7 Secrets for a High-yield Backyard Garden

If you’re hoping to grow a high-yield backyard garden this year, you’re not alone. Most gardeners hope to get the most from their homegrown gardens, whether those gardens happen to be 2′ x 2′ or 20′ x 20′. Follow these seven tried-and-true tips, and you’re sure to reap a lot more than you sow.

Cherish Your Soil

The single most important thing that you can do to ensure that your garden is productive is to take good care of your soil. This means “building it up” by keeping it well fertilized (but not over fertilized) and loose (meaning that it has plenty of organic matter), so that you have every gardener’s dream: loose, fertile soil that can “breathe” and transport nutrients.

healthy garden soil

Take your soil for granted by neglecting to nourish it or habitually overworking it, however, and you’ll eventually see your garden vegetables pay the price. Not only will they suffer from stunted growth and low yields, they’ll be much more likely to fall prey to disease and insect predation.

Don’t know the first thing about soil? Here are some tips:

  • Get a basic understanding of soil, such as what its major components are and what the different soil nutrients do.
  • Consider composting. Creating your own compost is an incredibly easy, safe and cost-efficient way to fertilize your soil.
  • Don’t overwater. Yes, to keep your garden vegetables growing they need a solid supply of clean water, but it’s important to remember that the more you water, the more nutrients you flush from your soil. The key is to water an _appropriate_ amount for the plants and conditions in which you grow.

Be Smart About Space

Garden spacing is a bit of a balancing act. On the one hand, you don’t want to pack so many plants into one space that they don’t have enough room to grow. But, on the other hand, give them too much room and you’re more likely to waste water and open your garden up to weed predation.

As you plan and grow your backyard garden, use space wisely by:

  • Giving plants just enough room to thrive. Follow your seed or transplant supplier’s planting instructions, and resist the urge to overplant your space. It’s better to have fewer plants that produce more than more plants that produce less.
  • Consider using raised beds. Not only are raised beds easier to work, the soil is easier to amend, it tends to be workable earlier in the season than in-ground garden soil, and there’s no space wasted for footpaths.
  • Planting in triangular and staggered patterns rather than squares and rectangles.

spacing to increase garden yield

Pick Plants That Are Right For Your Growing Conditions

When you’re deep in an impulse-driven, seed-buying frenzy, it can be easy to forget that some herbs and vegetables—no matter how hard you try—just aren’t going to do well in your garden simply due to the unique growing conditions of your space. Whether it’s the pH of your soil, the amount of sun your plot gets, or the space you have available, picking plants that are incompatible with your growing conditions is sure to produce two outcomes: an irritated you and an underperforming garden.

When choosing which herbs and vegetables to grow in your garden, consider:

  • What’s the pH of your soil? (Not sure, check out these easy, free ways to test soil.)
  • How much sun will your garden get?
  • What type of soil do you have?
  • How much space do you have?

Once you have a good idea of your growing conditions, choose plants that are a good fit. Choosing the right plants for your space can make a huge difference between garden success and failure.

Water Wisely

When it comes to water, all you need to do is make sure that your garden veggie’s get enough of it, right? Well, no, not so much. If you want a high-yield backyard garden that runs at maximum productivity, it’s incredibly important to water your garden properly. This means:

  • Using water that is approximately the same temperature as the air and/or soil (“ambient temperature”). When you use water that is too hot or too cold (like the water that comes spilling out of your garden hose), it can shock your plants and retard their growth for weeks at a time.
  • Don’t overwater or underwater. This is definitely a balancing act. Underwater and your plants won’t get enough water to thrive. Overwater and you’ll make them more susceptible to moisture-related diseases (like powdery mildew) and leach your soil of the very nutrients you’re trying to keep. The best ways to water appropriately are to pay attention to your seed/transplant supplier’s planting instructions and know what the critical watering periods are for garden vegetables that you’re growing.

watering your garden

Incorporate Companion Planting and Crop Rotation Techniques

Did you know that many backyard garden vegetables have BFFs? Or that vegetables, just like people, can benefit from a seasonal change of scenery? Two natural gardening methods that farmers have been using for centuries, companion planting and crop rotating are two time-methods to improve your backyard crop yields. So, what are they?

