I’m not sure there’s anything better than needing an ingredient for a recipe while you’re cooking, and being able to walk outside and pluck it fresh from the vine or the stalk. It might seem kind of intimidating, but growing fresh vegetables in your garden isn’t really that hard at all. In fact, if you play your cards right, you can have fresh veggies growing year-round. Because of the fairly mild winters and pretty short summers we get here in the Northwest, a lot of the vegetables that would die in other climate's extreme heat or extreme cold can thrive here.
The infographic below gives an overview of what vegetables to plant when, and today on the blog we're excited to have a guest author, Aimée Damman, from Swansons Nursery in Ballard’s Crown Hill neighborhood. Aimée offers tips, tricks, and timing that will help you have a garden overflowing with fresh food. Take it away, Aimée!
Growing vegetables is a learning experience. Every year I tweak and adapt my own garden based on what worked—and what didn’t—the year before. The first step is to decide where to plant. For most vegetables, you want to find the sunniest spot you can. The next step is to decide what to plant! Pick vegetables you love to eat, and plants that will thrive in the amount of sun you have Do you have a west-facing sunny spot? Tomatoes will love it. How about a partly shaded area? Try greens and certain herbs.
When you first plant things, you really need to keep up the watering and not let your plants dry out entirely. The same is true for seeds. If a seed completely dries out, it won't germinate. You want to make sure you're watering deeply on a consistent schedule throughout the growing season, and be especially vigilant during extremely hot weather.
If you're planting seeds for lettuce or root crops (radishes, carrots, beets), try a growing method called “successive sowing.” Sow a small amount, and then a week or two later plant some more, and then again a few weeks after that. That way, they'll all be ready to harvest at different times—so you don’t end up with a giant pile of lettuce that needs to be used right away. No one can eat that much salad! I made that mistake in one of my earlier gardens. One year, I planted four square feet worth of lettuce. I was so excited when it started growing! But then it was all ready to pick at once. I brought three garbage bags full to the food bank because I had so much lettuce. It's kind of like when you're ordering at a restaurant and your eyes are bigger than your stomach. You're sowing and you think, I'm going to fill the whole bed! Then you realize, I can't eat all this.
There are two main types of vegetables: cool-season and warm-season. You can plant cool-season vegetables earlier in the spring (like late February), including Asian greens, lettuce, radishes, kale, and peas. For heat-loving warm-season vegetables, wait until the soil and the weather have warmed up. Tomatoes, squash, and bush beans shouldn't go out before April or May. But you don't want to wait too long either! Most spring and summer vegetables should be planted by the end of June (a fall & winter garden is another story for another time). If you wait too long, they won’t have the time to fully mature before the cooler weather sets in. For example, if you don’t plant your tomatoes by early- to mid-June, the plant won’t have enough time to grow. That means unripe tomatoes by harvest.
You have more leeway on smaller things like lettuce and some of the other greens that you can plant throughout the whole summer if you want, as long as you're keeping them well watered. Keep in mind that as the weather starts to warm up, plants like kale will start bolting (going to flower). As a rule, leafy greens—lettuce, kale, arugula, and even radishes sometimes—go to flower when the weather tells them they’re done producing for the season. Once that happens, they're not as good to eat and can be bitter. When that happens, it's best to just pull them out. On other vegetables (like tomatoes and squash), the flowers are what turn into the fruit, so don't pull them out!
Where to Plant
The biggest factor is how much sun your site is getting. If you have a northern-facing little plot that's getting 4-6 hours of sunlight, you aren't going to be successful with a large tomato or similar plant. It's better to grow the vegetables that will work in your space, such as lettuce, kale, Asian greens, cilantro, and mint (always plant mint in a pot—it can be invasive in the garden).
If you’re tight on yard space, almost everything can go in pots. When you’re choosing a pot, consider the size of the mature plant to determine what size pot it will need. If you only have a small balcony, try lettuce, baby kale, radishes, and round baby carrots that will grow really well in containers that are at least 12 inches deep. Herbs grow really well in smaller containers as well, and they are something you can grow indoors all year round in a bright window or under lights.
If you have a little bit of room for a few larger pots—at least 18 inches deep and 12 inches across (and larger)—then you can plant varieties of zucchini, eggplant, tomatoes, and even blueberries that are meant for containers. The fruits or vegetables won’t be any smaller, but the plant itself stays more compact. There are all kinds of what we call "patio tomatoes" and even tomatoes for hanging baskets that you can put on a porch, patio, or balcony.
Don’t be afraid to experiment and see what works best in your space! Find the right area with as much sun as possible, and remember that these are plants that need you to check in on them pretty regularly. They’re not something you can plant and forget! Give them a little care, and you’ll be rewarded with delicious food right in your own backyard.
Aimée Damman is the Director of Marketing at Swansons Nursery and an avid vegetable gardener. Some of her favorite aspects of the job are being the editor-in-chief of Swansons’ garden blog, planning community projects and events, and taking photos of interesting plants. When she’s not working or gardening, she loves yoga, cooking, photography, and exploring the Pacific Northwest.