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Building A Backyard Food Factory

By Greg Seaman

Our backyard food factory.” That’s how our family refers to our small backyard vegetable garden. From just 500 square feet (a 20- by 25-foot patch), we enjoy a wealth of fresh vegetables for up to eight months of the year. Working in the garden is also a shared experience for the family, and instills in children an understanding of the natural cycles of growth, providing lessons of lifelong value. Consider the benefits of growing your own vegetables at home:

  • It lowers the cost of providing your family with healthy, organic vegetables.

  • It reduces the environmental impact of transporting and warehousing food.

  • It makes your meals more personal and interesting.

  • It connects your family to the natural cycles of weather, growth and renewal.

  • It provides wholesome activity and lasting memories for your children.

What to Plant (When Space Is Tight)

Although you will have your own ideas and preferences about what vegetables to grow, this list is developed for people with limited space for a backyard vegetable garden, with a focus on crops that are easy to grow and expensive to buy from the store.

Peas (edible pod). Peas are one of the first crops to plant in spring, and with a short season of 50 to 60 days, one of the first to harvest. Peas need well-drained soil, and do well in raised beds and large planters. A medium-height trellis (3 to 4 feet tall) should be provided for the peas to climb. Peas are commonly sown directly into the ground from seeds, and they should be sown thickly. However, they can also be sprouted indoors, which can ensure success in damp conditions. (Tip: When sprouting indoors, prepare a shallow dish with water which has a tablet of vitamin C dissolved into it. Set the seeds to sprout in this solution. This will increase the size of the plants and the peas.) Stagger the planting time every two weeks to extend the harvest. Peas also contribute to the health of the soil by fixing nitrogen.

Lettuce. Many varieties of lettuce are available. Large, headforming lettuces like iceberg and butterhead can be planted single file in rows, which makes mulching easy. Smaller, leafy varieties can be thickly planted in swaths 24 inches wide for a “self-mulching” effect. Ideally, grow several varieties of each type. Small lettuce transplants can also be interspersed throughout the garden wherever there is room.

A common problem with lettuce is “bolting.” Bolting occurs when the plant goes to seed and the leaves stop growing. Bolting is caused by temperatures that are consistently too high. To prevent bolting, plant lettuce in a shaded area, or plant next to a shading crop, such as tomatoes.

Broccoli. This member of the Brassica family is highly valued because of its nutritional value, long period of productivity, and because it’s so expensive to buy. Broccoli can be over-wintered, providing new shoots with small clusters of broccoli, which are much appreciated through the winter. Sow brassicas from seed directly into the ground or in small starter pots. Starter pots are recommended because the seedlings are easier to protect from birds and slugs, and they can be moved indoors in inclement conditions until they are strong enough to transplant. Brassica crops should be grown on different beds (rotated) each year.

Tomatoes. There are many varieties to choose from for cherry, table and paste tomatoes. These plants will need tall stakes, which should be set when the plants are transplanted. Some people prefer to use wire cages. In either case, the plants will need to be tied to the stakes as they grow, which takes a little time. Tomatoes do best when their leaves are kept dry. A simple shelter can be constructed for clear plastic sheeting to cover the plants; the sides can be left open. A layer of mulch will prevent rain splash from wetting the lower leaves, and will help retain moisture in the upper soil. While the transplants are growing in pots, till some green grass clippings into the soil where the tomatoes will be planted. This will warm the soil and give the young seedlings a boost when transplanted.

Garlic. Where winter is mild, garlic is usually planted in the fall, before the frost. Garlic can also be planted in early spring. Separate and plant cloves base down, 2 inches deep. To harvest, lift bulbs out when leaves die, after the plant blooms. Save several heads for next season’s crop. You’ll only have to buy garlic once for the initial planting, so buy quality certified disease-free bulbs from a seed catalog.

Peppers. Easy to grow, peppers are commonly started early in small pots and transplanted when it’s warm enough outside. Pick off any small peppers that form on transplants, or the plant growth will be stunted. Pick green peppers as soon as they reach size; this will stimulate new fruiting and increase the yield per plant. You can leave one or two plants unpicked if you want the peppers to sweeten and turn red or yellow. However, these plants will produce fewer peppers.

Onions and leeks. Slow to mature, taking 3 to 5 months, onions and leeks need moist soil with good drainage. Purchase onion “sets,” or small bulbs, which will shorten the time to maturity by 4 to 6 weeks. Plant onions early in the season and sow thickly. The secret to large bulbs is to provide warmth early; this can be done by covering the shoots with a row cover or cloche, and tilling some green grass clippings into the soil before planting. Harvest when the onion tops turn yellow and wither.

Swiss chard. Easy to grow, with few pest problems and a long productive season, Swiss chard lends itself to many recipes or salads because it’s equally good cooked or raw. Chard can be grown from transplants or sown directly into the garden beds. To discourage leaf-miners, do not plant chard near spinach or beets. Row covers can also be used to protect chard from leaf-miners.

Squash (summer and winter). Zucchini and yellow squash are compact, easy-to-grow plants which provide great summer vegetables. Winter varieties need more room to grow but are highly valued winter vegetables. Plant squash individually in small hills. For winter squash, allow plenty of room for their long vines and large leaves to crawl along the ground. If ground space is limited, squash can be grown vertically on a sturdy trellis. Each squash will need to be tied to the trellis by its stem to support its weight as it grows. To protect seedlings from squash bugs, start the seeds indoors in small pots.

Beans. While there are many varieties of beans, they can be generally classified into bush beans or pole beans. Bush beans grow to about knee height and can be planted in front of taller plants, like tomatoes. Pole beans grow tall, and require support in the form of tall poles or a trellis. Pole beans should be grown in the back of the garden so they don’t shade other plants. Beans should be sown directly into the ground from seeds, as they do not take well to transplanting from smaller pots. Stagger the planting times to extend the harvest.


Barrier for braccoli

Cabbage moth larva kill young sprouts of the Brassica family (broccoli, cabbage, brussel sprouts, kale, cauliflower). A simple defense against them can be made from scraps of waxed cardboard from milk cartons, or a scrap of roofing felt.

Cut into 2-inch squares and slit one side into the center; make another small slit crossways. As soon as the sprout appears, slide the square so the seedling stem is in the center. This will prevent moths from laying eggs at the base of the sprouts. Leave the square in place. As the plant grows, it will push the slit open wider.