Work That Plan!
Planning for a productive sustainable garden
By Ame Vanorio © 2017 All rights reserved Updated March 1, 2019
Planning is the most important and often most overlooked aspect of gardening. Foundations are just as important in gardens as they are in houses. An architect does not just start building.
They must gather ideas, put it on graph paper and then examine how they will implement their design. Like the architect, a gardener who plans will have a more successful and fulfilling creation!
This article will help you get started and get ready for your next garden.
PLAN Your Garden!
Your first and most important task for a sustainable garden is to take the time to plan and write down goals. Approach your gardens as a business. Keep track of how much money you put in and how much produce you raise. I think you will be pleased with the results.
Make up an overall three year plan to reach your goals with short term yearly objectives. Gardening is an ongoing process so start slow and allow yourself to grow over the next several years. Don’t forget to include plans for perennials as they often take several years to produce.
Many families can meet much of their food needs on less than half an acre ( or less) with proper planning and layout. Give yourself time!!
I learned this lesson the hard way! My very first year of homesteading was a blur of home building, starting a garden, livestock acquisition, and homeschooling! Not only was I a frustrated and impatient woman but every part of the homestead was incomplete! Having realistic plans to achieve your goals is worth the time and effort spent.
If you are new to intensive gardening then you want to start small with easy to manage plots. If you are a more experienced gardener then you should concentrate of getting more production out of your garden space and ramping up your soil nutrient level.
One way to increase soil fertility is too add compost and manures which we will discuss in a future blog. If you have time and money, you are encouraged to plant more BUT keep realistic expectations for how much you can accomplish. You will just get frustrated if your garden gets out of hand (Trust me on that one!).
Writing Garden Goals and Objectives
Goals (numbers) are broad and state what you are going to do. Objectives (letters) show how you are going to do that. For example:
Overall Goal: Over the next three years, I will develop two 20 x 20 garden spaces to produce my own vegetables and herbs.
1. In my first season I plan to grow enough fresh vegetables to eat a fresh salad each day from May – October and some extra beans and tomatoes to preserve.
A.I will grow greens using succession planting in a two raised bed 4x4 plots.
B. I will plant a 15-foot row of bush beans for fresh beans weekly and can 15 quarts of beans for winter.
C. I will plant two salad and one sandwich type of tomatoes for fresh eating and six paste tomatoes for canning
Draw Out Your Garden Plan
Graph paper is your friend. Draw out your property on a piece of graph paper – whether you have a farm or a city lot – and sketch all permanent buildings such as the house, barns, shed, fences etc. Include large trees, woods, and water areas.
Include neighbor’s houses or large trees, especially if they affect your sunlight. Look at the direction of the sun – what areas receive eight hours of sun a day? What areas receive four hours? A surprising number of vegetables such as greens will grow in a sun/shade mix.
You may have an open sunny area where you plan to have everything planted. Consider the wind. Does it bring cold air from the north in spring or hot dry air from the south in mid-summer that will affect your plants?
Your drawing is going to change from year to year. The longer you are in one location the more you will recognize your micro-climates. That will help you decide what grows best in different areas.
It is ok to change and redesign your plans as you go. In fact that is the best way because you are learning what crops grow best in what locations. In addition, you are learning things such as where your kids gravitate to play and where the dog likes to poop! All of these factor into creating garden and family spaces.
I have several garden areas. I like to have small garden areas that are easy to manage and work well with rotation. One reason I like smaller plots is completely psychological.
Smaller plots are less overwhelming and I can easily accomplish a task in a short amount of time. This keeps me positive and moving forward. As a child I was easily discouraged (and easily distracted) when faced with a long row of potatoes to hoe.
I also have a dedicated orchard area. My soft fruit climbs on the fences outside my gardens. My gardens are fenced to keep out livestock who have free range.
My first children's book about our very own Goober Goose
Gardens Are a Family Affair
Get your whole family involved in this process. If you are single you might consider what foods your friends like. There is nothing wrong with planning some crops because they will be the hit of the party. Think unique heirloom peppers to make into salsa.
Children are very willing to help on the farm when they see the long-term benefits. I still have the drawing my nine year old son made in 2006 of his goals! He is quite a sports fan, and while we didn’t put in the Golf Course or a Swimming Pool he envisioned, he can hit balls out in the field and he discovered a nice “pool” in the creek.
We did incorporate his favorite foods - beans, berries and cantaloupe. When berries on the farm were ripe he would run out in the morning and pick some for his breakfast.
