Everything sounds so tempting -- how do you decide what to grow? Your first consideration should always be to plant what you like to eat. Still, you'll need to compromise because some crops simply won't grow in all areas. Peanuts take a much longer season than a USDA Zone 5 can really provide. Many eggplants need a long period of heat and sun to successfully set fruit. Weigh in the following considerations before making your final list of what to grow in your vegetable garden.
What Has the Most Bang for the Buck? (Especially when space or time is an issue.)If space is an issue, make a list of your favorite vegetables, then look through some seed catalogs and see what the average spacing is for these vegetables as well as whether you get one harvest or many. Corn is a space hog. You need several rows of corn to have enough to cross-pollinate each other and produce the actual ears of corn. Corn takes months to mature, and you get basically one good picking from the crop, unless you've staggered your planting. At the other end, pole beans take up very little space and keep producing for weeks.
What's Grown Locally?If you have access to farm fresh produce locally, you might want to save the space in your garden for the vegetables you truly love and that aren't always available. Sweet corn is a big crop in my area and, in season, it's plentiful, inexpensive and unbeatably delicious. So I generally use my space for crops like skinny French haricots vert, flat, meaty Italian beans and super hot peppers, which I can't find locally.
Timing. When Will You Be Around to Enjoy Your Harvest?Will you be around to harvest when the crop is ripe? If you're only around on weekends, vegetable gardening will be a challenge, but not impossible. An overly ripe tomato is still delicious, but beans and zucchini can grow to enormous size in the blink of an eye. If you plan on taking a long vacation or even several short vacations, you should arrange with a friend to come over and harvest the ripe vegetables. They'll get fresh vegetables, and your plants will keep producing longer.
Fresh or Preserved? Are You Vegetable Gardening for the Summer or All Year?If your main reason for vegetable gardening is to have fresh picked vegetables all summer, you'll want to favor vegetables that begin ripening early and keep producing. There are many to choose from, including tomatoes, peppers, radishes, lettuce, beans and broccoli. On the other hand, if your intention is to grow as much food for your family as you can, you're going to want to consider vegetables that keep for months and vegetable varieties that tend to mature in large batches. Hard shell winter squashes will keep for months, while zucchini needs to be eaten before it's large enough to need its own garden. Indeterminate beefsteak tomatoes form and ripen in spurts, while determinate paste tomatoes set and ripen all their fruits in a brief period of time, perfect for preserving a large batch.
The Final Decision
Take all these points into consideration, draw up your list of vegetables and then cut it in half. You are not going to need as much as you think. For example, it's not unheard of to get 40+ tomatoes from one large plant.
Now you're ready to add up how much space all these plants will take and size-up your garden. If this is your first vegetable garden, start with a size you can handle, even if it means a few less plants or varieties of vegetables. You can always try something different next year.