.
Barbara Pleasant is the author of numerous gardening books; this year’s release is Starter Vegetable Gardens: 24 No-Fail Plans for Small Organic Gardens.