Tuesday, December 30, 2008

Plan A

Having a plan, a sense of purpose for a veggie garden, can help a gardener stand firm against the nearly irresistible allure of the seed catalogues. Not that there is anything wrong with ordering seeds for the tomato that is “another genuine Russian treasure!… small to medium oval fruits… very juicy and ripen[ing] to a beautiful, deep garnet red color” (Totally Tomatoes 2009 catalogue, page 26, variety Black Prince). However, when so many varieties sound so great, having a plan can help in saving money and using garden space well.

Part of planning is knowing space limitations. In past years, I have had about 315 square feet of space for growing vegetables. Last year, we—well, my husband did all the hardest work—added about 120 more square feet, but in an area that gets more shade. About thirty-five of the original 315 square feet is given over to asparagus, so I won’t be planting anything more there. What this all means is that, for me to grow everything that I want to grow, I have to modify my “wants” and grow only a little of most veggies.

Another consideration when planning is keeping in mind, or maybe in giant letters on a piece of paper tucked into each seed catalogue, the major goals for the garden. For example, At the Plant-a-Row-for-the-Hungry garden where I volunteer, we grow crops that don’t require refrigerated storage and that are easily recognizable and usable by most local citizens (so they will know what to do with the food we grow). If we grow lettuce, it will just wilt before it can be handed out to the people who need food, because the pantry we deliver our produce to doesn’t have facilities to keep foods like lettuce cool. If we grow less well-known veggies like salsify, there is a big chance that the veggies (and effort put into growing them!) will be wasted as few people will know how to prepare them.

As a result, at that garden we grow a lot of tomatoes, peppers, squash, okra, cucumbers, sweet potatoes, and beans. One year, we grew many heirloom varieties of tomatoes. These turned out to be less productive, generally, than the standard hybrids sold in most garden centers, so we went back to growing more of the hybrids. The major goal for that garden is to provide food for as many people as possible, and experimenting with heirlooms wasn’t going to help us meet that particular goal.

Other gardens will have other goals. Some gardens may be intended to provide gourmet varieties or “baby” vegetables that are normally hard to find and/or expensive. Other garden goals may be to provide organically grown foods or special ethnic foods that aren’t available in stores.

For my garden, major goals are that it will save us grocery money and provide some nutritious additions to our meals. In the peak production times of mid-June through mid-September, we don’t have to buy produce at the store, but we do buy some tropical fruits because we like them. We could get by, though, on what is growing in the yard. In the month or so on each side of those dates, we get enough vegetables to eat them often with meals each week. Before that, beginning in April, the garden starts to provide some cool weather veggies-- not enough to brag about, but we get some asparagus, peas, lettuce, spinach, and other greens, at the least. In Fall, we get additional regular but small amounts of the same cool weather crops.

In no way does our garden produce all of our daily calories for any one month, but I have managed to meet my goals most years.

Crops that help meet the “saving money” goal are tomatoes and peppers. We eat a lot of these, and they don’t seem to come down much in price even during peak production times in the summer. Almost everything else out in the garden helps meet the second major goal. Another, less major goal is to eat something from the yard every week of the year, at least a couple of times each week. With the garden being small, this can be tough, but note that I specified “yard,” so that blueberries, one of my most productive crops, are included. Another crop that helps meet this goal is sweet potatoes; they keep in a basket in the kitchen well into Spring. Seminole “pumpkin” squash is another productive veggie in my yard, and it lasts unspoiled for a full year just about anyplace. I usually also manage to freeze and can/bottle some other produce—some of this as jam— so meeting this goal hasn’t been too hard most years.

If I needed to produce more of my family’s calories (and not just vitamins, minerals, and variety) I would grow more root crops, which tend to be fairly calorie and even protein rich, like potatoes, sweet potatoes, and parsnips. I already grow some of these, but not enough to feed us all year. That would take a dramatically expanded garden and a different plan.

For now, though, I am proceeding with the usual plan, ordering seeds, working out where each crop will go in the garden to meet crop-rotation needs, and hoping for a non-drought year.

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