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Today is a snow day. The kind of snow that is wet and heavy flakes that cling to the trees. Each tree is given it's own winter coat, to shine in the sun and brighten the day. I love this kind of winter day!
I also love gardening in the spring. To each it's own time. But now is the time to start planning for the summer garden. This gets me excited, and a snowy day seems perfect to plan for warmer weather.
Step 1: What do you Eat?
This may seem like a ridiculous question, but I firmly believe in growing what you eat. Many people will say to grow lettuce, it's easy to grow. But if you don't eat lettuce, don't grow lettuce. There are of course easier and harder vegetables to grow, but you should first dream a little and think what you family loves to eat.
If you need some ideas check out: 7 Actually Easy to Grow Vegetables for New Gardeners
Come up with a list of "would love to grow" vegetables:
- onions/green onions
Step 2: What can you Grow?
For each item on your "would love to grow", check if it grows in your climate and if it's a perennial that needed to be planed last year. Some plants like asparagus and rhubarb are perennials meaning, they can't be grown in a single season. Other crops like garlic needs to be planted in the fall, overwinter underground and will grow in the summer. I would love to grow oranges, but have you ever seen an outdoor orange tree in New England? Nope, we got apple trees here.
This may take a little research if you are unfamiliar with how your favorite plants grow. There is no shame in not knowing this, every one was a beginner once. Feel free to ask questions below.
- Does it grow in my part of the world?
- Does it grow as a annual I can plant in spring and harvest this year?
Translate "would love to grow" into "can grow" vegetables:
- tomatoes -> annual + grows in my climate
- rhubarb -> perennial (can't plant now)
- peppers -> annual + grows in my climate
- garlic -> have to plant in fall to harvest in summer
- onions/green onions -> annual + grows in my climate
- pumpkins -> annual + grows in my climate
My "Can grow":
- pumpkins/hard squashes/melons
- zucchini/ summer squashes
- cooking greens/lettuce
- carrots + potatoes
Step 3: Where are They Going to Grow?
Deciding where to put your garden in your yard should be the place that gets the best sun. The more sun the better! For me, I rent a community garden plot so I don't have a choice there. But once you have your spot, measure how much space you have for growing. Remember you will want walkways between rows and on the perimeter for easy access all around.
Given you limited space, you may not have enough room to grow all that your family wants to consume. First look at a square foot garden spacing guide, like this one: http://www.mysquarefootgarden.net/plant-spacing/ This spacing guide will give you an idea of how much space each plant needs.
From there you can start to allocate space in your rows with plants on your "can grow" list.
My "Can grow":
- tomatoes -> 4 sqft per plant
- peppers -> 1 sqft per plant
- onions -> 4 -16 onions per sqft
- pumpkins/hard squashes/melons -> 4 sqft per plant
- zucchini/ summer squashes -> 4 sqft per plant
- lettuce head-> 1 per sqft
- carrots -> 16 per sqft
When you know how much each type of plant you desire to grow, you can start to think about how many of that type of plant you want. Do you LOVE tomatoes way more than zucchini? Then plant more zucchini than tomatoes, both plants take up the same amount of space in your garden.
There lists that show an approximation of yield per plant, say 5-10 lbs of tomatoes per plant. There are also lists available of plants per person for a year, which you can scale back for your growing space available. How Much to Plant to Feed Your Family
My "will grow" list:
|Plant||Plant per SF||# Planted||# SF Needed|
|Tomato||1 per 4 sf||16||64|
|Hot peppers||1||12 (chipotle + jal.)||12|
|Zucchini||1 per 4 sf||6||24|
|Eggplant||1 per 4 sqft||6||24|
|Butternut Squash||1 per 4 sf||4||16|
|LI Cheese Pumpkin||1 per 4 sqft (kinda)||4||16|
|Melons||1 per 4 sqft||6||24|
|Tomatillos||1 per 4 sqft||2||8|
|Total growing SQFT||316|
Once you have an approximate idea of what you plan to plant, then start to lay out a design on graph paper or in excel. Leave room for walkways, I leave 2 ft wide so walk between. However if you plant to use a wheel-barrel you may need more. I don't make my beds any deeper than 4 feet because it makes it difficult to reach into to weed without stepping into the bed. In general, out the tall things on the North side so their shadows don't shade out the rest of the garden.
Here is my grid design for the garden, which I plan with North pointing to the left as it more closely matches how I walk towards my garden. It's all preference really. This year I am adding potatoes, because I have never grown them and want to try. I am planting purple viking potatoes because they are not commercial available!
Here is my design for the garden in pretty pictures with North pointing toward the top.
Step 4: Where to Get Seeds?
It can be a little tricky to determine how many seed packets to buy. Some packets are labeled in number of seeds (like big pumpkin seeds for example). Some are labeled in ounces, which is of course not helpful if you don't know what the seeds look like or how many ounces seed what area. Some seeds companies will tell you a general idea: 1 packets seeds 50' foot row. This means a single wide row of that plant, given it's spacing requirements.
This step requires some trial and error, as to how many packets to buy. For the garden listed above I buy 1-2 packets per variety of plants. But peas and beans I buy more like 3-4 packets. Buy some, and record how many packets you used in your garden. This will give you an idea of how many you need next year.
You can use seeds leftover from the last year, they may not germinate as well but they should be okay. In this sense, if you buy too many seeds then you can use them the next year. Consider these seed companies:
Step 5: When to Start Seeds?
For each plant you intent to grow, there is a recommended time to plant the seeds outside. For some plants, you can start the seeds inside where it's warmer to give them a head start on growing. This can help if you have a short growing season and need the extra time. You will have to research each plant and find something like "transplant outside 2 weeks after last frost" or "direct sow seeds as soon as the ground can be worked" or "direct sow 2 weeks before last frost".
Of course, you don't have to start seeds yourself. Plant nurserys sells plants garden ready, and start the seeds for you. You will have to decide what works best for you and your garden. See Starting Seeds or Buying Transplants: Which is Better for Your Garden?
The one date that most plant guidelines will revolve around is the date of the last expected frost in your area. This is the last night you would expect the temperature to go below freezing. Freezing temperatures can be deadly to small delicate plants, so it's best to hold them inside or wait till after danger of frost has passed before plants. Go look up the expect last frost for your area.
Living in Massachusetts, my last frost is May 1st. Where I leave a blank in the "Start Indoors" column means I will direct sow the seeds directly into the ground. For root crops like potatoes and carrots, direct sowing is the preferred method. I also choose not to start peas and beans inside and I plan to plant hundreds and it's not feasible for me to start hundreds of pea plants in my tiny apartment. They also do great direct sown, without the head start.
|Plant||Start Indoors||Plant Outdoors|
|Tomato||Mar 1||May 1|
|Sweet Peppers||Mar 1||May 14|
|Hot Peppers||Mar 1||May 14|
|Bush Beans||May 1|
|Zucchini||Mar 14||May 1|
|Mustard Greens||Apr 1|
|Eggplant||Mar 1||May 1|
|Butternut Squash||Apr 1||May 1|
|Pumpkins||Apr 1||May 1|
|Melons||Apr 15||May 15|
|Tomatillos||Mar 14||May 1|
Planning your Garden Conclusion
We hope we gave you a solid place to start planning your garden. It doesn't have to be a huge garden, but whether it's big or small a little planning now will make your garden be a success. Check back here over the summer for updates on my community garden plot. It'll be an adventure, like it is every year.
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