I'm seeing more and more posts on social media with people saying that they are planning to grow their biggest garden ever this year. My advice to you is to grow a garden because it brings you joy, or because it gives you a sense of satisfaction providing home grown food for your family. But don't feel pressured to grow a bigger garden than you realistically have the time for just because all the trending homesteaders are doing it. Once the initial frenzy of buying seeds for all the things is over and all the work of starting seeds and transplanting seedlings is done, there is still a months long commitment ahead to water, weed, control pests, prune, trellis, harvest and preserve. If you also have a farm full of animals to tend to, or children to raise, you may not have time to keep up with a huge garden during the busy summer months filled with farm babies, packing and selling eggs, extra chores during the periods of extreme heat, and family vacations. Be realistic about how much time you will have in the summer to tend your garden, because if you don't have the time for the follow-through you are just setting yourself up for frustration and disappointment that all of your dreams of bountiful harvests and a rainbow of preserved foods in the pantry didn't turn out as hoped.
With that in mind, I'll tell you what my plans for this summer's garden are. I'm not here to lecture you - more than I already have ;) but I have learned a thing or two about gardening in our 10+ years on the farm that I hope you'll find useful. Every year I keep a garden journal. I write down the dates of when I started my seeds, when I transplanted seedlings into the garden, how well they did, what kind of pest problems I had, and how good the harvest was. Most importantly, at the end of harvest season I write down my lessons learned - what worked out well this year, what I need to do differently next year, and what I need to give up on. If you don't keep a garden journal, my #1 piece of advice is to start. It's a valuable tool for improving your garden success each year.
It's always tempting to get an early jump on seed starting when you see gardeners in warmer parts of the country starting their seeds in January. I was feeling the itch to get seeds started too - until I looked back at my garden journal and reminded myself that we had snow and freezing temperatures from April 16 - 20 last year. My warm season seedlings got really tall and leggy waiting inside last year for temperatures to warm up enough to plant outdoors. So I am going to resist the urge to start seeds too early this year. Always pay attention to your average last frost date, and count back from that date when figuring out when to start seeds. With temperature extremes becoming more common these days, I am going to play it safe and plan ahead for a late frost this year.
I am also going to be very selective with what I grow this year. I'm going to resist the urge to plant vegetables that don't reliably produce well or that aren't the most practical when it comes to meal planning. That doesn't mean I can't still have fun with beautiful rainbow harvests this year, and there are several colorful favorites on this years list. Here are the tried and true winners for me and what I'll be growing this year: snow pea, lettuce, Swiss chard, kale, garlic, onion, tomato, lemon cucumber, Anaheim chili, sweet pepper, basil, beans, potato (in above ground containers to avoid losses from burrowing rodents), summer squash, and winter squash. I have established beds of blueberries, raspberries and strawberries which are always favorite harvests. There will also be plenty of beds designated for growing flowers because flowers bring me joy, and we can always use more of that! The things that I have decided are not worth my time or the space this year are listed below. That's not to say that I haven't enjoyed growing these things in the past and haven't occasionally had good harvests, it's just that they aren't in keeping with this years theme of the Ultimate Practical Garden.
Broccoli - This is hit or miss for me. The years we have cool weather it can do fairly well, but if we get one early hot day in the spring it bolts and I hardly get any harvest for my efforts.
Carrot - We have clay soils and even in my raised beds the soils are not deep and loose enough for these to grow well. I get short, deformed carrots that are also chewed by burrowing rodents, so as much as I wish I could grow beautiful purple carrots I am going to give up on that dream.
Radish - This is one that the pests seem to find delicious. Even with chicken-wire lined raised beds, the rodents somehow still manage to nibble on them or eat them entirely. Spring salads will just have to be without those beautiful glowing red radishes.
Spinach - This tends to get hit early with leaf miner damage, and I'm too lazy to use row covers. I might get a few salads in early spring before it bolts, but it's not worth the effort.
Kohlrabi - I got this as a free seed packet in my seed order one year, so I tried it. It was a pretty thing to grow with the purple bulb above-ground bulb, and we ate it roasted with potatoes. But honestly I prefer the flavor and versatility of potatoes, so it's off the list.
Hot pepper - There are lots of really gorgeous hot peppers that are so tempting to grow. I've enjoyed growing lots of beautiful varieties, but we just don't eat that many of them so I still have jars full of dried peppers waiting to be used. This year I'm sticking to growing Anaheim chilis and sweet peppers which we do eat regularly in chile rellenos and stuffed peppers.
Leek - I do enjoy the flavor of leeks, and I especially love potato-leek soup. But practically speaking, onions will do just as well in most recipes and onions have better storage life, so it's just onions this year.
Pumpkin - This can be a really fun thing to grow, but it's not so practical. I'll make a few meals of pumpkin soup, give a few to the chickens which they are so-so on eating, and then the rest just sit in the mud room making me feel guilty about not using them.
Glass gem popcorn - I have enjoyed growing this for several years, it's beautiful and fun, but practically speaking popcorn doesn't make a meal, so it's out for this year.
Luffa - After four years of trying to grow what I think is one of the coolest looking plants out there and not getting a single luffa, I am accepting defeat. To my friends in the southern states - send me your extras!
In closing, my last piece of advice is before you go to the effort of starting seeds and tending to them for months before they are ready to transplant outside and then realizing that you don't have the garden space to fit them all, it's a good idea to sketch out your growing area and plan ahead. Think about which beds get full sun or partial sun, and then figure out what you realistically have space for. If you only have room for 8 varieties of tomato plants, resist the urge to start seeds for twice that many figuring you'll find room for them. If you plant them too close together they won't produce and ripen as well, and if you grow them in a less than full sun location they also won't do as well, so save yourself the time and trouble and stick to what is realistic for your space and growing conditions. And with that my friends, I wish you a practical and rewarding gardening season!