Harvest and Succession Plant Your Homestead Potager

The garden explosion happened. Those tiny, seedlings I showed pictures of in the last post Plant Your Homestead Potager suddenly started to look like fully-fledged plants.

Even when you visit your garden daily, and observe the incremental growth, there is still this moment when you realize “Wow, this is a real garden.”

Honestly, it was a real garden from the first moment you poured your intentions into it. Yet, it always seems so surprising when your effort starts to pay off and your aesthetic ideals of a garden are gratified.

Stop and enjoy this moment. Savor it like you would a perfect, but fleeting sunset. Take some mental, or actual pictures, to refer back to from year to year. Then, get out your harvest basket and scissors and get to work.

Harvesting as Health Care for Your Garden

This is the point in time when you really have to be diligent. If you don’t stay on top of your harvesting and garden care, your plants’ heath will decline quickly.

So-called “pests” will come to help eradicate failing plants. We call them pests, but really they are just nature’s helpers, culling the poor performers so they don’t go to seed and start generations of weak plants.

As plants fail, the biological life in your soil will lose their sense of purpose. Those damaged plants begin to process nutrients poorly, leaving too much behind in the soil. . Those once eager biological workers start to go dormant from boredom as the nutrients they provide begin pile up and their efforts go unappreciated by dying root systems.

Don’t worry. This does not need to be the fate of your garden.

All you need to do is harvest and replenish what you take. Then, you’ll have a continuous supply of fresh food. Your soil life will be busy and satisfied. Your plants will be healthy and you won’t need the services of nature’s pest-like plant killers who offer a quick end to suffering plants.

The Continuous Harvest

If you took my advice and over seeded, you can use your scissors to cut out the extra plants that are smaller in size. Leave the largest, healthiest plants in the ground to grow out to maturity.

The Art of Thinning

If all those extra plants with edible greens look healthy, and aren’t developing slug problems, I thin in increments. That way I get a harvest of baby greens every day for a week or two. Even a small handful of fresh tasty greens can spruce up an omelet, make a great side salad, or be tossed with olive oil and salt when you need something salty and crunchy on warm days.

– Warning

If plants show signs of insect damage or leaf discoloration, then I thin brutally, leaving only those plants that have the best chance of success. Heavy rains followed by periods of hot, sunny days can create fungal problems and encourage slugs to move in. So, when that happens, I also speed up my thinning process to maintain good air circulation and avoid creating a slug heaven.

– Minimally Thinned Root Vegetables

Most plants ultimately need plenty of space to grow to mature size. However, there are a few that can grow to a large size even in close contact with fellow plants. For example, beets, turnips, and radish can grow in groups of 3-4, almost right on top of each other in fertile soil.

The bulb portions of the plants just push each other apart as they swell. Then, you can carefully harvest the biggest of the bulbs and let the others continue growing. You do need good airflow around your clusters though. So, you will still need to thin many of the greens for good root production.

– Non-Edible Plant Thinning

Even for plants that I can’t eat the thinnings of, like tomatoes and peppers, I still thin incrementally. High-performing, young plants really seem to benefit from a little competition and companionship at the outset of planting.

This method requires is a delicate balance though because once the strongest plants are established, they can become stunted by crowding. Usually within 2-3 weeks in warm weather and 3-4 weeks in cool weather, it’s time to let your winners make the rest of their journey toward plant maturity on their own.

Leave Non-eDible Roots In Place

As I’ve mentioned in other posts, bacteria and fungi form relationships with plant roots. So, if you rip out your plant roots every time you harvest, you end up taking a lot of those amazing garden helpers with you.

Instead, leave the roots in the ground when you can. Small roots decompose quickly. Even large roots can be left to decompose if you have room to plant around them.

If your plants have become pest infested, though, you’ll want to pull those roots out and throw them away so that you don’t run the risk of harboring lots of larva in your soil and plant matter.

Here’s an example of my kohlrabi seedlings before thinning.

Now, here’s what it looked like after I harvested the baby greens to use for making a variation on Palak Paneer. I only left the two largest plants on the outer edges of the photo so that they can continue to grow to maturity. The rest were dinner and delicious!

