Do most people plan their gardens? I'm not sure, but with a plan in hand I feel that I have a much better chance of maximizing success with a garden.
I can know how much seed to buy and know where and when everything gets planted. I can organize the proper environment for plants with similar light and water needs. A thoughtful plan takes advantage of layering and I can make companion plantings. A garden plan directs the timing of planting. I know which seeds need to be started ahead and which go directly into the ground. My plan takes into account any special equipment I might need for certain plants, such as stakes, cages, trellis, shade and row covers and I allow time to purchase or make these items. With a garden plan, there is a higher level of confidence in the varieties or cultivars that I have researched and chosen. I can also better manage the coming harvests. My family won't be forced to eat a glut of zucchini while wishing for more watermelon. Finally, the plan, with a few notes in the margins, establishes a record of the garden. Plus, I think it is great fun. Planning the garden gives me something to dream about in January.
I am sure that many experienced and successful gardeners plant their gardens without a plan, but here's the scoop on how to do it.
You'll need space like the kitchen table or a large desk to spread out your favorite gardening books, the best gardening magazines or other articles that discuss the culture of vegetables, and the current seed catalogs. You will also need some graph paper, a spiral notebook or gardening journal, a couple of sharp pencils, a big eraser and a straight edge ruler.
Before you sit down, gather accurate information about your climate and growing season. Pay particular attention to the date of the last frost and the average number of days between the last frost in the spring and the first frost in the fall. This number will help you know which vegetables you can bring to harvest. If you are planting perennials or fruit trees, you will also need to know the climate zone for your area. The most helpful people to gather this information from will be the county extension agency or a master gardening group in your area. You will also need to observe the amount of sunshine that falls on your garden spot. Will your plants be in partial shade during the day? Write all this information in the front of your notebook.
Next, list in the notebook all of the things you would like to plant this year. Then consult your books and magazines to learn what you can about each of these vegetables and what they need to grow. Based on your knowledge of your local climate and the growing conditions in your garden plot, decide if you'll be able to grow these vegetables in your garden. You may need to redo the list, bumping off those that have needs that you cannot supply. Sometimes conditions can be altered and now would be the time to research and make plans to alter or create micro climates for specific plants. Make a final list of what you will plant. For each vegetable, note the cultivation needs such as amount of light and water, how tall the plant will be, how much space it requires, etc. Later, you will try to group plants with similar needs together in your garden.
Now go through the seed catalogs in order to choose varieties. The catalogs will list several varieties for each of the vegetables you wish to plant. This is the most fun and time consuming part of the planning process. There is just so much to choose from! Look for those varieties that match your growing conditions as closely as possible. You may want to look for those cultivars that have a shorter time to harvest, a longer production time, one that is more water efficient, or one that doesn't bolt in the heat. Some varieties withstand the stress of drought, for instance. Some better tolerate shade. Remember the friends you made at the master gardener group? You might call them back and ask if they publish a recommended list of successful local varieties.
Next, on the graph paper map the perimeters of your garden and the perimeters and dimensions of each garden bed. Mark where the water sources are. Using the notes you've made, mark off blocks and plug in the vegetables on your garden map. Make some kind of graphic to mark where each of the plants will grow. Take into account the individual plant needs and be creative about spacing. At this point you can also include companion planting, if you wish. You should certainly take in to account any antagonistic plants. Crop rotation is another consideration when planning a garden. Don't plant the same crop in the same soil two years in a row. It will tire the soil and create conditions for pests and disease.
As you consider how much to plant, think about the people you are trying to feed. Does everyone in the family consume one tomato each day? Does the family consume five pounds of zucchini squash each week or only two? How much will you need for canning purposes or to store? After a few years of keeping a record, this planning process will be easier.
All that is left to do is to calculate how much seed of each vegetable you will need to buy and then to schedule the planting on the calendar. Fill out the order form and send it off!