5 Ways To Be A Better Vegetable Gardener Without Lifting A Shovel Or Spending A Dime

1. Order seed catalogues. Amateur gardeners buy seed packets off the rack at Home Depot. Serious gardeners place orders with trusted seed houses. Once you’ve placed a major order with Territorial, Johnny’s, Irish Eyes, or your favorite regional seed seller, you’ll be on their list and – soon – on everyone’s. This isn’t a bad thing. Seed catalogs – most of them, anyway – aren’t junk mail like some sad Coldwater Creek brochure languishing in your mailbox. 
The best seed catalogs provide detailed, specific information on hundreds or thousands of vegetable varieties. They offer cultural requirements and growing needs and planting timetables targeted to your area! You’d be hard pressed to find any gardening book with as much detailed info on the actual growing of specific vegetables as you are likely to find in the best gardening catalogs. And they will send you this info for free.

2. Plan your garden with Google Maps. This is a fantastic way to “try out” garden expansions, path shapes and new bed locations without ever getting off the couch. It is an ideal garden project for winter, when looking out the window with a big cup of coffee has more appeal than actually opening the door to crunch across frozen bark in search of more kale. 
I talked about garden planning with Google Maps a while back. You can get all the details here. Since that original post the Google Eye has swung over our house again and now we have an updated satellite photo, so you can see the before and after (that white thing in the last photo is the kiddie pool we had up for awhile this summer before it sprung a leak and flooded all my irises).
Before: what we were working with. The original garden.
Lazy Garden Planner/GoogleMaps Sketch. Note chicken.
A year later: all sketch components actually implemented, including coop and mini-orchard. Miracle!

3. Ask your family what they like to eat. If you’re gardening for one, ask yourself, and answer honestly. And then actually plant mostly what they like. Sounds simple, but so many gardeners invest time, garden bed space and money, in the form of seeds and soil amendments, to grow beets or peppers only to find out no one in their family will eat the end product. 
Gardeners have this idea that we “should” grow everything in the seed catalog, every year. That’s bogus. Example: next year I’m skipping tomatoes. (No really, I mean it this time! Someone hold me to it. Mostly.) Why should I torture myself attempting to grow tomatoes in La Nina Seattle for fresh eating when primarily we like them jarred, for cooking, anyway?
Unless you’re growing a true French Chateau-style formal potager, the point of growing vegetables is to eat them, not look at them. You will feel better about your efforts if a good portion of what you grow is embraced rather than composted.
Not realistic for urban gardeners.
4. Toss your pesticides. A colony of bald faced wasps built a modern-art hive in my garden this summer. In past years I have called in the wasp guy to minimize the risk of a kid-sting situation when hives have been built on my house, but this year the nest was high up and in a tree on the far side of the garden. I let the nest be (bee? ha!), and was rewarded with one of the lowest overall pest loads in my garden I’ve seen in seven years of vegetable gardening. I am convinced that those wasps were chewing up caterpillars and other gardener-unfriendly bugs.
If I had called out the big toxic guns on the wasps, I likely would have had more of a pest problem in the form of cabbage moths and various leafhoppers. The holy grail idea of organic gardening is a natural balance of predator insects to keep the pest insect populations low enough that crop loss is minimal. I’m not getting rid of Sluggo any time soon (okay, never), but I am now a true believer in the concept.
The wasps survived.
5. Know where the answers are. It doesn’t matter what the gardening questions are, the answers from your fellow gardeners are at the GardenWeb Forums and the answers from the experts are at the National Sustainable Agriculture Information Service
The GardenWeb forums are broken down by topic of interest (vegetables, orchards, tomatoes, herbs, etc.). Chances are excellent that if you have a question, someone before you has asked it on the GardenWeb forums and received a whole host of educated answers. 
NSAIS is targeted at the organic small farmer, and the information presented here is comprehensive and professional. All their excellent documentation used to be free, but they lost government funding and now some of it is a few bucks to download. Much is still free, however, and for depth and breadth this site can’t be beat. Check out their Master Publication List to get an idea of the info available here.
What’s your favorite way to be a better gardener without leaving the couch?
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Comments

  1. One of my favorite ways of getting great ideas is by reading your blog every day! Of course, I cruise through about a dozen websites a day to see what's new, but the ones I read thoroughly are the practical ones that give detailed descriptions of what they do, successes and failures, and don't just post pretty pictures of flowers.

    Thanks for your experience. I'm a better urban farmer because of it.

  2. Thanks BePartial! That means a lot! Thought of you because I just made rice and beans and shrimp quesadillas served with a jar of the peach salsa from the Canning For a New Generation book! Hope you and your daughters are enjoying it! :)

  3. Oh Erica! All great suggestions, especially number three. Although sometimes you don't know what you like until you've eaten it fresh from your garden.

    Are you on GardenWeb? What forums do you frequent? I am, my screen-name is dawiff.

  4. Great post! For so many years, seed catalogs were the ONLY place to find unusual, locally adapted seeds…and the information needed to grow them. Never mind canning equipment and veggie gardening books.

    Birgitt

  5. Erika, you've listed some great suggestions. I'm moving to a new garden next year and am in big time planning mode. So, this post is very timely for me :)

  6. Great tips, I'm sharing. I definitely agree with letting the pesticides go. We have a bee hive around here somewhere and pollination is off the charts. Really really helps to let nature do her work.

  7. Dream about heirloom produce, and imagine myself in the garden, placing gorgeous harvests in my vege basket. May not help the vegetables grow better, but it's motivating!

  8. seriouser gardeners save seeds. Or hey! check out these lovely seed folks from Whatcom County http://uprisingorganics.com/ They are localer than Oregon.

  9. Anonymous РTouch̩! Right you are, and thanks for the link. I will definitely check those folks out.

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