Organic Gardening

Get dirty, have fun and grow more food with great gardening tips from real-life gardeners.

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Cindy washing lettuce

I recently spoke at the Virginia Biological Farming Conference about transitioning from being a home gardener to growing and selling produce at the markets. That talk was so well received that I thought I would pass on some of the information here.

The first thing I stressed was to feed the soil and build the ecosystem. We can’t have healthy people and healthy communities if they are being fed less than nutritious food. In order for food to be nutrient dense, the soil needs to be as healthy as possible. I advise to put your space, time, and energy into growing cover crops to feed the soil and make your compost, rather than bringing those materials in from somewhere else.

As you are working on getting your soil into shape with cover crops, you will also be building the ecosystem and attracting beneficial insects with those crops. Learn what other crops you can grow to enhance the system. Not everything will be a market crop, bringing in money. What these additional crops will bring in is balance.

Saving your own seed will help to bring in beneficial insects with their flowers. Yes, it often takes more space to grow plants out to save seed from, and space in a market garden is at a premium, but you will benefit in the long run. Feeding the soil, building the ecosystem, and saving seeds are all things you can practice in your home garden and will be the foundation of your future market garden. As for making money with your crops, there are some tips about that at Homeplace Earth.

Another thing I stressed at the conference was to have a washing station in your garden so you are not washing all your produce in your kitchen. That can be disruptive to your family. Also, unless what you pick that day is sold the same day, a packing shed is necessary to keep the mess off your porch. The packing area could be part of the outdoor washing station.

I sold vegetables for ten years and my market garden provided employment for whichever of our children was a young teenager—actually the youngest two were ages 11 and 10 when they started. As they became the age to get a “real job”, the next became my employee. How else would you find yourself side-by-side with your young son or daughter talking about everything under the sun for an hour or two at a time while you washed lettuce or picked beans? After ten years it was time to devote my attention to teaching and give up selling produce. I was out of homegrown employees anyway and it would not have been the same.

I wouldn’t trade those years in the garden with my children for anything. No matter how much money you make, there are other things that come out of endeavors like this that money can’t buy.

Cindy Conner is the author of Seed Libraries and Grow a Sustainable Diet and has produced DVDs about garden planning and managing cover crops with hand tools. Learn more about what she is up to at Homeplace Earth.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.


February Kitchen Garden

February is the month to start your seeds indoors!  You can get a one to two month jump by starting seeds inside.  It is easy and a budget friendly option that allows you to grow many varieties not available at your neighborhood nursery or big box store. Besides, it is nice to have green things growing again!

10-12 weeks prior (end Jan/beginning of Feb in our Zone 6 garden)

• Artichokes
• Broccoli
• Cabbage
• Celery
• Endive
• Escarole
• Kale
• Mache

8-10 weeks prior (mid-February in our Zone 6 garden)

• Chamomile
• Chives
• Eggplant
• Lavender
• Leeks
• Lovage
• Parsley
• Peppers
• Rosemary
• Tomatoes
• Thyme

For a full seed starting calendar, Indoor seed starting calendar  

What are the tricks to successful seed starting? The most surefire I have found with a gadget is the Aerogarden with the seed starting tray. I have almost 100% germination rate with it.

Aerogarden Seed Starting System
Aerogarden Seed Starting System

The key is using sterile seed starting mix, pots and containers. You can make your own seed starting mix with peat moss or coir (renewable), compost, and vermiculite. Just be sure to heat the compost to at least 150 degrees to kill any pathogens before using to start seeds.

Place the seeds in the starter mix in the pots and wet thoroughly from the bottom (watering from the top can dislodge seeds). After fully saturated, they are ready to put in a catch pan. Make sure any catch pan that you use has been thoroughly washed in a bleach solution so all pathogens are killed. The one I just bought has a water reservoir in the bottom of it that wicks the moisture up under the seedlings. I put my seed starts in a plastic tray with a clear plastic lid in a sunny window that I have had for years that you can buy at any big box store. Keep moist, but not wet, and with the clear cover on until seedling emerges. Once seedling emerges, remove the clear lid.

Make sure you label your seedlings as soon as you plant them; you may think you will remember 2 months from now what was where, but likely not. Now is also a great time to start keeping a journal. Start tracking what you planted when so you can review next year what worked well to repeat and what didn’t work so well to tweak.

