Growing A Vegetable Garden
With grocery store shelves being left empty during the coronavirus crisis, many people are starting to grow their own vegetables. It’s not hard to do, but it is important to know what you need to get started.
EACH NEW VEGETABLE gardening season requires a new plan. It starts with a nearly clean slate that allows you to consider what to grow, how much to plant and when to plant it. Seeds are the foundation upon which this annual vegetable garden plan is built. Thoughtful seed selection can increase productivity, reduce pest and disease issues, and generally increase the likelihood of success, whatever that looks like in your garden. So let’s consider what to consider when selecting this year’s seeds.
Seeds can be purchased from local nurseries or directly from the supplier. Often, buying directly from the seed company allows you to choose from a larger selection of varieties and quantities. However, local stores that carry high-quality seeds allow more flexibility in scheduling, especially if you’re running behind on your garden plan or run out of seeds midseason. A well-run nursery should have a diverse selection of locally adapted seeds that can be picked up and planted that day.
You’ll have to choose seed suppliers based on your gardening priorities. We’re lucky to have numerous regional seed companies that carry a wide selection of varieties that are well-suited to our climate.
Some plants are bred or selected to produce the highest yields or the best flavor; others are bred for unique colors, adaptability to a particular climate or disease resistance. Typically, the varieties offered today have a blend of desirable qualities. Seed catalogs will regale you with tales of beauty and wonder. Each variety will grow well in some climates with a certain set of circumstances, but not all of them will grow well in your garden. So, read catalog descriptions carefully and with a bit of circumspection.
As you gain experience, you should rely more on your own observations than anything else to select the right varieties for your garden. Choosing crops and varieties that are adapted to your specific growing conditions will make your garden much more productive and successful.
When picking your seeds, consider growing several different varieties of each crop. This way, you’ll be able to compare them directly. You’ll also find that some varieties are best suited for early-season planting and some for late-season planting.
When deciding which varieties to choose, you might consider the crop’s genetic history. Crops generally fall into two genetic categories: hybrid and open-pollinated. Hybrid crops are the result of breeding two distinct genetic lines and then mating those lines to create an offspring with the best attributes of each parent. Open-pollinated crops are bred as a single genetic line over a longer period of time, slowly improving across generations.
Many open-pollinated crops are considered “heirloom” varieties. This designation is vague, but indicates that the variety has been grown for a long time and has stable genetics. All heirlooms are open-pollinated, but not all open-pollinated crops are heirlooms.
Many hybrid varieties are more resistant to pests and diseases, so they’re well-suited to organic production. Additionally, many hybrids grow more quickly than heirlooms, so are well-suited to challenging climates.
Seed descriptions should indicate whether a variety was bred to tolerate specific weather conditions. This might be included in the variety name, as in ‘Black Summer’ bok choy or ‘Winter Density’ lettuce. Alternatively, this information might be nestled into the larger description of the crop. A seed packet might say “great summer variety” or “best when planted for spring production.” A description might even call out a certain region of the country in which the variety does best, such as “great for northern regions.”
All of these indications are crucial because they will tell you when and where to sow the crop for best performance. For example, there are hundreds of varieties of head lettuce. Lettuce is well known for its intolerance of hot weather. Summer heat makes it bitter and causes bolting. Because this is such an issue for growers, breeders have worked to develop varieties that perform better in midsummer conditions. The names and descriptions of the lettuce varieties will tell you whether the seeds should be sown early in the season, in the middle of the season or late in the season.
Plant breeders have worked hard to create varieties that are more resistant to disease than their predecessors were. Indications of disease resistance are usually noted in a catalog’s crop description. In fact, because these traits are so desirable, disease resistance is usually advertised prominently. It’s often written in notation, so “PM” will refer to powdery mildew, and “CMV” will refer to cucumber mosaic virus.
Harvest window and storage capacity
Even closely related varieties will show differences in their ability to hold quality in the field and in the pantry. For crops that have the tendency to bolt (flower prematurely), look for varieties described as “slow to bolt.” Take note of variety names and descriptions to ensure that if you intend to store potatoes through the winter, you’re planting a variety specifically indicated as a storage potato. Similarly, root crops can have widely varying storage lives. Keep in mind what your particular goals are for the crop, and make sure to order types that will meet that goal.
The top-line attribute for some crop varieties is actually their productivity. Names such as ‘Provider’ beans or ‘Sweet Million’ tomatoes clearly signal that they are abundant producers. Look for detailed information on a variety’s yield potential in the catalog description — some seed companies even provide charts showing relative yield between varieties of a given crop.
Last, but certainly not least, there is the consideration of a crop’s flavor. There’s no doubt that your gardening experience will be much more satisfying and useful if you’re producing crops that you like to eat.
Because catalog descriptions can only do so much to relate the flavors of crops, it will take some time to identify the varieties you like best. Careful tagging in the garden and notes in the garden journal will help make sure that you don’t lose track of which variety is which.
There is nothing worse than growing a tomato that you love next to a tomato that you don’t, and then realizing you have no idea which is which. There are a lot of variables to consider when choosing seeds, but the ultimate goal is simply to pick varieties that best match your gardening goals. Your selections will never be perfect and likely will need to change over time as the climate changes.
However, you’ll have more fun in the garden the more you know about your crops, so take the time to learn about them now, so you can know what to anticipate this summer and make the most of your season. Happy planting!