Although you will have your own ideas and preferences about what vegetables to grow, this list is developed for people with limited space for a backyard vegetable garden, with a focus on crops that are easy to grow and expensive to buy.
What to plant: getting the best return on effort
Peas (edible pod)
Peas are one of the first crops to plant in spring, and with a short season of 50 – 60 days, one of the first to harvest. Peas need well-drained soil and do well in raised beds and large planters. Most varieties also need a medium height trellis (3 – 4′) to climb, although some will grow more than 6’ so be sure to check your seed package before planting. Peas are commonly sown directly into the ground from seeds, and they should be sown thickly.
However, they can also be sprouted indoors which can ensure success in damp conditions. (Tip: When sprouting indoors, prepare a shallow dish with water that has a tablet of vitamin C dissolved into it. Set in the seeds to sprout and cover with an absorbent cloth to keep moist. This will increase the size of the plants and the peas.) Stagger the planting time every two weeks to extend the harvest. Peas also contribute to the health of the soil by fixing nitrogen.
Many varieties are available. Large, head-forming lettuces like iceberg and butterhead can be planted single file in rows, which makes mulching easy, while smaller leafy varieties can be thickly planted in swaths 24″ wide for a ‘self-mulching’ effect. Ideally, grow several varieties of each type. Small lettuce transplants can also be interspersed throughout the garden wherever there is room.
A common problem with lettuce is ‘bolting’. Bolting occurs when the plant goes to seed and the leaves stop growing. Bolting is caused by temperatures that are consistently too high. To prevent bolting, plant lettuce in shaded area or plant next to a shading crop such as tomatoes or peas. Heat-tolerant varieties are also available. Check with your local seed provider to find cultivars best suited to your area.
This member of the Brassica family is highly valued because of its nutritional value and long period of productivity. Growing broccoli at home can also provide relief for the pocketbook because broccoli is so expensive to buy. Broccoli can be over-wintered, providing new shoots with small clusters which are much appreciated through the winter.
Sow brassicas directly from seed into the ground or in small starter pots. Starter pots are recommended because the seedlings are easier to protect from birds and slugs, and they can be moved indoors in inclement conditions until they are strong enough to transplant. Brassica crops should be grown on different beds (rotated) each year. Since broccoli can also be sensitive to hot weather, plant during early spring or late summer and mulch surrounding soil well to keep soil temperatures down. See Mulch Your Garden to Beat the Heat.
Barrier paper for broccoli seedlings:
Scraps of waxed cardboard from milk cartons are a simple defence against cabbage moths. Cabbage moth larvae kill young sprouts of the Brassica family (broccoli, cabbage, brussel sprouts, kale, cauliflower).
Cut into 2″ squares and slit one side into the center; make another small slit crossways. Slide the square so the seedling stem is in the center. This prevents the moth from laying eggs at the base of the sprouts. Leave in place – as the plant grows it will push the slit open wider. Be sure to apply as soon as the sprout appears. See Chaos in the Cole Crops: How to Control Cabbage Maggots.
There are many varieties to choose from for cherry, table, and paste tomatoes. Most plants will need tall stakes, which should be set when the plants are transplanted. Some people prefer to use wire cages or other staking methods (read our article How to Trellis Tomatoes for Maximum Yield).
Whatever you choose, the plants will need to be tied to the stakes as they grow, which takes a little time. Tomatoes do best when their leaves are kept dry. A simple shelter can be constructed for clear plastic sheeting to cover the plants; the sides can be left open. A layer of mulch will prevent rain splash from wetting the lower leaves, and will help retain moisture in the upper soil. While the transplants are growing in pots, till some green grass clippings into the soil where the tomatoes will be planted. This will warm the soil and give the young seedlings a boost when transplanted. See What to Do With All Those Tomatoes.
Where winter is mild, garlic is usually planted in the fall, before the frost. Garlic can also be planted in early spring. Separate and plant cloves base down, 2″ deep. To harvest, lift bulbs out when leaves die after plant blooms. Save several heads for next season’s crop. You’ll only have to buy garlic once for the initial planting, so buy quality certified disease free bulbs from a seed catalog. For more information, see Fall is the Best Time to Plant Winter Garlic.
Easy to grow, peppers are commonly started early in small pots and transplanted when it’s warm enough outside or in the greenhouse. Pick off any small peppers that may form on transplants or the plant growth will be stunted. Pick the green peppers as soon as they reach size; this will stimulate new fruiting and increase the yield per plant. You can leave one or two plants unpicked if you want the peppers to sweeten and turn red or yellow; however, these plants will produce fewer peppers.
Onions and leeks
Slow to mature, at 3 – 5 months, onions and leeks need moist soil with good drainage. Purchasing onion ”sets’ or small bulbs will shorten the time to maturity by 4 – 6 weeks. Plant onions early in the season and sow thickly. They secret to large bulbs is to provide warmth early; this can be done by covering the shoots with a row cover or cloche, and tilling some green grass clippings into the soil before planting. Harvest when the onion tops turn yellow and wither.