Your seedling’s first leaves are not “true” leaves; think of them as baby teeth. The second sets of leaves are their true leaves. They are ready to be hardened off when they have their first set of true leaves. Seedlings must be hardened and not just thrown outside. You take them out a little at a time, gradually increasing their exposure to sun and cold, only during the daytime. I try and plant when there is a warm spell forecasted to minimize the shock.

There are great selections of herbs and veggies at nurseries and big box stores nowadays so you have great options just waiting until spring is officially here and picking up what looks good at your nearby store in a couple of months. This is also a great back up if your first seed starting adventure goes a little awry.

For different garden ideas, here are some to choose from: Heirloom Sicilian kitchen garden, Small space French kitchen garden, Start a kitchen herb garden!

Garden Planning

Happy garden starting!

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.



Seed starting begins at Candlemas — also known as Groundhog’s Day or Imbolc, depending upon your belief structure — or February second. After dinner, we light a new candle and break out the seeds, potting soil, and planting trays. We plant all of the tomatoes and the early spring crops—some mustard, kale, broccoli, cauliflower, celery, and cabbage. By Spring Equinox, the cold hardy crops will be ready to be planted out in the first bed and covered by our repurposed windows cold frame and the tomatoes will be bumped up to four inch pots and distributed to other homes. This year, I am trying an experiment.

Because we have a new greenhouse, I am playing around with when to start planting. Every week, starting in January, I set out a six-pack of lettuce and mustard seeds on the greenhouse shelf, just to see if they would sprout and grow. The answer was — no. They all came up within a week of each other at the end of January and are growing at the same slow rate. No real gains there! However, I double planted all of the cold hardy crops on Candlemas. Half of them are in my classroom, under a light, warm and cozy, surrounded by talking adolescents. The other half are in the greenhouse, sitting quietly on the newly constructed shelf by the window. I also direct seeded several rows of lettuce, arugula, and mustard in the garden bed under the shelf.  I am hoping that the cold hardy plants will sprout and grow as well as the ones inside, although I will always sprout the tomatoes in class.

I’ll let you all know how it goes in two weeks!

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.


The first step in the permaculture design process is observation on site. In the northern hemisphere, creating thermal mass to the garden’s north provides a warming effect.

The northern edge of the garden also has the opportunity to house a vertical strutter that can bolster harvests for small spaces. We erected a vertical wall where we grow herbs on the vertical in pockets, and artichokes and Jerusalem artichokes atop the wooden structure. Our garden receives approximately 150 pounds of herbs and produce on this added urban garden vertical system.

Increase Edges and Margins

The next place we found increased capacity was in the gardens edges. On all 68 raised beds in our gardens, we plant the fringes of the beds in beans and peas continually in succession. In addition, we grow peas  or runner beans on trellis on all northern edges. These north edge walls give added vertical growing space while also serving as wind blocks without shading other plants.

A pea trellis may not seem like much of a wind break, but 70 of them begins to make a difference in urban lots.

Cucumbers Growing Up and Out

We also grow cucumbers on the raised bed edges. They will then root in the bed, while snaking down into the mulch or concrete outside of the bed to set fruit in unused real estate. We also use tomato cages or chain-link fencing to trellis cucumbers up vertically like the vines that they are.

On a native plant research trip in 2010 to the mountains of Baja Sur, Mexico, I came upon a wild cucurbit vine, a relative of squash and melons and cucumbers. It was traipsed upon a large shrub and had grown up above the surrounding foliage. By mimicking this in the vegetable garden, this seems to create less powdery mildew than specimens grown on the soil.

Leave Some Areas Bare for Native Bees

On our vertical garden we installed a mason bee house. This keeps pollinators close by in our urban gardens. We also leave some ground areas free of sheet mulching. Because sheet mulch will drastically reduce seed sprouting, I recommend raking out one meter circles that are left bare. Into these circles, I seed wildflower mixes, such as California Poppy eschscholzia californica, Lupine lupinus albifrons, and Yarrow achillea millefolium.

These bare zones can foster native insectories, in the form of pollen as well as leaving some ground bare for ground-nesting native bees. For more information on ground-nesting bee habitat, check out The Xerces Society website.

Want to rethink your relationship to weeds? Check out the new book written by a fellow permaculture designer, writer and friend, Tao Orion, entitled Beyond the War on Invasives, published this year by Chelsea Green.

