Planning to grow a garden can be a fun and exciting project, here are a few fundamental concepts that I consider important to understand before getting started to ensure a successful growing season.
The concepts that I will explain are an introduction of what to consider when planning your garden. And although for some of us in more northern climates the gardening season seems like a long time away, now is the perfect time to start thinking about your garden.
What do you eat?
The first area to consider is what the people you plan to feed commonly eat. This may be yourself, your family or a larger group of people depending on your garden goals. This is important to consider before getting caught up in the seed catalogues with pretty pictures and interesting new varieties.
Now that you know who you are feeding what do they eat, what fruits or vegetables are your go-to? You can create this list by thinking about what food you are often purchasing at the grocery store or market as well as reviewing what recipes you commonly make.
Next, think about how much of these fruits or vegetables you might consume. For example, onions or garlic are a common ingredient that is found as the base of most recipes. If you cook a recipe three times a week that starts with one whole onion, for a year of food you will need to grow 156 onions. This is important to keep in mind and although growing a year’s worth of food might not be your goal, it’s helpful to consider how much of something you might need to grow. It’s also important to consider how you will store the fruits and vegetables, we’ll get into this next.
- Who will you be feeding from the garden?
- Create a list of the top vegetables that are consumed.
- Consider how much of this food you eat.
What will you do with the food?
Now that you know what food you enjoy eating and how much of it, you need to think about how you will store or preserve the food. The easiest way is to keep up with your garden by eating things while they are fresh, but if you have a short growing season as we do farther north, it’s helpful to think about how you might preserve some of the height of summer freshness to enjoy over the winter.
- Common preservation techniques inlcude:
- Cold Storage or Root Cellar
- Drying or Dehydrating
Cold Storage or Root Cellar
Depending on the design of your house you may have a space that naturally stays cool, this is a great place for keeping some fruits and vegetables and requires very little input. Some things can simply be kept in a space like this as is. These would include; winter squash, potatoes, onions, garlic. Carrots, beets and cabbage can also be kept in cold storage but often need a bit more such as being stored in damp wood chips or sand to help them retain moisture.
Freezing is another quick and easy way to preserve some fruits and vegetables. Blanching some vegetables before freezing them is often recommended but I suggest giving it a try and deciding which you prefer. Common vegetables and I consider freezing are; beans, sweet corn, celery, tomatoes for sauce, kale or swiss chard for smoothies.
A lot of fruits do very well with freezing especially berries. The key tip to freezing any garden produce is to start by freezing it spread out on a sheet pan and then transferring it to a freezer bag or container once frozen. This keeps it from freezing into a solid block.
Drying or Dehydrating
Drying is a simple and easy way to preserve things such as herbs. Many herbs such as dill, sage, oregano, are simple to dry just by hanging them in a place out of the way and out of direct sunlight. I often do this in my laundry room or sometimes in the kitchen.
Dehydrating works well for things that have more moisture to start with, however does require dedicated equipment. There is a wide range of dehydrators available on the market, I suggest starting out with either what you have or with what you might be able to borrow from a friend or family. My favourite things to dehydrate include tomatoes which can then be rehydrated and used as sundried tomatoes over the winter or blended into a tomato powder, and garlic to be blended into garlic powder.
Canning is a complex topic and I will just keep to the highlights here. There are two processes for canning food; water-bath canning and pressure canning. Considering food safety when canning is important and I recommend following a verified source for your recipes.
Water-bath canning is used for foods that are highly acidic, such as jams, tomatoes, relish or pickles. Canned foods are shelf-stable and are not reliant on specific storage conditions. Common things on my canning list every summer include:
- Tomatoes – salsa, sauce, diced
- Pickles – cucumber, hot peppers, beets, dilly beans
This is an area where really understanding what you or your family will eat and how much is important. We don’t eat many jams or jellies so I focus on other things such as tomato products that we use commonly. For me, the value in canning these items myself is understanding what ingredients are being used and being able to make them to our preferences.
Where are you growing?
Now that we have an understanding of the foods we eat as well as considering what we will do with it once we have harvested the food, the next step is understanding your climate. This includes:
- Number of days in your growing season
- Last and first frost dates
- Growing Zone
In Ontario, there are great resources to help provide you with a lot of this data. Most regions have this information it might just take some searching. The Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs (OMAFRA) publishes this data on their website here.
In addition to the published data, it’s helpful to talk with experienced local gardeners and understand nuances to your area about when last frosts occur or when it’s usually safe to plant out your tomatoes.
With this information, you can use it to help select varieties of plants that are best suited for your climate. Consider picking tomatoes that have shorter days to maturity so you can enjoy them earlier in the summer. Or knowing if you can plant multiple successions of a plant or fill in empty space in your garden after something else is finished.
I hope you found these concepts helpful in starting to think about your garden planning for the next season. In a future post, I’ll share more details about how I plan out my garden for planting in the spring. I can’t wait to hear about your gardens!