When it comes to our food, having security and peace of mind is crucial, especially in uncertain times. We all want access to nutritious meals without worrying about shortages or fluctuating food prices. This is why year-round gardening is gaining popularity. Growing your own vegetables, fruits, and herbs is a rewarding way to increase your food security and get closer to nature in the process.
If you want to learn how to grow a year-round garden, then I encourage you to watch this free video mini-course: Grow a Year-Round Garden.
In this article, we’ll explore ways to increase food security through various styles of gardening and food preservation, with practical tips to get started. Let’s dig in!
Food Security Today
Food security means having consistent access to affordable, nutritious food. The system we, as a society, have in place to provide fresh produce to our citizens is impressive. Overall, we do a good job of growing, transporting, and distributing massive amounts of produce to grocery stores where people can buy a wide range of produce year-round. It’s important that we have this system in place, but it does have its problems.
Here are a few problems with relying on an industrial, centralized food supply system:
- These days, our changing climate means an increase in unexpected crop losses due to changing average temperatures, droughts, storms, and fires. Shortages lead to price increases, or simply unavailability of certain crops. Grocery stores play a vital role, but relying solely on them can leave us vulnerable to disruptions, like natural disasters or unexpected events.
- Industrial agriculture practices (even organic) deplete the soil, leading to lower quality, less nutritious produce. When farmers fertilize their fields, they add back nitrogen, potassium, and phosphorous. But healthy plants need more than the three primary nutrients, NPK — they need trace minerals and a healthy soil microbiome, which are harder to replenish in extensive, mono-crop agriculture.
- When we rely on a centralized food supply system that is separate from us and our daily lives, we are missing out on a deeper connection with and understanding of our food. Since prehistoric times this connection with our food has been a vital part of the human experience, but it has fallen away from our lives in recent history. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Modern lifestyles are vastly different than the way we lived in the past, and many good things have come of it. However, having a closer connection with our food source has an intrinsic value that shouldn’t be disregarded..
Benefits of Year-Round Gardening
Year-round gardening offers a plethora of benefits that go beyond the taste of a homegrown tomato. While seasonal gardening may be more of a hobby, year-round gardening is more focused on obtaining a yield and providing food to replace some or even all of your grocery bill.
Here are some reasons to start a year-round garden:
- Grow an abundant supply of fresh, organic produce.
- Nutrition: Home-grown produce is generally more nutritious than grocery store produce because of its freshness and organic growing methods.
- Cost: Grocery bills add up quickly, especially when buying organic or specialty items. By growing your own, you can skip these items at the store and spend less. Connection: The act of gardening brings us closer to our food, nature, and our communities.
- Mindfulness: Gardening slows us down, gets us outside, and makes us happier. Also, it provides us the opportunity to experience awe. There’s something special about planting a tiny seed and watching it grow into a thriving plant that will feed and nourish your body.
Selecting Plants for Staggered Harvests
To enjoy a continuous supply of fresh produce throughout the year, choose plants with staggered harvest times. This helps avoid the feast or famine cycle that can happen with seasonal gardening. By thoughtful plant selection and timing, you can receive a steady stream of goodness from your garden.
Here are some tips for selecting the right crops:
- Use or create a crop calendar: This will require some research on growing in your location. Knowing your area’s average frost dates and growing seasons will help you determine the best time to plant and when to expect harvests. Your local nursery might have a crop calendar specific to your area.
- Grow a mix of annuals and perennials: Annual crops complete their life cycle in one growing season, while perennials come back year after year. Growing a variety of annuals and perennials will increase the resilience of your garden.
- Consider different maturity rates: Some plants mature quickly, allowing for earlier harvests, while others take longer to reach their full potential. Choose a mix of fast-growing and slow-growing crops to stagger your harvest.
- Grow what you like to eat: It may seem obvious, but prioritize your crop selection by how much you and your family like to eat it. For example, tomatoes are a popular crop for home gardens, and many gardeners may feel obliged to include them in their garden plans. But if your family members aren’t tomato eaters, skip ’em. The same goes for any other crop.
- Choose high-value crops: Consider growing crops that are expensive to purchase from the grocery store but relatively easy to grow at home. Herbs such as basil and parsley fall into this category, as do fruits such as strawberries, raspberries, peaches, and even apples.
Maximizing Garden Space and Resources
Most of us have limited garden space, so if you’re planning a year-round garden you might need a little creativity to get the most out of the garden space you have.
