How to Choose What Crops to Grow (Beginning Gardening)

What advice do I have for beginning gardeners who want to grow a lot of food on a little land without spending much or working harder than they have to? This is the question I hope to address in my beginning gardening series.

In part, one of the series I talked about how to find the best location on your property for a vegetable garden. Part two’s topic was how to start your first garden bed. Today, in part three of the series, I’ll share seven tips to help you choose what crops to grow when starting your first garden.

The first step is to start out with a relatively small number of crops. Say between five and ten different crops. Though you eventually want to grow a lot more, it’s best to start out small, get a handle on those crops and then add more each year as you gain experience. If I could go back in time and recommend five crops for a younger Patrick to grow in this gardening space, I’d recommend cherry tomatoes, peppers, garlic, kale and strawberries. I’ll revisit these recommendations later to show how they comply with the rest of today’s tips.

The second tip is to grow crops that you enjoy eating and know how to prepare in meals. Though is fun to try new things, it’s best when starting out to stick with foods that you know you enjoy. You’re more likely to harvest your crops and stay motivated about gardening if you grow fruit and veg that you enjoy.

So if you love tomatoes but always wanted to try brussel sprouts, definitely grow the tomatoes. You’ll have time in the future to expand your palate and your garden. The third tip is to grow crops that are expensive to buy at the store. One of the core messages of my channel is that you can grow your own organic produce for much less than you spend at the store especially if you start your own plants from seed. So when you start out, if you focus on expensive crops, you can quickly recoup your startup costs and set yourself on the path towards saving money with your garden.

Some of the more expensive crops include tomatoes, peppers, basil and blueberries and a couple of less expensive ones are potatoes and carrots, that we grow a lot of potatoes and carrots now that the garden is taken over the whole yard. Back when the garden was small, we focused on growing crops that were expensive to buy at the grocery store. The fourth tip is to only grow crops that are known to grow well where you live. Experienced local gardeners can be a great resource in this regard.

Another great resource if you live in the US is your local agricultural extension, which among many other things provides information on crops that grow well in your area. If you’re not already familiar with your agricultural extension, please see the description below for an old Farmer’s Almanac article that provides links to extensions for all fifty states.

Finally, it’s good to know your plant hardiness zone, which will help you determine which plants are likely to thrive in your area. In the US hardiness zones range from zone 1 in Alaska to zone 13 in Hawaii and are based on average annual minimum winter temperatures. Seeding plants sellers often provide planting recommendations for crops based on hardiness zones.

This information is particularly helpful when growing perennials because perennials that are not hardy to your zone will not grow as perennials there. If you live in the US and don’t know your hardiness zone, please see the Lincoln description to the USDA plant hardiness zone map. Other countries have similar hardiness zones which can be found online.

The fifth step is consider the specific growing conditions in your garden, things like sunlight and space when considering what crops to grow. For example, most of our garden gets less than six hours of direct Sun. So even though corn grows very well here in the state of Illinois, it doesn’t grow well in our garden.

There isn’t enough sun for it. Likewise, large tomato varieties don’t grow very well here. The small varieties like cherry tomatoes do and back to the issue of space that we grow large sprawling winter squash plants like cushion now. We didn’t grow them before expanding our garden. They take up so much space even when grown vertically and we reserve the space for higher priority crops when our garden was smaller.

Tip number six is to grow at least one cold hardy crop if you live in an area that has freezing temperatures in winter. Here in the one yard revolution garden I’d like to grow more food by extending the growing season but you don’t need a hoop house, low tunnel or cold frame to get started. All you need to do to extend your growing season is to grow cold hardy crop before the last frost in the spring or after the first frost in autumn.



This alone will extend your growing season beyond the typical summer season. Some cold hardy crops to consider are carrots, kale, collards, brussel sprouts, spinach, martian clay tonia. Growing some cold hardy crops outside of the typical summer growing season will put you on the path toward extending a growing season and having a more continuous harvest of fresh produce from your garden.

My seventh and last tip to consider when choosing what crops to grow in your first garden is to grow at least one edible perennial. Perennials come back year after year with minimal investment time and money and they produce some wonderful crops.

We grow many edible perennials but some of our favorites include strawberries, blueberries, blackberries, grapes and this purple passion asparagus. We apply homemade compost and organic mulch to our asparagus and other perennial vegetables but only apply woodchip mulch to most of our perennial fruits. We don’t use additional fertilizers. Some of our perennials do require pruning but overall we spend less time on our perennials than we do on our annuals. Now, let’s return to the five crops until a younger Patrick to grow in this garden if I could go back in time and talk to him and we’ll see how consistent those crops are with today’s 7 tips.

Once again, the crops are: cherry tomatoes, peppers, garlic, kale and strawberries. It’s just five crops which is consistent with Tip 1. I enjoy all of the crops and know how to prepare them in meals. They’re all relatively expensive in organic grocery store. All of the crops grow well here in Illinois.

Because of their smaller fruit size, cherry tomatoes and [inaudible] peppers will produce well in our garden despite the limited Sun. Kale is cold hardy and growing in spring and autumn extends the growing season beyond the typical summer garden season, and finally, strawberries are perennial and produce delicious fruit year after year with minimal cost and effort.

If you follow these tips when selecting crops for your first garden, I’m confident your garden will get off to an excellent start. If you found this article helpful, please subscribe to our GardeningForFun newsletter and we will share more tips on how you can grow a lot of food on a little land without spending much or working harder than you have to.

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