The start of the new year is a cue to start doing your vegetable garden planning, what vegetables you will grow, where they will be planted and the timing of seeding, transplanting and direct sowing. It sounds daunting and a lot of hard work but it can be done quickly, cheaply, easily and effectively.
If you want to have a successful vegetable garden, you will need to do some advance planning. While you could just randomly plant seeds in any old spot in the garden, you may run into problems.
Doing your vegetable garden planning ahead of time will save your money on buying seeds, as you will only buy what you need. And you will avoid issues with planting the wrong plants together or planting the same plants in the same spot year after year.
Here are the steps I recommend to follow to plan your vegetable garden This process doesn’t take much time, doesn’t require you to purchase any special tools, is relatively easy and produces an easily usable plan.
Grab yourself a hot drink and settle in with your seed catalogues for the next few steps!
1. List of Vegetables
Before you can plan out where to plant vegetables, you will need to decide what to plant. There are a few criteria to consider including:
- what grows best in your climate
- what you and your family likes to eat
- what produces the most vegetables for the least space if you are space-constrained and/or have a large family
- a mix of vegetables that will complement each other, both as companion plants but also for succession planting and crop rotation
How do you find out what vegetables will grow in your climate? Best is to get a seed catalogue from a local seed company. In my case here on the west coast of Canada, we have West Coast Seeds. They have a comprehensive seed catalogue of seeds of plants that grow well in the Lower Mainland of BC and Vancouver Island, where my hometown of Victoria is located.
I use the regional planting charts in the catalogue and highlight the vegetables we will grow in the coming year. There are growing lists for vegetables, herbs and flowers, so I go through all the lists at one time.
Once I have the desired vegetables highlighted, I check my seed box that I keep in the fridge. I put a $ next to the vegetables I need to buy seeds for and a checkmark next to the ones I still have enough of. I keep in mind succession sowing so even if I still have some seeds, I may buy more to have enough to plant all season long. I’ve learned the hard way that sometimes later in the season it is hard to get certain seeds. Here is the page from my seed catalogue showing what I’m growing and what I need to buy:
I then make a shopping list of the seeds I need. Next comes the fun part!
2. Varieties of Seeds
This part I love doing. You can spend hours combing through your seed catalogues looking at all the varieties of vegetable seeds.
Using the list of seeds you made, start looking at the matching sections of the catalogue. There are a few criteria that you need to keep in mind when picking seed varieties. Here are just a few common ones:
- days to maturity – this tells you how long you need to wait to be able to harvest the first vegetables, if you have a short growing season pick the variety that has the shortest days to maturity
- seedless vs. seeded – you can get seedless cucumbers, tomatoes and watermelons
- disease resistant – some varieties are resistant to the common diseases that affect that particular vegetable
- good for greenhouse growing – these usually are heat-tolerant and do not have male and female flowers, meaning that pollination is more reliable
- size of plants – you may want dwarf or bush varieties if you have limited space
- size of vegetables – size can affect taste and what you can do with the vegetable, think stuffer tomatoes or peppers – these usually are larger sizes
- flavour – you may prefer a particular sweetness (think corn) or in the case of pepper a certain heat level of spiciness
- colour – you may prefer a certain colour, I usually choose a multi-colour blend if available as it provides some variety to a vegetable dish and eating a rainbow of colours is healthier
- GMO vs. non-GMO (West Coast Seeds for instance does not sell any GMO (Genetically Modified Organisms) seeds) – this is a hotly debated topic: if GMO seeds and thus the plants that grow from them are less healthy and could cause health issues when consumed
- Organic vs. non-organic seeds (ie. organic seeds are saved from organically grown vegetables) – again a debated topic
- Open Pollinated vs. Hybrid – hybrid seeds results from cross-pollination of two different varieties of the same vegetable. While there are advantages (higher yield, shorter growing season, cold-hardiness, disease resistance), saving seeds from a hybrid plant will not guarantee you will get the same vegetable again as seeds likely will revert to one of it’s parents genetics
- Cost – some varieties are very expensive and only certain varieties are available in larger quantities if you plan to plant alot of seeds
Sometimes the choice is difficult. Or do what a real gardener does and buy more than one variety and hope you will find the room to grow them all!
Once you have chosen a variety write it down on your shopping list. I usually write down my first pick and then one or more second picks as sometimes seeds are not available at the nursery where I buy them from. Alternatively you can also do mail-order and there is a better chance of getting the varieties that you want.
