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Planning Your Garden Your Own Way

Seeds On Our Coffee Table


My Biggest Regret From Our First Gardening Year


When our first gardening year was ending and winter had set in, I looked through the numerous seeds left over and realized something. I had succumbed to societal pressure when I decided what to grow. ‘Well, everyone plants xxx, so of course I should plant xxx.’  As a result, I spent a lot of time planting, nurturing, and devoting valuable resources to things we don’t really eat.  And I didn’t plant things we eat a lot.


Herbs are a great example.  For instance, I planted a whole lot of marjoram and oregano.  Love it, and it’s pretty easy to grow.  But I probably picked about ten little sprigs off of my ten fairly large plants.  And what about basil?  I planted a few plants, but we had a total of 240 lbs. of tomatoes and proportionally very little basil to go with them.  (Some of that was due to crop failure when the plants sizzled in a week of 105+ degree weather, but I still didn’t plant enough.)


Break Free From Gardening Norms!


There are several societal norms related to gardening.  You’ll find them in seed catalogs, garden centers, garden sites, and by word of mouth:  ‘You have to plant on such and such a date, or you’re screwed.’  ‘You must plant this type of tomato, it’s the one that comes to fruit first!’  ‘Oh, those don’t grow here – don’t even bother.’  ‘This is the only good way to irrigate effectively.’

I’m here to say LET THEM GO.  Sure, learn from other gardeners and understand some of the norms… but then step away and do your own thing.  Why?  Because we all have different climates and microclimates, soil, tastes, habits, lifestyles.  We aren’t the same, and our gardens shouldn’t be the same either.


When Deciding What To Plant, Make A Practical Wish List.


Before you let yourself purchase or trade any seeds, take these few steps to create a wish list that works for you:


1.  Go to your spice cabinet and make a list of the spices you regularly use.  Add to that list any spices you often buy fresh at the farmers market or grocery store.

2.  Think back through your last summer/fall diet:  what did it compose of, mainly? Do you eat a lot of pasta with tomato sauce?  Rice and Beans?  Do you cook with a lot of onions, garlic, scallions, or shallots?  Can your family not get by without blackberry or strawberry jam?  Do you eat fruit with every meal?  What does your family like most?  Make a list of everything you can think of that you eat regularly.  Do the same for each season.

3.  What was it that your mom grew when you were little that you used to LOVE to sink your teeth into?  For me, it was meyer lemons:  the neighbor and I used to pick them and then hide beneath the lemon tree eating them (my mom didn’t like us to do it because she said it ruined the enamel on our teeth).  And santa rosa plums.  Yum.  What did your grandfather or grandmother have growing in their garden when you were little?

4. Is there anything you have been dying to try to grow?  Something you’ve always wondered about.  I’ve always wondered about tea and coffee:  wouldn’t it be great if we didn’t have to get them from the other side of the world?  I’ll add it to my “wish” list.


Now that you have a great list, you have to do a little research.


Answer These Questions About Each Plant on Your List:


1. Does it grow in your area – ie, what zone is recommended for growing it?  (To find your zone in North America click hereAustralia click hereEurope click hereSouth America click hereChina here.)

2. Is it frost hardy, or heat tolerant (depending on where you live, one or the other may be an issue for you)?  

3.  Is it easy to grow, or are is it just not worth the effort? 

4.  Will it survive in whatever conditions you can provide – shade, partial shade, sun?

5. Can you actually buy the seed at all?  If you can’t buy it from a seed catalog, are there other ways of obtaining it – eg, you can buy peanuts or ginger from your grocery store?

6.  Also, if you can find this information, what type of soil does it prefer?  This is not as important if your amending your soil with good compost.  But if a plant requires sandy soil and you have clay, you will have to weigh whether or not you want to modify your soil or take your chances with what you have.

Additionally, if you find in your research that there are particular varieties of the crop that grow well in your environment, note those on your list.  For instance, if you live in a northern climate where you don’t have a long summer, you may find that Russian tomato varieties and long-day onions would work best for you.


You can find a lot of the above information in your seed catalogs, but not all.   Google usually works for me, Wikipedia has the scientific name which might help you in the search, your garden books may have some information, Cornell Seed Library may help, Garden Web has a great database and forum, and Dave’s Garden has a database of plants and who has them for sale or trade, with a bit of information on each.

Unfortunately you will have to cross off some plants from the list, which can be disappointing.  However, you may be surprised at all that you can grow in your garden!

