Everyone’s got their favorites, I’ve got mine, but every vegetable garden must have these 10 vegetables to fully appreciate the rewards a kitchen garden has to offer. It’s incredibly hard to whittle my favorite veggies down to 10, because we all know I have way more than 10. However these are the things that I look forward to planting, harvesting and eating every year, and absolutely could not do without.
Starting out with a bang, garlic. I use garlic in the kitchen at least twice a week. And not just a clove or two, I’m talking a couple heads at a clip. That’s my conservative estimate. Garlic is delicious in absolutely everything. So every year I devote at least 2 whole beds of my entire vegetable garden to this crop. Does that sound like a lot to you? Well, it’s almost never enough for me. This year I think I’ve finally got plenty…which amounts to 400 heads in the garden!
Living in Maine we grow hardneck garlic. Plant in the fall (check back in October, I’m going to post how to plant garlic, it’s an annual ritual here at Bowery Beach Gardens), mulch heavily, water in and forget about them till next year. Then cut off the scapes (looped seed head) in June, and harvest in July. Simple. Easy. And unquestionably scrumptious!
The best tasting garlic varieties in my kitchen are; ‘Music,’ ‘Georgian Fire,’ ‘Chesnok Red’ and ‘German Extra-Hardy.’
I really think every garden—and kitchen—should have a decent garlic store. Preservation-wise there are several options to keep your garlic all year long, store whole heads in a basket in a dark, dry spot, mince and freeze in olive oil, or slice and dehydrate. Whichever your fancy, garlic is an absolute must-have in my book.
BLT’s, pastas, sauce, hamburgers, crostini, caprese, sandwiches, bruschetta, salsa, tacos, roasted tomatoes, soups, flatbread pizzas and of course many, many salad iterations. All made with tomatoes. Need I say more?
Typically I have 16-20 tomato plants growing in my vegetable garden. And I NEED every single one. Once they start ripening up midsummer not a meal goes by without a tomato. Throughout the growing season I use as many as possible fresh, and any leftovers I freeze.
Tomatoes are a warm season crop with many of the most flavorful being indeterminate. Meaning they will need to be staked and trellised. Such a worthwhile crop, highly productive and painless to store.
Beyond enjoying fresh, freezing is the easiest—and quickest—way to preserve these tasty beauties, if I have time I’ll make sauce and can it for effortless pasta meals in winter. See why I think every garden should have at least one tomato plant?!
Trimming down my list of favorite tomatoes is tough. Here is goes in no particular order:
- ‘SuperSweet 100’s’ — cherry
- ‘Sungold’ — cherry
- ‘San Marzano’ — plum, Italian heirloom, 3”
- ‘Polish Linguisa’ — plum, heirloom 3”
- ‘Big Boy’ — slicing, beefsteak, 4”
- ‘Cherokee Chocolate’ — slicing, beefsteak, 4”
- ‘Brandywine’ — slicing, heirloom, beefsteak, 4”
- ‘Anna Banana Russian’ (hard to find, but sooo worth it!), slicing, heart-shaped, 4”
- ‘Costoluto Genovese’ AND ‘Costoluto Fiorentino’ — Slicing, Italian heirlooms, 4-5”
- ‘Summertime Green’ — Dwarf, slicing, beefsteak 4”
- ‘Zebra Red’ — slicing, 2.5”
For more on growing tomatoes, check out my post on 10 Tips for Growing Amazing Tomatoes!
Lettuce is a vegetable garden staple. This is the best way to up your salad game all season long. They start early and can run late into the fall with just a little extra protection. I sow lettuce every two to three weeks from May till October to keep me in fresh greens.
‘Buttercrunch,’ ‘Salanova Green Butter’, ‘Dragoon,’ ‘Deer’s Tongue’, ‘Black Seeded Simpson,’ ‘Dark Lolla Rossa,’ and ‘Nancy’ are some of my favorite varieties. If I had to pick just one….I’d say you can’t go wrong with a butter lettuce, they’re always a hit with family and friends.
My last sowing of the season is always, mache ’Vit’. Sometimes called Lamb’s Lettuce or Corn Salad, these little green rosettes grow even under the cover of snow. I do find a row cover helpful for location purposes, as well as keeping them growing longer into winter.
