Planning what to grow in your backyard vegetable garden

When we first purchased our own home, my first thought was that I finally had the chance to have a garden, a space all my own to do what I wanted. It took a year before the raised beds were in and ready to be planted in the spring – and plant them I did.

A bit too eager to get food from the ground, I overloaded my space and so by about midsummer, the zucchini had taken over, the potato plant was expansive, and the tomatoes were literally out of control. A good problem to have, for sure, but with all the overcrowding, it was hard to get in to harvest, and I often lost tomatoes and zucchinis that I missed under the tangle of vines and leaves.

I learned an important lesson that summer: Proper garden planning helps avoid harvest heartbreak.

Photo by Amy of She Wears Many Hats

Things to Think about When Planning Your Backyard Garden

Where do you live?

  • Location can help determine what you should plant. For instance, in Minnesota, I probably would not attempt artichokes. As much as I would love to pluck them straight from the backyard, the growing season here is too short to make giving up the garden space a worthwhile investment.
  • Where you live also determines when you plant. Check for your last frost date to get a better idea of when it’s time for those plants to go into the ground.
  • The frost date for your area can also help you determine what varieties of plants may be better for you. A tomato plant that takes 100 days to mature may not be your best bet if you live in an area with a short growing season. You’ll burn up half the summer watering a plant that you won’t harvest until it starts getting cold, and a cold fall could cut that harvest even shorter.

How much space do you have?

  • I have a horrible habit of ignoring space. I want watermelons, pumpkins, 3 kinds of summer squash, and a few different cucumber varieties. What do you mean one zucchini plant needs a 3-foot square? Surely placing a few herbs, my green onions and the green beans 2 feet away will be plenty of room for it to grow. Take some time and measure out your growing space. It can help you narrow down your selections.
  • With plants that vine like indeterminate tomatoes and cucumbers, you need to think about where they’ll go as they grow. Cages, trellises and the like all need space. Be sure to include them when you’re drawing up your plans.

Photo by Shaina of Food for My Family

How much sun does your garden get?

  • Full sun ( 6-8 hours sunlight/day): This is wonderful for vegetables where you harvest their fruit like peppers, cucumbers, tomatoes (a fruit, yes, I know), and the like. Plant these in areas that get the most sun.
  • Partial shade (3-6 hours sunlight/day): Root vegetables like carrots, beets, turnips and potatoes will thrive in partial shade.
  • Shade (less than 4 hours sunlight/day): Greens can generally still be grown if you have mostly shade to work with in your garden area. Try planting kale, chard, spinach, and lettuces.

What foods do you eat most often?

  • If you aren’t going to eat it, don’t bother growing it. This is unique to each family. For us, we could eat as many tomatoes as you can throw at us, and so I focus a lot of my attention there. I also like having fresh herbs available. Do you love broccoli? Maybe you can’t get enough kale. Whatever you like to cook with and eat is what you should take the time to plant.

Are you planning a summer garden? What are your must-plant items each year?

About Shaina

Shaina Olmanson is the home cook and photographer behind Food for My Family, where she shares recipes, tips, opinions and her philosophy on food as she wades through the process of feeding her family, her friends and anyone else who will let her. She strives to teach her four children how to eat well: seasonally, locally, organically, deliciously and balanced.

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  1. Tomatoes are my favorite, just because I can’t bring myself to eat store bought tomatoes after growing my own. We do plant a fairly large variety of vegetables, however. I planted beets in front of my tomato plants last year and it worked out really well. Because the tomatoes block the sun for part of the day, I needed something that could tolerate partial shade. And the beet plants don’t get too tall, so they grew very nicely right in front of my tomatoes.

  2. This is the first year we’ve done a garden. Though I was tempted to plant everything I could get my hands on, we stuck with a few herbs for the first year.

    • Steph, we should have stuck to herbs, too. I fear that we went overboard with the possibilities and started a ton of lettuces from seed. Needless to say, it will be too late to transplant them when they are finally ready. I’m holding out for my spinach, but considering I saw a rabbit hopping through my yard, the chances of a gorgeous salad are slim! 😉

      Great post, Shaina!

