Backyard Or Farmers' Market?
April 14, 2009 6:03 AM   Subscribe

Help a first-time vegetable gardener strategize what to grow versus what to keep buying at the farmers' market.

We are excited about growing our own vegetables for the first time this year, but we also love supporting the farmers' markets in our city (Cincinnati). We'd like to figure out what's best (in terms of difficulty, cost-effectiveness, labor intensity, and quality) to grow in our own backyard, and what's best left to the farmers.

We enjoy all types of produce, are pretty good cooks, cook at least 5 dinners per week at home, and don't mind waiting for different vegetables to come into season locally. The main draw for us is the savings growing your own food brings, eating food that hasn't been sprayed/treated with chemicals, and still being part of a great community tradition (the farmers' market).

I guess an ideal situation would be growing the easiest, cheapest, and "best results" stuff at home, but buying what's tougher to grow (or grow cost-effectively) at the market. The growing conditions for Cincinnati, as well as the size of our garden plot (about 20x10), are also factors here.
posted by Rykey to Home & Garden (24 answers total) 37 users marked this as a favorite
I notice that silver queen corn is hard to get at the farmers market. Bicolor and other sweet corn are readily available in the midwest. Rhuhbarb is pretty easy to grow and makes a pretty plant as well.

Summer is so good at the farmer's market with prices pretty cheap that it would be hard for me to say what to grow that is not available. For example, I do not grow herbs because I get them for $1 at the market and it is a LARGE bunch, like basil. However, heirloom tomatoes are always tastier when it comes from your garden, I must admit.
posted by jadepearl at 6:24 AM on April 14, 2009

My personal experience was that herbs were always a good thing to grow as they tend to be expensive, and I generally only need a little at a time (and most of a bunch goes to waste) ... and they are mostly idiot-proof (and fit well into a balcony garden).

Also ... I had good experiences with:

Miserable failures were:
Lettuce (attracts bugs)
Berries on big bushes

Good bug spray was mixing 1 part turpentine, 1 part dish washing liquid, and 10 parts water in a spray bottle.
posted by jannw at 6:26 AM on April 14, 2009

It would be helpful if you gave us a list of what you want to eat. Then we could tailor our advice to that, rather than trying to cover every possibility.

That said, the only thing I might try to warn you off of growing yourself would be brassicas. Depending on where you are, the bugs often get 80-90% of the harvest unless you a) use chemicals or b) use floating row covers. But floating row covers aren't that big of a deal.

Squash bugs can decimate a cucurbit patch, too, but most squash is prolific enough that you will still get a harvest. The exceptions, in my experience, are pumpkins—it's often a losing battle there.
posted by bricoleur at 6:28 AM on April 14, 2009

"Decimate" in the modern, incorrect sense of the word, dangit.
posted by bricoleur at 6:29 AM on April 14, 2009

Don't grow things that either take a long time to establish or take a lot of space to grow. So, don't grow winter squash, strawberries, asparagus, or corn. Do grow things that are expensive at the farmer's market or you like to have readily available. So, do grow tomatoes, herbs, lettuces.
posted by sulaine at 6:31 AM on April 14, 2009

For first-time gardening, consider gardening a much smaller area. There's going to be a learning curve, and a big garden is likely to get away from you and be an exercise in frustration because you won't recognize problems until they've become unmanageably large.

Herbs, if you're in the habit of buying those $2-$3 clamshell cases, are an easy way to save money. Rosemary won't survive Ohio winters, but sage, oregano and thyme will. Parsley grows well as an annual. Cilantro is more challenging because it bolts quickly, but you might try it too.

Get a bag of onion sets and grow them for scallions instead of aiming for mature bulbs. You can keep extra sets in the refrigerator and plant replacements for whatever you harvest.

I think your last frost date is right about now, so it's too late for cool-weather crops like spinach and peas. Try these in late Summer for a Fall crop.

Try some tomatoes, peppers and squash. You'll have to buy transplants at a nursery, because it's too late in the season to start them from seed. Beans and lettuce you can still plant from seed.

Most importantly, get a good book on the subject. Mel Bartholomew's Square Foot Gardening would be an excellent choice, as would any of Shepherd Ogden's books on organic gardening.
posted by jon1270 at 6:31 AM on April 14, 2009

Oh, and keep a journal of what happens this year, and when it happens. It will be very valuable next year.
posted by jon1270 at 6:33 AM on April 14, 2009

Zone 7 here. I've had really good luck with eggplant and cucumbers. Greens like collards and mustard produce like crazy and they're great for stir fries, side dishes and soups. Radishes are dead simple and only take about a month to produce. Green onions are also great to have around. Zucchini I've had mixed results with. They usually produce like crazy, then the squash borers take them. I'm considering using nematodes to control them this year.