This is my go-to dinner vegetable. Whether steamed, draped in cheese sauce, tossed in pasta or eaten raw, broccoli tastes much better when fresh from the vegetable garden. A cool weather crop that I plant in two waves, once in late winter/early spring and again in late summer for a fall and winter harvest.
Over the years I’ve become a devoted fan of ‘Diplomat’ and ‘Acadia’ due to their high cold tolerance. I also have got to include ‘De Cicco’ sprouting broccoli, because of its longer harvest period.
I go through an obscene amount of carrots. My husband cannot figure out where they go.They get used in everything! Again, you just cant compare taste to that you get in the store.
Besides flavor, I look for storage quality in a carrot. Overall I prefer a Chantenay carrot. They’re shorter and look a bit stumpy, but they store well and are sweet and crisp! How is that not a winning combination?! The two available varieties are, the ‘Red-Cored Chantenay’ and ‘Royal Chantenay,’ which has a traditional orange core.
Some other yummy carrot varieties that I grow include; ‘Mokum,’ ’Bolero,’ and ‘Napoli.’ ‘Romance’ is another good option for a summer harvest as it tolerates the warmer weather better than other varieties.
Carrots, like broccoli are a cool season vegetable and I sow these twice a year for spring and fall harvests.
Onions are not considered sexy vegetables. They’re under appreciated. But like carrots, they’re something that I just can’t do without. When you cut into a garden-fresh onion the juices literally ooze out. They pack such a punch that those grocery store onions don’t stand a chance against those from my vegetable garden!
You can grow onions from seed or sets. Onion Sets are essentially one year old dry onions that were not allowed to mature. When sets are planted, they produce and early crop of onions. While onion sets are obviously easier, there is less choice in variety and flavors. My favorite source for sets are Johnny’s Seeds or the Maine Potato Lady, of which ‘Stuttgarter’ and ‘Red Barron’ are great performers.
Seed-wise there are so many more options. Start your onion seeds early, under lights. Keeping the soil surface at least 2-3” from the lights.When your seedlings are growing so tall they are touching the lights, cut back the green tops and raise the light so it is again 2-3” from the seedlings. Repeat until it is time to plant in the garden. This sends all the energy back into the seed, which will become the bulb. ‘Courtland,’ ‘Walla-Walla*,’ ‘Patterson,’ and ‘Redwing’ are front-runners for onion seed. For flatter, cipollini onions I prefer the ‘Gold Coin,’ ‘Borettana’ and ‘Red Marble’ varieties.
Plant many, many onions in your garden, you’ll be impressed at how they elevate your cooking. All the varieties listed above—except ‘Walla-walla’—store well. I keep mine in large baskets under a table in my kitchen. It’s dark with plenty of air movement. A couple hundred onions will see me through the year until the new crop arrives.
#7 Peas + Beans
Okay, I know these are different plants entirely. But I’m squeezing them both together cause I need to keep my list to 10 veggies only. There is a method to my madness though, they are both legumes, and they are both nitrogen fixers, so I’m sneakily counting them as one.
Sow these seeds directly in the ground as soon as your soil can be worked in your vegetable garden. If you’re more conservative by nature, sow 6-8 weeks before your spring frost date. Aside from full sun, additional compost and something to climb on (trellis, teepee or netting), they should be good to go. Water in well at planting and keep an eye on the weather. As long as you’re getting an inch of water per week, they’ll be good, otherwise you may need to provide some supplementary water at the base. I’m also a big mulcher, so make sure you mulch well.
The ‘Sugar Snap’ pea is my year-after-year go-to cause it’s just that good! If you have trouble with powdery mildew I’d suggest the ‘Super Sugar Snap.’ I’ve also grown ‘Sugar Ann’ for a sweet earlier pea harvest, but I still prefer the ‘Sugar Snap’ for flavor.
I’m going to be honest here, I’m not a huge bean girl. I personally enjoy dried beans. But I do love me some fresh green beans. ‘Provider’ is a great easy variety that tolerates most environments, so if this is your first foray into beans, that’s a good choice. Super long, delectable, with no strings makes ‘Fortex’ my #1 green bean. I grow this French filet bean every year and have never been disappointed. ‘Scarlet runner’ beans also make an annual appearance in my garden because I love the bright color they bring.
Cukes also make my list. I enjoy these guys fresh and pickled. I grow cucumbers on a simple A-frame trellis my husband built to keep them up, off the ground in the vegetable garden. As a bonus, I use the space underneath to grow lettuce. The shade from the cucumber vines keep the greens below cooler, and more productive in the heat of the summer.
