If you haven’t bought seeds yet, the time to do so is coming soon. I’ll be ordering mine by next week. It’s exciting, but it can also be confusing. So many varieties, so many options! So how do you decide what to plant in your garden?
There’s a few things to take into consideration. Some are obvious, some are less so.
Plant What You’ll Eat
I’ve never eaten kohlrabi. Guess what isn’t going in my garden? Kohlrabi. I’ve never eaten brussel sprouts. Guess what isn’t going in my garden? Brussel sprouts. If I were to buy some from the grocery store, cook them, and like them, I’d probably plant some next season. But this season, I’m not going to plant them because I don’t eat them.
Plant How Much You’ll Eat
The next most obvious thing is to only plant enough to meet your needs, and no more. Now, these needs can drastically increase by being willing and able to preserve your excess harvest. If you can, freeze, or dehydrate produce, you can eat it through the off-season too. Doing so will drastically increase how much you should plant.
Now, determining how much that actually is uses a little trial and error, as well as a little bit of research. For instance, perhaps your family likes fresh tomatoes, but only a bit. You know you’ll put them on fresh burgers every time you grill through the summer. One plant–maybe two–will probably do the trick. But perhaps you’re like my family, and only one of you likes fresh tomatoes on occasion, but all of you eat ketchup, sauce, etc. For me this means I either don’t plant tomatoes at all, or I plant a lot with the intent of preserving them. I have plans for a dozen plants this year for that exact purpose–I’m going to be swimming in tomatoes to process if they do well.
Read up on everything you want to plant. How many pounds of cucumbers does that variety produce? How many pounds do you think you’ll eat? If you want to preserve them, check some canning recipes or freezing instructions to see how much you’ll need.
Plant For Where You Live
I live in the rainy and moderate Pacific Northwest. This means that long-season heat-loving vegetables are a bit beyond me without a greenhouse. In order to grow things like tomatoes and peppers, I have to choose varieties that have a smaller number of growing days–preferably less than 80–and start them indoors a few weeks before the first frost. Although our growing season from last frost to first frost is about six months, the weather is often in the 40s, 50s, and 60s for part of it, so the period of actual warm/hot weather is only 3-4 months long.
Of course, on the other end, this means that cold-tolerant vegetables do well here. Winter gardening is very easy with simple season extenders like cloches to protect the vegetables from hard freezes. I could have fresh salad nearly year round, and quite a head start on my veggies come springtime, if I did winter gardening here. Not everywhere is moderate enough to allow for that.
So, check out a couple of things. Check out your growing zone–I’m in zone 8. Most plants are hardiest in certain zones. And check out your first and last frost dates, your growing season length, how many heat hours you usually get per year (especially helpful for fruit trees), and how much of your season averages warm to hot temperatures. All this is going to help you decide what to plant in your garden as far as varieties, types of vegetables, and even for the winter.
Choose Your Varieties
As I touched on before, the varieties you choose can make a huge difference in whether your vegetables grow successfully in your area. Not only that, but some varieties are more resistant to certain diseases, temperatures (bolt-resistant greens are better for summer growing, for example), and pests. A seed catalog should tell you what diseases each variety has some resistance too, as well as the number of growing days and other useful information.
Make sure to record which varieties thrive and taste good and which don’t. Eventually you’ll have your go-to varieties, and just keep saving your own seeds from them. Perhaps occasionally a new, tempting variety will appear in a seed catalog, and you can try and compare that one to your favorites. It’s fun!
Heirloom and Other Designations
If that’s not enough, you’ll need to choose from open-pollinated, heirloom, and hybrid. We’ll touch on GMO and organic too.
Heirloom vegetables are vegetables that have been around for awhile, that have a history. They’re the varieties your grandparents and great-grandparents had. Some heirloom varieties can be traced back a few hundred years! All heirloom varieties are open-pollinated.
Open-pollinated plants are simply plants that can be pollinated naturally–hello, bees!–or by hand, and the seeds are true to the parent plants. This means that you can save the seeds of any open-pollinated (and therefore any heirloom) varieties. If you like a variety, you just have to make sure to plant enough to sacrifice some to seed-saving, and you won’t have to buy it again!
Of course, open-pollinated varieties can cross-pollinate, so don’t plant multiple varieties of the same kind of vegetable right next to each other if you want to save some seeds. Sometimes the offspring of a cross-pollinated variety don’t come out so well, and even if they do the offspring of the hybrid won’t produce true to the parent plant.
Hybrid plants aren’t GMO. These are made from good old breeding, not genetic manipulation in a lab.
Hybrids simply come from the process mentioned above, where two open-pollinated varieties are cross-pollinated to create a different variety. Hybrid seeds don’t produce true to the parent plant, so they often don’t turn out well. Don’t bother saving seeds from hybrids. The positive to hybrids is that they’re often bred for superior taste or disease resistance, so if a vegetable is prone to a certain disease in your area, a hybrid bred for resistance to that disease might be your best bet for success.
Genetically modified organisms are organisms that have had their genetics manipulated in a lab rather than through traditional breeding methods. There’s quite a bit of debate regarding the safety and ethics of GMOs, at least for the environment and for the sake of genetic diversity. Unless you are a commercial farmer, you’re almost certainly not going to be buying GMO seeds. If you do buy GMO seeds somehow for some reason, it’s probably going to be illegal to save seeds from the plants because it’s patented by the company which produces the seeds.
Organic seeds are seeds that come from parent plants which were grown and harvested using organic methods. Seeds from organically grown parents aren’t necessary for growing organically at home. However, the plants you grow from organic seeds arguably come from parent plants that are already hardy to organic growing methods. More pest-resistant and all that. Organic methods, while they aren’t totally without their problems, are overall shown to be better for the environment and for personal health.
I hope all of this helps you! I know that one of the most useful things for sorting through all of this is a good seed catalog. High Mowing Seeds was probably the best catalog I could have ever perused for understanding all of this better! What do you think you’re going to grow this year?