      • A few years ago we had a rabbit make her nest inside my fenced garden. She hopped right over the 3 feet of chicken wire to do it. The funny thing was, she never ate anything that I could find. I did move the nest when I found it, but she’d been there a while without disturbing the plants.

  3. Tomatoes are the one plant that I will plant as many as humanly possible. All the different varieties! I have a problem with overcrowding as well, but I always seem to make out ok in the end. We will see how this year goes, since I am planning on growing all of our summer/fall veg in my little garden this year 🙂

  4. Great post. Gardening is always an adventure!
    One of my favorite gardening books is Lasagna Gardening for Small Spaces. It has great ideas and tips for growing vegetables in small areas, containers, and so forth.
    Catherine 🙂

  5. I want to start a garden so bad, but don’t have the space. Maybe I can plant in big pots…

    • Al, I love container gardening! We have had great success with herbs, lettuces, tomatoes, and even a potato. We still plant all our herbs and lettuce mixes in containers just because I feel they do better. (And I like having them closer to me.)

    • Yes!! And plastic kiddie pools or??? Whatever will hold dirt!! Just do not forget to add some drainage holes!! ?

  6. Every year I have an overcrowding problem. I start out with good intentions, then go to the nursery and see so many things I just have to try!! I haven’t been to the nursery yet this year, but I’ve promised myself I will do better….

    • I am the same way, Jen! Last year I came home with so many extras (it doesn’t help when there are 3 seedlings in a container) that I ended up planting my neighbors’ garden, too. This year she flat out asked me what my plan was for her backyard. :-p

  7. Good tips. We are in midst of planting right now. We built boxes, have organic soil and are ready. Our tomatoes got way out of hand last year, but we had them all way to November. I wanted to plant kale, but now I’m worried about too much sun.

    • I need to do a post on how we started keeping our tomatoes from getting overgrown. It worked so well last year. Maybe one tomato plant would forgive me if I planted it a week or two early?

      If you plant tomatoes, try planting the kale in the shade of the tomatoes like Kelly mentioned earlier. It should give it more of a partial sun, which the kale can do well in.

  8. Kathleen K says

    Oh, I’m so looking forward to harvesting tomatoes! And cucumbers, melons, beans, lettuce, onions, etc. We moved into our house at the end of December so we have a “small” garden this year–8 raised beds 4ftx8ft each. Next year, we’ll add more cool season crops–beets, carrots, peas, kale, etc. I grow as much on trellises as I can to save ground space and we companion plant wherever possible. “Square Foot Gardening” provides some great information on just how crowded you can make your garden and how to do succession planting to get the most out of the space.

  9. Thank you for the very helpful post! I just built (from a Home Depot kit) a 8′ x 4′ raised bed. Have carrots, beets, spinach, bunching onions and radishes up – in Seattle it is only around 60 degrees on a good day this month… Trying to think about the right choices for a small space. Tomatoes will be going into their own pots, and I might end up planting some squash plants along the driveway in the front yard. Now I just need to make sure we eat it all…

  10. For any of you trying to link through to my blog… there has been a typo in the auto-fill on this reply page for who knows how long. Fixed. 🙂

  11. I’ve been working on planning our garden the last couple weeks… We way over-planted last summer and then I got pregnant, so everything went to seed! We cleared the beds though and are ready to start again with better spacing this time! 🙂 I’m thinking tomatoes, peppers, herbs, beans, and peas this year. There was a lot that we planted last year that we decided we just don’t eat enough of to warrant the space in our garden. We have a stellar farmers market near us, so we’ll be going there for what we don’t grow ourselves. 🙂

  12. Love the timing as we are getting raised beds installed and filled with organic soil in two weeks. I feel so motivated to grow everything, but needed this post to reign it in. Herbs are top of the list, then tomatoes, pickling cucumbers, green beans and peppers.

  13. I quit growing a lot of veggies once my girls left home and got their own place which was about the same time the neighbors tree got big enough to block afternoon sun on my raised bed. BUT…what I still grown and should not be forgotten are herbs. They even do well in that more shaded area (they do get sun all morning). Considering how pricey they are at the store…I’m delighted to have them and so are my neighbors!

  14. Great tips girl!! I just pinned this 🙂

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