‘H-19 Littleleaf’ is top of my list because its good for both, fresh eating and for pickling! Even though they’re smaller in size that traditional cukes, and have tiny spines that need to be wiped away, their flavor makes up for it. And they have great stress tolerance with excellent resistance to disease, which is win-win in my opinion.
Other varieties I’ve grown ands enjoyed include: ‘Diva,’ ‘Marketmore 76,’ ‘Katrina,’ and ‘Olympian.’ The ‘Striped Armenian’ is also quite tasty and has a quirky, striped curve to it.
Keep in mind that most cucumbers taste better when harvested immature and slightly smaller, than full size or entirely mature.
What to say about asparagus….you need to have this in your vegetable garden! Yes, it is a perennial. And yes, it will take up significant space in your garden beds. But just think about all those tender green spears you’ll have come springtime! Totally. Worth. It.
In my garden I grow ‘Jersey Supreme,’ and ‘Jersey Knight’. Recently I added ‘Millennium’ because it is said to be yield more delicious spears, and has a higher proportion of male plants, than the Jersey.
Point to keep in mind:
While you need both male and female plants, the male plants are more productive than female. The female plants drop seeds which results in more plants and overcrowding, which results in fewer, thinner spears and a reduction in plant life.
While you can grow asparagus from seed, and like onions there are so many more varieties open to you, buying one or two year old crowns is well worthwhile. When growing from crowns, remember that you can’t harvest the first year. The second year you can harvest for 1-1.5 weeks, and 2-3 weeks the following year. By the third year you’ll have a good 6-week harvest window.
One major benefit to growing this perennial, they last for 15+ years!
Rounding out my top 10 veggies is the good old squash. I include it because even though they aren’t showstoppers in the garden, nothing ever goes to waste. We eat or use every single one.
Of course there is the zucchini. Plant one or two plants. Seriously, that’s it! Your vegetable garden doesn’t need any more! Since these guys are super-duper productive and you will be giving the surplus away to every person who stops by your house.
There are so many incredible zucchini’s, but as I’ve tried to curtail my zucchini plantings to make room for other exciting seedlings, I now only grow ‘Costata Romanesco,’ and Italian heirloom that is ridiculously delicious and ‘Magda’ my favorite—and high yielding—middle-eastern type.
Spaghetti squash and ‘Butterscotch PMR’ butternut squash are also squash staples. ‘Honey bear’ is my go-to acorn squash, because of its small size, it’s perfect for my use. ‘Sunshine’ kabocha is a lovely bright orange and so sweet. See why I need to limit my zucchini’s? There has to be room for everyone in the squash bed. And we haven’t even gotten to the pumpkins yet!
A pumpkin is just a large orange squash. So in my mind I still (wink-wink) have not exceeded my top 10.
So here’s the pumpkins I absolutely must grow:
- ‘New England Pie’ — small, orange, perfect for seeds and pumpkin pie
- ‘Baby Bear’ — small, orange, perfect for my little man to handle
- ‘Cargo PMR’ — large, orange, perfect for Jack-o-Lanterns
- ‘Expert’ — large, orange, ornamental and/or carving
- ‘Polar Bear’ — large. white ornamental
- ‘Moonshine’ — medium, white, ornamental and/or carving
- ‘Rouge Vif D’Etampes’ — medium, French, bright cinderella orange pumpkin
- ‘Musquee de Provence’ — medium, French, ribbed green-tan with sweet flesh.
And not to be left out are the ‘Speckled Swan’ and ‘Bottle Birdhouse’ gourds. These are primarily decorative. While I used to grow both, now I only grow the ‘Speckled Swan’ as they are so incredibly gorgeous, they far outshine the birdhouse gourd.
And last—but certainly not least—are my ‘Tennessee Dancing Gourds’. Oh how I love these tiny small top-like gourds. My 18-month old son loves them since they’re the perfect size for little hands. I love them because they are great for decoration.
And as an extra perk, when the swan, birdhouse and dancing gourds dry out, they harden and become hollow. There are so many creative uses for these! My mom stained her dried dancing gourds, drilled holes in them, then put lights in them to make an enchanting fall garland. The possibilities are endless!
So there you have it, my top 10 vegetables that every kitchen garden should have. Of course there are so many more tasty veggies, but If I only could grow 10, these are what they’d be.