Gardening for Food

Food Production

Self-sufficiency and food production seem to go hand in hand. It can be a daunting task and potential recipe for failure for a beginning or even a seasoned gardener. There is a current boom in gardening in the United States. This is good, however, the glossy pictures in seed catalogs and gardening magazines often have little to do with food production. The first thing to realize is there are two types of food to grow in your garden, the kind you eat now and the kind you store for use after the gardening season is over. The average growing season in the U.S. is six months. Roughly speaking this means you need to grow half to eat now and half to save for later. Often what happens is that people end up with a bumper crop of produce in mid-summer that they end up giving away because it’s not the storing kind or they don’t know how to store it. Then come winter they are back in the grocery store.

Steps to successful food production:

VegetableEx: green beans
Times Eaten Per Week – Fall/Winter
(x 26)
2 (52)
Times Eaten Per Week – Spring/Summer
(x 26)
1 (26)
Total Times Eaten Per Year78
Number of Plants Needed36-78

1.       What do you eat?

This seems like a simplistic question until you recall all those people who plant radishes who wouldn’t dream of eating one. Fill out the following chart for yourself. Ideally this should be done by keeping a list in the kitchen and putting hatch marks next to the item every time you eat it. But let’s be realistic, you want to garden now. Just be aware this list will be fine-tuned over a number of years.

You will of course noticed that the conversion from how often you eat the vegetable and how many you should plant isn’t obvious. It depends on a number of things: how big your family is, how fertile your soil is, how good a gardener you are, and the productivity of the plant. But this simple example still shows that those glossy magazine pics mentioned above showing six green bean plants in a pretty little garden will, at most, give you 12 meals. So do the math.

2.       What should you plant?

After making a list of what you actually eat, decide which of these are the “eat now” kind and which the “store for later kind.”

Eat now Kind (Example: Lettuce, zucchini) The strategy for growing these kinds of vegetables is staggered planting. Unless you plan on eating 25 heads of lettuce in one week, don’t plant that many. Figure a head of lettuce per day and pad for losses due to poor germination, pests, and weather…..plant 10 lettuce seeds per week.

Store for later Kind (Example: Potatoes, onions) Ideally these type of vegetables are planted and later harvested all at the same time. Then they are stored or processed. It means the work to grow these is concentrated at the beginning and the end of their season. Staggering their harvest times can save you work and stress!

3.       Timing-Days to Maturity

Beginning gardeners are often under the impression that one goes out into the garden on Memorial Day with one’s basket of seeds, rakes a plot, and “puts the garden in.” Then merely keeps it watered and weeded until harvest. This is only one way and not the most productive way. First, often beginning gardeners think it’s too late; they’ve missed their window of opportunity if everything isn’t in by May 30th. As mentioned above many plants should have a staggered planting schedule. If you miss the first week or two there is still plenty of time. Many plants such as carrots and spinach can be planted in late summer for a fall harvest. I often plant cucumbers in the same plot after I have planted peas and put in a second batch of beans after I harvest the garlic. Still others can be planted in the fall and overwintered for early spring harvest. We are still pulling leeks planted last year. Read your seed catalogs and packets for information on “days to maturity” as well as best germination conditions. Experiment and take notes. You will quickly develop a list of YOUR favorites and the best times to plant them based on your success.

4.        Storage-Do you have the room?

Produce can be stored for the winter in freezer or root cellar with little or no processing. Planning ahead in the first case can mean the purchase of a separate freezer. Vegetables do need to be blanched (boiled for a short period of time) then rapidly cooled, drained and bagged. After this the only challenge is keeping track of what you have on hand and what you use. A list attached to the freezer will help you use what you have and also be a valuable tool for planning quantities for next year’s garden.

Root cellaring is the oldest method of food storage. This method consists of finding or creating a location with ideal conditions for long team storage. There are two areas with different conditions necessary for storing the widest range of produce. One cool and dry for squash and onions, the other cold and moist for carrots and cabbages. Processing by drying or canning needs only a cold dark cupboard for storage while these methods take more time, effort, and equipment up front, produce stored this way can keep for months or even years with no extra energy or attention. Lots more to come on food storage in future blog posts!

~ Kat

The Humble Onion

I love onions. One of my tricks when I spent the day reading and forgot to start dinner was as soon as I heard my husband’s car in the driveway I would jump up; whack a cast iron pan on the stove, turn it on high, add olive oil and onion. By the time he stepped over the threshold he invariably said,” Something smells good!” I responded, “Just a few more minutes!” Onions save the day! Honestly, how anyone can resist their sweetness is beyond me.

Now I know onions aren’t the most expensive vegetable in the grocery store but since we eat so many of them I’d like the cleanest chemical –free ones we can get. No better way to do that than grow them yourself. You see the sets in all the hardware stores and garden centers in the spring. These are an easy alternative and one I took advantage of as a young gardener. Sets are simply onions seeds that are planted so close together literally to stunt their growth. They are then harvested, dried, and sold as sets. The next time they are planted their growth continues. But just like some plants that are root bound never fully recover, onions grown this way don’t always reach their full potential. Some just can’t break that dormancy and never grow at all. Another way to grow onions, which I have also tried; is by buying plants. These plants, usually grown in the south, are pulled up and sent through the mail. They are sent dried and as still alive are more consistently successful than sets, though are certainly stressed in the process. The lengths to which onions growers go to sell you these started plants sends the message that you can’t do it yourself. This is just not true. Growing onions from seed is easy and productive. I live in upstate NY and garden in Zone 4b/5a. I have successfully grown onions from seed for years. It does require staring seeds indoors or better yet in a cold frame. They don’t mind the chill. Packages recommend starting onion seeds in February. While this would be ideal, I have had success seeding them directly in the garden as late as May 1st, Admittedly they aren’t as big but I seek only to show you planting from seed isn’t hard or mysterious.

