In the last blog I talked about why planning the layout for your garden prior to planting season is so important.

Today, we’re going to expand on that topic into how to begin planning your garden. Keep in mind, even if you don’t have time to plan things out for yourself and you purchase one of my garden plans, keeping these things in mind can be crucial to the success of your garden! For instance, say the plan you purchased from me has tomatoes on north side of the garden, but that area of your garden is shaded. Well, maybe you need to flip the plan around and plant them on the south side of your garden. There is a lot of information in this post so grab a pencil and notebook and let’s get started.

Step One: Measure your space and monitor the sun it receives.

If you’ve had a garden for a few years, you probably already know this information. However, if you are new to gardening or are starting a new garden bed in a different location, this is crucial information to gather.

In the north, and much of the country, it’s very much still winter. There are zero leaves on the trees blocking the sun and the sun itself is in a completely different position in the sky. In example, our backyard garden runs north and south. It is also surrounded by a 6-foot wooden fence and has a very large mature maple tree on the southwest side. Living in the far north, in the wintertime, early spring and fall, the sun is low in the southern sky. However, come summer the sun is more north or directly above our garden.

Why does this matter?

For us this means that in the spring, the south side of the fence blocks the sun and it takes longer for the soil to warm in that area. It also means that until about June, the southern 5 feet of our garden is in total shade. One year, I planted our garlic over there since the space was available in the fall. In the fall, that area still receives sun. I hadn’t considered the fact that in early spring, it would be in shade and the frost would take longer to lift from the ground.

Since garlic sprouts very early in the spring, this caused some problems. It took forever for them to sprout, about half of them rotted in the ground and what did grow was quite stunted. Needless to say, we had a very small garlic harvest. Jump ahead to the following year. I planted the garlic on the north side of our garden that receives full sun all year. We had the largest garlic bulbs I’d ever grown.

Another example…

In the winter/spring, our maple tree doesn’t have leaves. Obviously come summer this is not the case. So, what looks like full sun all day in the winter, is actually very little sun during the growing season. These things to take into consideration. Do you have a building that will block the sun part way through the day? What about trees, bushes, or fences? Consider how that will change your sun exposure throughout the season.

Take a piece of paper, draw out your space (it doesn’t have to be pretty) and mark how much sun each area receives. Full sun is 6+ hours, partial sun is 4-6 hours and then there’s shade. It is definitely worth noting if an area is in full sun all day, in the morning or for the afternoon hours. This can make a difference in the care you may need to provide for some crops throughout the growing season.

Step Two: Think about what your family likes to eat and write them down.

Don’t get sucked into growing something just because everyone else in the world seems to grow it. Think about what your family enjoys eating and grow that. If you purchased a garden plan from me and I recommend planting beets in a certain area, don’t feel like you have to plant beets there! You could change the beets out for more carrots, beans, onions etc.

Also, if you have kids, ask them what they would like to grow in the garden! You would be surprised what kids will eat if they’ve taken part in growing it. Getting them excited about the garden when they are little is crucial for them being interested in it as they get older. I still ask my teenagers what they would like me to plant for them this year. Sometimes they even help.

Step Three: Research what those plants need to grow well.

Once you’ve decided what you’d like to grow in your garden, it’s time to research what conditions those plants need to grow well. For example, tomatoes really need full sun to thrive and in general they do not like the cold. Broccoli on the other hand can tolerate part sun and prefers cooler weather. All that being said, don’t let not having the ideal conditions keep you from planting something.

I have an area of our garden that is almost all shade. It gets about 3 hours of good sunlight each day and then spotty sunlight for an hour or two. I’ve been experimenting with different crops here over the last few years. I’ll tell you one thing I’ve learned; You aren’t going to grow bumper crops of anything in those conditions, but you can still grow a lot of food! In this area I’ve grown, tomatoes, peas, kale, zucchini, carrots, beets, broccoli, cabbage, Brussels sprouts, onions and green beans.

I’m not going to go into detail about where to plant each type of vegetable in this blog or you’d be reading for the next few days. The point is, look up what growing conditions are ideal for each type of crop you’d like to grow and do your best to get as close to that as possible. A smaller crop is better than no crop at all and you will learn a ton along the way that you can apply to future years.

