I absolutely love garden planning, to the point that I tend to start thinking about next year before I’ve even put this year’s garden to bed. I even find myself slightly disappointed in the lack of “work” there is to do in planning these days – I’ve honed in on those tried-and-true varieties, and really gotten the layout of my vegetable bed down to a science. Really, it plans itself nowadays!
Garden planning can seem like a daunting task to the inexperienced, but it doesn’t need to be. You can do as little or as much planning as you’d like, and I don’t doubt that no matter how little you do, you’ll see the benefits of a little forethought!
So how do you get started? I’ve been planning gardens for many years now, from the very small to large, to container, raised beds and enclosed, I’ve tried them all! With that comes a lot of experience on what works and doesn’t, and how to maximize your space to its full potential.
Below are my tips for garden planning! I hope my experiences help you as you set out to plan your next garden!
- Know What You Like – Before you can even choose a location or decide on a style and size for your garden, it’s a great idea to think about what vegetables or herbs you enjoy and use the most. If you don’t really like eggplant, or you only eat cherry tomatoes in one particular dish, it doesn’t make sense to take up valuable space with those plants. Create a list of vegetables, greens, fruits and herbs you use and love the most, and incorporate those into your garden plan. Having ready a designated “grow list” will keep you from impulsively buying extra seed packets, or that really beautiful plant you don’t actually need. Trust me, I know!
- Evaluate your Garden Space – Knowing how much space you have, and how much room each plant needs to grow is very important. If you only have space for a few containers, or one small raised bed, choosing several squash varieties or putting in blackberries is probably not your best bet. Research the plants you want to grow so you know exactly how much space each one needs. Consider alternative options to maximize your space as well – for example, I always trellis squash and gourds, allowing me to grow much more than if I let them have free reign.
- Determine your Sun/Shade Status – Some plants need a lot of sun, like tomatoes and peppers. Others, like romaine and salad greens, will appreciate a bit more shade. I have found that most plants are pretty versatile, and that you can organize your plants to help provide more shade for those that need it. Just remember, it is easier to provide shade than to give more sun. Unless you are going to clear trees or move buildings to make more room, a full shade garden is harder to work with, and you may want to choose a new location for your garden. If you are using containers, consider keeping them smaller to allow you to move them throughout the day as needed to meet their sun/shade needs.
- Seeds or Starts? – Do you want to start your plants from seeds, or buy pre-started plants from a local nursery or farm? Starting from seed is definitely cheaper over all, but requires much more time and some basic equipment. You also need to consider what time of year it is – if you are planning your garden and it is already May, you’re really too late to start most plants from seeds, except for fast growing squash, melons and gourds. For my zone (zone 6-7) I get the majority of my seeds started in February, with a few other plants getting their start in April or early May, and items like carrots and beets getting direct seeded after the last frost warning.
- Frost Warning – Look up your planting zone. This will be an invaluable piece of knowledge for you, as it will provide you with the appropriate planting dates for your area, and help you to choose plants and varieties that are especially suited to your zone. If you live in a cold zone like me, growing pineapples and avocados in the garden just isn’t going to happen!
ADDITIONAL THINGS TO CONSIDER:
- Organic? Non-GMO? Do you have specific requirements for your future food? This is a big reason for most home gardeners to begin growing their own food. The ghastly amount of chemicals and pesticides that are sprayed on or injected into our commercial purchased produce is pretty terrifying. If you are motivated to grow your own food to have organic, non-gmo fruits and vegetables, be careful where you purchase your seeds &/or plants from. Most seed companies are very transparent about which seeds are organic and non-GMO. They typically also note which are heirloom or open-pollinated varieties, meaning you can save your own seeds from your harvest to use for the following years’ plants. Purchasing genetically modified seeds will mean you can save seed, but if they do grow, they will not produce a true copy of their parent plant, and who knows what you’ll end up with (nevermind the fear of what is IN a GMO anyway!) If you are shopping for plants, ask someone at the nursery where they get their plants or seeds from, and if they have a section for organic varieties.
- How will you handle pests/weeds? – If you are looking to garden organically, buying all the Round-Up in sight is not a good idea. Research organic and natural methods of pest or weed control. Sometimes this is hard said than done – how do you know what to research until you know the problems you’ll face? And for those problems, you have to just take them as they come! For weed control, I find that consistent, daily weeding is really your best bet. However many gardeners and farmers are happy using landscaping fabric, mulch or wood chips, cardboard and newspaper, or a combination of all of these!
- Draw it Out – This is probably the most detailed part of my garden planning, and I am pretty sure most people think I am nuts for doing it. But I love it, and honestly, after that first year, it gets much easier! I measured out my garden space, and then drew out the outline of the garden bed (to scale) on graph paper. Make sure you save the original, so you can make more copies in the future, and this will save you a lot of time. I then have fun deciding where I want to plant what, based on how the plant grows – will it have a small foot print, does it need a trellis? Will the plant next to it over shadow it, or will weird things happen if the roots mix with the plant next to it (I’ll never forget the year I planted cumbers near 8-ball zucchini, and got small, round cucumbers with a peach-like fuzz on them! No thank you!).
- Make a Seed Starting List – If you do decide to start your plants from seeds, I find that organizing them by maturity date and planting needs helps. I do this on a simple piece of paper, so I know exactly which seeds I need to start in February (for me, all my tomatoes, peppers and eggplant), and which can wait until early May (fast growing items like my squash and corn). It also helps me sort out those items that will do best if planted directly in the ground (most greens and root vegetables).
- Consider Your Soil – How do you want to manage the health of your soil? When you grow and produce fruits and vegetables, those plants take their nutrients from the soil, often depleting the ground of those particular nutrients. Having healthy, rich soil is key to ensuring a healthy garden. Can you compost? Developing your own compost is not only sustainable, but you will have your own all-natural fertilizer to add to your garden every year. If you aren’t able to manage your own compost pile, or it’s just not for you, research fertilizers that fall in line with your gardening goals – whether that be a general fertilizer, or something organic and derived from natural sources.