Garden Planning for the Seasonal Kitchen
Growing vegetables in your backyard, community garden or in some containers by the kitchen door is a great way to feed yourself -- whether it be just a few ripe tomatoes in August or a full-fledged homesteader's garden, you are on the right path to feeding yourself and your family. Gardening is a great way to improve how you eat while spending some contemplative time outside. With all of these benefits in mind, it is easy to jump into gardening enthusiastically, and you will reap even more rewards with a little bit of planning. In Vermont, our gardening season seems short but can be stretched almost year round with a few simple tips. I always recommend that people take a look at how their vegetable gardens have been in the past and find just one or two things they would like to improve so that they can grow more of it for a longer season. For example a common question I hear is "how can I keep cilantro from bolting?" Well, in short, you can't! But with a few changes in your gardening practices, you can grow it all spring, summer, and fall without ever seeing it go to seed. The trick is to understand the life cycle of each vegetable or herb and how to best plant it to maximize it's harvest. With certain crops, like zucchini, it is best to understand how prolific they are and to plant them conservatively so that the entire garden (and thereby your diet and your neighbors' diet) is not taken over with just one thing. It is also helpful to plant things seasonally so that the harvest is not so overwhelming in August with little to eat before or after. Or sometimes we just want fresh salads all summer, but don't replant and are left salad-less after July 1st.
Succession Planting for Successful Gardening
Certain crops should be planted multiple times throughout the season to ensure a continuous harvest. This is called succession planting. How often you plant is a matter of taste and space and time. The following list describes the maximum you could do with each crop, but adjust according to your needs and priorities -- this is just a guide. If you want to make sure you have a certain vegetable all summer long, then you can follow the guidelines. If you want it a little less, then create your own modified planting schedule.
- Lettuce can be grown from seed or from transplants. Seed grown lettuce is often grown in a row that can be cut and will re-grow a few times - think of mesclun. Transplanted lettuce can be grown to produce full heads like what you find in the store. Both methods require regular planting every week or two for a continuous harvest. It can be planted from seed in mid-April to mid-August for cut greens and transplanted for full heads from late April / early May through early August. Some people will transplant a few plants and plant some seeds at the same time in a different area; this method provides two generations of lettuce and two types of salad greens. Once the cut lettuce becomes bitter in the heat of summer, it is best to pull it up, recondition the soil with compost, and plant something else. If the goal is to always have fresh lettuce, it is very simple to do if you remember to replant it. You can even purchase a number of plants and hold some in their pots in a shady spot and only plant out a few each week. You can seed it yourself in trays or pots and follow this same method. Having several varieties, cold-tolerant ones for spring and fall plantings, and heat-tolerant ones for mid-summer, will produce the best flavor.
- Cilantro is very similar to lettuce in its growing habits. It will grow up to a point and then goes to seed, called bolting. It will bolt more quickly in summer heat and, conversely, will stand ready to harvest for many weeks in the cool weather of fall--even early winter. It is good to time plantings so that cilantro is ready to harvest before June 21 (the solstice), and then plant more afterward. It can be transplanted or grown from seed. Like lettuce, it is simple to do both at the same time, thereby giving the gardener two generations. Cilantro seed is coriander, so it does have a use if you enjoy that flavor. There is nothing you can do to prevent cilantro from bolting entirely, but you can slow the process down by placing your mid-summer plantings in a partly-shady spot.
- Dill can be treated just like cilantro, and, like coriander seed, dill seed heads have a use in the kitchen, so it is fine to let some of the dill patch go to seed. The seed heads can be used in pickles. you can also let them self-sow or save the fully dried seeds in a paper bag for replanting.
- Basil can be planted multiple times for best results. Plants can be pinched to slow down the flowering, but best flavor will come from newly replanted basil plants. This is a heat loving plant. Should only be planted once soil temps are in the upper 50's - usually last week in May or first week in June. Basil's flavor is at its peak right before it starts to make flowers.
- Cucumbers, cantaloupes, and zucchini and summer squash are best in quality when well tended. Just a single plant or two of any of those is usually enough for the home gardener, but by planting it two to three different times, the quality will always be good. The dates are: June 1st (or last week in May if you are in a warm spot), July 1st and July 15th. This method will ensure a continuous harvest of prime looking vegetables. Just remember to pull out and discard the pest- and disease- prone older plants. If your compost gets very hot and is well managed, it is okay to compost these plants. Pest problems will diminish when the older, less healthy plants are removed.
- Arugula, Cress, and other cutting greens for salads are best if sown or transplanted on a weekly or biweekly basis. Again, a small amount can be seeded next to the transplanted crops in order to give you 2 generations at once. This way you can have smaller quantities coming in at various times.
- Broccoli gives the gardener a couple of options. It is best if transplanted and can be planted 3 dates in the spring and 3 dates in late summer for a continuous harvest. I would choose late April, early May and mid May for the spring plantings and then Early August, mid August and early September for the fall plantings. Full heads can be harvested and the plants can stay in the ground to produce side shoots.
- Green Beans are best when fresh and young. The seed is relatively cheap, so it is better to rip out old plants and have new ones coming along regularly. Having smaller, multiple plantings also means that no on is stuck picking beans for hours on end. Sow new seeds when the previous or first generation is about 6 inches high.
- Boc Choi, Cabbage, Scallions, and Cauliflower can also be planted multiple times. Cabbage holds well in the heat and can be planted every couple of weeks late April through early August. Boc Choi and Cauliflower are not as heat tolerant and should be planted around the same dates as broccoli (see above). It is best to use row cover like Reemay on these young transplants so that flea beetles do not destroy the plants.
