So you’ve done all the hard work with planning your garden—you’ve figured out the right spot, you’ve prepped your beds and soil, and now you’re ready to actually start growing something! This is, without a doubt, one of the most fun parts of organic vegetable gardening (second only to actually harvesting and eating what you grow).
In this chapter of our Organic Vegetable Gardening for Beginners Guide, we’re going to give you all the information you need to choose varieties that work well in your space and buy plants or seeds.
As a reminder, this Organic Vegetable Gardening Guide is broken up into six major steps, each with a separate article. Make sure you read through the whole guide!
- Planning and Building Your Garden
- Choosing What to Grow and Buying Plants (you are here!)
- How to Start Vegetable Plants from Seeds
- Planting Your Garden, Garden Maintenance, and Common Problems (coming soon!)
- Harvesting and Storing Produce, and Extending Your Growing Season (coming soon!)
- Preparing the Garden for Next Year (coming soon!)
Choosing Between Buying Seedlings or Starting Your Own Seeds
One of the first choices you need to make when deciding what’s going in your garden is the choice between buying ready-to-plant vegetable seedlings from the garden center or seed starting, or a combination of both. Like everything with life, there are pros and cons to both. Let’s cover them quickly.
When to Buy Seedlings from your Local Nursery or Garden Center
Buying seedlings (which is the name for the “mini” vegetable plants you can buy at your local nursery) is really as simple as going to the store and buying whatever plants look good. This is, without a doubt, the easiest of the two options. In fact, the simplicity and ease of buying seedlings is why I recommend that most first-time gardeners go with purchased seedlings. There are a lot of variables going on during your first organic vegetable gardening season, and buying seedlings from the store takes one of them out.
Buying seedlings is also a good choice for plants that maybe you just want one or two of—especially if they are perennials (plants that come back year after year). Peppermint is a perennial, so I’ve never purchased peppermint seeds. I did purchase two peppermint seedlings that are still happily giving us tons of great mint tea years later.
When to Start Your Own Seedlings from Scratch
Once you have a handle on this organic vegetable gardening thing, I highly recommend moving to seed starting for the vast majority of your plants. Seed starting at home means buying a packet of seeds and growing “mini” plants in a controlled environment (a mini greenhouse, a clear plastic tote near a window, etc.) until they are ready to be planted out in the garden.
The reason you do this is to extend your growing season. Many gardeners don’t actually have long enough growing seasons to grow warm-weather crops like cucumbers and tomatoes outdoors from seed. With seed starting, you are able to get non-hardy plants growing earlier indoors, and then you can set them out in the garden after the threat of frost has passed (if you haven’t calculated your last frost day, you can learn how to do that in this post).
The benefits to seed starting over buying seedlings are numerous:
- It’s way cheaper. WAY cheaper. You can get a packet of 200 seeds (which in theory, could translate into 200 plants) for $2. You’d be lucky to get a single seedling at the garden center for $2.
- You have a ton more options of varieties. With purchased seedlings, you are stuck choosing from a small variety of plants that the plant companies determine are good for the masses. With seed starting, you can grow the craziest, weirdest plants (blue tomatoes! orange cauliflower! ghost peppers!). We’re talking thousands of options instead of just a couple dozen.
- You have complete control over the plants. With purchased seedlings, you really don’t know what synthetic fertilizers or herbicides or other non-organic chemicals are applied to the plants before you get them. You have no idea how often they have been watered or what kinds of pests they could have. You rescue these plants having no idea how well they were taken care of. And while it’s completely possible for a knowledgeable gardener to rehabilitate almost any plant, it’s always better to start off with healthy plants.
- The affordability gives you freedom to experiment. Buy three packets of spinach and test which one grows best in your garden. Try out those giant tomatoes and see if you like them. Buy a packet of popcorn and see if you like growing your own.
Personally, I like to do a little bit of both seed starting and purchased seedlings. If I had more space to start seeds (like the future greenhouse I hope to get), I’d do a lot more seed starting. Once you’ve determined which of the two methods you are going to use (or if you’re going to use a combination of both), you can then move on to deciding exactly what you’d like to grow.
How to Pick What to Grow in Your Vegetable Garden
So. Many. Choices. When it comes to buying seedlings, you’ll be limited to what the garden center or nursery chooses to offer—but even then, there is a lot to wrap your brain around on those shelves. And if you start your own seedlings, phew—your possibilities expand exponentially! Let me give you some pointers to narrow it all down.
Grow What You’ll Eat
It sounds so simple, but grow what you and your family will eat! Trust me, when you get to the plant section of the store or start flipping through seed catalogs, you’ll be tempted to grow some pretty eggplant even though no one in your family even likes eggplant. It is easy to get carried away by the photos and descriptions of all the new-to-you varieties and plants!
