It's hard to dial in your planting to get exactly the quantity you want, and some things come in quickly and abundantly all of a sudden. Beans, peas, zucchini, and cucumbers need to be harvested at least every other day while they are fruiting, and depending on how much you plant that could be a lot of work. It might happen at the same time that the raspberries are ripe, and also need to be harvested every day.
Make sure your planting plan leans heavily towards foods you're willing to follow through on, otherwise you'll end up with more of your garden space devoted to sad semi-failures than great successes. The biggest places where I see people stumble mid-season are watering, harvesting, and keeping up on succession planting (more on that below). There's no way around the endurance challenge of raising veggies amidst your already busy life, but making sure you're in love with everything you plant is one way to build in motivation.
2. Keep "days till harvest" in mind when you plant.
One of the most helpful pieces of information on a seed packet is the "days till harvest." Aside from telling you (obviously) how long you're going to have to wait to see your harvest, it gives you a sense of whether that space in your garden will be freed up during the season or not.
I like to have a few spaces come available for summer cover crops (I like buckwheat, for the beauty, fragrance, and nectar source), usually following the first round of radishes and greens out, and planted under the peas as they finish fruiting. I find I'm more engaged with a garden when there are moving parts, so long "days till harvest" crops are trickier for me to pay attention to. Some long "days to harvest" crops are quite rewarding (tomatoes seem to be popular), and others (onions, potatoes) I leave to farmers who have more space. You may be the opposite type of gardener - in it for a big harvest at the end, and not so concerned with building a palate for your daily salad. Either way, being aware of how long each item in your garden will take to bear fruit is a good place to start when thinking through your desired rhythm.
3. Plan a simple rotation.
Rotating crops, even in a small space, helps ensure that nutrients are getting used evenly throughout your garden and pests have to move around even a little to search for their favorite foods. The simplest way to think about rotation is to break crops into 3 categories - roots (anything underground), fruits (anything that is the result of pollination), and leaves (photosynthetic parts of a plant). Plan not to grow two of the same category in the same space sequentially. Ideally, you could grow one round from two different categories and then grow a cover crop. Keep track of what's been grown where, so even if you don't have a formal rotation plan, you can make sure to mix it up.
4. Work on your soil as much as your plants.
It can be easier to see and understand what's going on with plants - "oh, the leaves are wilting," or "oh, the slugs are eating the lettuce," - than it is to know what's going on with the soil. So it's tempting to just respond with pest management or fertilizer when you see something going on with a plant. A successful garden relies on preemptively caring for the soil, as an ongoing process that takes about as much attention as the plants themselves.
One way to think about soil is as a digestive system. It needs macronutrients (carbs and proteins from decomposing) as well as micronutrients (minerals) and building blocks of fiber (tougher-to-digest organic matter). Feeding it only fertilizer would be like trying to sustain yourself on multi-vitamins. Not likely to help your long term health, or your willingness to be cooperative and supportive to those around you.
To put this into action:
- Leave as many greens as you can as a mulch layer on top of the soil. Pick a carrot and not planning to eat the greens? Leave them in the garden.
- Grow some plants specifically as green mulches. This could be traditional cover crops like crimson clover and buckwheat, or it could be something else prolific like sunflowers or borage. Search for plants known as bioaccumulators to find out what might work for you.
- Keep the soil covered. If there isn't much extra green waste coming from your garden, figure out some other way to cover the soil. This could be compost, straw, or even cardboard.
- Compost: For mulching, I like to prioritize things that don't attract rats. That means that too-big-zucchinis and other more luscious waste needs a different place to decompose. I'm in favor of worm bins, but you can experiment with many available composting systems.
- Take advantage of King Conservation District's free soil testing program before you decide to add fertilizers or lime. Use only what you really need!
5. Use succession planting to keep your harvest coming.
Instead of planting the whole packet of carrot seeds all at once, plant a few each week throughout the summer so you'll always have some that are ready to harvest. Again, I find that harvesting and planting are good excuses to get me to slow down and see what's going on in the rest of the garden, so I try to keep as many simple planting tasks on my list as possible. They give me that "oh, it will just take 30 seconds to plant the next row of carrots" type motivation that always ends up sucking me in to a 20-30 minute weeding and grooming session.
The best crops to plant in succession, in my experience, are carrots, beets, radishes, and greens or any sort. Things like peas and beans tend to catch up to each other, and hot season crops like squash, tomatoes, and peppers really only have one window in our Pacific Northwest climate.