How to Prevent Food Waste in Your Garden

It's an ongoing process, from choosing plants wisely to preserving the harvest.

digging potatoes

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Food waste is a major issue in agriculture and in homes. If you grow your own food, the last thing you want is to let your hard work go to waste. Preventing food waste in your garden begins with the plants you choose—and goes right through to preservation of your harvests. As a permaculture garden designer, this is an important area that I like to focus on. Here are some of my tips for not letting food go to waste in the garden.

Choose Plants Appropriate to Place

When planning a food-producing garden, it is very important to choose the right plants for the right places. Waste is far more likely to occur if you are growing plants which are not suited to your climate, microclimate, soil, and growing conditions. Think about how you can create systems which do not just provide food today, but also can adapt to our changing climate. If you make the right plant choices, you are likely to lose fewer of them and to obtain as high a yield as possible. 

Cooperate and Share

Preventing food waste is sometimes a solo pursuit. But sometimes cooperation is key. In small gardens in particular, people may often have more seeds than they really need. Seeds are usually only viable for a certain length of time. So swapping and sharing seeds between households can avoid wasting plant potential.

Many may germinate more seeds than they have space for in their gardens. Discarding seedlings from your crops is another form of food waste. Again, giving excess seedlings away, swapping plants, or sharing them with others can prevent waste. 

Some waste may occur because gardeners plant crops, but don't really have the time or experience to tend them. Again, cooperation and collaboration can be key. Resilience means finding ways for communities to work together—sharing time, sharing skills, and sharing knowledge. 

Finally, cooperation and sharing are key when excess food is produced. Gluts of particular crops can be shared out rather than wasted. And communities can come together to harvest crops (like fruits from fruit trees, for example) when the home owner does not have the time. 

Take an Organic, Holistic Approach to Plant Care

Losing food-producing plants to pests and disease, or environmental issues, is another form of waste that we should avoid wherever possible. Sometimes things don't go according to plan, but by taking an organic, holistic approach to plant care and pest control, we can reduce the chances of that.

Taking care of the soil (i.e. using no-dig methods), using effective water management, and practicing companion planting, attraction of beneficial wildlife, crop rotation, etc. are just some of the strategies that help prevent the loss of food-producing plants in a garden.

Succession Sow 

Even when we grow successfully, it is all too easy to let the food we produce go to waste. Avoiding a glut of certain crops can help ensure that all the food we grow is eaten. Succession sowing crops (which means staggering the plantings) can help spread out your harvests, making sure that you have manageable amounts of food at any one time. This is a helpful strategy for quick-growing lettuces and radishes. 

bunch of carrots
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Stagger Harvests

Staggering harvest periods for certain crops can help avoid excesses. One example of this is growing soft fruits like strawberries or raspberries in different locations, so they produce their yield over a longer period of time. You might, for instance, grow some inside a polytunnel or greenhouse, with others outdoors. Those grown under cover will typically be ready to harvest a little earlier, and that crop can be out of the way before the outdoor ones are ready. You might also stagger harvests by growing different varieties, which mature over different lengths of time. 

Make the Most of Secondary Crop Yields

Even if you are harvesting crops and using their primary yields, you may inadvertently be wasting food. Many people are unaware that you can eat other parts of typical crops. For example, don't let carrot tops, beet leaves, brassica leaves, squash leaves and flowers, or radish pods, leaves, stems, and flowers go to waste. 

Recognize Wild or Non-Typical Food Sources

It is wasteful if you fail to consider other non-cultivated food sources in your garden. Many common "weeds" from nettles to dandelions to chickweed can be sources of food. These are wild resources which we should also make sure we do not allow to go to waste. Strive to recognize the potential food sources in plants typically considered to be ornamental. Hostas, for example, are an excellent vegetable, as well as an attractive foliage plant for partial shade. And there are a great many flowers that can be eaten.

Plan and Prepare for Preservation

Once you have grown your crops, it is important to be ready to preserve what needs to be preserved. This can happen in a range of different ways. You can freeze, dehydrate, pickle, or can a wide range of garden produce. Make sure you understand how to do so properly, and have the tools and equipment you need on hand when the time comes. 

Make Use of Leftovers and Vegetable Scraps

Leftover cooked food and vegetable scraps should not be relegated to the composting system right away. Make sure that you eat extra food or incorporate it into new meals to prevent food waste, and use vegetable scraps to grow more vegetables, make stock, or even make natural dyes, etc.

compost heap
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Compost What's Left—Return Surplus to the System

Whatever is left should be placed in your composting system. Make sure that you have an effective composting system in place so that you can return surplus to the system, maintain fertility in your garden, and prevent food waste from ending up in landfill or incinerators.