Garden 101 Series: Garden Planning Pt. 1

Whether you’re starting your first garden or your fiftieth, and no matter if it’s a couple pots on a sunny windowsill or a permaculture food forest, garden planning is an essential step in making garden success more likely. Planning can involve a number of different things depending on you, your garden, and your experience. From planning space for plants and choosing plant varieties, to adding beds, walkways, irrigation, or other elements, behind every successful garden is a plan. In this post, I’ll talk about some key things you’ll want to consider in your plan. In Part 2, I’ll go over some useful tools for helping make your garden planning hassle free.

What to Include in Your Garden Plan

Even veteran gardeners can attest to the mounting sense of dread and overwhelm that come – Every. Single. Year – as the weather warms and the sun returns to bring color and life to our dormant landscapes. Just like they say in real estate that you make your money when you buy, so too you make your garden success when you plan. (Well, at least, you’ll make it more likely. I plan my garden every year and “success” isn’t quite the word I’d choose most of the time. 🤣)

Er, anyway, both new and veteran gardener’s will find value in reviewing the topics below. New gardeners might come across something they hadn’t thought of, and veteran gardeners can always benefit from a review of their processes and methods. Read on for some things you might consider in your garden plan this year.

Why to Grow

Something that isn’t talked about nearly enough is the WHY of growing. Whatever your why, just be aware of it and think on it often.

Something that isn’t talked about nearly enough is the WHY of growing. For a new gardener this really helps set expectations. A market or kitchen garden that you intend to feed you and perhaps others is approached much differently from one that is for a little bit of fun and exercise. Flower gardens are quite different from vegetable gardens. For nearly every grower, the why usually includes a desire to be closer to the beauty of nature and the food we put in our bodies. Some people take that desire and expand it into a business so they can share with others. That’s great! Whatever your why, just be aware of it and think on it often. It helps manage the stress and sometimes big feelings that are inherent on the gardening roller coaster.

Where to Grow

The first and probably most important thing to consider is where in the heck are you going to grow? This is much more a concern for new gardeners obviously, but even veterans might be adding new growing spaces or are in need of changing existing growing locations. In general, the best place for most plants is in a location with well-drained, loose soil that experiences 6+ hours of sun exposure. At the most basic, that’s it.

You want to especially pay attention to the way the sun moves across the sky and any potential shadows that will be cast on and around your chosen spot. If you’re looking during the winter, keep in mind that the sun gets much, much higher in the sky during the growing season. A shady spot in winter might not be one in the summer and vice versa. If a site gets substantially more than 6 hours of sunlight, keep in mind that the intense, long hours of summer sun will tend to dry out the soil to a higher degree than a spot that gets periodic or dappled shade (which is why we and many others consider garden mulch a requirement). As long as it gets a solid 6 hours of direct light, a slightly shady spot can sometimes work better than a full sun location.

Though it is a little outside the scope of this article, it also wouldn’t hurt to do at least a basic NPK (nitrogen, phosphorous, potassium) analysis on your soil to know how nutrient depleted it might be. This will advise you on fertilization needs. If you have the time and money for a full analysis from your local ag extension office, we recommend going that route for a more detailed breakdown of your soil health.

What to Grow

Tip: know your USDA hardiness zone and follow the guidelines for timing and plant selection for that zone.

Ok now that you’ve settled on where to locate your new or next plot, it’s time to think about what plants you want to grow. For me, this is hands down the most exciting part of the whole planning process. You’d be surprised what you might end up enjoying! I used to think flowers and other landscaping were a waste of gardening effort, but now I think I take more joy in the native perennial flowers than I do the veggie patch. Maybe that’s because once these native wildflowers are established, I never need to worry about them again while the veggie patch is more like a child demanding constant attention, but you get the idea.

    Herbs

    I certainly recommend everyone grow their own culinary herbs: basil, oregano, thyme, sage, rosemary, cilantro/coriander, and dill are the most used. Several of these can make a nice little windowsill garden, and once you have fresh herbs for your cooking you’ll never go back!

    Veggies

    With vegetables, you have to start by thinking of the season you intend to grow in. Most people start with a summer garden. Popular summer veggies are tomatoes, cucumbers, peppers, squash, beans, corn, etc. Personally, I only grow the veggies that my family actually eats a lot of or I particularly love the flavor of. With a summer garden, you need to make sure you don’t plant anything out before it’s warm enough, typically before the average last frost date (check your USDA zone). You can start seeds prior to this, but moving them outside before this date usually requires some protection from the cold.

    In addition to summer though, spring and fall are both great times to grow a slightly different set of crops! Personally, the spring garden is my absolute favorite. It’s in the spring garden where collard greens (my fav), spinach, beets (my other fav), peas, lettuce, radishes and more really thrive! These can all tolerate cool weather and even some light frost, so the risk of failure is a little lower if you take the time to watch the weather. The fall garden is often started in mid- to late- summer and includes fall squash like pumpkins, acorn, and butternut squashes, plus all the decorative squashes. Heading vegetables like broccoli, cauliflower, and cabbage also do really well into the fall, as do carrots and other root veggies. Fall is often the time when garlic and perhaps even onions are set out for harvest the following year.