Companion planting involves planting compatible plants (companions) close together in your garden. Typically, companion plants are chosen because they somehow support one another (such as growing a plant that repels insects next to a plant that is often pestered by them) or because they have complementary growing cycles (such as growing rows of fast-growing vegetables in between rows of slow-growers).

Crop rotation involves changing up your garden plan on an annual basis so that different vegetables and/or herbs are grown in a given space every season. Not only does this often help balance soil deficiencies (since different vegetables consume different nutrients at different levels), it also helps deter soil-borne diseases.

Stretch Your Growing Season

If you’re like me, you live in a temperate zone that’s great for gardening—three months out of the year. Outside of that (and without a dedicated greenhouse) keeping a productive backyard garden can be a challenge. There are, however, tools and techniques that we cool-weather gardeners can use to stretch our growing seasons, such as:

Cold-weather growing tools like cloches and cold frames can help keep the air around your plants warm even when outdoor temperatures get quite cold, which can be all you need to get an extra crop out of your garden every season.

The Biggest Tip for a High-Yield Backyard Garden

Keep gardening! Keeping a productive, bountiful garden can be a bit of work, but it’s worth it! By putting a little time in every day for weeding, cultivating and nurturing your garden, you’re much more likely to be successful, and to keep small problems in check.

For more useful information on how to care for your garden, see my Gardening Guides page.

Images graciously provided by Natural Resources Conservation Service, Aaron Baugher and Mark Turnauckas. Thanks!

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How to Water Your Garden

Did you know that a tomato is 95% water? So, is it really a big surprise that how you water your garden tomatoes is just as important as how you fertilize them or care for them?

After having fertile soil, watering your garden the right way may be the most important thing you can do to keep your garden growing, healthy and productive. Although beginning gardeners often think that just having plenty of clean water is all it takes, knowing how to water your garden means understanding a lot more, such as when to water, where to water, what type of water to use, and even how your garden vegetables take up the water they get.

watering cans

When you water your garden this year, pay attention to:

The Temperature of the Water

Do you enjoy freezing cold or scalding hot showers? Shocker: Neither do your garden veggies. In fact, water your garden with water that is too cold or too hot and it can take weeks for your plants to recover. Do it again and you’ve lost another few weeks of your growing season. In fact, some plants may never recover from the shock.

So, how can you prevent shocking your plants? Use standing water (like water from a rain barrel or water that’s been stored outside for a day or so) instead of water from the hose. Just make sure that the water you use hasn’t been sitting in the sun too long, otherwise it could be too hot. Also, using a drip irrigation system in your garden is great for preventing temperature shock to roots.

Where You Water Your Plants

If you want to keep a garden that’s productive and efficient, a good rule of thumb is to water the roots and not the leaves. Since garden plants take up water through their roots, that’s where the water is needed. So, when you water the leaves, you’re really just wasting water that could be used elsewhere. Also, water that pools on leaves can promote humidity-related diseases like molds, rots and powdery mildew.

An easy way to minimize wasted water is to use a strategically placed drip irrigation system or soaker hose. Some studies have even found drip irrigation to be around 90% more efficient than standard hose watering for allowing plants to use the water given to them.

When to Water Your Garden

The amount of water your garden needs and the depth to which it’s needed are different based on the types of plants you grow and where those plants are in their life cycles. For instance, seedlings have different watering needs than mature plants, and different plants have different critical watering periods.