And now that you have your list of plants to grow, you can create a garden plan that works with your specific plants.  More on that soon….


Veteran Gardeners, How Do You Decide What To Plant?


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20 comments to Planning Your Garden Your Own Way

  • Rob

    I have always wanted to grow watermelon- and I am finding out there are varieties just for our cooler climate… by god I am gonna grow me a melon! And broccoli

  • Great post! I sometimes spend a lot of time growing certain vegetables just because they grow well in my area but which no one at home likes to eat. What a waste of time and effort!

  • I agree! Great post. I realized that my family ate almost nothing of what I grew last year. I need to really re-plan for this year. Great ideas on how to get started. Thanks!

  • Just a quick correction. If you live in a northern climate you need long day onions (day length is very long in northern climates).

    I’ve been trying to plan what I grow better than I did last year. I was growing all the “fun” stuff but didn’t have some of the basics, like garlic, carrots and onions. I found myself going to the market and just getting those (and red peppers, but I’ve never succeeded in those in my garden, chilies however grow fine). I wanted all of my fresh vegetables in my garden this year. I have about a 20×20 foot garden so it is possible.

    But playing is fun as your last year’s challenge showed many people I’m sure. I always like to grow something different every year. This year I’m growing typhon Holland greens, strawberry spinach, and mustard spinach, in a never ending search for greens that will grow over the summer. I may hate them. Last year I pulled up the arugula since I found I hated that, but I often find something I love. Last year’s love was purple mizuna.

  • Great topic! One other thing to consider is what is cheaper to grow than to buy. Berries are so much more expensive to buy than veggies, so if I had limited space I’d prioritize fruits over vegetables. I also don’t grow varieties that I know will be plentiful at the farmer’s market. I’d rather grow round zucchini rather than straight for example. Or a tomato that is new to me and unusual over Early Girl.

    I think another consideration is what you are going to do with your crop? Eat it fresh? Can it? Dry it? Freeze it? I’m actually going to grow some of that straight zucchini this year because I’m going to dry it.

  • Super Post! And you’re exactly right! My first year I did much the same thing but some of it wasn’t so much out of pressure as it was the intense desire to grow some of everything. :)

    This year is a different beast and lots of wonderful things are hoped for.

    As for Olives, Coffee and Tea; Yessss! You can grow it no matter where you are.

    Olive trees, especially the lovely and oily Arbequina can be sourced from GrowQuest, where I got mine and they are good trees. Coffee and Tea can also be grow in pots if you’re willing to move them to shelter in cold winter areas.

    Let me tell you…there is simply nothing like true home grown coffee. Starbucks could only wish to get that flavor.

  • I had to do some ammendments to my plan based on family preferences. Less cabbage, more green beans. Less radishes and beets, more potatoes.

    I think everyone should grow potatoes, the process is practically foolproof and the taste is mindblowing.

  • Yeah, after my fist year of gardening, I definitely gave up on melons. While it would be cool to eat a melon from my own garden, they didn’t like my backyard and took up a massive amount of space. Last year, I decided to dedicate that space to things I like to eat, specifically tomatoes, as it turns out I pretty much can’t grow enough for my needs. Just ate my last container of roasted tomato sauce. :(

  • I’m fortunate that I grew up gardening with my Mom and never stopped, so we have been pretty good about planting what we eat. I usually only plant a few cabbages since my daughter and I are the only ones who really eat it, only a few eggplant (same reason) but LOTS of tomatoes, basil, onions, carrots and peppers. We tend to eat a lot of broccoli so this year we are going to try it for the first time. We’re also ramping up production on things like beans and peas so I can store some this year. We have usually just grown what we can eat fresh. We also always grow flowers for the bees and sunflowers for the birds.
    We’re planting more tomatoes than usual this year. Last year was dismal due to flooding and both my garden partner and I need to can this year. We’re also down to only a few quarts left and it’s only February.

  • SusanB

    Just this week, I am researching a tree I want to grow, prunus mume, japanese apricot. After a depressingly uninformative call with my county’s on call Master Gardeners, I stumbled on a quote from the person most responsible for obsessively cultivating this tree in the U.S. This NC horticulturalist (whose name I’m blanking on) advocated pushing the limits and said “If nothing is dying, then you aren’t gardening.”

