I propose 4 rules to guide you on choosing what to grow:
- Grow what you already eat
- Grow food that has a net positive cash return
- Don’t fight your climate and seasons
- Don’t grow what you can forage
Part I: Grow what you already eat
This might seem like a no brainer, but ask any gardener if they’ve ever been swayed by a pretty photo or a description and purchased seeds for something they have never even tried but *looks* great. Malabar spinach. Groundcherries. Greens with exotic Asian names. Experimenting in the garden can be delightful, but cover your regular needs first.
I’ll confess: I never imagined anything could possibly taste worst than a rutabaga until my parsnips matured after months in the garden. Money wasted, space wasted, time wasted. Not long thereafter, I made a point to stop in the speciality grocery store on the other side of town to try salsify, and those seeds also went in the donation bin for the local community garden. More money wasted, but at least I didn’t have to weed the plants. And hopefully the seeds connected with salsify and parsnip fans.
So… step away from the garden catalogs. I love your catalog, Baker Creek, but I don’t need orange and green plaid eggplants since I never EAT eggplant. Instead, dear reader, go look at your refrigerator and countertop. What’s in the produce crisper that’s not limp or moldy? What items are perpetually on your grocery store list? What did you eat last night, and would you eat it again tonight? What are seasonal treats you have to have?
Next step: Cross off anything you can’t grow in your area. I love bananas, but since I don’t live somewhere tropical I can forget about it. I also love lingonberries, but it’s too hot and humid here. If you live somewhere with a brief growing season, you may not be able to mature long season crops like winter squash or melons unless you can find a locally adapted variety. Or you may be able to use season extension methods to squeeze an extra two or three weeks onto your season beginning or end. But keep it realistic. You can experiment later.
So let’s say Gardener Jane who lives in Mississippi in zone 7b comes up with a list of food crops as follows:
- Strawberries, blackberries, blueberries
- bell peppers
- tomatoes (cherry and slicing)
- summer squash (crookneck and zucchini)
- green beans
- snap peas
Let’s ignore the fruits for now — those are long term investments. The rest of her list seems a bit long but we can space these crops throughout the year. By planting season, they are:
Early spring – Peas and lettuce
Spring – Carrots and potatoes
Summer – Peppers, tomatoes, squash, peanuts, corn, green beans and watermelon
Fall – Cabbage, broccoli and lettuce again
Winter – Garlic
No, Jane will not be having summer salads on a bed of lettuce in zone 7b. There are a few greens that will grow in the summer like malabar spinach and new zealand spinach (neither of which is actually spinach) or amaranth leaves, but they don’t make great lettuce substitutes, especially to fans of crisp iceberg lettuce. In a slightly cooler and drier zone, she might be able to get away with shading her greens, but if left in hot weather they will get bitter and bolt, that is if the aphids don’t eat them up entirely.
This could be a serious stumbling block for a new gardener. Jane decides that her household really only eats lettuce as part of cool summer salads, and while she’s open to experimenting with other greens if space and labor permits, they just plan to buy lettuce in the summer and won’t grow it at all in the spring.
In Part II we’ll discuss evaluating the cash return of Jane’s desired crops.
(By Nicole Castle)