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Deciding what to plant

March 15, 2018

I don't have any updates from my garden this week because I've been away on vacation. I hope to accomplish most of my spring planting this weekend. In the meantime, here are some considerations for deciding what to plant in your vegetable garden.

 

 

#1: What do you like to eat?

I don't see much point in growing vegetables that no one in your household likes to eat. It's a waste of your time, effort, money, and valuable garden real estate. One year, I made a brave attempt at liking eggplant and grew 6 different types in different shapes, sizes, and colors including hard-to-find African orange eggplant. Ultimately, I had to admit to myself that I just don't like eggplant.

 

 

#2: What can I plant now?

The DC School Garden Planting Calendar is an excellent guide for many types of veggies and garden berries. I also have the Mother Earth News' When to Plant app on my phone ($1.99, available for Android and iPhone). I find these calendars particularly useful for filling holes in the garden, as not everything comes up as planned...and sometimes a veggie is soooo tempting and delicious that it all gets eaten ahead of schedule and so there's room in the garden to plant something else. 

 

In general, I follow a much simpler succession planting plan, composed of three big chunks: spring (early- to mid-March), summer (late-April to early-May), and fall (late-August to early-September). Spring and fall plantings mostly consist of leafy greens and root vegetables whereas the summer plantings are predominantly veggies that are eaten for their fruits and seeds.

 

 

#3: How much does it cost at the grocery store?

Potatoes, onions, and green cabbage are among the cheapest vegetables at the grocery store, so I buy these vegetables instead of growing them in my garden. I prefer to grow more costly, uncommon veggies like Dinosaur kale as well as highly-perishable veggies that taste better when freshly-picked like okra.

 

 

#4: How much space does it need to grow?

For corn to be successful, you have to plant a lot of it over a large area because it's wind-pollinated. I prefer to buy it at local farmers markets when it's in season.

 

I have successfully grown sweet potatoes in the past, but I'm going to opt out for this year because they take up an enormous amount of space. It was a tough decision because while sweet potato roots are relatively cheap at the grocery store, you're less likely to find sweet potato greens, which are tasty but highly-perishable. Note: sweet potatoes and regular potatoes are not related species. Do not eat regular potato greens as they are toxic.

 

 

#5: Is it disease- and pest-resistant?

I've said it before that I'm a lazy gardener. In order to not have to work so hard to grow veggies, I choose varieties that are naturally disease- and pest-resistant. In our area, squash vine borer plagues Cucurbita pepo summer squashes such as zucchini and yellow squash, so I no longer grow them. Instead, this summer I'm going with Trichosanthes cucumerina snake gourdMomordica charantia bitter melon, and Cucurbita moschata Korean avocado squash. Unlike C. pepo types, which have hollow stems that vine borer larvae "bore" inside of, my chosen cucurbit veggies have solid stems that resist vine borer larvae attacks. They're also all climbing vines that take well to vertical growing on trellises, which saves space in the garden.

 

I've also resigned the Beta vulgaris greens, spinach and Swiss chard, from my garden due to pressure from leaf miners. Besides, there are plenty of other leafy greens that I can grow instead. I'm going to give beets another try, even though they were unsuccessful in my garden this past fall (I think the seeds were too old), because they tolerate some pest damage...the roots still grow even if some of the leaves get chewed up by leaf miners.

 

 

#6: Is it climate change compatible?

I've had it with regular broccoli and cauliflower because they just don't perform well in my garden. I think it's because our transitional seasons, spring and fall, have become so erratic due to climate change. These veggies really want 3 months of consistent cool temperatures and we just don't get that around here, so I'm done fighting that battle. I'm sticking to broccoli raab and Chinese broccoli in the spring, and while I've heard other local gardeners say that regular broccoli and cauliflower do better in the fall, I think I'll opt to buy them at the grocery store.

 

For summer, I choose cherry tomatoes instead of large slicing types due to climate change considerations. As Higgins describes in his Washington Post column, I also end my tomato season in mid-August when the fruit no longer sets due to prolonged heat, which also makes space for fall planting.

 

For fall and winter, I don't want a repeat of purple sprouting broccoli (PSB) that doesn't survive prolonged cold temperatures and Brussels sprouts that never "sprout." I could probably keep the PSB if I covered my beds with greenhouse plastic, but I'm not ready to go that route yet. Instead, I'll plant more frost-hardy greens like Siberian kale and green-in-the-snow mustard.

 

 

Here's a rough visual approximation of what my spring plantings will look like. Note that the spacing, relative sizes, and numbers of veggie icons seen in the diagram does not accurately portray how these will be planted.

 

I will be planting four types of dark leafy greens along the center lengths, where they will have the most headspace to grow beneath the row-covered tunnel: collard greens, Dinosaur kale, Chinese broccoli, and broccoli raab. I will flank the leafy greens with root vegetables: a colorful spring radish mix, baby beets, Japanese baby turnips, and dark purple carrots. Along the outer lengths, I will plant petite greens for salads and stir-fries: mixed leaf lettuces, mixed baby leaf mustards, red and green mizuna, and baby bok choy. 

 

As for the cherry tomatoes, chile peppers, basil, okra, yard long beans, melons, edible gourds, and climbing squashes...those will all have to wait a little longer.

 

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