So there you are with your hot cup of tea (or coffee, hot chocolate, cold beer, whatever) and the newly arrived seed catalogs, or your computer browser is pulled up to one. Look at all those plants! They’re beautiful! Every variety, and I mean every variety, is BETTER THAN EVERY OTHER VARIETY!! My hat is off to the people who write these things. I don’t know how they do it.
So how do you decide what to grow?
What to Grow
Look in your fridge, freezer, and cupboards. What’s there? Lettuce? OK, put that on your list. Tomatoes? Ok, grow them too. Arugula, Sea Kale, Salsify? Um, maybe not. But you get my drift. Rule One: plant stuff that you will want to eat. As you progress, you may want to add a new plant or two, but don’t waste a lot of time, effort, and space on stuff that will make your kids look at you funny and end up in the compost heap.
Look carefully at the descriptions in the catalog. “Vigorous” is code for “Will try to take over your entire back yard.” “Determinate” tomato plants will set all their fruit in a short time, good if you plan on canning. “Indeterminate” plants keep bearing and bearing, and bearing until the weather cools. More useful if you just want a tomato or two a day for salads and sandwiches. (Okay, you’ll get a lot more than that.) Likewise, “Everbearing” strawberries will set fruit in small batches from late May until the weather cools, while “June bearers” will give you buckets o’berries over a few short weeks and then just sit there. Do you plan on making jam or freezing them? Go with June bearers. Prefer a daily bowl of fresh berries to top your morning cornflakes? Everbearers are your ticket.
Think about your yard, your preferences, and your available space. Maybe you have an unmowable space on a steep hillside. Prep a little (3′ x 3′) spot with a hill of compost or well-rotted manure on the north edge of it and plant, say, pumpkins or winter squash, yes, those “vigorous” vines. Watch that annoying landscape feature get entirely covered with big green leaves and harvest your crop when the vines start to die back.
Why am I not suggesting that you cover that big slope with vigorous cucumber or melon vines? Because then you’ll have to climb that hill every day looking for the ripe ones. Much easier to go with the stuff that all ripens at more or less the same time. Got a teeny little space? Go with bush squash, cukes, or zucchini.
How much bang are you getting for your buck?
In other words, we grow shallots, because they are delicious and expensive and we don’t grow equally delicious onions because they are cheap. Same thing with potatoes. I’ll throw a few sprouting potatoes into the compost heap in the spring and harvest them when the vines die back, but generally won’t plant them in the garden, since they are fairly inexpensive. If I’m going to invest garden space in potatoes, I’ll plant the pricey ones like Yukon Gold, or weird ones like purple potatoes so I can freak out my kids with the resulting potato salad.
How Green is Your Thumb?
Some plants are easier to grow than others, even though they may be closely related. For example, iceberg lettuce, that salad bar staple, demands close attention and lots of water. The fancy-schmancy spring mix is actually a lot easier to grow. (And also passes the pricey vs cheap test.) Broccoli is pretty easy, but its cousin cauliflower demands attention and lots of water. Beets are easy, but carrots want deep, rich, loose soil and can be very disappointing for beginners. Cucumbers and squash are pretty easy to grow, whereas their cousins, the melons, are picky, picky, picky. Hot peppers are easy to grow, sweet peppers more demanding.
I devoted a 5 gallon bucket to a red bell pepper plant this year and got three red peppers, plus about 5 green ones that didn’t have time to ripen before frost. Yes, they were delicious, but not any more so than the ones from the grocery store. I planted a Dragon Cayenne in another bucket and everybody’s getting Hot Pepper Jelly for Christmas this year.
Are You Building a Fence or Trellis?
If so, consider pole beans or peas. If not, plant bush beans/peas. Most squash, cucumbers, and the smaller melon vines will also grow up a trellis. Watermelons and big squash like Hubbards and Banana Squash, not so much. They’re just too heavy for the vines to support in mid-air.
So go ahead, work on that list, but before you send off your order, check back here for Suburban Garden Planning 103, next week.