Its that time of year! Its cold outside and spring feels like a long time away.
But time moves quick and we have lots of work to do to get ready to start sowing seeds and growing plants.
The first question to ask yourself is "What style of gardening will work for me?" Will you till up a space in the yard and garden on the flat? Will you construct a few raised beds, fill them with growing medium and plant your vegetables? Or are you like me and plan to fill up pots to place by your backdoor and give a try at container gardening?
There is no wrong or right way to grow food for your family! Its all up to the amount of work you can do and how much time you want to invest into your garden.
For me, I am slammed busy all spring and I elect the route of container gardening because its super easy and inexpensive to get started. Three things you need to consider, what look do you want for your yard and home, how hard do you want to work, and how big a harvest are you planning for?
So lets think about how we want to design our garden! There are 3 basic styes:
GARDENING ON THE FLAT: This is where you till up a plat of land to place your garden. While this is the way my granddad grew his vegetables, its very labor intense. With rows between your plants, water evaporates quickly making it a project to keep everything hydrated, you must keep up with weeds but you can grow lots of food. Plan on lots of work just keeping up with the weeds! Costs to plan on is a tiller or lots of dig time each spring.
RAISED BED/SQUARE FOOT GARDENING: This is where you build a box, most the time its a 4x4 foot or a 4x8 foot space. When I built my raised beds, I used a 5x5 foot bed so I could slip in 4 foot cattle panels for my vertical growing needs. Any larger and its really hard to work on the interior of each box. Some of the benefits are less weeds, so less work. With a controlled space, its easier to keep each plant watered. Most costs are the initial cost of the boxes and soil to fill them.
CONTAINER GARDENING: Buy a few containers (I use 14 inch wide square pots so I can line them up side by side), fill with potting mix and get started! The great thing about containers is you can move them! If a plant is not successful in one spot you can place them in another as needed. You can have them on your deck, patio, right at the backdoor. You can place them close to your water supply and in just the right light. I have grown everything in containers, except corn. I love placing a couple of tomato plants in my pot, adding a few nasturtium seeds plus a basil and I have a gorgeous, edible container right at my backdoor! The soil can be used for several years, just by adding in fresh compost between plantings.
You do need 3 critical elements to have a productive garden:
Sunlight - Veggies need sun! Most vegetables need 8 hours of sun or more to be productive. Think fruit, if you eat the fruit, it needs 8 hours of light! Some need 4 to 6 hours, think leaf, if you eat the leaf it needs less light. Root crops need at least 6 hours.
Soil - Healthy soil is more that plain old dirt! It is a complex and living mixture of minerals, organic material, humus, water, microorganisms and other animals that all work together to help your plants grow and thrive. Plan to enhance your garden, raised beds and containers each spring by adding fresh compost.
Water - Plants need water to carry nutrients and keep their tissues hydrated. Water at the right time of the day. Early morning or at night will reduce water loss. Avoid the hottest part of the day! Consider the water source! If its convenient, you will do it. If its not, you won't!
Putting Ideas To Paper
Where do you start?
First things first! Get a calendar, something you can write on to record what you want to grow then map it out week by week. First place to start, Sunday Mother's Day weekend. This marks Week "0" or last frost! Now count back on the calendar weekly on Sundays with the Sunday before Mother's Day as Week 1. That is one week before last frost! Go the the next earliest Sunday, this becomes Week 2. You get the idea!
Next, make a list of everything you want to grow. Check out our growing lists at When To Plant - Zone 6 Vegetable Garden and determine which chart each vegetable is on. There is a chart for the spring/summer garden and a chart for the fall garden. This will give you an idea of when you are going to plant it. Mark on the calendar on the Sunday when you plan to start your seeds based on the list. Hey, no worries if you chose not to start with seeds. If it has a transplant date on it, you should be able to pick up little transplants here at Wicked around the time the list reflects its time to plant them out. If it doesn't list it as a transplant, like peas and carrots, you will need to plan to grow those vegetables from seed. They don't like to be transplanted.
Now if you have already decided that you will be growing on the flat or in raised beds, you will need to decide who goes where. Draw up a scale garden to place in your calendar/notebook. Next refer to our section on Companion Planting. This will give you a great guide as who are friends and who are foes in the garden. There are plants that will actually help other plants grow and thrive, like tomatoes and basil. The basil contributes to the tomato, just by growing together improving the vigor of the tomato and increasing the fruit yield. There are other plants you do not want to grow together as they share the same pest problems or diseases.
Once you have figured out what you want to grow, when you want to grow it and where you want to plant it, you are ready to put pen to paper and make a map for your garden. Plan to draw three! One for your spring garden, one for your summer garden and one for your fall garden. We also have a month to month guide to help you called the Vegetable Gardener's Calendar. This will give you details of what to start indoors, what to sow outdoors, what chores need to be tackled and what to plan to harvest each month. Its a great guide to help you plan.
There are a couple of things you need to keep in mind as you are planning.
Consider access within the garden. Make sure you can reach all areas of the garden from the edge if you are designing with raised beds. On the flat, make sure you can get to the vegetables, avoid over crowding! Stepping on soil ruins soil structure by squeezing out air spaces and compacting clay.
Blocks versus rows. Traditional rows allow access with a hoe to cultivate and control weeds, but that means a lot of unplanted ground. Planting in blocks does not leave room for a hoe, but it is better use of limited space. Once the garden is established, the denser plantings will help choke out weeds.
Intensive Planting. This is a way to grow more food in less space. It is based on two practices, planting vegetables close together and amending the soil often with compost, aged manure & other organic materials. The close space helps shade out weeds and helps reduce soil moisture evaporation. It helps to regulate soil temperatures and increases the amount of food you can produce from each bed.
Succession Planting. If you have a seed pack for carrots and you plant all the seeds at once, you will have all your carrots at once. Its kind of hard to eat 250 carrots at one time. The better idea is to plan on spreading the plantings over several weeks, using a part of the seeds each time. In the space you allocated for the carrots, run a small row this week, followed by the addition of the next row in two weeks, and so on. That way you have a fresh crop all through the growing season. The best vegetables to plan to grow in succession include:
Leaf Lettuce - all varieties
Interplanting. This is the practice of planting different vegetables in the same space, like tall vertical vegetables with lower growing. You could have your cucumbers growing up on a trellis with your lettuce growing underneath. The cucumber would shade the lettuce during the warmer, hotter summer days, allowing you to extend the growing season for the lettuce. You could plant your cabbage and beets together. The cabbage grows above the ground and the beets grow below the ground. What a great way to capitalize on space! Using the interplanting concept, you minimize weeds and create a nice visual interest to the garden. In addition it can help foil pests by disguising their favorite host plant, plus it attracts pollinators and beneficial insects to the garden.
Crop Rotation. Finally you will need to plan to move the different plant families each year to a different part of the garden. This allows plants that are nitrogen fixers like peas and beans to rejuvenate the soil after heavy feeders like tomatoes and corn have spent a season growing in that part of the garden.