Choosing Vegetable & Herb Crops

Connect Choosing Vegetable & Herb Crops to Your Curriculum

  • Click Here for a Pizza Garden Activity and engage your students in choosing and growing pizza vegetables and herbs.
  • Click Here for a Chicks and Salsa Activity and engage your students in choosing and growing salsa vegetables and herbs
  • Click Here for a Song of the Seven Herbs Activity and engage your students in choosing and growing garden herbs
  • Click Here for an Oh Beans! Activity and engage your students in researching and growing different bean crops and their origins

 

Not all crops are created equal

Salad mix and other baby greens require lots of equipment and time for washing. Greens, herbs, and many of the cool-season crops are highly perishable. Cucumbers, summer squash, and okra require almost daily harvesting. Summer squash invite the inevitable onslaught of squash bugs and squash vine borers. Corn and melons require a lot of space. Tomatoes can succumb to disease before the season ends. Some of these crops may be well worth growing, while others might not. This is why it is so important to research each crop and its growing requirements before the growing season begins.

Several crops are relatively easy to grow. Potatoes, sweet potatoes, onions, and garlic require no upkeep beyond planting, mulching (or weeding), and harvesting. If heavily mulched, they can be grown without irrigation (beyond nature’s gift of rain), they have few pests and disease pressure, they are harvested all at once, and they store very well.

 

What time of year do we want the garden’s bounty to come to fruition?

If the produce is destined for the school then lettuce, radishes, and other spring/ cool season crops can make an appearance before summer break begins. A big challenge to school gardens is the summer break. If there is a summer program happening on-site that is great, otherwise your crop plan should take into consideration this gap. If you want tomatoes and melons when the kids come back for the new school year, then someone needs to be tending the garden over the break. Summer garden care could consist of hired help, volunteers, or be part of a summer program for interested students. Click here to download K-State Research and Extenion's Kansas planting calendar.

 

How much produce can we handle harvesting?

Knowing how much produce you are able to upkeep (plant, weed, and water), harvest, and sell or consume is important. Having too little is obviously disappointing – imagine having to cut a strawberry into seven slivers so that everyone can get a taste. On the other hand, too much produce can be equally disappointing and overwhelming. Watching food go to waste is difficult. Fortunately, it makes for great compost and the spent crops’ nutrients can cycle back into the garden. Additionally, food banks are often eager for fresh produce. Be sure to make arrangements with them in advance though, as not all food banks are set up to handle perishables.

 

Seedling starts or direct sowing of seeds?

Certain crops, like tomatoes and peppers, require a jump start on the season by being started indoors. Other crops, like carrots, peas, beans, and corn, require ‘direct sowing’, placing the seed directly into the garden soil. Many crops can be transplanted or directly sown. There are advantages and disadvantages to both.

The benefits of transplants include: allowing the plant time to establish itself in a controlled environment, free from pests and harsh weather, and the increased ease of irrigating hundreds of transplants confined to just a few square feet. Transplants are also in garden beds for a shorter period, allowing multiple crops to occupy the same bed throughout the season.

The main challenge to transplants is that they require some degree of equipment. At the very least you will need cell trays, soil mix, a spray bottle, and a very sunny window.  A heat pad speeds germination and benefits warm season crops like tomatoes and peppers. Grow lights are necessary if there is not a sunny space that offers at least six hours of direct sunlight. Without sufficient light transplants will become very ‘leggy’, reaching for the light. This will make them more vulnerable in the garden.

Starting seedlings in the classroom setting is a great way to involve students from the very beginning stages of the growing season and to garnish anticipation and excitement for the oncoming growing season.

If starting transplants is not feasible, you can look to local nurseries for donations. By late June many gardeners have already planted their gardens and garden centers may be willing to unload inventory at a discounted price, or even to donate stock. Establishing a relationship with a nursery and advertising that business’ charitable donations will create a mutually beneficial relationship.

Directly sowing seeds into the garden soil is necessary from many crops (such as carrots, beets, turnips, baby greens, etc.), for other crops the advantages of direct sowing versus transplanting must be weighed. Disadvantages of direct sowing include:  militant weed management to make sure the crops do not get outcompeted, keeping an eye out for pests that could easily take down small seedlings, irrigating a larger space on a daily basis (sometimes twice a day), needing to thin the germinated plants to the required spacing, and the challenge of occasional spotty germination.

Direct sowing fall crops takes place in the peak of the summer, and keeping young crops well watered can particularly challenging on hot days. Ideally the soil would never dry out completely, until the seeds are fully germinated. This requires one or two waterings per day. Further, cool season crops are vulnerable to extreme heat, so you will need to check the forecast and try not to sow seeds before a heat wave.

 

Crop varieties

Choosing crop varieties is fun, but it can also be overwhelming. Most crops include hundreds of varieties. One of the major distinctions is whether the variety is hybrid or open-pollinated. Hybrid crops are a cross between different varieties for specific characteristics. Hybrids offer more consistency and often times higher yield and disease resistance. Unlike open-pollinated varieties, seed saving of hybrids is unwise as the next generation will not be true to the parent plant.

Open-pollinated crops have the benefit of being able to save seeds, a wonderful activity for students that completes the circle of the crop’s life cycle. Heirloom crops are gaining in popularity. An heirloom is an open-pollinated plant that has been passed down many generations, each year adapting to the climate where it has been grown. Heirlooms come in all colors, shapes and sizes, can be quite unusual, and are often unparalleled in taste. It is best to look for heirloom varieties specifically adapted to you region’s growing conditions.

 

Annual vs. Perennial

Most gardens focus their efforts and attention on annual crops, plants that complete their life cycle in one growing season. For permanent gardens, consider perennial crops, which come back year after year. Perennial crops include fruit trees, berry bushes, rhubarb, asparagus, and many herbs including rosemary, oregano, and thyme. Perennials may take a few years to produce a crop, but they add diversity to the garden and are well worth the wait. They also create a sense of permanence, showing that the garden is here to stay.

 

Additional Information on Vegetable and Herb Crops can be downloaded below. These excerpts from the Kansas Gardening Guide are provided, with permission, from K-State Research & Extension.   Charles W. Marr, Ted Carey, Raymond Cloyd, and Megan Kennelly, Kansas Garden Guide, Kansas State University, March 2010. 

Additional information about nutrition, origins, and fun facts for Kansas fruits and vegetables can be downloaded below. This material was developed and is provided, with permission, by Child Nutrition and Wellness, Kansas Department of Education.