Tips For Planning The 2021 Kitchen Garden

After a busier-than-expected 2020, seed companies are gearing up for the coming gardening season. So now's the time for you to be planning your 2021 garden.

by Sharon Biggs Waller
PHOTO: Markus Spiske/Unsplash

Last spring saw a massive uptick in vegetable gardening. While more gardens are certainly a plus, seed companies couldn’t keep up with the demand.

Gardeners chose from what seed was left or planted their gardens late in hopes that their favorites would become available.

Seed companies are readying for the 2021 spring rush, but will you be ready too? Here are some tips to help you while planning for a successful garden.

Read more: Last year, seed sales soared in response to coronavirus concerns.

What are your goals?

Phillip Kauth PhD, Director of Preservation at Seed Savers Exchange, says to look at gardens from different perspectives.

“Why do you want a garden?” he says. “Is it for food or aesthetics or both? If you want a garden for seed saving, that’s going to be different from just growing for food.”

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So for example if you’re looking to grow an ornamental kitchen garden, consider colorful plants like Bright Lights Swiss chard and Scarlet runner bean.

If you’d like a garden that will draw in butterflies and hummingbirds, plant varieties that will attract them such as flowering herbs like borage and fennel, and edible flowers such as nasturtiums.

If you’d like a culinary garden, consider your taste. For instance, a soup bean may not be a good snap bean, and your family might not like eating kale.

Did you grow the right stuff?

If you’re anything like me, when the seed catalog comes in the mail, it’s almost easier to choose from what I don’t want to grow. But just because you want to grow the Hidatsa pole bean or Black Krim tomato, doesn’t mean you can or should.

It seems facile to say, “grow what you like to eat,” but it’s easy to end up with a variety that you won’t like.

“It’s hard to suggest a seed variety, because everyone has a different palate,” says Kauth.

For instance, tomato varieties span the flavor spectrum of sweet to smoky to salty. And varieties have different uses. A pasting tomato’s flavor and texture shines after cooking, and it’s a good choice for making pasta, pizza sauce and sundried tomatoes. An eating tomato is too watery to cook, but it’s perfect for fresh salads and juicing.

The variety you want may not work in your area. When I lived in England, my favorite beans were runner beans. But no matter what I do, runner beans will not thrive in my Indiana garden. The summers are too hot.

Kauth says the best way to find what works for you is to visit on-line seed catalogues and read the comments. There might be someone who lives in your area who has offered growing tips.

Also, your local garden shop will usually stock seeds that grow in your climate. When in doubt, ask the employees for advice.

Above all, prepare for the spring rush by ordering your seed now. You’ll be doing yourself and your favorite seed companies a favor.

Read more: Seed Savers are leading the preservation movement.

Did you plant too much?

A packet of tomato seeds can give you a range of 20 to 40 seeds, which have a 90 percent chance of germination. So keep in mind the space you have available. You may only need three or four tomato plants for your plot.

Either thin out the extra seedlings or grow them on to sell, trade, or donate.

Consider your space carefully when planning a garden. Some plants need infrastructure, such as cages, stakes and trellising to grow. Climbing plants only require vertical space and a few inches between them. Whereas plants like bush beans take up more space on the ground.

Some plants vine and sprawl everywhere, such as cucumbers, squash and melons. These plants can easily overwhelm a small garden.

Did you bite off more than you could chew?

(Apologies for the pun.)

We’ve all been guilty of planting gardens we can’t keep up with. Consider what was easy and what was hard in your prior garden.

If your water source was too far away and you had to lug watering cans back and forth, either grow more drought-proof varieties, set up some rain barrels under a garden shed, or see if planning your next garden in a more convenient area is possible.

You may have planted too much of one variety and not enough of another. For me, I always grow too many tomatoes, cramming the plants in wherever I can. So from August to October, tomatoes take over my kitchen.

Kauth says to consider your physical ability. “If you have bad knees, it will be hard to kneel down to harvest plants that fruit close to the ground, so bush beans might not be the best choice,” he says.

Those with bad backs will have issues leaning over to plant. So raised garden beds would be a better option.

Did you plan for pests?

Raccoons have always left my garden alone, but not this year.

They climbed the trellises that enclose my garden and ate all of my ripening corn. They made a hole in each watermelon and scooped out the insides with their clever little hands.

So next year, I’m planning to install a strand of electric wire along the top of my fence to protect my garden.

Did your garden meet your expectations?

Kitchen gardens don’t always measure up. Weeds, pests, vermin and failed plants are just parts of a gardener’s life. But it’s easy to lose heart when you’ve worked so hard. No matter how experienced you are, gardening is really a hit-or-miss experiment.

“Every year is different,” Kauth says. “Problems in one year may be totally different in another. Weather might not have been on your side.”

Take stock of what you loved most about last year’s garden. (A garden journal is a great way to map your progress from year to year.)

And try to remember the flavor of that heirloom tomato, and how delicious an ear of corn, shucked and cooked fresh off the plant, tasted. Take the good with the bad and don’t let your garden overwhelm you.

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