  • I pretty much follow your rubric, although I also do what Deb G. advises- if I can get it fairly inexpensively at the local farmers market, I don’t grow it. The exception is when I want something out of the norm. The farmers markets and vegetable stands around here are great if I want red slicing tomatoes, red paste tomatoes, green beans, cabbage or cucumbers. If I want a purple tomato or a stripy one, a white eggplant, chinese cabbage, etc. then I need to grow it myself. I do try something new every year- last year it was Brussels Sprouts, the year before Black Tuscan kale. The kale is a keeper, the Brussels Sprouts, not so much.

  • katecontinued

    As usual you have tapped a nerve. This is a wonderful post and conversation. I am feeling the need to learn about native plants and what was grown before the Spanish and then other European cultures planted their familiar plants here along the Southern California coastline. I live in a drought area which will only get worse. So, it is time to develop a taste for coastal climate foods which can withstand the creeping desert.

    The environmental commission in my community has made a list of invasive plants public (though not public enough really). This is a common challenge all over the country – especially when the big box stores run specials on cheap plants from other countries. Some of these exotics are invasive and easily overrun the natives. I lived in Phoenix where olive trees and mulberry trees were two that played havoc with the local ecosystem (and people’s allergies). So much to learn . . .

  • This is a great help. Thank you.

  • Really? Coffee? It never even occurred to me. My green thumb is lacking (plants fear me) but I may actually have to give that one a try…

    Thanks for a GREAT post that inspires even a reluctant gardener like me.

    P.S. I’ve linked this to my lastest ‘Friday Faves’ post.

  • this is a great post and thumbs up to ‘Deb’? with her advice on grow whats expensive. Just a little thinking about who you realy are as a food consumer goes a long way to a successful planting.

  • My toddler isn’t particularly adventurous (as is the way with toddlers) when we cook and serve food at the table. However, he will eat most things if he’s allowed to pick them and eat them standing in the garden, so I try to grow a variety of things that are good to eat raw. Tomatoes, broad beans, snow peas, and herbs are all good. This year I want to grow asparagus. I don’t eat a lot of it when I have to buy it, but if I can get it free I’ll eat it by the bucket load! It’s also perrenial, so I’m hoping to cut down on the nurturing effort.

    The only tip I’d add is one from the Australian writer Jackie French: just looking at what you eat now (from the shops) and trying to grow it wont do. When you have to pay for food you eat what’s cheap (like bread and pasta) but when you’re growing it yourself everything costs much the same amount. If you could have anything you felt like, you might find you eat far more peaches, and far less bread. It’s all trial and error. Over several years you’ll find out what you really like to eat.

  • That is a great guideline Melinda. It’s got most of the advice I give to people on it. For me it sometimes takes actually growing something I think I’ll like having in my garden to find that it’s just not worth the trouble.

    I’ve found growing large quantities of herbs has been deeply satisfying. I dry oregano, thyme, and marjoram at least twice a year and then never have to buy it. Growing my own cayenne has also turned out to be surprisingly satisfying- they do well here in my (our) climate and don’t take up a lot of space.

  • Great post, Melinda. I have fallen into those traps before. Planted things I didn’t care about or things that really wouldn’t grow in our area. I feel like I learn quite a bit every year and plant a bit more in line with what we eat, what we can grow. I’m also getting better and better at knowing the microsystems in our own garden.

  • I love it. It’s really true how we get suckered into planting lots of mainstream stuff. Planting the tomatillos last year helped me a lot to break out of that mindset. It’s also great to find new favorite dishes when you have an unexpected bounty in the garden. You might consider checking out Jerry Traunfeld’s Herbfarm Cookbook (the first one) as it has some terrific recipes that using oregano and marjoram — especially the cheesy polenta with marjoram and a marinated flank steak with oregano. I have to ration our supply all summer because of that polenta dish.

  • Thanks everyone!

    Daphne, appreciate your pointing that out – it’s corrected now. ; ) Sounds like a garden wonderland! Arugula can get pretty bitter in the summer – you might try it again (maybe a mild variety) in the fall/winter & see if you like it better.

    Deb G, Yes!!

    Christy B, Wonderful news about coffee – what variety did you grow? How long did it take to produce coffee? I’m full of questions!

    Kory, agreed – potatoes are easy and beautiful. And the family certainly does have a say, eh?

    SusanB, LOL – spoken like a true gardener.

    katecontinued, thank you. : ) Learning is a never-ending process, but most of the time it’s a lot of fun!!

    Jenni, thank you!!

    kate, angelina, green bean, Willa, Kelly, great points!

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