Joshua Burman Thayer is a landscape designer and permaculture consultant with Native Sun Gardens. He is the Urban Agriculture Supervisor for Tenderloin Neighborhood Development Corporation in San Francisco, Calif. Find him at Native Sun Gardens and read his other MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.


By now, your mailboxes are probably recovering from the strain of holding the endless stream of winter seed catalogs. Your eyes are likely red and tired from eyestrain as you flip through the pages. Possibly, your brain is hurting from sorting through the possibilities and making decisions. It reminds me my dilemma when deciding which music to listen to. My musical tastes are broad; I love music, and listen to it pretty much all day long. But sometimes trying to decide what to listen to brings about mental paralysis.

With thousands of choices of tomatoes available to tomato growers (especially if starting from seeds, rather than seedlings), a few simple basic considerations can provide some guidelines for narrowing the field, helping you make choices of what will appear in your garden this coming season.

Let’s start with one of the most basic attribute of a particular tomato variety – its growth habit. (In the next blog post, I will touch upon an equally important set of attributes – hybrid, heirloom and open pollinated.)

Indeterminate Tomato Varieties

Indeterminate tomatoes will be familiar to those who grapple annually with wild, tall, out of control plants that take up lots and lots of space. The central growing stem expands outward (or upward, if you tie it to a vertical stake or trellis) indefinitely – until you prune it at a particular height, or it is nibbled by a critter, or, most often, the plant dies at the end of the season from frost or disease.

Another characteristic of indeterminate tomatoes is the formation of side shoots or suckers at every joint between the leaf shaft and stem. Each sucker itself produces more suckers. This is what creates the great width of an indeterminate variety, which when combined with the infinite upward growth of the fruiting stems, create single plant jungles, or multiple plant hedges.

Example Varieties:

Hybrids: 'Better Boy', 'Lemon Boy', 'Big Beef', 'Sun Gold', 'Sweet Million'.

Open pollenated and heirlooms: 'Cherokee Purple', 'Brandywine', 'Lillian’s Yellow Heirloom', 'Kellogg’s Breakfast'

Advantages of Indeterminate Tomatoes

Most tomato varieties are indeterminate; the vast majority of heirloom varieties certainly are.  The selection of indeterminate tomato varieties is therefore huge – a blessing in terms of options and a curse in terms of making decisions.

The optimum ratio of foliage to fruit provides indeterminate tomatoes the potential for the very best flavors. Plenty of foliage in relation to the number of tomatoes means lots of photosynthesis and other necessary processes for excellent flavor development. This doesn’t mean that all indeterminate varieties are delicious, but most flavor favorites seem to be in this category.

Tall, wide and spreading plants mean potentially heavy yields, depending upon how they are grown.

Indeterminate varieties produce fruit continually until killed by frost or disease, meaning gradual but long duration harvests.


For most gardeners that don’t have infinite space and possible diseases in their soil, some sort of control is necessary – typically staking, trellising or caging. A sprawling indeterminate tomato plant on garden soil is an invitation for disease.

It isn’t necessarily a disadvantage but a consideration – removing or leaving suckers is a key decision for those growing indeterminate tomatoes. Those that cage don’t typically prune at all, and potential yields are enormous. Removal of all suckers, leaving just the central growing stem, will reduce yields and may lead to sun scald on tomatoes that are exposed to direct sun. A happy medium – letting two suckers develop, meaning 3 main fruiting stems – is my current practice, and serves me well.

For those who grow in containers, a capacity of 10 gallons is the minimum for reasonable yields of tomatoes.

Determinate Tomato Varieties

Determinate tomato varieties have a genetic characteristic that limits growth and tends to ripen the crop in a fairly concentrated time span. The gene for this type of growth, also known as self-topping, wasn’t discovered until the 1920s. There are very few true determinate heirlooms for this reason – the growth habit simply hasn’t been around for all that long.

Because so many tomatoes are often formed on plants with such reduced height and width, the fruit to foliage ratio is far higher than for that of indeterminate or dwarf varieties. This seems to be why flavors of most determinate tomatoes are less intense; think Roma, probably not the first tomato you would reach for to get the best fresh tomato eating experience.

Example Varieties:

'Roma', 'Martino’s Roma', 'Sophie’s Choice', 'Southern Night', 'Taxi'

Advantages of Determinate Tomatoes

Determinate tomato varieties are perfect for container gardening and short stakes and cages. They don’t need to be pruned at all; in fact, removing suckers significantly reduces the yield. A five gallon capacity container will grow a determinate variety very well.

