Selecting Plant Varieties

With all the miniature garden varieties available, it seems that it would be a no-brainer to choose these compact plants when selecting for a small garden, right? Not necessarily. And there are other issues to selecting plants for a small garden, as well.

First of all, along with smaller plant size, you get lower production. Often the production is lowered by a greater percentage than the plant size - so a plant may be half the size, and produce only a third of the amount. If you just want a taste of something, then a compact size is the best choice. If you need a lot of something, then four large plants may be a better choice than eight small ones.

You'll also need to consider which plants are natively more efficient. Tomato plants have a fairly small footprint on the ground, yet they produce a fairly high amount of vegetable for the space they require. Corn, on the other hand, takes a lot of space, and produces very little within that space. Squash takes a lot of space, but produces repeatedly over the season, so it will end up being an efficient use of space. Lettuce takes a lot of space, and while it does not produce a lot in that space, is worth growing because you can often get several plantings within the space - this is the same with spinach.

When working in small spaces, you'll need to consider the properties of the locations you have available. You may have poor soil, some areas may be shady, or there may be other factors to contend with. Some plants do very well in shade, others do not. You can partially compensate for this kind of challenges, but a garden will be most cost effective if you can work with the natural properties and grow things that would ordinarily do very well there without having to compensate.

  • So start with a list of what you will use. There is no point planting anything that you do not KNOW you will use.
  • Second, find out what grows WELL in your area. Find out which things have the worst pest problems (this is also a regional thing), and don't plant them unless you have a potential solution for the problem before you dive in. Don't try more than one or two hard things each year, because you'll waste space and frustrate yourself if you do.
  • Scout your available space next - garden space, greenhouse space, window box space, balcony pots, or hydroponic space. Garden spaces need not be all together. We typically have three or four places around our yard where we plant food crops.
  • Determine what plants will grow best in the locations you have, and determine how many you can fit into each available space. Most plants CAN be planted closer together than the seed packets suggest, but if you do, it is important to keep the garden weed-free, and to fertilize and water well. Block planting allows closer planting as well.
  • Pull out the seed catalogs (Gurney, Burpee, Stokes are a few good ones), and start browsing varieties. You can also look online, but it is generally easier to use a catalog where you can highlight, make notes, dogear pages, etc. Select varieties that will do better in your climate and circumstances - for example, Medania spinach works well for areas with dramatic changes from cold to hot in the early summer, Alaska Cantaloupe is a short season variety, and short broad carrots do better in heavy soil.

By the time you complete this process, you should have narrowed your list of "likes", down to a list of practical choices. In working WITH your resources, you'll minimize the effort you put into your garden, and maximize the potential returns. Study those catalogs - you'll gain quite a bit of useful information from them, especially the Stokes catalog.

Gardens are a lesson in patience. You may fail several years in a row - or have only one or two things that do well. You may have a bumper crop one year, and very little the next. Insects may discover your garden after the first year or two. Patience, and creativity are essential.

But you can pretty much garden anywhere. If you select wise varieties of plants to begin with, and start with things you are fairly certain you can succeed at, your chances of enjoying both the growing, and the harvesting, will be greater.


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