Veggie Gardening the Smart Way

By George Graine, Fairfax Master Gardener
Life already has so many boundaries and pressures — why add more in the garden.
—Felder Rushing
Smart Garden Planner Book CoverIf you are prone to steer clear of vegetable gardening, there is a helpful solution available in a self-published book this year by Megan Cain, The Smart Garden Planner. Unabashedly, she rightfully claims that “your garden dreams can come true…you just have to plan for them.” Smart Start Garden Planner: Your Step-by-Step Guide to a Successful Season will show you the way. Some vegetable books tend to scare folks because they make it sound so difficult with all of those rules and do’s and don’ts. It does not have to be that way and with Cain’s guidance she will remedy your concerns. Reading her book should make you feel confident about your garden and at the same time be able to skip over some common beginner mistakes. Her book is in large type with beautiful colorful photos and helpful charts, all designed to take away any fear you may have had about planting your own vegetable garden.

The author defines a smart garden as “…a beautiful garden that yields lots of food for the least amount of time and money invested.” By way of contrast, The $64 Tomato, a book by William Alexander noted how one man nearly lost his sanity, spent a fortune, and endured an existential crisis in the quest for the perfect garden. Actually the Alexander book is full of guffaws and at the same time provides some gardening insight. It is a great read! Cain’s book teaches you how to go about creating a smart garden by you as the gardener and be able to transform yourself into a smart gardener. That is what her book is all about.

Think of gardening as a process and how much effort you are willing to devote to making your gardening dream become a reality. In this regard, throughout the book the author has scripted diary-like questions that will help to organize your thoughts. These she refers to as garden reflections. After that exercise, you need to consider your own vegetable wish list for this year. To a large extent, you should bone up on the growing characteristics of whatever vegetable or herb you want to plant. This includes many of the environmental considerations such as sun, shade, soil type, spacing, etc. regardless of what you plant. Some of the unique aspects of vegetable gardening include the season for planting and harvest value. (Do you want a reputation as the neighborhood zucchini person?)

You should also consider a vegetable garden in terms of nutrient value and as an investment of time and money. No doubt, each gardener will have a different set of priorities. Putting this another way, when it comes to vegetable gardening, and in fact any type of gardening, no one size fits all as they say on some garments these days. Put more simply, gardening is personal. You want to know in advance how much food can be potentially harvested from each plant. For one carrot seed you can expect a single carrot. Surely this does not apply to a single tomato seed or the aforementioned zucchini. The choice between seeds or transplants is provided with a reasonably thorough explanation and rationale for each planting method.

This is a decision that you have to make as a number of factors are involved. The charts mentioned earlier can be your personal map for a successful vegetable gardening endeavor. Furthermore, all of the charts have an abundance of easy-to-understand explanations. Extracted from Cain’s book are the chart headings below. In most instances you have space to fill in your own information like a workbook.
• Garden reflections (from the past)
• Garden vision for this year
• What do I want to grow
• Vegetable, herb and flower lists
• Seed and plant shopping list
• Plant to start at home
• Plant to buy
• Spring planting guide
• Vegetable spacing guide
• Veggie and herb essentials cheat sheet
All four seasons are covered in the book with an emphasis on spring because you can get ahead of yourself and Jack Frost could ruin your day. Careful reading about spring planting will save you from making early garden mistakes. Summer planting is sort of a no-brainer because the danger of frost is over, the soil is warm and many plants thrive in the heat (given adequate irrigation or rain). Now we come to the fall period. Many plants grown in the summer need to go through a long growing period. Some even produce into the fall season. Think tomato, winter squash and Brussels sprouts just to name a few. Winter is so unpredictable; however, it is possible to harvest some hardy vegetables where temperatures are down into the teens and twenties. In this regard, the essentials cheat sheet is invaluable.

By now you should realize that the author places great emphasis on keeping good and simple records. Doing so will help you to recall next year what worked well, not so good and even changes you desire to consider based on what you learned the previous year. By knowing what you did the year before should make you an even better gardener the following year. This process is important because the final result will ideally result in the bounty you expected from your labor. By the way, Cain does mention flowers in the garden. Why not? There is no rule prohibiting this practice. Conversely, some vegetables (not runners like watermelon) can be planted in the flower garden. One good reason is to think pollinators.