Confession time! I don’t know how to plan a garden. Nope. We’re entering our 7th gardening season, and I still have not figured this whole gardening thing out. I mean, I’ve had some very successful gardens in the last 6 years, and I did a lot of learning and researching, and yes, even some planning, but I still had this feeling that I was just stumbling through it all. I’ve learned all about Back to Eden gardening, vertical gardening, intensive gardening, mulching, compost… Every year, learn something new. Until last year. I’m just going to go ahead and blame weather and illness for a terrible gardening season last year, but I still have to admit, that plenty of that failure could have been avoided had I been a little better at planning my garden for the year. I really do know a lot about gardening, but I also know that there is SO much that I don’t know. This is the year I get serious about garden planning.
So what do I mean I don’t know how to plan a garden? I’ve planned gardens before. I understand the benefits of companion planting, intensive planting, crop rotation and so on. What I couldn’t quite grasp how to plan for were things like frost dates, indoor and outdoor starting dates, and how much to plant to feed a family of our size (7 people). It might sound simple, but for me, I just wasn’t ready to understand these things yet. In attempt to conquer this hurdle, I set out to find answers. Not knowing where to begin I asked around in some Facebook groups to see if anybody would have good tips or resources to help me with my planning, and thank the Lord I did! I was given some very helpful resources and advice.
Before I dive into what I learned and how you can plan for a better garden too, I just want to let you know that we’re participating in a giveaway of Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds! The entry form and details of the giveaway are at the end of the post, so be sure to at least scroll to the end for your chance to enter!
One person shared a link to the Old Farmer’s Almanac Garden Planner… I haven’t used it since there is a cost associated with it, but it would be a really, really useful resource that we might want to think about using for next year. Another person said that this information on planting for space (rather than planting for a certain number of plants) has been their go-to. And finally, somebody else shared this resource for figuring out a seed starting and planting schedule.
While that information was great and super helpful, I was really excited about the information that Laurie of Common Sense Home, and Melissa of Melissa K. Norris shared with me. Ever since I’ve started reading up on homesteading, gardening, and what-not, I have stumbled across their sites time and time again. Both women are successful gardeners, practical homesteaders, and just have tons of useful information on their sites, so I was thrilled that they were willing to share their wisdom and resources with me!
First, Melissa shared a link to her podcast/post on how much to plant for a year’s worth of food. I listened to it a year ago, but still didn’t fully grasp all that she was saying. It wasn’t until I downloaded and printed her free list that it all clicked (you have to click on the link within her post to get access to it). For some reason, I just couldn’t grasp all she was saying until I had the paper in front of me. Seeing it written out helped my brain to make sense of it. One of the questions I had asked was in regards to vertical gardening and whether or not it was worth my time when I don’t need to do it. I loved Melissa’s answer to that:
“Personally I go vertical when possible, it’s less for me to manage which is always a plus… Especially with our wetter climate vertical helps cut down on mildew and/or fungus diseases too.”
I hadn’t even considered that going vertical might help cut back on diseases. She also mentioned that she uses bean tee-pees to help create a bit of shade in some places in her garden. Either way, I’ll definitely be doing more vertical gardening this year. Our garden is out in the open, totally exposed, and our plants just never get any shade (something that can be very important in the high heat of August and September around here).
The question of “how much should I plant to feed my family for a year” is a tricky one. It’s going to be different for each and every family because of things like family size and personal taste. Some families eat a lot of one kind of vegetable and almost none of another kind, while a different family might be completely opposite. Melissa’s list was a great jumping off point though… she lists some of the more common vegetables grown and gives a number of plants per person that should be planted (“should” being only a guideline). You know what I discovered? I’ve been seriously under-planting! We may not have been ready to plant such extensive gardens in the past, but I also had no idea what might be a reasonable number. I planted maybe 50 pea plants last year, but after doing the math, I found out that I should be planting closer to TWO HUNDERED AND TEN! I had a great pea harvest, but I had still under-planted by a lot!
While Laurie didn’t recommend planting a certain number of any particular vegetable (simply because it can vary so much from one family to the next), she did have some advice that, used in conjunction with Melissa’s list, will get us closer to where we need to be:
“I don’t plan what to plant based on past meals as much as I plan future meals on what’s available in the garden and storage. I do keep basic notes each year of how much of what we grew, and plant more or less the following year based on how well we used what grew.”
You might need to re-read that to really get what she ‘s saying, but that’s a super helpful bit of information if you don’t know where to start. I mean, yes, to some extent, I’d like to plan for future meals, but of course we base our meals off of what is in the pantry. And working off of how much food you got from the plants that you grew and knowing what foods you should have planted more or less of is a great way to determine how much to grow in the subsequent year. She also had this piece of wisdom to share which I found really helpful:
“For crops like tomatoes, I can always use more, since we preserve them in a wide variety of ways. That said, 40 plants is about the max I can manage well in the garden, and 30 or less is easier to manage.”
