The first step in starting a vegetable garden, or any garden really, is to write out a plan. The plan can be anything from a few Post It notes on a seed catalog to a computerized garden map. I like to create something in between, a hand drawn map of the garden beds with the planting plan. This is a great project for a rainy day in early spring.
Typically, the vegetable garden needs to be planned out each year. Vegetables are annuals (for the most part) and when they reach maturity we eat them, so they need to be planted every year. There are so many factors to where, when, and how you plant the different vegetables, that a map is the best way to keep you on track. When to start seeds, whether or not to start them outdoors, when to transplant seedlings, good plant companions, and crop rotation are all things to think about when designing a garden plan. Here are the steps that I use for my mapping process.
(If you need help building garden beds then start here instead.)
First, map out your garden space. Measure your vegetable garden and draw a garden map to scale 1″ representing 1′ in the garden. Draw in any obstacles that you will have to contend with like posts, irrigation heads, or other structures you need to work with in the garden.
Label north on the map and watch the sun over the course of a few days to get a sense for what the light will be like. Remember that the sun in the summer and fall will be in different positions in the sky. Trees will leaf out and create shade, buildings may create more or less shade as the sun moves. If this is your first year mapping your garden, makes notes in a gardening journal throughout the year as to how the light will fall. Here is my garden helper coloring in the sun and shade while we plan over a coffee date.
Second, create your wish list. Grab some seed catalogs and write down all of the vegetables, fruits, and herbs that you want to grow. Now look up each of them in a seed catalog written for your area. You may find that some of your top choices are not even for sale in your area. Sadly, this is because not every veggie can grow in every climate. You will need to stick to what you can grow, so cross those off the list.
Look at the number of days to harvest and do the math. Some vegetables need a really long growing season and if cool fall weather comes before the harvest date, you may never even taste the fruits of your labor. Think about requirements like plant size at maturity, spacing needs, and shade/sun requirements to further refine your list.
The other thing I think about when creating my vegetable garden seed list is cost and availability of the vegetables. I choose heirloom seed varieties, rare colors, and expensive-to-buy produce to grow in my home garden.
The next step is to start adding plants to the garden map. Use pencil so you can easily move plants to new spaces or add more. Our vegetable garden is a small area that has four planters, two on the ground and two in the sky in a vertical planting system. To determine what plants went into the beds I looked at the location and amount of shade. I planned for root vegetables and plants with deep roots in the two beds that are on the ground. Shallow rooted plants when in the upper planters.
Use square foot gardening. If you have uniquely-shaped garden beds like I do, then square foot planting will be a very helpful tool. Mark each square foot on the garden map, then you can determine how many plants of each type can go in each square. Some vegetables like cabbage and cauliflower require at least a square to themselves, but others like carrots can squeeze 12-16 plants into a square. There is a guide here for square foot planting.
Finally, put pen to paper and mark the final location of your vegetables. This plan may change as the season goes by. Mark those changes, and anything that you noticed throughout the year right on your garden map. It will be a great starting point for next year, and a memento of your garden for years to come.
What’s next? Start seeds! Check out the Ultimate Seed Starting Guide here: