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Our End-of-Season Review Process

This summer, I mentioned to a friend that we were growing a few different types of melons despite our short and relatively cool growing season. “Melons in Saskatchewan!”, she replied, “So, do you just plant them in the spring and hope like heck that it’s hot?” Uhh…no. Would you walk out your front door with a pile of money and just hope like heck that you come back with some groceries? Of course not. You’d take the necessary steps to make sure that your time spent shopping actually left you with a bag full of groceries when you returned home. When your garden produces food that your family depends on, it’s no different.

I often hear growers remark that they have bad luck with a certain aspect of gardening, but the truth is that growing food has little to do with luck. The good decisions I made in the garden this year did not happen by accident. They were all made possible by research or reflection from previous years. If we take the time to dissect problems in our garden as they arise, we can’t help but make improvements our growing process each season.

Given that another year has just come to an end, the timing is right to walk you through our end-of-season review process. Rachel and I sat down to demonstrate our review process for our course members this month. Members can find that video lesson and worksheet on our Seed to Table Supplements page. What follows here are a few notes from our discussion.

rachel and jared talking about vegetables
My wife Rachel joined me for our LIVE session this month to talk vegetables!

I organize my Seed to Table course according to the 8 stages of the growing cycle and it only makes sense that our review process would use those same 8 stages. When we recognize a garden related problem or point of friction, our job is to identify which stage of the growing cycle caused the problem and target that stage for improvement next season. Sometimes the problems lie in unexpected areas. If we give each stage a score, we can even create a nice visual representation of our strengths and weaknesses in the growing cycle. We’ll come back to that at the end. First, let’s take a quick look at some highlights and lowlights from each stage of our 2022 growing cycle.

the growing cycle
The success of a home vegetable grower depends on all stages of the growing cycle.

Stage 1: Survey

Our tasks in this stage are to assess our growing sites and our needs as growers so that we can enter the design stage with a good understanding of both. To reflect on our performance in this stage, we ask questions like this:

  • How well did your garden type and crop selection suit your capabilities?

  • Were there any surprises about the soil, light, or weed populations on your site?

  • Did you correctly anticipate the limits of the growing season in your location?

We are still comfortable focusing on producing a "homestead" type of garden, and after several growing seasons on each of our current garden sites, we've really come to know our land well. We know where the best sun exposure is, we know the last few areas with weed pressure, and we have a great understanding of the spring and fall limits of our growing season. There were no surprises here for us. We gave this stage a rating of 5/5.

our home garden plot
There were no surprises at our home garden plot this season.

Stage 2: Design

In this stage, we calculate how much food to grow, create our garden plan, and select seeds. To reflect on our performance in this stage, we ask questions like this:

  • How pleased were you with your bed size and orientation?

  • How accurate were your production targets for each crop?

  • Were you able to stick to your garden plan and how well did it work?

  • How satisfied were you with your seed selection this season?

We kept the same bed layouts for all of our plots because they've been working well, and years of practice have helped me master the planning process so the plan we created played out exactly as written. We ended up hitting our production targets for most crops and made appropriate plans for the new grain crops thanks to some research before planting. We noted that a couple of our new trials didn't produce bumper crops, but that didn't mean the plan was bad. Our plans will likely always include an experiment or two to keep things interesting. We gave this stage a rating of 5/5.

hulless oats
We adapted our plans to include large patches of grain for the first time this season. This is some of our hulless oats.

Stage 3: Build

In this stage, we spend time on areas that support our growing efforts. This includes improving our garden soil, assembling irrigation systems, managing weed pressure, and gradually building other supporting infrastructure. To reflect on our performance in this stage, we ask questions like this:

  • Did you continue to build and maintain healthy soil?

  • How well did your irrigation system meet your needs?

  • Did you successfully implement the three R's of weed management: reduce, remove, and reclaim?

  • Did you make the desired progress on your infrastructure roadmap?

Our soil continues to improve each season, our irrigation systems are still meeting our needs well, and there is just one plot that still has some weed pressure around the edges still. We made progress on our supporting infrastructure by building a canning shelf in our basement and upgrading our walk-in cooler with a more efficient cooling system. Next season, I would like to build something to help organize the tarps and ground cover equipment that is currently just stacked in a corner of our home garden plot.

We gave this stage a rating of 5/5.

canning shelves
This new wall for canning storage leaves no jar hidden. We used to lose track of jars at the back of our shelves.

Stage 4: Plant

If it’s not obvious, this stage is about planting our seeds indoors and outdoors. To reflect on our performance in this stage, we ask questions like this:

  • Did you make a planting log and record all of your planting activities?

  • How successful were you in starting your own seeds indoors?

  • Did you create suitable conditions for starting seeds and transplanting outdoors?

  • What variables do you need to control better to achieve more consistent results?

Our planting routines are really well established by now, so there is little that needs to change. We are still tracking all of the planting activities on a log so we can always figure out what might have gone wrong if there is ever a problem. The one crop that didn't successfully make it through our planting process this season was our watermelons. I forced the planting of these melons a little too early and didn't provide any season enhancement for them. I knew better so this was a mistake on my part.

We gave this stage a rating of 4/5.

These days, there is very little uncertainty in our planting stage so things generally run like clockwork.

Stage 5: Grow

In this stage, we focus our energy on pruning, supporting, and protecting out plants so they can grow to their full potential. To reflect on our performance in this stage, we ask questions like this:

  • How well did you use pruning (where needed) to control and enhance production?

  • How effectively did your trellising systems support the crops you grew vertically?

  • Did you identify and control any problematic pests or suffer crop damage to pests?

  • If you used season extension strategies, how effective were they?

