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Start Growing Perennials in Your Backyard Garden

Perennial plants are a great addition to your backyard garden. They require little maintenance and come back for several years without needing to be replanted. They are often cold hardy and more drought tolerant as well.

raspberry bush

We have been living in our current house for three years now. It is a beautiful property with a lot of unused land that we have slowly reclaimed a little each year. We are renting this property while we work toward our forever homestead. Unfortunately when you are renting you have a very temporary mindset. We didn’t know if we would be here for one year or five when we moved in. For some reason, we thought it was more likely to be one.

planting strawberries

Because of our temporary mindset, we didn’t make an effort to plant any perennials the first summer here. The second summer I put in a few things and even more the third. Had I followed my intuition the first year we would be eating asparagus and lots of raspberries right from the land we are living on. Thankfully the strawberries I planted a couple of years ago are going gang-busters. I can’t wait to eat them on pancakes this summer!

What are perennials?

There are three types of plants, annual, biannual and perennial. Annuals are plants that need to be planted every year. Plants like tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers and most garden vegetables are annuals. Biannual plants have a two-year cycle. Carrots and onions are both biannual. Perennials are so great because you plant them once and then reap the benefits year after year. They rarely need to be replanted because they either spread or reseed themselves. Peppermint, asparagus, and strawberries are all perennials.

Benefits of planting perennials

strawberry flowers

They don’t need replanted year after year

Unlike annuals, which need to be planted each year, perennials will come back at least three years before they need to be replanted. Many perennials will last much longer than that. I have heard that a healthy asparagus crown can produce for 20 years. The longevity of their life cycle reduces the amount of work you have to invest to see a good harvest.

Perennials are generally hardy plants

Many perennial plants can survive through the cold of winter. We have the most beautiful sage bushes in our garden. They amaze me the way the come back bigger and better every year. It is important to know your USDA cold hardiness zones so that you buy plants that can survive your growing conditions. See the map below to find out your hardiness zone.

While sage, strawberries, and chives thrive here in Idaho rosemary and thyme just can’t survive the winter. I am always amazed when I see the gigantic blueberry bushes from the south, another plant that doesn’t do very well here. So make sure to grow what is appropriate for your region.

rhubarb harvest

They multiply without intervention

While the life cycle of a perennial plant can sometimes be a short as three years, they rarely need to be replanted because they multiply through their root system or by reseeding themselves. I get so excited every spring when my chives come back bigger and better than ever. I started with a very small plant and now have several large bunches. I recently harvested a pound of the flowers to put in the dehydrator, and that was not even a quarter of what was on the plants!

chive flowers

Perennials require minimal care to produce a harvest

Perennial plants have a more established root system than an annual plant. Over time they continue to spread their roots and adapt to their environment, often translating into less watering without a loss in yield from the plant. Their deep root system means that they are able to access nutrients further down in the soil than annuals can.

Raspberries are a perennial plant that thrive in our area. You plant one bush, and pretty soon you have a whole patch. They don’t need large amounts of water to bear fruit and only need some pruning in the fall to continue to produce and spread.

picking raspberries

They bear fruit earlier than annuals

Most annuals can’t be planted until the danger of frost has passed while perennials will often leaf out and begin growing before the last few touches of frost. They seem to handle cooler temperatures which mean that you will be able to harvest them earlier than the annuals you plant. It is so refreshing when my chives and strawberries begin to grow after a long cold winter.

choke cherries

Whether you have an established garden or are just getting started on your property, make sure that perennials are a major part of your plan. Include fruit trees, herbs and fruit-bearing bushes in your planning. The sooner you get them in the ground, the sooner you will be enjoying the fruits of your labor!

Your Turn!

  • What perennials do your have growing in your garden?
  • Which perennials do you hope to add to your garden?

Fall Gardening: Planning for a Longer Growing Season

No matter how early I start or how big my garden is I always want my growing season to last longer! With a little planning, you can extend your growing season by planting cold-hardy plants that will be ready to harvest as the first frosts are beginning. While frost kills tender summer veggies, it will sweeten many of the autumn root crops and will prepare them for long-term storage.

brassicas

The timing of your fall garden will be determined by what region you live in and if you have light or hard frosts in early fall. Here in the northern states where the growing seasons are short, and our first frosts are hard, many of our fall vegetables are planted at the same time as our spring and summer crops. The latest I can plant fast-growing, cold-hardy greens is early July. However, If you live in the south, it may be hard to grow through the heat of the summer. You will most likely plant your fall garden in September for a harvest in December and January.

