One of the surest ways to grow a successful vegetable garden is to emphasize crops and varieties that are proven performers in your climate. Using well-adapted varieties gives your garden a strong backbone, which frees you up to try some fun crops on the side — a guaranteed formula for a satisfying season. It also gives you a leg up when it comes to your garden’s health and productivity, meaning you’ll be able to harvest more food with less work.
Begin by finding your gardening zone. The United States Department of Agriculture’s Plant Hardiness Zone Map divides North America into zones based on minimum winter temperatures, which we will use as a starting point. Long-lived trees, shrubs and perennials are given a range of zones in which they grow best, and because a zone number also reflects the length of the growing season and intensity of summer heat, knowing your zone helps vegetable gardeners, too.
In addition to using the map here, the Zone Map website includes a pull-down menu where you can see your state’s Zone Map. Once you know your zone, commit it to memory, and read on to learn about the most unstoppable crops for where you live. The growing seasons listed here are averages typical of the various zones. You can find the specific length of your growing season, plus your specific first and last frost date here.
Zones 3 and 4
GROWING SEASON: Less than 140 frost-free days
AVERAGE MINIMUM WINTER TEMPERATURES: -20 to -40 degrees
SUREFIRE FRUITS: Juneberries, raspberries
The upper Midwest, northern mountains and New England have short, cool summers and long, cold winters, which make them the ideal climates for peas, potatoes and other cool-season crops. An asparagus patch is valuable because the plants are ready to start growing as soon as the ground thaws, but some varieties emerge so early they can be damaged by cold. The Canada-bred ‘Guelph Millennium’ variety emerges a week later than other all-male asparagus varieties, making it a top choice.
Peas of all types are prime picks, but make sure to grow an elegant ‘Green Arrow’-type shell pea because they are so beautiful and delicious. Use snow peas with colorful yellow or purple pods as edible ornamentals, and fill your freezer with long-vined ‘Sugar Snaps’.
Potatoes thrive in cool summer climates, and the most interesting harvest includes two or three varieties. High-quality russet potatoes such as ‘Gold Rush’ are great baking and frying potatoes, so they are ideal when accompanied by boilable ‘Dark Red Norland’. For early potatoes, try ‘Yukon Gem’, a more productive and disease-resistant spin on ‘Yukon Gold’.
This is the best climate on the continent to grow huge ‘Ailsa Craig’ onions from seed or locally purchased plants. The big, sweet onions do not store well, but they are a delight in the garden and the kitchen. For storage onions, simply grow ‘Stuttgarter’ from inexpensive sets, or try ‘Copra’ or ‘Red Wing’ from seeds.
Carrots can be spectacular in these zones when grown in deeply worked, organically enriched soil. Indulge in long, crunchy Imperator types including beautiful bicolored ‘Purple Haze’ or sweet and crisp ‘Sugarsnax’, a superior variety for flavor and texture.
Broccoli can stay productive for a long time if you grow ‘Green Goliath’ or ‘Green Magic,’ which produce a large primary head followed by numerous secondary side shoots. ‘Stonehead’ makes a great early cabbage, and red cabbage varieties such as ‘Red Express’ are not preferred by cabbageworms.
Zones 5 and 6
GROWING SEASON: 140 to 180 frost-free days
AVERAGE MINIMUM WINTER TEMPERATURES: 0 to -20 degrees
SUREFIRE FRUITS: Blueberries, raspberries, strawberries
Spring can start early or late, depending on the year. Summer delivers heat, followed by a leisurely fall. Every season brings unexpected bouts of stressful weather, so choose productive, resilient varieties that do well in a range of soil types.
Unstoppable ‘Provider’ bush beans are a great example. The long, crisp snap beans fill a harvest basket quickly, and happy plants bear two or three sets of pods. All summer squash do well in these zones, so have fun growing ‘Gold Zucchini’ or ‘Sunburst’ yellow scallop squash. If you have space for sweet corn, the gold standards for flavor and overall quality are ‘Ambrosia’ (bicolor) and ‘Bodacious’ (yellow).
These are familiar names to experienced gardeners, but have you tried ‘Adirondack Red’ and ‘Adirondack Blue’ potatoes? The vigorous plants produce bumper crops of colorful spuds with high levels of antioxidants — perfect partners for an early crop of yellow ‘Yukon Gem’.
Heirloom tomatoes rule in Zones 5 and 6, where there is less disease pressure than farther south, but with a long enough season to grow early- and full-season varieties. Diversify based on your end-use plans: You might open the season with early, cold-tolerant ‘Moskvich’ or ‘Stupice’; grow some ‘Amish Paste’ for canning; and pick ‘Sungold’ cherries and luscious ‘Black Krim’ slicers all summer from caged plants.
Winter squash should be on your list, too. ‘Bonbon’ is a great space-saving buttercup, or try the long-vined ‘Burgess’ strain. Acorn squash are fast and easy to grow, with heirloom varieties such as nutty ‘Thelma Sanders’ and ivory-skinned ‘Cream of the Crop’. Butternut squash and related ‘Long Island Cheese’ pumpkins are naturally resistant to squash vine borers.
You can grow good-quality ‘Stuttgarter’ onions from inexpensive sets, but start your own seeds of ‘Red Bull’ or long-storing cipollinis — an excellent use of grow lights until space is needed for tomatoes grown from seed.
