Gardening for Beginners: What Shall I Plant?

Thursday, April 2, 2020

One of the most frequent questions I field is people asking me what they should plant in their garden. And honestly? I can't really tell you what to plant without knowing a few things...

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1. What does your family like to eat

Are you HUGE salad consumers? Plant a ton of lettuce, spinach, and kale!

Would you eat tomatoes all day if you could? It's almost impossible to plant too many tomatoes!

Do your children eat bell peppers like they're apples? Might as well try growing your own!

Take a good look at what vegetables you're purchasing for your family to eat on a weekly basis, and what you would like to purchase more if it were in season (I'm looking at you, January store tomatoes. YOU DO NOT TASTE GOOD.).

For our family this means we plant a lot of tomatoes, both for eating fresh, freezing, and making salsas and sauces. We plant a lot of lettuce to have salads all spring, then again at the end of summer to have them in the fall and winter. Peppers grow really well in our zone, and we love to eat them, so we plant a ton of those as well. We plant a lot of other things, but anything more than that is just "nice to have" but not an absolute necessity for us.

I'm not going to plant a ton of winter squash when it's something we don't like to eat! It takes a lot of work to keep your plants alive long enough to harvest from them - if you're starting small, focus on the things your family loves to eat!

2. What can you grow where you live?

Have you checked your plant hardiness zone yet? It's going to have a lot of bearing on what you can plant! If you live in Florida or South Texas, your planting schedule is going to be TOTALLY different from mine, and you can plant a lot of things I can't in Virginia (and vice versa). Learn your zone. Memorize your zone, because you want to make sure to buy plants and seeds that are suitable for your zone!

If you live somewhere north with a short growing season but you LOVE tomatoes, you're going to have to look for specific short-season varieties that mature faster, lest frost come and burn all your tomatoes while they're still green.

If you live somewhere south where the weather will fry all your plants come summer, focus on early spring crops and consider a fall garden when the heat dies down.

3. How much space do you have?

If you don't have a ton of space to work with, you're not going to want to dedicate most of it to a single watermelon plant just for fun. Look for more compact plants that will give you more "bang for your buck" - pole beans, tomatoes, bell peppers, herbs, trellised cucumbers... All of these can be grown with relatively little space dedicated to them. Plan your space wisely and you'll be able to maximize your yield! Quite a few friends have recommended this book if you're gardening in a small space. 


Take a look around you when you go for walks or drives. Are there flowers you see growing in other people's yards that you love? Wildflowers along the side of the road? Make a list of your favorites, and make a note to buy bulbs or seeds in the fall so that you can add those to your garden and make pollinators (and yourself!) happy next spring. You can also often buy them at a discount after Easter, when garden centers put them on sale because nobody bought them to use as centerpieces. The perennials like daffodils, tulips, and hyacinths will come back year after year!

Make a list of herbs you cook with and produce your family loves to eat. Call your local nursery (or find them on Facebook, so many of them are on there!) and find out what vegetable seedlings they have in stock right now. That right there will give you a lot of information on what's suitable to grow in your garden - nurseries will stock the most popular plants that are suitable for the zone in which they're located, plus these seedlings have been growing for weeks, giving you a head start versus starting seeds yourself (but we'll talk about that next time). Feel free to make a "wish list" that's pretty long, and then pick and choose what you can actually dedicate time and space to - maybe each child gets to choose one thing to grow? That's a fun way to give kids ownership in the process. And don't forget flowers - you want pollinators in your garden, and flowers are their favorite!

Coming up: 
Direct-sow versus buying seedlings versus starting your own seeds
Basic pest management (large and small!)
And more!


  1. Great advice. In 2012 we put in a 4ft square foot garden using that book and our gardening has exploded from there. I think it can be really great to just start with 4 square feet that you can manage and then build up. My advice for growing vegetables is also to grow what tastes best fresh (herbs, lettuce, tomatoes, cukes) / are more expensive (tomatoes, snap peas) and buy things that take up space (corn) or hold well / are cheap (cabbages). I have a small yard, so I grow a lot at home, but I also buy a lot locally. We've also grown at a community garden in the past.

    1. Perfect advice! We just put in our cabbages but would definitely skip them if we didn't have so much space, they take up a ton of room and really are inexpensive to buy! And when I see people wanting to grow melons in small space... It's not worth it! Save your time and just get them from the farmer's market or the store!

  2. Also, shop at a nursery that is locally owned rather than just getting whatever your big box store has. The local store will be more likely to have plants that do really well in your area. It's also more likely to have odd plants that you wouldn't have thought of but that would be great in your garden.

    1. And our local nurseries have MUCH better prices than the big box stores!

  3. Great advice, we wasted so much time and garden space on stuff we don't love to eat, like zucchini!! Why?!

    I also like growing my herbs in big pots rather than the bed if i.can, bc then I can move the less heat-tolerant stuff into the shade during the hottest days.

    1. I never have my act together enough to move things and keep them from frying... Which is probably why everything in my front planters fries every year!!


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