Since the tomatoes on determinate varieties tend to ripen within a short time frame, they are perfect for preserving; grow a few Roma types and get ready to do lots of canning once the fruit all start to ripen.


There are far fewer determinate varieties available to choose from, spanning a limited fruit size and shape and color range.

The flavors of determinate varieties just don’t seem to have the sparkling intensity and complexity of indeterminate or dwarf varieties.

Determinate tomatoes are not suitable for those who desire a long harvest window, since they tend to ripen their fruit in a short time span. This makes them a good choice for processing, such as canning, when a large quantity of ripe tomatoes make the work worthwhile.

Dwarf Tomato Varieties

Dwarf tomato varieties are the least familiar of the three major growth habits. Due to the recent releases from the Dwarf Tomato Breeding Project that I co-lead, this is changing rapidly, and space-challenged gardeners can now replicate the “heirloom tomato experience” by using exclusively dwarfs.

Though known in America since the 1850s, only a few Dwarf tomato varieties were in existence until very recently. Unique because of their very thick central stem, dark green crinkly foliage (also known as “rugose”), continuous fruiting and short stature, I consider Dwarf tomatoes be similar in many ways to indeterminate types, but they grow vertically at only about half of the rate. They need no pruning, grow happily in containers as small as 5 gallon capacity, and are the perfect tomato type for those familiar wire cone-shaped 4 foot cages.

Example Dwarf Tomato Varieties:

'New Big Dwarf', 'Dwarf Champion', 'Lime Green Salad', 'Dwarf Wild Fred', 'Dwarf Sweet Sue', 'Summertime Green'

Advantages of Dwarf Varieties

Because they fruit gradually but continuously until killed by frost or disease, like indeterminate varieties, the ratio of foliage to fruit is not nearly as out of whack as with determinate types. There is sufficient photosynthesis in the ample foliage to allow for the very best of flavors; we’ve found that many of our dwarfs mirror indeterminate types in flavor excellence.

The short stature allows for closer planting, and because they don’t need tall stakes or trellises, they are perfect varieties to bring the joy of tomatoes via decks, patios or (in my case), driveways.

Disadvantages of Dwarf Tomatoes

Though great progress has been made recently on expanding the available options, there are still less than 100 dwarf varieties for gardeners to choose from. Yet, among the varieties are large fruited, delicious tomatoes in just about all possible colors.

Because many of the new dwarf varieties are so recent, availability of many of them is limited, but increasing yearly.

With plants at half the height of indeterminate varieties, the yield of dwarf types are lower; closer spacing due to the compact size can help compensate, howerver.

My own gardens, despite growing all of my tomatoes on my deck or in my driveway, are typically a mix of indeterminate and dwarf types. Before the Dwarf Tomato Breeding project began in 2005, the vast majority of the tomatoes I grew were indeterminate. A sure sign of how successful our project is lies in my move toward growing mostly dwarfs.

We are simply very fortunate to have such a wonderful selection of tomatoes to choose from. Having a clear idea of the differences in growth habit will help guide you to success. In my next blog, I will share my guidance and views on the terms hybrid, heirloom and open-pollinated when describing tomato varieties.

Craig Lehoullier is an heirloom tomato expert (and amateur plant breeder). He currently is on book promotion tour for Epic Tomatoes, setting upcoming tomato workshop events, updating his website and blog, devising a totally new, all-heirloom weekly podcast, shooting a tomato know-how video series and pondering topics for future books. He is co-leading the Dwarf Tomato breeding project to put 36 new dwarf-growing, open-pollinated tomatoes in the hands of various small seed companies. Read all of his MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.


Being an avid gardener requires you to have special skills and abilities. When was the last time you tried a totally new plant or technique? Are you known for your gardening prowess? Ever breed your own varieties? Do you know when it will rain next? Here are 7 mad gardening skills to take you to the next level.

Nunchuck skills… bowhunting skills… computer hacking skills… Girls only want boyfriends who have great skills!  (Napoleon Dynamite)

Note: Mr. Dynamite is totally correct as I won the Snarky Girlfriend’s heart with my gardening expertise (“Oh, you have a garden?”).

