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Grow a Pantry Vegetable Garden This Year

Greens and herbs growing in a custom made standing garden bench

For new gardeners, it can feel overwhelming planting that first home vegetable garden. Aside from learning the best practices for growing vegetables, you have to decide what you’re going to plant, as well as when and where it should all go.

Do you know what can grow in U.S. backyards?

artichokes arugula asparagus beans beets broccoli broccoli raab brussels sprouts butternut squash cabbage cantaloupe carrots cauliflower celeriac celery chard collards corn cucumbers eggplant endive fennel garlic ginger kale kohlrabi leeks lemongrass lettuce melons mushrooms okra onion parsnip peas peppers potatoes pumpkin purslane radicchio radish rhubarb rutabaga scallions shallots spinach squash strawberries summer squash sweet potatoes tomatillo tomatoes turnips watercress watermelon zucchini

And that doesn’t even include herbs or bush/tree fruit!

Decisions, decisions.

And wait until the gardening bug bites you hard, like it did me. Then you’ll want to grow it all — and repurpose every sunlit patch of grass in your yard, no matter how tiny — because it’s just so dang cool, having vegetables spring out of the dirt.

In fact, one of the great joys of gardening is being able to step out into your own yard and pick ingredients for dinner. Whether a quick salad, or a vegetable roast on the grill, or toppings for a burger bar, or just a handful of herbs for homemade dressing or sauce, I never tire of that DIY thrill.

But every few years, I overwhelm even myself with my own gardening zeal. 2013 was one of those years. I overplanted, people. Waaay overplanted. I had enough produce in August and September that I could’ve opened my own booth at the neighborhood farmers’ market (I still have a freezer full of whole tomatoes that I never got around to preserving).

I grew things that I ended up not really having a use for, but felt compelled to care for anyway. Lots of experimentation that was interesting, but time-consuming. The end of the year tear-down never would have been finished if weren’t for the help of my awesome brother. By October, I was garden kaput.

Back to the Gardening Basics

This year, I’m focusing on the basics: I’m planting only the produce I use all the time. Greens and vegetables you might keep stocked in your pantry, you might say, if fresh produce could keep there.

Bowl of chopped, homegrown veggies

And the basics is a great place for every gardener — beginner or veteran — to start. Gardening is work: there’s just no painting the effort a rosy pink. In mid-August, when the temperature holds steady above 90° for the second week in a row, the last thing anyone wants to be doing is watering and weeding, weeding and watering, under the blazing sun. But that’s exactly what you have to do for late summer harvesting crops, like tomatoes, peppers, carrots, and squash, if you want them healthy and bountiful.

If you’re not an ardent fan of zucchini, for example — a monster grower if there ever was one, but a popular garden choice nonetheless — the motivation to care for it dwindles rapidly.

When planning your garden, be brutally honest with yourself: tomatoes are the glamour girls of the garden (especially the awesome heirlooms), but make sure your summer eating and preserving plans will actually include a lot of tomatoes. Tomato plants are not the easiest to grow, so the effort needs to be worthwhile.

If you slice a tomato once a week into a salad, it’s probably better that you plan a weekly trip to the local farmers’ market instead, or find a fellow gardener who will barter with you for the veggies you use infrequently.

I do both — bartering and local shopping. It’s quite satisfying and it relieves the pressure to grow something just to have it on hand. Plus, it gives you an excuse to chat with your fellow growers, and discover interesting produce and varieties that you might not have otherwise come across on your own.

Here’s the initial list of things I’ll be growing in 2014.

(I expect this to change as we approach spring. I have adequate self-control when browsing the seed catalogs, but that first trip to the nursery in the spring, with all of that green promise in every aisle, is a real challenge.)

I’m also including info on when and how I plant each crop, and where it will go. I have three types of growing areas in my yard: containers, a garden bench (pictured below), and, of course, beds out in the yard (plus two plots in a nearby community garden).

Spring greens growing in a standing garden bench
^^ My awesome, custom-made garden bench, where I grow all of my salad greens.

A quick word about container gardening: just about everything can be grown in containers on a sunny porch, if the container is deep enough and has the appropriate soil composition. You can even grow corn in containers, if a small yield suits your usage.

I make decisions about what goes in a pot vs. what goes in the ground based primarily on space and convenience, although some crops, like celery and ginger, grow advantageously in containers because you can more easily control their environment. Celery is not a huge fan of direct, hot sun, so in August, I can position the container in a spot that dips into the shade during the heat-height of the day, while late September’s cooler weather warrants full sun all day long.

For the convenience factor, I grow containers of my cooking staples right on my deck, near the kitchen door. Although I have a dedicated herb garden in the front yard, I also plant parsley, dill, and seasoning peppers in pots, and cilantro and salad greens in my garden bench, as well as several large planters of green onions. I love being able to dash out the door in any weather, and quickly grab what I need without getting wet or muddy.

Here we go!

Greens:

Kale, Lacinato (Dinosaur kale)

  • How: outdoor direct seeding
  • When: early spring
  • Where: garden bed
  • Note: although officially a cool weather crop, kale has been producing for me all growing season long — even through the hottest months — right up to the first sustained hard freeze of 0° temps)

Romaine lettuce

  • How: outdoor direct seeding
  • When: early spring
  • Where: garden bench

Young romaine lettuce plants growing in the spring garden
          ^^ Romaine

Spinach

  • How: outdoor direct seeding
  • When: early spring and again in mid summer (for a fall harvest)
  • Where: garden bench

Herbs:

Basil

  • How: indoor seeding (to get an early start)
  • When: March
  • Where: transplanted outdoors to my herb garden

Chives

  • How: purchase starter plants (they’re usually sold in a clump)
  • When: spring
  • Where: transplanted to garden beds
  • Note: chives have a medium-long growing season, but they’ll return year after year if you leave them be after they’ve died back.