I've tried (and am currently trying) broccoli in the spring, but it hasn't gone so well. The only other things I won't do is potatoes and regular onions. I can't tell the difference between the store and home grown, and they're really cheap, so I'm not going to bother.
posted by electroboy at 6:38 AM on April 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'd say that the easiest way to figure this out is to consider:

a) the specific growing conditions in your yard, and
b) what you eat most.

Different vegetables have different growing requirements. What kind of soil do you have in your yard? How wet or dry is it? How much sun? Whether or not a vegetable is easy or hard to grow is only part of it -- there are some vegetables that are "easy" as long as you have wet soil and and partial shade, and some that are "easy" if you have dryish soil and lots of sun. I'd do a survey of your intended garden patch first, see what the conditions are like, and then figure out what would actually work in that kind of garden patch.

Also, no matter how easy a vegetable is to grow, it won't be all that cost-effective if no one's eating it. If it turns out that the only things your particular intended patch is good for are brussels sprouts and spinach, and everyone hates spinach, that's not going to do you any good.

Within each type of vegetable, there are a lot of different varietals that are "easier" or "harder"; some tomatoes require less care and coddling than others, but they all tend to have some conditions in common. I'd start with figuring out what's possible for your yard, which will narrow things down; then you can pick from that range, and use the farmer's market for whatever you can't do.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 6:38 AM on April 14, 2009

Crazy-simple: tomatoes, basil, rosemary, oregano, thyme, peas, peppers, summer squash, kale/chard/other rigid leafy things

Pain-in-the-butt: lettuce, spinach, brassicas (broccoli, cauliflower, etc.), corn

Maybe, depending on space and bugs: potatoes, radishes, carrots, other ground crops, cabbage, beans

Man, I miss my bucket garden...
posted by fracas at 6:38 AM on April 14, 2009

IMHO It is not too late to start peas, spinach or lettuce. Nor is it too late to try starting tomatoes and peppers etc. from seed. You can give them a month to see how well or not they do and then go to the nursery or garden center and buy established plants if necessary. According to my books mid April is about the latest for peas if you want an early harvest. Mid May for a later one. Leafy things can always be planted and harvested as young plants (Mescalin mix).

As for what to grow: Heirloom tomatoes. There are dozens of varieties that, if they can be found, cost a lot at the markets.
Brussel Sprouts... pick them as late as Thanksgiving.
posted by Gungho at 6:43 AM on April 14, 2009

I highly recommend giving yourself at least a year for experimenting. Grow a little bit of everything if you can, multiple varieties of cucumbers, tomatoes, lettuce, squash, beans, strawberries or whatever else suits your fancy. When I started out I ordered a lot of those 35 cent trial seed packets from artistic gardens. I probably killed half of my first crop but I learned what would and would not grow in my yard and what vegetables I truly liked. It turns out that I find some lettuce varieties too bitter to stomach and I can't grow corn to save my life. Also, I don't have the patience for carrots. Luckily, I found this out before I planted an entire yard full of stuff I couldn't use.

Our strategy has developed into growing plants that can be used a little at a time and crops that produce enough to make an impact on our bottom line. We clip tasty bits off of our herbs, lettuce and swiss chard here and there. Unlike food in the fridge, they will regenerate and keep giving throughout their growing season. We grow enough tomatoes, zucchini, strawberries and cucumbers so that we have plenty to feed ourselves and a little extra to give away. They practically take care of themselves and it's wonderful that when you need a vegetable for dinner you can just go out into the yard and pick one.
posted by Alison at 6:47 AM on April 14, 2009

I'd recommend growing some of the products you cannot buy (or cannot buy cheaply) at your local farmers market - namely heirloom tomatoes, unusual varieties of eggplant, peppers, horseradish, asparagus, lemongrass, non-standard basils, and especially different kinds of melons. (I'm growing all of the above and more growing in my garden.)

I've got some Tigger melons (from Armenia) and Kiwano (African Horned Cucumber) growing this year and you cannot readily find these melons at my local farmers markets.

I'm of the mind that someone else can grow the beans and corn and I will gladly pay them or trade for a couple of bushels throughout the summer.
posted by cinemafiend at 6:47 AM on April 14, 2009

Tomatoes are insanely easy, as well as any kind of pepper. Zucchinis and Cukes are easy as well as long as you trellis them. As for herbs, I would grow them in pots. I grew them in the ground last year and they got completely out of hand. You can also grow radishes and beets. They can be planted as seeds and have a 30-50 maturation period. You can plant one set and then 2 weeks later plant another set so you can have them all summer long.

