Planning a Vegetable Garden
Normally I’m all over this, but somehow the garden planning season has snuck up on me this year. I think it’s a combination of exhaustion from last year, worry about this year (have you seen the latest drought map?), and just a plain old lack of pressure — the latter of the three, let me tell you, I’m not complaining about. Not at all.
This will be the first year in a few that we have not sold either CSA shares or individual amounts of produce from our garden. And, you know, I’m not even saying there won’t be any produce for sale. I’m just saying if there’s not, no one will care. And that’s more than a bit freeing.
So I guess, in a way, I’ve just been ignoring the need for planning altogether. It wasn’t until just this week that I realized it’s almost mid-January and I’d not given the mile-high stack of seed catalogs on the counter more than a cursory glance. Some of the more interesting seed varieties — those I seem to most enjoy growing — often sell out later in the season so I like to get my seed orders in early. And with last year’s drought compromising so many crops I suspect at least some seed will sell out even faster, so if you’re planning a garden you might want to make that order a priority, too.
Oh, and since I’ve been around this block a time or two before, I’ve included my top ten steps to planning a great veggie garden below.
Measure Your Space. Whether it’s a tiny plot on your postage stamp yard or a half acre on which you’re hoping to grow every last morsel of your food, knowing exactly what you’re working with is the first step to a well-planned garden. Whatever you do, just don’t let the measurements give you false confidence. It’s especially important to keep your garden to a manageable size if you’re just starting out. Better to have a small, well-tended veggie patch than a behemoth thing that makes you feel overwhelmed and under prepared. You can always expand again next year — or mid-season, for that matter — if you feel like you can handle more.
Pick a Method. Or five. From square foot gardening to raised beds to french intensive to the plain old traditional row gardening that my Grandpa did, there are about as many gardening methods as there are gardeners. Don’t let the shine and sparkle of the newest fad pull you in though. Read up on the pros and cons of each, and choose one that will best work for your situation. Raised beds are quite trendy for instance, but with the drought years we’ve been having they’re not always the best choice. They require more water than beds that are level with the ground.
Put it On Paper. How many paths with you have? How wide with they be? How much space does that leave you in actual rows or beds? Make a quick sketch of your garden area and take the time to plan out exactly how much actual planting space it’ll afford you.
Find Your Last Frost Date. And your first frost date in the fall. Make a note of how long your growing season is. Dave’s Garden has an excellent search function. Don’t worry about your zone for now. The biggest mistake most gardeners make is worrying too much about which zone they live in. Your zone is only relevant to perennial growing plans. If you decide to plant an orchard, berry patch or herb garden you’ll need to know your zone and use it in your planning process, but for a plain old vegetable garden with all the annual staples, it’s of zero consequence.
Make a Calendar. For most areas of the U.S. you’ll want a calendar that covers February through June. This time frame will get you through your seed starting and planting for both your spring and summer gardens. A fall garden will take you through to October and even later in some places, but you don’t have to plan it all at once, especially if this is your first time. Enter your last frost date on the calendar and count backwards, noting twelve, ten, eight, six, four and two weeks prior. These will come in handy later when we get to seed starting.
Make a List of Supplies and Equipment. No, not seeds and plants. I’m talking seed starting mix, pots, florescent lights, heating mats, compost, fungicides, mulches, shovels, hoes, rototillers… well, you get the idea. Your equipment and supply needs will vary depending on the gardening method you’ve chosen. If you’re planning to build raised beds, for instance, you may need lumber or blocks to create frames. If you’re putting in a traditional American row garden, you might just need to borrow, buy, or rent a rototiller. Try to be as comprehensive as you can here. Don’t forget irrigation if you’ll need to water your garden, gardening gear such as gloves and shoes, and staking or caging materials for any plants like tomatoes, pole beans, and peas.
Gather Your Seed Catalogs. And a nice cuppa tea. We could be here a while. You should bring pens and post-it notes and something on which to write, too. You’ll need it. I tend to do this part over the course of several days. It’s nice to sit down with those catalogs in the evening and dream about the possibilities. If you’re not sure what companies to consider Territorial, R.H. Shumway, Gurney’s, Henry Field’s, Jung Seed Co. and The Vermont Bean Company are all reputable companies with good track records. And Dixondale Farms is, hands down, the best for onions and leeks.
A Note: In the past I have also recommended Baker Creek Seed Company, but can no longer include them in this list in good conscience. As an heirloom seed company they have always been passionate supporters of heirloom vegetables and staunchly opposed to GMOs. To some extent I have been willing to overlook their shock jockery and less-than-whole-truth marketing gimmicks in favor of the variety of seed they offered. Over the past year they have escalated their efforts however, and are no longer just trying to go tit-for-tat in a fight with Monsanto. In 2012, I have observed them maliciously and unnecessarily attack 4-H. It’s one thing for them to wage a petty war against a major corporation with the means to defend itself, but entirely another for them to wage war on a community supported youth program that is one of the best and most important in this nation. As a small, family-farmer whose business has been built on heirloom vegetables and heritage animals, I cannot support a business that would willfully sling mud at the 4-H program and by extension the children it serves. By not including them in my list above I’m asking you to join me in not purchasing seed from them for the same reason. The children are our future and 4-H is an integral part of theirs.
Make a Wish List. Cross reference it with the amount of space you have, the length of your growing season, and any special requirements noted in the seed catalogs. Eggplant, for instance, may not grow well if your locale never gets particularly hot in the summer as they’re heat loving. Carrots like sandy soil and may give you trouble in heavy clays. Lettuces may bolt quickly if your spring tends to be short and get hot fast. Pare down your list to just those varieties that will both work for your area and fit in your space.
Place Your Seed Orders. That’s plural for a reason. Try having just one, I dare you.
Hurry Up and Wait. The suspense will kill you so you might want to begin preparing for the growing season while you do. Get your seed starting pots ready, accumulate any compost and starting mix you’ll need, research rental or purchase options for any equipment you don’t already have, and begin filling in your seed starting and planting dates on that calendar you started. The seed starting guide I’m going to post next week will help with that last one.