Deciding What to Plant in Your Vegetable Garden

Is 2019 the year you're finally going to grow food? Or maybe it's the year you get serious about growing enough veggies to stop buying them at the store? If so, you may already find yourself inundated with seed catalogs...and like an 18th-century sailor hypnotized by the siren's song, you might be under the spell of the many, many, MANY seeds available to today's gardeners. But before you spend a bunch of money on seeds, I encourage you to take a good hard look at what you really should be growing.

What Do You Eat?

Surprisingly few people ask themselves this question when browsing seed catalogs - yet what you already eat should be the backbone of your home vegetable garden. While you might be tempted by all manner of fancy or rare vegetable seeds, first consider how you can replace store-bought produce with home-grown.

In some cases, you might not be able to replace everything you buy at the store. For instance, I can't grow the mandarin oranges my son adores because they simply don't produce in my area. (Unless they are in a heated greenhouse, which isn't within my budget any time soon.) But in most cases, you can grow most veggies you currently buy.

When I look at what I vegetables I buy the most, I see onions, bell peppers, and garlic at the very top of the list. Bell peppers are the most difficult for me to grow here, but I can do it if I choose a warm enough location. Therefore, my goal on our mountaintop homestead is to eventually grow all the onions, bell peppers, and garlic we need for at least a one year period.

To that list, I'd add our favorite low carb veggies, which are side-dish staples at our house: broccoli, cauliflower, green beans, Brussels sprouts, kale and collards, lettuce, cabbage, asparagus, kohlrabi, and zucchini. Happily, our location is terrific for all of these foods, except zucchini (which, believe it or not, I've struggled with growing on our new homestead). So already I have a strong list of must-haves for my garden.

To determine what vegetables your family eats most often, I recommend jotting down every veggie you buy for at least one month. These are your staple veggies, and should be priorities for growing at home.

What Will Save Money?

Almost all of us have limited growing space; therefore we have to ask ourselves what foods we can grow that will save us money. For example, when I lived in the suburbs, growing garlic was not a priority for me because I had such limited space and garlic was pretty cheap to buy at the store. And although I liked canning dilly beans each year, I knew a local gardener with much more space than I had who'd sell them to me super-cheap. It made more sense to buy my green beans from her than to use up a lot of space growing my own.

If organic food is important to you, you may also wish to consider the Dirty Dozen. Which store-bought foods have the most pesticides, and therefore are more important for you to grow?

What Can You Not Afford to Buy?

Next, think about veggies that you'd love to eat more often, but simply can't afford. For my family, Brussels sprouts fall into this category. We love them, but they've been really expensive the past few years, so we haven't been eating them. Growing these is a top priority for me.

What Will Give the Most?

If you plant loose leaf lettuce, it will give you lettuce the entire time it's growing in the garden (as long as you leave behind at least three center leaves). If you plant head lettuce, you'll only get one head of lettuce per plant. Likewise, an onion plant only gives you one onion, but a green bean plant provides you with many meals. Choose plants accordingly.

How Much to Grow?

If you're new to gardening, it's smart to start with a small garden. Trying to grow all your own produce in your first year is likely to lead to frustration, discouragement, and expensive mistakes. Instead, keep your garden small at first and gain some knowledge and experience.

If you've never grown a particular type of veggie before, it's also wise to start small. Instead of planting rows of something new, nurture just one or two plants. I also like to try two or three different varieties of that new-to-me vegetable, so I can get a feel for which varieties do best in my garden.

Each year, aim to expand your garden as your experience and know-how also expands.

For ideas on how many plants you need to feed your family, see my post "How Many Vegetables to Plant?"

Choosing Varieties Suitable to Your Garden

It's a huge mistake to not consider your growing conditions when selecting seeds. You should not only know your USDA gardening zone, but you'll also need to know the growing conditions in your garden. Do you have full sun (6 or more hours per day)? Then you shouldn't grow, say, spinach, which likes some shade. Do you only have part shade? Then there's little point in planting tomatoes, which will only happily produce in full sun.

You should also strive to purchase seeds that are grown in a climate similar to your own. For short season climates (the northern tier of the U.S.) I generally recommend: Stoke Seeds, Johnny's Select Seeds, Veseys Seeds, William Dam Seeds

For moderate climates (middle America, where the summers are hot and steamy and the winter freezes the soil at least 12 inches deep.): Stoke Seeds, Johnny's Select Seeds, Harris Seeds, King Seeds

For warm climates (southern America, where the soil doesn't freeze solid and the summers are long, hot, and humid): Park Seed, Southern Exposure, Seeds for the South.

For maritime climates (the Cascadia, including the redwoods of northern California, extending into Oregon, Washington, and the Lower Mainland and islands of British Columbia, with relatively cool summers and rare soil freezing): Territorial Seed, West Coast Seeds, New Gippsland Seeds.

Find more seed companies by region here

Also consider how long it takes each variety to produce. If I have a choice between a 40-day tomato and a 70-day tomato, I'll almost always pick the tomato that matures more quickly. After all, that means more food in my kitchen, sooner, and more room opened up in the garden for another round of plants. 

For more tips on choosing the best seeds for your needs, click here.

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