Mark Anderson, owner, Anderson’s Seed and Garden

In the last few years, gardeners across the country have recognized the value and sense of growing a vegetable garden. Vegetables and herbs have made a huge comeback in the gardening industry after years of dominance by landscaping and flower gardening. During the early 2000s, so many new, amazing, different flower species arrived on the market that many gardeners drifted away from the work of an intensive vegetable garden (not as colorful or as fun as flowers), and veggie gardens shrunk or disappeared altogether as vegetables were abundant and inexpensive.

The garden scene has changed as prices of produce have more than doubled and the demand for local produce and home-grown quality has boomed. It’s now “cool” to grow vegetables again.

As much fun as it is to grow a vegetable garden (it can be serious fun to pick a sweet pepper or pull fresh carrots from the garden and eat them on the back porch!), there is an end goal in mind — the harvest. Not all of us have a large garden spot that can sustain a large family and produce excess food to keep all the neighbors content as well. The size of your garden isn’t so much the issue, as how to get the most out of what you have.

The following are my best suggestions to get the most out of your garden without spending the whole summer working to harvest a few potatoes, a handful of cherry tomatoes, and pumpkins for the kids to carve.

First, maximize your space.

If space is an issue, don’t grow behemoth pumpkin plants that need a 20-foot diameter circle, cauliflower that take up 10 square feet, but only yield one flower, or potatoes that you can buy 50-pounds of for $15 in October. Plant vegetables that produce the most for the space that they take, especially quick growing crops like spinach and kale, or fruiting vines that need little soil, and can grow vertically like beans, cucumbers, and tomatoes. Early, cold crops like lettuce, kohlrabi, and radishes are usually done by June, and can easily be replaced mid-summer with short-season heavy producers like summer squashes or bush beans. Some crops, like beets or turnips, can be used as greens, as well as allowing them to mature into tasty roots. Be mindful of how much space you have, the needs of your plants, and “recycle, re-use, and re-purpose” that soil from snow melt in the spring to first snow in the fall.

Second, maximize your time.

Some gardeners avoid vegetables because they take more care, more weeding, and more time than dropping some annual flowers in the empty flowerbeds and letting them take over for the summer. If you plan right, vegetables will reward you way more harvest than work required. Gardening is so much easier than it used to be. Timers and soaker hoses or drip systems remove a lot of the daily burdens of water control. My 5,000-square-foot garden takes me five minutes a day to unhook the quick connector couplings, move the water hose to the next set of soakers, snap the connectors back on, and make sure the timer is set. I weed multiple times a week in the mornings or evenings when it’s cool and comfortable, leaving my phone and other distractions somewhere else, and enjoy the quiet time outside. I spend just long enough to get a row or two weeded, but it never becomes a burden — it’s time to relax and unwind. I use a lot of weed barrier fabric or mulches to cover space between plants and rows, so there’s less weeding and watering needed. Once planted, it takes one person, 15-30 minutes a day, to maintain a 5,000-square-foot garden. I know. I’ve done it many years.

Third, maximize your production by giving your plants what they need.

Improve your soil each year. Make sure your garden gets at least 12-16 hours of sunlight each day. Fertilize your plants with the nutrients they need to reach their full potential. Protect your plants from diseases and insects that will damage or limit your harvest. Many times, these important steps get forgotten in the process, we just expect vegetable plants to produce year after year with no regard for their specific needs. I amend our garden soil each fall with organic matter, humate, and zeolite to build up and enrich the soil, to add vital micronutrients and beneficial organisms, and to break down and decrease the clay content. You lose soil every year to erosion and other factors; it has to be built back up each year to compensate for that loss. I fertilize each spring, and multiple times during the growing season with a variety of nutrients and fertilizers that are specific to vegetables and fruits. They need food. Continuous gardening depletes your soil of essential nutrients for your plants, and it must be replenished annually. As for bugs and diseases, there are so many new ways to combat these pests that are safe, effective, and inexpensive. Two of my personal favorites are a natural insect repellent that keeps the bugs away from the veggies so I don’t have to spray insecticides, and a new biological disease control that naturally kills fungal, bacterial, and viral diseases in the soil and on the plants. In the last two years, I have sprayed for insects two times (grasshopper season) and the repellent took care of the rest. Without pests, and with the right environment, your garden will produce more with less work.

Maximizing your resources and time will pay dividends throughout the season. With a little planning, some timely soil prep, and a renewed effort on your part, you can produce a consistent garden harvest truly beautiful to behold. While you are at it, you can reduce stress, lower your blood pressure, improve your health, and just make yourself happier.