I know, I know, we just put the gardens to bed for the winter (unless you’re one of those folks who has things like winter greens and brassicas, garlic, onion sets and similar niceties still a-growing). Even if you do, the frenetic pace of harvest season has given way to days with a little cushion of time that you just can’t find when you’re canning peaches and tomatoes with one hand, freezing apples and making applesauce with the other, and juicing the grapes and pomegranates with the third. I can’t imagine how those poor folks with only two hands manage…
Still, you should have a wee bit more time right now, before the holidays hit and you’re inundated with family visits or trips, shopping or making presents, wrapping those presents, hosting/attending holiday parties, Christmas pageants and concerts, and cooking from your pantry and freezer stores. Take some of that time and plan next year’s garden.
Collect your garden records from the year just past (You do keep garden records, don’t you? If not, plan to do better this year). An annual seed list is helpful to nudge the memory about what you planted, along with the leftover partially planted packets. Add a calculator, your canning and freezing records, a notebook or stack of binder paper and any garden reference books you think you might need.
When your goal is to feed yourself without relying on commercial agriculture (or at least no more than is absolutely necessary), you really need to know what performed well for you and how productive it was. I know it’s a nuisance to make notes about yield, insect problems and ripening times, but it really makes a difference in planning for the future. Even if you just take a little pocket notebook to the garden with you, jotting daily notes will make your planning much easier. For example, this year I tried the Crystal Apple cucumber for the first time. I’ve grown Lemon cukes for years, and appreciate their thin skins (no peeling) and sweet flavor. Crystal Apple is similar but was developed in Australia, possibly from varieties that originated in China. Either way, I’m planning to switch to the Aussie offering next year. It out-yielded the Lemon cukes two to one, both in size and numbers, continued to pump out fruit even in very high temps — which often clobber cucurbits — and tastes even better than the yellow version. It also produced both blossoms and fruits first. Without my records, I wouldn’t have known all these details (maybe you can remember how well each variety produced, but my brain is already full!)
If you save your own seeds, you don’t need to worry about the gardening catalogs that will start arriving in a few short weeks. On the other hand, those tempting pages will offer new things, like the aforementioned Crystal Apple. If you don’t have a good plan, you may find yourself much poorer and wondering just what the heck you needed four pounds of mung bean seeds for (you can sprout them in your kitchen all winter, by the way, just in case you wanted to know, and I got four pounds because I either misread and thought it was four ounces or clicked on the wrong box, OK?).
Now then, step by step:
- How much land do you have? This is pretty much the deciding factor in what you can plant. Even intensive gardening techniques and succession planting can’t keep a family of four in food if they have a postage-stamp sized plot. If you plan carefully, however, and use techniques like vertical growing, season extension, containers and succession planning, you can wring a lot of goodies out of a standard-sized plot.
- How much food do you need to grow? If you have an average-sized garden or limited time, you’ll want to concentrate on highly productive plants that lend themselves to intensive gardening techniques. Cucumbers and potatoes, for example, are extremely productive for the amount of land allotted to them, while corn doesn’t give you as much food for the space (it does, however, offer extra material for the compost pile, so that can be a trade-off).
- Are you going to eat fresh, preserve or both? If you only want to eat fresh, it’s actually pretty easy to raise quite a bit of food in relatively little space. The caveat is that a severe hail storm or bad freeze can knock out your food supply. In either case, you’ll probably want to plan for succession planting.
- If you’re like me, at this point, you have three times as much garden planned as you have space. Before you start the drastic whittling, see how you can achieve your goals by using a little creativity. For example, Pinto dry beans only come in the bush variety, and they make so-so green beans for fresh eating. Rattlesnake pole beans produce almost three times as much in the same space and are delectable eaten fresh. They also freeze well. Since they’re so productive, after you’ve filled the freezer, just walk away and let them continue producing, but don’t harvest. The beans will fill their pods and dry nicely on the vine. Dried Rattlesnake beans look very much like Pintos and the taste is similar.
- Try to achieve a balance between over- and under-planting. Although I highly recommend growing pollinator flowers and herbs, you can usually grow sufficient of both in some big pots, so don’t use up garden space for them unless you really do have lots of space. In many cases, herbs will do double duty as pollinator attractants — basil quickly springs to mind, as does dill. Don’t get carried away with the herbs or anything else. A single pot of oregano or marjoram will usually be all you need for both fresh and dried herbs. Unless you’re feeding an army or have lots of pigs and chickens, three summer squash plants is plenty. On the other hand, it’s hard to plant too many tomatoes, since you can use them in so many ways.
- Now, draw your garden plot or beds, or better yet, since you’re going to be doing a lot of erasing and rewriting, make a master copy on the computer and print a bunch of copies. I’ve tried several online programs for garden planning and have found them frustrating, as they all seem to operate on the assumption that your garden is either nice straight rows or raised beds in full sun, while my kitchen garden has some oddly-shaped irregular beds, several of which are shady. I do better with paper and pencil. Start fitting in your choices and put in the expected maturity date, so you can determine when to yank something out and plant a new crop in the spot. I highly recommend you develop a rough draft and then put it away for a couple of days, at which point you’ll discover that you have completely forgotten to include something critical, or misjudged the allotted space (probably because by then your eyes were crossing from fatigue).
- Now that you have a plan, make a list of the seeds you want to order so you’re ready for the catalog onslaught. Hang onto the plan so you’ll be ready to make changes for next year.