March 3, 2014

In the Garden: 10 Tips to Pick What to Grow

I finally got the last of my seed orders in for this season, my first flat of onion seedlings has been started, and the daffodils are just starting to bloom here. Spring is on its way for us. But I know that many of you are still very much in winter. So for all of you, and for those just getting started on their garden plans, here are some tips to hold you over until spring arrives!

So you have been drooling over all the beautiful pictures in your seed catalogs, and you have a wish list long enough to start your own 5 acre farm. You know that you need to order seeds soon if you want to be sure to get all the varieties that you want. (Or if you getting a late start be sure to read about some of my favorite seed companies). So, how do you pick which seeds to actually order?

The answer will depend on 3 questions that will help you narrow down your choices:
1. What do you actually want to eat?
2. How much space do you have?
3. What type of space do you have?

What do you want to eat?

This seems obvious enough, but you would be surprised how easy it is to get carried away as you look through those catalogs. All of a sudden a devoted squash-hater will decide that he just has to grow some squash... They are just so pretty, and besides, homegrown always tastes better right? Well, while it is true that homegrown food does taste better, it is unlikely to turn you into an instant convert.

So, Tip no. 1: Stick to fruits and vegetable that you know you enjoy. 

The one exception to this rule, is to feel free to experiment with something you have never tried before... to a certain extent. I always try to pick one new thing to grow every year. But I would suggest trying to limit yourself to just one or two new things each year. And if you are a new gardener, it might be best to just stick with the basics for the first year.

Tip no. 2: Feel free to experiment with one crop you have never tried before.

A related, but somewhat different question that you should also ask yourself: What do I actually eat on a regular basis? Our answer to this question might not be the same as the answer to the first question. Sure you might like jalapeno peppers, but how often do you actually eat them. Or how often do you actually eat salads, etc. Examine which vegetables you already eat on a regular basis, and try to focus on those varieties.

Tip no 3: Focus on varies that you already eat frequently.

How much space do you have?

This is the part where you really need to start acknowledging reality (i.e the slightly less fun part). If you are like most gardeners you will want to grow far more vegetables than you can possibly fit into your garden. This is especially true if you are a new gardener or if you live in a city. If you are a new gardener, your really should start small with only a couple of 4x8 ft beds at most. Many a new gardener has started their 1000 sq. ft. garden only to burnout mid-summer as they realize they are in over their head. You can always add more beds as your skills and knowledge grow. For now, just focus on taking really good care of a small space. On the other side, even if you are an experienced gardener in the city, there is a good chance that you just don't have as big of a yard as you might like. But no matter the reason, if you are working with a small garden it is important to prioritize.

Tip no. 4: Be realistic about how much space you have to garden.

First of all, you probably will need to cut out the crops that just inherently take up too much space, such as squash and corn. If your goal is to grow as much produce as possible, it can be helpful to focus on high yield crops that produce more food per square ft.

Tip no. 5: Focus on high-yielding crops.

Some good high yielding crops include:

  • Lettuce: Especially if grown as "cut and come again."

  • Chard, Kale & Collards: All of these greens can be harvested gradually. Removing just a few of the largest leaves from the bottom at a time. This way you can harvest greens throughout the season (and sometimes throughout the winter if you live in a mild enough climate.)

  • Tomatoes: Especially indeterminate varieties if grown vertically on a trellis.

  • Cucumbers: Which can also be grown vertically on a trellis.
  • Green Beans: Another good one for vertically gardening on a trellis.
  • Peas: These can also be grown vertically and they are usually done early enough in the season to grow a second crop in their space later.
  • Radishes, Turnips, & Beets: These root crops don't take up much space, they grow fast enough to grow a second crop, and are multipurpose... you can eat the roots and the leaves!

Another thing you could consider is taking into account how much the vegetables would cost if you bought them in the store. For example many herbs don't take up much space, but they are quite expensive when bought fresh. On the other extreme, sweet corn can be found at 4 for $1 in the heat of summer and they take up quite a bit of space. Here is a useful chart that compares the value of various crops per square foot of space that they will take up.

Tip no 6: Focus on the most profitable crops per square ft.

What type of space do you have?

First of all where are you gardening? If you are growing in a cold mountainous region, you will have trouble growing hot-weather crops such as peppers without some serious babying. In contrast hot climates will struggle to grow cool-weather crops such as lettuce for much of the year.

Tip no 7: Pick crops that grow well in your climate.

Cool WeatherIntermediateWarm Weather
Brussels SproutsCarrotsCorn
KaleNapa CabbagesMelons
Mustard GreensLettucePeppers
PeasRadicchioSquash & Pumpkins
RadishesRutabagasSweet Potatoes
SpinachSwiss ChardTomatoes
  • Cool Weather Crops: Crops that prefer cooler weather (generally less than 80° F) and can even handle light frosts. Some of these crops such as Brussels sprouts, collards, and kale even taste better after a few light frosts.
  • Intermediate: These crops still generally prefer cooler weather, but can handle a little more heat. They are also not as frost hardy, and will need some protection when temperatures drop.
  • Warm Weather: These plants need warm weather to thrive. They begin to sulk when temperatures drop under 65° F and they are most productive as temperatures approach 90°. These crops cannot handle any frost. 

Also, you will need to consider your growing season. If you have a short growing season be sure to only pick vegetables which will ripen before your fall frosts arrive. Most catalogs list the number of days that each variety of crop will take from seed to harvest. If you have a short season, try to always stick to the crops with the shortest growing days.

Tip no. 8: Pick crops with an appropriate number of growing days.

Another important consideration is how much sun your garden will receive. Some crops need a full day of sun, while others will tolerate (or even appreciate a little shade.) If your garden will receive sun all day, you can grow most crops. If your garden will be shaded for more than a couple hours, you will have trouble growing shade intolerant plants.

Tip no. 9: If your garden is shaded, pick shade-tolerant plants.

Some good shade-tolerant vegetables:
  • Leafy greens: such as lettuce, kale, chard, spinach, mustard greens, etc.
  • Root vegetables: beets, carrots, turnips, etc.

Shade intolerant vegetables:
  • Fruiting Vegetables: such as tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, squash, etc.

Gather your data and decide...

Now after all that data collection you should have been able to eliminate certain crops that don't make sense to grow in your garden and to narrow down your list to your top choices. If you want more data before you make your final decisions, talk to experienced gardeners in your area. They will usually be more than happy to share specific varieties that they have always had good luck with.

But in the end, you just have to make a decision and order. After looking at all the data, go with the crops that interest and excite you the most. Gardening is a continuous process of experimenting and learning. There will always be next season to try some new and exciting varieties...

Tip no. 10: Narrow your list, weigh your options, but then go with what excites you.

Happy Gardening Everyone!

(This post was shared at the Homestead Barn Hop, Natural Living Monday, Mostly Homemade Mondays, the Backyard Farming Connection Hop, Tuesday Greens, Tuesdays with a Twist, the Down Home Hop, Simple Lives Thursday, the Home Acre Hop, Old Fashioned Fridays, 104 Homestead Hop, Green Thumb Thursdays and the Maple Hill Hop)


  1. More great advice for the upcoming spring planting. Thanks for joining us on The Maple Hill Hop today!

  2. Thanks for the tips- I'll try some of these suggestions in the shady parts on my garden.


Note: Only a member of this blog may post a comment.

Related Posts Plugin for WordPress, Blogger...