Groundhog broccoli damage 

Took me awhile to catch on that I had a groundhog problem

1. Alertness

Are you observant and present while out in your garden? It’s easy to wander around just enjoying all the natural beauty, but as they say “the devil is in the details.” Catching something now will keep you from crying about it later. One droughty season a few years back, I noticed some of my plants’ leaves looked chewed on. I thought, “Oh, probably grasshoppers or some other bug.”

The next day, I noticed even more gone, but I was still unsure. The third day I came out to discover a smallish groundhog in my garden. I chased him out through the hole he had come through, which is sadly how I figured out how he got in. Had I been smarter (or just more paranoid), I would have spotted the incursion site, patching it before Woody helped himself to my produce.

Do you know what the weather has in store? Learn to be an amateur meteorologist, watching both current conditions and future forecasts. Be the person others ask for weather reports. I know from past events that if the experts are calling for clear skies and lows in the mid-30s later in the week, I should be on the lookout for a frost or freeze.

Preparing now instead of the night when you receive the official warning (if you are lucky enough to get one) is prudent. Watering is more efficient when you know there is a chance of showers later in the week. If only sunny days on the horizon, plan on giving your thirsty little plants some deep long drinks.

2. Creativity

Do you consider yourself creative? Remember that your garden is an expression of your imaginative self. We are all designers. Every choice you make, whether it is plants, techniques, or placement, is yours and yours alone. It’s one of the reasons no two gardens look alike (if you are doing it right).

What you find yummy I may find yucky. What plants you put with others (companion plants and interplanting) are probably not what I would combine. You might plant in straight rows, curves, blocks, and/or shapeless blobs. Use your garden as an opportunity to convey your artistic vision. Think of your garden as a canvas and your plants as your paint.

Are you curious and open to new things, whether they are new plant varieties, techniques, or relationships? Try not to be so judgmental (I know, it’s tough). If you find yourself thinking, “That won’t work” or “I tried that the years ago and it failed”, try to rephrase it into a question. “What would work?” or “I wonder why it failed?” or “What am I missing?” will open up your mind to new possibilities.

Our attitudes, beliefs, and thoughts are oftentimes what limit our creativity the most. Just don’t pay attention to that whole “curiosity killed the cat” saying.

Groundhog mid-run

Groundhogs need to be forgiven.

3. Forgiveness

Can you easily forgive? The forgiving gardener is the successful gardener. You need to forgive others, especially woodland creatures and other pests. They get hungry just like we do. Our gardens are often the most delicious food source around. If they trespass into your space, know that is just nature’s way. Of course, you may need to fence them out or remove them if they become too aggressive. All I’m saying is don’t hold a grudge — animals need love, too.

You also need to learn to forgive yourself. I guarantee you will make mistakes, some of them being HUGE. Like “leaving your plants unprotected during a frost” huge. Or “leaving the garden gate open and varmints find an all-they-can-eat buffet” huge. You may even label these events with “debacle” or “fiasco”, at least in your mind, but mistakes are just you learning and growing. Hopefully they only hurt temporarily when they are happening.

Zucchini winner
Don’t be this guy.

4. Humility

Are you humble when you are successful and other gardeners aren’t? Once you have an awesome garden, it’s easy to be all smug in your superiority. Remember where you came from. Most of us started out with weedy, barren, sad little excuses for a garden. Also, any season’s random events could wipe you out (drought, late freeze, early frost, flooding, sharknadoes), which could be karma for the braggart.

Modesty is the best policy as your garden isn’t prolific only because of your hard work. You had a full team assisting you along the way. Insects pollinating and preying on pests. Bacteria, fungi, protozoa, and other microscopic organisms converting debris into nutrients for your plants. Birds, amphibians, and reptiles who make your garden their home while ridding it of slugs and snails. Make sure to thank them while tending to your bountiful veggie garden by making your plot hospitable for all your little helpers.

Know when to hold them. Know when to fold them. Kenny Rogers

5. Patience

Is patience one of your qualities? Being able to see your ultimate garden to fruition (see what I did there?) is sometimes difficult, but Mother Nature has her own pace. You can’t rush her; don’t even try. Here’s a fun example. I ordered some American groundnuts (a North American native) to grow with my garden. Planted them and then waited and waited. Nothing happened and I figured they were duds. The following year, what do my little eyes see? American groundnuts twining up my Jerusalem artichokes. Good thing I didn’t order more or complain to the seller.

