How to Grow the Edible Garden That's Right for You

Don’t be surprised if you’re overwhelmed when you start planning your vegetable garden for the year. With all the options, from reliable standbys to new introductions, coupled with enticing photos and descriptions, it’s easy to come up with a list of edibles to grow that can daunt even the most avid gardener. If you’re new to the gardening scene, it can be even harder to choose.

Thinking through the guidelines below will help you whittle your list to what’s manageable while providing you with enough edibles throughout the growing season to call your vegetable garden a success.

Grow what you want to eat. This may seem obvious, but it’s easy to get carried away when reading seed catalog descriptions. The resulting garden may produce an amazing array of vegetables, but if your family members boycott the Brussels sprouts or turn up their noses at the turnips, it won’t be doing much to contribute to your meals or to your budget.

Instead, really think about what you like to eat, what you gravitate toward at farmers markets or the grocery store, or what you’re always stocking up on. In the long run, you’ll not only enjoy the freshly harvested vegetables you already love, but you’ll also cut back on some of those last-minute trips and avoid wasting food.

This doesn’t mean you have to stick to tried-and-true favorites. Instead, consider introducing one new vegetable — and research a number of ways to prepare it. It can be something as simple as a new variety of tomato or as adventuresome as a vegetable you might have never tried before, such as okra or broccolini. By adding in just a few new crops, you’ll know whether they’re keepers or not worth growing again without being overrun with vegetables no one will eat.

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Keep your garden’s size in check. Consider it a holdover from the days of the family farm: Most people think of a vegetable garden as the large patch with long rows of cucumbers, squashes, tomatoes, beans, peppers and corn. This is especially true if you’re new to vegetable gardening.

If you have a large family or are planning to do a lot of preserving or canning, then it makes sense to grow plenty of each vegetable. If, like most of us, you simply want to enjoy the vegetables and other edibles during their prime growing season, then the space you need for your garden is surprisingly small. Even a 10-by-10-foot garden can produce plenty of food for a family of four.

Staying small has a lot of advantages. You don’t need to carve out huge swaths of your landscape to get a productive garden, and maintenance is much simpler and faster. You’re also conserving water and soil, especially if you use an intensive gardening method such as square-foot gardening.

Nevertheless, an excess of vegetables isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Consider joining a garden swap or donating to local food banks. They love getting fresh vegetables. One popular program is Plant a Row for the Hungry, which encourages you to add a bit of extra garden space for growing vegetables to donate.

Be realistic about how much time you can spend in the garden. Vegetable gardens aren’t self-sufficient. Watering the garden, checking for pests, staking plants and harvesting do require work on your part, even if gardening is your hobby. If you’re looking at a lot of other commitments during the spring and summer, including work, sports and vacations, growing a few things that you love, rather than a large number of vegetables, is a better choice.

If you’ve recently been bitten by the canning and preserving bug, remember that both need to be done when the vegetables are ripe. Canning, in particular, takes some concentrated time and requires being in a steam-filled kitchen, often during the hottest days of the year. So you may want to start small — an extra tomato or two for sauce and salsa or a slightly larger strawberry bed for jam — until you get an idea of the time involved.

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Pay attention to your climate and growing season. Where you live dictates what you can grow. Even garden standbys such as peppers and corn may be garden duds in cool-summer climates like the Pacific Northwest. Desert climates may simply be too hot for anything to thrive in the summer. On the other side of the climate scale, short summers may limit your ability to grow plants that need a long time to reach maturity.

There are a couple of ways to overcome these obstacles. First, look for varieties that have been bred to thrive in your climate, whether too cool or too hot. If you’re in the desert, you may simply need to switch around your gardening season, using summer to plan and fall through spring to grow.

If you have a short growing season, starting seeds indoors can help you get a head start on growing without the risk of freezing your plants. Check online sources like The Old Farmer’s Almanac to find your typical last frost date, then determine how many weeks before that date you need to start your seeds. Most seed packets and gardening catalogs include this information.

Stretch out the season. You may be thinking that all these considerations mean you won’t have much to grow. Here’s where you can start adding vegetables back in to your planned crop list. Most edibles are either cool-season, preferring the gentler temperatures of spring and fall, or warm-season, loving the heat of summer.

With a little planning, you can start the gardening year with a cool-season crop, then substitute a warm-season crop once the weather heats up and the first crop is fading. One easy sequence is to start with peas on a trellis, then put beans in their place during the summer — you have the support systems set up, and you don’t have a gaping hole in your garden plot. You may even be able to get another round of peas in the winter before the frost hits.

A variation of this is succession planting. This is great for quick-growing crops, such as beets, carrots and greens. Plan to sow seeds every couple of weeks so that as your first planting finishes up, you already have growing plants to take its place.

Seeds or seedlings? Finally, decide if you want to grow from seeds or seedlings. Seeds have a lot of advantages. First, they’re inexpensive compared with seedlings. You can usually find the exact variety you want by browsing different seed catalogs. If you’re looking for heirlooms or organic seeds, then finding seed companies specializing in these is a better bet than hoping they’ll be part of the offerings at your nearest garden center.

Some vegetables, such as carrots, don’t transplant well, so you’ll need to start them from seeds no matter what. Seeds are also a good choice if you have a short growing season and need to start your vegetable garden inside.

Seedlings make sense if you’re looking for something that’s relatively common, such as ‘Blue Lake’ beans or zucchini, but you don’t want to grow a large amount of that particular crop. You have the added advantage of seeing if the transplants look healthy before you buy. They’re also a good choice if you’re dealing with a shorter growing season and don’t want to, or haven’t, started seeds indoors. Finally, a few good seedlings can fill in the gaps in your existing garden.