When I started growing my own food, I thought that vegetable gardens were planted in the spring and harvested in the fall. Since then my understanding has shifted, thanks to the pressures and challenges I experienced growing food for market. To make a living growing vegetables, I had to find ways to make my land more productive over a longer period of time, I had to figure out how to spread out my workload, and I had to hone my craft so that the plans I laid out on paper at the start of the season would actually come to fruition. In this post, I will highlight the importance of patience, pacing, and practice as they apply to the exciting period of spring planting.
Spring is one time in the garden when patience is really important, but it's not always easy. Growers by nature are changemakers, caretakers, and creators, and we like to solve problems by taking action. When dealing with the nature though, there are forces beyond our control and taking action doesn't always make the most sense. Sometimes, the best thing we can do is wait.
The most difficult time for me to be patient is during spring planting. The soil is prepped, my transplants are ready to go, and planting is the logical next step. My list of planting tasks is usually pretty long, so my natural inclination is to complete tasks on that list whenever I can spare the time. If I can get ahead of schedule, great. That will just leave me more time to put my feet up when it's all done and watch my garden grow. Well, I've since learned that these productive habits of mine can actually get me into quite a bit of trouble, and there are times when waiting is much more important than taking action.
One of the most memorable experiences I had with failing to wait was one season years ago when I transplanted a huge crop of beautiful pepper seedlings too early. Warm summer weather conditions hadn't stabilized yet and the soil was still far too cool. I thought I was getting a jump in the season, but my early action only set my peppers into a state of shock. The whole crop was permanently stunted. When you ruin over 200 beautiful pepper seedlings, the memory sticks with you.
After weeks of waiting and watching, I eventually replaced every bed with pepper seedlings from a local nursery. The new seedlings planted in much warmer conditions quickly overtook the earlier planted peppers in size. I left a few of the stunted peppers in the ground for observation, and they never recovered. It kills me now to think that all I had to do to avoid this problem was wait. Well, to be completely transparent after reading through my notes from that year, there were a couple of other things I did wrong too, but rushing the planting was certainly a major factor.
Today, waiting is one of my favourite techniques to use at planting time, because it works and it's so easy. I just needed a collection of experiences to help teach me the value of patience. My desire to take action is still there, and I let myself take actions to improve the planting conditions with various season extension techniques, but I never let myself plant before the desired conditions are met for each crop. I know how that story ends and it's never good. I hope I have just saved you some of the trouble of learning this one the hard way.
There is a flurry of activity in the vegetable growing community now in late May as everyone rushes to get their gardens planted. A couple of weeks ago, I got a lot of questions from growers asking if it was too early to plant and after a few more weeks pass, there will be another wave of people asking if it is too late to plant. Sure, there is a nice window of time right now when a lot of crops can be planted, but we've actually been planting outdoors since early April here in zone 3. Our planting also doesn't stop at the end of May. We'll keep planting until late August.
There are some significant rewards for spreading out our planting like this. One is that we stretch our harvests over a longer season. This was the biggest motivating factor for me initially, because I wanted to have a steady flow of produce to sell when I ran our urban farm. Another benefit of pacing our planting work is that I also spread my labour over an extended period of time so that I am never tasked with finishing an overwhelming amount of planting in one weekend. My gardening work at the end of May has the same pace to it as any other period. There are a few more transplants to put in, a few crops to harvest, and some routine maintenance.
To give you a taste of my spring pacing, here is a look at part of my planting log this season from the earliest indoor planting until this weekend. The Action codes are as follows: S=Seed indoors, P=Pot up, T=Transplant outdoors, and DS=Direct seed outdoors. So everything with a DS or T was planted outdoors. Bed labels starting with HT are located in our high tunnel so they benefited from the warmer microclimate there. For all other beds I only use portable season extension techniques such as low tunnels or floating row covers.
