How to plan your vegetable garden

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'Day 142 - Garden Plan'; CC by Phil and Pam

‘Day 142 – Garden Plan’; CC 2.0 by Phil and Pam

Ah, the cozy days of autumn. All’s quiet in the garden as the rain and fog drive us indoors. Now’s the time to dream and plan for next year’s vegetable bounty.

I’ll admit this planning stage is new to me. I come from a class of “gardener” who gets inspired once seedlings appear in the grocery store and exuberantly sunny days make my yard boisterous with life.

This year I intend to do this gardening thing right.

Two years ago we planted one tomato plant. The sheer pleasure of plucking perfectly ripe fruit was addictive.

Last year we went further — converting one side of our yard’s flower beds to garden space. Three tomato plants, two squashes, bell pepper and beans behind along the fence. Not bad for complete novices.

It was enough success to incite us to think about actually planning our garden for next year. We even have a compost pile going!

How does one plan a garden? Here are some tips I picked up from our local master gardeners and from a trip around the Web.

How did it go this year?

One of the first questions you’ll want to ask yourself is, how did your garden grow this year? Did you notice some things that need to change? Perhaps the location, the crops, your watering scheme, or the size of your garden were not ideal for you. If so, you can change that for next year.

Select the site

Start by reviewing your garden plot’s location. Make a rough sketch of your beds, or use computer software, like this one from The Old Farmer’s Almanac, to create your garden plan.

Consider the fundamentals:

Sun exposure: Garden plots need at least 6 to 8 hours of full sunlight each day. Our flowerbed along a south fence line is perfect, as there are no trees shading the area. If you need to, trim back tree branches or large bushes that are shading your garden.

Water: Backyard gardens should be easy to access with a hose. If your flowerbeds also have drip lines, so much the better. You may need to add more emitters in the garden area to match your watering needs.

Soil: Since vegetables need loose soils that allow their roots to spread, you may need to amend your soil if it’s too heavy to crumble, or too light to retain moisture. Master Gardener Gail Pothour, in this “Vegetable Gardening 101” handout from the Sacramento County University Extension program, suggests adding hay, leaves, compost, or sawdust to break up the soil. (See what she says about adding nitrogen fertilizer while these organic materials decompose.)

Master Gardener Susan Patterson also gives tips for testing and amending your soil. This year I’ve added a compost pile to supply rich organic material throughout the year.

If you’d rather start fresh, build raised beds that you can fill with soil that’s already at the perfect pH. Just search for “garden soil” in your zip code to locate suppliers. Raised beds heat up faster for a longer growing season, and they’re easier to work around.

Raised bed

Raised bed ‘Vegetable Garden’ CC 2.0 by Aaron Paxson

Prepare the soil

Once the boundaries of your garden plot are set, till the soil to loosen the top 6 to 10 inches. Do this when the soil is moist, but not wet. Remove rocks and break up any large clods. Work in fertilizer, leaves or compost until the soil is broken up into small evenly sized grains. Rake the beds smooth.

Now’s the time to test your soil if you’ve never done that. You can get an inexpensive soil test kit at your local garden center, or online. Add the recommended amendments to raise or lower the soil’s pH. Don’t hesitate to call upon your University Extension master gardeners for help!

Choosing crops

Now for the fun part — deciding what you’ll plant. Certainly, repeat any winners, and decide whether you’ll begin with starter plants or seeds.

Grow more of veggies you loved last season. Try new varieties, but concentrate on those that are well suited to your area.

I loved my Super Sweet cherry tomatoes, so I‘ll repeat that. Plus I’ll add a nice slicing tomato this year, probably beefsteak.

Sweet peppers were a hit, but we’ll clearly need to plant more this year. I’ll try a couple new varieties, like this Jimmy Nardello sweet red pepper.

I don’t have a huge space, so squash, chard, cucumber, and basil — sweet and Thai — round out my wish list. Plus some marigolds and other flowers for pollinators.

While sketching out your plan, think about how to rotate your plants to reduce disease. Consult this crop rotation chart from the UC Master Gardeners to see which plants are in the same family. For example, you may know that nightshade vegetables like tomatoes and peppers should not be planted in the same place the next year; but you may not realize the family includes eggplant and potatoes. So it’s worth a look at the chart.

When to plant

The area where you live has much to do with which vegetables will grow best in your garden. Refer to the USDA Plant Hardiness Zone Map to learn more about the minimum and maximum temperatures in your area. Knowing your zone can help you know when to start seeds or sow outdoors. You can also get a customized calendar for your zip code from The Old Farmer’s Almanac.

USDA Plant Hardiness Zones

Beginners often start with warm-season vegetables, which should be planted outdoors once the ground has had a chance to warm up. Learn the average frost dates for your area, and use that as a starting point. But be prepared for a late frost. You may have to start plants indoors and transplant outdoors later if the weather is extreme. Again, consult your local master gardeners or garden supply store if you’re not sure.

Watering

After planting, keep your vegetable plants moist, but not flooded. It’s enough to water once or twice a week when the top inch or two of soil has dried out. A drip system can help you be consistent.

Once the soil has warmed up, add mulch — straw, dry leaves, hay — to help retain moisture. Keep weeds out of the bed, since they steal nutrients from your vegetables.

Odds and ends

While you’re planning your garden, think about any tools you need to add, replace, sharpen or maintain. Sometimes the right tools make all the difference.

For instance, it’s time for us to get a wheelbarrow. Can you believe Little Green Wheelbarrow didn’t have one?!

Now is also the time to create paths and install stepping stones to allow you to tend the plants without crushing their roots. As a suburban gardener using my flower beds as planting space, I don’t want to sacrifice aesthetics. My back yard still needs to be a pleasure to sit and entertain in.

Birds bathing. Photo: Kristi Garrett

Birds bathing. Photo: Kristi Garrett

Create decorative support structures, such as trellises, painted metal uprights, or cages and stakes made with natural materials like bamboo. Place a birdbath nearby for a scene that’s inviting to you and your feathered friends.

Keep a journal of what you plant and when, which crops worked well and which you’d rather do without. You’ll be ahead of the game next year.

Don’t forget to share your own plans in the comments!

Kristi Garrett

Kristi Garrett is the Publisher, Editor and Chief Veggie Enthusiast of Little Green Wheelbarrow. After 16 years in journalism and corporate communications, she figures it's time to get some dirt under her nails.

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