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.
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