I follow Elliot Coleman’s suggestion of planting onions in groups of 5-6 and spacing these groups a foot apart from each other. This makes weeding between the clumps so much easier. The onions grow outward with no reduction in overall size at maturity.

When you harvest leeks and onions leave a few behind. The bulb will flower the second year. The resulting flower will rival any Allium bulb from the Dutch bulb catalogs. Tall spikes, some varieties grow to 5 feet, are topped with stunning white or steel blue spheres. These flowers have the added benefit of attracting dozens of beneficial insects. Seeds will develop from the flowers and will self-sow if left to their own devices. You can cut the flower before they drop and dry it upside down in an airy location out of direct sunlight. If picked before the seeds develop the resulting dried flower can be striking in dried arrangements. Alternately, you can collect the seed to plant next year. To do this, timing is key; you want the seeds to be as mature as possible but not yet dropping. Again, dry upside down in the same conditions as above but secure a lunch size brown paper bag with a rubber band around the flower to catch the seeds as they drop. It may not breed true if other varieties were around to cross-pollinate. The results can be a pleasant surprise and are worth a corner of the garden if you have the room. Seed saving is also an economical plan if funds are limited. Many fine old varieties would have been lost if not for some frugal gardeners.

~ Kat

Gardening may become more than a hobby this year with the challenges we are all facing due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Many of us will want to grow more of our own food. So if you have never gardened before or want to learn some new skills I will be posting basic gardening “How-tos” and suggestions to grow food at home. On your next trip to the grocery store, pick up some seeds too. Not all of them please, a little goes a long way. Also buy potatoes to plant (see the next installment for potato planting info). Roll up your sleeves and let’s get started.

NOTE: I garden in Zone 5a so keep that in mind when planning in your area. The last frost date in your zone is a date you should look up. I will refer to number of days before or after the last frost date rather than an exact date for planting as it varies so much around the country.


The easiest garden to start is one in a mason jar on your kitchen counter. You don’t even need a sunny window. I am talking about sprouts. You know those tiny vegetables that hippie restaurants put on your salads and sandwiches. The most common sprouts are alfalfa but the list by no means ends there. There are clover, radish, mung bean, and broccoli to name a few. The health benefits of sprouts have been known since ancient times. Alfalfa sprouts are high in vitamins and minerals especially vitamins C and K and iron. They also contain fiber and protein, are ridiculously low in calories, and lower your cholesterol. Not bad for a modest little jar garden!

There have been warnings of late saying that sprouts can be carriers of bacteria. This can be managed with good practices. Rinsing thoroughly and often will greatly reduce risk so you can enjoy the health benefits of sprouts without worry.

To get started you will need a quart size mason jar with a mesh lid. A circle of plastic screening attached with a rubber bands is a great lid option. Seeds can be purchased at many health food stores and seed catalogs. Johnny’s Select Seeds and Pinetree Seeds are catalogs that offer a good selection. The first step is to add seeds to the jar. I add enough so I just can’t see the bottom of the jar. That creates slightly more than a single layer of seeds. Next soak the seeds for a few hours or overnight in fresh cool water. The next day, with the lid firmly secured, drain the water from the jar. The seeds will be moist but there should not be any standing water. I tip my jar on it’s side with the bottom end slightly elevated on a sponge so any excess water continues to drip out. The seeds should be comfortably spread out not bunched up in one place. The next day fill the jar with more cool fresh water, swirl the seeds around so each one gets a good rinse then tip it over again draining all standing water. Do this every day. You will very quickly begin to see little roots and stems emerge. When the seeds are mostly all germinated, you will have some old maids just like with popcorn, and are of the desired size put them in the refrigerator to stop their growth. Now is the time to add them to soups, salads, and sandwiches for a delicious, healthy crunch. Hint: when you put one jar in the fridge it’s time to start another jar on the counter so, by the time you finished the first batch, the next one is ready!

~ Kat


What does a gardener do in late winter? The memory of blisters and sore muscles, late dinners, and hungry rabbits and deer is gone. I sit here trying to remember the intoxicating scent of moist earth, the actual joy of dirt under my fingernails. I forget the disappointments of seeds that didn’t germinate and crops that didn’t live up to their catalog superlatives. I think of the sight of the first crocus that rivals childhood Christmas mornings. Sore back? What sore back? Is it too early to start seeds?

The Christmas cactus has done its thing. The amaryllis no long thrills. Even the newly filled basket of crisp seed packets on display on the coffee table isn’t enough. Every mild breeze tricks me into thinking…..”This is it! Spring is here!” The rest I needed after a growing season extended by opening a garden business is complete. The itch to start all over again is as predictable as the sun coming up in the morning. Hey, speaking of the sun, have you noticed the days really are getting longer?

I do what I can. I prepare in tangential ways. I made little sachets ready to fill with aromatic herbs. I design a logo to mark my hand-made aprons and totes. My husband makes birdhouses for us and extra to sell. Can there be a better compliment than birds who love your garden? But the best surrogate is the garden plan. Anything is possible when gardening with pencil and paper. I love large formal herb gardens and pie-shaped beds in vast circles, then there’s the spiral that is so provocative. In the end, my husband bursts my bubble with the simple comment, “That’s a lot of edging.”

I’m no longer a young gardener. My three children are grown and have moved away. I come to the reality that if I want my gardens as big as I do, they better be easier to care for.

~ Kat