It took me longer than I’d hoped to get this post out. Part of my struggle was that choosing the veggies for your garden is such a personal choice. But a conversation with a friend last night helped me really focus in on how I choose veggies for my garden.
Start with the limiting factors
If you live in Lyons, you can’t grow bananas outdoors, no matter how badly you’d like to. If you live in an apartment, you probably can’t manage an apple tree. If you live in a suburban house, you likely don’t have room enough to grow wheat or barley. So start your veggie planning with identifying your limitations. Last week, I wrote about figuring out how much garden space you have, and how much you need.
Now, we’ll figure out the other limiting factors besides space. First, it’s important to know the length of your growing season. Although each season is different, your county likely records the weather each season and reports it to the government so that they can calculate an average first and last frost date. Here in Lyons, our last frost is typically some time around Mother’s Day, and we can expect our first frost at the end of September or, if we’re lucky, in early October.
If you have no idea when your first and last frost dates are, you can visit the NCDC to find out. Select your state, and a PDF organized by the name of the weather stations in your state will open. Sometimes the names are a little funky, so browse through until you find the one closest to you.
Once you have your average first and last frost dates, you also have a general idea of how many growing days you have. If you live in Zone 4 and north, you may have trouble getting some of the frost-tender, longer-season crops like melons and peppers to produce. If you live in warmer zones, you may have enough time to sneak in a couple of crop successions in a season. Here in Zone 5, I can usually get a crop of peas, garlic, and spring greens out of a bed that will later house summer crops like winter squash, cucumbers, green beans, or strawberries. But more about that later!
What do you like, and what is readily available?
Here’s where it gets personal. There’s no sense in planting a ton of eggplant if no one in your family will eat it (Matt is laughing right now, because I still plant a couple of eggplant every year even though I’m the only one who eats it). Likewise, I find growing something like corn, which is plentiful at the market, takes up a lot of garden space, and is very inexpensive, to be a waste of time. However, my family eats more tomatoes, peppers, tomatillos, and herbs that the normal family and all of these tend to be rather pricey at the market. So we focus our attentions there. So spend some time this week thinking about what you’d like to grow, and start with what your family likes to eat!
Start making that list
OK, so you have a basic idea of what you’d like to grow. You know the length of your growing season, and how much space you have to use for gardening this season. Now it’s time to make a spreadsheet. This can be on paper, or online, whichever works best for you. I usually start with a paper list and then transfer it to the computer so I can sort and calculate. But I’m also a geek ;).
My spreadsheet has a column for type of vegetable (tomato, pepper, basil, etc.), then for the variety in case I plan to plant more than one type, as I always do with those tomatoes, peppers, and basil. Then I make an estimate of how many plants I need. I have a couple of books that help you estimate this, and the variation of their recommendations reminds us again that this is a personal choice, and also one that is impacted by space, time you want to spend in your garden, and whether you’re trying to feed yourself for a couple of summer meals or the whole year long.
I also calculate the square footage that each plant requires. You can get the spacing information off of the seed packet, or usually even in the garden catalog so that you can calculate this, but here’s an example: I don’t trellis my tomatoes, so I give them 9 square feet (3 feet between plants in each direction – 3 ft x 3 ft = 9 square feet of space). Since you already calculated the square footage of your gardening beds in last week’s exercise, you can pretty easily see if you have room for all of the plants you’re hoping to grow. Don’t fudge here, because if you overplant your beds, you’ll likely end up with more disease problems and the beds will be less productive than if they’re planted at the recommended spacing.
If you need some additional resources to help you with this (and keep in mind, I use a variety of books to help me!), check out the free resources available from the Cooperative Extension in your state. For Coloradoans, here are some that I find useful: Vegetable Planting Guide, Block-Style Layout in Raised Bed Vegetable Gardens, Sample Planting Guide.
OK, that’s a lot to work through for this week. And I haven’t even touched on starting your own seeds, choosing varieties (heirloom vs. hybrid), or any of that. But we can talk about that after you’ve ordered your seeds. Oh, and feel free to ask me questions–the ones I’ve gotten so far have helped me choose topics for this series!