All plants have a preferred temperature range, light, and water requirements. When those are perfectly met, the plant has a greater chance of thriving. When they aren’t, the plant could exhibit stunted growth, fail to fruit or flower, or simply die. In this blog, we’re going to cover these critical considerations, so let’s jump in.
LOCATION: Figuring Out Your Zone
A plant hardiness zone is a geographic area defined mainly by a ten-year average minimum temperature. Some zone calculations also consider other factors. The most commonly used hardiness scale in America is the United States Department of Agriculture scale. It ranges on a scale from 0 to 13. As the USDA system is based entirely on an area’s average annual extreme minimum temperature, it is limited in describing the full climatic conditions a gardener may have to account for in a particular place.
These maps do not indicate maximum temperature, humidity, light, and soil moisture content, all critical factors in a plant’s survival. They are also irrelevant if you plan to grow entirely indoors or in a greenhouse. They provide a starting point for the types of plants that will thrive in your outdoor environment and a general idea of when to plant. Planting schedules, like the one we will also put in the comments below, give a grower a general idea of when to plant. In some zones, successive planting is possible. In other zones, the growing season is very narrow, so more attention must be paid to when the last frost has likely passed and when the first frost will occur. Seasoned gardeners understand their zone and often start their plants indoors when snow is still on the ground. That’s why they are harvesting well before everyone else.
Plants react differently based on the temperature, water, and light they receive. Tomatoes, for instance, will only set fruit if the temperature at night for at least three days is above 55 degrees. After pollination, if temperatures are above 100 degrees for 3 hours or more in two successive days, the fruit will not be set, and likely the flowers will fall off the plant. If you deprive a plant of water, it may go into self-preservation mode, bolt, and race to seed. Understanding the “goldilocks” zone for each of your plants will also help you to adjust your watering schedule, how vulnerable they may be in extreme weather conditions, or even if shading, fanning, or supplemental light will be beneficial to them. All of this stems from knowing the zone in which you are planting.
Most all plant labels will carry an indicator of their preferred zonal range. These are broad. A carrot, for instance, can be grown in zones 3-10. Pineapple can be grown in zones 11-12. That doesn’t mean you can’t plant pineapples in Finland or carrots in the tropics. You can, so long as they are inside a structure where temperature, moisture, and light can all be artificially adjusted. These zones are guidelines for temperature ranges and climates that help gardeners determine what plants will thrive in their environment and what plants will need special considerations. If your vegetable plant prefers a high zone number, it won’t like frost and may require full sun in your area. If your vegetable plant prefers a lower number, it will not like high heat and may prefer partial sun or shade.
CARE: High vs. Low Maintenance Plants
We haven’t seen a lot of discussion on this topic because most people assume if you’re gardening, you are also planning on spending a good deal of time doing that. We don’t have hours and hours to devote to gardening. We wish we did, but other things in life require my attention. For this reason, we have changed my grow areas to be as low maintenance as possible over the years. Some plants will only do well if you keep the weeds out. Other plants must be encouraged to set and produce good fruit by carefully pruning them and controlling green growth. Over the years, we have dabbled with this quite a bit with my tomato plants.
Tomato plants are a perfect example of this. They are of two types–determinate and indeterminate. Determinate tomato plants are smaller and grow like a bush. They usually grow up to five feet tall, so they are perfect for a small garden or container gardening. Indeterminate tomato plants have a more vine-like structure and can grow up to 8-10 feet tall. Obviously, indeterminate tomato plants must be trellised, staked, supported, and pruned. Determinate tomato plants may only need to be supported with occasional pruning. All tomato plants need to be pruned. When we plant mine, we always plant the first set of leaves furthest at the base. These will turn into roots. Then, after the plant has grown a bit, I have to prune the leaves at the bottom of the plant above the soil line. As the plant grows, we have to control growth and focus the energy to the fruit by pruning what are called suckers– offshoots that will only create foliage. Some gardeners nearly strip their plants of leaves when fruit sets, but we’re afraid of harming the plant, so we leave a considerable amount of green. That also means I’m more susceptible to tomato hornworms and other voracious plant eaters. We have learned how to deal with these pests too, and we spray Bacillus thuringiensis (BT) -an organic bacteria. All of that requires a considerable amount of attention and time. Because of this, we have gone from a high of eight varieties to just two plants per season over the years. We are talking about years of learning and not just a season.
Another consideration about care and space is dwarf varieties. These tend to be more compact and smaller plants that can still have excellent yields. Because they are smaller, they require less maintenance and are a popular choice for apartments, containers, and smaller gardens. At least at this point in my life, we need lower maintenance plants. For instance, we have some pepper plants, garlic, sunchokes, amaranth, huckleberries, chard, lettuce, onion varieties, carrots, and a few other plants we can simply check on every other day or so. Then we can pull the occasional weed, fertilize, water, or whatever else we need to do. They’re low-maintenance plants because we simply don’t have the time. When you lay out your grow area, keep the time you have to tend it in mind. If you desire to set it and forget it, make sure you choose super hearty, independent, and compact plants. Melons, squash, beans, peas, and other sprawling plants will require trellising or guidance in your outdoor space, and they only sometimes climb on their own. If you plan on looking after them nearly daily, that’s fine. If you plan on ignoring them, you might find that they aren’t setting fruit properly, rotting where they come into contact with wet soil, or have a bug infestation eating them.
We have also learned over the years that consistent watering schedules are critical to well-developed fruits and vegetables. If your lifestyle requires you to only water when you get around to it every third day and then soak the plants well, your plants will die, the fruit will crack, and vegetables will exhibit that stress by being poorly formed. Some plants like water on their leaves. Other plants do not. For some plants, it can increase the likelihood of leaf blight.
There are sometimes high and low-maintenance plants of the same type. We can grow a Walla Walla Sweet, but it likes 14-16 hours of daylight and requires 90-110 days to mature fully. That narrows the growing season for some. They also need very particular and consistent moisture levels. Every year we do an onion patch, but we have planted Egyptian Walking Onions this year. This smaller onion variety that sets bulbs at the top of the plant requires almost no maintenance on my part and can be planted much closer together.
With each plant you choose to grow, consider your time and lifestyle. Don’t rely upon the few lines on the label on the pot. Read up on your particular variety. Understand the maintenance it will require and how well you can maintain the perfect growing environment for the plant. You can still succeed with high-maintenance plants that you ignore, but your results will increase when you give the plant the attention it needs.
HYBRIDS VS HEIRLOOMS
Most vegetable seeds you purchase at your local store are a narrow range of cultivars that have been carefully selected to provide growers with the best harvests from the heartiest of plants. Sometimes they have been cross-pollinated or hybridized to provide the most robust plant possible. That’s great for many, but it ignores the thousands of other varieties. Many look at the seed section of their local store and marvel at the possibilities. We see it as a very narrow range of options. Most seed sections try to emulate the local produce section of your grocery store, where perfectly manicured displays of uniform-sized fruits and vegetables form neat displays.
On the other hand, heirloom varieties offer the grower varieties of plants that aren’t typically associated with large-scale monoculture agricultural operations. We use the term heirloom varieties quite loosely to include all those fruits and vegetables our ancestors grew or foraged that you won’t likely find in your grocery store. The colonial farm looked far different from today’s massive monoculture agricultural operations. That’s an application of the term that is far broader than it was intended. These heirlooms often have much better flavors and character than their perfect cousins in the store. The tradeoff, however, is that heirlooms may be more susceptible to disease or infestation, and they may take more effort to cultivate. That’s why commercial growers tend to refrain from growing them.