But be realistic with yourself and stick to what you know you and your family will eat. If nobody likes green beans, then it doesn’t make sense to grow those beautiful Red Swan Bush Beans —no matter how pretty they may be. Stick with the foods that everyone in your family loves.
This is a great time to try new varieties of old favorites that you can’t find in the grocery store, though—if you love watermelon, maybe you want to try something like the white-fleshed Cream of Saskatchewan variety. Try some red or purple carrots if you’re a carrot fan, or some white cucumbers! Definitely experiment, but make sure to do it with vegetables you know your family will eat.
Keep In Mind How MUCH You’ll Eat
Lettuce is easy to grow, but it doesn’t store well, so you don’t want to overplant it. Zucchini plants are notorious for producing vast amounts of fruit (though I’ve oddly never had this problem), but a single cucumber plant can also provide a surprising amount of food.
Really think through how much of each plant your family might eat. We used to grow a ton of beets because, well, they’re easy to grow and that’s what you do! But I eventually realized we don’t actually love beets all that often. So now I grow enough for one or two meals each year (plus a few extra to give away to friends), and leave the rest of my growing space available for plants we really enjoy.
Get the Most Bang for Your Garden Space
If you have a giant garden area, great! Go hog-wild with choosing what to grow. But if you’re a little more limited on space, stick with veggies and herbs that grow quickly or are “pick and come again.”
For example, broccoli is delicious, but it takes literally months to grow a single head of it—that’s a long time to have a chunk of your beds reserved for a meal’s worth of payoff! On the flip side, a single tomato plant can grow months worth of fruit, depending on the variety. Herbs like basil thrive and grow more the more you pick them. And there are some varieties of radish that are ready to go in just a few weeks, so you can keep harvesting and planting more all through the season.
Gardens are microclimates—as crazy as it sounds, what grows in my garden may or may not succeed in a garden 10 miles down the road. Now is the time to talk to the locals! I’ve found that locally-owned hardware stores are a great place to ask people “what grows well here?” You might be lucky to stumble upon an old-timer who’s been growing the same variety of corn for 50 years! That information is priceless.
Also make sure to check in with your neighbors—you never know what kind of gardening experiments are happening in people’s backyards. Gather information from the people nearest to you.
Get Your Hands on Seed Catalogs
If you’ve chosen to start seeds, you can now enter into the wonderful world of seed catalogs! Parking myself in front of the fire with a stack of seed catalogs, a mug of hot tea, and a marker is arguable one of my favorite winter activities. It’s such a fun time for me to dream about all the goodies that could come out of my garden each year.
Almost all seed companies offer their catalogs for free with a simple signup on their website, and once you are on the gardening mailing list, trust me, you’ll get SO many catalogs come January, you’ll never have to ask for another one again.
Here are a few of my favorite companies to get catalogs from:
- Seed Savers Exchange
- Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds
- High Mowing Organic Seeds
- Johnny’s Selected Seeds
- Territorial Seed Company
- Peaceful Valley Farm Supply
- Southern Exposure Seed Exchange
The catalog descriptions should help point you towards varieties that will work well for you—for instance, some will note that they tolerate colder climates and shorter growing seasons, which is useful if you live in a cooler zone. Seeds that are from your region will be more likely to fare well in your garden.
If you’re just getting started and don’t want to dig into all the seed catalogs just yet, you can also get seed packets at your local garden centers, nurseries, or even hardware or grocery stores.
Heirloom Seeds, Organic Seeds, or Hybrid Seeds, Oh My!
Once you start diving into the seed catalogs, you might start to notice all kinds of qualifiers—heirloom, organic, hybrid. What’s all this mean? Let’s dig into it.
What Are Heirloom Seeds?
You know about heirloom tomatoes, right? The tomatoes that come in a much wider range of colors and shapes and flavors than the standard round red tomatoes at the grocery store? Turns out, there are heirloom varieties of pretty much every vegetable you can think of.
Heirloom varieties are plant varieties that have been passed down from generation to generation because of their uniqueness, beauty, and quality. Not only are they fun to grow, but heirloom varieties are also the bee’s knees because they contribute to crop diversity and are open-pollinated. Open-pollinated means the plants share their pollen with each other via wind, bees, or other pollinating insects. Basically, it’s the OG way for plants to grow.
What are Hybrid Seeds?
The opposite of heirloom seeds are hybrid seeds, which have been specially bred by humans for things like insect and disease resistance, or to make bigger vegetables. In general, hybrids tend to be easier for first time gardeners to grow because of these genetic advantages, but using hybrids does tend to take some of the unpredictability (read: fun!) out of vegetable gardening.
In general, we prefer a mix of both heirloom and hybrid varieties in our garden. If there’s a lot of a particular pest in your area that keeps attacking your garden, you might want some hybrid seeds that are resistant to that pest. If you plan to process giant amounts of vegetables into pickles or sauce or other canned goods, you might like the uniformity in size, shape, and ripening time that hybrids provide. But you can’t beat the flavor and looks of heirloom plants!
