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High-yield vegetable gardens

How to obtain incredible yields from a small urban square footage, and make it all look beautiful, too!

1. Plant edibles. It sounds really obvious, but Americans tend to plant way too many flowers. Fill your space with food plants and then add a few flowers in the left-over spaces. Learn which food plants are handsome: the glossy evergreen leaf of citrus rivals any ornamental hedge. Pomegranates are breathtaking in nearly every season.

2. Take advantage of our year-round growing season. Don’t limit yourself to summer. Our Southern California cool season includes some of our most productive months! Use the Digitalseed San Diego online calendar to time your vegetable plantings all year. Select fruit tree varieties to harvest sequentially so that you have an ongoing harvest stream.

3. Maximize the square footage of your garden. Put the most area you can to work at growing vegetables. Much more than a small rectangle in the remote back corner of your yard, you can grow food in all the places that you used to call “flower” beds, and between the ornamental shrubs too!

4. Build your soil. That includes using mulch (big chunks, used on top of soil) and compost (decomposed, fine texture, tilled into soil), rotating your vegetables, and constantly planting legumes (peas and beans).

5. Nurture your soil critters. Earthworms are only the visible part of the life spectrum; there are millions of live critters that live in symbiotic relationships in healthy garden soil. Garden chemicals sear them out of existence. Keep them happy with food (give ‘em compost) and moisture (use mulch as a quilt to “tuck them in”). Your soil should feel like a damp wrung-out sponge.

6. Use biointensive spacing. John Jeavons’ classic book How to Grow More Vegetables supplies charts and spacing information for the ultimate optimization of what growing space you do have. Space closely, but not too close to avoid weakening plants and bringing on mildew and disease. Also try dwarf and ultra-dwarf fruit trees, genetic dwarfs or dwarfing rootstocks, to get the most diversity into your small urban yard.

7. Choose “prolific” varieties. Also labeled as “abundant yield” and “vigorous” in the seed catalogs, these vegetable varieties will give you more food per plant than other varieties.

8. Cultivate diversity. Plant a cool-weather variety and a drought-tolerant variety to cope with unexpected weather events. Observe which plants yield best for you, save seed and repeat your success in following years. Join a seed bank and help preserve heirlooms. You’ll get far better flavor than in the supermarket and you’ll help guarantee the survival of a diverse gene pool for the future.

9. Go feral. Rather than “perennial vegetables,” which are notoriously low yield (and often not too palatable) make your garden easy-care by planting vegetable types which are likely to reproduce abundantly and go wild in your location. Then, allow them to complete their full life cycle so that they provide you with abundant offspring!

10. Group similar needs together. Put drought-tolerant black-eyed peas with drought-tolerant Mediterranean herbs. Put high-water lettuces with other high-water plants. Observe microclimates and use them as a tool. If a tall tree gives you a shady spot, use that as the place for summer lettuces and leafy vegetables. If you have bright searing sun, use that spot for heat-loving peppers and drought-tolerant vegetable varieties.

11. Go vertical. Use trellises to train vines upward so that you can plant underneath. Use forest garden layering to grow food in 3 dimensions rather than just on a flat plane.

12. Use containers to supplement your garden space. You can increase the square footage of your growing area by clustering pots together in corners of a patio or along walkways.

13. Pick functional flowers like beneficial insect attractant flowers and edible flowers. Let some vegetables go to seed — their flowers are pretty, they bring in “the good bugs,” plus you’ll have a sustainable source of vegetable seed. Also consider colored heirloom vegetable plants – like red-leafed lettuces, rainbow chard, or purple-podded snowpeas – rather than just ornamental flower plants.

14. Use art and design principles. In your layout, use symmetry and asymmetry. Notice how vegetable leaves and plant structure provide enormous varieties of color, texture, and form. Undulate your pathway lines. Go 3D. Use the open space of patios and living space, and offset it with intensely-filled vegetable beds.

15. Make it a space you want to visit often. And do so! Rather than marathon backbreaking sessions once-in-a-while, give your garden short tender-loving-care sessions on a set, regular schedule.

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