Efficiency experts size up the backyard garden

Last year the National Garden Bureau, educational arm of the seed industry, asked 36 of the nation's top vegetable gardeners to undertake a season-long test.

Find out which are the most space-efficient and, therefore, the most valuable crops for the backyarder to grow, the bureau instructed. In other words, which home-grown vegetables pack in the most profit along with the fun of raising them?

To arrive at their conclusions the experts considered total yield per square foot, average value per pound harvested, and the seed-to-harvest time. While some vegetables carry a high market price (leeks, for example), others, such as zucchini, yield so heavily that the dollar return is high. Still others grow and mature so quickly that they can produce several crops a year. Bunching onions are a good example.

To no one's surprise top place went to the tomato. Vine-ripened fruit fetches a good price and production per vine is heavy. But, to everyone's surprise, green bunching onions ranked second -- just ahead of leaf lettuce and turnips (grown for greens and bulbs) which tied for third place.

Using 10 points as the theoretical maximum, this is how the vegetables were rated:

Tomatoes grown up supports to save space, 9.0; green bunching onions, 8.2; leaf lettuce and turnips for greens and bulbs, 7.4; summer squash varieties, 7.2 ; edible- podded peas and bulb onions for storage, 6.9; pole beans 6.8; beets for greens and roots, 6.6; bush beans, carrots, and cucumbers grown up supports, 6.5; peppers, 6.4; broccoli, kohlrabi, and swiss chard, 6.3; mustard greens and spinach, 6.2; lima pole beans and radishes 6.1; cabbage, 6.0; leek, 5.9; collards, 5.8; okra, 5.7; kale, 5.6; cauliflower and eggplant, 5.3; green peas, 5.2; brussels sprouts, celery, and southern peas, 4.3; sweet corn, 4.1; winter squash, melons, and water melons, 3.8; and pumpkins 1.9.

Use this rating as a guide in selecting the vegetables for your garden. Obviously, personal preference will always score heavily. Perhaps home-grown vegetables will be preferred in your house no matter how cheap the store-bought varieties.

Sweet corn scores low on the list because it takes up a lot of space for the crop produced. But the sweetest ears will come from your garden every time.

By the way, tomatoes (tall-growing hybrids) weighed in with a 30-pound average per plant. That works out to 5 pounds of fruit per square foot of garden space.

You know the cost of vine-ripened tomatoes in your area; thus, calculating the value of your tomato plot should be a simple matter.

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