Although your best bet is to spend a little time researching the critical watering periods for vegetables you’re growing, if you can’t spare the time or energy, here are a few general guidelines that may help:

  • Water your garden in the morning or in the evening, since you’re less likely to lose water to evaporation at the beginning or end of the day.
  • Refrain from watering at midday or the hottest part of the day, since water will most likely evaporate before your plants can take it in.
  • Remember the “inch per week” rule, which basically says that if there hasn’t been at least one inch (2.5 cm) of rainfall in the past seven days, water your entire garden very well. You’ll want to make sure that the water permeates deeply and that it gets everywhere (and not just around plant roots).

diy rain barrels

The Type of Water You’re Using

Are you watering your garden with hard water or soft water? Do you even know, or know the difference?

Hard water is water that has a lot of dissolved minerals in it, particularly calcium carbonate and magnesium carbonate. If you find white deposits in your sinks or on your utensils, you probably have hard water. So, what does hard water do? Well, it can raise the pH of your soil (which, depending on the pH sensitivity of the plants you grow, can be devastating or no big deal), and it can result in yellow, sickly plants with stunted growth. Soft water, on the other hand, has a lot of salt in it, which removes nutrients, retards growth, and inhibits plant life in general.

If you only have access to hard water, consider only growing plants that can thrive in high-pH conditions, such as asparagus, broccoli, beets and carrots. Otherwise, you’re likely to be disappointed with your yields. Also, remember that plants and vegetables grown in containers may be affected even more by soft or hard water conditions because they’re typically watered more.

rain barrel system

How Dry Your Garden Soil Gets

Most gardeners understand that nutrients pass from the soil to plants through water that is taken up from the plants’ roots. What they may not realize, however, is that when the soil around a plant’s roots dries out completely, plants don’t just stop taking in nutrients (which, in turn, slows their growth), they also start reacting in other ways. In fact, if a plant’s roots are dry long enough, the plant basically panics, switching from growth mode to crisis mode. When in crisis mode, plants bolt, send up seeds, and let their leaves die instead of producing delicious leaves and fruits.

This is one of the reasons it’s so important to follow (at a minimum) the one inch of water rule. More than a week without water and your plants are likely to panic, bolt and slowly die off. So, if it’s been seven days since your garden has seen water or rain, it’s time to give it a good soaking.

For more useful information on how to care for your garden, see my Gardening Guides page.

Images graciously provided by infobunnyJessica B., and Susy Morris. Thanks!

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How to Grow Lemon Grass

If you’re looking for a garden herb that is easy to grow, easy to cook with, and looks amazing as edible landscaping, look no further than lemon grass. A lemon-scented, lemon-flavored herb native to India that is used in Southeast Asian cooking, lemon grass has it all: great looks, great taste, and a low-maintenance lifestyle.

lemongrass herb

A Bit About Lemon Grass

A tropical herb in the grass family, lemon grass is a perennial herb typically grown in zones 8 and higher, but it can easily be grown as an annual in cooler climates. In fact, it can even be wintered indoors. Lemon grass is one of those few herbs that really does have it all: Whether you want to grow herbs that are aromatic, provide pretty landscaping possibilities, that are good for cooking or that are easy to grow, lemon grass works. In fact, unless you put it in a dark corner and neglect to water it, it’s a little hard not to grow lemon grass once you’ve put it in the ground! Mature plants can get quite large, growing 3-4 feet tall (or up to 9 feet in tropical areas) and 3 feet wide, with dense root balls.

How to Grow Lemon Grass from Seed

Depending on what your local greenhouses and nurseries grow, buying transplants may not be an option for you. So, if you’re going to grow lemon grass from seed, here are a few things to keep in mind:

  • You’ll want to spread lemon grass seeds on soil, and then lightly press the soil down.
  • Seeds need temperatures above 55’F (13’C). Anything less than that and you’ll want to keep your seeds indoors until outdoor temperatures are higher.
  • Keep the soil moist as the seeds germinate (which will take anywhere from 7 – 14 days).
  • Do not let the soil completely dry out as the seedlings establish themselves.
  • Transplant your lemon grass seedlings outdoors after the final frost for the season, and once plants are at least 6 inches tall.