Here are a few tips for maximizing your garden area:
- Embrace vertical gardening: Use vertical space by growing plants vertically on trellises, fences, or stakes. Vining crops like cucumbers, beans, and tomatoes thrive in this setup, freeing up valuable ground space. The book Vertical Gardening has lots of ideas.
- Guilding: Planting compatible crops together can maximize space and provide mutual benefits. For example, pairing tall plants like corn with climbing beans (as in the Three Sisters guild) allows the beans to use the cornstalks for support, saving space.
- Intercropping: Make the most of your garden space by interplanting crops with different growth habits. For instance, fast-maturing plants can be grown between slower-growing ones, ensuring efficient use of space and continuous harvests.
- Soil health is key: Invest time and effort in building healthy soil. Add organic matter such as compost or well-rotted manure to improve soil fertility and structure, which in turn supports vigorous plant growth and higher yields.
- Efficient watering: Install drip irrigation or soaker hoses to deliver water directly to plant roots, minimizing water wastage. Mulching the soil surface with organic materials like straw or wood chips helps retain moisture, reducing the frequency of watering.
- Give garden beds a break: It might seem like a waste of space, but leaving any given garden bed fallow for a season every couple of years is a good idea. Add manure and sow a cover crop to replenish the soil.
Extend the Growing Season
In many regions, the growing season may be limited due to short summers or harsh winters. But, we can extend our gardening season by employing some winter protection techniques. Whether you’re looking for year-round solutions, or are just looking to extend your growing season by a month or two, you have several options.
Here are some ways to extend your growing season:
- Greenhouses: Greenhouses provide a controlled environment that protects plants from harsh weather conditions. They trap heat and allow sunlight to reach the plants, creating a favorable microclimate for year-round cultivation. Consider investing in a greenhouse or building a smaller, DIY version to extend your growing season.
- Hoop houses: Hoop houses are simple and cost-effective structures made from hoops or arches covered with translucent plastic. They provide protection and insulation, allowing you to grow crops even in colder months. Hoop houses are great for starting seeds early or growing cold-hardy vegetables during winter.
- Cold frames: Cold frames are like mini-greenhouses close to the ground. They are typically made of lumber with a transparent lid, such as glass or polycarbonate, that rests on to p or hinges. Cold frames capture heat from the sun and protect plants from frost, allowing you to grow cool-season crops well into the colder months.
- Row covers: Row covers are lightweight fabrics that can be draped over plants to protect them from frost, pests, and harsh weather. They allow sunlight, air, and moisture to penetrate while creating a barrier against unfavorable conditions. Row covers can extend the growing season by providing a few extra weeks of protection.
By using these season extension techniques, you can overcome the limitations of the traditional growing season and enjoy fresh produce for a larger portion of the year.
Indoor Gardening: Microgreens and Sprouting
Indoor gardening opens up a world of possibilities for year-round cultivation. Growing microgreens and sprouting are two fantastic options that allow you to grow nutritious and flavorful greens indoors.
Microgreens are young vegetable greens that are harvested when young, only a few weeks after germination. They are tender, flavorful, and nutrient-dense, making them ideal to toss on top of salads, add to soups, or blend into smoothies. Many vegetables make good microgreens, including beets, broccoli, collards, and kale, just to name a few. Sunflower microgreens are also a popular choice.
To grow microgreens, get some trays or containers with good drainage, a growing medium such as potting soil or coconut coir, and seeds of your choice. Sow the seeds densely, keep them moist, and provide plenty of light. Within a couple of weeks, you’ll have a crop of tender microgreens ready to harvest and enjoy.
Sprouting is the process of germinating grains or beans to produce edible sprouts. The process of sprouting changes the nutritional profile of the seed, increasing certain vitamins and minerals and decreasing starches and carbohydrates, making them highly nutritious. No soil or growing medium other than water is needed to grow sprouts, making it an easy and low-mess project.
To start sprouting, get some grains or beans of your choice (chickpeas are my favorites), a jar, a rubber band, and a cheesecloth square. Soak the grains overnight in the jar with the cheesecloth and rubber band as a lid. After the initial soak, drain the water then rinse and drain them twice a day until they sprout. In a few days, you’ll have sprouts ready to eat. Add them to sandwiches, salads, or stir-fries.
Preserving the Harvest
Even if you grow a garden year-round, and especially if you don’t, preserving your main season harvests is essential for long-term food security. Eating in season is a wonderful lifestyle to have, but with slimmer pickings in winter, it’s necessary to supplement. If you don’t want to rely on the grocery store, that means preserving your bountiful summer and fall harvests. By using various preservation methods, you can enjoy the flavors and nutrition of your garden even during the off-season.
