Tips for Planning Your Garden

As I embarked on my early morning walk, leaning into the frigid January winds, I could not help wondering about an early spring and the hope of the new garden year. These thoughts of spring remained as I curled up by the kitchen fire to enjoy a warming cup of tea, thus inspiring me to begin the annual garden-planning process.

I want to share with you this process, and I look to you for your comments and suggestions in hopes that together we could learn from each other and improve our garden-planning activities. Also, I’m sharing with you some garden resources that I come back to time and time again in pursuit of the best the garden has to offer. Although I do not endeavor to provide the final word on this subject, I will outline here a few thoughts on garden planning as well as my personal best-practice activities.

Plant Just What You Need
I have found through experience that when I simplify my plan to just what I require from the annual harvest, I have better results. In the past, I have often overdone my plantings both in variety and quantity and found that maintaining such a large undertaking has been overwhelming. Within the recent past, I have begun my annual plan with a simple inventory of my pantry and root cellar to determine what crops I will need for my yearly canning and preserving activities. With this information at hand, I can calculate my needs, keeping in mind that these needs can include, at the root of a life well lived, gifting and sharing and trading with other gardeners. Next, we plan the garden layout.

Planning Your New Garden
An often overlooked but key garden-planning concept is determining what produce may be purchased from local market gardens and farms instead of growing the crop yourself. Take tomatoes, for example. Due to the limited size of my cottage garden, I do not have the space to grow the volume needed for canning and processing tomatoes. I would much rather use some of that space to grow one or two heirloom tomato varieties for the table and then purchase my processing tomatoes from a local grower. This practice not only allows additional space to produce vegetables and herbs that I find difficult to source from local growers but also supports the efforts of the local market garden and farm economy. Keep in mind that an entire self-sufficient food production lifestyle is beyond the reach of most of us, and to maintain a viable local farm and market garden economy means supporting them not only during summer’s “salad days” but throughout the growing season. One might even encourage local growers to embrace four-season production to benefit both us as consumers and them as producers, adding to their cash flow.

As I mentioned, outsourcing specific crops to local growers opens up space in your garden for selective herbs and vegetables, due to their care in cultivation, a limited market appeal, or your personal preference. An example is Florence fennel and leeks, as I have found fennel to be easy to grow but hard to find at the farmers market because many customers are unfamiliar with its use. Leeks, on the other hand, are becoming more common at the market, but specific varieties that overwinter or can be grown in the winter garden are difficult to find. These two examples are just a few of the many specialty crops I grow in the “found” space provided by purchasing instead of growing my production produce. This method enhances the variety both within my garden and, more importantly, on my table.

Uncommon Garden Areas
When planning your garden, consider uncommon areas such as in containers and within your landscaping. For example, using containers, both large and small, can help to free up space in your garden proper without sacrificing variety. Crops that lend themselves to containers are herbs of all types, tomatoes, perhaps bush or limited-vining cucumbers, and peppers. The edible landscaping concept encourages planting edible plants within the home’s landscape to provide both utility and pleasure. Also, you can plant fruit trees and shrubs in place of ornamentals, low-growing berries instead of ground covers (plant under trees, too), and traditional crops within the wasted spaces around shrubs and within borders. If you wish to explore this exciting gardening concept further, I encourage you to visit Edible Landscaping: The Basics and Plants To Get Started as a starting point for your explorations.

Seed Sources
With your initial planning completed, you will now need to source your seeds and plant materials and develop a planting timeline to support your harvest needs. I use a very simple process that lists all plantings during specific times of the year on a single notebook or legal pad page. I divide my page into early summer, late summer, fall, and, of course, as a winter gardener, I have a page for winter as well. I then consider the crop varieties that are best suited to my location, my space, and my growing requirements, and specific variety attributes that I may value such as storage, size, and flavor. Based on my resources, I will often jot notes beside specific crops concerning exact planting dates or perhaps the need for row cover to protect from both weather and pests. My next step is to draw a simple garden map that outlines what crops go where and what crops will replace outgoing plantings as the season progresses. And don’t forget about crop rotation to minimize pest and disease problems. Although this simple process works well for me, those of you who prefer a bit more complexity can explore garden planting templates that are available online or computer software that assists with the planning and garden-management process.

As for sourcing seeds and plant materials, I offer here a few of my favorite purveyors and a short list of reputable vendors. I hope my discussion has added to your early garden-planning process, and I look forward to hearing from each of you about your process and any tips or techniques that I may find useful.

Well, the fire requires some attention, and my daily list of chores awaits, so I wish each of you well as you focus on your garden endeavors and look forward to hearing from you soon.

Seed and Plant Material Vendors Used at Cow Hill Cottage:

Johnny’s Selected Seeds

Southern Exposure Seed Exchange

Territorial Seed Company

Seed Savers Exchange

Filaree Garlic Farm

Bakers Creek Heirloom Seeds

R. H. Shumway’s

Reputable Seed and Plant Material Purveyors:

Fedco Seeds

Peaceful Valley Seeds

Seeds of Change

Uprising Seeds

Chiltern Seeds

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