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Gardening expert Karen York's tips for making the most of your edible garden.
Maximize your space by growing two or more kinds of vegetables together at the same time. For instance, tuck in quick-growing lettuce beside slower-growing cabbage, or small radishes next to bigger tomatoes. For best results, you need to know several aspects about each vegetable to make sure they complement rather than compete with each other:
- Time to maturity so you can pair rapid growers with slow ones and harvest the speedy ones first.
- Size and growth habit, whether tall or short, large or small, upright or sprawling.
- Part of the plant you're going to harvest: the roots or fruits or leafy growth.
- Growing season (cool- or warm-season crops) and soil/moisture conditions so you can match plants with the same requirements.
- Plant family – brassica, nightshade, legume or cucurbit. To avoid soil-borne diseases, don't plant members of the same family together (tomatoes and potatoes, for instance).
- Adverse effects on other plants. For example, Jerusalem artichokes will inhibit the growth of neighbouring plants.
Once you've played matchmaker, plan out your space. You can interplant within a row (mingling leeks and parsley, for instance) or alternate full rows (radishes with carrots or onions with peppers). Use tall plants, such as corn or climbing pea vines, to provide shade for veggies, such as lettuce and spinach, that prefer cool soil. Although you're planting intensively, don't overcrowd the plants; good air circulation helps to prevent diseases.
Intermediate: Succession planting
This technique not only saves you from the "feast or famine" syndrome but also reduces the risk of crop failure. There are several variations of succession planting:
1. One variety of vegetable planted successively. Extend the harvest by staggering plantings of the same variety so the plants reach maturity at successive times. For instance, sow seeds or plant seedlings of lettuce and beans every two weeks.
2. One vegetable, different varieties. Plant the same vegetable using varieties with different maturity rates: tomatoes that mature in 65 days along with tomatoes that mature in 80 days, for example. Other good candidates are broccoli, carrots, kale, cabbage, squash and melon.
3. Different vegetables planted successively. Plant one crop as soon as another is finished, using the same spot. Early maturing, cool-season crops, such as lettuce, spinach and peas, can be replaced by heat-loving eggplants, squash and peppers, followed in turn by garlic and kale.
For healthy plants, don't forget to rotate crops from year to year, i.e., grow plants from a different family in the same spot. Halifax-based veggie maven Niki Jabbour offers several tips for successful succession planting: Start more seedlings so you have a good supply over the growing season; turn over plantings as soon as you have reaped the main harvest, don't wait for the last gasp; and add compost to the soil between plantings to replenish nutrients. For detailed planting plans, check out her book The Year-Round Vegetable.
Advanced: Using a cold frame
A cold frame is basically a box with a transparent lid, creating a mini-greenhouse that allows the hungry gardener to extend the growing season a month or more at each end.
In spring, cold frames may be used to harden off tender seedlings and to start seeds, which often fare better than under lights indoors. In fall and winter, crops such as kale, spinach and chard will flourish in cold frames long after the rest of the garden has packed up. You can plant directly into the soil or simply set flats/pots inside the frame, which should be sited in a sheltered south-facing spot. The minimum practical size for a cold frame is 60 centimetres by 1.2 metres by 30 centimetres in height, but many DIYers recycle tempered glass patio or shower doors as lids, making a cold frame roughly 80 centimetres by 2.1 metres. The frame structure can be made of wood, brick, concrete or plastic.
Overall height may vary depending on what you're growing, but the back wall is generally 10 to 15 centimetres higher than the front so the lid slopes to catch more sun and allow rain to run off. Regular glass can be used in the lid but if safety is an issue, go with tempered glass or plastic.
Success relies on keeping the cold frame not too cold, not too hot and well ventilated; a hinged lid can be wedged open as needed to maintain an even temperature. For additional insulation in winter, cover the cold frame with several sheets of clear plastic sheeting, or a piece of old carpet laid over it at night and removed during the day.
Keep your gardening tools nicely tucked away in your garage with these tips.
This story was originally part of "Extending The Harvest" in the May 2016 issue. Subscribe to Canadian Living today and never miss an issue!