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Gardening Columns

Plan Your Dream Garden

First published on on January 17, 2008, by Suzanne DeJohn

Seed catalogs arrive earlier and earlier each season, tempting us with glossy photos of vegetables that are still months away from our dinner plates. Winter is a time to dream of gardens to come, and soon it will be time to start the seeds of those dreams. But how do you choose what types of plants and what varieties from among the hundreds of beauty pageant photos of perfect tomatoes and blemish-free peppers? Start by selecting which types of vegetables you'll grow. 

Work Within Your Limitations
If your garden is small and your time limited, choose vegetables that you really love, those that are markedly better eaten fresh from the garden, and/or those that are pricey to buy. 

For some gardeners, those big, ripe, sun-warmed beefsteak tomatoes are the paragon of a successful summer garden. For others, it's the hottest of the hot peppers, or fresh basil by the bushel. What are the "must-haves" for your garden? Remember that green beans, sweet corn, potatoes, and carrots are all readily available at farmers' markets, so you may choose to skip those in favor of harder-to-find broccoli raab and Florence fennel.

Start with Easy-to-Grow Veggies 
If you're new to gardening, do yourself a favor and start with plants that are particularly easy to grow. Beans, beets, carrots, chard, cucumbers, kale, lettuce, peas, radishes, spinach, squash, and tomatoes are good choices. More challenging vegetables include celery, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts. 

Picking Varieties
Once you've got your wish list, you need to decide on varieties, which can be daunting when there are sometimes hundreds of varieties to choose from. Flipping through the pages of a seed catalog is like browsing Where do you begin? How do you make your selection based on a single, probably air-brushed, photo? Can you really believe the descriptive text? 

While choosing varieties is part of the fun and adventure of gardening, here are some criteria to keep in mind:

1. Taste. Read variety descriptions; you'll find some green beans described as mild while others are "beany." Different tomato varieties might be spicy, fruity, sweet, or aromatic. 

2. Usage. Roma tomatoes are less juicy than beefsteaks or cherry tomatoes and are the tomato of choice for canning. Other tomato varieties are especially well suited to drying. Some bean varieties freeze or can better than others; some cucumbers are ideal for pickling while others are best eaten fresh. 

3. Disease resistance. Some vegetables, including tomatoes, cucumbers, and squash, are susceptible to a number of fungal diseases. Grow at least one variety described as disease resistant in case susceptible varieties succumb.

4. Growth habit. Pole beans require a supporting trellis; bush beans do not. Heading lettuces are harvested whole; leaf lettuces can be harvested leaf by leaf over a long season. Determinate tomato varieties are smaller than indeterminate, the latter needing large and very sturdy cages or stakes.

5. Size of plants. Old-fashioned hubbard squash needs plenty of room for the long vines to run. Bush varieties of squash have shorter vines and require much less room.

6. Days to maturity. Some broccoli varieties mature in as little as 48 days; others take 68 days. Choose varieties with differing days to maturity to ensure a long harvest season. If you live in the mountains where the growing season can be cut short by an early frost, choose at least one fast-maturing variety of each vegetable.

7. Length of harvest. Bush beans and determinate tomatoes tend to produce early and copiously, then fade out. Pole beans and indeterminate tomatoes take longer to come into production, but they'll continue producing until frost. If you'll be canning or freezing, you may want a big crop all at once.

8. Hybrid or open-pollinated. Hybrid seeds are the result of a cross between inbred lines -- plants that have been cross-bred repeatedly until the seeds are nearly identical genetically. Crossing two inbred lines sometimes yields plants with marked improvements over the parent plants, called hybrid vigor. These improvements may include size, uniformity, and disease resistance; they may or may not include taste. 

The terms "heirloom" and "open pollinated" are sometimes used interchangeably to describe non-hybrid varieties that have been grown for generations. If you plan to save seeds to replant in subsequent seasons, choose non-hybrid seeds because the offspring of hybrids can vary dramatically from the parent plants.

9. Novelty. One year, just for fun, I grew as many purple varieties as I could -- purple beans, purple peppers, purple potatoes, and purple carrots. 

Now, as you browse through your seed catalogs dreaming of spring, you'll have some tools to help you choose. Or, just close your eyes and point to a page. After all, have you ever tasted a bad home-grown tomato?


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