*Note: This is a sort of intensive guide (let's face it, there are super dedicated people who get way more in depth than this post. This is for the average person who seeks to take their gardening up a notch) to planning out your summer vegetable garden. Each step, however, is individually simple, so I recommend doing one step a week, starting in January/February, until you get closer to planting your seedlings in the ground.
Previously, my garden would be a rather haphazard assortment of tomatoes, squash, and broccoli, with no real planning going into the layout of the plants. I was a little lazy, and really didn't know any better. I just thought I'd grow things. The space I’ve grown those haphazard edibles in over the years has ranged from individual pots to a patch of earth, and back and forth again. This year, in my patch of earth, I decided to do a whole-hearted effort at planting a proper vegetable garden.
Haphazard Tomatoes, Maybe Some Squash in There
Plan While it's Cold
The dead of winter (now) is the time to begin planning out your summer vegetable garden. If you're anything like me, you have a bad case of cabin fever and can’t wait to get out there with all of your little sprouted seedlings and a trowel in the spring. If you do a little footwork before you go crazy planting outside, you will grow a more productive, fruitful garden with fewer pests. There are several steps that go into doing this, which I will break into workable-sized portions below.
Keep a notebook exclusively for gardening records, in which you draw your garden maps, record seed-sewing dates, and keep track of the varieties of veggies you plant. This will help you with crop rotation and companion planting, to maximize nutrient consumption from your soil. (There are online garden calculators to help you with this, but you usually have to pay for the service.)
My Happy Little Gardening Compendium
First, you need to measure out the amount of space you have to plant. This is a crucial step, as different vegetable plants need different amounts of room for growth, and knowing your total space will help you with figuring out your garden layout. I have a 5’x15’ plot of dirt (75 ft2). In this plot of dirt, it so happens I can get 10 rows at 18” wide along the 15’. I plan to fill it entirely.
Map of My Garden Space, Proposed Layout of Plants, & Plant List with Maturity Dates
How Much Light do You Get?
Next, see how much light your garden area gets throughout the day. Is it a full sun, partial sun, or shady area (shady should probably not be your garden area)? Does it get morning sun, afternoon sun, both? If you watch your sunlight during the winter, keep in mind any large trees or bushes that may change the amount of sunlight filtering through to your garden area during the growing season. (We have a very large white oak in the middle of our yard that took away a good deal of midday sunlight during summer from the spot I chose for my vegetable garden – this is not ideal, but it still gets full morning and afternoon sun.)
How Much Sun Do You Get? (Really Your Garden Spot, How Much Does IT Get?)
You should also test your soil to see just which nutrients your soil has in plenty, and which nutrients it is in desperate need of. You can try the little soil kits they sell at your local nursery, but why not do it right and have your soil properly analyzed by experts? I followed This Old House’s recommendation and sent off a sample of my garden soil to UMassAmherst for $15. (Check out my blog post with more in depth instructions about soil testing.) Just be sure to follow their sample collecting instructions thoroughly. (soiltest.umass.edu) (If you are planting your veggies in pots, you can probably skip this step, unless you regularly recycle your potting soil.)
Test That Dirt!
Now the fun part: what do you want to eat and when? Draw out a garden map with your square footage and an approximate number of rows. Write out a lineup of the veggies you’d like to eat, check the size of each mature plant on your seed packet, and draw in approximate numbers of veggies into your garden map.
Staggering the sewing of seeds will ensure that you get repeats of veggies, rather than a whole slew of radishes at one time. This is a little more important for single producing seeds like the afore-mentioned radishes, rather than cucumbers or beans, which you can pick and it will keep producing.
Check your last frost date here and calculate backwards the sewing date based on your seed packets. (Hang on to those seed packets, they have a lot of information on them that you will need, like spacing, plant height, light requirements, and maturity dates.) Start seedlings in old, paper egg crates in January, to be planted outdoors just after the last frost in your area.
Things like crucifers (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, brussel sprouts), beets, carrots, and radishes can be planted outside while it is still quite cold and your other seedlings are still inside.
Fun List of Veggies That Grow Well in Cool/Cold Weather
Check out the notes on your seed packets, check out the pins under my “How Does Your Garden Grow” Pinterest board, or ask your local garden club for more information on sewing and transplanting out-of-doors dates.
Stay tuned for Part II: Companion Planting!