It’s January — so logically the best time to start planning this year’s garden! This is the time of year when seed catalogs start hitting the mailbox… and gardeners actually have some time to sit, dream, and plan.
I remember being really overwhelmed with this task when I was a beginning gardener. There were so many things to take into consideration: timing, soil needs, sunlight and shade… what to put where and when? Now I have my process down pat, I know what resources I need along the way, and I can really relax and have fun with it. So I want to share those steps and resources with you — because everyone deserves to do this with as much fun and ease as possible.
There are some fancy digital tools available (see this post about free online garden planners if that’s your jam). I have nothing against digital design tools — I use them all the time in my landscape design work — but when it comes to the season-to-season annual veggie planning, I prefer to keep it low-tech because I think much better with pencil and paper. Also, I bring my plans to the garden with me all the time, and streaks of dirt look a lot more poetic on paper than they do on a device.
Ready? Let’s go.
1. Decide what you want to grow
Start by deciding what you want to plant. Cue flipping through seed catalogs, drooling at all the pictures of bodacious vegetables and the varieties with fun, playful names, and making a list. Here are my favorite, non-GMO seed companies that I’ve been ordering from over the years:
- Sow True Seed (Asheville’s own, very cool heirloom and non-GMO seed company!)
- Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds
- High Mowing Seeds
- Strictly Medicinal Seeds
- Southern Exposure
- Territorial Seed Company
- Seed Savers Exchange
Each year, I plant maybe 70% reliable oldie-but-goodie varieties that I know to be successful and that I love to eat, and 30% new and exciting varieties that I’m drawn to because of a funny name or distinct appearance or description in the seed catalog. I mean, who doesn’t want to try out Avalanche white beets or Glass Gem corn or Minnesota Midget cantaloupe or Dragon Tongue bush snap beans?
Decide your priorities: What do you hope to get out of your garden this year? Are you aiming for year-round plantings? If so, put emphasis on winter crops — summer is easy but winter takes some extra planning. Or maybe you really want to can a year’s worth of tomato sauce and ketchup in the late summer and will focus on tomatoes this year.
2. Gather your tools and resources
- paper (grid paper is ideal but not necessary), pens, pencils, erasers
- any gardening notes or records from the previous year
- seed catalogs (see above)
- find your hardiness zone or first and last frost dates in your area
- a tool for timing your plantings – Sow True Seed Garden Planner or Portland Nursery’s Veggie Calendar
- spacing chart such as this one
- a visual for crop rotation. There are a few different systems for deciding your crop rotations. I like this one because it’s so simple, and I’ve used it for the last few years.
- list of companion plants
3. Draw a Map of Your Garden
Draw a schematic bird’s eye view map of your garden area. It’s helpful to draw it to scale, but not necessary. I’m meticulous about drawing to scale when it comes to landscape design work, but my annual garden plan maps are as quick-and-dirty as they come, and they’ve done the job.
- draw beds, pathways, and any permanent features such as fences and perennial plants in ink
- include directions (which way is south?), mark shade from buildings or trees
- OPTIONAL: photocopy a bunch so you don’t have to make another one next year
- make one for spring and one for fall
- hold on to past seasons’ maps! They come in handy in future crop rotation planning.
4. Decide what goes where
Now the actual planning process begins. It’s a bit like doing a puzzle, or a game of musical chairs. Essentially, you need to decide which crop goes where on your map. Here are the factors you will need to consider for each crop:
- how much space it will need (consult your spacing chart)
- how much time does it require, from seeding to harvest
- height/shading: plant tall things in the north of the garden
- sun requirements: do you have shadier spots in the garden? If so, check out the list of vegetables that can grow in shade
- what companion plants help the crop to thrive
- crop rotation! it’s important not to plant the same crop in the same bed year after year. This is for two reasons: First, plants in the same plant family tend to get the same soil-borne pests and diseases. Secondly, different crops and different nutrient requirements: some crops such as tomatoes, brassicas and corn are “heavy feeders” while others, such as beans and peas, fix nutrients in the soil.
Then it starts to come together. Write or draw everything with a pencil first — you’re going to have to erase and tweak things. Finalize with ink only when you’re completely happy with your arrangement.
For example, your crop rotation requirements might suggest tomatoes in bed 1 and potatoes in bed 2, but then you consult the companion planting resource and remember that tomatoes and potatoes are attacked by the same blight and would be best planted further apart. So you erase and seek an alternative location for one of those crops.
Here’s one way to approach this:
- Start with the crops that require the longest time to harvest, OR have the strictest site needs, OR require the most space: tomatoes, melons winter squashes, big brassicas
- Next, place crops of medium pickiness: kale, roots, peas
- Lastly, put the “almost anywhere” crops in the remaining spaces: lettuce, most herbs, chard, spinach
Over time, this process gets easier: you start to develop an intuitive sense of roughly how widely to space vegetables, a memory of what vegetables are good companions for each other, and how to plan the succession to make the most of available space.
Now you have a garden plan! The next step is just around the corner: pulling out your seedling trays, seeding mix, and seed packets to plant the very first, hardy spring crops — and before you know it, you’ll be in a buzzing, vibrant garden on a warm day and eating the fruits of your labor.
Happy planning & planting!