You’re already starting to dream about your next garden. You browse seed catalogs, peruse gardening posts on Pinterest, and eye the transplant options at the local nursery.
You want them all!
So how do you choose?
The one mistake you don’t want to make is planting more than you can keep up with. It’s hard, but necessary, to pare down your list to a certain number of key crops. That number will, of course, depend on your garden space and what you plan to do with the harvest (fresh eating only, giving away, preserving, selling, etc.).
I’m still making changes every year to my crops, and I always try a new one – or two or three – each year. But these guidelines have helped me not get in over my head.
1. Choose crops you eat often
You’d think I’d learn. But cabbage is so pretty in the garden! And easy! But come July, I’ve got 8 ginormous heads of cabbage, and I’m searching Pinterest for ideas on preserving them. Once I tried my hand at homemade sauerkraut. It was fun, but the problem? We’ve never eaten sauerkraut. After a couple of years I fed it to the chickens, but even they didn’t eat it.
The best use of your garden space is with crops you already eat often. Sure, experiment with some others. If I hadn’t tried black-eyed peas, they wouldn’t have become a staple in my garden and in my pantry. But for most of your garden space, choose what you know you already eat.
2. Choose crops that are more expensive to purchase at the grocery store
If you really want to get the most bang for your gardening buck (gardening is cheap but it’s not free), your best investment is in crops that cost more – even in peak season – at the grocery store.
For my garden, herbs top the list. It’s amazing to me how expensive basil is, for example, yet how easy it is to grow.
Another example is peppers. Even at peak season, I’ve rarely seen a red bell pepper for less than $1.00. My four plants give me dozens of red and green peppers — you do the math.
I also can’t forget blueberries. On sale, nonorganic blueberries are $2.00/pint. When they’re not on sale, you can bet on more than double that. Blueberries, however, take a few years to produce heavily, so savings won’t be clear immediately. But again, at four gallons by the third year and more each year after that, my blueberry bushes proved the best investment for the long-term. (Of course, if you don’t eat blueberries, see point #1.)
Related Episode on the Beginner’s Garden Podcast: 5 Tips to Help You Decide What to Plant in Your Garden
3. Choose crops that are listed on the “Dirty Dozen.”
Each year, the Environmental Working Group tests produce and singles out the twelve foods with the highest amounts of pesticide residues. What this means for you is, if you are trying to reduce the amount of toxic substances you eat from produce, you’d have to purchase their organic counterpart, which costs more.
By choosing to grow your own produce pesticide- and chemical fertilizer-free (or in limited amounts), you save yourself this expense. Plus, you know exactly what is – and what is not – on your food. Among this year’s Dirty Dozen are: strawberries, grapes, celery, spinach, sweet bell peppers, cucumbers, cherry tomatoes, imported snap peas and potatoes.
According to the EWG, a single sample of sweet bell pepper contained 15 pesticides. Click here for more information along with the full Dirty Dozen list, the Clean Fifteen, and the Dirty Dozen Plus.
4. Choose crops that are relatively easy to grow in your climate.
If you’re just beginning your gardening venture and you’re in a climate like mine (Zone 7), you probably don’t want to try growing celery, even if you eat it often, it’s expensive to buy, and it is on the Dirty Dozen. (I tried it once.)
Look at what others are growing, what the local Farmer’s Market sells, and what transplants you see at nurseries. We don’t see any banana trees or head lettuce in my area, for example.
In my climate, we have relatively short spring periods, which limits our ability to grow many cool-weather crops. I am able to get a good stand of peas if I time it just right, but I put most of my gardening eggs in the hot-weather-crop basket. Try your hand at crops that grow well in your climate first. Once you get some confidence, then you might venture into some of the more iffy crops. You never know.
I hope this list is helpful as you choose what to plant in your garden. Is there anything else you would add to my list?
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