Step Four: You are finally ready to start laying out the design for your garden!

Grab some paper and a pencil, it’s time to start designing. I find it best to use graphing paper so I can use a block per foot of garden space. If you don’t have graphing paper, I highly recommend grabbing a ruler and making every foot equally ¼”. If you have a small garden you could obviously go larger than that but you get the idea.

Now, that you have your garden space marked out. Start mapping out where you think things should be planted; keep in mind things like where the sun is, are there lower or high elevations, if something could be grown vertically what will I use to grow it on…

Some things to consider:
  • If you are growing something on a trellis or if it’s a crop that grows quite tall, there is potential for it to shade out another crop. There are a number of plants in our garden that grow at least 6-7 feet tall. Some examples of these are trellised tomatoes, corn, amaranth, okra and pole beans. Consider planting these running east and west so they don’t block as much of the sun. This can also play to your benefit if you have a garden that is in sun all day and you need something to provide shade part way through the day.
  • Are there different elevations in your garden space? If you have a lower area of your garden that water runs to, consider planting a more thirsty plant there such as cucumbers or tomatoes. That being said, if you have an area that collects water for an extended amount of time, you may want to consider adding soil/compost to that area to raise it up some.
  • Leave space for walkways. It can be tempting to cram as many plants as possible into your garden space. This can get very frustrating, very quickly. It’s not fun to harvest when you can’t even get to the vegetables you’re trying to pick! I like to leave a 2-3 foot walkway between planting areas. The space I leave is dependent upon the growth pattern of the plant. For instance, I leave more of a walkway between things like cucumbers and tomatoes as they grow vigorously and eventually take up some of the walkway. Where onions, carrots and beets stay in the space I provide for them. 
  • Plant in blocks not rows. It is such a waste of growing space leaving a walkway between each row of plants. You can easily gain a third more gardening space planting in blocks instead of rows. My blocks tend to be 4-5 feet wide and however long I want them to be. I plant them only as wide as I can reach without having to walk in the bed. I’m a small person so I prefer a 4-5 foot wide growing space. I also plant in wide bands. Let’s use carrots as an example for both of these things.

I plant my carrots both ways. I will block off a section of our garden that is 4 feet wide by 20 feet long. Then I use a 5 foot section of that to plant carrots. So, my carrot bed is 4×5 feet. I will plant another block, right next to that one of a different crop. Here is a picture of this in action. Not the best picture, but a visual non the less.  These were 4×4 blocks with Zinnias planted between the blocks of vegetables. Vegetables planted were carrot, rutabaga, onion, parsnips, celery, onions and another block of carrots.

Here’s a different view of that.

See those tomatoes in the background? That’s a prime example of why you need to have your supports and weed barriers in place immediately, as you’ll learn in the next step. It was a workout just trying to jungle gym my way through them mid summer. It should be good encouragement to know that even seasoned gardeners make a mess of things sometimes.

Other times, instead of blocks, I plant carrots in wide bands along side another crop.

Trellised grown cucumbers and carrots are a good example of this. A foot or two away from the cucumbers I will plant a foot-wide band of carrots. Essentially, there are 3 rows of carrots about 4 inches apart from each other. This way I can still reach my cucumbers for picking, but I can also grow more carrots. Once the carrots have been harvested, the cucumbers, that have already been producing a crop, really take off and cover that entire area. Here is an example of that exact planting from a couple years ago.

  • Plant as much as you can vertically to save space, grow more food, enjoy cleaner produce and easier picking. Some crops I really enjoy growing vertically are tomatoes, cucumbers and melons. I also grow pole beans as they mature later than my bush beans. When the bush beans are losing their vigor late summer, the pole beans are taking over. You can also quite easily grow smaller varieties of winter squash vertically. That being said, I would be sure to protect the base of the plant from vine borers or you will quickly find yourself without winter squash. The benefit of growing squash along the ground is they will root down in multiple places so they can survive a vine borer attack. However, when they are grown vertically the only place it can root is at its base. Once that is severed, it’s rare it recovers well.
  • When you’re making plans, be sure you leave space for some flowers. Developing a healthy ecosystem in your garden is key for abundant harvest. Not only do those pollinators help produce more food for you, but you’re also providing an environment for nature to be your pest control. One of the greatest ways I see this in our garden is with cilantro. Cilantro, when it flowers, attracts loads of small parasitic wasps to the garden. They don’t bother us in the least, but what they do bother is those gross green caterpillars. You know the ones that eat all your broccoli, kale, cabbage, Brussels Sprouts. If I have cilantro blooming in the garden it helps keeps those pests in check.

