I enjoy flipping through seed catalogues, particularly those whose pages advertise heirloom varieties. Not only can you save seeds from heirloom vegetables and grow the exact same product the following year, but the stories behind ’em are so intriguing! As a gal that loves old fashioned things, heirloom seeds are just that!
Last year, I threw myself whole-heartedly into an heirloom garden. Beans, peas, squashes and cucumbers, root vegetables of almost every kind, peppers, cabbages and tomatoes of several varieties, even melons and okra made it on the list! Moving back to the south, we suddenly had lots of growing options available, and I confess, I overdid it!
It was a learning curve, this being our first year in a new location with a full-fledged garden. We learned what grows well, what doesn’t, the plants that require extra work and those that do well with less care. I’ll be wiser and more knowledgeable for having walked through last year!
Seed catalogues are out once again, and I have to re-evaluate the purpose for our garden, which foods we should raise and why, plus the time commitment and energy we have to invest. It pays (quite literally) to think it through. Answering the questions below is worth our time and effort.
Q 1: Why Do We Garden?
We garden primarily for nutritious food. It is a worthwhile endeavor on our part. As you may already know, nutrition drives much of what we do in our home! A nice side bonus to gardening is that its a cheaper way to put food on the table, particularly if you save your own seed. We garden because its the most efficient way for us to live, the healthiest way for us to eat, because living on the land is healthy for even the soul! Ever go out to the garden, spend an hour or two weeding with bare feet and hands, then return to the house feeling refreshed and filled? Its a regular occurrence around here!
Q 2: What Do I Want From the Harvest?
We want nutrition for the summer months, yes! But we also desire nutrition for the winter months! Our plan includes food for summer, winter and even the spring before the newly planted garden is up! What does this mean? Read on!
Pulling summer carrots from the garden for salad or pot roast is a very satisfactory feeling! We eat lots of green salads over the summer months and our favorites leaflets to use are spinach, kale, and beet tops. Yes, if you choose a variety known for good leaves, beets make a most delicious green salad! We also grate root vegetables into our salads, whether turnip, beet, parsnip or carrot, they are a tasty, flavor-packed addition (for free salad recipes, see my PDF download here).
Winter Keepers for the Cold Room
We also garden because we want good food for the winter months. I’m mostly interested in forms of raw food preservation. That means root vegetable storage in our cold room. For methods and techniques we use, see Storing Raw Produce. Because this is high on my list of priorities, I plan the garden accordingly and approximately half the garden is made up of vegetables that are proven winter keepers! My list for the upcoming spring planting includes beets, carrots, parsnips, potatoes, pumpkins and squash and red grinding corn!
What about rutabagas and turnips? And winter radishes? The flea beetle is alive and well in our valley! Unless cabbage-family root vegetables are grown with a good top cover, they will be infested with root maggots by the time they reach harvest size. While bad spots and worms can be chopped away for summer eating, the roots are not suitable for winter storage. We learned this last year and due to the need for prioritizing, won’t be planting ’em this summer unless it be turnips to supply us a fall crop of hardy salad greens. They did withstand freezing temperatures beautifully this winter!
We enjoy fermented food! When stored in a cold environment (such as the cold room in our basement), it will keep all winter and can be used at our leisure. Because fermented food is a large part of our winter diet, I grow two varieties of cabbage for this purpose. There are many delicious ferments you can concoct if you have cabbage as a base! My all time favorites are the Cabbage & Carrot Kraut with dill/garlic, and the other is Sweet Purple Kraut with purple cabbages, beets, apples and ginger. Absolutely delicious! Tomatoes and peppers also fall under this category. Taking the year end harvest, we make Tomato and Parsley Salsa and a Mild Green Tomato variety. As with kraut, we tuck ’em away in the cold room for winter consumption. Not only do we receive the benefit of raw fermented food, but we avoid the extra time and energy spent on canning tomatoes and kraut!
Speaking of canning, I do garden with canning in mind! Root cellars or cold rooms are wonderful, but when warm temperatures come, so does spoilage. We do wish to eat produce from the previous year until the garden is ready in the early summer, so I do water-bath and pressure can. With this in mind, I grow green beans, tomatoes (for sauce, salsa and soups), carrots and beets. We put them up and keep some until spring when the freezer is empty and storage bins must be cleaned up.
Having a definitive purpose and reason why we grow our food helps us narrow down the options and lessen the work. I enjoy broccoli. But in light of its being a cold-weather crop, I’d rather grow beets or carrots, suitable for winter storage and summer eating. We enjoy our last year’s okra and even pickled it. But really? I’d rather invest my time into tomatoes and peppers because they are far more versatile! We could put out the effort of making row covers for growing rutabagas, turnips and winter radishes. But if we like potatoes just as well, why not just settle for potatoes?
Having a distinct purpose for the produce grown will help you see what is most important. Perhaps all you wish for is spring-summer eating? Choose varieties that mature quickly and can be successively planted! If canned goods are your goal, take into account maturation times and plant vegetables according to the time of year you wish to harvest and process your food. If you want cold storage or root cellaring, choose suitable vegetable types and plant as needed for proper maturation. And speaking of cold storage, I’ve got an entire section called Old Fashioned Food Preservation that walks you through canning, fermenting and lastly, cold room storage and what you need to know if gardening with that intent and purpose.
If you are a seasoned gardener? It still pays to re-assess your planting! Some years we may have responsibilities pulling us elsewhere. Is there something we need to cut back on? Or, do we have extra time and now is when we should attempt that new heirloom variety?! You are the only one who knows. Think realistically, based on and according to your needs for the upcoming year!
And may I say…happy garden planning! Cause choosing your seed and garden layout should be a refreshing activity, one that invigorates and causes you to anticipate the days ahead!