Planting and Growing Tips

Although lemon grass is exceptionally easy to grow, there are a few things you can do to keep your plants as healthy, lush and pretty as possible. These include:

  • Plant lemon grass in full sun, and spacing plants 24-36 inches apart.
  • If you’re planning on growing your lemon grass in containers, your pots will need to be at least 16 inches wide and 6 inches deep. This is both due to the size to which lemon grass can grow and the thick root ball that it forms.
  • Water it regularly throughout the growing season.
  • Give it the humid, warm environment that it likes best. The more tropical you can make your growing environment, the better.

lemongrass in a pot

Propagating Lemon Grass

If you already have a mature plant or don’t want to bother with growing lemon grass from seed, it’s easy enough to propagate lemon grass by either:

  • dividing the root ball and planting the new divisions in loose, fertile soil
  • starting root cuttings in water

Basically, since it’s a hardy grass, lemon grass is pretty willing to propagate itself if you give it enough help. Just be sure to give it the full sun it needs.

Harvesting Lemongrass

Lemon grass should be harvested when stalks are at least 12 inches tall. To harvest the plants, just cut the stalks near the base or pull out whole stalks at a time. A few notes of interest:

  • If you pull out whole stalks, you’ll notice that the bottoms of each stalk are swollen, a bit like green onions. This is normal.
  • The edible portion of the stalk is the bottom third. The upper two-thirds of each stalk are typically grass-like and not used in cooking (although they do still smell nice).
  • The outer layer is typically not eaten, just the inner layer.
  • To use lemon grass, peel off the outer sheath and use the inner stem fresh or cooked.

lemongrass in containers

Overwintering Lemon Grass

If you’re not lucky enough to live in a tropical environment, don’t despair: You don’t have to start fresh and regrow your lemon grass from seed every year. It’s easy enough to overwinter lemon grass indoors. Just follow these tips:

  • Dig up the stalks, trim them down to about 3-4 inches, and plant them in pots. (Since you won’t actually be growing lemon grass in pots, the pots don’t need to be full-size. They just need to be large enough to comfortably hold the division you’re choosing to keep.)
  • Keep the pot in a cool, dark area indoors, and only water it a few times over the winter. (You just want to keep the roots active; You’re not trying to encourage growth.)
  • When the season starts to change and warm up, transition the pot to a window where it can get full, bright sun, and start keeping the soil just moist.
  • When danger of frost is past and temperatures top 40° F, transplant your plant outdoors.

For more information on growing lemon grass or many more popular garden herbs, see my Gardening Guides page. It offers growing specifications for herbs and veggies, plus loads of other great gardening resources.

Images graciously provided by Christopher Paquette herehere and here. Thanks!

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Planning an Herb Garden

planning a container herb garden

If you love to garden but have a hard time finding the energy, time and space to keep a full-grown vegetable garden, consider growing herbs. Keeping an herb garden is typically easier and less time-consuming than keeping a vegetable garden, and it takes a lot less room too.

Before you plant those fledgling herb transplants, however, it’s best to take a little time to plan your garden first. A planned garden typically performs better—which usually means a more productive garden (and a happier gardener!).

Tips for Planning an Herb Garden

Pick a Good Site

Other than picking the right herbs to grow, picking a good site may be the most important thing that you can do to have a happy herb garden. Be sure to choose a site that has:

  • Good soil. How can you tell what kind of soil you have? If you’re lucky, you’ll have soil that’s fertile, loamy and drains well. If you don’t, consider amending it until it’s fit for habitation.
  • Access to lots of sunlight. Although some herbs grow in shade, most prefer a good deal of sunlight. The one exception to this might be if you’re planning on growing herbs in containers. Growing herbs and vegetables in containers typically takes more water than growing them in a garden bed. (Should you choose to go the container route, however, be sure to picking the right kinds of containers for your plants can help reduce unnecessary moisture loss.)
  • Access to water. Whether you plan on carrying water in or using an irrigation system, your herb garden will need access to plenty of clean water, so make sure you have some way to get it there.