The other reason is the limited palette range which many in our modern culture have grown accustomed to. We expect strawberries in the United States to look and taste a certain way, but there are an estimated 600 different varieties of strawberries stemming from 5 or 6 original wild species. The globe or garden strawberry you get at the store will taste and look very different from Alpine, Fragaria Virginiana, Aroma, Camino Real, Sweet Charlie, Pinberry, or Wild Strawberries. We like Reed avocados. It’s one of over 500 varieties, but your store probably only has Haas or Fuerte varieties. You may be impressed with your store’s seven different apple varieties, but you would be missing out on the other 7,500 varieties. Your local grocery store has maybe eight different varieties of tomatoes, from Romas, Globes, and Beefsteak, to Cherry and Plum varieties. Yet, there are more than 10,000 tomato varieties available. We don’t think a person can say they don’t like tomatoes until they have at least tried 1,000 different varieties. In your local grocer’s defense, it would be hard for him to sell a bushel of Crab, Api, or Api Noir apples over the beautifully polished hybrids. It would be harder to sell a Green Striped Zebra, Black Cherry, or White Cherry tomato over your run-of-the-mill Roma tomato. The same is true with almost every vegetable or fruit we consume.
Consider all the varieties with each plant you think about for your garden. You might also take a trip to your largest local farmer’s market. There, you will often find a more varied selection and odd varieties. With some seed saving, you can grow these same heirloom varieties. From the farmer’s market, you are assured that the particular variety you are growing is successful in your local climate. Someone has already tried to grow them in your area and was successful, or you wouldn’t be buying them locally. The farmer’s market also allows you to taste and work with the vegetable or fruit before trying to grow a bunch of it. You may like the taste of a Butternut Squash, but you will find the taste of a Baby Blue Hubbard even better. It’s sweet, flavorful, and perfect for roasting, baking, pies, or canning.
Tasting what you are going to grow and cooking with it will help you decide, as well. We grow several different hot peppers in my garden– too many. Nobody else in my family eats them. We am trying to figure out what to do with jars of dried peppers from this season alone. We usually make at least one massive batch of hot sauce per year, but even then, they are hard to get rid of when many of my friends and family can’t handle the heat. Don’t grow something so whacky and foreign to you and your family that you will have difficulty getting anyone to eat it. We wouldn’t have gotten anyone in our family to eat any of the amaranth we grow had we not snuck it in their baguettes. Nobody in my family would knowingly eat purslane, broad leaf plantain, carrot tops, or dandelion leaves we foraged from my yard and garden had we not snuck it in their salads. At nearly every meal, we still get a suspiciously raised eyebrow with the accompanying question, “What’s in it?”.
Generally, most of what you grow will taste far superior to anything you buy at the grocery store. The vegetables you find there are often grown thousands of miles away, picked far before they ripen, and encouraged to ripen by spraying them with ethylene gas. There are 110 different chemicals in the official Florida guidebook for commercial tomato growers that a farmer can spray on a field over the course of a few months. Many of those chemicals, on their own, the EPA rates as acutely toxic. That means they can kill you on their own. We’re not trying to scare anyone here. There is no comparison between the taste of a homegrown, vine-ripened tomato and your standard grocery store globe tomato.
A final note on heirlooms versus hybrids, heirlooms are often open-pollinated, meaning that their seeds can be saved from one year to the next and will produce plants with the same characteristics as the parent plant. If you try to grow a seed collected from a hybrid, you may not have any luck at all. Many hybrids are specifically engineered not to produce successive generations. Think of hybrids as often the mule of plants. A mule is a cross between a male donkey and a female horse, but it’s typically sterile and cannot reproduce. One unique thing about open-pollinated plants is that they can cross-pollinate with other plants of the same or similar species. This can happen naturally through the actions of wind, insects, or other animals that transfer pollen from one plant to another. So, what you set out to grow can be influenced and changed depending on how close it resides to other similar varieties. It’s important to note that if you want to save seeds from open-pollinated plants and maintain their genetic purity, you must take steps to prevent cross-pollination. This can be done by isolating the plants from other varieties of the same species or hand-pollinating the flowers to ensure that the pollen comes only from the desired plant.
