This weekend on the Frugal Upstate Facebook page I posted a picture of some of the seed catalogs that had already come in and asked folks if they were planning their gardens yet. I got a great question from Kayte: For someone who is starting their first garden this year….what are a couple plants you’d recommend?
There are a lot of factors that go into a successful garden-more than I could cover in a single post, which is why I had already planned that in 2012 I’d be starting a gardening feature to walking brand new gardeners through all the information and decisions they need to make a great vegetable garden in 2012! Be on the lookout for that-and if you haven’t already make sure you Follow Frugal Upstate on Facebook and sign up for the email feed for this blog–that way you won’t miss a thing!
But back to your question. I have three steps for you to figure out what to plant this year:
1. Make a list of vegetables you enjoy eating.
It is senseless (and frustrating) to grow something that you don’t really want to eat. For example, many folks suggest radishes as a quick and easy crop-which they are. But most folks don’t actually EAT a lot of radishes–so why bother. To really enjoy your first garden it’s best not to get crazy and experiment-plant veggies you know you already enjoy!
(Note: Actually, there are some interesting things you can do with radishes. You can take nice crusty bread, butter it and then layer on some thinly sliced radishes. Mmm. You can also saute them in butter, which completely changes their taste.)
2. Figure out what zone you are in and how long your growing season is.
The USA (and other countries I’m sure!) are divided up into gardening “zones”. These zones (USDA Plant Hardiness Zones) have to do with the wintertime cold temperatures in various regions. Finding your zone is easy-just use Google! For example, in my area I’d Google “USDA Zone NY”. That brings up several sites with maps to consult-from there I can see I am in Zone 5 (actually on the border of Zone 5a & 5b).
Most seed packages will give you a planting date based on this data. Most seed packets will say things like “plant up to 3 weeks before last frost date” or “plant 4 weeks after average last frost date”
Next you need to figure out how long your growing season is. This is done by checking the average first and last frost dates in your area. Again-Google is your friend. I would search for “first frost date Binghamton NY” and “last frost date Binghamton NY”. That gives me May 10-20 for the last frost in the spring and Sept 20-30 for the first frost in the fall. Looking at a calendar and doing a bit of counting that tells me that 123 days between frosts that things can grow.
(Note: From experience I know that I rarely get 123 days of growth out of anything in Upstate NY–there are other factors to consider! Sometimes it rains and the ground is too wet to plant in for several weeks. Other seeds and plants need the soil temperature to be warmer than we have first thing in the spring.)
3. Find what varieties of the plants you enjoy eating do well in your area.
This is where your state’s Cooperative Extension Office will help you out (sorry-if you aren’t in the US then I’d check with local gardening organizations, folks who garden in your area or ask for advice at a reputable nursery-NOT your local box store!) . Google (again-yes, I love Google) your state and the phrase “cooperative extension office” and you’ll get a site (usually associated with your state university system). There should be an office in each county and somewhere either on the website or by calling the office you should be able to get a list of specific plant cultivars that do well in your area.
By picking vegetables that you enjoy eating and then making sure you pick cultivars that do well in the conditions specific to your area you’ve given yourself the best shot at doing well and enjoying your first gardening experience.
All that being said I’d say that most people enjoy garden fresh tomatoes and cucumbers (although each can have it’s difficulties and quirks), it’s also fantastic to be able to pick fresh lettuce and carrots out of your own garden and make a salad, or snip off some chives (which come back every year) parsley, or basil that you’ve grown yourself.
And one more thing-start small. Really truly–if you go huge first thing you are going to be overwhelmed, the garden and weeding will get out of control, you’ll be sad and discouraged and you might give up. It’s best to start smaller, enjoy the experience, learn a bit, get to know your area, and get an idea of how much work it all takes this first year. Then you can build on your success and go even bigger & better next year!