Growing your own vegetables in a backyard garden is an enormously satisfying experience. There's no better way to spend the last snowy nights of winter than planning a summer garden. Deciding which plants to include is a matter of personal taste, but certain vegetables are essential for almost all gardens, either because they're easy to grow or else they're worth the effort.
Carrots can be sown in early spring and are best direct-seeded into the garden. Gardeners often place an old board directly over the newly sown carrot seeds for a week or two, to keep the tiny seeds moist while they germinate. Harvest carrots 85 to 95 days after planting. Good cultivars include Danvers Half Long, Thumbelina and Scarlet Nantes.
White- or yellow-fleshed potatoes are best grown from seed potatoes, which are about the size of a dime. Potatoes can also be planted early in spring, once the danger of frost has passed. Many gardeners mound up to 2 feet of soil and compost on top of the emerging shoots, to encourage tuber production. Potatoes will mature in 95 to 120 days. Good varieties include Red Pontiac, Yukon Gold and Yellow Finn.
Onions can be grown from seeds or sets, but sets produce mature onions much faster. Select onions suitable for your location based on day length and your latitude. Onions mature from sets in 60 to 80 days and from seed in 90 to 120 days. Good choices include Excell, Early Grano and Candy.
Lettuce is a cool-season crop, best grown when seeded directly in the garden in late fall or late winter. Lettuce will bolt and turn bitter as the weather warms, so it's best harvested before summer arrives. Stagger your plantings a week or two apart for an extended harvest. Also, plant other vegetables in the same bed as soon as the lettuce is finished in late spring. Try Black Seeded Simpson, Buttercrunch and Red Sails.
Kale is a hardy leafy green that belongs in every garden. Sow kale in early spring or late fall to produce sweet tender greens in summer. Kale plants may persist all season long and even overwinter in the garden. Good varieties include Russian Red, Lacinato and Blue Knight.
Tomatoes are an all-time favorite for the home garden, perhaps because nothing tastes quite like a vine-ripe homegrown tomato. Plant determinate varieties, which are shorter bush types, or indeterminate varieties, which continually grow as vines. Determinate types tend to produce fruit all at once and then decline, while indeterminate types fruit over a long season, but require staking. All-time favorite tomatoes include Beefsteak, Cherokee Purple and Early Girl. Harvest times vary from 60 to 85 days.
Summer squash is a fast growing, long bearing plant, which is at home in any garden. Squash grows best when direct seeded or transplanted when young, so that it never becomes root bound. Both green zucchini types and yellow types produce abundantly. The male flowers, which do not develop into squash can also be used in soups or as a vegetable. "Seneca Prolific" and "Zucchini Elite" are good varieties.