All gardeners want to get the best out of their time and effort by maximizing food production. If space is the limiting factor in some gardens, inclement weather and short growing seasons could be the challenges elsewhere. Here are some practical ways to increase your garden output in spite of these problems.
1. Provide quality growing medium
In outdoor gardens, regular soil is the usual growing medium, but to get a good yield from vegetables, you need to amend it suitably to match the requirements of the crops you grow.
Adding plenty of good compost is the best solution for a number of soil-related problems, including soil compaction, waterlogging, and too much acidity/alkalinity. Compost improves water retention as well as drainage by changing the soil structure. It also increases soil nutrients and facilitates good root run and aeration, all of which are essential for a good yield. It can also change the pH of the soil without chemical additives.
Get good quality compost or make your own with garden waste such as grass clippings from the lawn. Try worm composting kitchen waste. The worms add their own nitrogenous waste to further enrich the soil.
2. Ensure your garden gets plenty of sunlight
Almost all vegetable crops need full sunlight for maximum production, although some leafy greens and root veggies can do with partial shade. It is solar energy that drives the food production process or photosynthesis, so the output of vegetables would obviously depend on the amount of sunlight they receive.
Whenever possible, choose areas with southern or southeastern exposure for vegetable gardens. Reduce overhead shade by trimming tree branches. Choose sunny spots of high-light plants like tomatoes. Leafy vegetables like spinach and lettuce can be tucked under taller plants for optimum space and light utilization.
3. Provide sufficient amount of water
Most vegetables have high water requirement. Providing sufficient water can be a challenge in arid areas and during summer months when watering restrictions are in effect. But depriving the veggies of water can result in flower and fruit drop, which, needless to say, would affect yield. Water stress should be avoided especially when the seedlings are young and at the time of flowering and fruit setting.
Rainwater harvesting and storage may help alleviate water woes in the dry season. Conserve water and make the best use of it by installing drip irrigation and other water-saving methods. Mulching around the plants prevents water loss from the soil to some extent. Protective windbreaks around the garden can reduce the rate of transpiration.
4. Use organic mulches that enrich soil
Mulches are used in the garden to conserve moisture, maintain optimum soil temperature, and reduce weed problems. Forming a physical barrier between the soil and the aerial parts of the plants, mulches can even reduce the risk of pests and diseases caused by soilborne pathogens and spores. All this can translate to higher yield, but using organic mulches can further enhance soil fertility and increase food production.
Leaf mulches, grass clippings and straw are some of the best organic mulches you can source from your own garden. In fact, it is worth growing nutrient-rich grasses in the periphery of vegetable gardens to provide enough straw for mulching. Grass hedges can also prevent rainwater runoff. A 2-inch thick mulch all over the garden should be sufficient to protect and enrich the soil.
5. Use plastic mulch to maximize the yield of specific crops
Many organic gardeners stay away from plastic mulches, but they have been shown to increase the yield in certain cases. Landscape fabric that allows gas exchange and water drainage can suppress weeds without choking the soil.
The color of the plastic mulch also seems to matter. Red plastic mulch has been found to increase tomato yield by 10-30% and green colored ones seem to help summer crops of squash and melons. Black mulch keeps the soil warm and helps extend the growing season, and silver colored ones are used for effective pest control.
6. Invest in best vegetable and fruit varieties
Many high-yielding plant varieties have been developed, and it is up to the gardener to make use of them to maximize the harvest. There are excellent heirloom varieties that offer unique taste and flavor, but it is worth considering some hybrids to get bumper crops.
High-performing hybrids may be pricey, but you can invest in a few plants and then increase your stock by increasing the stock from cuttings. New varieties should be carefully studied to ensure that they are suitable for your climate and growing conditions, though. Disease resistance is another feature that you should look for in these plants.
7. Get early maturing varieties
This is another trick to get maximum output from minimum space. There are early maturing vegetables that are ready to harvest in just 4-8 weeks. Besides reducing the waiting period, they allow you to have several batches one after the other. Early maturing vegetables are also great for areas with short growing season. You can squeeze in two crops instead of one or, maybe, even more.
Radish is one vegetable that always gives the earliest yield in less than a month from sowing to harvest. But now you can get spinach, lettuce and Asian greens that need only 1 ½ months to mature, and kale, okra, and summer squash that take around 50 days. Then there are a host of other vegetables like broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, beets and carrots that get ready in two month’s time.
8. Harvest in time or a bit earlier
Most gardeners impatiently wait for the first harvest, but become lax later on. Pick vegetables as soon as they are just about ready. Most vegetables are continuous producers, so the more you pick, the more they will produce. This helps increase overall output.
Unlike fruits that are best ripened on the tree, vegetables taste best when they are tender, the possible exceptions being melons and tomatoes. Cucumbers and zucchini are best when they are very young. The same is true for okra and eggplant. You can wait for pea pods to fill out, but beans should be picked before the seeds start to show through. Most greens, except head forming lettuces, can be harvested continuously by snipping off the lower leaves as the mature.
9. Practice succession planting
Succession planting means growing a new crop as soon as a crop is harvested. With careful planning and execution, planting and harvesting can take place side by side for continuous food production all through the season. For example, when you finish with a summer crop of bush beans, you can till it in and plant lettuce in the same spot for fall. This can be followed by a spring crop of peas.
Depending on the time taken by different vegetable to mature, the same beds can be reused for successive generations of crops from season to season. If you grow some early maturing varieties, you might be able to have successive crops within the same season.
