(Author’s Note: This is the first in a series of weekly columns focused on helping new gardeners achieve success.)
In January, just when it seems the New England winter will drag on forever, the seed catalogs arrive in the mail. Weeks before the sap rises in the sugar maples and the first pussy willows appear, as sure as the imperceptibly increasing day length, seed catalogs are the first hopeful harbingers of spring. But leafing through their pages confronts you again with the annual question: What vegetable crops do you want to grow in your garden?
A better question to get the decision-making process going would be, what will your family eat? Have a family meeting and make a list. Which vegetables does everyone like best?
Next, what will grow in your garden? If in doubt, seek the opinions of experienced local gardeners. For example, you may love bell peppers, especially the sweet flavor of a fully ripe, deep red bell, but if you garden in northern New England, experienced gardeners will tell you that your plants will not see enough hot weather to fully ripen the fruits; you’ll have to settle for green bells or decide not to grow bell peppers at all.
Does your garden get enough full sun to grow heat-loving crops such as peppers, tomatoes, and melons? Perhaps your garden, like ours, has some sections that receive full sun and others that get only a few hours of direct sun every day. A useful rule to follow is that a crop grown for fruit or root requires full sun, whereas one grown for leaves, stems, or buds will mature in partial shade. Crops that produce with three to six hours of sun per day include lettuce, spinach, broccoli, cauliflower, beets, brussels sprouts, radishes, and Swiss chard.
Having decided what the family likes to eat and what your garden can grow, think about how much time you have to devote to the garden. Some crops require more maintenance than others. For example, carrots require little more than sowing, thinning, watering, and weeding, while potatoes require planting, periodic hilling, watering, weeding, and protection from Colorado potato beetles, a chore that, in an organic garden, involves covering the crop with a floating row cover to exclude the beetle. Broccoli and other brassica crops also must be grown under cover to exclude the cabbage butterfly, the adult form of the imported cabbage worm, a devastating brassica herbivore.
Some crops, such as tomatoes, need staking or caging. Others, including many small fruit crops, need pruning. If you’re in doubt, experienced gardeners can help you identify the high-maintenance crops.
Finally, consider the size of your garden. I often sit in front of the wood stove on snowy January evenings and browse the seed catalogs–Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds, Comstock Garden Seeds, Johnny’s Selected Seeds, High Mowing Organic Seeds, and so many others–and I want to grow ten times as many vegetable crops as I have the garden space to plant. But I know better. A little of this and a little of that cannot compete with the need for daily handfuls of pineapple tomatillos or pounds of potatoes to last the winter. If space is limited, avoid growing crops such as corn, melons, and winter squash (including pumpkins) that produce relatively sparse yields per square foot of garden space. Consider buying such vegetables from a local farmer and saving your garden space for the high-value crops on your family’s wish list (see the accompanying list of high-value crops).
Once you choose your vegetables, you’ll want to choose varieties. I will return to this in a later column.
Finally, do set aside one small bed, or part of a bed, to try something new every year. It will lend a sense of purpose to those winter evenings spent poring over seed catalogs.
High-Value Vegetable Crops
Which crops provide the most dollar value per square foot of garden space? The top fifteen high-value vegetables are listed below. Value is based on harvested pounds per square foot, the retail value per pound at harvest time, and length of time in the garden:
Green bunching onions