To a seasoned gardener, late winter can be one of the most exciting times of year.
Sure, the weather outside is still frightful for most, but for those of us who do our garden planning around this time, the frigid landscape comes alive—at least in our minds—through daydreams of all the beautiful flowers, fruits and vegetables that will soon arrive.
But for even the most savvy planners among us, this process can also be pretty intimidating. After all, a lot could be riding on these plans: you could be trying to provide a year’s worth of produce for your family – or many families. That’s a serious responsibility, not to be taken lightly.
With that in mind, I want to offer some tips for fellow backyard gardeners and homesteaders who need help planning and want to be sure they’ve got all their ducks in a row. I’ve mostly taken the stubborn path of trial and error in my own gardening endeavors, which means I learned a lot of this the hard way. If you’re new at this, you might just save yourself a few years’ worth of silly mistakes by following my advice!
1. Get organized
If you’ve ever grown a garden before, chances are you have at least a few packets of seeds tucked away from previous seasons. If you don’t already have them catalogued somewhere, the first thing you will want to do is sort through all of those packets to find out exactly what you’ve got and what you’ll need to get.
If this is your first crack at gardening, then your first step should be to make a list of everything you’ve ever wanted to grow. Then, narrow it down to the top 10 or 15 plants and go from there. Trust me, the last thing you want to do is overburden yourself with more plants than you can handle!
It’s a good idea to sort your seeds out into different categories, like “greens,” “roots,” “herbs,” “flowers,” etc. This will help later on when you’re ready to outline your planting schedule and settle on locations for each crop.
I make a lot of lists through this process. I like to write ‘em out, but you might prefer something like Excel if you’re working with a lot of data. I will generally divide my seeds up into a few different categories, then list key info like variety name, ideal planting date, whether it needs to start indoors or out, etc. As you gain more experience you’ll start to hash out what data is most useful for you to keep on hand, but until then, just write down as much as you can.
2. Test seeds
You know how seed packets always say something like “PACKED FOR 2016”? In most cases those seeds will still be viable for years to come, but the germination rate may decline over time. That’s why it’s very wise to test your old seeds—especially those older than a year—to get an idea of how well they might sprout.
The method is essentially the same for just about any seed you might want to test: simply dampen a paper towel, fold up a few seeds inside of it, then put it inside of a plastic bag to prevent it from drying up. After a few days to a week, you should observe the seeds beginning to germinate. Little or no signs of life? It’s time to toss out your seeds and buy new.
Knowing roughly how many of your trial seeds germinated will give you an idea of how many seeds you’ll need to sow to ensure you’ll have the number of plants you’re aiming for.
3. Make a schedule and stick to it
Once you’ve settled on what you’d like to grow and gotten all of your seeds in order, now it’s time to lay out your planting schedule. Timing is everything!
This time of year, the single most important information to have on hand is the last frost date for your region. Essentially all of your spring planning will revolve around this date.
For us here in Kentucky (Zone 6), we generally assume that the threat of frost will be gone by around May 1. The vast majority of annuals that I grow need to be started 4-8 weeks before the last frost, which means that I’ll be doing the majority of my seeding and sowing work around March 1 and April 1, followed by one big push in the first week of May to get all of the summer crops in the ground.
Timing spring crops to get the maximum yield before summer sets in is a skill that can only come with experience, because there are so many variables at play – many of which are unique to the specific site and seeds you’re working with. But of course it doesn’t hurt to arm yourself with tried and tested information...
4. Know what you’re working with – and don’t forget it!
Most seed packets will offer general advice about the specific variety you have in hand, but not always. Some specialty or heirloom varieties will have much different requirements than their better-known relatives, so it’s often a good idea to look up the variety to find out what it might need to thrive. For example, this year I’m trying out a variety of watermelon that supposedly can be trellised – not possible for the vast majority of melons.
I always find Barbara Damrosch’s Garden Primer to be indispensable this time of year for refreshing my memory about the idiosyncratic needs of each crop I’m planning to grow, including when to start, whether to direct sow, how much space to allot to each plant, and what kind of soil conditions may be preferable.
This is another one of those areas in gardening where you will always be accumulating knowledge, much of it specific to your unique situation – which is why it is so crucial to take really good notes all the time!
Keep track of every variety you plant, where you planted it, what the soil conditions were like, what the weather was like as it developed, what pests you noticed and how many... all of that is just a start. You will find this detailed information useful in future seasons, and you’re far more likely to kick yourself later for excluding info, rather than including too much!