Keep one question in mind as you launch into this venture or redesign your current garden. What’s your purpose? If your objective is to be a self-sufficient food grower and produce all the calories you need to live, you probably don’t have the space for that. Suppose you do have the space– great. Do you also have the time? We would love to grow squash, and we have before, but many plants take up more space than we are willing to sacrifice in my backyard. Still, some zucchini plants can be relatively compact, so we have options. If your purpose is to supplement your food supply, you might be able to accomplish that by just adding a few plants. This is a great goal, especially for beginning gardeners. A ginger or turmeric plant doesn’t look like your traditional garden vegetable, and you wouldn’t sit down to eat a bowl full of either. Still, the roots and leaves are edible. There are not many calories there, but there’s lots of iron, potassium, and magnesium. Lemongrass, sage, basil, oregano, and other herbs don’t offer many calories but add many flavors. Growing them in a small space teaches you how to grow, and you will learn how to cook and dry herbs, trying to use them all up and save them for the winter months.
We’re also not going to grow tons of beans for survival when we can still buy them at a low price in the stores. We’re not going to flood my backyard to try and grow rice. Eventually, we hope to be self-sufficient and grow all my food, but we know that’s not today.
Dwarf and bush varieties may not seem as fun to grow as a giant mortgage lifter beefsteak tomato, but you may not have the space for that enormous indeterminate variety. Most plants you buy commercially will indicate their average size at maturity. If that’s a four-foot diameter bush, do you have the space for it? A more compact bush cherry tomato, like Tiny Tim, could provide you with loads of tomatoes throughout the season, and it would allow you to focus on one plant to understand better how to grow plants in your area. This garden series focuses on small space gardens like you would find on a balcony apartment. Still, the whole series is valuable to anyone who gardens, so long as they can ask and answer the question of their garden’s purpose. You might take a run at it and decide you would rather expand, contract, trellis upwards, switch to micro greens and sprouts indoors, or even mushrooms.
We want to tell you to be open to changing what you grow and how you grow each year. Not all gardens are rigidly planned out and always the same. Because of soil depletion and some types of plants, you can only sometimes plant the same things in the same soil year to year. You may find one thing you grew left you with too much and another barely a bowl full. Align your garden purpose with your goal, and allow your plans to change. You can start small and figure out the best ways to grow more. You can start big and resize and realign your garden as you understand the plants, the space required, and their time commitment.
You will be well-positioned to expand and fine-tune your operations at the end of a few seasons. You might start a garden on someone else’s property or a community garden. You might work up a trading arrangement with your surplus. You will grow as a gardener far more than your plants will if you set out with your purpose in mind and adapt as your skills and knowledge grow.
Whatever you decide to grow, understand the zone you are in, and what that means to the plants you are considering. That’s the basis on which all your decisions should be made. Consider the conditions and space the plant will take. You may want to grow one type of plant, but you realize you just don’t have the space for it. Understand how frequently you will need to tend to the plants.
Most importantly, understand the wide varieties available to you and your garden’s overall purpose. When you look at the other videos in this series, you will see a host of considerations: climate, space, soil, personal preferences, difficulty level, seasonality, and even companion planting. In this video, we have added location zone, care, type, and purpose. All these blogs together should help you narrow down your garden to something realistic for you.
You have hundreds of more options and varieties than you see in the grocery store or the seed aisle of your hardware store. Even in a small space, you have many growing methods available. Use our sun mapping blog and thoughtfully apply everything we have shown you. Draw out a plan, and sit with it for a while. Evaluate it daily and modify it as you consider plant size, zone, and purpose. These winter months are the planning months. The next phase is to order seeds, prepare your space and method, and get the plants growing. Read for more blogs coming on that.
As always, stay safe out there.