We stayed on top of pruning as usual and had fun trying some trellising strategies this season. We executed these strategies well and will use them again in the future when they fit with our crop selection and garden plan. I started using our low tunnels to enhance the growing conditions for the heat loving crops in our kitchen garden beds and this worked nicely. Pests were under control for the most part and we really enjoyed the new walk-in tunnel of bird netting for our strawberries. The one exception here was with our celery bed which I left uncovered early in the season and allowed the aphid population to get out of control.

We gave this stage a rating of 4/5.

netted tunnel over strawberries
Our new walk-in netted tunnel over our strawberries kept the berries safe and made picking a breeze.

Stage 6: Harvest

During the harvest stage, we must pay attention to our crops as they mature in order to maximize the quantity and quality of our harvest. We also must learn to handle that harvest properly to prevent all of the food from quickly losing its value. To reflect on our performance in this stage, we ask questions like this:

  • Were you able to consistently harvest crops at the right time?

  • How well did you wash and handle your produce at harvest time?

  • How effective were your systems for curing onions, garlic, potatoes, and squash?

  • What changes could you make so that your harvesting tasks were easier, quicker, and less likely to be forgotten or put off?

Our harvesting routines are nailed down really well, but we did note that we didn't always keep up with continuously harvested crops like pole beens and broccolini this season. We'll need to communicate better about those crops next year, being more clear about whose job it is to stay on top of those regular harvests. The large grain patches we grew this season also posed some new challenges, since we hadn't established any routines for these crops yet. As a result, there was some lag time in those grain harvests between cutting and threshing the grain. We'll be able to work through the grain a lot faster next season now that our threshing machine is built.

We gave this stage a rating of 4/5.

broccolini and broccoli
There is a HUGE difference between the harvesting requirements of broccolini (left) and broccoli (right).

Stage 7: Store

This stage is about mastering the methods and storage conditions we need to stow away our harvest for the winter months. To reflect on our performance in this stage, we ask questions like this:

  • How well did you create and maintain the appropriate storage zones for the crops that you stored in their raw state?

  • How effectively did you use freezing, drying, or canning methods to process excess harvest for long term storage?

We had a few larger than expected harvests this season and we really rose to the challenge by preserving everything so little was wasted. We took full advantage of our cold storage room as well as freezing, drying, and canning methods of preservation. The next area for improvement that we noted here was the organization of our freezer. If we can't see our stored food, we are less likely to use it, and the freezer is one area where our stored food is difficult to see if it is not organized very clearly.

We gave this stage a rating of 4/5.

pea harvest
This is just one of the many bowls of Sabre shelling peas we processed for storage this July.

freezer storage
Our freezer needs a bit more attention. It's storing a lot of food for us, but we're not always sure where everything is.

Stage 8: Eat

If the food we grow doesn’t make it onto our table, none of the other stages matter. So finally, we need to successfully incorporate our homegrown food into our meal planning, do our best to minimize food waste, and recycle any extra or spoiled produce back into our compost stream. To reflect on our performance in this stage, we ask questions like this:

  • What did you grow that you didn't eat?

  • What did you eat that you didn't grow?

  • Did you compost all of your food waste and was your composting process effective and easy enough for everyone in the family to use?

  • How well did you incorporate produce into your meal planning?

The first two questions in this stage are some of my favourite ones to ask and they are the reason we added so much grain to our crop selection this year. We were eating grain and we want to continue to eat grain. We've had no trouble incorporating those new homegrown grain products into our meal planning. Where we struggle sometimes still is in our communication of which crops can and should be eaten each week. As the primary grower and harvester in our family, I need to get better at communicating what food is available so Rachel can plan incorporate our homegrown food into our meals consistently. That said, it has become the norm in our household to eat meals comprised mostly of our own homegrown food and that is still a treat.

We gave this stage a rating of 4/5.

halona melon
We sure didn't have any trouble working our way through 100 lbs of fresh melons this summer. This one is Halona.

The Wheel of Progress

Anytime we are working with some type of scoring or data from the field, I like to represent the information visually. A visual representation can make patterns a little easier to notice, and everything sticks in my brain a little better that way too. The best way to present our growing cycle ratings is with a radial bar graph, so I whipped up a template and had some fun colouring in the scores that we assigned to each stage of the growing cycle.

This round graphical representation is quite suiting for the growing cycle because we can imagine this graph is a wheel and consider how well it would roll as we work our way through the growing cycle year after year. If our graph has large imbalances between stages, our ride will always be bumpy and uncomfortable. If our graph shows low ratings in all areas, thereby creating a small wheel, we can imagine that our wheel won't be getting us very far down the road no matter how many times it spins. The goal then is to develop our strengths in each stage of the growing cycle so that our wheel is large and well rounded. A wheel like this shows us that we've got an efficient growing cycle that is serving our family well.

our wheel of progress radial bar graph.
Here's our Wheel of Progress with our ratings for each stage of the growing cycle.

A quick look at our Wheel of Progress shows that we're generally strong in all stages, but a clear theme here is that the later half of our growing cycle could use the most attention. Stages 4 to 8 each have a minor tweak or two that we would like to make to help things roll along a little more smoothly.

I hope this exercise can help you recognize the importance of each stage in the growing cycle. If even just one of our stages had been neglected and scored a 1 or 2, the performance of our whole wheel would suffer. I know that it's easy to get excited by the design and planting stages early in the season, but if your goal is to successfully produce your own food and integrate it into your family's meals, you'll need to be strong in all areas. That's when growing food becomes really satisfying, and that's why the Seed to Table course covers all aspects of food production from seed to table, not just garden planning or seed starting. Every stage of the growing cycle is equally important when you want to eat from your garden on a year-round basis.

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