Diversity is key. You’ll know you have a healthy ecosystem when you have pests you don’t want, but you also have the insects that destroy them for you. Having diverse plants in your garden that are good for those beneficial insects is crucial for long term success. Every year I have made a point to give a little more space to perennial and annual flowering plants. I would say about a quarter of our garden space is dedicated to that. I’ll do another posting later on some of my favorites.

  • Are you interested in planting perennial crops like asparagus, raspberries, blackberries, fruit trees? If this is your first year in this particular garden space, I highly recommend waiting until your second year to plant them. I know this goes against almost everything you hear. Most will tell you to put them in the ground immediately as they take longer to produce a harvest. However, planting them in the wrong space means you now have to dig them up and replant them. Much more work and it will prolong the time to harvest. If you are more experienced and have observed the space well, then by all means put them in right away.

Step 5: Start thinking about things like mulch, landscaping fabric, structures, drip irrigation etc.

Need to add some manure or compost to your garden? You may want to have that lined up and ready to go when the ground is fit. Otherwise, you’ll find your self rushing to throw plants in and that’s just not as much fun. If you desire to have a garden that isn’t over taken by weeds come mid-summer, you must be proactive. What will you use to suppress them? Do you need to purchase landscaping fabric? What mulch do you plan on using? Do you enjoy hand watering or do you need to lay soaker hoses? I for one like to go on vacation without having to worry about the garden.

Having your tomato supports, soaker hoses, landscaping fabrics (or other means of weed suppression) ready before you start planting the garden is a crucial step in a maintenance free garden. Even more so, is actually laying out your soaker hoses, landscaping fabrics, mulches, and putting up trellises when you plant. I can’t tell you how many times I thought, oh I don’t have time to do that right now. I’ll just do it later. Then I never do. Sound like anyone else you know?

I promise, you won’t regret taking the time immediately.

It seems like a huge hassle to take an extra minute laying the landscaping fabric before you plant, or to place a thick layer of grass around your plants after planting, but I promise you it is 100% worth it! If you don’t want to weed and water all summer, it’s worth every second. The key to accomplishing this is purchasing these things before you need them. I start buying them now. Like right now. In fact, I already have some of those things on order. Others are stacked from last year ready and waiting to be put to use again. I will try to write up a post on some of my favorites but to be honest, I prefer to re-purpose things if I can.

Think outside the box.

Last year, I knew I was going to need some trellising for our cucumbers in the new garden. We also needed to trim a tree in the backyard. So, I saved those tree limbs and used those as part of the trellis system. It was gorgeous, the birds loved it, and I didn’t have to purchase as many supports. Don’t have a tree that needs trimming? Maybe you have a neighbor that’s trimming one? The point is, think outside the box, and the big box stores. Here is a picture of what that looked like shortly after set-up.

Step Six: Order your plants and seeds if you haven’t already done so.

If you plan on popping over to your local nursery to pick things up before planting, this isn’t necessary. However, if you are hoping for specific varieties of plants or are looking for something more unique, now is the time to get those ordered. If you are ordering plants from me, please note I only sell plants to local customers. If you are not from my area, feel free to contact me and we can talk about other options.

Well, that is probably more than enough information to digest in one sitting so I’m signing off for the day. I highly recommend jumping on Pinterest or Mr. Google Pants and searching for some inspiration from other gardens. Not all of it will be helpful but it is a great way to get inspired!

YouTube is another fantastic resource. However, about 80% of what you hear on there isn’t reliable information. Anyone and their brother can pop on there and teach you how to garden, even if they themselves just started gardening. Pop on over to my YouTube resource page, there are a number on there I highly recommend. Check out an assortment, as they all offer something a little different. I listen to them like podcasts while I’m doing dishes, working, traveling in the car etc.

Until next time, may your thumbs be green, and when they aren’t, may there always be a good farmers market nearby.