Today I’ll talk about some methods which can be used when choosing plants for your garden. Of course you will want to choose plants that you find tasty to eat, are useful for some other purpose and/or look pretty. But there are some other factors that need to be taken into consideration. The climate, the available space and making sure to have a balance of plants of different types is important to avoid the plants from competing about the available space and nutrition.
Before you start designing your compact garden you should ask yourself what you wish to achieve with it. Are you looking for a decorative space which also offers a few things to bring into the kitchen or is your main focus to grow crops you can eat and aesthetics are of less importance?
I’ll give you a few questions to answer which will help you in your choice of plants. One thing I would like to remind you of first is that you have more space than you think. Forget about planting rows of plants with a specific distance from each other and bare soil in between. Look at a forest. The ground is rarely bare besides on paths where animals and humans walk. Thinking in layers allows you to fit in much more on your available surface and you can also grow vertically. Let spinach grow between strawberry plants or carrots. Allow peas to climb up your apple tree. Think about which crops can follow each other in sequence. When one crop has been harvested there might be time left on the season to grow something after it.
Write down the answers to the following questions:
- Which vegetables, herbs, fruits and berries do you like to eat or can you use for some other purpose?
- Which colors or style do you want in your garden?
- How is the climate in your garden? Are there areas with strong sun, shadow, risk for frost, extreme wind etc?
- How much time per week do you want to spend on tending to your garden?
- How much space do you have available? (Answer can be in square meters, but remember to think vertically as well.)
- How much experience do you have of cultivation and maintenance of more demanding plants?
- How much money are you willing/able to spend on your garden?
I have gathered a few things to consider to be able to answer each question in better detail and help you in your choice of plants.
1: Seed catalogs and websites about cultivation can help you choose types of plants that are adjusted to your particular climate. Often there are older, local types or exotic varieties that are far tastier than the industrial types which you find in the supermarket. Choose tomatoes with a different shape and color. Try out round zucchinis instead of the oblong standard ones. Ask yourself if you put priority to high yield or if you just want smaller amounts but with superior taste. Ask the people at your local garden center. They usually have great tips. Looking for a local seed bank can also help you find rare varieties that you can help out saving for the future through growing them and saving seeds of your own.
2: On a terrace, balcony or back yard by your house aesthetics are usually important too. It is a space you should enjoy for further purposes than food production only. Consider the style you are looking for. Even if you want a stricter asian style garden you can fit in food into it. Consider sticking to a theme color to create a feeling of consistency or go wild and crazy and mix it up. It’s your garden and your style that matters here. The methods described can be used for all types of gardens.
3: The climate is a very important factor. Some plants thrive in strong sun while others need a bit more shade and to be protected from drying out. While some plants tolerate a few frost nights others will need protection to avoid damage or that they die. Read descriptions about each plant if you don’t have much experience. Some seed catalogs have good information regarding this, but I also recommend getting a general book on vegetable gardening. I will gather a list in a later article. Feel free to tip me off on good books and links.
Remember that you can counter some of your climate issues with good design. A plant sensitive to sun can grow in the shade of a larger sun loving one. If you need extra heat, work with water or rocks which collect the heat during the day and reflect it during the night. Water and mirrors can also be used to reflect light to parts of the garden which are very shady.
4: Do you have time to tend to your garden daily or would you rather check in one or two times a week (or less)? The design principles I will describe later are created to give you as little work as possible, but some plants demand more care than others. Some need daily watering while others can take a bit more drought. Consider ways of implementing automatic watering if you want to grow more sensitive plants and minimize the need for weeding through ground covers (mulch) or ground covering plants.
5: Plan the number of plants according to your available space. Once again, remember to think vertically. You can hang pots on walls, let climbing plants grow on trellises etc and many plants will fit in next to each other – high ones together with low ones. Just remember that all plants need to get enough sun and nutrition. Adding extra compost and natural fertilizers is often needed when cultivating compact spaces.
Take the recommendations on the seed bags with a pinch of salt. These are written for industrial agriculture. With enough added nutrition and smart planning where you mix plants with different characteristics you can usually fit in more on a smaller space than what is stated there. Be observant if you see that the plants seem to be competing about the space. Then you might have to move some of them. The only way to learn this is to experiment and observe.
Some plants like and benefit each other better than others. Choosing plants to help each other is called companion planting. For instance tomatoes and basil are best friends. Others compete about the space or nutrition, for instance potatoes, tomatoes and eggplant which are too closely related to each other. There are, however, some contradictions about what works and not in different literature, so here as well – experiment and evaluate it for yourself over time.
6: Some plants are more difficult and sensitive than others. If you are a beginner, stick to easy to grow choices such as zucchini, herbs, strawberries, spinach and lettuce. Eggplant and cauliflower are a bit trickier. You’ll feel more encouraged to continue if you have some success. Start with the easy ones and then expand slowly to try out the more challenging ones.
7: Buying a few bags of seeds most people can afford. Buying seedlings or larger plants come at a greater cost, but can be worth it if you are not very experienced in drawing up plants from seeds. Ask around among friends. Those who do draw up plants from seeds tend to have a surplus. Maybe you can get a few for free. Seeds can also be saved from vegetables that you already eat. Not all of them will turn out the same since many variations you find in the supermarket are F1-seeds, a cross-breed of two different parental plants, where the offspring usually only inherits a few of the characteristics from each. They can still be fun trying out.
Don’t take on more than you can manage! It is easy to get carried away when looking in seed catalogs, wandering around on garden centers and reading gardening books. Start with a few plants the first season and then expand when you see what works and not and how much work you need to put in. You will notice that you learn new things every year, become more observant and feel confident to try out new challenges.
Question: Do you have further suggestions for factors to think about when choosing plants for your garden?
Activity: Choose at least 4 plants which you can grow together in a pot, raised bed or small garden plot (preferably more if you have the space). Make sure to mix plants of different height, different depth of the roots, colors and flavors. Don’t forget the herbs! They help out protecting the other plants from pests.
Here are two examples which I have put together:
1: Spinach/Arugula + Beans + Beetroot + Marigold