January and February are dreary in the Northeast, but there is a glimmer of hope… SEEDS! It’s time to start planning what to plant in a garden and where to buy seeds.
I think dreaming about planting, caring for and harvesting fresh veggies and fruit is what gets me through the end of the winter. Is that true for you too?
But choosing what to plant and where to get your seeds can be overwhelming. This is especially true for new gardeners who don’t already have a list of seeds that work well in their garden. If you open any seed catalog (or website) you can easily find dozens of varieties of lettuce, tomatoes, and squash. How the heck do you choose?
Here are a few tips for planning your garden without all of the frustration.
What to Plant in a Garden: Make Some Lists
Start with making some lists to get started. Lists are a great way to get organized and make the task of choosing seeds a little less overwhelming.
What do you like to eat?
It seems pretty obvious but you should really grow stuff you’ll eat, right? Make a list of all of your family’s favorite produce, even if you know you can’t grow it in your climate. Mark the ones that you know that you can grow, and research the others. You may be surprised that you actually can grow many varieties of vegetables and fruits with a little ingenuity like cold frames or raised beds.
What is expensive to buy?
Think about the produce you buy each week and where a majority of your budget goes. Depending on where you live, you can get a good idea of which veggies and fruit would be wise to grow. Berries are expensive, especially organic, so growing blueberries, raspberries, and strawberries might be a good idea (depending on the other criteria in this list).
I buy organic zucchini exclusively because it’s a common GMO crop in the US, so I make it a priority in my garden. Zucchini is also one of the easiest things to grow organically. I can’t even give away my extra zucchini because anyone who has a garden also has tons of zucchini!
A good rule of thumb for choosing the most profitable crops for your garden (meaning most edibles per sq. ft.) is to think about leafy greens (spinach, kale, chard, etc.) and herbs (chives, parsley, cilantro, etc) first. Then comes tomatoes, squashes, cucumbers, and other fruit plants. Bringing up the rear for least profitable is root vegetables.
What is easy to grow?
Herbs like chives, parsley, basil, and rosemary are simple to keep alive. Lettuce, carrots, green beans, peppers, peas, tomatoes, onions, and squash are also easy to grow.
Potatoes are easy to grow too but are difficult to keep bugs away from organically so they may not be a great choice for a new gardener.
I have heard strawberries are difficult to grow. Obviously, it depends on your climate. However, blueberries and raspberries are pretty simple once you get the pruning technique down.
What’s your storage like?
One last thing to think about is where you will store your extra goodies. If you have a root cellar, then root vegetables, squashes, pumpkin, etc become easy to preserve. A large freezer can easily store green beans and peas. If you have neither and rely on fermentation or canning then cucumbers, tomatoes, and other fruit plants may be best. Or maybe you choose to grow just enough to eat fresh.
What to Plant in a Garden: Compare your list to the Dirty Dozen and Clean Fifteen
The Dirty Dozen is a list of produce that should be purchased organic because it is highly contaminated from pesticides. These are:
- Sweet bell peppers
- Cherry tomatoes
- Hot peppers
- Leafy greens such as lettuce, kale and collards
- Summer squashes
Did you notice that there are more than 12 in this list? The last two are on some lists and not others. I think they are important to include.
Like I said above, zucchini is an essential part of my garden plan because it is something I ALWAYS buy organic. Lettuce and other leafy greens are a good choice too because they are easy to grow.
I don’t worry as much about the produce on the Clean Fifteen list which are:
- Sweet potatoes
- Sweet peas – frozen
Most of these won’t grow in my climate anyway!
Where are You Gardening?
Consider how much space you have. If you’re working with limited space, think about what vegetables will give you the most harvest from the smallest space. Here are some of the best small space plants:
- tomatoes, eggplant and other fruiting plants
- edible flowers (nasturtium, calendula, etc.)
Root vegetables take up a lot of space, but they also provide a lot of calories, so that’s something to consider too.
What to Plant in a Garden: Buy Seeds Locally if Possible
Now that you know what to grow, here are some tips for getting the best seeds:
Choosing a local seed provider has many benefits. It’s green (less travel for those poor little seeds means less fuel used to ship them), you’re supporting your local economy, and a local seed company is more likely to have seeds that will do well in your climate.
Check out this list of non-GMO seed companies and choose a few local ones to browse. Then choose your favorite.
I have also had great success with Seeds Now for quality, non-GMO, organic seeds.
What to Plant in a Garden: How to Navigate the Seed Options
Seeds can be confusing if you don’t know what you’re looking for. Here’s how to figure it out:
Days to Maturity
This is the number of days from germination to being able to eat or pick. For cold climates like mine, I have to keep in mine days to maturity in relation to the plant’s cold tolerance. For example, tomatoes, if planted in-ground will never ripen before it gets too cold, that’s why we start plants inside or in a greenhouse. Choose days to maturity that suit your climate and the plant in question.
If you live in a place with a short growing season like I do it’s essential to find seeds with fewer days to maturity (DTM). If you live in a warmer climate you can grow plants with longer DTM without a problem.
What to Plant in a Garden: Organic vs. Conventional Seeds
Certified organic growers grow organic seeds without the use of pesticides, herbicides or other chemicals.
Organic seeds are always a good idea but the cost or availability is sometimes an issue. A second best choice would be conventional seeds that are “untreated”. This means that the seeds aren’t treated with antifungal chemicals before packaging (though they are probably from produce that was treated at some point). I personally prefer to avoid GMO’s all-together. If I’m not sure a packet of seeds is non-gmo, I don’t buy it.
Heirloom vs. Hybrid
Heirloom seeds are open-pollinated seeds typically grown at or before the middle of the 20th century. Open pollination means that they were naturally pollinated by wind, bees, etc and that any plants grown from the seeds will have the same characteristics as the parent.
Hybrid seeds are seeds that have been specifically pollinated in a controlled environment. Typically they are bred for disease resistance, uniformity, higher yield, etc. Hybrids are not usually bred for best taste, which is why many people prefer heirlooms. Hybrids are NOT GMO seeds.
Generally, I think beginner gardeners would do best with hybrid seeds while seasoned gardeners could take the plunge with heirloom.
Read the descriptions of seeds you are considering. They usually have basic growing directions and you can get an idea of whether that particular plant will need a lot of nurturing or will be easy to grow.
If all of these choices are overwhelming then just get whatever looks good. Honestly, any seeds that you get from a good company should do just fine in any garden whether they are heirloom, hybrid, organic or untreated!
Here is what I want to plant this year. Hopefully, it can help you decide what to plant in a garden:
- Zucchini Squash
- Butternut Squash
More Gardening Resources
Are you looking for more resources on growing an abundant garden (with as little work as possible)? Check out these blog posts:
- Organic Gardening 101
- Permaculture Gardening for Beginners
- Composting 5 Ways
- How to Build Raised Beds
- Best Vegetables to Grow for Beginners