One of the things it sometimes takes new gardeners a while to learn is what to plant and what NOT to plant and how to figure out the difference.
It’s not quite as critical if you are only planting annual veggies – tomatoes and lettuce and broccoli and such – but if you are planting a permaculture food forest and you are picking out fruit trees, berry bushes and fruiting vines your choice is hugely important!
Many of these permanent plants will be around producing for decades and it can take several years for them to begin bearing, so you will want to spend some serious time thinking about and studying the different types and varieties. It may be harder to find the varieties you want and be more expensive than the ordinary fruit you can find on sale in January in the big box stores, but if you have chosen that special variety of apple you love so much – it will be worth the effort and extra money in the end. Giving your precious space to a Red Delicious apple instead of the Pink Lady you love, will not make you happy in the end. I gave all my best grape vine space to plants that were a gift – but the owner didn’t know what varieties they were. It took many years to discover that they were a seeded grape – not something I would have chosen if I had been thinking smarter. I am now trying to replace some of them with my favorite seedless varieties.
Another quality you may not think of is how well the fruit you grow will store – or dry – or freeze – or can (not something I do anymore…). One day you will find you have a way bigger harvest than you can eat and you will want a fruit that makes that situation a blessing and not a curse! I love Honeycrisp apples and they happen to be very good keepers. Wrapped in a bit of paper and stored in an old frig they will keep for many months. I am also a huge fan of Italian prunes – fresh or dried – so an abundance is a blessing. I grow way more berries than I can eat fresh, because they are so easy to freeze all season. Any time I find more ripe than we can eat for breakfast, I spread the extras on a dish and freeze them, then later add them to freezer containers for winter eating. Of course there are always friends, family and food banks to give excess to as well…
Think about what you love and grow that – but only if it’s a plant that does well in your climate. I love peaches and nectarines, and they grow in this climate – but they tend to be very prone to disease in the Pacific Northwest so if you want to grow them you have to be ready to do a lot of extra work to help them survive well. Find out what fruits are the most carefree in your area and give them more of your focus – unless of course it’s really peaches you want!
As for vegetables – I try to get the most locally grown seed I can find. You will have much more success with organic seed raised in your climate, so you are doing yourself a favor as well as supporting the local seed companies. If you get seed that isn’t organic you should at least check to see if it’s non-gmo. Seed from the big box stores may be cheap but when you think that this is your food you are growing – and you want to be able to save seed over the years – it truly doesn’t seem worth the few dollars you might save.
If your space is limited I would suggest that you avoid growing things that take all season to grow and give you a small amount of food – or take up a LOT of room for the amount of food you get. Cabbages and Cauliflower take a lot of room and after a couple months or more produce one or two meals! On the other hand, Broccoli will give you side shoots for months after you harvest the main head, if you keep them picked. Some varieties are bred to do this especially well.
Bush beans take up a lot of room and give you LOTS of beans in a short span of time. This can be a great advantage if you just want to freeze the beans and then use the bed for a late summer crop. But if you like eating beans fresh all summer AND freezing some for winter, while using hardly any bed space (lots of room to grow other things!) you can’t beat pole beans! I love how easy they are to find and pick too.
The most critical question to ask of a veggie you plant – is do you and your family LIKE eating it? If you don’t know – try a small amount the first year. Then if you find its a new family favorite you can give it more room next year. Don’t grow things just because they are easy – like radishes or eggplant – if you don’t ever eat them.
But – Do try new things each year! It’s the only way to discover new veggies you and your family just might love. If you have only ever eaten Kale or Collard greens from the supermarket and never had it after a good hard frost – you just haven’t experienced kale! There are many vegetables that must be eaten just picked to be their best and lots of greens are like that.
There are also some vegetables you will find that are so disease prone or constantly attacked by insects or eaten by slugs that it just isn’t worth the bother. If the only way to grow Brussel sprouts is to spray it with something for weeks – I may give up and find something else. Of course if it was my very favorite veggie I might make the extra effort to make it work – try different planting times or varieties or different parts of the garden or growing it under row cover cloth. I just rarely spray things – with anything except maybe water. I suppose I’m lazy. I don’t want to fight nature to grow things and if something does poorly no matter how hard I try – I let it go rather than go the “spray” route.
Greens – kales, collards, chard, Japanese greens and mustards give the most food for the space over the longest period of any vegetable I grow here. That may just be my conditions (lots of shade and poor soil). They grow in sun or shade and produce much of the winter. Then in the spring we feast for weeks on the mass of flower buds they put on – like dainty broccoli on long stems (except for chard – that’s not a very edible bud stalk!). I keep most of them from flowering this way, but leave one or two of the best plants of each variety to set seed for the next year. When they are finished setting seed the dried seed stems can be cut off and the plant will go on producing leaves for another season! If the plants are growing in places you need for another crop, they are very easy to transplant – even in late summer! Tall leggy kale and collard plants can be cut down – at almost any time – to 6 inches or so and they will put up a nice fresh bushy flush of new branches and leaves that will give you meals for many more months.
Any day now the seed catalogs will be arriving and we can all spend a few cold dreary winter evenings dreaming about next years garden! One of my favorite January occupations…
Happy garden planning 2018 y’all!