Things I would stay away from would be any kind of wheat, corn, potatoes, anything that can be bought cheaper than growing it yourself. These also will strip your soil of its nutrients.

If you have the room you could try pumpkins, melons, fruit trees/bushes. But be aware that melons will take over a large part of your yard and trees/bushes are permanent.

Also Fracas mentioned a bucket garden. This is an awesome idea for smaller things like your herbs, cherry tomatoes, (I grow my radishes in a large pot. It's perfect and fits a bunch of them!).

Lastly, plant a few flower beds as well. Marigolds are perfect and attract lots of bees. Last year I planted a bunch of different flowers based solely on how beautiful they were and I could not notice that there was a shortage/disappearance of bees. They were everywhere. You should also check this site out. I planted a couple plants from this list and I never had a pest problem.

Sorry for the long never ending answer.

Life is a garden.... Dig it.
posted by Mastercheddaar at 7:00 AM on April 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

Peas! They are great right out of the garden because they are soooo sweet. As soon as they are picked the sugars start turning into starches. It is definitely worth growing your own peas at home. You should probably plant those now.

Tomatoes for spur-of-the-moment BLTs. I recommend Cherokee Purple - best heirloom ever. Last summer heirloom tomatoes were $5/pound at my local Whole Paycheck, so it was definitely worthwhile to have a steady supply from my own garden.

How about a little area for cut flowers? Zinnias, snapdragons, coreopsis, black-eyed susans, etc.

You probably don't need to grow corn. Around here it's 5 ears for a dollar during sweet corn season. Corn is also best grown on a large scale. Potatoes are cheap enough to buy at the store, too.
posted by Ostara at 7:10 AM on April 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'm in a similar zone as Cincinnati, growing on clay soil. Looking at this from a return-on-labor perspective and considering that you can buy the rest at the farmers' market, I would focus on cut-and-come-again veggies and high-yield stuff that tastes best super-fresh.


Herbs: Easy, and you can just snip what you need out of the garden.

Leafy greens: Yes, brassicas attract cabbage moths. Picking off the worms stops the damage. I drop them in a bucket of soapy water. The result is an almost endless supply of greens into the winter, since you just cut off how many leaves you need and the plant continues to grow more. I'm a fan of kale, collards, tatsoi, bok choy, and komatsuna. I avoid spinach (a short plant) because the taller greens give me more yield in the same area and tolerate the heat better.

Tomatoes: Start them from seed for the widest selection. I like Juliet plum tomatoes and, from the Johnny's catalog, Matt's Wild Cherry tomatoes for the ultimate in garden candy. A warm tomato fresh from the garden surpasses even the ones from the farmers' market.

Peppers: Widest choices if you start them from seed. I like narrow but mild peppers, like Eastern European varieties. At the local market, I can't buy interesting peppers so I grow my own.

Potatoes: New potatoes fresh-dug from your garden have more flavor than you can get even at the farmers' market.

Sugar snap peas: Prolific and fresher & juicier than you can buy anywhere.

Sweet potatoes: Can be a huge yield, and they freeze well (dice, blanch briefly, put in freezer bags). At the same time, if you can buy them easily at the market, you could use the space for more greens or other more perishable stuff.

Cucumber: If you eat a lot of them, grow them. If you want only an occasional cuke, buy it.

Berries: If you eat a lot of berries, consider a berry bush. Blueberries require special soil preparation but could be worth it considering the price of them in the market and their powerful nutritional punch. Raspberries are a lot easier.

Not so useful

I avoid the following:

Corn doesn't give a useful yield in such a small plot.

Eggplant is destroyed by flea beetles in my area, but the situation may be different in yours.

Squash, pumpkins, and other sprawling vines take up a lot of space for a relatively small yield.

Onions and garlic are cheap and easy to buy any time of the year.

Heading cabbage: too hard to pick off all the cabbage worms before they burrow out of reach.
posted by PatoPata at 7:11 AM on April 14, 2009 [3 favorites]

Based just on the quality of your produce vs. what you can get on the farmer's market:

Corn. Corn starts to degrade as soon as you pick it so being able to pick it right before cooking helps.

Tomatoes. Really ripe tomatos often don't transport well, so you can get riper tomatoes to your table. Just don't plant too many unless you plan on canning or giving them away.