5. Extend the season
Unless you live in an exceptionally warm climate, you will probably want to begin your growing season before the conditions outside are amenable to your fragile little seedlings. For professionals that means a greenhouse is a necessity, but for the backyard grower there are much simpler, low-cost solutions.
For me, the most important part of my gardening operation (besides the soil and the sun!) would have to be my “germination station,” a shelving unit I built and equipped with LED lights for starting seeds indoors.
The way I designed it, there are two levels for different stages of growth. The primary shelves above are for germination, and are spaced about a foot apart. Each can hold four standard seed trays. The lower shelf offers a little over two feet of headroom for plants that need to be potted up to larger containers after awhile but still remain indoors, like tomatoes, peppers, and eggplants.
The germination station has been absolutely indispensable to me since I built it in 2015, and I honestly can’t imagine gardening without it now, unless of course I upgraded to a greenhouse!
It cost me about $350 to build, most of which was for the lights. You could salvage the other materials and cut $50-100. Through careful planning and some clever timing compromises, I am able to grow more than enough seedlings to populate our ~2000 square foot garden, though I will probably max the shelf’s capacity for the first time this season.
Row covers or low tunnels can also be a great season-extending tool, but I haven’t invested in this gear just yet so I don’t have a lot to say about it. I know there are affordable options out there, and if you take good care of them they can be used for many years.
I also know that Curtis Stone, in his book The Urban Farmer, recommends avoiding cover materials like Agribon in favor of real-deal greenhouse plastic. Based on my experience with the two on the farm where I work, I’m inclined to agree. Fibrous covers like Agribon have a tendency to stain and tear fairly easily, while greenhouse plastic tends to be more durable and easier to keep clean.
6. Divvy up your growing space
Once you’ve hashed out all of the plants you’ll grow, what kind of special care they need, and whether you’ll be extending the season through grow lights and/or row covers, then you’re finally ready to plan out where you’re going to plant everything. Are you excited yet?!
This step is a real balancing act, because no matter how ideal your growing space might be, you will still have to make some compromises about spacing and arrangement.
Things to consider: the sun’s path through the sky, the slope of your site, the hours of sunlight per day in each area, the slight differences in soil conditions you may have throughout your grow space, the relative height of your crops, whether any will be hindered by proximity to others, the week or month in which you’ll be planting each crop, etc.
Again, this is one of those areas where your unique experiences will be the best teacher, and you will have to develop this knowledge over many growing seasons—maybe over the course of the rest of your life. Sure, you can read that tomatoes ought to be spaced 18” – 30” apart, but which end of that spectrum will you choose, and why?
For questions like this, if you don’t have a good reason to favor one side over the other, your best bet is usually to split the difference and observe how it plays out. Left too much space between your tomatoes this year? Well, now you have a better idea of how to plant ‘em next season.
7. Play around!
And that leads me to my final point: above all else, I want to stress that when it comes to gardening—as with all things in life—don’t be afraid to experiment! I always try to work at least a few experimental ideas into my garden every year because I just love the process of observation and discovery. It also helps me keep my gardening endeavors in perspective, and reminds me that I am allowed to play in this space; I don’t need to take it so seriously.
For example, last year I grew way too many tomato plants to cram into our modest raised beds at our old house. I also had an excess of radish seeds for sprouting and really wanted to play with them somehow.
I decided to take the extra plants and seeds and strategically sow them in different places all around our one-acre suburban plot so I could compare their growth and vigor. (A friend later told me about a similar method, called guerilla gardening, where you make mixed seed balls to scatter across a property so you can observe what grows, and how well.)
Some did really well; others, not so much. But by observing and interacting with these otherwise unneeded plants, I learned a great deal about the unique characteristics of our site. We also ended up with quite a few extra tomatoes, and buckets upon buckets of overgrown radish greens to feed our chickens.
Regardless of how your vegetable garden turns out this year, I hope you find the information here useful! This guide can really only scratch the surface, but I believe that my basic methodology for planning is a good place to start.
The funny thing about gardening is that the more you know, the more you become aware of how much you don’t know. I suppose the same is true of life in general. You will always, always be learning new concepts and methods and techniques that will constantly challenge what you know, and how well you understand it.
With this in mind, if I could offer one last piece of advice it would be to never get so set in your ways that you can’t see the benefits of an entirely new way of doing things. That goes for most everything in life, really, but for gardening especially. You don’t know what you don’t know. Keep learning!