Kathy Jentz of Washington Gardener magazine posts a "tip of the day" for gardeners (which you can read by following her on Twitter or Facebook). This one popped up yesterday:
Plan your ornamental and vegetable gardens around your annual schedule. In other words, don't plant tulips that peak in May, if that is when you are away at a business conference, or cucumbers that produce in August, if that is your annual vacation time.
Such a simple concept but one we often don't think about. Garden planning is frequently based on the idea that there are certain things we should have, as if there were a universal garden to aspire to and we fail by not achieving parts of it. But really, if you're going to miss seeing or harvesting something, why bother even growing it?
Now, I'm going to tweak this a bit. Can't help it about the tulips, though if that business conference is only a week you can always find some that peak earlier or later. But vegetables can be scheduled to some extent. Here are some suggestions for achieving that cucumber or tomato harvest even if you're away during August.
- Know the maturity period for what you're planting. Seed packets and/or seed catalogs should provide you with a days-till-harvest number. This will usually mean from seeding if the crop is customarily grown by putting seeds directly in the ground (e.g. cucumbers), or from transplant if plants must be started inside or bought as seedlings (e.g. tomatoes). Our Vegetable Planting Calendar gives you this information for common crops, but remember that different varieties may have considerable difference in maturity dates. (Also, maturity may be affected by local conditions, but let's just assume the numbers are more or less accurate.)
- Know when plants or seeds can be safely put in the ground. Warm-weather plants such as tomatoes shouldn't be planted outside until the chance of frost has diminished to close to none. (See frost date information here.) And cool-weather plants don't like growing into the hot summer. But look at the Planting Calendar again - there's not just one date on which you can plant each crop, but a long range of dates. For example, cucumbers can be planted (by seed outside) from early May to early July.
- Do the math and put together a schedule that works for you. Maybe you want to plant your cucumbers as early as possible, using a variety that matures quickly, and harvest a lot in July before you go away. Or put your tomatoes in quite late and plan for a September harvest. (You may need to start your own tomato plants in this case, since nursery supplies dwindle and/or get over-mature by June. But there is no rule stating that you need to start tomato plants in March! Relax and wait.)
- If you're the competitive sort, think about using season extension techniques (tunnels, row covers, cloches, wall-o-water-type devices) to rush the season and harvest the earliest tomatoes in your neighborhood. Perhaps choose a determinate variety to get an early harvest and pick over a short period of time. Learn about canning or freezing to preserve that large harvest.
- Also consider combinations of varieties that will give you both early and late harvests, like some early plantings of bush beans, along with longer-producing pole beans, followed by even more bush beans. If you really like beans.
- Whatever you end up planting, remember that your plants will need watering and caring for while you're away. Trade favors with a neighbor, hire someone, or set up a drip irrigation system with a timer (but still get someone to check that it's working, and that the health of your garden as a whole is good, and to harvest what doesn't decide to stick to the schedule). Mulch well to limit the amount of weeding necessary. Stake your plants so they don't overgrow and flop.
Using the knowledge you can glean from information resources like those above, you can come up with your own list of techniques for other extended absences. If it's May you miss and you never get to enjoy fresh spinach, consider planting it in the fall and giving it some mulch for protection, or a tunnel or cold frame, to enjoy very early spring harvests. Or try some winter-hardy greens like mache or claytonia. Or grow spinach-like plants that can be harvested in the summer, like chard, New Zealand spinach, or Malabar spinach. Or just hang on for fall.
If long trips or busy schedules make growing some vegetables just too much trouble, remember that gardens can be prioritized toward less labor-intensive crops, and that no matter where you go, there is probably a farmer's market where you can buy big delicious tomatoes, crunchy cucumbers, and whatever else your heart (and stomach) desires.