Evaluate What You Eat
Start by looking in your pantry and refrigerator. What do you see? Make a list of what foods your family likes. Start with vegetables and fruits, and then list protein sources, which may include dairy, eggs, beans, nuts and meats depending on your eating preferences.
Include foods that you could process or prepare yourselves such as pasta sauce, vegetable soup, and pickles. Condiments such as ketchup and pickles are very doable. Raising your own food means eating lots of vegetables, fruits, and some protein sources as the bulk of your diet.
I wrote a popular blog on Planning a Canning Garden for the Morning Chores website.
If your pantry is full of things like soda, chips and Little Debbie’s then you may need to rethink your food priorities! Another common food issue is feeling like you have to have new and different foods at all times. Leftovers have a really bad rap.
Being self-sufficient means eating foods when they are in season and finding new ways to cook the same vegetables. Don’t feel like you have to throw out everything in your pantry and rush to the grocery. That’s not what this is about.
Make changes gradually. When you grow a new food use it to replace something not as healthy.
This is the book I cut my teeth on - and still my favorite! I have the 1976 version :)
Using Your Food List To Determine What to Plant
From your food list determine what you want to plant over the next three years. If you are a new gardener start with those things you like to eat fresh from the garden. That said, there are some good reasons to grow a variety of annuals, perennials, vegetables, fruits and herbs. A variety of foods makes meal times interesting and different species contribute different aspects of good health.
I do recommend that a beginner gardener start with a list of ten things to eat fresh and three things to can. This does not mean you will plant a 100 foot row of ten different things. Start with shorter more manageable rows such as 25 feet. Or utilize raised beds or the square foot method to keep things small yet productive.
Square Foot gardening works well if you are in an urban area but also on a large farm. I have a section of my garden in raised beds to utilize this philosophy
Plan for good health. Vegetables such as carrots contain significant amounts of Vitamin A, Kale has Vitamin K and beans are a good source of protein. Variety in the garden also ensures successful growing season. One crop may not produce as well where another produces in abundance.
Plan garden areas for fruit trees, a strawberry patch, perennials, and annual veggies. If you have a small yard then make use of boundary and garden fences. Vertical space is often neglected but makes a great place to grow raspberries and vegetables that like to climb.
Fruits being trees or bushes are a bit more expensive then vegetable seeds. Plan out where you are going to put your fruits then buy two or three different things each year. In that way you will continue to expand the foods you grow without breaking the bank.
Fruits need full sun and well-draining soil. Many fruit trees are very ornamental. If you are short on space plant a couple dwarf fruit trees in your front yard and blueberries along the south or west side of your house.
If you want to learn more about purchasing seeds, check out my blog on Seeds The Beginning of Life
How Much Should You Grow?
Now that you have narrowed down what crops you want to grow it is time to think about how much should you grow. This can be something akin to playing Russian Roulette.
There are many variables that go into knowing how many seeds to buy or how many transplants to set out. Your personal preferences, amount of space, garden fertility and long term goals all come in to play. (This is when it helps to have that plan written down and ready).
Keeping records of how much you planted and what your yield was will help you make comparisons from one year to the next. Using a garden planning journal or software is helpful. I prefer a “hard-copy” and doing things the old fashioned way. But you may prefer one of the computer versions.
However, there are several good tools that can give you some ball park figures. And rest assured the longer you garden the more you will develop a feel for how much produce you use.
One great tool is this “How much to plant calculator” from the Urban Farming website.
Johnny’s Seeds is a wonderful sustainable seed company in Maine. They also have a great section on their website of planning tools and calculators. The Seed Quantity calculator gives you two options.
One option is based on what crop you are planting. For instance, I put in bush beans and that I would direct sow them in a 25-foot row. The calculator told me I would need 150 seeds based on my seeds being the recommended 6 inches apart.
Using this information I can go back into Johnny’s catalog and look up bush beans. I find the bean Provider (a great fresh and canning variety) and see that a packet contains 175 seeds. This would be adequate if I just want to make one planting of this variety.
The other option is based on your spacing. It asks you for your row length and space between seeds or plants, and will then determine the number of seeds or plants needed.
The most important part of gardening is having fun, enjoying the time spent in your garden and having the satisfaction of growing healthy food for your family.
Do you have questions or comments? Leave us a response below.
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Ame Vanorio has 25+ years of experience living off-grid and as an organic farmer. She is the director of Fox Run Environmental Education Center and a licensed wildlife rehabilitator. She teaches classes locally and online about organic gardening, green building, living off-grid and wildlife conservation. In addition, she is a freelance writer and writes for several gardening, tiny house and pet websites. She lives a sustainable life on her Kentucky farm with a myriad of domestic and wild animals.
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