Looking to plant a vegetable garden? Before lifting your first shovel-full of dirt, it helps to take a step back and come up with a plan, identifying what you are looking to get out of your garden (aside from fresh produce, of course), and how best to accomplish your goals. Like your training plan, an ill thought out garden can be a lot of work, yet ultimately a waste of time and money. On the flip side, a well-planned garden can be very rewarding, can compliment your lifestyle, save you a few bucks, and even help you reach some dietary goals.
Plant What You Eat
One of the first question new gardeners often ask is, “What should I plant?” Well, it depends. First and foremost, a good place to start is by planting what you already eat but have to buy from the grocery store or farmer’s market. There is no sense in going through the work it takes to plant and tend a vegetable garden if the crops you end up with rarely make it onto your plate for one reason or another. If you are planting a garden because you would like to influence what you eat, for example planting more leafy green vegetables because you would like to make them a bigger part of your weekly dietary intake, this can be a great approach as well.
Ideally you want your garden to seamlessly integrate with your cooking and eating. So, start with planting fruits and vegetables that you are comfortable preparing and enjoy eating, allowing you to get in the habit of pulling from your garden on a regular basis. This is not to say you shouldn’t experiment and have fun planting some novel fruits and vegetables, but make sure you cover your personal staples, too.
Space and Sun Limitations
Sometimes what you are able to grow is not just a function of what you eat or what you would like to eat. Most of us home gardeners are limited by a number of factors that dictate what we are actually able to produce. Two biggies are of course available space and direct sunlight. If you are space-limited, it makes all the more sense to plant fruits and vegetables that will tend to appear on your plate on a regular basis. Don’t use what little space you have to plant something obscure. If you do nothave a yard, certain plants, such as greens, herbs, and tomatoes will thrive in planter boxes and/or pots. Greens tend to do well in shallow containers, while tomatoes generally require about a 15-gallon pot to reach their full potential.
As far as sunlight goes, all plants like (need!) sunlight, but certain ones will do better with less sunlight than others. If you are going to be planting in partial shade, consider trying to grow vegetables such as leafy greens like arugula, spinach, or collards. Plants like tomatoes and peppers need full sun to really thrive.
Getting the Most Bang for Your Buck
When I think of how to get the most bang for my buck given the limitations of a home garden, I break my approach to what I grow into three categories: nutrition, flavor, and versatility.
One of the best things about a home garden is that while it is thriving, the produce it yields is as fresh as it gets, meaning the nutrient content is likely much higher than the produce on the shelf in the grocery store. If you are reading this site, you probably take a strong interest in your health, so why not maximize the nutrition you get from your home vegetable garden by planting nutrient-rich plants? Great examples of nutrient-rich plants are, again, leafy green vegetables, as well as crops bearing colorful fruits, like different heirloom tomatoes or berries, cauliflower, or Brussels sprouts.
There are few better ways to add flavor to any dish than with fresh herbs in the summer. One of the best things about having a garden is getting to appreciate the bold flavor fresh vegetables impart on home cooked meals. Planting fresh herbs is a great way to consistently add flavor to the dishes you make (and regularly gives you the opportunity to remind yourself or anyone else you happen to feed that, “Yeah, I grew that flavor.”).
As far as versatility goes, be sure to plant things you will be inclined to incorporate into various meals on a regular basis. Grow fruits and vegetables that lend themselves well to a number of flavor profiles and cooking methods, and are easy to turn into weeknight dinners. Lettuces are great to grow since there are infinite possibilities of salad combinations you can make – and there is nothing like a salad made with lettuce picked minutes prior. Or consider growing hot peppers, which can be added to any dish and make a serious statement.
Recommendations on What to Plant
- Leafy greens (suitable for partial shade): kale, chard, collards, arugula, salad mixes, mizuna
- Nutritious fruit bearing plants: various tomato varieties, strawberries, blueberries, black berries
- Nutrient-rich vegetables (suitable for partial shade): broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts
- Fresh herbs: basil, various types of mint, oregano, parsley, cilantro