How to plan a garden

Deciding what vegetables, herbs, fruits, and flowers you want to grow can be exciting and overwhelming. It is fun to think about a garden full of life, beauty, and food. But it is daunting to figure out when and where to plant. img_7763

Since the goal of this blog is to make it easy to grow food, I am going to try to keep this really simple and digestible. This is a long post, but hopefully easy to skim for the information you need. 

I am embarrassed to admit that this is the first year I have been this organized. I have never planned using an Excel spreadsheet, implemented crop rotation, or even considered the variety of crops.

I say all of this because YOU CAN GROW FOOD AS LONG AS YOU 1.) Get the seeds in the ground when they should be planted 2.) Tend to your garden. HOWEVER, if you spend the extra hour or two to strategize and document your plan, it will make it easier to plan year-over-year, you will yield more food, and it will be possible to make the most of the growing season.

Disclaimer: Everything in this post is based on what has worked for me personally. I am not saying it is the perfect way to plan. Also, like everything, you can get even more strategic and organized, but I am trying to keep it fairly simple.

Here we go!

If you use Excel, I strongly suggest using it for garden planning. You can also use an “Excel” Google Doc. This will allow you to easily make changes, stay organized, and save to reference year-over-year. Paper and pencil work great too. My Dad did want me to title this post “Garden planning for nerds”. 

In this order, plan what crops you will grow and where:

  1. Make a list of the plants yoplantandfamilynamesu want to grow. Consider your available space and what grows best in your region. 
  2. Label each plant with its family name. You will want to plant families together. This will make it easy to decide where to plant each crop and ensure that you rotate these families of crops to control pests and diseases. You can find each crop’s family name online or in a garden book like High-Yield Vegetable Gardening. To learn more about this topic, check out this podcast. Add a column “Family”. For example, broccoli, cabbage, kale, and bok choy are all part of the Brassicaceae family “Brassicas”.
  3. Determine the location you will plant your crops. This is where Excel really comes in handy.
    1. Sort the crops by family name. You want to plant families together.
    2. Choose a bed, trellis, or other location for your crops. Separate crops by bed, container, or other space in yard. I always put my tomatoes in containers because I think they are easier to manage in pots. I have a specific space in the yard with a trellis created for my Peas. I also consider if the crop is an annual or perennial. I prefer not to plant perennials in my raised beds. Perennials come back year after year so I want a location that I can dedicate to that crop. I found a space in my yard next to my back deck for perennial herbs like thyme, oregano, and sage.
    3. Decide what crops will go in which raised bed. Now that you know which crops will be planted in a raised bed, you can plan which crops will go in what bed. plantlocation
      1. Choose one crop and one bed. I started with Garlic because it is already planted in one of my raised beds, bed #1. I will plant the other crops in garlic’s family in that bed, these would be “Alliums” and include leeks and chives.
      2. Determine best companions. I reference this site or a garden book. Alliums (leeks, onions, etc) help Brassicas. So I will add all crops in the Brassicaceae/Brassica family into bed #1. Dill is also helpful to Brassicas, so I will add this to bed #1.
      3. Consider the space a crop needs to grow. I know that squash require a lot of space and room to sprawl. I think my bed #3 is best positioned for squash to sprawl out and over. Squash and beans are good companions so I will add beans to bed #3. Beans are good companions with spinach, swiss chard, and cilantro, all added to bed #3.
      4. What is left? That leaves me with carrots, lettuce, salad greens, arugula, and cucumbers. All will work well together and be put into my remaining bed #2. 
      5. Add flowers. One of my goals this year is to add more color and creativity to my raised beds. For the first year, I am going to plant beneficial flowers in my raised beds. I have added zinnias, calendula, and cosmos into beds #2 and #3. I had room to add them in bed #2 and purposely added to bed #3 to help attract insects to pollenate the squash.
  4. Plan where each crop will be planted within the bed. This will make it quick and easy to actually plant the seeds and transplants in your bed because you already know where to plant. To do this, I also drew my beds in Excel (10 columns wide and 15 columns long for my 10ft x 5ft beds). gardenplanning_inbed
    1. Consider the size of each crop. It is really helpful to make note of the height (short, medium, tall) that each crop will reach at full maturity. There have been so many times when I have planted a tall crop in front of a short crop and the short crop was always too shaded to reach its full potential. Now that you know which crop is going in each bed, you can plan the actual location of the crop in the bed by considering the height of the crop. Plant the taller crops on the north side of the garden or where shorter crops will not be shaded.
    2. How much you want of each crop. If you really love a certain crop, you want to make sure you have plenty of space dedicated to growing that crop. For example, my family loves lettuce, salad greens, spinach, and beans. I want to be sure to dedicate plenty of space to these crops.
    3. The life span of each crop. You need to know how long a plant will take up that space in the garden so that you are always growing something. It is such a bummer when you finish harvesting and have not prepared to replace that space with a new crop. For example, garlic will be harvested in July and that space will be available for a new crop. Decide now what you want to fill that space and can be planted in July/August.

Other Considerations:

  • Determine the month you will plant the seeds or transplant. You can find this information by searching on the internet, on the seed package, or in a garden book like Food Grown Right, In Your Backyard. You can also determine the month by knowing your last frost date. Most Spring crops can be planted after the last frost date. If you are using Excel, add a column and list the “Planting Month”. Some plants can be seeded continually every other week for multiple months. Note this by using “month – month”. So Lettuce can be directly seeded every week/ or every other week from March – September.
  • Consider crop variety. Until this year I did not pay much attention to the variety of crop. I just bought carrot seeds. Then I learned there are varieties that do best in my local environment. This year I am specifically researching the best varieties of each crop or at least documenting the varieties I choose so that I can better document the success of each crop. I love this Encyclopedia Botanica Podcast episode about garden planning and the best 2016 seed varieties.
  • Add a section for “date planted” and “notes“. It is super helpful to keep track of the day you actual planted your seeds/transplants. Also, add a note section for special notes on planting, harvesting, or anything else you want to note for this year or next. gardeningplanning

Please know, from personal experience, it is worth every minute to plan what you will grow and where it will be grown. Once plants starting sprouting, every extra minute you have will be used maintaining, harvesting, and enjoying your garden. You will not have the time or want to spend the time trying to figure out what to plant next and where to plant it.  Plus, when next year roles around, you already have a solid planning foundation in place.

Too much? Probably! I hope this post is helpful. Please share your tips, tricks, and questions in the comment section!

Need help planning your garden? Please contact me to learn more.

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