Fertilizing

If you need another application of organic fertilizer for your heavy feeders, then you can do this after you complete your thinning process.

When using slow-release, meal-based fertilizers like feather meal and bone meal, or organic 4-4-4 mixes, you can sprinkle them directly on the soil all around your plants. I like to cover them with a thin layer of compost and then water them in to help them start to penetrate the soil.

When you eventually harvest your mature plants, you’ll also want to fertilize the bed again before you start a new crop. Then, you’re all set to start growing your next crop.

Succession Planting

As you finish harvesting your cool season crops, you’ll most likely want to put in warm season crops. For example, if your March planted peas are spent, then it might be time for your late-May planted green beans. When cabbage comes out, okra might go in.

If you are removing warm season crops, it may be time to start planting for a fall harvest. Fall gardening really starts in summer. This is usually around late July through mid-August. But the exact timing for fall planting depends on your climate and growing season.

Your fall plants need to be well-established before your day-length shortens too much and soil temperatures cool. Winter cover crops are generally started around this time too.

If it’s not quite fall planting time, you may need to grow a short term, hot season cover crop like buckwheat or cowpeas. The important thing is never to leave your beds unplanted.

I often put my new seeds in the ground a few days before I harvest the entire mature plant (e.g. cabbage heads). That gives the seeds time to acclimate and activate. Once I remove the ready to harvest plants, those eager seeds seem to sprout instantly.

Note, this only works if you can leave the mature plant roots in the ground. You don’t want to disturb newly planted seeds by pulling out old roots.

Come and Cut Greens

Lettuce Bed Before Harvest

For densely planted come and cut greens, like the lettuce bed shown above, I harvest in sections. This promotes good air flow and keeps the bed looking full even after I fill my salad bowl.

You want to leave at least an inch of leaf producing part of each plant so that the lettuce leaves can regrow from the base. Many of your lettuce plants will actually make multiple heads and start to become more productive as you harvest them.

Lettuce Bed After Harvest

Once that happens, you’ll be able to harvest a section of your bed almost daily . Then, a week later when you’re ready to re-harvest that first section, it will be lush and ready to cut again.

If your plants start to bolt (send up flower stalks), you need to harvest them all the way to the soil at each cutting to kill those plant and make room for more. Right after you cut a bolting section down, add some more fertilizer to the soil and cover with 1-2 inches of compost. Then, re-seed your next round of lettuce right over your just butchered patch.

If you do this in segments, your garden bed will never be completely bare while waiting for new seedlings to sprout. When you get your timing exactly right, then you never want for lettuce.

In hot climates, your second planting may need to be a collection of oak leaf lettuces or alternative greens like New Zealand spinach that better tolerate excessive heat.

Salad Preparation Tip

Cut your lettuce up into bite size portions and put them directly in your salad spinner in the garden. Then, all you need to do is give them a rinse and spin back in the house and they are ready to eat.

Slug Tip

Also, if you do have issues with slugs, they tend to be heaviest in the bottom inch or two of the cut leaves.By trimming that area and throwing it on top of your compost pile to dry out in the sun, you remove the slugs from your lettuce bed and have fewer pests to wash out of your cut lettuce.

Conclusion

Your timing and efficiency at harvesting vegetables from your potager will get better the more you do it. Take notes on what works and what doesn’t. Visualize ways that you’ll improve your process for next year as you go along, even if it’s too late to correct things this year.

In my experience, the best time to plan your garden for next year is actually right now while you are in the thick of the growing season. You may not formalize your plan until winter when you have time to sit down and write it out. But, by solving challenges and making plans for your future garden now, and keeping good notes so you remember, your work will be mostly done before you put your future plantings on paper.

Next time, we’ll start to get into the details of making compost right in the garden. In the meantime…Bon App├ętit!

Plant Your Homestead Potager

Now that you’ve constructed your homestead potager, it’s time to plant. Well, almost…

There are two more things I suggest you do before you put plants or seeds in the ground.

