Monday, 21 February 2011

What to Grow in a Small, Basic Garden

Or, general recommendations for the novice vegetable gardener.

I know a lot of people are just starting to get into vegetable gardening. Not that I'm an expert by any means, but after having allotment gardens for a number of years, and now my own right out the door, I'm starting to get a sense of which vegetables are worth growing and which ones probably aren't. I thought I'd try to sum up those ideas here.

First of all, I really like the system I found a number of years back for rotating my vegetables. Rotating them is a must to keep pests and diseases down to a dull roar, no matter how small your space. This system divides vegetables into four groups, according to their needs and growth patterns. It's simple to remember and has very few exceptions. Its weakness is that it does not really allow for succession planting. We just keep succession planting the same group of veggies throughout the season.

I've written a bit about this system before; you can read it here: Planting Season Begins. See also When to Plant Vegetables.


Peas: can be podded peas (eat mature peas only), snap peas (eat tender pods and well-formed peas inside) or snow peas (eat flat, immature pods only) and in addition, many of the snow peas are also good eaten as sprouts or young, tender greens. These grow upright, with slight to strong support required depending on the variety. Many of them can be frozen successfully. They hate hot weather and are best grown in the early spring and summer or restarted in late summer to grow into the fall. We regard these as pretty indispensible. There are a ton of varieties out there, many of them good, but at the moment I am liking Norli and Mammoth Melting snow peas, and Dual peas.

Green & Yellow (and a few Purple, Red & Pink) Fresh Beans: also indispensible for us. These may grow on short bushy vines, or long ones that need support. The bean pods may be round or flattened. Many varieties can be successfully frozen. I like pole beans (the ones that need support) because they are much easier to pick and often produce longer. Lots of people also think they tend to be better flavoured varieties. Of course, you do have to take the time and effort to build those supports at the beginning. Favourite varieties include Roma II, Provider, and Trionpho Violetto. I'm still looking for a really good yellow bean. I remember Gold Straw being good from my allotment days, but I can't even find a trace of its existance now.

Shelly Beans: are beans where the pods are discarded and the interior beans are eaten, while mature but still moist and fresh. Lima beans, borlotti beans, fava beans and soy beans would all fall into this category. They can be successfully frozen. They are most likely bush type beans, although some of the lima and borlotti beans may be pole beans. In general I would not really recommend these to the person with limited garden space. Lima beans have a very long growing season and will not do well unless it's hot, also they need quite a bit of space relative to their yield. On the other hand, they are expensive to buy and only available frozen and imported. If you are real lima bean lover and have the space, try Fordhook 242, or Henderson's Bush Lima. Borlotti are not that different from other beans, although I have never grown them. Fava beans I find a pain. They are not earlier than other peas (which they resemble more than beans) , don't produce all that great a yield, and in addition to being shelled have to be peeled. Unless you are already an enthusiastic consumer of favas, probably worth skipping. Soy beans might be worth trying. They have a decent yield for the space, although you only have about a week to harvest them fresh. They do freeze well though, and are also useful dried if you miss the window to pick them fresh.

Dried Beans and Peas: Again, I likely wouldn't grow these in a small garden. The yield is fairly small for the space and time required. They are generally inexpensive to buy and readily available. There are some dual purpose beans that can be eaten as fresh green beans or let to mature and dry. This may be a way to get some dried beans out of a small garden. On the other hand, there are also enough interesting and different varieties out there that you never see commercially that if you have even a medium sized garden they may be worth the space.

Peanuts: fun, but space-hogs for what they produce and also need loose, sandy soil. Probably not for most people.


Chard: absolutely worth while. A small patch will provide greens from mid-June to hard frost - 5 straight months - if properly managed. They are much more resilient and weather proof than spinach, and stay more tender than kale. Not many insect pests, but the things with teeth love this stuff - must be fenced.

Kale: Good, and easy to grow. May become a self-inflicted weed (or free bonus veg) if you let it run to seed. Probably best planted out in the very early spring, and again in the fall. It tastes best when touched by some frost. (If it hasn't been, it can be improved by keeping it in the fridge for a couple of days.) If I had to pick between kale and chard, I'd pick chard, but kale does stand longer in late fall. It's a good idea to start some in late summer to fill in empty spaces and keep some greens going as long as possible.