You should also strive for patience and perseverance while working on your garden projects. Many new gardeners want to take on the entire yard all at once. The best projects are completed a piece at a time. Yes, it will take longer to implement your master plan, but great achievements are often built on small successes. Don’t be one of those people with a million half-completed undertakings.

In preparing for battle I have always found that plans are useless, but planning is indispensable.  -Dwight D. Eisenhower

6. Planning

How well and often do you plan? Planning itself is not an end goal. Plans will change but planning will prepare you for what could happen. It also gives you something to shoot for; a goal to stretch for. I use the MOTHER EARTH NEWS GrowVeg Garden Planner to plan all of my gardens (see my review here). I also have to-do lists and spreadsheets to keep me on target. I am one of those disturbed individuals that LOVES planning. As soon as the season is over I’m already working on next season. That’s what January and February are all about.

PAC-MAN garden design
My garden looks like PAC-MAN designed it.

7. Sharing

Do you share your skills, seeds, experience, and vegetables? I am sometimes the most selfish person I know (just ask the Snarky Girlfriend). I have trouble sharing, especially my garden vegetables. The first cherry tomatoes of the season are a good example. Sometimes they make it back to the house; sometimes they don’t (“Nope, no tomatoes yet” said through tomato-stained lips).

What if you have so many vegetables you don’t know what to do with them all? Like the summer zucchini overabundance that everyone moans and complains about? This is a perfect time to donate to those who are not lucky enough to have fresh vegetables. Not everyone is as fortunate as we are to grow such wonderful produce.

So how did you do? Do your skills stack up to this lofty list? Need to work on some? Are there some skills that should be added to this list? Email me and let me know.

Don Abbott (aka The Snarky Gardener) is a gardener, blogger, author, educator, speaker, reluctant activist, and permaculture practitioner from Kent, Ohio. Professionally, he's a software developer but spends his spare time producing food at Snarky Acres, his rented 0.91-acre urban farm. He is also the founder of the Kent, Ohio, chapter of Food Not Lawns and received his Permaculture Design Certification from Cleveland-based Green Triangle. Read all of Don's MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.


Seed catalogs are starting to arrive at my home. A profusion of choices are laid out before me and I start lusting over new varieties and dreaming about spring. Picking out what to plant is the easy part for me. Fitting it all into a small space can be the challenge. When done correctly, the proper proportions of each crop will yield a useable harvest without over-producing or wasting space. Here is some quick advice on finding that perfect balance and planting enough, but not too much.

First, consider the demands of your family. Maybe your household loves a nightly salad. Or maybe, you look forward to canning tomato sauce in the fall. Or perhaps your goal is to put up enough pickles to last until next summer. All of these goals are worth writing down before ordering seed and before dedicating space and time to tending your upcoming garden.

Once you have determined the needs of your household, the next step is to make a note of the types/varieties that are already your favorites for each crop on your list. This can be difficult when faced with so many choices. Often, our family keeps 75 percent of our tried and true varieties from year to year and then we use the other 25 percent to experiment with newer cultivars. Typically, a small home garden has room for only one or two varieties of each vegetable to be planted.  A simple method for purchasing seed is to keep one of your old favorites and choose one new variety for each crop to be planted. It allows an enthusiastic gardener to remain excited to experiment without jeopardizing the predictability that accompanies a known good performer.

After you have chosen your ideal allotment of seed, the next step is to estimate the square footage that each crop will occupy in your garden. A gardener must think critically about the final outcome that is expected for each crop and have an understanding of how to estimate yield per square foot. The following list offers some general guidance on the typical yield/square foot for the most often planted crops in a garden. Yields will vary based off of climate, soil type and variety.

Lettuces. Who doesn’t love a great salad in the spring and summer months?  If you are short on space, heads of lettuce can be more efficient than planting rows of salad greens. An entire butterhead can feed a family of 4 over several consecutive meals and typically takes up no more than one square foot of space per head. It may be tempting to plant an entire row of head lettuce (It looks so pretty!) but it often goes to waste since a person can only keep so many heads of lettuce in the refrigerator at one time. Best to plant heads two at a time spaced 1 week between plantings to attain the most consistent harvest without over producing. Head lettuce can be started indoors on your kitchen counter in a small 6 cell container. Only plant out the 2 best looking heads at a time.  For continuous harvest, set aside 8 square feet for head lettuce. This allows enough space for multiple generations (4 sowings of 2 heads planted on a 1 week interval) to share the same section of garden.

