It's that time of year when the snow is flying for most of us. The garden is buried under a blanket of white and the temperatures are far from ideal for anything other than curling up with a good book and dreaming over those garden catalogs that just keep coming.
It's also that time of year when I get lots of emails and questions about gardening, seed starting and seed purchasing. Recently I received the comment below from a reader in Indiana:
Mrs. Quilter, would you by any chance have any recommendations for the fruits and veggies a beginner should start with when using seeds? I believe I will try onion, pumpkin, radishes, tomatoes, lettuce, rhubarb, strawberries, blueberries, sweet snap peas, and potatoes. But there are so many versions I get so confused. I have the Bakers and... Shoot, cant remember the other catalog and I am CONFUSED. Any tips would be much appreciated! Many wishes for a bountiful new year!
So in the interest of helping those just starting out in gardening I want to break this information down and do a series of posts on how to get started. For those of you advanced gardeners who tune in I'll try to keep it brief.
How To Choose What To Plant
When choosing what to plant in a garden first you need to consider several different things.
1. How much space do I have?
How much space available can greatly impact what to plant. There is a size garden for everyone from a simple pot of herbs in a window sill to a large sunny back yard. How much sunny space do you have available to dedicate to a garden? If you are growing on a balcony there are plenty of vegetables that can be grown in containers. Many catalogs actually will tell you those varieties that grow smaller, vine less and are better suited for container gardens. If you are limited to just several raised beds in a small back yard vegetables such as vining pumpkins, sweet potatoes, and corn require much more growing area than say lettuce or greens. Don't forget some things like cucumbers can be grown on a trellis vertically just as simply to save room. There are also bush cucumbers or cucumbers specifically bred to keep more of a bush form for those with less space or those growing in containers. Some vegetables such as lettuce will even tolerate a little less sun than many vegetables.
2. How much time do I have to dedicate to gardening?
It's easy to sit in that armchair in front of the fire right now and dream of those vegetables but the reality is when it is 105 in the shade on a summer afternoon are you going to have time to get out there regularly and weed, pick and water a large garden. Be honest with yourself about how much time you have to truly dedicate to this endeavor. If time is limited stick with a small garden and vegetables that don't require as much staking, thinning and care. Everyone loves tomatoes but do you have the time to mulch tomatoes to prevent the fungal diseases, prune tomatoes to prevent the suckers from taking over and the bush from becoming unwieldy, staking to prevent the bush from falling over, watering regularly especially when a drought hits and weeding at the least weekly. Plant too much and you will become frustrated and your garden will be abandoned by mid summer. Plant too little and with any crop failures you'll have nothing. And even the best gardeners have crop failures. There has to be a happy medium somewhere but only you can find it. My recommendation start small with a few purchased plants. Maybe some good disease resistant hybrids to get your feet wet or even some tried and true open pollinated varieties that do well in your area. As your experience level improves keep adding to that garden, building your soil and your seed base as you go not to mention your gardening skills.
3. What does my family eat and how often?
Are you just wanting a pumpkin or two to decorate for Halloween? Unless you are planning on taking up canning and food preservation then don't plant an entire garden of pumpkins. One or two plants should provide you with a few for a Halloween treat. On the other hand if you are planning on lots of pumpkin muffins and pies and want to preserve some plant away. Remembering that they love to run and take up LOTS of space. If your family eats lots of green beans and loves them then plant accordingly. Surprisingly I have to say though that there are things my family will eat fresh and not touch from a store. Commercially canned green peas are a bust with my family but they will eat their weight in fresh peas or even home grown frozen peas. So plant a few different things and experiment for a year or two. You just might discover new family favorites that your family just can't get enough of fresh that they would not touch from the grocer shelf. Remember that you might just also create your own nightmare, my daughter won't eat a store bought green bean ever. Her entire life she has had farm fresh veggies and she is the worst veggie critic ever : ) On the flip side this kid will eat cabbage, brussel sprouts, okra, squash and most other veggies and never complain the first time.
4. Am I trying to raise a years supply of food for my family or just a few veggies to supplement our diet for the summer.
Be honest with yourself. If you are planning to plant enough food to feed a family of four for the entire year you better be ready to do some work. Most of my summers are taken up with starting seeds, planting, hoeing, weeding, picking, mulching, watering and just overall tending my gardens every single day. That means for 9 months my main focus is growing and preserving the food that my family consumes during the year. I start my seeds in February and just put my gardens to bed in November. I start preserving asparagus about April and finish with pumpkins and such in October. Then I start on the fall butchering, lard rendering and sausage making. My advice start small and work your way up from there.
5. What will grow in my area?
The easiest answer to this is to determine what agricultural zone you are in. You can go to the link below and find your location to get your agricultural zone. Most seed catalogs give zone recommendations for the seeds they sell.
You can also look around at other gardens in your area. What grows best and what do you see most in the local farmers stands? That tends to be what grows best in your area. Farm stands are a great source of local gardening information. Find that farmer down the road and find out what kind of corn performs best in his garden. What tomato sets earlier and when he plants out what. Buy a few veggies and most will share a wealth of information tailored especially to your area. Also keep in mind that these are recommendations only. There are portions of my property that are colder for instance the frost pockets at the base of the holler. Along my stone garden walls and south facing slopes will be warmer. This is a guideline only and there are always exceptions.
There are some great gardening resources on the web for first time gardeners also. Visit some of the links below for some great ideas on that first time garden.
Have a great gardening site to suggest or any gardening wisdom to share for that first time gardener?
Tomorrow how to read a seed catalog.
Blessings from The Holler
The Canned Quilter