Pre-Planting Step 1: Start Compost Tea

The first thing I recommend is that you get a five gallon bucket, fill it with rain water (if possible), and drop a bag of 2-3 cups of vermicompost in your bucket. You can use an old pillow case, a flour sack towel, or an official compost tea bag to hold your castings.

Let this “brew” for 7 days. This is basic compost tea. Twice a week, use one cup of your tea to every 1 gallon of water you use to water your garden. I keep a 2 cup measuring cup by my bucket and use a 2 gallon watering can, so that makes it easy to figure out my dosages.

No Additives Please

Please do not add molasses or kelp or any other additives to your compost tea. It’s not necessary and may occasionally encourage not so beneficial bacteria when used in passive compost tea.

Note: Down the road, if you want to buy a $60 pump and run it for 3 days every 2-4 weeks, then you can add those extra ingredients to make actively aerated compost tea (ACT or AACT) which does need those additives to encourage bacteria and fungi. For now though, let’s start with simple, safe, passive compost tea with worm castings only!

Keep it Going

Start a new bucket as needed so that you always have compost tea that has brewed for at least 7 days ready to use when watering during the growing season.

The reason for doing this is that bacteria and fungi are what make the compost in your garden effective as a fertilizer. If you bought commercial or bulk produced compost, it was made quickly and often does not have the same quantity of microlife as slow-processed, homemade compost. Also, many of your fungi and bacteria only wake up and start working when they come into contact with plant roots.

So, at the outset, your garden soil is more of a growing medium than a nutrient factory. Depending on your starting conditions and the quality of your compost, it can take 1-2 years for compost to be a sufficient fertilizer for vegetables.

By putting your worm castings in water, you extract the water soluble nutrients and make them immediately available to plants. You also add small quantities of bacteria and fungi direct to your root zone as you water so they can quickly form beneficial relationships with your plants.

Think of compost tea as a compost activator and short-term plant health booster.

Pre-Planting Step 2: Add Fertilizer

Many gardeners swear by compost as the only thing needed to grow a great organic garden. In the long-term I agree that it can be if you add enough slow-made, well-aged compost and keep your garden continuously planted.

In the short-term though, most soils simply do not have enough humic content for compost alone to grow a densely planted potager garden. Also, most new gardeners aren’t experts at crop rotation and cover crop use which are both also important tools for growing a garden without additional fertilizer.

So, while many organic gardeners frown on adding fertilizer beyond compost, for the health of your new garden I suggest you incorporate some “meal-based” fertilizers into your compost before you plant. Meals are plant or animal material that have been ground up into a powdered form.

Option 1: Use Organic Meals

My two favorite meals to work with are feather meal as a nitrogen (N) source and bone meal as a phosphorous (P) and calcium (Ca) source. They are both slow release with only a small portion of their nutrients being available when you first apply them. But, over the growing season, they deliver a fairly continuous supply of N, P, and Ca. They are also usually the least expensive organic fertilizer pound for pound of nutrient delivered.

These are by-products of the commercial poultry and meat processing industries. Although I don’t generally support the way those industries operate, those by-products would simply be landfill waste if not converted to useful garden nutrients. They are not perfect from an environmental perspective but they are so beneficial to a new garden and do help solve a waste problem. They are also much better and safer than the synthetic alternatives.

For potassium, I use wood ash from the hardwoods we burn on our landscape. There can be a lot of variance in potassium quantity in wood ash. But they tend to be higher if you use the ash from hard woods only. Wood ash also contains some calcium and other trace minerals.

Ashes should be kept dry until applied in the garden and sifted to remove any large coals that might bind nitrogen in your soil.

Simplestead Fertilizer Recipe

My new garden fertilizer formula is:

  • 4.5 pounds feather meal
  • 4.5 pounds bone meal
  • 1 pound wood ash

I coat the top of my garden beds with this mix at a rate of about 1/2 pound for every 10 square feet of garden area. So, you’ll use 5 pounds for a 100 square foot garden to start.

For plants that require lots of nitrogen like lettuce, cabbage, potatoes, and others, I will reapply the same amount of fertilizer again in about 3-4 weeks as plants start to really size up. If those high-nitrogen needs plants take more than 80 days to grow, I’ll also reapply again at the 6-8 week mark.