Easy to grow with few pest problems and a long productive season, Swiss chard lends itself to many recipes or salads because it’s equally good cooked or raw. Chard can be grown from transplants or direct sown into the garden beds. You can now choose from an array of colorful options, too. To discourage leaf-miners, do not plant chard near spinach or beets. Row covers can also be used to protect chard from leaf-miners. See Five Early Greens You Can Eat in Winter and Early Spring.
Squash (summer and winter)
Zucchini and yellow squash are compact, easy-to-grow plants that provide great summer vegetables. Winter varieties take more room to grow but are a highly valued winter vegetable and an excellent storage crop. Plant squash individually in small hills and, for winter squash, allow plenty of room for their long vines and large leaves to crawl along the ground.
If ground space is limited, squash can be grown vertically on a sturdy trellis. Each squash will need to be tied to the trellis by its stem to support its weight as it grows. To protect seedlings from squash bugs, start the seeds indoors in small pots. Plant out after the soil has warmed up.
While there are many varieties of green beans, they can be generally classified into bush beans or pole beans. Bush beans grow to about knee-height and can be planted in front of taller plants like tomatoes. Pole beans grow tall and require support in the form of tall poles or a trellis.
Pole beans should be grown in the back of the garden so they don’t shade other plants. Beans should be sown directly into the ground from seeds, as they do not take well to transplanting from smaller pots. Stagger the planting times to extend the harvest.
... And if you have the space
In gardening, success breeds expansion. If your backyard has enough space and you want to add a few more crops to your veggie garden, here are some suggestions for the best use of more space.
As the cost of bread rises, potatoes are more and more valued as a nutritious starchy food. Potatoes are easy to grow, can take marginal soil, and give a good yield for the space they take. Early “new” potatoes can be planted in mid-spring, just before the last frost; winter varieties are planted in early summer. Potatoes are planted directly in the ground, in rows, from cut seed potatoes or old potatoes that have started to sprout.
To learn more about growing potatoes, read our article: Growing potatoes is easy … and so rewarding.
This highly nutritious berry plant is a perennial, waist-high shrub which should be planted along one of the side borders of your vegetable plot. The soil should be slightly acidic. Choose from locally recommended varieties. Plant 6 – 8 bushes for a reasonable harvest, and at least two varieties to promote fertilization. Blueberries bear fruit on the previous years’ shoots, so once the plant is 3 -4 years old, prune out the older central shoots to stimulate new growth.
Choose from locally recommended varieties of slicing-type cucumber. Bush varieties are compact and better for small gardens. Start from seed in pots or sow direct when the ground has warmed. The soil must be rich, moist, and well drained, so make a small hill and plant 2 – 3 seedlings.
To retain moisture, we cut holes in black sheet plastic and set over the seedlings. Protect seedlings from cold spring nights and pests by covering with any clear plastic or glass container; remove as soon as the sun comes out or the seedlings will get too hot.
Strawberries are a good crop to get children interested in gardening, but you’ll have competition from predators. Netting is not good enough: the birds get caught in the net. Build a frame with 1″ poultry mesh around the entire bed. To prolong the harvest, try ‘ever-bearing’ varieties, which bear fruit all summer.
Easy to grow and not a favorite of slugs and caterpillars, ‘spinach beets’ are simply beet seeds grown for their greens. Sow seeds directly into the soil and thin out the seedlings when they come up. Beets grown for greens will produce all summer; just harvest the leaves for salads as you need them. They provide a delicious and colorful addition to any salad.
Crops we no longer grow
Some gardeners may howl at these suggestions, and rightly so, as we each have our preferences and tastes. However, over the years we have given up on a few crops because of difficulties with pest management, crop yield, or relative low price in stores and farmer’s markets.
Corn is a heavy feeder, requiring lots of fertilizer. Keeping up with the demands of enriching the soil can be difficult and expensive. Additionally, raccoons have a taste for corn and corn takes up a lot of space for the yield. When the price of corn at local farmer’s markets is so low, it’s often a good option to use the space for more expensive produce.
Carrots take up very little room considering the yield, but they require rich deep soil, free of stones. Prone to rust fly damage, carrots need to be grown under a floating row cover. While a few carrot plants, especially the baby varieties, are recommended for a child’s garden plot, we were never successful at growing a carrot crop. It was too difficult keeping the row cover anchored in winds, and the rust fly would get in.
Similar to pumpkins in space needed to grow, watermelons have to be well grown to be large and tasty; in our experience, the fruit was always smaller than expected and not very sweet. Not the best use of space, especially for an inexpensive, short-season melon.
It takes a lot of space to grow pumpkins; their vines can trail along the ground for twenty feet. In the end you get a large squash that doesn’t store well. Better to give any ‘squash’ space to a good winter keeper like Buttercup.
Planting basics: when and how to plant vegetables
The basic soil requirements for plants to grow and produce fruit are Nitrogen (N), Phosphorus (P) and Potassium (K). The relative amounts of these elements are listed on most bags of fertilizer and soil amendments. (See “Up, Down, and All Around”: A Simple Way to Understand Fertilizers).
