Get Growing! A Guide to Vegetable Garden Planning & Prep

GardenPlanningMain

Gardening! Gardening is what’s on my brain this week. I can’t wait to get my hands in the dirt and get some seeds into the ground! It’s hard to wait when we start getting these warm spring days, but necessary since unfortunately winter in western Canada is not truly done until… well, is it ever truly over? Ha ha, I’m kidding – sort of. This spring I feel slightly less prepared as I am only just starting to plan my garden now. In previous years I had my garden plan, planting schedule, and seeds all ready and waiting to go by early March. This year I am taking a much more chilled out approach and I feel that I am ready to “go with the flow” of spring in an effort to stay relaxed and enjoy the experience.

SpringSnow
As I finish writing, I am looking out to this! D: April 2nd

Where to Begin

Like anything else, the best approach to garden planning is entirely up to personal preference and what works best for each individual. I am the type of person who likes to be on top of things and read up as much as I possibly can in an effort to arm myself with knowledge before I start something new. It was no different when we started vegetable gardening, I wanted to find out as much as I could about the process as I thought that this would be the path to success. While I did learn a lot this way, I find that trial and error, learning by doing, and trusting my instincts has served me more than anything I’ve read in a book or online. In fact, all of this information can seem daunting and overwhelming to a beginner. Soil temperature, pH levels, type of fertilizers suited to each plant, companion planting, crop rotation, watering methods etc. etc. etc…. all important to know but too much to absorb when you’re first starting out. Down the road you can learn about these factors and begin to improve your garden by learning how to soil test or use your own compost. But don’t expect that you will be an expert gardener to start – learn the basics and then go from there.

What to Grow? Know Your Space

The first step to planning is to assess your space and decide what to grow. Do you have a raised bed? Containers? A greenhouse? An in-ground garden? Knowing your space will help you decide what and how much to grow. You will also need to consider your climate and growing zone. Typically your local garden centre or other seed supplier will carry seeds and plants that do well in your area. You can also check online or consult a local vegetable gardener’s handbook to research which varieties will be successful where you live. Some vegetable varieties do very well in containers, for example, while others do best in greenhouse conditions. Also consider your garden’s microclimate –  your garden’s specific location and characteristics such as sun and wind exposure – for example, a garden space with a shady and windy exposure will not successfully grow the same crops as a hot, sheltered area. You may have several different microclimates within your garden area.

Seedlings
The first spring seedlings, 2016.

Plan your garden by thinking ahead to when the seeds you put in the soil now will be ready to harvest (ie. “Days to Maturity” on the back of your seed packet will tell you when you can expect to be enjoying the fruits of your labour). You do not need to plant everything at once and use all of the space you have available all at once. Often it is desirable to harvest young, tender, quick-maturing crops throughout the summer – such as lettuce – so try planting a few rows to start, followed by a couple of more a week or two later, and then a couple more two weeks after that. This way you will enjoy tender young lettuce throughout the growing season, rather than having more lettuce than you can use maturing all at once.

Consider what you like to eat. Obviously, if you are not a fan of cucumbers, it would be a waste of time to plant them. I would also suggest trying one or two varieties of each vegetable type to start. High-yielding vegetable plants, such as zucchini, you may only need to plant one or two of to meet your needs and save space. Think about whether you intend to preserve or store vegetables or if you plan to give some away, or if you simply want fresh garden produce during the summer months. If your aim is for the latter, try to prevent yourself from planting too much. While it is fun to purchase and plant a variety of seeds, your enthusiasm may wane when it comes time to water and tend a huge garden each day, not to mention at the end of the summer when you have a huge glut of vegetables you cannot possibly eat your way through and find yourself wasting or giving away. I suggest starting with a modest-sized garden with a select few varieties of your favourite vegetables so that you can enjoy the process, avoid garden overwhelm, and learn without feeling too stressed. Remember, if you are a novice gardener you want to learn but also to enjoy the process.

When and How to Plant

seedpacket
Most of the information you need is located right on the seed packet!

A couple of weeks before I plant, I prepare the soil and amend it by digging in a little peat moss and well-rotted manure. I dispose of any large root lumps, unwanted debris, or rocks that have accumulated during the winter. I also water the soil deeply to begin creating a moist environment for the seeds. I water the soil thoroughly (without saturating and making mud, you want it to be about the consistency of a moist chocolate cake) again about an hour before planting seeds. For our first “cold frame” bed, we cover the soil with the windows a few days prior to planting in order to help warm the soil to help the seeds germinate more quickly and successfully once they are in the ground.

