What to Grow?

Seed catalogs_LAH_2733January. The start of a new year. The start of a new garden. As I contemplate my empty veggie beds, I feel like a race car driver waiting at the starting line. “Gentlemen (gentlewomen?), start your engines!”

This year is truly new in another way. We moved last year, and I no longer have a my huge veggie garden. I used to have twelve, 4ˈ x 12ˈ beds, plus four 4ˈ x 4ˈ herb beds, plus a series of 2ˈ wide border beds around the entire area, ideal for pole beans, peas, and perennials (lovage, currants, berries, asparagus). Now I have two, 4ˈ x 10ˈ raised beds. Two. Well, we intended to downsize, right?

Garden bed in January 2I tried to incorporate some edibles into the rest of the landscape—gooseberries along the back where their thorns won’t scratch, rhubarb in a mulched area near the lawn, and herbs in pots on our deck. But now, somehow, I have to fit all the vegetables I want to grow into 80 square feet. It seems impossible—good thing I like a challenge!

Since I can no longer try everything in the catalog that catches my eye (and taste buds), the first step is to prioritize. I have to step back and consider why I grow food in the first place.

As a gardener, I’d probably grow vegetables even if I never got to eat a single one. But since I do get to enjoy my harvest, my first question is, what do we love to eat? There’s no sense growing something we’re not overly fond of. It happens that Pete loves cucumbers (and I don’t), while I love eggplant (and he doesn’t), so I’m going to stick primarily to crops we both enjoy.

Next comes flavor—which veggies are far superior when home grown? Commercial growers have to consider ease of harvest, shelf life, and eye appeal. I don’t. So I will be growing tomatoes, and I won’t be growing onions.

lettuce_dbg_lah_1459Growing a garden doesn’t always save money—seeds and other supplies cost something too, and Colorado weather doesn’t always guarantee a harvest. But with limited space, I have to ask, which vegetables cost the most? Financially, it makes sense to grow gourmet lettuce, fresh herbs, and organic anything, and to skip the potatoes.

Finally, there’s the issue of space. Some crops take up more room than others. Some crops sit there all season for one harvest, while others are quickly in and out, or produce over many weeks. With that in mind, I won’t be growing corn, even though it’s so much better straight from the garden. And I won’t be growing pumpkins or melons, with their long vines and long days-to-maturity (plus they rarely ripen in time). I will plant pole beans and chard.

It’s time to order my seeds. Ordering early ensures I get the varieties I want, and quickly. What will I be growing in my two raised beds this year? (Most of the varieties listed below are available from my favorite seed company, Pinetree Seeds.)

  • Tomatoes: I only have room for one plant, so I’ll buy a seedling from the nursery. I’ll be looking for something both good tasting and very early.
  • Summer squash/zucchini: Easily available in the market, but I hate to pay for something so incredibly easy to grow! I’ll plant one “hill” that includes Magda, a mid-eastern zucchini with a firm texture and light gray-green skin, and Sunburst, a yellow scallop summer squash that I’ve had great success with over the years.
  • Pole beans: For years, I’ve been growing Emerite, a fast-maturing, prolific round green bean. You can harvest them as either a fillet bean or a plump pod, 8 inches long and very straight— making them easy to cut up in the kitchen.
  • Lettuce: I’m devoting at least half a bed to lettuce, and at least half of that will be a butterhead. I’ll also grow some loose-leaf varieties (I order Pinetree Mix), and a red leaf (I’m trialing Gabriella this year) for contrast in our salads. My favorite loose-leaf is Simpson Elite, but it’s getting harder and harder to find.
  • Basil: I use most of my basil to make pesto, so I stick with large-leafed types such as Lettuce Leaf. I also grow Sweet Dani, a lemon basil ideal for making the lime pistachio pesto sauce I spoon over grilled salmon.
  • Parsley: Tabouli is a household staple during the summer, and a sweet, tender, Italian-style parsley is essential. I particulary like Prezzemolo Gigante D’ Italia.
  • Chard: I’m allergic to spinach, so chard is our go-to green for lasagna, spanakopita, and mixing into salad greens or adding to soup. I ordered Sea Foam—it’s just green and white, but the catalog touted its taste and texture, which are my primary concerns.
  • Green onions: I stick them between plants that will eventually need more space, such as summer squash. Grown from sets, they’re in and out in a matter of weeks.
  • Beets: I never appreciated beets until I had them roasted. Oh my goodness. According to one study, hybrids turned out to be superior in both taste and ease of cultivation, but I really want the golden ones. Decisions, decisions. Turns out Touchstone is a golden hybrid. Bingo!
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