Cilantro

  • How: outdoor direct seeding
  • When: early spring and again in mid summer (for a fall harvest)
  • Where: garden bench

Dill

  • How: outdoor direct seeding
  • When: continuous seedings every two weeks from early spring to late summer
  • Where: herb garden, container

Mint

  • How: purchased plant
  • When: early summer
  • Where: container
  • Note: Mint is a lovely plant, but it’s an extremely aggressive grower, propagating underground through its root system. If you plant mint in your yard, be prepared for it to spread quickly … and persist. Yanking it out of the ground does not necessarily kill it, unless you get all the roots. Mint grows very well in containers – if you really want mint in your garden bed, plant the container in the bed to control the roots.

Oregano

  • How: purchased plant
  • When: early summer
  • Where: garden bed
  • Note: oregano is a perennial in most U.S. zones and will return each year, slightly larger than the year before. My oregano plant is over 10 years old and has grown to a diameter of 4 feet across. I use it mainly to harvest and dry out for my spice rack.

Close up of a cluster of flat-leaf parsley growing in the garden
          ^^ Parsley, beautiful and lush

Parsley, flat-leaf

  • How: outdoor direct seeding
  • When: early spring
  • Where: herb garden and containers

Rosemary

  • How: purchased transplant
  • When: spring
  • Where: transplanted to herb garden
  • Note: in some hardiness zones, rosemary is a perennial and will survive mild winters. In my zone, I must dig it up, transplant to a container and bring it indoors.

Rosemary plant growing in the garden
          ^^ Rosemary

Sage

  • How: purchased plant
  • When: spring
  • Where: transplanted to herb garden
  • Note: in most growing zones, sage is a perennial and will send out tasty leaves summer through winter. I can’t say I actually use much sage, but it has a happy home in one corner of my herb garden.

Thyme

  • How: purchased plant
  • When: spring
  • Where: transplanted to garden
  • Note: thyme is a very hardy perennial and will easily survive U.S. winters. Plant it in a permanent location where it has room to spread about 6″ every year. My thyme plant is over 6 years old at this point, and occupies a space about 3′ x 1.5′.

Vegetables:

Broccoli

  • How: outdoor direct seeding
  • When: early spring
  • Where: garden bed

Carrots

  • How: outdoor direct seeding
  • When: early spring
  • Where: garden bed

A bunch of freshly harvested carrots from the garden
          ^^ Carrots

Cucumbers

  • How: both outdoor direct seeding and purchased plants
  • When: early summer and consecutive seedings every few weeks
  • Where: garden bed

Green onions

  • How: outdoor direct seeding
  • When: Spring, with staggered seeding throughout summer
  • Where: container, garden

Leeks

  • How: indoor early seeding or purchase transplants (they’re usually sold in a clump)
  • When: seeding can begin as early as January; purchase a transplant in the spring
  • Where: garden bed

Onions

  • How: purchase starter plants (they come in huge bundles – I order mine online so that they arrive very early in the spring, when onions are best planted)
  • When: early pring
  • Where: garden bed

Peppers (both hot and sweet)

  • How: indoor seeding and purchased plants
  • When: indoor seeding begins in February; purchase plants in late Spring/early summer
  • Where: transplanted to garden bed

Radishes

  • How: outdoor direct seeding
  • When: early spring
  • Where: garden bed

Sweet potatoes

  • How: purchased plants (they’re packaged in bunches)
  • When: spring
  • Where: garden, with lots of room to spread its long, slender vines

Tomatoes

  • How: indoor seeding, or purchase a transplant
  • When: Seeding begins in early March; purchase a transplant after last freeze date
  • Where: transplant to garden bed

A selection of omegrown tomatoes, newly harvested
          ^^ Tomatoes!

Com’on, Spring!

Karen xo

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Kelsie

Wednesday 23rd of April 2014

Wow this is amazing! I have been wanting to have my own garden for so long now, but I'm in an apartment so space is limited. We do have a shared back yard with our neighbors, so this summer I'm determined to get something growing back there! I love eating fresh organic produce, so what better than veggies from your own garden?!

Rocky Mountain Woman

Wednesday 22nd of January 2014

I have a friend who grows everything in his garden down in the valley. He grows, I cook - it's perfect! I was really missing my own garden though (at 6500 feet with a VERY short growing season, it's hard) until I found earth boxes. I love them. I can grow almost anything in them and they have wheels so when the sun goes down and the temperature with it, I just wheel them in off the deck into my kitchen.

I can't wait to see your garden this year! My gardening soul lives vicariously through you so post lots of pics!!!

kirsten@FarmFreshFeasts

Tuesday 21st of January 2014

Karen, I too am filled with the 'garden under snow blanket' zeal that affects me in January. I do think I saw, last time there was a brief melt, the tip of a garlic sprout coming up from the bed. It's under more snow, though, so I'll confirm with the next thaw. Thanks for a lovely and informative list--I never knew I could grow ginger--though I wish my re-grown celery wouldn't do as well as it does.

Margit

Sunday 19th of January 2014

Fantastic post! Great photos and a big help explaining how to garden. Thank you!