When I grow vegetables, my first inclination is to get a good return on my investment of time, money, and space. That means a high yield of produce from my gardens. Isn’t that what we all strive for? I think so. If you’re trying to feed yourself and your family, how can too much be a bad thing? If your objective is to stock up your food stores by canning, freezing, and drying, is there ever such a thing as too much harvest? Finally, when meeting a market demand, the same idea applies; a vegetable harvest that’s too large is a very good problem for a grower to have.
So, let me share with you some techniques for getting more vegetables for less money, less time and using limited and less productive spaces. Use these techniques alone and in combination to maximize the yield you get from your vegetable gardening efforts. For each technique, I’ll try to suggest vegetable varieties as examples so you have an idea of what plant type you might choose to successfully implement the technique.
High Production Varieties
Clearly, this needs to be our starting point. Let’s think about what kind of vegetables produce high yields. The first type of vegetable that comes to my mind is summer squash. I remember years ago someone told me that three zucchini plants were plenty for one household. Nearly all summer squash varieties grow with the same kind of enthusiasm. In the height of production, one summer squash plant can keep one person in all the squash that they might ever desire. It’s not uncommon for a summer squash vine to have eight to twelve fruits in various stages of production, from fruit that’s first set to fruit that’s large enough to harvest. And summer squash is known for maturing quickly.
Swiss chard is a favorite of mine that produces long stems, large leaves and never seems to get tired of providing me with great greens. Given even just a few square feet of space, this relative of the beet will provide thick and lush growth that can be harvested in various stages, from young stalks of tender greens to large leaves on sturdy stems. If you don’t harvest it back some, it will soon create a dense growth. If you harvest selectively, it will gladly produce more. I like to say, “Keep it watered and it’ll keep you fed.”
Tomatoes are another variety that provides high yields for the space one needs to allocate to them. Small tomatoes provide hundreds per plant. Medium size tomatoes provide perhaps a hundred fruits per plant over the growing season. Even large slicing tomatoes can provide so much fruit that it’s difficult to keep the vines from drooping and breaking free of the trellis. It’s rare that a reasonably cared for tomato plant will fail to deliver on many pounds of fruit.
Grow Up Instead of Out
Since we touched on tomatoes growing on a trellis, let me mention that growing vegetables on a pole, fence, line, cage, teepee of stakes, or a trellis makes good use of vertical spacing and allows you to grow other plants in the surface area that isn’t consumed by your vertical crops. Tomatoes are a good bet for vertical growing. If placed inside a tall cage with good access for the harvest, one can grow several tomato plants together and allow them to grow to their full potential, all the while making harvesting easier. Having the fruit off of the ground also reduces spoilage and promotes better light for plant growth and ripening of the fruit.
Cucumbers are another way to grow up instead of out. A fence or trellis can work very well. Choose a hothouse variety and you’ll have nearly all female flowers, and that means nearly every flower will produce a fruit. Pole beans growing up a string or a teepee made of wooden stakes can provide a bountiful harvest using very little ground space as well. And picking the beans promotes production of more.
With my Swiss chard and pole bean examples above, I’ve touched on the idea of succession harvesting – harvest some to promote growth for future harvests, instead of taking the entire plant. It’s a good alternative to succession planting. The idea is to harvest from the plant in a manner that allows and encourages it to produce more food for you. The best examples of this are greens and lettuces.
I’m a big fan of greens for several reasons. First, they’re easy to grow. Second, they produce a lot of edible matter for the space they occupy. And third, you guessed it; they keep producing in response to harvesting. Just cut off the more mature stems and leaves around the outside, and the plant continues to produce more growth to replace what you’ve harvested. There are many greens that will provide us with a continuous harvest over many months if we harvest in succession instead of taking the whole plant at once. Think kale, collards, Chinese cabbage, and the like. As an example, when I grow Winterbor kale, one plant provides me with months of production because as I harvest the leaves, it continues to grow upward to produce more leaves from the center, like a continuously blooming flower, growing ever taller to continue its blooming cycle. As I take my kale plants into the winter months, they’re easily three feet tall and still eager to produce more foliage for my enjoyment.
Plants like lettuce and celery also lend themselves to succession harvesting; take a few leaves or stalks from the outside and then allow the plant to grow more from the inside. If we engage in this selective harvesting, we’ll have a continuous supply of vegetables from the same plant for an extended season of harvest. If you thought romaine lettuce was a one trick pony, think again, you can harvest leaves from the outside until the plant decides it’s time to bolt and turn bitter.