- Nitrogen is essential for vigorous stem and leaf growth. Sources of nitrogen include manure, bloodmeal, bonemeal, canola meal, cottonseed meal and others.
- Phosphorous is essential for strong root systems and flowering. It can increase fruit development and seed yield. Sources of phosphorous are rock phosphate, bloodmeal, bonemeal, cottonseed meal, and urine.
- Potassium is essential for cell division and strong stems. It helps fight disease, improve the quality of fruit, and decrease the water requirement of plants. Sources of potassium are wood ashes, greensand, manure, and compost.
Timing your planting
You’ll need to schedule your planting according to the seasonal temperature range in your region and your average frost dates. Early season plants like peas, Swiss chard, broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, turnips, and onions grow best at temperatures between 10-20C (50-70F). These plants prefer a cooler time of the year to grow and will usually tolerate frost.
Vegetables like lettuce, celery, cabbage, carrots, radish, parsnip and leek have intermediate temperature requirements. They grow best in temperatures between 15-25C (60-80F). Set these out after the early season plants are established.
Warm season vegetables grow best in temperatures above 20C (70F) and will die if exposed to frost. These include corn, potato, tomato, eggplant, beans and all the vine crops. So make sure the majority of their growing season is in the warmer months.
For crop-specific instructions, read the seed packets. Planting schedules, planting instructions and days to maturity will be listed on the seed packets you buy for each vegetable you plant.
Growing from seed vs. buying transplants (starters)
Garden vegetables can be grown from seed sown indoors in pots or trays, sown outdoors directly into the garden beds, or transplanted from starters bought at a garden center. When sowing seeds indoors in trays or pots, use a fine sterilized potting mix (do not compost or garden soil for starting seeds). Stand pots in water until soil is fully wetted. Set pots on windowsill for light, but remove at night if frosty.
Some plants, like peas and beans, must be sown directly. Plants which are direct sown are usually sown thickly (very close together) and then thinned once they are sprouts. This ensures a full crop, since some of the seeds may not sprout.
Assign permanent spots for perennials
Most vegetables are annuals. However, some, like asparagus, are perennials. Once perennials are established, you won’t want to move them. Take care to locate perennial crops in an area that won’t interfere with future plantings of annual crops. Also keep your plants’ need for full sun in mind.
It is unlikely that all your seeds will sprout. Even when you start small with your first garden, it’s a good idea to plant 10-20% more seed to ensure a good result.
Time your transplanting
Set your starters outdoors on a clouded or overcast day, or in the later afternoon so that the delicate young leaves don’t wilt in direct sun. Keep them well watered until they are established, smaller roots have difficulty drawing enough moisture from the soil.
Transplant with care
Plants that have been started in any type of container should never be uprooted or separated from the soil. Lightly water the pot so the soil is moist then coax the seedling out using a gentle tap to the side of the pot. Turn the pot on its side and the seedling should easily slide out.
When setting out plants started in peat pots, gently tear off the rim and the bottom of the pots, leaving the rest intact to protect the roots. The remaining sides of the pot will break down into the soil over time.
After transplanting new plants, create a berm of soil around their base with a slight depression in the center. This directs water down towards the central root zone, and reduces the amount of water lost to runoff.
Arrange your plants in 'tiers' facing the sun
Watch how the sun travels in your garden. Plant your garden with the shortest plants at the southern end and building up to the tallest plants at the northern end. Make sure your taller plants don’t block the sunlight for the smaller plants. Plants supported by a trellis, like squash, peas or pole beans, should be placed toward the northern and eastern edges of the garden plot, so as not to shade other plants.
Rather than plant a crop, such as lettuce or broccoli, all at once, it’s better to plant several crops spaced two weeks apart. This will prevent a windfall of one crop all at one time, and will extend your harvest of fresh vegetables over the full length of the growing season.
Use a cloche or cold frame to protect seedlings
A small, clear shelter like a cloche will protect seedlings from pests, warm the soil, and provide more favorable conditions for delicate seedlings. However, be sure that the soil is kept watered, as the cloche will prevent rain from wetting the soil.
For more information about how to build a small portable cloche, read How to Make an Instant Cloche to Protect Seedlings.
Tuck plants in bare spots
Bare spots invite weeds. Fill in any bare spots with small annuals like lettuce, celery, mint, nasturtium, or parsley.
Don't add nitrogen once plants are established
Manure, blood meal, canola meal, and other high nitrogen sources are essential for vigorous plant and leaf growth, but should be withheld once the plant is established or shows any signs of flowering. Too much nitrogen will promote more plant growth when the plant should be producing fruit. Large, leggy plants with little fruit yield indicate too much nitrogen.
Keep a planting record
Make a note of which plants are planted in each bed. At the end of the season you can note any problems or improvements for subsequent crops. Also, this record makes it easy to decide which beds to rotate crops into next spring.
Rotate crops each year
Rotation will often prevent reinfection of vegetables from disease spores from last years’ crops. Tomatoes for instance are susceptible to verticillium wilt and that remains in the soil and can attack the current crop.