For light feeders, I’ll only reapply fertilizer if my plants seem to need it. Then, I’ll reapply a 1/2 pound per 10 square feet whenever I start new plants.

Note, I only do this for the first two years after starting a garden. After that point, the power of compost usually kicks in and you run the risk of overloading your garden using a generic formula like this. From that point on, I use plant specific fertilizer mixes as needed. (We’ll cover more on that in much later posts.)

Pre-Made Fertilizer

If you don’t want to mix your own, you can also buy 4-4-4 organic fertilizer mixes from makers like Down to Earth, Jobes, Dr. Earth, or others.

Avoid all synthetic fertilizers. Also, in general, avoid applying any fast-release fertilizers to your garden even if they are organic. Also, be careful not to apply a quantity that is greater than 5-5-5 at any one time. For the health of your soil, it’s better to apply more only when you need it than too much at one time.

Here’s why. Synthetic fertilizers eventually bind nutrients and limit microlife. Strong fertilizers, organic or not, can burn plants and cause biological life in the soil to go dormant. These also pose run-off risks during rain and watering because plants grown in compost heavy gardens simply do not need all those excess nutrients and won’t use them quickly enough.

How to Incorporate Fertilizer

For the Simplestead mix or store-bought organic fertilizer, sprinkle it on top of your soil. Then, use your finger tips to work it into the top 2 inches of your compost. Watering, soil life, and plant roots will work your fertilizer deeper over time. After incorporation, water your entire bed area to activate the fertilizer and settle it into your compost.

What to Plant in a First Year Potager

I know everyone wants to jump right in and start growing giant heirloom tomatoes. Unfortunately, that usually ends in disappointment. Do yourself a favor and buy those at your local farmers market. Then instead, focus on things you will be able to grow well in a first year garden.

I can’t give you specific suggestions because every climate is different. But, I do have some broad, general principles to share that should help you have a bountiful harvest in your first year.

1. Focus on CONTINUOUS Harvest Type Vegetables

Plants that can be planted once and harvested for a month or more are wonderful for a potager. They help keep the garden looking full and beautiful while giving you something to use in your meals each day. They also tend to be terrifically nutritious and low calorie.

Here are my favorites.

  • Leaf Lettuce Mixes
  • Chard
  • Arugula
  • Mustard
  • Mizuna
  • Kale
  • Collards
  • Turnip Greens (e.g. Seven Top, not Root Turnips)
  • Green Onions (cut greens, leave roots in place to regrow tops)
  • Basil
  • Cherry or Grape Tomatoes
  • Sweet or Hot Peppers
  • Salad Cucumbers
  • Green Beans

2. Choose Fast-Growing, Direct Seed Varieties

I highly recommend that new gardeners also focus on plants that can be harvested in 75 days (or less) and are easy to grow. Also, focus on plants that and can be started by putting seeds directly in the ground.

Quicker time to harvest means you can plant 2 or 3 times the quantity in the same place. Also, shorter time in the garden limits risk for pests to come and find your new location and spoil your crop before your soil has time to improve.

Here are some of my favorites fast-production vegetables. Make sure to choose varieties that specifically have time to harvest of 75 days or less.

  • Beets
  • Turnips
  • Radish
  • Kohlrabi
  • Carrots

3. Plan for Cool And Hot Season Crops

Cool season plants tend to bolt when temperatures warm up. So, you need to consider your number of cool days when planning for cool season vegetables. Until you have tried and true season extension and container seed starting methods, consider buying your early spring transplants. Country stores and farmers markets are great places to get them for less cost than the hardware store.

Warm season plants also need sufficient time to grow and ripen before harvest. So, make sure to allow enough hot days for good growth.

Easy to Grow Cool Season Plants
  • Peas
  • Rapini
  • Baby Pok or Bok Choy
  • 65-80 Day cabbages (e.g. Early Jersey Wakefield, Red or Green Acre)
  • Dill
  • Cilantro/Coriander
Easy to Grow Hot Season Plants
  • Summer Squash or Zucchini (Choose compact varieties for best use of space)
  • New Zealand Spinach
  • Okra
4. Practice Growing Storage Foods

You probably don’t have room in your first year potager for a lot of long-storing foods. But, you can get some practice by growing a winter squash at the end of a row, a few potato plants, or a couple sweet potatoes plants.

