When we started our first garden last spring, there was no plan. We had no ideas about what we wanted in the space, except every vegetable we could find a seed packet for at Lowe’s. As someone who was known for her ability to kill plants, I had very little faith that I would be able to cultivate a green thumb. I figured that I’d have the best chance of harvesting at least one or two edible morsels if I planted a little bit of everything and waited to see what stuck around. So my husband and I dug up a patch of our backyard next to the raised bed the previous owner had installed, picked seed packets out of the shopping bag we brought home, and gave each one a home in carefully measured rows destined to get full sun.
Don’t get me wrong, this spontaneous garden was honestly the most rewarding and exciting project I’ve worked on in a long time. But I’m also an extremely organized, Type A, lover of all well laid plans. If spontaneity is your thing, by all means take the rest of this with a very fine grain of salt. And even if you’re a planner through and through, what I’ve become convinced of more than anything in the past nine months, is that there are several ways to work with Mother Nature to create a beautiful and productive sanctuary.
I believe planning a garden can and should be a deeply personal experience, but I will share my approach for those who aren’t sure where to start or who are looking for ideas to mix it up.
My first step was ordering three seeds catalogs. What I quickly discovered (just a few hours after leaving Lowe’s with a bag full of vegetable seeds) was that entire companies exist dedicated to providing high-quality, open-pollinated seeds in countless heirloom and organic varieties. One company in particular, Sow True Seed, grabbed my attention when friends told me about it because it’s based in a North Carolina city just a few hours from home. Their website and catalog contain a wealth of information about growing vegetables, herbs, and flowers in our area, as well as recommendations on varieties that do particularly well in our climate. All good news for the beginner gardener.
Another thing that I didn’t do last year that has been critical to my planning this year is understanding the space I am going to dedicate to growing. The actual process of measuring the space is critical to ensure you buy the right amount of seeds. Seed catalogs, with their inspirational pages full of seemingly endless options, can easily end in excessive spending if you aren’t sure how much space you’re working with in advance. So, while you’re waiting for the mail to arrive with your newly ordered catalogs, get out there and take some measurements.
For us, our main garden is a little over 2,200 square feet. It’s the area in our yard that gets the most direct sunlight, with a patch in one section that gets a decent amount of shade from an old oak tree. As you think about the space you want to dedicate to growing, consider the investment of time you want to make to tending to the garden, as well as the climate of the space itself. Does it get enough sun to grow the plants you’re growing? You’re in luck if you have a south-facing slope; it’ll warm up faster. How’s the soil? Does the area drain well? If you don’t have a whole lot of space or want to start with a small time investment, I have seen beautiful container and vertical gardens. Check out the show Big Dreams, Small Spaces on Netflix if you haven’t already for some ideas of what’s possible.
After we took measurements of our growing space, I sketched out a map of the area. I drew it to scale on grid paper so I could use it as a guide for what I wanted to plant where. My husband said I should have created it in Excel and while I love Excel, I use enough of it in my day job to require a little change of pace. I do suppose, though, that it would work fabulously for this if hand drawing isn’t your style.
Next year, we’re going to give our own modified version of Square Foot Gardening a try, as opposed to the space-consuming rows we used last year. I’ll admit at this point that I don’t know how well it’s going to work, having never tried the method before, but after doing quite a bit of reading, I’ve decided it’s worth a try. The basic concept of square foot gardening is four foot by four foot beds, divided into 16 square foot spaces. Geometry isn’t my strong suit, so I find it a little bit challenging, but the book was available at my local library and the author does a good job of keeping it simple.
The most important concept to master is how much you can plant in a given square foot. If the seed packet calls for 12 inches of space between each mature plant, you can do 1 plant in each square foot space. If it calls for 6 inches of mature spacing, you can plant 4. If it calls for 4 inches of mature spacing, you can plant 9. And for 3 inches of mature space, you can plant 16 seeds. Instead of following the directions on the seed packet for a certain width between rows, just plant the seeds at their mature spacing in the square foot section(s) where you want to grow them. The author recommends raised beds for this, but that’s not my thing (I’m too cheap!). In either case, you’ll want to make sure before planting that your soil is well-prepared, but that’s another post for another day.
Once I decided on a high-level layout for the garden and made note of the long-term plants (like asparagus and hops) that already have a home in our space, I started jotting down a list of the things I wanted to grow next year. The first thing on my list was a three sisters garden. I also added nasturtium and marigolds to the plan, because they are not only beautiful, but they make great borders and can help manage garden pests. I chose vegetables that our family loves to eat, like tomatoes, basil, peppers, kale, and beans. I listed out herbs and flowers that I want to use for teas and medicinal purposes, as well as those that attract pollinators.
Deciding where you want to put everything in your garden isn’t as easy as I thought it was last year. First of all, crop rotation is important, so if you had a garden last year, take care to not place plants from the same family in a space where you had that type of plant last year. This will help control diseases and pests. Additionally, some plants grow really well together, like the three sisters, while others are antagonists and should be given their own space. The Old Farmer’s Almanac has a great companion planting guide that I highly recommend you check out. Part of our dedicated garden space gets a decent amount of shade from an oak tree, so we had to make sure to plant vegetables that will thrive in shaded conditions in this area.
Once I had a good idea of the types of plants that I wanted to grow in the same four by four foot beds, I took out the colored pencils because color-coding and rainbows are my favorite. I began by sketching out the dedicated paths in the garden. You don’t want to compact the soil in the plants’ growing areas, so knowing where your foot paths are is key. At this point, my husband mentioned that I should photocopy the garden layout, in case I wanted to start over. Just like with the Excel recommendation, I ignored him, but in this case, I should have listened. If you’re doing this by hand, make yourself some copies; you’ll be glad you did.
After all the pathways were drawn and empty four by four foot beds laid out, I started placing the groups of plants into the spots that made sense for them based on their sunlight requirements, crop rotation needs, and companion plants. I went all the way down to the individual square foot level of detail on my layout. Almost all of the beds, besides the three sisters and the tomatoes, have marigolds and nasturtiums sprinkled in a few of the squares. Some plants, like peppers, eggplants, and tomatoes need more room than others (all of these need four square feet, so I broke the four by four foot boxes into four spaces instead of sixteen). This step requires a lot of doing and redoing, especially as I realized that in some cases, I was going to have way more of specific plants than my family could ever eat or store. But, I had an absolute blast with it over a couple cold, rainy, and snowy weekends.
Once every plant had a home, it was time to do a little math. I listed out each type of vegetable, herb or flower on a sheet of paper, counted up the square foot blocks in the garden that plant would take up, and then multiplied that number by the number of plants that space could hold using the square foot gardening figures discussed earlier. Once I had this for every variety, it was time to go shopping!
By now, my catalogs had arrived and I chose the types that spoke to me the most and bought just enough to cover the amount I had calculated I’d need. In some cases, I only needed a few plants, but the average seed packet for that variety contained many more seeds than I’d need. The seed viability of the ones I purchased is anywhere from four to five years, so with proper storage and care I’ll have leftovers for future gardens. And, since we’ll be succession planting to spread the harvest over the season, I’ll likely need more of many varieties through the summer.
As I shopped, I read and recorded the planting timeline for each vegetable (i.e start indoor before the last frost, direct seed in early spring, direct seed after all danger of frost, etc.). Once I selected my varieties, I organized the vegetables into categories by when and how they need to be started so I could prioritize my order and spread the cost over several months (you’re welcome, wallet!).
And that’s it! Just like that, I find myself ready for spring and even more excited about its arrival than I thought it was possible to be. Share your garden planning tips in the comments; let’s learn and grow with each other!