Trust me, nothing compares with tucking into a sandwich with lettuce, tomato, and basil grown by the sweat of your brow. Feeding your family from your own backyard is really all in the timing. Hungering for homegrown? Here’s how to make it happen.
Can’t wait to bite into your first backyard-grown nibble? You can start working your soil as soon as the ground thaws and stays thawed. But before digging in, get a soil test to find out what your earth is hungry for — in Westchester County, contact the Cornell Cooperative Extension to steer you in the right direction. Then amend accordingly. In most cases, vegetable gardens benefit from nitrogen, so get out there and dig some weed-free compost into the soil. Then find the warmest, sunniest place in the garden (raised beds tend to warm up more rapidly than in-ground garden areas) and plant some seeds! Peas take a couple of months to mature, but they love cool weather, so get them in the ground pronto. For early harvest, nothing beats radishes (21 days!) for instant gratification. But you can be snipping away at baby arugula (21 days), baby mustard greens (22 days), baby spinach (23 days), baby kale (25 days), baby loose-leaf lettuce (28 days), and baby bok choy (30 days) in no time. If the temperature takes a nosedive, bring out the row covers (or a flannel sheet) and protect your goodies. Be sure to uncover as soon as the sun hits the plants and/or temperatures rise above freezing. As baby greens ripen, clip with scissors and eat them. Cut above the branching point, and they will sprout again for another harvest. Want a crop that pops up like magic without annual fussing? Plant asparagus crowns. Although they won’t be sufficiently plump for picking in the first season, the bounty will be one of your first harvests in subsequent years.
When the weather warms up reliably and frost is not apt to nip your dinner in the bud, you can move onto more tender crops. Beans, summer squash, broccoli, carrots, leeks, onions, and beets can all be planted as the soil warms up. Rotate crops to avoid planting in the same space year after year to help prevent disease. And be sure to cultivate the soil deeply for root crops. Although you should get cabbages and cauliflower in the ground early, they won’t be ready for harvest until mid-to-late summer.
Wait for the soil to become toasty warm (and stay warm) before planting tomatoes, eggplants, peppers, melons, and winter squash. They dislike chilly roots. In most cases, starting with plants rather than seeds will bring on the goodies rapidly. Give your veggies a sunny location, and don’t try to push them along by force-feeding. Too much food generally results in a whole lot of leaves but not much fruit. If you hanker for big, juicy tomatoes, give them ample space. Supports shouldering tomatoes early in the game definitely keep the fruit off the ground and halfway to your mouth.
You can often achieve several crops of greens for salads from early spring to July. Keep harvesting to encourage fresh growth. After three cuttings, most greens have exhausted their oomph. Just pull them out, clean up the row and plant another round of seeds. Succession planting is fun. It’s like working a puzzle to keep your garden productive and pumping out the salads.
Many of your early-season crops go downhill as temperatures rise. Peas, lettuce, spinach, kohlrabi, and arugula hate the heat. Even if they germinate in the midst of a heatwave, the seedlings usually run right up to flowers (also known as bolting) and skip the eating stage entirely. If you crave lettuce, look for bolt-resistant varieties or skip them until late summer and focus on food that performs when temperatures sizzle.
Keep your garden pumping out produce until hard frost puts an end to the backyard buffet. Repeat the vegetables that started the season — such as lettuce, spinach, arugula, and pak choi — for late-season crops. They perform impressively despite nippy weather. In fact, carrots love chilly soil and tend to have more sugar when harvested late. But don’t push your luck. Get out there and pull them before the thermometer falls below freezing.
And remember: There’s always next year. Take stock of successes and failures. Make notes of veggies that won rave reviews from your family. Plan ahead and order seeds for finger-lickin’-good fixings. For locally grown veggie seeds, check out Hudson Valley Seed Company and Fruition Seeds.