growing a container herb garden

Pick the Right Herbs

You’ve got a great site, so now it’s time to consider what herbs you should grow. Before you plant anything, consider:

  • Why are you growing an herb garden? Because you want something pretty? Because you want to grow your own herbs for cooking? Because you want to support wild bee populations? Or because you want to grow medicinal herbs? Believe it or not, any of these gardening goals can be be accomplished with herbs—it’s just a matter of picking the right herbs for what you want to accomplish.
  • If you want to grow herbs for a kitchen garden, think about what herbs you like and what type of cooking you do most. Sure, parsley is extremely easy to grow, but how likely are you to use it on a regular basis?
  • What herbs are best for your growing conditions? Do you need herbs that can grow in shade or herbs that can survive in full sun? Both are available, so it’s matter of finding herbs that fit your site.

Don’t Overplant Your Garden

Herbs can grow surprisingly large if given the right growing conditions. If you want your herbs to thrive, you’ll need to give them enough room to grow. Be sure to:

  • Follow any growing guidelines or instructions provided by your seed supplier. Most seed packages have planting guidelines printed on the inside or outside of the package.
  • Have a containment plan for any perennial herbs you plan on growing. Both bed edging and appropriately sized containers can work well.
  • Keep an eye on aggressive herbs (like mint and chives) so that they don’t crowd out slower growing herbs.
  • Leave room to maneuver. If you’ll need to enter your garden to weed or harvest, leave enough room for a foot path (so that you don’t compact bed soil by stepping on it).

growing herbs

Pick Good Companion Herbs

Companion plants don’t just come in fruits and vegetables, there are plenty of companion herbs that you can choose too. The most popular companion herbs include:

Obviously, the best way to plan your garden is to think about your goals, growing conditions and lifestyle. Plan it properly and you’re sure to love and successfully maintain your garden for years.

For more information on herb gardening, check out these articles on Keeping a Self-sowing Herb Garden and Ideal pH Ranges for Herbs. Or, for in-depth specifications for growing popular herbs, visit my Gardening Guides page.

Images graciously provided by Thomas Kriese, Art Aspirations, and Suzette. Thanks!

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Tips for Growing Strawberries

Worried about all of the pesticides used on store-bought strawberries? Then maybe it’s time you started growing strawberries in your garden. These sweet, delicious berries are relatively easy to grow—and (like most berries) they’re loaded with healthy antioxidants and phytonutrients.

The Different Types of Strawberry Plants

If you’re planning on growing strawberries, it’s important that you find the right type of strawberry plant for your needs. Different cultivars have different strengths, making some ideal for canning while others are much better suited to summer snacking. So, which of these four popular types of garden strawberries are right for you?

Junebearers (Fragaria x ananassa), which, true to their name, bear fruit in June or July for most of the U.S., are relatively easy to care for and best used for freezing, canning and drying because they produce one huge crop over a month (rather than several smaller crops). Considered by some to be the highest quality strawberry you can grow, Junebearers are quite prolific, so they tend to spread quickly and produce plenty of runners.

strawberry plants

Everbearers (Fragaria x ananassa), which produce three crops (one in June, one in summer, and then one in the early fall) are another popular choice. Because Everbearers produce more evenly throughout the growing season than Junebearers, they’re a good choice for gardeners who want access to fresh, homegrown strawberries. They tend to do well in Northern climates with long summer days, and because they produce fewer runners than Junebearers, they’re easier to control.

Day Neutrals (Fragaria x ananassa) can be extremely productive but are also a bit tempermental. This type of garden strawberry produces fruit from June until the 1st frost in cooler climates and from January (yes, January!) through August in warmer climates. Unfortunately, they’re known for being sensitive to heat and weed competition.

