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Planning Your Vegetable Garden

by chuck.mcmullan
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It’s essential to plan your garden to ensure you get the most out of your garden space. How much space and time you have will dictate what and how much you can grow. Therefore good planning is an integral part of vegetable gardening. It enables you to think sensibly about how much space and time you can devote to your garden and what type of vegetables will be most useful to you.

Whether you are about to start a vegetable plot from scratch or plan to adapt an existing one, take some time to draw a rough plan of your garden to see how the vegetables will fit in and how much space you can afford to give them before picking up the spade. The first step is to locate a suitable location for your vegetable patch.

Here are some important things to consider when planning your vegetable garden:

Convenience

Planting your vegetable garden close to the house makes it easy to run out and pick something when you need it. It also makes it more convenient for feeding and watering the garden if it is somewhere you pass by frequently. Try to stay at least 2 feet away from the foundation of your house, as lime tends to leach out of the foundation over time, shifting the ph of the soil. Also consider proximity to the garden hose. Stepping stones or firm walkways around and across the garden make it easy to access without damaging plants and getting your shoes muddy.

Climate

Vegetables grow best in an open space that gets a lot of sun, at least 6 hours per day. Fences, walls, and hedges can create a favorable microclimate keeping your garden sheltered from the environment, but be careful they don’t cast too much shade on your garden. It’s best if the rows within your garden run from north to south to minimize shading. If you don’t have a spot in your yard that receives 6 hours of sunlight per day, consider growing the following moderately shade-tolerant vegetables and herbs at a minimum of 2-3 hours of direct sunlight per day: Beets, broccoli, chives, garlic, kale, kohlrabi, lettuce, mint, parsley, radishes, rhubarb, spinach, and turnips.

Size

In general, the size of your garden will depend on either the amount of time and effort available or the number of people it will feed. The number of plants needed per person will vary significantly on the amount of vegetables eaten regularly. For example, a garden of 300 square feet (10 feet x 30 feet) should feed the average family of 4. Squares and rectangles are a standard shape for growing vegetables. Keep in mind that too big a garden can quickly become a chore! Do not attempt to convert your entire backyard into a garden this season. Gardening takes a lot of skill and time to master. It is best to start small (3 feet x 10 feet) and build upon those successes, rather than to become discouraged by taking on too much at the beginning. The first season will get you attuned to your soil type, climate and weather, and the idea of pulling weeds, watering, hoeing, shoveling, etc.

Ground Preparation

The first consideration is the ground covering on your anticipated garden site. Bare soil is ideal, but more than likely, there will be grass that needs to be removed. Removing sod is a relatively simple task if you use a sharp, rectangular spade to undercut it. If it is a large area, consider renting a sod-cutting machine. Stay away from areas with large trees and shrubs. They rob the soil of nutrients and can be very difficult to remove. Also, a site overrun by deep-rooted perennial weeds can be a lot of work, as they are challenging to get rid of and can compete with your vegetables despite your hard work to remove them. Beware of land at the bottom of a hill; it is typically colder and wetter than the slope itself, and could suffer from drainage problems. For Detailed ground soil preparation information check out our soil preparation page.

When to Plant

It is most important when planning your garden to learn when each vegetable should be planted. For example, peas and spinach require cool spring weather, whereas tomatoes cannot be put out until it is certain that there will be no more frost. It is essential to know the approximate date of the last frost for your area, as many plants, mainly small seedlings, will not survive if planted before the last frost.

Download the file above to see all of the freeze frost dates for cities across the united states, or check out the maps based on this data. You may want to consider starting plants with later planting times indoors to give them a head start.

The USDA has also issued a plant hardiness map of North America. The region is divided up into zones based on the average annual temperature, the coldest zones have the lower numbers. Some green houses and nurseries will specify plant cold-hardiness based on these zones.

Increasing Harvest

It is essential to consider when and how often vegetables can be harvested. Some vegetables can be harvested multiple times per growing season, where others can only be harvested one time. Pay attention to this when deciding what vegetables you will be planting and where you will be planting them in the garden to maximize your yield. For example, lettuce can be planted several times during the season; carrots or beets can be raised where peas once flourished; early carrots can be followed by fall spinach, lettuce by beans. Such succession plantings will give you several harvests from the same patch of soil. Some crops have enormous yields, and some don’t. A long row of lettuce planted all at once will produce more salad than you could eat. It would be more practical to plant several short rows of fast-maturing vegetables, or to make succession plantings at two or three week intervals. Learn which vegetables must be eaten right away, which can be frozen or canned, and which can be stored in a cellar. If you have storage space, plant more winter squash, onions, and potatoes. If you have a freezer, include more Brussels sprouts, carrots, beets, and okra. For home canning, grow extra tomato plants.

Inter-planting

Many of the fast-maturing vegetables such as leaf lettuce, mustard greens, or spinach may be planted among the seedlings of slow-growing vegetables such as peppers, eggplants, or tomatoes. The leafy plants will reach maturity long before their neighbors shade them. Radishes are often planted in the rows of slower growing carrots or parsley. They sprout quickly, marking the rows, and can be picked and eaten while the other vegetables are still small.

Perennials

Only 3 perennials are commonly grown in the vegetable garden: Rhubarb, asparagus, and strawberries. If you would like to grow them, remember that they need considerable space. Rhubarb and asparagus will not produce a crop for at least 2 years.

What to Plant

Plant things your family likes. Start by deciding what vegetables you want and how frequently you would use them in the kitchen. First, consider planting vegetables that taste better coming from a garden. Other factors to consider are the availability and cost of vegetables, the amount of attention required, and available space in the garden.

  • Tomatoes are #1! The ones you purchase in the store just aren’t the same (even the “vine ripened” varieties). In addition to the taste, tomatoes take relatively little space and are easy to grow making them an excellent plant for starters.
  • Corn – some people can’t do without fresh corn, and again, the taste just doesn’t compare. Corn does however have a longer growing season which takes up more crop space, and you can only really count on 1 ear per plant in a garden. You will also need to plant several plants together in a block to ensure they self pollinate sufficiently (you can’t just plant one or two).
  • Space and time are also important.
  • Melons, pumpkins, squash, potatoes and sweet potatoes are in the garden for a long time, and take up a lot of space, and you can only harvest them one time.
  • Tomatoes, peppers, beans, and eggplant are also in the garden a long time, but produce a continuous supply of food.
  • If space is limited, consider the following plants. Bush snap and lima beans, leafy greens such as lettuce, spinach, and turnips, green onions, tomatoes, sweet peppers and eggplant. If space permits; add broccoli, cabbage, hot peppers, okra, summer squash, southern peas and pole beans. Cucumbers, which otherwise take up a large amount of room can be trellised.
  • Corn grows tall, as do asparagus and pole beans. Their height makes it necessary to plant them where they will not shade other plants.

Some plants are easier to grow than others:

EasyDifficult
BeetsCauliflower
Bush BeansCelery
CollardsEggplant
Green OnionsLima Beans
KaleMelons
Leaf LettuceOkra
Mustard GreensPeppers
RadishesSweet Peppers
Peas
Summer Squash
Swiss Chard
Turnips

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