SACRAMENTO, Calif. - Mel Bartholomew has watched many new gardeners tread down the same row to failure. Their common mistake? They plant too much.
“It’s so easy to put more and more in,” says the father of square-foot gardening. “You get carried away. But stop and think of the harvest. Are you really going to eat all those radishes?”
Growing our own groceries can be fun and money-saving. And a little planning can keep excess vegetables from causing headaches for the cook and the neighbors.
“That’s what inspired me,” says Bartholomew, who expanded on his garden-to-table concept in the recently released “The All New Square Foot Gardening Cookbook” (Cool Springs Press, $19.99, 271 pages).
“When I first started gardening, I thought there was something wrong with the traditional system of rows. I’d watch people in our community garden plant 20 feet of cabbage because that was the length of a row — that’s 20 cabbages,” he adds.
“I’d quietly ask them, ‘How many heads of cabbage did you buy at the supermarket last month?’ All those cabbages are going to be ready at once. That’s enough to feed three taverns on St. Patrick’s Day.”
Instead, plan your vegetable garden from the dinner table backward. That’s the secret to more rewarding and economical “grocery gardening,” say the experts. Start with what your family will actually eat, then plant accordingly (adding a few plants for the bugs).
Many inexperienced gardeners try to balance enthusiasm with appetite as interest in vegetable gardening continues to boom. According to the National Gardening Association, 2009 saw a 19 percent jump — 7 million more families — in the number of Americans who grow their own vegetables. An increase of 10 percent is expected this year.
“We’re off to a great start to spring,” says Joe McFarland, Home Depot’s western division president. “We’ve seen incredible interest in planting and growing vegetables and fruit.”
And why not? Growing your own veggies can save money. Food safety is in the gardener’s own hands. Transportation is not an issue. Gardening is good exercise and a family activity.
Plus, fresh-picked just tastes better.
“A few years ago, we used to stock a few tomato plants,” McFarland says. “Now we carry an incredible selection with over 150 different varieties of vegetables. ... We’ve doubled or tripled the space for live vegetables and herbs in some stores and greatly expanded the selection of packaged seed.”
As for saving money, McFarland says, “The average consumer, for every $100 invested in buying plants and supplies such as fertilizer, can expect to save $600 at the grocery store. It’s significant.”
Robin Ripley, co-author of “Grocery Gardening: Planting, Preparing and Preserving Fresh Food” (Cool Springs Press, $19.95, 256 pages), knows that too much of a good thing can be a garden turnoff.
Ripley, national gardening columnist for examiner.com, lives on a 20-acre Maryland homestead with a 1-acre vegetable and flower garden.
“I grow food I love to cook,” she says. “But I don’t grow large quantities. I used to, but I never had time to preserve it. I had my epiphany one summer when I had a huge harvest of cucumbers. My kitchen was full of cucumbers, and late Sunday night I decided to make pickles, even though I had an 8 a.m. flight for work the next morning. I was up all night.
“Now, I’ll only grow what we’ll eat.”
Her advice for newbies: Start small. “Most people don’t start small, but you’ll have much better success,” she says.
Start with a 4-by-4-foot bed close to the house — in view of the kitchen, if possible — and try to make it look like a garden, not a miniature farm.
“A vegetable garden can be very pretty with some flowers and ornamental plants,” Ripley says. “If you think you want to garden, but you’re not sure, just take a flower bed and squeeze in a few herbs. Make a border out of lettuce. Put cucumbers on a trellis.”
But will the kids eat what you grow? Before planting, play show and tell. Take your children (and spouse) to the grocery store’s produce department. Show them, for example, a rutabaga; have them tell you if they’d eat it.
Then plan accordingly. If everyone in your family hates squash, don’t plant it. But if they can’t get enough greens, stagger plantings to keep a steady supply.
“I really like cut-and-come-again vegetables,” Ripley says. “For example, Swiss chard you can cut off just the leaves you need, and it keeps growing. And it’s very pretty in the garden.”
Start with staples: green onions, carrots, herbs. They can be grown even with little space. Put them in containers or along borders.
Get out a calendar and a calculator. For example: Leaf lettuce takes 45 to 50 days to mature from seed and about a week to sprout. Seed planted today (depending on the weather) will be ready to harvest by Memorial Day.
But that seed packet contains up to 100 seeds. You won’t eat all that lettuce unless you’re planning a really big Memorial Day barbecue. Instead, plant four seedlings — or eight seeds, in case some don’t sprout — then four more next weekend and four more the week after that.
“Do the math,” says Bartholomew. “Use multiples of one, four, nine and 16; that’s how many plants (depending on variety) fit per square foot. Then, space them out.”
Like gardening in general, a lot of trial and error goes into this planning. Eventually you’ll develop a personal planting guide with a flow chart from seed to table.