When do I plant?

There are two important dates you need to figure out – the first day of frost and your planting date. Asking neighboring gardeners or local nurseries is the best way to pinpoint what is typical for your area. There are also some great frost calculators on the internet. The ones I checked were very close to the dates we use for our garden.

The date you plant into your garden will vary based on the plants and their rate of maturation (how fast they mature). You will count backward from your first day of frost to calculate when your fall garden needs to be started. If your vegetables need 75 days to maturation, then plant at least 75 days before your first frost.

Do I plant directly into the ground?

Many of the plants you will be growing in your fall garden will not tolerate the heat of the summer so they need to be started indoors, just like you would start seedings during winter for your spring garden. Brassicas (the cabbage family – broccoli, cabbage, kale…) all take a while to mature so you would start them indoors and then plant into the garden when they are 4-6 weeks old.

fall garden

Tender leafy greens can be sown directly into the garden. One way to make sure they don’t bolt before you have a chance to enjoy them is to plant them under the shade of your summer plants. I was able to extend my peas last year by planting them under sunflowers. It worked great and looked beautiful.

What if my summer garden isn’t finished when it is time to plant?

You do not need to completely clean out your garden before you can begin planting your fall garden. Planting fall crops as you harvest and pull out summer veggies is a great way to keep your garden growing. When your tender seedlings are ready for the garden, they will thank you for planting them in the partial shade of your summer veggies. Not sure what to grow? This is how I prioritize and plan my space.

Here is a list of popular fall garden plants:Fall gardening

  • peas
  • brussel sprouts
  • broccoli
  • cauliflower
  • kale
  • collards
  • cabbage
  • kohlrabi
  • lettuce
  • arugula
  • spinach
  • cilantro
  • parsley
  • carrots
  • parsnips
  • rutabaga
  • turnips
  • potatoes

Your Turn!

  • What are your favorite fall garden vegetables?
  • What are you going to grow in your fall garden this year?

Choose the Right Vegetables for Your Garden in 5 Easy Steps

Whether you are a beginner or advanced gardener this step by step guide will help you grow a well-rounded vegetable garden. Your family will love the variety and you can feel confident that you picked the best vegetables for your garden.

As I write this there is about two feet of snow on the ground and we are hibernating by the fire. We have had night time temps below zero and day time temps below freezing. It would seem that gardening would be the farthest thing from my mind. In reality, it is the best time to start planning the garden and getting prepared for growing season.

Gather ideas

I start by making a dream list of all of the yummy things I want to grow. Don’t get ahead of yourself and be logical at this point, just jot down all of your ideas. It is very easy to get bogged down in the details of timing, spacing, and companions and not get things planned. Don’t worry, the list will narrow down as we continue to plan.

Prioritize

Now, mark the items on your list that are non-negotiable. These are foods that your family loves to eat. You don’t want to get swept away by all of the colors and rare foods in the seed catalogs and end up with a harvest your family doesn’t enjoy.

A couple years ago we planted blue potatoes – a whole row of blue potatoes. We didn’t try eating them first; we just planted. They grew really well but we struggled to eat them and ended up wasting a bunch. We have blue volunteer potato plants that come back every year, all on their own. It is the gift that keeps giving.

Homegrown potatoes

Now that you have marked your favorites, go back through your list and mark the foods that you could save a lot of money on, by growing yourself. Cucumbers are a great example. They often cost $2 for a single organic cucumber. A typical cucumber plant will produce approximately 5 pounds of cucumbers.

Narrow down the list

It is time to pull out the seed catalogs. We will look up each item that you have marked. Maybe tomatoes are something you eat a lot of and you want to can some as well. Start by looking at the days to maturation – how long it takes for the plant to grow, fruit and the fruit to ripen.

Our growing season is typically 90 days but that can include a freeze or two near the beginning or the end of the season. I try to only grow 55-75 day vegetables. That gives me enough time to harvest more than just the first fruit.

Our short growing season makes tomatoes very hard to grow, especially if I want something substantial enough to can. So I will weigh that information against the space I have in my garden. Is the space that tomatoes would occupy worth the risk of having a non-productive crop?

green beans, yellow wax beans

Green beans, on the other hand, thrive here and will produce enough for us to enjoy through the summer and freeze for eating in the winter. Until I have a greenhouse they will get higher priority than tomatoes.

