Planning Your Vegetable Garden

This article will help you make some important decisions when planning your personal garden space.
Beautiful Vegetable Garden

 

Are you thinking of starting a new garden? Or expanding your existing one? Before you get excited and buy those seed packets or plant starts, you should first take stock of your situation and think about where you want to go.

Do you have a large family and want to save some money while eating truly fresh, organically-grown produce? Are you just tired of grocery hot-house tomatoes and want to be able to go outside and pick your own succulent, juicy slicers from a pot on your back patio?

Here are some things you need to think about before you begin. With a little time and thought up front, you can have the most successful experience for your situation.

Assessing Your Space

Sunlight

The first thing you should consider is finding the location on your site that gets the most amount of sunlight. Your garden will need at least 6 hours of full sunlight every day. Take some time to observe how the sun moves across your property from morning til evening, ideally throughout an entire growing season. Notice where your trees, fences and structures provide shade.

Soil

The best soil for your garden will be loose, well-drained, relatively weed-free and have adequate nutrients. This is often very hard to come by, especially if you have a developed urban or suburban lot. The good news is that most of this can be taken care of with soil amendments and/or the use of raised beds.

Stable Environment

Your garden needs a spot that is not too wet for too long. Choose a location that doesn’t feel squishy under your feet or have standing water when it rains. Look at the lay of your property and choose a spot that has a gentle slope and is not in a low spot, unless you are in a Mediterranean or desert climate where you’d need to take advantage of infrequent rainfall. If your chosen spot is too wet, you can modify the drainage with small channels, berms or raised beds to improve the situation.

Look for a spot that is not prone to strong winds that can damage young plants or blow over your trellises and stakes. If necessary, you can create windbreaks with low-growing shrubs, ornamental grasses or low wooden fencing.

It is also best to choose your garden location outside of the drip line of large trees since you do not want your garden to have to compete with the tree and its roots for water and nutrients. If you are doing raised beds, this may be less critical, providing you can still get 6 hours of sun at this spot.

Square Feet

Think about what you are going to be growing and how much space you might need to do what you want to do. Carrots, bush beans, beets, chard and other leafy greens take up a relatively small amount of space for what they yield. Peppers, tomatoes and cole crops (broccoli, cabbage, cauliflower, etc.) take up a moderate amount of space. Corn, potatoes, squash and melons take up a lot of space though they can be very productive, particularly squash! Some plants require structures to help them grow. Tomatoes, cucumbers and pole beans require staking and trellising and potatoes require hilling. Also, perennial plants like asparagus, rhubarb and berries will need their own spots so they can stay there year to year.

If you are a beginner, it is best to start small and expand your growing space later when you get the hang of it.

Other Issues to Consider

Accessibility

This is especially true for beginning gardeners, but applies to all gardeners. Your garden will be most successful when it is easy to get to. As much as the factors like sunlight will allow, try to locate your garden in a place that you will enjoy visiting regularly and that you won’t forget about. If you plan to have herbs and small vegetables you might consider putting the small things in a “kitchen plot” nearest to your back door so you can pop out to pick things right while you are preparing a meal. The larger vegetables like squash and corn can be set farther away from the house.

You also need to think about how you will water your garden, because almost no matter where you live, you will probably need to supply extra water to your garden at least at some point during the growing season, if not very often. You will need to have a garden hose long enough to reach from the water source to your garden and you need to consider how much hose you want to drag around and roll up regularly.

Plant Hardiness Zone

USDA Hardiness ZonesYou will want to find out your plant hardiness zone or growing zone. For properties in the United States, you can click here  to find your growing zone. This will help you when deciding which plants to plant and when to plant them. Commercially offered seeds and plant starts and other plant material will often tell you where they thrive best and when to to plant them.

Neighbors

Depending on where you live and your relationship with your neighbors, you may need to think a little more closely about where you put your garden and what you put in it. If you want to avoid any potential hard feelings and preserve great relationships with your neighbors, you may want to talk your plans over with them and see if they have any concerns. They may not want you to trellis your cucumbers up the fence between your properties or see the back of your gardening shed from their patio.

A tidy vegetable garden can be very beautiful. You can consider tuck-planting flowers around your vegetables. There are many ways to practice companion gardening that are both beneficial for your veggies and very attractive.

Great neighborly relations can be fostered by giving neighbors gifts from your garden. Your excess zucchini can come in very handy here. But don’t overdo it!

