I know. It’s incredibly tempting to head outside and start digging and planting without any kind of blueprint in mind. Gardening, after all, is all about embracing nature and isn’t nature inherently unpredictable?
Sure! But that doesn’t mean your garden should be a last-minute consideration. If you’re planting a few plants in containers on a balcony, you can easily get away with a lack of planning, but when gardening on any sort of larger scale, you must sit down and think about what’s to come.
Even in an established garden, lack of planning can result in huge problems down the road. If you’re not someone who enjoys writing lists and following a plan, you might want to consider taking some time each season to plan your garden tasks.
Planning for a New Garden
So you want to plant a vegetable garden this spring, but you have no idea how to begin. Here are the main things to keep in mind before planting can start:
Picking a spot for your garden is the first step in planning. The right spot can make a difference between a thriving, gorgeous vegetable patch and one that’s sad and stunted. If you’re growing in raised beds or containers, all you need to worry about is providing your plants enough sun. The area should receive at least 6 hours of sunlight per day. Observe and note which parts of your garden get sun and at what time.
Take stock of what’s around your potential garden space. Are there trees that are dormant now but might block the sun when they’re lush and green in the middle of the summer? Do you have small trees that might grow and eventually hinder your gardening efforts? Does your barn cut off the sun in the afternoon?
Your garden should also be in a convenient location. The closer to your home, the better. You’re more likely to head out to check on things and keep up with the harvest if your garden is easy to access. Don’t stick it in the back end of your yard with the debris and a tangle of weeds where you rarely venture.
Beyond the location of your garden, you'll also need to plan on where to put your plants within the garden.
Plan to group tall plants together on the north side of the garden so they won't shade shorter plants. Put vining plants near a fence or trellis. It also helps to group plants together by maturity date to make harvesting and succession planting easier.
I find it's easiest to draw it all out on graph paper so that you can really get a visual of how things will go.
The size depends on your needs, desires, and how many people you want to eventually feed. If this is just a fun project to supplement your summer visits to the farmer’s market, consider starting small.
In fact, I suggest that, regardless of your end goals, you start small. Pick an area that allows you the option to expand, but don’t overwhelm yourself right away – especially if you’re brand new to gardening. If this is a new garden in a new home and you’ve successfully grown herbs, flowers, and vegetables before, go crazy!
Have a final vision in mind, but don’t feel pressured to get it all done at once. Starting small will help ease the strain on your wallet and build your confidence as you start out. You can also use a plant calculator to help you figure out your needs.
This is entirely up to your imagination! Be creative and think outside the box! You don’t need to adhere to traditional ideas of what a garden should look like. There are, however, a few fundamental rules to stick by. Make sure your pathways are manageable. If they are grassy, your mower should be able to pass through. You should also be able to walk through your garden comfortably. Avoid creating garden beds that are too wide for you to reach into. You shouldn’t have to struggle to bend over to sow or harvest.
When starting out, don’t feel pressured to pick the traditional garden favorites. You don’t need to plant only to what’s tried and true. Pick things that are suitable for your growing zone and choose ones that you’ll enjoy looking at, maintaining, and, of course, eating.
What’s your favorite flower? Plan to plant a few! What’s your favorite vegetable? Plant a bunch, so you finish the season satisfied. I like to track what we eat the most of during the year to determine what to plant next year.
If you choose plants that you’re not fond of, you’re more likely to let your garden fall to the wayside. A garden filled with plants that you love will get more of your attention.
Is there a water source nearby or will you need a very long hose to get the job done? Do you plan to install irrigation or do you prefer to hand water? That’s entirely up to you, but be sure you know what you want before you start building or digging.
If your soil quality is poor, how will you go about filling your raised beds with soil? Do you have a supplier nearby that sells mixes by the truckload? It’s much cheaper than buying bags. Do you need a shovel and a wheelbarrow? Are you fit enough to get the job done? Can you ask someone to help?
These are all critical questions to consider. Filling beds with soil can feel like a daunting task, but once it’s done, you likely won’t have to do it again for a while – at least until you decide to expand!
Don't skimp on soil mix quality. You'll regret it later! And make sure to use weed block fabric or some other weed block tool to cover the bottom of your raised beds.
Say your soil is pretty good quality, already. You still need to consider what you'll need to add to the earth to make it ideal for your plants. You need to test your soil and figure out how to get it where you want it to be.
How do you want to garden? Do you want to use the traditional row method, or are you interested in trying something a little off the beaten path like Square Foot Gardening?
Your preferred gardening method may affect the layout of your garden. For Square Foot Gardening you may prefer to build square raised beds, while with row gardening long, rectangular beds in the ground might be more suitable.
Garden Planning by Season
Gardening planning isn't just a once-and-done proposition. Planning allows you to maximize the harvest and prevent problems with pest and disease. While every gardener plans each year a little bit differently, here's an overview of a few of the main things I plan each season and each year I garden.
Seed starting: this is my primary seed starting season (though it truly begins in the winter, spring starts so early around here nowadays!). I’ll start seeds indoors on my grow shelves, and as I do this, I need to know what I plan to plant in my garden (which I’ve already figured out in the winter). When seed starting begins, I need to decide how much to plant of each plant.
Amending the soil: I also start thinking about where I’m going to order my compost from and check whether there’s enough in my own bin to use in the garden. I also think about the sources for mulch.
Harvest: When plants start growing like crazy, the most crucial planning item becomes figuring out when and how to harvest specific vegetables. For early spring greens, it often means a single cut once the weather becomes too hot. Once the plant is out of the garden, I need to think about what goes in next.
Succession sowing: Next comes succession sowing planning. Either I have plants started indoors ready to go in, or I plant quick-growing seeds in places where I’ve fully harvested plants. Planning is essential when it comes to succession sowing because timing is so important. I can’t succession sow eggplant, for instance, because it wouldn’t have enough time to grow in my zone.
Fall-winter garden: I start to think about what I want to harvest in the fall in the middle of the summer because I need to select space to late-sow carrots, beets, and greens.
Order garlic: I also usually order my seed garlic around this time and think about where I’ll be planting it.
Closing the garden: When the weather starts to cool, it’s time to think about shutting the garden down and putting away any non-winterized materials. I store decorations and tools in the shed and begin to pull out crops that have withered and died. I amend the soil, mulch where needed to protect crops I plan to overwinter (e.g., kale) and clean up the rest of the garden.
Planning any new structural additions: I also plan any new garden additions in the fall. It’s easiest to do it in the fall because that way, in the spring, the new bed is ready to go.
Crop rotation: Winter is when I do most of my written garden planning. I sketch my layout and think about what needs to go where for the next year (or next couple of years).
Buying seeds: Catalogs start to come in, and I begin to think about what I want to plant next year. It’s one of my favorite garden planning activities. I love all the possibilities that come alive when flipping through a seed catalog! I also order seed potatoes at this time.
Early seed starting: In January, I might start allium seeds (e.g., leeks and onions) if I’m feeling the garden blues.
Planning your garden is an ongoing task, but it will save you time and money if you make the effort.