In my opinion, all of the basic information you need to get started as a beginner is located on the seed packet label. You often need to know the average last frost date in your growing zone in order to schedule when to plant each variety.

  • “Days to Germinate” tells you how long it will take for the seed to begin to sprout and activate the growing process.
  • “Days to Maturity” will tell you approximately when you will be able to harvest your crop.
  • “Planting Depth” is an approximation of how deep beneath the soil surface you should plant the seed.
  • “Seed Spacing” is the ideal distance to leave between each seed when planting.
  • “Plant Spacing” is the distance to leave between each plant for started seedlings.
  • “Row Spacing” is the distance to leave between each planted row.

Remember to mark your rows with some type of label listing (in waterproof pen, I learned this the hard way!) what you have planted and the date you planted it.

ColdFrame
Windows covering a raised bed make for a “cold frame”, allowing us to plant seeds earlier than we would otherwise be able to.

Seeds and bedding plants can be safely planted out after the last average frost date in your growing zone. I use this date as the basis for my garden planting schedule. Last spring, we planted seeds on April 13th in our “cold frame” raised bed. This is well before our average last frost date of May 25th in the Alberta foothills. We experienced an unusually warm April and we felt we could risk planting this early, and we were right. Our “cold frame” is simply one of our raised garden beds covered with some old windows (creating warm and a “greenhouse” type effect) allowing us to plant some of the hardier vegetable seed earlier. When the weather warms up, we remove the windows and replace with our “hoop top” raised bed covers to allow us to easily tend the plants and to give plenty of vertical growing space. It may be helpful to use a gardener’s handbook specific to your growing zone or look up online a listing of suggested planting dates for vegetable seeds and seedlings. I like this one, produced by my favourite local greenhouse, Anything Grows Cochrane.

GardenPlanning
A page from my planting journal.

As you can see from my records, I plan by drawing a rough sketch of the bed and labelling where I intend to plant each vegetable, with corresponding information below, such as approximately when we can harvest each crop and the exact variety of seed that was planted. I take a copy of my plan right out in the garden with me to refer to; I have a tendency to get scattered and distracted and forget the details I had so carefully planned out, so I find I need to have them right there with me so nothing gets missed.

I also save all of my empty seed packets for the year in case I need to refer back to any information about the variety. (Yes, I’ve gone back and dug them out of the garbage before because I couldn’t remember a detail I needed from the back of the packet!) I also added in details about what I planted later on June 1st. Nothing fancy! I don’t believe there is any “right” way to keep records, just remember to write down what you think will be useful. What is fresh in your mind may be forgotten by next year, so it is always handy to have notes and plans to refer back to. Jot down details such as what worked and what didn’t, what you would like to try next year, which seed varieties you preferred, and dates you planted and harvested. Do what works and makes sense for you!

Direct Sowing vs. Starting Seeds Indoors

To get a head start on your growing season, you may decide to start seedlings indoors a few weeks before it is safe to plant them outdoors. Thus far, we have only ever direct-sowed seeds into the garden and have not started our own transplants ahead of time. In the future I would love to start both vegetable seedlings and ornamental bedding plants to get a head start on our short growing season. Once our greenhouse is established this summer, I think we will be in good shape to start some of our plants ahead! Here is a seed starting guide that I like the looks of, you may find it helpful! http://getbusygardening.com/when-to-start-seeds-indoors/

Recommended Resources for Garden Planning

Online

I have two favourite homesteading blogs, Homespun Seasonal Living and Whistle Pig Hollow (though she hasn’t blogged for quite some time, Ashley has great posts about gardening on the homestead and her personal experiences)

You can also follow my Gardening board on Pinterest for some of my favourite online Gardening resources.

Books

My all-time favourite gardening book is Vegetable Favourites by Lois Hole. This straightforward and highly usable book is specific the gardening in Alberta. Lois Hole’s expert tips haven’t steered me wrong yet. She provides the basics for each vegetable favourite, including what you need to know such as recommended varieties, when to plant, how much to plant, planting methods, growing tips, harvesting, storage, and problems/troubleshooting. Vegetables are listed alphabetically so you can quickly and easily flip to the information you need. The first part of the book provides the basics of planning, planting, and growing a successful vegetable garden. I can’t say enough good things about this research! If you garden in Alberta, this will be your Bible.

Another awesome book is The Canadian Edible Garden: Vegetables, Herbs, Fruits & Seeds by Alison Beck. This book contains information in general for gardening in Canada. Beck includes more species and varieties of plants than you will find in Lois Hole’s book. This book is also incredibly user-friendly and breaks down the basics of each type of vegetable with specifics of how to grow each one with success.

