Choosing the right crops for your garden

Improve your local food system and your personal health by growing your own vegetables in a well-planned garden that will provide fresh produce, exercise and enjoyment all season long.

Plant markers can be a helpful resource to add into your garden.

Plant markers can be a helpful resource to add into your garden.

In the previous Michigan State University Extension article, “Learn how to plant your own garden to improve your health, we discussed choosing the best site for your vegetable garden and preparing the soil. 

Now comes the fun part of choosing which crops to grow. You should choose crops that you and your family enjoy eating or things you would like to try. Beginning gardeners should start with crops that are easy to grow such as tomatoes, zucchini, radishes, leaf lettuces and bush beans. More difficult crops include broccoli, cauliflower, head lettuce and melons. Take care to plant disease resistant varieties, as there usually is no cure for diseased vegetable plants other than the trash. Disease resistant varieties are denoted with a capital letter on the seed packet or in the seed catalogue. For example, a “VW” indicates that the tomato variety is resistant to verticillium wilt. The legend for these codes can be found in the seed catalogue. 

A word about seed catalogues: the best gardeners I know read their seed catalogues to stay current with the latest developments in their favorite crops and the best ways to grow them. Some seed catalogues can actually be entertaining. 

Now that you have chosen your crops it is time to make a planting plan on paper. There are a few good reasons for making a written plan prior to installing seed and transplants into the soil. First, it is a lot easier to correct planting mistakes on paper vs. once seeds or plants are in the ground. Second, it is a good record that will assist in making next year’s planting plan and crop rotations

It is important to orient and space your crops according to their needs. For example, place your tallest crops such as corn and tomatoes at the northern end of your garden with the medium height crops in the middle of the garden bed, and the shortest crops at the southern end. This orientation will prevent shading out of the shorter crops by the taller ones. When planting in rows, a north to south orientation makes the best use of sunlight. 

Be sure to space your crops as indicated on the seed packet or catalogue. You will be surprised at how big your tomato plants will get by July, so make sure to allocate enough space for them. Also, be sure to plan enough space for support structures for vining crops like beans, cucumbers and bushy tomatoes. Lettuces and root crops can be located in an area of the garden that gets light shade to maintain cooler temperatures to prevent the plant from going to seed and spoiling the leaf crop. 

You can plant your crops in traditional rows or in more compact beds. Just be sure to keep the bed width between pathways under four feet (three feet if children are involved) so that you can reach into bed without stepping on any crops. It is also a good idea to mark the borders of your beds to keep foot traffic along the paths and out of the beds or rows. This is important to prevent compaction of your soil and damage to your crops. Make your paths wide enough for a wheelbarrow or a group of children if it is a school garden. Also be sure to plan for some method of marking your crop locations and date planted. Plant markers can be made from a variety of readily available materials from Popsicle sticks to stakes or rocks. Just be sure to include the crop name and the date planted with a waterproof marker that won’t fade. 

You may want to consider using raised beds. Initially they are more expensive to construct, but they do an excellent job of improving drainage, warming up faster in the spring, sparing aging backs and knees while keeping out boisterous dogs and children. 

Finally you can plant your garden! Remember, the more you are out in your garden, the better it will be and the more you will enjoy it. So get growing! 

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