Tuesday, February 19, 2013

"Quick" guide to garden planning

Planning the next season's garden is a fun and productive way to spend the cold winter months. During the prior growing season I often start contemplating what crops work / don't work, what needs to be rotated, and what I want to add. Then, I sometimes procrastinate until March to actually plot everything out on paper...but by then I already have a decent “mental” plan. Experienced gardeners may never have to write anything on paper, but it's a good idea if one is planning multiple gardens and/or collaborating with others. I also like to create very tight and efficient plans, knowing that the real garden may stray from it...but at least there will be decent starting point.

My goal is to make garden planning simple and assessable to beginners...so if the following fails that goal, I apologize. Hopefully next year there will be further condensed tips. A lot of beginners follow Square Foot gardening, which is indeed very user-friendly, but I kind of consider it “dumbing down”, but still a good path to follow rather than just winging it. My grids below will indeed show 12” boxes, but just as a scale guideline rather then for individual boundaries.

Here are some simple steps to take:

Step 1: List all the crops you want to plant this year.

  • Example for a small 4' x 8' garden: radishes, beets, carrots, arugula, lettuce, kale, chard, tomatoes, eggplants, basil, peas, pole beans, cucumbers.

Step 2: Sort the above into the following categories:

  • Step 2: Sort the above into the following categories:
  • Early sown, early harvest
  • Early sown, gradual harvest or full season (this real estate will be taken for the entire year).
  • Warm weather, post-frost sown or transplants (nearly all of these will be gradual harvest or full season).
    Here is how the plants from our example will be categorized:
  • Early sown, early harvest: radishes, arugula, lettuce, peas
  • Early sown, gradual or full season: beets, carrots, kale, chard
  • Warm weather, post-frost sown or transplants: carrots, kale, chard, beets, tomatoes, eggplants, basil, pole beans. (Some of these can also be sown before frost, as you see repeats. Some need to be started indoors ahead of time, or purchased as seedlings, but the brassicas in particular can either be direct sown or started indoors.)

Step 3: First plot out the warm weather planting diagram. This will include all the “early sown, gradual or full season” and “post-frost sown or transplants”. The warm weather diagram represents the bulk of the season's production. After you make this plan, the early, pre-frost plan will be filled in.   Pardon my handwriting...
  • companion planting – will your plants make good neighbors? Look up “companion planting” online. I'll add notes in another posting.
  •  Vertical planting – some plants such as pole beans, cucumbers, Fall/Winter squash, can climb trellises or poles. Also, some tall plants can be placed closely to shorter plants. Tomatoes and carrots go well together. Another type of vertical planting is to actually replace a pole or trellis with a tall firm plant, like corn, sorghum or sunflowers. This will be covered further in later postings.  
  • Notes on spacing
    • cucumbers and pole beans vary, and should be interplanted.
    • tomatoes and eggplants should be at least 18" apart, and it's efficient to add a basil plant in between.  In the example above, the tomatoes and eggplants are 24" apart, but with basil in between. 
    • Kale should be 18" apart
    • Chard varies in size.  The above example shows the larger varieties that should be 18" apart, but we can also plant smaller or even the larger varieties as close as 6 to 12" apart.  
    • Beets can be scattered in the area, a few inches apart.  No reason for a single-file row.      

(Warning...  If Step 4 looks too confusing, my advice is to just plant many rows of radishes, arugula and lettuce a few weeks before the last frost, and then harvest all before planting the warm-weather plan.)

Step 4: Plot out early sowing. Frost tolerant plants are generally direct sown, because transplants may be shocked by cold temperatures, whereas seeds that germinate in the soil will be well acclimated. “Frost tolerant” may not hold true if the transplants don't have enough time to acclimate.

  • work backwards from warm weather planting scheme (Step 3). The full season crops that you selected that are also in the “Early direct sow” list, should be kept in the same place in the planting map. They will never be moved, but just thinned out. 
  • Any nightshade (tomatoes and eggplants from our example) in Step 3, will not be planted until a few weeks after the last frost, so won't occupy space for a month or two. You can plant the quickest of early crops, such as radishes, arugula or lettuce, or leave that space fallow. 
  • Trellises can hold peas, which will later be joined and then replaced by the warm-weather climbers. 
  • Notes on spacing - nearly everything will be planted relatively densely, as the seed packets suggest.  Kale and Chard will later be thinned out, but initially they can be planted tight and harvested as a salad green.

Tips for inter-planting
  • plant radishes amongst beets or chard. Radishes germinate and will be harvested quickly in the Spring, whereas beets or chard (which are the same species) take longer to start but will occupy the space for the entire season.
  • Stagger the brassica oleraceas (i.e., kale, cabbage, collards) with beets/chard, to prevent a contiguous target for certain bugs that target the brassica oleraceas.
  • Carrots don't really need a designated space, as they can fill in between the nightshades. In our example, I will add a row of early carrots, but these could also be delayed until the warmer weather.
Finally, one thing to consider is that there are opportunities for a lot of succession planting throughout the growing season. I like to have the initial plan just focus on these earlier months, and then as space clears up during the summer, we add more plants. Be prepared to improvise, no matter how much thought and effort goes into the plan. I'll add tips for later Summer planting, as that time approaches.

Anyway, I'll add more tips later, but this should be a good start... Also, I'll add some of my actual garden plans.

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