Rules sounds so strict! But I do think it is crucial to have a few bits of information in your back pocket when you dive into either the nursery or the seed catalogs to shop for veggies.
- Know your growing days. I live up North, Zone 4a (much like MyBackyardGarden4b who got us started down this path) so my growing season maxes out around 90 days on average. This is an invaluable bit of information when picking out seeds of any type and it is the first thing I look at in the catalogs. Sure, we do get longer seasons occasionally, but it is safest for me to stick to varieties that will mature on or before 90 days from germination. Let this number be your guide too! No sense planting anything with a longer maturity date than that as you may get no harvest at all and that would be heartbreaking.
The caveat here is that some things (like winter squash) can take a bit longer than the growing season you have. If its somewhere in the 5-15 day extra range and the plants can handle a bit of cold (so, not peppers or cucumbers) it should probably be fine. If you are talking 2 weeks or more extra or a tender plant- save yourself the pain and move on to something that is a better match.
- Figure out what you consider high-value produce. This is going to differ from you to me, as well it should! Some plants just aren’t worth the effort to me. Either what I grow doesn’t taste as good as sore bought, take up too much real estate, or it takes too much energy to process them. So I don’t bother! I consider beans (processing) and carrots (taste) firmly in this category. Broccoli, cabbage, and cauliflower too because they are space hogs. But if you are a keen sauerkraut maker, go nuts and use up that garden space because it is worth it to you!
For me, things that are either hard to find at local markets or super expensive are always worth it. Think shallots, eggplant, unique peppers, and fennel. Things that actually DO taste better out of my garden always get planted. Think tomatoes, winter squash, kohlrabi, and peas. But if you don’t actually enjoy eating these things, they shouldn’t make the cut. Ever. (Full disclosure, I struggle with this! There are a whole lot of things I think I should grow- though I don’t know why- and I spend a lot of time convincing and unconvincing myself. Its silly, grow what excites you and what you love to eat.)
- Know what you are looking for. This sounds simple, but think about tomatoes and how many varieties there are. Do you want a fresh eating slicer that tastes like pure, unadulterated tomato? Or do you want a meaty, robust variety to make sauce? OR, do you want something bright and acidic or even fruity for bruschetta and salsa? Are big yields your priority or unique taste/look? Don’t forget, like I have, to check on size of the mature fruit. Do you really want a 10 pound squash? Do you want tomatoes the size of fat peas? Know the key words and search them out in the catalogs and, even better, the reviews.
- Know your limitations. This can mean space, sunlight, maintenance, fertilizing- you name it. If you have a small space, search out dwarf or compact varieties or ones labeled as good for containers. If you live far north (like me!) and want to get early spring produce going, look for indicators of cold tolerance. If you suck at tying in your tomatoes, look for less leggy and stockier varieties. If you have loads of room to spread, don’t be put off by vigorous vines or vertical climbers. But, don’t fool yourself. If you can only grown in containers, don’t try to grow an acorn squash or watermelon! Just keep your own limitations in mind as you peruse your options.
- Find local advice. Be it reviews on websites (Baker Creek Seeds has reviews with growing location, a feature that I use constantly and find very helpful), Master Gardener Seed Trials (here’s the link to a group near me, very handy!), neighbors, or Garden Clubs/Facebook forums. Ask around and see what people are having success with- if it sounds like it matches your needs, give it a shot.
- Try something new! As a general rule, I like to try something new every year. Mostly because I have the space to indulge my curiosity and magpie-tendencies. If you don’t have the space, maybe don’t experiment once you find what works, but if you do have some elbow room- why not take a chance on something? Remember, this is supposed to be fun so don’t be afraid to try and fail- its how we all learn and get smarter!
I’m going to start getting specific about varieties next week. I plan to post one veg type per week (with a break for holidays) until we are through them all. Keep your eyes peeled and let me know if you have any specific veg you’d like me to talk about.