“What should I plant?” is a question new vegetable gardeners tend to ask me over winter, when planning their first gardens.
In the past, I’ve always advised them to plant what they like. It may sound silly, but you’d be surprised at how many people pressure themselves into growing the garden they believe is expected of them rather than the one they really want.
If you plant tomatoes when no one in the house eats tomatoes, you’re wasting food, time, effort and money — and programming yourself to hate gardening. But if you plant food you and your family enjoy, you’ll be dreaming of next year’s garden all winter.
Over the past few years, however, I’ve updated my advice to add: “Plant crops that are expensive to buy at the supermarket.”
When a 1-ounce package of fresh herbs sets you back $3 at the grocery store, it’s the only practical thing to do. Berries, garlic, colorful peppers and anything labeled “organic,” all of which can dent your grocery budget, can be grown in your backyard — or in containers on your patio or balcony.
SAVING MONEY AND SEEDS
You can be as fancy as you like, but all you really need to grow most veggies at home are seeds, soil, fertilizer, sunlight and water. When you consider that my grape tomato plants typically produce about 2,000 fruits apiece over the course of a growing season, the savings become mind-boggling.
Seeds from heirloom vegetables — those that have not been hybridized or otherwise manipulated — can be saved from year to year and counted on to produce crops similar to their mother. Dry them at the end of the season, then store them in a paper envelope in a dry, cool place for planting next spring.
Another consideration when deciding what to plant should be the vegetable’s availability. If you crave Malabar spinach, bitter melon, tomatillos, cucamelons or Romanesco, but can’t find it at the store, seize the opportunity to grow your own.
Many edibles can be processed and sealed in airtight jars for long-term storage. But if you haven’t got time for that, you can freeze them like I do. My freezer plays host to flat-leaf herbs like basil and parsley, chive-olive-oil ice cubes, diced cucuzza squash, and blanched string beans and greens in zipper-top plastic bags. Jars of grilled peppers and tomatoes in oil share the space, and last year’s garlic calls the countertop home.
A LITTLE BIT MORE EACH YEAR
When you catch the gardening bug, you might be tempted to rip up the entire backyard and plant every square inch of it. Don’t do that. Chances are good you’ll become overwhelmed, slack off on your watering and weeding duties, and let the whole thing go to pot.
Instead, start small. Limit yourself to two 4-by-4-foot (or one 4-by-8-foot) raised beds, or, at most, a single 10-by-10-foot garden the first year. And plan to spend about 30 minutes, two or three times a week tending to it.
Then, as long as you can manage it, go ahead and add another bed or row next year. This gradual approach will be kind to your wallet, too.
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