Strawberries. The transport issues are even more pronounced for strawberries. There's nothing like a ripe strawberry, red all the way through, plucked right off the plant and warm from the sun.

Herbs. The advantage with having the herbs in your garden is you can harvest just what you need and leave the plant. Buying at the farmer's market you're stuck with a sprig which is probably not the right amount.
posted by jefftang at 7:33 AM on April 14, 2009

your plot is in feet? sounds perfect for first-timers if so.

plant: potatoes, beans, sunflowers, and summer squash.
posted by peter_meta_kbd at 7:51 AM on April 14, 2009

My vegetable garden is across the other side of the Atlantic, so I'm going to struggle to help with climate concerns, but here's what I've found so far:

I have been most pleased that I have taken the trouble to grow tomatoes, peas, french beans (especially borlotti), broad (fava) beans, salad mixes of cut-and-come-again lettuce and new potatoes. I've found having a herb patch really very useful because as others say above, it's difficult to get the right amount from shops and when you do it's expensive. Small winter squashes are great if there's only a couple of you rather than pumpkins. Courgettes/zucchini are fantastic but can be too prolific. You might as well plant radishes because they don't take any time or effort and you can be eating fattoush with your own radishes as a quick win.

Onions are barely worth growing & I think I only do because it's something to do in Autumn when there's not much else to plant. I can't tell the difference between a shop-bought and a home-grown onion. I think I probably will plant a pumpkin again this year, just because the size that the plant got to last year amused me if no one else, but if you're not as feeble-minded as me and don't find menacingly large plants amusing I'd go for something with a better edible/biomatter ratio (perhaps the small squash I mention above). I keep a wiki of sorts which lists the varieties we try in case it's at all useful - the wiki's only in its second year, and my garden's in its third.
posted by calico at 8:15 AM on April 14, 2009 [1 favorite]

Nthing tomatoes and herbs.

If you like chives, they are the hardiest thing I ever grew in my garden. I planted just one seedling from the nursery and every year it got bigger and bigger, but not unmanageably so, and produced pretty purple flowers, and tons of chives.

Basil on the other hand is one of the lowest producing herbs, at least in my experience. But VERY tasty when it's fresh out of your garden. If you like basil, I'd recommend planting a lot of these, like a half-dozen at least. If you want to have pesto often, then you'll want to plant even more.

Fresh mint and parsley are also fantastic.
posted by marsha56 at 9:01 AM on April 14, 2009

Grow things for convenience; being able to pick salad from your garden is fantastic. Cherry tomatoes are easy, and a great snack every time you walk by. Grow your own herbs. Put the rosemary in a pot so you can bring it indoors. Grow enough basil for pesto. Grow varieties that are hard to find, like a few heirloom tomatoes. And grow a few things just because you want to try them, or really love them. Kale is pretty and a a great soup addition.

If you own your home, or will ent for a long time, put in an asparagus bed and strawberries.
posted by theora55 at 12:14 PM on April 14, 2009

Response by poster: Awesome, well-considered answers! Thanks everybody, and keep 'em coming!
posted by Rykey at 5:20 PM on April 14, 2009

Great advice above-the only thing I would add is that I find lettuce and spinach to be very worth it, and I'd be surprised if it was too late for you. These are two of the items that I find go to waste most often in our fridge when I buy a bag or a head, as we aren't huge salad-eaters and the greens can rot so quickly. We will, however, eat a salad every night when lettuce and spinach is in season; or eat sauteed spinach-it's great being able to pick just what we can use that day. We don't spray, just bait for slugs, and I have had no pest problems with either veggie. I don't know if you have children, but if you do, they will often eat things fresh-picked that they won't eat prepared. My kids both will eat every cherry tomato and pea I grow, and will "sneak" spinach off the plant though they won't touch it in a salad or anywhere else.

Make sure if you grow mint that you put it in a container or it will take over (and I love growing it-easy, great added to a bunch of dishes, plus you can make fresh mint syrup for juleps, mojitos, and fabulous sweet ice tea).
posted by purenitrous at 8:55 PM on April 14, 2009

The problem with spinach is that it bolts quickly when warm weather arrives, and that time is coming on fast in southern Ohio. It's easy and cheap to scatter some seed, but I think you'd get a better crop in the fall. For the summer, Swiss chard would be a good substitute.

Lettuce, though - absolutely. Grow it from seed, not store-bought transplants. Leafy and loose-head lettuces are easier and quicker than crisp lettuces like romaine.
posted by jon1270 at 8:44 AM on April 15, 2009

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