Tips for Planning a Vegetable Garden

There are few things I enjoy more than snuggling up next to the woodstove with a cup of (decaff) coffee, my favorite seed catalogs, and my garden planning notebook. Winter is the best time to plan out the vegetable garden! If you're like me and struggle a bit when it comes to organizing, that's okay. You can still plan a great garden; just follow these seven tips. By the time the spring sun is shining and you're itching to get into the garden, you'll have a well thought out plan to ensure your next garden is the best you've had yet. So grab a notebook and pencil, and let's get started! 

Tip #1: Assess 

I'm sure I'll take flak for quoting Bill Gates, but at least in this one thing, he is correct: "It's fine to celebrate success, but it is more important to heed the lessons of failure." In gardening, we must grab onto those glorious successes - like the cucumbers that produced like mad and the Brussels sprouts that were spared aphid infestation. But we should also carefully consider how we can learn from failures - like the cabbage heads that never grew bigger than a baseball. So begin the process of planning next year's garden by asking yourself: What did well the last growing season...and what did not? 

Here are some examples of the sort of thing I recommend asking yourself: 

* Did you fail to grow enough tomatoes to stock up your pantry for winter? Then now is the time to think about how many more tomato plants you'll need to plant next year. 

* Did a certain variety of carrot not get very big? Next year, try a different variety that might grow better in your area.

* Did the spinach bolt (go to seed) early in the season? Try it in a shadier spot next year and look for a variety known for being bolt-resistant. (Weather that fluctuates from cool to warmer tends to cause plants to bolt, so think about your spring and fall weather. Weather-wise, if your fall tends to be more stable than your spring, for example, try growing veggies that tend to bolt in your fall garden. Read up on proper fall garden timing here.)

* Did the vine borers get your squash? Perhaps next year, you could try growing a variety that produces early, before the pests can destroy your plants.  

What do you actually eat? Do you need to grow more or less of it this year?

Tip #2: Select Seeds

This is the fun part, right? But if you just ogle seed catalogs and buy without a plan, you're setting yourself up for a less than great garden. Instead, consider: 

* What veggies do you regularly eat? This is what you should grow!

* How many plants of each type do you want to have? 

* Do you already have plenty of seeds for the things you want to grow? (Don't rely on your memory; take a peek at your actual seed supply. Is it sufficient?) 

If you decide you need to buy seeds, make a specific list of what you want...then hit the seed catalogs. These days, most seed supply companies have online catalogs, which is terrific if you're in the midst of planning your garden but the seed catalogs aren't out yet. Read the seed descriptions carefully, looking for plants that will thrive in your location. For example, I live where it's temperate and generally not very hot. I grow a lot of things that do well in Alaska, Russia, and Great Britain. If I select seeds that are better suited to the hot, humid south, I won't have a productive garden. 

Also pay attention to how long it takes each variety to mature. I tend to choose seeds that have the shortest growing time I can find because they ensure I get the most from my garden. If I grow a lot of things that take months to mature, the harvest is naturally smaller. 

Like many gardeners, I do like to try one or two new varieties each year, just in case I can find something better than my old standbys, but DANGER ALERT! Reign yourself in! You only have so much gardening space. Sure, some things are just plain fun to grow, but if being more self-sufficient is your aim, you'll want to ensure most of your garden space, time, and money go into staples. 

Another important consideration is whether or not your seeds are hybrid or heirloom. If seed saving is your aim, buy only (or mostly) heirlooms. (Also, don't fall into the trap of thinking that hybrids and GMOs are the same thing. They are not. Thankfully, there are no GMO seeds available to consumers...although Baker Creek Seed claims that when testing corn seed, they've found seed crossed with GMO corn. Therefore, you may want to buy your corn from them, since they are the only seed supplier I'm aware of that tests their seeds this way. Learn more about GMOs and garden seeds here.) 

EDIT 2/14/24: I'm sorry to say that there is now one tomato being sold to home gardeners that is GMO. It is called The Purple Tomato and was developed by (and is currently only sold by) Norfolk Healthy Produce. Although this tomato might seem tame compared to some GMO crops, it still unnaturally combines Snapdragon flower DNA with tomato DNA. In nature, this could never happen. The big concern here is that if The Purple Tomato pollen mixes with a traditional tomato's pollen (which can happen via the wind, insects, or other pollinators), it could cross-pollinate and create a whole new plant that would no longer give "pure" seed. 

