Learning to Right-Size Your Garden

Learning to Right-Size Your GardenFond memories of plump juicy red tomatoes, crispy green beans, and the snap of popping open the pods of plump, sweet green peas fill my mind when I think of my first exposure to gardening. Grandma grew an abundance of produce in her massive weed-free garden each summer, and her orchard was just as prolific. Having raised a family of nine children (seven of them boys), Grandma was well versed in growing, preserving, and preparing large meals for her hungry farming family during the depression. Her garden consisted of rows and rows of potatoes, beets, tomatoes, beans, peas, carrots, onions, sweet corn, cabbage, lettuce, watermelon, cantaloupe and she always saved room for Zinnias and Marigolds. She was an organic gardener long before it was the “green” thing to do, relying on composted manure to build up the soil. Her vegetable garden consisted of at least ½ -acre of rich Minnesota black soil and was located right next to an orchard that covered a full acre. Crab-apple, plum, and an assortment of hardy apple trees filled the orchard.

From early spring through late fall, Grandma weeded, hoed and harvested vegetables and fruit from her backyard. She spent countless hours laboring over the sink, paring and peeling and slicing. Her pressure cooker had a semi-permanent home on the stove during the hottest days of summer as she processed and canned beets, beans, peas, corn, and carrots preserving them for the long, cold winter months. She supplemented her home grown produce with cherries, peaches and pears bought from the small town grocery store, and preserved them in quart- and pint-sized Mason jars to be used later for ice-cream topping, pies, or dessert sauce.

Grandma also helped provide fresh produce to my four brothers, three sisters and myself. I have fond memories of sitting at the picnic table on the front porch of our turn-of-the century farm home, with piles of beans and peas laid out in front of my siblings and me, as we methodically shelled and trimmed them, dropping each of the green gems with the sound of a ping into the stainless steel bowls, until the piles slowly disappeared from the table. It required many shelled pea pods to fill a serving dish large enough to feed my family of 10.

The first year after I married, I finally had my own garden plot which was a 30′ x 30′ section in my backyard. I made a list of vegetables that I would grow, and purchased seeds for peas, beans, squash, cucumbers, kohlrabi, lettuce, onions, and sweet corn.  I planted sets of cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, four rows of beans, three rows of peas, 30 tomato plants (heirloom no less), radishes, onions, sweet corn, and lettuce. My father-in-law, who was maintaining the rest of the large garden plot in my backyard, would chuckle as he watched me hoeing, and weeding the tiny rows of seedlings. Occasionally he would ask me what I was going to do with all of the vegetables that I was going to be harvesting, once the plants matured. I’d shrug and reply that we would eat them fresh from the garden and I would either can or freeze whatever was left over. He would knowingly smile, and go about tending his portion of the gigantic garden.

It was a perfect year for gardening, and my harvest was abundant. So much so that after canning 100 quarts of tomatoes, and tomato juice; and filling the freezer with blanched, quart-sized Ziploc bags of peas, beans, corn, cabbage, cauliflower, broccoli and carrots, I was stumped with what to do with the continuous growth of tomatoes, cucumbers, squash and zucchini. Thankfully, my neighbor who was a cook at the small-town private high school was more than willing to take the extra produce to school to feed the hungry teenagers. I filled 5-gallon pails with the produce and hauled the overflowing buckets across the driveway to her house. My father-in-law was impressed with my green thumb, and was satisfied with my solution for disposing of the extra produce.

The following year, my garden plan was adjusted (downsized) and the extra space was given back to my father-in-law to maintain since he was still contributing vegetables to his 11 grown children and their families.

If you are new to vegetable gardening and are wondering how much to plant, my advice is to start small – perhaps a raised bed garden to begin with – and adjust accordingly – unless you have a local food shelf to donate excess produce to, or perhaps family and friends that are willing to take them off your hands. Be especially wary of zucchini – one or two plants is likely more than enough of those. The same can be said for tomatoes, peppers, squash and green beans. You can always expand your garden plot, once you’ve determined what the right amount of sets and seeds to plant is. It’s great to have such an abundance of fresh produce, but you may get overwhelmed with the amount of work involved in maintaining, harvesting, and preserving all of it, and you don’t want to get discouraged the first year.

Keeping a journal and photos of your garden is an effective way to keep track of what vegetables you plant year-to-year and also aids in rotating crops, which is beneficial for both soil and vegetation. Canning, freezing, and drying are all excellent ways to preserve your harvest so that you can enjoy the fruits (and vegetables) of your labor during the winter months, until the growing season comes ’round again.