A little planning now will help you enjoy a lush, prosperous garden when summer comes.
Whether you are a veteran victory gardener or an eager beginner with a few pots, experts agree that a little advance scheming makes for a better garden, saving time, money and wear and tear on your own momentum. February, with its frigid air, freezing rain and slumbering garden, is a perfect time for planning.
A good place to start is to read gardening books. From the great offerings in the State-by-State Gardening Bookstore to the many different websites and blogs, winter reading helps you visualize your garden. There is plenty of historical and modern inspiration out there just waiting to fire up your imagination.
Once you have done your research, you are ready to plan. The looming choices you have to make are location, size, soil preparation and plants.
Graph paper works great to map out the dimensions of your garden, and even plan wwhere you will plant them, giving each one appropriate spacing.
First things first – when it comes to having a successful garden, location is key. For a vegetable garden, the best spot is a sunny location with at least six to eight hours of full sun, away from shade trees, shrubs and underground septic tanks, but conveniently located near a water source. It is an added bonus if your garden is visible from a window, delighting your eye with its green sprawl and luring you out for a few minutes a day for garden tending.
Knowing how much water each type of vegetable needs can help you figure out where to place them in your garden, so you do not have plants that like wet feet beside plants that need a little dryness.
Size and Soil Preparation
Make your garden a realistic size, tailored to your experience, lifestyle, motivation and physical capabilities. Plan your garden dimensions to ensure that you enjoy pleasant industry in the greenery and insect hum, but not so big that you begin to dread unmanageable chores.
Once you map the perimeter of your garden, investigate good soil preparation in order to prime this essential element for healthy garden growth. It is never too late to perform a soil test, available through the cooperative extension service. While it might be too cold to plant anything just yet, it is a great time to take advantage of some of our warmer days to get outside, turn over your soil and add compost or other necessary amendments.
Researching which plants to put in your garden might just be the most fun part of this process. This is where you get to peruse gardening catalogs and magazines, dreaming about what you are going to plant this spring. Make sure they will fit your garden’s hardiness zone and conditions, as well as your own personal taste. If your vegetables’ growing habits match your garden and your fork returns eagerly to them on your plate, you are bound to enjoy your garden more with fewer disappointing harvests.
Make sure to order your seeds early, not only so you will have them when planting time arrives, but also to ensure the best selection from the distributors.
Mapping it Out
Start with rough sketches on graph paper so you have a good to-scale garden layout. Remember to include 24-inch-wide footpaths. This is an optimal distance to conserve as much growing space as possible, but still give reasonable access outside the beds so you do not compact the soil. It also leaves room for working tools such as wheelbarrows. Establishing 4-foot-wide beds allows an average gardener’s reach from either side into the middle for comfortable planting, staking, weeding and harvesting. Include room in your plan for present or future garden ornaments, water features, abodes for beneficial garden creatures and a nearby work counter with a water station.
When it is time to pick exactly what you want to plant, consider planting dates, water requirements and good companions. Then, create a simple chart, reducing important references for each plant to a single line. A 10-row table allows a space for the vegetable name, planting date, planting distances, mature size, watering ratio of 1- inch/per frequency in days, notes or tips, yield per plant, companions and enemies, days to harvest and harvesting guides. This chart conveniently compares planting information, and correct vegetable layout ensures the best harvest.
Drawing your plan out on loose-leaf graph paper gives it some portability so you can take it right out with you to the garden when it is time to plant.
It is helpful to research companion plants that work well together. For example, this information may prompt you to place sweet potatoes with pole beans in the same bed because roots and legumes are often mutually beneficial. But if you are using your table, you will notice that the sweet potatoes prefer watering at three weeks while the beans crave a deep drink every five days. Each deserves neighbors with comparable needs. Making these arrangements and rearrangements on paper first is a good reason for planning.
Once you have chosen your vegetables, charted their information, and planned your garden dimensions and design, it is much simpler to populate each bed with appropriate citizens. Make another graph with the planting distances drawn to scale to determine how many of each vegetable your garden can support. Your own loose-leaf garden journal can bring this portable mini-library right out to the garden at planting time.
A realistic garden plan also helps you order seeds appropriately. You know ahead of time that you will need cool-weather, seeds such as garden peas and beets, early. Slow growers such as peppers and tomato seeds need to have six to eight weeks before the first frost, so you can start them indoors and transplant in late spring. Your plan will alert you to the proper ordering time to get the seeds and plants in hand when needed, or better yet, avoid missing out on some craved vegetable because you did not order before they sold out.
Making a chart with the specifics for each plant can help put all the information you need right at your fingertips.
To polish your garden plans even more, take a spin with some of the excellent, online, interactive planning tools such as the “Grow Planner” iTunes app, featured on Motherearthnews.com. This one enables you to draw the dimensions and shapes of your beds and drop in vegetable shapes from an extensive list. The program automatically spaces vegetables correctly, creating a list as you go that you can access later and print with planting dates, quantities, spacing and seed sources. It is just one more tool in your arsenal to help you hone your gardening skills.
February is a great time for the savvy gardener to plan and be a jump ahead of the good garden weather that is just a few weeks away. Your garden can burst into life when the scribbles on a February graph emerge in summer as a happy green jungle of juicy delights, right in your backyard. Most of all, it is just more gardening fun until we can get back in the dirt.
A version of this article originally appeared in a February 2013 State-by-State Gardening E-newsletter.
Photography courtesy of Ruth Mason McElvain.