Editor’s Note: This is an edited excerpt from the book “Grow More Food: A Vegetable Gardener’s Guide to Getting the Biggest Harvest Possible From a Space of Any Size,” by GROW contributor Colin McCrate and Brad Halm, former CSA growers and current owners of the Seattle Urban Farm Company. (Storey Publishing, 2022)
YOUR GOAL AS a production-minded gardener is not just to grow a huge amount of food, but also to have it consistently available throughout the year. It doesn’t do you much good to grow 100 pounds of basil in July if you can’t eat all of it or store it to eat later.
To maximize production from the garden, you’ll need a planting plan — a schedule specific to your garden that tells you which crops you’re going to plant and when you’re going to plant them. This plan, along with detailed record-keeping, is what really distinguishes production gardening from ordinary backyard gardening.
Crop scheduling allows you to make more efficient use of your space. In fact, you might double or triple the harvests you normally would expect from a given amount of garden space. In addition to helping you increase the volume of food your garden produces, your planting plan also will help you avoid waste from overplanting, make the best use of your soil nutrients, and minimize pest and disease problems. It might even clean the dishes and walk the dog for you. We are really into planting plans.
CONSIDER CROP LIFE SPAN
Understanding the life span and growth cycle of your crops will help you make decisions about what to plant, when to plant it, where to plant it and how much of it to plant.
Once you know how long it’ll take a specific crop to grow and when it should be planted, you’ll be able to determine whether there’s time to plant a crop before it in the spring or after it in the fall. You can schedule planting to make sure crops have time to mature before the end of the growing season, and to ensure you’re maximizing yield by growing individual crops when soil and air temperatures are best for them. This type of understanding allows for proper planning and efficiency across an entire growing season.
When most people think of a vegetable garden, they picture annual plants — botanically defined as those that complete their life cycle in one growing season. Typically, these plants are started from seed, planted in the garden, produce a harvest and then perish a few weeks or months later. Some annual crops, such as bush beans, die midseason, right after the edible portions are harvested. Many others, like tomatoes and squash, die as soon as temperatures drop below freezing.
Depending on where they’re grown, some plants that are cultivated as annual crops can actually live for more than one season, but they’re generally planted with the intention of harvesting that same season. Many herbs — such as basil, cilantro, dill and parsley — fall into this category. Peppers and tomatoes can grow as perennials in equatorial South America, but they almost always are grown as annuals in more temperate regions such as the United States and Canada. Artichokes are perennials in the central coast of California, but must be grown as annual crops in the Northeast and Midwest, where winter temperatures are too cold for them to survive.
When you’re planning what to grow, it’s important to consider how long each crop will be in the ground, especially if you have limited space for growing annual plants:
Short-season crops can be grown from seed or transplant to harvest stage in a short period of time (30 to 60 days). Because they have a short growing season, you can plant these crops several times over the course of the year. Examples include arugula, cilantro, lettuce, radishes and spinach.
Half-season crops take roughly half of a standard growing season to reach maturity (50 to 80 days). You might plant these two to three times over the course of the season: once in the spring, once in early summer and again in mid- to late summer. Examples include beets, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, carrots and kale.
Long-season crops take a long time to reach maturity (70 to 120 days). You’ll plant these early in the season and harvest them toward the end of the season. In many cases, you can do two plantings of long-season crops in the spring, and harvest them a few weeks apart in the fall. Examples include melons, peppers, tomatillos, tomatoes and winter squash.
Superlong-season crops are the outliers to general crop categorization. They are commonly planted in the fall and harvested in the summer of the following season. Examples include garlic, some types of onions and (in some climates) fava beans.
PLANNING FOR STORAGE
Growing storage crops is key to enjoying produce from your garden in a steady, consistent supply throughout the growing season and into the winter. When you’re developing a planting plan, give some thought to how and where your crops will be stored, and make selections based on your storage capacities and preferences.
Some crop varieties have much better storage lives than others. If you’re planning to store a crop for a long period, make sure you choose an appropriate variety for this application. For example, the yellow onion variety ‘Copra’ will hold much longer than the sweet white onion variety ‘Ailsa Craig’. A good seed catalog or some online research will let you know whether a particular variety is well suited for storage.
When you’re planning for storage, it’s important to consider the work involved in putting the harvest up and the timing of each planting:
Fresh crops that must be processed for storage. These include vegetables such as tomatoes, peppers, broccoli, summer squash and snap beans. They are typically grown to be eaten fresh, but also can be canned, frozen or dehydrated for long-term storage.
