Day 4: What to Grow in Your Vegetable Garden


Chard, anyone?

For most gardeners, deciding which vegetables to plant is greatly affected by yesterday’s topic: whether they’ll be gardening in traditional beds, raised beds, or containers. You wouldn’t want to try to grow corn in a pot, and a number of other vegetables would also be impractical. But there are lots of other choices—no matter what type of garden space you’ll be using.

Obviously, a large garden in full sun offers abundant possibilities. But before you start ordering one of everything from the seed catalog or gathering up flats of vegetable starts from the garden center, take a little time to consider your gardening goals. Will your garden provide food just for you and your family, or will you also be giving produce to friends, neighbors, or coworkers? Do you intend to can and preserve some of what you’ve grown, or only use it fresh?  Do you like a wide variety of vegetables, or just a few things? How much time will you be able to devote to your garden? The answers to these questions may help you decide your vegetable planting menu.

veg logo 2I like a lot of different types of vegetables in my garden, and I also enjoy growing unusual varieties—particularly heirloom types—and I love to give them away. I often experiment with planting mediums and growing techniques, and I don’t mind if some things don’t do as well as I’d hoped. If I’ve learned something from the experience or I’m able to try a new variety then I feel it was worth the effort.

tomatoes on plate

Tomatoes are a popular vegetable to grow for their incomparable flavor.

Other gardeners aren’t as willing to tolerate that sort of trial and error. They want dependable results from plants, with high yield and resistance to disease being the most important attributes, and they want vegetables that look and taste much like what you can buy at the supermarket. That gardener might choose to limit her choices to tried-and-true hybrid seeds or plants. In choosing vegetable varieties with higher yields, however, gardeners should be careful not to over-plant. At my community garden, every year I see plots where the gardener over-planted hybrid types and seriously underestimated their ability to tend or harvest their crops. When things start coming in, it can be an explosion of produce, and it’s sad to see the tomatoes dropping off the vines to rot on the ground, or enormous zucchini piled like cordwood on the compost pile. I urge vegetable gardeners to be aware of local food shelves where their surplus produce will be welcome.

Sometimes experience provides the best guidance for what to plant. I like the taste and the neon rainbow look of Swiss chard, but I now know that if I plant an entire little six pack of them, I’ll have a half dozen monsters on my hands by midsummer, and not many people I know like it very much or even know what to do with it. I was intrigued by the fuzzy texture of Wapsipinicon Peach heirloom tomato, but the year I grew it people were put off by that when I tried to give them some. My community garden has been plagued by Colorado potato beetle the last few seasons, so growing spuds there is off my list for now.  And it will be a long time before I again plant squash of any kind—not while so many of my fellow gardeners beg me to take some off their hands every summer.

Sometimes, deciding what to plant works best as a group effort, where two or more gardeners get together and divide up which types of produce they’ll each grow, and then share the results with one another.  When that happens, what’s shared is more than just vegetables; it’s their experiences as gardeners.

—Tom McKusick

Follow Notes from Northern Gardener throughout January as we offer our series on 31 Days to a Great Northern Vegetable Garden. Tomorrow: Seeds vs. Plant Starts.


Leave a Comment