Gardening In Quantity

How to cope when the garden yields too little, or too much

These days, I walk outside first thing and roam around the garden for my morning harvest. The typical harvest: about a dozen alpine strawberries (the tiny wild ones) and a scant handful of chamomile blossoms. Each morning, I heap the chamomile into the smallest bowl we own. By the end of the summer, I may have enough chamomile to brew a single cup of tea. I parse the strawberries out among the five of us. Two intense morsels of strawberry flavor each, and the harvest of the day is gone.

Coping with quantity makes up one of the signature challenges for the home gardener. Too much and too little alike cause problems. Plant too many tomato plants or too big an apple tree and you’re spending August toiling over a canner, your kitchen topping out at 85 degrees in the most folksy approximation of hell yet devised; plant too little and you’re Tantalus in another version of Hades, always getting just a taste of blueberries, but never enough for a pie.

“Enough” can be hard to identify when you aren’t just buying a certain quantity of food, but designing the planting scheme that will eventually produce it. How many zucchini will your family eat this year? (Not that many.) How many currant bushes do you need? (More than that.) Is it worth planting that single packet of corn you got for free? (No.) Anticipating both what your plants will produce and what your family will consume requires constant thought and regular updates to the garden plan.

Sometimes getting to “enough” means accepting the harvest you’re getting anyway. I like crops that make that acceptance easy to come by, like berries. I don’t really care if we never get enough alpine strawberries to make shortcake—they are a delicious garden nibble even in tiny quantities. They give me two-year-old daughter something to pick herself, though admittedly she’s got work to do yet on gauging ripeness. I like growing berries especially well for this reason: it’s simple to put up a bumper crop (just stick it in the freezer), but a small harvest is equally unproblematic. I’m more or less there with the chamomile and the alpine strawberries right now: a handful a day is fine by me. Even as other plants come into bearing, I don’t expect either of these to be more than minor crops, and I’ll enjoy them as such, in small quantities.

With other crops, though, small quantities won’t be much use at all, and so getting at least within the range of “enough” is critical to enjoying the harvest at all. What would you do with a half-cup of wheatberries, three potatoes, a dozen spears of asparagus picked singly over two months? At best, you mix them in with storebought produce and hope for a better yield next year. A reasonable harvest of crops like these can be the difference between a successful garden and a failure, even if you aren’t necessarily trying to feed your family.

Our attempts to grow root vegetables have fallen afoul of this principle of quantity in the past. With clay-and-limestone soil and too little discipline in watering, we have been disappointed in our past yields of such crops as potatoes, carrots, sweet potatoes, and radishes. Aiming this year to simplify my garden and focus on reliable crops, I banned root vegetables from our garden for the year. Eventually, though, I let them back in through a mental dodge: I bought a kit to grow potatoes in containers as a birthday gift for Rachel. If it’s a gift, you see, and not a normal garden expenditure, the yield doesn’t matter as much. And as it happens we have had a usable, if modest, harvest of new potatoes, and we’re now trying late sweet potatoes in those same pots.

Coping with quantity, then, comes down as much as anything to how you think about the garden. You can always compost those rotting tomatoes, try again next year for more and bigger radishes, feed your single head of amaranth to the songbirds on your deck. Since home gardeners don’t work with environmentally risky quantities of produce, nor do we depend on our gardens to keep us alive, failures of quantity really aren’t disasters—except for the mental state of the gardener herself. In the end, this is the real challenge of quantity: staving off discouragement and disappointment when your garden fails to yield “enough.” In that regard, mental tricks like I used with the gift potatoes are crucial. If you can bring yourself to accept what the garden gives you, whatever its quantity, pleasure will follow close behind. Even if what also follows is a mere mouthful of strawberries, or a sweaty month over the pressure canner.