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Beginners Tips on Maximizing Your Vegetable Garden

Gardening is full of many challenges and takes quite a bit of trial and error.   I certainly have had my fair share in just my beginning years of gardening.  This year, I was determined to get better food production out of my small space and I want to share with you what I've learned.  My garden is in Pennsylvania, Zone 7.

As a novice, I spent last summer volunteering at CSAs (Community Supported Agriculture) to gain knowledge.  These are farms to which the community members pay a one-time summer fee to be able to collect a basket of food every week all season.  I learned so much from those wonderful agricultural experts!  My daughters joined me on our volunteering adventures.

Most Valuable Tips

1. Check for insect eggs.
Always check under the leaves for insect eggs.  Really do this!  It will save your crop from sudden destruction.  All you have to do is wipe them off.

2.  Look daily.
Walk around the garden daily.  It doesn't have to take long.  You will be surprised how often you find a new bug, fungus or exciting new growth!   It is a very therapeutic way to start your morning as well.  This helps you catch problems as soon they start, making for less heart ache down the road.

3. Harvest to maximize space.
Harvest and start new plantings through out the summer. Don't be afraid to take out a whole crop if it's on its final days.  Using the space for the next crop is more productive than holding out for one more tomato.

4.  Share.  
Gardening can be very communal.  You are bound to grow too much of something.  Share with your neighbors, teachers or local food bank.  It's a great feeling!  

Here, I am bagging up early spring lettuce to give the teachers.  The lettuce came in well before the school year ended!

Starting Seeds in the Basement

1. Start in February.  You will get early food production! It also makes the drab month a little more exciting.

2.  Don't bother starting beans in the basement.  They grow too fast.  Directly sow those when springtime comes.  

3.  Plant multiple generations.  This allows you to obtain extended food supplies.   This works particularly well with tomatoes, summer squash and peppers.  Once the fruit is harvested on these plants, the plant is done.  So,  having a new generation to follow is useful.  Leafy greens keep coming back after cutting, so having multiple generations isn't as necessary.

4. Start with cold weather plants.  To get the most out of every month, you need to grow what works for the weather the best.

Seasonal Rotation
This makes for 3 seasons of food production.  
1. The early spring cold season. 
2. The mid-summer hot season. 
3. The autumn cold season.

Cold weather plants include: 
Swiss Chard
Root vegetables
Brussel sprouts

Hot weather plants include: 

Example of Seasonal Space Maximization 
Spring:  Eat your yummy lettuce all spring.
Summer: When it starts getting too hot, pull out the plants completely replace them with your squash.
Autumn: Once your squash are done, you will pull those plants out and put in new lettuce seeds for the fall.

Tips on Preserving Your Food
Canning, pickling, freezing and drying are the most common ways to preserve garden produce. In canning, it is easiest to focus on the high acid foods like tomatoes and peppers.  Low acid foods are more prone to toxins and do require a pressure canner.  Pickling things like cucumbers in vinegar  will last months in the refrigerator.  I enjoyed adding a cayeene pepper to give them a spicy kick!  I freeze my herbs in olive oil using ice cube trays.  Some herbs, I dry out upside down in paper bags.  All of these methods are easy and worthwhile. 

Here, you can see our canned tomatoes (yellow tomatoes don't  look very attractive on spaghetti but they taste great, so mix them with red ones to make them more appealing), our frozen herbs, and the dried coriander as we remove the seeds to be ground in a coffee grinder.  

The Calendar

Start cold weather seeds in the basement under a florescent grow light.  Keep the grow light just inches away from the seedlings or the get to stretched out and weak.  I only had two grow lights, so I would swap the plants every day to share the light.  The seedlings actually do need some time not under the light to properly produce the nutrients they need.

Start the hot weather seedlings in the basement.  Stagger planting to obtain multiple generations and more consistent food production.  Transplant the first seedlings to larger containers.

Depending on how many seedlings you have so far, you may want to start a few more.  Have a look at the weather.  If the snow looks like history, you may be able to get some of the cold weather plants outside.  Have a cover ready in case snow does come.  

If it still looks too cold, transplant seedlings into larger containers while they wait to be planted.  As you can see, I really need a greenhouse! But this worked.  I managed to have them all make it to the garden once it was warm enough.  

Plant the cold weather seedlings if you haven't already.  Keep the warm weather ones growing inside in a well lit room.  You should be eating ups some tasty lettuces already! I kept slugs at bay by picking off all the little baby slugs a discarding them each morning.  I also sprayed vinegar directly on to the soil beneath the plants to kill the eggs.  It worked! Don't spray the leaves of your plants.

Enjoy all the delectable greens! Get those hot weather plants outside.  Freeze you herbs in olive oil for winter.  Keep an eye out for cabbage worms on the broccoli cabbage and brussels sprouts.  I took my eye off of that for a minute when things got busy with travel.  I lost all of my brussel sprouts.  I'm going to try an organic spray next time.  Don't forget to add fertilizer every month or so.  

Garble up all the hot weather has to offer! Get your Ball jars ready for canning next month!  Harvest coriander seeds.  They take about a week to dry out in a brown paper bag.  When they are dry, take them off of the stem and grind them in a coffee grinder.  Use the spice soon, as it will lose flavor.

Learn to can all the acidic foods.  You need a big pot, Ball jars for canning, a jar remover and lemon juice.  Pickle the cucumbers if you have too many. They will last months in the refrigerator.   I added cayeen peppers to make spicy pickles.  They are wonderful accompanied with dishes like the popular Banh Mi Vietnamese sandwich.

Pull out the hot weather plants once you've preserved what you can.  Plant new cold weather seeds directly into the garden.  Yay! That excitement of new growth is back again!

(Always bring in cut flowers! What beautiful thing to have in the home).  

Don't forget to check daily.  Keep an eye out for bugs and eggs.

Hopefully, you are again eating from the garden!

Hm, let's try out those frozen or dried herbs from last June.  They might be just what you need to perk up a meal.

Those canned tomatoes must be tasting oh so sweet!  How about a few spicy pickles with a sweet asian beef dinner?

Got your seeds and grow lights ready?  Next month is basement time again!

Now, I am no expert.  Is anyone really though?  Gardening will present us with new problems every year.  I do hope some of what I've learned helps you get started.  Happy gardening!

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