Whew! What a winter. The rest of the country had it pretty tough, too. Record amounts of snow and ice fell and freezing temperatures pushed into parts of the country that seldom see that much cold.
Adding insult to injury, winter came on the heels of extended droughts in some of our top vegetable and fruit producing regions. That all adds up to a year of higher food prices coming our way. Headlines are already warning us, and shortages are already popping up at our local markets. While we are planning our spring gardens it’s a good time to think about expanding our edible options.
Everyone can grow a few veggies and small fruits. You don’t have to grow all that your family eats. Pick a few of your favorites and concentrate on those. An amazing number of edible plants can be grown here and they can be worked into every garden regardless of size or style.
The traditional vision of a home vegetable garden is a backyard patch of hills and furrows with mulched paths between them or of raised beds in a dedicated garden space. Not everyone has room for this, and it doesn’t suit every homeowner but you can still grow edible plants. Just find creative ways to work them into your beds and use containers.
Lettuce and other leafy greens can be grown a large part of the year as long as you know how to manage sunlight. They appreciate full sun now and throughout the fall and winter months, but the summer sun is just too intense for them. Plant a few plants every week or 10 days – in sunny spots now, and choosing shadier places as summer nears. Choose a mix of colors to make the most of their ornamental value – bright greens, reds, and freckled varieties.
Pepper plants are quite ornamental and can be tucked into spots between perennials. Green bell types prefer cool weather – get them in now. Hot peppers and sweet non-bell peppers can be grown all year. The key to really productive peppers is to encourage a large, full “head” on the plant early. Use your favorite slow release organic fertilizer at planting. Side dress three weeks after planting and again at fruit set.
Eggplant is another vegetable that has ornamental value. Some varieties have purple stems and purple veining in their leaves. The foliage of some eggplants is deeply cut and ruffled. The blooms are violet colored “stars” and the fruit itself is beautiful. In addition to the familiar aubergine color, eggplants also come in white, streaked variegation, and even a deep pumpkin orange variety. It only takes a few plants to provide for the average family.
Green beans are fun to work into the landscape. You don’t have to erect a complicated trellis or till up a patch of ground to grow them. Use a sturdy 15” or larger container filled with rose soil or potting soil amended with compost. Place a tall tomato cage upside down in the center and pin it down with landscape staples or lengths of coat hanger bent into a hairpin shape. Tie the loose ends of the cage, which are now at the top, with jute twine or raffia for a rustic look. Plant the seeds of a good stringless variety around the base of the cage according to the seed packet. Keep well watered and you will soon be harvesting beans from a tower of green vines. Other climbing vegetables can be grown this way including cucumbers, summer squash, and “baby” pumpkins. You can create a very productive vertical garden that will produce all summer.
Plan for succession cropping – following one vegetable with another soon after harvest. You can start with flats of 4” transplants right now, and take home a few packets of seeds at the same time. After you have planted all of the 4” veggies, fill the empty pots with potting soil and start a few seeds of leafy greens in each. By the time your transplants are ready to harvest your seedlings will be large enough to set out.
Rotating crops is an important pest and disease practice. You can learn more about a simple crop rotation scheme here: http://www.thegardenacademy.com/4-Step_Crop_Rotation.html. It’s easy enough to do at any scale.
The possibilities are endless. Once you start looking at your landscape this way, you will soon find all kinds of nooks and crannies where edible plants can be tucked.