Whether you are breaking new ground or an experienced gardener, making a detailed plan can help you to make the best use of your space, prioritize your crops, and maximize your harvests.  While I love my wheel cultivator and swan neck hoe, my most precious garden tools are my planting map and calendar.  Without them, I would be lost.  There are a bunch of different websites that have interactive garden planning tools, such as GrowVeg, but for the “DIY” kind of person, the following tips will guide you through the garden planning process.

Mapping your Garden

If this is your first season in the garden, you may want to check out Paul Betz’s article Turning your Lawn into Lunch.  Once you have established you garden space, then it is time to make a map.  I use an excel spread sheet, but you can also use grid paper if you are more inclined toward pen and paper.  Each square of the grid should represent a specific measured unit so as to help you to create your layout and plan how much seed to purchase.  The best part is that once you make your map, you can use it year after year to create a new garden plan and keep track of your crop rotations.

Planning your Crops and Varieties

There are many variables, (such as your level of experience, the size of your garden, and the amount of time you have to spend) that will weigh heavily on what crops to choose and how much of each you can grow. Inexperienced growers may want to start with just a few of their culinary favorites, choosing ones that are easy to grow, having straightforward needs that are widely adapted to different growing conditions and climates.  For smaller gardens, it may be more rewarding to concentrate on short season crops such as greens and peas that produce prolific harvests in shorter periods of time.  Crops that take up a lot of space, such as melons, tomatoes, and vining plants like some squash and beans can be grown vertically by trellising to save on space.   In larger gardens, succession planting can provide you with continuous harvests for some crops.  It can be beneficial in some instances to plan your successions using varieties that are slotted for different parts of the growing season.

Creating a Layout

Once you’ve chosen your varieties you can begin to plug them into your map to create a layout.  Before you get started, you will want to consider your gardening options because this will affect your layout.  Many gardeners using only hand tools who are wishing to maximize their space are going with U-shaped beds or the “Square Foot Gardening” method in 4’x4’ raised beds.

Mapping your layout allows you to visualize your best design for the season, so that you can foresee any problems and reorganize your plan before the seeds are sown.  Things to keep in mind when creating a layout are:

  • sun exposure
  • prevailing winds
  • areas with unique characteristics, such as poor drainage, ledge, or sloped areas
  • crop rotation
  • planting methods
  • grouping of similar crop types for pest and disease care
  • different shapes and sizes (using tall plants to provide some shade or being sure not to shade out smaller plants with taller ones such as corn)
  • season specific varieties
  • succession planting
  • perennials vs. annuals (best not to interplant these, but to assign perennials to their own area)

I've created an example of a planning map for a market garden using an excel spreadsheet.  In this example, each square represents 5 square feet (you can adjust this number to work for the size of your garden space).  This mock layout is based on the traditional bed/row method, but can be easily changed to reflect your planting methods.

Planting Calendar

It can become a bit frazzling to try and juggle the needs of many different crops and all their unique requirements, but can be simplified by keeping a calendar that is dedicated to the garden.  For small and simple gardens, it may not be entirely necessary to devote a full calendar to keep track of when to sow, but nonetheless it is important to schedule planting dates for each variety.  Before you make your calendar, you will want to keep in mind:

  • cultural information for each crop type
  • seasonally slotted varieties
  • which crops you will plant in successions
  • approximate soil and air temps during planting season in your region
  • first and last frost dates

High Mowing has a handy planting guide that will help you determine the best time to start your seeds, ideal soil temps, and detailed cultural information, and more for all of our crop types.   To calculate your start dates for your calendar, you will want to keep track of your crops in the following categories:

I usually calculate my start date by figuring out my intended harvest date and count backwards by using the days to maturity.  It is important to determine whether the days to maturity are from transplant or from seed.  High Mowing lists this information in the growing info section for each crop type.  Alternatively, if you have already determined your transplant date, you can use the above link to the planting guide to reference the number of weeks from seedling to transplant for each crop type to find out your seeding date.  Once you determined all your planting, transplanting, direct seeding, and succession dates, then your calendar is complete.  The next step is to remember to take notes on your calendar as the season unfolds as to what worked and what did not.  This info will be crucial when you pull out your calendar to use as a template for subsequent years.

 Your Unique Garden

Everyone has a different story; a different level of experience and enthusiasm, a different landscape and climate, and a different set of garden priorities.  No two vegetable gardens are alike, but they all produce good, healthy food.  Ready, set, GROW!