It's clear from this log that all of my planting work doesn't happen at the same time. This pacing makes the work a lot more pleasant and it leaves me the energy to grow a lot more food than I would if I had to perform all of my planting at the same time. So if you are a producing a Homestead Garden like me that meets your family's vegetable needs on a year round basis, pacing needs to be a priority. However, that's not to say there aren't situations where it would be desirable to align your planting work at the same time. If you want to grow a Pantry Garden, then concentrating your planting work over a short period of time might really help you keep things simpler and still give you the results you want. To learn more about the best type of garden for you, take our Garden Type Quiz.
The discussion on pacing leads nicely into this section, because practice is what has enabled pacing. Years ago, I would have no chance of drafting up an effective planting log like the one I shared above, regardless of how many books I read on the subject beforehand. I have to emphasize that it has taken years of practice to come to this current level of confidence and comfort with our spring planting process.
Growing food is a skill and skills take practice, but practice is much more than just performing an action multiple times. It's pretty common for me to hear growers talk about their years of growing experience, and in the next breath tell me that they always have bad luck with a certain crop. Consistent failure with a crop has nothing to do with luck and everything do to with a failure to practice.
Therefore, I should also emphasize that when I say "practice", I mean intentional practice. An intentional practice of a skill requires repetition of course, but it also demands close observation, diligent record keeping, and even a few controlled trials. If your idea of "practice" is an annual roll of the dice to see what works and what doesn't, then don't expect to see much improvement. The methods and timing that I use today are based on the intentional practice of growing for many seasons, and I had the added advantage of immersing myself in our urban farm operation to accelerate my learning even faster. The average backyard grower will grow most crops once a year, but to produce ongoing harvests for our farm, I would plant a crop like lettuce up to 20 times in a single season. That means that in just 5 years of farming, I had the opportunity to practice lettuce growing 100 times. With this level of repetition, it's hard not to learn a thing or two, but since I also kept detailed records along the way, the experience I gained was priceless. I know the limits for my crops now because I've tested them. Finding your limits will take practice too.
After becoming confident in growing each crop on its own, I have enjoyed finding ways to pack more production into the same amount of space. Interplanting is one technique that can help intensify our production, but of course this takes practice too. One interplanting failure that is now kind of laughable to me, was an attempt to grow some spring bunching onions in the middle of a bed of trellised cucumbers. The two photos below should give you a pretty clear idea of how well that one turned out!
Clearly, at that time, I had no appreciation for how fast my cucumbers grew! The onions never had a chance as they were quickly enveloped by walls of cucumber vines. I remember it being a low pressure experiment that came about a bit spontaneously, but the fact that I even wasted my time planting those onions shows I hadn't thought things through very well.
Lessons like this will continue to present themselves to me whenever I push the limits of my growing experience. The key is to make these experiences valuable by taking responsibility for my vegetable growing practice. That means observing keenly so that I can learn along the way. Now that you've seen the example above, don't you think it would be silly for me to say that I have bad luck with cucumber and onion interplanting? The problem was obviously poor timing on my part, not luck. Yet, that's the type of comment I hear from growers all the time. If I were to really let my success in the garden depend on luck, then I can assure you that the only type of luck I would have would be bad luck. There are just too many things that need to go right in the life of a vegetable plant. The stars are not going to align by chance.
There's a look into my perspective on patience, pacing, and practice. These are three mindset shifts that have been significant for me, especially during spring planting, so I hope you consider adopting these ideas into your ways of thinking. I think these ideas are really all GOOD news for the grower. What a relief it is that patience can be a solution sometimes. That means the answer does not always require me to work harder. Sometimes, I just need to take a break, and on that note, thank goodness that it is possible and even beneficial to plant our crops at a gradual pace instead of cramming all that work into one or two weekends. The most powerful realization of all though, is that growing improves with intentional practice, not luck. Sure, that means that when something goes wrong, it was probably related to something I did or didn't do, but that's a good thing. I can't change my luck, but I can change the way I grow! With that understanding, I can really be as good at growing my own food as I desire to be. The same is true for you.