Pets

Pets are also a consideration, yours and your neighbors. If you don’t have a fence around your property, you may need to protect your garden from dogs and cats digging in it. Dogs love to dig and bury their bones and toys and cats adore loose soil to do their business.

Composting

As your garden begins to grow and expand you will find yourself with lots of organic waste material. Most of this you don’t want to throw away because it is gold for your garden. There are many options for composting from a simple pile that you turn to a more sophisticated and decorative rotating barrel that you purchase to a worm composting system where the worms do the work for you.

You will want to consider where you will put your compost and how much work you want to do with your compost. This will keep your neighbors happy and keep your garden contributing back to itself. Ultimately, saving and maintaining your own compost is a huge money saver for your gardening operation as well as being environmentally friendly.

If you want to get a head start on composting ideas, here’s a great overview of composting methods  and here’s a simple recipe for composting that you can do right now.

Lawn Chemicals

Many lawn sprays can be toxic to your garden plants. Consider putting your garden in an area where it won’t get overspray from your lawn treatments or your neighbors’ treatments. If you can’t get your garden out of the way of overspray, ask your neighbors if they would spray on days when it isn’t windy and do this yourself. Consider only spraying your front yard and using other natural weed control for your areas closest to your garden.

Local Codes and Home Owners’ Associations (HOA)

Before you decide to put in a garden, it is advisable to check with your local codes and your HOA to see what restrictions they might place on your gardening activities. If you live out in the country, you probably don’t have to worry about this. If you live in an urban or suburban municipality, chances are there are some regulations on how high fences can be and how your compost must be dealt with. It is better to know these things in advance before you are disappointed or have a run-in with neighbors or the local authorities. If you live in a HOA, you will need to check to make sure gardens are even allowed. If they aren’t, don’t despair. There are lots of ways to have beautiful edible plants that can be incorporated into permissible landscaping around your house. Please check out our guest post on Edible Landscaping.

Still More Considerations

How Much Do You Want to Produce

Ask yourself some questions about how much food you would like to produce with your garden. Are you planning on providing fresh, organically-grown veggies to your large family? Are you wanting to grow enough tomatoes to can for the winter or enough cucumbers to make pickles? Or do you just want to pop out to the back patio for a slicer tomato for your BLT at lunch?

It’s important to think ahead about what you want to produce, particularly if you are a beginner. Starting with just tomatoes may be the best thing to do, if you want to be able to can. You can focus on the needs of the tomato plant and have some success and then add more veggies later.

How Many Plants Do You Need

One carrot seed yields one carrot. One pole bean seed produces one bean plant that produces multiple beans all season long. One beet seed gives you one beet (and the beet greens!). One squash seed can give you many squashes and the seeds from the resulting fruit can then be planted next year! Knowing your plants a little bit in advance can help you decide how many plants to put in your garden. Here’s a great little plant calculator website (it uses Microsoft Excel) for calculating how many plants you need to grow to feed a certain number of people and more!

Plant Rotation and Companion Planting

Lastly, you will need to consider that you will need to rotate your plot. This means you will want to move your annual plants around to different spots in your garden space from year to year so that you can avoid pest threats that may have taken root in the soil near a particular vegetable. Rotation can also help balance your soil nutrients since different vegetables require different nutrients and provide nutrients back to the soil.

When you really get into planning what you’ll put into your garden and where it will all go, you may want to consider using Companion Planting methods. Some plants thrive better when near certain other plants and some plants really dislike growing next to some other plants. It can improve your chances of success if you take this into consideration. This is a whole big topic on its own but if you want to know a little more about it, here’s a great article on companion planting.

Round Vegetable Garden
Christine McIntosh www.flickr.com/photos/goforchris/6004481435/in/photostream/

Preparing Your Garden Space

Remove Sod

In general, it is best to remove the ground cover (grass, weeds, etc.) before you prepare the underlying soil to put in your seeds and plants. Some methods, like lasagna gardening, do not require this and certainly this doesn’t apply to container gardening.

Tilling

If you have chosen to start a large garden, you may consider tilling your soil, at least the first time. This makes it easier to break up large clods to get more workable soil and allows you to easily mix in soil amendments like peat moss and compost. Tilling repeatedly may contribute to soil compaction and could disrupt your worm population or other beneficial soil organisms. You can avoid having to till again in the future by keeping your soil well-mulched and not leaving exposed soil around plants, covering with mulchable organic materials, as well as using dense planting methods that leave little soil exposed.

