In the spring of 2016, I bought about six tomato plants. They did really well in the beginning of the season and then we fought all kinds of different problems throughout the summer. One time I wanted to throw them away but my husband persuaded me to keep them, saying they would come back around.
And they did… in October. By late November we had our first hard frost that I was unaware was coming and that was the end of our garden for that year.
But it did get me wondering about crops that last a longer time than expected. How can we best care for them? How do we get the most out of our garden each growing season?
Growing Long Season Crops
1. Take Care of the Soil
Here is a key part of making any fruit or vegetable's growing, and producing, life last long: give it good soil. In Texas, it is much easier to create raised garden beds. Adding fertile soil that is loose and not super packed, like that in the sandy ground here, is beneficial because it gives the plants nutrients it needs.
Do your research on each of your plants as well because some things you have around the house might help. For example, tomatoes love used coffee grinds for their acidic properties. So I set my grinds off to the side for a week and on Sundays, I share my resources with my plants. We both benefit from the coffee!
One of the best parts about having a raised bed is that you can plant your fruits and vegetables close together. Doing this works well because there is still enough room for the roots to grow and the plants being closer together decreases the number of weeds exponentially- thus saving you time and energy!
Spacing your plants just right will maximize your space. It was astonishing to me how many plants I could put in the topsy turvy planters. What I didn't realize was that the inventors had learned to maximize the space.
Likewise, if you are using a raised bed method, planting your plants in triangular patterns instead of the traditional roles will give each vegetable and fruit more space to grow.
Part of the spacing could mean growing some of your items upwards instead of outwards. Bean plants do well with this, as does sugar pumpkins and squash. Don't just use poles though, add some mesh in between your poles to give the plant that extra bit of sturdiness.
3. Companion Planting
I look at companion planting as helpful in numerous of different ways. For one thing, it increases the variety of items you have on your farm. For example, if I plant corn and sunflowers together then I get the benefit of putting beautiful sunflowers on my dinner table, then harvesting the seeds for a yummy treat, and my family can eat corn with their dinner some nights.
This is not just beneficial to me but to the plants as well for numerous reasons that can vary from bug deterrents to the ability to use the soil efficiently.
4. Think About Placement
Most plants need full sun and as the daylight starts to get shorter and shorter, this will become very important. Naturally then, planting in a place with full sunlight is very important.
In my case, I also have to worry about the intense summer sun. Part of the reason that we struggled with our tomato crops last summer was because the sun burned them. In order to solve this problem, you can add a shade blocker for the plants that will need it, though this is determined on where you have the plants.
I know a couple who housed their tomatoes right by their house and put a round cover over them. It kept them away from the scorching sun when the tomatoes needed it the most and they never seemed to have any issues.
5. Water is Key
I will tell you one thing I learned last summer- don't water overhead on your plants if you can avoid it. I never realized this could cause bacteria growth but, yes, it can.
In the same respect, do not let them go without water for too long. One inch per week, including rainfall, is typically adequate although I still maintain that a little extra in the hot summer sun is probably a good idea.
If you are wanting to invest in your garden because you know it's something you will be doing for a long time, I recommend a drip irrigation system. They allow the plants to get enough water, you won't have to worry as much about the splash causing disease, and can also add nutrients to the plant if needed.
6. Add Mulch
I'm not a fan of mulch when it comes to the aesthetic aspect; however, this is crucial to places that are extra hot or extra cold as it helps regulate the soil temperature better. It also helps with the splashing from the water that helps to cause the disease and it cuts down on weeding.
Part of my problem might be that I expect mulch to be that cheap looking colored chipped wood. My parents put that out when I was a kid and the color was such a turn off for me. I have learned that seed-free straw is a better way to go for the garden. The reason for this is that you can push it to the side when you need to work, it has all the benefits of the wood, and at the end of the growing season, you can add it to the ground to contribute to natural compost. Win-win for all!
I guess mulch will be on my next garden supply run. I think I can handle the ugliness of it for the benefits!
