Editor’s note: These are edited excerpts from Lorene Edwards Forkner’s new book, “The Beginner’s Guide to Growing Great Vegetables,” published by Timber Press, Portland. Used by permission of the publisher. All rights reserved.
THIS BOOK WILL take you through every month of the year and build your gardening know-how. You’ll find tips and techniques as well as suggestions for what to grow and how. No matter what you’re looking to harvest — a windowsill crop of midwinter microgreens, fresh salads spring through fall, a bumper crop of tomatoes or a few savory herbs to enliven your dinner — this is your guide to navigating the delicious possibilities available to the home grower.
Dream big, but start small
Fantasize about an everlasting supply of strawberries for shortcake, homemade pickles and fragrant basil. Picture heaps of potatoes, onions and glowing moons of winter squash stashed for winter. Heck, go ahead and imagine this year’s vintage of house wine aging in the basement — after all, we’re dreaming. Then wake up, and realistically assess your resources. How much time and space can you really dedicate to growing food? Remember: You have a life outside the vegetable garden.
Do yourself a favor: Plan and plant only what you can eat. On any given day, would you buy five heads of lettuce, two dozen tomatoes and three bushels of kale? Probably not. Although I revel in abundance, I am not looking for glut. I know far too well that overly ambitious planting quickly leads to physical exhaustion and a landscape more reminiscent of a hardworking farmstead than an urban lot. And failure to keep up with a garden that’s overrun with weeds or dying of thirst is disheartening and wasteful. Planning and planting for a modest yet constant harvest takes the pressure off tending and harvesting.
My recommendation: Resist the inclination to plant everything. Focus on those crops that you can accommodate and those that flourish in your growing region, and leave the heavy lifting to hardworking local farms and artisan producers.
Choosing what to grow
Grow what you love to eat. It sounds so simple, doesn’t it? Not a fan of cabbage? Don’t bother with it. Or maybe you have an extraordinary fondness for fava beans, like I do; I always plant this easy-to-grow, utterly delicious legume. What’s your favorite vegetable? Go there.
The other simple rule is to grow food in quantities that match the needs of your household. For me, an ideal planting would yield plenty for the table and sharing with friends and family, along with enough extra for the occasional batch of berry jam, savory tomato sauce or herbal pesto to get me through the damp, chilly months until the warmth of next summer. Also, once you grasp the difference between cool-season and warm-season crops, you’re on your way to plotting and planning to get the most out of the entire growing season where you garden.
March: Go Outside
Depending on where you are, March can be a warm breath of spring and wan sunshine, or wintry and mired in mud; often, it is both. Plants and gardeners alike revel in this luxurious season of sufficient moisture. Bulbs bloom, seeds sprout and plants grow at remarkable rates in the lengthening days. However, even in the midst of this dewy, dripping, showery — some might say sodden — season, experienced gardeners know to plan for the coming dry season. In this chapter, I’ll show you how to navigate the growing season in your garden.
To do in March:
● Review notes from last year’s garden journal.
● Keep track of weather conditions and plantings in this year’s garden journal.
Prepare and maintain
● Test soil composition in various parts of the garden.
● Turn compost, and spread in garden.
● Dig and prepare beds for planting where soil is workable; incorporate quick-to-break-down amendments like alfalfa meal, blood meal, fish meal and kelp.
● Renew mulch where needed.
● Keep up with early weeding, and patrol for pests.
● Erect fencing as needed to control critters.
● Monitor and tend indoor seedlings.
● Fertilize overwintered garlic and onions.
Sow and plant
● Indoors: Start eggplants, peppers, tomatoes and squash (late in the month in the Pacific Northwest).
● In the garden: Plant potatoes and soft-neck garlic. Direct sow arugula, Asian greens, broccoli rabe, fava beans, lettuce and salad greens, peas, radishes and spinach (as conditions allow).
● Set out onion sets and homegrown or nursery transplants of cool-season crops.
● Sow outside undercover: beets, carrots, Swiss chard, kale, parsley.
Small-space gardening principles
Cultivating a variety of crops throughout the entire growing season is how you can leverage a garden’s tiny footprint into greater production. Not only does this provide a delicious assortment of food, but it’s also a way to hedge disappointment. Did birds get the berries, slugs devour the lettuce and tomatoes blight before harvest? Oh, well; here comes more lettuce, lots of kale and plenty of pumpkins. Make a note in your garden journal to protect next year’s harvest by netting the blueberries before they ripen.
Even gardeners with a generous amount of growing space can save work by implementing small-space gardening principles. Maximizing what you can produce in the least amount of space just makes sense — more food, less work.
To get the most from your garden, it is important to keep your beds planted at all times; this is called succession planting. As soon as a crop is harvestable — or when it bolts (starts flowering and goes to seed) or slows production — pull it out. Any tired plants and the remnants of early sowings can be tossed into the compost pile. Work some finished compost and a light application of organic fertilizer into the soil, and immediately replant.
One approach to succession planting is repeated sowings of a single short-season crop (like radishes, lettuce or scallions) in the same bed throughout the season. To produce an ongoing harvest of cut-and-come-again salad greens, for example, thickly sow blocks of mixed lettuce starting 1 square foot every 7 to 10 days, harvest each block for two to three cuttings before you remove the spent plants, refresh the soil and replant. This is a much more efficient way to produce a constant supply of fresh greens than planting a long row of lettuce and having it all come ready for harvest at once.
Another method involves planting a sequence of cool- and warm-season crops in the same bed over the course of the growing season; this approach works best where the growing season is long, with an extended cool spring. Placing tomatoes, peppers, eggplants and other heat-loving plants in the garden too early (before soil temperatures have warmed up enough to support active growth) is to risk permanently damaging the crop. Instead, sow cool-season crops (like radishes, peas or spinach) in that same spot where you later will set out summer crops. Your shivering tomato starts will thank you, and you’ll get an early spring bonus of cool-season crops.
Planting a quick-to-mature crop between rows, or interspersed with plantings that take longer to grow, is another twist on succession planting, called a catch crop. I often plant summer lettuce in and around my tomato starts. The lettuce plants quickly grow to harvest size before the tomatoes fill the space. Later in the summer, I squeeze another crop into the same garden footprint by sowing kale at the foot of my now-mature tomato plants. The young seedlings germinate and establish sheltered from intense summer conditions; after harvesting the last tomato, I cut the plants to the ground, leaving the now-well-established kale plants to flourish and produce in the cool damp weather of fall.
Charting successive plantings and juggling catch crops take some serious planning. But managing your garden’s space-time continuum is an essential aspect of maximizing the yield of fresh food from a small garden.