I also love The Vegetable Gardener’s Bible by Edward C. Smith. I would say that this book would be best for intermediate or advanced gardeners who have some experience with growing vegetables. Though he is located in the United States, Smith writes to a general gardening audience and has plenty of tips that apply to the Canadian gardener. His cheesy puns and quips appeal to me because I’m, well, cheesy! I read this book from cover to cover last year and I found that it was full of great information. The last portion of the book lists, again in alphabetical order, a growing guide for all of the common vegetables you might find in a North American garden. This book includes comprehensive guides for raised bed gardening, garden planning, starting seeds, soil amendment, compost, garden pests, harvesting, and more. This book is attractive with plenty of lovely photographs as well!

FavouriteBooks
My favourite books about gardening.

People You Know

Sometimes the best information comes from people in your area who have gardening experience. My uncle Brian has given us great advice on how to grow tomatoes. Alex’s mom, Lorraine, has been a wonderful mentor to me for years when it comes to growing things. Be sure to ask staff at your local greenhouse for advice or tips, too! Some areas have local gardening associations or clubs that offer monthly activities such as guest speakers or demonstrations, be sure to look into what opportunities are available to you!

Our 2017 Vegetable Garden

This week I went over all of the leftover seed from last year. I store my seed in a dry, dark closet in the house over the winter. I have almost everything we need to get started with planting, I will need to pick up seed potatoes, onion and shallot sets, and broccoli and cauliflower seed.

SeedBasket
All of our leftover seed from 2016 in my new vegetable washing basket.

In the coming days I will prepare the soil in the cold frame and other raised beds, as discussed above.

My planting schedule is subject to change, depending on what type of weather we get in the coming weeks. If it’s a mild April, I will likely start planting in the cold frame in a couple of weeks. Here is a reproduction of the list I will follow (it’s literally scribbled on a piece of loose-leaf! Again, I am not fancy 😊). I stagger planting so I have crops maturing at different points throughout the season, and I plan 2 or more plantings of the faster maturing crops that we use a lot of. As crops mature and are harvested, I plant more seed in the empty space left.

April – as soon as the ground is workable (approximately mid-April)

  • Beets (1st planting)
  • Carrots (1st planting)
  • Lettuce (1st planting)
  • Radishes
  • Peas (1st planting)
  • Onion sets (1st planting)
  • Dill & Chives (1st planting)

Early May

  • Beans (1st planting, one or two rows)
  • Potatoes
  • May 25th – Last average frost date
  • Beets (2nd planting)
  • Broccoli
  • Carrots (2nd planting)
  • Cauliflower
  • Beans (2nd planting)
  • Cucumber
  • Lettuce (2nd planting)
  • Zucchini
  • Radishes (2nd planting)
  • Basil, thyme, oregano, mint, summer savory, rosemary (1st planting, may purchase started plants for some varieties)
  • Dill, chives (2nd planting)
  • Peas (2nd planting)
  • Onions (2nd planting)

Late May/Early June – Greenhouse

  • Tomato Plants
  • Pepper Plants
  • Mid June
  • Carrots (3rd planting)
  • Lettuce (3rd planting)
  • Radishes (3rd planting)
  • Peas (3rd planting)
  • Beans (3rd planting)

I like to plan where I will plant what within each garden bed. Some companion plants do well together, others will not grow well side by side. For example, dill and carrots should not be grown next to each other, but beets and garlic do well together. I use this companion planting guide, as well as the one in The Vegetable Gardener’s Bible, referenced above.

PlanningGarden
More 2016 sketches and plans from my journal.

I also rotate my beds each year (ie. where in the garden I grow each crop) to prevent the soil from becoming leached of nutrients from growing the same plants consecutively and to discourage particular garden pests from gaining a stronghold in one particular part of the garden. This factors into my garden planning and prep for each season. For example, I grew potatoes in bed #3 last year, I will not grow potatoes (or any other nightshade vegetable again in this bed again for a few years. I also will switch growing locations for vegetables within beds where I grow a variety of crops; for example, I grew onions on the east end of the cold frame and peas on the west end last year. This year I will reverse the two.

Well there you have it, my advice about planning and planting a vegetable garden! The best way to learn is to just roll up your sleeves and get started. You will find what works for you as you go, and the only true way to gain the knowledge you need is through experience. Start slow and give yourself permission to make mistakes as you go along. I know it’s easier said than done – I know, as I’m a perfectionist – but don’t overthink it, just get growing! Good luck 😊

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