Drying beans are also a good use of vertical space, such as along the north side of a garden fence. Shell them while watching a sun set or catching up on TV shows during bad weather.

Down the road, you may want to grow more of these as you expand your compost capacity and garden area. But for now, dabbling with them can be a satisfying experience.

What Not To Grow In Your Potager

Like I said at the outset, skip the large-sized heirloom tomatoes for year 1. They require rich soil, good staking, and active fungal management for good results from year to year. Save these as a challenge to master later.

I suggest skipping the corn too. It’s easy to grow. But it easily cross pollinates during the growing season. So without advanced planning, you can end up growing GMO corn in your homestead potager. Plus you need about 20 plants grown in a dense patch for good pollination. That means it will take a lot of soil fertility management for good production.

Long-storing cabbages are also better grown after a few years of soil improvement. The longer maturing varieties really need deep, rich soil to be able resist seasonal stresses and create their own defenses against pests like the cabbage moth.

Watermelon is incredibly easy to grow. But it will swallow your garden if you are not careful and give you almost no calories in return for all that space. Buy those at your farmers market too and save your space for the stuff above.

Tips On Organization and Planting Procedures

Now that you have a few plant choices to consider, here are a few tips to help you plan, plant, and encourage a healthy garden.

1. Intermix your continuous harvest vegetables with your one-time harvest vegetables. Potagers should be pretty and productive. That means you don’t want to be harvesting everything all at once. By mixing it up, your garden will never looks empty even though you’ll harvest regularly.

2. Stagger your plantings. For example, start beets every 2 weeks rather than all at once. Also, use heirlooms, they tend to have more varied germination rates than hybrid seeds. Throw in small radish as filler when needed.

3. Over seed on all things with edible plant parts. Beets, turnips, kohlrabi, mustard, lettuce, etc. can all be cut with scissors at the baby stage and eaten in salads or tossed into omelets. Thinning your seedlings is basically your first harvest.

4. Over seed on other plants like tomatoes, peppers, etc., too. But don’t eat the greens! Just cut the weaker seedlings back to soil level with scissors and let your strongest plant survive.

5. Make a key of your plantings. Labels in the beds are awesome, but also keep a paper map of everything you planted and when.

6. Add flowers and herbs. Flowers like marigolds, borage, nasturtium (dwarf) and herbs like basil, cilantro, and dill also have beneficial insect-attracting and pest-repelling benefits. Work them into any empty spaces you have for beauty and utility.

7. Water daily. Unless it rains or your soil is waterlogged, you really need to water daily. This regulates soil temperature, activates seeds, and nourishes the biological life in the soil so they can sustain your plants. Water slowly until the moisture pools on top for a few seconds.

8. Plant in uniform configurations like rows or squares. This makes it easy to see bare spots when your seedlings come up so you can re-seed if necessary. It also makes it easier to tell what’s a weed and what’s a seedling until you learn to recognize your plants in juvenile form.

9. Weed carefully and regularly. Use your finger tips to uproot baby weeds and expose their roots to dry and die. If you get them early on sunny or windy days, this is all it takes to weed a garden. Be careful not to uproot seedlings by accident.

10. Grow 10. Choose ten things to grow at a time at most. Research the growing requirements for each plant. Then, try to give them the custom care they need just as you would livestock or household pets.

11. Cull weak plants. If a plant is not doing well, remove it and put it in the trash. Do not compost it! Later when you’ve learned how to identify plant problems and fix them, you can. For now, though, get rid of anything potentially diseased or pest-attracting for the health of the rest of your garden.

Conclusion

Plants will grow slowly at first. Then suddenly one day you’ll look out in the garden and barely see your paths through your plants.

Your skills in the garden will grow like this too. At first, you’ll second guess everything you do, then one day you’ll realize you’ve become a gardener. Simple steps, done with loving care. That’s all it takes to grow a successful potager and a gardener!