URBAN GARDENING: Save water by harvesting smart, even if it hurts

If you balk at the idea of removing perfectly healthy plants you've got 'harvestphobia' but the smart gardener will get over it.

Save water by washing your harvest out in the field. Photo by Rebecca Cuttler.
Save water by washing your harvest out in the field. Photo by Rebecca Cuttler.

This past weekend, Vancouver had its first rain in a long time. I’ve never been so excited for cloudy skies. But we’re not out of the woods with B.C.’s drought yet.

Vancouver has recently entered stage 2 watering restrictions, a step up from the stage 1 restrictions we faced earlier this summer. While vegetable gardens still aren’t affected here, other parts of B.C., including Parksville and Nanaimo, have escalated to level 4, with only limited hand-watering and drip irrigation permitted for home-grown food. If our warm, dry weather continues, it’s entirely possible that we could see similar restrictions in the Lower Mainland.

Cut up leftover stems from harvests to use as mulch. Photo by Rebecca Cuttler.Cut up leftover stems from harvests to use as mulch. Photo by Rebecca Cuttler.

We Vancouverites aren’t used to these conditions. The main concern for local gardeners has traditionally been lack of sunlight and slug attacks, not scorching heat. When I set out to plan this year’s garden, I didn’t think at all about the possibility of a water shortage. There’s a good chance that the summer of 2015 is a sign of times to come, and next year I’ll be choosing tolerant varieties and improving our irrigation system.

The situation we’re facing is only a taste of what other parts of the world currently experience. California, a breadbasket of North America and the source of much of B.C.’s produce, is in the throes of a long-term drought. With the threat of rising food prices and limited availability, growing more of our own food, and supporting local farmers, starts to seriously make sense.

Which brings me to harvesting.

If you want to grow your own food, you have to eat it. And that can be hard for new gardeners. Earlier this year, I led an urban gardening program for a group of 10 eager students. We made mini wine box planters, filled them with soil and seeds, and watched the magic unfold over the course of four weeks.The seeds grew into healthy young plants, and the class soaked up knowledge and excitement. Everything went very well.

Until I told them that it was time to thin and harvest their seedlings.

My students actually protested against me. The little plants looked so perfect, and they had worked hard to get them to this point. The idea of ripping them out of the ground was almost painful. It took some negotiation to convince everyone to go through with the thinning and harvesting process. In the end, we all enjoyed delicious baby greens and had improved the health of our planters.

I call this fear of pulling your plants ‘harvestphobia’, and it’s very common. After all the effort of caring for your garden, it’s hard to wrap your head around the idea of removing perfectly healthy plants. Walk around your average community garden, and you’ll see what I mean: radishes, arugula and lettuces going to flower, peas that are drying up, and un-trained tomatoes that have stopped producing fruit. Unless you’re a serious seed-saver, it’s counterproductive to allow your plants to get to that point.

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