Popular Preservation Techniques
Canning: Seal the freshness in jars by heating your favorite fruits, vegetables, sauces, and soups. Ensure proper sterilization and follow tested recipes for safe canning. Pressure Canning for beginners is an excellent resource to get you started.
Fermenting: Harness the power of beneficial bacteria to transform vegetables like cabbage into tangy sauerkraut or kimchi, and cucumbers into delightful pickles. Experiment with different flavors and fermentation times to find your perfect taste. The book Preserving Food Without Freezing or Canning is an excellent resource. The cookbook Nourishing Traditions has many simple and easy-to-follow recipes for sauerkraut, kimchi, and other ferments.
Dehydrating: Extend the shelf life of fruits, vegetables, and herbs by removing moisture. Use a dehydrator or an oven set at a low temperature to dry them. Store the dehydrated produce in a cool, dry place and rehydrate or use it dry for nutritious snacks or cooking ingredients. For even greater self-sufficiency, build a solar food dehydrator that doesn’t rely on electricity to dehydrate food.
Freezing: Preserve the freshness and texture of your harvest by freezing. Blanch vegetables before freezing to retain their color and nutrients. Freeze fruits, herbs, and even prepared meals to enjoy their flavors even when they’re out of season.
Seed saving: This one is a little different than the rest in that it’s not preserving ready-to-eat food. Rather, it’s retaining the genetic material to grow more food for years to come. Maintain self-sufficiency and preserve the genetic diversity of your favorite crops by saving seeds. Select mature seeds from the best specimens to customize your own seed bank that’s selected to thrive in your climate and site. Lay out the seeds in the sun to dry thoroughly then store them in a cool, dry place until the following season. Many seeds will be viable for years into the future.
By implementing some of these preservation techniques, you can enjoy the flavors of your garden throughout the year, regardless of the availability of fresh produce. Get creative, try different methods, and enjoy the satisfaction of self-sufficiency from your garden year-round.
Community Gardening and Sharing
Building food security is not just about individual efforts—it can also involve community collaboration and sharing of resources. Community gardening provides a wonderful opportunity to connect with like-minded individuals, share knowledge, and contribute to a collective food source.
Here’s how community gardening can enhance food security:
- Community gardens: Community gardens are shared spaces where people come together to cultivate plants. They provide access to land, tools, and expertise, allowing those with limited space or resources to grow their own food. Participating in a community garden not only provides the opportunity to grow your own food, it also strengthens communities and fosters a sense of shared responsibility for food security.
- Seed swaps: Seed swaps are events where gardeners exchange seeds and share plant varieties. Participating in a seed swap allows you to diversify your garden and acquire unique or heirloom seeds that may be hard to find elsewhere. By saving and sharing seeds, the community builds resilience and self-sufficiency.
- Surplus sharing: When you have an abundance of produce from your garden, consider sharing the surplus with others in your community. This can be done between neighbors, friends, or local community organizations. Sharing excess harvests aligns with permaculture ethics: Earth Care, People Care, and Fair Share. It not only reduces food waste but also supports those who may not have access to fresh produce.
By engaging in community gardening and sharing, you can contribute to a stronger, more resilient food system while growing a sense of connection and cooperation within your community.
Learn Year-Round Gardening
To enhance your year-round gardening skills, I invite you to enroll in a free year-round gardening mini-course by Rick Stone, Master Gardener from Our Stony Acres. This course dives deeper into the world of year-round gardening, providing valuable insights into crop selection, optimal timing, and winter protection. Whether you’re a beginner or an experienced gardener, this course offers valuable knowledge and practical tips to maintain harvestable crops in the garden 365 days a year. Even if you’re not interested in winter gardening, this course will enable you to extend your growing season by a few weeks to months and maximize your harvest throughout the year.
Don’t miss out on this opportunity to expand your gardening expertise and cultivate a thriving garden all year long. You can enroll in the free year-round gardening mini-course during June and early July. (I’m writing this in 2023, but Rick has been putting on this course for many years and I expect him to continue in the future.)
Building your food security through year-round gardening is an empowering way to take control of your personal food supply. By cultivating a diverse range of crops with staggered harvest times, using space efficiently, extending the growing season, and preserving your harvest, you can ensure a continuous supply of healthy produce. Additionally, engaging in community gardening and sharing resources strengthens the collective resilience of your community. So, grab your gardening tools and start sowing the seeds of food security today!
Remember, with each homegrown vegetable or herb, you’re stepping towards self-reliance, healthier eating, and a greener future. Happy gardening and bon appétit!