After tasting the harvest from your vegetable garden, it’s completely rational to tear up every inch of available land and plant more. But when you start to daydream about expanding into your neighbor’s lawn, it’s time to shift your focus. Efficiently using your garden lets you grow more food without the extra space. Here are three ways to make the most of your garden.
1. Start Early
Don’t wait until after the last frost to start your garden: many plants thrive in cool, spring temperatures. By starting early, you can sneak two crops into the same year, giving you twice the vegetables. And since these plants produce extra sugar as a kind of anti-freeze, they taste even better when grown in cold weather.
- Plant the right plants early. Peas, lettuce, arugula, kale, radishes, spinach, and beets are among the plants that tolerate cold weather well. Once established, they survive snow, hail, and brief lows of 22 degrees F in my garden. And since pests like aphids and flea beetles don’t show up in full force until mid summer, they are rarely a problem for early spring crops. Try experimenting with starting a few rows of different frost-tolerant plants as early as you can work your soil in the spring. To me, a great crop of early greens during a mild spring is worth gambling an hour of my time and a packet of seeds or two. However, some seeds just won’t germinate if the soil is too cold or wet, so be prepared to re-plant if your earliest seeds don’t make it.
- Start seeds inside or buy plants. Both of these options give your heat-loving plants an extra month or two of growing time before it’s warm enough for them to go outside. I start all my tomato, pepper, eggplant, artichoke, and basil seeds inside 6-8 weeks before I transplant them into the garden. Squash, cucumber, and melon seeds can also be started by seed three weeks before their transplant date.
- Protect plants from the cold to give them an earlier start. Cold frames are like mini-greenhouses, or you can shelter a larger area with row covers or hoop houses. While these options warm the soil and provide some frost protection for cold-tolerant plants, they don’t keep truly frost-sensitive vegetables safe from frost. I use ‘Walls O Water‘ to protect tomatoes, peppers, and sometimes melons. Position these around your new transplants, fill the plastic cylinders with water, and remove them after it has warmed up after the last frost.
2. Grow Vertically
Use trellises to support vine-like plants so you can fit more in.
- Pole Beans grow great on our favorite garden structure, the bean teepee. After your last frost date, plant bean seeds in a rough circle, leaving an opening for a door so you can go inside to harvest (or play hide-and-seek). Support your beans with 8 foot poles, wired together at the top, with the bases sunk into the soil around the circle. For safety, make sure to use lightweight posts if you intend to go inside. Twine can supply additional support for your beans if wound horizontally between the poles. Radishes, arugula, or lettuce can be planted inside the circle 6 to 8 weeks before the beans are planted and harvested before the beans grow tall enough to shade them.
- Tomatoes grow well when supported vertically. Getting them off the ground keeps them drier, protecting the leaves from mildew and the tomatoes from rot. Determinate varieties can be supported by traditional tomato cages, while indeterminate varieties are best grown in 6 foot wire cages or with vertical twine. For more information on growing and trellising tomatoes, see my post here.
- Cucumbers, Melons, and Winter Squash grow well without a trellis, but they sprawl so much that growing them vertically frees up a lot of space. I use plastic garden mesh with 4-inch-wide, square openings held by a horizontal, 4 foot tall support. If you are trellising melons, support the fruits by tying them to your trellis with some sort of stretchy bag (old pantyhose work great) so they don’t twist off the vine before they’re ripe. Butternut squash and smaller squash varieties usually don’t twist off the vines when trellised, but larger winter squash should be supported or grown without a trellis.
3. End Late (or Never)
Whenever an empty spot appears in your garden, spread some compost and plant something new. Many vegetables don’t require the whole summer growing season: garlic, onions, carrots, beets, radishes, and many greens will be done long before the summer is over, leaving room for more plants. Just keep in mind the basics of crop rotation to minimize plant diseases and soil-nutrient deficiencies in your garden.
- Plant greens wherever you have space. Lettuce, spinach, arugula, and kale are ready to eat soon after planting and will keep producing until fall if it’s not too hot for them. Harvest the outer leaves and allow the plant to keep growing for future eating. For loose-leaf lettuce, cut all the leaves a few inches above the soil and the plant will regrow from the plant’s base, providing multiple harvests.
- Protect greens through the winter with straw. Spinach, kale, and some varieties of lettuce are hardy enough to survive our garden zone 5 winters with no more protection than a thick layer of straw. Before the first major snowfall (or when temperatures consistently drop below 28 degrees F), harvest all the larger leaves, leaving only a few young leaves near the center of the plant. Then, cover the leaves with 6-8 inches of straw. When the snow melts in the spring and lows are above 28 degrees F, remove the straw: you’ll be rewarded with fresh greens at about the same time that you can plant your first seeds.
- Plant carrots or beets if you have 60-70 days of growing season before the first frost. Carrots germinate best in cool, damp weather, making it challenging to start them in mid-summer. It helps to water carrot seeds and young seedlings at least once a day in hot weather and consider using a shade cloth to lower the ground temperature until they have their first true leaves. If you don’t get around to harvesting carrots or beets before cold weather (below 28 degrees F), just cover them with about 4 inches of straw and keep digging them up as needed through the late fall and early winter. But make sure to harvest all your root crops before they start to grow again in the spring: the plants’ new growth is fueled by sugar stored in roots, which become too tough to eat.
- Add a hoop house if you have a spot that gets great sun during the winter. Unheated hoop houses help you harvest all winter, maximizing your garden’s potential. See my post here for how to add a hoop house to your garden.
With a little planning and extra care, you can grow a lot of food in a small vegetable garden. Before considering your next garden expansion, make sure you’re using the garden space you have to its full potential.