I'm not great at planning. I'll confess that up front. I am very much one of those "eh, let's try it and see what happens!" type of people. But when it comes to growing a productive, attractive garden, planning is essential. It helps you with everything from figuring out which seeds to order to deciding if you can really afford the space that growing 15 varieties of heirloom tomatoes would require. It will save you money, save you time, and, best of all, save you some headaches during the gardening season.
It doesn't even take that much work. Here's what I do to plan my garden every year.
1. Assess Your Space
Look at where you'll be growing your garden. Will you be planting in raised beds, containers, a community garden plot? What kind of sun does the area get? Measure the space -- this will come in handy later on. In my own garden, I have nine raised beds, as well as a large garden space in my side yard, plus a few containers. I have the measurements of all of my beds written down. You can also draw them out, to scale, on graph paper if you want. More on that later.
2. Figure Out What You Want to Grow
So now you know what kind of space you're working with, and the fun begins. List everything you want to grow. This doesn't mean you'll grow it all, necessarily. It just gives you an idea of where your priorities lie. Do you want lots of paste tomatoes for canning? Tons of greens for salads? Maybe your family loves potatoes, or squash, or whatever. Write it all down.
3. Narrow It Down
This is where your garden measurements and your list of things to grow come together. If you have limited space, it's unlikely you're going to be able to grow both enough tomatoes for canning AND enough potatoes to store for the winter. You'll need to make some choices here. What do you REALLY, really want to grow? What will you and your family actually eat (as opposed to just wanting to grow something because it's interesting/pretty?)
This is also the time to assess when you can best grow things. Spinach, for example, is best grown in spring or fall in most areas (it bolts when the weather gets hot). So you can grow it, but what will you replace it with during the heat of summer? Maybe some bush beans would work. This step can be a lot of fun, but it can also help you get your shopping list under control as well.
4. Map It Out
You don't necessarily have to draw out a garden plan, but I often find that it helps me see things more clearly. If you're not great with a ruler and pencil (I'm not, for example...) look into online garden planning tools. Gardener's Supply has a free online garden planning tool that you can use to quickly turn your list into an actual garden plan. Mother Earth News' online planner isn't free, but it's very useful -- this is what I use to plan my garden. (Disclaimer, I also blog for Mother Earth. I'd like the planner even if I didn't.)
This step helps you figure out how much of each plant you can grow, and you can also figure out succession planting now, so it makes it very easy to figure out what you need for the next step:
5. Buying Seeds/Plants
Now is when you take your list and plan and go shopping. You still have some decisions to make, though. Are you going to start your warm-season crops like tomatoes and peppers indoors from seed, or are you going to buy transplants. If you're starting them from seed, you'll need some equipment (that's another post.) At the very least, you'll know which seeds you need now. Here are some of my favorite sources for organic seeds:
6. Figuring Out When to Plant
Next, you need to come up with a schedule, based on your plan, of when to plant everything. If you're using a tool like the Mother Earth News planner, you'll get emails telling you when to do these things. However, you can also learn what to plant when by checking out the following resources:
- Mother Earth News: What to Plant Now
- Johnny's Selected Seeds has a seed starting interactive calendar and succession planting calendar on their site.
It's not difficult, and it really doesn't take that much time. But a bit of planning will help you grow a healthier, more productive garden next year.