Gardening 101 · Winter Prep

What should I plant in my garden?

Moving along with my series on “things to do during the winter months before we can actually get in the garden,” everyone’s favorite part of garden prep:


We’re talking plant selection today! Get out your seed catalogues, my friends. Or, if you currently have none, what are you waiting for?

Or you can just order seeds online. While it’s certainly more environmentally friendly, I can’t help myself with the rustic FedCo catalogues!

While it’s always tempting to just browse through the catalogs or websites and order a packet of whatever’s brightest- or most delicious-looking, your wallet will thank you if you think a little farther in advance. Here’s what you should consider before clicking ‘checkout.’

What do you have time to grow?

Every plant has its own internal calendar and is fully mature at different times. To find out if you have enough time to grow the plant in question, find out how many days it takes to mature. Then, check out when your zone’s first and last frost dates are, and when the seed needs to be in the ground by. This is important because frost can damage plants and fruit/vegetables. The Old Farmer’s Almanac has an excellent web tool for finding your town’s frost dates. You can also check out the official USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map as a reference.

Confused? Here’s an example:

Say you want to plant bush-style green beans. You know your area’s last spring frost date is May 11th and the first fall frost date is October 1st, giving you a 142 day growing season. The packet of bean seeds you got said they need to be planted “after all danger of frost has past,” so that means May 11th (or a little later, if you’re watching the weather that week. Frost dates are an average after all, and have some possibility of slight error!) The packet also says they’ll take 60 days til full maturity. This is perfect! You can start planting after the frost date, and have delicious beans a little after the 4th of July.

Another fine alternative to shopping the catalogues or online seed warehouse is going to your local, old-timey hardware and scooping a few ounces of bean seeds from a giant whiskey barrel. I always leave feeling like Laura Ingalls Wilder.

Some plants require more time than your area can give, however. For example, living in Maine like I do means I can’t just plant tropical plant seeds in the ground after the frost date and expect to get any kind of quality harvest. They need too much warm weather time to germinate, mature, and produce fruit. If I REALLY wanted to, however, I might be able to plant them indoors under grow lights and transplant the little seedlings, or plant them in a greenhouse and let them grow happily in there year round.

What do you have time to care for?

Some plants are just attention hogs. This might be because they’re prone to labor-intensive pest control, they don’t compete well with weeds and need you to fight all their battles for them, or they might need constant watering adjustments. If you aren’t ready to treat your growing shoots like newborn babies, you can either plant them anyways and just settle for a mediocre harvest (or none at all) OR you can stick to easy plants.

In my experience, the plants that will grow right along without caring two whits what you do are:

  • Oregano (honestly, this one grows so well for me I’ve decided to never plant it outside of a container again. It just spreads so much!)
  • Carrots
  • Snow peas
  • Pole beans
  • Kale
  • Onions
  • Garlic
  • Potatoes
  • Cherry tomatoes
Such good growers.

What will you actually eat?

There’s no point in buying the gorgeous striped-zucchini variety if you can’t stand eating zucchini (ESPECIALLY zucchini, because one plant will give you approximately one billion pounds of the vegetable). I make sure whatever I’m putting in the ground will also go over well on the dinner table. The only exception to this rule is if it’s something everyone else seems to like plenty, like tomatoes, which the local food pantry will be happy to take. (Come back next week when I talk more about Plant a row for the hungry/Harvest for Hungry gardens.)

2016, year of “HOLY CRAP WHAT AM I GOING TO DO WITH ALL THESE PEPPERS AND TOMATOES.” (Answer: make a lot of sauce.)

This extends to types of plants, as well. With tomatoes, for example, neither my husband nor I really like to eat raw tomatoes, but we use pizza and pasta sauce fairly often. For that reason, I tend to grow paste-variety tomatoes instead of the big, chunky beefsteak ones you find showcased in the grocery store, because I’ll turn paste tomatoes into sauce and can it for later. Consider all the possible uses you’ll have for the plant when selecting your seeds!

What is your planting site suited for?

I already covered this one pretty thoroughly here, but do make sure your potential plot has all the light, water, and soil specifications you need!

Is this plant going to benefit your local ecosystem?

Finally, I added this one at the end to remind us all that whatever we plant in our backyards and gardens isn’t just there for us. It’s for the friends we feed around our table, the neighbors who get to see a little splash of beauty as they walk or drive by our garden, and it can also be for the birds and bees who live in the spaces around us.

The most obvious way to protect your local ecosystem is to not plant anything that would poison any friendly bugs, animals, or human friends who happen to wander through. (Ask me about that one time I had to call poison control because I planted something poisonous in my garden because it was from Harry Potter and my arm went numb. Fun day.)

Aside from that, think about growing plants that are historically from your area. These “native” plants will typically have better-than-average ability to repel common local pests, withstand local temperature ranges, and typical water availability. This all means less work for you! Not only that, but native plants will provide a food source and habitat for native animals (especially if we’re talking larger plants like trees and bushes) and also for smaller creatures, like pollinators. Let’s keep those busy bees, butterflies, and other beneficial creepy-crawlies happy!

The gigantic silver maple in my backyard, home to birds, bugs, and several families of squirrels (including the one my brother-in-law aptly named Mr. Fatty).

So there we have it! What plants are you dying to try this year? Let me know in comments!

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