This time of year our gardens may be covered with a bright blanket of snow, but now when gardening season seems so far away is actually the perfect time to design your garden layout. If you want the healthiest vegetables to grow in your garden, then looking ahead, creating real, long-term garden plans is a really good idea. (Instead of when you have a handful of packet seeds and you’re standing out there scratching your head and needing to hurry before the spring rains start to fall.)
There are actually several really good reasons for making conscientious decisions about the placement of each of your vegetables but they all boil down to the fact that you’ll get healthier, hardier, more productive plants if you do! Now if that isn’t something we aren’t all working for when we plant those seeds in hope, I don’t know what is the goal!
Here are some steps and considerations you should make when planning your vegetable garden this year.
Tips for Making Your Vegetable Garden Plans
Measure the Size of Your Garden
No brainer, right? Don’t guess. Walk out there and actually measure your exact garden space. Don’t pace it off, use a real tool to get precise dimensions. Throwing my husband under the bus on this one, but I’ll ask him for measurements and he’ll walk it off, I’ll plan my garden accordingly, and the plan doesn’t work in the spring because we were off by a foot or two. Believe me, it makes a difference, especially if your garden space is limited.
Make a List of What You Want to Grow
When you begin to make a garden plan, you should start with a list of what you’ll be growing. Last minute decisions or forgetting that you wanted to grow brussels sprouts this year can throw everything else you do to make a plan off and you’ll be back at the drawing board all over again. I remember one year I had to make 3 or 4 drawings before I finally remembered all of the details that I needed and should have had listed out ahead of time.
Divide them into Fertilization Needs
Every plant you grow in your garden can be categorized as a heavy feeder or light feeder. Basically, that means they take a lot of nutrients from the soil or they don’t. While you can combat that to some extent with natural fertilization applications like compost, fish and seaweed emulsions, or natural amendments like blood or bone meal, feather meal, etc… another way you minimize the impact heavy feeders have on your soil is through crop rotation. With this information, you’ll make a plan to rotate heavy feeders with light feeders every other year and then also minimize your fertilization needs by amending the soil only where the heavy feeders grew instead of amending the whole garden.
Examples of heavy feeders are:
Some light feeders are:
Determine When to Plant
Subdivide each of the varieties you’ll be planting according to season. Whether they grow early spring, in the height of summer into fall, or will be planted in the late summer for a fall & winter garden, you can use this information along with the other categorizations you make to fully utilize the space in your garden and get better yields. There of been times where I had to weed a big patch of nothing in the garden because I wasn’t prepared to use that space before or after a particular crop.
You can take all of the effort out of knowing when to plant your vegetables and herbs with my custom Seed Sowing Calculator that is part of my Homestead Management Printables. Simply punch your first and last frost date into the spreadsheet and your work is done. The chart will automatically calculate when is the best time for you to start your seeds or make your transplants according to your exact location.
Knowing which plants are heavy and light feeders and when to plant them will also allow you to maximize space in your garden by underplanting (or undersowing) light feeders or herbs among the heavy feeders, especially ones with a short growing season. A great example of this would be to plant lettuces in the early spring and then when they are nearly mature, interplant them with your tomato seedlings. By the time the tomatoes grow large enough to shade out the lettuces, it’s time to harvest your salad anyway. If you prune up the bottom of your tomatoes as the harvest works its way up the vine, you can plant fall lettuces under them again in the late summer for your fall garden. The tomatoes provide a wonderful micro-climate for the lettuce in the hot summer. Another idea would be to interplant annual herbs like parsley and basil with the tomatoes. Great for one-stop garden shopping for your dinner menu. You could also plant kale in the garlic bed after the garlic is harvested so that space isn’t sitting idle the rest of the growing season.
Choose a Bed Size
Whether you are using permanent raised beds or ensure rotation by alternating the orientation (NS, EW) of your beds each year, it’s a good idea to choose a standard bed size. Even if you subdivide a bed to include multiple light feeders such as chard, kale, and carrots, you can then use the same area next year for a space-hogging heavy feeder like tomatoes next year.
Uniform bed sizes are also a good idea if you plan on using row cover, insect netting, or black plastic mulch in your garden. No more digging for just the right sized piece because the first one you grab will work.
You can still plan for succession plantings in uniform bed sizes simply by subdividing it into as many sections as you will have weeks of succession. For example, if you’d like to sow lettuce for 4 successions, designate one bed for the lettuces, but only plant one-quarter of it at a time.
Plan a Crop Rotation
Now that you have all of the information you need about the vegetables you’ll be growing, you can plan a crop rotation and placement.
Take the crops you’re growing and assign them to a plot or bed, rotating heavy and light feeders every other one. Perhaps numbering the beds would be a good idea to keep track. So your first heavy feeder, let’s say tomatoes, would go in Bed 1 this year, Bed 2 next year, Bed 3 the following year, and so on. Next year Bed 1 will get amended with compost and a light feeder, maybe carrots planted in it’s soil. Each year the carrots will be planted in the bed that the tomatoes were grown in last year. The carrots will be followed in the rotation down the line with a heavy feeder.
If increased vigor and nutrient density wasn’t enough, one of the big perks that you’ll find rotating your crops through where they won’t be coming back to the same space for years is that the pest pressure will be lighter because their host won’t be sitting right there ready to welcome them back again.
Flowers & Herbs
Finally, you can build in some flowers and herbs. Using these plants is a great way to attract beneficial insects and pollinators into your garden while increasing the beauty and giving you extra plants to season your food or build your homemade medicine cabinet.
There are other considerations you can make when planning your gardens as well. Such as the possibility of including the more beautiful, ornamental plants into your full-sun landscaping such as peppers, asparagus, rhubarb, and swiss chard.
If you are growing multiple cultivars of certain plants that could cross-pollinate and interfere with desired taste… for example growing hot peppers next to your sweet peppers is going to increase the likelihood of growing mystery peppers.
You may also need to make other considerations based upon your site and the size of the plants you’ll be growing. If your garden is against a wall, plant trellising or other vertical plants towards the wall. Tall plants in any garden should be grown on the north side.
Make sure that you maintain good records in your Homestead and Gardening Binder so that if you notice that part of your plan was really beneficial (or was detrimental) you can make note of it and know how to have an even better garden next year. Many experienced gardeners have observed that some plants have a positive or negative effect on the succeeding crop. (Beans always seem to benefit whichever crop grows after them.)
It seems like a lot of work when you can just go out there and put a little of this here and a little of that there. And it is. That plan (or lack thereof) might work out for a few years, but after some time you’ll find that the vegetables aren’t as abundant while the pests and diseases are increasing. It’s more difficult to restore fertility than it is to maintain it and a good garden plan can be part of the solution to growing the most nutrient dense vegetables you can. Making a long-term, multi-year plan only is really labor intensive when you first create it and then in years to come, you can trust the plan you’ve made, grab your seed packets and hoe, and head out to the garden.