Planning what to grow in your backyard vegetable garden

When we first purchased our own home, my first thought was that I finally had the chance to have a garden, a space all my own to do what I wanted. It took a year before the raised beds were in and ready to be planted in the spring – and plant them I did.

A bit too eager to get food from the ground, I overloaded my space and so by about midsummer, the zucchini had taken over, the potato plant was expansive, and the tomatoes were literally out of control. A good problem to have, for sure, but with all the overcrowding, it was hard to get in to harvest, and I often lost tomatoes and zucchinis that I missed under the tangle of vines and leaves.

I learned an important lesson that summer: Proper garden planning helps avoid harvest heartbreak.

Photo by Amy of She Wears Many Hats

Things to Think about When Planning Your Backyard Garden

Where do you live?

  • Location can help determine what you should plant. For instance, in Minnesota, I probably would not attempt artichokes. As much as I would love to pluck them straight from the backyard, the growing season here is too short to make giving up the garden space a worthwhile investment.
  • Where you live also determines when you plant. Check for your last frost date to get a better idea of when it’s time for those plants to go into the ground.
  • The frost date for your area can also help you determine what varieties of plants may be better for you. A tomato plant that takes 100 days to mature may not be your best bet if you live in an area with a short growing season. You’ll burn up half the summer watering a plant that you won’t harvest until it starts getting cold, and a cold fall could cut that harvest even shorter.

How much space do you have?

  • I have a horrible habit of ignoring space. I want watermelons, pumpkins, 3 kinds of summer squash, and a few different cucumber varieties. What do you mean one zucchini plant needs a 3-foot square? Surely placing a few herbs, my green onions and the green beans 2 feet away will be plenty of room for it to grow. Take some time and measure out your growing space. It can help you narrow down your selections.
  • With plants that vine like indeterminate tomatoes and cucumbers, you need to think about where they’ll go as they grow. Cages, trellises and the like all need space. Be sure to include them when you’re drawing up your plans.

Photo by Shaina of Food for My Family

How much sun does your garden get?

  • Full sun ( 6-8 hours sunlight/day): This is wonderful for vegetables where you harvest their fruit like peppers, cucumbers, tomatoes (a fruit, yes, I know), and the like. Plant these in areas that get the most sun.
  • Partial shade (3-6 hours sunlight/day): Root vegetables like carrots, beets, turnips and potatoes will thrive in partial shade.
  • Shade (less than 4 hours sunlight/day): Greens can generally still be grown if you have mostly shade to work with in your garden area. Try planting kale, chard, spinach, and lettuces.

What foods do you eat most often?

  • If you aren’t going to eat it, don’t bother growing it. This is unique to each family. For us, we could eat as many tomatoes as you can throw at us, and so I focus a lot of my attention there. I also like having fresh herbs available. Do you love broccoli? Maybe you can’t get enough kale. Whatever you like to cook with and eat is what you should take the time to plant.

Are you planning a summer garden? What are your must-plant items each year?

About Shaina

Shaina Olmanson is the home cook and photographer behind Food for My Family, where she shares recipes, tips, opinions and her philosophy on food as she wades through the process of feeding her family, her friends and anyone else who will let her. She strives to teach her four children how to eat well: seasonally, locally, organically, delicio