Enjoy your motorhome trips and still harvest delicious vegetables and fruits, regardless of whether you grow them on the go.
By Phillip Meeks
Conventional wisdom says that you can either grow a vegetable garden, or you can travel. In reality, the two aren’t mutually exclusive, and even if your family will be on the road for the majority of a season, you can still enjoy the benefits of fresh vegetables planted, maintained, and harvested by hand. It may take a bit more planning, and it may challenge the traveling gardener to rethink his or her notions as to what vegetable gardening is (or isn’t). But the bottom line is this: You don’t have to give up gardening to be on the road.
The concept of a vegetable garden, in the minds of many, revolves around the classic homegrown tomato. We set our tomato plants in the soil as soon as all danger of frost has passed, and then we tend to them. Maybe we add a trellis, and have to fight off fungal diseases and insects. We combat drought and amend the soil to counter blossom end rot. If we’ve done a good job, a tasty harvest begins two to three months after we’ve begun. Vine-ripened rewards keep rolling in until the first frost. Frost to frost — that’s the bracketed way we think of a vegetable-gardening season.
Not to detract from the tomato, but all crops have different wait times between the day they’re planted and the night you enjoy the results of your labor at the end of a fork.
Rapid maturation. The plant-harvest cycle can be repeated once or twice for many vegetables during the course of one growing season. You might grow snap peas in the spring; take a break; and then grow them again in the fall. Same with cabbage, broccoli, and kohlrabi.
Look no further than your favorite seed catalogs for vegetables that can be harvested in 60 days or less. For example, one online seed source sells a radish variety that matures in 21 days, a lettuce that matures in 35 days, a 32-day arugula, a 48-day snap pea, and a zucchini that grows from seed to maturity in 35 days.
Obviously, this days-to-harvest information is more of a guideline than a guarantee. Plant development could take longer, depending on weather and soil conditions, but these numbers represent a good starting point. Consider the departure date for your next travel adventure. Count backward on the calendar to the point when soils will be warm enough for planting, add a few days to buffer against variable conditions, and then order seeds that can be grown in that period. Enjoy your harvest before the motorhome rolls out of the driveway!
Slower maturation. On the other end of the equation, foods that take a longer time to mature could be planted before you depart and harvested once you return home. Late-season potato varieties, for example, will reach maturity 90 or more days after planting, and you have more flexibility in when you harvest. This is in contrast to fruits such as tomatoes, peppers, and okra that can quickly over-ripen. Sweet potatoes, winter squash, and carrots, too, are harvested many months after planting. The catch with such crops, though, is to have a trusted friend or family member who may be willing to do some basic maintenance in your absence. Perhaps the reward of a shared harvest could be incentive enough.
Other planting and harvesting times. For foods that are harvested in fall, a good rule of thumb is to aim for cool-season vegetables to reach maturity about two weeks after the first frost. Fall-grown plants live in soil and air temperatures that progress from warmer to cooler. Their development can slow as time goes by. So, add 10 days to the days-to-harvest information on the seed packets if you’re gardening in fall.
With season-extension tools such as floating row covers or low tunnels, it’s possible to start certain crops a week or so earlier in the spring and grow them that much later in the fall than what the planting guides recommend.
In addition to what you plant and harvest within the same growing season, perennial (and biennial) vegetables need to be planted only once and grow on a perpetual basis. Asparagus and rhubarb are among the vegetables that, once established, will bear for years to come. Some less common perennials include Jerusalem artichoke (not an artichoke at all, but a sunflower with an edible tuber); multiplier or Egyptian onions; groundnut; sorrel; and horseradish. If you have the space and climate for them, globe artichokes are another possibility.
Garlic is planted in the fall to be harvested the following summer, and many gardeners like to plant parsnips one spring to harvest the next, as winter temperatures will increase the sugar content of the roots.
Regardless of what growing method(s) you employ, a good starting point for planting information is the cooperative extension service in the state and county where you’ll be gardening. Most have publications available online that will list the earliest and latest suggested planting dates for common garden crops and the varieties that have been proven to perform best in that state, as well as detailed pest and disease information for these plants. Growing a vegetable in Southern California isn’t going to be the same as growing that vegetable in the mountains of New Hampshire, and cooperative extension services can help translate.
A shared harvest is the foundation of the community garden. If you set up your rolling home in the same place each year for a couple of months, you can seek out or develop a community garden space.
Some towns and areas have local extension service plots; faith-based organizations, college campuses, health organizations, or town parks and recreation departments may also set aside growing spaces. These plots are sometimes free; or, a nominal rental fee may be attached. Demand can be high, so it’s a good idea to do your investigations and get your application submitted early in the year, before your traveling begins.
One of the primary reasons community gardens are so popular is that not every family has access to a rototiller or tractor, and so tillage typically will be taken care of by the administering organization, or it will be unnecessary if raised beds are the norm. The grower, then, is able to plant and maintain his or her plot with basic hand tools and sweat equity.
Even the RV park where you stay may not be opposed to the construction of a few raised beds, as long as assurance can be made that they’ll be kept tidy. It’s also good for both parties to know up front what will happen at the end of the growing season. Should any raised beds or cultivated areas be considered temporary, or can they be left for next year’s gardens?
If you are starting a community garden from scratch, there are many variables to wrestle with before the first spade is pushed into the ground. A full year’s worth of planning and foundation-laying wouldn’t be a bad idea. Clemson University Extension offers an excellent online 24-page resource called “Starting a Community Garden” (www.goo.gl/FQNhZg).
The University of California has a shorter “Community Garden Start-Up Guide” that’s also helpful and includes a sample contract for growers (http://celosangeles.ucdavis.edu/files/97080.pdf).
Keep in mind that if the proposed garden site is on fallow ground, it may be a while before the soil is horticulturally worthy. It can take months to adjust soil pH, and a garden that was formerly all sod may have an abundance of pests. These factors will impact the success of the gardens grown in any given space.
Should you have to leave before all the food is harvested, place an emphasis on the community part of community gardening and consider growing with a local partner. There’s no disgrace in walking away from a thriving garden, as long as someone else can benefit.
Likewise, if you arrive in a locale once the growing season is well under way and you plan to stay the summer, it’s possible you could take over a garden for someone else. Elementary-school gardens, for instance, are sometimes planted by classes for the educational value, but then no one is around to tend them during summer break. You could probably take on weed, pest, and trellis chores on the school’s behalf from the conclusion of the spring semester to the beginning of the fall in exchange for whatever ripe vegetables can be taken during that time.
Container gardening affords portable vegetable production. Haul your container tomatoes with you and set them up at the next RV park! Your garden size is limited only in the amount of space you have in the RV and how much extra weight your motorhome can handle.
If you crave more beauty in your campground veggie display, consider mingling your vegetables with herbs or ornamentals. A small 4-inch-to-6-inch pot can easily support lettuce, spinach, basil, and chives. A larger 8-inch-to-12-inch container holds beans, beets, carrots, eggplant, onions, peas, peppers, cherry tomatoes, Swiss chard, dill, mint, sage, and more. A lightweight hanging basket adorning your motorhome might support small cucumbers or parsley.
You can make a tradition out of growing your own veggies once you reach an RV park, and carry only empty pots when you travel. Once settled into the park, make a run for soil, seeds, and transplants. See how much you can harvest during your stay, and give away any still-thriving plants to campground staff or neighbors before you return home.
Naturally, some vegetables don’t perform as well in pots as others. Yes, sweet corn and potatoes technically can be grown in containers, but the space-to-harvest ratio is typically such that most RV gardeners would be wise to use their pots to grow other things.
The Cornell Cooperative Extension service of Oneida County, New York, publishes a very helpful online container-gardening guide, “Growing Vegetables, Herbs and Annual Flowers in Containers” (www.goo.gl/gDZ4MC).
Traveling and gardening are two pastimes that many people are extremely passionate about, but it isn’t necessary to pursue one of these passions at the expense of the other. Vegetable gardening can be adapted to the motorhome lifestyle quite easily and can contribute to the overall quality of your traveling adventures. Consider ways you might incorporate alternative gardening methods into this year’s travel plans.