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The First Time Gardener: Selecting Vegetable Varieties

Choosing what to plant every year is an exciting (if somewhat frustrating) process. Ever since I was a child, I remember being excited when the new seed catalogs would start to arrive. I would flop down on the floor or the couch and scour them for what I thought we should buy and plant. Usually I’d end up with a long list of flowers along with the list of the same vegetables we always planted. As I have moved into fruit and vegetable gardening, especially from a professional standpoint, I find myself much more excited about the different varieties of vegetables available.

Heirloom TomatoesIn the last 5-10 years, heirloom varieties have been making a comeback, so the available options have expanded. Commercial seed breeders have also responded to the market’s desire for more colorful and interesting vegetables, so there are many options for both hybrid seed and open-pollinated seed.

As a beginning gardener, where should you start when choosing varieties to grow? How do you wade through the oodles of seed options? How can you determine what will be successful and what won’t?

Here are some guidelines to consider:

  • Expense – some seeds are simply more expensive than others
  • Disease resistance – often varieties that have been developed for disease resistance will thrive more than others.
  • Days to maturity – this tells you how long after planting (either seeding or transplanting) to expect a harvest
  • Seed or Transplant? – Know if the vegetable should be planted outdoors from seed or transplants. If you aren’t ready to try starting seeds indoors, pass up buying those seeds and stick with plants from a local garden center.
  • Mature plant size – As tempting as that heirloom tomato might be, the vines take up a LOT of space. A compact variety might be a better choice.
  • Fun for the kids – If you will be gardening with kids, choose a couple varieties that are colorful or otherwise unique and interesting.

It is always a good idea when you are starting out (or even if you have been gardening for years) to try several different varieties of each vegetable. Select one or two “tried and true” varieties, but then branch out. Try at least one or two new and different varieties of some type of vegetable every year. You may find something better, or you may just have a good story to tell!

If you are just getting started, we have a list of Recommended Vegetable Varieties (pdf) that can be your guide for the “tried and true” varieties.

For a more extensive list of tomatoes (including some heirlooms), we also have the Recommended Tomato Varieties for Kansas 2009 (pdf).

First Time Gardener: Preparing the Site

If this is your first year planting a vegetable garden (or the first time in many years), you need to start out right by selecting a good location and preparing the soil adequately. Improving your soil is a work in progress over the course of many years, but it will help your first year garden to do as much soil preparation as possible.

Digging in Compost

Site Selection

  • Vegetables need full sun to be productive. Select an area of your yard that gets at least 8 hours of sun during the day.
  • Most vegetables prefer a well-drained location. While many of us in Kansas struggle with sticky, clay soils, don’t make the problem worse by selecting the spot in your yard where water sits when it rains!

Preparing Your Garden

If you are planting a new garden, you need to start by getting rid of whatever is currently growing in that spot.

If you are going to be killing a part of your tall fescue lawn, you can apply glyphosate now. After the grass is dead, you can till it into the soil and you are on your way!

If you are going to be planting on an area that has been overgrown and weedy or that has had bermudagrass on it, you will have a harder time of it this year. Ideally, you would have wanted to start clearing that area and killing the bermudagrass last summer. To get started now, I would use glyphosate to kill anything that is currently green and growing, then remove all the plant material from the site you can. Till the soil and get ready to battle weeds this summer!

(If you are willing to wait another year to start your garden, I’d really recommend that you wait until July, then start using glyphosate to kill the bermudagrass.)

Now that the site is cleared, take a soil test. (You could also take the soil test before killing the existing plants.)The soil test will tell you if you need to amend the soil due to a very high or very low soil pH. It will also guide you in selecting the right fertilizers to use.

Procedure for Taking a Soil Test (pdf)

Check back later this week for Preparing the Soil to Grow!