In the waning days of winter, after the groundhog has chimed in, when the bright sun shines warm on your face, and the warmest days “feeling like spring”, the itch for the coming garden season starts creeping across your skin. Though honestly, some years I’m not sure it ever goes away. The first scratch is looking over the previous year’s notes, photos, or recollections and, in the broadest strokes, starting to name its winners and losers. There are always winners and losers. Sometimes it’s our fault – I didn’t get those carrots weeded when I should have, or I hilled those potatoes at exactly the perfect time – and sometimes it’s because of the weather – you can’t grow corn in the cold, but I got every single cucumber beetle and was rewarded with a bumper crop. And sometimes it comes down to the decisions we made when the snow was still on the ground.
Choosing the right variety of the right kind of vegetable or fruit to grow in your garden takes trial and error, it takes recognizing when the season was or was not ideal, and it takes thinking about what your growing conditions and your growing style will help to flourish.
In the end it comes down to a few simple either/ors: easy vs hard, cheap vs expensive, and compact vs spread. This, of course, assumes that you’ve already decided what you like to eat and what you don’t – unless there’s another reason for it, growing kale if you hate it doesn’t make a lot of sense.
Easy vs hard
This, to me, is the first filter through which seed choices should be passed when deciding what to grow in your garden each year. It’s okay to like a challenge, goodness knows I do, but make sure that when you’re buying your seeds you’re choosing your challenges, not setting yourself up for frustrations. This means knowing which types of vegetables and fruits are sure things, and which ones will require more know-how, time, and energy to see through to success.
Lettuce, radishes, beans, cabbage, zucchini, potatoes, herbs, tomatoes, cucumbers, Swiss chard, parsnips, turnips, and beets are pretty much sure winners when it comes to growing in the garden. Some of them have pests and diseases that can attack them, but most of them are manageable. These are all plants that grow in the widest range of growing environments and require the least amount of intervention (beyond basic weeding) to grow successfully.
Broccoli, bok choi, spinach, kale, onions from seed, winter squash, sweet corn, peppers, peas, and carrots are the middling types, that require a bit more luck or technique to thrive. Each for their own reasons – bok choi, spinach, and peas suffer in the heat, so need to be planted early, and bok choi has the additional burden of being a magnet for flea beetles – peppers need warmth is excellent soil, broccoli wants lots of water, winter squash needs a long growing season, and carrots won’t compete with weeds and can be capricious germinators. Everything wants to eat your sweet corn. Everything.
And that leaves Brussels sprouts, watermelon, sweet potatoes, eggplant, and cauliflower as the toughies. They want specific weather conditions and specific season lengths. Some of them want it hot when they want it hot, and cold when they want it cold, or have pests a plenty, or are heavy feeders. Or some combination of them all. If you’re looking for a challenge, this is the group to offer it. But the reward for success can be well worth the effort. A snow-white cauliflower grown in your own garden is a badge of pride to be worn with honour.
Cheap vs expensive
This is a two-pronged calculation, because we’re not only considering the cost of the vegetables and fruits that we’re growing – does it make sense to use precious square footage to grow potatoes that costs pennies-a-pound? – but also the cost of the seed: cauliflower seeds can cost $0.25 each, and some squashes and giant pumpkins are almost a dollar for a single seed. But even though tomatoes are cheapest in the grocery store the same week they’re most abundant in your garden there is no question of the value of a home-grown tomato in which you can taste the very warmth of the sun.
The cheap vs expensive choice is most often thought of in combination with one of the other two factors I’m writing about today: ease and the space they use. Most of us don’t garden with a strict return on investment in mind, and that’s okay. In fact, I think that’s important, because first and foremost gardening should be a joyful thing. But I also think that considering the price for your seeds – and the vegetables and fruits they translate into in the grocery bill they offset – is important, too.
Compact vs spread
This is the one that I think is actually the most negotiable in most cases, but also the most important to think about seriously. Yes, in many cases if we need another row or two, we can often just increase the size of the garden. Last spring, I wrote in depth about how to decide how much space you have time for, and it’s important to keep that in mind before turning the backyard into a turnip farm.
Everything we grow in the garden needs space to thrive. They need space for their roots, and they need space for their stems, and vines, and leaves, and fruit. But this is where I say that the compact vs spread consideration is negotiable: many vegetables and fruits have different varieties that have different space requirements. There are cucumbers bred for trellising (and even those that aren’t can mostly be grown vertically), there are bush-type squashes that only vine a handful of feet, rather than taking off in a way that makes you think they’re trying to flee for the neighbour’s yard. There are determinant tomatoes that tend to be more compact (but also all ripen at once), and there are vegetables and fruits that just take up less space as a matter of course – like carrots, and green onions, who truly mind their own business in their own square inch of space.
You can find out a great deal about the spread of your chosen vegetables and fruits from the seed company’s website, or from the back of a seed packet. There you can compare different varieties of the same vegetable to find one that suits your conditions and growing style – broccoli might not make the cut on your gardening list until you learn that the Munchkin variety takes about half the space as most other varieties, is an heirloom, and grows well under a wide variety of growing conditions.
It can be easy to become overwhelmed or dazzled by all the lovely photos in a seed catalogue or website, we all have been at least a time or two, but it’s important to think through your choices carefully and make sure that you know what you’ve chosen and why. These decisions made in February will impact your gardening experience – and your harvest – through the entire growing season. You want them to be the very best decisions, because at the end of the year you want to wear that badge of pride, whether you’ve grown a snow-white cauliflower, a watermelon whose juice ran all the down your chin, or the best darned row of radishes your soil has ever seen.