Alpine Strawberries (Fragaria vesca), which are known for being very easy to care for, are another popular choice. If it’s your first time growing strawberries, you may want to start with these popular, little strawberry plants. They produce small, sweet berries from early summer until the 1st frost and, because they do not spread by runners (they’re actually grown from strawberry seeds), they’re extremely easy to control.

Region Matters When It Comes to Strawberries

Another thing to keep in mind when you’re deciding what type of strawberry to grow is region. Different strawberry cultivars have been adapted for different regions, so there are varieties that excel at growing in colder regions, resisting pest infestation, etc. So, find the right regional cultivar and you’ll go a long way in preventing problems and producing more strawberries in your garden. For instance, if you live in a colder clime but still want to grow strawberries, try Honeoye and Jewel. If disease and pest resistance are bigger concerns for you, consider Seascape (which is known for excellent virus and disease resistance) or Rainier (an adaptable Junebearer).

strawberry plants

Also, before trying to grow strawberries in your garden, consider what disease challenges are common in your region. Because garden strawberries face a number of challenges (such as fruit rot, leaf spot, black root rot, verticillium wilt, red stele, leaf scorch, leaf blight, and more) and are prey to something like 200 species of pests, it makes sense to see if there is a strawberry variety well-suited for the growing challenges common to your local growing conditions. For an incredibly useful list of the disease resistance of various strawberry varieties, check out this list.

General Growing Tips for Strawberries

If you’re ready to get down, dirty and grow some strawberries, remember:

  • They prefer slightly acidic, fertile, well-drained soil. They also need full sun (except Alpine strawberries, which can do well in partial shade), and tend to do better when planted on sloping or high ground.
  • If you want your strawberry plants to channel their energy into producing fruit (instead of spreading), remove runners as they appear. If, however, you’re more concerned with establishing a nice, thick strawberry patch, let runners and daughter plants spread without intervention. (This wouldn’t apply to Alpine strawberries, however, since they only spread by seed.)
  • Pinch off early strawberry blossoms the 1st year. This tends to increase plant vigor and to help plants establish themselves.
  • Strawberries are shallow rooted, so they can be sensitive to aggressive weed competition. So, controlling weeds is vital to the long-term health and productivity of garden strawberries. (Worried about weeds and disease? Check out this article on natural ways to keep your garden healthy.)
  • Mulch is your friend. Not only can a generous helping of mulch help protect your growing strawberry plants from frost heave, weed competition, and moisture loss, some types of mulch have even been found to have very real (and good) effects on fruit production. In particular, plastic red mulch has been shown to significantly impact the production of strawberries, cantaloupe and peppers.

growing strawberries

Maintaining Strawberry Plants

Once you’ve put the time and effort into establishing your own strawberry patch, you’ll want to know how to maintain your strawberry plants so that they remain healthy and productive. Although growing strawberries isn’t particularly difficult, strawberries do need some amount of care and maintenance to thrive. Remember:

  • Strawberry plants aren’t immortal, and they typically show signs of decline after a few years. To keep your strawberry beds healthy and productive, you’ll want to start fresh plants or beds every few seasons. If you can rotate the site, even better, but if not, be sure to keep your soil fertile and disease-free.
  • When harvesting, cull any diseased, infected, moldy or deformed berries that you see right away. Moldy berries, in particular, should be culled every day. To prevent spreading mold spores, be sure to “quarantine” your hands by picking moldy and healthy berries separately, putting them in separate baskets, and washing your hands when switching between harvesting healthy and bad berries.
  • Strawberry plants tend to prefer lighter but consistent fertilizer application, so two feedings per year is more than enough. And don’t over fertilize. Not only could you damage your plants, you’ll see softer fruit and encourage fruit rot.

growing strawberries

Hopefully these tips for growing strawberries should get you off to a good start. For more in-depth information on caring for your garden or growing your favorite fruits and vegetables, be sure to check out my Garden Guides page. Good luck!

Images graciously provided by Fabian, Nathan Coopriderraven seen, and Chris Burke. Thanks!

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