I pity you, novice vegetable gardener, eyes glazing over as the reality of myriad baffling seed choices crashes headlong into your dreams of a bountiful first vegetable garden. My letter of advice to a friend might help YOU focus on a vision of a satisfying first vegetable garden.
I'm so glad I've inspired you to have a vegetable garden this year! I can hardly wait to get started. Now that all the Christmas stuff is finally (Finally!) packed away, it's time to think about exactly what you're going to plant in your small, but mighty, new garden. I've been pondering that issue, and I'm ready to make suggestions. Trust me, I'll try to make it easy and satisfying!
Leaf lettuce is the first crop you should plant. It grows quickly in early spring and you can start picking individual leaves from your lettuce plants as soon as they are big enough. Lettuce seeds are tiny; you'll get hundreds of seeds in one packet. I'm sure you can get enough plants going in a five foot space to keep your family in salads for a while. I have never had bugs bother my lettuce. One thing about lettuce though--it can't take the heat of our Maryland summers. It will "bolt" (stretch up tall and bloom) and get bitter before July. Don't worry. By then, other plants in your garden will be taking up more room and giving you more to eat. I really like the 'Green Ice' variety of leaf lettuce, because it's ruffly and crispy. Most seed companies are now selling packs of mixed lettuce seed that'll give you a tasty, expensive looking salad mix from just one row you plant out of one packet. If you see that I think you should buy it. If not, give me a call. I may have decided to order it from a catalog and I'll share.
Do your kids even like peas? My kids were never excited about peas on their dinner plates, but found peas on the vine a real treat. Luckily, peas are also pretty easy to grow. You can pick from regular peas (that you have to shell out of the pods) or edible podded ones (that you eat whole like a green bean) or snow peas (like you see in Asian vegetable mixes.) Like lettuce, all peas are planted in cool weather. You'll need to give them some kind of lightweight trellis or fence to grow on. We can easily assemble something with a few garden stakes and some twine tied crossways. Your kids might even be persuaded to help plant the peas, since the seed is big and easy to handle.I've mainly grown the regular peas, and I last chose 'Mr. Big' peas because the description said it made more peas per pod than most. Sounded good to me! If you shop for seeds from a rack at the big home store, you might only get one or two to choose from. That's fine. They've probably chosen the ones that will grow well for most gardeners. Did you know you can even cut some of the young pea leaves and add them to your salads? Just don't cut too many of them while the vines are making peapods. Peas grow fast like lettuce, and will start to dry up when hot weather hits, too. But you won't mind when you see the other plants growing that'll take up that empty space. Now we're getting to the things that DO grow well in hot weather!
Green beans (you might call them string beans, but most don't have strings anymore) DO like hot weather. In fact, you can't plant them early like lettuce and peas. You have to wait for some warm weather before planting beans. Actually, you might wait until the peas or lettuce start withering and has to be pulled out, and just plant your beans in that spot. Look for "bush" bean seeds. They grow on plants that get about a foot or so high, not on what you usually call a bush that grows in your yard. Anyway, beans are easy to plant like peas, and a row about five feet long should get enough beans going for a meal at a time when they're ready to pick. The seed rack will show you just a few choices in bush beans. You might see beans that are yellow or purple. Purple 'Royal Burgundy' beans are a favorite of mine. Purple beans turn green when you cook them, yellow beans stay yellow, but they're all delicious picked fresh from your own garden.
Now we're talking! Yes, every beginner should plant tomatoes. The tomato is probably the number one backyard vegetable crop, probably because the taste is so rewarding, but maybe too because most backyard gardeners have success with tomatoes. Tomatoes are planted later in spring, like beans, because they like summer's heat. Most gardeners, even experienced ones. buy baby tomato plants from a nursery or garden center, instead of growing them from seeds. Those baby plants are usually sold in packs of six of one kind, but reallly I think three plants will be enough for your first garden. Let's go shopping together for those and we could split a six pack. We'll look for plant labels that say 'indeterminate'; that tells us those plants keep making new tomatoes all summer into fall. We might choose baby tomatoes with a name that includes words like big, better, beef or whopper, so we'll get sandwich size slices from our tomatoes. Then again, we might find 'Brandywine' tomatoes, which have a longstanding reputation for fantastic flavor. Well, I'll take you to my favorite nursery in late spring, after the lettuce and peas are up, and I'm sure their selection will please us. We'll get some tall tomato cages or good long wooden stakes at the same time, because I just know your plants will grow and grow for you!
