In simplest terms it all comes down to space, time and what you like to eat.
If you only have a small amount of sunny space (vegetables need at least 6 hours of sun per day and really want more than that) then your choices will come down to how much time you have to spend with your plants: for example carrots take very little time to grow and maintain while tomatoes require a bit of work on a regular basis over the whole growing season. If you, like me, have a large amount of potential garden space you have more to think about in terms of how much time you have (creating the garden space “from scratch” is time consuming at the beginning too) and will have over the growing season. Best advice would be to start small.
To give you an idea of what I mean by starting small the first year I had a garden (2011) I attempted to clear a 22′ x 28′ rectangle of lawn by hand. By the end of that season I had two beds approximately 3′ x 8′ and a fenced in pen full of weeds (and huge spiders… yikes!). We ended up renting a tiller at Home Depot and prepping the whole plot that way in the fall. In the Spring of 2012 I was pregnant (baby due in June) and worked seemingly non-stop with my husband from April-June to create raised beds. We built four 3′ x 6′ beds ourselves following these simple plans and my father-in-law bought us two 4′ x 8′ cedar bed kits. The other four beds were just mounded up “raised” beds (we have very rocky soil so they weren’t ideal for root veggies). The second year we had a beautiful start because of some great planning but by the time Peanut made his arrival and my garden available time took a nose-dive the bugs took over and I didn’t end up harvesting anywhere near as much as I’d planned. Space and time have to work together. For 2013 I’ve resisted the urge to double the size of the garden and instead have big plans to really maximize my garden space, if I manage that this year I’ll be looking at expansions for 2014!
If you’re just starting out something like one to four 3′ x 6′ beds would be plenty. Organic gardening (I use no pesticides or GMO seeds/products) has a huge learning curve so start small and then grow your plans after each season!
So, you’ve decided how much space you can manage: now you’re ready for the fun stuff!!!
- Find a seed company in your zone (or close to it) who, ideally, test their own seeds. That way you ensure that the plants they sell are appropriate for your area and the advice in the catalogue will be especially useful to you. I order from Pine Tree Garden Seeds in Maine because they sell only non-GMO seeds (I don’t have to check labels to make sure the seed I want is “clean”) and it has the added bonus of being a family tradition. They also run trials on all of their own seeds so the descriptions of each plant include first hand knowledge of what the plant is like. If a company only sells non-GMO they will tell you loud and clear so be sure to check and support those that do! Most of the seeds you see at hardware, department or grocery stores are from companies that genetically modify their seeds. For information on why Genetically Modified Organisms are worth avoiding check Mother Earth News.
- Decide which type of vegetables to grow. Do you eat a lot of broccoli? Maybe that’s what you should try but if you find yourself buying it and letting it sit in the fridge until it yellows don’t bother. Do you love fresh salads?
Lettuce is easy and quick to grow and alongside some cucumbers and tomatoes you’ve got a summer salad at your fingertips basically all summer long! Other things to consider when deciding what type of plants to grow is space. Things like many types of squash, cucumbers and melons are vining plants which need a lot more space (or a trellis in the case of cucumbers), a few square feet or more. Other things like carrots, lettuce and properly trained tomatoes will grow bigger but stay in one place. You may find yourself needing to buy seedlings unless you have the ability to start plants indoors (this is my first year attempting that, I’m glad I waited) because certain plants cannot be started outdoors. Another great piece of advice to help you decide what to grow I read in my favorite go to book : grow things you can’t buy (cheaply). Grocery stores carry vegetables that transport easily and have a long shelf life, they do not stock their shelves with the best tasking or most interesting varieties. In order to expand my knowledge of what I liked to eat I started buying new vegetables at local Farmer’s Markets and testing them out with recipes and suggestions I found online (I get emails from Harvest to Table I love to use for ideas!) Here is a list of easy-needy plants you could grow!
- Now you choose the specific plant. This is my favorite part. I spend hours during cold winter months reading (and rereading) plant descriptions both in my seed catalogues and in my Vegetable Gardener’s Bible which has a great plant directory in the back. Choose plants that seem like they’ll do well in your space and in your climate. This is also where you get to have fun by choosing the most interesting varieties of each plant. Don’t grow boring old carrots go for some crazy varieties (I highly recommend Rainbow Carrots, they are both delicious and super fun to pull up–you never know what color you’ll get!). Rainbow, Atomic Red and Amarillo carrots are all on my seed list for this year as well as a seed pack including a variety of types of sweet peppers (red, green, yellow, orange, chocolate, purple–I’m so excited to see what will grow!). I like mixes for things like lettuce because I like variety but I dont’ want to have to buy multiple packets of seeds (seeds to last from year to year if stored properly but they don’t last forever and each lettuce seed packet comes with 500 seeds!!!).
- Order away!
Next step is to figure out how you’re going to lay out your garden–I love garden planning!!!