So you want to grow a garden this year, but you’re not sure about a few things. Those shiny seed catalogs and website pictures are almost overwhelming! How do we pick things that will actually do well in our area? How do we know what will be tasty and where can we get it? I’ve written about garden planning here. In this article, I’ll discuss plant and seed selection and where to get them.
To learn more about growing your own food, check out our Home Agriculture Comprehensive.
What do you want to grow?
When it comes to deciding what you want to grow in your garden, I live by a simple mantra: grow what you eat and eat what you grow. What’s the point of all the work if not to eat it?
If you’re not sure, there’s an exercise that I recommend for my students: the food list. Write down everything on your plate over the course of one week that can be grown. If you’re eating a salad, write down the components. You should be able to create a decent list of what you actually eat that can be grown in a garden.
Then eliminate stuff that won’t grow in your grow zone. For example, I enjoy oranges, but they don’t grow in USDA grow zone 5B. Garlic and onions won’t grow in warmer areas without the subzero winters I enjoy, such as 10A. Knowing your USDA or equivalent grow zone gives you an idea of how long your growing season is, when your frost and freeze dates are, and what crops can or cannot be grown in your area.
Next, choose the most appropriate varieties.
Once you have a good idea of what you wish to plant, the fun really begins!
Tomatoes, for example, are a very common mainstay of many vegetable gardens. There are, however, literally hundreds of varieties! Red ones, blue ones, black and purple, and not all tomatoes will grow well in all gardens. Russian black krims, for example, don’t grow well in my garden. Other gardeners love them.
Do you want standard or dwarf varieties, slicers, paste, or cherries? Determinant or indeterminant? This will depend upon how you intend to use them. Tomatoes for canning are different from salad tomatoes. This applies generally to most of the things you’ll grow.
Do you plan to eat it fresh or preserve it? If preserving, then what method? Broccoli, for example, freezes well but does not can well. Cabbage ferments well, but while it can be frozen, it doesn’t freeze that well, at least not for me. Once upon a time, there was this absolutely yummy cole slaw recipe that I found on the Internet. It claimed that cole slaw made in this way could be canned. I was much newer then and canned three cases of it, because it was so yummy! One day I noticed that the slaw in the jars was this ghoulish gray color. I opened the jar and the slaw wasn’t rotten. It was in fact still crispy, but who wants ghoulish gray on their plate? I ended up tossing all three cases, along with the work and expense of making them.
Some lessons are learned the hard way. While planning your garden, decide how you’re going to use the proceeds.
Where should you get your seeds and plants?
Once you have your plan, where do you get seeds and plants?
In my experience, the best places for plants to transplant are your local garden centers, farmer’s markets, and greenhouses. The reason for acquiring local is simple: local sources will stock plants that grow well in your area. This will make your life much easier, especially if you’re a new gardener! You’ll also support your local economy, shorten your supply chain, and you’ll have your plants in a timely fashion.
Look for plant sales in unusual places. The high school across the street from my house has a botany club, and they sell plants to raise money. While the selection isn’t as fancy, it’s very solid stuff that grows well here and supports the students. The local college and the Master Gardeners in our area have plant sales and, in the latter case, give plants for free to low-income residents. My local Extension also has plant and seed giveaways.
Seeds are also best acquired locally for the same reasons. When you’re looking at seeds, you’ll want to consider whether or not you plan to save them for future gardens. If yes, then you’ll want heirloom, open-pollinated, or stabilized hybrids. A quick explanation courtesy of The Gardening Channel:
“A plant that is open pollinated has been permitted to be pollinated by natural means, such as insects, wind, or birds. Heirloom plant varieties have been passed down through a family or community.”
Generally, all heirlooms are open-pollinated. While the seeds of hybrids will produce a plant, there’s no guarantee that the plant will be the one you planted last year. You’ll have the characteristics of all of the parents that went into that hybrid. While stabilized hybrids avoid this to some degree, you’ll always have some variation. How do we know if a hybrid is stabilized? In short, we don’t really know. This is where the fun comes in, and why it’s better to use heirlooms and open-pollinated varieties if you’re planning to save seeds.
While I’ve never seen seeds available for sale at farmer’s markets, the garden centers that stock plants will usually stock seeds. Some areas have seed libraries and giveaways. Look around your area! You may be surprised at the resources available to you. There are a huge number of websites selling seeds, but keep in mind that it’ll take 1-2 weeks for that seed to arrive. Unless you order early, this will impact your planting time.
Seeds are useful because many, many crops are direct sown. Corn, beans, peas, and potatoes (to name a few) simply do not transplant well. Therefore, you’ll need seed. When selecting seed, consider how long it takes for that crop to mature. This is known as Days To Maturity, or DTM, and will be given right on the seed packet. If your season is short, it won’t help to plant a crop that takes longer to produce than you have! Corn and potatoes are two examples of crops with varieties in both the early and late maturing camps.
If you’re buying seeds online because you can’t find what you want locally, check out our sponsor, Seeds for Generations. They are a family-owned and operated heirloom seed company, and Daisy, as well as many of our readers, have sung their praises. They have a free garden planning calculator that can really help you out, and no purchase is necessary to receive it.
How do you get your seeds?