But not too narrow

If you are new to gardening don’t put all of your eggs in one basket. It is so easy to get dreamy when you are planning your garden. You start thinking about canning and dehydrating and all of the money you will save. Your priority for the first couple years should be to keep your plants alive and enjoy some fresh veggies during the summer. Which is easier than you think when you set yourself up for success. As you become a more seasoned gardener you can expand your garden and plan for a big enough crop to preserve.

Our garden two years ago overflowed with cucumbers. We literally carried in bucket after bucket. However, last year we grew about three. It was a very cool summer and we just couldn’t get the plants to come up. It is so important to have enough diversity that you are not banking on one crop. Not to mention that it is easier to keep disease and pests at bay with lots of diversity.

cucumbers

Fill in the missing pieces

Use your list to choose at least one variety for each type of vegetable (as garden space permits). Don’t be limited by my suggestions. Choose what your family will enjoy eating!

sage herb

  • Leafy greens – Spinach and butter lettuce are favorites at our house.
  • Root veggies – We love how potatoes and carrots are so versatile and delicious.
  • Salad veggies – Cucumbers and sweet peas are so refreshing in the heat of summer. It is easy to find us munching these down while in the garden.
  • Stir fry veggies – Green beans, summer squash, and broccoli are the staples of our summer menu and can be frozen for winter meals as well.
  • Winter storage – Butternut squash and sweet potatoes are filling, add a lot of variety, and store long into the winter.
  • Herbs – Basil and sage are very prolific and add a punch to your meals.
  • Now choose one experimental, just-for-the-fun-of-it plant. Every garden needs a wild card!

By methodically working through your list, you will have a great variety of vegetables that will ripen during your growing season.

Your Turn!

  • What is your favorite vegetable to eat straight out of the garden?
  • Have you grown a vegetable your family didn’t want to eat?

Vegetable Gardening: When to Plant and Plant Spacing

Does plant spacing matter in the vegetable garden? What about the timing? It sure does! Vegetable plants are kind of like athletes. Given the proper nutrition and care, they will do amazing things. I will forever be amazed at how I can plant a tiny seed and bring in pounds of food in exchange for a little time and care.

I am a learn-from-experience kind of girl. I don’t hesitate to try new things. When I saw the big expanse of my garden addition last year, I couldn’t help but get carried away with all of the possibilities.

sunflower garden

I planted sunflower seeds between every row of veggies. The sunflowers grew big and tall and produced so many lovely seeds. Do you know what didn’t grow? The vegetables underneath. They were crowded by the sunflowers and didn’t get enough sun.

Thankfully that was just my experimental plot. My main veggie garden did great. The garden where plants were carefully spaced and planted during their ideal time to grow. It did so well that we are still eating vegetables from that garden.

When to plant

Timing can make or break your garden. Allowing plants to grow at their ideal time in your growing season means the more they will produce. Some flourish with cooler temps while others will not even poke their heads out of the soil unless it is good and warm.

garden sweet peas

Last year we planted a big row of peas that we expected to enjoy during the early part of the summer. Peas love lots of cool sunshine but usually die as soon as it gets hot. We ended up having a cool summer last year and had peas for the whole garden season.

On the other hand, tomatoes love the heat. While our tomatoes did grow and produce fruit, we had to ripen them in the house. It just didn’t warm up enough to ripen the tomatoes before frost set in. Choosing the right vegetables can be a critical part of the success of your garden as well.

Information on when to plant can be found on the back of your seed packet. Knowing your last date of frost is critical information that will help you calculate when to plant. If you don’t know your last day of frost then contact your local county extension office or talk to local gardeners in your area.

Using the info on the seed packet, divide your seeds into two groups. One group is seeds that need to be planted indoors, and the second is seeds that can be sewn (planted) directly into the ground. Broccoli, for example, is usually started indoors 8-12 weeks before planting into your garden. Lettuce is planted directly into the garden right around your last frost date.

Spacing

radish seedlingsPlants have a personal space bubble just like you and me. If you plant the same kind of plant in that bubble they tend to get stressed out and produce less. Plants need room to spread their roots and get the nutrients they need without competition from similar plants.

