This is the time of year when even a hint of warmth sends
us scurrying off to rummage through seed catalogs. With
taste buds aquiver, we spend our evenings planning that
beautiful, vastly bountiful dream of a garden. For many
years, though, my preseason vision refused to turn
into a reality.
Typically, I would end up with handsome, healthy, giant,
pampered weeds. And the plants that did manage to beat
those nasty weeds would produce so much that I'd
end up with hundreds of pounds of zucchini, radishes and
green beans. As a result, dinner during midwinter became an
ongoing source of teasing by the kids.
"Bet I can guess what vegetable we're having tonight," they
would chuckle, "... green beans!" (I fooled them once by
serving my lone package of sweet green peas.)
But then I began to observe the immaculate, waste-free
gardens of some of our community's senior citizens, and it
occurred to me that something was seriously wrong with my
gardening practices. Here was a group of people who,
despite their advancing age, had tidy plots predesigned to
fulfill their expectations. Their gardens looked like the
seed catalog pictures. What were these people doing that a
younger, more energetic person couldn't manage? I finally
realized that years of experience had taught these
gardeners not only what their limitations were, but also how
much to plant of any given crop in order to get the yield
they wanted. This desired amount was based on their liking
for the vegetable; the amount of time it takes to
nurture, harvest and preserve it; and the type of space
that was available for both growing and storing the
This was the kind of planning I had neglected to do. So,
after some research and hard-won experience of my own, I
put together some hints on how to garden efficiently. I've
incorporated many of these into the accompanying chart.
Better Garden Planning
Planning can be the key to setting up an efficient,
successful garden. A good first step is to make a list of
your family's favorite vegetables and try to determine how
much (fresh and preserved) you will want of each kind in
the months ahead. Use the "How Much You'll Harvest" chart in the image gallery or your own experience to help you calculate how much of
each crop to grow. Then draw a scale plan of your garden,
marking how far apart mature plants must stand and the
optimal distance between your rows or growing beds. That
way, you'll avoid ending up with overly large amounts of
one or two foods and a disappointing scarcity of others.
It is also important to choose varieties of vegetables that
are best suited to the climate in your area, so that
they'll not only be certain to survive but to produce the
best yield possible.
Planting More in Less Space
Though at first you may not think you'll have room to grow
as many crops as you'd like, careful organization can give
you larger and more varied harvests than you thought
possible. Gardening the intensive way — using beds, for
instance, instead of rows — will give you a much
heavier crop. You can save time, labor, fertilizer and
water by compacting those long rows into 4-by-25-foot beds (or
some other convenient size). You can also increase
yields — or at least avoid going crazy later in the
season, trying to harvest everything at once — by
staggering your garden planting.
So this year, sharpen up your pencil before you put an edge
on your hoe. A little extra time spent planning can save
you a whole lot of time with your planting later on.
Food Preservation Savings
Preserving your garden's vegetables may or may not be
cost-efficient, and once again it's a question of time
versus money. The first chart in the image gallery is an actual example of
first-year costs of growing and canning 70 quarts of
tomatoes from a 100-foot row.
According to the example, your cost for a quart of
tomatoes would be $1.04, not counting the value of
your time or the expense of heating the jars. The
equivalent of commercially canned tomatoes costs
approximately $1.16 and contains fewer tomato solids than a
home-canned quart. By the second year, the price of
preserving your homegrown crop will plummet to 44 cents per
quart, since you will already have the canner and canning
jars. (You'll have to spend $1.29 per dozen for replacement
jar lids, though.) Other vegetables may cost more or less
to put up, depending on how you process them and how much
you choose to preserve.
If you choose to freeze your yield, your container
costs will be low: 32 cents per quart (for plastic
containers and bags) the first year, 2 cents each year
thereafter. But you'll need to consider the expense of
buying (if necessary) and operating a freezer. Consult the
second chart in the image gallery for the prices and operating costs of
freezers of different sizes.
Freezer manufacturers recommend approximately 6 cubic
feet of freezer space for each family member and as much as
10 cubic feet if the major portion of the foods to be
frozen are home-produced rather than store-bought and
prepackaged. But our experience has shown that 3.8 cubic
feet per person is adequate.
The third chart in the image gallery shows average yields and numbers of quarts. Some plants may yield more or less, depending on factors such as soil fertility, garden location, irrigation capacity and the gardener's expertise.