Sheet Mulching – “Lasagna Gardening”

This method of soil preparation involves laying down layers of organic material like cardboard, newspaper, leaves and some yard wastes, directly on the ground in layers. This works to smother weeds and breaks down into nutrient-rich compost to feed your garden. Plants and seeds can then be planted into the “Lasagna” layers by making a hole and filling with compost and potting soil. You can find more about Lasagna gardening here.

Raised Bed Gardening

A popular method for smaller gardens and areas that are poorly drained is raised bed gardening. Raising your garden bed above ground level can allow you to control drainage and let you control the soil materials and nutrients. It is essentially like a large flowerpot for your garden. This method consists of preparing a border for your raise bed made of untreated lumber, bricks, blocks or other suitable materials and then filling the space with a soil mix that you prepare from a mix of peat moss, compost, manures and a drainage medium like Vermiculite. A typical recipe for a raised bed potting mix is 1/3 vermiculite, 1/3 peat moss and 1/3 compost. The compost should come from at least 3 sources but as many as possible and can include your rich native soil, well-aged animal manures, worm or mushroom compost or other sources of rich organic material.

Container Gardening

If you have a small space, or even if you just want to do a simple patio garden, there are many ways to use containers to grow some great vegetable crops.

Container Garden
Thomas Kriese www.flickr.com/photos/thomaspix/2432153264

You can easily grow tomatoes, herbs and strawberries in pots on your deck. Pole beans and other climbing plants can be trellised on the side of your house. Even potatoes and sweet potatoes can be grown in pots and layered up for greater production. Sweet potato leaves are quite beautiful and can be highly decorative as well as edible. Lettuces and short carrots and beets can be grown in gutters or narrow planters attached to your deck or balcony railing. Depending on your space and needs, you can get really creative here.

Protecting Your Garden From Bugs and Critters

You will need to consider what kind of pests your garden may be faced with. Here are some physical barriers you can use to protect against larger pests. After your garden is established, you will most certainly face bug and organism problems and we will deal with those in a later article, but these are some things you might want to consider when planning your initial garden space.

Fencing

To protect against rabbits, you will need low fencing, but it needs to have no holes for them to slip through. Low chicken wire works well for this and you can pin it down at the bottom so they can’t slip under.

Ground hogs can climb and burrow, but they don’t like floppy fences, so chicken wire that wiggles or turns out at the top can be useful. You will need to bury it about 6 inches into the ground so they get frustrated trying to dig into your garden.

There are other methods to keep deer from being interested in your garden, but if you want to put a fence up, it will need to be 6 feet tall or 4 feet with the poles extended and a top wire at 6 feet. They don’t see well so you can further discourage them by putting flags on the wire or top of the fence so they know it is there. They can jump fences, but they don’t like to jump into small spaces.

Raccoons can be a big problem, especially if you have corn or fruit trees. They are not discouraged by the tallest fence, but they don’t like electricity. If you have raccoon problems, a dog can be helpful if you don’t want to do an electric fence.

Netting

If you have berry bushes or fruit trees or bushes, or other things attractive to birds, you can use bird netting. This doesn’t usually require poles or supports, but you may need to think of support structures depending on what you are covering.

Chicken Wire and Hardware Cloth

You may need to make a structure or box in your garden with a cage of chicken wire or hardware cloth. These can be easily built and there are many plans online to help you with this. You can use wood slats or PVC pipe to build support cages around your most delicate plants.

Row Cover

An easy way to keep cabbage moths from laying their eggs on your cole crops is by using light and water-permeable row covers available commercially for gardening. These usually do not require much in the way of structural support, but they may need to be weighed down at the edges with lawn staples or bricks to keep them from blowing off. Row cover works for other plants and other situations as well, so keep it in mind for your pest arsenal.

 

Concluding Thoughts

Starting a garden is an exciting but sometimes daunting process. There are a lot of things to consider to have a successful garden. But if you put a little effort into the planning stages, you will find that the process goes more smoothly and before you know it, you will be enjoying a successful harvest from your own home garden and the pride and pleasure that come from eating your own home-grown produce.

We hope that this has given you a starting point to get your garden going. We will be posting more articles in the future that go into more detail, but we’d love to hear from you. If you want to see more information on a particular subject, leave us a comment below.

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