Spinach: Try it. It may or may not like your soil and climate. We've done best with it covered and overwintered for an early spring start, or planting for fall harvest. It doesn't like heat and will bolt as mid-summer approaches no matter what size it is. Heat will trigger bolting too. In short; a desirable, high-value, space-efficient vegetable, but not particularly easy. On the other hand once you have had home-grown spinach you will never be able to eat imported spinach again. (That's a good thing.)

Lettuce: I always thought lettuce was easy and foolproof until we moved here. It does not like our sandy, acidic soil and hot, dry summers. Still, it is indispensible enough that we persevere. Numerous varieties are available and we can see already that some will work well for us and some we will have to give up on. So, experiment - the best lettuces will vary from garden to garden. Best in late spring and fall because like spinach it prefers it cool, even though high summer is when you want it. I'm going to try growing it in a wheelbarrow, if I can get my hands on a ratty old one. That way I can give it better soil and wheel it in and out of the sun according to how hot it is. Unlike most veggies, lettuce will take some shade.

Novelty Greens: including Malabar spinach, calalloo, orach, good king henry, upland cress, mache, miner's lettuce, etc. are definite maybes. My experience is that they are novelty items for a reason. They are generally considered either for their heat tolerance or cold tolerance, as season extenders to more desirable greens. On the other hand they don't take up a lot of space and can be fun to experiment with.

Watercress needs fresh, running water and is perennial. It doesn't fit into the garden rotation. Sorrel is also perennial, but easy to grow. Put it in the herb or flower bed.

Broccoli is probably the easiest of the brassicas to grow, and the most rewarding. With many varieties once the main, large head is cut, small side shoots will continue to form, right up to hard frost. It freezes well. You might want to plant a fast growing pick-once variety for the late spring/early summer, then take it out and replace with a cut and come again variety to take you from late summer into late fall.

Brussels sprouts on the other hand are a challenge, at least for me. I'm still trying to grow them successfully. Fertility and watering are key, along with a certain amount of room. I'd leave them if space was tight.

Cabbages are easier, but do need a fair bit of space, and are generally fairly slow. They are inexpensive to buy. I'd rate them as a definite "maybe".

Cauliflower have a reputation for being difficult, but I find them easier than Brussels sprouts are not nearly as bug-ridden as the other brassicas. They freeze well. I'd skip them in a very small garden, but try them in even a moderately larger garden.

Chinese greens: tatsoi, bok choy, choy sum, etc. As a catch-all term, this covers a lot of territory. Some of them are very easy and trouble free (tatsoi) and others (bok choy, I'm looking at YOU) will bolt at the slightest provocation. They generally like it cool, and will soak up a lot of water, but are mostly very fast growing, so best as spring and fall veggies. They are so fast growing that a few can be popped in wherever space opens up. They are well worth playing around with. Row covers will be a must - bugs love 'em.

All the brassicas (broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, caulflower, Chinese greens, etc) are serious bug-magnets and will need either a lot of tolerance for squirmy green things and holes, or row covers, or both.

Arugula: another cool weather green (they mainly are) but quick growing and trouble free. If you let it go to seed, it will become a self-inflicted weed or a bonus extra crop, depending on how you feel about it. If you like it, it's good value for the space.

Celery: I put celeriac in here too, even though the root is what is eaten, because they both need lots of water and rich soil. Celery is a bugger to grow. It has a long, slow season, sucks up mega water, and most varieties should be blanched. Picky, picky, picky. I love it enough to persevere, but you may not want to. Celeriac, on the other hand IS worth growing. It too needs lots of water and takes forever, but it is far more tolerant than celery, and the roots store very well. They are often ridiculously expensive to buy. I'll be planting more celeriac and less celery this year. I'm also going to try perennial herb celery, which is also much more tolerant, just used for flavour rather providing any bulk to a dish. So: celeriac recommended, celery not, but if you do try it Utah 52-70 is popular for a reason.

Chicory, dandelion, endive & radicchio: to a large degree, these grow like lettuces and the same conditions apply. Some of them can be trickier though, and they are even more prone to going inedibly bitter. It really depends how much you love them.

Kohlrabi: fun, cute and space efficient, and the bulbs will even store for a while. Worth growing if you know what to do with it and like it.

Corn: kind of the odd plant out here. Also probably not worth growing in a small garden. You'll get poor fertilization unless you plant a fair number of plants, in a block to maximize their exposure. It's one or two cobs per plant, generally, and although homegrown corn is a whole 'nother thing compared to bought, it is just a space (water, fertilizer, sun exposure) hog. If your garden is not tiny and you want to try a little corn, popcorn is a bit more tolerant. There are also smaller varieties of corn out there, if you look, which may help you shoe-horn some in if you really, really want it.

