Fruit and Vegetable Gardening Guide

This how-to guide gives you the basics on starting your vegetable garden, whether you have backyard space to spare or a small spot ready for containers.

Choosing What to Plant

Deciding what to plant depends on the season, your site, and of course, your taste buds.

Planning

Photo: Oxmoor House

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Here are a few things to keep in mind when planning your garden:

  • Cost. Growing the highest-value fruit, vegetables, and herbs can be a smart way to save on your grocery bill. Bell peppers and heirloom tomatoes, particularly if you buy organic, can be costly, so consider planting those in your summer garden. Likewise, leaf lettuce and mesclun blends can be harvested repeatedly by picking the outer, mature leaves and leaving the plant in the ground to continue growing. With any luck, you’ll be able to strike salad greens off your grocery list for half the year.
  • Quality. Sometimes you can’t buy the same standard of produce that you can get from the garden. If small, tender okra is nowhere to be found in the grocery store and your growing season is long and hot enough, then grow your own.
  • Convenience. If basil is an herb you love and often purchase, you may want to include it in your garden or grow it in a container so that you always have fresh leaves on hand to add to a sandwich or mix into a salad. Lettuce, cilantro, and dill all have an extended season in the spring and fall garden, but they spoil quickly in the refrigerator.

Use our guide for knowing when to plant to ensure you know when to grow certain fruits, vegetables, and herbs.

Research Your Frost Date

Frost dates for spring and fall are the most important dates on a gardener’s calendar, as they are the benchmarks for planting. Years of weather records have resulted in fairly accurate predictions of when to expect the last killing freeze in spring and the first killing frost in fall in areas around the country. Consult the chart on the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s website to find the spring and fall dates for your area.

In addition to our online plant profiles, you’ll find planting instructions (i.e., “plant in spring two to four weeks before the last expected frost”) on seed packets and plant labels. It’s important to note that a light freeze will not kill cool-season crops. Even lettuce can withstand temperatures in the mid- to high 20s. However, warm-season plants, such as basil and squash, will show damage from the slightest 32 degree frost.

Seeds vs. Transplants

Most vegetables and herbs can be grown from either seeds or transplants, while most fruit (except melons) must be grown from transplants.

When the season is short, vegetable and herb transplants have the advantage because you get a jump start on the growing season with a healthy, sizable plant. If you don’t have space to start your own seedlings indoors, it’s often easier and more successful to buy transplants. For beginning gardeners, it’s best to start with mostly transplants and mix in seeds as you learn.

If the season is appropriate, seeds are always a good idea. They’re simply more economical. A seed packet might produce 50 lettuce plants for the cost of one cell pack of six transplants. Some items, such as carrots or radishes, must be grown from seeds.

Availability will also dictate what you choose because your local garden center might not carry the particular variety you want to grow. You’ll need to plant seeds directly in garden soil or grow your own transplants by sowing seeds indoors in containers prior to planting outside.

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