Before You Plant: 5 things to consider when starting a vegetable garden
The summer gardening season is in full swing! We have tomatoes coming out of our ears, and the squash is getting ready to join in. Growing your own food is rewarding, fairly easy, and can save you money on your grocery bill. It’s not hard, but there are a few things to consider before you get started.
1. What do you want to grow?
While this may seem like the easiest question of them all, in reality it’s a good idea to give it some thought before you run out and buy plants. Consider:
What will you actually eat? When we first started our garden, my husband planted eggplant. It did very well! I also discovered that I don’t like eggplant very much. We gave some of it away, tried to cook with it creatively, and ended up putting the rest in the compost or trash. (If you do start a garden, find a way to compost. What doesn’t get eaten can be put in to create a great soil amendment for future years.)
How much can you eat? How much can you give away? Remember how we have tomatoes coming out of our ears? I also don’t care for raw tomatoes. My family does, and people at work start asking “are you growing tomatoes this year?” in May. I do eat some of them cooked into meals, and I’m canning tomatoes this year for the first time (look for a future post on adventures in canning), but normally we just give them to people to who love them. There’s nothing wrong with growing things that you don’t eat a lot of and giving the rest away. Consider co-gardening – do you have a friend or neighbor who doesn’t have space or time that can help out with pulling weeds and harvesting in exchange for some of the harvest? Or, plan ahead with a friend and neighbor, grow different things and exchange the overages.
Will you be canning or preserving? There’s more to preserving food than canning. You can also pickle, dry or freeze food as well. Consider how you prefer to preserve the extras, and perhaps plan for some overage so you have canned tomatoes in the winter, pickles, or frozen squash when it’s cold outside.
Now that you know what you want to plant, let’s talk plant information really quick. All the answers to the questions below can be found on the seed packet. (If you’re growing from a starter, you can still look up the seed packet or information online – the information is still the same.)
2. Where will you plant?
You don’t have to have a large plot of land for most things. Even if you only have a balcony or patio with some sun, a couple of pots can support a tomato plant and an herb garden.
Plants need 3 things: good soil, water, and sun. Make sure you have a plan for all three and know the requirements of the plants you are planning on planting. Find out how big the plant gets and how much space you need to leave between plants if you’re planting more than one. You’ll need to consider whether each plant prefers sun, partial or full shade. Look at how much water the plant needs; this can change based on where the plant is in its life cycle. Too much water can kill a plant as easily as too little. (If you don’t have time to hand water consistently, and you aren’t planting near an area watered by sprinklers, if you are planting near a hose bib you can hook up a timer to a drip system and water your plants that way.)
We have 6, 4’x6’ raised beds that we plant in for ease in weeding and harvesting, but we could also have just planted straight into the ground. Some of our beds get shade from neighboring fruit trees, and there is more shade during the winter than in the summer. We have lot of hose bibs around the property (thank you, former house owner!), so we run drip lines on timers to our vegetable beds and trees.
3. When will you plant?
When should the plant go into the ground? The country is divided into climate zones based on the lowestand highest temperatures, frost dates, and other influencing factors (being located in the foothills, affected by the coastal effect, etc.). Find your climate zone as it will affect what time of year you plant.
You’ll also want to consider days to maturity. Days to maturity are the average number of days until you can harvest. For example:
- Early Girl tomatoes: 52 days.
- Brussels sprouts: 80 to 90 days.
Based on this, you can plant Early Girl tomatoes mid-season and still have a hope of a harvest, but if your brussels sprouts get in too late…well, hopefully you can keep the plant alive until you get a brussels sprout or two.
What time of year should you plant? If you’ve ever been to a farmer’s market, you may have noticed that there are different plants in season during the winter than in the summer. The grocery stores used to be this way too before food was shipped in from other parts of the country and world and/or grown in greenhouses. While you may be able to coax a plant to stay alive out of season, you’ll have better results by growing in season.
Unless you live in an area with really extreme frosts and freezing winters, you should be able to get 2-3 growing seasons in – spring, summer, and fall. If you live in a more temperate climate, you should be able to have a garden year-round.
I live in southern California, and while I can coax a tomato plant to stay alive into November, the tomatoes take forever to ripen and there are only one or two. I can also keep a kale plant alive into the hot summer months, but the kale tastes better during the winter when the leaves are sweeter.
When do you want to use the produce? If you’re growing something that is extra seasonal – watermelons in the summer or pumpkins around Halloween and Thanksgiving – be sure that you count back from when you’re wanting to use it and allow some extra time.
4. What to plant?
Seeds? Starters? Mature plant? How much time do you have and how patient are you? Are you planting right at the beginning of the growing season? A few months in? If you plant from seed, know that you will need to overseed at least a little bit and thin out what grows. Starters are usually the easiest to plant in the beginning as they transplant well and are small enough to handle easily. They may still be a ways away from being full grown, but you have a head start because you don’t have to wait for the seeds to germinate.
There’s also a price difference to consider. Seeds are very cheap compared to a full-grown plant. If you’re being very frugal, consider starting from seeds.
Even after 30+ years of working in gardens (yes, we had one growing up), I still find seed germination nothing short of a miracle. A little seed, a little water, a little sun…plant!
Right now, in our garden we have rosemary, a fennel plant that is past its prime, watermelon, artichoke (an experiment!), crook-neck squash, basil, Early Girl tomatoes, Roma tomatoes, and kale that is past its prime. We planted bush beans, but they didn’t do well in a couple of weeks of really hot weather – we’re in the middle of a serious drought and water restrictions, so if they couldn’t survive on the water they got, they didn’t make it.
5. Which variation should I plant?
Most plants have several varieties suited to different needs (climate zone, disease resistance, heirloom, seed production). The days to maturity vary, or one could be more suited to a specific climate over another one. Different varieties have different disease resistances, and some are bred for a specific type of preserving (e.g. pickling) versus kinds that are best for cooking and eating. Also be aware that some plants are a bit more tolerant to poor conditions and neglect. I try to find crook-neck squash when I can as it can get a little bigger without getting woody and too hard to cut into. The straight-neck squash that I’ve grown in the past has to be picked very small so you even have a chance of cutting into it.
Yes, the above might seem daunting. But there’s nothing wrong with just jumping in and experimenting! Your planting area is unique. Unless you try it, you’ll never know what works for you. (We should be able to grow corn, but we can’t. After two failed years we gave up.)
If you don’t know where to start, start small: a potted tomato, potted herbs (rosemary, basil, parsley, thyme, and oregano are fairly easy to grow), and/or potted lettuce or spinach. There’s a sense of pride when you serve something that you’ve grown for dinner, and I’m sure you’ll find out that it tastes better too!