Kohlrabi is fun to grow and yummy to eat, but I grow little of it, because we just don't use it much.

Tip #3: Consider Your Garden Spot 

Now's the time to get in touch with your inner critic and get really persnickety about your garden location. What specific problems did you encounter last growing season and how can you address them next year? If, for example, the soil didn't drain well, perhaps you should put in raised beds this year. Or if the garden bed wasn't sunny enough, now's a good time to trim some trees or relocate the garden. If pests have been an issue, plan now for what you can do to deter them. Maybe this should be the year you put up deer fencing, for example. 

If you were pleased with your garden location last growing season, consider whether or not you should expand in the coming year. By how much? And what will you put in the expanded area? If you need a new garden location, watch potential spots carefully. Winter can be a good time to assess soil drainage and whether or not the garden spot is in a cold or warm micro-climate, but remember that the sun's location will be higher in the sky during the warmer months. 

And while you're thinking about your garden spot, don't forget that a traditional garden bed isn't required for growing food. I've grown food in window boxes, mow strips, old bathtubs, culvert pipes, flower beds, buckets, and of course, flower pots. Others have used old gutters, tires, potato sacks, and chests of drawers. Use your imagination! 

Cabbages growing in a front window planter.

Tip #4: Amend 

The key to a prolific, healthy garden is organic matter...and lots of it. Winter can be a good time to add organic matter to the garden (as long as there isn't lots of snow). Consider adding leaves, organic straw, grass clippings, compost, manure...(Read this post for important information on using manure in the garden.)

Also, if you didn't test your soil in the fall, definitely do that now, weather permitting. (Learn how here.) Certain soil amendments take months to really do their job, so applying them in winter is better than applying them in spring. 

To get great veggies, you have to feed your soil organic matter.

Tip #5: Map it Out 

Even if you aren't artistic, it's important to sketch out your proposed garden. (Or, if you prefer, use an electronic program to make a fancy garden map.) Consider: Will you have room to grow everything you have in mind? (Check seed packets or descriptions for how close together plants should be.) Will the corn and sunflowers block sun from the tomatoes? (If so, perhaps plant things like lettuce and spinach, which don't mind shade, in that spot...or move the tall plants to a location where they won't shade anything.) 

While you're doing this, bear in mind where you planted things last year. To reduce pests and disease, crop rotation is very helpful. This means you don't put plants from the same family in the same location as last year. (Ideally, your crop rotation cycle should last four years, since that's how long it takes for most soil-borne diseases and pests to reduce to harmless levels.) 

Map out your garden, even if your method is very simple.

Tip #6: Prepping 

As many of us learned during the shutdowns a few years ago, gardening supplies can run out quickly. Even before a pandemic was declared, I sometimes had difficulties finding certain gardening supplies in stock at local stores once spring arrived. While I try to avoid buying any products for my garden, when I do need to make purchases, I buy them as soon as I can find them in stores - which is usually late winter or early spring. Make a list now of the sort of things to keep your eye out for. For example, snail bait, lime, or bird netting. 

In addition, if you upcycle any items to use in your gardening pursuits, start gathering them now. For instance, gallon jugs or milk cartons for seed starting, newspaper and cardboard for mulching, and so on. 

Gonna need bird netting? Buy it as soon as it appears in stores.

Tip #7: Make a List and Check it Twice 

Have you ever had grand gardening plans only to suddenly realize spring has sprung and you haven't planted anything? You can easily avoid this problem by making a list of everything you want to plant and noting by what date you must start the seeds and put the seedlings into the garden. If you prefer, use a calendar to note these important dates. 

This is also a good time to consider whether you want to plant everything at once - ending up with large harvests all at one time - or use succession planting. With the latter, you plant a little bit of, say, green beans, then a week later, plant a few more, then a week later plant a few more. Succession planting is great if you want just enough food on hand to eat fresh, or if you want to preserve in small batches. 

And that's it! May your future gardens be bountiful!

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