A more commonly known approach to getting higher yields is to eat the greens as well as the root of many of our root crops. I call this a double harvest – the greens on top as well as the root below the surface. I can’t imagine tossing out the greens associated with Swiss chard, but some folks do – they simply eat the stems. Many of us are familiar with edible beet greens and stems, but fewer are familiar with turnip greens and stems as edible portions of the plant. Even fewer have an interest in eating carrot greens. Combine a little succession harvesting of your root crops by selecting a few leaves and stems from several plants for your next meal, all the while you wait for the root to mature. Many root crops can be allowed to grow to good size before they need to be harvested, so the gardener can enjoy a nice long succession harvest of greens before they must yank out the root to complete the harvest of the entire plant.
Broaden Your Scope
When I was kid, I wondered how humankind figured out what was edible and what wasn’t. Today, I wonder why we have so many edible parts of a plant that we don’t consume, or at least try to see if we like the taste and texture. If we ate more of what’s edible, that would surely help increase our yield. Let’s look at some common examples.
We know that cabbage is edible, but rarely do we eat the large broad leaves that provide the “nest” for the cabbage we harvest. If you look at the size of those leaves, you’ll see that they can provide a considerable amount of food. They don’t need to wind up on the compost pile, they go much better thinly sliced with chopped onions, fresh crushed garlic, melted butter, and a little salt and pepper. Kohlrabi is another example of how we toss away edible portions of the vegetable, most often without a second thought. The leaves that adorn the globe that arises from the swollen stem of the kohlrabi are perfectly edible.
And it’s not like we’ve overlooked just a few of the cultivars in our garden. There are plenty of examples of edible plant material that typically goes to waste. This concept applies to stems and leaves of broccoli; the tops of onions; leaves of the radish; celery leaves; and, the green tops associated with carrots. If we give some of these a try, we might find that we can enjoy additional parts of our plants that we otherwise would simply toss onto the compost heap. If we want higher yields, it sometimes requires that we recognize the entire yield that grows before us.
Extend Your Season
Many of us think about vegetable gardening as just a summer activity. To be sure, it’s quite popular during the summer as this is the traditional growing season. Most of us have pushed the envelope a bit by starting summer plants indoors to get a good jump on the growing season. How many of us have thought about pushing the harvest season into the late fall and winter months? If we do this, we can provide ourselves with months of additional harvest, all at very little additional cost.
The keys to extending the season of harvest are to grow cold hardy plants like broccoli, kale, radishes, turnips, cabbage, leeks, peas, and kohlrabi. These plants thrive in weather that would discourage and kill traditional summer vegetables like tomatoes, beans, and squash. Consider that kale is best harvested after a frost, and in mild winter climates it can endure the entire winter while covered in snow. With unheated gardening structures like hoop-houses, at least one month can be added to each end of the vegetable gardening season, even in harsh environments. For crops close to the ground, row covers are good season extenders – think of them as tiny greenhouses. For root crops, use row covers and mulch to allow for mid-winter harvesting of carrots, onions, and rutabagas – just dig them up.
Don’t give up on your vegetables just because the temperatures drop, the leaves on the trees turn color, and the days become shorter. Enlist the help of cold hardy vegetables and increase the scope and depth of your harvest season.
Make Use of Marginal Ground
My last suggestion is to make better use of marginal growing areas that aren’t good for row crops and gardening beds but might work just fine for single plants that provide multiple fruits. Think melons, pumpkins, and winter squash. They all have a single root system with a vine that provides numerous fruits. The vines don’t need a fertile bed; it’s only the root system that requires a good spot for growing. So, for that rocky marginal ground that just isn’t suitable for a garden bed, perhaps you could find a nice home for a couple of winter squash plants. Who cares if the vines and fruit are laying on unworkable soil? If you can find a few good spots to start and grow the plants, you’re making good use of ground that otherwise wouldn’t provide any produce at all. When you have even a small amount of additional land producing vegetables, you’re enhancing your overall yield.
Every technique brings you closer to what some might call a maximum yield. Combine techniques, and you’ll get even closer to what might be considered optimal in terms of your potential for production of produce.
Clair Schwan is an experienced vegetable gardener with open sun gardening beds and three quality greenhouses of his own design and construction. He grows over 100 varieties of vegetables and provides fresh produce year-round for himself and his family.