Growing a few vegetables each year is far from difficult. Even with some bad luck and a distinct lack of weeding most of us can produce at least a few crops each year. However maximizing those yields and getting the most vegetables possible – now that’s another challenge.
Over the last few years I’ve slowly developed from a beginner vegetable grower to someone with at least a semblance of experience under my belt. And as my experience has increased, I have found myself focusing ever more on getting the most I possibly can from my little vegetable plot.
If you have limited space, but you’d like to be more self sufficient in the future, here are seven tips I’ve picked up along the way for maximizing crop yields…
Less is More
When I first started vegetable gardening I was shocked at how prolific some plants can be. Tomatoes, peppers and eggplants are three great examples of plants that can be almost covered in fruit.
At the same time I learned that here in the UK, where the growing season is reasonably short, fruits tend not to ripen very well when there are too many. In essence you’re expecting too much from your plants.
As soon as I started to nip off excess flowers early on, allowing my plants to concentrate their efforts on a much smaller number fruits, they magically started to ripen that much quicker. They also seemed both sweeter and larger in comparison.
Sometimes, you have to be cruel to be kind. Limit the fruit on each plant and your eventual yield can often be much more impressive.
Glasshouses Are Your Friend
In my part of the world I simply couldn’t imagine growing vegetables without a glass house – or at least something similar. Whether you get one made of glass or plastic, or you opt for the cheaper polytunnel, they really can be your best friends.
A decent glasshouse allows you to start seedlings much earlier than you otherwise might, and help to prevent the “legginess” that light-starved seedlings started on kitchen windowsills often develop.
The same happens at the end of the season, of course, and helps you keep growing for longer into the fall. Last year I dug up a load of tomato and pepper plants that had been beaten by the weather and were no longer ripening their crops. I then planted them in my greenhouse and within weeks I had a whole new crop of juicy red tomatoes and peppers.
There’s more. In a glass house it is much easier to control the environmental conditions. As an example, my greenhouse plants suffer much less from pests and diseases than those grown outside. They’re also kept warmer, which means I can grow crops like melons that would otherwise struggle in the misty UK.
Always Have a Plan
Planning is crucial for effective vegetable gardening, and there are lots of elements to consider. For one, is the crop you’re planing likely to remain in the ground for the whole growing season (like squashes) or will it all be over in a few months (like peas or radishes)? If it is the latter, make sure you have a plan for what will go in that spot as it becomes vacant, and plant fresh seeds in trays in readiness.
Another planning consideration is how large a crop will grow. Don’t plant blocks of sweetcorn, for example, where they will block out the sun for other crops you’ve planted.
While you get better each year at planning, try to keep a mental picture (or a written journal) of what is going where, why, and what is happening next. In this way you can always try to stay a few steps ahead of your vegetable garden, and so maximise yields into the bargain.
Don’t Ignore the Experts
One of the beautiful things about gardening is the heritage behind it. Our ancestors have been growing vegetables for generations, and in that time an awful lot of knowledge has been accumulated. In truth, you’ll find older neighbours of yours often also have an abundance of knowledge and experience picked up over decades of dirty fingers.
Whilst this advice isn’t always foolproof, in many places its a great place to start before you do your own experimentation.
If the seed packet, gardening book or knowledgeable friend tells you to plant your cabbages a certain distance part, listen to them. You might think that planting closer together will yield more of a crop, but in many cases either the plants won’t grow as luxuriantly or they’ll be impossible to weed.
So listen to the “old timers” and follow their advice; it’ll make your vegetable gardening experience a whole lot more successful.
Feeding is Caring
It should come as no surprise that many vegetable plants do noticeably better when they’re fed generously.
Of course, some commercial fertilizers can be very expensive, essentially making you a loss on your tomatoes and peppers. Instead, try experimenting with more natural (and cost effective) solutions like seaweed, bonemeal or homemade fertilizer.
Pay particular attention when plants are fruiting.
Use Vertical Space Wisely
When I first started growing vegetables I tended to think only in terms of vertical space. I knew how much space should be left between rows, and that limited how much I could plant. What I neglected to consider, of course, was vertical height.
Many crops can actually be grown successfully upwards. I allow my cucumbers and melons to climb, rather than ramble across the ground, and many squashes will also do well on a frame. The benefits of growing upwards as well as sideways isn’t just a higher potential yield; taller plants can also save your back when it comes to harvesting time.
Choose the Right Varieties
There are an astonishing array of different vegetable varieties, and it can be bewildering trying to decide where to start. In this case I would make two recommendations; either go for “tried and trusted” varieties or ask your neighbours what works for them. This at least gives you a starting point, and you can feel confident of a reasonable crop.
Each year, however, I like to try a few new varieties alongside my current “winner”. If it produces more (or tastier) crops then it becomes my new favorite and so the process repeats itself. Over a number of years you’ll build up quite a bit of knowledge about what works best in your growing conditions, as through experimentation you find the best varieties for your situation.