    Flowers

    I always like to plant native perennials. They require the least amount of work once established and help support native ecosystems. In my location, coneflower and black-eyed susans are most popular but there are many different types of wild flowers and grasses to put in your landscape. Check with your local extension office for a list of what’s right for your location.

    As for cultivated plants, the sky is really the limit. I love peonies, daffodils, azaleas, irises, lilies. Again you may notice these are perennial plants, which means buying them only once and establishing them. Annual flowers can be great in the right circumstances, but they can be a little more delicate and demanding.

    What to Grow IN

    A lot of people will just till the ground and plop plants in the loose soil and call it a day. While that will work, that method isn’t the best for soil health and can lead to a lot of headaches for you down the road. Consider swapping or adding a few different methods and see what works best for you.

    Containers

    These days, containers can come so large they’re basically a raised bed. Take our large nursery containers or 100 gallon Root Pouches for instance. These can be filled with growing medium and treated very much like a raised bed. Once they’re filled, which isn’t always the easiest to do, they’re all set for years of success.

    However, you can go small too. Patio gardens are popular places for container gardens featuring herbs, tomatoes, and more. The chief concern you might have with container gardening, especially if they’re getting adequate sun, is that they will dry out much faster than ground soil in the same location. Consider getting a Container Garden Irrigation Kit and stop worrying about frying that fledgling garden.

    Field Plots

    A field plot is basically the tried-and-true method of tilling the patch of land where your garden will live and planting seeds or plants in it. Field plots are susceptible to a few things, starting with poor drainage. A plot that’s at an even level with the surrounding landscape won’t shed water as well as a raised plot, and any low spot in the garden will stay damp. They can also be susceptible to higher weed pressure, especially when breaking new ground, and doubly so without the use of a mulch of some type (seriously, you’re using mulch right?). They also suffer from soil compaction from the yearly action of a tiller, which itself is an expensive piece of equipment to maintain. Field plots are a great way to get started, but realize they can be pretty fickle without the right systems in place.

    Raised Beds

    Raised beds are my favorite place to grow in (see video above). These don’t have to be fancy framed boxes either, they can simply be mounded earth with adequate working space all round. The key is raising the soil above surrounding ground level. This ensures proper drainage, and since you are only ever working with the bed soil, and never the aisles as with a field plot, you can be much more careful with the health of the soil in the bed. That means no walking on it, preferably no tilling, adequate fertilization, etc. That keeps the soil texture perfect for plant roots, and minimizes your working square footage. It also makes it easy to cover in mulch, which is basically an essential item. Did I mention we love mulch?

    Water, Water, Water

    Hand watering from a hose is one way to do it, but it’s time intensive and unreliable. Try automated watering if you don’t want to spend the time hand watering.

    I would be doing a great disservice if I did not mention water consideration in your garden. After sunlight, it’s the most important thing to consider. Where is your water coming from? Natural precipitation is great, but if you don’t plan on supplementing water at least periodically, you just simply won’t be as successful. Watering questions to consider: Are you going to be hand watering? How far is the garden from the water source? Will you be carrying a watering can all that way? Do you have a garden hose long enough?

    My recommendation is to spend the money on a simple automated irrigation kit. We have one for both containers and in the garden or field, but you can put something together yourself or just use “soaker” hoses that can be had at any home improvement store. Couple this with some natural mulch and you’ll be set up for worry free success.

    We put this kit together and it’s the one I use in my garden. Let us know how we did!

    Part 2 of this post will focus on the actual tools, software, and techniques we recommend for turning your garden plan from a dream to a reality. Is there anything we missed? Solid advice for gardeners old and new? Leave us a comment below!

    2 Thoughts

    1. I enjoyed your post. I just had a greenhouse built and want to know if there is a helpful book with all I need to know about greenhouse growing and temperature control. I need help. My squash rotted on vine. I bought a shade s teen from you but didn’t come with any directions. Hoping this spring to have better luck. My tomato plants got huge but didn’t produce. I have greens, collards and strawberry plants doing well.
      Thanks
      Evelyn Skipper
      Mssantar@yahoo.com

      Like

      1. For books, you can’t go wrong with anything by Eliot Coleman. He’s perfected the art of the cold weather greenhouse. New Organic Grower and Winter Harvest Handbook are both great!

        As for your squash and tomatoes, if these are in your greenhouse I would definitely suspect poor pollination. Squash is somewhat notorious for poor pollination anyway, especially early in the year. If the fruits emerge but are tiny and then quickly rot, that’s poor pollination. Since you experienced no production in your tomatoes as well, I’d suspect that’s the common thread. Remedies include hand pollination or leaving the greenhouse open to invite pollinator insects inside.

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