Unless you’ve grown that many tomato plants before, how would you know what is too much? We use a lot of tomato products, so this is a really useful bit of information. I’ve never really done anything to prune my tomato plants, but I can imagine that if I spent a bit more time on them, I could get higher yields. But again, based off the math from Melissa’s list, I’d need to plant about 45 tomato plants. The most I think I’ve planted in the past was around 20, and we had volunteers, so we were maybe close to 30, but the volunteers were mostly small, cherry tomatoes. I think we’ll just go big and plant as many tomatoes as we can. Learning that tomatoes can be frozen before canning will allow me to space out our canning season, and we can always give away or sell what we can’t use.
Finally, Laurie shared a link to her gardening journal, and I must say, it is brilliant! Not only is it free (yay!), but the information is pretty comprehensive. There’s a list of common plants, optimum germination temperatures, spacing for intensive planning, seeds and their longevity, when to start them…
Armed with all of this information, it was time to actually do some planning.
Print off Melissa’s list and Laurie’s gardening journal.
Go over Melissa’s list of veggies and find which ones we plant, check to see if her number per person of plants lined up with what we might reasonably use in a year, adjust, and do some multiplication.
Make a list of all of the seeds we have from previous years, what year they were purchased, and the number of seeds we have.
Compare the purchase year on the seed packets with Laurie’s list of longevity. I highlighted the ones that were good in green and the ones that were questionable in orange.
Compare the number of seeds with the number of plants needed based off of the math from Step 2. You need at least as many seeds as number of plants that you want since germination rate is never 100% (Laurie has a list in her garden journal that shows approximate average germination rate per type of plant). If I did not have enough seeds of a given plant or the seeds seem questionable, I made a mark in front of the plant name with a yellow highlighter, indicating that we should order more of that plant.
Find out which plants you do not have any seeds for, and figure out the math on how many seeds you will need of that plant. Add it to your list of seeds to order.
Open a seed catalog, head to the store, or hop onto your favorite seed company website. Most seed companies online or in catalog will sell their seeds by weight, but some sites are better than others at listing roughly how many seeds could be in that packet. If you haven’t done this before, compare, compare, compare! Some seeds won’t be good for your zone, some varieties have food that doesn’t store as well as others (some potatoes store better than others, meaning that if you keep them in the right conditions, they will last longer than other potatoes kept in their optimum conditions for storage)… most plants will give you a bit of information about the flavor with terms like “sweet,” “subtle,” “spicy”… and they might give you information like “short growing season,” “sun-loving,” or “climbing.” Pick the seeds that will work best for you and your situation!
Order your seeds!
While you are waiting for your seeds to arrive and planting time to begin, take a few minutes and look at Laurie’s seed starting charts. Pull out a calendar, figure out your last frost date, and fill in the blanks. Write up a list of all of the seeds you planted, starting with the ones that need to be started indoors, then outdoors, based on date, or at least write up a list of your plants, and then label them each with a start date, and whether or not it’s an indoor start or an outdoor start. Don’t loose your lists. Put them in a binder or someplace safe and hang onto all of this for next year!
Start your first seeds. For me, it’s just about time to start the very first of my seeds. In fact, if my normal chores for the day go well, I’ll be planting the first of my seeds later today. Have your calendar marked for the days or weeks when planting should happen, along with which plants should be planted during that time-frame.
Before you start planting in the garden, the ground should probably be cleaned up and prepared for planting. In my case, that means pulling up plants from last year, laying down tarps to kill out the grass in a new bed, and working amendments into the soil. As I said earlier, our garden is in the wide open, no shade, no windbreaks, so I’m going to need to think about how I want to stake and trellis our plants this year. I’m probably going to have to build a few structures to help provide support and also to help provide shade for the less heat-tolerant veggies.
If you haven’t already, do a bit of research on vertical gardening, intensive gardening, and companion planting. Knowing that carrots and onions thrive together, and knowing that the last two years we did NOT do that and our carrots and onions struggled, you can bet that this year, I’ll be going back to inter-planting these two crops. I wouldn’t say that it’s necessary to map out a garden prior to planting, but at the very least, it’s very useful to map out your garden after it has been planted.
Along with expanding our garden, we have plans for our garden that involve chickens (if we can just keep the darn raccoons away!), part of which is a chickshaw (a mobile coop for the chickens that is raise off the ground). I took advantage of the warm weather this past week and got a head start on building that, finished putting a few wooden rails on the garden fencing that we put up last year, and laid tarps down to help kill the grass. Scott spent the week pruning all of our fruit trees, and we’re patiently waiting for there to be enough maple sap to make syrup!
I’d absolutely love to hear about your gardening plans for this year, so please, leave your comments below, but before you leave, I have great news for you! A group of my blogging (and YouTubing) friends are teaming up with Baker Creek Heirloom Seeds to give you a chance to win 10 packets of seeds from their company! All of my friends have written up a great gardening post that I hope you take the time to check out!
If you’d like to learn more about the Baker Creek company, Michelle from Mid-Life Blogger took a tour of their business and was able to interview the couple to get the scoop on this great company.