Cucumbers. Once they start, they don’t slow down! With pickling cukes, 2-3 plants per person in your household should yield more than enough fruits to satisfy even the most voracious pickle eater. As long as they are well watered and properly fed, pickling cucumbers need to be harvested several times a week to avoid over-sized fruits. Once harvested, cucumbers can be stored in the refrigerator for up to 10 days before processing. Estimate approximately a 1 foot x 4 foot space allocation per individual for most varieties, unless trellising. This area should be mulched with good quality, organic alfalfa hay to protect the fruits from soil-borne disease.

Bush beans. Bean harvest is fast and furious. Lasting around 3 weeks from start to finish, beans are a crop that require multiple sowings for continuous harvest. For fresh eating, pickling and freezing, it is best to estimate approximately 4 to 6 plants per person. Each bean plant takes up approximately one square foot when mature. Yields are in the range of 3-5 pounds per 10 foot row. Rows should be spaced at least 10” apart.

Tomatoes. A summertime favorite! Although slow to start, once mature, tomatoes produce at an astounding rate. For fresh eating and saucing it is best to estimate 3 plants per person. For cherry tomatoes, one plant per person often yields more than enough fruit. Each plant at maturity takes up a 2’x2’ block when trellised.

Beets. Beets can be a slow-to-grow crop if there are nutrient deficiencies in your soil (mainly Boron). With that in mind, beet loving families should plant at least 15 row-feet per family member. This should offer up enough beets for both fresh eating and canning.  With beets, nothing goes to waste. Beet thinnings can be used in place of spinach in smoothies or salads and baby beets are the best for pickling! Yields are often between 8-10 pounds per 10 foot row. Rows should be spaced approximately 8 inches apart.

Carrots. Similar to beets in both the days to maturity and the physical space they require for growing, recommendations on row-feet per family member are also the same (approximately 15 row-feet per person). For continuous harvest, each 15 foot row should be planted at 10 day to 2 week intervals.  Carrots must be thinned to approximately 2 inches between plants for optimal growth and development. As with beets, nothing goes to waste. Baby carrots make great pickles or snacks. Carrot tops can be used in smoothies, soup or as animal fodder. Yields are between 7-10 pounds per 10 foot row. Rows should be spaced at least 8 inches apart.

Kale. These plants can grow to over 3 feet tall when fully mature and will produce continuously throughout the summer. Plant approximately 2-4 plants per person if you plan on freezing or drying kale for winter storage. Plants should be spaced 18” apart in rows 2 feet apart for optimal growth. Yield varies by variety but is often between 4-8 pounds per 10 foot row.

Other fast growing crops that require minimal space include arugula, bok choy, radishes, and kohlrabi. Potatoes and zucchini can also be highly productive crops but do require slightly more space at maturity than some of the above-mentioned row crops. For zucchini or winter squash, estimate at least 16 square feet per plant at maturity. Potatoes require at least 14 inches between plants for best production and can produce between 3 and 7 pounds of potatoes per plant, depending on the variety.

It is also good to keep in mind that there are some crops that are not the best fit for a home garden with limited space. Asparagus, broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, corn, eggplant and garbanzo beans are all heavy feeders that require an abundance of space for a good harvest.  Although fun to grow, yield per square foot for these crops is low in comparison with other garden favorites. If you are interested in the greatest yield per square foot, these crops are best purchased from a local farmers market.

With proper practice, even a small home garden can supply enough food to sustain a hungry family throughout the growing season and beyond. As you begin to understand your household eating habits, you are free to refine your garden to meet your own needs. And there are few things in this world as satisfying as producing and eating your own food. Happy Gardening!

Eron Drew is co-owner of Tierra Garden Organics and retreat center manager at Tierra Retreat Center. One of her most recent projects is founding FARMY-Food Army, an organization aimed at offering support to small and start-up farms in North Central Washington and fundraising for a future equipment co-op. If you would like to read more from Eron including essays, past garden-related articles and more, please visit her personal blog, Farmertopia, and find all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

All MOTHER EARTH NEWS community bloggers have agreed to follow our Blogging Best Practices, and they are responsible for the accuracy of their posts. To learn more about the author of this post, click on the byline link at the top of the page.

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