Big results from small gardens: 22 tips to increase your harvest

Rhubarb is a perennial plant that thrives in Kodiak and returns each year to bless local gardens. (Marion Owen photo)

The best way to keep top-quality, organically grown veggies on your table is to grow as much as you can and put up (preserve) plenty to eat when your garden isn’t producing at a summertime clip. This is a worthy goal, since homegrown food is more nutritious, tastier and sustainable than store-bought fare. But most folks tend small gardens. So how can you help your garden “be all it can be,” as the saying goes?

Start early, end late

Make low tunnels with bendable pipe covered with plastic to create a warm tunnel environment and protect plants from wind and weather. Use milk jug cloches as seedling hats, cold frames and other season — or should I say, harvest extenders — in the spring and fall.

Grow high-value crops

Grow things that are costly to buy, such as fresh herbs, tomatoes, cucumbers and squash (if you have a hoophouse or greenhouse). If you’re short on space, it might make more sense to buy cabbage, since they take up a lot of room in a small garden plot.

Grow shoulder-season crops

There’s no reason to think that, come August, the season is nearly over. Pull out tired lettuce and bolting kale from the garden and sow seeds of cold-hardy crops like spinach, mustard greens, turnips, radishes and more lettuce to grow into the fall. Think of it as “relay gardening.”

Is your garden in Florida?

It’s a waste of time and energy to try growing melons and bananas in Kodiak. Sure, you can probably grow anything here, if you have the time and money. But why waste either one? If it’s hard to grow potatoes in your garden but carrots are robust, then sow more carrots. Crops that are easy to grow in one micro-climate might be a struggle in another. So learn what works for you. Seek the wisdom of your neighbors and gardening friends. Growing veggies that excel in your garden puts you one step closer toward self-sufficiency.

Try something new each year

Part of the fun of gardening is discovering new things that thrive in our climate. It also keeps the cook happy.

Harvest smarter

Pick things at their peak. Don’t wait for the lettuce to bolt into 3-foot, inedible columns. Efficient harvesting means to go around and pick a few leaves from each plant, which includes kale, Swiss chard, spinach and lettuce. Fianlly, when the plant is expired, yank it and toss it into the compost pile.

Grow up!

Train zucchini up a pole, stake your tomatoes and plant snap peas, fava beans, climbing nasturtiums and runner beans — with support, of course.

Protect root crops

If you’re growing radishes, turnips and rutabagas, you need to protect them from hole-drilling root maggots. The best way to do this is to totally cover your maturing plants with some sort of row cover to prevent the parent fly from laying eggs (which hatch into maggots) next to the seedlings. The more whole, sound produce you have, the less you’ll have to trim off and throw away.

Cruise around your garden often

Prevention is the best way to stay on top of pest problems. Slugs and aphids don’t just appear out of thin air. Make a point to inspect your plants on a regular basis — like running a trapline. Doing so will help nip problems in the bud. No pun intended.

Eat the leaves, silly

If broccoli heads are edible, so are the leaves. This applies to cabbage and cauliflower too, folks. It’s a great way to extend your soups, sandwiches and salads.

Grow cut-and-come-again crops

Swiss chard is the best example of a veg (as they affectionately called vegetables in the UK) that bounces back each time you harvest a handful of stalks and leaves. Given a second chance, many vegetables will come back after you cut them. Broccoli, if cut high, will grow small secondary shoots. Look for these varieties when you are seed shopping.

Save seeds

Several gardeners around town are growing certain crops like heirloom Petrowski turnips in order to save seeds from year to year. Maybe there’s a seed swap is in the future?

Save a step: Direct sow

Not everything needs to be transplanted as seedling. Lettuce, mustard greens, kale, spinach and many other salad ingredients can be sown directly into the soil and grown as gourmet (baby) greens.

Weed early and often

Plan to weed at least weekly until plants are big enough to mulch around them. Mulch with old manure, compost, leaf mold and kelp to keep the weeds from taking hold.

Make your own fertilizer

Compost is the one-stop answer to all soil deficiencies and garden problems. In my fall Organic Gardening class, we learn all about composting and prepping your garden for the following spring. On Kodiak Island, we are blessed with a large variety of compost and mulch materials.

Use the right tools

Working in the garden is much more enjoyable and efficient if you have the right tools to start with. Long-handled spades and hoes are for stand-up chores, while hand tools are best for working in small spaces. Keep a sharp edge on all your shovels and hoes.

Grow perennials

Annual plants like pansies and calendulas take extra work; perennials like rhubarb and primroses return year after year. ’Nough said.

Learn how to can, dry, pickle and freeze

To put up at least some of your own food provides a wonderful sense of freedom. Canning in particular has a delightful finality to it, as many canned foods last for more than a year. If you lose power, no worries. In other words, don’t put everything in the freezer.

Got extra?

Service to others is the highest form of giving. So if you have an extra row of carrots or a few more potatoes than you expected, donate them to the food bank at the Kodiak Baptist Mission or the Brother Francis Shelter. They are grateful for donations of fresh produce.

Garden beyond your yard

If you don’t have room to grow a bushel of potatoes or enough cabbage to make gallons of sauerkraut, a community garden plot or sharing space at a friend’s garden might be the best solution. Another option is to ask your employer if you can grow vegetables in a raised bed at your workplace. To learn about Kodiak’s Veggies at Work program go to

Don’t give up

What makes a saint a saint? They didn’t give up. Sure, you’re bound to have tomatoes flop and carrot seeds forget to germinate, but that’s all part of life. Evaluate what happened and learn from your experience. What’s the worse thing that can happen to a garden crop anyway? Just chop it up, toss it in the compost pile and keep on gardening. Amen.

Marion Owen can be reached at 486-5079 or Archived copies of weekly garden columns can be found at “Kodiak Growers” are now on Facebook.

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