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Gardening to Feed Your Family Year-RoundApril 19th, 2017 by
Looking to loosen ties to your neighborhood grocery store and harvest all your produce from your own backyard vegetable garden? Making the move from recreational spring and summer gardening to growing a high percentage of your family’s fresh produce year-round requires careful planning, but the end results are well worth the time and effort.
Depending on both the size of your family and your current vegetable garden layout, you may need to add more planting real estate to accommodate the crops you intend to grow. Keep reading for our advice on garden size, which crops to plant, how to get the most from your plot, and how to preserve your extra harvest.
How Big Should My Vegetable Garden Be?
Good question. And the unsatisfying answer is: it depends.
Generally speaking, 200 square feet of garden space per person in your family will allow for a harvest that feeds everyone year-round. So, for an average family of four, plan for an 800 square-foot garden—a plot that is 20 feet by 40 feet in size should do the trick. If your family is larger (or smaller), scale up or down as needed.
Some crops take up more space than others, so if you’re planning to grow Brussels sprouts, asparagus, or large varieties of melons or squash, plan on a few extra square feet.
How Much Should I Plant?
See our list of popular vegetables below for some general guidelines.
Plant more of what you know your family likes to eat, and don’t be afraid to branch out a little into some more exotic varieties even if your household includes some picky eaters. Turning gardening into a family affair often convinces veggie haters to try new foods.
Consider your climate, too. For the most part, we have mild winters here in Georgia, so my family’s garden will produce almost year-round. If you live in a part of the country that experiences especially cold weather, however, you may not be able to depend on a winter harvest and will instead need to can or freeze part of your late-summer yield.
If you plan to preserve any of your harvest for the winter, add a few extra plants of each crop. Here is a list of popular vegetables and an estimate of how many plants to sow for a family of four:
1. Beets – 20- to 30-foot-long row
2. Bell peppers – 10 to 15 plants
3. Broccoli – 12 to 15 plants
4. Carrots – 12- to 16-foot-long row
5. Corn – 40 to 50 plants
6. Cucumbers – 4 to 6 plants or 2 to 4 vines
7. Eggplant – 6 to 8 plants
8. Kale – 15- to 20-foot-long row
9. Lettuce – 20- to 30-foot-long row
10. Melons – 4 to 6 plants
11. Potatoes – 40 to 50 plants
12. Spinach – 30- to 40-foot-long row
13. Squash – 4 to 6 plants
14. Tomatoes – 5 to 8 plants
15. Zucchini – 4 to 8 plants
How Do I Get the Most from My Garden?
Seasonal yield depends on several factors, including the quality of both the seeds and the soil, proper plant spacing, adequate water, and the weather. You can’t control the weather, but there are a few steps you can take to maximize your garden’s production through the year.
1. Plant again and again.
As soon as one crop is harvested and is no longer producing, pull it out of the garden and plant something else in its place. Stagger plantings by two or three weeks to extend the harvest, and plant different varieties of the same crop that mature at different times. This is known as succession planting. Depending on the length of your growing season, you may have to be strategic in the plants you choose for a second (or even third) planting.
If your second or third planting occurs toward the end of the season, opt for cool-weather crops such as leafy greens, broccoli, or root vegetables. Look for varieties that will grow quickly or that will overwinter and produce in the early spring (if your climate allows).
2. Try intercropping.
Intercropping, or planting crops of varying sizes and growth rates together, is a vegetable garden design technique often used by gardeners who are trying to maximize yield in a small space.
Give it a try in your larger garden. While your Brussels sprout plants are maturing, for instance, make use of the ample space between them to grow a quick crop of radishes or salad greens.
3. Harvest early and consistently.
Gently harvesting produce early typically results in higher yielding plants. Get in the habit of picking vegetables once per day or every couple of days.
4. Grow vegetables suited to your area.
Be mindful of the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map when you select seeds and plants for your garden. If your climate is prone to weather extremes, some less hardy vegetables may simply not be worth the trouble.
Most large state universities have active agricultural extensions that are a wealth of information for new and experienced gardeners. Talk to other gardeners nearby or contact your county extension for advice on tried-and-true crops for your area.
How Can I Preserve My Harvest?
If you anticipate a harsh winter, there are plenty of ways to preserve your harvest to ensure homegrown vegetables through the winter and early spring.
Freezing is the easiest option, and it doesn’t require any special equipment. Freeze diced vegetables and fruits in a single layer on a baking sheet first, and then divide them up into individual serving sizes.
Canning is a time-honored food preservation method, but it does require some know-how to do it safely. Luckily, there are plenty of resources available to teach you what you need to know—you may even be able to find an in-person class near you.
Although a little less common, drying is another simple way to preserve your harvest. Dried foods are lightweight and don’t take up much space, and you won’t have to worry about them if your power goes out for an extended period of time.
Gardening to feed your family year-round is incredibly rewarding. The key is to start early and have a plan in mind. If all goes well, you’ll be enjoying garden-fresh produce until it’s time to plant next spring’s seedlings.