Do I Need to Buy Organic Seeds?
If you want to have a 100% organic garden, yes, you need to start with organic seeds. But if you’re looking to save a few bucks, you might be thinking of just going the conventional seed route—I mean, what’s the difference anyway, right? You’re going to be growing it all organically!
And while that’s true, there is one big reason I still recommend buying organic seeds—that particular strain of that particular variety has been selected to succeed in organic gardens. If it wouldn’t succeed, they wouldn’t be able to sell the organic version of the seed (hence why you see some varieties that don’t even have organic seeds available). Basically, purchasing organic seed is a guarantee that not only are your seeds free from synthetic fertilizers, pesticides and GMOs, but also that this particular genetic strain can and will succeed in your organic garden.
Beyond this, if you’re growing organically because you feel called to protect our planet, organic seeds play a big role in that. Because seed farmers need to grow plants to full maturity—past the point of just fruiting that most farmers get to—and because seeds aren’t considered food, conventional seed farmers can use as much synthetic pesticides and fertilizers as they’d like on their plants. Organic seed farms have a much smaller impact on our planet’s soil, air, and water health.
Alright, Let’s Get Us Some Plants!
You’ve done the research and picked out exactly what you want to grow, so now it’s time to get your hands on some plants—either by purchasing or growing. We’re going to cover the entire how-to for starting seedlings in our next post, but first let’s dig into how to make sure you get the healthiest, happiest plants around.
How to Buy Healthy Seedlings
If you’ve chosen to buy seedlings, the method for picking your plants is pretty simple—walk in and do some shopping! I’ve had the best luck buying my plants at our local vocational school. They do a huge greenhouse sale every spring with the very best seedlings you can get in my area.
I’ve had hit-or-miss luck with seedlings at big box stores—it honestly depends on the dedication of their garden center attendant. If you get a good one who cares about plants (and knows how to not over- or under-water), they can be great. If you get someone who isn’t invested, the plants can be less-than-stellar. When looking for seedlings, look for these things:
- Sturdy, stocky plant with a thick stem: You might think you want the tallest plant there, but that is not the case—taller plants are often what gardeners call “leggy,” which means they didn’t get enough sunlight early on and stretched to reach the sun. This leaves a weak stem that can easily break and not support a plant. It’s way more important to have a thick, strong stem over a taller one. This also applies to plants that head like cabbage or lettuce—the base of the plant should be right up against the soil.
- Green leaves: Any discoloration of leaves—yellowing, purpling, spotting, mottled—can indicate a nutrient deficiency, over- or under-watering, or a disease. All of which can be remedied, but again, it’s best to get plants that are already off to a great start.
- Blooms and fruit: If you really want to jump ahead of the game, seek out a plant that has blooms or even fruit on it. It’s not a guarantee that those will turn into something you can eat (plants often go through something called “transplant shock” and lose any fruit or blooms on the plant), but it is an indicator that the plant is mature enough to start producing—which means harvesting veggies even sooner! Once things get going in the summer, all the other plants will catch up quickly, so no worries if you can’t find a blooming/fruiting seedling, but if you do, you might be harvesting tomatoes 2-3 weeks before your neighbors do.
What Not to Buy in Seedling Form
You’d think that everything the store sells in seedling form would do just fine when you plant it—nope. They grow and sell what people buy, and they hope that people don’t know what they don’t know! Here are the veggies I recommend direct sowing from seed:
- Carrots, beets, parsnips, radishes, any root vegetables: Any vegetables with a big tap root needs to stay in place once they are planted. Plant these from seed right in the garden (called “direct sowing”). The good news is that these vegetables tend to thrive in colder weather, so you can plant the seeds directly in the ground even before your last frost date. Don’t remember when your last frost date is? Check this post.
- Peas: Just like root veggies, peas are a cool weather crop that hate to be transplanted, so direct sow these. In our zone, we plant peas on St. Patrick’s Day—an entire 6 weeks before our last frost date.
- Corn: For such a tall plant, corn has incredibly shallow roots (hence why you might have seen corn blown down in the field after a bad wind storm). Corn can be transplanted with care, but it’s just way simpler to plant it where you’re going to grow it—there is no advantage to getting them going earlier.
- Melons, cucumbers, and squash: These vegetables don’t love to be transplanted, but you can do it in a pinch—like if you live in an area with a shorter growing season. Beyond that, they grow so quickly that it’s almost a waste of your time to bother starting them indoors if you live in a warmer climate.
- Beans: Similar to the melons, beans aren’t a huge fan of being transplanted and they are super speedy growers. Even shorter growing seasons can get a full crop of both bush and pole beans easily in a summer. Direct sow these.
And that’s where we’re going to end this post, because phew, it’s already a doozy! If you are planning on starting seeds, head on over to our full step-by-step guide for how to start vegetable plants from seed.