You must have heard those jokes about people who have so many zucchini that they can't give them away. Is that hard to imagine for a new gardener? Well, zucchini is a kind of summer squash, and summer squash can really produce a lot of fruit! I grow the yellow ones (they don't get lost between the green squash stems like zucchini do), but if you like zucchini or pattypan shape squash, go ahead and buy those seeds. Summer squash is another heat-loving vegetable crop. You're going to plant one hill of squash.You don't really have to have a "hill" in your yard, just a space a good three feet square in which we'll mound the dirt up somewhat in the middle.Then you plant five or six seeds on the top of the hill. (Are you starting to feel like a real gardener now, learning new terms like "bolt","indeterminate" and "hill"? Good! You are becoming a real gardener!) Three feet of open space will look pretty bare with a few baby squash plants, but not for long. The leaves will get huge, and the plants make big orange flowers too. Be patient -- the first flowers on squash will not make fruits and they're not supposed to. Just wait; soon enough they go from one fruit to one dozen. I have to warn you about one squash problem, just so you don't walk to the garden one day and see wilted plants and think you've done something horribly wrong. Around here (and in many other gardens) there's a nasty pest that kills a squash plant practically overnight and you'll know you've got it if all the squash leaves wilt terribly at the same time. If it happens, by the time it happens, you'll be ready for a break from all that squash.
Cucumbers are my last suggestion for your new garden. After all, I know you'll be shoehorning this home vegetable gardening into an already full schedule of work commitments and family fun times. I figure if we keep this garden kind of small and easy this year, you'll more likely be happy with the results. When we get those tomato cages we'll buy one extra and you can grow a few cucumber vines on it. Cucumbers are a cousin to summer squash, and show it by making lots of fruit. Like squash, you'll plant cukes in warm weather, putting several seeds in a loose cluster inside the tall tomato cage. The baby cucumber plants will climb up the cage, have small yellow flowers first, and fruit a little later. As far as seed choice is concerned, I like the flavor of the kind that look bumpy like pickles, but you may prefer the smoother ones that say "burpless" or "bitter free"(not bitter). I'm recommending you do NOT buy one that says bush type, only because I'm planning for you to have them climb to save space and I think you'll get more fruit from the climbing ones.
Six by ten, or three by twenty
Well, Sheila, I hope I've found the sweet spot between inspiration and intimidaton by chossing just the right crops for your first garden. And I've even made a little sketch to show you how you can fit these six vegetables into a six foot by ten foot sunny spot in your yard. See that sketch up near the headline? Each little blue square is a one foot square. Now imagine, the tomatoes in the green squares, and the pea trellis and peas in the pink area. Gold is for the squash and blue is where the cucumbers go. Plant a row of lettuce in the purple rectangle on the end. The green beans get planted when either peas or lettuce comes out, or maybe both. (That's called succession planting, and you've just picked up another advanced gardening term.) If you'd rather fit the garden along the fence or the sunny side of your garage, we can string a narrower bed of vegetables along for about twenty feet.
Well, we still have more preparations before planting time but now you can start imagining your bounteous garden in June. This first year will be something of an experiment. You'll have questions, and you can always turn to Dave's Beginner Gardening Forum for help if I'm not handy. In fall, we'll discuss how well things grew, what you liked the best and whether you want to make next year's garden even bigger and better. Most of all, I hope you experience the joy of producing something beautiful and delicious from little dry seeds!
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Readers-- take the next step with Dear Sheila (2) and learn about digging and soil prep for a new garden.
Then go to Dear Sheila (3) for basic planting techniques you'll learn when you plant these easy crops
I grew up playing in the Maryland woods, and would still do it often if life allowed! Graduate of University of Maryland, my degree is in Agriculture. Gardens and natural areas give me endless opportunity for learning and wonder. Naturally (pun intended) my garden style leans towards the casual, and my cultural methods towards organic. I like to try new plants, and have "some of everything" in my indoor and outdoor gardens. Thanks go to my parents for passing along their love of gardening and nature, and my husband and kids for being patient when I get lost in the garden.