Develop a Seed Plan for Your Vegetable Garden, Part 1: Evaluate Your Needs and Existing Seeds

Reader Contribution by Sheryl Campbell and The Lazy Farmer
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Winter garden

Photo by Sheryl Campbell

The weather is turning colder; winter crops continue to be harvested but the garden is mostly bedded down for the winter. It’s December, that magical month when seed catalogs arrive in the mailbox almost every day! It’s the season to dream of new tastes, new experiments in the garden, and vegetable adventures for next year.

All those catalogs can quickly result in long lists of new vegetables that I just have to try; new varieties that sound more enticing than what I’ve been growing. Seeds are fairly cheap one packet at a time but there are years my husband has felt that my seed addiction was breaking our bank.

What Does Your Family Like to Eat?

This sounds intuitive, but how many times have you planted something without thinking about how you’d cook it? I spent several years growing all kinds of odd summer greens. I did come up with my own recipe for New Zealand Spinach with Borage and Mushrooms, but that didn’t justify a whole patch of this summer “spinach”.

Now we just grow Swiss chard for summer greens, and use flower petals as a base for summer salads.  The rest of the greens we save for spring, fall, and winter.

Experiment with small patches of new vegetables, and only after you’ve found a couple of recipes that you’d like to try with them. Get your family’s honest feedback – in my house it’s okay to give the chickens anything we all agree shouldn’t have been on our table.

Multiple garden plots
Photo by Sheryl Campbell

Take Stock of Existing Seeds

Go through your existing seed packets to determine what you really need to order. Stored in a cool, dry location most seeds are viable for multiple years. This list will help you know how long you can save various types of vegetable seeds:

  • 4-5 Years
    • Lettuce
    • Melons, squash, cucumbers
    • Tomatoes
  • 2-4 Years
    • Cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, kale, spinach, kohlrabi
    • Beet, turnip, rutabaga, radish, carrot
    • Peas, beans
    • Peppers, okra
  • 1-2 Years
    • Shallots, onions
    • Sweet corn, celery

When you are at the edge of viability for any type of seed, you’ll need to make a judgement call.  Is this a vegetable we can’t do without?  If so, buy new seed. Otherwise you can see what happens and increase your chances by planting multiple seeds in each planting hole.

Remember to Save Your Own

Whenever possible, save your own seeds. This will give you plants that have succeeded well in your garden in the past. You can save seeds from any plant, but only open-pollinated varieties will breed true to the original plant.

Annuals like tomatoes, beans, melons, and squash are the easiest since you harvest seed from that year’s fruit. Biennial plants such as beets, cabbage, carrots, and turnips have to stay in the ground until the second year before they put up seed stalks. None of them survive here in my zone 6 garden so I only save seeds from annuals.

Label saved seeds with the type, variety, and year so you don’t have to guess come spring.


Photo by Sheryl Campbell

Browse Seed Catalogs for New Vegetables and Varieties

What new vegetables do you want to try this year?  Make sure you’ve researched their growth habit and some ways to cook them once you’ve harvested. If you just want to put in a small number of plants, see if one of your friends can give you a few seeds or seedlings. That way you haven’t wasted money on something you might not plant again.

I regularly start more seedlings than I’ll ultimately need just in case of early planting disasters. This means that most years I have home grown seedlings that I’m delighted to give to friends to try in their gardens. I try to share favorite recipes along with the seedlings.

Photo by Sheryl Campbell

Think about the existing varieties you grow of each vegetable. Is it performing the way you’d hoped? How is its natural disease resistance? Is it ready for harvest when you need it to be? What about cold and heat tolerance? Most importantly, are you thrilled with the taste? If your current varieties are lacking in any of these areas, there’s sure to be another variety that could correct the inadequacy.

Ask other gardeners which seed catalogs they trust to give accurate descriptions. Find out which varieties they grow, and why. Talk to local chefs about the varieties they request from local growers and how they use them in recipes. Visit a farmers market and try out some different varieties for taste. Ask the growers about growth habits and any problems they’ve experienced.

Putting Your Plan on Paper

Later this month you’ll find Part Two of this post where we’ll look at how to plot out your garden on graph paper, how to determine what to plant, when, and where, and how to develop an action plan for the entire planting year.

Sheryl Campbell is an heirloom gardener, shepherd, and edible flower educator who owns Bouquet Banquet in Virginia’s Shenandoah Valley. Read Sheryl’s previous blogging with Mother Earth GardenerandGrit and read all of her MOTHER EARTH NEWS posts here.

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