How I Avoid the 'Hungry Gap' in My Garden

Eating locally and seasonally can mean slim pickings by the time spring arrives.

canned pantry goods

Getty Images

Traditionally, people had to eat according to the produce of the seasons in their local area. Some times were naturally leaner than others. In the modern world, with the convenience of supermarkets and global supply chains, many have lost touch with the ancient patterns of the seasons. But when you start growing your own food, this can bring you back into contact with variable conditions and help you to understand which foods are available locally throughout the year. 

Where I live, April and May brought what was once known as the "hungry gap." But adopting the right methods mean that we need no longer go through this season of scarcity, while still remaining in touch with seasonal, local food. 

What Is the Hungry Gap?

The hungry gap referred historically to the period in spring after crops stored over winter had begun to run out, but before any of the current season's crops were ready to harvest. At this time of year, gardeners would have far less fresh produce available. These could be lean times—and people could not just pop down to the store to purchase foreign goods.

Today there is a growing understanding of the damage caused by non-seasonal imported produce. The high carbon costs of our globalized food industry are just one of the many reasons why more and more people are choosing to grow their own food. But with careful planning, foresight, and foraging, we can make sure that we still have plenty of food to eat before we reach the main summer harvests. 

Polytunnel Growing: Planning Ahead

Polytunnel 'greenhouse' In a cottage garden near Aberdeen.
Polytunnel structure in a cottage garden near Aberdeen.

Stanley Howe / Geograph

In my garden, the most important tool for avoidance of the hungry gap is my polytunnel. This valuable season extender means that I can grow food not just over the summer months but throughout the winter and early spring, too. In my polytunnel, I am able to continue food production year-round, and make the most of the space available to me in my garden. 

But using my polytunnel to avoid the hungry gap means that I have to plan ahead. From July through September, I have to think about planting crops that will overwinter in the polytunnel and provide earlier crops the following year. 

One useful crop for the hungry gap is purple sprouting broccoli. This, sown in July, will overwinter in my polytunnel and provide an abundant yield in early spring the next year. A number of other members of the cabbage (brassica) family can also be useful in this way, including traditional crops like kale, spring cabbages, and Asian brassicas, which thrive in my largely frost-free but unheated tunnel over the coldest months.

Before the end of summer, I also plant other leafy crops, like winter lettuces, arugula, perpetual spinach, and chard, which will put on just enough growth to make it through winter, then go into dormancy, and then spring into new growth once the weather begins to warm the following year. 

In September, sowing overwintering early peas or snap peas means that I can begin to harvest these from the polytunnel before the end of May some years. (This depends on the weather in early spring.)

Preserving Food

In addition to harvesting brassicas and other leafy green crops from the polytunnel in April and May, I can also preserve food from one season to store in my pantry for the next. Those reliant on root cellars or similar spaces will usually find that, by April, most stored winter produce is past its best, if it has not yet been eaten. But modern preservation methods, i.e. canning recipes, can mean that food can last through the hungry gap and even beyond.

Jams, jellies, chutneys, sauces, and more can all be laid up using water canning over the previous summer to bring variety to the diet during the hungry gap. And modern science means that we can can goods safely when we use tested recipes from authoritative sites. 

Freezers also provide the potential to store low-acid foods like green vegetables to eat during the hungry gap. Unlike our ancestors, we can freeze foods to prevent shortages and maintain variety in our diets throughout the year.

Foraging for Spring Greens

wild leeks
Foraging for wild leeks.

Fertnig/Getty Images

Preserving food certainly makes it easier to maintain a varied diet through the hungry gap. But in early spring, wild food can also enrich the diet. Early spring is an exciting time for foragers, with numerous leafy greens beginning to emerge.

Our ancestors would certainly have recognized the potential of wild foods in their areas throughout the year to enrich their home-grown diets—and we can do the same. In my area, for example, nettles, chickweed, Good King Henry, wild garlic, dandelions, sorrels, and young fireweed are just some of the delights of the season.

Eating seasonally, both from your garden and from your local surroundings, can help you to reduce the negative impact of your diet—and if you plan ahead, you need not suffer the traditional shortages of this period.