When some crops are at the end of their useful life, it may be better to pull them up and add to the compost pile, rather than waiting for the last pod/fruit. You can plant something else in their spot after adding a bit of fresh compost.
Intercropping is another clever way to get every bit out of limited space. Here, you have a mixed planting of crops that have different planting and harvesting times. When early maturing crops are planted in between late maturing ones, you can harvest the former early and then start new plants in their spots. The young seedlings can even benefit from the shade provided by the long-standing ones.
There are tried and tested intercropping buddies like tomatoes and lettuce; winter squash and spinach; sweet corn and radishes. But you can experiment with your own combinations too.
11. Crop rotation for reducing disease risk and high yield
Crop rotation is an age-old technique to break pest and disease cycles. Most pathogens and microbes are host-specific; they affect certain plants or plant families exclusively. If the same crops are repeatedly planted in an area, pest populations increase and result in crop failure. On the other hand, when a new crop takes their place, these organisms, especially their overwintering larvae and spores, get stranded and eventually perish.
Soil fertility is another factor affected by repeated plantings of the same crop. That’s because they selectively use up certain soil nutrients, resulting in their depletion. But a new crop may have different nutrient requirements. Another advantage, of using leguminous plants for crop rotation, in particular, is that that it leaves the soil richer. Beans and other legumes are often planted between subsequent grain crops for this very reason.
12. Use cover crops in winter
If your climate doesn’t allow vegetable crops in winter, you might be able to increase soil fertility by sowing winter cover crops. The idea is to protect the soil in places where there’s no guarantee of protective snow cover during winter.
Leguminous cover crops are ideal because they have root nodules inhabited by nitrogen-fixing bacteria. They increase the availability of nitrogen in the soil for the next crop. Another option is growing plants that can be used as mulches the following season. Till them into the soil at the end of the season; they will decompose and add to soil fertility.
13. Gardening in raised beds
It has been proven time and again that this gardening method results in very high yield, partially because of its high planting density. Vegetables are planted so close together that they hardly leave any space for weeds to grow in between.
Since the raised beds are filled with good soil and compost, it solves all existing soil problems in one stroke, be it clayey soil, rocky terrain, unfavorable pH, or other issues that affect yield.
The loose soil structure of the filled-in beds facilitates good aeration and root run, resulting in healthy plants. Gardening chores are reduced to a minimum and plants get more attention. Pest and disease problems are easily noticed and remedied. Harvesting also becomes easy.
The walkways between beds can be minimized, leaving more space for growing veggies. You can further increase the planting area by giving the top of the bed a dome shape.
14. Add vertical garden features
Yet another way to grow more plants and boost productivity is by incorporating some vertical gardening elements into your vegetable garden. Not just natural climbers like runner beans, peas, and gourds are suitable for vertical growing. Free up space on the ground by directing creepers like pumpkins, watermelons, and sweet potato vines towards poles and trellises. Even tomatoes benefit from growing vertically, especially indeterminate types.
A-frames with wire netting can provide good support for large-fruited vines like melons. The space below can be utilized for growing shade tolerant greens. Lifting the vines off the ground has many advantages such as even ripening of the crop and lesser risk of pests attacking the fruit. They don’t have any chances of touching the soil and rotting at the point of contact. Harvesting becomes much easier too.
Shelves or ladders fitted with several rain gutters can support a large number of salad greens. Hanging baskets and vertical growing towers are other options for growing greens as well as strawberries and tomatoes in least amount of space.
15. Attract pollinators
Some vegetables and fruit trees self-pollinate, but not all. Some need pollinators like honeybees and bumblebees to carry the pollen to the stigma of flowers. Even in plants capable of self-pollination, bees and other pollinating insects are known to increase yield.
The best way to attract pollinators is by growing colorful, nectar-producing flowers in the vegetable garden. Many herbs are bee magnets when they’re in flower, although flowering mars their flavor. Flowering tips are routinely pinched off to promote vegetative growth, but allowing a few of them to flower is a good idea.
Make your garden bee-friendly by avoiding all chemical spraying that would harm these beneficial insects. Use biological control agents against specific pests whenever necessary.
16. Fertilize the garden regularly and according to requirement
Good quality compost should have all the macro and micronutrients plants need. However, an intensely planted, high-yielding garden can exhaust these nutrients pretty quickly. Well rotted farm manure, fish emulsion, and other organic fertilizers should be applied at regular intervals to help maintain soil fertility.
Foliar sprays are ideal for giving a quick boost to your plants. Compost tea is an excellent foliar spray rich in micronutrients. Urine is another. Collect urine separately and use it at a dilution of 1:20 for spraying on the crops. It can be added to the soil after diluting at 1:10. Urine contains urea, a fertilizer commonly used to increase nitrogen levels in soil.
Watch out for early signs of nutritional deficiencies such as yellowing of leaves, purple tints, burnt leaf tips and brown leaf margins. Left unattended, nutritional deficiencies result in poor yield. Identify the specific deficiency from characteristic symptoms or by soil testing, and take remedial action immediately.
17. Watch out for pests and diseases
If anything can be more devastating to your vegetable garden than nutritional deficiencies, it is the occurrence of infections and infestations. Bacteria, viruses, and fungi can cause diseases that can reduce yield or completely destroy crops. Choosing disease-resistant varieties and keeping plants in good health may prevent diseases to some extent, but once they appear, control measures include chemical treatments and removal of affected crops.
Pests that infect the aerial parts of the plants can be successfully controlled when identified early enough. But nematode worms and root borers can be equally damaging. Crop rotation helps minimize pest infestations, but additional measures may be necessary in many cases.