Here is the list I came up with (with some help from my 4-year old daughter):
3. Determining Space Availability
Before you can start planning you will need to evaluate the space you have available if you have never grown vegetables before. Perhaps you only have space for one 4 foot x 8 foot raised bed. Or perhaps even just a few containers.
I now use a spreadsheet to map out my vegetable beds. I simply set the row and column height to be the same to get square cells and then set the fill on them to a brown to indicate the bed sizes. It helps to use
You can also just use a piece of graph paper and do this completely by hand. Just count out two squares per square foot and outline each bed in a pen (don’t use a pencil as you may do some erasing later on when you pencil in the crops you will grow).
For containers you can just draw some circles or other shapes roughly representing the containers.
Here is what I get after doing this step. Note that the middle bed is actually a bit longer and the small bed on the right is my daughter’s 2×4 foot planter:
You can of course save the spreadsheet as a template or duplicate it to use it for following years. Or if doing this on paper, make photocopies of the space availability plan before you start filling in crops.
4. Rotate your Crops!
If you have not gardened before, you can skip this step. If you did grow some vegetables last year, this step is important for you.
Diseases can easily overwinter and come back stronger in the new growing season. If you plant the same vegetables in the same spot year after year, you likely will have constant issues with disease and it won’t go away.
Also pests and bugs are good at hanging around the same location, hoping for a free meal. If you provide them with the same food they had last year, they will be very happy.
However in both cases if you change your crops from year to year, disease will not get a foothold and pests will be surprised when their source of food has disappeared.
The other reason for rotating crops is to benefit from some crops such as the legume family (beans and peas) that gather nitrogen from the air and store it. By following a legume crop with a heavy feeding crop such as brassicas (broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kale, etc.) you will give the following crop the benefit of the sequestered nitrogen.
So let’s setup your beds to rotate:
- Bed #1 gets limed in early spring, planted with greens such as spinach and lettuce, and the brassicas
- Bed #2 planted with legumes (peas, beans) and onions and squash
- Bed #3 planted with root crops, tomatoes, potatoes, eggplants and peppers
To rotate just move everything from Bed #1 to Bed #2 (this one gets lime as well) to Bed #3 to Bed #1.
5. Write in your Crops
Now finally to get your crops planned out. Using your list of vegetables you will grow this year, start deciding where they will go and write in your crops.
Obviously follow your crop rotation plan from the previous step but also look at where you need to put up trellises for climbing plants such as peas and pole or runner beans. Tall plants such as corn also need to be strategically located. You don’t want tall trellises and plants to cast a shadow on smaller plants all day. Usually this means putting the tall plants and trellises on the north side of the beds if you run your rows west to east. Or run your rows north to south and it won’t matter as much.
Checking your seed catalogue again, see what the recommendation is for plant spacing of each vegetable. This will determine how many plants you can put in a square foot or in a row and how far apart those rows need to be. In my case I don’t worry too much about noting down the spacing within rows. I now tend to do it by eye and I do plant densely.
Keep in mind that there are plants that do well together and plants that don’t do well together. This is called companion planting and West Coast Seeds has a great guide on this topic that you can use. This will impact where you put plants.
Here is my plan completed for 2018. In case you are wondering I will plant peppers, eggplant, tomatoes, cucumber, melon and zucchini in containers either in the greenhouse or elsewhere in the garden, not in the raised beds.
6. Write Down Important Dates
You are almost done! The final step is to again look at your seed catalogue and start writing in dates on a calendar (a free or cheap physical calendar or one on your computer or phone).
If you are planning on succession planting, you should follow the recommendation in the seed catalogue and repeat a note to plant more seeds in the appropriate interval.
Here is what I have done for March:
You can also note down the first possible harvest date based on the days to maturity. This can be hit or miss and you should be checking your vegetables for ripening regularly anyways. It is highly dependent on weather and how much feeding and water you are giving them.
And you can also use the physical calendar for other tasks in the garden – I use Calendar online instead for that and my other tasks, so you could do that too.
Now after following these six steps you should have a plan that will improve your gardening results this year.
As with all plans be prepared to modify the plan as you need to. Make notes of what you change and why so that you can use that info next year so that your vegetable gardening planning evolves as you gain more experience.
Do you have any tips on improving the process I’ve outlined? Share your tips and techniques in the comments below.