Basil is one of the few annual herbs I would let into the regular vegetable beds. (Most of them are a little too seedy to be trusted - give them their own herb bed and let them romp.) Needs heat and good light, but easy to grow and well worth the space, especially if you want to make and freeze pesto, and of course you do.


Tomatoes: I don't have to tell you to grow tomatoes, you will anyway. Probably the first thing almost everybody wants to plant. Need full sun and decent soil, but otherwise they are pretty tolerant and there are a number of varieties that do well in containers. If you want to grow tomatoes for canning in a small space I really recommend Bellestar. Other than that, tastes and requirements in tomatoes are very personal, so do your research before picking what appeals. Tatiana's TOMATObase is a great place to start looking.

By the way, when I did my review of seed suppliers, I had not yet received my seeds from Tatiana. I'll say here that seed quantities were very generous for the price, and the years the tomato seeds were produced were clearly noted on the packages. Some of those years were not that recent, so even though tomato seeds will easily keep for 10 or more years, expect to need to grow seeds ordered from Tatiana within the next 5 years. (Yeah, probably not a big issue for most people.)

Peppers: These depend very much on your taste. There is a wide enough variety of hot and sweet peppers though, that most people will want to grow at least a few plants. Like tomatoes, the wide variety makes them a fun experiment. However, Ontario is not ideal pepper growing territory, and so there are a few varieties that are widely grown because they are tried and true. Sweet Banana and Cubanelle are the most popular and reliable sweets, and Long Red Cayenne and various strains of Jalapeno are the best hots. Many of the hot chiles need a longer, hotter summer than we can usually supply but if you are keen, go ahead and give them a try. You never know. Just have a couple of the Cayennes as a back-up. Also, a number of the hot chiles can be grown in pots. They are perennials, so if you have a sunny window for them they can be overwintered inside for early production the next year.

Eggplant: You will need to be very keen on eggplant for this to be worth growing in a small garden. Production is not high for the amount of space required. If you grow potatoes, though, it is worth having at least one plant as a trap for potato bugs.

Cucumbers: worth growing even in small gardens as there are a number of varieties that can be trellised upwards, making the volume of fruit provided fairly high for the space required.

Melons: can be trellised as well, at least some of them, but in very small gardens they may not be worth the space. However, there are some fairly compact ones, and a good home-grown melon is an amazing thing. I don't have much experience growing melons yet, but was pleased with Collective Farm Woman last summer.

Watermelon are mostly too large and sprawling for small gardens, but I've grown Sugar Baby for a couple of summers now, and although it didn't produce much it didn't take up much space either.

Summer Squash: zucchini is notoriously productive for the space required - a good thing in a small garden.

Winter Squash: are probably worth skipping given that most of them take up huge amounts of space. A little research will find you some more compact varieties if you really want them though.


Carrots: are a definite maybe. They are suprisingly hard to grow, for something sold so cheaply in the market. Germination is slow and iffy and takes huge amounts of water. Growing them on requires a fair bit too. On the other hand, fresh from the garden carrots are stupendous.

Potatoes are much more worth trying, in my opinion, which may surprise people who think of them as a very cheap market staple. But again, fresh from the garden potatoes are amazing, you can grow so many more varieties than you are likely to find sold anywhere, and they are really very easy, tolerant plants to grow. Potato beetles are the one thing likely to cause the small (or, okay, large) gardener lots of grief, but they can be controlled with hand picking. A lot of people try growing them in containers but this is easier said than done. Give them the ground space if you can. For container growing, you need sharp drainage, the right variety and frequent attention to the soil level. We've been doing research on growing potatoes in containers and are planning to try some this summer. I'll let you know how it goes.

Radishes are ridiculously easy, fast and space-thrifty. Definitely worth growing. If you don't like regular radishes, try some of the large, mild oriental varieties. They take a little longer but get big and store well, and as noted, are generally quite mild.

Onions: most people start them from sets (mini onions), which is easy but will give you a very limited number of varieties to grow. If space is tight you might as well buy them; they are awfully cheap. On the other hand, onions are generally pretty compact and don't take a lot of room, and growing your own can mean varieties you rarely see for sale. These more interesting varieties will need to be started from seed, and right now is not too early to start them. (You've probably got up to another month to start them.)