Zones 7 and 8
GROWING SEASON: 180 to 240 frost-free days
AVERAGE MINIMUM WINTER TEMPERATURES: 20 to 0 degrees
SUREFIRE FRUITS: Blackberries, blueberries, muscadine grapes
Mild yet chilly winters in these zones give way to long, hot summers best filled with vegetables that know how to handle heat, such as okra, sweet potatoes and peppers. Summer is bookended by cooler spring and fall seasons. Spring weather is volatile and tends to not last long, while fall lasts longer and is usually less stressful to growing plants.
The soil seldom freezes in winter in zones 7 and 8, so nematodes and common soil-borne diseases can easily persist season after season. As a primary defense, choose tomato varieties with some disease resistance, for example ‘Roma VF’ or ‘Heinz 1350’ for processing, and ‘Ozark Pink VF’ for slicing. In the Southeast where Tomato Spotted Wilt Virus (TSWV) is common, growing TSWV-resistant varieties such as ‘Bella Rosa’ or ‘Mountain Glory’ will help ensure a strong growing season.
Peppers are always strong performers in zones 7 and 8, whether you grow super-productive ‘Hungarian Wax’ hot peppers, crispy and sweet ‘Lipstick’ pimento or disease-resistant ‘Carmen’. If you prefer blocky, sweet bell peppers, ‘King Crimson’ (red) and ‘Sweet Sunrise’ (yellow) were top producers in recent field trials in North Carolina.
It is true that a single plant of a colorful okra variety such as ‘Burgundy’ can be stunning, but none of the newer varieties can rival 1938-vintage ‘Clemson Spineless’ for productivity in warm-climate gardens.
‘Covington’ and ‘Beauregard’ are the sweet potato varieties most likely to produce bountiful crops of uniform, orange-fleshed sweet potatoes in a home garden. But some special sweet potatoes have white flesh, and roasted ‘O’Henry’ white sweet potatoes are uniquely smooth and savory. Beautiful varieties from Japan and Korea with red and purple skins such as ‘Violetta’ and ‘All Purple’ are easy and interesting to grow, too.
Peanuts can be terrific fun to grow in zones 7 and 8, and the plants thrive in hot summer weather. Lima beans love heat, too, and often escape damage from pests because they are defended by hooked leaf hairs. Yet the most productive summer legumes are ‘Pink Eye Purple Hull’ peas, which will practically grow themselves, provided you remember to plant them.
Zones 9 and 10
GROWING SEASON: 240 to 365 frost-free days
AVERAGE MINIMUM WINTER TEMPERATURES: 40 to 20 degrees
SUREFIRE FRUITS: Meyer lemons, satsuma oranges
In these tropical growing zones, many familiar vegetables are grown during the winter months, or during the shoulder seasons of spring and fall. In early spring, most gardeners are switching from cool-season greens and root crops to warm-natured tomatoes, peppers, eggplant, sweet potatoes and watermelons.
Small-fruited cherry tomatoes set fruit even in high heat, so varieties such as orange ‘Sungold’ or red ‘Sweet Million’ are dependable choices. The ‘Heatwave II’ red slicing tomato sets fruit in hot weather, and ‘Southern Star’ (also known as ‘BHN 444’) stands up to TSWV and several other diseases.
Whether you call them chayote, mirlitons or vegetable pears, the fruits of this Central American vine can be eaten like summer squash, and the plants come back year after year. Eggplants sometimes survive winter in mild years, too, but you will get better yields by setting out vigorous young ‘Nadia’ eggplant seedlings in a fertile, well-drained bed.
Sweet potato foliage forms a vibrant green ground cover, and these warm climates provide plenty of time to grow long-season varieties such as ‘Centennial’, which also has very long vines. Where space is tight, ‘Vardaman’ is easier to keep in bounds, and the lovely red-blushed new leaves qualify it as an edible ornamental.
A Florida heirloom dating to the 1500s, the ‘Seminole’ pumpkin is like a small, teardrop-shaped butternut with fruits that can keep for a year. The yellow-orange flesh cooks into nutritious soups and baked goods. Small-fruited watermelons often do well from spring planting, and space-saving ‘Sugar Baby’ or yellow-fleshed ‘Early Moonbeam’ produce a mature crop quickly, so there is less time for them to be troubled by pests and diseases.
Are there some vegetable varieties that grow almost anywhere? Based on our review of dozens of cooperative extension publications, these varieties appear on lists of recommended vegetable varieties in a wide range of climates. They are easily available in seed racks in many retail stores.
• ‘Buttercrunch’ Lettuce stands up to heat and cold, and produces small heads of crisp leaves.
• ‘Packman’ Broccoli matures so quickly that it’s ready before weather arrives. In cooler climates, the plants produce numerous side shoots after the main head is harvested.
• ‘Champion’ is a traditional red salad radish that matures in only a month. Thin the seedlings and keep them watered to harvest terrific crops.
• ‘Early Wonder’ Beets have been around for more than 100 years, and gardeners keep planting them because they quickly develop tender roots with great flavor.
• ‘Bright Lights’ Swiss Chard is so beautiful that every garden needs a few plants. The seedlings show the colors of the mature plants, which may be white, orange, pink or red, so you can thin them to your preferred color palette.
Barbara Pleasant lives and gardens in Floyd, Virginia. Her newest book is Homegrown Pantry: A Gardener’s Guide to Selecting the Best Varieties and Planting the Perfect Amounts for What You Want to Eat Year Round.