In the spirit of writing a monthly gardening blog post I usually start a new one by re-reading the previous months post. I recommend you do the same as a reader to get a full picture of what is going on. In September we did a lot of planning and preparing soil beds, we bought seeds and started them. This month we will get into a planting rhythm.
I like to reiterate that fact that vegetable gardens are not projects we put together and call done, a garden is never really "done, especially a vegetable garden. They are a pretty huge commitment, almost like a pet. You have to give them food and water regularly, check for health issues and prune routinely and of course enjoy them, spend time with them. There are two main gardening tasks I would like to describe to help you get the most out of your garden this season.
First lets talk about succession planting and annual plants. It helps to think about the fact that the far majority of plants we eat today are annuals. Our ancestors who hunted and foraged ate mostly perennials, which are plants that grow year after year, producing edible shoots, tubers or fruits on a continuous cycle. Those types of plants can be revisited for many years and harvested for edible parts. On the other hand annuals are plants that are biologically designed to have a short life span and produce one main harvest. As humans evolved we decided that we preferred annuals. Probably not for their practically, but because we could manipulate and control them. The very first annuls to be domesticated were grasses like wheat, barley and chick peas in the Fertile Crescent region of southwest Asia while in other parts of the world early humans began domesticating root vegetables, beans and corn. You all know the rest from there! Today our agriculture system is based almost entirely on a diverse range of annual vegetables that are replanted from seed regularly for a continuos supply of food. In fact, the majority of the annual vegetable varieties our agricultural system is based on are varieties we engineered. They are distant relatives of the wild plants humans found on earth hundreds of years ago. They are plants we have bread and genetically manipulated to perform within our stringent and fast passed agricultural system. The tomatoes, lettuces, carrots and corn of today probably wouldn't survive in the wild on their own, much like the breeds of pets we've also domesticated.
The trade off for creating a food production system that relies so heavily on human labor is increased yield and tastier plants. If managed properly domesticated annual plants are sweeter, more tender hence easier to chew and can yield a big harvest in a small space year after year. So lets looks at the home vegetable garden of today. In order to reap the benefits of your garden you gotta do a good job at managing your crops, otherwise you might as well plant wild perennial plants like they do in permaculture systems. Succession planting and regular harvesting are the keys to success in an annual garden. Many of the crops people enjoy growing at home are relatively short lived and produce food within 30 to 90 days! Think about how fast one month goes by and then think about how often you should be harvesting and replanting your garden. That's were an edible plant nursery like us comes in. Starting plants from seed is a challenging process and even professional farms struggle with it and usually dedicate a specialized person to that task. Buying starter plants makes a lot of sense especially when you are working with a small garden of 2 to 3 raised beds. The infrastructure, attention to detail and time needed to start certain crops from seed is usually not worth the investment for a small garden. Don't let that stop you from replanting your garden a few times. Some crops you will probably want to start from seed, but there is no shame in buying starter plants to keep the rotation in your garden fresh throughout the season.
Now lets talk about harvesting! This subject tends to be a double edged sword for beginner gardeners because on the one hand it is the whole point of gardening to begin with, but on the other hand it can be the hardest step for newbies. One of the questions we hear most often is "how do you know when it's ready?". This is a tough one because the answer is literally different for every single variety so we've come up with an answer that empowers people to learn on their own. We encourage you to use google and use it wisely. There are instructional youtube videos for harvesting just about anything you can imagine. When we say wisely we mean use a good set of key words to get relevant results. Use the specific variety name when possible and include where you live, for example, "how to harvest peppermint chard in South Florida".
There is plenty of time to go into detail about harvesting and getting the most use of your garden through the season, but for the month of October lets focus on the quickest crops which tend to be ready within the first month of planting. They are salad greens like arugula, baby lettuce and mustard greens, radishes, baby bok choi and salad turnips. Most of these can be planted from seed and harvested within one month. If you are planting in the beginning of October, by the middle of November you'll have room in your garden for a few new crops. One tip we like to recommend is to mark the plants in your garden with a variety name and a target harvest date. All annuals veggies have a "date to maturity" which is usually listed on the seed packet or can be easily found online; we actually list dates to maturity for all of the plants we sell on our website! When you plant your seeds or baby starter plants mark the harvest date on a tag right by the plants in your garden. When the day comes you should feel more confident to get in there with a knife and bring your harvest in for lunch. On the other hand, the date marking technique also serves to point out when something has gone wrong with the crop. If it isn't even close to ready on the harvest date it's a sign that there is an issue. Waiting longer will not yield you a harvest. Waiting longer will just waste time. Don't give up or get discouraged, on the contrary, act quick and start over, remember that you are learning and learning is a process. Do some investigating about what could have gone wrong, make a couple of changes and try again.
Fruiting plants, including long term crops like tomatoes and quick crops like cucumbers, zucchini and bush beans needs to be harvested on a regular basis for a good yield. When I say regularly I mean every two to three days! All annuals are biologically designed to make seeds within a short period of time and then die after dropping their seeds for the next generation. Fruits are vessels for seeds so crops like cucumbers, zucchini and beans are basically seed pods that we eat! Once a plant puts on fruit it is triggered to stop making new flowers and new fruit. In order to get a bigger and longer lasting yield we harvest their fruit regularly to encourage new blooms and new fruit. Keep in mind that we eat the majority of these fruits when they are very young because that is when they are edible. A cucumber or bean that has been sitting on the plant for even a few days too many becomes so tough and fibrous that it is no longer edible. Typically they are ready to harvest just a few days after forming on the plant. Also keep in mind that quick fruiting plants like cucumbers, zucchini and bush beans not only mature quickly and produce their harvest quickly, they also die early! It's normal for these plants to produce fruit for about 2 weeks and then sort of crap out. In order to make the most use of your garden it is up to you to remove these "spent" plants and add them to the compost. Doing that promptly makes room for a new batch of crops and also helps to prevent disease from spreading which often builds up on older plants.
On that note, good luck getting your garden started and we hope to see you at our plant sales!