- Spinach is another one that does not do well in the heat, but can be planted multiple times in spring and late summer. It can also overwinter with a little straw mulch for very early spring eating. Frequency of planting can happen every week mid April to early June and then early August to mid September. The last plantings in September are the ones which will be over-wintered and eaten the following spring. Apply straw mulch on overwintering spinach in December once the ground is frozen.
- Beets, Carrots, Turnips can be planted every two or three weeks from mid-April until about the third week in July. Summer carrots are not the same as fall carrots and certain varieties do better in summer than in fall. The flavor of fall carrots is much sweeter, so I usually plant a larger patch in the fall. Fall carrots can also be stored all winter without going bad due to their lower moisture content. I don't love summer carrots, so I often skip those. Remember, it is all about what you like to eat.
- Celery and Celeriac are slower growing and can be planted 1 to 3 times during the season, from mid May until early July. These need lots of water and benefit from straw mulch to hold the moisture evenly around the roots.
- Bulb Fennel and radishes are similar to lettuce -- they can be planted each week if really loved, but they bolt in the heat and do best in the cooler temperatures of spring and fall. They are best if planted late April to early June and then again late August to mid September. They are cold tolerant and hold well in late fall. Radishes are grown from seeds and fennel is best transplanted. Fennel also benefits from a straw mulch - even moisture around the roots is what helps it make larger roots.
- Corn -- it is possible to do multiple plantings over different weeks, but an easier method is to plant all at once, but with various varieties that have different days to maturity. There can be a 40 day span between early and late varieties.
- Peas can be planted every week, but this requires a lot of harvesting, irrigating, trellising, and variety research. It is possible though. More practically, the home gardener can sow 2 or 3 varieties in late April with various days to maturity. Fall plantings are sometimes successful but are weather-dependent. These should be done in mid August.
The following are generally planted just once a year, but the harvest can be staggered with a few tricks:
- Tomatoes, Peppers, Eggplant -- try a few varieties of each in order to not have everything at once. Determinate tomatoes will provide you with a big harvest all at once which is a good thing for people who make big batches of sauce for canning or freezing. Determinate tomatoes are the ones that grow until a certain height and then mature all at once. Indeterminate tomatoes are the ones that grow indefinitely until the frost and the fruit ripens gradually August until frost or disease kills the plant.
- Peppers and eggplant are best if transplanted in early June once the soil warms up. One planting is usually plenty, but again an assortment of varieties will keep the harvest varied, staggered and interesting.
- Onions and Potatoes are generally planted all at once, and again a few different varieties will provide you with a longer period of fresh eating. Both onions and potatoes can be stored for long periods of time in cool and dark conditions. Both can also be eaten fresh as young, green onions or new potatoes. Both can be harvested, cured, and stored for eating year round, though some onion varieties store much longer than others.
- Winter Squash is another crop that is planted just once and can be stored. It is best cured for a week or two in a warm spot before eating.
Simple Food Preservation for the Home Gardener
- Fruit Spreads and Jams: I use a low- sugar pectin such as Ponoma's. It allows you to make a really simple fruit spread with honey or just a fraction of the sugar that would be in a regular jam.
- Canning: This is easiest to do with acidic foods such as tomatoes or fruit, otherwise, you will have to use a pressure canner. For a great explanation of canning, go to http://www.vegetablegardener.com/item/ 4516/introduction-to-canning.
This will give you a very clear introduction to water bath canning (non-pressure canning of acidic foods). The ones that I do each year are tomatoes, peaches, and applesauce.
- Simple Tomato Sauce: Wash and cut up tomatoes into halves or quarters. Then pulse in food processor until they are chopped up well and the skins are pulverized. I usually do a few batches at a time until I have about a gallon of soupy tomato sauce which I then cook down for several hours over low heat until the desired thickness is reached. Salt to taste. This can then be canned or frozen. I doctor it up with herbs, garlic, etc when I use it in the winter time, which gives me more flexibility.
- Roasted Ratatouille: I chop up onions, zucchini, eggplant, and tomatoes and toss them with herbs, olive oil, and sea salt. I then spread it on cookie sheets in a single layer and roast in a 400 degree oven until soft and starting to caramelize (turning once or twice helps). It takes about 50 minutes per batch. I then freeze this in containers or freezer bags. It is fantastic on pizza, pasta, in lasagnas or other casseroles, or on its own.
- Sweet Peppers: Just chop up raw peppers and place in a freezer baggie. Very simple and a great addition to just about anything you are sauteing.
- Herbs: Any herb can be turned into a puree with a little olive oil and salt in the food processor. This is a good candidate for freezing in ice cube trays and then placing the frozen blocks into labelled baggies. When making dishes in the winter, simply toss an herb cube into the pot for extra flavor ; soups, sauces, stir fries, salad dressings are all good options for this method. Pesto can be frozen this way too, allowing you to thaw out just what you need.
- Other vegetables that freeze well are green beans and spinach: Just steam, dry well, and place in bags. Tomatoes can be frozen whole and raw--in the winter, when you use the tomatoes, you just have to run them under water to slip the skins off.
- Pickling beets, carrots and cucumbers is another simple and satisfying way to store these veggies. Beets and carrots should be boiled until just tender. Place the veggies into a jar with garlic, onion, dill seed, salt, pepper, hot pepper (optional), and mustard seed. Pour a boiling solution of 2 parts vinegar to 1 part water over the veggies, and seal. The heat of the boiling solution is enough to create a vacuum seal. Be sure to sterilize jars and lids first and to always use new lids.