REESER MANLEY

A new gardener’s guide to choosing vegetable varieties

Posted Jan. 20, 2012, at 5:08 p.m.

High-value vegetable crops

Which crops provide the highest dollar value per square foot of garden space? The top 15 high-value vegetables are listed below. Value is based on harvested pounds per square foot, the retail value per pound at harvest time and length of time in the garden.

  • Tomatoes
  • Green bunching onions
  • Leaf lettuce
  • Turnips
  • Summer squash
  • Edible-pod peas
  • Storage onions
  • Beans
  • Beets
  • Carrots
  • Cucumbers
  • Peppers
  • Broccoli
  • Head lettuce
  • Swiss chard

What is the best summer squash variety for a Maine garden? While there are lists of recommended varieties of every vegetable that can be grown in Maine, if I really want to know which variety will grow trouble-free in my garden or which variety has real flavor, I rely on the experience of local gardeners.

There is, however, a decision-making process that I recommend to new gardeners. It begins with deciding which crops to grow, followed by careful winnowing of the many varieties of each crop.

Crop selection

Begin the process with a family meeting, everyone sitting around a collection of seed catalogs, and make a list of vegetables that everyone truly likes to eat.

Next, carefully study the growing needs of each crop on your list and decide which of those crops will actually grow in your garden. Discuss your list with veteran gardeners. You may love bell peppers, especially the sweet flavor of a fully ripe, deep red bell, but if you garden in Maine, experienced gardeners will tell you that your plants may not see enough hot weather for fruits to fully ripen; you’ll have to settle for green bells or decide not to grow bell peppers at all.

Does your garden get enough full sun to grow heat-loving crops such as peppers, tomatoes and squash? Or perhaps your garden has some full-sun sections but also areas that get only a few hours of direct sun every day. Crops that will still produce with 3-6 hours of sun per day include lettuce, spinach, broccoli, cauliflower, beets, Brussels sprouts, radishes and Swiss chard.

Now, think about how much time you have to devote to the garden. Some crops require more maintenance than others. For example, carrots require little more than sowing, thinning, watering and weeding, while potatoes require planting, periodic hilling, watering, weeding and protection from Colorado potato beetles, a chore that in the organic garden involves covering the crop with a floating row cover to exclude the beetle. Other crops, such as tomatoes, require staking, pruning or both. Again, experienced gardeners can help you identify the high-maintenance crops.

In general, as a beginning gardener, grow crops that do not require a lot of tricks for success. Then, as you become more experienced and confident, take on more challenging crops.

Finally, consider the size of your garden. I often sit in front of the wood stove on many snowy January evenings and browse the seed catalogs that come in the mail that time of year, wanting to grow ten times as many vegetable crops as I have the garden space to plant. But I have learned that a little of this and a little of that cannot compete with the need for daily handfuls of pineapple tomatillos or pounds of potatoes to last the winter. If space is limited, avoid growing crops such as corn, melons or winter squash (including pumpkins), the low-value crops with relatively sparse yields per square foot of garden space. Consider buying these vegetables from a local farmer, saving your garden space for the high-value crops on your family’s wish list.

Variety Selection

After the decision of which crops to grow comes the more daunting task of choosing the correct variety of each crop. Of the two-dozen summer squash varieties listed in the seed catalog, which should you grow?

Begin the variety selection process by deciding whether you will be growing only for fresh consumption or will want surplus harvest for storing, freezing or canning. If the latter, you may want to grow two varieties of a crop, one for eating fresh, the other for preserving.

Tomatoes serve as an example. There are paste varieties for making and preserving tomato sauces and scores of varieties for fresh eating. Similarly, when it comes to storing onions, braided together and hung in a corner of the kitchen, we have always considered Copra to be one of the best varieties.

Next, study the different growth habits found in different varieties of each crop. In gardens with limited space, pole beans that make use of vertical space make more sense than bush beans that tie up a lot of ground. And the compact-growing form of Delicata winter squash takes up far less room than the vining form of the same variety, although you get more squash fruits with the vining form.

Your garden’s soil texture may influence variety selection of root crops such as carrots. For compact soils, tapered carrot varieties such as the Chantenays or Danvers types grow best, wedging their way through the soil. In loose sandy loam or silty soils, most types will grow well.

Disease resistance can be a deciding factor in variety selection and many catalogs will identify varieties that have been selected for resistance to certain diseases. For example, beans are susceptible to root rot fungi, mildew fungi and several viruses, all of which can be avoided to some extent by cultural measures such as never handling or harvesting when the foliage is wet and planting with space between plants to allow air to circulate and carry fungal spores away from the foliage. Still, you can opt to grow a disease-resistant variety, one that meets all of the other selection criteria.

So, round up those new seed catalogs, turn off the boob tube and get the entire family involved in making these decisions. Then get those seed orders in the mail.

Send queries to Gardening Questions, P.O. Box 418, Ellsworth 04605, or to rmanley@shead.org. Include name, address and telephone number.

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