Shallots, Multiplier and Walking onions: These are much more expensive to buy (shallots) or next to impossible to find (multiplier and walking onions) and are definitely worth the space if you are interested in them. Multiplier onions are basically forms of shallots - plant a bulb, and over the summer it will grow and split into a nest of bulbs. Walking onions form little bulbs on top, instead of flowers, which eventually become heavy enough to fall over and root. Cool!

Garlic: again, very space-thrifty. Good garlic is rather expensive, so growing your own is definitely the way to go if you can. It can be tucked in here and there, so should fit into even the smallest garden.

Welsh onions, Chives, Garlic Chives; are all perennial onions well worth growing in the small garden. Their space requirements are modest and they will even fit into flower beds quite nicely. Note, however, that chives and garlic chives are heavy self-seeders, and should be deadheaded unless you want to collect seed. If you let them form seed heads, do remove them before the seeds drop. Seriously. We did not keep on top of them in one of our allotments, and they were probably our worst weed. Everywhere, and not that easy to pull. (The welsh onions have never seeded much for us.)

Leeks: another rather expensive member of the onion family, well worth growing. They are slow, and require some attention not to mention lots of water, but for us they well repay the trouble. Can be stored for quite a long time in the fridge, or left in the ground for spring harvest, depending on the variety. Another one to start seeding now!

Beets & Turnips: easy to grow and don't take up too much space. Several crops can be planted in a year. Worth finding a little space for, as long as you like them.

Rutabaga: they are not hard to grow and a four foot by five foot space gives us more than we can eat in a winter. On the other hand, they are inexpensive to buy and readily available so if space is really tight, you might want to give them a miss.

Sweet Potatoes: I've never grown them! I'm hoping to grow some this year though, and I noticed when I posted my list of seed suppliers that a lot of other people were interested in them too. I think they are a lot easier to grow in a container than regular potatoes. If you don't want to order slips to start growing your own, you can also force a purchased sweet potato to form slips. Get one grown in Ontario to make sure you have a variety that will mature in our relatively short summers though!

OKAY, so that's my opinion. What are YOU growing, and how much space do you have? What would you recommend, and what do you think is not worth the space, time and trouble?


Jaime said...

What a fantastic summary! I coordinate a community garden on a small university campus and put together a similar list last year (and I notice we had many of the same observations); I will definitely be incorporating your notes into my research if you don't mind!

Ferdzy said...

Thanks Jaime, don't mind at all!

Tillsonburgarian said...

What an incredible post! I wish you have expanded on your experience on growing cucumbers on trellis. I’ll be experimenting with container trellised cucumbers this year. Thanks, that was a lot of work!

Ferdzy said...

Well I haven't got a lot of experience trellising cukes. It's more theoretical. However, we did grow some of ours up through large tomato cages last year and that worked quite well with a fairly compact variety. I wouldn't want to do that with some of the really long vines.

We're still experimenting with trellising and supports in general, to try to find the best ones.

nefaeria said...

Excellent suggestions! We grow our tatters in containers and have found that large garbage cans {with plenty of holes and sitting on level 2 x 4's} seem to have worked best for us. We haven't tried too many varieties, but our Pentas seem to thrive grown this way. I look forward to hearing how yours do and to more of your wonderful recipes! :)

fall soft on a thought said...

nice blog! i like reading your crop summary. very inspirational for me since we're finalizing ours right now.
good luck with your garden!
also i'm definitely trying your roasted potato recipe - thanks again!

Kevin Kossowan said...

Great post - there can't be enough of this kind of guidance out there for folks starting up.

greg said...

thanks, this is great! Just got inspired to start gardening, so I'll be trying for the first time this summer!


This is good stuff...if only you could grow all this indoors as well (if space permits)

Jessica Mallett said...

This post was exactly what I was looking for! Excellent!

majda said...

Radishes are my nemesis for some reason. Out of a full packet of a hundred or more seeds, I might harvest 25 to 30 rounded radishes. The rest go to long woody roots and bolt. What should I be doing to ensure better yields?

Ferdzy said...