That bubble varies greatly. Plants, like green beans and peas, depend on their neighbors for support. They will not do well unless they can lean on each other. Cabbages will produce nice big heads if their roots can really spread out. So follow the spacing on the seed packet.

Companion planting is one way that you can fit more than one plant into that bubble. Companions use different nutrients from the soil or grow at different rates so that they don’t interfere with each other. I love growing nasturtiums and marigolds between my broccoli plants. I have also had success growing leeks with spinach and radishes with carrots.

spinach and leeks

Planting into the garden

This is the fun part where you see your patch of dirt become a garden. Now that you know when to plant them and how much space they all need you can get your hands in the dirt and make it happen.

I like to use fish emulsion when I plant my seedlings into the ground. It gives them a big nutrient boost and helps protect against transplant shock.

Succession planting is also something to consider. That is where you plant your row or garden bed one section at a time at specific time intervals.

Lettuce is a great plant for succession planting. You likely won’t eat 24 heads of lettuce in one week so planting a whole row is not ideal. You will end up with more lettuce than you can eat at one time and no lettuce to eat a few weeks later. Planting six lettuce plants each week for four weeks will give you a continual harvest through the summer.

Green beans are another great option. Plant them every two weeks instead of every week. The number of plantings you can fit into your growing season depends on how long your growing season lasts. My growing season is quite short, so I can fit in two green bean plantings.

It may be tempting to pack as many plants as you can into your vegetable garden or throw in those tomato plants you found on clearance in July. There really is nothing wrong with that if you have room to experiment. However, if you want a big harvest then giving your plants just what they want is well worth the time and planning to help them thrive.

Your Turn!

  • Are you a play-by-the-rules gardener or do you push the limits and experiment?
  • Which vegetables are you excited about growing?

How to Set Up a Garden You Can Actually Keep Up.

Gardening feeds more than my body it feeds my soul and connects me to my food and the earth. I love being in my yard and feeling of the cool soil between my fingers. But something you don’t know about me is that I have a chronic pain condition that makes hard labor difficult. How do I keep up with a 1200 square foot garden?

Better to start small than too big

green bean seedlings

Learning to garden is a process that most gardeners will tell you never ends. There is no rush to grow everything now. Start small and add to your successes each year. I have heard countless stories of people who started with half an acre and burned out before they reached the harvest.

 

Don’t fight if you don’t have to

Raised beds can be helpful when you are battling invasive grasses and weeds or if bending down to work on a traditional row garden is painful. A couple of years ago the soil in my garden needed some amendments but I didn’t have it in the budget to bring in compost for the full 1200 square feet. We chose instead, to amend just the rows. Be creative, don’t fight if you don’t have to.

Weed Control

deep mulch garden

Traditionally, the growing season was spent hoeing and raking between the rows in the garden to keep the weeds at bay. Over the last 40 years, there has been a shift in our thinking as we have come to realize weeds are the Earth’s method of protecting the living micro-organisms in the soil. Those little “bugs” feed the soil and ultimately your plants.

Bare earth is not necessary for a thriving garden. Mulch, cover crops, and companion planting are all strategies you can employ to guard those healthy micro-organisms and hold the weeds at bay. I have a deep mulch garden and spend very little time weeding.

Irrigation

watering gardenWatering cans make for pretty pictures and flower pots but are entirely ineffective at keeping a backyard garden watered. Growing a successful garden relies on consistent water. The first few weeks with my current garden I was trying to water with a hose. It took nearly two hours a day. I knew I wouldn’t be able to keep that up, especially when the heat of summer kicked in.

We set up drip hoses that could all be turned on at once. I attribute much of my success in the garden to our drip system. There are lots of ways to successfully water your garden. Make sure that whatever you choose is easy to keep up with so that your hard work is not lost on a busy, hot summer day.

Preemptive pest control

Some plants are more susceptible to pests than others. Cabbages, broccoli, and cauliflower are some of the worst. They seem to send out signals calling the cabbage moths and aphids to come feast. Placing row covers over these plants when you plant them into the garden prevents pests from laying eggs on them. Fighting pests can be a full-time job, save yourself a headache and keep them out from the beginning.

The easiest way to keep up with your garden is to set yourself up for success before anything is planted. Be creative, don’t fight if you don’t have to, keep it small and then build on your successes. Gardening doesn’t have to be a full-time job.

Your Turn!

  • What makes your garden easy to care for?
  • What intimidates you most when you think about gardening?
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