Selecting the seeds and plants to fill the garden is one of the BEST parts of getting ready for a new season! I love starting with a blank canvas, pouring over gorgeous seed catalogs, and carefully considering of all of the possibilities that the next year’s garden might bring. Without fail, my list grows endlessly, and just when I think I might have finished it up, I find something else I just have to add to it. It’s a delightful cycle that continues until, well, I guess it never really ends (whee!).
As much fun as it is to pick out seeds and plants with reckless abandon, eventually the times comes to start making some decisions that will pare the list down to a manageable collection of smart choices for the garden. Here are some things to consider to set yourself up for success:
Location, Location, Location
There is no other single consideration that is going to dictate what you can grow more than your location, so knowing what your climate means for your garden is key:
- It is important to know your USDA Plant Hardiness Zone, which is based on the average lowest winter temperature for any given location. Especially if you are investing in perennials, like asparagus, berries, or fruit trees, you are going to want to make sure that they will successfully overwinter. There were some rather significant changes made to the map in 2012, so be sure to double check if your zone has changed in the last year.
- It is also important know is your frost free dates, or the average date when your location is usually past the risk frost in the spring (and on the flip side, the average date of the first frost in the fall). This is going to be important in determining if your growing season is long enough to grow that late heirloom tomato that looks so good–and when to start the seeds indoors.
Grow What You Eat
Take a minute to think about what vegetables you eat on a regular basis. This is what should make up the bulk of your garden choices. As pretty as that eggplant might be, if you can’t honestly say that you will cook it and eat it, you might want to dedicate that space to something you will.
- Know the best variety or type of vegetable for your intended use. There are differences between the cucumbers you will want to grow to make pickles and the cucumbers you will want to grow for slicers. Pay attention to descriptions and search garden cookbooks for suggestions on good varieties for different purposes.
- Know how much you need. Just ask yourself this, how many zucchini will you really eat? Do you have some preservation goals for the season? How much space do you have in your freezer? Work backwards and figure out how many pounds of tomatoes you’ll need for a batch of sauce or how many cups of green beans you need to freeze to get through the winter.
- Experiment in moderation. Growing what you eat doesn’t mean you can’t try something new; in fact, I encourage you to try new varieties! I just want you to be smart about it. Sure those funky looking African melons look cool and would make an great conversation piece at backyard barbecues, but before you buy 4 different varieties, just start with one hill to see how you like them and then plan accordingly for future years. If they don’t live up to your expectations, you’ll be glad you saved the extra space for something else.
Entries in seed catalogs and the back of seed packets can be enormously helpful in determining if a variety is a good choice for your garden, but if you’re new to gardening, it can sometimes feel like it’s written in a secret code. Here’s a crash course in the language of seed catalogs:
- Days to Maturity is the number of days from when the seed is sown or transplanted to when you can expect to your first harvest. This number needs to be smaller than the number of days between your frost free dates.
- Sun Exposure refers to the ideal number of hours of daylight a plant needs to grow and produce. The term, full sun, usually means 6 or more hours of direct sunlight, while partial sun usually means the plant requires a minimum of 3 or 4 hours of direct sunlight. Plants that are shade tolerant will do well where there is indirect or filtered sunlight.
- Heirloom is a bit of an elusive term, and there isn’t complete agreement on what makes a variety an heirloom. Some define a variety as an heirloom based on it’s age (at least 50 years old), while others would argue that an heirloom is a variety that has been saved and passed down through the generations (and as such, always open pollinated). If you’ve been reading this blog for a while, you know that I advocate for selecting heirlooms for your garden for a lot of reasons.
- Open Pollinated (often designated as OP) varieties are pollinated naturally by bees, insects, wind, etc. (also often included in this classification are the self-pollinators); in other words, nature is allowed to do what nature does best. If you want to save seeds from your garden, you will need to choose open pollinated varieties, which are sometimes also called “true” varieties, meaning the seed will produce the exact same plant in subsequent generations. An excellent source on choosing varieties for seed saving is the Heirloom Life Gardener from Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds.
- Hybrid varieties are the result of crossing two different varieties, usually with the intent of getting some of the best features of each variety in one plant. The seeds produced from a hybrid will not produce the exact same plant in subsequent generations, typically reverting back to one of the original parent plants. Hybrids are usually designated with an F1 or F2, which will tell you it is a first or second generation cross. Hybrids are not GMOs; they are the result of controlled cross breeding, not genetic engineering. There are a lot of great hybrid varieties to choose from, and they are a good choice if you are looking for specific disease resistance or more consistent and predictable yields.
- The Safe Seed Pledge was developed by the Council for Responsible Genetics with the intent for seed companies to pledge that they will not knowingly buy or sell genetically engineered seed. For the most part, home gardeners do not need to worry about unknowingly purchasing GMO vegetable seed, because it’s simply not in the supply at this time, but the Safe Seed Pledge is still a good way to seek out and support seed companies that are dedicated to pure seed.
- Resistance to disease and insects may also be noted in catalog entries. Again, a lot of hybrids are specifically bred to both produce prolifically and stand up to leaf spot (or whatever it is that ails your garden). If you have known issues in your growing area, you may want to pay close attention to varieties that are more resistant.
- Tolerance to hot or cold weather is often a hard phrase to decipher in catalogs, because it really all comes down to where the seed trial took place that came to that conclusion. My definition of cold tolerant is going to be very different from someone else’s description (especially if they live in a climate more amenable to human habitation than Minnesota in January), so just keep in mind that these descriptions might be more subjective than objective, and look for more definitive clues, like a range of zones.
Know Your Limits
As a final thought, It is important–especially for new gardeners–to pace yourself. Know the time and energy you have to devote to your garden and plan accordingly. Even if that community garden plot is just a mile away, it still takes extra time and effort than the garden just outside your backdoor will require. Planting what you can keep up with will make the entire growing season more enjoyable (and less like an endless list of chores). Increase your growing space and garden repertoire little by little each year and before you know it, you’ll have the garden of your dreams and you’ll manage it marvelously!
So go ahead and dive into all the possibilities — it’s the only way you’ll find what’s right for you! As you make your decisions, just keep in mind that finding the right seeds and plants for your garden can make a big difference in not only the success, but the enjoyment of your garden as well.