Majda, radishes really like it cool and moist. They are actually not that easy to grow here in Ontario as the weather in the spring can fluctuate so much. Some years they will be lovely - those will be the years everyone is complaining about the weather being too cool; other years they will toughen and bolt - that will happen when there is too much hot, sunny weather. Also, they just don't stand in the garden for long. Once they are ready they must be pulled, whether you are ready for them or not. Many of them are mature in a month to 5 or 6 weeks, so that may be sooner than you expect! While they are moderately tolerant of poor soil, they are likely to be less happy in sandy, acidic soil than in something better.

Chad Goldsmith said...

Great information! I was just wondering where you find your seed sweet potatoes? I have been looking for a couple of years and can't find them any where.

Ferdzy said...

Hi Chad, there are not too many places! Try Mapple Farms in New Brunswick, which is where I got mine. Also, Burt's Greenhouses in Ontario has some, and Round Plains Plantation in Ontario sells them in large quantities although it looks like you can get smaller shipments too. Consider also growing your own!

Laura Metcalf said...

Wonderful! I'm planning my first garden, and one of epic proportions in an effort to make my tiny family self-sufficient. I have a feeling I'm probably biting off way more than I can chew as a first-timer but posts like this are definitely invaluable and are probably going to save my butt. Thank you!!

Ferdzy said...

Good luck Laura! Your first year will probably be a lot of work for not much return, but it will get easier every year, and home-grown produce is SO delicious.

Rebecca Glynn said...

What would you produce would you suggest for a beginner garden?

Ferdzy said...

Rebecca, do you mean specific varieties, or what vegetables generally? Whatever it is, I can say that it should be vegetables that you LIKE and eat now. If you don't like cucumbers, don't grow them! They will just be compost. If there is something I'm saying is hard to grow or takes up a lot of room but it's your favourite vegetable - give it a try anyway. The goal is that this stuff gets eaten...

Lavitta D'Souza said...

This is such a great post!

Can you share some ideas on how to grow kohlrabi? You say it grows well in our weather. Where do you get the seeds? Do you start them indoors? any other tips?
Thanks very much.

Ferdzy said...

Thanks, Lavitta. William Dam Seeds is probably a good place to get kohlrabi but many seed companies have them. They could be started indoors, about 6 weeks before planting out, but I prefer to plant them directly outdoors around the end of May. Any moist, well draining soil enriched with a little compost should be okay; we have some trouble with a lack of minerals but in most places they should be pretty straightforward. We grow them on about a one foot grid.

Lavitta D'Souza said...

Thank you! Hopefully I can grow the kohlrabi this summer. My family loves them in a beef stew.

Mom in Progress said...

Great post - just what I was looking for! We finally have the right space for a vegetable garden but we'd like to start small. Do you have any suggestions on what size to start with?

Ferdzy said...

Mom In Progress, that's a great question... that's hard to answer, because there are so many factors. Maybe I will write a post about that in the next couple of days.

Lavitta D'Souza said...

I did grow the kohlrabi this summer and was pretty pleased. Going to harvest a few today. Thanks for the idea. Never would have thought to grow it if not for this post.

johnny boy said...

Great information and hopefully it will help us to finally get our growing plans and plants started.
It sometimes feels overwhelming, when to plant, what to plant, what soil, blah blah but I guess
We will plant everything and find out soon enough, ha!.
One question, we have enough land, can we just turn over one big patch and plant everything
All together?

Ferdzy said...

Thanks for commenting, Johnny.

Yes, you can plant things pretty much as you like! The main thing is not to grow the same things in the same spot for too many years. But don't worry about it too much in your first year! The main thing is to get started. You will learn and refine your techniques every year... I've been gardening for about 15 years and I'm still learning new things all the time.

Annu said...

Thanks Ferdzy. .. planning to start an ambitious garden with the kids this year. Am wondering where do I get quality seeds and starters from? Pole beans,cucumbers,potatoes and hopefully if you know of any place that has seeds of bitter gourd and opo squash? Your article was well written and easy to follow for a novice... :-)

Annu said...

Also hoping I am not too late to start from seed indoors. I rather start from seed than nursery seedlings

Ferdzy said...

Hi Annu - Thanks for commenting.

First, Agro Hai Tai has both bitter gourd and opo squash (aka Bottle Gourd).

See also this post I did about seed companies in Canada:

You still have plenty of time! I will be starting onions and celery in about 2 weeks, and they are the earliest seeds I start indoor.

Good luck, and happy gardening.

Annu said...

Thanks Ferdzy...

Tracy Hussey said...

We have done them on chicken wire against our fence for a few well.

Hilary Milward said...

Super duper helpful, thank you!!