7. Don't Over Fertilize
Dare I say- don't fertilize at all. The reason I say this is because fertilizing causes lush green growth but none of the fruits and vegetables we so desire. I'll be honest, I did not fertilize at all last summer. I added compost, coffee grinds, and, occasionally, Epsom salt to my plants.
Instead, focus on adding compost to your garden. This form of benefit to your garden is beneficial to every aspect- from the lush green foliage to obtaining more of the fruits and vegetables.
8. Thin Them Out
While this is tied into spacing, it is still worth bringing up. Just like with water- there is a perfect balance between too much and too little spacing.
If you do not give your plants enough spacing all of the nutrients and water will be sucked from the soil and none of your plants will grow to their maximum potential.
What is the best way to combat this? Journaling. Keep a record of what you are doing and the results you are receiving. Like going back to school, this is a case of testing the hypothesis (See, learning that was important after all!).
9. Love the Bees
I currently have one blueberry bush that grows two blueberries per year. Very disappointing to say the least but I know what I need- if I had more blueberry bushes, a hive, flowers to attract them to the area and bees I would be set to have a nice amount of blueberries throughout the season.
This way the bees will pollinate the blueberry bush by traveling from flower to flower. Naturally, then, adding both bees and more bushes are high on my list when we finally move into our homestead.
Sigh… A lot of what I have covered explained not only how to increase your yields and growing season, but also how to keep weeds at a minimum (and I still plan to go buy mulch.) However, we must still get down on our hands and needs and get those ugly suckers that make their way into our gardens without our permission out.
Why is this so important? Because they are taking energy away from our plants that need it to provide us with delicious food. I normally can manage to do this once every two weeks. One time I waited a month and ended up weeding all night after work. We even ordered a pizza at nine o'clock because we spent four to nine working. Maintenance is key.
11. Cover in the Winter
Just like with my late November frost, eventually the time will come that we can no longer grow crops in the garden (unless we have a winter garden). Before this happens, it is best to add a cover crop.
Cover crops help the garden by giving extra soil and microbes in the winter and like the straw, you can add them to the soil in the spring before you plant to give it more organic matter to eat away at and turn into natural compost!
12. Pick the Produce
As crazy as this sounds- pick your produce at peak time. Do not let them get over ripe. But if they do and you pick them a day or two late, you still need to pick them.
If you don't the plant reads that they are done with their job, they have spread their seeds and can now die. We don't want death, we want life for as long as possible.
I normally go to my garden each day before I go inside when I get home unless, of course, you have your hands full. Then go set your stuff down inside and then head out to the garden. Or add a bench in the garden to set you extra stuff on while you pick, water, and do whatever else is needed.
13. Keep up with Bad bugs
Be proactive about bad bugs. One way of doing this is by having beneficial bugs in the garden, including lady bugs. You can purchase lady bugs from a garden supply company, along with other beneficial insects or you can try to attract them by adding flowers and other items to attract them to the garden.
If you add the attractors and still have to purchase them from a supply store, at least you know they will stick around.
This is another area where keeping a journal is important. Last year I had a bug that sucked the water out of the root of the plant – sharp shooters. I had to look in my journal to remember their name but also to remember exactly how I was able to get rid of them naturally.
I used a solution of water, one drop of dish soap, castile soap, and a tablespoon of borax. Boom! Problem solved last year and I know what sharp shooters look like and how to get rid of them without having to do too much research!
14. Succession Planting
Succession planting is spacing out the timing that you plant a group of vegetables. For example, you grow five bean plants and two weeks later you start another set of bean plants and two weeks after that another one. What this does is ensures that when one plant grows enough, you still have more coming.
You need to do this only when it is within the growing or planting season, otherwise you are wasting your resources. You can also do this from your summer to your fall crops and your fall to winter crops. For example, you could put lettuce seedlings where the green bean bushes are about to die.
In the End…
I am grateful that on Thanksgiving day I could still eat tomatoes that came from our garden. It made the winter a little more bearable as well, knowing that it would only be five months until I could eat a fresh tomato again.
Many areas do not have this luxury. For example, my sister lives in Michigan and often their first snow is in October. With these tips, you will definitely have a more productive garden and hopefully, one that lasts longer than previous years!