I know this is quite a lot to think about, especially if you’re new to gardening! But fear not, it becomes easier with time and practice. Before you know it, you’ll be discussing the finer points of determinant vs. indeterminant potatoes and how this variety of tomato worked well but that other one did not. Garden and learn! It’s a very worthwhile journey.
What do you grow in your garden? Where to you get your plants and seeds? Do you have any tips for newbies? Tell us in the comments section!
About Amy Allen
Amy Allen is a professional bookworm and student of Life, the Universe, and Everything. She’s also a Master Gardener with a BS in biology, and has been growing food on her small urban lot since 2010.
Thanks Amy. I have a much smaller garden this year vs last. Seed and plant selection becomes critical.
Oh yeah! I have a small yard space too, but even adding a 10’x20′ plot means careful use of space. That means careful selection of both plant and seed! Good luck with your garden.
Geesh, gardening has become a part time job! I am overwhelmed. I tried starting seeds & have learned that it’s all about the timing, light placement, when to dome, when to undome, heat them, don’t heat them too much, place a breeze on the seedlings, etc.
About ready to say forget it & buy plants when they become available for my short growing season. Sigh.
There IS a lot, but it becomes easier with time and practice. One idea that helps when you’re beginning is to keep it simple. It’s OK to buy transplants! Starting your own is much cheaper, at least money-wise, and it’s fun to select your own varieties. Take a deep breath and garden on! It sounds like you’ve learned a lot already.
Great article. It took me a long time to figure out I was growing the wrong kinds of onions for bulbs because I live in the south. One thing I would tell new gardeners is to plant their favorite flowers or even just marigolds or wildflowers in or around their garden. I have a bed dedicated to plants that attract predatory insects. Since I garden organically I depend on mother nature to help me. I would also encourage gardeners to start small so they don’t get overwhelmed, and look into companion planting. Planting beets between my garlic this year. It’s supposed to take the “dirt flavor” away. I always plant basil near my tomatoes, and I alternate plants around my asparagus to help keep asparagus beetles away. After years of research I found Cucuzza squash. The squash bugs and borers don’t cause much damage to them and they cook and taste like zucchini it’s a climber but very vigorous in the heat, but not a good pick for a small yard unless you have a fence or tree they can climb on.
Thanks for the great tips! Gardening is a lifelong learning process, isn’t it? I learned the hard way to not plant tomatoes in the same bed as kohlrabi. Ugh! But garden and learn!
Great article Amy. As an experienced gardener who’s made many mistakes over the years, I would recommend folks start out small with just a few things they eat. It’s tempting in these difficult times to look at pictures of bountiful gardens with an expectation that that all happened within one season and it just doesn’t! Don’t be discouraged. Learn from your mistakes and your successes will grow along with your harvest. 🙂
Thanks Rustic Mama! I totally agree. Rome wasn’t built in a day and neither is a productive garden.
Love this article! My favorite place to buy seeds is Baker Creek Seed Company who sells nothing but heirloom seeds. I also see heirloom seeds at my natural foods store. I then save the seeds from stuff I’ve already grown.
For some things I just eat most of the food and regrow the rest – this works with green onions, bulb onions, potatoes and garlic among others. Last year I saved pepper seeds from peppers that I greatly enjoyed and regrew them into some fine bushes that gave me more peppers.
Good article. Thanks for sharing. I ran across a botanist a while back named carol deppe. Apparently just before the pandemic she used to sell seeds and had a seed list of varieties that were pretty hardy, that she at least thought were tasty, and more interestingly were geared towards variable weather aka climate change of drought tolerance, hi yield plants in adverse growing conditions, growing season length, etc. She was/is a believer in the open source seed initiative (ossi) from what it sounded like. I have no relation to the gal or her work but the philosophy was interesting. And there are other growers doing similar (landrace varieties). Made me change my varieties for plants based from flavor to other things. Plant breeders are putting together some interesting things these days. Lemon varieties surviving -10 degreeF weather, cold weather figs, kiwi, etc. About a decade ago I was super interested in apples and plums so I grew several trees from a regional nursery, but many failed (and still fail) to yield fruit, if the trees didn’t fall over entirely (junk root stock imo). Near as I can tell the varieties aren’t geared towards North American climate. Cold snap kills the blooms almost every year while more often than not the wild fruit trees do ok. That too has changed what I buy. Now I look for native wild plum trees “for deer” and rootstock that’s not grown for cheapness of production but that will actually not fall over because the roots are bred for orchard trellising or prolific suckering or ignore rodents eating the roots. Additionally, my varieties have gone backwards about 150 years in all kinds of plants if I can find them. Apple tree varieties grown for apple sauce, russian varieties withstanding Maine weather conditions and once popular for the rootstock and had decent apples is now grafted onto rootstock grown for other reasons and the apples can’t compete with modern varieties for flavor so sales lag, corn varieties grown for grits (varieties and production methods for grits changed about 1900 from what I read), corn varieties that don’t blow over in bad weather and that can stand stuff like squash vining up the stalk. Amazing squash varieties too. The American Indian did massive amounts of plant breeding before Europeans arrived, and they were battle tested for thousands of years in the growing conditions we see in the us every day. (Indian corn survived 1816 winter without a summer when many other crops failed). Now that I see differently, it’s kinda strange the most popular plants are grown for pretty colors and odd shapes that don’t last more than a growing season and that geneticists try to make sterile after a couple generations (intellectual patents).