How do you define a successful vegetable garden? It helps to have a fairly concrete concept of this in order to actually decide if your garden is a success. It is far too easy to complain and negatively compare along the way, missing the beauty of what is. Instead, decide what you will call realistic success for your situation. This will help you come up with the actions and time commitment to achieve your goal. And the great thing is that you get to define success in your own terms.
It is, after all, your garden. It is for your pleasure, however you measure that. You may measure it in terms of produce. Possibly, the visual impact is what most motivates you. Maybe you just really like playing in the dirt and growing things.
Once you have zeroed in on what would really make you feel satisfied with your garden, it can be helpful to know how to carry this out. I’m not talking exactly about the details of how to plant everything or care for the soil. While there are certainly things to learn and implement in those departments, there are some other broader principles that can make a big difference.
I refer to this list of guidelines for a successful vegetable garden:
1. Learn how the growing seasons progress in your area. You will probably need to talk to an experienced local gardener to get a good idea of this. Most published information is too broad. This would include information of expected last spring frost and first fall frost. It will also have to do with length of a particular part of the growing season, expected heat waves, and potential precipitation.
For southwest Idaho, there are almost two growing seasons, but not in the sense of being able to grow the same things twice. There is the cool crop season (from late winter to early summer) and the warm crop season (from late spring to mid fall). If you try to grow all known vegetables between June and September, as you must or can in some places, you will probably be frustrated.
Another variation of this is to learn how to find or create micro-environments that help to moderate the constraints of the season to some degree. This could be as simple as planting on the side of a building that provides afternoon shade. It could mean using a trellis to create shade for heat insensitive crops. Or it might mean using a south facing slope to get the most warmth from the sun as early as possible during the growing season.
2. Learn about the seasonal preferences of various crops. Applying this information to what you learned about the growing season will allow you to plant at the most opportune time. For instance, peas and spinach can’t take the dry heat of summer. Lettuce is hard to keep sweet during the typical heat blast. However, corn, beans, or squash planted too early will either rot in the ground or not germinate in cold soil.
3. Choose an appropriate garden plot size. Bigger is not always better, but cramped is not so great either. Keep in mind that not all gardening needs to be done in a traditional squared off area. Maybe your vegetable garden will be module in nature. A barren side yard might be the perfect place for that large, sprawling squash plant. Peppers can add nice color to a flower bed, and purple bush beans might provide just the foliage to balance out a flower border. The key is to avoid overwhelming yourself.
4. Plant what you will eat. It can be tempting to plant exotics not found in the grocery store, or the latest plant that is supposed to cure everything, but in the end, you (and your family) will eat what you will eat. Be honest with yourself and plant accordingly.
5. Similarly, only try a couple of new things each year. Whether they be new to try to grow or new to your palate, a little bit of new goes a long way.
6. Remember to walk through your garden regularly. Looking at it from the window or in passing while playing in the yard will not usually provide the data you need. It doesn’t have to take long, but getting in the habit of a walk-through will help you catch problems with pests, disease, or watering issues before they get really out of hand or past intervention. It will also remind you of what is ready for harvest, so you don’t miss eating the fruit of your labors.
7. Keep in mind that harvesting regularly is important for continued harvest for many crops. If the fruit sits on the plant, it will not only rot, but it will signal the plant to stop producing. If it is a plant where the greens are consumed, the harvesting may be in the form of thinning the tender young plants so that others can mature more. If it is a case of one time harvest, not only will you enjoy the best quality of produce, but you can often plant something else in the freed up space.
8. Plan ahead for animals. This might mean your own pets in the yard, in which case the options are training the pets and/or protecting the crops. I have been able to train my dog to stay out of garden beds, but the cats are another matter. Either way, it is best to have a good plan ahead of time, because if you go to all the trouble of planting and the pet tramples your vulnerable new plants, it is expensive in time and money.
If the problem is wild animals raiding your crops, you will want some sort of deterrents. Netting at the right time might keep fruit safe from birds. Your own pets might help patrol ground level critters. Appropriately high or strong fences usually help some. Again, at least doing something before hand will help avoid complete devastation, but do expect to keep learning in this area.
9. Realize that each year holds its own surprises. From unpredictable weather phenomena to that weekend you get sick, there will always be something that throws a wrench in your well-laid plans. Expect it, be ready to adjust, and don’t waste time stewing about things you can’t control.
Perfection is rare and if it does happen, is for only a moment in time. Since a garden is a dynamic place, constantly undergoing change, don’t define your success by some unattainable photo. Define it in a way similar to a good relationship. Keep investing time in it, enjoy its company, work through the misunderstandings, and look forward to the joy of knowing it better over time.