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How to determine the value of your garden plants

“I was in the garden, having just picked one of the few remaining Brandywines, when Anne came by and exclaimed, “What a beautiful tomato!”

“It should be,” I joked lamely. “It probably cost us $20.”

— William Alexander, “The $64 Tomato,” 2006

One sure sign of getting older is feeling like the world just doesn’t make sense anymore. Take the concept of value. It used to be that value meant quality in relationship to cost. Nowadays, quality doesn’t figure into the equation. Something is considered to be a “value” only if it’s inexpensive; never mind that it’s cheaply made and will soon need to be replaced.

I admit that I’ve been led astray before by “value” gardening implements: tools, gloves, potting soil, even plants. Yes, plants, too, have more or less value based on several characteristics. So, gardeners, before bringing home those deeply discounted plants that appear too good to pass up, here are a few considerations:

Can it be grown easily from seed? Growing plants from seeds is one of the joys of gardening, and seeds are usually less expensive than starts (especially if you store leftover seeds for next year or trade them with other gardeners). However, some plants are easier to grow from seeds than others, which substantially increases or decreases their bang for the buck.

Annuals typically are easier to grow from seed than perennials, whether they are flowers, herbs or vegetables. In my experience, some of the easiest vegetables to grow from seed are radishes, beets and lettuce (although thinning seedlings is an extra chore), as well as tomatoes, zucchini, beans and peas. On the other hand, I’ve found celery, spinach, basil, melons and cauliflower to be more difficult to grow from seed.

How much space does it need? The average amount of space needed to grow most vegetable plants successfully is 12-by-12 inches; however, some crops can be grown in smaller spaces and some crops require more room to thrive. Lettuce needs only 6-by-6 inches of space to grow well, and trellised beans and peas can be grown in 4-by-4-inch spaces. Other small-footprint crops are beets, carrots, garlic, leeks, onions, radishes and spinach.

Some crops are garden hogs, including tomatoes, pumpkins, summer squash, zucchini, artichokes, cucumbers (unless trellised), eggplants, broccoli, cauliflower and rhubarb.

How much does it produce? Even if a plant takes up a lot of space, it may still be a good value if it is highly productive. Tomato and tomatillo plants, for example, produce lots of fruit on each plant; however, pumpkin and melon vines are space hogs and produce only a few fruits. Other highly productive plants per square foot of space include bunching and bulb onions, leaf lettuce, turnips, summer squash, peas, beans and peas.

How much water does it need? Most vegetable plants need about one inch of water per week (more during the hottest months); however, some plants need more water than others. Sweet corn and lettuce are shallow-rooted plants that don’t grow well without plenty of moisture. Cool-season crops, in general, need more water: peas, cabbage, broccoli, cauliflower, collards, turnips, mustard greens, spinach and kale.

Some plants, such as snap beans and pole beans, thrive in drier soils. Deeper-rooted plants, such as tomatoes, squash and melons, are able to draw moisture from the soil after the surface dries out. I’ve found using less water for these plants after they are established also reduces their susceptibility to fungal and bacterial diseases.

How fast does it grow? The overall value of a garden crop increases when it matures quickly enough so succession crops can be planted. Most vegetables are ready to harvest after sowing seeds in about 70-80 days; however, some crops take much less time to mature while others are almost unbearably slow. Vegetables that take fewer than 70 days to harvest and can be planted at two-week intervals through June include: bush beans, beets, carrots, radishes, lettuce, spinach, cilantro and peas.

Slowpoke vegetable crops that take 90 days or longer to harvest include basil, cauliflower, leeks, onions, parsnips, peppers and winter squash. Garlic is the hands-down slowest crop to mature at 220-300 days until it’s ready to harvest.

I began this column with a quote from “The $64 Tomato.” It seems that Alexander originally underestimated the cost of growing his Brandywines. Yet, even at such an exorbitant price, the author concluded that his gardening experiences made the costs worthwhile, which goes to show that the true value of garden plants can be determined only by each gardener.

Rhonda Nowak is a Rogue Valley gardener, teacher and writer. Email her at Rnowak39@gmail.com. For more about gardening, visit her blog at http://blogs.esouthernoregon.com/theliterarygardener/.