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 here, Australia click here, Europe click here, South America click here, China 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, 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.
Gracie is a landscape designer and master gardener with nearly eight years professional experience.