Single-planting storage crops. These include bulb onions, garlic, potatoes, dried beans and winter squash. They are typically planted once per year, harvested, and preserved by holding them at the proper temperature and humidity (in a root cellar, for example). With enough space and proper conditions, you can eat these delicious crops well into the winter months or even into the following spring.
Keep in mind that certain varieties will last much longer in storage than others. For example, softneck garlic stores much longer than most hardneck types. Similarly, ‘Yukon Gold’ potatoes store for an exceptionally long time, while ‘Dark Red Norland’ potatoes are best eaten fresh. Plant some varieties of these crops for long-term storage and other varieties for short-term storage or fresh eating.
Succession-planting storage crops. Some crops that are planted in succession throughout the year for fresh eating are also excellent keepers in storage. Classic examples are carrots, beets and turnips. A typical strategy for these crops is to make multiple small plantings during the growing season for fresh eating, then make a large final planting toward the end of the season for storage. Properly stored root crops can last six months or longer.
Grains. It’s possible to grow and store considerable amounts of carbohydrates and protein via grasses and grains such as buckwheat, field corn, wheat and rye. To produce usable yields from these sources, a large space might be necessary. Also, many of these crops become very time-intensive to process and store on a small scale without specialized equipment. For these reasons, we don’t discuss growing them in our book (other than as cover crops).
CONSIDER YOUR LOCAL CONDITIONS
As you might imagine, crops that grow best in Louisiana might not always grow well in Michigan or Maine. Or Seattle. Local conditions dramatically affect the success of crops and should be taken into account when selecting varieties, determining when to plant and anticipating potential problems.
SCHEDULE YOUR PLANTINGS TO MATCH YOUR GROWING SEASON
The best time of the season to plant each crop varies by climate. It takes experience and local knowledge to dial in the ideal dates on a planting calendar. If you’re new to an area or have never grown food in a certain climate, talk to other experienced growers, or call an extension agency. Ask for juicy secrets, like how early you can plant tomatoes, or the latest date you can sow bush beans.
If you don’t have access to local knowledge for all the crops you want to plant, you can build a planting calendar based on your average first and last frost dates. An internet search of “first and last frost dates” will yield several online calculators where you can enter your location to find this information for your garden. We recommend trying a few of these online calculators and seeing how they differ, as each one might use different data to make the calculation.
PRECIPITATION AND CROP YIELD
Successful growers know their local precipitation patterns and are prepared to respond in order to get the most out of their gardens. We believe it’s important for all gardeners to have a system to irrigate their crops. This becomes vital if you have significant dry spells during your growing season.
For example, although the Pacific Northwest is renowned for its rainy weather, almost all precipitation comes in the fall, winter and early spring. Gardeners must be able to irrigate continuously through the dry months of June through September. In contrast, a grower in the Midwest often will experience good rainfall throughout the growing season, but will need to irrigate during hot periods between rain events for maximum yields.
Keep in mind that all precipitation doesn’t fall as gentle rain. Heavy precipitation such as thunderstorms or hail can damage crops. If you know these types of precipitation are common in your climate, be prepared to protect your crops with row cover and, if possible, time plantings to avoid damage.
Snow cover also will affect your crops. Snow can act as an insulator, protecting overwintering crops. It also can kill tender crops if it comes at an unanticipated time. Growers in regions prone to late spring or early fall snow events might need to rely on season-extension techniques to protect their crops.
Always be prepared for unseasonal weather events. Keep an eye on the daily forecasts, and be ready to act accordingly.
LATITUDE AFFECTS GROWTH
Your position on the globe can have a surprising effect on crop growth habits. As a production-minded grower, you should learn how plants grow at different times during the season at your latitude, and plan your planting calendar accordingly.
Areas at northern latitudes will have very long days during the summer, which cause crops to grow to maturity very quickly. However, they have shorter days in fall and winter, which lead to slower growth of fall plantings. Day length dramatically affects the speed of growth of overwintering crops.
In southern latitudes, crops might grow to maturity at a slower rate because day length is shorter than in northern regions during the growing season. However, the overall growing season will be longer, and fall and winter production is often much easier.
Some crops, like onions, require a specific amount of daylight to mature properly. Short-day onions start forming a bulb when day length reaches 12 to 13 hours. Intermediate-day (or day-neutral) onions bulb between 13 to 14 hours. Long-day onions bulb when day length reaches 14 hours or more. If you’re gardening north of 40 degrees North latitude, be sure to choose long-day onions. Gardeners south of 36 degrees North latitude should be growing short-day onions, and those in between should grow intermediate-day types. Some onions are listed in catalogs as “widely adapted” and can be grown throughout the United States.