There are literally thousands of varieties of vegetables out there (let’s not even get into the fruit and flowers). As I said in this post, one reason I prefer to start the garden from seed, is so that I can choose from this incredible list of varieties. However, being the indecisive person that I am, I’ll quickly admit that flipping through page after page after page of tomatoes alone can be quite overwhelming! Here are several questions to ask yourself to quickly narrow down your selection and find the perfect varieties for your garden.
How long is my growing season?
Speaking from growing zone 4, I’m telling you that the length of your growing season really affects what you should focus your efforts on! You can extend your season with growing tunnels, cold frames and the like, but be realistic. For example, I doubt I’ll ever make an attempt at growing sweet potatoes up here. If you find yourself on the other end of the spectrum where summers are scorching, you might struggle to grow cool-loving crops like the brassica family. To determine your growing season, you may find this world-wide growing zone map helpful. For those growers in the USA, you can also determine how long your frost-free season is by typing your zip code in here.
What kind of soil do I have (clay vs. sand)?
Growing in sandy or thick clay soil each have their own disadvantages. In either case, add mature compost and plenty of mulch to help build loam. It takes years to build rich soil, so in the meantime, it’s good to be aware of where you’re at on the spectrum. Here are a few examples of why it matters: root vegetables will be much happier in a loose, sandy soil than a thick, clay soil. Heavy plants that need a firm anchor, such as brussels sprouts, will succeed more in clay soil. Plants that need good drainage should not be grown in clay soils, and plants that need hefty amounts of nutrients will struggle in sandy conditions as minerals easily drain away from the roots. You will be able to read some of these details in the plant descriptions in a seed catalogue. Determine what type of soil you have (here’s some guidance), and plan accordingly if you find yourself on either end of the spectrum.
What are my size constraints?
Start with your space. If you have one 5 x 5 raised bed, you can probably skip right past the squash, cabbage, potatoes, corn… you know, the BIG stuff. You might get smart about looking for vertical varieties of beans instead of bush beans.
What is the main purpose?
If you hope to supply your yard and house with lots of raw snacking vegetables, opt for tender varieties. Whereas, if you’re hoping to fill out a root cellar or put up a lot of canned tomatoes, you’ll need to take storage quality into consideration.
Function vs. visual beauty is something to consider in designing your growing space, as well as in determining what varieties you grow and where they are located within your growing space.
Seed Saving (Heirloom varieties)
Do you hope to save some of your own seeds? If so, you must purchase only heirloom seeds. I once saved my Sungold tomato seeds, only to be disappointed in the little red snacking tomatoes that appeared the following year. Hybrid varieties are not reliable for seed saving.
The overall check
How do the varieties you have chosen go together? Step back and imagine how your garden will look and how your harvest will be, given the varieties you have chosen. You’ll want an assortment of sizes and type. I’ll never forget when I coordinated a student-run CSA program and the vegetables we had available one week were all purple. Trust me, you do not want purple carrots, cauliflower, tomatoes and beans… unless you’re aiming for a Willy-Wonka-esque experience in your garden!
Lastly, if you have grown a garden in previous years, you’ll want to consider the following:
What did you grow last year? Make a list!
What seeds do you still have from last year?
What was productive AND delicious?
What kept well; had good storage quality?
What brought the most beauty to our garden?
What did I have too much of?
What did I have too little of?
What does your family eat a lot of?